The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Andy Warhol Screen Tests


© 2010 The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, PA, a museum of Carnegie Institute. All rights reserved. Film still courtesy of The Andy Warhol Museum.

This is my contribution to the Close-Up Blog-a-thon at The House Next Door.

In thinking of the closeup, I almost invariably gravitate to the films of Andy Warhol, largely because so many of his films privilege this particular framing. In his extended screen test, Henry Geldzahler (1964), the then twenty-nine-year-old Metropolitan Museum of Art curator, loses his protracted battle with the camera, eventually regressing to an infantile state. In Screen Test #1 (1965), one of the longer sound portraits, Philip Fagan, Warhol’s inhibited lover at the time, lacks the verbal dexterity to counter the clever spider’s web of words that Ronald Tavel weaves to ensnare him, so that Fagan’s only response is to refuse to respond and stare silently off-screen, turning the screen test into a strange form of psychodrama. In Blow Job (1964), a film which Oggs Cruz has already written about, Warhol registers the activity of oral sex by concentrating the camera’s attention solely on a reaction shot of the recipient’s face.

The closeup is often used for dramatic emphasis in narrative films, but Warhol made entire films using only this shot, often as a form of portraiture. In the various Warhol Screen Tests – he created 472 of them – the issue of time becomes a crucial and distinguishing element. How can the subject fill up time? For Warhol, time is essentially determined by the length of the film that is running through the camera, even though he ultimately projects it at slower speed. Of the ones I’ve seen, by far the most fascinating screen test is the four-minute silent one of Ann Buchanan (1964), which appears as part of Warhol’s The Thirteen Most Beautiful Women (1964-65) and Four of Andy Warhol’s Most Beautiful Women (1964-69).

The screen test begins with a closeup shot of Ann Buchanan, framed from the neck up. As we view the image, the lighting is distinctly flat. Her left cheek is a bit hotter than the one on the right, which makes her left eye more prominent. We see two points of light reflected in her left eye, while a single point appears in her right one. Her hair is straggly; her facial expression is remarkably neutral. Buchanan stares directly at us, almost as if transfixed by the camera. Buchanan’s eyelids quiver ever so slightly at one point, but she doesn’t blink. Her throat and cheek also move imperceptibly, but Buchanan never loses her concentration. A pinpoint of light appears on the inside part of her right eye, which later flutters again. A minute-and-a-half into the film, what appears to be a tear forms at the bottom of Buchanan’s right eye. A half-minute afterwards, a tear falls from it, followed by another one ten seconds later. Her throat moves, and a third tear rolls down the right side of her cheek. Meanwhile Buchanan’s left eye fills with tears as well, as another from her right eye rolls down her face. Nearly three minutes into the film, a new tear drips from her chin, followed by a tear from her left eye, which continues for the rest of the film.

The fact that Ann Buchanan cries during her screen test is mind boggling. The shock of this is compounded by the utter discrepancy between her deadpan expression and the tears that emanate from her eyes. How in the world has she managed to cry? Do her tears stem from the tension of trying not to blink, or do they derive from her being able to employ the technique of emotional recall? Buchanan was not a Method actor, however, so her screen test confounds our expectations. Callie Angell indicates that this was Warhol’s favorite screen test, and it’s easy to see why. Buchanan’s rigid stare and wide eyes are very doll-like in appearance, so that her spontaneous gesture of crying while being filmed reminds us of one of those crying dolls, inanimate, yet capable of such an uncanny display of emotion.

Posted 20 October, 2007

Syndromes and a Century

Apichatpong Weerasethakul has almost single-handedly brought Thai cinema to international prominence with a series of enigmatic experimental narrative films. A graduate of the film program of School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Weerasethakul is one of the most rigorously formal filmmakers working today, making him a staple on the festival circuit as well as in both art and film magazines. Syndromes and a Century played at the 2006 New York Film Festival, but it has had only a very limited theatrical run. It’s playing on October 18 at 7 PM as the inaugural film in the Spotlight Film and Video Series at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA), curated by Eric Crosby. Syndromes and a Century is an absolute gem, and surely ranks among the very best films of the year. For this reason, this one-time 35mm screening – the Madison and Wisconsin premiere of the film – is a cinematic event not to be missed.

