A Hole in the Heart of Man, Out At the Edge of the World: Some Remarks On the Cinema of Lisandro Alonso

[Published in conjunction with NWFF’s Hot Splice]

“Why is manhood… an endless highway?” – Adam Zagajewski, Tierra del Fuego

Liverpool
Liverpool

The NWFF is to be commended for presenting a rare coup: a cycle of films that taken together evince a dedicated and visionary artist at work, the Argentine director Lisandro Alonso. The devoted following that Alonso’s work to date has commanded owes mostly to the fact that his films are both rarefied in their aesthetic and scarcely screened to audiences beyond the festival circuit. In a career that is nascent yet already overwhelmingly singular in style, here is a director who is clearly hitting his stride. We are fortunate to have the opportunity of seeing Alonso’s four features, and it is truly an  honor to have the director in attendance.

When Alonso’s debut La Libertad premiered in 2001, seeming to come out of nowhere save for its own rural milieu, it was a bit of an enigma to cinephiles. Was the story, much of it unfolding in real time in an unnamed outback in the Pampas, involving the quotidien labor of a woodcutter named Misael, a piece of documentary or fiction? Was Misael playing himself? Did such labor exist? And crucially, was this for real? And who the fuck did the director think he was, offering very little in the way of narrative save for the swinging of an ax, the buying of cigarettes, a ride in a pick-up truck with dog and timber, and the ritual slaying of an armadillo for dinner?

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Review: Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultravixens is a rowdy, funky, and occasionally obnoxious comedy which just happens to be one of the livelier entertainments of 1979. Meyer, of course, has long been known as an uncommonly talented filmmaker on the burlesque-house side of the industry, and—at the very least—his latest effort seems likely to more than satisfy his fans. The oversized female breasts, the nonstop libidinal overdrive, and the cartoonish sexual antics are all here in abundance. But there’s also a chance that word may get around about Beyond the Valley‘s generally happy mixture of sex, satire, and film art—in which case, some people may begin suggesting that this middle-American Rabelais’s new film is his masterpiece. The thing has a plot, but to summarize it would be to miss the point. It’s rather like what you would expect if a Henry Miller character had rewritten Our Town for serialization in Playboy or Penthouse. Better yet, and perhaps also worse, a Meyer press release describes the film thusly: “…an all out assault on today’s sexual mores and more—an end around attack against women’s lib—blasting through the male machismo syndrome—blasting the crap out of convictions, hang-ups, obsessions—the whole bag—sexually aggressive females, willing klutzy men, petroleum jelly, gingham and gossamer, tax-sheltered religion, black socks, bedroom prowess, bunko artists, big breast fixation, rear window red necks, therapeutic cuckolding, the sixty mile an hour zinger, born again immersion,” etc., etc.

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Review: The Runner Stumbles

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Though The Runner Stumbles fails to grasp what it reaches for, it offers some surprisingly telling moments in its humble look at the crisis of faith versus self-interest. The weight of the film is on the shoulders of Dick Van Dyke as a maverick priest exiled to a tiny rural parish, where his intellectual companionship with a young nun sent to teach in the parish school gradually stirs other feelings as well. Van Dyke’s uneven performance, often brilliant, just as often abysmally ragged, creates many of the problems in the film. Father Rivard says several times, for example, that Sister Rita’s presence renewed his faith and enthusiasm; but we never see this. In fact, it seems as if her appearance in Solona—a place where good people keep getting “stuck,” much as in John C. Fogarty’s Lodi—only intensifies his brooding by causing another problem for him to deal with, her sweetness-and-light approach proving insufficient to draw him off the darker side of human experience.

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Lisandro Alonso in Seattle and At the Edge of the World

Lisandro Alonso
Lisandro Alonso

The films of Lisandro Alonso, one of the most exciting and accomplished directors working to redefine filmmaking on the international stage, are showcased in Northwest Film Forum’s series “At the Edge Of The World: The Cinema of Lisandro Alonso” (November 11-20). The young filmmaker (in his early thirties) has made four features since his debut, La Libertad, in 2001. Only one of his films has been released on DVD in the U.S. (Los Muertos on Facets DVD) and all are making their respective Seattle screen debuts in this series. They are all well worth your time to see, especially on the screen. Alonso’s films are experiences, as much about the passing of time and the texture of his landscapes and the light upon his subjects (he shoots his films with available light, which has a particular way of sculpting his images) as the enigmatic characters and their journeys through their respective worlds.

