Friday, November 16, 2007

New Traditionalist

New Traditionalist
Originally published in Pitch Magazine, October 2007

Seven male dancers take the stage, moving rapidly from left to right, with swooping arms set to a thunderous Beethoven piano sonata. Their gestures spring from classical ballet, but the emphatic lateral arm thrusts have the urgency of African dance. The company drops to the floor for a quick push-up reminiscent of butoh, a Japanese performance art that melds traditional Japanese dance with various Western influences. After the men’s athletic, aesthetic grab-bag, the female corps are a bit more refined, almost demure. Still, the pumped up score and the dancers’ quick, taut movements give both performances equal intensity.
The Sacramento Ballet performs Amaranthine in 2006, Helen Pickett’s first commission after Etesian, her break out piece for the Boston Ballet earlier that year. Because of Pickett’s longtime involvement with William Forsythe and the Wooster Group, I confess to her that I had expected “difficult” dance: deconstructive work with multi-media stage elements. ” You didn’t expect something so traditional?” she interjected, and burst out laughing. She hooked me with her choice of Beethoven for Amaranthine, whose compositions are difficult enough to play, let alone dance to (his piano sonatas are full of lightning-paced runs countered by abruptly slow phrasing with pregnant pauses). This astute choice of score speaks to the rigorous and emotive quality of Pickett’s choreography. It also speaks to her confidence as a new choreographer, which she has in spades.

Pickett’s pieces to date contemporize ballet via her distillation of gesture; the grace, agility, and rigor traditionally associated with the form remain. She is a dancer’s choreographer and gives her dancers the creative space to explore and push the boundaries of movement. Some movements are slightly off-kilter, imbuing her choreography with a richness that is akin to dissonance in music. The vivacious, loose-limbed male soloist in Amaranthine channels a loopy, unhinged nutcracker. His performance is joyous; I rewound and watched him on repeat.

No doubt Pickett’s confidence – and talent – is due to her rich and varied background; Her career signature is interdisciplinary collaboration and improvisation. Pickett is a transmedia flirt. She has worked with the some of most exciting and innovative names in dance, theater, and fine art: William Forsythe and the Ballet Frankfurt, the Wooster Group, the artist Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation, among others. While schooling me in the intricacies of dance and choreography via the telephone, Pickett dropped references to Paul Virilio, Iggy Pop, Baudelaire, and various mind-body integration techniques. Yet one of her greatest charms is how humble she remains for such an accomplished and heavily referenced woman. Her quest for knowledge, like her art, is a work in progress. “The more education you have the more you can riff…it’s an addictive personality,” she says.
As a student of the San Francisco Ballet, Pickett danced with the company under the direction of Michael Smuin, Lew Christensen, and Helgi Tomasson. After meeting William Forsythe, director of the Ballet Frankfurt (now the Forsythe Company), in San Francisco while he was choreographing New Sleep, Pickett went to Germany to audition for the company. It was an important move, Forsythe being a major innovator of contemporary ballet; his highly cerebral, intuitive choreography and inventive use of non-traditional scores stretch the limits of the genre. In 1991 Pickett became a lead dancer for the Ballet Frankfurt. Her working relationship with Forsythe lasted until the late 1990s, when she was forced to leave the company due to a recurring injury. The two remain fast friends. “I owe a lot to William Forsythe,” Pickett says. “I consider him one of my greatest mentors.”
After leaving the Ballet Frankfurt, Pickett joined the Wooster Group, the renowned genre-bending downtown Manhattan theater company known for its incorporation of dance, movement, and multimedia elements in its performances. She performed in a number of productions directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, including the Obie-winning House/Lights. One night, Pickett met the artist Eve Sussman in the lobby after a Wooster Group show. Sussman, who Pickett describes as “hyper-energetic,” told Pickett, “you look like the queen of Spain.” This mysterious compliment led to Pickett being cast in the role of Queen Mariana in the video installation 89 Seconds at Alcázar, a poetic meditation on the creation of Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas that blurs the boundaries between painting, appropriation, and video. The piece was a favorite at the 2004 Whitney Biennial.

Pickett didn’t rush to break out on her own as a choreographer. “If you‘ve worked with a bright light, it’s hard,” she told me. “But when I got into that studio and started choreographing, I felt like I was dancing again. When I left, I called my husband and said ‘I feel the completion again.’” She has an exploratory approach to choreography. A piece only takes shape once she has met the company. “I need to see personalities,” she explained. “I need to see the dancers’ strengths; to see them shine. Music is important; I need to see how people listen. I construct (the piece) as I go.”

All of Pickett’s commissions begin with a two- or three-day improvisation session with the dancers. She acknowledges that improvisation can be extremely difficult for classically trained dancers. Her improvisational approach, rooted in William Forsythe-based techniques and mind body integration exercises, is designed to help. “Improv is hard to do, period,” she says. “As people we are told what to do all the time.” The freedom Pickett offers is rare in the regimented, hierarchical world of ballet. It is the performing arts equivalent of giving employees stock in the company. It works. Pickett’s pacing is sublime; her choreography feels like a conversation. Tight movements are countered by expansive, interpretative gestures, and the tension generated between the two combines ethereal grace with restrained primal dissonance.

