Category Archives: Non-Commercial Cinema
Lightning Over Water (1980)
The generation of filmmakers who grew up after WWII came to revere the directors of the studio era. Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Fassbinder, Godard, all had tremendous respect for the guys who worked under contract, took the scripts that got handed to them, and still managed to turn out movies that were personal and passionate.
The director who has probably gone farthest in exploring his relationship to that older generation is Wim Wenders. It’s not uncommon in films made from the 70s on to see cameos by the studio veterans. But Wenders didn’t just have these guys do walk-ons. He made them a part of his cinematic world. For him, putting Sam Fuller in The State of Things wasn’t just a nod to a mentor. It was a sign of friendship, and a statement about the continuity from one generation to the next.
Another filmmaker that Wenders was close to was Nicholas Ray. The older director had already appeared in Wenders’ The American Friend. They had not known each other long when Ray was diagnosed with cancer. Within a year his health had deteriorated to the point where it was clear he didn’t have long to live. And that was when they decided to make a film together.
Lightning Over Water isn’t really a documentary, though it is a document. It’s not fiction either, though the people who appear in it do act out scenes. It doesn’t fall into any category, and it’s about many different things. You could say it’s a film about filmmaking, and also about art. Fear pervades the atmosphere throughout, but love is just as present. And death is always just beyond the horizon.
While both men are credited as directors, it’s clear that Wenders is leading the way. Ray is so weak that it’s sometimes hard for him to finish a sentence. He’s wracked by coughing fits. Just lying down in bed is so painful it makes him cry out. And because Wenders realizes that he’s the one in control, he’s overwhelmed by the responsibility. At the very beginning he tells Ray that he’s afraid of exploiting him. Ray dismisses the idea, but it’s clear that Wenders is extremely uncomfortable with this project.
He shouldn’t have been. You can hear the joy in Ray’s voice when he first greets Wenders. This frail old man shouts from his bed, “I’m ready to start work again.” Even if the line was written out in advance, it’s clear that Ray means it. Toward the end of his career he turned to teaching because Hollywood wouldn’t give him backing to make another movie. While he kept himself busy with other projects, he always wanted to get back in the game. Now, when he knows he’s dying, he’s got one more opportunity to make a film, and he’s determined to seize it no matter what the cost.
Ray seems completely at home on the screen. In spite of his weakened, wasted frame, he shows no sign of self-consciousness. He allows the camera to see him at his worst, and never shies away. There’s a strange beauty in this “performance”. He’s confident, even defiant. We can see where many of his onscreen protagonists got their swagger from. This is a man who’s dying of cancer, and the first thing he does on waking up is light a cigarette. You want to grab it out of his hand and throw it away, but you also know that would be pointless. He’d just light another one.
Wenders, on the other hand, is extremely uncomfortable in front of the camera. Aside from the fact that he seems stiff and awkward, you can tell that making this movie was an awful ordeal for him. It’s bad enough that his close friend is obviously very near to death. On top of that, Wenders is constantly concerned about invading Ray’s privacy and sapping his strength. The younger man wants to stop the whole crazy thing. The older man keeps insisting that they forge ahead.
Then Ray dies. And we find ourselves at a wake on a Chinese junk in the waters off Manhattan. The dread that permeated the film up til now is gone. The cast and crew trade stories, share their views the experience, and drink a toast to their dear, departed friend. One of the crew speculates that dying was his final act as a director. “He made us finish it. And the only way he could do it was to die.”
As I write this, I realize that the audience for this film is very small. Only the people who know Ray’s work, or know Wender’s work, could possibly be interested. It doesn’t have a story, it doesn’t offer a clear-cut resolution. The film jumps unpredictably between reality, fantasy and the hazy netherworld inhabited by the people who stand behind the camera. On top of that, it’s a very intense, very painful look at a man who’s dying before your eyes. But it’s also a testament to a friendship that was stronger than death. And a moving portrait of two men who loved each other very much.