Here’s a set of links to features, interviews and reviews on the filmmaker and his films, beginning with some pieces by Parallax View contributors and friends:

A Hole in the Heart of Man, Out At the Edge of the World: Some Remarks On the Cinema of Lisandro Alonso – Jay Kuehner (Parallax View)
Kathleen Murphy on Liverpool at TIFF 2008 (MSN)
Robert Horton’s review of Liverpool (Everett Herald)
Into the Wild: Sean Axmaker on Lisandro Alonso (The Stranger)
“Lisandro Alonso: Time, Space, Cinema” — Sean Axmaker (Parallax View)
“Making of Liverpool” videos (Hot Splice)

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Lisandro Alonso: Space, Time, Cinema

It’s surely dawned on Seattle cineastes that program director of Northwest Film Forum, Adam Sekular, has an affection for films that are minimalist portraits in time. Think back to the retrospectives of Pedro Costa and Albert Serra, as well as numerous defiantly non-commercial films on calendars past that are uniquely individual, resolutely observational and more concerned with the texture of scenes (from the ambiguous and guarded emotions of impassive performers to the way time passes on screen) than the narrative movement of story.

I’d say that’s a good description of the cinema of Lisandro Alonso, whose four features are showcased in Northwest Film Forum’s series “At the Edge Of The World: The Cinema of Lisandro Alonso” (November 11-20). I wrote an essay on Alonso and his films for The Stranger, but wasn’t able to get in everything that I was thinking about, so consider this a companion piece.

Alonso keeps company with Lucretia Martel (whose The Headless Woman just finished a run at NWFF) as the most exciting filmmakers to have come out of Argentina (is it the New Argentine Cinema or the New New Argentine Cinema?). Both are immersive directors with cameras that observe their subjects intently with little exposition and no commentary. Critics talk of cameras as microscopes. These directors are more like naturalists shooting fictional documentaries of subjects in their environments, but where Martel explores the thickets of messy lives at their most tangled and murky, Alonso prefers isolated subjects and lonely landscapes. And by isolated, I mean from other people.  These are not men (and Alonso’s protagonists are all men) who explain themselves. They are content in their silence as they sip mate or swig vodka from a bottle.

It’s about space, with and without people, and the passing of time, both subjective and objective. In La Libertad, his debut film, the spaces are all outside, in the forest, on roads, and the changing of the light from morning to afternoon to  dark of night is an essential element of the environment; in one shot, we see the late afternoon light dim until it turns dusk while he does his evening chores before settling down for dinner, his day literally keyed to the rhythm of the turning of the Earth. In Fantasma, those spaces are interior, from the emptiness of a vast modern theater lobby (it looks more like the foyer of a modern office tower designed not just to impress but to intimidate) to the emptiness of a theater auditorium where, at most, three people arrive to watch the movie. (I love how they all gravitate to clump within a couple of seats of each other, as if drawn to comfort of society, but never actually interact or even acknowledge on another.)

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Review: The Black Marble

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The second of his books that he has personally seen to the screen, Joseph Wambaugh’s The Black Marble might have been a better movie if Wambaugh & co. had not so assiduously aimed for a PG rating, and included more of the novel’s amusing raunch, verbal and sexual. The Wambaugh cop’s-instinct for the earthy and profane supplies a good deal of his writing’s sharpness; certainly his sense of characterization is not especially deep, and his inveterate inclination to sermonize about the policeman’s professional and personal lot in society could make for overbearing selfrighteousness without the piss-and-vinegar zest of his cops’ language and behavioral style. Some of this gets into the movie version of The Black Marble (which is faithful to the book in all essentials), but not nearly enough of it; and what there is tends to be robbed of its bracing pungency by Harold Becker’s direction. Only John Hancock as Clarence, the canny, sardonic black sergeant who really runs the Hollywood burglary division, credibly gets into the mode; the other actors are fairly popeyed with the effort to be street-funny folks.

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Review: The Onion Field

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Truth may be stranger than fiction, but it is almost always less interesting. The challenge facing Wambaugh in bringing his novelized “true story” to the screen was to preserve the interest and intensity that the actual events held for those who participated in them—to try to make the headline story as immediate for the viewer as for the subject. All of Wambaugh’s police bestsellers are based on fact to one extent or another; and the story goes that Wambaugh, fed up with the inadequacy of the film versions of his other books (The New Centurions, The Blue Knight, The Choirboys), decided to appoint his own producer and director, and write his own screenplay the way he wanted it done. Though the cops come off as saintly and the criminal element as irredeemable—unlike the more ambiguous characterization of the earlier Wambaugh-based films—The Onion Field is a qualified success, and probably actually is the best Wambaugh movie yet.

