Observance ranks high among lofty terms dedicated to religious practice. It likes purity. It likes ritual. As in: I'm an observant Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist. Differing from divine revelation, visions, or even obsessions, observance mostly shies from radical breaks and unhinged madness. But deep within its magnetic purity is performance. The heart of an observant tingles with ego, with virtue. The gestures are measured for show. This double meaning digs at a truth among the pious: To see the light, but also to be seen seeing it. 

Pilgrims walk a Tibetan highway, prostrating themselves on the pavement at near intervals.

Pilgrims walk a Tibetan highway, prostrating themselves on the pavement at near intervals.

Zang Yang’s Paths of the Soul appears to be a pilgrimage observed by a man with a camera. A Tibetan village decides to send a small group of Buddhist pilgrims on a spiritual journey to the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, the second highest city in the world. They make the nearly 1,300 mile trek through the Himalayas on foot and, miraculously, on their bellies, diving to the pavement every few feet in an act of courageous devotion. 

Looking a bit like a turtle, this Buddhist pilgrim prostrates himself on a road in Tibet. Note the sheep-skin aprons and wooden blocks to protect the body and the hands from the pavement.

Looking a bit like a turtle, this Buddhist pilgrim prostrates himself on a road in Tibet. Note the sheep-skin aprons and wooden blocks to protect the body and the hands from the pavement.

The physical exertion is palpable. The group wears wooden blocks on their hands for protection and sheepskin aprons for the rest of their bodies. Perfectly achieved, the devoted are literally prostrate on the highway with their foreheads to the ground, their hands and forearms forming a small triangle in prayer. And then they are up again. Standing. Walking. Then down to the ground, flat to the pavement. Up and walking. Down to the ground. Up down up down up down, for the duration of the film.

The way Zang directed and shot the film is central to the experience. It's not monotonous, but monotony is occasionally conveyed. His method helps us feel as though we are watching an authentic spiritual quest. And, in a way, we are. The film documents a real pilgrimage that thousands of Tibetans embark on every year. The director, however, employed his non-professional cast and also staged some of the scenes. Meaning: Zang is not exactly documenting a pilgrimage. Knowing this, I couldn’t help but wonder the extent to which these observant people wished to be observed themselves. We all wondered, if we knew. 

Does this slight of hand matter? Not particularly, unless you are a journalist, a lawyer seeking verifiable facts, or maybe a religious fanatic. The end result is a spectacular film, with every possible mishap overcome— birth, death, rockslides, car crashes, lack of food, lack of money — Paths of the Soul has it all. It is cinematic. 

A young boy dons a carnival mask during Salomé Lamas' Eldorado XXI. The audio is enhanced during the scene with some sounds played in reverse to create a magical effect. A loud dog fight follows directly after. 

A young boy dons a carnival mask during Salomé Lamas' Eldorado XXI. The audio is enhanced during the scene with some sounds played in reverse to create a magical effect. A loud dog fight follows directly after. 

Salomé Lamas’ Eldorado XXI sets out with a different and perhaps tighter spiritual agenda. The filmmaking itself is ritual. Lamas' eye encourages or even demands our own observant attentiveness. Labor is the subject. After just a few and beautiful establishing shots surrounding the Peruvian village of La Rinconada, purported to be the highest permanent human settlement in the world, and higher than Lhasa, Lamas plants her tripod firmly on a steep gold miners' trail. This is the second of two attempts Lamas made to capture the scene, and a distinct cinematic frame, with which she had become obsessed. The first  screened at Portugal's Serralves Museum in 2015.

The camera doesn’t move for nearly an hour as we watch miner after miner climb a snaking, muddy, trash-strewn path passed the lens. This is definitely the longest single take I have ever seen. (Consider Bela Tarr's famous long take in the opening scene for Satantango. A mere 7'33"... and the camera actually moves.) A few people in the audience at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater walked out. In spite of the interesting audio track of Radio el Minero, this long shot tries the patience, which, of course, it should. And, I believe, it was meant to. Here we find an emerging ritual, two times achieved. With a much tighter approach than Zang, Lamas attempts to cinch our spirits in a prostrate position before labor. She fixes our devotion to the cause while deserting audience members file toward the theater exit. Unfortunate for them.

Past this master shot, the film spins slowly, intriguingly into various gatherings of La Rinconada, each episode seems increasingly prayer oriented until a final Catholic mass and street party. Intimate off-grid fire dances with masked miners toting walking sticks. Solemn rituals in honor of Santa Tierra Pachamama, "the Awichita who's always with us." Santa Tierra Pachamama is the Andean Earth goddess,  the patron saint of gold miners and "Awichita" is the mountain that holds the gold, a sleeping beauty. But Awichita also appears to be a name for the women in the community and perhaps even a menacing femininity that also surrounds and protects. The group mixes Andean prayer with nods to Catholicism, blessing belongings and mining tools with frankincense in an ornate thurible. 

Lamas' artistic license differs from Zang's. Hers is a subtler brush. Rather than Zang's slight of hand -- to employ actors in depicting a documentary of religious observance -- we have stronger associations, longer observations, and auditory manipulation. Where Zang hoodwinks, Lamas uses well placed artifice to push the reality we witness. It's a different approach that may seem immaterial at first. Does it matter how the story gets told as long as the result is effective? Not really. Both are excellent films, but Eldorado XXI anchors depictions with fidelity, a humility before the spirit of gold-mine labor and its impact on the people who live in La Rinconada. Perhaps more than observation, we feel Lamas' obsession and the effacing of the ego that implies. In Paths of the Soul, Zang remains mostly performative, seeing the light, but also hoping to be seen seeing it. 

Who are the Fanatics? The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Witch, and the Day of Wrath

Two priests laughing at the outset of an interrogation that ends in death when Joan of Arc reveals she is unsure of how old she is. 

Two priests laughing at the outset of an interrogation that ends in death when Joan of Arc reveals she is unsure of how old she is. 

Tucked away in the fury of a "witch hunt" stirs shared irrationality and the imagined justice of extra-legal processes. The torch-toting mob passes by the window shouting blunt slogans. Hands on guns. Sacred objects profaned. As the hate parade fades into another neighborhood, relief. Or not, if we are truly the hunted. The throng will come again. 

In the pause between attacks, magic might stir amidst hope and despair, a defense for the defenseless. Magic.

Curious term, "witch hunt." On one hand, it's clear, like fox hunt. We're hunting witches. On the other hand, the mob itself displays extreme fanaticism and typically forgoes the societal norms it purports to uphold. The hunters become, in a sense, a manifestation of the traits or behaviors they judge. 

Carl Th. Dreyer returns to faces of judgement frequently in his films. In The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), they are often empaneled. With his patient camera passing over their scowling faces, the hatred and anger are plain. But the longer you look, the smaller these men become. Sillier. And Dreyer lets us look. Their rigid self-regard would almost be comical, if they weren't also conducting the business of interrogation and execution. 

And then you notice that they find the inquiry funny, at least in part. They laugh with each other. Giggle. Pick their ears and joke around. Is it discomfort over excising legal pressure on someone who claims to speak with God? We're not sure. But they are enjoying themselves. When she tells them she is a child of God, they laugh. 

I am tempted to say that the individual fanatic is created or perhaps reinforced by the judgement of others. In this light, a better term for Dreyer’s depiction of this unfortunate person could be victim. And witches could generally be thought of as victims in the face of fanatical mobs, or priesthoods. Of course, a fanatic can be part of an assembly, like a fanatical sports fan, but the precision of fanaticism effaces individuality, at least to a degree. In order to be a fanatic, you must unwaveringly subscribe to an ideology emanating from a group. You must efface your ego. 

Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie, Elie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson in Robert Eggers' The Witch. (2015)

Anya Taylor-Joy, Kate Dickie, Elie Grainger, and Lucas Dawson in Robert Eggers' The Witch. (2015)

To a degree, this dynamic plays out in the tension between father and daughter in Robert Eggers new-ish film, The Witch (2015). The father (Ralph Ineson) is a bewildered believer striving to create heaven on Earth. Cast out from a colony, he and his family stake a claim to a patch of wilderness. He's not smart, but I suspect he may be kind and misguided. It's never stated what exactly the family is guilty of, but the exchange in court suggests it is his set of beliefs, too tightly held. Their (his) version of Christianity appears to run counter to the functioning of that community. Unwavering in their beliefs, they are cast out.

The family struggles to find their way. A child is stolen, mysteriously swept away on a breeze into a thicket. The woods menace. The slow burn of suspicion penetrates the family hearth. At a loss to explain their misfortune, the mother begins to suspect evil. And, in a sense, she is right. Eggers makes an interesting decision to make sorcery and paganism a real force, not a derivative religion or myth. So when the eldest daughter, Thomison (Anya Taylor-Joy), embraces witchcraft, we see it as a logical pathway, in keeping with the era. Here Eggers could have equivocated and blandly asserted that Christianity is just another set of beliefs. He doesn't. Instead, he succeeds in differentiating Christianity from sorcery, while maintaining the difficult position that they exist on a shared spiritual plain. 

So who is the fanatic here? Is it Thomison for becoming an evil witch? Is it her father for holding too strongly to his interpretation of Christianity? Is it the tribunal that cast them out? Or are the fanatics the witches in the woods who steal, castrate, and disembowel children? Whoever it may be, fanaticism is deeply engrained in the film, and punishment, meted in all directions, appears to be the remedy. 

Donald Trump, a contender for the Republican nomination for president. (Photo:  Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The New York Times.)

Donald Trump, a contender for the Republican nomination for president. (Photo: Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The New York Times.)

In The Need for Roots, Simone Weill's complex thoughts on punishment are difficult to parse. Among a number of puzzlers, she says things like "nothing in France deserves to be called punishment." It's easy to jump to conclusions, but this quote in the negative helps us see, "The need of punishment is not satisfied where, as is generally the case, the penal code is merely a method of exercising pressure through fear." I suggest this is one motivation behind the fanatical mob: an interest in applying pressure through fear. In other words, sadism. 

Sadistic joy is with us in the form of American fasci. In Boston train station on a night in August 2015, two men beat another man with a metal pipe and then pissed on him because of the hatred welling up inside them. He had done nothing. They said they attacked the man because a current presidential candidate "is right" about immigrants. They reportedly laughed as they walked away, enjoying their violence. 

On March 19, 2015, outside Shah-Du-Shamshaira mosque in Kabul, Afghanistan, Farkhunda Malikzada was accused of burning a Quran. It turned out to be a lie, she had done nothing, but that didn't matter. A crowd gathered, beat her to death, ran over her body with a car, then stoned the corpse for several hours until they burned it. 

Elias Canetti calls this the Baiting Crowd. The entire description is worth reading in full, but here is one thought, “A murder shared with many others, which is not only safe and permitted, but indeed recommended, is irresistible to the great majority of men.” It would be a mistake to consider this an endorsement. Canetti's use of "safe," "permitted," and "recommended" are intended to be precise descriptions of the crowd's self-regard and not a justification of the behavior. 

The thing about the Kabul murder is that it appears to have been instigated by a single man named Zainuddin. Farkhunda and Zainuddin had been arguing about certain Islamic strictures. As an observant Muslim and student of religion, Farkhunda told him he should not sell religious charms. He responded by saying she had burned the Quran. She denied it, but it made no difference. A baiting crowd formed, swelled with urgency, and the men who participated killed her.

Who is the fanatic? 

Carl Th. Dreyer’s film, Day of Wrath (1943), steers us away from the anonymous ecstasy of the Baiting Crowd towards an almost yin-yang of fanaticism, a seesawing balance of action and reaction that eventually crashes down on the weakest person in the group, often based on juridical proceedings. In this case, the tension lies between Anne Pedersdotter (Lisbeth Movin), a young woman married to Pastor Absalon (Thorkild Roose), an older man who is a kind, distant partner who stole Anne's childhood, and the pastor's mother, Merete (Sigrid Neiiendam). Simultaneously, Anne's mother, Herlofs Marte (Anna Svierkier), is pursued by a mob for being a witch, a fact that deeply disturbs Merete and casts an early judgement on Anne that is eventually her undoing.

Lisbeth Movin as Anne Pedersdotter in Day of Wrath (1943). 

Lisbeth Movin as Anne Pedersdotter in Day of Wrath (1943). 

What's interesting here is that Anne does not initially care very much about witchcraft. She has only a passing knowledge of various and mild kinds of magic, small gestures she learned from her mother or perhaps friends. And she can "see." It's only after she falls in love with Absalon's son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), that she begins to believe that she, too, has the powers of sorcery. When she wishes that her husband Absalon would die, and he does, she believes she has become a witch and suspects she had a hand in killing him. At the end of the film, Merete publicly accuses Anne and convinces Martin to join her side. Anne is then judged by a group of village elders. In the end, Anne confesses her guilt over the dead body of Pastor Absalon. And she believes it.

Like Eggers' film, Day of Wrath takes witchcraft seriously alongside Christianity, avoiding an atheist's conviction that religious beliefs of all stripes are the source of all evil, although they are often evil, and with an eye towards a dark mystery in human nature, an apparent need to judge and be judged by sets of rules that are completely made up by us and frequently have no basis in fact or reality. We then cling to those rules, sometimes so tightly that punishment ensues.

Perhaps it's true what Simone Weill says, "Punishment is a vital need for the human soul." 

A Liminal Revenant

Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Forrest Goodluck in Alexandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant. 

Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, and Forrest Goodluck in Alexandro González Iñárritu's The Revenant. 

A revenant is a medium from the netherworld, a Lazarus who returns to us as a ghost. This potent noun echoes. We hear revenge in it. And revelry provides a second reverberation. French in origin, le revenant literally means ghost. Its source is revenir: to return, about which we may also associate rêver: to dream. The Oxford English Dictionary adds an obscurity: That which is pleasing. 

It's an excellent title and sets a high bar for Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The RevenantThe film fails in some ways, by direction and spiritual emptiness, which I discuss later, but it also succeeds in creating a rushing cinematic experience, abstractly organized, if you like, by the title’s combination of factors. Leonardo DiCaprio's character, Hugh Glass, is not exactly a ghost, but he has returned from the dead. 

