Criticism ∙ 10min | 2016
Between 2016 and 2020, I had the great honor and pleasure of writing about a wide diversity of film and video works for Screen Slate. Screen Slate is a resource for daily listings and editorial commentary on New York City moving image culture. It encompasses repertory, independent, microcinema and gallery screenings and exhibitions related to
film, video, and electronic media. Thousands of New York’s most ardent cinephiles and arts lovers subscribe to the Screen Slate Daily listings e-mail. Below you will find a curated selection of my favorite pieces. This work has been cited by critics at Criterion Collection, Mubi, Letterboxd, and more.
The most striking thing about Taipei Story is its environment—specifically the ways in which its characters relate (or don't) to the cracks and corners of a city changing faster than they expect. It’s no surprise Edward Yang listed Michelangelo Antonioni and Yasujirō Ozu as influences; so much of the pleasure of watching the film is rooted in its masterful application of light, shadow, and color to express the emotional impact of modernization and globalization to great poetic effect. That something so insidious as a multinational corporate headquarters could look so sumptuous and alive is exactly the kind of contradiction Yang would have us confront and untangle—even now, 32 years later.
It’s here that the mid-80s look of this “New” Taiwan is at its most picturesque: a mashup of towering neon signs, steamy streetside noodle shops, intimate domestic interiors where the bewildering East-meets-West aesthetic is ripe for review. Note the glazed ceramic Charlie Chaplin ashtray, the plastic fly swatter, wall calendars conspicuously designed in either Taiwan or America (and who hangs which). And then there are the cars. They dominate the landscape with an ominous indifference to whether the past and future can coexist in the minds and hearts of the humans who drive them—or don’t, as when loser boyfriend Lung (fellow filmmaker Hou Hsiao-Hsien) sells his to pay off gambling debts, much to his girlfriend Chin’s disappointment (Tsai Chin, elegant, stoic, and eerily similar to images of my own mother at that age—likely yours too if she clawed her way into the new class of 1980’s Working Women). Pay close attention to the details, and the details will pay you back with memories you forgot you had.
Although the film certainly satisfies nicely as an early critique of late-stage capitalism, Taipei Story’s message reaches beyond the corrupting influence of money. It’s a film that explores (softly, tenderly) the uneasy effects of a growing cultural and generational gap as it plays out between childhood sweethearts; parents and children; rich and poor; men and women; Americanized and traditional Taiwanese. It seems Yang would like to remind us that this duality—a dichotomy ultimately defined by the inevitability of past and future—is omnipresent in the minutiae of everyday life. Down to the socks we wear, the rice we eat, and the songs we hear that make us want to jump up and dance (or sit still and cry). What’s really at stake? Time, and its relationship to those who summon the strength to cooperate with it, as well as to those who don’t.
Martine Syms at MoMA
Self-proclaimed “conceptual entrepreneur” Martine Syms’ debut feature film Incense, Sweaters, and Ice plays as part of her first US solo museum exhibition at MoMA. The film is presented as part of an immersive installation on MoMA’s 3rd floor Elaine Dannheiser Project space, an expansive gallery painted to match Syms’ signature [The Color] purple (see martinesyms.com), and equipped with a series of movie poster-sized photographs that transform into moving image works with the addition of a site-specific augmented reality app called WYDRN (ie. “What Are You Doing Right Now?”).
This may seem a mouthful, but really what it means is that the viewing experience is unlike any you’ve ever encountered; between the 3-channel video installation, the photographs, and the apps, the images Syms presents and the way in which they are revealed asks us to reconsider our relationship to media such that we become acutely aware of the presence of our own bodies in time and space. Syms designs an inevitably self-conscious environment, then populates it with images referencing black American culture and identity that the viewer must physically move about the space in order to observe and activate. The result is a kind of personal reenactment of the Great Migration, an historical event thrust into the present moment at every moment in Syms’ outstanding first solo museum exhibition.
The film itself follows three characters—”Girl,” “WB” (whiteboy), and “Mrs. Queen Esther Bernetta White”—each existing in separate spaces, alternating between public and private moments of action. The story’s constantly shifting perspective blurs the line between documentary and fiction, and this ambiguity of meaning is likewise reflected in the switching of the image from one screen to the next: the viewer must literally follow the image back-and-forth throughout the space, mirroring the experience of the Great Migration at human scale. The switching-shifting-on-off-ness of the experience is again echoed in the narrative—particularly by Mrs. Queen, a matriarchal figure dressed head-to-toe in purple, who directly addresses the camera to offer spiritual guidance through gospel song and self-help tips on empowerment and faith. Syms’ sharp critical insights are nuanced in their meme-ness and the process of gathering them is deliberate and fun. Go early to beat the tourists; stay awhile and see the whole thing.
