Category: Film

Report: Seven Thousand Songs

Victoria Adukwei Bulley for The Poetry Review

Victoria Adukwei Bulley on the making of her intergenerational poetry, translation and film project, MOTHER TONGUES, for The Poetry Review

On a normal evening in January, a year and a half ago, I lay beside my mother on her bed. Although the television was on across the room, probably tuned to the news, we were on YouTube watching music videos by a singer named Anbuley. Anbuley, a stunning, lithe-limbed Ghanaian singer, has hair long enough for her to look like an African rendering of Eve. But this was not the reason for our watching. Rather, I had brought her to my mother for translation. She sings each of her songs in vibrant, forceful Ga, the language of my parents. Even now, she is the only contemporary artist I know of who does this and, since I don’t understand a word, my mother began to interpret for me.

My inability to speak or comprehend Ga is both surprising and unremarkable. Surprising, because my parents share this ethnic group, and have spoken the language to each other all my life. Surprising, also, because while I don’t understand it at all, I know its signature intimately. I’ve overheard it spoken between strangers on the street and guessed – with their confirmation – that what they were speaking was Ga. What, then, could be unremarkable about this? Nothing other than the fact that it is a very common experience. Wade Davis, Canadian anthropologist and writer, uses a daunting comparison to make this clear. “No biologist,” he warns in his essay collection The Wayfinders (2009), “would suggest that 50 percent of all species are moribund. Yet this, the most apocalyptic scenario in the realm of biological diversity, scarcely approaches what we know to be the most optimistic scenario in the realm of cultural diversity.” Davis goes on to summarise in more frank terms: “Of the 7,000 languages spoken today, fully half are not being taught to children. Effectively, unless something changes, they will disappear within our lifetimes.”

When I let these words sink in, I hear a forest full of birds. An orchestra of seven thousand songs that combine and sometimes clash to form a living, organic, polyrhythmic heartbeat of life. For whatever reason, some of the songs rise over the others. Forget, for this moment, about history; about colonialism or conquest. These louder songs carry the overall melody – perhaps they are the strings section. Other songs, in the meantime, are audible only rarely, and mostly not at all. They are the triangle that dings subtle-bright in the background, easily missed. As time goes by, these quieter songs disappear, or join the winning tune. The overall melody becomes homogenous and weighted, too heavy for itself to carry that sense of lightness that great music can invoke. It grows boring, first, then unbearable, then oppressive. It is without joy, or surprise, and is all that can be heard.

As I lay beside my mum in conversation that evening, a thought came to me. If, as had long been happening, I could approach my mother to translate Ga songs into English for me, why, then, couldn’t I ask her to translate my own work into Ga? If, as a poet who performs regularly, I knew my own work deeply, surely the access to Ga translations would enable me to become more familiar with the language as a step towards learning it. Then, another thought, or rather, a remembering: my situation is unremarkable. I don’t have enough fingers – and possibly not even enough toes – to count the individuals I know who do not speak the language of their parents. Knowing that a number of them are poets too, it occurred to me to think bigger about this small idea. Even where the language had survived the generational distance, was there not still something of value in the act of sharing and translation alone? That night, back in my own room, I scribbled everything down in a new notebook. I named each of my motivations and fears, then noted the names of the poets I had in mind. I wrote continuously for about five pages, and headed it all with the title MOTHER TONGUES.

A year and a half on, at the time of my writing this, MOTHER TONGUES is an intergenerational poetry, translation, and film project that sees four celebrated young, female poets in collaboration with their mother-figures. Each poet invites her mother to translate a poem into her native language. Later, the poet and mother visit a studio where the mother is filmed reciting her translation, followed by the poet reciting the original. A conversation is then captured between the two, prompted by questions (from myself) that aren’t heard in the final cut. Each ten-minute film features one poet-daughter and her mother, the poets being Belinda Zhawi, Theresa Lola, Tania Nwachukwu, and myself. The films debuted at Rivington Place Gallery in Shoreditch, London on Wednesday 26 July; tickets sold out within 48 hours.


