Blogs Crosscuts Rob Nelson

The Ins and Outs of William Klein

“In and Out of Fashion” is the ideal name for a William Klein retrospective, not only because the filmmaking photographer has kept an eye on haute couture throughout a career of six decades and counting. Often underappreciated (if not by the Walker, which mounted the first-ever Klein film program in 1989, and has played host […]

William Klein

William Klein

In and Out of Fashion” is the ideal name for a William Klein retrospective, not only because the filmmaking photographer has kept an eye on haute couture throughout a career of six decades and counting. Often underappreciated (if not by the Walker, which mounted the first-ever Klein film program in 1989, and has played host to its reels ever since), the confrontational shooter is now ready for his close-up. We might think Klein’s U.S. audience would’ve taken more strongly to his satiric critique of The American Way at some point during the past eight years, but, blessed as we are with eight Klein features (all in 35mm), a shorts program, and the man himself (on June 26), we’ll simply agree the party is better late than later.

In any case, it isn’t hard to see why most any Klein biographer will observe that the born New Yorker’s remove from the mainstream — growing up Jewish in an Irish neighborhood, moving to France after serving in the U.S. Army during WWII — fueled his dual interest in American outsiders (subjects of appreciative documentaries) and insiders (objects of scorn in his satiric fictions). Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (May 16 at 7:30 p.m.) — the best known (and best) of Klein’s narrative films — has Klein biting the well-manicured hand that had fed him fashion shoots; the first scene, unapologetically crude, finds a bevy of female models wrapped in (and cut by) aluminum siding. Pointedly one-dimensional as well, the title character of Mr. Freedom (May 15 at 7:30 p.m.) — a costumed superhero for the fascist cause, dark as the Dark Knight — is introduced busting an African American family at dinnertime (and much worse). Strike a pose; be The Man.

If these, along with The Model Couple (May 29 at 7:30 p.m.), constitute what a Criterion Collection box set calls Klein’s “delirious fictions,” his trilogy of documentaries about variously oppositional African Americans — Eldridge Cleaver, Little Richard, and Muhammad Ali — forms the core of his equally intoxicating nonfiction. Far and away the greatest of these is, well, The Greatest (June 6 at 7:30 p.m.), a two-part portrait that devotes an hour each to Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali — the same man, of course, yet separated here by ten years, a load of punches, and countless pages of history. (Subtitle it Out of and In Fashion?) Divided into segments shot during 1964 and 1974, the film captures the boxer’s radicalization around the time of his two early Sixties bouts with heavyweight champ Sonny Liston — a shift that led to Clay’s adoption of the Black Muslim moniker Muhammad Ali.

The Greatest certainly looms large here (“I predict that tonight someone’ll die at ringside from shock!” he exclaims before the rematch with Liston), yet Klein doesn’t just stick to the men in the ring. Delving into the business of fighting (the artist was acutely interested in American advertising wherever he found it), Klein trains his camera on the fans, the odds-makers, the moneymakers, the commentators (including Malcolm X, in one astonishing scene), and the ’60s-era white managers who hold a repugnantly proprietary view of the fighter. (Small wonder the film invokes slavery within its first five minutes, as well as inserting Godardian cutaways to billboards as a reminder that all this brutal humanity is bought and sold.)

By 1974, part of what has changed is that Don King has gained the juice to act as promoter, and that Ali’s fight against George Foreman in Zaire is as much about Black Pride as about boxing. (The racial power of the event can’t be denied: Just two years later, Sly Stallone was moved to deliver the retaliatory Rocky.) Likewise, Klein views the sporting per se as somewhat incidental to the context around it, rendering the bouts in a brilliantly abstract flurry of still photographs whose subliminal force anticipates Raging Bull. Such sequences are undeniably potent, and Ali may indeed have been The Greatest in his field, but it’s outside the ring that Klein and his subject each manage to float and sting.

In Michael Koresky’s liner notes for the Criterion box, the filmmaker is quoted on the subject of Mr. Freedom’s radical irony. “A lot of French critics said [Freedom] wasn’t realistic… But now, if you want to win an argument about a film, you can always say it’s a comic strip.” Helluva point, and it applies equally to what I’d call Klein’s other greatest film, Messiah (May 17 at 2:00 p.m.), which brings a fanciful panel style to the librettos of Handel’s oratorio, if not Christianity in sum. Hmmm…what would Jesus write? Let’s start by saying that anyone intolerant of the nonnarrative Koyaanisqatsi method of wedding classical or “classical” music to contemporary images — or of the notion that an atheist Jew such as Klein would dare to fiddle with a text as divine as Handel’s — will need more than a Christian capacity for forgiveness just to make it past reel two.

When Messiah was released almost a decade ago, Klein disciples were heard to preach to the unconverted, urging them to consider the film’s global-village street scenes in relation to all that’s holy. When Klein puts a shot of worshipful Las Vegas gamblers over the lyric “Behold your God,” we’re meant to note that casinos are modern temples whose congregations are in desperate need of redemption. (Not exactly a novel sermon, this.) Elsewhere, Klein goes looking for God in billboard ads and conjures somewhat subtler juxtapositions, as when “The government shall be upon his shoulder” is sung by an African-American inmate choir; the crime-busting drills of Dallas cops are matched to “He taketh away the sins of the world”; a montage of war-atrocity images accompanies “Let us break their bonds”; and high school kids smoking cigs during recess suggest that we, like sheep, have “gone astray.” (Is the similarity between “astray” and “ashtray” intentional?)

For Fellini enthusiasts, the surreal sight of Bodybuilders for Christ snapping aluminum pans like toothpicks leaves little doubt that Klein once worked as an assistant to the director of Satyricon. And aficionados of the oratorio might relish the symmetrical relationship between this postmodern movie and Handel’s own multinational pastiche of old and new, or between the Paris-based, expatriate American Klein and Messiah‘s 18th-century librettist Charles Jennens, described in one CD’s liner notes as a “pompous, conceited, and fabulously wealthy man of leisure.”

Dogmatic by definition, Klein’s Messiah is not unlike a Kevin Smith satire for the museum crowd — and not without value nearing Father’s Day, either, as it commands some of the more unreflective among us to ponder the holiday in a manner that doesn’t necessarily include a trip to the megamall. Still, for Klein’s first visit to the Twin Cities in two decades, one can’t help but wonder: Might the 81-year-old be coaxed to the Mall of America? With camera in tow?

Hunger: The Troubles I’ve Seen

Thanks to the Walker, Hunger will be playing for an extended run in one of the few Twin Cities movie theaters that doesn’t serve popcorn. That observation sounds glib, I’m sure, particularly in light of the film’s grave subject — the slow and painful death, by self-imposed starvation, of imprisoned Irish nationalist Bobby Sands, who […]

Thanks to the Walker, Hunger will be playing for an extended run in one of the few Twin Cities movie theaters that doesn’t serve popcorn. That observation sounds glib, I’m sure, particularly in light of the film’s grave subject — the slow and painful death, by self-imposed starvation, of imprisoned Irish nationalist Bobby Sands, who died in 1981 after 66 days in protest of the British government. But it’s also true that British artist Steve McQueen‘s unusually rigorous, boldly immersive approach to the experiential details of sensory deprivation compels — no, demands — the viewer’s personal adherence to the most elemental human functions, mainly breathing and blinking, give or take thinking. (Perhaps the ideal presentation of Hunger would require ticket buyers to spend 24 hours in isolation before the start of the film.)

So, too, given McQueen’s history in experimental video installation, not to mention the meticulously composed frames of his 98-minute debut feature, Hunger (winner of the Camera d’Or at Cannes) may indeed be best suited to gallery display. As the director has said, he set out to capture “what it was like to see, hear, smell and touch” in the Maze prison near Belfast — this to the near-total exclusion of other contextual details such as those Troubles that pushed Sands and his fellow hunger artists to action. The World Socialist Web Site has, along with very few others, voiced its disapproval of the film’s arguably apolitical orientation. But if not even Sands could explain his choices to the satisfaction of a visiting priest — as seen in the film’s bravura centerpiece, a 20-minute debate between skin on bones (Michael Fassbender‘s Sands) and a man of the cloth (Liam Cunningham‘s Father Moran) — then no movie, McQueen believes, could hope to do it either. So what Hunger does instead is bear witness. And, correct or not, the film’s piercing look at human pain casts an unforgettable spell — akin, at least for me, only to that of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest, and Jarman’s Blue.