Following the making of 89 Seconds at Alcázar, some members of the cast (Pickett included) went on to form The Rufus Corporation, a loose conglomeration of artists, actors, dancers, and musicians. The Corporation’s most recent film, The Rape of the Sabine Women (a mod feature-length reinterpretation of the early Roman legend) will be presented concurrently with the premiere of Pickett’s commission for the Louisville Ballet on November 2nd & 3rd. The film will be shown in the atrium of the 21c Museum Hotel, part of a film program jointly sponsored by the 21c Museum Hotel, the Louisville Film Society, and the University of Louisville.

Pickett is a star in her own right, no easy task considering the experimental super-stars she’s collaborated with in the past. Her influences are synthesized and filtered through the prism of collaboration. Her work is unencumbered and liberating; It is a pleasure to discover.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Growing Up '70s Style: Clane Hayward's Hypocrisy of Disco

Originally published on

Clane Hayward’s memoir explores the progressive freedom and moralistic repressiveness of the hippie ethos with grace and humor. The Hypocrisy of Disco tells the story of Hayward’s nomadic adolescence in California, New Mexico, and Nevada between the ages of eleven and thirteen. She is shuttled between vacation cabins, open fields, and trailer parks by her quasi-mystical, macrobiotic mother until she is sent to live in New Mexico with her laissez faire, grease-monkey father and, finally, her straight paternal grandmother in Las Vegas.

Her story is a tragic and heartfelt testament to American idealism gone wrong. Clane’s mother H’lane’s anti-authoritarian open mindedness often spirals into didactic, controlling harangues about eating “shitfood,” which includes everything from oranges and cheese to cake. New clothes, party dresses, and other trappings of an average American childhood are also off limits. Describing a typical run-in over food, Hayward writes, “Your children eat out of garbage cans and off the sidewalk because of your head trips.” Food is a big issue for Clane and her hippie-kid cohorts, the Macroteam. These grudgingly macrobiotic super-heroes steal snacks from other kids’ lunches and bust into neighboring cabins to mainline sugar and dance to records. Their antics provide much of the levity in this otherwise disturbing, heart-wrenching book.

Hayward’s writing is strongest when she talks about the American West. Despite a childhood of hardship, frequent embarrassment, and sugar-lust, Hayward represents the idyllic beauty of Northern California in lush, broad strokes. As she grows older, she contrasts living among the redwoods with the bleak American expansionism of trailer parks, K-Marts, 7-11s, and empty parking lots. When a toss of H’lane’s I Ching coins determine that Clane should live with her father, Hayward writes of the journey, “…America is just one long highway baking quietly in the sun and waiting for the cars it bears. America from the bus felt like all space, all distance, and this made me feel empty inside and a little tired, my mind wiped clean, just waiting for the next thing to happen, waiting for the next place I would be.”

A feeling of weightlessness and quiet despair permeates Hayward’s story.She inhabits a world of mystics, stoners, and zealots eager to change the world, but whose stringent limitations build systems of exclusion that mirror the straight world they have repudiated.

The Hypocrisy of Disco (Chronicle Books)
By Clane Hayward
256 pages

Thursday, November 1, 2007

New York Post

From the column "Required Reading:"

Twenty Thousand Roads

by David N. Meyer


It's been 34 years since the overdose death of Gram Parsons at age 26. But the mythic story of the artist who brought rock and country together - through the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Emmylou Harris - calling it Cosmic American Music, continues to exert a strange fascination. With 34 pages of footnotes, plus a thorough discography and “recommended listening," Meyer gives Parsons a thorough, Peter Guralnick-like treatment.

honky tonk angel

Twenty Thousand Roads is the lead review in Sunday's LA Times!!!!

click here to read!

Twenty Thousand Roads

The date for the book release is drawing near and reviews are trickling in.

From The Atlanta Constitution Journal:

Bottom line: A terrific biography of a rock innovator that hums with juicy detail and wincing truth.

By the time he died of an overdose at 26, Gram Parsons brought the Byrds to Nashville, taught twang to the Rolling Stones and turned the spotlight on Emmylou Harris' serenades of high lonesome heartache. In the process, this Harvard dropout, who wore sequined suits as homage to the Nashville stars he loved, essentially invented country rock.

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Publisher's Weekly:

Gram Parsons is remembered as much for wearing sequined cowboy suits on stage and for being illegally cremated in the desert by one of his friends after dying of a drug overdose as he is for the half-dozen albums he played on in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the Byrds' classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Meyer (A Girl and a Gun) covers both aspects of the legend, but he gives particular attention to the way Parsons brought together elements of country and rock music to forge a new sound. After a leisurely telling of Parsons's “rich white trash” family drama in Florida and Georgia, including his father's suicide and the barely contained contempt of his mother's family, the biography plunges into his musical career, careening from one band to the next just as Parsons himself did. Meyer is appreciative but never adulatory of Parsons, who he believes threw his talent away; while citing the influence of the Flying Burrito Brothers' debut album, for example, he repeatedly mentions the band's “unbelievably sloppy” sound. This isn't the first biography of Parsons, but Meyer's semidetached stance as a critical fan makes it a valuable one, in the vein of Peter Guralnick or Greil Marcus. (Oct. 30)

Men's Vogue:
Now an encyclopedic and likely definitive Parsons biography, Twenty Thousand Roads, by David N. Meyer (Villard), gamely takes the measure of the man without fixing the legend even further in amber. Meyers, a journalist who teaches at the New School in New York, notes that Parsons "had everything: looks, cool, charm, charisma, money…?and threw it away with both hands." Nevertheless, "the most talented musicians in America would do anything for him." Why did they care? And, by extension, why should we?