Agnès Varda’s Ecological Conscience

Lauren Elkin for The Paris Review

Lauren Elkin explores the ecological conscience of Agnès Varda’s 2000 film The Gleaners & I for The Paris Review:

“Existence isn’t a solitary matter,” says the shepherd to the wanderer in Agnès Varda’s 1985 film, Vagabond. This vision of collectivity, the belief that we are all in it together, recurs throughout Varda’s films, from her early, proto–New Wave La Pointe Courte (1954) to her acclaimed Cléo from 5 to 7 (1961) to her most recent film, Faces Places (2017), made in collaboration with the young French street artist JR. (Filmmaking isn’t a solitary matter, either.) “This movie is about togetherness,” she told New York Magazine. Watching Faces Places, I couldn’t help thinking about Varda’s 2000 film, The Gleaners & I. Both are road-trip movies in which Varda interviews the kinds of people we don’t often see in movies—farmers, miners, dockworkers, and their wives. Both films proceed by chance, gleaning whatever they happen upon. But though The Gleaners is now seventeen years old, old enough to drive a car and almost old enough to vote, it’s feeling as fresh and relevant as if it had been made in parallel to Faces Places. It rewards rewatching.

The Gleaners & I is a documentary about the time-honored act of gathering what other people have abandoned or thrown away. Gleaning is most often associated with what’s been left behind after a harvest; think of that famous Millet painting, The Gleaners (1857), which you can find in the Musée d’Orsay. The women—gleaners used to be mainly women—bend over to collect the bits of wheat the harvesters have left on the ground; they gather what they find in their aprons. It looks like back-breaking work. “It’s always the same humble gesture,” Varda comments in voice-over: to stoop, to glean.

Today, they tell Varda, harvesting is more efficient because it’s done by machines, leaving less for gleaners to pick up. In her film, Varda interviews present-day glâneurs; some glean to survive, some out of principle (“Salvaging is a matter of ethics with me,” says a man who’s eaten mostly garbage for ten years), others just for fun. One woman Varda interviews demonstrates how they used to do it: with a sweeping extension of her torso she gathers ears of corn into her apron. It was a social occasion, when all the women in the neighborhood would get together and, afterward, go back to the house for a coffee and a laugh.

Varda enlarges the concept of the glâneur to include people like the artist Louis Pons, whose work is assembled from trash, from forgotten things, from pens, empty spools, wires, cans, cages, bits of boats, cars, musical instruments: “He composes,” Varda says, “with chance.” Or to Bodan Litnianski, the Ukrainian retired brickmason-turned-artist who built his house (which he calls “Le palais idéal”) from scraps he found in dumps—dolls, many dolls, and toy trucks and trains and hoses and baskets and plastic fronds—effectively brickmasoned into place. “C’est solide, eh.” Litnianski died in 2005, but there’s a corresponding figure in Faces Places who made me sit up in recognition.


Moonlight portrays black gay life in its joy, sadness and complexity

Steven W. Thrasher writing for the Guardian

Following the success of  Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, Steven W. Thrasher writes about the film’s unique treatment of the male queer black experience, for the Guardian:

The film Moonlight is extraordinary for many reasons, but to me it is most so for two. First, it considers black boys to be precious, at a time when news stories perpetually make it seem as if the United States considers them to be utterly expendable. Second, it acknowledges the effects that the stalking ghosts of premature death and incarceration have upon gay black masculinity – and it manages to do so without ever diminishing the lives full of complex humanity that black gay men still manage to have in America while navigating that reality.

So often, gay lives in America are coded as white, and the forces that shape the lives of queer people of color – say, how immigration affects being Chicano and gay in Calfornia, or how police surveillance affects being black and gay in the New York – are ignored, as gay identity is usually swept up into whiteness. Moonlight eschews this reductivism entirely, brilliantly portraying in a lyrical story how love and connection attempt to take hold.

The fact that there are about a million and a half black men disappeared from American society by early death and incarceration is not a side issue to black gay men. It’s certainly no side issue to Chiron, Moonlight’s hero, who successfully seeks out a father figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali), only to lose him to an early death. And yet, Moonlight also shows how creative and brilliant black humanity is at being so much more than its pain. Director Barry Jenkins doesn’t dwell on Juan’s death as much as he does on the beauty of his embrace of Chiron in his arms in the sea, on his smile, on his joyful proclamation that you can find black people wherever you go in the world.

Another gift Jenkins gives not just to American cinema, but to American culture, is that he depicts black boyhood as something worthy of rooting for to succeed. It is not especially difficult to make white boyhood precious. In the 2014 movie Boyhood, director Richard Linklater encouraged the audience to hold as precious and unique Mason, a banal and totally average white American child who existed in an imaginary nearly all-white Texas. Mason and his friend engage in petty vandalism, and also drink and drive – and yet, Mason, “no angel”, was excused and held dear in a way a black child never would be.


Across (Closer)

Lauren Elkin for White Screen

A companion piece written with and at an appropriate distance, here is Lauren Elkin in response to Dryden Goodwin’s short film Closer for White Screen.

