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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Past Isn’t Past

“If we just relive it again, it’s gonna keep happening,” someone says during Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17 as a way of asking if restaging a 100-year-old crime against humanity is such a great idea. The event in question occurred on July 12, 1917, not long after the U.S. had entered World War I. A strike among mine workers in the wealthy town of Bisbee, Arizona — once known as the “Queen of the Copper Camps” — was put down savagely by authorities. Around 2,000 townspeople were deputized to round up roughly 1,200 strikers (and fellow residents), transport them into the New Mexico desert, and leave them to die. The vast majority of the strikers were immigrants; Bisbee is situated just a few miles north of the Mexican border. Last year, to commemorate the anniversary of what is now known as the “Bisbee Deportation,” the town re-enacted the events, with citizens divided into strikers and deputies, victims and perpetrators.

It’s a staggeringly ambitious way to confront the sins of history, turning Bisbee ’17 into, among other things, a ghost story. And Greene’s stylistic choices reflect the imposition of narrative and symbolism onto a real-life tale, as if the ghosts were trying to seize the movie. The film’s lush widescreen vistas and impeccably lit interiors clash with, and inform, its interviews and more intimate moments. The director purposefully pulls us this way and that, weaving cinematic spells and then yanking us out of them; as viewers, we are both inside and outside the story.

Some may complain that the dredging up of shameful historical memories serves not as an exorcism but as a conjuring. Why not leave the past buried, forgotten, where it can do no further harm? But it could also be argued that such memories and sins never actually went away in the first place, and need to be confronted. “Cities that are haunted…seem to straddle past and present, as though two versions of the city are overlaid on top of each other,” a quote from Colin Dickey’s Ghostland tells us in the film’s opening. (The statement has the ring of truth whether you’re talking about a mining town in Arizona or New York City.) Desperately poor ever since the mines closed decades ago, the town of Bisbee today is filled with tales of hauntings; indeed, ghost stories and tours are reportedly a key source of tourism.

The re-enactment and its subsequent cinematic portrayal were both the brainchild of Greene himself, and they mark the latest chapter in the career of a documentarian whose work keeps finding new ways to probe the gray area between authenticity and performance. In 2014’s Actress, Greene documented the daily life of Brandy Burre, a cast member of The Wire who had stepped away from acting to start a family in Beacon, New York. During the film, Burre attempts to restart her career, but as Greene’s camera follows her into intimate corners of her life, we realize that the roles of mother and partner are also parts Burre is playing.

That’s not to say she’s living a lie: Through Greene’s framing, Actress suggests that all life is essentially a series of roles that we perform to varying degrees. It may be the greatest documentary of the past decade because even as it presents an almost novelistically complex portrait of one woman’s turbulent life, it manages to interrogate not just the idea of documentary filmmaking, but the very nature of reality itself.

Greene took this type of formal experimentation even further with his next film, Kate Plays Christine (2016), which follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to portray Sarasota broadcast journalist Christine Chubbuck, who shot herself on camera in 1974. The conceptual twist is that there is no actual narrative film being made about Chubbuck. (Well, that’s not quite accurate; there was a film being made around the same time, starring Rebecca Hall and directed by Antonio Campos, but it had nothing to do with Greene and Sheil’s project.) You could say that Sheil is preparing for a role that doesn’t exist. You could also say that her preparation for the role is the role itself: The main character of the movie is essentially the liminal figure of Kate becoming Christine.

“Kate Plays Christine”

Or perhaps failing to. By trying to inhabit the mind of a woman who had killed herself to protest the increasingly sensationalist nature of the media industry around her, Sheil becomes an unpredictable, at times even destructive force. Kate Plays Christine’s controversial ending, in which an attempt to re-create Chubbuck’s final moments repeatedly goes haywire in a variety of ways — some seemingly planned by the filmmakers, others perhaps more spontaneous — makes a lot more sense if one looks at it as the movie consciously self-destructing, in a formally daring spiritual echo of its subject’s suicide.