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Monday, September 10, 2007

Les Enfants Terribles

Originally published in The Brooklyn Rail, September 2007

Realism and fantasy collide in Les Enfants Terribles, the 1950 collaboration between celebrated directors Jean Cocteau and Jean Pierre Melville. Cocteau adapted the film from his successful 1929 novel which he wrote in a week-long haze of opium withdrawal. He commissioned Jean-Pierre Melville to direct after seeing Melville’s directorial debut, La Silence de La Mer. They’re an unlikely pair. Cocteau was known in literary circles as the “frivolous prince” for his willowy line drawings, poetry, and romantic, navel-gazing films featuring a high beef-cake factor. Melville became famous for his war pictures and hard-boiled Zen noirs.

The result is like Bertolucci’s The Dreamers with no sex. Equal parts Romeo and Juliet and Sunset Boulevard, with a dash of Cocteau’s roguish melancholia thrown in. The lush camera work and cornucopia of quotations from other films is thoroughly proto-New Wave. It’s no surprise that Bertolucci’s vampirish send-up to the genre borrowed so heavily from the film. What’s surprising is how boring Enfants (like Dreamers ) can be.

Les Enfants Terribles is the story of Paul (Edouard Dermithe) and Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane), a brother and sister who retreat into a private fantasy world after Paul is struck in the chest with a snow-ball. Paul‘s weak heart requires constant supervision and Elisabeth willingly plays the role of psycho-sadistic nurse. They spend most of their time in their bedroom awash in old books, magazines, night creams and cray-fish. When their hermetic circle expands to include Gerard and Agathe—two hopelessly sweet, bourgeois saps—Elisabeth happily extends her passive-aggressive needling to 
them as well.

Melville and Cocteau have different agendas, so its difficult to imagine them collaborating. The meaning of a Cocteau film is usually generated through flights of fancy. The result is either poetically moving or downright silly. The magic and perversity of Cocteau’s book seems cartoonish when subjected to Melville’s realism. In Melville’s defense, the screenplay so thoroughly obscures the book’s meaning that it’s surprising the author adapted it himself. The fantastical element so essential to feeling the story is consistently present only in Cocteau’s lilting narration, and Melville’s astute choice of Bach and Vivaldi for the score.

In some places, however, the marriage succeeds. A dreamlike, impressionistic snowball fight with achingly erotic undertones opens the film. Henri Decaë, Melville’s long-time cinematographer, inventively employs unorthodox camera angles and close-ups. Elisabeth pulls the audience into the childrens’ claustrophobic universe by complaining to the camera; she pre-dates Anna Karina and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s similar ploy for audience sympathy in Pierrot Le Fou by fifteen years. The performances gain momentum as the story progresses. By the end of the film Elisabeth’s controlling mania has reached Norma Desmondesque fever-pitch.

This Criterion release has a load of special features including interviews with actress Nicole Stéphane and other crew members and a short film about Cocteau and Melville’s collaboration. Despite it’s imperfections, Les Enfants Terribles is a worthy rental for Cocteau lovers and serious students of the Nouvelle Vague.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Berlin Calling

Originally published in I-94 magazine, Issue #3

In 2003 mayor Klaus Wowereit dubbed Berlin "poor, but sexy" in an attempt to sell British businessmen on the leaps and bounds the city has taken in cultural production. Artists, designers, and hangers-on are drawn to the city by cheap rent, an abundance of artist run spaces and, of course, dance parties that last until happy hour the next day. Berlin began to establish itself as major player in the European art-scene during its 1990s art boom. Around this time, Klaus Biesenbach, now a curator at PS1/MoMa, founded Kunst-Werke, an exhibition space and studio program in an old mayonnaise factory in East Berlin with a group of young art enthusiasts. Through the tenacity of Biesenbach and a handful of gallerists, Mitte soon replaced Charlottenberg as Berlin’s gallery district. The number of exhibition spaces throughout the city has exploded with a consistent influx of artists, and designers and galleries are now moving further afield from more established areas like Auguststraße to Brunnenstraße and various warehouse and project spaces strewn around the city. Brunnenstraße, a well-worn section of Mitte once deemed ungentrifiable, is now home to boutiques, bars, New York escapees, and a rash of young galleries.

Despite all of the international attention Berlin has been getting, it hasn’t let its status as Europe’s burgeoning new art capital go to its head. A multi-cultural art/design/architecture crowd coupled with a hot club scene may bring people here, but the support of their colleagues and prime location in the center of Europe is why many young artists, curators, and gallerists stay. Sarah Belden, founder of Curators Without Borders, an exhibition space and residency program on Brunnenstraße, speaks to the enthusiasm and camaraderie of native and non-native Berliners.

