Three Old Art-house Films

Film is all but dead as a medium of artistic expression, wouldn’t you say? I see it petering out even sooner than the novel. On the one hand, you have a hollywood system entrenched in formula, far far away from ever dealing with matters of form again. And on the other, staggering pretentiousness (consider the rise of artsy Chinese cinema, which, instead of offering anything much in terms of aesthetic impact, takes the two fastest shortcuts to art credibility: portentous slowness and social conscience). And because these are the choices critics have at this low tide moment, they find it in their hearts (and they find it in their best interests, careerwise) to support both.

The bright side, for those of us trying to ignore, if not accept, what we cannot change, is that some old films, as they sink back underground, are starting to look fresh all over again, and perhaps more poetic than ever for being out of reach to us. 

In the last couple of years, a few old art-house films I’ve seen have really stuck with me: Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures (1963), Michael Snow’s Presents (1981), and George Kuchar’s Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966). All three are cheap, seat-of-the-pants affairs, and there’s a loose, handmade feel to each of them. You can sense the materiality in the editing - a certain coarseness and imprecision in the cutting - and, in Hold Me While I’m Naked, you can see it - the film is gorgeously pockmarked. This isn’t a virtue in itself, but it’s a relief from the slickness of mainstream product, in which there is no evidence of a free hand, of a spontaneous choice.

Hold Me While I’m Naked feels like a divinely inspired aesthetic accident. Campy Hollywood nostalgia, melodramatic music copped from B-movies for a C-movie where it works better, and extremely abreviated scenes combine to poetic effect in a thin story about loneliness, sexual frustration, and art as a place to put it all. The imagery is concentrated and almost always interesting, which has something to do with Kuchar’s eye for it, but it’s also because scenes are compact, choppily segmented, and because a lot of the in-between film grammar is taken out; you’re left with a lot of visual nouns. A few of them - a window being closed, a guy kissing a fake bird, a guy in the shower knocking his head against the tiling - insist on being remembered. Kuchar is a savant when it comes to knowing what is working, what can be made to work with music, and when to change to the next thing. This is outsider art so good, so nimble and spunky, it makes you suspicious of the insider stuff.

Presents is quite another kind of film - backyard structuralism instead of the campy primitivism of Hold Me. It’s a film made up of two dissimilar halves (some people see it as having a three-part structure) in which, like an early Flemish diptych, the panels are so unequally weighted, so unbalanced in a way, but where nonetheless there is a kind of compositional rightness to it, though in this case pushed to an extreme that makes you wonder if any two things, no matter how minimal the connection, can be aesthetically reconciled just by virtue of their being put together.

In the first part, after an introduction in which it seems like someone in playing with the vertical and horizontal hold on an old tv, a woman walks back and forth on a very plastic-looking barbie doll set (all pink and aqua). The camera is stationary but the set moves back and forth, troubling the actors somewhat and giving us some artsy, mind-the-medium comedy. Over the sound of the actors speaking and music from a record player that skips as the set lurches, we hear the sound of a director giving direction to, presumably, the driver of a flatbed truck. The culminating event is the camera, which we find out is shielded by glass and on some motorized vehicle of its own, driving forward onto the set somehow, and plowing destructively into the cardboardish props. End of part one. Part two, much longer than the first, is a series of camera movements, quite short, most of them - like a second or two, filmed outside where the color is quite opposed to the artificial pastel look we’ve just come from. Each camera movement (the camera is always in movement) traces a line or motion made by things moving (a bird, say) or static (a line of house rooves against the sky), and each cut is marked by the sound of a single snare drum hit. It’s actually a little hard on the eyes, since the camera is always moving, sometimes quite rapidly, and because of the perspectiveless jumping from one line to another. It’s rigorous but not uptight, and not without wit, though after a while one starts to tune out. 99 mins.

Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures is so aggressive in imagery and sound that it seems (only seems, says Susan Sontag) completely naive. One eventually sees that there is something to it besides reeling energy, drag masquerade, and chaotic pansexuality. It’s hard, granted, to see anything else for a good chunk of its orgiastic three-quarters of an hour. So, what is there besides? It’s hard to say what, but I think it’s got something to do with its density, its of-a-piece-ness. Everything in this short film - the writhing bodies, the overdriven music, the screaming, the cultivated foreignness, the swirling, unmoored camera - everything seems pressurized into a solid where you can see the individual components but you’d be hard pressed to break it down. It’s been punched into a rock-hard thing.

