The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

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JUNE 2019 Issue

Can't Spare a Dime: Play-Doc XV

Pharos of Chaos. Courtesy of Play-Doc.

I am at Play-Doc, a four-day documentary festival in Tui, Spain. Across the river, which doubles as the border with Portugal, the fortress town of Valença do Minho sits atop a hill, its buildings and inhabitants shielded from view by the 800-year-old walls that encircle them. To walk there from the festival center in Tui takes less than 30 minutes and spans a time zone.

And there is more than enough time to do so. At this festival, there is ample time not to see movies. For instance, the first day there are three English-subtitled films in the schedule, the first at 6:30pm—Around the World When You Were My Age (A volta ao mundo quando tinhas 30 anos) (2018) from the competition, and Broken Noses (1987) and Let’s Get Lost (1989) from a mini-retrospective dedicated to the photographer Bruce Weber—with the likelihood being that I will miss one of them to meet an appointment. (I do not—the Portuguese film is excellent and I find Weber’s Broken Noses great enough that I commit to the second billing, Let’s Get Lost, on that basis and awkwardly have to rearrange.) I spend less than five hours in the cinema, rather than the typical nine or ten.

At larger festivals, with their sprawling, gargantuan, ever-expanding lineups, it is hard not to gorge on film after film. The possibilities of what to see and when seem endless. This mindless yet pleasurable stream of block “content” is punctuated only briefly by lunch and dinner. As you scrawl an illegible daily schedule onto the stationary supplied at the hotel, you cry out, “If only there was more time!” There will, of course, never be enough time.

Like their neighbors the Portuguese, Galician cinephiles prefer to reserve the first two-thirds of a day for the stuff that only ever exists at the periphery of most festivals. The change of pace—seeing fewer films but experiencing a greater number of happeningsaugmented my response in ways that would have been difficult to anticipate. As may seem obvious in retrospect, the prolonged periods of extra time spent contemplating things besides movies commingled with the experiences in the cinema, often stimulating ideas and responses that may not have existed in a more fraught environment.

Take, for example, that first day: I spent the afternoon trying to finish a book—Shirley Collins’s memoir America Over the Water—as I waited for the night’s screening (Aya Koretzky’s Around the World When You Were My Age) to commence. Collins is, for my money, England’s greatest folk singer. When she was in her early twenties, she joined the musicologist Alan Lomax—discoverer of Pete Seeger, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Lead Belly, Woody Guthrie, as well as a close friend of Nicholas Ray—on a recording tour of the American South. Sponsored by Atlantic Records, their mission was to get folk ballads and church choirs in poor African-American and rural white areas of the country on tape, while traveling through Louisiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, and Georgia.

At first, it seems as if Collins, in structuring the book as a double narrative of past and present, is merely reproducing a well-worn trope of the autobiographical form. Writing from the vantagepoint of 2004 about a trip made in the summer of 1959, she alternates short chapters detailing the present (i.e. July through November 1959) and the past (i.e. her childhood in Hastings, beginning in the early ’30s and lasting through the ’40s).

Nevertheless, this simple technique has profound implications for the trajectory of the book and for the content of the 1959 sections. By interspersing memories of growing up in working class Hastings—where she is drawn, like her sister Dolly, to folk music, with a feminist and communist mother, a father who abandons them shortly after returning home, the specter of war hanging over their childhoods—our sense of Collins’s navigation of this new environment, the segregated South of the late 1950s, deepens in unexpected ways.

I am surprised, then, to find a similar method at work in Koretzky’s gorgeous film charting her Japanese father’s travels across the world in the 1970s. A technique analogous to the Collins book emerges: the present that Koretzky deals in is our recent present, i.e. the time of the film’s conception (2016-18), the past her father Jiro’s. What is impressive is that her actual physical and psychological presence is far more sublimated than Collins’s in America Over the Water. Her most significant appearance comes as the blurry subject of a Polaroid taken by her father as she wields her Bolex, gradually fading up into view as he flaps and flaps the photopaper in front of the camera.