The needed dreams are beautiful, if perhaps overly opiatic and too Tarkovskian, sometimes verging on peyotl cliché.

So, the cinematic rush, to wit: A skilled trapper, a white man, is mauled by a bear protecting her cubs. A son from two cultures is murdered. A father is left for dead and half buried. False honor gets paid. Blood money maps the path to revenge. Mythology is propelled forward through starvation-induced hallucinations. Needed dreams are beautiful, if perhaps overly opiatic and too Tarkovskian, sometimes verging on peyotl cliché. False courage of unjust murder blooms in a weak man as he is tracked and killed. Ritual and retribution are excised at a high cost. Revenge almost becomes God’s business, but not quite.

Such is our cinematic meal. In our individual cocoons in the theater's darkness, safe from the outside world, it feels easy to imagine ourselves as passive vessels. Film’s images and sounds pour in. Our soft and sated bodies warmed by its aural and visual beauty. 

But maybe film isn't exactly consumption in that sense, maybe not just the mowing of psychic calories. Perhaps film is also liminal, a threshold over which we pass. I don’t define liminality as precisely as anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner do, in part due to the cultural norm of film-viewing passivity and cinema’s lack of structured rites, but the definition helps us: Anthropological liminality is ritual ambiguity where proscribed rites excite visions, sometimes dark and righteous, through which participants pass. Along the way, they (we) may encounter mirrored beings, monsters of the liminal state, that reflect society’s ills. To my mind, film does this to greater or lessor degrees, perhaps more so now as our world becomes engulfed in visual language delivered primarily by the internet: moving images as digitally structured liminal rites.

Anthropological liminality is ritual ambiguity where proscribed rites excite visions, dark and righteous, through which participants pass.

Which brings me to pain and violence. There is little doubt in my mind that pain and violence are more widely perceived now, in frightening and glassy forms, than ever before in humanity’s history. The global availability of real images of murder and torture, such as the widely publicized ISIS decapitations or the torture at Abu Graib (and there are many, many more examples), is a new phenomenon. We don't yet know its affect, but it feels grim. There was a time when snuff films were very much a disturbing taboo, obscure and horrible crimes carried out in the backwaters of cinema. (Are they even real, or are we just fascinated by them? I was never quite sure.) Today, and everyday, many thousands of real lives are snuffed out as we watch. The dead bodies become digital ghouls, gliding over us and around us, a vast scream of horror that has risen to a screechy pitch we are scarcely able to perceive. We watch and turn away… and watch again. Are we able to generate empathy in the face of this onslaught? 

Aside from being horrified by the acts and then horrified again by my own insufficient responses — fear, anger, resignation, maybe a post on social media — I’m not entirely sure what to make of it all. It simultaneously feels removed from meaning and yet it seems to spin an enchanting and hostile web of materialism or propaganda all around us. I think it is fundamentally changing how we know each other. And it certainly confuses the fictional representation of violence. 

Arthur RedCloud and DiCaprio catching snowflakes on their tongues. 

Arthur RedCloud and DiCaprio catching snowflakes on their tongues. 

In his review for The New Yorker, Richard Brody writes that a lack of humor in The Revenant is a potential sign of weak storytelling and thin imagination, that the film's purported seriousness creates a compensatory mask that hides emptiness. Perhaps.

I like Brody's tidy idea, but is humor really at issue? The Revenant is bloody and solemn, but it’s not the most humorless thing you can see, and certainly not the most vapid of all violent films out there right now, although some reviewers might lead you to that conclusion. And there are, in fact, a couple of mildly humorous scenes. Snowflakes on the tongue, for example. To me, Brody’s notion seems more like a wish that he had watched a different film, rather than an observation of what The Revenant is.

And yet, stepping back from Iñárritu's 196 minutes, there was humor elsewhere, around it. A strangely gleeful and giggling marketing campaign emerged with both Iñárritu and DiCaprio, and the rest of the crew, trotting out various production stories of the he-man ilk. It almost felt for a moment as though the lived experiences of the production had become more important than the film itself. Iñárritu eventually stepped away from that branding strategy, but why did he decide to put DiCaprio and the rest of the cast through really difficult scenes in the first place? 

One answer that Iñárritu provides is that he wanted the visual and aural texture that comes from people actually going through trials in the places where the trials took place. Fair enough. As a filmmaker, I can sympathize with this technique and used it in A Man Full of Days. We shot in torrential summer downpours and winter temperatures approaching zero Fahrenheit. Actor Brandon Nagle took it on the chin and did a great job. 

But I suspect there may also be a collective desire, in a liminal sense, to get closer to the death and horror that plagues us. Naturally, we fear the real thing, but films like The Revenant may also soothe a conscience that soaks up the oily queasiness resulting from viewing real human suffering and death on a daily basis.

Have we invented a poisoned form of entertainment in the way we cover ISIS or Abu Graib as news? I believe we have and that it's deeply traumatic for human emotions, even if you steel yourself with the fact that you can't do anything about it. The glee of killing has become almost normative, as we saw so well articulated in Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing, but where is the solemnity and honor we owe to death? Would adding humor to violent fiction change this moral crisis and help us see more clearly? I don't think so, but it could. Does real suffering by actors make the story more resonant? Probably not, but I do wonder about that somewhat dangerous idea. Either way, The Revenant does seem to lack... Is it courage? Maybe it's an inability to fully embrace the violence it sets in motion. We may laugh, as some people did in the theater when I saw the film, but it's that tense, unhappy clipping, a painful chirp of discomfort and guilt. 

Muadh al Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot, was burned to death by ISIS sometime shortly after December 24, 2014, when his plane crashed in Syria. 

Muadh al Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot, was burned to death by ISIS sometime shortly after December 24, 2014, when his plane crashed in Syria. 

Of course, unlike me, some people hated this film. “The Revenant is Meaningless Pain Porn” is the title of a widely read article in The Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr. To paraphrase Cadwalladr’s critique: There is so much real violence in the world — like, look at ISIS! — why on Earth do we need a fictionalized version that people pay for the privilege of seeing?

In Cadwalladr's words, “There’s a crucial difference between us and the people we are currently trying to blow to smithereens with million-pound missiles: we choose to pay to watch women being pretend raped rather than watching women being actually raped for free.” Cheekily, with self-assurance and sarcasm, she writes, “arguably, [The Revenant is] not as immersive as putting a camera in a cage and then setting a man on fire. Have you seen that one? Where the man is burned alive? It’s not by González Iñárritu, but ISIS. It wasn’t nominated for anything but the pain is even more real, more visceral, more – what was the word, thrilling? – than DiCaprio’s.” 

The ISIS video certainly will not win any awards in a conventional sense, but ISIS often creates a global sensation from which they benefit and from which our commercial news outlets profit. There’s big money in beheadings and people watch them for complex reasons, some of which may reveal the dark horror of voyeuristic sadism or, I would hope, an attempt to understand the world around us. 

And, yet, I find that I don’t have a lot of patience for Cadwalladr's line of thinking. Her "crucial difference" looks more like critical similarities to me. And what does it do for us? What is her point, exactly? Is it that if we are going to show violence, we should only show the real thing? Or when we fictionalize it, we shouldn't make it so visceral? In actual fact, the period that The Revenant explores was intensely violent and genocidal. If we told stories about this time without the violence we could easily get trite sentimentality, like we apparently do with A Birthday Cake for George Washington, the children’s book that Scholastic recently pulled over criticism that it made slavery seem upbeat and fun.

Pain is fair too complex an experience to be reserved solely for the most honorable reactions to easily distinguished moments of real human suffering. To witness and judge the hideousness of human effigies or beheadings provides firm footing for justifiable moral outrage. No question. In some ways, the very discomfort that Cadwalladr feels is one of the stronger reactions fiction can generate. The hope is that the best storytellers among us can help us understand what the fuck is going on. 

What is the ideological formation of violence in our age?

Maybe a better question to ask is why this film, and the way it was produced, exists now alongside the pronounced visual assault of actual death that has become available to us through the internet. What is the ideological formation of violence in our age? Novelists have begun to grapple heavily with this. Elfriede Jelinek, Roberto Bolaño, Stieg Larsson, Marlon James, and Eka Kurniawa have all demonstrated enthusiasm to depict the violence of our age. And their work has been rewarded time and again. Why?

The Revenant is a pretty film. And it keeps pace in a rush of blood and thrill. But it's also nearly devoid of the spirit, import, or moral heft it seems to take so seriously. DiCaprio is not a ghost, but he is something like the walking dead. As such, The Revenant devolves into a pop culture threshold, insufficient in courage to handle the meaning of murdered spirits that pass through our eyes and into our minds each day.


In Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo slices open a dead tauntaun with a light saber and stuffs Luke Skywalker inside to save him from freezing to death. 

In Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo slices open a dead tauntaun with a light saber and stuffs Luke Skywalker inside to save him from freezing to death. 

Although cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has an eye for beauty, Iñárritu’s cinematic vernacular feels a bit tacky and thoughtless to me, even phony. There's the silliness of the Empire Strikes Back rip off during which DiCaprio, like Luke Skywalker and his trusted tauntaun many years before, uses the gut of a dead horse to keep from freezing. And the overused references to Tarkovsky often seem forced and show-off-y, so much so that a Russian filmmaker by the name of The Petrick created a rather revealing mashup of side-by-side images comparing Iñárritu to Tarkovsky. We appear to live in a superficial world. Does that change the depth of its meaning? 

On sound design and score, I thought the film was wonderfully constructed and the music gorgeous. There's too much in it to write about here, but I was very happy to listen to the film in a theater.


The Artifacts of Filmmaking

As I sit in my studio at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus, things from my productions speak to me. For one of my recent films, a feature titled A Man Full of Days, I had to create a number of different props and costumes that now hang on shelves and lie on floor space like creatures in an artful zoo. The seem to peer at me from above or move ever closer from below. They retain their intended meanings as players in the film, while also developing a kind of historical patina and even an afterlife.

Perhaps my favorite invention was the Light Wig. It worked perfectly. The materials were very simple. Chicken wire. Christmas lights. But the effect is wonderful. The focus was to create the impression of a self-appointed reverential moment as personal performance art where the main character in the film (Man, played by Brandon Nagle) vigorously dances on a stage in an abandoned resort with the Light Wig bouncing on his head. Inspired by "visions in the night," which is a quote from the Book of Job and is the opening quote of the film, Man takes it upon himself to define his own art and his own spirituality. But by individualizing what is expected to be a communal experience, an experience of communitas, he finds his efforts lacking and emptiness fills him. 

Actor Brandon Nagle as Man in A Man Full of Days wearing the Light Wig. 

Actor Brandon Nagle as Man in A Man Full of Days wearing the Light Wig. 

Erin West, the costume designer for the film, made a spectacular leather outfit for the main character. It now hangs from the ceiling above me like some kind of effigy.

This leather suit was the most important costume in the film and it took Erin and I some time to strike on the right style and technique. Ultimately the suit proved to be fragile in places, which was perfect because Man could then authentically repair the costume in scenes that called for it. It's a heavy piece weighing around 30 pounds, which also helped the scenes feel more real. 




Leather Man 001.jpg

The glass jars below were used to simulate the creation of an alchemical potion from Paracelsus called Mercury of the Moon. (One of Paracelsus' middle names was Bombastus.) I worked with Prof. Mark Kobrak at Brooklyn College to attempt an emulation of the process with the hope that the science would appear as real as possible. We used heated various faux element to avoid danger, but retain the appearance of the real thing. 

On Timeliness and Timelessness with Poet Oleh lysheha

Taken from notes for a talk at Harvard University on July 8, 2015 during an event in honor of poet Oleh Lysheha, who passed away on December 17, 2014. 

Oleh Lysheha discussing salt under a tree in Tysmenytsia, Ukraine, in 2012.

Oleh Lysheha discussing salt under a tree in Tysmenytsia, Ukraine, in 2012.

I first came across Oleh Lysheha's poetry at a Ukrainian bandura concert in New York City. On a table was a trim volume of poems with an abstract image on the cover, a red splatter that I later understood to be a swan. I opened the book and immediately my eyes lept from one apt phrase to another:

Does a hand know it? That it
Is barren land, hewed wood, mines crumbling?
What pain the heart must suffer -- 
To return again to the oil and salt,
To the native and stony ground,

I glanced to the top of the page. The poem was він, which is "He" in English. 

"Apt" is really an understatement. At the time I had just returned from the Carpathian Mountains where I had begun production of a documentary film about an ancient salt mine, its innovative asthma clinic and its now on-going environmental catastrophe. My team and I conducted many technical interviews about salt-mine engineering, pulmonary medicine, speleotherapy and halotherapy. But I needed a poet to help us shed light on why humans need such sophisticated knowledge and industrial structure to handle salt. What was it about salt that made it so special? I needed someone who could open us to salt's spiritual and even magical qualities, a poet who could speak to the importance of salt for my film Salt in the AirWowed by Lysheha's exacting sensibility to nature, I was also grateful for my serendipity.

Oleh Lysheha at his home talking about axes in 2011. Tysmenytsia, Ukraine. 

Oleh Lysheha at his home talking about axes in 2011. Tysmenytsia, Ukraine. 

A brief backstory.

Salt in the Air is a portrait of Solotvyno, a small village in the Carpathian Mountains where an ancient salt mine doubles as a care center for asthmatics. Fascinated by the topic and by shimmering, almost ghostly images of the underground clinic, I went Ukraine in late 2010 only to discover that the mine was in horrific shape. In fact, it was collapsing and the Tysa River was flowing into it. The once picturesque mountain village and health spa was now filled with decaying steel mining towers and giant sinkholes into which homes and gardens and schools and churches had been engulfed. A creative person could potentially elevate the discussion and illuminate ideas that might span environmental catastrophe and the hope of medical innovation. At core, salt is the only mineral we eat in rock form and we cannot live without it. All life, as we know it, depends on salt. Though certainly impressive, it didn't feel like it was enough to say the mine was dying or asthma soothed. Salt demanded more.