Also, there’s this sense of excess, an uncontrollable and incorruptible quality permeating it. It doesn’t slow down or let you get your bearings and there’s nothing in there to help the uninitiated feel at ease. You’re never going to be able to sell a film like this; you’re never going to be able to make a formula out of it - it’s so ill-mannered and distasteful. I don’t mean to say that its this that makes it art. A lot of things are uncontrollable, excessive, ill-mannered, and distasteful that are just that and nothing else. Flaming Creatures screams and kicks, admits to no learning or refinement, sticks its tongue out at everything, and yet it has something about it that strikes of a weird, pagan sophistication, as though dressing up and (playing at) abandoning oneself to wild ritual were, for this imaginary decadent underclass, a substitute for world-weary laughter.

MAYBE NOTE: Flaming Creatures contains, among other perversities, the odd flaccid penis, lots of play with a big flaccid boob, something pretty close to a stylized, multi-party rape scene, and a camera bent on giving you motion sickness. If you think it might be too silly a thing to watch, don’t do it.

Epic Fails

I came across a criticism of Javier Marias’ Written Lives before I’d read the book that clouded my enjoyment of it, if only somewhat, just by hanging around, disturbing the peace, until I took the time to think about it:

"Not that I don’t revere the ground that Javier Marías walks on, but I do think him distinctly lucky to have been able to persuade anyone to publish this volume. Of course, on the continent there is no kind of interest in formal biography to match our own. In Spain, readers might welcome a volume of short biographical essays. Here, despite Marías’s occasional wit and elegance, I can’t see who would see the point."

Philip Hensher,

What was the point? I couldn’t help asking myself that question again and again while reading the book, and though I was continually coming down on Marias’ side, I couldn’t help admitting that the question was not entirely ridiculous. (It’s about nine tenths ridiculous though, and his remark that the book is an “unmistakably embarrassing offering” a perfect ten.)

The book is a collection of short sketches of mostly well known writers, all of them, according to Marias, “fairly disastrous individuals,” and a concluding section, impossible not to be charmed by, in which he analyses the author poses in postcards he’s collected. (The only hint, says Marias, of Dickens’ “true witty, jocular self,” the only hint that he was the creator of Pickwick in his otherwise prim posturing, is that he sits straddling a backwards chair in two - count them, two! - photographs, which makes us think “that Dickens must, in fact, almost always have sat like that.”) Marias doesn’t concern himself with the published output of the writers, with putting together a solid life story, nor even with being fair and balanced (all of which bothers Philip Hensher immensely), but focuses instead on biographical anecdotes, a lot of them commonly known and some known to be apocryphal, told with a wry, generally fond humour. And that should be enough to satisfy most of us right there, shouldn’t it? After all, who among lovers of great books doesn’t also nurse a curiosity about the eccentrics - they’re one and all eccentrics, at least in the stories we want to hear - who write them? Nobody’s going to say it’s essential reading, but if you’re on an airplane or waiting for a train there couldn’t be better entertainment. You might as well ask what the point is of a slice of pizza, if you’re that hard to please. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s just a slice a pizza either. Here are two clues from Marias’ introduction:

"The fact is that, when read together, these briefest of brief biographies constituted another story, doubtless as unique and spectral as the stories themselves."

"The idea, then, was to treat these well-known literary figures as if they were fictionary characters, which may well be how all writers, whether famous or obscure, would secretly like to be treated."

Marias is not a biographer here, he’s a folklorist. The stories he’s telling are just that - stories, about writers and readers passed on to other writers and readers. And they’re about the thing readers and writers have in common: we all epically fail in the end, if not in life. Nobody can outlast ”the one who waits” (one of Marias’ dedicatees). The authors discussed here are read less and less, what might have seemed immortal we can now conceive of failing, too. But in the meantime we can console ourselves with the comedy of the great myth of Art and the writers who have put (and continue to put) all their eggs into that paltry basket. This is not new ground, I know. It’s the age-old plot, the age-old point. But aside from that one glaring, unavoidable point at the end of our life sentences, there is another more optimistic one: the fascination with stories is continually being reborn, for every dying literary character there is another taking shape, drawn from life but extending into fiction as they do in Written Lives.

