From the archives: "A Greek god"

Last weekend I re-watched Flesh (dir. Paul Morrissey, prod. Andy Warhol, 1968) and was amused to find that I had already articulated nearly every one of my observations about the film in a piece I wrote back in February 2009 (almost exactly nine years ago), a truncated version of which I’m posting here.  I really have nothing to add—other than to say that Flesh remains my favorite of the Warhol-Morrissey collaborations, and that Dallesandro remains a magnetic screen presence.  Dixi. 

On the street: Joe Dallesandro in Flesh.

“…Made up of lowlifes, prostitutes, and eccentrics, Flesh is, in some sense, a ‘gallery of grotesques,’ as claims the blurb from the L.A. Examiner on the back of the DVD.  Warhol specialized in grotesques—drag queens, artists, fags, strippers, junkies—stocking his ‘factory’ with them.  One might even go so far as to say that he collected them.  Warhol redefined our notions of art by presenting people as art objects, conceptualizing a person’s body, clothes, and personality as aesthetic components.  The people in Warhol’s movies are presented as aesthetic curiosities.  Dumb, ugly, boring—it didn’t matter: Warhol could find something fascinating about even the most unappealing figure.  Take, for instance, the ex-girlfriend who gives Joe a blowjob and then proceeds to ramble on in a squeaky New York accent about wanting to get silicone injections for her breasts.  There’s nothing ostensibly interesting or intelligent about her; she even professes that she doesn’t want to get any smarter because the smarter one becomes the less one enjoys life.  (Didn’t someone once say ‘he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow’?)  And yet Morrissey’s camera humanizes her, finding the poetry in her vacuous speech and the music in her baby doll voice.  Her performance appears unaffected, naturalistic.  It’s unclear whether she’s acting in the role of a character or merely behaving on-camera (nearly all of the characters in the film bear the names of the actors who play them).  Flesh presents these people to us and lets us make of them what we will.  They’re just there.  The same principle now governs much of what passes for ‘reality’ TV, a concept that has its roots in Warhol’s prophetic statement about everyone in the world someday being famous for fifteen minutes.

With Geri Miller.

"The film’s central person-as-art-object is Dallesandro, one of the most charismatic of Warhol’s sex icons, with his mop of blonde hair and gently muscular body.  He has an innocent, pretty look, but his voice is deeper than we expect it to be, and more streetwise.  It’s as though a Brooklyn accent had been put into the throat of a Greek god.  Dallesandro is fascinating because of his paradoxical ability to be so masculine and yet tender, sullen—so hard and soft—at the same time. He doesn’t have the magnetic personality of a true movie star and yet it’s impossible to take your eyes off him when he’s on the screen.  (It doesn’t hurt that he’s naked for roughly one third of the film.)

Posing for Maurice Braddell as the artist.

"Morrissey has claimed that he intended Flesh to be a film about the commodification of the body, in which we are apparently meant to despair when we see Joe selling himself for money. Its effect could not be more to the contrary.  For one thing Joe’s exploits as a prostitute are more absurdly comic than degrading.  Moreover, the film seems to exemplify what one of Joe’s johns, the old-man artist, tells Joe as he instructs him to pose naked—that all art is a form of ‘body worship’, stretching back to ancient Greece.  Flesh does not succeed as a film condemning the body’s transformation into a commodity.  It succeeds, rather, as a work of body worship—a worship of the flesh of its title.  For ninety minutes, we’re asked to gaze at Joe Dallesandro’s beautiful flesh, and we do so, willingly.”


Chantal Akerman: Mothers and children

Delphine Seyrig and Jan Decorte in Jeanne Dielman.

