A classic of Cuban Marxist-inflected cinema, director Tomas Gutierrez Alea’s La Ultima Cena offers an intimate portrait of the paradoxes that arise when attempting to reconcile “Western” Christianity and slave life on the plantation. Focused on a slave master’s self-fashioned “benevolence”, La Ultima Cena examines how slave masters’ self-regarding visions of personal sacrifice – their collective belief that they were moral patriarchs sacrificing for their slaves in hopes of “teaching” them “civilization” – couldn’t but require them to engage their slaves in ways which sometimes invited the latter to announce their humanity through means the master wasn’t likely to want to hear. Alea’s film depicts slaves themselves debating real freedom on the sham stage of a master’s faux-freedom, pushing liberation’s meaning well beyond the pale of what their master could possibly imagine.
La Ultima Cena’s centerpiece is its title: a slave master, the Count, picking a dozen slaves and staging a pantomime of the Christian Last Supper, with the master occupying the ostensibly servile role of Jesus Christ. Shielded by his belief that slaves are relatively unthinking “beasts”, the Count negligently assumes that he can use this show of servility and equality to easily colonize the contours of the slaves’ minds, incapacitating their resistant hearts with his own deluded belief in his own humility and morality. He assumes that they will not resist his show of compassion, and that they will abide by his terms.
Throughout this feast, the Count tries to bond with his slaves, his physical position at the table – akin to Jesus’ in traditional images of the Last Supper – all the while asserting his own view of himself as the most religious and pious, as well as the most sacrificing of all. In contrast to the slave driver Don Manuel, who the master argues has no place in Heaven because of his hungry and violent desire for power, the Count fashions himself as a charitable owner, underwriting his position as divine will. The film foregrounds this self-vision in an early shot in which the Count, with a figure of Jesus on the cross in front of him, extends his arms outward to mirror the image of Jesus only so that a servant can finish dressing him. Insofar as the Count here (and throughout the film) offers himself up to the film, to us, to bask in his benevolent charity, Alea undermines and ironizes his piousness by virtue of the fact that he is being served rather than serving anyone but himself. Continue reading
Koyaanisqatsi offers what can only be described as a radical defamiliarization of humankind, treating civilization as a known-unknown and humanity as an alien artifact. Famously soundtracked by Phillip Glass’ gloriously minimalistic score, Godfrey Reggio’s first of three environmentalist impastos offers a symphonic image of the human experience, contradictions and curiosities existing in tenuous, frictive harmony. Transparently environment and even polemical, Reggio’s film is less a plea for salvaging the environment than a call for a new kind of perspective on existence: the camera turning, warping, acknowledging its mediation of nature’s might and igniting the potential of the natural world that is often taken as backdrop, a mere resource to be plundered rather than imaginative energy to be mined.
Generally, Reggio’s film operates as a kind of Benjaminian phantasmagoria, a portrait of modern life as a wandering world of ghosts and specters selling newness only to, in reality, repackage preexisting forms in more spectral variations. Koyaanisqatsi primarily emphasizes the lost and the adrift: a decayed, destroyed past looming in the distance (if only we look) what it sees as the increasingly phantasmic presence of modernity, ever-present but always so rushed and mutating that it never quite settles into corporeal, stabilized form. Images blur and bleed, weave and warp, becoming ghostly half-presences of themselves, as though appearing and becoming irrelevant so immediately that they cannot even settle or corporealize. The shots cannot even materialize; the material world – and modernity’s fetish for the tangible – paradoxically denatures itself. Every material image seems to fade into its negative mirror-image or partial half-presence, mimicking and mocking the herky-jerky hustle-and-bustle immediacy of modernity by envisioning a world where nothing is stagnant anymore, where the possibility of cohesiveness and completion is fallacious at the very level of the image. Continue reading