As hunger is a fact of life, McQueen doesn’t hesitate to establish it as a universal, if relative, condition. One of the film’s first shots lingers on a hot plate of bacon and eggs — a would-be reward for a prison officer who appears less interested in eating his wife’s home cooked meal than in checking under his car for a bomb. This man, martyr or not, will experience his own deprivation soon enough. Meantime, his opposite numbers behind bars are characterized by McQueen not as representatives or even victims of institutional violence, but as literally starving artists, creatively making use of what little is at hand — namely uneaten prison food and their own fecal matter, materials for finger-painted work that few others could have been expected to see. Until now, that is. If Hunger carries the power of stark revelation, it’s not only for our shocked understanding of the prisoners’ oppression, their selves ritualistically beaten out of them by guards, but our sense that, almost 30 years later, their ordeal has finally earned them a sort of posthumous recognition. In this sense, McQueen is as much curator as artist, as much activist as observer.

With incremental force, Hunger pushes its audience to reckon with some measure of the protesters’ seemingly unimaginable experience. In the aforementioned debate scene, captured in harrowing long take by McQueen, we’re given a chance to wrestle with Sands’s ideas (“Freedom means everything to me”) — but it’s also at this point that the realities of his impending demise begin to sink in deep. Sands helps himself to the priest’s cigarettes while holding court, and, philosophical as his words may be, we can’t help wondering: Do death sticks, in the absence of food, actually nourish the starving body? If so, for how long? Watching Sands’s organs and mind deteriorate in tandem, I began to wonder if a will as strong as his could momentarily feed on hallucination even while, in reality, the starving man continues to resist.

And how long can a movie last without its protagonist’s ability to speak, to hear, to see? Reeling on borrowed time, Hunger‘s final passages appear to unfold in some other realm — heaven, perhaps, but not necessarily. Ultimately, the film opens a gallery of the mind — yours. Seems that freedom means everything to McQueen as well.

Here Comes the Sun Queen (and Other Women With Vision)

“I feel like I’m a woman with vision — in 3D,” says my fully dimensioned friend Melissa Butts, co-director of 3D Sun and principal force behind the Minneapolis-based Melrae Pictures. “Where I don’t consider myself a woman with vision is in the sense of being a female director,” she continues. “I happened to co-direct this […]

3D Sun

3D Sun

“I feel like I’m a woman with vision — in 3D,” says my fully dimensioned friend Melissa Butts, co-director of 3D Sun and principal force behind the Minneapolis-based Melrae Pictures.

“Where I don’t consider myself a woman with vision is in the sense of being a female director,” she continues. “I happened to co-direct this film [with Barry Kimm]. Will I direct other films? Not necessarily. It’s not my passion. But I have wanted to be a pioneer in this revolutionary field of 3D storytelling.”

Butts’s 3D Sun, comin’ at ya this weekend as part of the Walker’s “Women With Vision: Dimensions,” is a hot property in many ways, as well as the rare movie of any depth whose stated intent is thoroughly fulfilled. In the very first moments of the 22-minute film, over an eyepopping image of the titular fireball, a female narrator promises: “You are going to see a star, an astrophysical object, in three dimensions, with great resolution, for the very first time.” Ah, if only all movies offered such truth in advertising.

Visionary indeed, Butts was far ahead of the curve in recognizing hi-def 3D — the future of commercial movies, many claim — as an emerging market. Four years ago, she delivered a stereoscopic version of another outer-space documentary she made with Kimm, Future Frontiers: Mars, to the Science Museum of Minnesota, which had just installed a 3D digital projection system in one of its theaters. The challenge of inventing the wheel — or reel, virtually speaking — was precisely the appeal for Butts.

“You get intoxicated by the challenge of pushing the big rock up the hill, trying to figure it all out,” she says. “There weren’t a lot of people doing [digital 3D] then. What we were doing was more than cutting edge. It was like bleeding edge.”

3D Sun, too, has been “up-rezzed,” this time to giant-screen IMAX for its current screenings at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum on the National Mall in Washington, DC.

At the Walker this weekend (every half-hour in the Lecture Room, from Friday thru Sunday), the film’s third dimension will emerge through the combination of two carefully synched Panasonic HD projectors, a gigantic server, and a special silver screen.

When asked to measure the film’s gargantuan size, Butts (who’ll speak in the Lecture Room at 4 p.m. on Saturday) says that she and Kimm, working in close collaboration with NASA and various computer animators from Minnesota and beyond, amassed some 150,000 .tif files — i.e., 75,000 for each eye.

Alas, the numbers of 3D filmmakers aren’t so evenly proportioned when it comes to gender.

Butts was one of only three women presenting work at 3DX, a film festival held in Singapore last November. The others — Catherine Owens (co-director of U2 3D) and Charlotte Huggins (co-producer of Journey to the Center of the Earth) — realized the extent of their minority and, as Butts recalls, said to her, “Is this crazy or what? There are only three women here — us!”

Even having two female colleagues is rare in a milieu where, Butts says, “you kind of get used to being one of the few women in the room.” A Parisian woman whom Butts met at a festival in France last summer suggested they form a Women’s Stereoscopic Society by way of banding together.

3D Sun was screening at this [French] festival,” Butts says, “but there were no women presenting content to the audience, no women talking about their role in digital cinema, 3D or otherwise. We all noticed it.”

Which, Butts agrees, is another way of noting the continued necessity of a women’s film festival.

Examined Life

Examined Life

Not to get all Bill & Ted in this excellent adventure, but what would ol’ Socrates have made of 3D Sun?

Beyond the near-certain probability that the flick would’ve flipped his wig, we can’t know how the ancient philosopher (“The unexamined life is not worth living”) would have reviewed it. But thanks to Astra Taylor’s Examined Life, screening March 13 at “Women With Vision,” we can study Martha Nussbaum’s take on social democracy, Peter Singer’s meditation on the (im)morality of conspicuous consumption, Kwame Anthony Appiah’s ode to human evolutionary cosmopolitanism, and Cornel West’s theories of death and desire. Slavoj Zizek, star of Taylor’s earlier doc Zizek!, appears in the film beside a garbage heap as he recycles his own notions of ecological ideology.

As I wrote in Variety from Toronto last fall, Examined Life serves as a playful riposte to the idea that movies are mainly for turning one’s mind off. The same could be said of the other “WWV” films I’ve seen and loved, including Claire Simon’s reproductive rights tract God’s Offices (a suitably unplayful riposte to Juno, one could say) and Katia’s Sister by Mijke de Jong, who trains a piercing lens on a Russian emigrant girl’s rough acclimation to life in Amsterdam in a manner that recalls Rosetta.

Before you say there’s nothing new under the sun, examine how life in these distinctly Dardennes-esque dramas appears different for having been captured not by brothers, but sisters.

Expanding the There and Then

There’s an astonishing moment early in Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s new nonfiction film 24 City–the highlight of the Walker’s latest “Expanding the Frame” series–where the imminent demolition of a 50-year-old factory is celebrated in a formal ceremony as auguring a “new and glorious chapter” for Chengdu City. Presiding over the pomp and circumstance of “progress”–a […]

24 City

24 City

There’s an astonishing moment early in Chinese director Jia Zhang-ke’s new nonfiction film 24 City–the highlight of the Walker’s latest “Expanding the Frame” series–where the imminent demolition of a 50-year-old factory is celebrated in a formal ceremony as auguring a “new and glorious chapter” for Chengdu City. Presiding over the pomp and circumstance of “progress”–a swanky new apartment complex, of course–is a businessman who watches approvingly as a singing crowd dutifully salutes the transfer of land from people to corporation: Happy days are here, if not for all. Even more striking than this umpteenth illustration of Luxury Living is Jia’s climax–not the factory’s demolition, it turns out, but the subsequent testimony of a young woman who complicates our view of this ostensibly tragic development. In the end, one’s desire to advance her family in economic terms isn’t hard to understand–not in any language.