As the title character of Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976), Delphine Seyrig is on-screen for nearly every second of the film’s two hours and twenty minutes.  The only other recurring character is Jeanne’s teenage son Sylvain (Jan Decorte), with whom she eats dinner every night in near silence.  She clears the dishes while he tends to his homework; they leave the apartment together for some sort of evening ritual that is never explained (to take an evening stroll? to go to the movies?).  After exchanging a few words of confessional conversation (about their late husband/father, Jeanne’s youth, sex) that are all the more surprising because they seem to come out of nowhere, she tucks him into bed on the pull-out couch.  In the morning she bundles him up in his coat and scarf, sends him off to school, and turns to the business of her day, a routine that includes washing dishes, cooking dinner, minding a neighbor’s baby, and sleeping with various men who come to the apartment in late afternoon.

It’s tempting to fixate on Jeanne’s prostitution.  In a film that otherwise consists of scenes in which she makes coffee and peels potatoes, the realization that she turns tricks on the side feels momentous, ironic, and shocking.  Yet it’s treated as a simple matter of fact by Akerman—just another item on the to-do list of this middle-class widow.  And even though an interaction with one of her clients precipitates the dramatic climax of the film, the scenes in which Jeanne makes coffee, peels potatoes, and eats dinner with her son are just as important to her story.  Interviewed during the making of the film, Delphine Seyrig said that in most mainstream films “there are stock female characters: the mother, the prostitute, the evil woman, the sex kitten…”  Akerman undermines the idea that such stock characters are mutually exclusive.  Jeanne is mother and prostitute and femme fatale all rolled into one.

Motherhood held a lifelong fascination for Akerman, whose relationship with her own mother Natalia inspired two key films, News from Home (1977) and No Home Movie (2016).  (Following Natalia’s death in 2014, Akerman fell into a depression that eventually drove her to suicide.)  Akerman repeatedly filmed her mother sitting at the kitchen table of her apartment in Brussels, just as she films Seyrig as Jeanne sitting at her kitchen table, cooking, eating, daydreaming.  From the time of her debut short, Saute ma ville (1968), which she shot in her mother’s kitchen, her films give new meaning to the phrase “kitchen-sink drama,” in that they locate the kitchen as a site of female identity, labor, maternal affection, maternal anxiety.  Kitchens in Akerman are loaded spaces—freighted with psychological and emotional meaning, yet sometimes cozy.  Whatever disgruntlement, trauma, or anger Natalia may have carried with her during her lifetime, there is warmth and affection in her kitchen-table conversations with her daughter.  

Women in kitchens: Natalia Akerman in 2007 and c. 2013; Akerman in Saute ma ville; Seyrig in Jeanne Dielman.

Which brings us back to Jeanne’s silent dinners with Sylvain.  Is her son meant to be just another one of the rotating series of men who take things from Jeanne without so much as a thank you or a helping hand with the dishes?  It’s possible that she quietly resents the business of cooking for him every night and making his bed every morning—not to mention his adolescent sullenness.  But I prefer a more benevolent reading, in which mother and child have achieved a state of shared intimacy that is beyond words.  I can recall days-long stretches of time when, living as a teenager with my then-single mother, we exchanged little more than a handful of sentences—not out of any hostility, but because we were both lost in our own private worlds, I suppose, even as we ate meals together.  Sylvain’s bedtime questions—about Jeanne’s youth, her late husband, sex—bespeak a curiosity about his mother and her life that is all the more touching because he articulates it so haltingly, as if embarrassed.  (During these conversations he lies in bed with his back to her, as if too shy to face her.)  Jeanne Dielman is more than just the diary of a “crazy” prostitute: it’s a paean to the rhythms of everyday life, and to the habits that spring up within a shared domestic space, especially between women and their children.  Those habits can be imprisoning; they can also contain something like love.


In praise of Oscar Micheaux

Mrs. Saunders (Alice B. Russell) questions her adopted daughter Naomi (Jacqueline Lewis) in God's Stepchildren (dir. Oscar Micheaux, 1938).

