A decent, competently-made documentary by Brendan Toller about the life of Danny Fields, a mover and shaker – here described as a ‘connector’ – in the American music scene for most of the 1960s and 1970s. Your enjoyment will probably depend on your interest in the cultural stories of the era, as the film describes in reasonable detail Danny’s time spent with Andy Warhol and The Factory in-crowd, his life as a pop magazine editor, his subsequent years as a talent scout with Elektra – he says he’s the guy that told the label to release The Doors’ Light My Fire as a single – and his long-standing friendships with Nico, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, David Bowie and more. He also managed The Ramones during their early years, so you can see there’s a lot of rock mythology to fit in here, but Toller does a decent job of paying as much time as possible to it all. Fields is an intelligent guy with a varied career behind him, so his interviews are enjoyable to listen to, and the other talking heads are engaging, interesting figures in their own right: Judy Collins, Iggy, Lenny Kaye, Wayne Kramer, Alice Cooper, Jonathan Richman and more all say nice things about the subject. The animations that are used occasionally feel a bit cheap and scrappy, though maybe that’s understandable for a Kickstarter-funded project. (***)
Crystal Moselle’s documentary The Wolfpack focuses on the seven teenage siblings of the Angulo family (though it’s primarily about the six brothers and less so the sole sister), who were all home-schooled in New York City and kept apart from the outside world for most of their young lives. Their father Oscar held the only key to the family’s apartment, and for many years he stopped the children and his wife Susanne from coming-and-going as they pleased; one of the brothers wistfully points out during an interview here that in some years the kids didn’t get to go outside at all. It’s understandable, then, that their development has been stunted to a certain degree, and part of the film shows the brothers tentatively getting to grips with the outside world, now that they’re allowed to leave the building. Somewhat disappointingly Moselle’s film doesn’t specifically reveal why the situation has changed, although we do discover that the eldest brother Mukunda disobeyed his father in 2010 and explored the local neighbourhood in a mask before being arrested by police, which seems to have been the catalyst for change.
Yet this is also a film about films, to a certain extent. During their years of confinement the Angulo children developed an enyclopaedic love of cinema, and home movie footage incorporated here suggests that a certain amount of creativity was encouraged within the family’s Lower East Side apartment; we see the kids studying movies such as The Dark Knight, Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction et al, before creating their own screenplays, props and costumes, and enacting their own versions of these perennial favourites. The short clips are oddly fascinating, encompassing shootouts in the hall and car chases in the bedroom, with great attention paid to detail; the re-staging of the scene in Pulp Fiction in which Jules and Vincent clear blood and bits of brains from their car shows how seriously the boys were about their joint hobby, and there are some wonderful DIY elements to the productions, such as Mukunda’s Batman costume, which looks the part even though it’s made out of painted cereal boxes and torn-up yoga mats.
Understandably cinema is presented as a means of escape, though in actual fact the films also become indicative of the kids’ captivity, as they’ve all been watched indoors on a TV screen, and it looks like DVDs have been used as a means to keep the boys docile; this only really hits you when you see them going to an actual theatre for the first time, filled with excitement. Unfortunately the documentary doesn’t really offer much in the way of insight beyond this. The filmmaker has been criticised for not pushing the father of the family hard enough during her interviews, and as a result Oscar Angulo isn’t taken to task for his controlling behaviour or the physical abuse endured by Susanne (this is mentioned only briefly), but in Moselle’s defence it’s possible her access would have been revoked had she taken a more obtrusive, aggressive presence. You’re left with a fascinating film that is almost totally reliant on its story, which is fine, but I can see why people experienced a degree of frustration as a result of any passivity. It may be a simplistic way of looking at things, but the documentarian’s first job is to report back on what she has found, and she has done.
Directed by: Crystal Moselle.
Starring: Bhagavan Angulo, Govinda Angulo, Jagadisa Angulo, Krsna Angulo, Mukunda Angulo, Narayana Angulo.
Cinematography: Crystal Moselle.
Editing: Enat Sidi.
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans, Aska Matsumiya.
Running Time: 89.