You can make someone look at you if you stare at them long enough. So I learned many years ago riding the bus to summer camp, staring down the motorists on the Long Island Expressway. I’d press my nose to the plexiglass windows and bear down on them with my eyes. Invariably the man in the blue Toyota would turn his head quizzically to the left, and up to my level.

What is the power of the gaze, that it defies the laws of physics, pierces through our blind spots, emits a signal that registers on some extra-sensory frequency?

It’s an invitation. A request to its object to be transformed into a recipient, and therefore an agent. But not, necessarily, to be reciprocated.

Is it always a display of power? Is there always something dominating, or even sleazy, about looking? Is that why we look back, our brains hard-wired to repel the invasive stare? What do you want? What are your intentions? What are you looking at? the receiver of the gaze demands.

Does the gazer even know?


The social psychologist Ilan Shrira, in Psychology Today: ‘That ESP-like feeling you get when you’re being watched is your brain telling you, in a barely perceptible way, that something meaningful is happening.’


‘I imagine a Parisian building with its façade removed, so that from the ground floor to the attic, all the rooms in the front are instantly and simultaneously visible.’ This was Georges Perec’s idea for his Oulipian masterpiece Life a User’s Manual (1978). Perec was inspired by a Saul Steinberg drawing, a cross-section of a New York lodging-house allowing the viewer to see into its twenty-three rooms. Onto this quintessential New York building Perec superimposed his Haussmannianimmeuble, adding yet another layer all his own: a 10 x 10 chessboard onto which he plotted a series of moves following the knight’s path, in order to explore all the spaces in this building on the fictional rue Simon Crubellier, joining Zola’s Pot-Bouille in the (small) canon of great French novels about apartment buildings and executing the art of constraint on a previously unrealised scale.

Not a prurient peep. Not an unveiling like the naked man I once saw in his brightly lit, curtainless Hoxton flat in one of those modern glass buildings overlooking the canal with the huge floor-to-ceiling windows, a very expensive fishbowl. I was with a group of friends, walking home after dinner. We stopped and looked and some of us turned away and some of us kept looking, to see what would happen with the woman waiting for him in the next room.

More like a sudden drawing back of a curtain, or a world half-visible in the gap between its drape and the edge of the window. Like the sudden appearance of my neighbour across the street in my old apartment on the Left Bank, who would open the doors of his French window, move his desk up in between them, and set to work on his model aeroplanes. At least I think they were model airplanes; I could never see quite well enough to make out what he was gluing together.

Not long ago I saw a beautiful book called Vis-à-Vis in the bookshop by my flat. It was a collection of photographs by an American artist, Gail Albert Halaban, of people inside Parisian buildings spied through their windows. Halaban shot from a safe distance. She doesn’t zoom in too far, just enough so that the faces come into view, no closer. She’s interested in the world, in the context, not in the interior life of an individual but the interior life of a home.

It’s a good title, vis-à-vis. It means face-to-face, though we use it in English to mean ‘in relation to.’ But in the context of French real estate, it means you can see into the apartment across the street, or next door. It is generally considered undesirable to take an apartment with a vis-à-vis. We might be caught off-guard, unprepared to be seen. The intimacy of the private sphere might be breached. Those of us in our vis-à-vis apartments, we hang curtains.

Halaban’s photos are so beautiful they’re suspect; there’s something apartment porn-y about them that makes them attractive but diminishes their power. (The antithesis of Halaban’s photos? Kima’s window moment in The Wire. Good night hoppers. Good night hustlers.) Those perfectly weathered Parisian buildings, distressed without having known too much distress, their biscuit-colored stucco topped with grey zinc rooftops, gabled to make room for maid’s room windows sous les toits. Some haughty, Haussmannian, with well-manicured inhabitants. Some short and stodgy with artists inside, judging from their clothes and their musical instruments. It’s not clear if the book is for Parisians to ogle each other or for the rest of the world to ogle Parisians. I don’t think it can be both.

I do a bit of looking around on the internet and find the shoots were all staged; everyone in the photos knew they were being photographed, had given their permission. That takes something away from them. We want to look in at people caught unprepared; if we open a book called Vis-à-vis it’s at least partly for the surprise of coming face-to-face. Or at least, to be faced with their face, without their having seen ours.

I found a video where Halaban explains what she was up to, anticipating allegations of voyeurism. ‘Some people think it’s creepy,’ she says. ‘But if you look at my photos of Paris you will realise I’m a friendly window watcher.’ In art, perhaps we want our window watchers to be less friendly; perhaps friendliness is the enemy of brilliance. Outside of art, we don’t want to be caught off-guard. We want to be the masters of our photographic profiles, curating our feed, beefing up the filters and retouching the flaws. We want to control the gaze when we are its object. But is there room in the cityscape for a watcher who’s not an artist, but not a voyeur, either?