In his seminal essay “Bad Movies” J. Hoberman ranks Oscar Micheaux with Ed Wood as a filmmaker whose work is not just “so bad it’s good”: rather, it seems to transcend categories of goodness and badness, begging to be appreciated on an altogether different set of terms.  Like Wood, Micheaux (1884-1951) was an independent filmmaker who worked completely outside the Hollywood system.  If that meant making films without a safety net, it also meant that he was free to tell his own stories—many of them socially conscious “issue” movies about various aspects of African-American life, spiced up with lurid melodrama and punctuated by variety-act musical interludes.  The films were collective efforts made by Micheaux in collaboration with non-professional actors and crew members that he recruited on the fly as he went from town to town, the cinematic equivalent of a traveling bard.  What they lack in polish they make up in social and historical importance.  Micheaux’s films comprise a kind of shadow history of early twentieth-century American life, addressing the racial issues that mainstream Hollywood largely ignored.

Kino has recently put out a number of Micheaux’s films on Blu-ray, including Within Our Gates (1920), thought to be the first feature film ever made by a black filmmaker.  My preference is for God’s Stepchildren (1938), a film sadly left out of the Kino box set (for now, it continues to languish in public domain hell).  The trailer for God’s Stepchildren openly acknowledges its debt to such then-hot Hollywood melodramas as Imitation of Life (1934) and These Three (1936)—though I also see it as an avant la lettre variation on The Bad Seed.  Little Naomi Saunders, a light-skinned (or possibly mixed-race) child given up for adoption by her unwed mother, spends the first half of the film spreading rumors about her teacher, tripping her classmates during recess, and cutting class in order to attend a white school.  She’s eventually shipped off to a convent only to return in the film’s second act, whereupon she narrowly avoids seducing her adopted brother.  Like her mother before her, Naomi eventually abandons her child (an original cut of the film showed her running off with a white lover, according to Patrick McGilligan); the final shots imply that she has drowned herself in the river.  A card reads “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.”  

The adult Naomi (Gloria Press) looks forlornly at the son she abandoned.  The scene applies a racial lens to conventions from white melodramas like Stella Dallas.

There is much that is fascinating about this film: its flagrant disregard for/rejection of the rules of continuity editing (which Hoberman lauds as a form of modernist experimentation); its meandering plot and abrupt tonal shifts; its attempts, however didactic and clumsy, to grapple with themes of colorism and racial shame.  As a social problem picture about class divisions within black communities and the costs of “passing,” God’s Stepchildren begs to be put alongside the novels of James Weldon Johnson and Nella Larsen.  That Micheaux’s social politics are staunchly conservative—he rails against “lazy” black folks who fall prey to get-rich-quick schemes and associates miscegenation with immorality—only makes the film that much more wonderfully strange.  We can see in Micheaux’s everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to filmmaking the seeds of Spike Lee and Lee Daniels as well as Sam Fuller and Ed Wood, fellow independent filmmakers unafraid of embracing big emotions or taking strong political positions, even if doing so means courting ridicule.  We may laugh at a movie like God’s Stepchildren, but we get the feeling that Micheaux (like Ed Wood or Sam Fuller) is an artist so single-minded in his persistence of vision that he’s impervious to the laughter—and immune to the corrupting influence of good taste.


Pink narcissus: Navel-gazing and the gay filmmaker

Jonathan Caouette with his mother, Renee Leblanc, in Tarnation (2004).

Spring 2004.  I was at a college party when one of my close friends came up to tell me that she and her new boyfriend had just gone to see Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation.  “It’s so bad!  The whole movie is him posing for the camera.”  A self-described “DIY” film made on an iMac, Tarnation (which was then being hailed as one of the year’s boldest curiosities) consolidates some twenty years’ worth of home movies, many of them shot by Caouette himself: the troubled child of an absent father and a mentally unstable mother (her mind all but destroyed by years of electroshock therapy treatments), he found an artistic outlet in the family camcorder, voraciously filming himself and everything around him from the age of ten.  In 2003 Caouette began editing the footage into a dense and kaleidoscopic piece of video art that mashes together various modes—gay coming-of-age story, family saga, experimental film, documentary.