Jonathas de Andrade
BAM’s 2017 Migrating Forms series continues tonight with a program of single-channel videos by Jonathas de Andrade. Spanning a period of six years, and combining multiple media and production techniques—including 16mm and super-8 film, found sound and footage, and stop motion animation—de Andrade’s images trace the troublesome evolution of his native Brazil’s national narrative and identity in a way that is playful yet contemplative, investigative yet kind. For all its criticality and obvious socioeconomic themes, the work nonetheless maintains a spirit of childlike curiosity—without the strenuous condescension and hostility from which so many overtly political works suffer. Postcolonial critique is a tightrope, and De Andrade walks it well.
De Andrade’s most recent work, O Peixe (The Fish), arguably the centerpiece of the screening, is a mesmerizing movie in which coastal fishermen perform a bizarrely erotic ritual killing which consists of embracing their catch to the point of suffocation. That the film is shot in the style of an ethnographic documentary further complicates the narrative, which is fictional… yet symbolic. And therefore also somehow true. Other highlights include O Levante (The Uprising), in which de Andrade documents and reflects upon the process of producing his rapidly gentrifying hometown’s first-ever horse-drawn cart race (!?), and O Caseiro (The Housekeeper): a deeply beautiful and disturbing split-screen depiction of the contrasting daily routines of sociologist Gilberto Freyre in 1959 (author of The Masters and the Slaves, originator of Lusotropicalism, proponent of racial integration) and Cristóvão, an ordinary housekeeper in 2016.
The cumulative effect of these works is surprisingly dramatic, especially considering the context for which they were created. Originally designed as single-channel video installations for galleries and museums, De Andrade’s work clearly benefits from theatrical screening in linear succession. When presented back-to-back in the quiet confines of a traditional movie theater, the disparate sequences inform and blend into one another to achieve a thoroughly narrative effect. I suppose what I’m getting at is that De Andrade, in addition to being a radical and innovative conceptual artist, also happens to be a damn fine storyteller.
There is only one word to describe Fabella, Manila’s national maternity hospital: Kafkaesque.
Imagine a hundred wailing newborns and their mothers packed into a single room the size of a basketball court; these patients sleep four, sometimes five to a bed. The doctors and nurses refer to them by number, not by name: “585,” “586,” or “587.” A bewildered young mom refers to her twins as “A” and “B.” Women give birth in quick succession and in very close quarters—an open floor partitioned with curtains on vintage hospital beds, or in one case, on a stretcher in the corner of the waiting room—literally pressed up against the corner of the wall for support in lieu of a bedframe and stirrups. “Baby out!” the doctors call, “baby out!”
Despite the shocking nature of these images, Ramona S. Diaz’ Motherland manages to maintain a lighter tone than one might expect from a verité doc set in the busiest maternity ward on earth. Just as Kafka’s Metamorphosis is at once absurdly funny and disturbingly sad, so too, this film about what to expect when you’re expecting—as an impoverished woman in the 6th largest city in the world. I won’t spoil it for you, but after seeing this film, you’ll never look at a tube top in the same way again.
Premiering tonight as part of MoMA’s A New Golden Age: Contemporary Philippine Cinema series, Motherland has that rare quality of riding the fine line between comedy and tragedy; between the universal and the particular. The film serves its audiences twofold as both a portrait of early motherhood and the story of a nation struggling to survive under the pressure of tremendous social and economic inequality. It’s is the kind of film you should see with… well, your mother, if you can. Who better to share the immersive, cinematic equivalent of delivering a baby (actually, hundreds of babies) with than the woman who delivered you? You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and you’ll find yourself in awe of the miracle and resilience of human life. What more could you ask from a movie? “Baby out!”
Austin Lynch and Matthew Booth’s debut feature Gray House makes its North American premiere tonight at Film Society of Lincoln Center. A haunting and audacious hybrid doc-narrative, the film is a powerful meditation on American identity and ecology, featuring gorgeous landscape photography, evocative soundscapes, and astonishing interview footage with ordinary Americans laboring in the energy and prison industrial complexes. Lynch and Booth take us to places we’ve likely never been and might never have seen were it not for their curiosity and insight, making the invisible visible in a way that is both deeply disturbing and profoundly moving.