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Review: Star Trek – The Motion Picture

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Regarding the immense, murky, superintelligent cloud that threatens to destroy the planet Earth, one anonymous spaceperson remarks, “There must be something incredible inside generating it!” I wish the same could be said for the immense Star Trek—The Motion Picture, which disappoints by seeming to have no driving force at its center. The “something incredible” that the Enterprise goes up against during Old Home Week Among the Stars is a living machine wishing to collect all human knowledge and to link up with its Creator. It’s called … well, phonetically, Veejer—so that the cast sounds very silly when addressing this almost godlike entity. I wouldn’t dream of spelling out the explanation of that name, but it almost seems to have been suggested by the title gimmick of Zardoz (the name of an old book called The Wizard of Oz compressed into the futuristic word). It’s clever, anyway, and the whole Veejer episode is pretty engaging, just as the really good episodes of the old Star Trek TV series are.

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Review: Alien

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

As a horror movie, Alien is appropriately concerned with collective nightmares (being chased and caught; the monster is below us, now above us; someone we know is, in fact, not human), and lustfully derivative of the genre’s white-middle-class fears that give rise to the nightmares (loss of order, familiarity, and domination; community goes to hell). But the film has something more, at least in the first half: a developing narrative with an exclusive, integral logic of its own, built on ostensible collisions in logical flow. In other words, in its auspicious beginnings, Alien reminds one of more expressly surreal films. The difference is that Alien has an intentionally simple storyline derived from consistency in character types and motivations, including all nonhumans, machines, distant organizations, and the dead.

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Review: Yanks

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

As the donkey regards the carrot, so John Schlesinger looks on his screenplays: he either follows or swallows them. A follow-my-leader under the deadly misapprehension that he is an auteur, Schlesinger is happiest when partnering writers who share his tendency to scream Look at me, I’m an artist! With a Frederic Raphael (Darling) or a William Goldman (Marathon Man), he’s in show-off’s heaven, and his inability to provide the real impetus, the backbone, the solid core of a movie, the way a real artist would, is snugly disguised amidst a great deal of visual and verbal shouting. The cheesy verbal wisecracks of Darling are fleshed out by Schlesinger’s no less cheesy imagistic ones (e.g., fat ladies wolfing down the eats at an Oxfam bash), just as the greasy, lapel-seizing prose of Marathon Man is aptly pictorialised via such characteristic Schlesinger conceits as the shot of Lord Olivier framed distortingly through a glass tray whilst he slavers hammily at its contents, assorted gems. In both these movies, writer and director are as one in pretentious mediocrity, and each butters up the other. But with Schlesinger’s new film, Yanks, the screenwriters are two gentlemen with reputations for low-key, understated work, who would furthermore seem to have no great keenness for Schlesingerian ego-tripping. Colin Welland (the actor who played the cleric in Straw Dogs, and one of Britain’s best TV playwrights) and Walter Bernstein (The Front) appear only too ready to put their faith in their director and let him be the boss, guiding their scenario where’er he would lead it. And Schlesinger has no idea at all of how to be the leader, with the result that everyone gets swiftly lost.

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Review: Yanks

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Yanks is probably John Schlesinger’s best movie since Sunday Bloody Sunday, and certainly one of the best of his career. But for me that’s not really saying much, since I continue to have serious problems with this director’s approach, a self-congratulatory mock-sensitivity that seems insincere at best and often downright wrong. Here, at least, for the first time in years, Schlesinger has foregone his irritating penchant for unproductive intercuts and flashbacks, opting instead for a straight, period-faithful, romantic storyline about the impact of American soldiers-without-women on a Britain without men. But no matter how polished and relatively controlled he gets, there is always something about Schlesinger’s work that strikes me as shallow and ultimately inconsequential.