When I got around to seeing Tarnation for myself I immediately understood what my friend had been complaining about.  Some of the contemporary footage, shot in 2002 in the New York apartment Caouette was then sharing with his partner David, feels posturing and staged, as if Caouette is acting for the camera (and even whipping up tears for it).  But then, in the extraordinary scenes in which the ten-year-old Caouette tapes himself in drag, delivering long monologues in character as a series of battered housewives, it occurred to me that Caouette may have no other choice but to act for the camera—that it’s his voice and his mirror, and that his poses are a habit that, for better or worse, stretch back to his childhood.  He can’t understand the world, or himself, without the comfort of its filter.        

"Am I on?"  Eleven-year-old Jonathan camping it up.

So yes: in some sense “the whole movie is him posing for the camera,” and that’s one of the things that’s so interesting about it.  Tarnation is a self-portrait as collage in which Jonathan’s identity is presented to us as a conglomeration of video images, pop songs, clips from old movies.  In one of its most dazzling sequences, the screens split and multiply into quadrants, like an art installation made up of four different TV monitors on which the channels keep changing; in the bottom right we see the pre-adolescent Caouette lip-synching to a serene pop ballad (“Frank Mills,” from Hair) while the other quadrants flicker with images of the movies and TV shows that obsessed him.  In addition to being visually and aurally overwhelming, the sequence conjures up a vision of queer boyhood as profoundly shaped by popular culture—juvenile kitsch as well as horror movies and musicals.  
The four-tiled "Frank Mills" sequence.  Clockwise from top: Joe Dallesandro; Ruth Gordon and John Cassavetes in Rosemary's Baby; Caouette lip-synching. 

Caouette claims that after having unwittingly taken psychedelic drugs at the age of eleven he developed a dissociative personality disorder that caused him to view himself and his actions as if from outside his own consciousness.  Perhaps this can be made to account for the obsessive attachment to the camera that borders on narcissism.  If the experience of dissociation, as Caouette claims, something akin to being in a dream state, Tarnation succeeds in making us feel that same sense of disorientation.  Who is the man behind the poses and the images and the screens?  It’s difficult to say.  But the poses are fascinating in themselves.


In defense of...

Comrades in arms: Vladimir Gostyukhin cradles fellow POW Boris Plotnikov.

The critical opinion on Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent (1977) seems to be divided between those who regard it as a gripping morality play and those who dismiss it as a ham-fisted religious parable.  When people pay attention to it at all, that is: despite having won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival and later being released by Criterion as part of their Eclipse series, it remains an overlooked/forgotten/underappreciated film.  Among postwar Soviet filmmakers Shepitko’s reputation has always been overshadowed by those of Andrei Tarkovsky and Elem Klimov, her film-school classmate and husband, whose Come and See (1985) remains, perhaps rightly, the definitive film about the Soviet experience of WWII.  It also doesn’t help that Shepitko’s career was so brief (she died in a car crash at age forty-one having completed only four features, among which The Ascent obviously represents the pinnacle).


A beginner's guide to Dmitri Kirsanov

Nadia Sibirskaia and Yolande Beaulieu in Menilmontant (1926).

Dmitri Kirsanov (1899-1957) is one of those filmmakers who seems to have been doomed to obscurity by the unhappy accidents of his biography.  Born in Estonia but active in France in the interwar years, he has been more or less reduced to a footnote by scholars of both French and Soviet cinema.  His work has also proven notoriously difficult to see.  (In the early 2000s four of his best-known shorts were included in Kino’s three-volume Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema DVDs, now out of print.)  But as with the work of such similarly idiosyncratic figures as Charles Laughton, Chris Marker, Jean Painleve, and Stan Brakhage, Kirsanov’s films demand to be better known, in part because they are so impossible to classify.     

Menilmontant (1926): a scene of seduction.