Syndromes and a Century purportedly tells the story of Weerasethakul’s parents – both doctors – before he was born. His re-imagining of their earlier lives takes a odd form, because the narrative, much like in his previous films, Blissfully Yours (2002) and Tropical Malady (2004), is split into two halves. The first part takes place in a medical clinic in a rural setting, while the second half repeats the opening scenes in an urban, high-tech hospital complex, but presents them from another camera angle, alters the dialogue, and substitutes an entirely different character and diagnosis. Some of the characters from the first half reappear in the second. Several are literally the same, but others have changed. I can’t rationally explain either the film’s structure or its aberrations, which remain one of the many mysteries of Syndromes and a Century.

The film’s whimsical irreverence managed to get Weerasethakul in trouble with the Thai censors, but I’m not sure American audiences will completely understand the reasons. They mainly have to do with such things as one of the male characters getting an erection, Weerasethakul’s portrayal of Buddhist monks, and his depiction of a female doctor drinking on the job as a means for coping with her anxiety about having to appear on weekly public television.

The film opens with a shot of trees rustling in the wind. An attractive young female doctor, Dr. Toey, interviews a new colleague, Dr. Nohng, for a job. While the interview questions initially sound routine, they’re actually completely weird, such as asking about his drawing skills or what DDT stands for. It’s hard to imagine hiring practices based on questions that seem like they might have been written by Harmony Korine. In fact, much of the dialogue is so unusual, inspired, and full of non sequiturs that it makes most movie dialogue appear dull and pedestrian by comparison. Some of it is patently absurd, such as when Dr. Nohng claims to prefer playing the position of center in basketball because you don’t have to be tall, or when the male doctor at the start of the second half tells the elderly monk to stop eating so much chicken because it’s full of cholesterol.

There are three plotlines: one involves Dr. Toey, who works at the medical clinic; another concerns a singing dentist; while the third has to do with Dr. Nohng. In Dr. Toey’s case, it turns out that a persistent, love-struck suitor proposes marriage. He approaches her during lunch one day with a kind of forlorn and uninhibited desperation we tend to associate with Miranda July. Dr. Toey’s response is to hint that she’s already in love with someone else. But in the long flashbacks we see – in which Dr. Toey visits a man who owns an exotic orchid farm – the issue remains unresolved. When the orchid farmer coyly indicates to Dr. Toey that he’s fallen in love, it’s not totally clear that he’s talking about her. And, in fact, we never really find out the answer for the simple reason that this story line get sidetracked, and because Weerasethakul hasn’t the least bit of interest in either narrative development or closure.

The second plotline is even more way out there. This involves a young monk, Sakda, who has ambitions to be a DJ or own a comic-book store. He goes to the dentist for the first time, only to have the dentist sing a song to him while he works on his teeth. If the eroticism of the scene persists as a subtext, the two meet again after the dentist performs publicly on stage. We expect the dentist to bare his soul. He does, rather awkwardly, but the scene and the dialogue veer off in an almost surreal direction involving the dentist’s sense of guilt over his brother’s childhood death for which he feels responsible. At the point where the dentist finally asks Sakda whether, he is, in fact, the reincarnation of his deceased brother, I nearly fell off my chair. The monk’s response is equally mind-boggling. He tells the dentist that he couldn’t possibly be his brother because he wasn’t human in his previous life. The dentist gives Sakda a copy of his latest CD, but the monk suddenly is called away, abruptly ending both the scene and this particular story thread.

The monks themselves defy any preconceptions I’ve ever had of them. In one of the early scenes, an elderly monk, who has tortured chickens as a child, discusses being haunted by dreams in which chickens tell him they want to see him suffer. In the middle of this discussion, Dr. Toey excuses herself in order to ask a colleague to repay a loan. After she returns, the elderly monk tells the doctor that he senses confusion in her heart. He then gives her an herbal potion to help regulate her menstrual flow. Huh? The monk then tries to get the doctor to give him a batch of prescription drugs for everyone at the temple. When Dr. Toey refuses, he insists that he knows she has the power to do this if she wanted. The giddy and absurd humor of Syndromes and a Century is considerable, but it’s completely deadpan in its delivery. It is beautifully contained by the formal rigor of Weerasethakul’s stunning camera movement, long takes, and wide-shot compositions that distance us from the characters. The languid pace of his scenes gives the impression that the performers have all the time in the world.

The third plot thread occurs in the film’s second half, where the focus shifts from Dr. Toey (who is seen sitting at her desk and lost in reverie) to Dr. Nohng, who appears to flirt with one of the male patients in a hallway scene that echoes the one of the dentist. His girlfriend, however, visits him at work. She wants him to move with her when she gets a job transfer, but Dr. Nohng seems reluctant despite the fact that she gets him sexually aroused. We later see her run out of his office and Dr. Nohng follow after her, while the camera remains fixed on the empty white corridor bathed in cool fluorescent light.

