The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Daddy Longlegs

Josh Safdie’s French New Wave-inflected debut feature The Pleasure of Being Robbed (2008) centers on a sociopathic protagonist named Eléonore (Eleonore Hendricks) and played at the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. Eléonore robs people – purses, credit cards, cars, as well as pets from children – for the sheer fun of it. I’m not sure that the small coterie of New York movie reviewers who compared Safdie to Bresson, Godard, Tati, Miranda July and John Cassavetes did the young American indie filmmaker much of a favor, but Josh and Benny Safdie’s new film Daddy Longlegs, aka Go Get Some Rosemary (2010), which premiered at Cannes and played at the Sundance Film Festival in January, is another matter altogether.

Many of the characters from The Pleasure of Being Robbed are back again, but Daddy Longlegs, a portrait of a harried and divorced father named Lenny (Ronald Bronstein), represents a leap forward in terms of filmmaking and proves that the Safdie brothers are indeed major talents. Much of the strength of the new film results from the complexity of its characterization. Although he’s not an actor – at least not until now – Bronstein brings intensity to Lenny, who appears to be overwhelmed by everyday life in New York City. Lenny, who works as a film projectionist, is perpetually someplace else – where else, we’re not exactly sure. His attention span appears momentary – like someone who suffers from ADD, which is mirrored by the shaky, hand-held camera work by Brett Jutkiewicz and Josh Safdie that captures the fleeting details of the action. Lenny at least tries to deal with his two mop-haired kids, Sage (Sage Ranaldo) and Frey (Frey Ranaldo) – the real-life sons of Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo – even if he’s woefully inadequate to the task.

Ronnie Bronstein is no stranger to dysfunctional characters. He made the incredibly powerful Frownland (2008), which I admire immensely. The Safdie brothers were smart to cast him as the protagonist of their new film. Bronstein’s portrait of Keith, the horrific lead in Frownland, reflects the sensibility of an underground comic. It took months of improvisation and rehearsal to develop the characters who wound up on the screen. In Daddy Longlegs, there apparently wasn’t a conventional screenplay, but forty-four pages of notes that constituted a prose story. According to Josh Safdie, “So, with this movie, we wanted to keep it alive in much the same way that when, as a filmmaker, you read a short story or book you’re imagining the movie. We tried to use adjectives and certain words and syntax to indicate certain shots we wanted and certain emotions we were getting at.”

There’s a strong autobiographical undercurrent that flows through Daddy Longlegs, which is a bittersweet portrait of Josh and Benny Safdie’s own father and their conflicted feelings for him. The film contains the dedication: “For our father, for fun as a responsibility, for the middle perspective, a lost past, lights on during the day time, lost love but still something there, excuses, the fridge full of games, small apartments & our mother.” It’s interesting to note, even in the dedication, how the dad still manages to capture the fantasy and imagination of the children by his absence and irresponsible behavior, much like the father in So Yong Kim’s remarkable In Between Days (2006).

The two young filmmakers attempt to empathize with their own father, who found himself at their age with two young children. Single moms may have little sympathy for the character of Lenny – and rightly so – but he’s not really a bad person, but someone who fails miserably to adapt to the role of being a father when he gets to have the kids for a two-week period. Lenny is a deadbeat dad, but saying that sounds much too harsh. If someone referred to Lenny by such a label, he would no doubt be appalled, even though his parental behavior would most certainly not only get him in trouble with social services, but locked up.

Lenny is as much of a mess as Roger Greenberg in Noah Baumbach’s latest film, Greenberg (2010), but the difference is that Lenny doesn’t psychoanalyze himself or try to rationalize his behavior, which, in a sense, might be his saving grace. The Safdie brothers manage to capture the sheer chaos of what it’s like to have young children within the confines of a cramped apartment in an urban environment. I confess I felt overwhelmed by the way Sage and Frey seemed to bounce off the walls in the scene of Lenny trying to play racquetball with them in the gym. Lenny doesn’t try to show them how to play, but instead ridicules them for missing the ball, indicating that he’s clueless when it comes to what’s expected of a father. Of course, it’s hard to concentrate on such things when there’s some naked flasher lurking in the locker room.

