New Directors/New Films: Crulic: The Path to Beyond (2011)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 21, 2012 and April 1, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

His name was Claudiu Crulic. He was a 33-year-old Romanian who, as a younger man, abandoned his loose educational plans and involved himself in the family business of selling sundries in various European nations. Or he was a mysterious drifter harassed by the authorities for minor indiscretions. Or he was living it up in vaguely dissolute, vaguely familial terms in Krakow. It really all depends — as Anca Damian’s animated film Crulic: The Path to Beyond makes clear in its enticing murkiness — on how you look at the situation, on the facts you decide to appropriate for your own subjective purposes, whether as filmgoer or fellow human being. Is that ringing telephone a cardboard reconstruction? Or is it merely a collection of hastily sketched lines? We can hear the cinematic fizzle of the overhead florescent lights, yet why can’t we see them? We are told that a man has lost 30 kilograms in weight before death, yet the air that surrounds his story is often weightless.

Damian’s film cannot commit itself to any one animation technique: cutout, hand-sketched, and the kitchen sink are all vigorously pursued in an effort to unpack Crulic’s story, which is by no means airtight, entirely authentic, or even completely tellable. Crulic’s voice and imagery have been reappropriated, with another actor reading what I must presume to be reinvented words to convey one possible truth about a terrible tale in which facts may be fickle. This raises ethical questions over whether Damian the filmmaker is as reckless with the truth as the Polish authorities were with Crulic’s life. Perhaps the only way to hit at Crulic’s truth is through such smudging.

There is one thing most people will agree on. Claudiu Crulic did not have to die at such a needlessly young age in a Polish prison. On July 11th, 2007, a judge of the high court had his wallet stolen, with two ATM transactions on his card totaling 500 Euros following not long after. Crulic, the apparent suspect who may or may not have been in Krakow at the time, was recognized in a photograph by the judge, detained, and placed into a prison to await trial in the months to come. Curlic decided that he could no longer wait and initiated a hunger strike, stating this in a letter to the Romanian Consulate. Damian’s film implies that the Consul strung Crulic along. This may very well be true. The judge and the Court and the lawyers and the doctors and the prison officials all have blood on their hands for allowing Crulic to die, for not intervening in time, and for throwing out evidence which might have exonerated Crulic (Crulic on a bus to Italy during the time in which the Judge was robbed). If the Crulic situation weren’t so tragic, it would certainly be comic or Kafkesque. But another important question that the film never quite answers is why Crulic would choose such a dramatic and life-threatening protest option over a more practical one. An inhumane hardliner could point to the heroes and rebs who have done hard time for worse offenses.

We are told many times along the way that “it was at this point” that Crulic’s life might have been saved or the cruel bureaucratic process might have grinded to a halt. But do we really know this for certain? This film carries the illusion of veracity with a narrator who steps into the vocal track to give us more than contours. And some kernel of another truth is implied during the end credits with various television clips. But while I was seduced by the film’s imagery and ideas — the frozen cutout representation of Crulic flung about from cell to cell as he is shifted in disorientation by the guards, the idea that one life might contain a finite number of photos — I felt vaguely bothered by the film’s tendency to dictate rather than to suggest. I cannot in good conscience call this a documentary. But as one dramatic representation of a story that was largely ignored in the States, this path to beyond leaves one considering the path less traveled and fuels a new desire to travel both. It is a sad indication of the Polish justice system’s inadequacies that a more complete excursion is probably not possible.

New Directors/New Films: An Oversimplification of Her Beauty (2012)

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 21, 2012 and April 1, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

Vol 01 — Slightly Eccentric Lede Intended to Mimic the Film’s Structure, Offering a Knowing Nod or a Tedious Longueur Depending Upon What You Prefer

You’re not supposed to begin an essay with a digression, but since the film I’m about to write about is a deceptive concatenation of digressions, it somehow seems appropriate to break the unspoken rule.

Vol 02 — Impertinent Observations Reflecting the Essayist’s Eccentric Mind

Upon seeing “ambivalence” misspelled on-screen during An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, the wordsmith in me wondered if this may have been deliberate. After all, filmmaker Terence Nance does have the woman of his real-life and cinematic affections read what appears to be a lengthy (though modified — but I am trusting my memory and I am not Googling it, so I could be wrong) passage from Louise Erdrich’s The Bingo Palace. And Nance’s film is fascinatingly verbal, with words displayed and heard at nearly every point: filling in every stray gap (thanks in large part to Reg E. Cathey’s smooth narration, which intersperses at times with Nance’s — the effect works, the competitive voices suggesting some internal dialogue between a boy and a man, but I wondered at times if the actor from The Wire had to stick to a mere 80% of the film’s narration, rather than the full order, in order to fit his great velvet-voiced services into the low budget), complicating and reviving and reforming and mimicking a long-dead relationship that is also the very subject of this film. So why would Nance misspell the very word that may signal his true and present feelings about what he’s documenting?

It was at this point — perhaps an hour into the movie — that my mind suggested that Oversimplification could be a clever reply to The Americanization of Emily. In the 1964 film (written by Paddy Chayefsky, based on a William Bradford Huie novel; I won’t mention the director because it runs the risk of another 500 words I don’t really want to write right now), Emily is both attracted and repelled by a soldier’s lifestyle. She’s lost many of the men she’s loved during the war and she doesn’t want to see this new guy she’s fallen for, Madison, die either. And then it appears that Madison is dead — the first man to make it on Omaha Beach. And Emily is crushed. But Madison is not dead. He’s living it up as a hero, which is something of an understatement. Because he was actually a coward. Emily says that he should accept his role.

Vol 03 — Oh, Get to the Film Already!

Now let’s take a look at Nance’s film. We are informed that Nance is a young twentysomething who has had a family upbringing without injury or incident (described as “the Cosby effect”). He works twelve hour days, but most of his money appears to be going into his rent and his Metrocard. He has to construct his own bed, relying on Japanese joinery, carrying slabs on the subway, and not getting the bed right because he is not the greatest carpenter and he has used pine instead of sturdier wood. It can be argued that this is a lifestyle: certainly many of today’s artists soldier on in an American climate increasingly hostile to art. And Nance’s choice of inferior wood may indeed suggests that he is beguilingly clueless in some sense. This was the big tip-off for me, in any case, that Nance’s heavily verbal, multitiered film was just as much of an imperfect bed that he would have to lay in for some years.

So Nance meets Namik. The details are imprecise, even as there is the illusion of precision contained within the film’s ongoing narration and structure. (At one point, we are helpfully informed that one section of the film is “up to date as of 2006.”) They sleep together, but they don’t necessarily make love. The nature of the relationship is imprecise, as befitting two confused but amicable young people in some kind of love or lust. It is imprecise even as Nance offers a timeline of events late into the film. We learn that another man has asked Namik to be in an exclusive relationship, which means the end of her involvement with Nance.

Or so we think. Because Nance, crushed by this, decides to dwell on the relationship anyway — even after it is over. He somehow persuades Namik to respond to a letter that he sent her long after the fact and records her response on camera. What starts off as a young man’s friendly and humble self-examination becomes a little creepy for a time. I mean, can you imagine asking some person you slept with several years ago to respond to something on camera for a project that reflects your own personal truth? Especially after both of you have moved on? That Namik does all this without filing for a restraining order speaks to Nance’s strange charm. Or maybe it’s the key ingredient for this film’s weirdly appealing conceptual thrust. In an age of increasing documentation of the self, are we meant to carry on chronicling the very emotions that might be harmful towards us or others? Especially when we’re ushered to shift our Facebook profiles onto a timeline and relive our worst moments? Nance seems game for endless self-examination. He didn’t come off as a narcissist to me, although, given the walkouts I observed, I know his willingness to push into his own seemingly common complexities won’t be for everyone.

Vol 04 — An Attempt to Find a Conclusion

Like Nance, I seem to have drifted in the immediate emotional residue and haven’t even consulted the many notes I took. Many of them are indecipherable. But I’m sure that many of them are readable and profound. I have opted for memory instead. Yet in considering my feelings (which are genuinely positive) for Nance’s film, it’s interesting that I haven’t mentioned the animation. And this isn’t fair. Because there is one past fling which Nance chronicles quite well through animation, where all parties are naked and Nance’s stature waxes and wanes as the giant woman he is describing transforms into a ripe tomato as she gets it on with another lover and Nance begins to comprehend the great pain of trying to stay platonic with a woman you still have feelings for.

