The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


In the City of Sylvia

I first stumbled upon the work of José Luis Guerín last summer at the Venice Biennale, where his installation Women We Don’t Know was shown in the Spanish pavilion. It happened to be one of the first things I saw in Venice, and I later regretted not being able to spend enough time with it. David Bordwell mentioned In the City of Sylvia (2007) on his blog when he saw Guerín’s feature at the Vancouver Film Festival and later wrote a brilliant and very detailed analysis involving the film’s use of point-of-view shots. As a result, I looked forward to catching the work when it played recently at the Wisconsin Film Festival. There were many extraordinary films at this year’s festival, including Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life and Alexander Sokurov’s Alexandra, but the most rigorously formal one turned out to be In the City of Sylvia (En la Ciudad de Sylvia).

In the City of Sylvia is a story about a young artist who comes to Strasbourg, checks into a hotel, scopes out the women at outdoor cafes and then proceeds to follow one of them through the streets of the city. The film is highly abstract and completely obsessive. It’s about observing women and scrutinizing human gestures, about images and sounds rather than plot and dialogue (of which there is very little). Guerín is interested in an observational cinema that blurs the lines between narrative, documentary, and avant-garde practice. There’s a structural aspect to the film, reminiscent of Chantal Ackerman (who was herself influenced by American structural film), in which repetition becomes an important element. Certain key locations reoccur several times. As the narrative progresses, peripheral characters or their “traces” also reappear – an African street peddler who wears an umbrella hat, a Pakistani flower vendor, a female street person who sprawls on the sidewalk, and a young woman who bums cigarettes. Drinks repeatedly are dropped or spilled in cafes. Images are reflected by mirrors and glass, which will be thematically reinforced later on by the lyrics of a Debbie Harry song. Like Ackerman or Warhol, Guerín includes what would be considered extraneous in most other narrative films.

Scenes in In the City of Sylvia represent chunks of time in which aspects other than the narrative are given equal weight. For instance, the opening scene in the hotel room cuts to someone running down a street where we see a sign for the Hotel Patricia. The young protagonist walks out of the hotel and starts down the narrow street. He stops and checks a map, then changes direction and comes toward us. The shot continues as a bicyclist does the same, and two children, who speak English, head in the opposite direction, followed by a flower peddler who hobbles down the street after them, while strollers and a bicyclist cross in a perpendicular direction at the base of the street. Guerín often holds the shot beyond its point of narrative interest. After the young artist decides to shadow a woman in a burgundy dress, we watch the waitress wipe the table and a trolley move through the background. Later, after the woman and protagonist pass a homeless woman, she tosses a bottle across the street. It rolls past the bottom of the frame, while the rattling sound continues after it disappears, emphasizing Guerín’s interest in the interplay between on- and off-screen space.

The film’s opening scene cues us to Guerín’s more formal concerns. A title indicates “first night.” The light changes during a course of the shot of a hotel room. We see a still life consisting of a map, hotel key, a pencil, and a coaster for “Les Aviateurs.” We hear the sound of cars. In another shot, the still life expands to include fruit, an alarm clock, and sketchpad. Leaves sway outside the window; church bells ring. A young man, who has long straggly hair and wears a vest (Xavier Lafitte), sits in bed. He seems lost in his thoughts or concentrating on something. Sounds of traffic and chirping birds can be heard from outside. The young man remains poised with his pencil, then begins to write feverishly in the notebook. He gets up and moves offscreen. A maid asks whether she can make up the room, causing the scene to cut abruptly. After leaving the hotel, the protagonist heads to an outdoor café. He tries to start a conversation with a woman who reads a book at a nearby table, but she refuses to acknowledge him. A waitress brings coffee, but he causes her to spill it, as the scene cuts to blackness.

After a title that indicates, “second night,” we see shadows cast on the walls of his hotel room as the young man lies in bed. The scene cuts to a crowded outdoor café outside the Conservatory for Dramatic Art on a sunny day. Only after awhile do we notice our protagonist sitting in the background. We observe small details, such as a blond woman playing with her hair. The artist draws and drinks a beer. He fixates on an attractive waitress, whom he also sketches, adding the written notation that this was done “in the city of Sylvia.” An African peddler tries to sell a wallet for five Euros. The waitress gets into an argument with customers over their order. She drops the coffee, which crashes to the ground, as the artist watches with great interest. He has a sad look of longing and desire. With his intense blue eyes and pasty face, one could easily imagine him as a mime. His attention shifts to a group of women. One of them is the same woman from the day before. They make eye contact. Musicians begin to play violins. A brooding man with glasses, whom we’ve observed earlier, suddenly exclaims to the woman next to him, “No.” She shifts her gaze and then looks back at him. He continues, “I don’t think so . . . but I’ll think it over.” This comes as something of a surprise because we didn’t realize they were together as a result of an earlier framing. The artist eventually notices the reflection of a woman in a burgundy dress (Pilar López de Ayala), who gets up to leave. After much deliberation, he knocks over his beer and chases after her.