Along with 24 City (January 30 and 31 at 7:30 p.m.), films from Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States lend equal parts specificity and universality to the “Place and Time” half of the “Expanding” series. (Experimental cinema–including that of the late, great Derek Jarman, celebrated here with three features, a shorts package, and the area premiere of Isaac Julien’s biographical documentary Derek–constitutes the other half.) The range of these five “Place and Time” films extends to style and tone as well: There’s the acerbic Of Time and the City (January 23 and 24, 7:30 p.m.), native Liverpudlian Terence Davies’s sarcastic ode to his hometown, a found footage epic as kaleidoscopically surreal as Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg; the deadpan farce of Fernando Eimbcke’s Lake Tahoe (February 6 and 7, 7:30 p.m.), a sort of Mexican After Hours; and Alex Rivera’s sci-fi Sleep Dealer (February 27 at 7:30 p.m.), an Amerindie Brazil and a aptly forward-looking capper to the series.

But how on earth to describe The Exiles (January 16 and 17 at 7:30 p.m., and January 17

The Exiles

The Exiles

and 18 at 2:00 p.m.)? Recently rescued from oblivion, owing in part to its salute in Thom Andersen’s genius cult doc Los Angeles Plays Itself, this 1961 portrait of Native Americans in L.A.’s Bunker Hill district is, in fact, not truly a portrait, as director Kent MacKenzie has the subjects of his nonfiction playing themselves in reenactments. So, too, the film remains controversial–to this day, and, if anything, insufficiently so–for allegations that MacKenzie essentially paid (or plied) his vulnerable nonactors with alcohol. In other words, The Exiles, named for three men who go AWOL from their reservation–is a vision of a culture that isn’t just lost but on some level nonexistent. Which, come to think of it, is a fair definition of cinema–at least if one sees the camera as an even greater influence on “reality” than booze.

Thus “Expanding the Frame” doubles as a bold articulation of how movies–even documentaries–concoct as much as they preserve. Could it be any other way? In 24 City, Jia meets the inevitable head-on by employing professional actors, including Joan Chen, to fill in his nonfiction’s gaps. In Of Time and the City, Davies, with his witheringly intelligent voiceovers, flaunts the sense in which any assemblage is subjective. If the films by Rivera and Eimbcke appear comparatively conventional, each hardly fails to capture a reality that, if it ever existed, was already gone in the instants–24 per second, maybe 30–after the shutter snapped. The passing of time and place: that, unavoidably, is progress.

Forty Years Ago Today: Oshima in ‘68

Times of monumental change, such as the world observed last week, are enough to excuse anyone who hasn’t yet made it to the Walker for its retrospective of films by Japanese director Nagisa Oshima – himself no stranger to history in the making. Impressionably teenaged at the end of World War II and passionately engaged […]


Times of monumental change, such as the world observed last week, are enough to excuse anyone who hasn’t yet made it to the Walker for its retrospective of films by Japanese director Nagisa Oshima – himself no stranger to history in the making. Impressionably teenaged at the end of World War II and passionately engaged in student activism during the 1950s, the Japanese New Waver behind Cruel Story of Youth – fatherless since the age of six – spent the earthshaking year of 1968 with two films in release and another in production. Evincing Oshima’s radical energy in full flower, all three of these–Death by Hanging, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief, and Boy – remain difficult to see in the United States, and their screenings (in new 35mm prints, yet) lie just ahead in the Walker series. Thus latecomers to “In the Realm of Oshima” hardly need to worry that they’ve missed the highlights.

“Provocations directed at the spectators,” as Japanese critic Hideo Osabe aptly put it, Oshima’s films met the late ‘60s like Molotov cocktails hitting valued property. Death by Hanging, which the

Death By Hanging

Death By Hanging

director yanked from the ‘68 Cannes fest by way of greeting the French “events of May,” draws a hard line in its very first minute, with title cards that ask, “Do you support or oppose the death penalty?” and “You, the 71 percent [in favor of it], have you ever seen a public execution?” Hanging (November 16 at 2:00 p.m.), albeit a black-comic satire of forceful persuasion, gleefully gives its audience two hangings for the price of one. Diary (November 23 at 2:00 p.m.), hot off the press, uses the summer riots in Japan to contextualize the scorching sex between a young make-believe thief and the woman who pleasurably catches him in the act. Boy (November 12 at 7:30 p.m.), the one film of this trilogy in color, vividly observes the effects of criminality on the titular 10-year-old, whose parents “work” by faking public accidents and snatching up guilt money.

In these searing critiques of societal absurdity, the audience is made to appear accountable – along with corporations, the state, the nuclear family, and the characters’ animalistic hunger to capitalize on one another. Near the bitter end of Death by Hanging, the marked man – a Korean known only as “R” – comes to ask an essential question of his legal executioners: “What is a nation?” The answer is, uh, left hanging. Maybe the nation is only distinct from the individual for getting away with murder. Oshima’s stark, documentary-style tour of Death Row punctuates the narrative rituals of state execution – last supper, last cigarette, last words, et cetera–by way of exposing the fatal cruelties of convention. “R,” whatever his crimes, doesn’t stick to the script: Miraculously slipping out of the noose in the film’s first minutes, he appears heroic–or at least compared to his ethical army of assassins.

Diary of a Shinjuku Thief

Diary of a Shinjuku Thief

If Oshima has a definition of the word “responsibility,” it’s this: Break the rules. “Let’s steal something,” the lovers of Diary of a Shinjuku Thief decide early in the course of their film-long flirtation. The erotics of theft are foregrounded in this, a sexy movie that, aptly enough, steals from Bonnie and Clyde by way of Breathless. Yet, appearing almost apocalyptic at times, Oshima’s film is uniquely unsettling, not least through camerawork that’s severely shaky even by Dogme standards. In ’68, Oshima’s cinematographic flailing must’ve looked crazy–or else perfectly normal. Indeed, all of Earth seemed to be quaking simultaneously, as Diary acknowledges from the start, with title cards that spell out the exact times of day in New York, Paris, Tokyo, and other cities. Above it all is our hero, Birdey Hilltop(!), for whom chaos is mere foreplay. Whatever the would-be revolution succeeded in bringing to radicals, Oshima suggests, it at least added a smidgen of experimentalism into the sex lives of bourgeois types.

On the evidence of Boy, whose story Oshima ripped from the headlines, societal tumult may have given even the nuclear family license to act out. Stepping in front of cars, accusing the drivers of reckless endangerment, settling out of court, then going out to dinner in a nice restaurant: All in a day’s work for the middle-class clan of Boy. This, in ’68, is how radicalism trickles up the food chain – to settle as a placemat on Mom and Dad’s dining table? Or has conventionally well-off family life always been predicated on such deceitful exploitation? Both, right? And neither?

Nothing is black and white in Oshima’s films, not even the monochromatic ones. As if to make at least that much clear, the director periodically bleaches Boy‘s color in images of the family home, cutting within sequences between shots that match not at all. Leave it to Oshima, who grew up grieving his father, to strip the illusion of stability from the very complexion of Boy, a family movie like no other. Forty years on, this filmmaker’s style must appear even more revolutionary than it did in its own radical time.

My Moments with Mike Leigh, Bleak and Otherwise

Mike Leigh is talking about his 10 feature films–from Bleak Moments (1971) to Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)–and the relationship among them.”As much as anything,” he says, “and not altogether consciously on my part, all of my films deal in one way or another with the whole question of parenting: having parents, having children, teaching, learning, the question […]

Mike Leigh - photo by Rob NelsonMike Leigh is talking about his 10 feature films–from Bleak Moments (1971) to Happy-Go-Lucky (2008)–and the relationship among them.”As much as anything,” he says, “and not altogether consciously on my part, all of my films deal in one way or another with the whole question of parenting: having parents, having children, teaching, learning, the question of whether to have children, unwanted pregnancies, all of that. It goes all the way through my career.”

Leigh’s summation of his work, given to me during a recent interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, is not just thoroughly authoritative–anything this director says is thoroughly authoritative–but conveniently timed. Throughout October, the Walker is showing all 10 of Leigh’s features, starting with Bleak Moments on Friday, and the event will bring the distinguished filmmaker to Minneapolis for the very first time, on October 15, for a Regis Dialogue with LA Weekly film critic Scott Foundas (whose brilliant handling of Milos Forman at the Walker some months back leaves no doubt that he’s perfect for this even more daunting task).