Whether or not the people inside are performing their inside-ness, the photographs are striking visual vignettes with an aesthetics, and a politics, of surface. Whether art has to violate the surface is a matter for reflection.


I have a Gustave Caillebotte postcard I bought many years ago, before I moved to Paris, of zinc Parisian rooftops in the snow, and I kept it by my desk for years before I moved here, alongside another Caillebotte, the one of the workers stripping wooden parquet. (Caillebotte’s paintings are looked down on by the same people who dismiss things as too attractive. The discerning are suspicious when they feel aesthetically pleased.)

I kept them by my desk that way to make myself work harder, so one day I could have a view of the Parisian rooftops. Now that I’m here, I’m perennially hoping the next flat I live in will have that perfect view.

I want to see rooftops but don’t want to live in a tall building. I grew up in New York and have lived at many different heights in the city, once as high as the 26th floor. In New York, the higher the floor, the higher the price per square foot. In Paris it’s more complicated. You don’t want to live too close to the ground (a rez-de-chaussée will always be a difficult proposition on the market), but you don’t want the top floor either, sous les toits, under the aluminum rooftops, which are badly insulated, hard to heat in the winter, and will cook you in the summer. At what height it is acceptable to live is a question of experience and savoir faire. But I think the reason we don’t want to live up so high in Paris is because we’d be the only ones up there for miles, or meters, we’d lose our relation to other buildings – and why do we live in cities, if not to be in relation to others? In New York, up on the 26th floor, you have other aerie-neighbours.

I want to be high enough to see the rooftops but not New York high. I think what I’m looking for is an apartment on the top of a hill.


Where we live now overlooks where two roads come together to form a V, with our five-storey building on one arm, and another on the other, joined in the middle by a squat two-storey building in the shape of a triangle, like the Flatiron in New York, but less remarkable in a city built on the spokes of a wheel. We live on the fifth floor with an elevator but no balcony, because this is not a Haussmannian building. We are under the toits. It doesn’t matter too much because this is only temporary, a sublet until we can find a place to buy. As the dusk falls blue and the lights warm up yellow it’s like living in one of Halaban’s photographs, looking across our neighbour’s roof to the people filling the other building. At night the dark compresses, brings us closer together, while the light draws our attention, a lens-less zoom. From our height we can see into so many windows at once. A woman in a red sweater watching TV. A figure moving around behind a glazed window – a bathroom perhaps? There’s the trendy man and woman whose turquoise chair I once photographed because I liked the way it looked against their rustic wooden table. I hoped they wouldn’t spot me; how would they know I was not leering, but admiring?

Halaban cites Baudelaire’s poem ‘Windows’ as justification for her project. ‘What we can see out in the sunlight is always less interesting than what we can conceive taking place behind a pane of window glass.’

But sometimes what we want to see is nothing more than the pane of glass. Or more precisely, the composition within its frame. We don’t only want to look beyond it, we want to look at it. Who knows what we are seeing when we catch sight of our neighbours? Who are we to look past their surface?


It’s Halaban’s justification I find interesting. It’s human to want to connect, she says.

‘Buster Keaton’s Cure’

Charlie Fox in Cabinet Magazine

Charlie Fox’s essay for the latest issue of Cabinet Magazine on Buster Keaton’s voice, his alcoholism and a terrible cure he took for it:

“Now, ladies and gentlemen, I have really something of great interest to the public!” The former vaudevillian Ed Wynn is providing the introductory patter to a segment in an episode of his eponymous comedy show, broadcast live in primetime on 9 December 1949. Wynn, who would later voice the Mad Hatter in Disney’s adaptation of Alice In Wonderland (1951), is a jolly host: he looks like a horned owl in a clown costume, plump and bespectacled with a rubbery excitement to his expressions that suggests he’s already half-cartoon. His speech has an avuncular warmth, tumbling with a ringmaster’s glee through his slightly pinched sinuses. The other treats on the show have included a special guest appearance from the famously deadpan actress Virginia O’Brien, nicknamed “Miss Ice Glacier,” who sang “Bird in a Gilded Cage,” and blubbery Ed’s attempt to dance a ballet overture. The curtains behind Wynn that hide the set from the audience are fuzzy, gray, and monstrously thick, looking like nothing so much as a carefully graded spectrum of various sorts of domestic dust; the studio has the acoustics of a damp attic. Wynn tells the audience that they are about to have “the great privilege in seeing for the first time, certainly on television, and alive, almost!”—an odd thing to say, don’t you think?—“one of the greatest of the great comedians of the silent moving-picture days. Mr. Buster Keaton!”