Like Matthew Buckingham’s A Man of the Crowd (2003), In the City of Sylvia becomes a game of pursuit. As the young man stalks the woman through the downtown streets, a tram comes between them, causing us to view her and then him through the passing windows. At one point, he calls out, “Sylvie?” In a frontal shot of the two of them walking, her eyes momentarily dart sideways, suggesting that she’s aware of his presence. The sound of their rhythmic walking recalls scenes from films by Béla Tarr and Gus Van Sant. The woman, who talks briefly on a cell phone, eventually ditches the young man. In a square, the rings of a cell phone cause him to stare at an upstairs window where a dress on a hanger flaps in the breeze. The artist backs up into a fruit stand. The African peddler tries sell him various items and a young woman wearing a backpack tries to borrow a cigarette, but he’s too absorbed in watching a woman, in only her underwear, blow dry her hair in a window above. Behind him we see the woman whom he thinks is Sylvia leave a shop. 

As church bells sound, the woman heads for a trolley stop. The young man stands next to her on the platform where an attractive model puts her finger to her lips in an advertising display. Once inside the trolley, he finally speaks to the woman. Their conversation takes place on the tram with the city gliding behind them, while the sunlight shifts on their faces:

YOUNG MAN: Sylvie . . . Sylvie?
WOMAN: What is it?
YOUNG MAN: Don’t you remember?
WOMAN: We’ve met?
YOUNG MAN: “Les Aviateurs,” six years ago.
WOMAN: What?
YOUNG MAN: “Les Aviateurs.”
WOMAN: What’s that?
YOUNG MAN: The “Les Aviateurs” bar, behind the cathedral.
She takes off her sunglasses.
YOUNG MAN: I still have the map you drew on a napkin. You don’t remember? No?
WOMAN Yes, yes, yes.
YOUNG MAN: The “Les Aviateurs” bar.
WOMAN: Sounds familiar.
YOUNG MAN: You were with two friends from the Conservatory. The College of Dramatic Art. You don’t remember?
WOMAN: I’m sorry. I don’t understand.
YOUNG MAN: You entered the Conservatory six years ago, right?
WOMAN: You’re mistaken. I’ve been here a year.
YOUNG MAN: But you are Sylvie, aren’t you?
YOUNG MAN: But you’re Sylvie, right?
She laughs and shakes her head.
WOMAN: No. . . No
YOUNG MAN: You aren’t Sylvie?
WOMAN: No, you’re mistaken.
She laughs.
WOMAN: Sylvie. You’re mistaken.
YOUNG MAN: What a disaster! . . . What a disaster! I made a mistake.

The young man seems completely devastated. Have they indeed met previously? Because it’s left ambiguous, the scene has strong echoes of Last Year at Marienbad. The tenor of the conversation switches, however, as she chastises him for following her. When the woman eventually gets off at her stop, he tries to prolong their conversation, but she puts her finger to her lips, mimicking the model in the advertising poster.

At Les Aviateurs, the young man tries to pick up a different woman at the bar, but she ends up dancing with a tall guy instead. After a title indicating “third night,” we view the artist in bed with a woman. He stares at her body while she sleeps. We see a shot of the street corner where the remnants – bottles and refuse – of the homeless woman remain. As a heavy-set woman waddles toward us, another with blond hair runs from the direction of the camera, kicking the same bottle we watched the homeless woman toss into the street. The flower vendor hobbles toward us. A car comes down the street with music blaring. Another man inadvertently kicks the bottle as he passes. We return to the shot of the street with the sign for the Hotel Patricia. A woman carrying a baguette walks down the center of the street, away from the camera. In another shot in front of large graffiti, we hear sounds of earlier violin music and the young woman again asking to borrow a cigarette. In another shot, the African peddler passes through the frame. The young man returns to the Conservatory café, flirts with the waitress, imagines he sees Sylvie again, and pursues the woman to the tram platform, suggesting that his romantic obsession is an endless cycle.