"There is an amazing sense of optimism here - a sense that anything is possible for the young generation." She cites Berlin's rich cultural/political history as well as its "openness to the avant-garde, street culture, and the experimental" as the reason why Berlin has become a nexus of contemporary art. Alicia Reuter of Kapinos Galerie and ArtNews Projects, a non-profit magazine and exhibition space, shares Belden's excitement. When asked what sets the art scene here apart from other cities it took exactly two seconds for her face to light up and say, "The lack of competition!" This cooperative spirit makes living and working in Berlin an obvious choice for young people looking to expand models of art production, exhibition, and reception.

Brunnenstraße was pioneered by gallerists/curators, Jan Winkelmann (Jann Winkelmann/Berlin) and Klara Wallner (Galerie Klara Wallner) who set up shop on the street in 2004. It is the heart of young Berlin and the numbers that came out for openings this weekend shows that the optimism Belden talks about is infectious. Beers clutched tightly in hand, young attractive gallery-goers poured out of tiny exhibition spaces like clowns out of a clown car and thronged up and down the street. True to their co-operative spirit, most of the galleries coordinate their exhibition openings, so new shows receive a surge of attention. A wide range of work and exhibition styles are seen on Brunnenstraße, but Belden’s approach to CWB sums up the zeitgeist of young Berlin. She says, “I represent artists and sell their work commercially, but I also aim to create a platform for more experimental art projects, which may not always be commodifiable.”

As any arts professional who has worked in New York can tell you, this is a dream that is virtually un-obtainable in most of the taxi garages cum white cube exhibition spaces in Chelsea, so its not surprising that Brunnenstraße has its share of ex-New Yorkers. Belden was a gallery director at the Mike Weiss Gallery before her Berlin incarnation, Goff + Rosenthal recently opened a sister space here, and Helena Papadopolous was a New York curator before opening Nice and Fit and its sister magazine Stripped Bare. Both Goff & Rosenthal and Nice and Fit show work by international artists in a range of medium, many of who are living and working in Berlin. The street is not dominated by New Yorkers, however. Diskus and Amerika, started as “producer galleries,” collectives of recent German art school graduates, and are now re-establishing themselves as commercial spaces. Artnews Projects offers a platform for international galleries, curators, and artists to exhibit their work in Berlin.

The impulse to exhibit work experimentally is not exclusive to Brunnenstraße and seems to be a leitmotif of Berlin’s art scene as a whole. The ingenuity of venues like Super Bien!, a greenhouse exhibition space in Mitte and United Nations Plaza, an awkward Lego block of a building in East Berlin that houses seminars, screenings, and lectures in the Open University format, keep the Berlin scene fresh and intellectually engaged. Many of Berlin’s alternative venues offer the time and space to explore ideas that are not afforded any room in the contemporary art market place. Jet, a curatorial center in Alexanderplatz- the heart of old Berlin’s decadent nightlife and bars, as portrayed in Alfred D鐽lin’s seminal novel by the same name, and now a relic of Soviet Era design, has devoted an entire year to exhibitions exploring the idea of failure. Not too far away on Platz der Vereinten Nationen, is the United Nations Plaza, a space which bills itself as an “exhibition as school.”

For one year, a team of ten artists and critics including Martha Rosler, Liam Gillick, Anton Vidokle, and Walid Raad among others, gather together with a motley crew of artists, arts professionals, and students to discuss themes like the reoccupation of the factory, utopia, and the future of symposia. All seminars at UNP are free and, if you’re lucky and attend regularly enough, you may be treated to free beer, borscht, or a round of speed dating in the kitchen adjacent to the lecture room. Program, which occupies the ground floor of a former Russian hotel on Invalidenstraße, is an initiative for art and architectural collaborations and offers its ample space as a platform for emerging artists and designers in different fields to use as a platform to test the boundaries of architecture in an international and collaborative context. Platform offers 3 month long residency programs to artists, architects, curators, and theoreticians.

Reuter, an American critic and curator, believes spaces like this flourish because artists and arts professionals are actively attempting to build bridges between the US and European art scenes in ways that are not purely commercial. The freedom and flexibility that cheap and easy living offers artists in Berlin has allowed a scene to grow that is based more on understanding than on commerce, though the two seem to work just fine together here in Berlin.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Which One Betrays: Le Doulos at the Film Forum

Which One Betrays
Published in the Brooklyn Rail July/August 2007

Le Doulos begins with a statement central to the unyielding world of noir ethics, “One must choose. Die…or lie.” Director Jean-Pierre Melville immerses us in the action from the get-go and, as is his style, explains nothing. We follow a solitary man on an anti-Night and the City riverside walk. Unlike Dassin’s unidentified sweat-drenched sprinter, our stranger walks slowly and deliberately, propelled by a dramatic score, jarring shadows and impressionistic clouds of smoke. His destination proves to be the suburban Parisian version of the house from Psycho. At this point we realize shit’s about to go down. Only it doesn’t, at least not immediately. After a disarmingly congenial and protracted meeting with the kindly owner of the creepy house, our man shoots him right through the heart.