Leigh has a reputation–not unearned–for being dark, onscreen and off. And it’s that reputation, in part, that the director plays with in Happy-Go-Lucky (October 11 at 7:30 p.m.), which starts with a scene that’s almost magical in its joie de vivre, the camera tracking bicycle-peddling grade-school teacher Poppy (Sally Hawkins) through a candy-colored fantasia that just so happens to be London–not art-directed London or computer-generated London, but London. A committed realist, Leigh doesn’t fabricate. Which is to say there’s something right in the first minutes of the director’s typically groundbreaking new film that finds something real worth smiling about–a rare act these days, and one of which optimistic Poppy herself would approve.

Leigh and I talked for a half-hour or so about–among other things–optimism, subversion, the future for kids, and the true meaning of Poppy’s clothing.

Q: I find Happy-Go-Lucky, like many or all of your 10 features, to be a deeply philosophical work.

A: Good. Because it is [laughs].

Q: It’s an inquiry into what it takes to be happy and sustain it. But do you think that happiness can sometimes be a disease, too, like depression? Is there a fine line between the two?

A: Well, I think we need to deal with part of the premise of the question, because the film isn’t really about happiness. It’s about fulfillment. I don’t think fulfillment can be a disease. Maybe happiness can be a disease, I don’t know–even that sounds perverse. But certainly fulfillment is not a disease. Maybe the question should be, “Is it dangerous, this condition of delirious bliss, this state of being blind to realities?” In that case, the answer is “Yes.” But that’s got nothing to do with the film, because that’s not Poppy’s condition. Poppy is grounded, focused, sensible, intelligent, sympathetic, caring, motivated, committed professionally, and someone who cares for other people. She has a sense of humor, an exuberant spirit, and all the rest of it. There’s nothing dangerous in her condition at all–it’s positive and it’s healthy.

Q: Good. But you allow for a range of interpretation of the character and the work itself, yes?

A: Look, my films are not prescriptive or, in the crude sense, didactic. Are they philosophical? Yes. I invite you to respond as you will to a look at people who, hopefully, have been rendered in a three-dimensional way, like real people. And your response will be determined to a degree by how you are as an individual, whoever you are. So, yes, there’s a variety of interpretations. It is also true, on another level, that, because of the way I constructed the film in the initial stages, you could be forgiven for thinking possibly that this could be a young woman whom you may not want to spend two hours with.

Q: Yes.

A: But even that, I have to say, is all too easy. Because the first thing you see of her in the film is her riding through the city on her bike; the only thing that happens in that rather straightforward opening sequence is that you see her waving at people in a friendly manner. Then she goes into a bookstore, where the [employee] there is especially antisocial and catatonic–he’s got his head screwed up with his own problems. She deals with that guy with gentleness and humor. She gets her bicycle stolen, and she deals with that philosophically, too. Then you see her behaving in a kind of outrageous way with her girlfriends, just having been out for a night on the tiles, you know? And from there on, you see her being responsible and sensible–but funny as well. So really, she’s there to get to know. And that constituency–and there is one–that says, “I wanted to throttle her by the end of the film, I couldn’t stand her,” well, I just can’t get it, really. I don’t know where they were when all those things were happening in the film. I don’t know where their heads were. Or rather I do know where they were: Their heads were up their asses, basically.

Q: We’re talking about this character in psychological terms as well as philosophical terms, and I’m struck by her diagnosis in the film of Scott–her driving instructor–as being an only child. I’m very interested in that. How did that line originate?

A: She’s a teacher and she knows about kids; she thinks about kids all the time. She would have taught kids from big families and kids who are without siblings. Her instinct, which comes from that long experience, would lead her to that conclusion. You kind of understand from his reaction to what she says that [Scott] probably is an only child. So the line is just a way of opening that up. It comes organically out of her ability to be perceptive.

Q: Are there movie characters that you thought of in relation to…

A: Absolutely not [interrupting]. No. Some people have mentioned Holly Golightly [from Breakfast at Tiffany’s]. But I don’t think about movie characters at all.

Q: So she’s modeled on real people then?

A: My job is to make things up. It’s what fiction-makers do. So Poppy is drawn from all kinds of sources, really–including none at all, you know? She’s drawn from my idea of something.

Q: While inventing this character, did you imagine how you would react if you literally bumped into her on the street?

A: Yes. I’d love to bump into her on the street. She’s someone I’d like to know. Oh, yeah. She’s the kind of person I like. I’d get on with her well. We’d get each other. Like Pygmalion and Galatea, really. She’s a gas.

Q: Poppy seems to gravitate most strongly to the social worker–they have a kindred connection around helping others, kids in particular.

A: They also fancy each other and they fuck each other, yeah. I can’t say it any clearer than that, really.

Q: Did any part of you want to show it more clearly?

A: Don’t know what you mean.

Q: You say “fuck,” so…

A: You mean did I want to have something in the film that isn’t there?

Q: Well…

A: Answer is no. Everything is just…

Q: Well said.

A: See, we don’t make films that other people interfere with. We make films far away from the nonsense of Hollywood. We make films with freedom. So this one is exactly as it should be. You don’t need to see any more than you see in the film, but it’s important that you see what you see.

Q: Bear with me for a second: Could you imagine having seen Happy-Go-Lucky in, say, 1973, just as you were starting to make films?

A: You mean could I have made this film in 1973?

Q: No, what I mean to ask is: If, by some crazy miracle, you were allowed to see your work from 35 years into the future…

A: Oh, I see.

Q: …how would you react to it?

A: Would I be watching it knowing that I had made it?

Q: Right! That’s the question–I suppose it hinges on that. Perhaps you could answer it either way?

A: Well, first of all, I have to say that this is a ridiculous avenue to traverse. But very well, I’ll go along.

Q: I could say one other thing.

A: Go on.

Q: Well, I think another way to ask the same question is: How do you personally–in the ways that matter to you most–measure the course of your progression as an artist?

A: That’s a more tangible question.

Q: Sure. But keep in mind the other question, perhaps, as you answer.

A: Well, the truth is, if I saw, in 1973, at the age of 30, Happy-Go-Lucky, and, having made only one movie before, I didn’t know it was a film by me, it would simply be a film that would blow me away. I would actually be very excited by it. I would be very influenced by it. I would be very taken with it. Now, on the other hand, if I was gazing into a crystal ball…but you don’t mean that, do you?

Q: I’m interested in either answer.

A: I don’t know. Your question really is about progression, yes?

Q: Yes. You took so many steps in between to arrive at Happy-Go-Lucky. And the retrospective marks each of those spots.

A: Yes.

Q: What if you had skipped those steps?

A: Okay. Are you familiar with Bleak Moments?

Q: Yes.

A: Okay, I’ll tell you the truth. What interests me is not so much the differences between the films, but the sibling relationship between them–the homogeneity, the similarities, if you will. Because actually, if you look at Bleak Moments and you look at Happy-Go-Lucky, you would find quite a lot that resonates beween them.

Q: And Naked, too. Maybe that’s what I was getting at in that question about whether happiness can in some cases be a disease, can be dangerous. These films that appear opposite–and these states of mind or mood that appear opposite–are maybe not as different as they appear.

A: Okay, sure. Yes. You could bring any of the films in. And in a way, that’s part of the answer to the question. On the other hand, part of the answer is about something else completely. Which is that I was 28 when I made Bleak Moments, and I was 64 last year when I made Happy-Go-Lucky. All of my progress as a filmmaker, my trajectory, can be identified in terms of a simple before-and-after: There are those films I made before I was a parent, and those films I made since becoming a parent.

Q: When did you become a parent?

A: I became a parent in 1978. Now, I do hope that at 65, my worldview and my experience of life inform what I do. So it’s not a question of Happy-Go-Lucky showing that, hooray, at last, he’s happy, he’s a happy old man, he’s made a cheerful movie. That’s rubbish. Because in fact, we haven’t seen what the next film is going to be.

Q: Indeed.

A: But I think there’s a more rounded view of people and things in Happy-Go-Lucky than there was in the films of 30 years ago. As an artist develops, his skills develop. And also, there’s another thing, too, which is rather mundane, I suppose, but it’s very important, and it’s this: Every time you make another piece of work, that piece of work claims territory that you’ve not been to before. So the territory left to explore diminishes. And that makes you more imaginative about where to go next.

Q: We’ve been talking about your personal life in relation to the art–at least in this idea of the films being distinct for having been made before or after you were a parent. So the other question is: To what extent did your decision to make this film at this time reflect the current sociopolitical climate–which many would characterize emphatically as not happy-go-lucky?