I apologize for providing such detailed description, but In the City of Sylvia is precisely about details – specificity rather than generality – which is why many of the reviews I’ve read have a tendency to talk around the film. While many critics point to Hitchcock, Bresson, and Murnau as some of the film’s obvious references, I would also cite Maya Deren, whose avant-garde classic Meshes of the Afternoon (which she made with Alexander Hammid) shows the power of the imagination to overpower reality, imbuing the everyday world with the magic of the dream. Titles divide the film into three distinct “nights,” even though much of the action takes place during the “day.” Guerín’s emphasis on night and shots of the young protagonist at the hotel provide some basis for the hallucinatory quality of much of what transpires. The film creates tension between the documentary-like recording of the streets and cafes of Strasbourg and the protagonist’s own heightened memories.

Looked at in narrative terms, one might ask a number of questions that have to do with character motivation and believability. If Sylvie represents such an obsession, why has the young artist waited six years to try to find her? Where has he been all this time? If Sylvie knows she’s being followed by a stranger, why doesn’t she seek help? Guerín seems completely uninterested in providing such answers. Like much of art cinema, the film relies on ambiguity to create the gaps in the viewer’s own imagination, which becomes a strategy for engaging the viewer. We observe the world of Strasbourg, gradually becoming obsessed with its inhabitants and the city’s rhythms in a similar manner to how Guerín’s voyeuristic protagonist apprehends it. He is attuned to every nuance of the females at whom he gazes. For him, their smallest gesture carries an erotic charge. The film employs the sexualized look of fashion and advertising, but Guerín undercuts this by including street peddlers and homeless people.

Guerín’s structural narrative is interesting for demonstrating how little it actually takes to create a story. The plot easily could be summarized in a sentence or two. Natural sounds and bits of overheard conversation position us as eavesdroppers. Character, as in the case of Sylvie, is extended to include nearly every woman we see, as well as a sense of place. The film’s sound design plays a crucial role. When the woman in the burgundy dress stops in a corner doorway and talks on her cell phone, voices of passersby fade in and out, while we only see the movement of the woman’s lips. In place of the dialogue-driven script, Guerín substitutes visual storytelling and formal concerns, so that, for the attentive viewer, the pleasure of watching In the City of Sylvia involves participating in an elaborate and complex perceptual game.

Posted 21 April, 2008

Shotgun Stories


In Charles Burnett’s family drama To Sleep With Anger (1990), Harry, an old friend from the South, visits an African-American family in South Central Los Angeles and manages to wreak havoc in the process. At one point Harry disputes the fact that Hattie, a former prostitute who has found religion, is now a different person. Shotgun Stories (2007), the stunning debut feature by Jeff Nichols about a family feud involving two different sets of half-brothers who have the same father, would seem to side with Harry by challenging the notion of personal transformation or the religious belief in redemption. Despite the fact that their father has managed to turn over a new leaf, he’s left behind a smoldering cauldron of hatred, as embodied by Son Hayes (Michael Shannon) whose scars on his back suggest the permanence of deep psychic wounds. Shotgun Stories, which was produced by David Gordon Green and Lisa Muskat, nominated for the John Cassavetes Award, and played at the Wisconsin Film Festival, would seem to rest on the biblical premise that human actions have consequences.

Shotgun Stories begins with Son Hayes sitting in a semi-vacated bedroom in the scruffy landscape of rural southeast Arkansas. His two brothers – Kid (Barlow Jacobs) camps in a tent in the backyard, while Boy (Douglas Ligon) lives out of his truck – are dirt poor. As Son laments one evening as they hang out together in town, “We don’t own the square root of shit.” When Son, an inveterate gambler, announces to Kid that his wife Annie has left him, Kid welcomes the opportunity to move into the house. Their mom turns up one evening with news about their father’s death. At Son’s instigation, the three brothers interrupt the outdoor funeral service. Son tells the assembled second family, “This is the same man that ran out on us, that left us behind to be raised by a hateful woman. He made like we were never born. That’s who this man was, and that’s what he’s answering for today.” He then spits on his casket, setting in motion the ensuing family feud.