So there I was in the East Village, awe struck by my luck and the words I had read. I contacted James Brasfield, Lysheha's English translator, who kindly connected me to Lysheha at his home in far away Tysmenytsia, a village surprisingly close to Solotvyno. On my next trip to Ukraine, I went to visit Oleh Lysheha.

Bilyk, Lysheha's dog, waiting for some borsch. 

Bilyk, Lysheha's dog, waiting for some borsch. 

What a trip! What an adventure. Of our many evenings of discussion and engagement, one stands out. We had just finished a wonderful meal with Oleh's wife, Dariya, his sister, Lilia, and our cameraman, Andrej Yakovlev. As others prepared for bed, Oleh and I remained at the table, set to drink and talk late into the night.

Over the course of hours, Dariya would occasionally come into the room, trailed by the dog, Bilyk, and gently shame us or coax us to say goodnight. But we remained. Crickets began to chirp and owls hooted. The night grew quieter. Andrej, collapsing with exhaustion after a full day of filming, fell asleep in the corner with his hat over his face. And yet Oleh and I talked on, finally reaching a point of whispering to each other across the dinner table, the vodka half empty.

Suddenly, and to my great surprise, Oleh slammed his hands on the table, stood up and began to shout Hamlet at the top of his lungs. "To be or not to be!" Andrej sat bolt upright, rubbing his eyes and wondering what was happening. Dariya and Lilia burst into the room. Poor Bilik was barking himself senseless. And Oleh shouted on! He reached "....perchance to dream..." and then we were kicked out of the house. We didn't mind. We wandered into the backyard and over to his garden where he grew vegetables. There was a full moon under which we bobbed in and out of the light along rows of green peppers, potatoes and cucumbers, talking until about 3:00 in the morning. And then we went to bed. As I write these words, my thoughts feel like echoes of Lysheha's great poem Swan

Oleh Lysheha at home in Tysmenytsia. 

Oleh Lysheha at home in Tysmenytsia. 

My God, I’m vanishing . .
This road won’t guide me anymore . .
I’m not so drunk . .
Moon, don’t go . .
I appear from behind a pine—you hide . .
I step into shadow—you appear . .
I run—already you are behind me . .
I stop—you’re gone . .
Only the dark pines . .
I hide behind a trunk—again, you’re alone . .
I am—you are elsewhere . .
Absent . .
Absent . .
I am . .
Elsewhere . .

All our days filming and getting to know Oleh were like this. Poetry seemed to be flooding the place. One day Oleh picked up a large stone. "It's a bird," he tells me. "An onyx. It's the flight of the Earth. Heavy." And then he looks at me with a wry smile. "Or a frog, of course." The wonder of the world captured in a riff. 

Oleh was fond of Ezra Pound. He spoke often of his poetry, alongside the work of many English language poets. Robinson Jeffers. Henry David Thoreau. T.S. Eliot. On one occasion, Oleh picked up an axe and paraphrased Pound. "A new axe handle must be made with the old axe." I took this to be an expression of both tradition and the eternal forging of art and language. The timelessness of craft. 

Timeliness or Timelessness

When you breathe salt, you breathe in a small particle of the ocean. It gives you space inside yourself. You breathe vast space. You breathe fresh space and take inside freshness. Freshness. Just like a flower. You become a flower then. When breathing salt, you become a tiny, wild flower. That’s what we breathe it for.

Which brings me to the topic at hand: Timeliness or Timelessness. I had been struggling for some time over whether or not Salt in the Air should be a timely film or a timeless one. By timely I mean the sort of film that exposes the present, typically in a journalistic fashion, for the benefit or demise of the living. It's the kind of film that might play on an in-depth news channel or the type that has become common on the documentary circuit where human rights abuses or corruption are exposed. It's typically meant to incite action or inspire change of some kind, often from a left perspective politically, but not always. In the case of Solotvyno, there was plenty of corruption, cronyism, theft and otherwise sleazy business to make a timely doc. Vast corruption of this type, in fact, is what partly led to the Maidan Revolution just a few years later and sits as a significant underpinning for the current war between Ukraine and Russia. 

Timelessness, on the other hand, is more focused on something that might resonate over generations. It's not just this particular crisis of 2010 during which a small mining town has been destroyed by greed and mismanagement. It's an investigation in what it means to be human. Why do we have salt mines in the first place? What do they represent? Salt is one of the few minerals we eat in raw form. We eat and breathe this crystal and our bodies are partly constructed of it. This is the timeless story and it's the one that Oleh offered to help me tell. We settled on timelessness and though I wonder if we got it right, we certainly picked the right path. It allowed Oleh to imagine a phrase like this: 

When you breathe salt, you breathe in a small particle of the ocean. It gives you space inside yourself. You breathe vast space. You breathe fresh space and take inside freshness. Freshness. Just like a flower. You become a flower then. When breathing salt, you become a tiny, wild flower. That's what we breathe it for. 

What is most impressive about salt is that it’s a crystal. A pure crystal and it preserves everything in itself. It preserves memory and the feeling of time, space. Everything. Because it is crystal.

Or this: 

What is most impressive about salt is that it's a crystal. A pure crystal and it preserves everything in itself. It preserves memory and the feeling of time, space. Everything. Because it is crystal.  

Fidelity to language became an important part of the filmmaking process, in part because of Oleh. I retained James Brasfield's elegant translations of Lysheha's poetry, including punctuation. Lysheha liked to use two periods after some lines. I asked him about this and he simply said, "Sometimes it's needed."

The Ukrainian title for Salt in the Air is Сіль у повітрі, a translation that Oleh crafted. But it could have been written Сіль в повітрі. Ostap Kin, the talented translator for Salt in the Air's subtitles, put it this way, "It's impossible to distinguish these titles in English. It's certainly clear in Ukrainian, but probably only for people dealing with letters and words (writers, editors, etc). In Ukrainian, if a word ends with consonant and the next word starts with consonant, and one needs to use a preposition in between, it should be a vowel " у" [u] ---> [Sil u povitri] in order to omit having three consonants in a row [Sil v povitri]. Also, the sound "v" in the word "povitria" makes it difficult to pronounce whole phrase, if one uses "в" [v] as a preposition." 

Ostap's explanation probably feels too detailed for this essay. And yet precise language is often a deep and sometimes beguiling part of the craft of filmmaking. In the big picture I like to imagine that I am also crafting a new axe handle with the old axe. Now, in addition to being in front of the camera, Lysheha is present in the title of the film and he stays with me in my work as filmmaker. I feel the loss of his passing. 

An old deer head mounted on Lysheha's wall in his home. For some reason, I felt a lot of affection for this run-down creature. What a strange beast. 

An old deer head mounted on Lysheha's wall in his home. For some reason, I felt a lot of affection for this run-down creature. What a strange beast. 

Mirrors, Wounds & Job

My mom, Sister Irene Angela Gemma Rossini, is seen here in 1966 working on one of her large oil paintings. She would later add Cullen to her name, but never dropped the Rossini. 

My mom, Sister Irene Angela Gemma Rossini, is seen here in 1966 working on one of her large oil paintings. She would later add Cullen to her name, but never dropped the Rossini. 

Before embarking on my first narrative feature, A MAN FULL OF DAYS, my work routinely involved one significant and personal fact: I am the son of a Catholic priest (Irish) and a Catholic nun (Italian). They were artists and activists with philosophical and poetic leanings. Having become disenchanted with the conservatism and personal piety that was and is a reaction to Vatican II, my parents left the church at the end of the 1960s, got married and had two children. They were originally introduced because my father was looking for an artist to paint a Resurrection mural for his parish. The project never happened because the church was destroyed to make space for a freeway.

The Catholic vow of celibacy for religious people makes my birth a sin of sorts and has, in my eyes, forever cast doubt on an institution that hypocritically prohibits unions of love, among other prohibitions and related problems. That doubt, and skepticism towards religion more generally, is where A MAN FULL OF DAYS began.

My dad took regular trips by motorcycle when he was a seminarian in Belgium. Here he is at Mont Saint-Michel, in Normandy, France, 1953. 

My dad took regular trips by motorcycle when he was a seminarian in Belgium. Here he is at Mont Saint-Michel, in Normandy, France, 1953. 

The Book of Job is one of seven books in the bible, often called the Wisdom Books, that suggest the possibility of an unsteady faith. If you read the Job text carefully, it's clear that God feels the need to convince Job that s/he is, in fact, great and mighty and super divine. This boasting reveals an insecure God who feels threatened by Job's naive insistence on divine justice. As an absurd take on the question of faith, and to the extent that it lacks conventional religious certainty, the Job story seems somehow outside of or prior to the biblical tradition. And it may be. Some theologians have theorized that Job is a book in the "mirrors for princes" tradition, an ancient pedagogical tool that existed in many cultures for the purposes of educating royalty. Here, the "mirror" is a form of self-conscious educating, undertaken when the prince is about to come to power. The Book of Job, then, could be old school curricula. 

In the backstory to the film, MAN (Brandon Nagle) has been touched by weak angels that visit him and speak to him. Called by both faith and doubt, MAN leaves the security of his job and community and chooses a transient life, one that he hopes will bring him some understanding of himself. When a friend of his (Maia Calloway-Cabrera) attempts to warn him of his misguided adventure, he cuts his hand. This cut is symbolic of the broad Christian effort to solve a classic and beguiling question: If god is benevolent, why is there pain in the world? Through character development, costumes and collaborations with composers and vocalists, I tried to address what the Catholic Church has produced: a deep psychological attachment to wounds, both earned and self-inflicted.

The gangrenous hand of MAN just before he cuts off his fingers. This hand carries dense religious symbolism and the fingers that are removed represent the dissolution of an aberrant Christ, both divine and terrestrial. 

The gangrenous hand of MAN just before he cuts off his fingers. This hand carries dense religious symbolism and the fingers that are removed represent the dissolution of an aberrant Christ, both divine and terrestrial. 

Job's story is an excellent example of this wound fetish. To my mind, it's precisely his agony, not his undying faith, that proves he is worthy of God's grace. In MAN's case, he sees how weak and almost non-existent God is (or the waning existence), and so his wound (he cuts his fingers off) becomes pure performance, a sham of an effort to try to feel real. This logic is confirmed by the HEALER (Sarah Sirota) when she sexualizes the scene by licking MAN's wounded hand. Later MAN dreams about the HEALER where sex and blood co-mingle. 

MAN (Brandon Nagle) in an absurd finale dances a Ukrainian jig to the death inspired by Dovzhenko's Zemlya. 

MAN (Brandon Nagle) in an absurd finale dances a Ukrainian jig to the death inspired by Dovzhenko's Zemlya. 

Job is clearly not the only one who is virtuously wounded in the bible. There's Christ, whose martyrdom laid out an unerring script over the course of millennia for those seeking goodness. Christ's five stigmata led the way and wounds became divine. St. Paul knew it in his Letter to the Galatians, where he wrote, "I bear on my body the marks of Jesus." Perhaps a Christian, or at least a Catholic, must be wounded in order to be good. 

The final scene in A MAN FULL OF DAYS was inspired by the wonderful film, Zemlya, by Dovzhenko. In that film, a peasant dances in the moonlight and is shot by an unknown assailant. In A MAN FULL OF DAYS, the character MAN performs the same Ukrainian dance, but is shot multiple times without dying. Why? There are likely to be a number of interpretations here, but to my mind, MAN is dancing in honor of the absurd notion of being alive without meaning. 

A MAN FULL OF DAYS is part of my series films that focus on the Wisdom Books. I am currently in production for the second part of the series, THE AFTER PARTY, based on Ecclesiastes and the theme, "All is vanity." Here are a few stills from a recent shoot:

Ben Fine and  Cassandra Victoria Chopourian  in THE AFTER PARTY (in production).

Ben Fine and Cassandra Victoria Chopourian in THE AFTER PARTY (in production).

Ben Fine and   Cassandra Victoria Chopourian   in THE AFTER PARTY (in production).

Ben Fine and Cassandra Victoria Chopourian in THE AFTER PARTY (in production).

In a Year with A Taxi Explosion, The Incident "A bold, gritty, terrifying story of inner-city terror" and Branded to Kill (1967)

Actor Tony Musante as Joe Ferrante mocking subway riders in The Incident.

Actor Tony Musante as Joe Ferrante mocking subway riders in The Incident.

On June 14, 1967, newspapers reported that a Bronx teenager deliberately flicked a match onto a pool of gasoline beneath a leaking taxicab. The cab blew up and 19 people, mostly teenagers and kids, were injured. The descriptions portray a horrifying scene with children on fire running around the street. The young man apologized later, saying that he didn't think it would do much damage.

While an accident like this cannot be a direct indicator of the widespread youth-driven revolution that was to come in the next months and years, a lit match can certainly function as a social synecdoche for that period, both from the standpoint of youth rebellion and of the decaying establishment as landlords shirked responsibility and burned Bronx buildings to get insurance claims with the help of crafty "fixers." According to some accounts, buildings were also burned to the ground by street gangs who used the same fraudulent "white collar" techniques and even hired the same crafty insurance operators to "fix" their situations. The few people left living in the buildings, often the elderly and families with small children, were rarely given much, if any, notice that their homes would soon be destroyed.

There are echoes here of the Tennessee Williams line from The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore: "We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call; no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it." And Director Charlie Kaufman, inspired by Williams, includes a perpetually burning house in his film, Synecdoche, New York. (See minute 01:02 in the trailer.) 

The Incident, an excellent and almost forgotten urban crime thriller, was being filmed in the Bronx during the same month as the taxi explosion, right around June 14, 1967. I imagine the director, Larry Peerce, who grew up in the Bronx, heard the tragic news that day or perhaps a friend told him about it on the street. Given the tone and empathic characters in the film, I can only imagine he was deeply saddened by what happened. 