Once we’re able to assemble the details, the story proves classic noir. Our night stroller, Maurice, is fresh out of jail. Gilbert, the kindly old man Maurice shot for no apparent reason, murdered Maurice’s girlfriend while Maurice was in the pen. Gilbert feared the girl might squeal. Now that Maurice has settled the score, he can set his sights on tomorrow’s heist—a job that will redeem all his years in the slammer. Enter Silien. Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) is a dandy sadist in counter-point to the barely restrained melancholia of Maurice (Serge Reggiani). A rumored police informer, but nonetheless a close friend to Maurice, Silien brings the gear Maurice and his accomplice Remy need to pull off their heist the following afternoon.

The story seems to end as soon as it begins. Within the first twenty minutes we get close ups of Maurice’s puppy dog eyes and nervous tics, a little bang-bang, and multiple warnings about Silien’s suspect trustworthiness from Maurice’s new pouty-cheeked girlfriend Therese. Maurice doesn’t care. He responds to cautionary warnings about Silien’s alleged ties to les flics with the stoic, “Silien is my friend…until proven otherwise.” Melville doesn’t make us wait very long for Silien to live up to his stool pigeon reputation. As soon as the job begins, Silien calls the police inspector. No worries, however. Melville has a switcheroo planned for us, two hours hence. In the meantime, now that Silien is a proven fink, we watch Maurice’s campaign to track down the squealer and Silien’s rampage of fighting and fucking.

Le Doulos shows a director in transition. Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach—he adopted the name Melville as a tribute to author Herman Melville—Melville fought in the French Résistance during World War II. His time in the Résistance has undeniably shaped his oeuvre, which can be split by critics into “résistance films” and “policiers.” After the war Melville, with no prior professional experience, sought work in the film industry and was denied an assistant director’s license. Undeterred, he financed and shot his own films on real locations, which earned him the moniker of France’s first “independent” filmmaker. Melville’s double-helix of outsiderdom—Jewish heritage in the face of WWII and lack of professional training as a filmmaker—enables him to portray sub-cultural groups with real-life vitality, and with an outsider’s contempt for sentimentality.

Le Doul is French slang for hat. In the milieu (the French underworld) Le Doulos refers to a squealer or informer. It is fitting that Melville, with his hawk’s eye for mise en scène and deep affection for the accoutrements of genre, would choose this title for his first gangster film. Although he described the film as a comedy of manners, Melville flirted with the gangster/noir genre in Bob Le Flambeur (1955). Bob Montagne (Roger Duchesne) encapsulated many of the attributes of a typically French noir anti-hero. Bob is plagued by the past and worse for the wear, but he still has the will to finish the job. He ‘s only got enough left in him for one last heist, after which he will “cash out.” Any time a gangster says he is going to cash out we know he’s doomed. Aging noir anti-heroes always go for the last job that will let them quit while they’re ahead (think Jauques Dassin’s Rififi), but their striving to transcend their social class is the hubristic longing that reinforces the maxim that losers always lose.

Le Doulos shares some of Bob Le Flambeur’s light-heartedness and predates the distilled existential dread of
Melville’s masterpiece Le Samourai. Melville’s characters have not been pared down to the point where style is their sole mode of existence. Maurice has a touch of ye olde self-loathing, but he hasn’t quite reached the end of the noir spectrum wherein he might consider himself barely human. Silien toes the line of style and substance. He can show frightening brutality, but considers himself a “good” man, as seen by the middle class home he built for himself, and his genuine affection for his old flame, Fabienne. The role was made for Belmondo. A god of the French New Wave, Belmondo’s slack-jawed arrogance and deeply felt don’t-give-a-shitness oscillate between lechery and unspeakable cool in a matter of seconds.

Unlike Belmondo’s performance, Le Doulos suffers at times from its inconsistencies. The pacing can be incomprehensible and if you as much as blink during one of the drawn-out interrogation scenes, you’ll miss a key plot-point. Depending on one’s mood, the combination of noir thematics and visuals with corn-ball comedic flourishes is either grating or hilarious. In one especially harrowing, abusive scene, Belmondo turns off his own theme music, which plays on a radio on the coffee table. Later in the film, Silien and an accomplice recount pushing a car over a cliff in a scene evokes the self-awareness of Truffaut’s Tirez Le Pianiste.

Much of the action in Le Doulos unfolds at a coy distance and, as in all Melville’s films, style is paramount. Belmondo’s charm and a groovy jazz score keep things moving. What the film lacks in pacing and plot—remember, Melville is not renowned for his dialogue—it makes up for in visual story telling. Landscape and mise en scène underline his characters’ loneliness, moral ambiguity, and desolation. Stephen Schiff astutely observes that in Melville’s films, “Genre is destiny and ethics.” Melville utilizes all of the genre touchstones—heavy shadows, trench coats, pistols, abandoned lots, foxy women (note Therese’s rockin’ outfit and Fabienne’s dramatic eye makeup) and, of course, Melville’s favorite, hats.