Greene’s profile has risen substantially with these three most recent films, but one can find this kind of exploration in his earlier features as well. In 2011’s Fake It So Real, he follows a colorful and odd group of small-time wrestlers who stage matches for a few bucks a pop in tiny venues like school auditoriums and church basements. In his debut feature, 2010’s Kati With an I, he follows his vibrant, independent-minded 18-year-old half-sister around during a pivotal three days in her life, right before she graduates from high school and prepares to leave small-town Alabama to move back in with her parents in North Carolina. At various points, Kati finds herself playing the role of wise adult, girlfriend, daughter, ringleader, dreamer, and cynic. As we count down to graduation, the question of whether her not-entirely-reliable boyfriend will follow Kati up to North Carolina continues to hang in the air. This girl has got plans, and yet nothing in her life seems in any way settled or certain. The movie is radiant, ever-changing, impossible to pin down, just like its subject.

“Kati with an I”

Which brings us to another distinguishing factor of Bisbee ’17. In the past, Greene’s work has tended to focus on individuals undergoing transformations. This time, however, his approach seems more diffuse: A wide variety of faces and types come before his cameras — a small army of people researching, reflecting on and inhabiting figures from the past. While there are a few individuals who stand out among the crowd, what we sense more than anything is a gathering communal consciousness. Just as Brandy played Brandy in Actress and Kate played Christine, Bisbee 2017 plays Bisbee 1917 — with all the uncertainty and tenuousness that implies.

But there’s more to it than that. Greene’s film obviously has some urgency in our current moment, as a humanitarian crisis gathers along our border. Thousands of children have been detained and separated from their parents. A nation is being cynically and opportunistically divided around the politics of immigration. And let’s not forget about the politics of work, the politics of who owns, who toils, and who dies: The labor movement is under fire once again from the reactionary forces of runaway profit in collusion with a vengeful government. And so we must confront the fact that the true protagonist of Bisbee ’17 is America as it plays itself, zigzagging in the treacherous and disputed frontier between past and present, fracture and community, victim and perpetrator, truth and lies.

Bisbee ’17
Written, directed, and edited by Robert Greene
4th Row Films
Opens September 5, Film Forum

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Frozen in Time: “The Little Stranger” Is a Disturbingly Chilly Gothic Drama

An ominous chill hangs so persistently over Lenny Abrahamson’s period drama The Little Stranger that you’re liable to feel it in your bones. It hints unsettlingly at high emotions, corrupting passions, and bloody memories; the fact that we fail to see these things onscreen doesn’t entirely mean that they’re absent. This makes the movie mostly gripping, and only occasionally frustrating.

Based on Sarah Waters’s 2009 gothic novel, the story takes place in the English countryside not long after World War II. Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) is a doctor called to the care of a young servant in the spacious Hundreds Hall, a sprawling manor home that has seen better days. The Ayres family, the once-wealthy owners of the Hundreds, are a haunted lot: Roderick (Will Poulter) was horribly disfigured during the war; his mother (Charlotte Rampling) still mourns the loss of her daughter Susan many years ago at the age of eight; the surviving daughter, Caroline (Ruth Wilson), is a melancholy, standoffish introvert who seems to have given her life over to caring for her brother and mother. For his part, Faraday recalls the Ayres’s glory days with a mixture of wonder and unease: His mother used to be one of many servants at the Hundreds, and he remembers a happy, bustling Empire Day celebration in 1919 when he entered the house and became fascinated with it: “Nothing could have prepared me for the spell it cast that day,” he tells us.

Soon enough, the modest country doctor is caring for all the members of this once-great family. He’s curiously drawn to these people — particularly Caroline, who finds herself relying more and more on him and his steady, steely demeanor. But is his behavior the product of chin-up sturdiness or a kind of emotional constipation? And is his and Caroline’s growing attraction to each other something romantic, or more sinister? Gleeson’s clipped, haughty reserve admirably keeps us guessing.