Peerce's film claims to "hit [sic] like a switchblade knife!" and portrays two punks who terrify passengers on the Bronx El as it rolls south towards Grand Central Station. The outdoor scenes were shot along the old 3rd Avenue IRT elevated line. It's Martin Sheen's first film. He had just changed his name from Estevez because he had not been getting any acting work and felt the dearth was due to prejudice against his name, a real-life change that fits the social critique of the film.

The entire cast is pretty amazing. In addition to Sheen, we have Beau Bridges, Ruby Dee, Ed McMahon, Jack Gilford, and Brock Peters. Tony Musante, who stars alongside Sheen, is incredible as a positively demonic hoodlum. The tagline in the title of this blog entry was an official tagline for the theatrical release in November 1967. I'm particularly drawn to the use of "terrifying terror." Excellent. 

This film is worth watching. I was able to catch the entire thing on YouTube, but it seems to be spread out into episodes now. Either way, we seem to get a prescient moment during which Peerce and Sheen and Musante channel the spirit of an age yet to come. They are enflamed human matches in this film, on fire and ready for an explosion. 

Jo Shishido as Goro Hanada in Branded to Kill. 

Jo Shishido as Goro Hanada in Branded to Kill. 

On the same day the news broke about the taxi explosion, June 14, 1967, and across the globe in Tokyo, Seijun Suzuki had just put the finishing touches on Branded to Kill, a jazzy and very stylish gangster flick that is part Bunuel, part Chris Marker and all Suzuki. The taxi explosion, The Incident and Branded to Kill are completely unrelated events and it's unlikely Suzuki would have heard about the tragedy, or perhaps even Peerce's film. Nevertheless, Branded to Kill, like The Incident, is a heated master work that seems to see the near future. More entertainment than reality, Branded to Kill is a different kind

of thriller and departs from the gritty reality of The Incident in almost every way. It's quasi-psychodrama hit man movie that nevertheless occupies a similar space of lawlessness sometimes coveted by young men like those in The Incident. Goro Hanada, played by the great Jo Shishido, a Suzuki favorite, is the No. 3 Killer who would like to be No. 1 Killer. (As an aside, Shishido had plastic surgery to enlarge his cheeks because he wasn't getting any acting jobs. After that, he started getting gangster roles. So, what's the deal with actors enlarging their cheeks to look more like gangsters, a la Marlon Brando? Do gangsters have puffy cheeks?)  

Anne Mari with Jo Shishido amid butterflies in Branded to Kill. 

Anne Mari with Jo Shishido amid butterflies in Branded to Kill. 

In keeping with the theme of flames and enflamed actors, Hanada and his wife, played campily by Mariko Ogawa, have a spat after which she sets their apartment on fire

There are so many amazing scenes in both of these films. All I can say is that they are both very much worth watching. Even just these two scenes, randomly picked by me from each film, are incredibly strong and stylized. The rain, the fire, the sex, the death in Branded to Kill. And the seeds of distrust, fragile courage, bullying and social cowardice in The Incident. The Incident is clearly meant to show a social reality and more clearly defines truth than Branded to Kill with its rice-sniffing gangster, but neither are reality, not in the way the taxi explosion is. And yet, in some ways they channel the lived tensions we associate with the late 1960s. Like the young man from the Bronx on that June day in 1967, we all like to play with fire, no matter what our age. 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Writes a Novel

James Wood + Slavoj Zizek. There’s no ring to it. One man, a marvelous literary critic. The other, a rousing bull in philosopher’s clothing. The first concerns himself with the novel, a literary form that feels quaint now, and maybe abused. The second most known for cinophilosophicolacanianmarxism, almost rising and “rebellious.” And yet they converge like two parallel lines in a distant galaxy.

That distant galaxy is right here. In a word, it’s storytelling. Or, rather, Wood and Zizek share a critique of storytelling. But what is storytelling? Perhaps at core, storytelling is entertainment, when the "arc of the story" takes precedent over other matters. It twinkles in the night sky. At its most enrapturing and beguiling, storytelling cloaks us in the thick blanket of safety on a cold night while the scoutmaster conjures monsters from the deep, dark forest. We're nine-years-old, smiling beneath our blankets, pleasantly befogged by the odd reassurance of unfounded anxiety.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making a point. 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi making a point. 

There’s something unsettling going on… Is it happiness in fear and the fear in happiness? Does safety beget guilt that in turn reinforces fear? 

When reflecting on ISIS and the beheadings, the journalist David Carr said, “We don’t want to look, but some of us do and the rest of us talk about it. ISIS seems to understand that the same forces that carried the Ice Bucket Challenge’s message of uplift — the desire to be part of something, to be in the know — can be used to spread fear and terror as well." The forces he's talking about are media technologies, but it's not that. Although technologies do influence the message, the tool isn't the source of the rub. The rub itself is the source.

James Wood wrote a terrific review of David Mitchell’s latest book, The Bone Clocks, in The New Yorker a few weeks back. Wood lays out a beautiful plan early. Vexed by an insisting genre that is “all pleasure, fantastical in its fertility, its ceaseless inventiveness,” Wood nearly squares Mitchell into a box, but generously refrains, and for our benefit. Mitchell's gaming smile perturbs him, so he quotes Mitchell directly: “People’s time, if you bought if off them, is expensive. I want to give them something back, and I want it to be an enjoyable experience.” Mitchell clearly regards transaction in human expression quite highly. His work is not an offering to humanity, but an offering to you, dear reader. Transactions suggest fairness and agreement, typically between individuals, but it could be entities. I understand why Mitchell and others are attracted to this. But I sit with Wood, who rocks uneasily in his parlor chair as the terms of the contract are laid plain. 

You may recall that Jonathan Franzen found himself uncomfortable in this quandary when he went up against Oprah in 2001 and then attempted to sucker punch the late William Gaddis in the grave a year later with a piece titled Mr. Difficult. His point? To be short, at first there was highbrow and lowbrow literature then, in an about-face, an individual reader's satisfaction, and the market by extension, is all. (Side note: Franzen locates his high regard for transactional art  in his "Protestant nature," as he put it, by which he means that he should be rewarded for his work as a reader. He demands to be entertained first, the other stuff is of lesser importance.) For the Franzen of that debate, there are Contract Novels and Status Novels. Contract novels are a wink to the reader that says, You know this road and, in Franzen's type, everything will be mostly O.K. This is going to be a fun ride, even if you’re scared at times. It's a nine-year-old's world, one of my favorite things. Status novels, in contrast, are a sign of difficulty, trouble and snobbery. They are the adults in the room talking down to the children. I take issue with this kind of neat opposition, but I see where he’s coming from. I also love much of Gaddis' work and found that Franzen essay aggressively ideological and defensive. Plus, writers should be the keepers of the word. Who else will do it? Popular or not, finding the right word with precision, even when esoteric, is the writer's game.

George Orwell with a gun. 

George Orwell with a gun. 

To me, status is absolutely the wrong word here and a jog back to George Orwell’s desk over by the window might help. There we find a dusty copy of “Politics and the English Language,” in which Orwell makes a case for the precision and exultation of language, versus giving it a slovenly pass. In this light Franzen’s contract begins to resemble the intentional debasement of language in the face of difficulty, or at least a resistance to just plain brain-work on the complexity of a thing. Franzen is too good a writer for that, so it feels forced when he makes these claims. It's also a false dichotomy that mildly fogs the lens. Happy readers in our age is scarcely different from happy wallets. So it isn't so much that there are two camps of opposing literary technique, a setup that presents an equivalency that doesn't exist. The aim is to satisfy the reader in order to sell books. Fair enough. But there's also a world out there making art for posterity, or at least attempting to. I see Gaddis in that light. 

The latest iteration of documentary films that "make a difference" with storytelling relates to Franzen’s Contract. Sometimes called “transformational filmmaking” or “conscious filmmaking,” this genre emphasizes storytelling and is meant to overcome all the negative and depressing experiences in documentary film. It presents a new day with a more optimistic sensibility. It's normal to desire this. We don't want to hear about anymore tragic stories of abuse without knowing that the victims were saved or, better, saved themselves. But why do we desire it so strongly now? The documentary contract is not entertainment directly, although they are very much related. Instead, the audience expects to be inspired and motivated, which brings forward the thrill of righteousness, and I don't mean that pejoratively. I've been there many times myself, crying and cheering with the audience as the broken man begins to walk again, having overcome impossible odds. It is a thrill to be part of something. 

Hermes Trismegistus, also making a point, I think. 

Hermes Trismegistus, also making a point, I think. 

Wood + Zizek. That has a better ring to it, but Wood falters slightly à la Franzen with an over-strong dichotomy when he pitches Ford Maddox Ford’s “serious investigation into the human case” against entertainment. I cringe a little at that dusty notion and look at Tarantino, hoping for a sneer. And yet Wood nevertheless gets to the bottom of all-things-story. He does it beautifully and profoundly, elegantly and swiftly winding us through Mitchell’s “enjoyable experience,” as he put it, while providing a passing but also astute history of literary expression, from the epic to hermeticism to hysterical realism. My own work in both documentary and narrative film attempts to resurrect the magical awe of a Trismegistic effect (“Thrice Great!”), which I do literally in my film, A Man Full of Days, with the main character recreating an alchemical recipe called Mercury of the Moon to ward off gently insistent angels. Although I read, saw and did not like Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, I am often attracted to the fantastical dream worlds, especially when I feel the need for a small amount of created threat that I can control. It reassures, doesn't it?

Meanwhile, perhaps during the same few weeks this summer that Wood penned his ideas on Mitchell, Zizek wrote a snort to ISIS in the New York Times that had the feeling of a careless public maneuver. (Zizek really was not at his best on this one.) ISIS, we now know, is the grumbling bully in the Middle East that has risen recently to call itself The Islamic State. Zizek scoffs at the phony and feeble fanaticism of this army and suggests that, deep down, ISIS soldiers simply feel inferior to Western people and they are angry about it. Zizek’s review, as I will call it here, makes some interesting points, especially regarding the ingestion of Western culture worldwide, although resorting to Yeats’ Second Coming was  a poor and too easy choice. Throughout Zizek skirts an annoyance that he shares with Wood without saying it outright. 

It turns out Zizek and Wood are grumpy about the same problem, grinding their teeth like Holden Caulfield pointing the finger at phony. Recall and invoke here Nietzsche’s Last Man*, as Zizek does: a resigning and pleasured weakling with all the comforts in the world who blinks at the thought of death arriving. "Have I missed something?" he seems to ask. Zizek cites Nietzsche directly, but Wood also favors a humanism that desires a critique of the Last Man, what is sometimes called anti-humanism. One starts to get the sense that the Wood-Zizek convergence is the Ubermensch. That sense, unfortunately, is misguided. Recall that for all of his talent and favor, Mitchell, like Franzen before him, has declared that pleasing the reader is his most important job. The novel must, above all else, be enjoyable. As such, it fits perfectly onto the Last Man’s library. Did it always? No. But the novel does have a lengthy parlor-mannered pedigree. The Wood-Zizek concern in the form of a novel, saccharine at its worst, might excite the Ubermensch, but it does not require it. 

It’s clearly too much to make an equation here with ISIS. It would be crude and unfair. But imagine for a moment this scenario: Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader, writes a novel. Taking a page from the awful and violent ISIS film, The Clanging of the Swords IV, which I watched and was entirely disgusted by, both for moral and aesthetic reasons, although the opening is sort of intriguing as an ISIS drone surveys Falludja. Al-Baghdadi knows that his audience wants the real deal, no frosting. His yet-to-be written novel might open with a hard-hitting revolutionary speech. Fair enough, perhaps he's attempting a Nietszchean declaration, although ideological speeches can be a turn off, but let’s read on. The crusading speaker says he will take over the Arabian peninsula, Israel, Italy and Spain. Big claims, and a kind of contract of sorts, or at least an attempt to set expectations, but the novel’s initial and ambitious coherence begins to fail in the next chapter, however, as a group of machine-gunning thugs drive through the countryside killing just about everyone. They kill many, many people. 

Speeches and violence. Speeches and violence. Repeated phrases in case you missed something, and so on. You might argue that this isn’t a novel, and you might think is sounds like a different (famous) book entirely, but that’s somewhat beside the point because using the novel as the mode of expression should not unsettle us at all. It’s the violence.

This could be a moment for Ford Maddox Ford’s human case or even Mitchell’s entertainment, potentially, and it's certainly a real echo of the fantastical Game of Thrones. The thing is, the gruesome details of these killings are happening now, today, as you're reading these words. In a recorded form the facts seem to become more-than-real. They are described in grisly detail as a bone pops out here and guts fly out there. And, in fact, they are real accounts, journalistically recorded. Then the exact same chapter is repeated word for word. Then it’s repeated again, this time with each page containing a single sentence in gruesome repetition. The. Bullets. Blasted. His. Face. Off. This trope is repeated for the rest of the book, which is 1000 pages long or maybe thousands of pages long. We'll never know. Speeches and violence. Speeches and violence. Repeated phrases in case you missed something, and so on. You might argue that this isn't a novel, and you might think is sounds like a different (famous) book entirely, but that's somewhat beside the point because using the novel as the mode of expression should not unsettle us at all. It's the violence. Today we are used to the unceasing magic of our technological accomplishments. We are amazed, rightly, by our creations and are insulted when this "force" is overtly used for nefarious purposes.  

All right. I’ve gone too far. David Mitchell is not at all like Abu Bakr al-Bahgdadi. Far from it. I’d share a beer with Mitchell and never want to meet al-Bahgdadi ever in life… or death. You can see how bad al-Bahgdadi's novel would likely be. And yet there’s something to be teased out here. Various circles intertwine. Perhaps we have entered an illiberal world finally, where the imperfect and hubristic universality of human rights has fully waned, where the cheerful ruthlessly dominate the violent, each reinforcing the other. One almost has the impression that the recent artisanal movement, with everything touched by human hands, from scratch and bespoke, is a last vestige of 19th century enlightenment humanism, a hope for humanity that also includes uncomfortable strands of emergent racism present at times in trucker caps and old timey nostalgia. We hope for the human connection, which is one reason we turn to art and an additional reason why transactional art can feel condescending, cheapened and saccharine, even when, like with Mitchell and Franzen, the storytelling is superb. It says, to be concise, you're not smart enough or strong enough for what I really want to say, so here's the softer version, little puppy. A nice sweet biscuit. 

