Published OCT 2015 DOCUMENTARY magazine (documentary.org)
From Laura Israel’s ‘Don’t Blink–Robert Frank’
This year’s New York Film Festival (NYFF) featured a healthy offering of portraits of artists in its Spotlight on Documentary strand, including Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman in Her Own Words; Walter Salles’ Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang; Rebel Citizen, Pamela Yates’ profile of Haskell Wexler; and Jacob Bernstein’s Everything Is Copy, an homage to the filmmaker’s mother, Nora Ephron. In addition, Laura Israel’s Don’t Blink—Robert Frank screened in NYFF’s Main Slate.
For Don’t Blink, Israel created a rapid-fire collage of Frank’s still photos and avant-garde films, as well as recent footage of the artist with friends, colleagues and his wife, June Leaf. An ambitious music track featuring the Velvet Underground, The White Stripes, Johnny Thunders, Bob Dylan and Patti Smith makes for a bracing complement to Frank’s work.
Following his landmark photo study The Americans (1958), Frank teamed up with Beat Generation legends Alan Ginsburg and Jack Kerouac to make Pull My Daisy (1959), one of the iconic American underground films. Irreverent and outrageous, the film starred Peter Orlovsky, Gregory Corso with a guest appearance by William Burroughs. Don’t Blink features gorgeous clips from Pull My Daisy, as well as Sin of Jesus (1961) Me and My Brother (1969) and the legendary Cocksucker Blues (1972), commissioned—and buried—by the Rolling Stones.
Equally gorgeous are the many full-frame representations of Frank’s still photographs; his 1970s Polaroids and negatives with captions scratched onto the surface encapsulated the unstudied, often partially blurred style of shooting he has always favored. Frank’s work has been described by critic Max Kozloff as a mode of “abused pastoral, pervaded by themes of loneliness and isolation.” For many years Frank’s subject was American culture, while in later years he shifted his focus to more personal, autobiographical concerns.
Filmmaker Haskell Wexler (center), subject of Pamela Yates’ ‘Rebel Citizen’
Structured as a conversation with filmmaker Haskell Wexler, Rebel Citizen details his unusual career as both Hollywood cinematographer and courageous indie doc director. Perhaps best known for Underground (1976) and Medium Cool (1969), Wexler discusses the making of both films. Since the Weather Underground was still on the government’s most wanted list, Wexler and collaborators Emile de Antonio and Mary Lampson had to shoot in a secret location and could not show any faces or other identifying aspects. An FBI attempt to seize the footage resulted in subpoenas served on all three filmmakers, and the film was pulled from circulation. With massive support from the film community (and top-notch lawyers), they succeeded in having the subpoenas revoked on First Amendment grounds.
No less ambitious, Medium Cool was one of the first theatrical films to mix actual news footage with a dramatic storyline, portraying the infamous riots of police against demonstrators outside the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. His account of tracking the actors and trying to shoot amidst the melee of cops, protesters and tear gas in the streets is fascinating. Citing Godard as major influence on the film, Wexler points out a striking sequence of a car accident when the camera and operator are suddenly revealed onscreen and a slow zoom turns the screen into a white flare. This recalls the famous opening sequence of Godard’s Le Mepris (1963), where Raoul Coutard’s camera slowly tracks towards us until only the camera operator is in the center of the frame.
Now 93, Wexler shows no sign of slowing down, speaking enthusiastically about recent projects like Who Needs Sleep? (2006), exposing the dangers of the excessive hours required of workers on Hollywood films, and Four Days in Chicago (2013), about the Occupy Chicago movement.
From Walter Salles’ ‘Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang.’
Made by Brazilian director Walter Salles, Jia Zhangke, A Guy from Fenyang takes us on a journey with the Chinese filmmaker through the locations of many of his films. He visits his childhood home in Fengyang after 29 years and is remembered by the neighborhood ladies as a scamp. Between multiple clips from The World (2001), Jia and his wife, actress Zhao Tao, describe how it was inspired by stories she told him about her life as a dancer. He is eager to tell stories of everyday people since he feels individuals as subjects were wiped out of Chinese film history after 1949. That impulse also informs Still Life, a portrait of laborers leveling an entire town of high-rise buildings so a huge new dam can be constructed in Three Gorges. The project destroyed over a thousand towns and villages and the film creates a haunting portrait of dislocation, juxtaposing the rubble-filled landscape with the magnificent natural surroundings.
Jia’s 2014 film Touch of Sin was banned in China for its unflattering portrayal of current Chinese society. The filmmaker remarks how he began to hear many reports of violence and then researched the topic, so the film is based in part on actual incidents. All four episodes culminate in sudden and shocking violence—a woman sauna attendant stabs her oppressor, a laid-off worker murders rich big shots in his village, and a kid from Hubei jumps off the balcony of a factory dormitory building after suffering a series of setbacks. All these characters are caught in the jaws of historical change, feeling exploited and dehumanized by others who now value only material objects. Jia mixes a tough realist style with occasional flashes of surrealism in hard-to-forget scenes such as one of prostitutes working in a luxurious nightclub who march out in Vegas-style versions of Red Army uniforms.
Towards the end of the film and the journey, Jia offers an eloquent account of his father’s suffering during the Cultural Revolution, his subsequent destruction of his many diaries, and his concern for his son’s safety after seeing his films. Clearly this is a legacy that resonates throughout his films.
Wanda Bershen is a consultant on fundraising, festivals and distribution. Documentary clients have included Sonia, Power Trip, Afghan Women, Trembling Before G*D and Blacks & Jews. She has organized programs with the Human Rights Film Festival, Brooklyn Museum and Film Society of Lincoln Center, and currently teaches arts management at CUNY Baruch. Visit reddiaper.com.