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Art of the Real: What Happens

By Max Nelson on April 14, 2014

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For a few weeks leading up to the first edition of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual nonfiction showcase “Art of the Real,” a like-minded film series was taking place across town: a trio of programs in the Whitney Biennial, devoted to the recent flood of work from Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Part academic department, part research center, and part filmmaking co-op, the lab produces films that double as pieces of anthropological field work and visceral exercises in audience immersion. Its best-known creation to date, Leviathan—a thrillingly unmoored, gravity-defying exploration of the sights and sounds above, around, within, and beneath a commercial fishing vessel in the choppy waters off the New Bedford coast—was playing on a loop on the museum’s third floor. (It’s co-directed by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, the lab’s current director.) When I entered the curtained-off screening space, it was 15 minutes before closing time. Half of the sparse audience was sprawled out on scattered beanbags; the other was standing in the wings. I had happened to come in just in time for one of the film’s most majestic passages: a shot in which the camera, encased in a thick glass case, is held deep underwater and pulled behind the ship as glimmering pieces of refuse, translucent bits of fish and what look like live starfish flit past the lens. After a beat, over the various gurgles and whooshes emanating from the movie, a young boy in the audience wondered aloud: “Is this real life?”

That question has haunted the history of nonfiction as a cinematic genre for nearly a century. At least since the initial backlash against Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), the documentary has been stuck in a profound identity crisis over its capacity to faithfully capture reality—not in spite of but because of the fact that it seems so well suited to the task. One imagines it being told throughout its young life, like a high-school athlete with an early peak, that it can do anything, then struggling to cope after hitting its limits and losing the faith of its peers. (For a later example of this loss of faith, witness both Errol Morris and Michael Haneke swapping out the “truth” in Godard’s axiom that “film is truth 24 frames per second” for “lies.”)

Nanook of the North

Today, the vast majority of documentaries with wide commercial distribution are essentially works of reportage—dispatches from former war-zones, biographical pieces on the famous or powerful, institutional exposés, or human-interest profiles of colorful local characters—shot in a relatively simple visual language designed to convey information with maximum clarity and transparency. When all is working as planned, the director becomes a nearly invisible presence. It’s striking that there aren’t yet bankable cinematic equivalents for most genres of literary nonfiction that depend on the active, guiding intelligence of an individual author. (Broadcast TV, with its abundance of reality and pseudo-reality shows, is another story.) If this sort of practice is largely absent from commercially distributed documentary film, it’s pervasive in the avant-garde.

One can easily imagine a good chunk of the modern experimental film canon sorted into standard literary nonfiction categories: illness memoirs (Stephen Dwoskin, Derek Jarman’s Blue), personal essays (Chris Marker), travelogues (Jem Cohen, Chantal Akerman’s From the East), diaries (Jonas Mekas, Marjorie Keller), ethnographic studies (Jean Rouch, António Reis, Margarida Cordeiro), film criticism (Marker on Hitchcock and Tarkovsky, Welles on Welles), local histories (Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself), and so forth. These films address a not-so-radical need on our part—to encounter the world briefly through some personal lens other than our own—and yet, because cinema hasn’t yet arrived at a standardized, cut-and-dry way of meeting that need, first-person nonfiction filmmaking still feels like an excitingly youthful, radical venture. It’s hard to imagine a sector of moviemaking more open to formal discovery, or one more resistant to generalizations.


Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer

The choice on the Film Society’s part to dub its new nonfiction showcase “Art of the Real,” then, is a mild provocation. The films included in the diverse lineup all emerge from a more or less violent collision between the filmmaker and reality. Some take on an explicit first-person perspective; in others, the authorial voice is more of a free agent, navigating between various subjects at will. What unites them, I think, is the way their makers use a wide range of expressive devices to construct authorial voices that stray far from the journalistic detachment of the standard issue-doc: voices that linger on striking environmental details, make sudden, unpredictable associations, judge and, most importantly, open themselves up to judgment. Central to many of these films is the subject-filmmaker relationship itself. What degree of free agency, they ask, can a documentarian give his or her subjects?