George W. Bush smiling, perhaps on a golf course. 

George W. Bush smiling, perhaps on a golf course. 

Are we all smiles and frowns these days? No stoic middle ground? No patient moralist playing the long game during which the moral universe bends towards justice? It’s a cliché on the Left to point out that President George W. Bush was a crusader, but it does seem common to have two opposing fanaticisms reinforcing each other while the rest of us try to live in this mad, mad world. On the grand stage, there is no appreciable middle ground. In the aftermath of 911, Bush famously suggested we go shopping, which points to happy bloodlust on one side compared with the unhappy bloodlust of the other. We with the smiles above new sneakers. Them with the frowns under balaclavas. 

Zizek makes a solid observation about this fluid collusion: “The problem with terrorist fundamentalists is not that we consider them inferior to us, but, rather, that they themselves secretly consider themselves inferior. This is why our condescending, politically correct assurances that we feel no superiority toward them only makes them more furious and feeds their resentment.” The tight, tolerant smile. And it could be true, or it seems true in a certain light. The only trouble is that the U.S. does not respond solely with political correctness. On the contrary, the U.S. has been almost fanatically reactionary under a general cultural attitude of positivity with white teeth. I don't completely support my over-broad statement, but it's undeniable that the U.S. has transgressed badly. One need only mention a single word, "enhanced," and the picture is made clear. And if the response is politically correct at all, it feels like a cover of fantasy that plays out in the media. Let's all get along. 


As circles intertwine, one man’s entertainment becomes, to a degree, another man’s insult. Does another man's insult become entertainment? I'm afraid this may be true. And perhaps ISIS knows this rather sick idea. Fantasy can cover an uneasy reality, if you please, and an all-too-real reality can cover the fantasy of an aspirational agenda. The former is perhaps the status quo of the Last Man, while the latter may be a futuristic Ubermensch. For many, and perhaps for Wood here, in particular, it would be good if there was something closer to the impossible human case. 

*Footnote: Nietzsche’s line about the comforts of the Last Men, the opposite of the aspirational and unattainable, Ubermensch, comes from Section 5 of the prologue to Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Marketa Lazarová, Medieval and Manic

Wolves. Even the word itself feels somehow medieval. In Marketa Lazarová, the 1967 Czech film by František Vláčil, they seem like grim observers or perhaps judges of human folly, a dark-eyed audience that knows more than we do. (The film is now playing at BAM.)

Marketa Lazarová is purported to be "the greatest Czech film of all time." Perhaps this is true, but Czech cinema proudly boasts many excellent and strange expressions. Jan Švankmajer's Little Otik, Meat Love or Faust. Milos Forman's The Fireman's Ball. Daisies by Věra Chytilová. (I wonder if Daisies inspired the voice in this excellent Chilean stop-action short horror called Lucia.) That said, Marketa is a wild adventure of a film. 

Shot over two years in forests and on frozen fields, in swamps and in ruined castles, right around the time Paradzhanov was making Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors (1965) and Tarkovsky' tackled Andrei Rublev (1966), Marketa really feels wooded, stinky, bloody, frightened, leathery, smokey, icy and painful. Vláčil insisted that the cast remain on set the entire time and that all of the costumes be handmade to preserve a sense of a 13th century existence. This is perhaps the film’s highest achievement. The look is spectacular and the costumes are tactile in a way that few films have achieved. They are real and used, dirty and skin-like, as if they were worn all the time... which they were. 

The cinematography also arches into the spectacular, with twisting, knotted shots, intense close-ups and very well composed, painterly images. Bedřich Baťka, the man behind the lens, is as fond of the single eye peering through a broken door or through fronds of rushes by a frozen swamp as he is of the wide shot of fields and forests where, in the distance, we can see dots of human life make their way across the horizon. 

One of the more arresting images takes place late in the film when Marketa attempts to seek refuge in a convent. She is pushed by the Mother Superior to denounce her past life in front of the entire community. Marketa’s face is demonic, as is the face of a small boy who accompanies her, and the nun is severe. But it’s the walls of nuns behind her that really make the shots. It’s as if the ghosts of Christianity yet to come have arrived to menace. Marketa eventually leaves, but it felt like a moment of horror. 

The story is a bit less appealing than the aesthetics. It struggles, like so many medieval films, to get out from under the strain of overwrought manliness. We see too transparently what I would guess is Vláčil’s own masculine agenda. The raped woman loves her rapist, etc. That kind of thing, to me, just seems tired, overdone and shallow, a phony psychology that masquerades as human nature. It's nearly complete until, at the end, Marketa walks into the distance to find a new life to raise her yet-unborn child and the child of Alexandra, her doppelganger, as though a new era of feminism were about to dawn as patriarchy bludgeoned itself back into darkness. This meaning seems important if we take Marketa’s last name to be Lazarus of Bethany, the man Jesus brings back to life. Marketa does seem to be embarking on a new life, poignantly after living one filled with torture and despair. 

The upshot is that Marketa Lazarová is an amazingly atmospheric piece in look and feel. The costumes are phenomenal and the peering gazes of the characters with their crumpled builds, limps, wounds and missing appendages are often arresting. Well worth the 2h45m escapade, as long as you’re up for medieval mania. 

Marketa Lazarová is playing at BAM tonight and tomorrow night (March 5 & 6, 2014), but you can also watch it on the Criterion channel on HuluPlus. A note on each: You probably want to see this film in a theater where the sights and sounds consume you. But the subtitles in the print at BAM are often illegible, which can be frustrating. Whereas on HuluPlus, you can easily follow what is happening. The subtitles are very clear. 


The Play Act of Killing

Girls in pink dresses dance into the mouth of a giant fish, a scene leading up to the final fictionalized and self-created homage to the genocidal killers. 

Girls in pink dresses dance into the mouth of a giant fish, a scene leading up to the final fictionalized and self-created homage to the genocidal killers. 

Pitch perfect in audacity. Grim in worldly assertions. Cautiously hopeful for human rights, but knowing just as same. Surprising. Beautiful. Cruel. Pathetic. The Act of Killing is an astonishing film. With or without the Academy, it should be considered the best documentary of 2013. Here's why.

We are used to cruelty and entertainment in fictional films. In fact, we are over-comfortable, in my opinion. And we are used to re-enactments of violent events in documentaries, often so terribly done that the events become less unsettling than they should be. Milquetoast. We must become uncomfortable with these. 

The Act of Killing is different. It documents the genocide of 500,000 ethnic Chinese, intellectuals and communists in Indonesia through crude and often beautiful re-enactments by the actual killers. This is new. Killers have always attracted our attention, but few have been given license, or had the courage, to show us their deeds in a popular venue, as if it were pop culture. In this sense, the film combines the dark side of horror films with a re-enactment that takes place within the story, not as an add-on feature. And it's truthful. 

Here, genocidal killers have become the movie stars they always hoped they would be. It's as if we asked Charles Manson to recreate the scenes of his murders. I suspect he would do it and enjoy it. But how would we feel about ourselves? 

To summarize the plot: Unrepentant killers from this Indonesian bloodbath, little known outside the Pacific, joyfully celebrate and re-enact their killings in front of the camera, fictionalizing their triumph and honoring their work. The killers happen to be movie buffs who worked in a theater in the 1960s, across the street from one of the places they murdered people. They gleaned torture techniques from Hollywood films that they would then try out on their victims.

Imagine buying popcorn from some guy at IFC Center in the West Village and knowing that there were people being murdered (with approval from Albany or Washington D.C.) right across the street, above that pleasant Belgian beer bar with that interior courtyard thing. That's how real this film is. 

Anwar Congo rides between two of his henchmen through the streets of Jakarta, smiling to friends and supporters. 

Anwar Congo rides between two of his henchmen through the streets of Jakarta, smiling to friends and supporters. 

While watching The Act of Killing, I had the distinct impression -- a sense that was, however, not entirely real, or perhaps "all too Real," to speak of Lacan by way of Zizek --  that we have moved beyond the moral pronouncements of the Geneva Conventions (1949), the U.N. Charter (1945) or even the Habeas Corpus Act (1679). We've developed a dark playfulness that is difficult to assess, although we know full well that it has real consequences. 

During one moment in the film, Anwar Congo, our anti-hero, states plainly that what he has done is no different from what the U.S. has done, no different from the deeds of any other triumphant warrior. The winners define the terms. Or, as Karl Rove was fond of saying, "We're an empire now. We create our own reality." It's as if Indonesia was replicating U.S. policy, which, in the mind of Mr. Congo, it was. 

We know implicitly that Congo and Rove are right, or perhaps they have become right over time. But what does this mean and how terrible is it? To me, it speaks to a profound shift in the mental construct of what is fiction and what is reality. This seismic shift is played out in The Act of Killing where men play-act their violent past. We have seen this theatrical technique used effectively with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. But what does it mean for a popular film to take on this effort in the non-policy arena? How do people unaffected by the genocide -- unknowing of it, in fact -- benefit or grow for the staged productions? Should they benefit or grow from them? Or are they engaged in some other sort of psychological process, perhaps a congratulations of the ego, or even something else as yet unknown? 

Anwar Congo showing us how he used to kill people with a wire around the neck. Before this, they tried to beat people to death, but he said it was too messy and took too long. The wire noose was more efficient. 

Anwar Congo showing us how he used to kill people with a wire around the neck. Before this, they tried to beat people to death, but he said it was too messy and took too long. The wire noose was more efficient. 

I fear that this Real -- implicitly and surreally with us in human violence first and then projected virtually across the globe for a visually grotesque feast -- is overwhelming our sense of inalienable rights, our sense that respect for other people is worthwhile and ethical. We do not feel safe.

People are not equal and we know it.

The democratic laws we have attempted to put in place and uphold are failing in the very countries the world had, in the past, come to see as beacons of enlightenment, so much so that obvious transgressions like the mass killings in Indonesia are able to go under the radar for decades and, worse, are able to assert an equality with the U.S. (in its humanistic ideals) that holds some legitimacy.   

The Act of Killing suggests and nearly confirms the darkness on the horizon. 

Herman Koto cross-dressing on set as Anwar Congo, on the monitor, prepares for his acting debut. 

Herman Koto cross-dressing on set as Anwar Congo, on the monitor, prepares for his acting debut. 

It seems to me that The Act of Killing, among other media and other societal developments of the past decade, signals a new phase, perhaps initiated by U.S. actions post-911, in which we have accepted immorality as the de-facto state of human existence. We are immoral (and sometimes moral) humans in an amoral world, to butcher the works of Reinhold Niebhur. The dichotomies don't function any more, if they ever did in their hopeful rhetoric. Our lives would certainly be more clear if we understood ourselves as moral beings in an immoral world.  

This is a profound film of our time. It speaks to a horrific collusion of violence and entertainment that is beyond both policy and dirty fun. The facts, and not the film itself, appear to both reduce the importance of and justify the murder and subjugation of other people. This weakening of human rights, one thousand years in the making if you count the Magna Carta, seems to me to be gaining force. 

Reports so far indicate that The Act of Killing has had almost no effect on accountability IndonesiaWhy? There is a weak type of explanation that comes from the human rights community and it goes something like this: 1) Democratic institutions are not in place. 2) Some of those in power participated in the killings and now block investigations. 3) People are afraid to speak out. All of this is true and real. But the explanations don't, in my opinion, get to the heart of the matter. What I fear, more than any of this, is that The Act of Killing confirms what we already feel to be true: human rights are dying because killers on the international stage are able to play-act killing. Not just Congo, but Rove, too. Human beings take our deaths more lightly than we should, and we know better. 

Herman Koto enjoying a moment as film director. 

Herman Koto enjoying a moment as film director. 

My Time in Ukraine

"Nobody cares about Ukraine, not even Ukrainians," lamented Andrej Yakovlev more than once during production of my film Salt in the Air, to my consternation. What's interesting is that Andrej (cameraman) considers himself Ukrainian, although he's ethnically Russian and culturally Jewish, meaning non-observant. These facts, and the phrase, might help illustrate just how complex and emotional the "February Revolution" has been in Ukraine. 

During the creation of Salt in the Air,  I spent about five months in Western Ukraine. I was mostly in a very small town called Solotvyno, on the border of Romania in the Carpathian Mountains. Today, this area - from Ivano-Frankivsk to Lviv - is the stronghold of the Ukrainian opposition. Although I was only in Ukraine for this short time, I spent the vast majority of my time here. This could be called Ukrainian Ukraine, as opposed to Russian Ukraine. And, to a degree, this is true. But the assertion wouldn't diminish the very strong ties and personal connections between Western Ukraine and its Eastern and Southern parts. As the poet Oleh Lysheha told me, himself an ardent Ukrainian and former dissident from Ivano-Frankivsk, "Russia is our brother." 

Ukraine is more complex than we are led to believe by the Western media. Culturally and politically, clarity is hard to come by. One might be able to loosely divide the country into ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians, but it's only partially true that they are separate. My crew, for example, was both Russian and Ukrainian, but they mainly spoke Russian. With diversity that is somewhat rare in Ukraine, the people of Solotvyno are Hungarian, Romanian, Russian and Ukrainian, with some Czech heritage. And the village is multi-religious, including Romanian and Hungarian Catholics, Ukrainian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox and Jews. Yes, Jews. In the U.S., Ukrainians are often taken to be Hitler's stooges, or even "worse than Nazis." There is some foundation for this because many Ukrainians joined the Nazis and became horrible torturers in concentration camps. But many Ukrainians tell a different story. Some joined the Nazis to avoid the Soviets. They say they were stuck between two terrible powers and had to choose. And millions of Ukrainians were brutally starved by the Soviets in the early 1930s, so the threat was real. (See, Holodomor.)