Lynch and Booth contrast the monotony of industrial architecture with the dignity of the natural landscape, setting the scene for an investigation into the causes and effects of isolation, order, and control. The humans in the film are not so much characters in a story as figures against a backdrop of their own design—or animals inhabiting their environment, responding in different unexpected ways.
One woman, a lifelong prisoner of the titular “Gray House” confides: “If it weren’t for the trees… I can look at them, and sometimes I don’t even see the barbed wire, or the chain-linked fences at all. If I stare long enough, I can just see the trees. I’ve always loved the mountains. I love the soil, I love my trees. Those things, and my children, I miss the most.”
What’s shocking is how human she is. How beautiful, how intelligent, how sensitive and true. The dehumanization of incarcerated individuals may be familiar in the abstract, but the intimacy of these interviews elicits an engagement far more empathic than any statistic or data visualization could ever achieve. This is the power of story. For all its experimental qualities—formal choices that push the limits of narrative cinema—Gray House is, ultimately, a very carefully crafted, highly structured visual narrative that shows so much more than it could ever tell.
New Negress Film Society
Tonight Anthology Film Archives screens a program of short films by The New Negress Film Society, a collective of black women filmmakers dedicated to promoting experimental films that raise awareness for marginalized voices—often breaking aesthetic and political boundaries to challenge audiences and offer alternative perspectives on black female identity. Tonight’s screening is the second in a series of three entitled This Is You Reading My Diary, which is organized around the problem of coming-of-age for protagonists whose power is denied and must be reclaimed in new and unexpected ways.
The films are refreshingly diverse in content, tone, and style, which speaks to the collective’s commitment to inclusivity and artistry. Stefani Saintonge offers a glimpse of the evolution of black female sexuality through the eyes of a seventh grader—a more traditional fictional character study—while Chanelle Aponte Pearson explores the same in a portrait of activist Ryann Holmes, whose efforts to support queer and trans POC are documented in a verité style that lends itself to an organic exploration of intimacy and identity. Dyani Douze & Nontsikelelo Mutiti take an emphatically nonlinear approach that puts archival sound at the forefront of the cinematic experience, while Ja’Tovia Gary presents two very distinct works—“a meditative invocation on transcendence as a means of restoration”, and a documentary portrait of rapper Cakes Da Killa, an outspoken and openly gay man who transcends the stereotype of black male MC and whose humor and honesty are infectious. Frances Bodomo’s offerings include adaptations of a fellow filmmaker’s death-themed dream and the true story of the failed 1964 Zambian space program. If tonight’s program is any indication of the energy and imagination with which these women are imbued, there’s no doubt lots to look forward to from New Negress in years to come.
The Queen of Versailles
Lauren Greenfield’s Queen of Versailles offers an amusing glimpse into the collective unconscious of a real-life American family simultaneously empowered by and trapped in an unending psycho-cycle of compulsive conspicuous consumption. “Everyone wants to be rich, and if they can’t be rich, the next best thing is to feel rich,” declares American entrepreneur David Siegel, “and if they don’t wanna feel rich, then they’re probably dead.” Indeed. Considering Siegel’s rapacious business practices and decadent lifestyle, the etymology of entrepreneur (from the French entreprendre “to undertake”) further indicates that Siegel is, in fact, exactly that: an industrial undertaker, a peddler of custom corpse add-ons designed to exploit the desire and grief of (and thereby profit from) the living. The corpses, in this case: subprime wage-earners. The add-ons: timeshares. The irony? after the economic recession of 2008, billionaire Siegel himself is in the same boat.
The title queen is David’s wife Jackie Siegel, and her Versailles (pronounced “Vur-size”) the 90,000 square-foot house under construction in suburban Orlando—the largest in America, even larger than The White House. Jackie eagerly addresses the camera as is befitting a former beauty pageant queen turned reality TV wannabe who wants nothing more than the adrenaline rush of external validation in the form of social status and material wealth. Nothing new considering our capitalist culture, until we see the scope and scale of Jackie’s addiction to excess: personal purchases ranging from mass-manufactured to designer-made and everything in between. Whether it’s dozens of orders of McDonald’s chicken nuggets, hundreds of pairs of Gucci platform heels, or thousands of square feet of Louis XIV lamps, Jackie’s got as much self-control as her fourteen white dogs whose discipline can be measured by the number of daily turds they leave scattered about the house.