The series’ narrative starts, thanks to the inclusion of Thom Andersen’s newly restored 1975 essay film Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer, before the invention of the movies. Muybridge was obsessed by the prospect of breaking down the process of bodily motion step-by-step. The publication on which he spent much of his career—Animal Locomotion: An Electro-Photographic Investigation of Consecutive Phases of Animal Movements—contains hundreds of plates, each of which consisted of many photographs taken in rapid succession at intervals of roughly one-third of a second. Most of his subjects are nude, many of them placed in compromised or vulnerable positions, and he pores over their movements with chilly precision: a disabled child walking on all fours, a young woman crawling on her hands and knees, two attractive female students sharing a kiss, a 300-pound woman struggling to stand. Muybridge considered himself a scientist, not an artist. His object of study was the body rather than the mind or the heart, and he never suggests that his subjects are anything more than assemblages of matter carried by mysterious processes from one instant to the next.

Mille Soleis Forest of Bliss

Forest of Bliss

Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss, part of the Art of the Real’s program on the Sensory Ethnography Lab and its influences, comes from a different scientific tradition. The history of ethnographic filmmaking at Harvard began in the early Fifties, when the Marshalls—a family of self-taught anthropologists—made a series of expeditions, funded by the university’s Peabody Museum, to film the Bushmen of the Kalahari. Gardner, who assisted on the young John Marshall’s pioneering 1957 film The Hunters, became the founding director of Harvard’s Film Study Center that same year. Forest of Bliss was shot over the course of a day on the ghats (the steps leading to the Ganges River) in Benares, considered the oldest and holiest of India’s seven sacred cities. The focus is on a small selection of craftsmen and priests, whose dialogue Gardner chooses not to subtitle.

Forest of Bliss doesn’t advance so much as move in place with a steady accumulation of practiced behaviors, many of them associated with funeral rites. (We watch one man carving a bier out of long bamboo sticks, and another sweeping away the water from the floor on which the body is prepared.) What Gardner is doing, it soon becomes clear, is giving us the space to scrutinize each of his subjects’ actions at length. But whereas Muybridge directed his scrutiny exclusively at the body, Gardner directs his at social practices and public gestures. He films Benares spectacularly, in ragged, warm hues, but the film’s primary subject—like that of current SEL affiliate Stephanie Spray—is the way people sculpt their societal and religious lives around the contours of a place.

Mille soleils

Mille soleils

Another, more recent three-sided dance between a filmmaker, a subject, and a place comes from Mati Diop, still perhaps best known for her sublime central performance in Claire Denis’ 35 Shots of Rum, but at this point a highly accomplished filmmaker in her own right. Mille soleils picks up a thread left hanging by Touki Bouki, the 1973 Senegalese classic directed by Diop’s uncle Djibril Diop Mambéty. Magaye Niang, 40 years after starring in that film, still spends his days herding cattle in Dakar; Mareme Niang, who played his love interest, and for whom, he tells us, he really did have feelings, left the city shortly after the film wrapped. (Fact, in this case, mirrored fiction: at the end of Touki Bouki, Magaye’s character abandons Mareme’s on an outbound boat and flees back home.) After following Magaye to an anniversary screening of the film, Diop orchestrates a reunion phone call between him and his long-estranged co-star, then—in the film’s only excursion into its hero’s dreams—re-locates him to the Alaskan outlands where Mareme now lives. With this fictionalized version of Magaye, Diop creates a sensitive portrait of a man struggling with his position in time and space. In the contrast between the sunbaked streets of Dakar and the wide-open, snow-covered Alaskan hills, she found an effective visual metaphor for the way desire operates—and occasionally breaks down—over distance; and, in Tex Ritter’s “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darlin’,” one of the most poignant expressions of longing I know of in recent cinema.

Lukas the Strange, the dazzling fourth feature from Filipino director John Torres, is, like Mille soleils, a documentary-fiction hybrid inspired in part by the memory of a film from the mid-Seventies. (It opens on a series of worn, green-tinted clips from Ishmael Bernal’s My Husband, Your Lover.) Near the start of Torres’ movie, a film crew arrives in a small town and puts out a casting call. Lukas—a lonely, imaginative preteen boy recently abandoned by his father—spends the film floating around the edges of the action, registering snatches of village life that the visiting filmmakers, we sense, fail to see: domestic scenes, portraits of townspeople young and old playing, working, or relaxing, images of horses grazing and glimpses of the light changing over the town riverbank. In this respect, he often operates within the movie as a kind of director, absorbing visual details and creatively arranging them into a continuous stream. That said, the film is as much a gift to him as it is a product of his own creative activity. In voiceover, a female narrator periodically reminds him of his past, gives him advice, and—in a melancholic passage near the film’s end—channels his desire for a more stable home. Lukas the Strange may be a work of fiction, but it’s animated by the same question that drives a good deal of contemporary nonfiction practice: to what extent should the subject function as an active creative presence, a filmmaker-within-the-film?