This film is Nance’s truth, and nothing but Nance’s truth. Even as Nance includes a trailer for Naink’s possible cinematic response, and even as Nance includes a hazy video clip from a Q&A session just after an early version of the film played a theater, this is still Nance’s truth. It’s worth pointing out that Oversimplification emerged from the bones of an earlier short film called How Would You Feel?. That both films are, in turn, evolved from Nance’s real-life experience leads one to wonder where the original emotional kernel can be found, or whether it’s even worth pursuing.

Nance hasn’t so much oversimplified Namik’s beauty, as he has complicated it into a distorted view that no longer bears any resemblance to the original lived moment. And while another older person (especially one with several failed marriages) might find this annoying or horrifying, I found this oddly enthralling. Nance confesses that he doesn’t really possess the emotional memory of his moments with Namik, and that her motion in the clips edited on his laptop somehow actuated these false highlights. Does technology debilitate the romance or the inherent truth of our memories? Probably. And I think, given the defiant iPhone-centric manner in which he ends his movie, Nance does too. Yet here is a man who, not long after showing a version of his film to Namik, puts the microphone in her face and presses her on how she feels, curling it around her (while sitting behind her) like an arm. I’ll be hard-pressed to find a better epitomization of 21st century life (especially among those who document it) in any film I see this year.

Is this thing on?

New Directors/New Films: Pariah (2011)

[This is the fifth in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 23, 2011 and April 3, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

Last September, in response to Floyd Mayweather’s homophobic rant against Manny Pacquiao, Stanley Crouch wrote an essay suggesting that African Americans “exemplify the modern age in their contradictions as thoroughly as any other ethnic group.” Yes, black voters showed up in California to vote against same sex marriage. But Crouch observed that, thanks to Amiri Baraka, homophobia had been part of black nationalism as early as the 1963 March on Washington. (In a 2009 interview with 3AM Magazine, Baraka claimed that his words emerged from anger that “was part of the mindset” created by numerous political assassinations, but he didn’t apologize for his homophobia.)

Since black homophobia is often too easily portrayed as a symptom of race rather than a symptom of class, it’s a relief that writer-director Dee Rees has arrived to investigate the matter. Her debut narrative feature, Pariah — an extension of her 2007 short — finds its best footing when illustrating how middle-class aspirations and the desire for stability are often responsible for this lingering atavism. Late in the film, when Audrey (Kim Wayans) reacts to her 17-year-old daughter Alike (Adepero Odeuye) after she defiantly shouts, “I’m a lesbian, I’m a dyke,” the moment’s true horror comes from understanding how Audrey’s materialist desires for a Fort Greene brownstone (rather than a place in Queens, an early life of struggle hinted at throughout Rees’s film) and her efforts to stick with the “right people” at church have permitted a few dormant prejudices to explode within this apparent domestic bliss. (And by making Alike’s father a cop, played by the excellent Charles Parnell, Rees neatly aligns Audrey’s Christian virtues with Alike’s father’s concession to an authoritarian vocation. It isn’t a surprise when we learn that this isn’t a happy marriage.)

Crouch suggested that “consenting adults will win out over all the blather,” but, in his otherwise thoughtful essay, he didn’t answer the equally important question of how children, still struggling to find identity, might cut through this noise. In Pariah, Alike isn’t a terribly rebellious teenager. She sneaks into nightclubs in drag with her friend Laura (Pernell Walker), but spends most of her time inside shyly occupying red velvet couches and struggling with her sexuality. Does she shove a dildo down her pants and pretend to be a man? Does Alike have the “right people” to go to? Even in seemingly civilized Fort Greene, Rees has the courage to suggest that plentiful community resources aren’t always allocated to answering the right questions.

One night, Alike returns home later than curfew and Audrey yells at her. Rather than trying to understand her daughter, who is also a blossoming creative writing student getting good grades, Audrey would rather blame Laura, “that young lady you run out with,” for Alike’s apparent confusion. But surely the mixed signals at home (dad calls her “Allike,” mom calls her “Lee”), buttressed by Alike’s parents trying to squeeze their daughter into their cannibalized notions of success, are the main problem.

Audrey sets Alike up with Bina (Aasha Davis), a girl from church who appears to be a model teenager. Someone who dresses nice, who isn’t likely to corrupt Alike with that Reema Major trash, and who quickly subsumes Laura’s role as regular friend. What Audrey and Alike don’t realize is that the world isn’t nearly as neat as they realize.

Rees is greatly helped by her cast. Oduye, Davis, and Walker all play their teenage roles as if they’re just close enough to self-sufficiency to grow beyond many of these invisible shackles. And this makes it especially painful when some unanticipated development sets their slow progress back.

Unfortunately, the film sometimes tries far too hard to be natural. The handheld camera work, striving for a docudrama approach, sometimes intrudes too much on an organic moment. One scene in a store, in which the question “How does pussy taste?” is presented in front of a few old timers, contains streetcred that is just too forced to be believed. However, one of the film’s best moments is a late night bonding session between father and daughter, where Elika comes very close to telling her dad how she feels. The dialogue itself is okay, but Charles Parnell, who is probably best known for his voiceover work on The Venture Bros., is a very generous actor and sells the scene so that it resonates.

Rees deserves credit for exploring social issues that few American filmmakers are willing to touch. Once she figures out the right balance between realism and drama, she’ll be a very formidable filmmaker. I certainly hope that she isn’t seduced by the less nuanced Hollywood machine.

New Directors/New Films: Curling (2010)

[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 23, 2011 and April 3, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

If Kingpin and The Big Lebowski (or, heck, even Dreamer – a silly movie starring Tim Matheson as a bowler from 1979 that nobody remembers) portrayed the bowling experience from the bowler’s vantage point (natch, given that this is the way most of us comprehend that lengthy lane with the nine pins we hope to topple down in half-drunken triumph), then Curling dares to see it from the middle-aged folks toiling in bowling alleys. This may be because writer-director Denis Côté was born in New Brunswick. In fact, what you may not realize is that five pin bowling, which is quite popular in much of Canada, isn’t nearly as much of a draw in Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. And that is because in some of the French-speaking territories, petite quilles (or duckpin bowling, which is ten pin bowling with fat little bastards replacing the slim pins most of us know in the States; perhaps this is why the obesity epidemic is writ larger south of the 49th parallel) is more the order of the day.

I didn’t intend to write a silly essay about the many variants of bowling, although they certainly excite me. (In fact, my discovery of candlepin bowling upon moving to the East Coast made me both very surprised and very happy.) I am, after all, supposed to tell you about this movie, Curling. What I can say is that Denis Côté isn’t terribly interested in the bowling alley’s culinary offerings, which you’d figure that anyone who speaks French or who enjoys chilli cheese fries (does Côté?) would be keen on investigating. However, as the film’s title suggests, the film itself isn’t about bowling. It also involves a pastime that is insufficiently defined by Wikipedia as “a sport in which players slide stone across a sheet of ice towards a target area.” I don’t wish to come across as overly querulous, but this clinical sentence certainly doesn’t insinuate what makes curling a draw. Having not curled in any meaningful capacity outside of the boudoir, I can safely report that Curling‘s curling moments did fill me with the sense that I had missed something – even if most of the curlers were advanced in years and looked as if they had taken up curling to alleviate the gloomy boredom awaiting them outdoors. Since the Will Farrell comedy Dodgeball is held in high acclaim, I would not be surprised if some crass Hollywood crew appropriated this sport too. After all, like golf, curling did originate in Scotland.

For one unsmiling man with a mustache, Jean-Francois (played by Emmanuel Blidodeau), bowling isn’t so much a joy, as it is a low-paying part-time job in which he sometimes loses bets with his co-workers to clean the bathroom or dress up in preposterous costumes. Jean-Francois’s other gig involves cleaning a motel and, one morning when he discovers a bloody mess in Room 9, he is informed by the owner that his services are no longer required. Of course, it isn’t Jean-Francois’s fault, nor even the fault of the “big Accordion trucker” who stayed the night before who either killed somebody or died bleeding in the wilderness. The owner had planned on closing down the motel anyway. “I don’t have the energy,” says the owner. Well, who can blame the owner when the guests die like this?

Did I mention the fact that some tiger is running loose and that various people are being mauled down in the wintry wilderness? Did I also mention that Jean-Francois is a single dad home-schooling his daughter Julyvonne because it’s so dangerous outside? Jean-Francois takes care of Julyvonne because his partner is locked up in a mental institution. “If you touch a hair on her head,” she shrieks, “I’ll rip your fucking heart out.” Such is the promise of domestic tranquility in this family’s universe, but, in Côté’s defense, I should point out that I grew up in an environment in which such lines were shouted around the dinner table. In fact, the situation here is so bleak that Julyvonne begs her father to play Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts” through a crappy stereo so that she can dance in a vague manner as Jean-Francois sits on the couch in a moribund manner.