Jack Gold: The Naked Civil Servant. 1975.

A one-track portrait of Quentin Crisp, the self-styled “stately homo of England” (John Hurt), made for British Television in 1975. His life, were it anyone else’s, wouldn’t seem all that exceptional but for the immense charisma and dignity he carries himself with; but as a homosexual in mid-century London, it amounts to an act of heroism.

The measure of John Hurt’s performance - and he’s in every scene - is that one forgets, amid the string of domestic arrangements Crisp finds himself in, that all of them are homosexual. There’s no shock in Crisp’s flamboyant lifestyle, nor in seeing it depicted on screen - at least watching it now there isn’t. The shock is in the impoverished ways in which people choose to live out their lives, more generally. Apparently, what gays wanted but couldn’t openly insist on at the time was the right to the same hum-drum existences that everyone else had.

There is something painfully existential about the structure of the film: a life story told as a sequence of brief sketches illustrating (usually three year) spans of time, each with a little epiphany but no major joys, unswervingly focused on its main actor. The only place lonelier than the margins, it seems, is dead center.

Ornette Coleman and Prime Time: Tone Dialing.

Tone Dialing is an album that, more than ten years after it’s release, has come to seem pretty good to me. I bought it when I was in my late teens and, at the time, listened to it more for Ornette’s reputation than because it squared with what I thought jazz, or indeed music, was supposed to sound like. To be honest, it didn’t square at all. And I don’t think jazz critics, even those familiar with Coleman, felt much differently. But what sunk in then, and what’s eased me back into it, was the melodicism of Coleman’s playing, the rubbery keyboard and bass textures, and those high-spirited calypso melodies.

On most of the tracks on this album, the end of the head is like cliff edge: when the players come to the end of it, everybody topples ecstatically into thin air. But there is something tethering everyone together. The much-discussed, never-defined theory of Harmolodics that supposedly governs much of what you hear in a Coleman song might be summarized like this: Here I go, try to keep up. Although a kind of chaos ensues, there is most definitely a leader.

There aren’t many solos other than Ornette’s on this album, unless you count the incessant noodling going on like - I’ll try again - a quilting of elastics beneath his playing - synths, electric guitars, electric basses, and tablas, along with Denardo Coleman’s destabilizing drums. It gets messy, but when tonality breaks down and the everything swirls off the grid, it sounds like no other music in the world. On Street Blues, with each chorus, things get knottier and the band careens toward entropy, but Ornette is the unperturbable logic in it, always at home amidst even the muddiest waters. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t sink down into them himself sometimes. But listen to Capella (from about 2:10 to 2:28), to the way he stretches the cadence of the song for no reason other than to make the rise back to the repeat that much more exuberant - it’s a lesson in freedom and authority. All of this just to say that with Ornette around, one doesn’t really want for other soloists.

An imaginary album: I’ve been entertaining the fantasy that someday, in lieu of the unaccompanied saxophone albums he never made, Ornette’s albums will be re-released minus the other musicians. It’s a little absurd, I realize - on par with discussions of what Hamlet would be like as a father, but Ornette and Miles Davis are the two musicians whose playing, I think, could stand alone and still be something. There’s a kind of organic and autonomous quality in their playing. At their best they seem to be playing with the band and, at the same time, completely independently of it.

A defense: Denardo - Ornette’s son - made his first appearance on record at the age of six on his father’s The Empty Foxhole. He received some pretty harsh treatment at the hands of critics who felt they were being insulted; the unskilled are a bane and blasphemy to the hallowed fortress of the Jazz Establishment, don’t you know. But Ornette was too serious a musician to be playing a prank, even if there is some fun being had. I don’t know how much Denardo’s drumming has advanced since then, truthfully, but I can understand why his father has enjoyed playing with him ever since, this Caliban of the kit, seemingly spared in his formative years that civilizing agent, the metronome, which would have made him just another boring time-keeper. As it is, he is the time bomb in every song he plays on.