Here he is, a little man in his trademark outfit of porkpie hat and rumpled suit. He ignores all conversational prompts, playing dumb and nodding a little as if out of beat with the situation, mid-daydream. “The American public would like to hear you say something. Would you say something? Go ahead,” Wynn cajoles him, “speak!” And upon these ventriloquist’s orders, Buster commences a routine that looks like a ludic premonition of the anguished choreographies found in Samuel Beckett’s plays. (Shortly before his death, he would appear as the solitary figure in Beckett’s metaphysically queasy 1965 short, Film).1 Carefully, the voice must be readied—the whole body is involved. He shrugs his shoulders a few times, bends his knees to ensure that he’s suitably limber, then performs some exaggerated respirations that make his chest swell and deflate like a ragged bellows. There’s a mysterious procedure of cheek massage and jaw agitation in which he looks like a gargoyle attempting to reverse the effects of amphetamines. He spritzes something into his mouth, the host looks quizzically on, and what shy laughter there was in the audience has receded like a weak breeze. Then, at last, he says “Hello!” in an eager innocent’s yelp. Wynn is astonished! His owlish eyes go wide, and Buster falls, exhausted, into his arms as the audience chuckles. Television is probably more accommodating to such outbursts of staccato weirdness than any other medium, but Buster’s act is much more than just an odd trick. He isn’t out of shape: a subsequent re-enactment of “the first scene he ever did for a camera” will prove he’s freakishly limber for a fifty-four-year-old and his timing’s still pin-sharp. This impish revision of an old routine about a hatful of black molasses, with Wynn taking the role originally played by Buster’s old pal (and Hollywood outcast) Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle will exaggerate the formal habits of silent film—intertitles and melodramatic expressions—to levels of inspired lunacy. Like in all his best films, the sleepwalking smoothness of his physical antics combines with a preternatural sense of how film itself can be the subject of witty subversions and knowing mischief.

That bewildering joke, which suggests that Buster can only speak after laboriously readying his body, plays on the strange fate of silent film stars in our imagination: silence is a symptom of their magical condition. The more of them you watch, the more difficult it becomes to think of them as possessing voices at all. (Would Theda Bara be mute in public, too?) What breeds in silence is, naturally, a sort of excitable noise: heightened fascination, fantastical lore, and outlandish forms of erotic gossip, all of which conspire to hide the dumbstruck star. The uproarious arrival of sound often led these delicate figures into the long and lonely twilight of their careers. The silence that reigned in the cinema twenty years before seemed unspeakably distant and, like the others, Buster had transformed into a relic, an object suitable for gawking audiences and inducing occasionally lyrical fits of nostalgic reflection. But he was able to stage a return when many had retreated into memory or private darkness. The year of his appearance on The Ed Wynn Show, Clara Bow, the actress who had slinked through the world’s erotic dreamscape for much of the 1920s, had been admitted to a mental hospital with a mistaken diagnosis of schizophrenia, then subjected to aggressive electroshock treatment. Ravaged upon release, she abandoned her family and moved into a bungalow near Los Angeles that she seldom left until her death in 1965. Buster was ruined by a slow fall into alcoholism but returned, and yet his rehabilitation and—let’s go for the hysterical mood of melodrama—resurrection conjure up more ghosts. His alcoholism was seemingly cured by a manic, spuriously medical process, and he didn’t quite vanish in the obscure years before its success. There’s plenty of intoxicating material to be found by studying Buster if you dodge the lustrous peaks of his career in favor of going deep into its gloom and supposed dead ends.

Unfurling this distended postscript without acknowledgement of the astonishing properties of Buster’s art would be unkind. A case study of his childhood might be equally rich, too. Born in 1895, which makes his age exactly synchronous with cinema itself, he was a willing participant in vaudevillian mishegoss as soon as he could walk. According to myths circulated by his father, he had survived a few twirls in the eye of a Kansas tornado when he was three. Alongside his parents, he was part of the Three Keatons, a riotous slapstick act in which his mother played saxophone and his father discoursed on child discipline while hurling Buster about the stage. His education was irregular; his father was an alcoholic. In photographs from this time, he looks like a playful wraith.