Some of this seems apocryphal to me, but it is, nevertheless, the common Ukrainian lore. Oddly, the story seems to open up space for Jews to return to their home towns and do so by choosing Ukraine over Israel. Today, there is a Jewish community in Solotvyno, some of whom moved to Israel once upon a time, but have since moved back. One man I met was a prominent citizen who had run for mayor. He showed me many sites where plaques note the former existence of a synagogue. He had the plaques put up himself and felt proud of the effort. That said, the synagogues have not been rebuilt, nor have the local shuls. By contrast, Orthodox churches have flourished in the post-Soviet era. They are everywhere. So there you have a small picture of big complexity. 

Ukrainian nationalism has been said to be a big part of the opposition - an assertion based, in part, on fears of the past - and there is reason to think that the opposition is partly made up of Ukrainian thugs. But this strikes me as a misunderstanding of what is at play. It seems to me that Ukrainians are primarily tired of the corruption that has existed under now ex-President Yanukovych. The right wing thugs are there, and emboldened by the street violence and the transfer of power, but they are not in power, at least not as far as I can tell. 

My association with the Russian-Ukrainian ethnic divide began unpleasantly. The head of the salt mine had recently been appointed, but he knew nothing about mining or salt. He was Russian and came from the Eastern Ukraine, a city of 1 million people called Donetsk. It was a political appointment without professional training or experience. This guy was what you might imagine. Stiff. Quiet. Thuggish. Leather clad. He did not speak Ukrainian well. His version of a welcome party was to send a few guys out to surround us and intimidate us. They brought us to a small office within the salt mine's decaying administration building where we were questioned in a snide manner by an attorney who spoke some English. I didn't feel endangered exactly, more annoyed with a little fear mixed in. They were keeping us on our toes, so to speak. 

But after this little encounter, we were free to film. The relationship began tensely, even for my Ukrainian and Russian crew, but ended without incident and we are able to proceed with filming. (There was one subsequent encounter during which we thought they stole our footage, but it turned out not to be true.) This inconvenience strikes me as a common experience. There is large corruption, too, but there is also just plain, everyday annoyances that would not exist but for petty ego problems of small time managers. You can see how this could get old after awhile, especially if you combine it with real corruption, like extortion or violence. 

If I were to make any predictions, and I shouldn't, it would be that this conflict will smolder, even under a newly appointed government. There's been some talk of renewed federalization, which might be wise, to decentralize power away from Kyiv/Kiev. (An aside: Ukrainians spell it Kyiv. Russians spell it Kiev. This double naming is true for many cities in Ukraine. Lviv is Lbov, etc.) I used to think you could potentially divide the country down the Dnieper River, but Western Ukraine is probably too poor to go without the industries of the East. And Eastern Ukraine won't give up those industries without a civil war. So the country is stuck together: Two brothers, fists raised, fighting a bloody fight that only the family understands and cares about. And, then, not always.  

River of Fun

Two pharaohs conclude a battle with silent speeches at the table towards the end of Norman Mailer's wake while the Mystic River Singers sing. The elder at the head of the table is Usermare, Hathfertit's father, one of many creatures from the deep.

A caveat: explicit descriptions below.

Ripe, quite ripe. And classy. And crassy. And assy. Matthew Barney’s River of Fundament, the six-hour smorgasbord that screened at BAM last week, seems to make plain one of humanity’s (or America's?) desires: to wrap our shit in gold. Whether this Freudian assertion is, in fact, one of our desires is debatable, but Barney shows it off. For quick review, Freud hypothesized a shit-to-money equation in “Character and Anal Eroticism,” which is spelled out wittily here in The New Republic with regards to gold buggery, the GOP and the Tea Party. Well!

A "fundament" is, first, a foundation and - Tellingly! Secondarily! - a term for anus. If you did not know this already, beware of what follows.

Tossed heartily with twisted themes and fronds of narrative, Barney’s film is a puzzling epic, though epic it is. Strung across the decline of American industry, Barney alternates giant images of rotting machinery or destroyed vehicles with many scenes of explicit sex or, at least, penetration, sometimes sexual and sometimes, oddly, non-sexual, sometimes surprisingly beautiful and other times intensely grotesque. During one scene two guests at Norman Mailer's wake (yes, wake) have anal sex on the devon. When they are done, the woman turns her ass to the camera, huge on the screen at BAM's Harvey Theater, as it drools a green cum-shit mixture for longer than you might wish it.

Condolences, my friends! For many reasons. But Barney is commemorating the dead here, with not a few visits to and from the stinking Fundament River just below Mailer’s brownstone apartment. Pew! And there are over-grand pronouncements about Pharaohs, songs about fucking, urinating back-benders, cabbage ravaging, special machines for Paul Giamatti’s poop and a dead cow that is cut open so that a version of Norman Mailer, played by Mailer’s son, can crawl inside only to be birthed as a jazz drummer, played by free jazz pioneer Milford Graves. 

With a total running time longer than I usually sleep, you might think this deliberate reliance on gross and surprising sex (and other) would get boring, as though you were listening to a teenager digress about sex he has yet to have. But, actually, the film held my attention most of the time.

Giant smelters that melt a Chrysler. 

Characters. Some of them are people. Some are famous, and also people. But there are huge frowning towers of industry that seem like grim, pained forefathers, bleeding and on fire. (We approach a KKK allusion with the giant smelters, where the hoods are on fire, the heads burned off.) Waterless shipping locks hold the menace of the East River behind giant steel walls as a bloodied, one-eye pharaoh is honored. These characters of the industrial landscape menace us now, where once they inspired. And Barney continues his nostalgic homage to cars long past, like the ’79 Trans Am!

Barney himself plays a shit-encrusted, interloper-observer who ascends from the stinking river and, for the most part, perches silently around Norma Mailer’s pad with his stinky and also silent wife. We have a strained car salesman from L.A., a boxy fellow who gathers a crowd of high school marching bands and gangsters around a ruined and very cool Chrysler Impala in the parking lot of a Chrysler dealership. He is there to announce, in a manner similar to a TV evangelist, that he traversed a river of shit. Nay! The River of Shit! The gangsters then tow the ruined Chrysler through the parking lot by rope, as though it were a building block for a great pyramid, only to eventually destroy it in the dealership's lobby. This is political. It’s Americana.

But back to the sex in cinema. I don't think you can take Barney's juvenilia-genitalia without considering Lars von Trier's own piece of… what. Nymphomaniac. On the face of things, does Barney trump von Trier? A Related Parts comparison coming soon. 


Jacob Sewell as Bunny Boy holding up a dead cat in Gummo (1997).

Jacob Sewell as Bunny Boy holding up a dead cat in Gummo (1997).

Ok. Spring Breakers. Ever since Gummo (1997), I've thought of Harmony Korine as a kind of American Id, if you'll permit the loose Freud-ish. Although Korine's work can be offensive, it's difficult to deny various fictional truths when, say, ruined children abuse a cat carcass until the eyeballs fall out. The banality of the low frequency violence soaks the scenes with wincing dread, as if all the characters were self-abusing cutters. He combines painful weakness, nothing-hood, suicidal feelings and sadness, with a ferocious and steely willfulness. You may want to turn away, as I do and often, but Korine's films are still a boatload better than the Jackass series, though in a stupid way the two bear some similarities.

Why is Korine better? It's difficult to say, but it might be his tenderness, weakness and care. I don't want to make too much out of some sort of "kindness behind the cruelty" because Korine is an artistic nutterbutter, but it is true that he rolls within a certain framework of provocation and intimacy that opens the characters to us. Korine knows repugnance and guides us through it without resorting too often to base male fuck-all or a twisty bitchy whore life. It's a skill and talent, certainly, but not always one we want to be close to. This is a type of American crap that I can't stand to be around most of the time, and I'm not exactly a Korine fan, but I also know that Korine opens a gap of freaky reality, like a frightening mirror image that reveals a perverse truth. After seeing Spring Breakers, I told a friend of mine that hanging with Korine must be a little like eating wet Doritos while you piss in a back alley - which, if I'm honest, says very little and doesn't come close to what it must be like to hang out with Korine. And yet piss and wet Doritos do somehow get at a similarly disgusting Korinian reality. 

Jacob Reynolds as Solomon in Gummo (1997).

Jacob Reynolds as Solomon in Gummo (1997).

The interesting thing is that Spring Breakers does not revere repugnance in the way Korine's other films do. The spaghetti-in-the-bathtub scene in Gummo is nothing if not a celebration of disgust combined with a childish and appealing sense of freedom. This is why Korine is good. The boy, Solomon, does what he wants, and his mom encourages it. She also does what she wants. Korine understands the appeal of this in his bones. I think it's perhaps a uniquely American phenomenon, though I could be wrong about that. Even Solomon's giant glass of milk with spaghetti makes me retch. And then there's the chocolate bar "dessert" in the dirty bath water. Yuck. This is partly why reviewers sometimes use phrases like "unwatchable, pretentious freak show" and "pointless gross-out" with Korine's films. 

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Spring Breakers is taudry, as it should be, but Korine also attempts a strong loss of innocence theme, which inserts a Disney quality that he's unsuited for. Perhaps there was an agreement with Disney over just how raunchy things could get for Selena Gomez, herself a Disney creation. Whatever the reason, Spring Breakers is definitely not vintage Harmony Korine and, unfortunately, it's not as interesting. He's a weak moralist. I had the impression that if James Franco had not been in the film, it would have been absolutely terrible. Franco is great in his role. "I got gold bullets!" He sucks whole scenes into his personae. On the down side, the film has long, overlong shots of the girls in the pool dreaming about "spring break forever." I suspect Korine was going for a dreamy quality, but what he got instead is something closer to the bordom you have on the third or fourth day of a beach vacation that you're not enjoying much. Tired. Too much sun. Lethargic. The food is bad. Your hotel smells weird. 

Pussy Riot protesters. Sergey Ponomarev/AP

Pussy Riot protesters. Sergey Ponomarev/AP

And yet I also liked Korine's discipline, if you can call it that. The film does not resort to overt sexual violence. What a relief. It only gets very violent at the end, and, even then, it's a cartoonish shootout, which is a slight step back from what could have been. Sexual violence and just plain violence are present, certainly, and there is tension and fear, but it's not displayed in a gory, pornographic way, aside from bullet holes. Perhaps this is where Korine is at his best. This guided tour of spring breakers makes for an OK film, but it's not the right set-up for the end; or, rather, the end isn't right for the stories leading up to it. It's as though Korine or his producers decided they needed a Tarantino ending. Sexy ladies in pink ski masks with machine guns. It's a great look, but the shootout action doesn't suit the film at all. (Side note: This appears to be an intentional reference to Pussy Riot.) I would have much rather seen a better, more banal crap-joy ending. A Korinian celebration of disgust would have been nice. 

Which brings me to another encounter with Anthony Lane. He starts his review swimmingly with this line: "Now all the youth of Tampa are on fire." A beautiful, poetic line. Great line. But I'm starting to get the impression that Lane, who is British, doesn't understand American culture very well, at least not the crap-joy that comes for asserted freedoms, like New Hampshire's motto, "Live free or die." (I'd be curious to know what he thinks about that motto.) In this review, as well as in others, Lane shows an unfortunate tendency to take flippy American crass fuckfest pop culture as if it were solely superficial. It is superficial, of course, but in a specific way that Jackass or other types of American entertainment, like reality shows, are not. A contradiction? Yes. But for anyone who can see this superficiality and know it, the contradiction inherent in faux-deep, faux-realism films is what sets them apart and makes them matter.

Lane comes close to understanding this, but never quite gets there. At the end of the review he seems aware that he's missed something when he flatly and defensively states that only two "sorts" of viewers could possibly like such a film: "real revellers, randy for sensation, out of their heads" or "coffee drinking Ph.D.s... too lost inside their heads to break for spring." Cute language here, but empty. The same when Lane talks about Franco: "You have to admire any actor who thinks that careers should, you know, career..." Again, cute nothings in your ear. But what really indicates Lane's dim appreciation of this brand of Americana is what he says he likes about the film. He writes that "a shot of the youngsters in a darkened lecture hall at school... speaks volumes." I'll admit that this campus scene was an interesting choice for Korine, but it hardly spoke volumes. It's difficult to dismiss the sense that Lane is grasping at straws. Here we return to the idea that this is crap-joy American superficiality. This is what makes these films even watchable in the way that Jackass plainly isn't, at least not for me. Lane is correct that Korine loses his "claim to moral distance." Morality is a mistake for this film. Korine should not have been claimed it in the first place. But Lane misses the point that what is good about Spring Breakers is precisely what is amoral, immoral, fucking stupid and ridiculous. That's why we see films by Harmony Korine. And I hope he returns to himself in whatever he does next. 

The Universe Knows No Smile, a Herzogian Head Scratcher

A still image from Herzog's  Lessons of Darkness

A still image from Herzog's Lessons of Darkness

At the end of April 1999, Werner Herzog spelled out a dozen thoughts during a talk at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. He includes a few Herzogian head scratchers, along with a number of good insights. Enjoy! 

Lessons of Darkness or The Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Film

1. By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants. 

2. One well-known representative of Cinema Verité declared publicly that truth can be easily found by taking a camera and trying to be honest. He resembles the night watchman at the Supreme Court who resents the amount of written law and legal procedures. “For me,” he says, “there should be only one single law; the bad guys should go to jail.” 

Unfortunately, he is part right, for most of the many, much of the time. 

3. Cinema Verité confounds fact and truth, and thus plows only stones. And yet, facts sometimes have a strange and bizarre power that makes their inherent truth seem unbelievable. 

4. Fact creates norms, and truth illumination. 

5. There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization. 

6. Filmmakers of Cinema Verité resemble tourists who take pictures of ancient ruins of facts. 

7. Tourism is sin, and travel on foot virtue. 

8. Each year at springtime scores of people on snowmobiles crash through the melting ice on the lakes of Minnesota and drown. Pressure is mounting on the new governor to pass a protective law. He, the former wrestler and bodyguard, has the only sage answer to this: “You can’t legislate stupidity.” 