And you thought some of your nights were pathetic. In seeing these scenes, I wondered if the film was set sometime around 1989. Later in the film, when there was talk of cell phones and video games, I felt a genuine sense of shock that this time capsule of a town in the middle of nowhere could be penetrated.

These cinematic results, depending upon your temperament, are either relentlessly bleak or mostly depressing with occasional bright and quietly hilarious spots. At times, Curling made me feel like I wanted to kill myself. And yet I can recommend this mumblecore opus from Quebec. Because the melancholy often functions in a peculiar comic mode. Any film featuring a man dressed up in a bowling pin costume, hassled by a ten year old kid who wants to wear the top portion and who then reveals rudimentary erudition that eludes Julyvonne, can’t be entirely humorless. And any film featuring a fetching employee who has a new hair dye color for every fresh screen appearance is probably suggesting that iridescence can be located in a bleak landscape if you know how to change your stripes. (In fact, chances are that maintaining a silly moustache may be part of the problem.) Then again, this is also a film in which Julyvonne, precluded from painting the town red, humbly requests that her dad paint the bathroom red. Jean-Francois insists that green would be a better shade. Julyvonne is later briefly abandoned because, in Jean-Francois’s view, this contributes to the possibility of him going insane like his partner.

What I enjoyed so much about Curling is that it doesn’t give up its mysteries. We never quite learn why the mother has gone insane. For all I know, it could be a rite of passage in this village. I mentioned earlier that a large cluster of the local population seems to be getting killed or mauled. It could be the tiger. It could be the truck driver. It could be what some folks call cabin fever. I don’t believe the Quebec community is this violent in real life, although I don’t have any fresh crime statistics at my side. Curling presents enough ambiguities to make you wonder whether its village represents some parallel universe occupying Côté’s inventive mind or some part of Québécoise equipoise that just isn’t talked about. It is the rare film that is both a downer and a winner.

New Directors/New Films: At Ellen’s Age (2010)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 23, 2011 and April 3, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

Last August, JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater decided to quit his job after a passenger refused to sit down. “I’ve been in the business 20 years,” he was alleged to have said. “And that’s it. I’m done.” He grabbed two Blue Moon beers, told the passengers to go fuck themselves, inflated the emergency slide, and walked away from the plane. A few hours later, he was arrested at his Queens home.

It’s doubtful that Pia Marais’s At Ellen’s Age – which played the Locarno Film Festival slightly before the JetBlue ballyhoo – was inspired by the Slater story. But there are a few interesting similarities. Ellen (Jeanne Balibar) is a flight attendant over forty who learns that her partner Florian (Georg Friedrich) has knocked up another woman. One day, with the camera tight on Ellen as she’s demonstrating emergency procedures and with only one boy craning his head around the edge of the seat to observe her, Ellen decides to exit the plane. Later, when the airline lets her go, Ellen’s boss explains that the lost profits and the security breach makes her continued employment with the airline untenable. Ellen, like Slater, defends her twenty years in the business. She then begins a journey of aimless wandering and inhabiting, not unlike Lost in Translation‘s Bob Harris (but without the wealth or the fame). She kicks around in random hotel rooms, hitting listless parties and often hiding in bed after everyone has left. She becomes an unexpected surprise for room service and for the next guest checking into the room. Through a series of odd run-ins, Ellen finds herself chasing a taxi that contains her luggage while inside a van containing animal rights activists. She ends up living with these activists, still wearing her flight attendant uniform as if it’s a skin that she can’t seem to shed.

The interesting juxtaposition of Ellen against animal rights activists suggests that Ellen herself might be a type of human animal. (And before she flees her job, it’s probably worth pointing out that she observes the surreal prospect of a cheetah walking down the runway and setting his haunches close to the plane’s wheels, causing a delay.) When the news outlets depicted the Slater tale, they invented a detail about Slater being in bed with his partner when the police arrested him. They were content to see Slater as a lurid animal to fit into their narrative cage. But the media isn’t terribly interested in Slater now and it never meaningfully examined why Slater did what millions of Americans wanted to do but couldn’t. When one aspect of our stability is threatened or removed, and we decide to roam the landscape that contains us, are we any more responsible in our actions than some grotty kid rightfully directing her energies towards capitalism’s many abuses, while failing to comprehend the exigencies of living with this shady social contract? There’s one moment in the film when Ellen finds herself protesting alongside her intrepid protesters. They strip their clothes off and spray something resembling blood on their bodies and wrap themselves in cellophane like meat. Is the protest here less about sticking up for animals and more about consumerism? Is not the chant MEAT IS MURDER a marketing cliché which might sit comfortably alongside JUST DO IT? Is not the decision to abandon one’s job as much of a capitalistic choice as sticking it out with the drudgery? These are interesting questions the film seems capable of, but that, frustratingly, aren’t buttressed by a cogent framework.

Yet Jeanne Balibar’s performance is to be commended here. As she gets further away from her ironically rooted career as a flight attendant, she almost lopes on-screen, like some animal released from captivity. She still resorts to the smile that she’s used for twenty years when taking in a young man named Karl (Stefan Stern) who thinks he can seduce her, but one gets the sense that this smile is hiding an additional layer of savagery. When Florian discovers just how thoroughly Ellen has rejected her former life, he is genuinely surprised. And so are we. But once the film has thrown Ellen so exquisitely into the wild, with Ellen even walking down a dark highway with liberated lab rats, At Ellen’s Age doesn’t quite have the philosophical heft to enter Levinas territory and raise vital questions about society’s responsibility for an impromptu Other like Ellen. That’s too bad. Because Balibar certainly has what it takes to go the distance.

New Directors/New Films: Happy, Happy (2010)

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 23, 2011 and April 3, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

The best thing about Anne Sewitsky’s comedy, Happy, Happy, is Agnes Kittelsen, whose bright eyes bounce around with so much life that you figure she’s angling to become Norway’s answer to Amy Adams. Kittelsen plays Kaja, a thirtysomething teacher who lives in the middle of a snowy nowhere with Eirik (Joachim Rafaelsen), a laconic man who likes to leave for a week and go hunting (“go hunting,” we learn later, is a pretense and a euphemism), and Theodor (Oskar Hernaes Brandso), their son. When Theodor meets an Ethopian child his age, he initiates a game of “Slave” with him.

Based on that description, it probably seems that Kaja and Eirik are white supremacists. And based on the fact that a happy quartet of white men pops into the film every fifteen minutes to sing famous blues standards (This reminded me, for some reason, of Alan Price’s band in O Lucky Man! Let’s have more of these happy musical intrusions in cinema.), I cannot deny that I felt that the film was embracing some bizarre yet slight shadow of white privilege. My slight discomfort, however, was assuaged by the pic’s good-natured tone, which is more committed to trying out any number of comical quirks, however messy.

There are strong indications that Eirik is a closeted gay man. He hasn’t banged his wife in a year, which makes no sense, seeing as how she’s quite happy to offer him blowjobs and she’s very happy in general – even when snobby people speak down to her. Are Theodor’s casually racist reenactments the result of closeted emotions? It’s probably worth pointing out that Eirik and Theodor enjoy staring at Kaja, without saying anything, over breakfast. They continue this dreadful staring contest, against Kaja’s protests, until Kaja flees. With men this boorish around, who needs traditional family? It isn’t much of a surprise when Kaja takes an impromptu step to break this stability.

The Ethiopian child, Noa (Ram Shihab Ebedy), doesn’t talk much and, rather strangely, isn’t terribly aware of his own heritage. (It’s especially strange because Noa appears to be very fond of books. Nevertheless, the game of “Slave” does eventually encourage Noa to examine his own closeted heritage.) Noa is the adopted son of Sigve (Henrik Rafaelsen) and a fairly chilly attorney named Elisabeth (Maibritt Saerens), who have moved into the spare house across the way. Sigve and Elisabeth have vacated from the big city because Elisabeth had an affair. The two hope to rekindle their marriage. However, as I pointed out before, Kaja is fond of blowjobs. It doesn’t take a lot of know how to predict what happens next.

What does make Sewitsky’s film very interesting for a long stretch is how behavioral collision often forces perverse exuberance to emerge in this wintry wilderness. When the two couples play Norway’s answer to Cranium, during a drawing round, Eirik attempts to illustrate AIDS by drawing an incomprehensible backdrop of planes hitting buildings and two stick figures. “Two gay guys in New York,” he explains.