News from home (1977)
In the seventies Chantal Akerman spent a lot of time looking at things. In her films she often sets the camera in one place so that it can record whatever’s in front of it. Without actors, stories, or music to distract us, she lets us just observe the world. Lets us feel the light and the space and the unforced rhythm of life as it unfolds in its own haphazard way. This may seem simple enough, but it’s a radical departure from what we’re used to. In commercial cinema the world we see is artificial, even when the film is shot on real locations. The fictions that commercial filmmakers create inevitably shape our perception. A street, a store, a subway, they all become backdrops. But in Akerman’s work from the seventies, they are just a street, a store, a subway. She lets them be what they are. A lot of people won’t have the patience for her approach, and that’s understandable. Most of us look to movies for entertainment, to take us out of the world. But if you’re willing to invest the time, Akerman offers a different way of experiencing the world.
In News from home, Akerman continues to let her camera stand back and watch life unfold, but she adds another layer. As images of New York in the seventies appear on the screen, we hear a woman’s voice reading to us, and we soon realize that these are letters from the filmmaker’s mother. On the one hand, we have scenes of a vast urban landscape. The grinding anonymity of the city. Nameless people wandering down endless sidewalks. Busses lumbering past. Subway trains thundering in and out of stations. On the other hand, we have a mother writing to her daughter. Setting down the mundane details of family life. Reporting the relationship problems that relatives are dealing with. Complaining about the ups and downs of the family business. And above all, begging for more letters. The mother constantly reminds the daughter that her happiness depends on finding something in the mailbox.
The contrast between the overwhelmingly impersonal and the painfully intimate gives the film a strange tension. There’s a calm detachment to Akerman’s approach, and in a way it seems to be a rejection of her mother’s pleas for contact. The distance between the images and the words appears to reflect the distance between the two women. Mention is made of the fact that Akerman left home without a word of explanation, and we don’t get an explanation, either. The mother reproaches her daughter, offers gifts of money, fills up pages with random bits of news, but we never hear a response from the filmmaker. She keeps her distance from us, too.
Aside from everything else, News from home is a remarkable document of New York in the seventies. Having just crossed the Atlantic and landed in America, Akerman seems eager to absorb everything she sees. The camera captures kids playing in a fire hydrant’s spray, crowds of people pushing their way down a city sidewalk, cars gliding slowly down empty avenues. She lets us wander with her through the bright urban night, brimming with warm neon and diamond streetlights. We ride trains filled with tired commuters sitting silently in a cold flourescent haze.
It’s not hard to imagine Akerman wandering the streets of New York in the seventies. A young woman far from home, losing herself in the immensity of the landscape, letting herself be overwhelmed by the city’s grinding brilliance. I’m sure it was rough, and I’m sure it was lonely, but I’m also sure that it was totally intoxicating. As frightening as it may have been at times, she had to make the trip. She had to leave her family behind to see what the world was like.
David Cronenberg is fascinated by altered states of consciousness. His characters’ view of the world may be shaped by technology (Existenz) or drugs (Naked Lunch) or mental illness (Spider). Throughout his career, Cronenberg has made films about people who perceive reality in different ways, and he seems completely uninterested in making judgments. In fact, at times he may be asking if their perception of the world might not be valid. In Crash a man and a woman who survive an auto accident find themselves irresistibly drawn toward the violence of car culture. The hero of Eastern Promises has to walk a tightrope between the demands of a Russian crime syndicate and an American law enforcement agency, trying to survive in the space between the two. But survival isn’t always a priority for Cronenberg’s characters. Sometimes they just surrender to their fate.
In Cosmopolis, Eric Packer lives in a universe shaped by the ceaseless flow of cyber-capital. He spends most of the day riding through Manhattan, the financial center of the US, in a gleaming white limousine. It glides along the streets in sleek, soundproof isolation. While he can see what’s happening outside, he barely hears it when protesters are banging their fists against his window. We meet this brilliant young billionaire on the day when his financial empire is quickly imploding. Instead of freaking out, he ponders his misfortune with an odd detachment. Not only is he unruffled by the loss of his millions, he’s amazingly calm about the fact that an assassin is trying to kill him. He takes almost everything with an unsettling calm, and he insists on driving across Manhattan in spite of all the obstacles. “We need a haircut,” he tells his chauffer/bodyguard. Nothing will keep him from that goal.