As a child, silent cinema was a ghost house I had to explore. My sense of reality was already perilously vague and the thought of these films that would allow me to watch the mischief of specters—everyone in them was, by the time of my childhood, decidedly dead—was a deep and wicked thrill. Whole days disappeared in the attempt to cast the shadow of Nosferatu on the wall as I climbed the stairs again and again. (I failed: it was very tough to get the head correct, my skull lacking the required Expressionist jags.) I remember chancing across Buster’s face in a film history book one monochrome morning and feeling the peculiar sensation that this haunted boy knew I was looking at him. Wholly at odds with the wild-eyed mania that silent film acting often promised, his presence was gentle and radiated an unmistakable sadness. He had the dreamy, lonesome look of a stray dog. His eyes would widen in moments of moonstruck goofing or genuine enchantment, then look on the edge of sleep when he was puzzled. Nobody else’s body yielded so smoothly to the sublime mindlessness that the best physical comedy requires, and he was beautiful in a way that, say, a clerical nebbish like Harold Lloyd would never match. On film, even in flashes of jackrabbit energy, he’s airily nimble and weirdly aided by the jittery accelerations and diminuendos of silent film speed that can make him seem too limber in his skittering or too light in his falls to be made of flesh and bone. At those moments he’s closer to a bewitched marionette.

In 1928, Buster was talked into giving up his own studio, where he made his finest films, and switching to the ascendant MGM. Bad contracts were signed; dark clouds began to settle in his head. His subsequent drift into alcoholism looks like a commonplace response to the baleful state of Hollywood and deep marital discord. Seven years before, Buster had married Natalie Talmadge, a delicate, fawn-like beauty of seemingly untrammelled malevolence who banished him from their bedroom once he had supplied her with the two sons (and the mansion) she required, reported him for kidnapping when he took the boys for a weekend jaunt, and refused to hear his name in her presence until she died in 1969 after years blasted on painkillers and hopelessly soaked in booze. She appears to have dreamed of transforming Buster into a bland mixture of benefactor and milquetoast, though let’s note that as the far less successful middle sister of two wildly famous actresses, Norma and Constance, she was never able to tell her own story, skewed and vituperative as it might have been. Natalie’s chief occupation was perfecting the girlish swirls of her sisters’ signatures on an endless cascade of publicity stills. In a photograph taken on their wedding day, Buster stands in between the three sisters in a spotlight of May sunshine, looking like a man about to be led to the gallows. Norma and Constance retired with the advent of the talkies. Norma was reputedly the inspiration for Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain(1952), the starlet of uncommon radiance destroyed by the arrival of sound, which reveals to the world that she’s in possession of the shrill, needling voice of a Brooklyn chipmunk. The reclusive, gone-to-ruin silent movie heroine played by Gloria Swanson in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard(1950) is also an acidulous portrait of Norma. Like her sister, she suffered an unhappy fate, fleeing to Las Vegas, gorging on painkillers, seeing no one, and drinking all the time until she died there on Christmas Eve in 1957. (Much the same happened to Constance: they made a tragic trio).

As the marriage dissolved, Buster tumbled toward oblivion, too, succumbing to the song of what he called his “inner Bacchus” in order to escape domestic pressures. He became estranged from his sons, whose last names were changed so that they were suddenly Talmadge property. The pleasures of drinking had long since faded into the delirious routine of everyday alcoholism as he got drunk from sunrise until he blacked out. As he recalls in his autobiography, My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1960), “all my weekends were lost weekends.”2 He left the mansion and drifted around Hollywood in a land yacht, “a fancy house on wheels that had twin motors in the chassis of a Fifth Avenue bus, contained two drawing rooms, a galley, an observation deck and slept eight persons.” By way of melancholy endorsement, he notes, “I had as much fun with my land yacht as a man can whose purpose is to forget his whole private world has fallen apart.” In a drunken blur one Monday afternoon, he staggered down to the MGM lot and befriended an extra—“I could not say today whether she was a blonde, brunette or a redhead”—took her home, and let her have her pick of the contents of Natalie’s enormous wardrobe, heaping up piles of cocktail dresses, fur coats, gowns, and sparkling shoes. He appeared in What? No Beer! (1933), a dismal but hugely successful talkie with the antic Jimmy Durante in which this mismatched double act accidentally become beer barons as Prohibition’s on the wane. Buster plays a taxidermist and suitably moves with the shambling gait of a bear half-stuffed with wool. When shooting was over one night, he tried to drink himself into unconsciousness but failed and came reeling into the studio the next morning, only to promptly pass out.