I enjoyed Happy, Happy quite a lot when it embraced these uncomfortable moments, which, oddly enough, emerged quite frequently when the four main characters were playing board games. When the two couples meet to play the Couples Game (a bit like The Newlywed Game, where couples demonstrate how well they know each other through questions), Sigve and Elisabeth seem to know each other very well, while Eirik and Kaja don’t. The latter couple can’t even answer the question, “What did you first love about your partner?” But Sewitsky is skillful enough to play against this expectation later in the film. Very often, Sewitsky suggests, it’s the couples who know each other too well who end up breaking their covenant.

Unfortunately, Sewitsky is less adept in portraying the aftermath. After affairs are consummated and the truth is revealed, she’s not quite sure what to do with her characters. Having crossed the threshold of what they must do to serve the narrative, these characters are left, quite literaly, to sing to the audience – however badly. Perhaps Sewitsky is asking us to remember that euphoric residue remains after a domestic cataclysm. As a cautious optimist, that’s certainly a message I can get behind. But I don’t believe this to be entirely fair to her characters.

New Directors/New Films: Margin Call (2011)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 23, 2011 and April 3, 2011 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

“The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.” — The Grapes of Wrath

It’s easy for anyone with anything half-approaching a conscience to condemn the scummy vulpine gamblers who led us into the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. But Margin Call, which takes place during one very dark night in 2008, has a surprisingly nuanced portrait buried beneath its zesty dramatic intrigue. Yes, it takes a certain chutzpah to live a life (as one character does) where one claims want when the after-tax take of a $2 million annual salary is gobbled up by prostitutes and restaurants and cars and clothes. Yet the men and the women of Margin Call‘s unnamed firm (which bears striking similarities to Lehman Brothers) aren’t entirely without feeling. They’re just very good at compartmentalizing their emotions, which have been perfected after many years of greasing the wheels. That reality may very well be the true horror.

Our introduction to sales manager Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) is just after he’s received the news that his dog is sick. A few minutes later, he’s rallying the troops after a corporate bloodbath, saying, “80% of this floor was just sent home forever. But you were better.” He tells his salesmen that the downsized employees are “not to be thought of again.” How does he survive? One clue comes later in the film when Rogers is asked to take in some very bad news. He replies, “I don’t want to hear this. How do you think I’ve stuck around this place so long?”

But then it’s that failure to listen, that disinterest in what came before or what’s coming next, which is part of the problem. Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) is one of the firm’s downsized casualties. He’s an analyst who we later learn helped design bridges that has saved thousands of commuter hours. And just as he’s working on some minatory projections showing serious volatility, the kind of financial Nagasaki with casualties exceeding the firm’s total value. But he isn’t even given the time to finish or explain his work. He’s escorted out of his office. And he’s informed by the icy HR people that he won’t have access to his computers again. He’s given a pamphlet (complete with the title LOOKING AHEAD and a preposterously sunny sailboat on the cover) that will provide “assistance with this transaction in your life.” And as he’s holding his banker’s box in the street, he discovers his cell phone is shut off. But just before heading from The Street to the streets, he does manage to get a flash drive with this data into the hands of the 28-year-old Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), and that’s only because Peter has thought to accompany him to the elevator. Sullivan continues with Dale’s work and discovers the inevitable.

Sullivan is an analyst who, like many of his fellow employees, came to the firm for the money. He doesn’t seem as put out as his 23-year-old coworker, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), who can’t comprehend life without a job at the firm. (Bregman is later seen sobbing in the men’s room, an image that somehow feels worse than a stockbroker throwing himself out the window, because of the terror he must hide to show that he’s a team player.) But Sullivan does represent some missing link in the devolutionary masculine slide from ethical geek to thuggish lucre. Quinto here is terrific, playing the part with slight bites of the lower lip, rolled up shirtsleeves, and eyes that take in his increasing responsibilities with a reluctant professionalism that could, in the next decade or two, transform him into the ladder-climber wanting it all. Or maybe he’ll end up like Eric Dale: a risk management analyst let go for doing the right thing.

Margin Call features plentiful shots hinting at this blindsided mode of survival. One extraordinary moment occurs in an elevator as two executives argue over ratting each other out during the fallout, with a cleaning woman occupying the center of the frame, staring almost directly at the audience and seemingly not listening to this language. Another moment sees Sullivan and Bregman sitting in a gentleman’s club, the camera parked at a static shot quite far away, contemplating a stripper’s take home pay. Like many young men who are arrogant before their prime, they are so sure they know the numbers. And these fixed camera angles give us some sense of what they cannot see before them.

To some degree, Margin Call is working in the old school storytelling tradition that, in the wake of The Social Network, appears to be looking for a modest comeback. The film isn’t so much interested in the dry theoretical details, but it is concerned with the desperate emotions that force these people to scheme and capitulate. That ineluctable narrative decision may very well cause the picture to be declared by naive by its naysayers. But as someone who once silently observed the young and the hubristic (while also very young, which made the whole thing very odd) while working three months at Morgan Stanley, I can tell you that Margin Call is right on the money.

The graying Spacey – who is looking closer to his mentor Jack Lemmon as he gets older – forms something of a bridge between this film, Swimming with Sharks, and Glengarry Glen Ross. But his role is somewhat more understated. He’s been around the block so many times that he knows how to marshal his energy. And Spacey likewise cedes many of the scenes to Jeremy Irons, the firm’s head who shows up in a helicopter, asking the bright young analysts to explain the intricate data “as you would to a small child.” Margin Call‘s stress comes from the Nicorette chomping and rooftop smoking instead of the anxious indoor smoking, and overhead shots of New York replace Glengarry‘s cutaway shots of rattling Chicago subways.

The dialogue here isn’t just witty and wry. Care has also been taken to give Sam Rogers some grammatical gaffes. He describes “a very unique [sic] situation” when he’s asked to persuade his floor to perform the impossible and he often elides verbs such as “has” from his dialogue when speaking among the top executives. It’s almost as if Spacey came into the firm straight from high school. Or maybe he wants to appear stupid.

If the film has a liability, it may very well be Demi Moore playing the cold Sarah Robertson. Writer/director J.C. Chandor does make enlightened efforts to show that an anthracite heart isn’t limited to either of the two genders. (For example, the HR people at the beginning are all women and are all colder than the men they let go.) But the Moore character, aside from some predictable scheming, doesn’t really contribute much to the story.

Still, Margin Call is a very impressive debut from Chandor, who, if Hollywood gives him several films to flesh out his talents, may just be another Sidney Lumet in the making.

New Directors/New Films: Beautiful Darling (2010)

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 24, 2010 and April 4, 2010 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

“You must always be yourself, no matter what the price.” — Candy Darling’s diary

Candy Darling — born James L. Slattery — was arguably the most intriguing of Andy Warhol’s fearless thespians. She was not only talented enough to dupe The New York Times‘s critical acumen (“this is the first impersonation of a female impersonator I have ever seen,” read one of the Gray Lady’s reviews), but she inspired Lou Reed to write one of his most famous songs and Tennessee William wrote Small Craft Warnings for her. But was Darling, who died of lymphoma at the needlessly young age of 29, truly herself even while charming the thriving New York art scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s?

A fascinating new documentary, Beautiful Darling, produced by Darling’s friend Jeremiah Newton, doesn’t entirely answer this question. But it does offer an invaluable perspective on what it was like to struggle as a transsexual during that time. If the film errs on the side of cautious hagiography, it atones for this understandable partisanship by highlighting some too easily forgotten truths, pointing to certain liberties and folkways now taken for granted. Female impersonation was a dangerous criminal charge during the time, considered an indecent aberration that was doggedly upheld by the police. Drag queens were forced to carry their sartorial bundles during the day and change clandestinely within buildings. The empowering compromise one could get away with, as identified in the film by Agosto Machado, was “a little mascara and a mohair coat.” Triumphant bon vivants would happily shout the name of Gay Street at the intersection of Christopher. New York, now a less tolerant playground for the rich, was then considered, as Fran Lebowitz suggests in the film, “a place for people who couldn’t fit in. People who actually did something that nobody was interested in.” Speed was heavily ingested. Bohos and misfits were often forced to find their meals at parties thrown by the affluently curious, taking home the remains for tomorrow’s lunch.