Referring to her born-again husband, the second wife tells her son, Cleaman (Michael Abbot Jr.), “He was a different man back then,” but her other son, Mark, comments about Son and his two brothers, “Those three are like a pack of dogs. You can’t expect a dog to have manners,” suggesting the class difference that contributes to their enmity. Cleaman indicates that he has two kids, and that his other brothers – Stephen and John – don’t need to be mixed up in this. Son also has a young son, Carter; Kid has a girlfriend, Cheryl, whom he plans to marry; Boy serves as a basketball coach to young kids, even if the court sits plunk in the midst of a vast open field. One of his players innocently asks Boy, “Did you know that someone wrote ‘suck it’ on the back of your van?”

In Michael Shannon’s compelling yet understated portrayal of Son, he’s a walking time bomb – animosity seems to flow through his veins, inflect his slow gait, and impede his capacity for speech. Son’s co-workers at the fish farm where he’s employed speculate on the shotgun scars that cover his back. There are rumors that they result from robbing a liquor store or messing with someone’s wife. The conversations in Shotgun Stories are for the most part composed of long silences and small talk, with Arkansas basketball and basketball trivia as favorite topics. Son and Kid later discuss love and faithfulness in a scene that seems right out of a film by David Gordon Green, whose influence on other young filmmakers has become markedly evident lately. Son’s advice to Kid – to find a woman you love and love her – might carry more weight if Son wasn’t already separated from his wife.

Shampoo, a local drug dealer who wants to park his car on their property, is very much like Harry in To Sleep With Anger in the sense that he exploits the inherent tensions of the situation. He stokes the flames of resentment by suggesting to Son that Mark plans to kick their butts. When the brothers meet in town, there’s a confrontation in which Son punches Mark, causing a major ruckus that Boy tactfully avoids. Son later tells him, “That’s the last time you stay out of a fight.” Cleaman attempts to make peace. Son merely responds, “I don’t like you. I don’t like your family.” He threatens to retaliate if anything happens to his brothers.

Boy’s dog dies of a snakebite, but Kid learns from Shampoo that Mark was behind it. He grabs a wooden stick, tracks down Mark, and brutally beats him. We see a knife being flashed, and John and Stephen rushing to aid their brother. Both Mark and Kid end up dead. Once again, Shampoo relays the news that Stephen and John were actually involved. Son tells Boy, “They can take our daddy, good riddance, but they’re not going to take Kid.” The feud escalates from there.

Shotgun Stories is very much a male story. The women merely stand by helplessly, unable to prevent the endless cycle of revenge. Cheryl asks, “Why is this happening?”At least Annie has the good sense to flee. When a person literally has nothing, hatred and an appetite for revenge can easily serve as one’s identity. That’s the case with Son, who places the blame squarely on his mother. In a wide shot, he tells her, “You raised us to hate those boys and we do. And now it’s come to this.” There’s no love or loyalty there, just a residue of inherited anger and hatred that will no doubt be passed on to Son’s own boy, Carter.

Despite its concern with violence and revenge, the film provides an even greater emphasis on the everyday. Nichols, who grew up in Little Rock, uses an anamorphic lens and the larger aspect ratio to capture the desolation of southeast Arkansas – its endless cotton fields, dirt roads, ramshackle houses, and empty main streets. Adam Stone’s striking cinematography leaves an indelible impression of this unforgiving landscape, creating a tight nexus between character and place. This has always been both the strength and rationale of a regionally based independent cinema, which Shotgun Stories so masterfully epitomizes.

Posted 11 April, 2008

Stuart Gordon: Stuck


Stuart Gordon (Re-Animator), who went to school here in the late 60s and taught at the university as artist-in-residence several years ago, will return to screen his latest film Stuck (2007) tonight in the main theater of the Orpheum at 11PM as part of the Wisconsin Film Festival. Based on a shocking true event that occurred in Fort Worth, Texas in 2001, Stuck tells the story of how fate and circumstance can transform a seemingly ordinary person into a frightening monster. While many horror fans will no doubt appreciate Stuck for the way it deftly plays with the conventions of the genre, it strikes me that Gordon’s film – with its overt reference to George Bush – uses the story as thinly disguised social and political criticism. In doing so, Stuck manages to find a perfect balance between dark humor and the grotesque, while exhibiting the relentless quality of a nightmare. 