A caveat: though so unspeakable, I’m tempted to pass over it in silence, there needs to be a warning issued about one track on this album, Search for Life, a nondescript rap track, directionless and plodding, searching but not finding Life for nearly eight minutes, that wants nothing less than to defeat the whole album. And it’s the second track so it could really threaten your experience of the album before it’s even had a chance to form. It was bad in 1995 and it’s aged about as well as backwards pants.

I mentioned the melodies and I want to end with them since, finally, they’re what one takes most immediately away from the album. They are simple enough to make you feel they’re part of the public domain of collective memory. Hum a few of them and you’ll realize what it is that makes one return to this album; a feeling so pure and simple, to name it is embarrassing.

Jim Jarmusch: The Limits of Control. 2009.

Jim Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control is structured around two conceits optimized to give him space to fill with stuff he likes - paintings, beautiful women, well-dressed men, cigarettes and coffee - and in which to air his meditations on film and - yes - the meaning of existence, among other things: 1) the repetition of motifs such as his lone man's “two esspressos in separate cups,” and 2) the Point Blank / Le Samourai undistractible-agent-on-an-unintelligible-mission-slash-existential-quest story. With the second, any diversion can be assimilated and the more out of the way, the more ambiguous the connection to the mystery - the mystery of what the lone man is involved in (does he know? will we ever find out? did he learn something by going to the art gallery?), the more absorbing it tends to be, and the more liberating it is for the filmmaker.

Beyond having expressly mentioned Point Blank in interviews and naming his production company after it, the references to the earlier film in The Limits of Control are many. The final encounter between Isaach De Bankolé and Bill Murray is a shorter and much less compelling reversal of the one between Lee Marvin and Carroll O’Connor in Point Blank. It serves to reveal the shortcomings of the former film, though Jarmusch’s aims seem completely different and his film, in a way, is more into smoking (something) than competing, anyway. His film is a scrapbook, loose and accomodating, and for the most part convivial despite its coolness; Point Blank is a cold, polished stone.

That balance of coolness and warmth, seriousness and lightness, is a little awkward, and often the dialogue, casually philosophical, and the somewhat trite, photogenic quirkiness of everything, comes close to grating. But the film isn’t boring and there is one scene on a train, its images surreally bright and crisp, windmills on what could be a lunar landscape out the window, that does something special; the train might as well be drifting through space.

Pedro Almodovar: Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. 1988.

At the top of my list of film discoveries this year is Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. After watching it I can understand why some critics are disappointed with Broken Embraces, Almodovar’s latest, in comparison to his earlier, maybe less self-conscious films. There is so much trashy spontaneity in Women, and gawdy colors, foot-level camera angles, soundstage sunsets, soapy comedy (the lighter side of the same things that influenced Fassbinder perhaps), yet the design elements never overpower the characters.

Led by Carmen Maura, an Almodovar regular, the actors are given plenty of breathing room and an interested - not to say fawning - camera. There is little that is really painful in the film. It feels like the director can barely stand to cause these women sorrow, and whatever sadness there is is mainly of a half-campy kind that only advantages their charm and beauty in his eyes. It is movie hardship that they go through, never without its attendant glamour. On the other hand, there is a real heart here, too. You sense that, like the taxi driver always improbably there for Pepa (Maura), tears streaming down his face at the sight of hers, the plights of film heroines affect Almodovar deeply, that while their difficulties bring out an aestheticized allure in them, that women on film are quite as real to him as flesh and blood.

Among the many moments that snap with magic, one in particular near the end stood out for me. An older woman (Julieta Serrano), the film’s antagonist, if there is one, has hopped onto the back of a motorcycle to race to the airport. Almodovar shows her head in profile, minus her dowdy glasses, hair blowing in the wind instead of unattractively permed, in what strikes me as an allusion to the wicked witch in The Wizard of Oz. Only, the camera stays on her long enough to let us see something resilient and still very beautiful in that aging, windblown face, long enough for us to glimpse what she might have looked like at Pepa’s age - a beautiful woman herself, not the frumpy, hormonal one forced into the role of the jealous old witch. It’s a stunningly compassionate moment tucked in unexpectedly amidst the action of a chase scene and the general lightness of the film’s comic mode. Could Almodovar have planned this revelation, or was he just ready and watching that closely?

