August 2008

Video Essay for 923 (64). Grey Gardens (1975, Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer) with commentary by Vadim Rizov

Vadim Rizov is a contributor to The Village Voice, The House Next Door and Nerve, and co-host of the Lichman and Rizov “Live” at Grassroots Tavern podcasts.

923 (64). Grey Gardens (1975, Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde, Muffie Meyer)

screened July 16 2008 on Criterion DVD in Weehawken NJ

TSPDT rank #824 IMDb Wiki

Arguably the most complex and controversial work in the storied career of cinema verite pioneers Albert and David Maysles is this intimate study of Edith Bouvier and “Little” Edie Beale, two relatives of Jackie Kennedy Onassis secluded in a dilapidated estate in the Hamptons. Detractors may cite it as a watershed in unleashing the documentary medium’s most exploitive tendencies, and draw a damning line connecting this “reality” expose of the sordid lives of two pseudo-celebrities to its legions of modern television progeny. However, one attribute that sets the film miles apart from its successors is its non-linear, fugue-like narrative structure, in which time seems to stand still and the same day seems to be lived over and over with slight variations, emblematizing the experiences of both mother and daughter. The film is a masterpiece of editing, weaving over a hundred hours of footage to create a world that is hermetically sealed while containing dozens of fragmented moments reflecting two lifetimes of recycled memories and shattered dreams. The surreal outcome – perhaps inevitable given the subjects’ remove from reality – further conflates the film’s status as both documentary and fiction. The Maysles’ draw attention to their own active role as documentarians (as well as instigators) of the daily drama being played out between Big and Little Edie, while fulfilling Edie’s long-deferred dream of stardom. Their self-reflexive veracity only raises further questions about the methodology of this documentary, as well as that of all others.

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Video Essay for 922 (63). The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982, Peter Greenaway) with Karina Longworth

Karina Longworth is the editor of SpoutBlog. Her writing has also appeared in FILMMAKER Magazine, The Huffington Post, Netscape, NewTeeVee, The Raw Story and TV Squad.

922 (63). The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982, Peter Greenaway)

screeened July 1, 2008 on Zeitgeist DVD in New York NY

TSPDT rank #852 IMDb Wiki

Peter Greenaway launched into the vanguard of 80s Brit cinema with this BFI-funded arthouse landmark. Dressing an oblique murder mystery-cum political allegory narrative with gorgeous cinematography, elaborate declamatory wordplay and costumed sexual naughtiness, the film packages numerous art cinema conventions with a sumptuous obliqueness that almost guarantees repeat visits to puzzle over it the more. The film is most notable for its ambivalent treatment of its protagonist Neville, a painter commissioned by a landowner’s wife to create drawings of the estate (though it’s really an excuse for her to sleep with him). Artist, charlatan, lothario and subversive, Neville embodies several variations of the arthouse film iconoclast hero at once, and yet Greenaway repeatedly undermines his heroic qualities to reveal him as a pawn in the larger game being played. The film owes much to 1960s puzzlers like Blow Up or Last Year in Marienbad, while distinguishing itself through an impeccable tableaux of painterly flatness (concealing layers of intrigue) and a flippancy towards its subjects that reveals the juvenile disposition of the characters, or the director, or both.

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921(62). Gishiki / The Ceremony (1971, Nagisa Oshima)

screened Monday August 11 2008 at the Walter Reade Theater, New York NY as part of the Madame Kawakita retrospective

TSPDT rank # IMDb Wiki

Imagine a Japanese version of The Godfather where Michael, Sonny and Don Corleone were all trying to sleep with Talia Shire’s Connie, and you have an idea of how brilliantly perverse The Ceremony is. A radical subversion of two stalwart genres, the family saga and the historical epic, Nagisa Oshima’s critique of post-war Japan centers around Masuo (Kei Sato), a Manchurian repatriate and sole remaining heir to the powerful Sakurada clan. His coming of age under his domineering grandfather leads him to bear witness to the family’s decades-long disintegration behind the most impeccable of outward appearances. Masuo’s Oedipal longings for both a quasi-aunt and her daughter are foiled by both his grandfather and cousin who molest the women while Masuo looks the other way, becoming an example of Oshima’s contempt for the individual’s subjugation to the will of authority.

Oshima uses a framing narrative to flash back to rituals and ceremonies throughout the family’s history, all of which are presented as farcical displays of hypocrisy and prejudice. The most unforgettable instance involves Masuo’s wedding, in which the bride is nowhere to be found but the ceremony is held anyway, with Masuo escorting his invisible bride in a haunting matrimonial kabuki. Other rituals and activities such as funerals, nostalgic brooding, and even baseball are lampooned as empty mechanical routines in which their participants are excused from having to confront their present problems. Blending both emotionally devastating melodrama with absurdist satire, The Ceremony feels as refined and disquieting as the art camp of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, sharing that film’s outsized ambition and intricate self-awareness.

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