Robert Pattinson gives a beautifully focussed performance as Packer, riding across Manhattan, consumed in melancholy meditation of a reality that appears to be coming apart at the seams. He’s a control freak who realizes that he’s losing control, and rather than screaming and crying, he seems fascinated by the circumstances of his downfall. In the course of his journey he picks up various visitors who accompany him part of the way. Juliette Binoche does a funny, raunchy turn as the art dealer who shows up to have savage sex with Packer, and then discuss the purchase of a painting by Rothko. Samantha Morton maintains an eerie serenity, a disturbing clarity, in her role as the financial philosopher who carefully breaks down the way money is changing our perception of time. She rides along in the limo, cradling her drink, talking calmly about how our reality is altered by the massive pressures of the markets. Morton plays this difficult role with perfect ease, staring off into space with shining eyes, an intellectual entranced by the beauty and the violence of capital. Abdul Ayoola gives a quietly moving performance as the chauffer who takes Packer on the last leg of his journey. And Paul Giamatti has just the right presence to play the grimy loner who wants to kill Packer. Though he’s filled with rage at the way the world has treated him, he seems unnerved when he finally comes face to face with his prey.
I haven’t read Don DeLillo’s book, but I’d really like to. Published not too long after the dot com bubble burst, the author was obviously exploring the new ways in which the markets were changing our world. The film was released in two thousand twelve, and I’m sure many people read it as a comment on the more recent financial meltdown. But Cosmpolis isn’t a morality play about the soulless rich. Packer’s problem isn’t that he has no soul, it’s that his soul is starved. He’s a brilliant young man who spends his days analyzing the ebb and flow of markets, riding waves of currency. Existing almost completely in this alternate universe, this gleaming, abstract future created by the endless flow of capital, he begins to realize that he’s living in a vacuum. We see that there are plenty of women who want to have sex with him, but the one woman he really wants to have sex with, his wife, is out of reach. The bodyguard he’s hired to protect him becomes a nuisance to overcome, an obstacle that keeps him from experiencing the world. And when he finally arrives at the barbershop, we realize it’s not the haircut he needed, but the amiable grin of the guy who gives it to him, a man who knew his father. This chatty old man may be his only friend.
Composer Howard Shore has been working with Cronenberg so long they seem to understand each other perfectly. The director doesn’t care about drama, or driving his points home. In Cosmopolis the narrative moves forward on its own terms, relying on its own logic, and the music reflects this. Instead of a conventional film score with its dramatic highs and lows, Shore gives us an abstract soundscape that hovers in the background. Relying largely on color and texture, he creates a shifting sonic fabric that echoes the main character’s zoned-out state of mind.
Packer realizes that he’s come to inhabit the world of capital so completely that he’s estranged from simple, physical experience. He turns homicidal, then suicidal. He’s desperate to connect with somebody, even somebody who’s trying to kill him. But through all of this, Cronenberg avoids making judgments. He doesn’t care about putting Packer on trial. He’s more interested in getting inside this boy’s head.
It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012)
Years ago I was with my family at Thanksgiving when my nephew told me he wanted me to see some stuff he’d found on the internet. We went upstairs, away from the rest of the relatives, and he showed me a series of cartoons that were incredibly creepy and hysterically funny, all of them by a guy named Don Hertzfeldt. I’ve never forgotten that day.
Hertzfeldt’s early work may have looked crude, but it was actually way more lively and interesting than most of the animation you see in theatres. The big studios spend millions on feature length cartoons with incredible technical polish and zero soul. Hertzfeldt creates his work himself, with his own hands. His simple line drawings are combined with found images that are often blurred and distorted. For his soundtracks he relies on ambient noise and a fair amount of shrieking. But the end result isn’t just funny, it’s disturbing and moving.
The early shorts are all about brutal, absurd situations where people often get hurt really badly. But in recent years Hertzfeldt has added other dimensions to his work. His most recent release, It’s Such a Beautiful Day, is an amazing piece of filmmaking. The crazy horror is still there, but now underlying it is a weird cosmic beauty. With all the terrible trauma we see on the screen, the film has a strange serenity to it. The universe may be a terrifying place, but Hertzfeldt accepts it as it is. And he seems to be saying that we should treasure the stray moments of happiness as they slip through our fingers.