I gather that the mere mention of Sebastián Silva’s name is enough to cause some cinephiles to angrily wave their clenched fists about in a frenzy, but I couldn’t see anything in the Chilean’s latest films that would reasonably warrant such an outburst. For an hour or so this New York-set drama – in which the director also acts – potters along unremarkably, alternating between gently mocking its thirty-something hipster characters and sweetly showing their good sides; a bit like a Noah Baumbach movie, I suppose, though it’s not as witty or as engaging, plus there’s an underlying threat of violence here. Silva’s character Freddy is a performance artist, whose forthcoming new piece Nasty Baby will see him strip off and act like a baby in front of a black curtain, while it also seems to involve various friends and oddly-photoshopped images; he’s in a relationship with Mo (Tunde Adebimpe, lead singer with the band TV On The Radio), and together the pair are trying to impregnate their single friend Polly (Kristen Wiig), who feels her biological clock is a-ticking. This is partly the film’s focus, though gradually we see more and more of a mentally ill man called The Bishop (Reg E. Cathey), who hangs around outside their appartment building and gradually begins to cause the three a variety of headaches (a situation they escalate to a certain degree through a childish prank). The final act includes the kind of wild switch in register that’s starting to become a little tiresome in independent cinema, and Silva uses a few incidents to take Nasty Baby in what is supposed to be an unexpected direction, which does at least jolt the film out of its cosy neighbourhood vibe. It becomes something darker, edgier, and indeed nastier, but I’m not convinced it works, despite the best efforts of the actors involved, and it leaves a sour taste in the mouth regarding the fate of one of the characters, which I guess is supposed to be the point. Cathey – who has shined in TV shows like The Wire and House Of Cards – is good, and there’s a nice supporting turn by Mark Margolis as a friendly neighbour of Freddy and Mo’s.
Directed by: Sebastián Silva.
Written by: Sebastián Silva.
Starring: Sebastián Silva, Tunde Adebimpe, Kristen Wiig, Reg E. Cathey, Mark Margolis.
Cinematography: Sergio Armstrong.
Editing: Sofía Subercaseaux.
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans.
Running Time: 101 minutes.
[Note: this is the second film in my 2016 Blind Spot series. For a list of the other well-known or well-respected films I’ve already watched or I’m going to be watching for the first time this year, see this post.]
When I think about the American New Wave I tend to picture the male actors who were prominent throughout: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Ryan O’Neal, Dustin Hoffman, Randy Quaid, Gene Hackman, Elliott Gould, and then later on Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and John Cazale. There are many more, of course, and I’m not about to suggest that the work by the likes of Faye Dunaway, Ali McGraw, Julie Christie or Ellen Burstyn doesn’t stack up. It’s just that the period leaned heavily towards the men. Hardly surprising: lots of male directors, male writers, male producers, so it wasn’t so much ‘New Hollywood’ as ‘More Of The Same Hollywood’. If you look at a list of relevant films you’ll see that the majority featured principal characters played by men, and women tended to appear in supporting roles; there are comparatively fewer films from the era about female characters, even if the traditional idea of the noble, strong male hero was left in tatters by 1975. But anyway, this imbalance is what makes Klute all the more valuable. It may be named after the male private detective John Klute, played by Donald Sutherland, but for large parts he feels like an afterthought, and it’s clear that director Alan J. Pakula was far more interested in Jane Fonda’s prostitute Bree Daniels. Because of the name of the film I’d always just assumed it was a straightforward male-cop-protects-vulnerable-female deal – which it is, at its most basic level – so the strength of the Daniels character, and the attention lavished upon her, came as something as a surprise, even though I already knew Fonda picked up an Oscar for her performance.
Bree is by far the most interesting character in Klute. She works in New York City and seems to feed off the electricity of Manhattan’s counterculture / underground / underworld, and the fact that it makes outsiders like John Klute feel uneasy. She is completely confident in her own ability to handle her customers, even though – as we learn – every now and again she will happen upon an abusive man or a client who takes things even further than a beating. Her prostitution is evidently paying for a certain lifestyle – her desire to carve out an acting career is less successful in terms of rent-paying – but working in the sex trade is something that she wants to do, rather than something she is forced to do; she feels that it gives her power, and an outlet through which she can pretend to act, to pretend to be someone else. She does question whether she wants to continue, though: we see Fonda deliver long monologues, in which Bree discusses her mental state and the idea of sex addiction, among other things, with a psychiatrist.
Klute, though not exactly an alpha male, offers a degree of protection when Bree starts receiving crank calls and becomes the latest potential target of the film’s antagonist; she uses him for this at first, but gradually develops feelings for him, which concern her as it may lead eventually to…marriage? But she also toys with him, taking the investigator to the apartment of her old pimp (Roy Scheider) during the period in which Klute is beginning to fall in love with her. She taunts him about the fact he’s a square, leading him into a fairly wild-looking club and enjoying his lack of comfort. The set-up leads us to think that she needs him, but in actual fact it’s less clear-cut than that, even though the story by Andy and Dave Lewis includes one of those finales in which the male hero swoops in to save the day. Fonda’s character is vulnerable as she is the target of a psycopath and a serial killer, but she’s also presented as strong, intelligent and independent; this article from The Quietus at the end of last year points out that her clothing in several scenes even resembles the kind of chain-mail armour you’d expect to see on a figure like Joan of Arc.