A: Totally. We’re living in really bad times, tough times. We have a great deal to be gloomy about. And we can sit around here being gloomy, yes. But while we’re doing that, people–not least among them teachers–are out there getting on with it. The act of teaching kids has to be, by definition, an act of optimism. Because it’s about cherishing the future, nurturing the future. What future? Now that’s another question. God knows what future. How old is your kid?

Q: He’s six.

A: Six! What sort of a world…I mean, how old are you?

Q: Forty.

A: Forty. What kind of world will your six-year-old be living in when he’s 40?

Q: I don’t know what he’ll inherit.

A: Yeah! Exactly. But we have to be positive. We have to get on with it. So that’s the answer to that one.

Q: Let’s switch gears a bit. How were Poppy’s costumes chosen? These are fantastic creations.

A: Everything she wears you could buy off the rack at prices that Poppy could afford last year in London–that’s the first thing. So there’s nothing phantasmagorical about them. Edith Head did not earn credit for Special Gowns Worn by Ms. Hawkins, you know? We’re very strict. Nobody wears anything that his or her character wouldn’t wear or couldn’t afford. And they’re also a function of Poppy’s taste–her sense of humor and sense of life. And, of course, it’s a movie! We’re being a little bit pious about it in this conversation, because the fact is: It’s a film! It’s an entertainment! I’m here to amuse and entertain you, to give you a good time, make you feel jolly! It’s my first widescreen film. Just before we started shooting, [cinematographer] Dick Pope went to a trade fair in London where Fuji announced this new [35mm] stock called Vivid, which accentuates bright primary colors. So we used that. And so it all comes together, it all coheres.

Q: I guess that’s the sense in which I’m encouraged to think and ask about other films, other film characters. The images in Happy-Go-Lucky really pop in a pure, kinetic kind of way, in terms of how the colors excite one’s eye. It makes me think about, say, Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, for instance.

A: Well, I hope that Happy-Go-Lucky is a more interesting film than that [laughs].

Q: I’d say it is, yeah–because of its complicated relationship to genre. I mean, if you want to see Happy-Go-Lucky as a movie, and to some extent you do…

A: It’s a movie, yeah.

Q: …then I think it’s a movie that investigates the inner workings of other movies, other genres–like the one that includes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.

A: What I would say is that the film subverts that genre. What I do very often, in fact, is subvert genre.

Q: Indeed.

A: For example, Naked subverts film noir. In fact, nothing that happens in Naked has anything to do with film noir, but the general feel of it does. Topsy-Turvy absolutely subverts the costume film, the period film.

Q: And the musical, too, I would say.

A: Yeah. And Happy-Go-Lucky subverts. It’s interesting what you’re saying. You do have to talk about the movie as a movie. Because it is a movie. At least I think it’s a movie, anyway.

Q: I won’t disagree with you.

A: Yes.

Q: It’s a screwball comedy.

A: Yes it is, on a certain level. Except that if you said to people that Happy-Go-Lucky is a screwball comedy, you would be…

Q: Subversive?

A: Well, you would be not telling the truth. The film has screwball comedic elements in it, yes. But the truth of the matter is that the story of the film is a perfectly real series of events. And unlike a screwball comedy, the narrative is cumulative, not causal. It’s not all about the farcical messes that people get into. It’s just about what happens to people.

Q: To the extent that Happy-Go-Lucky, as you say, is designed to surprise and subvert, and that this is something you’ve done throughout your career, has that effort needed to change over time by dint of the fact that the world has come increasingly to know the films of Mike Leigh–enough to know that they should expect subversion?

A: Yeah, but I don’t think about that. I really don’t. I just think about what the film is about. One thing I could say, I suppose: Life is Sweet is followed by Naked, which is followed by Secrets and Lies and Career Girls, then Topsy-Turvy and All or Nothing, and then Vera Drake comes in. So there is a thing of doing something completely different than you did last time–deliberately doing what I think you’re not expecting. Happy-Go-Lucky has a pretty obvious element of distinction from what came before, from Vera Drake. So in that sense I think about these things, yes. Maybe that’s what you’re talking about. But ultimately, I just get into thinking about the movie is about. Within my genre, if you want to call it that, if you want to be pretentious about it, I do what I do, which is fairly limited, but within that I also vary the style of the films. But fundamentally, the films are all the same–they’re torn from the same cloth.

Q: Maybe there’s a sense in which the ideal viewer of Happy-Go-Lucky is one who has never seen a Mike Leigh movie–or at least doesn’t know that he or she has.

A: I don’t think that’s true. As a matter of fact, I think that would be ridiculous. I certainly think that people who have never seen a Mike Leigh film are more than welcome to see Happy-Go-Lucky. But the film certainly hasn’t been made for people who’ve seen my work or for people who haven’t seen my work. It has been made for people.

*Mike Leigh photo by Rob Nelson

Secrecy: Shhh…Don’t Spoil the Movie!

Transcribed below from an old-fashioned audiocassette, presumably without the knowledge of Vice President Dick Cheney (though one can never be sure these days), my recent marathon phone chat with Robb Moss–Boston-based co-director of Secrecy, screening four times at the Walker as part of the “Cinema of Urgency” series–began, in the interests of narrowing an almost […]

Transcribed below from an old-fashioned audiocassette, presumably without the knowledge of Vice President Dick Cheney (though one can never be sure these days), my recent marathon phone chat with Robb Moss–Boston-based co-director of Secrecy, screening four times at the Walker as part of the “Cinema of Urgency” series–began, in the interests of narrowing an almost infinitely expansive topic, with my reading to him from a piece I wrote for Cinema Scope just after his collaborative effort with Peter Galison (who’ll be present for the Walker screenings) had premiered at the Sundance Film Festival:

[Sundance] jury member Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) got choked up when announcing the big prize to Trouble the Water. News flash: Intellectuals have hearts! A much better example than an egghead’s awards-night tears (or, uh, this article) is the aptly dizzying and mournful Secrecy, in which Harvard film department legend Robb Moss and co-director Peter Galison begin their interrogation of U.S. executive privilege from the Manhattan Project to Gitmo with Errolesque shots of classified files stacked floor to ceiling, but return repeatedly to the story of sad old widows who’ll probably never know why their government scientist husbands went down in the “Reynolds crash” of 1949.

Beautifully paradoxical in its own withholding of answers (this in an era when you can Google-search for nuclear bomb-making tips), Secrecy asks: To what degree is government secrecy necessary even as the force by which it’s kept puts a chokehold on investigative journalism, the U.S. constitution, personal freedom, et cetera? And how is this ever-increasing force related to the widening gap between haves and have-nots? Among almost countless other things, Secrecy is about the erosion of the middle, about how the powerful are left to their darkened inner sanctums (or screening rooms) while the rest of us are stranded, restricted, out in the open. Money is power, yes, but what the secretive have more than money or power per se is the formerly free commodity it buys them: the right to privacy.

Q: So yeah, that’s what I wrote, Robb. In relation to your sense of the film you made through years of research and shooting and editing, what do those two little paragraphs make you think?

A: They make me think you have an interesting take. I hadn’t quite thought of things in that way. Certainly the relationship of secrecy to privacy is an inverse one–the more secrecy, the less privacy. Secrecy doesn’t take this on directly for the reason that we just couldn’t go in every direction that the film would want us to take. The film does suggest that direction, though, and so you’re right to point it out. And if the cliché is true that information is power, then it’s also true that the powerful have more information. And if the powerful are those in the executive branch, then they just get to do whatever they want, with no oversight. And when they’re acting in the name of national security, the executive branch gets to behave in a way that the constitution was expressly designed to restrain. It’s also true that the executive branch needs a certain amount of secrecy in order to perform its function of protecting the nation; the film wants to take that duty seriously and not just dismiss it.

Q: How did you go about that?

A: Well, one of the things that [Peter and I] struggled with was how to present a strong point of view at the same time that we would give voice to this other myriad of positions. Our basic thought was: If we’re going to express a belief about secrecy, we have to do it by moving through difficult ideas rather than starting with a conclusion–with, for example, Secrecy is bad or Secrecy erodes democracy. The film doesn’t adopt that style of advocacy: It doesn’t start with its conclusion already mapped out. We wanted to go through the kind of dizzying and difficult thinking that people inside the system of secrecy have to do, and that we had to do as filmmakers.

