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Free Cell Block F, 'Tis Nazi USA: A Viennale 2010 Report
|The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover|
I'll write about some good films I saw in Vienna, but first: does anyone else find that Guy Maddin is getting more and more cloying as he goes on? His latest, Night Mayor (2009), concerning the inventor of a television system that uses energy from the aurora borealis, breaks Maddin's own record for preciosity: watching it is like having somebody simper in your ear about fairy dust and goblins for 20 minutes. Maddin's effort was part of a program of films using found footage. In Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller's Maybe Siam (2009), comprising footage from commercial narrative films featuring blind characters, the more obscure films with lesser-known actors work well, lending an uncertainty that helps the film, but clips of Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession and Ida Lupino in On Dangerous Ground remain clips of Jane Wyman in Magnificent Obsession and Ida Lupino in On Dangerous Ground: the image pops out of context, and the result is no longer a sustained new work, but a film that has been interrupted and has to start over.
Peter Tscherkassky's Coming Attractions (2010) falls into a related rut: the ambiguity about where a certain image comes from is interesting only for a short while; repetition (of imagery, of a formal problem) breeds familiarity, lessening the value of the image. There's a funny sequence of extended crosscutting between shots of a Caucasian man in an open car who takes his hat off and smiles blandly (outtakes from a commercial film? The difficulty of knowing adds to the interest of the scene) with shots of two boys, perhaps Indian, looking up in wonder and amazement. But the cross-cutting goes on without any new formal discovery being made or any change in the viewer's relationship to the sequence taking place. Martin Arnold's Shadow Cuts (2010), a detailed manipulation of a shot from a Mickey Mouse cartoon, has greater success at estranging its source material, but it is something of a Pyrrhic victory, since the original image is so overcoded that the film has no choice but to be about that image, even though it has little to say about it.
A more substantial use of found footage occurs in Siegfried A. Fruhauf's Tranquility (2010), which makes the visible frame line and vertical scratches expressive about the theme of flight; the filmmaker's attentiveness to every property of the found image, the concreteness of the filmmaker's intervention in the image, are more decisive than in the Tscherkassky, Arnold, and Girardet/Müller films: no attempt is made to play on ambiguity of origin or to ascribe (as does Maddin's film) a fictive origin to the image. Fruhauf is free, as the other filmmakers are not, to let his film lay out its own terms and propositions; he doesn't have to work with (or pretend to ignore) the terms and propositions that the appropriated image brings with it. Similarly, Bruce Conner's A Movie (1958), which Fruhauf revived in his carte blanche program, shows a way to bring found footage into a film while defeating the encodings of the original.
Conner (who became in his subsequent work a major commentator on American history and the American media) leads me to The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977), shown as part of the Viennale's Larry Cohen retrospective. In this great film, Cohen diverts found footage to the purposes of renarrating history, not to authenticate the narration but to show the public side of history as it has already been staged and manipulated and as it already reads itself. Cohen films Hoover as if it were a documentary and as if the filmmaker were observing events over which he has no control; on the other hand, documentary footage inserted into the film tends to look like scenes from commercial narrative features! A discourse on power, surveillance, and violence, Hoover is finally a film about death, mournful and prophetic: Hoover's death, the death of a certain constellation of American power, the death of Hollywood (surviving here, but almost posthumously, in the form of stars Broderick Crawford, Dan Dailey, et al., and in the score by Miklos Rozsa). The editing of the film is remarkable: a montage of conflict, changing point of view, turbulent, paranoid. Stock footage becomes another of Cohen's options for stepping back, for stepping back further (cf. the scene near the end of the film that lurchingly cuts back and forth between anguished Hoover in closeup and Hoover in wide shot).
Cohen shows a way to make a film about violence that is not absorbed by violence (recalling Hoover, it's not the moments of violence one remembers); in a different way, this is what Frederick Wiseman does in Boxing Gym (2010), a study of an Austin, Texas, gym. The end of the film is revelatory: we see, for the first time, two men actually fighting each other, in ceremonial helmets and gloves and under the supervision of the benign gym owner. Placed so late in the film, the scene affects what has gone before (in which the dominant tone has been, perhaps unexpectedly, a certain happiness: the people of the film see the gym as a utopia). We have to think about violence — not for the first time in the film, which has contained discussions of a school shooting, a scene in which a young man returns to the haven of the gym sporting the black eye he received in a fight somewhere in the scary world outside, and a scene in which another young man, a recent army recruit, declares himself unhappy that he will not be deployed quickly ("I joined the army because I wanted combat"). In the exterior shots that close the film, the violence spills outside: a man training alone outside the buidling, another man training alone in the parking lot. And Wiseman cuts to the skyline, to the sky...