Pakula turns our expected idea of the cop/prostitute/stalker dynamic completely on its head at times, and Klute is all the more refreshing for it. Even more impressive is the director’s ability to create a feeling of paranoia in the film, which increases gradually, as you’d expect. This was the first film in his so-called ‘paranoia trilogy’, the other two being The Parallax View and All The President’s Men, and he achieves this mood partly through shot choices – close-up reaction shots, mainly – and partly via highly effective sound design. There’s a discordant, unsettling soundtrack by Michael Small, in which voices seemingly float out of the ether, adding a degree of early-70s trippiness to proceedings, but Small was equally adept at writing freaky disco songs too (I used to DJ here and there in London, and would play this number). Then there’s the insistent butting-in of telephones, which pepper the film and preclude the two main characters from sharing intimate moments; they are a constant reminder to Klute that he is supposed to be working, and a reminder to Daniels that she is in danger. Surveillance is a key theme; the film opens with a tape recording, and a tape reel whirring round, and there’s a constant feeling of privacy being invaded with bugs planted and recordings played back to unsettle the characters. One thinks instantly of Francis Ford Coppola’s later film The Conversation whenever you see them, but in Klute it’s almost as if recording devices are being used as weapons in mind games, and to terrorise Daniels. We also see things from the perspective of the stalker; the camera, wielded by no less a figure than Gordon Willis, peers in through a skylight, watches from across the street, lurks at the back of a shop, always watching Bree Daniels.
There’s no doubt that Klute is dated by its milieu, as well as its dialogue, and by today’s thriller standards the film is light on action; Pakula is less interested in grandstanding, relief-inducing showdowns and more interested in ensuring the tension remains constant. But we’re crying out for intelligent, unsettling, offbeat mysteries like this today, and it’s anti-formulaic aspects – particularly the enhanced focus on the stalked, rather than the stalker or the protector – mark it out as a deeply unusual film. It’s enhanced to no small degree by Fonda’s excellent performance – perhaps a career best – and the discordant, dizzying soundtrack, which ranks as one of the finest of the era (in terms of the ones that I’m aware of, of course).
Directed by: Alan J. Pakula.
Written by: Andy Lewis, Dave Lewis.
Starring: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Roy Scheider, Charles Cioffi, Dorothy Tristan.
Cinematography: Gordon Willis.
Editing: Carl Lerner.
Music: Michael Small.
Running Time: 114 minutes.
I haven’t found many comedies or comedy-dramas in 2015 that have tickled my funny bone, but Appropriate Behaviour had me smirking away regularly, primarily because of the razor sharp screenplay and lead performance by Desiree Akhavan (who is also the director). This is a concise story about a bisexual Iranian-American woman named Shirin, and the failure of her fairly long-term relationship with Maxine, a fellow twenty-something played by Rebecca Henderson. It also serves as an outlet for Akhavan’s sardonic skewering of Persian culture – as it exists within the demographic of upper-middle class New Jersey families, at any rate – as well as Brooklyn’s infestation of hipsters. The latter probably deserve a break now, and as soon as a millennial with a beard or a tattoo appears here you know they’re only in the film to say something ridiculous before disappearing, but I can’t think of many recent scripts that have picked hipsterdom apart quite as successfully as this one. Noah Baumbach’s last three films have done so to a certain degree, but Akhavan seems to really know the bars, the parties, the apartment interiors and the types, plus she brings a conspiratorial air to Appropriate Behaviour that I find irresistable: Shirin comes close to breaking the fourth wall on a number of occassions, and you feel like the lead character is about to stop and ask you if you can believe what you’re seeing and hearing, even though that never actually happens. Many of the laughs come from awkward silences or near-double takes, and in a strange way the humour here reminded me of the UK version of The Office, which is jam-packed with similar techniques, even though the subject matter is completely different.
It’s a snarky, slightly bawdy and droll comedy, but it also has heart. The use of occasional flashbacks as a means of telling the story of Shirin and Maxine’s relationship is a device that will be familiar to most viewers, but the intimate scenes themselves are well acted and believable enough for that not to matter too much; we see the couple meet on a doorstep outside a New Year’s Eve party, trying to out-cool one another, and then there’s the honeymoon period, followed by a gradual cooling-off and plenty of bickering before they finally split. Part of the problem is the fact that Shirin has not told her family that she likes women as well as men; it infuriates Maxine, who is proud of the fact that she herself is out, even though it has led to estrangement from her family. Shirin is reticent, partly because she knows the reaction of her parents will be negative, and perhaps partly because she’s not quite sure about her own sexual preferences: she sleeps with both men and women during the course of the film, and tells people that she is bisexual, but she seems to derive little or no pleasure from men and a lot more from women. There’s also a sweet subplot about Shirin’s new job as a movie-making teacher in a Park Slope kindergarten, which culminates in one of the funnier scenes I’ve seen this year, a stellar takedown of pretension that comes laced with cringeworthy embarrassment and juvenile fart jokes. The whole ‘break up and move on’ thing may be nothing new, but this is a good example of the way an unusual perspective can breathe new life into such a story, and Akhavan is a very funny writer and performer. It’s just a shame there isn’t more of it: Appropriate Behaviour is several minutes short of an-hour-and-a-half, and I could have happily sat through way more.