Moral ambiguity and the fallibility of objective truth and memory are central Melvillian themes. Belmondo’s Silien is a complicated character, simultaneously impish, charming and calculatingly cold. His motivations often seem compulsive, which makes sense when one learns that Belmondo was allegedly unsure of his guilt or innocence until he saw the final cut. The very concept of guilt and innocence is completely clouded in the film. Silien repeatedly refers to Maurice as innocent of the crimes that we watched him commit. Essentially, Maurice is innocent because he adheres to the gangster model of conduct. Despite his lawlessness, he follows the rules of the game. There are two, but in the end we ultimately do not know which one betrays.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Fay Grim: Hal Hartley hits the screen with his follow up to Henry Fool

Fay Grim: Hal Hartley hits the screen with his follow up to Henry Fool

Originally published in Venus

When I was fifteen-years-old, I had a huge crush on a older guy who represented everything a wanna-be counter cultural high-school freshman thought was cool — he was tall, had a nose ring, listened to bands I had never heard of and had a deep knowledge of independent cult film. We would send each other long, rambling emails and in one of them he cryptically told me to “go watch some Hal Hartley movies.”

Little did I know, while boy-who-shall-remain-nameless and I were embroiled in our pretentious email fandango, Hartley was hitting it big with his film Henry Fool. Henry Fool tells the story of Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), a garbage man cum Nobel Prize winning poet living in Queens, and Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), a drunken wind-bag novelist who storms into town and changes everyone’s lives. While living in the Grim basement and writing his epic Confessions, a work which he compares to the works of de Sade or Rousseau, Henry prompts Simon to begin writing, sweeps Simon’s nymphomaniac sister Fay (Parker Posey) off her feet and marries her, sinks into a pit of despair as a result of Simon’s success, and flees the country with great fanfare when his past threatens to catch up with him.

Fay Grim picks up where Henry Fool left off. It’s ten years later — Simon is still in prison for abetting Fool’s escape and Fay is left on her own with a fourteen-year-old son. She tells the world that she’s forgotten about Henry, though Hartley underscores her uneasy devotion to the man every time she utters the heavy-handed, transparent, “I’m single — sort of.” Fay is on the brink of succumbing to the foppish advances of Simon’s smarmy literary agent and moving beyond the shadow of her husband’s legacy when two CIA agents pay a visit. Agent Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) and Carl Fogg (Leo Fitzpatrick) enlist Fay’s help in finding her missing husband, embroiling her in an international web of intrigue that isn’t that intriguing at all.

It’s not surprising that Hartley’s film is super self-aware or that most of the action in this unexpected political-thriller-comedy is anti-action. He’s an indie-demi god. That’s what those guys and gals do. Hartley’s bete-noire, however, is that he drowns in his own conceits. Fay Grim lacks the empathic character driven drama that made Henry Fool so memorable. Fool was an intense, though at times grating, meditation about the human spirit, the drive to create, and the rampant egotism concealed therein. In this go around Fool’s cast of anti-heroes in are reduced to marionettes enacting a vacant and convoluted spy spoof that forgets to be funny. But, hey, that’s what sequels are known for.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Let The Punishment Begin

Barbara Sukowa, Günter Lapmrecht
© Karl Reiter

originally published in the Brooklyn Rail. June 2007

Let The Punishment Begin
Berlin Alexanderplatz, Dir. Rainer Werner Fassbinder, MoMA and KW

If 2006 was the year of Werner Herzog, then 2007 belongs to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. Herzog captivated American audiences with White Diamond and Grizzly Man—documentaries hypnotized by the exploratory drives of the human spirit in all its glory, hubris, and niggling irksomeness. Both directors show men striving above their capabilities. Fassbinder, unlike Herzog, does not depict the poetic beauty in folly. He leaves little room for his characters’ redemption. Their lives are dominated by bleak, claustrophobic mise en scene and their own despair, rather than a Herzogian awe-inspiring expanse of nature.

Fassbinder, who died of a cocaine and sleeping pill overdose in 1982, shortly after his 37th birthday, will not get to cash in on the critical re-evaluation of his fifteen plus hour magnum opus, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Fassbinder’s complicated and exhausting work is finally available for a new generation of cinephiles to savor. The Goethe Institute subsidized the restoration of the film claiming that the original negative was in “catastrophic condition.” Work began in 2006 and was completed in time for the 25th anniversary of Fassbinder’s death. The combined efforts of MOMA, Berlin’s KW Institute for Contemporary Art, and the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation provide multiple avenues to engage with Fassbinder’s oeuvre.

MOMA presented “Fassbinder in the Collection” in April to commemorate their acquisition of a re-mastered 35mm version of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The series included sixteen films and two documentaries about the making and restoration of Berlin Alexanderplatz by Juliane Lorenz, director of the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Foundation. KW Institute for Contemporary Art concurrently mounted a sprawling exhibition curated by Klaus Biesenbach devoted solely to Berlin Alexanderplatz. Photographs of Fassbinder’s dog-eared, heavily underlined copy of Berlin Alexanderplatz, sketches and story boards, production stills and video-loops of selected excerpts from the film were all on view. The KW exhibition offered two possible approaches to the work. Berlin Alexanderplatz was screened in its entirety on a central screen in a small basement theater. Individual episodes were also screened on a permanent loop in fourteen different rooms. A massive catalogue with essays by Susan Sontag and Biesenbach, production stills, and a copy of the screenplay accompanied the exhibition. Süddeutsche Zeitung Cinemathek released a restored box set with six DVDs plus bonus materials for the European market. Criterion will release a domestic version with English subtitles by the end of 2007.