Weerasethakul’s film involves narrative incident, but has only the slight semblance of plot. Just at the moment you expect the suppressed narrative to kick in, Syndromes and a Century is just as apt to get diverted into a more purely experimental visual passage involving the hospital’s duct-work, equipment, and ventilation pipes, such as occurs later in the modern hospital, which is largely filmed in the section where they build prosthetic limbs. The passage ends with a close-up on the black hole of the strangely-shaped ventilation pipe, which mirrors the eclipse that occurs in the first half of the film during the scene where Dr. Toey and another woman discuss love and relationships. Early in the film, there’s a scene where Dr. Toey and a colleague head out of the room. The camera follows their action, but only up to a point. It settles on the landscape outside the window instead, leaving actors as offscreen, disembodied voices. During the same scene, the opening credits appear over the shot of the landscape. After awhile, the actors, who assume they’re no longer being filmed, fall out of character and converse among themselves.

Of all of Weerasethakul four features – Mysterious Object at Noon (2000), Blissfully Yours, and Tropical Malady – Syndromes and a Century is his most accessible film, as well as his best. Although Syndromes and a Century is firmly rooted in art cinema, there’s a unique and special quality about the film, as if we’re watching events occur in some alternate universe. The seemingly magical and buoyant tone of Syndromes and a Century – its combined sense of both humor and wonder – is what makes the film seem unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

Other events in the Spotlight Film and Video Series include video programs by Paul Chan, Michele O’Marah, and John Bock, as well as a special Saturday screening of Ken Jacobs’s epic Star Spangled to Death (2004). For additional information on the series, click here.

Posted 6 October, 2007

Spike Lee: She’s Gotta Have It

Following on the success of Stranger Than Paradise, She’s Gotta Have It (1986) provided American independent filmmaking with even greater momentum, adding to the consensus that a bonafide movement had begun. Like Jarmusch, Brooklyn-based Spike Lee was a NYU film-school grad, whose 60-minute thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983), won a Student Academy Award. It also managed to achieve some degree of success within independent film circles as the first student film ever selected for the cutting-edge New Directors/New Films series, and also did well on the international festival circuit. After running into financing problems on a second feature, Spike Lee shot She’s Gotta Have It on a deferred budget of $175,000, with the domestic rights being picked up by Island Pictures for over twice that amount. Despite receiving mixed critical reviews in the white press, She’s Gotta Have It struck a responsive chord with popular audiences, especially black movie-goers, resulting in a domestic gross of over $7 million dollars. In the process, Spike Lee himself became a major cultural icon, taking a giant first step toward becoming the most successful African-American filmmaker in history.

Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It takes black female sexuality as its subject in telling the story of Nola Darling, a sexually-active, young African-American woman with multiple sex partners. Using the interview format derived from the tradition of direct cinema, the film manages to create a hybrid form of documentary and dramatic elements through use of a somewhat didactic and unusual essay-like structure in order to interrogate Nola, her three lovers, and the film’s other characters. She’s Gotta Have It also incorporates an eclectic medley of more free-form, experimental techniques: mixing black-and-white and color film stocks, fast and slow motion, a montage of still photographs, a couple of musical interludes, and a choreographed dance number.

In one of his early diary entries that accompanies the published screenplay for She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee discusses the original idea for the film:

“It’s always amazed me how men can go out and bone any and everything between fifteen and eighty and it’s OK. They are encouraged to have and enjoy sex, while it’s not so for women. If they do what men do they’re labeled whore, prostitute, nympho, etc. Why this double standard? Why not explore this? Have a character, a beautiful young black woman who loves sex, and can love more than one man at a time also. So, that’s the basic outline-premise.”

In choosing to explore this sexual double-standard within the context of the black community, Lee underscored the fact that only an African-American filmmaker could possibly tackle such loaded subject matter – black sexuality – even if he had his own gender issues. The brash “in your face” aspect of She’s Gotta Have It proved to be a brilliant strategic move because it demonstrated so clearly the incredible lack of diversity that existed in mainstream American cinema. Not only did She’s Gotta Have It deal with important and controversial subject matter, but it managed to present it in a refreshingly original and highly comedic way.