Darling thrived within this harsh yet permissive climate, attracting a league of potential dates and hanging out in the permissive backroom of Max’s Kansas City, where the squares couldn’t make it past the velvet rope. But the seeds for this twentysomething transformation were sown in Massapequa Park, Long Island, where a young Darling waded through movie magazines, spent an entire day staring at a Kim Novak photo, and endured a nearly soul-crushing wave of isolation. In Beautiful Darling, the diary entries — the words solipsistic but uncompromising — are read by Chloe Sevigny. One harrowing photo that accompanies these narrations, showing a pre-Darling Slattery with a painful look on his face, his arm gripped by his mother, is more than enough to convey a sad backstory. Thankfully, additional details are filled in beyond these primary sources. Aside from the film’s many interviews, which include numerous Factory acolytes and Warhol’s decidedly unnerved former secretary, by Newton’s many interviews in the mid-1970s, conducted after Darling’s death. We learn that Darling’s mother married another man who was anti-gay. An anonymous Long Island acquaintance declares her hatred for Darling, once she saw her adopting her truer identity.

But was Darling’s identity genuine? Or some compromise? The film delicately tiptoes over these questions, but it does point to Warhol’s eventual abandonment of Darling so that he can cash in on the forthcoming yuppie-fueled lucre. He later proved, as one former associate puts it, more interested in selling ads for Interview. Darling declares in her diary, “I’m not a genuine woman. But I’m not interested in genuineness.” Yet Darling was driven to Warhol as a genuine benefactor. The Factory’s obsessiveness with pop culture served as a vital surrogate for Hollywood, even if the remunerative pickings were slim (merely $25 to appear in a Warhol scene). There seemed no other place for Darling to thrive. But she was dogged enough to make this difficult situation work, even after being shunned by Warhol. She proudly boasted that she collected no money and would crash on friends’ couches, sleeping until six or seven at night.

“I must conquer New York or be conquered,” wrote Darling in her diaries. It was a daring ultimatum that seems unthinkable for most artists of her type today. After seeing this film, I wondered what Darling would have made of herself had she lived longer. Would she have been co-opted by marketing forces during the Reagan years? Would she have been shunned further? Darling claimed that she wanted to be loved, but one wonders whether the pop cultural construct and the tolerance would have expired. Beautiful Darling works so well because of the way it quietly reveals the unforgiving characters within alternative culture. If you write off or forget the misunderstood, or you’re too busy designing soup cans or collecting corporate revenue, are you really all that different from a narrow-minded stockbroker?

New Directors/New Films: Amer (2009)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 24, 2010 and April 4, 2010 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]

Young filmmakers must start from somewhere. But if an excitable yeoman merely copies his masters (or “lesser” artists openly admired), can the new film be called original? It’s a question I’ve been pondering after seeing Amer, a feature-length homage to giallo with an aggressive sound mix, a commitment to crazed closeups and Ginsu-style cutting, and a panache for primitive semiotics that serve as crass conceptual catnip for wild-eyed film nerds. Yes, filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani have demonstrated that they can mimic Dario Argento’s gel-centric lighting. They have paid attention to the way that Mario Bava has cut with cars and motorcycles. Like every film student on the planet, they have seen Un Chien Andeliou. But do they really have anything new or fresh to say? Not really. Amer essentially amounts to a one-note exercise predicated on an extremely silly worldview in which women must battle against relentless male leers and a neverending storehouse of internal sexual desire. This is certainly a cartoonish viewpoint reflected by giallo, but giallo, for all of its faults, at least permits us a few human moments within its pulpish framework. Amer, by contrast, contains such a preposterously intense energy that I’m not entirely certain that the filmmakers intended this as a parody.

Amer is so determined to bombard us with its ADD cutting style that we’re left to admire the style, but scoff at the crepe-thin substance. My bullshit detector pinged off the charts. Cattet and Forzani’s failure to stretch beyond mere homage, to back up their hungry energy with an offering that makes us feel something, is what ultimately makes this flick more of a calling card for Madison Avenue. This young duo would be more at home directing vacuous Calvin Klein commercials.

The film is centered around Ana, who is depicted here as a girl, a teenager, and a woman. Amer‘s early images, with Ana as the girl, are the most promising. There are numerous eyes in extreme closeup — spastic pupils peering through keyholes, eyes contained in jewelry, and a dead man’s eyes that won’t stay shut. Mysterious glass shards are found beneath a bed. There’s a trunk bundled with limitless dolls. Viscous fluid, which we later learn from a ridiculous bathtub masturbation scene is of a magical realist and sexual nature, rains down on Ana as she attempts to navigate through a decaying palazzo laden with endless horrors, including some creepy figure in a black veil. Given all this imagination, we expect some motivation, something that extends beyond facile formalism. At this early point in the flick, Cattet and Forzani had me spellbound. I was eager to escape into this imaginative world. Until I became very aware that this was little more than a Suspiria knockoff. Then the images began to stretch horizontally, eventually moving into the next sequence of Ana as a teenager, walking along a road and holding her mother’s hand. The camera continued to objectify the young woman’s body with extreme closeups. Diaphanous outlines of her body contained in a purple skirt. The mother undoing her top button. Little dialogue. Yeah, I get it. Here we have a one-dimensional woman to be ogled by the camera. A knowing tribute to exploitation in which sequences are needlessly padded out. (Indeed, one scene involving a walk through the woods, in which various branches grope at Ana’s clothes as a battered shutter is banged about by the wind, proved so interminable that I wondered if I should slip into the restroom and relieve myself.)

Did this really need to be feature length? With all the frenetic cutting, I began to feel very sorry for the actors, who surely could not have had much to contribute to a film featuring few shots longer than a second. Indeed, the film’s editing proved so rapid-fire that it made Tony Scott look like David Lean.

And all this for an homage to giallo, complete with Stelvio Cipriani music cues. But why bother with the copy when there was the great life within the original? And why go to the trouble of making a movie that merely served to repeat, but that wasn’t willing to give us even a minimal human moment?

Homage is a tricky tightrope. As Peter Bondanella has observed in his book-length overview of Italian cinema, Pasolini’s early films paid homage to an early neorealist heritage. Classical art and music accompanied Pasolini’s gritty depictions of downtrodden criminals, and this juxtaposition, predicated upon the triumphant proletariat, permitted Pasolini to later get in touch with the personal and more daring style that he is known for today. But what Pasolini was doing with such films as Accattone and The Gospel was hardly muddled mimesis. Accattone‘s titular hero, for example, emerged as an inverted Christ figure, with the class trappings replaced by oppressive religious forces. These larger concerns allowed Pasolini to escape the mimetic yoke and emerge as an unforgettable filmmaker.

But I felt no such promise with Cattet and Forzani. These are hollow technicians who have seen too many films. Artistic vessels who don’t seem even remotely interested in what it is to be human. I longed for the likes of György Pálfi. But they’ve managed to con the festival circuit with their empty spectacle. Film geeks will rejoice. The rest of us hang our heads in disappointment.

The Bat Segundo Show: Esther Rots & Dan Geesin

Esther Rots and Dan Geesin appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #278.

Esther Rots is the writer, director, editor, and producer of is most recently the director of Can Go Through Skin. Dan Geesin is the sound designer and music composer of the film. The film is presently playing at the New Directors/New Films series, which is running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Eschewing intuitive sensibilities.

Guests: Esther Rots and Dan Geesin

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: This leads me to wonder then how the house was located. Did you, in fact, try to find a house that had the stinkiest possible odor? Or something that was possibly in disuse? And the rat. How did you wrangle the rat in the course of the shower scene? It could not have been easy to do. Since it is vermin, you know.

Rots: It’s a shame this is radio. I’m poking out my thumb now and it’s got white lines all over it. That was directing the rat.

Correspondent: Really?

Rots: He nibbled the middle bit of my thumb. It was hanging there for quite some time and biting away.

Correspondent: Wow.

Rots: That was me directing a rat. I’m not good. (laughs)

Correspondent: Did you have to see a doctor? Get shots?

Rots: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was too chewed up.

Geesin: Tetanus jab.

Rots: No, rats are not directable. They just do their own way. But that might be a natural talent as well.

Correspondent: They say that kids and animals are the toughest to direct.

Rots: Yeah.

Correspondent: But you would say that a rat is even tougher.

Rots: Yeah. And boats. Boats are also a cliche.

BSS #278: Esther Rots & Dan Geesin (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Ursula Meier

Ursula Meier appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #277. This particular discussion was conducted in French and English. Many thanks to Aurélie Godet, who kindly assisted us in our conversation.

Ursula Meier is most recently the director of Home. The film is presently playing at the New Directors/New Films series, which is running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for a new home in Bulgaria.

Guest: Ursula Meier

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]



Correspondent: I must ask how you found this particular house and whether you had to consult some French transportation authority to get this particular freeway. What did you do for location scouting for something that was so essential to the movie? And I’m just curious if you had to broker any particular arrangements with any particular governmental agencies to get the cars. Maybe you could describe this.