Fassbinder is perhaps the least accessible of New German Cinema, a movement of young filmmakers that spanned the 1960s through the 80s and was heavily influenced by the Nouvelle Vague and Italian Neo-Realism. Although a madman like Herzog and intensely personal like Wenders, Fassbinder lacks Herzog’s stunning cinematic style or Wender’s cynical romanticism. Fassbinder is as remembered for his flamboyant, drug-soaked life style and acerbic personality as he is for his Bundesrepublik Deutschland Trilogy (including The Marriage of Maria Von Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola) and Ali, Fear Eats the Soul. The latter is a heart-wrenching fable about a cleaning woman in Hamburg who falls in love with a much younger Moroccan immigrant inspired by master tear-jerker Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. With an economy of visual means and moments of silence that say as much as his dialogue, Fassbinder created a tableau as engaging and emotionally harrowing as Sirk’s Technicolor drenched melodrama and every bit as subversively camp. It is not surprising that Fassbinder, a portly, openly gay West German with proclivities toward deep, complicated, pseudo-sadistic relationships with his regular company of actors, built his reputation on the depiction of outsiders.

Fassbinder adapted Berlin Alexanderplatz from German Expressionist author and psychiatrist Alfred Döblin’s 1929 novel of the same name for West German television in 1980. The story follows Franz Bieberkopf, a Weimar-era everyman and his struggles to reintegrate himself into society. Emerging after serving four years in Tegel prison for the murder of his girlfriend, Franz is thwarted at every turn. Bieberkopf, played to sweaty, smirking perfection by Günter Lamprecht is a rootless drifter with, at times, incomprehensible motivations. He—like his nation—makes himself a lot of promises and doesn’t keep many. During the course of thirteen episodes and an epilogue, Franz reinvents himself as a shoelace salesman, Nazi newspaper peddler, small time crook, and pimp. Shot in rich, muted chocolate and grey hues by Xaver Schwarzenberger—the cinematographer of Veronika Voss and Lola—Berlin Alexanderplatz is the ultimate expression of many of the themes that Fassbinder—with a staggering 44 films to his credit—presented throughout his career.

Fassbinder maintained a life-long interest in Döblin’s novel. A character in Fassbinder’s debut feature, Love is Colder than Death—played by Fassbinder himself—is named after the murderer cum honest man cum early Nazi cum pimp. Döblin was the first German writer to adopt the literary techniques of James Joyce. The narration constantly shifts person and is intercut with author-omniscient views of slaughter houses and random glimpses of strangers on the street that are never reincorporated into the story. Actions generated outside of himself consistently shatter Bieberkopf’s stream of consciousness. He shifts with alarming alacrity from being in control of his destiny to his life living him. In this way he resembles the down-and-outers in the films of German master Fritz Lang.

While Berlin Alexanderplatz is far from perfect, Fassbinder visually translates Döblin’s literary style with remarkable ease. Fassbinder’s visuals and his direction of the actors reveal the tension of the double-man. His gestalt oscillates between the poles of restraint and hysteria and Fassbinder makes sure that the audience never forgets the artifice inherent in either. As is to be expected in a fifteen-hour-plus film, there is a hell of a lot of talking. Fassbinder does not mix it up Hollywood style with establishing shot, reaction shot, close up ad nauseum. For long durations, it’s either/or. Fassbinder depicts lengthy deliberations through medium shots from static cameras far from any action (often in another room if he is shooting interiors), or the director will hold a close-up reaction shot for so long that it ceases to be a glimpse into a character’s soul and instead further emphasizes alienation and despair. Fassbinder allows his characters wide emotional berth—within the space of minutes they can go from a perfectly normal conversation to laughing maniacally or screaming with their eyes bugging out of their heads. In Episode Ten, Bieberkopf caresses and talks to a table full of beers for nearly five minutes. However, Fassbinder always reels it back in. Berlin Alexanderplatz has several moments that reach howling, clawing emotional pinnacles, yet despite the naturalistic mise en scene, we remain aware we are watching a film. The camera pulls away to depict a static tableau of suffering, underwriting Fassbinder’s dichotomy of restraint and theatricality.

Fassbinder usually loses me when his characters freak out. Their psychosis works brilliantly, however, within the seedy, simmering life of Alexanderplatz, the heart of old Berlin’s nightlife, prostitution, and bars. The cabarets, half-naked whores, and barely restrained anxiety of Berlin between the wars are perfectly suited to Fassbinder’s metier. Many of his films are glaring incitements of German society—class issues, masochism, dominance—while paradoxically being funded by German public television.