You might think a film that was basically made by one guy would be a thin, minimal affair. But no. Hertzfeldt’s hand-made images vibrate with a crazy, implacable life. Flames leap across the screen. Seagull cries float on the breeze. Windows open up out of the darkness, flicker with distant memories and then close again. Along with the director’s deadpan narration, layers of sound create a dense, sometimes unnerving texture that can be overwhelming. A symphony orchestra plays while noise piles up on top of it, growing louder and louder until you just want it all to stop. And he also layers images over each other, in this case suggesting the way memories pile up in layers, rubbing against one another, slowly growing blurred and faded.
Memory is key in It’s Such a Beautiful Day. The film follows a man named Bill as he slowly falls apart, suffering from some unspecified disease. As his mind and body deteriorate, his memory fades. First he has trouble remembering recent events, and soon he can’t recognize people he’s known for years. Pictures from the past surface without warning, some that come from Bill’s distant memories, and others that conjure up frightening relatives who lived long before his time. The fear, pain and loneliness that haunt Bill aren’t new. They’ve been around forever, handed down from generation to generation.
This probably all sounds horribly depressing. Yeah. It is. Up to a point. But there’s that strange serenity I mentioned earlier. A sense of acceptance. It’s as if Hertzfeldt has stepped back far enough from our everyday struggles to take in the whole universe. Our suffering doesn’t seem so important in the vast, cosmic scheme of things. Bill’s final visions are of an eternal, shimmering, infinite universe in which he’s just a mote drifting through space.
Hertzfedlt may be an awful cynic, but there’s more to this movie than pain and loneliness. As Bill goes through his terrible downward spiral, he comes across reminders that people can care for each other, that tenderness exists. Love may be fleeting, but it is real. And finding the beauty in the world may just be a matter of opening your eyes to it.
An intense young man walks the streets of New York while a moody, abstract bass line murmurs to us in the background. A young woman stops under a bright theatre marquee to check out the lurid display as a rambling solo sax underscores the scene’s sexual tension. In John Cassavetes’ Shadows, the jazz soundtrack doesn’t just complement the visuals, it’s an integral part of the director’s approach. The spontaneity and sensitivity of the music reflects the loose, open-ended feel of the movie. It’s not just a different style. It’s a different way of thinking about film.
The credits tell us that Shadows was improvised, which isn’t really true. It did grow out of improvisations by the actors, and Cassavetes was open to their inspiration during the shooting. But even if there wasn’t a traditional script, the director had definite ideas about the film’s shape and structure. Cassavetes knew where he wanted to go, even if he didn’t always know how to get there. It was his first film, and he has acknowledged that it’s uneven. Shadows may be messy and chaotic, but its loose, freewheeling approach allows the actors to connect with us in ways they never could in a more conventional film.
Just as a jazz musician takes a melody and makes it their own by opening themselves up to the moment, Cassavetes and his collaborators start with a basic structure and allow themselves the freedom to be spontaneous. They’re not locked into the demands of a commercial film, where the story is crucial and everything is planned and prepared. They take chances, they make mistakes. Sometimes this approach doesn’t work, and the film just seems amateurish and ragged. But at other times it gives us moments that seem remarkably true. An uncomfortable silence that says more than any words could. An awkward gesture that reveals a character’s insecurity. These sparks struck by accident illuminate the film. They give it an immediacy we don’t often see on the screen.
Shadows has been praised for its originality, and in some ways it did blaze new trails. But Cassavetes had his influences, and to a degree the film was an outgrowth of trends that had begun to develop in the late forties. After WWII, many filmmakers had started to venture away from soundstages and shoot their movies on real locations. Europeans, especially the Italian Neo-Realists, had forged a new kind of filmmaking that was rooted in everyday life. And in New York in the fifties there was a growing movement to create an independent cinema. Morris Engel, Shirley Clarke and Lionel Rogosin had all made low-budget films using actual locations.