The film begins with Lenny dropping a hot dog as he attempts to scale a chain-link fence in the park. He at least has a sense of humor about himself, as his laughter continues over the hand-written opening credits. When Lenny picks up Sage and Frey at school, he immediately gets into conflict with the school principal, Mr. Puccio, who complains that Frey, the younger of the two boys, assaulted his math teacher. Lenny responds, “Okay, the kid is the size of a two-year-old, all right? So I don’t know what kind of ruckus he’d be causing in your classroom.” When Lenny curses, and the principal objects, Lenny insists with self-righteous indignation, “Do not reprimand me in front of my children! Do not reprimand me in front of my own kids, all right?” Lenny is full of ultimatums.

When Sage’s friend, Alex tags along as they head home, Lenny confronts him, “What? What are you doing? What are you doing? You know, we have things to do, okay? I’m sorry, it was nice to see you. You’ll see him at school tomorrow, okay?” Alex tries to interrupt, but Lenny insists, “No moms, no play dates, nothing today!” As they walk along the street, Lenny brags to Alex who has to go to bed at eight o’clock that Sage stays up until eleven o’clock “because he’s a grownup.”

Lenny has a girlfriend named Leni (Eleonore Hendricks). When Leni comes over, she finds him and the kids wrestling on the couch together. Leni comes across initially as a sympathetic character, as she pretends that a live salamander is a prize in a cereal box, much to everyone’s delight. But within minutes, she has to call Lenny into the bathroom to complain about the way he’s acting. It’s no wonder that Lenny picks up another woman named Roberta (Dakota Goldhor) in a bar when he slips out to have a beer with a male friend once the kids are asleep. The next morning, after Roberta indicates that she’s heading upstate for the weekend, Lenny manages to tag along. Her boyfriend, Aren (Aren Topdijian) is flustered that she’s invited a stranger, but even more so when Lenny brings along his kids. Aren finally blows his top when Lenny and the kids sing a mangled rendition of the national anthem on the journey upstate.

Life can be precarious in a place like New York City. While carrying ice cream cones for the kids, Lenny runs into an aggressive street person (an utterly convincing and scary cameo by film director Abel Ferrara), who tries to sell him a bogus CD. Lenny insists he has no money, but when he offers the guy a piece of  bread, the street hustler flashes a gun and takes his money. What’s interesting is how quickly Lenny shifts his attention away from this seemingly traumatic event. Once Lenny returns empty-handed, it’s as if it never happened to him.

The same is true of his phone arguments with his wife, Paige (played by artist Leah Singer, Sage and Frey’s real mom), which the kids watch with grave concern (Sage has big eyes and bears resemblance to the Italian actress Giulietta Masina). When Lenny abruptly hangs up on her, he turns to the kids and says, “You see that, guys? You see that? That was awesome, huh?” He laughs, rips open his shirt, playfully jumps on the kids and starts to wrestle with them. The wrestling match is interrupted by the surprise visit of a crazy friend named Salvie (Salvatone Sansone), who plays a questionable game of stepping on the kids’ stomachs.

At work, Lenny mixes up his schedule with that of a co-worker, which causes him to be late to pick up the kids at school (where one of the teachers sports a prominent black eye). Mr. Puccio has called Paige rather than him, which riles up Lenny once again. As Paige holds her kids tightly, Lenny insists, “Hello? This is my screw-up. I’m entitled to screw up in my two weeks. You can screw up for the rest of the year.” Kids in tow, Lenny rushes back to the projection booth, just in time for the reel change-over.

Lenny attempts to instruct Sage on the nuances of film projection, but Sage fails to push the button at the appropriate moment. The kids spend much of their time drawing comics in the hallway. One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Sage acts out the panels of the comic (complete with sounds effects and laughter), in which Lenny’s boss asks him to get a glass of water, and he pees in a cup and gives it to him. The two kids make nearly a thousand copies of their comic on the film theater’s copier. In a later scene that evokes Jean Vigo’s 1933 classic Zéro de conduite (Zero for Conduct), the wind blows all the sheets in the air, as Lenny, Leni, and the kids chase after them on the street.