Q: It’s rare for a film, even a documentary film, to favor the range of ideas over the single perspective, don’t you think?

A: I suppose, yes. One of the things about our film that presented a real challenge to us as filmmakers is that we were dealing with one of the worst film ideas on earth: the idea of government secrecy, which is just completely inert, visually speaking. There’s nothing to film! So it has to start as a poor film idea, even if it’s a consequential idea on paper or in your head. One of the ways we hoped to work with that as a problem was to film people who had experience within the system–people inside the NSA or the CIA, people who’ve had experience in the secrecy system as civilians, people who have spent their lives trying to get secrets from the government–rather than experts holding forth about the issues. We waned to get some patina of the personal. Which seemed right because secrecy is always personal–even at the highest levels of executive power. As human beings, we’re constructed from out of myriad secrets.

Q: So many possible directions to go from here–I guess I have to choose, huh?

A: Go ahead [laughs]. We did!

Q: Right [laughs]. Oh, the agony of art: all the things that won’t happen because of one little choice or another.

A: It’s like growing up. You marry this person and not that person, you get this job and not that job…

Q: Oh, God, yeah… Okay, so here we go! The people you chose–ahem–for the film are ones who could bring an experiential perspective to the film. That’s also to say that they have a kind of passion, a hunger to express themselves, which is not always easy to get within a talking heads documentary situation. Are there things you and Peter did before filming to make the subjects want to be so forthcoming and articulate? Or did most of that energy come as a result of your careful selection of subjects?

A: It’s hard to know. But let me say this: For the first interviews that we shot, we went to the subjects’ environments–filming them in their offices, at home, et cetera. We worked very hard to make the settings as ordinary as possible, but there were always elements in the frame–a bookshelf, a desk, whatever–that seemed to distract the subjects and the film itself from this profoundly powerful, invisible, all but darkened space that secrecy occupies in our imaginations and in the U.S. government. So at that point we said, Well, maybe we should see whether our subjects could come to us. We could fly them to us [in Boston], we would shoot on a soundstage so that the environment is completely theatrical in a way, and very dark. It’s like the moviegoing experience: You’re in a darkened room, you’re looking at this beam of light, focusing your attention. That’s what we wanted: We wanted to focus the subjects’ attention fully, and the camera’s. And by choosing people from within the [secrecy] system–practitioners rather than pundits–and by not choosing famous people like former heads of the CIA and so on, we didn’t have people arguing their own failed policies and answering questions that weren’t being asked. And you didn’t bring the glare of celebrity into the room. These are people who wanted to tell us what they thought about things they felt were terribly underrepresented within the political discourse. We gave them the time to develop ideas. Hopefully we don’t have sound bites in the film, but paragraphs.

Q: The film is about secrecy, but it’s more a work of philosophy than investigation per se–it’s about the uncovering of ideas, not of facts, a meditation rather than an expose. It’s a humble film, in a way–which it could only be, really, in the face of these gigantic forces that even people with executive power can’t always have a full handle on. You get a sense of all of these people playing a three-dimensional tug of war, a sense that on some level they’re all patriots, fighting one another to realize their version of patriotism. You agree?

A: Yes. I think this idea of patriotism–of not shying away from patriotism as a thing to claim–is one of the things that sets up the film. If you’re in the intelligence community, you know things: You’re thinking very dark thoughts, you know things about the world that are frightening, and you’re doing your best to try to make the world safer–at least safer for Americans, if you’re in the U.S. intelligence community. In the film, we spend a fair amount of time showing the relationship between secrecy and the nuclear threat. Because that’s the scariest element, and it’s the thing that [secrecy officials] know better than anybody. We want that fear to leak into the movie, because that’s what you’re really addressing at some deep and fundamental level: Policy gets driven by the fear of some kind of nuclear calamity.

Q: Watching the film, you catch yourself thinking, You know, the need for government secrecy kind of makes sense. It’s not something that can be dismissed immediately. And it’s surprising to recognize that feeling.

A: I agree with that. I’m glad you think that from seeing the film.

Q: It prepares you for an overall experience in the film that, as we’ve said, is dizzying rather than stabilizing. The conclusion of the film isn’t a conclusion, really, but a continued feeling of irresolution. The biggest secrets simply can’t be uncovered.

A: I suspect that if we had made more of an expose film–an angry film–it would have gotten more attention in the press, a higher level of play. But that’s never the kind of film we wanted to make, not ever. There were friends of ours who were pissed off at us for not making a more angry film.

Q: That’s interesting. I don’t want to exaggerate by suggesting that anger is passé right now, but, in August of 2008, there is a natural sense of a long chapter being closed, a sense of looking ahead to a period that hopefully will be not so enraging as the last eight years have been. And since a lot has happened in the last nine months since Sundance, maybe those friends of yours who were pissed–for not being angry enough, funny as it sounds–would feel something different now that we’re seemingly on the verge of Hope with a capital H?

A: It’s hard to know. And also, in three or six months from now, the landscape will be different yet again. I know we wanted to make a film that was completely responsive to current events but not beholden to them, not tethered so tightly to them. I think the seductions of secrecy are present in every executive. Lyndon Johnson was one of the greatest abusers of secrecy and he was a Democrat. Issues of war often transcend issues of political party affiliation. While this [current] administration has been particularly and willfully bent on increasing executive power by every means necessary, including the abuse of secrecy, the problems are not going to go away if there’s a Democratic president next year. They’re not. And if there’s another [terrorist] attack on the horizon–and it’s hard to think there isn’t–then these issues of the problems of secrecy in a democracy will be raised again. I hope the film will have a life that evolves, that the film can be read in different ways in different political environments. We’d want the film to be open enough that it can be useful to people in thinking about these key problems.

Q: One of the interviewed subjects is a Washington Post reporter who says that his job is precisely to disrupt the government’s privilege of secrecy, to get new information to the readership, to the public. But newspapers, to put it mildly, have had a tough year. Does the film play differently than it did at Sundance [in January] as a result of the hits that print journalism has taken as a business?

A: It’s a good question. In a way, the ground is still moving under us, isn’t it? Speaking of current events, [Salim] Hamdan has just today been convicted by the military tribunal. We can’t really account for that in the film, obviously. And whenever you put explanatory titles at the end of a documentary, you’re basically shouting to the audience that you’re lost in time, scrambling to catch up.

Q: What do you want to say about Hamdan? How does the news strike you?

A: I think it’s horrific. This is a guy who was convicted of driving weapons from one place to another place in Afghanistan, in the service of al Qaeda–just a salaried guy who was hired by bin Laden to be his driver. Hitler’s driver, by the way, was never charged with war crimes, and actually made a lot of money from his position by writing books–his memoirs of life with Hitler. So of all the people out there who are enemy combatants, the one to prosecute is a courier making deliveries? A non-ideological guy, a poor guy from Yemen? This is the guy they convict on these grounds, for the first time since WWII? It’s basically a way to instantiate the military tribunals, which are a travesty–a means to undermine the entire legal framework of the United States. I’m afraid this signals that [the U.S.] will go forward with prosecuting other people, and that at a certain point we’ll just accept these tribunals as a reasonable way to deal with terror. I think it will further undermine our moral stature as living under the rule of law.

Q: When you look into your crystal ball, drawing from the things you discovered in making Secrecy, what do you see for the futures of Rummy and Rove, Cheney, Dubya. Once their administration has officially passed, will they be forced to face the music?

A: I think that’s very unlikely. There’s going to be no stomach to go after elected officials for these kinds of crimes. The Democrats will feel that if they do, there’ll be pushback from the Right. My guess is they’ll hold their noses and not indict. But I don’t know.

Q: Is that another way of saying that anger is yesterday’s news?

A: Hmmm. That’s very interesting. I don’t know. I do have the feeling from being on the [film] festival circuit and talking to filmmakers and seeing what’s up on the screen that people are a bit exhausted right now by all the polarization and vitriol, and they’re trying to find ways to maintain beliefs without expressing them in ways that polarize us ever more. Maybe that’ll be to the Left’s detriment. But I do think there’s some feeling out there now that anger is a dead end.

Q: You can measure that feeling purely in the realm of left-wing documentary, in the grosses that have, for the most part, been dwindling. People–audiences–are exhausted, as you say. The documentary wave certainly seems to have crested.