In Alternative Scriptwriting: Writing Beyond the Rules (there’s now a fourth edition with a different subtitle), one of the few non-Hollywood manuals, Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush cite She’s Gotta Have It as an alternative model to a variant of the Aristotelian three-act structure they term the “restorative three-act structure.” As they explain:

“A more specific variant of three-act form, derived from the well-made play developed by the French playwright Eugene Scribe in the 1820s, has become the dominant model for mainstream films. Characterized by a clear and logical denouement, this conservative model of storytelling was the most popular dramatic form of the newly dominant French and English middle class that emerged in the “safe” Europe after the Napoleonic wars.”

Using She’s Gotta Have It as one of their examples of more open-ended “counter-structures,” Dancyger and Rush argue that the film has “an ironic two-act structure.” The authors claim that it has no first turning point and that “its flashback structure discourages a linear, three-act reading” because the action has been predetermined and the audience does not actually participate in Nola’s decision to have additional lovers other than Jamie. Yet a flashback structure does not in and of itself negate the possibility of a three-act structure.

Dancyger and Rush, however, concede that She’s Gotta Have It has a second turning point:

She’s Gotta Have It does have something akin to an act break. After Jamie leaves her, Nola decides to drop her other two lovers and go back to him. However, because we have not been involved in Nola’s initial decision to have three lovers and are not positioned to see the taking of the three lovers as a first-act mistake, we do not feel this break serves as a consequence of some earlier misdirection. We have no sense of her coming back into sync with us as we would with a traditional second-act break. Rather, we stand outside and watch, wondering what she is going to do without being able to prejudge her actions.”

Although Dancyger and Rush are certainly right that Nola’s decision to have three lovers is not part of the first act set-up, there is an alternative way of segmenting the acts. The difficulty stems from the fact that Nola never really changes in the course of the film. She is the same person at the end as she was in the beginning, which is why Dancyger and Rush argue that the events in the film have already been predetermined. In this sense, Nola is more of a passive rather than active protagonist because she continues to act the same way throughout. But whereas Nola’s character remains the same, other characters, most notably Jamie, undergo changes as a result of their interactions with her.

The first crisis in the film is triggered by Jamie. It is not about Mars – or Greer, whom we haven’t as yet met – but about Opal. In comparison to his response to Mars, Jamie seems completely threatened by the possibility of Nola having a female lover. He is openly hostile to Opal and basically gets rid of her, which functions as the first turning point. Once Opal is out of the way, the second act deals with the complications Nola faces in having three male lovers. The second turning point is much clearer. It involves a crisis precipitated by Jamie when he announces he’s also having an affair and gives Nola an ultimatum. It is also noteworthy that the turning points stem from Jamie’s actions rather than Nola’s.

The first turning point occurs on page 22 of the screenplay, while the second appears on page 59. Thus, the first act is 22 pages long, the second 37, and the third 25. A look at the printed script indicates that this is the exact structure Spike Lee had in mind when he wrote She’s Gotta Have It because the screenplay is clearly divided into Beginning, Middle, and End, and those written headings are included in the script. Lee’s journal entry also attests to the fact that this was the intended structure. The film timings of She’s Gotta Have It do not deviate very much from the screenplay. The first turning point occurs at 21 minutes, and the second one at roughly 60 minutes. The 80-minute film divides into a first act of 21 minutes, a second act of 38 minutes, and a third act of 19 minutes.

Dramatic feature films that have two-act and one-act structures are actually rare exceptions in American commercial cinema. The major formal innovation of Spike Lee’s debut feature is not really its structure, which I believe contains three acts rather than two, but Lee’s attempt to interrogate the notion a single unified point of view. The narrative employs the documentary-like technique of direct interviews not only with the protagonist, Nola Darling, but with the various other characters – Jamie, Mars, Greer, Opal, and Clorinda – who provide their own counter-perspectives on her behavior. All the characters attempt to engage the viewer in the narrative through means of direct address. Nola’s views about her own sexuality contrast with those of her male suitors, who all seek to make her their own. At the center of contention is Nola’s determined refusal to limit herself to a single man.

Although Jamie Overstreet remains Nola’s major romantic interest – representing the embodiment of romantic love and stable family life – she also maintains relationships with the witty Mars (Spike Lee), and good-looking male model, Greer. These two men are a study in contrasts. Mars exhibits the strongest cultural identification with African-American culture, while Greer is a narcissistic buppie, whose pretensions seem to be derived completely from the white world. While Mars has the ability to make her laugh, Greer represents pure physical attraction. There are class divisions between them as well. As the unemployed Mars puts it at the Thanksgiving dinner: “Fifty-dollar sneakers and I gots no job. Tell me how to do it when times get hard.” Greer, on the other hand, has the fancy convertible and high-profile career. He lumps both Mars and Jamie together by calling them “ignorant, low-class, ghetto Negroes,” while Mars refers to Greer at one point as a “pseudo-black man.” The men continually insult one another to Nola. Mars is especially merciless in his putdown of his competitors, referring to them as “two Joe Neckbones” and Jamie as having “a sixteen-piece Chicken McNugget head.”