It’s a good example of another thing, besides the acting, that makes the film exciting - the hypersensitivity to everything it comes in contact with, animate or not, and the fleetness that allows it to follow sensation where it leads. The sensuousness of ripe tomatoes being cut (referred back to in Broken Embraces), the shiny wood of the hotel banister - few films are as alertly, promiscuously distractible and I can’t imagine many directors being able to indulge that impulse and still come out with a film that feels controlled and, in its way, tight. But the film sticks together, partly, I think, because the focus on characters is not lost, but also because, as David Thomson says in his review of it, “film is friendly to anyone who will try anything.” Thoroughgoing gusto makes its own coherence.

Ikue Mori: Class Insecta.

This is an album that only an old person could have made, and I say that with the greatest respect to young people, who manage to produce imaginative music, too, and sometimes even betray a capacity for wonder. But only an old person, or, to be fair, someone well into adulthood (born in 1953, Mori is certainly that, although she is Japanese which means 50 literally is middle age) could make an album so unengaged with current trends, so curious about its own inner world, enamoured as simply as this one is of the noises that come out of machines. Mori is of course no stranger to electronic music - she’s been working with drum machines since the 80s. That’s why it’s amazing that she can make an album that sounds as though making music is new to her. I’m officially encouraged.

Mori does that most impossible of simple things here: she seems to keep her ostensible subject in mind, making the album an atmospheric excursion into some humid, biologically-wealthy foliage of the imagination, opening it up almost to a visual level, if that’s possible, and using relatively limited means. (Improvisers take note - sometimes a sliver of concept is all it takes to lift your noodling to an entirely new echelon of effect.) The sounds on some tracks, even without the encouragement of the title, really do strike you as insectile, and those tracks are definitely the stand-outs. You can hear the zillion-footed patter of some wriggling leaf-dweller, small as a drop of water, or the viscous slithering of another; whether by choice or accident, Mori is a first-class musical Attenboroughist (a listen to her earlier collaboration with Zeena Parkins, Phantom Orchard, will corroborate that if any further proof is necessary).

On the rest of the album’s twelve tracks, somewhat unfortunately, she seems content to use repeating drum loops (the same one on multiple tracks? the same tempo?) as catcher for those larval droppings. Adorably, she uses all the exotic preset claves, congas, and cabasas Yamaha equipped its drum machines with in the 80s - uses, one has to imagine (because what other feelings are available to anyone who knows those antique sounds), with equal parts irony and devotion. Sometimes those beats dominate, sometimes they don’t. For me, there’s a little too much of it. That’s a small complaint though, especially taking into account the obvious need of some variety or contrast.

Let’s hear it for the aging, the imaginative, and - here we go - let’s hear it for the girls, who, I’m increasingly convinced, make the best improvisers.

Douglas Sirk: Imitation of Life. 1959.

A giant octopus of a melodrama. The most complimentary thing I can say about Imitation of Life is that its two hours feel much longer than they are. And I do mean that as a compliment. The film is a knotty, emotionally craggy world of no more than a handful of people (the whole population?) circulating and permutating, all their trials and errors accumulating into a texture of lived familial memory. Just when you think the last thing it needs is a strand of plot in which daughter falls in love her mother’s old flame, that’s where it goes. And, as if spontaneously - though nothing feels less than fully intentioned here - the story’s attention drifts from its protagonist to the black maid whose daughter, “passing” as white and eager to be rid of the evidence, has turned her back on her. One plot point that I really loved was when, to our shock, the mother’s dreams of becoming an actress are actually realized. We’re led to think many things about Lora (Lana Turner): that she might be less a talent than she thinks she is, that she really should grow up, as her well-intentioned boyfriend more or less suggests, that because she valorously resists the advances of her agent, she’s destined to do dog food commercials for the rest of her acting career; the last thing we expect - and aren’t we speared for it - is that she is exactly what she says she is - a gifted actress in need of a break. But even after that reveal, Sirk doesn’t stop questioning her. Does her self-actualization excuse her (subtle) neglect of her daughter? Like every question raised in this movie, Sirk doesn’t care about answering it. But the ironies are lovingly handled, and I think sincerely. That’s life, that’s our society, that’s the kind of choice people have to make. No time to linger - the next dramatic turn of events or of character is, invariably, a heartbeat away.