Lukas the Strange

Lukas the Strange

In her incredibly energetic feature debut Bloody Beans—another unclassifiable hybrid of fiction and nonfiction elements rooted in an especially volatile, creatively fertile phase of childhood—Narimane Mari gives her subjects an arguably even wider range of creative control. The film opens on an extended, cacophonous scene of a group of school-aged Algerian children playing on a beach. Soon, the mood darkens. They confront a wiry old man hidden behind a monstrous pig mask, find and console a victim of domestic abuse, and, when night falls, start re-enacting the Algerian war of independence. The rest of the movie—including the kids’ techno-scored march through a cemetery (where they come across a conspicuously white-skinned flesh-and-blood ghost), their capture of a meek French soldier, and a subsequent scene of them leaping around in front of a blank wall throwing their shadows against its surface—plays like a wild, hallucinatory dance film. If it’s left unsaid what acts of oppression, aside from their bean-heavy dietary regimen, the kids are rebelling against, I suspect this is as it should be. After all, their rebellion consists in their ability to create and maintain a cinematic space that refuses to let in corrupting, controlling influences from the grownups.  

The Second Game

The Second Game

Romania’s Corneliu Porumboiu, himself no slouch at creating carefully regulated, semi-permeable cinematic spaces, has been casting a stone-faced, ferociously intelligent comedic eye on the legacy of the Ceaușescu regime since his 2006 debut 12:08 East of Bucharest. Each of the two features he’s made since found him submitting himself to a stricter, more challenging set of formal restrictions. The Second Game, his first nonfiction feature, is both his most restricted and his loosest film. It springs from a piece of family legend. Porumboiu’s father, a successful soccer referee, was assigned in 1988, one year before Ceaușescu’s collapse, to a match between two teams with high-powered backers: Steaua (the secret police) and Dinamo (the national army). In a short intertitle before the film begins, Corneliu remembers answering the phone as a boy to hear Porumboiu Sr. receive a death threat.

For the next hour and a half, we watch a low-quality VHS dub of the game—played, and filmed, in heavy snow—from beginning to end, as Porumboiu and his father narrate the action from a 25-year remove. “Don’t you think this match looks like one of my films?” Corneliu asks. “It’s long, and nothing happens.” The two start imagining what a film based on the game might look like. “There’s no poetry here,” his dad insists. “Nobody would watch this kind of thing now.” In some respects, The Second Game makes a gamble similar to 12:08, which takes place entirely within the space of a televised local talk show. In both films, Porumboiu’s method is to take a cultural artifact of temporary value and see if, drained of its relevance, it can be made to let slip any accidental truths about its particular time and place. Seen in retrospect, the spectacle of Romania’s finest straining themselves to their physical limits inside a tightly defined, walled-off space surrounded on all sides by menacing, stock-still officials takes on a slightly chilling tint, as does the movie’s poker-faced punchline: the match ends in a zero-zero tie.

La última película

La última película

Obsolescence, persistence, and cultural memory are equally pressing concerns in the new film by Mark Peranson and Raya Martin, which screens alongside The Second Game on the festival’s opening night. I was, I admit, a little skeptical going into La última película, having been put off in the past by star Alex Ross Perry’s commitment to, as Phil Coldiron puts it, “plumbing the depths of his own ego.” Here, Perry has been given an especially deep ego to plumb. Riffing off and occasionally quoting Dennis Hopper’s desperate monologues from The American Dreamer, which was shot during Hopper’s stint in Peru struggling to make The Last Movie, Perry plays a director wandering through the Yucatán with the intent of making not only his last film, but the last film. “If anyone can truly see what I’ve committed to film here,” he tells us in the movie’s opening minutes, “they’ll see something more spiritual and more mystical than the medium has ever produced.” Much of La última película, which was shot over the course of a week on several different digital formats and film stocks, consists of Perry holding forth to his miraculously patient and tolerant Mexican guide (Gabino Rodríguez) about the mysteries of filmmaking, waxing over the glories of the past and denouncing his fellow tourists for buying into a Western mode of epiphany-seeking that he, too, unwittingly embodies. From his perspective, he is an unacknowledged genius soon to be vindicated by posterity. From ours, he is a clown—and, like any clown, his ability to move us comes not only from the depths of his self-delusion, but also from the unexpected nobility of his ideals.

