Friday, November 20, 2015

Best of the Avant-Garde 2015

This is the third iteration of this annual roundup of the year in avant-garde, and it has only gotten more difficult over that span to narrow down an entire twelve months of noteworthy accomplishments into an arbitrary list of favorites. For one, the term avant-garde, as broad and malleable as it’s ever been, is still a wholly subjective designation. Can a documentary be avant-garde? Can narrative shorts be avant-garde? Can widely travelled features be avant-garde? The answer is, of course, yes. So in the spirit of the proceedings, I haven’t placed any restrictions on the list you’re about to read, other than limiting it to eight selections, a number arrived at for no other reason than it happened to pop up on a few occasions as I began considering titles.

And this year, that pool of titles was larger than ever. I’ll certainly never claim any list to be definitive, but I will say that I watched more “avant-garde” films than ever this year: Essentially everything from Crossroads, Wavelengths, and Projections, with a number of select titles from Images and Ann Arbor and the odd regional program. Which is to say, a lot of excellent work was necessarily left out. So, before we begin, a quick tip of the hat to Scott Stark (Traces/Legacy), Eric Stewart (Wake), Mary Helena Clark (Palms), Ben Russell (Greetings to the Ancestors), Jonathan Schwartz (3 Miniatures), Lewis Klahr (Mars Garden), Blake Williams (Something Horizontal), Björn Kämmerer (Navigator), Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc (Sector IX B), Laida Lertxundi (Viva para Vivir), Margaret Honda (Color Correction) and Madison Brookshire (About 11 Minutes).

Feature: Natto Wada's Punishment Room (1956)

This piece was written for Reverse Shot's 'Unauthorized' symposium

Rewriting History
Natto Wada's Punishment Room

One of the great ironies of the auteur theory is that in its elevation of the director to the level of cinematic architect, it correspondingly neglects the efforts of its namesake initiate: that of the author herself. And in a primarily visual medium, the work of the screenwriter is of particularly precarious prominence. It’s much easier to appreciate the achievements of, say, a cinematographer or a visual effects team than it is to parse the contributions of what is ostensibly the emanating agent for all narrative cinema. Indeed, it can be difficult to quantify such influence on even a single film––for every Casablanca or Network, where the script is of equal, if not greater, notoriety than the more appreciable aesthetic aspects of the work, there’s a John Ford or Stanley Kubrick film of which little is noted with respect to its expositional elements. Attempting to trace a screenwriter’s sensibility over multiple films—to say nothing of a career—is, then, what we might call a potentially futile exercise in creative and critical categorization.

DVD Review: Julien Duvivier in the Thirties (1930-1937)

The first thing one notices upon encountering the world of Julien Duvivier is the mobility of his camera. Graceful and inquisitive, the French filmmaker's lens proved an instrumental tool not only in the formal conception of his films, but even more so in their narrative construction. Like many directors tasked with transitioning between the silent and sound eras of cinema, Duvivier was first and foremost a visual storyteller, a trait he didn't forfeit as he embarked on a fruitful career which stretched from the late-1910s well into the '60s. Though he was reluctant to capitulate to the mandates of sound, having made dozens of films over the decade prior, one rarely senses in his films from the 1930s an unsure hand, or detects a stubborn vision of cinema's evolving identity. In fact, his best work from the period so wholly integrates the converging capacities of the medium that it can be tempting to retroactively classify him as one of the progenitors of modern cinema itself.

Film Review: Gaspar Noé’s Love (2015)

Director Gaspar Noé’s reputation has been built on what one might generously deem the less dignified aspects of the human condition. If the Argentine-born filmmaker is by this point a “name” in international cinema, it’s in the most literal sense, as a headline-generating, controversy-stoking star of his own conception. Having already pushed the boundaries of violence, misogyny, and drug abuse (among other delightful subjects) in such purposefully provocative films as 1998’s I Stand Alone, 2002’s Irréversible and 2009’s Enter the Void, it makes a certain kind of sense that Noé would not only one day arrive at a full-blown sex flick, but at a full-blown 3D sex flick. In light of such considerations, that Love––née Gaspar Noé’s Love––fulfills all the titillating tenets of said genre is unsurprising; that it’s as simultaneously tender, touching, and even tasteful as its title implies is, for this filmmaker, the most shocking development of all.