Lenny bribes a neighbor (Jake Braff) to watch the kids with a rare comic, so that he and Leni can go out to a Chinese restaurant for the evening. When they miss the train while returning home, Leni suggests walking on the tracks to the next subway stop. Lenny at least has the gumption to tell her, “With all due respect, that’s a really stupid idea.” Of course, Leni impulsively does it anyway. The scene is extremely disconcerting, especially because Lenny is so preoccupied with his own issues, and Leni’s too self-indulgent to sympathize with his plight. The worried look on Lenny’s face and the suspenseful ride to the next stop while Leni walks through the train tunnel turns out to be one of the film’s most powerful moments.

As pressures mount at work, Lenny gets more and more desperate. Let’s just say that his judgment gets even more impaired, which ends up putting the kids at risk and really crosses the line of acceptable behavior. There’s a dream sequence involving a huge insect that works much better than the one involving Eléonore’s fantasy of the polar bear in the earlier The Pleasure of Being Robbed. The final image of Daddy Longlegs strikes an exuberantly poetic note of sad nostalgia “for lost love but still something there.”

Daddy Longlegs will play at the Wisconsin Film Festival in mid-April. It’s one of the most impressive indie films I’ve seen so far this year, so if any tickets remain, you might want to snag them.

Posted 31 March, 2010

Bike Boy

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

The motorcyclist has been a figure of rebellion in American popular culture in the Post-Second World War era, as exemplified by Marlon Brando’s role in The Wild One (1953). Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising (1964), a film that strongly influenced Andy Warhol, focuses on the image of the motorcyclist and uses montage editing to create connections between a gang of motorcyclists, Christianity, and Nazi imagery. The film is about how leaders of each of the three groups use ritual to create a death cult. A motorcycle also features prominently in two other Andy Warhol films, notably the unfinished Batman Dracula and Couch. What no doubt attracted Warhol to the subject is the way the figure of the motorcyclist functions as an icon of both masculinity and gay desire. In Bike Boy (1967-68), Warhol cleverly deconstructs the power of this iconic image through his extended portrait of a biker named Joe Spencer.

Bike Boy begins with a close-up of Spencer’s face. In a series of strobe cuts that focus mostly on his muscular upper torso and on various parts of his body, we watch Joe take an extended shower. While little attention has been paid to Warhol’s use of color in his films, Joe is bathed in warm golden light against a background of black shower tiles. Spencer continually looks offscreen for some sort of direction. He’s obviously soaped up the various parts of his body and rinsed under the shower head numerous times already, but Spencer obviously doesn’t have a clue about Warhol’s desire to make his naked body the object of the camera’s gaze.

Joe Spencer has been set up beforehand. The shower scene goes on for an interminable length of time, the clothing salesmen treat him as a comic figure, and Ed Hood, playing the role of friend and confidant, gets Joe to reveal a side of him that most people wouldn’t want to know. It’s not a pretty picture. The scene with Ingrid Superstar in the kitchen is an obvious setup as well. Joe stands there, leaning against the wall and smoking a cigarette, as he strikes a Marlon Brando-like pose for the camera while she exposes her naked breasts behind him. Brigid Berlin goes right to the heart of the matter by calling Joe a “faggot.” Brigid ridicules his working-class accent and corrects his pronunciation of various words. Joe is no match for the verbal dexterity of either Brigid or Viva.

The scene with Viva is by far the longest in the film. Joe finds her more attractive than Brigid, whom he repeatedly claims isn’t his type and doesn’t turn him on. He seems far more interested in the prospect of making it with Viva, who calls him on his clichéd tattoos, especially the swastika, and his morbid obsession with death symbols. Of course, Viva, who subsequently would make an acting career out of pointing out men’s sexual inadequacies, is the perfect casting choice to puncture Joe Spencer’s grandiose sense of himself.