Brandi (Mena Suvari) is a nurse’s aide in a retirement home. She’s the personal favorite of one of the elderly men who messes himself continually. The administrator, Mrs. Petersen, thinks it’s time to get rid of him, but Brandi embodies the selfless caregiver. Petersen, played by Carloyn Purdy-Gordon (the director’s wife), dangles the NA captain position as bait to manipulate Brandi into working on the weekend. The stress of ministering to others all day creates a need for Brandi and her co-worker friend, Tanya (Rukiya Bernard), to unwind at a nightclub after work, where Brandi’s boyfriend, Rashid (Russell Hornsby), slips a pill into each of their mouths. “Trust me,” he tells them.

Tom (Stephen Rea) is down on his luck. A former project manager, he’s fallen on hard times. Tom slips out of a flop house where he’s unable to pay his rent. He escapes with his clothes, leaving his suitcase behind. His trip to the employment services agency becomes a exercise in futility. For some reason, Tom is not in the computer system, which becomes its own self-justification for failing to help him. A homeless man named Sam befriends Tom, giving him something to drink and a shopping cart for his clothes. Gordon’s humor is such that Sam warns Tom to be careful if he plans to sleep in the park – not because of criminals, but because of the police, who congregate at the nearby doughnut shop. Sure enough, Tom is awakened by an unsympathetic cop, who forces him to move on – an event that will have profound implications.

The parallel plot threads collide to create the film’s inciting incident. On her way home from the club, Brandi, high on alcohol and drugs, inadvertently slams into Tom as he crosses the street with his shopping cart, leaving her victim impaled on the broken windshield of her car. Sam sees the car pass with the body and tries to tell the police who are detaining him, that “the guy was stuck like a goddamn bug.” This is pretty much how Brandi decides to view Tom. Rather than stopping and calling for help, Brandi keeps going, with the bloody body still stuck on her hood. She drives to a hospital, but the sound of a garage door opening scares her off. Brandi thinks of calling 911, but doesn’t. She becomes terrified that she’ll get caught and won’t get her promotion. Brandi drives her car into her garage and ignores Tom’s desperate pleas to help him. Instead, she blames her victim: “You should have watched where you were going.” In a case of sheer projection, she later screams at him, “Why are you doing this to me?”

Brandi confesses to Rashid what happened, but when he finds out she hit a homeless person, he tells her, “Nobody’s gonna give a shit.” In an attempt to reassure her, he admits that he’s done a lot worse than that. Rashid waxes philosophical as he’s about to have sex with her, “Anybody can do anything to anyone and get away with it. I mean anything. I mean, fuck, look who’s in the White House right now.” Brandi makes love with Rashid while rap music mixes with their groaning sounds, as the camera tracks from the garage to a red lava lamp that can be seen through the bedroom window. Her lovemaking sounds turn into screams as images of Tom’s head exploding through the windshield glass and his pleas for help alternate with Rashid’s face.

Once the traumatic event happens, Brandi elicits no pangs of regret. Her sole instinct is to survive, which mirrors Tom’s feverish attempts to extricate himself from the torture chamber of Brandi’s garage – it’s almost as if she’s turned into a menacing serial killer. In fact, she behaves like one. When Tom manages to honk the horn, Brandi promptly whacks him on the head with a board to get him to stop in order to avoid getting caught. Seeking help to dispose of the body, she later turns up at Rashid’s house, but discovers him in bed with another woman. Brandi takes vengeance with an almost pathological fury. She pulls her hair, smacks the other woman with a frying pan, and kicks her naked body into the hall.

Gordon teases the viewer with various near attempts at intervention. A cab driver almost finds Tom in the garage as he goes to investigate the honking horn. A Latino kid sees the moving body through the garage window and manages to get his mother to the crime scene, but the father becomes fearful they’ll get deported. Tom almost succeeds in using Brandi’s cell phone to get help. Tanya nearly discovers Tom in Brandi’s garage. The film moves toward a hellish climax, which finally pits perpetrator and victim in a consummate battle for survival.

In dealing with a story inspired by a true event, Gordon attempts to penetrate the bizarre mental processes of his unglued protagonist. In a sense, he’s asking how human beings can be capable of such horrific behavior. For Gordon, the horror genre becomes the appropriate vehicle to probe such issues. When asked in an Isthmus interview whether the fact that Stuck is based on a true story turned out to be limiting, he responded, “No, I think that the thing that I realized is that stuff that really happens is much stranger than anything you could dream up, and more horrific, really. Things that people do to each other are much more disturbing than typical monsters.”

Posted 5 April, 2008