9. The gauntlet is hereby thrown down. 

10. The moon is dull. Mother Nature doesn’t call, doesn’t speak to you, although a glacier eventually farts. And don’t you listen to the Song of Life. 

11. We ought to be grateful that the Universe out there knows no smile. 

12. Life in the oceans must be sheer hell. A vast, merciless hell of permanent and immediate danger. So much of hell that during evolution some species—including man—crawled, fled onto some small continents of solid land, where the Lessons of Darkness continue. 


The Lone Man and the Fiction of Rodriguez

I recently watched Jarmusch’s The Limits of Control, after an earlier and abandoned attempt, and loved it. Though somewhat panned for being boring and pretentious, I found it fascinating and quite humble, which surprised me because I had initially found it a little dull. So let me digress for a moment to puzzle this out and then we'll get to why I'm starting with fictional film to get at a few ideas about documentaries and the recent success of Searching For Sugar Man. (One caveat: I am not talking about journalistic docs in this piece.) 

Isaach De Bankolé in The Limits of Control as The Lone Man.

Isaach De Bankolé in The Limits of Control as The Lone Man.

The Limits of Control is extremely slow and seemingly repetitious, not the foundation for a solid thriller, if this film even lays claim to that genre, and I'm not sure it does. There's no bristling tension to speak of and the intrigue that exists is so quietly executed that it feels more like a secret among friends than the cloak and dagger life of diamond smugglers. And this may be part of the point. 

In the hands of a different director, the initial slickness of suits and sunglasses would raise expectations for a car chase, gun battle or heist. For Jarmusch, these tropes point in a different direction. His colors, sound design and formality give way to personal familiarity. For all the "strangeness" of the characters - they speak in code and wear unusual outfits - you'll notice that they do not feel strange at all. You begin to sense the familiarity of The Lone Man, which is the scripted name of the character played by the great Isaach de Bankolé, as if he were a friend of yours or even a stand-in for you in particular.

This challenge is where many critics and viewers stopped watching.

What makes it work is that Jarmusch flips the superficial storytelling of your Hollywood thriller and challenges us with what seems to be a mask of Isaach de Bankolé. This challenge is where many critics and viewers stopped watching. Some of them thought they caught a famous director in an cinematic error. He's gone too far. He's full of himself. It's artistic hubris. But if you watch the film more carefully and see the subtle and tremendous acting of Isaach De Bankolé, you will see a different film entirely. Watch The Lone Man's face and body gestures as the other actors talk at him and around him. In this light, The Limits of Control becomes quite an unusual and enjoyable film.

Now to my second point. I connected Jarmusch to documentaries because of an interview I read during which he said ".... at least as far as something that wasn't documentary talking heads nonsense." Documentaries have been in a state of becoming for a long time. For more than a decade, the form has both expanded in terms of the number of projects made and contracted to some degree in terms of our expectations of what a documentary should be. On the one hand, a lot of great films have been made. On the other hand, we see a lot of the nonsense Jarmusch is talking about. 

That's right, we perceive acting in documentaries today. 

There are many reasons for this, and I won't attempt a full explanation. Instead, I will take one: perception of truthfulness. Documentaries still hold the mantel of fact and truth, although perhaps to a lesser degree than before. There's still a sense that what we see in documentaries is somehow more true than what we see in fiction. The trouble is that we can't square that perception with the acting we see on the screen.  That's right, we perceive acting in documentaries today. Perhaps one reason Jarmusch cries nonsense is that his talking heads are people in front of the camera presenting themselves, sometimes telling the truth, sometimes lying, but at least acting out a character to a certain degree and often without much dramatic success. You and me and they... we all act in front of the camera. And for the most part we are not good actors.

Partly in an effort to make up for this weakness, documentaries sometimes hype the music, increase the cuts, rearrange the story and so on. It's a natural tendency because you want the audience to watch the film.

Rodriguez from Searching For Sugar Man. The filmmakers gloss over the fact that Rodriguez was a well known musician and not exactly an obscure talent who finally sees his name up in lights. 

Rodriguez from Searching For Sugar Man. The filmmakers gloss over the fact that Rodriguez was a well known musician and not exactly an obscure talent who finally sees his name up in lights. 

One perceived solution to this cinematic problem, and one that has plagued documentaries lately, is the idea of a "character driven" documentary. In other words, make documentaries more like fiction so that we can get close to a person and try to imagine his or her life. Again, make truth more like fiction. To do this, place a clearer storyline structure over the facts. An ordinary person becomes "the hero" or "the villain." Institutions are more rotten or more virtuous than they really are. The tide of time and the rise and fall of events are positioned as epic or as tiny moments with great cultural effect. And the closer we get to a good story, the more we feel the story tells us something important about life, regardless of whether is sticks to the facts or not. 

This year's super duper Searching For Sugar Man caused a mild dust-up in the documentary world for lying about the obscurity of Rodriguez, the main character. And it went on to be a huge success with audiences and critics. The filmmakers decided to raise the stakes of the story by crafting a cleaner storyline and by defining Rodriguez more starkly as an obscure talent who finally gets his due, in spite of the fact that this is not true. 

Make truth more like fiction. 

What The Limits of Control does for us, and this is what I find completely fascinating and amazing about it as an artistic achievement, is make a fantasy world, and the people in it, real. Or, to put it the way Jarmusch does through Gael García Bernal's character, "Sometimes the reflection is far more present than the thing being reflected." The truths we discover in The Limits of Control are our own and come to us informally by suggestion and inference. This is the humble part of Jarmusch's work and, I would argue, this is also why Searching For Sugar Man is such an excellent film. 

Salt is Our Common Moon

The ancient reverence for salt has slowly plateaued into bland appreciation. Over the past few hundred years, salt's high status has dramatically faded. Gone are the grand pronouncements, the mysticism and the love. We have reduced salt to a thing. Inanimate. Material. Dead. 

But not so long ago, we exulted salt to a position of awe and respect almost beyond belief. Salt was our soul, the soul of the earth, the moon, and the origin of art,  femininity and life. It was said to be the core of the earth with an ability to make and un-make itself. Paracelsus called salt "the natural balsam of the living body" and reasonably cited blood, tears, semen, urine and sweat as evidence. Jung saw a strong connection between salt and the moon. Citing numerous alchemical thinkers, he shared the notion that salt is the quintessence, above all things and in all creatures. And the Rosarium Philosophorum suggests that the ubiquitous power of salt warrants a gentle cognomen "our common moon." 

There is a bit of subtlety here. Alchemical salt does not mean table salt, at least not directly. Instead, salt simultaneously refers to material salt and an underlying substance of existence that is manifest in various ways. In alchemy the two concepts are intimately connected because things are ensouled. And salt provides one explanation for the life within things, the life within us. At the height of alchemical thinking, salt was our soul.

Asthmatic children in a halotherapy room in Solotvyno, Ukraine.

Asthmatic children in a halotherapy room in Solotvyno, Ukraine.

The word "halo" has two meanings in Greek. As a noun, it means a disk of the sun or the moon and the light around the head of a holy person. As a prefix, halo- means salt and sea. Today you can find this prefix in halotherapy, which means salt therapy. Halotherapy usually refers to the practice of entering a salt room where salt covers the walls and is sometimes piped in through an atomizer as a fine mist. Patients then breath in the salty air, as they do in my film Salt in the Air. Every asthmatic I spoke with felt that this treatment alleviated their symptoms and helped them breath better. In children, the practice sometimes set a foundation for permanent or semi-permanent remission.

There is a lot more to say here about the history of salt and how we previously imagined it. We may think of these old notions as magical thinking today, but salt retains its ability to amaze. A few of the salt miners in Ukraine told me that salt moves underground, that it "flows" like a river beneath the surface of the earth. With that in mind, note this description from the Paleontological Research Institution, an affiliate of Cornell University. Salt "is a peculiar substance. If you put enough heat and pressure on it, the salt will slowly flow." That fact alone is illustrative of a lively material, mysterious and profound.

Tarkovsky's Helicopter

Contrivance: a thing that is created skillfully and inventively to serve a particular purpose.
Contrive: to form or create in an artistic or ingenious manner.

Filmmaker contrivances intrigue me. Perhaps they are becoming a lost art due to CGI, but the mechanical reality of film magic is, to me, one of its most charming atributes. Potemkin villages. Boulders made of paper mache. Sugar bottles bashed over the head. The best fake blood. (Hitchcock is rumored to have used chocolate syrup for blood in Psycho.) Almost everything foley. Whacks on taut anchor-wires for telephone poles were recorded to get the classic laser sound in Star Wars. Here are three contrivances that I think are fantastic and a bit bigger than your average retractable knife gag. 

Errol Morris's Famous Interrotron

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In order to create a sensation of direct eye contact between his characters and the audience, Morris invented an interview method using two-way mirrors called the Interrotron, which is said to be a portmonteau of "interview" and "terror." The Interrotron enabled the interviewer and interviewee to look directly at each other during the filmming. One might think that this would create a more "real" effect, as though we are really talking with the person on screen. However, to me, Morris's invention has the opposite effect or, rather, it creates an enhanced reality so that his interviews sometimes (always?) feel surreal. McNamara in Fog of War is a great example of the surreal quality of Morris's filmmaking. This clip gets at the "terror" part of the technique. Look at how crazy McNamara appears at the opening! 

Stanley Kubrick's 2001: The Stargate Sequence

A de-slitscanned image from 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

A de-slitscanned image from 2001: A Space Odyssey. 

Kubrick made this film in 1968. Forty-five years ago. And yet the Stargate Sequence remains one of the most remarkable cinematic experiences, especially on the big screen. The images are significantly enhanced by Ligeti's amazing score (used without permission), but the visuals hold up, too. Even today. Somehow it still feels like the future. So how did Kubrick do it? He used a technique called slit-scan photography, which is essentially taking a photo of a painting that has been masked down to a narrow slit and then smearing that image on a single frame of film by moving the camera during the exposure. It's a real technical achievement because each frame has to be created. I couldn't find the actual number of shots Kubrick needed, but with 24 frames per second, this nine minute journey required somewhere in the neighborhood of 12,000 shots at least. And when there were two sides to the image, as is often the case here, it's a double slitscan. Interestingly, Kubrick's images can be de-slitscanned so that you can see the paintings Kubrick was working with to create his (and Douglas Trumbull's) effects

Zerkala (The Mirror) and the Life-Force Effect

This is one of my favorites. While watching The Mirror, I sometimes have the feeling that everything is alive; or, if not alive, that everything has some kind of life force. It's almost as if Tarkovsky's act of filming personifies things. Spilled milk. A tea cup. A glass lamp. A white cloth thrown through the air. Printing presses. Many things in The Mirror become characters, however minor. This life-force effect, if I can call it that, is perhaps most powerful when it feels bigger than the people in the film. For me, Tarkovsky's use of wind does this. But to use wind properly, or even at all, you have to control it somehow. You have to make it yourself. A contrivance. And Tarkovsky had a simple solution. Use helicopters. What amazes me is that even though I know the wind is faked and that there are helicopters right nearby with their propellers spinning, I still get the feeling of a metaphysical presence. Now that's filmmaking! 

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Bigelow's Hope

A lot has already been written about Kathryn Bigelow's display of torture in Zero Dark Thirty. Most of it either supporting the director's choice because it depicts the reality of U.S. operations post-911 or criticizing it because waterboarding did not lead directly to Osama bin Laden's execution. 

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To me, both are valid arguments, but their superficial opposition foreshortens a good understanding of the film. That short-step analysis, with a small political skirmish between the right and left, means that neither argument touches on what is really interesting and misguided about Bigelow's film. What matters is that her fictionalized account strongly and narrowly suggests that the violent U.S. operations over a decade were legitimately in pursuit of one man, however errant they may have been when occupied with other theaters of war in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world. 

Maya (Jessica Chastain) is a unique CIA operative whose high-minded and obsessive dedication to task approaches a police-like megalomania that is almost juvenile. (Note her dry-erase scribbles on her bosses office window.) In a way, her naive determination represents a purer America. Not an innocent America, but one that is purer in motive. An America that the world probably wishes it had seen after 911. Determined. Single minded. Hopeful of success. Just.

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The legitimate U.S. reaction to 911 probably should have been a planned global police operation with officers like Maya who would have sought out bin Laden and al Qaeda with cold detachment and would have brought them to justice. Instead, the U.S. raged to war in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Maya represents the road-not-taken, a global police action towards a just end. It's a compelling one that was widely suggested by world leaders and the U.S. left in the weeks and months after 911. In hindsight, and after billions spent, it appears to have been the better choice. Bigelow's big switch, and the main fiction of the film, is that she pretends the police pursuit is the road we actually took. Along the way, Zero Dark Thirty nearly turns the War on Terror into collateral damage in the pursuit of bin Laden. At best, this is a questionable take on history. At worst, Bigelow's choice could be seen as heavy propaganda out of the Pentagon and their first hand accounts.

Before I wrote this article, I wanted to write against Bigelow's explicit and exploitative depiction of torture. But the film doesn't exactly point to this reaction. Instead, we are left feeling unsettled and grim over a take on history that is somewhat accurate, somewhat truthful and somewhat wrong. That is, until an agenda can be pinpointed. 

The agenda, I believe, is hope. At its core, Zero Dark Thirty is a hopeful film, though it is the slightest, least nourishing version of it. Bigelow wants to salvage our troubled nation after more than a decade of misguided policies by hooking the grand mistakes to a winning end. Can the execution of bin Laden justify the whole mess, with a few apologies for mistakes along the way? 

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If this is the effort, and I think it is, then Bigelow's argument is subtle, thoughtful, powerful... and not a little misguided. Sometimes even when you're right, you're wrong.  Zero Dark Thirty shaves truths from a bigger picture, which means she can confidently and legitimately say that the film shows a certain truth about the years before bin Laden's execution and factual accuracy about the day of the operation. Bigelow's opening salvo is telling, and notable for not being the standard caveat about being based on a true story. It reads: "The following motion picture is based on first hand accounts of actual events." This is an admirable assertion and a bold statement about the truthfulness of her take on the story. But first-hand accounts of actual events cloud a giant truth that undercuts the film: the U.S. cannot salvage these years of torture and war, no matter how positive the end result. The truth of this time and its gruesome immorality stares back, and no amount of hope or vision can change that. 