Like many gothic tales, The Little Stranger hangs tantalizingly between genres: It has elements of haunted-house thriller, of doomed romance, of psychological thriller, of historical allegory. This also presumably makes it a hard sell, as it never quite fully becomes any of these things. Perhaps that’s why the film seems to be getting such a cursory, understated release — despite the fact that Abrahamson’s previous film was the widely acclaimed, Oscar-nominated Room. This sort of genre hybrid, one could argue, can be more effective on the page. I haven’t read Waters’s sprawling original, but I have read her other works, and the richness of detail in her writing generally precludes any question of classification; you’re just pulled along by the story and the immersive milieu.

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But sometimes, marketing challenges can be artistic strengths. The Little Stranger captures a sense of gathering, inchoate dread that is all the more unsettling because it doesn’t fit into any easy genre categories. Abrahamson’s ability to maintain a mood of persistent unease keeps us hanging, and thinking. And the film’s constant atmosphere of stillness eventually becomes downright surreal: Everything in this movie seems to trend toward paralysis. So much so that if you told me that much of the finale was composed of actual freeze-frames rather than shots of great stillness, I’d probably believe you.

There’s a fascinating idea in there. The Empire Day celebrations that we see repeatedly in flashback suggest a symbolic kick to the fate of Hundreds Hall. And the working-class Faraday’s fascination with it — along with the overall sense that in order for this massive home to survive, everything must be kept just so — evoke the notion of post-war British decline and various attempts to hang on to the idea of empire, to live in an empty, imagined past. I do wish Abrahamson had done more with all that, but he appears to be quite committed — perhaps even too committed — to the tale’s in-between-ness and its chilliness. The Little Stranger’s face never breaks, and maybe that’s the point.

The Little Stranger
Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Focus Features
Opens August 31

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

“Hale County This Morning, This Evening”: Witness the Birth of a New Cinematic Language

It’s not every day that you witness a new cinematic language being born, but watching RaMell Ross’s evocatively titled documentary Hale County This Morning, This Evening qualifies. The director, a photographer and teacher who was coaching basketball in the middle of the Black Belt region of the American South, knew the subjects of his documentary for several years before deciding to create a film around them. The finished work, a half decade in the making, is informed by his deep familiarity with its characters, which might be one reason why he has the confidence to abandon traditional narrative structures and strike out on his own lyrical path.

Throughout Hale County, Ross fixes his camera on quotidian moments, fragments of scenes. A woman tapping a flyswatter against her knee. A girl casually braiding her hair. A toddler running back and forth across a small living room. A droplet of sweat falling off a ball player. The shadow of a football throw. This kind of cutaway might provide some lively background atmosphere in a typical film, but for Ross this is the foreground, even as he starts to focus on his more “traditional” subjects: Quincy and Daniel, African-American teens living in a quiet Alabama town. Quincy works at the catfish plant, supporting a young family. Daniel has dreams of leaving and making a life for himself; he sees school as a way out, and basketball as a way through school. When we see him working on his outside shot — with Ross keeping the camera so tight that we mostly just see the boy’s shoulders — we’re not just watching a young athlete practicing, we’re watching someone in the midst of an existential task.

By sticking to his impressionistic perspective, by fracturing his narrative, Ross achieves something genuinely poetic — a film whose very lightness is the key to its depth. Hale County traverses years, encompasses tragedy and beauty, all in just 78 minutes. His is an empathetic camera, focusing on the kinds of details that pull us into this world, with a photographer’s eye for taking everyday moments and finding transcendence in them.

But there’s something more significant going on here. Occasionally, the text of cryptic little phrases and questions flash briefly across the screen. The one that really grabbed me asks, “How do you not frame someone?” That might sound gnomic, but it lies at the heart of Ross’s achievement. By fragmenting our point-of-view, he draws our attention to what we can’t know. All too often, these longitudinal documentaries — movies that chart people’s lives over multiple years — have a kind of totalizing ambition. They pretend to novelistic thoroughness. But can a mere film contain and explain an entire human life? (And let’s not forget, those impressively long, years-in-the-making documentaries often are made by white filmmakers about black subjects.) Ross understands that it can’t, and he’s found a way to express that through form. He immerses us in this world, but then lets the mystery be.