The film centers on three siblings living together in New York. The three are played by Hugh Hurd, Ben Carruthers and Lelia Goldoni, and the actors’ first names are adopted by the characters in the film. Hugh is the oldest, a singer who’s having trouble getting gigs. Ben, in the middle, plays trumpet, though he’s more interested in partying than making music. And Lelia, the youngest, seems to just be trying to find herself. Shadows doesn’t have a central story. Or rather, it tells a few different stories, and they overlap in interesting ways. The characters hang out in bars, go to parties, make love and have fights just like real people do. The film doesn’t build to a conventional climax. There’s no tidy resolution at the end. Hugh, Ben and Lelia just go on with their lives.
The music in Shadows is by Charles Mingus and Shafi Hadi, but apparently recording the soundtrack was just as chaotic as the rest of the production. From what I’ve read, Cassavetes wanted Mingus to compose the score, but apparently the two had a series of disagreements, which may have had to do with money or deadlines or both. No two accounts I’ve read agree on the details, but little of Mingus’ music ended up in the final film. Apparently Cassavetes worked with Hadi on recording the sax solos that make up most of the score. However difficult the process was, the end result gives the movie a tone that is absolutely unique. The cues are discrete pieces, reflecting the mood of the individual scenes. And the freedom we hear in the music is completely in tune with the spirit of the movie. It doesn’t tell us what to feel. It allows us to feel.
Killer of Sheep (1977)
Often a filmmaker’s most original work is the work he does outside the system. The constraints that directors have to deal with in making a commercial feature can tie them in knots. Producers who invest large sums of money in a project generally want something safe because they feel that’s the best way to turn a profit, which is why so many of the films we see have a ring of familiarity. A director may set out to make a movie that’s completely unconventional, but by time they’ve finished negotiating with the money men their groundbreaking work of art often becomes a rehash of last year’s hit.
Charles Burnett made Killer of Sheep when he was a student at UCLA in the seventies. It has the fearless originality, the breathtaking openness, the disturbing directness that maybe only a young artist is capable of. Working on a shoestring, using unknowns as actors, assisted by a crew you could probably fit in a VW, Burnett just made the film he wanted to. It’s a deeply personal and wrenchingly honest look at life in Watts, a run down, low income suburb of Los Angeles.
The film starts with a brief prologue where a teenage boy is first scolded by his father and then slapped by his mother for not taking his brother’s side in a fight. Early on the message is being drilled in. Violence is a part of life. Get used to it. We can choose not to fight, but we can’t escape the fight. It’s all around us. And the world is always trying to drag us into the fray.
Violence pervades the slowly decaying neighborhood where Stan lives in a small house with his wife and two children. Caught in the act of stealing a TV, a petty thief flies into a fit of rage when one of the neighbors calls the police. A couple of thugs come calling, looking for someone to help them out with a murder. And Stan works in a slaughterhouse, butchering sheep in order to make a living.
The scenes of Stan doing his job are brutally graphic. Sheep are kept in pens until they’re hung up and killed. Their carcasses are carried down a line as they’re skinned and dismembered. Stan is a gentle soul, but he spends his days slaughtering animals and we can see that it’s grinding him down. Trapped in a life he can’t escape, he seems exhausted and dazed. He talks about how he can’t sleep at night. His wife wants him to make love to her, but he rebuffs her. He barely speaks to his children.
Stan may literally be a killer of sheep, but everybody who lives in this depressed neighborhood is caught in a pen, waiting to be slaughtered. Burnett spends a good deal of time showing us the local children at play. They’re just kids, and they play the same games that kids play everywhere, but their aimless, innocent fun often seems to involve fighting, wrestling, rocks and BB guns. Violence bleeds into their lives early on.