I don’t think it’s even giving anything away to mention these plot details; the film doesn’t build toward a single climax but is compulsively cresting and surging. Literally, it’s a “sea of life” effect Sirk seems to be after, and somehow, despite being, again, what seems to me a strictly controlled movie, characters are felt to have agency, the story some life, because of all this restless, minor activity within confined parameters.

The color in this movie - I saw it in a theatre years ago and a recent dvd viewing confirms it wasn’t just the print - is far less saturated than other Sirk films, and where they were glossy, this one looks gritty. It’s almost washed-out, like the pages of an old women’s magazine. The cinematography is by Russell Metty again, and, whosever idea it was to film it in these dirty-finger shades of domestic resilience, it’s really artistic; they must have known they were back-channeling toward Olympus here, out on their own in a beautiful track of stylization.

I don’t see anything especially cynical about either the pageantry of the story or the way it’s filmed. I think Sirk was a dead-serious artist (he talked of fellow Germans like Emil Nolde and Max Beckmann in interviews!) and too aware of the essential reality of these social dilemmas to be playing them for private, mocking laughter. That he thought he could sneak something real and expressive into this kind of a presentation testifies to a kooky and singular ambition.

William A. Seiter: One Touch of Venus. 1948.

Ava Gardner, as a statue of Venus, comes to life in a department store at night to the surprise of Eddie Hatch, a store employee and “henpecked” husband-to-be (Robert Walker). Her disappearance sets off a mild department store mystery - the supernatural element explained away with one line of dialogue about the “the strange legends and myths surrounding the Anatolian Venus” - and Venus has just enough time to teach Hatch a little something about the virtues of lust before the clock, literally, rings twelve. Walker plays the flustered two-timer with all of the exaggerated innocence he can bring to it, to the point, in fact, where you start suspecting there’s a profound cynicism under all that mawkish courtesy. Tom Conway and Eve Arden as the department store owner Whitfield Savory and the woman he can’t see for looking at, his assistant Molly Stewart, are pretty good in supporting roles. The other two supporting players, the friend and girlfriend, are less interesting. But Ava Gardener in a toga is the essential reason to bother watching this (stick around for the sets and models though). A little stony whenever she’s speaking but a vivacious physical presence whenever she’s not, she’s the libidinal thrust of the movie, rubbing herself against Walker’s beleaguered “Hatch” like a cat in heat.

This is a film that makes you think the soundstage world it can’t help depicting could go on even when you’re not watching, that looks as if it were made on hollywood autopilot, uninspired but plenty entertaining enough, even when its flurried life feels routine. There are some lovely cardboard skyscrapers visible from the balcony and a nice stage-breeze up there too. Like the model home in the department store, this world is too perfect to be true but large enough that you can start to imagine a future there.

Black Dice: Repo.

A lot of people overdo it with praise. But here is an album that deserves what it’s been getting - that most damningly polite of ratings, the seven point five; the rating that holds the mirror of ambivalence up to the Pitchforks that issue it, the rating of generous, undiscriminating approval.

This is the same instinct that must have guided the making of the music on Repo, always for better or worse, the results atingle with uncertainty. It’s an album where sounds are put together in crude alliances, daring you to call the aesthetic bluff. And there is a vertiginous pleasure in knowing that you can’t.

Not to say that the album came about by chance. There is an artistic program here. Aural space is always being perversely and comically crisscrossed, globular synth figures appearing outfield of the main action (whatever that is) but foregrounded in terms of volume or mismatched reverb. Black Dice shows a discerning wariness of drum beats, opting for trashy - you’d have to say uncool, pitch-modulated loops instead, which takes the music in the direction of primitivist, technologically playful folk music and away from self-serious dance music, thank the lord. Those loops are no more or less important than the other sounds that are brought in and only occassionally are they relied on as scaffolding for their more eccentric, more interesting sample and synth decor. It’s messy and too forgiving of everything, all plateau and no peak, but there are just enough points of interest to keep the album alive, and a dada sense of humour that serves it well, keeping it from ever seeming like the band cared one damn how it all turned out.

So it’s a true 7.5, an album for the times, not all time, and a favorite of mine so far this year.

Saint Passionate


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