 

Hale County This Morning, This Evening

Directed by RaMell Ross

Cinema Guild

Opens September 14, Brooklyn Academy of Music

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Shooting-Star Cinema of Ron Rice

In December of 1959, Ron Rice was a restless 24-year-old, sitting in an apartment at 35 West 16th Street and pining for the great big world. A half-baked plan to go diamond-hunting in Venezuela had fallen through, as had a somewhat more realistic attempt to go camping in Florida. He wondered about heading to California, or Amsterdam. He wanted to do something — anything — and he wanted it to matter. But he was stuck. “Another day goes by and I continue to drink the coffee that I don’t like, and live in the city which I hate,” he lamented in his diary, calling New York City “The Big Monster.” “Oh! to see the long range ‘thing,’ ” he added, “to differentiate between the false effort and the real effort. I must try to see further into the future.”

I wonder what Rice would have thought if he could have actually seen into the future. In five years, he would be dead, struck down by pneumonia at the age of 29 in Acapulco, Mexico, after living in poverty for some time with his wife, Amy, who would give birth to their son weeks after the funeral. But along the way, he’d also light up the firmament of the American underground cinema; his brief, brilliant, blazing career would leave us with a handful of films both exceptional in beauty and striking in variety. All those pictures are now back onscreen at Anthology Film Archives, which is presenting a full retrospective of Rice’s career, including a week-long run of his feature-length effort The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, left unfinished at the time of the director’s death and occasionally shown in rough-cut versions. The editing was completed in 1981 by his star and collaborator Taylor Mead, and the film will be screening in a new 35mm restoration done by Anthology Film Archives and the Film Foundation with funding provided by the George Lucas Family Foundation.

After sizing his options that winter day in 1959, Rice did make his way to California. It was in San Francisco that he met the poet and actor Mead, after seeing the wild, elfin performer stand up on a table to recite poetry at the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, the notorious Beat Generation hangout, coffeehouse, deli, bar, and performance space that did everything but sell bagels. The duo would proceed to collaborate on 1960’s The Flower Thief, the film for which Rice is probably best known today. Heavily influenced by the seminal Jack Kerouac–Robert Frank–Alfred Leslie collaboration Pull My Daisy, The Flower Thief follows the picaresque wanderings of innocent drifter Mead around North Beach, as he gets in a variety of scrapes that blend the surreal with the Chaplinesque. The film’s “incidents” (if we may even call them that) are undercut by Rice’s freewheeling editing and camerawork, as well as Mead’s playfully self-aware performance. (Indeed, the film would serve as something of a calling card for Mead, who would go on to have a brief but notable Off-Broadway career — even winning an Obie in 1964 — and become a Warhol regular.) For a movie made by a man with almost no money or prior filmmaking experience, The Flower Thief has a surprising amount of technique; it’s filled with dolly moves, slow-motion sequences, and extended dissolves. And yet, it contains no moments of high drama or narrative climax that might warrant the use of such devices — so they stand out, as shocks to the system.

Taylor Mead in “The Flower Thief”

But the film is also filled with less conspicuous moments of throwaway visual beauty. Rice has a knack for capturing an unlikely composition, or a surprising bit of texture, that conveys the picture’s central dynamic: one between a man who is free and a society that is not. The Flower Thief is built around such contrasts, even in the technology and materials used to make it. Rice had purchased cheap war surplus machine-gun film stock — small fifty-foot spools of 16mm designed to be used in gun sight aim point (GSAP) cameras mounted on machine guns in airplanes, to record combat strikes. The reversal film, he found, lent the images “a soft quality, like Rembrandt, like chiaroscuro.” Thus, film that was designed to catalog death by machines was repurposed for artistic ends, to shoot a bunch of artists improvising scenes of exquisite chaos.