Directed by: Desiree Akhavan.
Written by: Desiree Akhavan.
Starring: Desiree Akhavan, Rebecca Henderson, Halley Feiffer, Anh Duong, Hooman Majd, Arian Moayed, Scott Adsit.
Cinematography: Chris Teague.
Editing: Sarah Shaw.
Music: Josephine Wiggs.
Running Time: 85 minutes.
Having read a couple of articles about Chantal Akerman earlier this year I’d made a mental note to actually watch some of her films. Months passed, as they do, and then earlier this week the Belgian director sadly passed away, at the young age of 65. Perhaps now is as good a time as any to start, and I’ve chosen News From Home first, a 1977 documentary that combines Akerman’s 16mm footage of New York City with readings of letters she received from her mother between 1971 and 1972, when she first moved to the city.
Released a year after her most widely-celebrated film – Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles – it could be described as a personal essay, less a love letter to New York and more an exploration of the sense of alienation and loneliness people experience when they first move to a city, though of course one should be wary of projecting. For this film Akerman trained her camera on Manhattan’s pre-gentrified streets and stitched together a series of long shots with the help of Francine Sandberg, later recording herself reading the content of her mother’s letters out loud and adding the voiceover to the assembled, edited footage (there are also diegetic sounds of the streets on the soundtrack, though sometimes these do not actually match up with the footage on screen, which suggests they may be field recordings made separately or that she deliberately jumbled the sound recordings made with the images). The camera is always fixed, never looking left, right, up or down, just straight ahead towards the horizon. At the beginning the footage tends to be of quieter streets, which look like they could be in the old Garment District or slightly further west towards the Hudson (New Yorkers, feel free to chime in if you’ve seen the film and correct me if I’m wrong). Later she films on the subway, sometimes on the platform and sometimes within the subway car, a brave move considering the inherent dangers of the transit system at the time. Then she moves on to busier streets, and shoots out of (car? train?) windows as they move along. Those filmed tend not to notice her camera, or pay it much attention, and eventually she begins to train it on larger crowds. That said, most of the images she captures are desolate, as if to highlight the corners of the city that are usually passed by without fanfare, while the melancholic tone is summed up well by the closing shot of Manhattan’s misty skyline, made from a ferry as it pulls away from the island. All the while we hear these sporadic reports from Akerman’s mother, who fills her daughter in on news from home, details her own concerns and illness and asks questions about the documentarian’s career and life in America. There are certain illuminating comments in the letters, such as the early one in which Akerman’s mother explains that she does not hold the experimental filmmaker’s decision to leave without speaking to her parents against her. We don’t hear or see Akerman’s responses, though it is perhaps possible to read between the lines, or in this case between the letters.
While viewing News From Home today it’s possible to feel a certain sense of nostalgia for both grainy 16mm footage and ‘old’ New York, even if you’re only familiar with the latter from the steady diet of 1970s cop shows, movies and the like that lionised the city. Yet this is less about the place than what it feels like to be in it, and there’s a certain cool detatchment throughout that could only ever be made by the independent observer or the out-of-towner. These are the exact same Manhattan streets and spaces we can see in the 1970s photographs of New Yorkers like Joel Meyerowitz and Garry Winogrand, and yet it’s so obviously the work of a non-native who is getting to grips with this vast, imposing place that it’s as fascinating a testament as their bodies of work for very different reasons, made by someone with literal and figurative distance from most of the subjects or points of interest that we see. It’s this mix of the distant and the intimate (i.e. the content of the letters) that beguiles, and accurately recreates the sensation of leaving one place behind to make a new life in another, of having one foot in one country A and the other in country B, of not knowing anybody except for those you have left behind. A peculiar but arresting film, mostly shot by Akerman’s long-term collaborator Babette Mangolte (who made a similar move from Paris to New York around the same time), and I’m intrigued to see more of the work of both as a result.
Directed by: Chantal Akerman.
Written by: Chantal Akerman.
Cinematography: Babette Mangolte, Jim Asbell.
Editing: Francine Sandberg.
Running Time: 85 minutes.