A: I know what you mean. All the Iraq War films tanked last year except for No End in Sight–which was a very angry film, and terrific, too, I thought. It’s hard to know. In some ways, you see that people are going to documentaries not so much to get their own beliefs reinforced–Michael Moore and his audience are an exception to this–but to be destabilized a bit. They like seeing other people’s points of view. And there’s something fascinating about that as a way of adjudicating the real. How do we know what the world is like? How do we know how to vote? How do we know what’s happening in the war, in the cities? How do we understand any issue, politics in general, the media? Actors are politicians, politicians become actors–the whole thing is very confusing. Even in academia, we don’t really know what to teach. What do we think an educated person should know? This is something that has been argued endlessly in liberal arts colleges for the last 10 or 20 years. It used to be that people kind of had an idea of what an educated person should know. Now we don’t.

Q: Many would say the mass media is in charge of these questions.

A: Well, if you work in documentary films, you’re at the frontline of the reality business. How do you make sense of the world? Religion used to do that: People went to church, to the synagogue, people spoke from the pulpit and talked about core values, about what kinds of stories made sense, how can we learn from those stories, what the world is really like. Documentary films are edging into that territory–not spiritually speaking, not exactly that, but in the ways of helping us understand what the world is like. I felt this way when I used to come out of movies in the 60s. I couldn’t wait to see what Antonioni or Godard or Bergman thought of this or that. It helped all of us. Leaving the theater, we wouldn’t even get to the sidewalk before we were talking about the movie. Another hour would go by before we made it to the café to talk some more. Because the world was being revealed to us in some way that was worth talking about. And I think people are having that kind of experience with documentary films. They want to talk about them.

Q: Which doesn’t necessarily lend to box-office grosses, you know? Maybe part of the reason why grosses are down is that the films are not easily digestible, that the genre is evolving.

A: I think that could be right. Certainly some line was crossed when people started being willing to go out–to pay $12 for tickets, pay for parking, pay for a babysitter–to see a documentary on the screen. Ten years ago that was not common. And now it is rather common that you have the opportunity to see these things. I think it’s partly driven by people’s discomfort with how we know the world, how we get our information about things that aren’t in our purview.

Lizzie Borden Took a Bolex…

“Born in Flames [by Lizzie Borden] is already controversial as one of the least assimilatable films for male viewers (they hate it) due to its assumption of an all-woman nonracist universe.” –B. Ruby Rich, Women’s Independent Film Festival, Minneapolis, 1983 “Anyone outside its target demographic of Trotskyite black lesbian separatists should avoid [Born in Flames] […]

Born in Flames [by Lizzie Borden] is already controversial as one of the least assimilatable films for male viewers (they hate it) due to its assumption of an all-woman nonracist universe.” –B. Ruby Rich, Women’s Independent Film Festival, Minneapolis, 1983

“Anyone outside its target demographic of Trotskyite black lesbian separatists should avoid [Born in Flames] at all costs.” –Nathan Rabin, The Onion, 2002

Onstage at the Walker 25 years ago, critic and scholar B. Ruby Rich read her “Feminist Avant-Garde” manifesto from a handwritten text, including its righteous shout-out to radical filmmaker Lizzie Borden, who only months earlier had brought her then-girlfriend Honey, star of Borden’s Born in Flames, to Rich’s 35th birthday party on the hottest day of summer in New York City. Scorching times, these. Just the night before Rich’s Walker symposium gig as part of the Women’s Independent Film Festival, a screening of Susan Sontag’s movie Unguided Tour had been shut down midway(!) by fest organizers at Iris Video in deference to what Rich, in her book Chick Flicks, calls a “feminist mob.” Rich, cultural historian and coiner of the term “New Queer Cinema,” cites this “abhorrent film exhibition behavior” as the “only case to my knowledge in which boredom achieved the status of censorable content.” Woo-hoo! Let’s hear it for the Minneapolitan mob feminism of 1983!

Now a quarter-century old, Born in Flames–screening Saturday night (7 p.m.) at the Walker’s “Queer Takes” fest, and hailed by former Twin Cities programmer Jenni Olson as “one of the most dynamic feminist films ever made”–also begins by proudly celebrating an anniversary: that of New York’s Social-Democratic War of Liberation, which 10 years earlier had brought equality to all, even Trotskyite black lesbians. Alas, Borden’s movie is a work of futurist fiction, albeit rendered largely in documentary form. “It is time to consider the progress of the past,” says an old white man in suit and tie, addressing the camera on a concrete square near Wall Street–evidence that the revolution has already passed, that only the counterrevolution will be televised. Or will it? Made guerrilla-style in 16mm for a mere $40,000, Borden’s Godardian salvo has her militant Women’s Army taking CBS video techs at gunpoint, forcing them to interrupt the U.S. president’s would-be pacifying offer of “wages for housework” with a special news bulletin from the black radical feminist underground. Sorta like Bolex-toting Borden bumrushing the Reaganist multiplex culture of 9 to 5, no?

Borden (née Linda Elizabeth Borden), who turned the big five-O in February, will never get an Academy Award for lifetime achievement or anything else: Listen closely to the soundtrack of Born in Flames and you can imagine hearing her say, while deejay Honey gets her gun, No sellout, no sellout, no sellout. Akin to Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song as a grainy, galvanizing fantasy of radical action against The Man, Flames is also extremely funny and enjoyably hyperbolic–the sort of movie that verily demands two or three exclamation points at the end of at least three (or four) aptly overblown sentences about it!!! The film’s very stridency, as in vintage blaxploitation, is no small part of its appeal: The white male villains are never more hilarious than when their evil is offhandedly exaggerated, as when an FBI agent surveilling our heroines half-heartedly instructs a colleague, as if ordering pastrami, “Put some pressure on them at their jobs.” At the other extreme, literally whistle-blowing distaff vigilante bike cops come peddling out of nowhere to halt a rape in progress, this before Borden’s even more sharply insinuating montage of female hands equates cutting hair to rolling a rubber over an unseen dude’s stiffy!!! (All in a day’s work!!!)

Interviewed years ago in Women and Performance, Borden claimed that criticism of her movie stemmed not from race and class–or from gender either, one presumes–so much as from sexuality. “People are really upset that the women [characters in the film] are gay,” Borden said. “They feel [the film] is separatist.” Whatever the source of the film’s continued provocation, it’s no minor accomplishment for Borden to have made a film that almost two decades after its release strikes an A.V. Club critic as a “pretentious mishmash of amateurish acting, dialogue stolen from a freshman text on Marxist feminism, bizarre montage sequences set to bad new-wave music, and simplistic leftist propaganda.” Whoa, man, your phobia is showing!!! With all due respect to The Onion, “Gay Pride Issue” included, I’d say Born in Flames is nothing less than a miracle–hilarious and exhilarating, at once angry and playful, a film for the ages. And with all due respect to “Queer Takes,” I’ll venture to guess that not one of its six new features will look in 25 years from now as young and hot as Born in Flames will when it’s 50.

The Walker Conquers Cannes

Cannes, France– Halfway through the Cannes Film Festival, which wraps up this weekend with the revelation of the Palme d’Or and other awards, two absurdly fortunate and extremely busy cineastes from Minneapolis somehow manage via phone, text, e-mail, and various psychic fax messages to schedule one those “ What’ve you liked so far?” chats. (Don’t […]

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Cannes, France–

Halfway through the Cannes Film Festival, which wraps up this weekend with the revelation of the Palme d’Or and other awards, two absurdly fortunate and extremely busy cineastes from Minneapolis somehow manage via phone, text, e-mail, and various psychic fax messages to schedule one those “ What’ve you liked so far?” chats. (Don’t worry: No spoilers here.)

But by accident, the curator and critic–the Walker Art Center’s Sheryl Mousley and moi–run into one another two hours before the agreed-upon time while queuing for the Dardennes brothers’ Lorna’s Silence, and decide to observe their own quiet. No talking until after the movie becomes Rule #1–the only rule, in fact–of our Dogme of Q&As.