At one point in The Flower Thief, a group of men go through an imagined crucifixion and then re-create the celebrated photograph of the Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima — only they’re goofily standing on a pile of plywood, metal rods, and other assorted items inside an abandoned powerhouse. Rice’s imagery seems to take the carefully calibrated mythology of Hollywood and Americana and upend it. The result is at once a mockery of what movies are and an affirmation of what they can be. (The director would regret having rehearsed the Iwo Jima scene; during rehearsal, the makeshift mountain of plywood on which the men stood had collapsed, and he cursed not having captured the moment. But maybe that prior collapse also explains the wonderfully giggly hesitation on all the actors’ faces throughout the scene.)

The Flower Thief was a small phenomenon on the underground circuit, even garnering reviews from the mainstream press — some bewildered, some admiring — when it finally made it to New York in 1962. “One of the most original creations in the recent cinema (or any other art, for that matter),” declared Jonas Mekas in the Village Voice. Describing Mead’s performance, Mekas reflected, “He walks across the garbage cities of the western civilization with his mind pure and beautiful, primeval, unspoiled, sane, a noble idiot, classless, eternal.… The absurd, sad beauty of this film, its poetry and humaneness should do something good to us, it should move our corrupt little minds and hearts.”

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Many saw The Flower Thief as an essential document of the Beat sensibility on cinema, but even then it played like a portrait of a bygone world. “It records a certain scene that was going down in San Francisco. But none of these places exist any longer,” Rice recalled in an interview with Film Comment in 1962, noting that his locations, including the Bagel Shop, had either been demolished or closed due to local pressure. “The people who were in the film no longer exist there. If one were to go to San Francisco today, one would not find that feeling or mood.”

A similar melancholy pervades The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, which also seems to be portraying a city that is drifting away — in this case, New York in the early 1960s. Sheba has Mead again at its center, though this time his performance is broader and more unsettling, far removed from the gentle innocent of The Flower Thief. Here he plays a junkie who, in the film’s opening moments, washes himself with Vaseline and cooks up a comically giant vat of heroin. Wandering the streets in a state of fidgety flamboyance, he evokes not so much pathos as bewilderment.

“Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man”

I guess he must be the Atom Man. Or maybe we could call him the Modern Man. He stumbles into a dark room filled with pictures of the city at night, and looms over the lit skyscrapers like a monster, or a specter. Later, he drifts through a modern art exhibition re-enacting the angular poses of paintings and sculptures, as if paying homage to the inspirations for the actor’s own strange, off-putting performance. His counterpart is the enormous Queen of Sheba (Winifred Bryan), who contrasts his restlessness with her drunken, sensuous languor. She’s often seen at rest and unclothed, at ease in her naked haze. If he’s a free radical agent of chaos, she is timeless, elemental — an existential fact. However, the two also seem at ease around one another, playfully making out one minute, fighting the next, always with a sense of childlike frivolity.

Yet the undercurrent of melancholy persists. We see the duo wander empty streets, parks, and the waterfront at different points — sometimes together, sometimes alone — and Rice’s expressive camerawork captures the ironic solitude of New York. Seen in that light, the mad, orgiastic party scenes that make up the film’s final third — filled with revelers in masks and outlandish costumes, dancing and flailing wildly, tearing up the modest apartment around them — feel like an act of both communion and wild desperation.

“Chumlum”

Rice’s masterpiece, Chumlum (1964) — also playing the Anthology retro in a beautiful new restoration — is an altogether different work from The Flower Thief and Queen of Sheba. Shot while the director was working on underground visionary Jack Smith’s Normal Love, the film is built around multiple superimpositions; we see images of limbs, birds, waves, dancers, pearls, rocking hammocks, and silk sheets placed against each other to create a kind of mesmeric dream-state. The Flower Thief and Queen of Sheba, for all their experimental shenanigans, still feel like films that exist in relation to the real world. Their characters’ surreal antics seem to thumb their noses at the society around them, or at least at the idea of a society around them. But Chumlum is a thoroughly internalized, otherworldly work, an immersion into an alternate universe, one both abstract and tactile. You feel like you can reach out and touch those fabrics, grab those pearls and limbs swaying and swinging before the lens. By completely doing away with any semblance of plot or even context, Chumlum manages to be Rice’s most thoroughly absorbing work.