Joe claims that Viva’s not going to be able to handle what he’s going to do to her, but she challenges him. Joe’s description of having sex with women seems more appropriate to a butcher shop. He makes it sound as if he’s filleting a piece of meat, “Boy when I get them in bed, lay them out flat, you know. First I strip them down, you know. I lay them flat on that bed, you know. I go like that, you know, rub my hands, and (makes a sound) . . . right in bed I go.” Viva later tells him, “You sound like a meat cleaver.” He answers, “I’m just a saw.”

Despite his professed interest in having sex with Viva, Joe tries to evade it for as long as possible. The two of them eventually make out on the couch with their clothes on. Joe slips off his boots. After a smoke, Joe disrobes Viva, who lies naked, while Joe also strips. In various strobe cuts, Warhol has Spencer repeat the action of him pulling off his pants. Joe stands up naked. The action repeats. Joe keeps giving Viva a drag from his cigarette, but as he stands, his limp penis is obvious. He then sits down next to her on the couch. We see his naked body in the foreground of the shot, as Viva’s hands embrace him and she looks up at him and begins to laugh. When Joe asks why she’s laughing at him, Viva tells him, “I’m not laughing at you at all. . . I’m just laughing because you’re so funny.”

In a perverse way, Bike Boy lives up to its billing as an exploitation film. Brigid Berlin is absolutely right in her assessment of Joe – he’s “a lot of talk.” By film’s end, we’ve grown tired of Spencer’s macho bluster – his threats of violence, his revelations of bestiality, his misogyny, vulgarity, narcissism, bad politics, juvenile jokes, general stupidity, and inability to become sexually aroused by a naked woman. Warhol initially presents us with a sexy, muscular motorcyclist, but he deflates this mythic figure, as we watch Joe turn gradually into an object of ridicule.

Note: For a detailed analysis of Bike Boy and other Warhol films, please see my book The Black Hole of the Camera: The Films of Andy Warhol (University of California Press, 2012).

Posted 16 March, 2010

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

Abel Ferrara’s cult classic Bad Lieutenant (1992) might be the most wonderfully demented independent film of 1990s. The story of a New York cop, who descends into a nightmarish hell of compulsive gambling, sex, and nonstop drug abuse, Bad Lieutenant is most notable for Ferrara’s abject subject matter, religious symbolism, and stylistic excess. The script was co-written by Ferrara and Zoe Lund, who also appears in the film, and died seven years later (reportedly from a drug-fueled heart attack). Added to the mix is the film’s obsession with baseball player Darryl Strawberry, who would later wage his own public battles with substance abuse. The bravura lead performance of Harvey Keitel, however, turns out to be the defining factor in Bad Lieutenant. In the midst of a messy divorce at the time, Keitel somehow pushes the character of the Lieutenant so far over the edge that he transforms the film into something that feels more akin to psychodrama than fiction.

Bad Lieutenant begins with a scene of the Lieutenant taking his two sons to school after they apparently missed the bus because their aunt monopolized the bathroom. Their father berates them, “I’m the boss, not Aunt Wendy. When it’s your turn to use the bathroom, you tell Aunt Wendy to get the fuck out of the bathroom. What are you: men or mice? She’s hogging the bathroom. Call me – I’ll throw her the fuck out!” As soon as the police officer drops the kids off at school, he immediately snorts coke in his car. A visit to a crime scene becomes an occasion to gamble on the baseball playoffs. He then buys and smokes crack, becomes involved in a sexual threesome, shakes down two African-American hoods who have robbed a Korean grocery, and visits a girlfriend (Zoe Lund), with whom he freebases.

Bad Lieutenant is technically a crime film, but it sidesteps genre by being highly episodic. Other than a series of incidents in which the Lieutenant indulges in vices and abuses his power, the razor-thin plot centers on his escalating gambling debts and a heinous crime involving the rape of a nun in Spanish Harlem by two young thugs. Ferrara intercuts the rape with an image of Christ as he cries out in agony on the cross. When the Lieutenant learns that the Catholic Church is putting up a $50,000 reward, he responds cynically, “Leave it to the Catholic Church. Girls get raped every day. Now they’re gonna put up 50 Gs just because these chicks wear penguin suits.” As the Lieutenant investigates the crime – he wants the reward to pay off his mounting gambling losses – he peers at the naked body of the nun from a crack in the door of her hospital room and learns that she was sexually violated with a crucifix. The saintly nun, however, forgives the perpetrators and refuses to identify them.