Los Angeles Repertory Recommendations: November 2015


Less than six months after enthusing about the unlikely appearance of Jacques Rivette’s Duelle at Cinefamily, an even rarer work by the French new wave master is taking over the same venue for an entire weekend in mid-November. On Nov. 14 and 15, the thirteen-hour long Out 1: Noli me Tangere, one of the most infamously elusive, sought-after pieces of auteurist cinema, will screen in a new digital restoration, its eight parts divided over two days with designated bathroom breaks and a potluck of culinary delights to appease and appetize those brave enough to commit to such a gargantuan viewing experience. However, the film itself, a contemporary riff on Balzac’s History of the Thirteen starring a who’s-who of nouvelle vague icons (Jean-Pierre Léaud, Juliet Berto, Michael Lonsdale, and Eric Rohmer, among others), in its radical commingling of meta-cinematic improvisation and conspiracy theory dramatics, should provide more than enough visceral pleasures to reward the undertaking.


Nowadays John Cassavetes is most closely associated with the dozen films he made over three decades as a director, mostly independently financed works produced with a close group of friends and family. But Cassavetes also had a secondary career as an actor, which he maintained in order to fund his filmmaking and protect authorship over his work. Throughout November, the New Beverly Cinema pays tribute to Cassavetes the actor with a sixteen-film series featuring an array of beloved and less-recognized titles which speak not only to his underrated skills as a thespian, but also his collaborative acumen. Highlights include double bills of Andrew Stone’s The Night Holds Terror and Don Siegel’s Crime in the Streets (Nov. 4 and 5); Elaine May’s Mikey & Nickey and Giuliano Montaldo’s Machine Gun McCain (Nov. 11 and 12); Paul Mazursky’s Tempest and John Badham’s Who's Life Is It Anyway? (Nov. 18 and 19); Siegel’s The Killers and Robert Parrish’s Saddle the Wind (Nov. 22 and 23); and, finally, a two-night showcase of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (Nov. 27 and 28).


Beginning on Nov. 13 at Laemlle's Royal Theater, digital restorations of two little-seen films by the veteran French filmmaker Agnès Varda will each receive week-long engagements. Made back-to-back in 1986 and ’87, both Jane B. par Agnès V. (never before released in the U.S.) and Kung-Fu Master star international icon Jane Birkin. Her self-reflexive role in the former finds Varda placing her muse against a number of surrealistic backdrops as they playact and deliberate on the role of the performer, while in the latter, as a kind of surrogate figure, Birkin plays a woman approaching middle-age who unexpectedly falls in love with a teenage boy. A contrasting pair in both style and subject, the films also work as companion pieces of a sort, outlining the range of Varda’s thematic interests as well as her deft touch when interweaving elements of fiction and nonfiction into narratives just exotic enough to feel strangely familiar.


On Nov. 22, Los Angeles Filmforum presents a tantalizing selection of vintage films which cinematically respond to the JFK assassination in a variety of personal and provocative ways. Along with pioneering vérité filmmaker Robert Drew’s Faces of November, a document of President Kennedy’s funeral as told through the faces of his friends and family, there will be two films––Report and Television Assassination––by experimental icon Bruce Conner, a rare screening of Robert Russett’s collage animation Under the Juggernaut, as well as a hybrid piece entitled The Eternal Frame, in which director T.R. Uthco and the Ant Farm collective reenact the events originally captured by the camera of Abraham Zapruder at the site of the actual assassination. The evening, hosted at Filmforum's usual home at the Egyptian Theatre, will then conclude with a reading from Don DeLillo’s Underworld and an edited presentation of the Zapruder Film itself. [THR]