But the real stars of the show are the behind-the-scenes team: interviews and B-roll with household servants Marissa Gaspay & Virginia Nebab—2 of 19 full-time staff—provide a contrasting perspective to the Siegels’ suffocating personal habits. Gaspay and Nebab, both Filipina migrant workers, are the connective tissue that hold the family together. Their physical and emotional labor is made visible here in a way that is so outrageous, so absurd, it is impossible to overlook. The chaos and decay of the Siegel estate is a much-needed cautionary tale to those who dare dream the American Dream at the expense of their sanity and family legacy. Greenfield’s gaze is an antidote, don’t look away.
“What is the shadow of Los Angeles?” Agnès Varda asks—and then answers—in her rarely screened 1981 self-proclaimed “Emotion Picture” Documenteur. Running just over an hour, this one is short and bittersweet; perhaps her most melancholy but by no means heavy-handed, the somber tone offset by her signature concoction of curiosity, sensuality, and love. The film follows a freshly transplanted and newly single French mother and son who struggle to find a home under the gloomy skies of a less-than-glamorous, almost anti-Los Angeles. But beyond the simple premise of the tragic-heroic single mother and her fatherless child, Documenteur is a quiet exploration of solitude, tenderly depicting the process of learning how to be alone.
Varda embraces the feeling of aloneness fully and non-judgmentally, and the result is satisfying not because it is dramatic—quite the opposite, in fact—but because it is honest. Nowhere in the film is this more apparent than when its fictional protagonist records a voiceover narration which, on rewind, sounds suspiciously unlike herself; it is Varda whose voice we hear on playback, calmly asserting “—art imitates life, or life imitates art” for anyone alert enough to catch it. This is an important clue into the meaning of the film: Documenteur is a film told from a personal albeit coded perspective, personal enough for Varda to insert herself directly into the film in this way and more, coded enough for anyone who isn’t familiar with her cinematic sleight of hand to miss it completely. As with all of her titles, the word “Documenteur” itself is a pun to be decrypted (“menteur” means “liar” in French). And while not required for comprehension of the plot, the fact that Varda herself was a French mother who had then recently separated from her husband—and cast her own real-life son in the role of the fictional one—certainly enhances one’s appreciation for the candor and clarity with which this story is told.
I recently had the heart-stopping honor of interviewing Varda; one of the things she reiterated was the importance of “going against the cliché.” This is an ongoing theme in all of her work, but especially apparent in the films shot in California in the early 1980’s. For Varda, confronting cliché “pushes us to be deeper in what we feel,” or asks the viewer to reconsider the relationship between reality and fiction; between illusion and disillusion; perception and representation.
Jane Campion’s debut feature, Sweetie , is a lesson in intention, in strong choices, in the development of a voice, in the expression of a perspective—all the things we look for in a great work of art. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the very first frame, in which the film’s protagonist Kay (Karen Colston) is introduced; a single from an angle as disorienting as its dialogue. Kay appears floating in the foreground, lost in thought, against a flat floral pattern (later revealed to be a carpet), but the slanted shot tells us all we need to know: something is askew.
That something is Kay’s dysfunctional family dynamic, made manifest in the flesh by Dawn, her self-destructive sister, nicknamed “Sweetie” (the gloriously charismatic and uninhibited Geneviève Lemon). Sweetie arrives on the scene unannounced, after what appears to have been a long hiatus, which Kay must have known would never last. Dawn couldn’t have picked a worse moment to interfere, descending upon Kay the day after she and her live-in boyfriend diagnose their failing relationship as “spiritual” and prescribe themselves a “non-sex phase.” Dawn, by contrast, is the epitome of sensuality and the opposite of spirituality—all appetite and no intellect, much in the way a 2-year-old child behaves upon learning the words “I want!”
But, as Sue Gillet so aptly put in her 1999 Senses of Cinema essay, something even more sinister is at play, “in a family where husbands are sons to their wives, and daughters are wives to their fathers, where mothers and daughters are rivals and the father a destructive child.” That strange and secret something is what drives Dawn up a tree (literally), and the film to its grim conclusion, but not without its fair share of playful humor—expressed beautifully through Sally Bongers’ irreverent, impeccable cinematography. Bongers’ camerawork alone makes the film worth watching, but combined with Campion’s wild and singular screenwriting, the images become iconic. Best to stop here and see for yourself. Sweetie doesn’t simply tell you how to feel or what to think, it asks you to interpret.