Interspersed with her father’s 35mm slides—largely pristine documents of his youthful travels through the Soviet Union, Scandinavia, Greece, Spain, Portugal (where Koretzky’s father, daughter, and grandson now live), Morocco, and the United States—are passages of him working in the garden of his home in 2018, clipping hedges, mowing the grass, or toiling in flower beds. There is something mysterious about Koretzky’s decision to counterpoint these images from the past—the slides—with the lush green of the garden, the sound of far-off birdsong, and images of her father’s calming horticultural rituals.

These are not all fly-on-the-wall snapshots: Koretzky delicately imposes a form on her subject, calling on her father to pose with huge coloured palms or, looking into the lens, leaning against plastered walls in golden sunlight. The old slides themselves, some worn and some remarkably vibrant, were re-shot in 16mm by Koretzky to match the passages in the garden of her father’s home (a renovated 17th century house in rural Portugal where the family, Koretzky has said, lives sustainably). Even projected digitally, these celluloid images, past and present, are luxuriant beyond words. In some sense, this decision—to take the time and care to re-shoot everything, even the still photos, on the same 16mm film stock—unites the present and past in simple visual terms above all else, in ways that are comparable to the rich, straightforward temporal juxtapositions of America Over the Water.

What Play-Doc encouraged, whether consciously or not, was a kind of intercourse between the experience of the movie and the many small-scale experiences that accumulate around it. Who is to say that my reaction to Around the World When You Were My Age would not have been as immediate, multivalent, and overpowering had I not spent that afternoon leafing leisurely through Shirley Collins’s reminiscences of adolescence and her formative trip to the United States? Confronted by these two things, my response to the latter grew in intensity. Koretzky’s resplendent, glistering 16mm images, her use of old photos in an uncommonly demonstrative way, the blissful stillness of those gardening sequences—these pleasures that would be written off elsewhere as minor and hardly worth noting came to eclipse all other considerations in light of this complementary pairing.

I asked her for a handkerchief
To bind my aching head,
And also for a candle
To light myself to bed.

But I rolled and I tumbled
And no rest could I find,
For the flames of hell rolled 'round me
And in my eyes did shine.

I rolled and tumbled,
I prayed but found no rest,
For a burning, burning, burning hell
Was burning in my breast.

The Oxford Girl, as sung by Almeda Riddle

The majority of movie reviews, particularly at festivals, characterize films as defined, boxed-in experiences. And to be fair, that is how they are presented: festival sections delimit swathes of the program and critics almost always take the bait. Buzzwords originating in a given section or from the catalog notes tend to haunt a movie into its afterlife. Most negative write-ups pin the movie against the wall and hammer it, sentence by bloody sentence, into smithereens. Most positive reviews rubber-stamp a successful piece and usher it along the line. The review form encourages thinking of these things as discrete objects, insisting that whatever the critic’s reaction—positive, middling, negative—it ought never be touched by outside considerations. Typically, retrospective programming, when it gets written about at all, is coned off in one corner of the hall or relegated to a mere afterthought.

In a sense, all the films in competition at Play-Doc could be considered “retrospective” programming, in that they were all handpicked from other festivals. None, besides perhaps a couple of shorts in the Galician Panorama, were international premieres. The closest thing to a recognizable gala premiere was the Spanish debut of Bruce Weber’s Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast (2018), the majority of which was shot when Robert Mitchum (who died in 1997) was still alive. While enjoyable, the film is considerably weaker and less probing than Weber’s previous works. Given the grave allegations of sexual harassment against Weber himself, recently highlighted in an exhaustive New York Times investigation, it is difficult to look back on this fond celebration of Mitchum’s vociferous sexual charisma and his brazen pursuit of adoring young women in a neutral light.

Generally speaking, the structure of the program put as muchif not moreemphasis on career retrospectives as it did on an offering of “new” films. Not just Weber’s, which encompassed three movies, but also Wolf-Eckart Bühler’s, consisting of Pharos of Chaos (Leuchtturm des Chaos) (1983) and The Shipwreck (Der Havarist) (1984). As many competed for the main prize as were shown in the joyful retrospective of the films of Kidlat Tahimik, of which two ran close to three hours. In each case, there was no space for repeat viewings—which are standard for big competition films elsewhere but not, typically, for retrospective séances—thereby de-emphasizing the division between past and present further still.