Yet as rules are meant to be broken, we agree to make small talk in French (e.g., “ Le nouveau vol de NWA est magnifique, n’est-ce pas?”) until the lights go down. Then we suspend the discussion even further while trekking through the gargantuan Palais des Festivals to the fourth-floor meeting place known as Le Club. Eventually it trickles out, even before the microphone is on (quelle horreur!), that while we’re somewhat split on the Dardennes’ latest–Mousley’s thumb points straight up, mine sideways–we’re both big fans of Le Club, in particular its jus d’orange gratuit.

So roll tape–and cheers to free orange juice in Cannes!


Mousley, peeling back the curtain on the Film/Video Department’s theater of operations, explains that “judging the film is how everything begins” for her and assistant curator Dean Otto. As well it should. Last year, for example, Mousley’s Cannes screening of The Mourning Forest–“ a film I adored immediately,” she says–led to the Walker visit of Japanese director Naomi Kawase in March. “ Scheduling is always a major hurdle,” says Mousley. “ Filmmakers are filmmakers; when they’re not in production, they’re in pre-production or doing publicity or taking a rare vacation. But with Naomi, it worked perfectly for her to come in conjunction with the Women With Vision’ series.”

Though the next such series remains nine months away, Cannes isn’t too early for Mousley to focus on films by women here. The curator naturally has her eye on Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s brilliantly surreal La Mujer Sin Cabeza (The Headless Woman) as well as Kelly Reichardt’s follow-up to Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, which hadn’t yet screened when we met for OJ. Lamenting the dearth of women-directed films this year, I joke that maybe multimillion dollar baby (and Hillary Clinton supporter) Clint Eastwood could earn honorary inclusion in “ Women With Vision” for his direction of the strikingly feminist Changeling (starring Angelina Jolie); and perhaps he could bank frequent flyer miles to Minneapolis for having previously visited the Walker for the very first Regis Dialogue back in 1990, back in the pre-Unforgiven days when proclaiming Clint as an auteur was something close to radical.

“ Of course I’ve looked into whether Clint would come back [for another Regis],” says Mousley. “ But what I’ve heard from Pierre Rissient”–the Gallic “ man of cinema” featured in critic Todd McCarthy’s like-titled documentary–“ is that [Eastwood] doesn’t like to revisit old territory.” Not geographic territory, anyway, as Eastwood does trod generic turf repeatedly: Changeling, wherein Jolie plays a mother grieving for her lost son and suffering the rampant sexism of 20s and 30s L.A., harkens back particularly to the director’s Mystic River and A Perfect World as a critique of socially sanctioned exploitation and abuse.

Our juice glasses still half-full, like le festival itself, Mousley and I note that Changeling is the likely Palme pick for a jury headed by Mystic River‘s Sean Penn. But Palme or not, Eastwood’s star vehicle won’t face the slightest challenge in finding a screen, whereas one of the Walker’s chief missions is to usher in the unknown and otherwise endangered. To this end, Mousley is meeting tomorrow with a group of Iranian film exporters to discuss the details of a continued collaboration that would bring more Iranian cinema to Minneapolis at a time when it’s sorely needed anywhere in the United States.

“ Iranian cinema is tricky now, for obvious reasons,” says Mousley. “ Paying film rentals can be complicated, and then, of course, there’s the problem with visas for visiting [Iranian] filmmakers. So it’s very good for us to get together [with Iranians] to work through strategies for keeping these films on the [U.S. festival and museum] circuit.”

And with that, the conversation is fini: Mousley is heading to another meeting in the Marché du Film, and I’m gonna sprint up the Croisette to the Directors’ Fortnight, where Albert Serra’s El Cant Dels Ocells (Birdsong) will be featuring the brilliant screen acting debut of my Cinema Scope editor and friend Mark Peranson, playing Joseph, earthly father of…oh Lord, I almost gave it away!

Global Lens ’08: Come and Get It!

Metaphor alert: The Croatian protagonist of All for Free (Sve Daba), one of the films in the traveling series known as “ Global Lens,” grieves the violent deaths of his buddies by taking his humanitarian show on the road–rolling his tavern on wheels from town to town and giving away drinks to all comers, young […]

Metaphor alert: The Croatian protagonist of All for Free (Sve Daba), one of the films in the traveling series known as “ Global Lens,” grieves the violent deaths of his buddies by taking his humanitarian show on the road–rolling his tavern on wheels from town to town and giving away drinks to all comers, young and old.

Alas, All for Free (May 7 at 9 p.m. and May 10 at 7 p.m.) isn’t among the Walker’s complimentary screenings this year (those are on Thursday nights), but you get my drift: The movie’s bartending Goran (Rakan Rushaidat) could be nicknamed Global after the series that, like him, dispenses thirst-quenching culture to those in need.

Established by the Bay Area-based Global Film Initiative in 2002 as a response to the slow decapitation of developing-world cinema in the U.S. (the violent death of a buddy, you might say), “ Global Lens” wheels its cart to the Walker this week as part of a year-long tour that has included stops at the Museum of Modern Art and the Seattle International Film Festival, and will continue on to more than a dozen other locations from Palm Springs to Green Bay.

Minneapolis, thanks largely to the M-SPIFF‘s Al Milgrom and crew, hasn’t been nearly as parched as most U.S. cities when it comes to foreign-language film libation from beyond the West, but that doesn’t mean All for Free et al. isn’t a gift. Indeed, the tight focus of “ Lens,” with one picture from each of a mere 10 countries, lends far more easily than the mammoth M-SPIFF to thematic extrapolation.

Thus allow me to summarize the views from Croatia, China, India, Iran, Argentina, and the Philippines: “ The market for earthenware has crashed!”–or so it is said in Opera Jawa (May 11 at 3 p.m. and May 17 at 9 p.m.), justly hailed in January by the Village Voice‘s soon-to-be-former film critic Nathan Lee as a “ surrealist Indonesian pomo-folkloric/funkadelic musical-slash-avant-garde pop-and-lock revolutionary romance-slash-Hindu song-and-dance-installation art extravaganza” and a “ nonpareil Ramayana boogie-down gong drum with a tembang gamelan xylophone huzzah and super-tight moves on the wayang orang tip.”

Word yo, what he said–before the market for adjectives crashed, if not that for film crit in all of inkdom. My point here isn’t so much to sell you on the notion of wickety-wickety-wordwiggin’ Lee as an undeserving victim of new times (takes one to know one, perhaps), but to suggest that the age-old question of hinterland distribution (“ How will it play in Peoria?”) is relatively easy to answer these days, what with the market being both global and glum. Ye olde boogie-down gong drum could well beat even in Palm Springs–or anywhere an American can barely afford a “ Global” ticket when they’re not being given away. (Now’s the time to mention that the Chinese Luxury Car is free at the Walker on May 8; the ride will cost you on May 18.)

The title character of El Custodio (May 9 at 7 p.m. and May 14 at 7 p.m.) is fortunate enough to be gainfully employed–as bodyguard to a well-off politician. But he’s also an outsider, as ingeniously articulated by director Rodrigo Moreno in a film-long succession of shots that place the custodian on the periphery of the inner circle, away from the conversation. Taxi driver Travis Bickle would recognize him immediately as God’s lonely man, if you catch my meaning. Yet Moreno’s mapping of the separation between have and have-not remains cinematic not in terms of auteurist allusion (Godard and Scorsese can keep their trademark Alka-Seltzer zooms), but of spatial relationships in the frame and on the soundtrack. When the custodian eventually bridges those gaps, the moment–albeit rough–comes as a relief. (Well, sorta.)

More notes from underground: The Bet Collector (May 10 at 9 p.m. and May 16 at 9 p.m.) makes book on the seedy sides of Manila, where a quickie mart-owning mom must mix with numbers-runners to stay flush. And, though more upbeat than Bet, The Fish Fall in Love (May 11 at 1 p.m. and May 16 at 7 p.m.), from Iranian director Ali Raffi, finds another businesswoman forced into dirty work–cooking for the former flame who would extinguish her restaurant.

That both Fish Fall and Bet Collector are screening free for students (on the mornings of May 16 and 14, respectively) proves the worthy investment of “ Global Lens” in cross-cultural education. But the series, to its credit, doesn’t appear naive about the counterintuitive challenges of giving goodness away for nothing. Goran’s very first customer in All for Free is a Croatian grade-schooler who, when offered juice at no charge, laments that the generous bartender doesn’t have “ the white one” and walks away. Sorry kids, no Speed Racer on this track. But if Luxury Car doesn’t rev your motor, I don’t know automobiles.

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