If the graphic rape of the nun – we see her panties and habit being ripped off – is not shocking enough, as rain falls, the Lieutenant pulls over a car containing two young Jersey women, who’ve just visited a nightclub. When they can’t produce the license and registration, he forces one to expose her bare buttocks, and gets the driver to simulate oral sex as he masturbates – a scene that lasts for eight excruciating minutes. As he drives though the city and snorts more cocaine, the Lieutenant listens to the playoff game. After the Mets once again best the Dodgers, he becomes so enraged at losing another wager that he shoots out his car radio, puts on his siren, and screams expletives as he races through city traffic.

His bookie warns the Lieutenant at his daughter’s First Communion that the mob will blow up his house for not paying his debts, but the cop continues to double his bets in hopes of getting even. After the Mets win another game, the bookie tells him, “You think maybe because you’re a cop, he [the mobster] won’t kill you. You’re this close already to death.” His face bathed in red bar light, the Lieutenant acts as if baptism has immunized him against harm. He boasts, “I’ve been dodging bullets since I was fucking fourteen. No one could kill me. I’m blessed. I’m a fucking Catholic.”

After placing a bet on the final playoff game, the Lieutenant visits his junkie girlfriend who helps him to shoot up. As he nods off, she tells him: “Vampires are lucky. They can feed on others. We gotta eat away at ourselves . . . We gotta suck ourselves off. We gotta eat away at ourselves till there’s nothing left, but appetite.” Ferrara presents a Burroughs-like view of the world, in which human beings are the sum of their addictions.

The Lieutenant confronts the nun in the church as she’s praying. He offers to avenge what’s been done to her, but she questions his religious faith. In a drug-induced hallucination, he imagines a statue of Christ in the center aisle. He screams out, “What? You got something that you want to say to me? You fuck! You rat fucker! You rat fuck!” He rants about trying to do the right things, but laments the fact that he’s weak. He crawls down the aisle and kisses the bloodied feet of the statue. A neighborhood woman leads him to the two hoodlums afterward. He smokes crack with them in an abandoned building and threatens to shoot them, thus putting his conflict of religious faith to the ultimate test.

Because of its skewed vision of a truly lost soul battling his own demons, its conflation of the sacred and the profane, gutter dialogue, tortured hallucinations, and Keitel’s twisted performance, Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant might seem like one of the least likely independent films to be remade. Yet Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans proves to be less a remake of the earlier film than an extended series of quotations from it. Whereas Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is essentially a character study, Herzog’s film (from a screenplay by William Finkelstein) is a plot-driven crime caper set in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Ferrara, who was not happy at the prospect of the new film, was quoted as saying, “I wish these people die in Hell. I hope they’re all in the same streetcar, and it blows up.”

The religious impulse that infuses the earlier film is missing entirely from Herzog’s secular version. The nameless cop of Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant has been replaced by Terence McDonagh (Nicolas Cage), the son of a police officer (Tom Bower) who’s in the process of drinking himself to death. Ferrara’s police lieutenant had no backstory. We know nothing about him or how he came to be addicted to drugs and gambling, other than by being subjected to crime every day. Terence McDonagh, on the other hand, gets strung out on drugs as a result of a back injury he incurs while saving a prisoner named Chavez (Nick Gomez) at the film’s opening.

Terence McDonagh is a conflicted, schizoid character, but it’s not due to Catholicism or a crisis of faith, but to his dependence on drugs. Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant has almost no plot, whereas the new film has the kind of intricate plot with unexpected twists and turns we associate with the genre. McDonagh, as played by Cage, limps around in a baggy suit with his gun sticking prominently out of the front of his pants. If the symbolism isn’t already obvious, when his weapon gets taken away from him by two guys from the Public Integrity Bureau, he muses to his father, “A man without a gun; that’s not a man.”