This all may sound pretty bleak, but Burnett is so passionately engaged with his characters and the lives they lead that his film has a kind of subdued radiance. Wound up with the suffering and the sadness of Stan’s world is an implacable love that somehow survives. The glorious, eclectic score plays a major part in putting this across. Burnett brings together a variety of artists working in a range of styles, from Paul Robeson to Elmore James, from Scott Joplin to William Grant Still. But it’s Dinah Washington singing This Bitter Earth that reveals the film’s core of love wrapped up in pain. Near the end of the movie Stan and his family return home after a flat tire ruins their outing. It’s been a frustrating day, but as he’s sitting on the sofa with his wife he suddenly seems able to show her some tenderness. The final scene shows him back in the slaughterhouse, doing his job, but for the moment he seems to have found a reason to keep moving forward. And the last thing we hear before the credits is Washington singing the line, “…This bitter earth may not be so bitter after all.”
At Land (1944)
We see the ocean. Waves cresting and breaking. The tide rolling across the shore. And then a woman lying on the sand. At first she seems to be unconscious. But her eyes open. She gazes at gulls flying overhead. A large, twisted chunk of driftwood lies nearby. She reaches for it, wraps her fingers around a broken branch, and starts to pull her body up….
This is the way Maya Deren’s At Land begins. A woman, played by the filmmaker, is left on the shore by the tide. The film follows her as she explores a world that is constantly shifting, constantly changing, where different realities seem to exist on intersecting planes. Climbing up the jagged driftwood, she suddenly finds herself peering down a long table in a huge dining room. The woman pulls herself onto the table and crawls slowly down it, while men and woman on either side talk and laugh, drink and smoke. They all seem completely unaware of her presence.
At the end of the table she discovers a chess board, and she is transfixed by the pieces as they move about. A pawn is taken, and rolls off the board. In the next shot we see the pawn floating in water that soon carries it tumbling over jutting stones. The woman follows, stepping seamlessly from the dinner party to a river in the wilderness. This might seem like a jarring leap, an absurd juxtaposition, if we were to view it from the same narrow window that we usually watch the world from. But Deren offers us a new window. The film flows naturally from one scene to the next because she’s following an inner logic. She creates her own reality, and invites us to experience it with her.
The woman keeps moving forward as the landscape continues to shift around her. As we follow her from the beach, to a dinner party, to a river, to a lonely road, we experience what she does. We see it all through her eyes. There is a story here, but not the kind we’re used to. We’ve been brought up with stories told in familiar terms, we’ve come to expect that stories will describe the world in a way that we can readily understand. But Deren discards all that, speaking to us with images instead of words. She leaves the world of rational explanation behind, instead relying on her intuition and asking us to do the same.
In some ways Deren’s movies are direct descendants of the avant-garde cinema of the twenties and thirties. Rich in symbolic references, charged with sexual tension, her work seems to be exploring the unconscious in the tradition of Germaine Dulac, Jean Cocteau and Luis Bunuel. But though Deren may have learned from these and others, her films are very much her own. In fact they’re some of the most intensely personal films I’ve ever seen. Her strange and startling images offer a vision of the world that is unique. In the history of cinema, there is no one else like her.
Deren’s fascination with dance is evident in At Land. This is a ballet and she is the central character. Whether she is walking or running, crawling or climbing, her body expresses what she’s feeling. Often she seems to be fearful, anxious, ill at ease. The woman’s journey brings her in contact with a number of different people, but she doesn’t connect with any of them. Walking along a path, she chats with a man, who is suddenly a different man, and then another different man. This last man walks ahead of her and disappears into a house, closing the door behind him. When she follows him she finds herself in a room with yet another man, lying in bed, covered with a sheet, staring at her. The woman stares back, watching him intently. The tension between the two of them is palpable. Later she returns to the beach, where she finds two women, a blonde and a brunette, playing a game of chess. She stands behind them, stroking the brunette’s hair. The three laugh, and for a moment it seems as though she’s at ease, enjoying their company. But it’s a ruse. As the chess players go on laughing, the woman reaches down and grabs a pawn, then runs off with her prize.
And as she runs off, we see that she is also standing with the chess players, the three of them regarding the figure running along the beach with curiosity. She is also watching herself from the edge of a cliff. She is also watching herself as she peers over the table. And she is also watching herself as she clings to the driftwood. These are the film’s final images. The woman regarding herself from multiple perspectives, looking on as she herself runs down the beach, leaving a trail of footprints in the sand, until she finally disappears into the distance.
To watch At Land now, click here.