It’s his failure to live up to those ideals that makes him both an object of satire and, in the end, a genuinely tragic figure. But since the movie he’s making overlaps on many key points with the one we’re watching, La última película has to succeed not only as a film about failure, but also as a filmed enactment thereof. Peranson and Martin employ an astonishing range of formal tricks and fireworks to suggest that the movie is spiraling towards either a kind of artistic apotheosis or a sort of self-destruction: jittery tracking shots in which the camera clings to the back of its subject’s head, static talking-head interviews, occasional rapid-fire associative montages, and, in one scene, an impressive 360-degree vertical camera rotation. But it’s in the moments when La Ultima Pelicula opens up to let in a glimmer of light from the world excluded by its hero’s visions—a montage of still photos showing a happily married couple on vacation set to John Buck Wilkin’s “My God & I,” a brief, surprisingly tender romantic encounter between Perry and his leading lady in a secluded grotto, scattered glimpses of locals looking on bemusedly at this Westerner’s antics—that we grasp the depth of his sacrifice and, ultimately, the extent of his failure. 

The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images

The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images

For me, the series’ overarching themes concerning the creative balance between nonfiction directors and their subjects came into focus with Eric Baudelaire’s The Anabasis of May and Fusako Shigenobu, Masao Adachi and 27 Years Without Images. Adachi is a filmmaker who followed up an early string of revolutionary fiction films by moving to Lebanon, assuming a significant role in the recently formed Japanese Red Army  and setting down his camera for nearly 30 years. In 2000, after serving a three-year prison sentence in Lebanon on passport charges, he was extradited to Japan, where he now lives a tightly restricted, relatively isolated life. (He is forbidden to leave the country.) That same year, after decades in hiding, Fusako Shinegobu, the Red Army’s founder, was arrested after a neighbor informed the police of her whereabouts. Baudelaire’s film consists of two intricately interwoven spoken testimonies from Shinegobu’s daughter May and Adachi, neither of whom appear on screen. Over grainy, luminous footage shot in Lebanon and Japan, Adachi reminisces about his early directing career, his initial contact with Shinegobu—she was assigned to him as a translator—his association with the Red Army and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, his time in Beirut, where he raised May Shinegobu until she was 10, his 1997 imprisonment, and his current status as a kind of stranger in his homeland. “I’ve been observing my surroundings,” he tells us, like a guerilla fighter or a filmmaker “doing research . . . before carrying out an operation.” 

Before letting Baudelaire make Anabasis, Adachi had one demand: that Eric go to Beirut in his stead and shoot new footage of a handful of places close to him. His specifications, which Baudelaire superimposes over the resulting clips, are specific enough to ensure that the footage will include certain subjects and locations, but general enough to allow for chance and contingency. “I would like to see again,” he says, “the landscapes Eric will have filmed—the landscapes that will have caught his eye, where he will have stopped for a moment—and perhaps catch a glimpse through them of the images I have missed, the films I have lost. And the question will be: how do Eric’s images, and the feelings that created them, overlap with my own feelings?”

The Anabasis is the title of an account by Xenophon, a career soldier who studied under Socrates, of the Greek army’s 400 B.C. march to Persia. The word from which it’s derived translates literally to “inland march.” I might argue that another shared feature of the films included in this year’s Film Society series, and of the wider strain of nonfiction filmmaking they somewhat uneasily represent, is this drive to march inward on their subjects, from the shores of the body to the heartland of the soul—infringing so deep, in some cases, that the line between filmmaker and subject starts to blur and dissolve. Now the question shifts again, back to a variation on those asked by the devil in the Rudyard Kipling poem Welles quotes midway through his groundbreaking essay film F for Fake, and later echoed by that boy at the Whitney’s Leviathan screening: it’s art—but is it real?

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