Meier: (through translator) It was actually a lot of research. It was complicated to find that road. More than the house, it was the road that gave us a lot of work. We needed a large road. Like an abandoned highway. And it’s very difficult to find. Because if we approached highways that were under construction, they would quickly go into being bumped into the traffic. So it did not work. And then we looked around Europe. Firstly, the co-producing countries, France, Switzerland, and Belgium. And then other European countries. We went as far as Quebec. And it still didn’t work. Actually, if you had constructions on the road anyway, you had construction trucks going by all the time. So eventually, we tried another option, which was airport tracks. Landing tracks. And the problem there was that the landscapes around them were absolutely ugly and uninteresting. I was looking for something that would look well and, at the same time, have this abstract but real-looking quality to it. Also, we needed a road that would be long enough. You know, we couldn’t have anything that was short. Which was the case most of the time for airport tracks. Because we had all these cars. Approximately 300. With extras in them, driving them to create the traffic. And you needed them to drive fast enough. Like 90 miles per hour. So you needed a road that was long enough, far ahead so that they could break, and then re-stop.

BSS #277: Ursula Meier (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Tatia Rosenthal

Tatia Rosenthal appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #275.

Tatia Rosenthal is is most recently the director of $9.99. The film is presently playing at the New Directors/New Films series, which is running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It is also scheduled for limited release on June 17, 2009.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Ushering in an economic revolution.

Guest: Tatia Rosenthal

Subjects Discussed: Unintentionally defying the “good things come in threes” maxim, animating at two frames per movement, Bill Plympton, the aesthetic advantages of budget limitations, character proportions in relation to the sets, camera placement, a shared affinity for short lenses, immersing puppets in shadow, dealing with sweat in animation, animating natural elements, “A Buck’s Worth” as template for $9.99 (YouTube link), compositing vs. in-camera stop-motion animation, shrinking the Lilliputian puppets down in post, sticking to scale parameters, the look of the piggy bank, human mouths and animating Os, the problems of animating dialogue, whether animation must have fantastical elements to be “animation,” magical realism, animating eyes and blinking, breaking away from stereotypical body movement and defying cliches in animation, animating multiple characters in the Show and Tell scene, Anthony Elworthy, ambition, tracking shots, color coordination, self-help books, and graphical elements.



Correspondent: The other thing I wanted to note is sweat in this film, and bodily fluids in general. Now we see sweat in a love scene late in the film and also in the elevator. However, going back to this question of lighting, I should point out that you lit this in such a way so it appears that the texture is sweating, even though it isn’t. So I’m wondering about how you dealt with this idea of actually having to put some sort of moisture on the puppets in order to get that sense of seat. And not only that. You also have to animate that as well. So I’m curious how this came about.

Rosenthal: I think you’re going to be surprised by the answer. Did you like it?

Correspondent: Yeah, I did.

Rosenthal: Interesting. Because it was an accident. And we were doing our best to conceal the sweaty look. Because the silicone actually appears shiny and looks like sweat. The material that we used. And we were doing our damnedest to erase it with powders and stuff like that. And then some of it would get revealed. Because the animators were touching the puppets. And they looked like they gradually were sweating. And then when we got to post, what we did, when it was really distracting, we deleted it frame-by-frame.

Correspondent: Really?

Rosenthal: Painstakingly. And the places where it stayed were the places where it felt appropriate to the scene. Like you’re remarking. So it was really sweating in reverse.

Correspondent: Oh, but I like sweat! Characters should sweat. Puppets should sweat.

Rosenthal: I like it now.

(Photo: Quentin Jones)

BSS #275: Tatia Rosenthal (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Adam Del Deo

Adam Del Deo appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #274.

Adam Del Deo is most recently the co-director of Every Little Step. The film is presently playing at the New Directors/New Films series, which is running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It is also scheduled for limited release on April 17, 2009. You can also read our related review.


Condition of Mr. Segundo: Walking a thin line between the need to perform and employment.

Guest: Adam Del Deo

Subjects Discussed: How an outsider’s experience assists in the making of a Broadway documentary, working with James Stern, filming the audition process for the A Chorus Line revival, behind-the-scenes access, hesitation from prospective cast members being filmed, capturing uncomfortable truths in a documentary, documenting the compulsive need to perform, keeping tabs on the many documentary subjects, whether being liked is an artistic liability, casting discrimination, Baayork Lee, Bob Avian’s directorial temperament, Jacques d’Ambrose blowing out his knees in his forties, what a dancer does when he can’t dance anymore, Michael Bennett profiting incommensurately from the dancers, the original A Chorus Line dancers not receiving royalties for the revival, not talking with Wayne Cilento, and whether a documentary filmmaker has the moral obligation to show all sides of the story.


adamdeldeoCorrespondent: I also wanted to offer an observation. One moment in which Yuka, who is up for Connie, reveals that she was born in Japan. And the production team expresses some concerns because she can’t, in their view, possibly nail the right dialect because she wasn’t born in the States. In fact, Baayork Lee says, “There’s something about being born in America and fighting for a seat on the F train.” Seeing as how Yuka did, in fact, get the part, this is interesting to me. Because if you were to take such a judgment and put it into another occupation, it would be discrimination. So I am curious. If an actor has the chops, should they not be able to essentially get the part irrespective of the background? This is one of the interesting things, I think, about the film, in which you see such a blunt judgment — despite the fact that it’s done in all love — laid down on the table like that. So what of this dilemma?

Del Deo: I think it’s an interesting observation. I think you’re right. Whoever’s right for the role and best for the role should get the role. But casting roles is very, very subjective. There’s not a specific set of standards and information. I mean, what Baayork is seeing and what Bob Avian is seeing, they’re seeing that differently. That part of the film is, to me, one of the most fascinating parts of the film. Because Baayork is looking at Yuka. She created that role. Baayork Lee was taped by Michael Bennett. And that narrative created the role of Connie. She also happens to be the choreographer for the revival. Now over thirty years later, she’s casting the character of Connie. Which is her. And so she says to Bob Avian, “You know, I don’t see myself that cute.” And Bob’s saying, “Well, she’s very likable.” And she’s like, “Well, it’s me.” And so that was very interesting. But it’s so subjective. And there’s a good healthy debate that happened between the creative team as to who was going to play what role. And I think it’s part of the process.

Correspondent: But do you think though that such a judgment almost crosses the line to some degree? Because she does — like I say, she gets cast in the part. She does a great job. And so it could be one of those things that Baayork just let off. Because they’re all excited about casting the right role. Nevertheless, I say to myself, “Well, this is very interesting. Because if this is a judgment. And these people are true professionals. Imagine what all the other shows are like.” And so I’m not sure if it’s entirely fair if the actor has the chops.

Del Deo: I mean, she got the role.

Correspondent: Yeah.

Del Deo: Baayork, she had questions about that. They ultimately all decided she was best for it. Correct? But she maybe wasn’t on board right away with that decision. She wanted to express her desire possibly to cast someone else. I think she talks about J. Elaine [Marcos]. That was her opinion. But it wasn’t her call. I don’t believe it was a racial issue.

BSS #274: Adam Del Deo (Download MP3)

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New Directors/New Films: Parque Vía (2008)

[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]


The first image of Enrique Rivero’s striking feature debut sees a spider crushed by a boot. The boot belongs to a man with a wan and wrinkled face named Beto. Beto is a housekeeper living in a desolate and unoccupied manse in Mexico City that can’t be sold. He wears the same white shirt every day and scrubs the same ellipitical perimeter of the bathtub. His life is one of droll and circular routine. He turns corners in the house at rigid right angles. Gruesome news headlines blare at him from the television as he chows down on tacos. Last month’s newspapers, bundled in a tidy and philanthropic bunch, are given to him for reading. He feasts on the news of the outside world, but does not wish to involve himself in it. He is a spider caught within a web of perfunctory duty.

There’s some solace for Beto in visits from Lupe, a middle-aged woman who sleeps with him every week. Beto, we learn later, is a widower. But Lupe isn’t necessarily a black widow preying upon the last of his identity. The film does not explicitly state whether or not Beto pays Lupe for the privilege, but it does something much craftier. Our first glimpse of Lupe is through an extended long take as she dances with a man. We learn that she’s Mexico City’s answer to a dime dancing girl. (And it’s interesting that this taxi dancer rides to her appointment in taxis.) But we don’t see the man she’s with — just the back of his head. We do see Lupe’s bored expression. She snaps her gum. She fixes her hair. Her life is a husk and the man paying her for the privilege, too busy burying his head into her shoulder, cannot see this. That Rivero reveals such a major socioeconomic chasm with such sideways glimpses is a testament to his talent.