Two of the best movies I have seen all year, complementary yet wholly unrelated, were Wolf-Eckert Bühler’s Pharos of Chaos, a two-hour-long encounter with the actor Sterling Hayden a few years before his death, and Bruce Weber’s Broken Noses, about former Golden Gloves champion boxer Andy Minsker. Rarely do two such temperamentally dissimilar movies rub shoulders as spontaneously and as productively as this pair did in Tui. Practically speaking, I saw them in the same cinema, a day or two apart, with the same basic observations swirling in my head.

Artistically speaking, one is picturesque, expansive, and highly romantic (Broken Noses); the other is harrowing, rigidly-structured, and deeply sad (Pharos of Chaos). I luxuriated in the Weber—the self-consciously overexposed black-and-white images romanticising a Portland, Oregon that is practically beyond all recognition, the beautiful people and their beautiful bodies, the flickers of an impulsive, genuinely childlike innocence in Minsker. The Bühler doc, meanwhile, was something of a cold shower.

In Broken Noses, we are introduced to Andy in his bedroom, trophy upon trophy lining the shelves behind him as, resting on the mattress, he giggles his way through a friendly discussion with an off-screen Weber about his sex life. His stepmother calls and he answers a novelty telephone, laughing as he shows it to camera. His comic timing is flawless—he says his stepmother is mortified that the film crew are going to take pictures of her home. It is too messy, she says. Andy is cracking up, interrupting himself every other word with snorts, cackles, and guffaws. Andy’s is an immediate, all-encompassing charm. He is a kind of alien creation, a spectacle of unselfconscious glee enchanted with, and distracted by, each waking moment. As we join him on a car ride in the next scene, he can barely get through a sentence without commenting on some passing occurrence on the road.

Minsker’s near-compulsive giggling and regular self-interruptions were cruelly mirrored by Sterling Hayden’s own, equally compulsive tics in Pharos of Chaos. As he speaks to the seldom-seen film crew and Bühler himself, Hayden regularly cuts himself off mid-sentence to call out to an imaginary interlocutor, “Huh?”, “What’s that?”, “Hmm?” Indeed, only after a significant period of time had passed was I able to concentrate on what Hayden was actually talking about, so electrifying were these habitual intrusions into his own speech rhythms.

More than a few thick sobs rang low in the cinema as a drunken Hayden expounded at great length on the allure of suicide, of self-annihilation through drink, of the pull of his tumbling from the gangplank, sinking into the water, and not fighting against the steady drift down to the bottom of the canal. In the scene, he speaks deliberately, these verbal spasms disturbing the calm surface, twitching like a jolt of bodily pain shooting up into his spinal cortex. In this particular case, as he describes these dark thoughts, Hayden is sat cross-legged on the roof of his houseboat, pipe in hand, the light of summer flickering on the mossy water behind him. The counterpoint with the obvious glory of the day only heightens the dark sentiment.

Sometime later, the great ham actor garrulously recounts a story of a jolly exchange he had with a “hobo” near the local railyard, the punchline being that—after asking whether he was all set for money—the hobo replies, “Sorry mister, can’t spare a dime.” Hayden laughs heartily, glancing around at each of his companions. Visibly, he is aware that he has told the story with aplomb, with the gravity of a great entertainer, belying his otherwise brittle constitution. We join Hayden, the crew, and Bühler in laughter. Then, after the moment fades, he repeats again and again, each time ever more dimly, “Can’t spare a dime...”

At most festivals, fatigue warps your memory of what you see and intuitive connections that form naturally over the course of an afternoon, a day, a week are allowed little to no time to breathe. At Play-Doc, the large gaps in the schedule were filled by a whole other kind of movie, a “third” cine-object born of a mental dialogue between fleeting impressions, nurtured by peaceful afternoons away from the cinema screen. It is this type of movie that ought to be written about more often, and this kind of festival that ought to be championed.


Christopher Small

Christopher Small is a writer and filmmaker living in the United Kingdom. He is the head of the Critics Academy at the Locarno Festival, where he has worked since 2017.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2019

All Issues