Bigelow's corrective logic is not hidden in the film and is not an "agenda" in a conspiratorial way. It's on display. At the opening of the film, Maya is new to the battlefield, but she is also ready to take on her proper role as torturer and seeker of information. She shows some mild squeamishness when she sees the terrible methods employed by Dan (Jason Clarke), her CIA counterpart. She even tells him and CIA Station Chief Joseph Bradley (Kyle Chandler) that she was sent on this mission against her will. But there's never a question whether or not she will do her duty, even though she knows the interrogations are a sham. Dan tells her directly that their captive, Ammar (Reda Kateb), "will never get out." There is no deal. There is no possibility of redress. And yet a clue to Bigelow's hope emerges right during a torture scene. Maya tells Ammar, "You can save yourself by being truthful."

Again, Maya's pure, or purer, America shines through and here is the switch. If only the tortured man will tell us the truth, we will be free of this terrible experience. After Maya said this, I was left wondering if she really meant the truth about al Queda that she and Dan were asking for, or if it was something else. Was she asking for the truth about why the U.S. was attacked on 911? Or, even more naively and quasi-philosophically, why Muslims "hate our way of life"? By not saying, "Tell us what you know about al Queda," Maya opens the conversation to a broader truth that she seeks from Ammar, and the moment becomes almost tender in a melodramatic way.

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Bigelow gets a little blurry eyed about this fictionalized account of "enhanced interrogation techniques." Ammar, the tortured man, does eventually get some kind of redemption after all. We see him later in the film and his wounds are healing. He is out of the Black Site and on a veranda with other people. He appears almost as a free man. After he is served several plates of food, he tells Dan and Maya everything they want to know. It's perhaps the single most profound fantasy in the film. And it rings loudly as the happiest possible ending to a terrible story. The trouble is, this did not happen like that in the lead up to bin Laden, as official accounts have revealed. And more than that, this type of confession, almost clean to the extent that the enemies chat like civilized people across a meal, does not happen through torture

The final frame of the film shows Maya sitting alone in a military transport plane. She straps herself in and looks directly at the camera. Slowly her eyes well up with tears and then large drops stream down her face. Maya is America crying. But the emotion is vapid and small. Alone, she cries silently from relief or perhaps from the release of all the energy it took to get bin Laden. But it really doesn't matter why. The point is, her crying feels almost emotionless and has an air of manipulation. Perhaps that's the word on Zero Dark Thirty. Bigelow is not able to have her country back, nor the hope it once inspired. She's not able to take us down that path we should have gone so many years ago. The path of justice for the 3,000 killed on that September day. That opportunity passed long ago.

In the end, I almost admire Bigelow's supreme effort to reach for a new and hopeful reality. But it feels false. And the influence of the Pentagon, or at least Bigelow's consultations with those who gave "first hand accounts," is noticeable. We are left with an unsettled sadness of buried regrets, deeper denials, and the thinnest strand of hope that we will one day surmount these terrible deeds. 

Eating Raw Pig Fat for Good Health

I didn't expect Ukrainian food to become part of SALT IN THE AIR. The film was originally about a salt mine that serves as a successful asthma clinic, as well as the environmental catastrophe ensued by corrupt mining practices, a ravaging of the Earth. But the longer I stayed in Ukraine, the more I became aware of the central role that salo plays in Ukrainian cuisine, not to mention cultural life and heritage. I don't think I go too far to say that salo is one of the primary elements of Ukrainian identity.

Plus, salo is deeply connected to salt. The word salo is related etymologically to salt. Here is a rough definition given to me by a Ukrainian friend: са́ло (salo): pig fat; eaten raw, smoked or cooked; from the words солоний (solonyi) 'salty' and сіль (sil) 'salt'. (As a side note, many Ukrainian words have been given short shrift because of Ukraine's relationship to Russia. From what I understand, there is no authoritative Ukrainian dictionary or etymological text. What does exist has been filtered through a Russian academic system. Perhaps "Russification" is the right word for it.) 

Still image of salo during a pig slaughter. From SALT IN THE AIR.

Still image of salo during a pig slaughter. From SALT IN THE AIR.

In any case, this close connection between salt and salo is what brought me to the scene of a pig being slaughtered in my film. Dr. Ivan Myhailovych Hrys, a pulmonologist and wholistic healer, told me during an interview about asthma that "we must eat foods that are close to nature," by which he meant many types of unprocessed foods, but he also and pointedly meant salo. He told me that pigs and humans are very similar physiologically, which I had read elsewhere, too. We have similar livers and hearts. In fact, porcine heart valves can replace human heart valves when ours fail. In Hrys's mind, we owe a lot to pigs for our good health.

So what is salo? Roughly speaking, it's pig fat. The closest comparative food would be Italian lardo, but where lardo is seen generally as an enhancer or a delicacy, salo is on the table for its own sake and often eaten every day as part of a healthy diet. A Ukrainian's attention to salo approaches reverential and maybe even spiritual levels. It's much more than lardo. When lardo is eaten on its own, on a cracker, for example, it's cured in some way with herbs or spices. Salo can be cured or smoked, but it is also eaten completely raw, and even during the slaughtering of the pig, eaten right off the recently killed animal. You might dip the warm fat in a small bowl of salt just moments after cutting it from the pig, as some of the farmers do in my film. And then take a shot of samagon or vodka. So what part of the pig is it, specifically? The best part is fatback, but I suspect other fatty parts of the pig can be used, too.

Dr. Hrys spoke at length about the benefits of salo that he witnessed over many years of treating patients for a variety of ailments, including jaundice. He said that the sooner he gave patients salo, the better their recovery. "Salo isn't a secondary medicine," he told me. "It is essential." It positively affected his patients biliary flow, blood and metabolism. 

Of the many and varied uses for salt that I looked into for SALT IN THE AIR -- from salt mining to salt inhalation methods for treating asthmatics -- salo may have been the most complex from a filmmaking point of view. This may sound strange until you consider that salo as a cultural icon. Everyone has something to say about it. How the pigs are raised. What kind of food they eat. How much exercise they get. When and where they exercise, and under what weather conditions. Not to mention all the ways it can be cured and served. Dr. Hrys distinguished Ukrainian pig farming from methods in the U.S., saying that the particular way the pig is fed, exercised and raised has a profound affect on the amount of fat created and its quality. I ate quite a lot of salo in Ukraine, but I'm not sure I would eat raw fat from, say, store-bought bacon here in the U.S., although I have had lardo from reputable, organic and humane U.S. purveyors.

Eating salo from a newly killed pig, yet to be fully dressed, with a salt bowl on the pig's belly. Still image from SALT IN THE AIR. 

Eating salo from a newly killed pig, yet to be fully dressed, with a salt bowl on the pig's belly. Still image from SALT IN THE AIR. 

SALT IN THE AIR portrays an entire slaughter, although shortened considerably. The process, from the selection to the complete breakdown of the pig, took over an hour. The farmers believe that God made pigs for our benefit, so we would have something to eat. This traditional view was stated as a matter of fact, without complicated questions about killing animals. That said, the first stab in the pig's throat is rough. If there is anything I would change, it would be that. It is clear to me that the animal suffers with the stabbing and the blood letting. Death is not instantaneous. In 2011, social conservatives and animal rights groups in the Netherlands moved to block kosher and halal butchering for goats and lambs for what I took to be both xenophobic and animal rights reasons. The activist groups felt the animals should be stunned first so that they are unconscious. The movement did not succeed, but it did put forward this interesting idea: That if an animal (chicken, goat, lamb, beef) lost consciousness within 40 seconds, the practice would be considered humane. I'm not sure where they got the 40 second rule, but it's interesting. In our case, I would say the pig lost consciousness in about 30-40 seconds, based very amateurishly on my observation of its movements and noises. Still, it moved a lot afterwards on the killing platform. The farmers said it was body spasms, but I'm not entirely convinced by that explanation. 

Still image of the the initial blood letting of the slaughter from SALT IN THE AIR. 

Still image of the the initial blood letting of the slaughter from SALT IN THE AIR. 

For me, eating pork is inextricably linked to salt. Or, really, eating any meat, but pork seems to have a particular relationship to salt, as demonstrated by the word salo and by the nearness of the word "salt" to "pork" in English. I don't know if Dr. Hrys is right about the health benefits of salo, though he was quite convincing. I'm also ambivalent about many methods of slaughtering. On the one hand, this small farm in Ukraine was very clean and wonderful and the pigs were treated very well. But the stabbing was cruel.

More broadly -- and in a grim, poetic way -- the killing of the pig reminded me of the death of the salt mine; that is, the splaying of the Earth for our benefit. The same exploitative beliefs are present. That huge gaping hole in the ground in Solotvyno looks surprisingly like a wound, as poet Oleh Lysheha told me for SALT IN THE AIR, and also like the split belly of the pig. Clearly this connection between our violence, the pig and the Earth doesn't hold up under deductive reasoning, but these facts feel broadly connected in a way that appears to me both moral and profound. 

The collapsing salt mine in Solotvyno, Ukraine. Poet Oleh Lysheha compared it to a "wound." Still from SALT IN THE AIR. 

The collapsing salt mine in Solotvyno, Ukraine. Poet Oleh Lysheha compared it to a "wound." Still from SALT IN THE AIR. 

Anthony Lane is Uncomfortable

To read Anthony Lane's recent review of Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" is to read more about Lane, perhaps, than the film he has his eye on. He is clearly uncomfortable, even as he attempts an even-handed take. Though at first it's not entirely clear why Lane misses the point of the film so confidently.

And then it dawns on you: Lane wanted a tidier morality tale based on morals he subscribes to. Although he doesn't directly state what his moral framework is, there are sentences that provide clues to his qualms. Here are a few lines from Lane:

  • If only Tarantino made films during "a straighter age."
  • Tarantino is "snared in a tangle of morality and style."
  • Tarantino is "dangerously in love with the look of evil, and all he can counter it with is cool--not strength of purpose, let alone goodness of heart, but simple comeuppance, issued with merciless panache."

One would almost think Lane wanted to say "uppity" instead of comeuppance. To expect of Tarantino an easier and more palatable liberal morality of a different and "straighter age" is quite far off the mark. This is Tarantino. Pop stylist of killers. And this is a pop movie with a grim moral interest to show us a spectacular and fictional super hero in Django (Jamie Foxx) who is equal to the task at hand. Does Lane think that it would have made sense for Django to preach nonviolence from a pulpit? To merely and politely tell Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) or those around him in Candyland that he is wrong to make men fight to the death, wrong to engage in incest with his sister, wrong to enslave thousands of people and kill with impunity? In a different film, we might have seen and cheered the rise of a peaceful deacon preaching universal brotherhood, but not here. 

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Why? Because Tarantino's morality is elsewhere. He's not interested in a pure leader with a certain moral vision, a Christ who turns the other cheek. Tarantino is interested in justified killing and revenge in the spirit of the Old Testament. In "Django Unchained," he gets both: Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) has the law on his side and Django is morally justified to save his wife. In this realm, Lane completely effaces what amounts to a significant display of slavery's complexities for whites and for blacks. I would argue that Stephen the Uncle Tom (Samuel L. Jackson) deserved to die miserably. It's not that his life wasn't difficult or that he had to make difficult choices. He certainly did. But he was a terrible person who witnessed and all but admits to torturing and killing thousands of people. To make this point, Stephen tells Django that he knows how long is takes for a castrated man to bleed to death.

Redemption for Stephen would have been ridiculous and it would have hurt the film. This Uncle Tom had to die. And he deserved what he got, however cruel that may seem to Lane. In contrast, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom "should have lived" because he was such a sentimentally good man. It's part of the power of Tarantino's film that he flips this established stereotype. Imagine how awful it would have been if Stephen lay dying and somehow "forgave" Candie for his cruelty, as Stowe's Uncle Tom forgave Legree's brutal overseers. It can't even be stomached. 

And yet, on a lighter and more cynical note, Tarantino is our contemporary artist of pop killers, in the tradition of Sam Peckinpah and others. And he always has been. Grim revenge on a hated character, or the death of an admired one, is what it's all about. In hindsight, you could have seen Stephen's death coming from miles away. And Tarantino certainly helps us thirst for his gruesome end. You might find this particular act of an artist distasteful, or even immoral, but to expect anything different of Tarantino is naive and perhaps willfully blind to the genre's reality and maybe even our history.

And then there's the white woman. Lane sat uncomfortably in the audience and was "disturbed by the yelps of triumphant laughter... as a white woman was blown away by Django's gun." Well, that just about tops things off. Lane never mentions being disturbed by the scene of a man being eaten by dogs, perhaps one of the most difficult deaths I've seen on film, but the hilariously portrayed boomerang-of-a-killing of a slavery-colluding white woman just gets under his skin. Even though we "should not laugh," Candie's sister gets flicked like a pea into another room when she's shot, practically bouncing off screen.

The one insight that Lane gets right is the superficiality of Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Unfortunately, her character is rather flat due to the script, and it didn't have to be like that. Washington does well with what she has, but I was secretly hoping that Broomhilda would join in the melee as an echo of the Kill Bills, an idea to which, I suspect, Lane might take exception. It's a legitimate critique to ask Tarantino why he didn't give Broomhilda more strength of character and maybe even a little revenge.

So, what's up? For me, the essential underpinning of Lane's liberalism in this article is his need to see black heroes as morally superior; to which, I would say, we all (adults, in this case) have a right to the spoils of this very violent pop culture, sometimes deep, sometimes hilarious. In this way, Django is not exactly freed from the chains of "mid-nineteenth century America," as Lane would have it, but freed from being a hero who might too easily settle us with an uncomfortable past. Django reminds us of the terrible blood bath that it was.