Is Beto paying Lupe for these weekly trysts? During one bored morning, shortly before Lupe’s visit, Beto orders some tamales from a cart, asking for the third one to be given to him on credit. He wolfs down the tamales. Lupe arrives. When she undresses, Beto claims that he is too full and cannot sleep with her. The underlying assumption is clear. A roll in the hay with Lupe is the price of two tamales. But is this precise detail something which the audience infers? Or is it the calculated truth? One is tempted to say yes to the latter question. Rivero himself is an engineer who turned to filmmaking. And he has presented us with a film, with many stretches in which nobody says a thing, that feels at times like a brazen calculation worked out over a series of large chalkboards. But in saying yes, does the audience confirm its blind worldview? Why shouldn’t Beto and Lupe have their small frivolities? Does the fact that Lupe is later arrested for lewd behavior attest to her lowly status? Or is this film challenging us with a more striking hypothesis? If we are presented with another view of class relations, carried out from a different viewpiont, will we come to the same conclusions?

This troubling series of dilemmas isn’t just limited to class. There’s an interesting dialectic here, operating often in yin-yang, between the interior and the exterior worlds. The dichotomy is there when trick-or-treaters knock on the door and Beto, lacking candy to give the youngsters, screws up his eyes and pretends to be a monster. But perhaps Beto does not have the eyes to see the world beyond the house? Beto sits in his chair, sucking down news and food, and the drapes behind him are drawn. But the daylight seeps through on the undrawn part of the window. Prospective buyers often stop by to look at the house. Beto observes them through the window. Initially, we do not hear the conversation. But as the film progresses, the chatter starts to penetrate through the window. And at this point, Beto isn’t capable of existing in the outside world without total collapse. But is it his occupation or his locale that causes such agoraphobia?

Parque Vía shares many qualities with Todd Haynes’s 1995 film, Safe. Both films feature main characters who have terrible physical reactions to the external world. But where Haynes had multiple chemical sensitivity, there isn’t a clear-cut diagnosis for Beto. We know that he doesn’t wish to leave the house. We also know that his occupation is far from secure, even if the house manages to get sold. And it’s something of a cruel joke that certain events playing out late in the film occur over Christmas.

Then there’s the mysterious Señora, her white hair bundled in a genteel beehive, who owns the estate and keeps Beto on the payroll. What are two tamales to her? What indeed are her pleasures outside of the parties we see from the perspective of her servants? She does something kind for Beto late in the film, but is her generosity rooted less out of an intrinsic concern for people beneath her social station and more from a cruder sense of blind duty? Is she just as isolated in her internal world as Beto? The Señora asks Beto if he is happy, and he says yes. But surely she should see that he’s not. She knows that Beto has lost his wife and she suggests to Beto that he should marry another woman. But are these not a vassal’s vagaries?

This film works as well as it does because it constantly challenges our assumptions like this. Rivero invites us to get close to people that the world does not wish to be intimate with, giving us small gestures such as Beto constantly curling his hands and little details like Beto’s alarm clock resting on top of a Bible. And yet Rivero’s intimacy is often false, and that’s only because his characters are locked into specific societal roles that we might perceive if only we could get beyond the class system. Beto’s world is sadly insular. He is talked about by others, but rarely engaged. Not even his fellow servants will answer his questions. So what does society do with a lonely man like Beto? Rivero doesn’t offer any easy answers, but he presents a cinematic viewpoint that gently compels us to step beyond our comforts and consider the richer possibilities of brotherhood. For if we don’t, we may just be hiding within our own dark houses.

New Directors/New Films: Every Little Step (2008)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]


An actor friend and I recently entered into a heated but civil disagreement about his career. My friend insisted that it was now the time to self-promote and self-aggrandize like there was no tomorrow. I pointed out to my pal that he had talents that simply hadn’t yet been recognized by the right people, and that getting noticed simply wasn’t something he could calculate. He had the goods, but I had grave concerns that his work would be marred by solipsism, whether real or perceived. He had the obligation to stay working — whether it be dinner theater, off-Broadway, or top-notch production — and to practice as much humility and tenacity and dignity as he could under the circumstances. The acting business involves a lot of waiting, many nos, and an array of judgments which simply do not exist in any other occupation. Small wonder then that, when an actor does manage to secure himself a top perch, he is granted an unprecedented amount of assistants and press protection. For by the time an actor has made it this far, the relatively anonymous artist who struggled for years has capitulated his relative obscurity. But isn’t the acting profession something of a devil’s bargain? You entertain a crowd, but you do so at the expense of presenting your true self. And you do so knowing that you will have to fight tooth and nail to keep the rent paid and the work coming. Not many people can do this, but so many are driven to expend every ounce of spare energy into seizing a small scrap of the stage.

The documentary Every Little Step examines these often underreported realities with the casting sessions for the 2006 A Chorus Line revival. Filmmakers James D. Stern and Adam Del Deo were apparently granted backstage access as the casting stretched into endless callbacks over many months. I do not know if there were any quids pro quo arrived at during this documentary journey, but there’s certainly a meta irony given the show in question. As audience-friendly as A Chorus Line and Every Little Step both are, Stern and Del Deo are to be commended for exposing a handful of the profession’s ugly little truths. There is, for example, some concern about an actress up for the role of Connie. She was born in Japan, but can she nail the right dialect if she wasn’t born in the States? A cocky dancer and choreographer named Tyce Diorio boasts to the camera that he wants his own television show. But his clear hubris is immediately observed by the casting team and he is dumped. One dancer is asked to reproduce what she did last summer, but cannot recall specifically what it was and is too nervous and shell-shocked to ask.

The film is careful to expose what lies in the future for these young and hungry gypsy aspirants, but it doesn’t always present its mini-narratives holistically. One dancer’s father describes a moment in his early forties when both of his knees blew out. He still tried to dance anyway and found himself backstage with his boots soaked in blood. But what did he do when he knew he couldn’t dance? That might have been another documentary altogether, but this intriguing yet unfulfilled story demonstrates the film’s weakness in trying to tackle too much.

Of course, as every good Broadway aficionado knows, A Chorus Line was one of the first major Broadway productions to be workshopped, with Michael Bennett leading a recorded series of confessions after midnight that served as the transcribed template. The film does not quibble with the controversial claim that Bennett was the sole man behind the show, nor does it quite expose Bennett’s tendency to control every project that he was involved with.

I likewise found myself wondering how much Bob Avian (the revival’s director) was playing up his kindness before the cameras. He is presented here as a gruff, no-nonsense, barrel-chested administrator, his team shuttling around and encouraging prospective applicants. But Avian is capable of being genuinely moved. When Jason Tam delivers his gut-wrenching monologue as Paul, both the show’s production team and the audience watching this film know that he will get the part. So perhaps Every Little Step functions on three levels: the Broadway audience who will see the show is “entertained” by dancers begging for their parts (lightened somewhat by the Marvlin Hamlisch’s famous bouncer, “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three”), the audience who will see this film is “entertained” by dancers begging for their parts (lightened somewhat by crowd favorites getting the role), and the director being photographed is “entertained” by prospective dancers while making often brutal decisions (his duties lightened somewhat by a few on-camera moments that suggest he’s not that bad of a guy).

I was less taken with the film’s clear promotion of A Chorus Line, but quite engaged by the process of auditioning itself. Hearing a director describe the ideal Val as someone with “a truck driver’s mouth, but who’s really a sweetheart” is a sentiment you might find on any promotional pamphlet, as is Hamlisch himself describing yet again how the title “Tits and Ass” transmuted into “Dance: Ten; Looks: Three.” But seeing a director quietly beseech an actor on stage to get a performance right, because there may very well be some rejection that he must uncomfortably come to terms with, is the mark of a decent documentary. I wished Every Little Step had pursued more moments in the latter category. But a struggling actor may find some of the film’s quiet revelations engaging — in large part because the actor doesn’t always see himself from a camera’s third-person perspective.