The richly atmospheric Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans begins with a snake slithering through the murky waters of a flooded prison cell. McDonagh and his partner, Stevie (Val Kilmer), find the prisoner about to drown in the rising water. Stevie, who is far more callous than McDonagh, wants to let him die, but McDonagh, despite having on fancy French cotton underwear (an expensive gift from his girlfriend), plunges into the water to save Chavez. His bravery gets him promoted to the rank of lieutenant.

In Ferrara’s version, the rape of the nun provides the pretext of a plot. Here it’s an execution-style massacre of an African family by a local drug gang that drives the story, especially once McDonagh gets put in charge of the case by the police chief (Gary Grubbs). McDonagh’s injury causes him to take prescription painkillers, but he needs to supplement them with illegal ones. He steals hard drugs from the station’s property room and shakes down drug users to feed his own habit. McDonagh also has a drug-dependent girlfriend, Frankie (Eva Mendes), who works as a prostitute.

During the investigation of the crime scene, McDonagh finds a small notepad on which the murdered Senegalese child, Babacar, had written about his pet fish: “My friend is a fish. He live in my room. His fin is a cloud. He see me when I sleep.” As he stares at the colorful fish in a small cup of water, the sentimental cop is profoundly affected by the child’s heartfelt words. But there’s also a lot of pent-up rage in McDonagh, who explodes at the pharmacy when the black woman behind the counter keeps him waiting for his prescription while she talks on the phone.

McDonagh also routinely shakes down young couples as they leave a nightclub. After finding drugs, he smokes crack with one woman and forces her escort to watch him have sex with her. He later steals coke from one of Frankie’s tricks. McDonagh also terrorizes two elderly women by cutting off the oxygen of one of them. After threatening to shoot both of them, he shouts, “You’re the fucking reason this country is going down the drain.” It is in scenes like this that Cage reminds us of his equally deranged performance in Vampire’s Kiss (1989), where he swallowed a live cockroach. Indeed, part of the pleasure of watching this character is experiencing his wild and unpredictable mood swings, which veer from tender childhood reveries to psychotic outbursts.

As he pursues the investigation, McDonagh discovers clues to the murder, such as the fact that a fifteen-year-old boy delivery boy named Daryl (Denzel Whitaker) was in the house at the time of the murders, making him the sole witness. He also learns that three African-American drug dealers – Big Fate (Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner), Midget (Lucius Baston), and another nicknamed “G” (Tim Bellow) – are responsible for the murders, but he spends the rest of the film trying to prove it, even if his means of doing this are circuitous and not exactly aboveboard.

Other subplots – Daryl’s disappearance, the recurring problems with alcohol of McDonagh’s father and wife Genevieve (Jennifer Coolidge), a feud with a well-connected developer’s son and another gang of criminals, McDonagh’s growing gambling debts, and his budding romance with Frankie – intersect with the main plot line. Yet it is Nicolas Cage’s wigged-out performance that proves to be the film’s most engaging aspect, as he channels Crispin Glover in River’s Edge (1987)and Jimmy Stewart to great comedic effect. McDonagh’s erratic behavior, propensity for drug-taking, maniacal laugh, and appropriation of black vernacular (Sup!) unnerves even the criminals. Big Fate tells McDonagh, “You’re my kind of motherfucking cop, man. You’re a crazy motherfucker!”

The film’s nuttiest moments involve McDonagh’s hallucinations when he’s high, notably the scene where an iguana sings “Release Me,” and another where McDonagh imagines a dead person’s soul still breakdancing and insists on shooting it. It’s not surprising that Herzog wants the film to be seen as a comedy. He told an interviewer, “On my knees, I hoped secretly, please, audience: laugh. Bad Lieutenant [Port of Call New Orleans] is a new step in film noir because it gets so debased and vile that it becomes hilarious.”

Note to Local Readers: I saw Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans at Sundance Cinemas last weekend. The film cries out to be seen on the big screen and with an audience, so I don’t recommend you wait for the DVD.

Posted 3 March, 2010