Ménilmontant (1926), Kirsanov’s thirty-seven-minute masterpiece, is a tale of two sisters who resettle in Paris after the never-explained death of their parents at the hands of an ax murderer (!).  Innocent country girls ill-equipped to deal with the crush of the modern city—and the predatory men who lurk there—they are seduced and abandoned by the same bottom-feeding lowlife (he ends up killed in a street brawl); one of the sisters gives birth to an illegitimate child and wanders the streets as a beggar, while the other turns to prostitution.  What could have easily been an insipid melodrama is salvaged by Kirsanov’s dazzling use of editing, in which images of modern urban life unfold in long cascading montage sequences, and by the eerie nature of the plot, punctuated as it is by random and shocking acts of violence.  There is an unforced poetry to the quieter passages, too, as when an old man sitting on a park bench discreetly offers a piece of his lunch to the homeless sister, and she accepts it, her face overcome with gratitude and shame.  It’s sequences like this one, I suppose, that inspired Pauline Kael to say that Ménilmontant “has a lyricism Chaplin could only dream of.”  

Nadia Sibirskaia in Brumes d'Automne.

The lyricism of Brumes d’Automne (1929) and Arrière-saison (1950) is of a more conventional sort.  The first of these films (the title translates to “autumn mists”) is a self-described “cinema poem” in which shots of falling leaves are intercut with those of a pensive woman (Nadia Sibirskaia, Kirsanov’s wife) tearfully burning love letters.  The second (“late autumn,” or “late middle age”) concerns a woodcutter and his wife who eke out lives of punishing routine (symbolized by the repeated image of their pet dog running circles in its pen).  Frustrated and depressed, the wife makes a brief effort to leave their cottage, only to later come slinking back.  The tone of both films is more stable than Ménilmontant, and the editing less striking, though they showcase Kirsanov’s talent for photographing nature atmospherically.     

After the kill: La Mort du Cerf.

The tone of La Mort du Cerf (“The Death of a Stag,” 1951) is, by contrast to the lyrical films, bitterly ironic.  Apparently having been commissioned by a wealthy French family to document their hunting party, Kirsanov adopts a faux-naïve approach to depict this “noble” tradition as a sadistic blood sport.  That the human subjects of the film are shown in such banal attitudes, drinking coffee out of thermoses and happily posing with the dead trophy—while their hounds clamor to feast on its remains—works to further emphasize their barbarism.  Throughout his films we see a deep sensitivity to creatures that are preyed upon or who suffer untimely fates.  Kirsanov himself would die only six years later, of a heart attack.  He was fifty-seven.            


Un-American activities

"Well I'll be--Brahms!  The Concerto in B-flat!"  Kirk Douglas with Ann Sothern in A Letter to Three Wives (1949).

Kirk Douglas’ character George Phipps is maybe the most interesting thing about A Letter to Three Wives (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1949); he’s a suburban schoolteacher who, though he disavows the label “intellectual,” is nevertheless given to quoting English poetry and listening to Brahms, and at one point launches into a tirade against consumerism, advertising, and radio.  It’s a speech that horrifies his wife’s boss (Florence Bates), and that in another film might have marked him as a figure of some suspicion.  “What can she do to me?”, he asks his wife.  “Report me as being un-American?”  The film understands, of course, that dumb radio shows, commercials, and personal hygiene products are as American as apple pie, and that to rail against them is to risk being branded as a Commie. 

Douglas’ presence in the film becomes even more interesting when we consider that off-screen he was a Jewish liberal who would later give the finger to HUAC by insisting that the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo receive a screen credit for Spartacus (1960).  But in A Letter to Three Wives his George Phipps is hardly seen as an enemy of American democracy—only as a slightly pathetic figure who is out-salaried by his wife.  (The underpayment of schoolteachers would be a recurring social issue in 1950s films from Blackboard Jungle to Bigger Than Life.)  George himself admits that he’s seen by his neighbors as a “comic figure.”  In this film, the academic with highbrow taste isn’t a monster or a dissident—only a little bit of a schmuck.