For Wiseman, place is an absolute; Fruhauf's carte blanche program included two interesting films that question and unsettle the priority of place in film. Ben Russell's Black and White Trypps Number Three (2007), seemingly filmed from the stage during a small-club rock concert, works on the strict circumscription of space (the faces and upper bodies of audience members vignetted within darkness, as if their energy were burning through the film) to create an image of great intensity sustained over time. Nicolas Provost's Papillon d'amour (2003) subjects images from Rashomon to dazzling mistreatment, conjuring up monsters that unfurl from the centerfold of the image and wheel, change, and writhe.
The subjects of José Luis Guerín's Guest (2010) are people who are bound to their places, who will remain there after the guest (Guerín) leaves. At every international film festival he visits (during the festival-circuit tour of his previous film, In the City of Sylvia), Guerín gets away from the people of cinema (though he finds them again in the last scene, of his return to Venice) to meet the people who do not travel, who don't make films (though they paint, sketch, sing, talk). One of Guerín's stars, a boy he films in Jerusalem, insistently asks "what time" the film will be on. Misunderstanding the answer (two years) to mean two o'clock, he wants to know: morning or afternoon? The boy's gesture of pointing to an imaginary watch on his wrist (to try to make his question understood), no less than his question, demands that the film place itself in an exact relation to the time-space of its production, within nearness rather than distance: it is a demand that the globe-trotting filmmaker seems to have difficulty meeting.
The opposite of Guest is Jean-Claude Rousseau's Festival (2010), in which the filmmaker, a festival guest, keeps himself alone in his hotel room, surveys late-night depopulated urban spaces from a camera placed with geometrical precision, or visits the as-yet-empty auditorium where his work is to be shown later. The film consists of absence and anticipation, captured and layered in structures that break down and set themselves up again, the filmmaker presiding over everything with a discreet anxiety; though beautiful, it is a film of vulnerability rather than mastery. For Rousseau, who figures in his own film both as a body and as a voice (considering an interlocutor's question: why does he think it is absurd to say the phrase "cinematographic writing"?), the passage from behind-the-camera to before-the-camera is "a renewable defenestration," but to appear is to disappear: "if it weren't, then it would be really obscene" (from the post-screening discussion).
Just in time for the latest ill wind from Washington, whatever it was that week, the Larry Cohen retrospective managed to unearth (among other items from Cohen's early career as a TV scriptwriter) The Traitor (1963), a David Greene-directed episode of the series The Defenders, which starred E. G. Marshall and Robert Reed as father-and-son trial attorneys the Prestons. Their current client, Kayle (Fritz Weaver), is accused by the U.S. government of stealing classified information and passing it on to an enemy power. The trial takes place against a background of inflamed public opinion, exploited by a TV commentator who lays into the Prestons for "defending a traitor while we're fighting for survival!" Leaving the courthouse, the defense attorneys are harangued by protesters brandishing such slogans as "Don't Defend the Spy: Americans Don't Defend America's Enemies!" Much of the drama hinges on the senior Preston's wavering ability to defend his client in the face of both his client's arrogant, distant personality and the U.S. prosecutor's attempts to get Preston to divulge privileged information. "We're trying to safeguard the national security here!" the prosecutor exclaims, to which Preston has the presence of mind to retort, "Safeguarding the relationship between lawyer and client is a matter of national security." Then the prosecutor asks Preston what he'd do if the United States were facing attack, citing Pearl Harbor — an analogy Preston rejects. Many elements of Cohen's teleplay find parallels in our current moment in history, when the U.S. government, with the aid of mass media, is using the spectre of foreign terrorism as a pretext to strike at domestic civil liberties and demonize and suppress journalism. At one point in The Traitor, Preston argues that the United States is superior to other countries on the grounds that they, but not we, hold accused enemies incommunicado for months. After Bush and Obama's Guantánamo, an E. G. Marshall of 2010 could no longer expect to have such an argument received with a straight face.
issue #7 (1.2011)