Sydney Pollock’s Jeremiah Johnson is, paradoxically, a resolutely, almost defiantly, old-school production, but it discovers a modernistic rejection of modernity in this very backward-looking milieu. As a Western, its interpretation of nature and mankind within it finds imaginative camaraderie with American art dating back to the Romantic painters of the mid-1800s who looked to nature – America’s bounty, they felt – to rebel against the earliest American painters, who mostly copied European high-art style, which codified as individualistic portraits lionizing heroic figures. These mid-1800s American painters, the first art rebels of the American vernacular, sought to uncouple themselves from European identity and establish a uniquely American sensibility. They found safe harbor in ruminating on, and enlarging the imaginative mythology of, the landscape, prophetically proposing – and thus clarifying into being – that America’s identity would be corporealized in the society-shunning, and paradoxically society-creating, individualism of a transient, undomesticated life on the road and through the forest. Continue reading
Recast as a fair-weather Hollywood rebel with Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys – breaking the rules only just enough to accrue a superficial glaze of strangeness – Chris Marker’s La Jetee is the real deal. It’s as aesthetically radical as any film this side of, well, Hiroshima, Mon Amour three years earlier, at least, but La Jetee was released in the most aesthetically radical period of cinema ever, so “as (blank) as any film since (blank)” has the misfortune of not really working here. Marker’s short-film is an elegy for the cohesive illusion of time as a passive process, as an unalienable fact to be perceived identically by all and regurgitated out by scores of films more or less in unison. Most films grant themselves safe passage to erase time, to treat time as a background specter to be shocked into corporeality when a film needs to increase its own stakes via a ticking clock bomb or parallel editing that expands time to increase suspense. Films escape time, essentially, and they ask us to escape with them; they whisk us away, projecting a parallel universe where the events of the world are liberated from death, from age, from vulnerability to the physical realm, to the material reality that conditions their own existence. Continue reading
Contrary to its reputation as a one-sided morass of sobriety, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is prismatic in its consciousness, a fitful and lithe creature that can crawl on its belly like a dark acolyte of existential Swedish woe one minute and cartwheel to celestial fields of comic (and cosmic) foolishness the next. Although accruing the dredged-in reputation of a stilted monolith afforded to only the most holier-than-thou, protected-by-the-Vatican masterpieces, Bergman’s film is a Janus-headed creature that matches its bristling dread and ability to turn terror into torpor with a spontaneous brio and elastic mood permissive to sparks that constantly disturb any tonal equilibrium. The film’s detractors conveniently fail to notice its many appetites, such as how it leverages it doleful imagery for its more amusing undercurrents, or how it teases out symbols that are as cheekily self-reflexive as they are morbidly pious. And, although Bergman’s representation of Death has been parodied too many times to count, none of them match Bergman’s Death and his statuesque, unwavering anti-charisma for sly suggestion. The film’s detractors are more-so trapped in a state of arrested development than the film. Continue reading
Blake Edwards does Jacques Tati in this natural evolution (or devolution, if you prefer) of the unwinding chaos of The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark. Toying with the perception of physical space and middle-century domesticity, The Party begins with a simple premise – an Indian actor adrift and misconstrued in a bourgeois Hollywood party – and stokes into a case for pandemonium as an ultimate liberation. If his fellow Brit Richard Lester was uniquely keyed into the beats of Beat and the menace of Mod, Edwards’ film seems to find a mantra for life in visual bedlam. Charting a path from lone Indian infection in a white person’s world to full-bore mansion pandemic, Edwards not only massages an ethnic minority’s failure to assimilate into virtue but ignites it to demolish the implicit codes, customs, rituals, and aesthetics of the Western bourgeoisie. Continue reading
The path of least resistance for Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism is to demarcate its boundaries to the realm of a frank and unadorned depiction of sex in all its musty and fleshy glory. This is itself highly valuable, especially as a respite from, and a riposte to, decades of puritanical and repressive arms of society and cinema that have abstracted the body beyond itself symbolically to make it more than itself and, in doing so, less than itself, unable to acknowledge the fact that the body’s tangibility cannot be contained by a symbol.