When he awoke, he found a letter from the studio bosses telling him he was fired. Buster had become a drunk at a time when alcohol was a source of immense moral panic. (William Burroughs’s grandmother had the motto, “I’d rather a son o’ mine came home dead than drunk!”) Grimmest of all, he had fallen for whiskey, which, as he said later, was popularly regarded as “pure evil, apparently being distilled in hell itself.”

Throughout the early 1930s, the backdrops shuffled like a collection of old postcards as Buster appeared in cheap slapstick short films shot in Mexico, France, and England. He read the “idiot cards” that rendered lines in foreign languages into phonetic English, repeating his dialogue over and over again for different territories to save on the expense of dubbing. Drinking was a useless form of self-sabotage—even knockout drunk, he was still able to perform his stunts.


Bitter Lake

A new, 'experimental' film by Adam Curtis

Adam Curtis is a leading film essayist. His new film, Bitter Lake, is pretty different from his previous, more poetic, less narrative. Just watch it. If you need more convincing, here’s some blurb: 

Politicians used to have the confidence to tell us stories that made sense of the chaos of world events. But now there are no big stories and politicians react randomly to every new crisis – leaving us bewildered and disorientated.

Bitter Lake is a new, adventurous and epic film by Adam Curtis that explains why the big stories that politicians tell us have become so simplified that we can’t really see the world any longer.

The narrative goes all over the world, America, Britain, Russia and Saudi Arabia – but the country at the heart of it is Afghanistan. Because Afghanistan is the place that has confronted our politicians with the terrible truth – that they cannot understand what is going on any longer.

The film reveals the forces that over the past thirty years rose up and undermined the confidence of politics to understand the world. And it shows the strange, dark role that Saudi Arabia has played in this.

But Bitter Lake is also experimental. Curtis has taken the unedited rushes of everything that the BBC has ever shot in Afghanistan – and used them in new and radical ways.

He has tried to build a different and more emotional way of depicting what really happened in Afghanistan. A counterpoint to the thin, narrow and increasingly destructive stories told by those in power today.

Statues Also Die (Les statues meurent aussi)

A 1953 film by Alain Resnais and Chris Marker

The opening section in Duncan Campbell’s video work It for Others, shortlisted for this year’s Turner Prize, is a response to Alain Resnais and Chris Marker’s film Les statues meurent aussi. It turns out the latter is on YouTube: it’s well worth a half-hour of your time. Duncan Campbell’s video is also worth going to see. Here’s the film, with English subtitles.

And here’s Jonathan Rosenbaum on the film, the second half of which was banned in France for fifteen years:

Marker begins his two-volume collection of offscreen commentaries, Commentaires (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1961 and 1967)—filmed as well as unfilmed, and long out of print—with his dense, haunting, and blistering text for Statues Also Die, recited in the film by Jean Négroni. Here is how it begins, the words spoken over darkness: “When men die, they enter history. When statues die, they enter art. This botany of death is what we call culture.” And then, as if to prove his point, the film’s image lights up to show us the ruins of a few outdoor sculptures, speckled with sunlight and wizened by age and corrosion—strange botanical specimens.

What follows, over a striking montage of indoor specimens and some of their strolling museum spectators (first white ones, then a single black woman), is a kind of existential poetics of both art and history: “An object dies when the living glance trained upon it disappears. And when we disappear, our objects will be confined to the place where we send black things: to the museum.” Resnais’s Eisensteinian editing meanwhile peaks as an accelerating succession of graphic images reaches a gorgeous crescendo and epiphany in a cut to the head of an African swimmer rising from underwater to the surface of a river. (Resnais’s best work abounds in ecstatic cuts of this kind, nearly always tied to sudden, unexpected human gestures and movements.)

This gradually turns into a remarkable duet between Marker’s literary fervor and a detailed as well as despairing political vision—a combination of speculative art history, precise journalism, and a grim meditation on the various places and functions Africa and its separate cultures have assumed within white civilization—and Resnais’s musically and rhythmically orchestrated illustration of and counterpoint to this extraordinary text. Both of these strains can be said to embody, empower, and enhance as well as accompany the other, but it would be pointless to try to synopsize either Marker’s multifaceted argument or Resnais’s elaborately composed and articulated assembly of images, much less attempt to describe how effectively they complement one another. It appears that this film took years to put together, but it moves with a fluency and directness that is never labored.

It was the final third of this half-hour film that eventually led to the film’s suppression by the French government. Marker’s passionate and angry polemic builds an indictment not merely of white colonialism but of the suppression, degradation, and in some cases irreversible extermination of black culture, taking on such ancillary topics as black athletes (including boxers as well as basketball players) and black musicians in the U.S.