Nola’s promiscuity elicits condemnation from all three of her male suitors. Mars calls her a freak. He states his position when we first meet him: “Look, all men want freaks. We just don’t want ’em for a wife.” Nola criticizes men for not being in touch with their feelings. “In my experiences,” she says, “I’ve found two types of men: the decent ones and the dogs.” We then get typical and satirical come-ons from the dogs, including the last one who tells her: “Girl, I got plenty of what you need. Ten throbbing inches of USDA, government inspected, prime-cut, grade-A tube steak!”

While Nola believes Jamie to be an exception to these men, Jamie turns out to be more threatened by Nola’s lesbian friend, Opal. He assumes because Nola won’t commit solely to him that she must secretly be one herself. While Jamie tolerates her other male lovers, he reacts most strongly to Opal. The other two, Mars and Greer, have different takes on Nola. Mars theorizes that Nola has problems with her father. Greer insists she must be a sex addict in need of professional help. We see Nola rebuff Opal’s sexual advances; we also interview her father, Sonny, who speaks lovingly of her, as well as a sex therapist, Dr. Jamison, who assures us that Nola has a healthy sexuality. Interestingly, Jamie turns on Nola eventually by having an affair with the dancer and then forcibly having sex with her when she calls him one night. In the film’s most controversial scene, Jamie demands that Nola admit that he owns her vagina. Nola’s dream indicates that she is not completely guilt-free. In it, the girlfriends of the three men give the litany of excuses that deflect the blame from their men onto Nola.

Despite the fact that the story centers on Nola, Mars Blackmon manages to breathe the most life into this film through his considerable sense of humor. Although Mars is only a minor romance character, he provides much-needed comic relief at various points in the story, whether it is to put Nola’s undies over his head while pretending to be a super hero, or to use verbal repetitions over and over. It is also Mars who continually infuses the film with a sense of the black vernacular. He tells Nola, “You know, if I can make a babe laugh, I’m over like a fat rat. And when they stop laughing, I book.” He also provides references to black politics, culture and sports. He even works his passion for the Knicks into the story. As Mars discusses with Jamie the time Nola caused him to miss the first half of a Knicks and Celtics game in which Bernard King scored thirty-five points, Jamie remarks, “Larry Bird is the best player in the NBA.” Mars responds, “He’s the ugliest motherfucker in the NBA. That’s what he is.” Mars’s dialogue exhibits the inherent creativity of the black idiom. Despite his low economic status, Mars embodies the vitality of African-American culture itself, which is why Spike Lee played such a prominent role in the highly successful advertising campaign for She’s Gotta Have It, exhorting preview audiences to see the film so he wouldn’t have to return to selling tube socks on the street.

If Mars is the secret life force in the film, so is the place where the story is filmed. Lee is self-deprecating about both Mars and his home town of Brooklyn, but She’s Gotta Have It exults in a strident regionalism equal to that of Richard Linklater’s setting of Austin for Slacker, or that of Minnesota for the Coen brothers’ Fargo. A sense of place supplies energy and vitality to the home-grown visions of many independent films, and She’s Gotta Have It is no exception. Hidden beneath the self-effacing urban facade of She’s Gotta Have It is a love poem to the sprawling, working-class borough that has always taken a subordinate role to the sophistication associated with Manhattan. The film begins with a nostalgic photo-montage of Williamsburg, and at various points we view shots of Fulton Street, Fort Greene Park, and the Brooklyn Bridge. When Nola breaks up with him at the end, Greer equates Manhattan with drive and ambition, which he finds utterly lacking in Nola. He tells her angrily, “So keep your tired ass here in Brooklyn.”

Looking back, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It turned out to be the right film at the right time. Its unexpected commercial success managed to open doors for other subsequent independent-minded writers and directors interested in exploring racially and ethnically diverse subject matter ignored by mainstream cinema. For this reason, it seems incomprehensible that such a landmark classic has virtually disappeared by remaining currently unavailable on DVD in this country. The unfortunate effect of this has been to create another gaping hole in the history of American independent cinema.

Posted 1 October, 2007