Even early on, though, the film opens its iris dramatically beyond the mere revelation of a de-sexualized, anti-puritanical, matter-of-fact observation of sex; the earliest “hard-core” imagery of explicit sex is not glimpsed straight-on but tellingly refracted through a malarial yellow lens that fractures the image into a prism of multiple parts, not unlike a facsimile of a bug eye. Already, the film seems more invested in the process of filming, viewing, and discussing sex rather than simply sex itself. The act of sex it seems, is constructed and defined by the representation of the act, and the way we perceive sex imaginatively – or perceive anything imaginatively – is inextricably a part of the act, the thing, itself. Sex then is not an essential act – a moment of coitus – which is foundationally defined as one action but diluted or denatured by the social warp of conversational misgivings, euphemisms, and refusals to discuss in honesty. All of these uses and abuses of sex and the body in the media are part of how we define and construct the body, which cannot exist separately from the terms we use to describe it. Which is to say: the idea that the body and its actions are somehow salvageable from the specious ways we consider sex in social discourse is a ruse, an ersatz hope to return to a pure depiction of something that is always actively being changed around us. Continue reading
Not simply a nostalgic death-trip into the nooks and crannies of memory, the virtually unknown Jerome Hill’s filmic autobiography represents a filmmaker kindling his impending demise into a reason to forage for new refreshment in the untested future of the imagination. Although beset by illness, he tackles previously unexplored currents of the self in the present, specifically the mind’s capacity to invent, predict, and propose partial and potential futures for itself. More conventional passages as temporary pause points rather than the overall skeletal framework, Hill largely deposes the rulebook for autobiography and, particularly, the almost infernally dull, antiseptic tone of most cinematic biopics. Whereas many biopics devolve into trials by information or an unceasing march of event rather than a parade of exploration or dangerous cinematic interpretation, Film Portrait does not define life by moments lived so much as moments imagined in the life of the mind. Film Portrait is, one might say, overtaken with death, but in rumination on the past and projection into the future, it reenergizes the cinema of the then-present. It is a film as vital and coursing with life as anything the American New Wave young-bloods like Scorsese could muster at the time. Continue reading
Released in a time of mass-scale social disruption and near-cataclysmic unrest of a decidedly corporeal character, the Maysles’ Brothers’ Salesman is careful to remind us that plain old fashioned social malaise and boredom had not dissipated either. While Southern men were burning crosses, as Neil Yong reminds us, they also sometimes cared less about “what their good book said” than whether hoking the word of the Bible could provide them a stable living. Southern men, and Northern men too, all bible salesmen. And all drowning in the mire of the mid-century American Dream failing them in small, pin-prick increments by the day.
Or maybe they do care what their good book says, since the gospel of self-effort and the Protestant work ethic is among the primary verbal barrages they suffer from, mostly at the hands of their boss. The four bible salesmen at the center of the film, on the prowl for souls in New England and Florida, bear animalistic nicknames in the film – the Bull, the Rabbit, the Gipper, and the Badger – that both evaporate their humanity and insinuate connections between their wiry door-to-door sales pitches and foraging for food. But if these men prey on the public, they are prey themselves to their middle-manager, the bossman, who preaches the late capitalist doctrine of personal agency and, more importantly, self-responsibility, framing every effort of theirs as their only path to a moral life and every drop in sales an indicator of their personal inefficiency in the capitalist tradition. The locus of success squarely constrained to the personal, the crisis at the center of Salesman may seem far removed from Vietnam or Kent State or Altamont, but it is no less indicative of the troubling corridors of capitalism at its most insidious and self-paradoxical. Continue reading
Cross-pollinating drift-less images of New York City – disabused of cause and effect linkages – and vocalized letters written from director Chantal Akerman – in New York – to her mother in Belgium, the urban miasma in News from Home is at once bereft of life and brimming with space to impregnate with meaning. Partially, the film is a compendium of an adventure by a still-jejune filmmaker, Akerman, who was nonetheless extraordinarily knowing and prematurely wise beyond her years. But rather than a carefully synchronized, highly stylized metropolis with scores of people and interlocking pistons of motion bordering on entropy, Akerman sketches New York as an inoperative world that could easily be Venus, or a Tarkovsky film. This is New York as disembodied specter. Continue reading