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Review: Hollywood’s Wild Angel

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

I’ve never had the opportunity to see Allan Arkush and Joe Dante’s Hollywood Boulevard;on the other hand, I suspect that I saw a fair portion of it in Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel,Christian Blackwood’s genial film dossier on Roger Corman, whose New World Pictures released the movie. From what we see, and from what Arkush and Dante gleefully confess to Blackwood’s camera and microphone, Hollywood Boulevardis an outrageous, pell-mell celebration/put-on of low-budget, high-energy exploitation filmmaking. A couple of wild’n’crazy kids with a movie camera rip off every cinematic opportunity in sight to produce a zany compendium of Z-movie sex’n’violence; the surrounding environment and not a few of its inhabitants get trashed in the process, but no big deal. Arkush and Dante, a pair of sweet-faced loons who would not look out of place at a freshman smoker, did the same thing in a slightly less destructive key—for instance, taking pictures of a few honeys firing submachine guns in Griffith Park, and splicing these in with borrowed Philippine footage of soldiers biting the dust—and then they showed the results to Roger Corman who said, Very funny, here’s the money for the lab costs, I’ll buy it. One always hoped things like that happened in Roger Corman’s neighborhood, and among the many pleasures of Blackwood’s 58-minute documentary is that that hope gets confirmed again and again.

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Review: The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

“…[W]e are afflicted with a secret police of a sort which I do not think a democratic republic ought to support. In theory, the FBI is necessary. For the investigation of crime. But in all the years that the FBI has been in existence, the major criminals – the Mafia, the Cosa Nostra – have operated freely and happily … the FBI has not shown much interest in big crime. Its time has been devoted to spying on Americans whose political beliefs did not please the late J. Edgar Hoover, a man who hated Commies, blacks and women in more or less that order.” Thus Gore Vidal (in Matters of Fact and of Fiction); thus, too, Larry Cohen, whose biopic of “America’s top cop” delivers a kick to the bureaucratic teeth with such uninhibited zest that as much exhilaration rubs off on the audience as outraged wrath.

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Review: American Gigolo

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Here’s the problem: (1) American Gigolo has just garnered a set of bad reviews of a kind that tell much more about reviewers, their blind spots and complacent assumptions, than they do about the movie. One would love to rub their professional faces in it, except that (2) American Gigolo is not a good movie, no matter that it’s a different kind of ungood movie than they suggested. Your basic consumer-reports journalist watches the bad guy open a window high above L.A. just before contemptuously dismissing the hero, and advises his readership that this is a very bad movie because the bad man is so obviously set up to fall to his well-deserved death. Basic c.-r. type has not noticed, save perhaps as a bewildering distraction, that most of the setups and movements in the film have involved people making pilgrimages from one frame-within-a-frame zone to another (against or outside windows, in or adjacent to doorways, against bookshelves, in cars, on beds; moreover, most of the time slashed, crisscrossed, and/or boxed by bold shadows). That another such frame-within-a-frame should figure so prominently, even flout plausibility, at such a crucial juncture in the narrative pilgrimage is—far from being a weakness—essential to the film’s design.

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Review: Quadrophenia

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

The movie starts out with a pretty good indication of what it’s going to be made of: A young man stares out over the golden ocean towards the sun, then turns and walks toward the camera, his silhouette remaining in the streak of sun on the waves. The camera tilts slightly so the sun is in the middle of the frame, and we cut suddenly to the front headlight of a motor scooter, charging forward at the reeling camera and driven by the same young man. Energy: that’s what Quadrophenia is about and what it is made up of. The characters in the story, British kids in the early-to-mid-Sixties, pour their energies into pills, violence, and sex, and into the collective search for self that found its expression in being part of a group—in this case, either of two extremist music factions: the rockers (getting behind Gene Vincent and traditional rock’n’roll) or the mods (The Who and the Kinks). We focus on one denizen of this world, a boy, Jimmy Cooper (Phil Daniels), who finds a more important family within the mods than he does at home, and who is happiest when popping blues and starting fights. Director Franc Roddam manages to make Jimmy a sympathetic character as we examine his isolation amid the spurious togetherness of the mods, and his search for identity. Yet unlike the James Dean character in Rebel without a Cause (which this film echoes occasionally), Jimmy doesn’t always seem to be aware of his own pathetic state. If he were a little more detached from his situation, we would at least have the feeling that there was a chance he’d break out of it. A shot of Jimmy sitting on his scooter, as we see his face reflected from four different angles in the rearview mirrors surrounding him, sums up his fragmentation: different sides, no center. His parents, who cannot understand (his father asks him “Who do yer think y’are, anyway?”—and Jimmy honestly does not know); the advertising agency for which he works, which manufactures images of phony-pretty reality; and his group, with their desperate/exultant dance after a riot, chanting “We are the mods!” repeatedly—they are all, as Rebel’s Jim had it, “tearing him apart.”

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