New Directors/New Films: Unmade Beds (2009)

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]


The title of Alexis Dos Santos’s second feature film suggests either a Chekhovian spright or a close kinship with Francois Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses, perhaps one of the most definitive portraits of young people ever burned to celluloid. Certainly there are many allusions to French cinema throughout: a Jules and Jim-like menage-a-trois and a belabored homage to the bear suit in Renoir’s Rules of the Game that suggests a lack of auterial confidence. But Unmade Beds is a plodding and episodic film that can’t quite locate the definitive comforter to keep its many bedhopping twentysomethings from toppling out of the boxspring. A movie involving aimless characters should work, if only because this involves people having to react to random scenarios and reveal who they are. Certainly in Axl, a 20-year-old rootless kid from Madrid searching for his dad, there is some promise. By Axl’s count, he has slept in some twenty beds over twenty years. But if his current lifestyle reflects a certain deficiency in his counting skills, I must report my distrust in this tidy philosophical number. Now in London, he goes out to party every evening and can never quite remember what happened the night before. This results in a stolen kiss from someone he was carnal with the night before. Somehow, he stumbles his way into an industrial flat where nobody seems to pay rent and there seems to be plenty of liquor (courtesy of a club named the Lost and Found). “How many people live here?” asks Axl. His new roommate (a parachutist enthusiast, as it turns out) replies, “No idea. It changes all the time.” Of course, you never know when the place is going to be used to shoot a dubious music video with people dressed in animal suits or when you might be asked to select one of the many ratty mattresses in the cellar. Having spent a portion of my early twenties bouncing around similar living arrangements, I commend Dos Santos for going out of his way to depict this uncertain bump and grind.

But let’s be clear on this. The film is on shaky ground, because it tries to balance the clueless frivolities of youth with a crude conceptual philosophy (“Two people will always be one plus one”). That’s a tall order for even the most talented filmmaker. And Dos Santos mangles this severely with his other major character, Vera (who is French!), who also lives in the flat and spends much of her time meeting up in motel rooms (one is numbered 353, a palindrome reflecting just how this will turn out) with a man who who later reveals his emotional complexity with a homespun song (“I’d like to spend the day with you / I’d like to spend the night as well” are some of the lyrics). Here is a lad that you might find charming if you really just want to boff a guy who will pick up the lodging bill. You can scrounge up a dozen of them without serious effort in Williamsburg. Vera and the man — I know that he had a name, I know that I wrote it down, I know that I can probably IMDB it, but he made such little impact on me that it scarcely seems worth the effort — settle into an affair in which no phone numbers are exchanged. Only meeting times and locations. Dos Santos attempts a semiotic significance by having the man constantly dash the tips of his fingers on stair railings. (Again, the French film imagery!) But we never really get a true sense of the desperate loneliness behind this relationship, save for one moment in which this couple dashes onto the next random train and a decently-directed sex scene that has the two nervously discovering their bodies. Unfortunately, every time these two meet up, Dos Santos has Tindersticks’s “Cherry Blossoms” play. And play again. And again. I mean it’s a good song and all, but — “Get in the morning.” Oh, shit again? No, Dos Santos! “Climb in beside you!” Yeah, I get it. For fuck’s sake, make it stop! “Watch the clock for half an hour.” No, make it stop! I hate this song!

It’s safe to say that if I were Stuart Ashton Staples, I would seek legal action against Dos Santos for making one of my well-known croons almost totally unappealing over the course of 93 mere minutes.

Axl does track down his dad. He’s a staid real estate agent who Axl welcomes to his jungle by pretending to look for an apartment. But will he confront him with the truth? It’s the allegorical unmade bed in action. That steady place where you can fall fast asleep so long as you combat your laziness and take some responsibility in the morning. One almost expects a flashing subtitle to spell this out and clue in that part of the audience who has fallen asleep. (I counted five dozers at the screening I attended.) There’s an odd backstory in which a young Axl pretended to be a superhero and leaped from a tall domestic place only to injure himself. This boyhood slip-and-fall, by no means comical, is revisited in the present.

But neither Axl nor Vera are half as interesting as a snotty bookstore employee who insists that Vera arrange all the books in their correct order. Dos Santos continually suggests that Axl and Vera will eventually be forced to confront the need for some kind of order in their lives. But he isn’t a daring enough filmmaker to suggest that these two might find order on their own terms. He’s good enough to reveal their wanton desires, but what Truffaut did so well with his Antoine Doinel films was to juxtapose his drifting slacker against the need to find a sense of purpose — even accidentally. This bookstore employee may very well be an allusion to the struggling writer in the Doinel films who is always hitting Antoine up for cash in the street. “At least this writer is trying to do something on his own terms,” Truffaut is almost screaming to us with these moments. “But Antoine is not. Will Antoine finally get it?”

Well, Axl and Vera never do get it. They don’t even come close to getting it. Vera keeps a Moleskine in which she neatly inserts her photos. But this is just killing time. That we don’t have any sense of where she might go or what she might do with her life is a major cinematic debilitation. We know pretty early on how Axl’s quest for his father will turn out. And we also know that without this pursuit, he’s nothing. Axl tells his father that he’s in business school. He clutches onto his father’s business card and makes random calls to him on a pay phone. But give him five years and he’ll be a wreck. He has only a schoolboy’s jacket he finds at the flat to cloak the internal qualities he can’t coax out. But shouldn’t we have some sense of what lurks behind these details? I’m not against films about rudimentary twentysomethings, but shouldn’t we be curious?

New Directors/New Films: Barking Water (2009)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the New Directors/New Films series, running between March 25 and April 5 at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.]


Oklahoma, a state unfairly associated with Rodgers and Hammerstein, is a vast prairie with a pan-shaped territory suggesting a definitive cooking surface for the great American melting pot. It has been dismissed by East Coast elitists as a hotbed of virulent Christianity and backwater intellect. But as Will Rogers famously quipped to the state’s detractors, “When the Oakies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the IQ of both states.”

It’s something of a relief to know that filmmaker Sterlin Harjo has dedicated himself to not only raising the stereotypical plateau with which his homestate is viewed and understood, but by documenting the state’s Native American population over the course of three films. It should be noted that Oklahoma has 25 Native languages, which is more than any other state. The lingua franca is so fascinatingly variegated that the Oklahoma Legislature passed a bill in 1990 that permitted a Native language to serve as the state-mandated high school language requirement.

Language of an altogether different sort is what makes Harjo’s third film somewhat interesting. Here is a young filmmaker struggling to collect the quiet experiences that older people often keep to themselves. At one point, our two heroes — Frankie, a man dying of cancer and hoping to clear up a few fractured relationships before passing on, and Irene, his ostensible soulmate — thumb a ride from a young couple from Tulsa. The young woman, Wendy, remarks to her husband about how adorable they are and how they might be able to forward to a future where they can be just as comfortable with each other. Her husband looks upon this lifelong commitment with a quiet horror. And when Irene brazenly announces that the two are not together, the young couple’s illusion is shattered. But a mix tape serves as a cross-generational point of reconciliation. One particular song proves so intoxicating to Frank that we see him torturing Irene later, playing the tune over and over again in a car. Since the man is dying, he’s excused for this apparent rudeness. But is it really rudeness? Or is this Frank’s way of expanding Irene’s rigidly parochial perspective? Is the lie that Irene committed years ago — a prevarication that Frank himself has quietly braced and has never attempted to clear up with anyone — worse than Frank’s auditory sleight?

That such character questions are buried inside this film is a testament to Harjo’s talent. Perhaps it’s the landscape itself that’s cloaking these concerns. Harjo frequently cuts away to shots of rusted stop signs and the flat terrain, as if to suggest that the patient and restricted Oklahoma culture may be responsible for some of these communicative failings.

There is one unexpectedly flamboyant scene at a diner that suggests an alternative Oklahoma. Irene, who only has a ten dollar bill for their journey, is in the habit of calling friends and relatives to get people to buy the two meals. She calls on a nephew that neither Frank nor Irene are particularly crazy about. The nephew and his friend are delightfully boorish. (The pal insists on ordering nothing but “a whole mess of bacon.”) And Harjo films this scene using wild and often low diagonals, even capturing the large deer’s head at the top of the wall. The glum waitress taking the order insists that every breakfast platter requires toast. And one gets a sense of the need to resist such rigid folkways by the bacon enthusiast’s baseball cap reading RESIST.

“That’s what I miss most about being young. Magic,” says one character at one key point in the film. And this sentiment reveals the film’s major flaw. Harjo doesn’t quite have the chops to present us with the magic dazzling at the other end of life: that jam-packed existential epoch just after sixty troublesomely incompatible with Hollywood’s commercial emphasis on the young and unshaped. Frank and Irene keep a very interesting enigma to themselves. But instead of permitting these characters to communicate the edges of this mystery with a telling look or a curious conversational fragment, Harjo spoils it all with that most amateurish of film narrative devices: the flashback. And once this mystery is revealed, Frank and Irene become thinner in character dimension than they have every right to be.

Here is an ambitious film that knows its underserved state very well, but it doesn’t quite know people as well as it should. But I harbor a faith that Harjo’s subsequent films will become more expansive as this young filmmaker matures with time. Let us hope that some benefactor permits him to make more films and hone his craft. His voice, as unformed as it is, is needed.