An Unsentimental Education

Originally published in Ukula, May 2007.
Les Amants Réguliers (2005)
Phillipe Garrel
178 minutes

"We're all slaves of fashion," former Red Army Faction member Astrid Proll whispered to an interviewer in 2002. Revolution is sexy. Who could forget that god awful Diesel ad campaign? Or "Prada Meinhof chic" ? Is it my generation's careful attention to surface coupled with relative political complacency that leads media and fashion circles to fetishize violent youth movements? Phillipe Garrel's film Les Amants réguliers, an unsentimental meditation on Paris 1968 and its aftermath, takes the glitter and sensuality out of youthful dissent.

The film depicts young revolutionaries/opium addicts in the tedium of their day to day existence. Over the course of three hours they make art, hurl bricks, smoke opium, fuck, smoke more opium, write poetry, fall in and out of love, and smoke even more opium. This may sound lofty, but love and revolution is portrayed as overwhelmingly ordinary, almost haphazard and accidental. The film lacks the gritty air of sexuality historically ascribed to the French student movement, Baader Meinhof Gang/RAF and the Weather Underground. Garrel's unflinching view of the 1968 protests is based on lost documentary footage he shot of the riots as a young man. There are no climatic demonstrations, slogans or fancy Alpha Romeo get away cars in this film. The brick hurling in Les Amants réguliers is depicted in ultra-static long shots. A few cars burn, but other than that not much happens. The glacial pacing and austere high contrast black and white film posits a distance between the spectator and the film's characters that mirrors the distance between the characters and their actions.

After the demonstrations, an almost wordless love affair ensues between the disillusioned young poet François, played to pouty perfection by the director's son Louis Garrel, and Lilie, a sculptress played by Clotilde Hesme. The two pass each other with little fan fare dans la rue and meet several months later in the home of Antoine, a wealthy and troubled young man who financially supports a motley crew of twenty-somethings in his sprawling Parisian apartment.

Despite being set in a supposed revolutionary hot bed, there is little romance or political fervor in their intimacy. Francois and Lilie are resigned rather than compelled to acquiesce to the loose and easy sexual mores of the late 60s. In one scene, Lilie tells Francois that she wants to "do it" with their benefactor Antoine's cousin. Garrel does not follow the drama to the bedroom, but keeps his camera focused on Francois laying bored and dejected in bed. Lilie soon returns showing no signs of arousal or sexual abandon and plops down on their bed announcing that the cousin has "the smallest pecker ever" and that Francois' is much larger. The emotive threshold of the characters is surprisingly low and the overarching emotion tenor seems to be blankness and fear, but mostly blankness.

Garrel's film will not feed an audience hungry for a stylized depiction of revolutionary defiance. He gives us the moments in between. The moments where aimlessness is merely aimlessness and unease, self doubt, and boredom rule the day.

Förderpreis Bildene Kunst der Schering Stiftung 2007

Originally published in Whitehot Magazine, April 2007.

The Ernst Schering Foundation Art award, a bi-annual prize that fosters the development of young German artists, set its sights on sculpture this year. The work of five artists, selected by jury from nominations by ten German cultural institutions was on view at the Berlinische Galerie through April 9th. Iranian born, Berlin based artist Nairy Baghramians won the grand prize, a grant of 10,000 euros. Baghramians, the only woman in the show, creates sparse geometric constructions from mirrors, wood and metal. Within the context of this exhibition, Es ist Ausser Haus (It is Outside of the House), with its impressive formal elegance, stands as an almost cliched example of feminine understatement in a room full of boys . The rough hewn works of the other nominees, all of whom are male, share a charmed appreciation of everyday objects, associations and gestures.

The show begins with a bang. Literally. A sculpture by Marco Schuler depicts two stubby men seated back to back wearing work gloves and dustbins on their heads. One holds a wooden wheel while the other proudly spreads his hands to showcase an erection almost as large as he is. The sexual energy continues in Jan Bünnig's moving, humorous sculptures which are described by the artist as "muddy, solid, slow and alive." Bünnig 's tumescent clay spire has the impressiveness of a monument and the innocent charm of a child's sand castle.

Michael Sailstorfer fuses two loci of masculine aggression in Drum Kit, a drum kit fashioned from the scraps of an LAPD police car. The playful open ended-ness of the piece makes it one of the standouts in the exhibition. The drummer and police man are recurrently imagined as rogue figures, however the police officer only becomes one when teaming up with other officers to create "force." The LAPD is one of the most violent police departments in the United States and the drummer is perpetually cast as the craziest band member in our pop cultural memory. By poetically dislocating both the form and its source material Sailstorfer potentially subverts the efficacy of power and violence.

The most modest and touching work in the exhibition belongs to Hamburg based artist Thorsten Brinkmann. The artist states that his work is born of an interest in exploring the "value of used objects and their relation to human beings." The fashionable dustbin chapeau makes a reappearance Soviel wie möglich auf einmal tragen (All That I Can Carry), a photograph of the artist laden with household appliances and construction materials. True Romans, an infinite series of small sculptures presented on Ikea drawer pedestals, explores the magical use value of recombined everyday objects- a water glass is split in two by a tennis ball lodged inside and a packing balloon is constrained by zip ties. The clumsy tenderness of these gentle restraints and reformations reinvigorate the objects with new life.