Inherent Vice

Paul Thomas Anderson's adaptation of the Thomas Pynchon novel

The trailer for Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice is out. Featuring Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello and Josh Brolin as Bigfoot Bjornsen, it comes out in the UK on 30 January 2015 (according to IMDb). In case you haven’t read the book, this is from the New York Times:

Like the novel, the film is set in 1970 in the fictional Gordita Beach, Calif., among paranoid burnouts, white-supremacist bikers, black-power ex-cons, and hippies turned toothless heroin addicts. The “gum-sandal” detective Doc Sportello (a mutton-chopped, mumbly Mr. Phoenix) begins investigating a mystery at the behest of his free-spirited ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) and to the consternation of the corrupt cop Bigfoot Bjornsen, played by Mr. Brolin with a “flattop of Flintstone proportions,” as a character says in the film, and a malicious “twinkle in his eye that says ‘civil rights violations.’ ”

Along the way, Doc uncovers a conspiracy that touches the shady land developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and a surf-rock saxophonist named Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), both of whom may either be dead or alive. Looming over them all is the specter of the Golden Fang, which may be a boat, an Indochinese heroin cartel, a rehab center, a syndicate of dentists — or something even more vast.

Watch the trailer here.

Sátántangó at the ICA on 6 September

Sátántangó by Bela Tarr, adapted from Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s novel of the same name, is screening next Saturday 6 September at the ICA. This is a rare event: go see it.

A Nos Amours, Scalarama and the ICA are delighted to present Béla Tarr’s touchstone of durational cinema Sátántangó on 35mm.

This legendary film, running at 7 hours 12 minutes, deals with the collapse of a collectivised Soviet-era farm in rural Hungary. There is the scent of money in the air, and, in chaotic and changeable times, a yearning for meaning and salvation. At such times it is inevitable that prophets and Messiahs will be longed and waited for. The question is whether they will be false prophets, or mere charlatans. In the chilly, bleak rotten world of Sátántangó, who will follow who, and why, are left wonderfully uncertain.

These are ordinary human concerns, but it is the vastness of the landscape, the featureless plains and endless horizons, and a terrifying, unremitting wind from nowhere, and a rain that falls without end, that threatens to wash away all human hope. Signature long takes, often as long as the 10 minutes that a roll of film allows, combined with astonishing camera choreography offers a sublime cinema experience.

To commit to Sátántangó is to commit to the unforgettable and life-changing: these are the outer limits of cinema. The screening is on 35mm.

‘Devastating, enthralling for every minute of its seven hours. I’d be glad to see it every year for the rest of my life.’
– Susan Sontag

Sátántangó, dir. Béla Tarr, Hungary 1994, 432 mins, cert. 15

Based on the novel by László Krasznahorkai
Cast: Mihály Víg, Putyi Horváth, László Lugossy
Cinematography: Gábor Medvigy
Music: Mihály Víg


Matías Piñeiro, Argentine filmmaker

Interviewed in BOMB Magazine

Clinton Krute interviews young Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro in BOMB Magazine:

Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñeiro has made four feature and medium-length films to date: El hombre robado (The Stolen Man, 2007), Todos mienten (They All Lie, 2009), Rosalinda (2010), and his latest, Viola (2012), which recently screened in New York as part of the New Directors / New Films series. His films are remarkable for their worrying of literature and the tension between text and image. Each of the four films takes either a literary figure or text as the jumping-off point for an exploration of the slippery correspondence between narrative and reality. Piñeiro is making movies that point to one of the original questions raised by cinema: How does the imposition of writing—of language or of a lens—alter the world? His carefully structured films—balanced like mobiles, as he says—describe with precision that slippage between words and reality.

While El hombre robado and Todos mienten both circle around the writing of statesman and polymath Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, the Argentine equivalent of Thomas Jefferson, in essence, they are both descriptions of the power dynamics of a small group of young upper-middle-class friends. His latest two, Rosalinda and Viola, are both based on Shakespeare and are the first two entries in a trilogy that the filmmaker has called “The Shakespeariada.” Working with the same cast and crew in all four features, Piñeiro—whose work shows a debt to the comedies of Rohmer and the shell games of Rivette—has developed a language all his own. Using literature to foreground the complex web of lies, acting, and language that underlies any social interaction, these films are less interested in psychology and individual characters than they are in social and linguistic structures.

Both the filmmaker and his work are warm, funny, and full of life. I encountered his work when his first two films screened at the Harvard Film Archive a few years ago while he was in Cambridge working on Viola as a Radcliffe Fellow. He is currently living in New York, where we met at a diner on a snowy February afternoon to discuss his films and how he makes them.

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