It would have been interesting to see in which direction Rice would have gone. Would he have been co-opted into the world of narrative filmmaking the way some other underground artists eventually were? Would his work have become even more abstract? It’s easy to speculate, but it’s also a fact that while New York at the time was at the center of American underground cinema, city officials and the power elite were not exactly hospitable to such efforts. (Of course, New York would one day benefit immeasurably from this scene, and from all the freewheeling artists and bohemians who turned some of its forsaken neighborhoods into centers of culture, only to be pushed out and priced out.)

But the city, in the early 1960s, did not care for such people. Filmmakers were still subject to byzantine and inconsistent obscenity and licensing laws. Rice himself had received a summons for attempting to hold a benefit screening of his work at the Gramercy Arts Theater. Jonas Mekas would be famously arrested in 1964 for attempting to show Jean Genet’s Chant d’Amour. That same year, Mekas also reported that Rice was briefly committed to Bellevue for attempting to film one of the patients there, a cast member from Normal Love.

These were just some of the reasons Rice eventually moved to Mexico. “He went there, exiled from New York by impossible working and living conditions, without a penny, searching for peace of mind, disgusted with police persecution of arts in New York,” Mekas would later write. In Mexico Rice found beautiful locations, peace, a renewed sense of creativity. But he also found more poverty, illness, and eventually death. His letters and postcards and telegrams to friends at the time are filled with pleas for money.

It’s a sad tale, one that was all too common among the artists of the time, many of whom sought an existence that reflected the integrity and Dionysian anarchy of their work — a romantic notion, perhaps, but for some, an essential one. Is there redemption in the films themselves? Would that young man of inchoate ambition, who bemoaned his inertia and pondered his wanderlust just a few years earlier, look at the wild, poetic absolutism of his creations and his life and see tragedy, or triumph? Maybe that’s for us to decide.

The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man
and
‘The Films of Ron Rice’
August 24–30, Anthology Film Archives

A 1967 poster for a posthumous retrospective of Ron Rice’s work
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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The New “Papillon” Makes Its Break With Fresh Intensity and Emotion

Shit-streaked, blood-soaked, and mud-caked, the French penal colony inmates of Papillon make for a compellingly sorry spectacle — men reduced to the status of animals, their bodies and faces turning to dirty, leathery sinew before our eyes. It’s impressive, and imperative: Seeing them like this makes the necessity of escape that much more critical. How could any human survive a day in this place, let alone a year, or two, or ten?

Papillon is based on the writings of Henri Charrière (played here by Charlie Hunnam), a Parisian thief who in 1931 was condemned, for a murder he did not commit, to a distant prison in the colony of French Guiana and spent much of his time there planning his escape. The story was filmed before in 1973 with Steve McQueen as Charrière (nicknamed “Papillon” for the butterfly tattoo on his chest) and Dustin Hoffman as Louis Dega, a meek fellow prisoner and counterfeiter whose hidden money and logistical smarts aided Charrière in his efforts to flee. The director of that earlier film was Franklin J. Schaffner, who was fond of mounting stately period epics like Patton and Nicholas and Alexandra. And you can sense, in the 1973 effort’s languor and cerebral stoicism, a self-importance that pushes against the milieu of desperation. It’s still a fine movie — the stony McQueen and the mousy Hoffman make a good team — and has some cred today as a macho classic, but this is one case where a contemporary remake doesn’t seem like an entirely terrible idea.

This new version, directed by Danish filmmaker Michael Noer, brings to the story a refreshing intensity and sweep, and even a sense of adventure. It’s also unflinching when it comes to violence, misery, and gore: We feel the savagery of the heat and the hatred, the sheer primordial guck in which these prisoners toil. That in turn makes the call of freedom that much more enthralling, and the rough, barbed alliance between Charrière and Dega (played here by Rami Malek) that much more convincing. Without Charrière, Dega cannot survive. Without Dega, Charrière cannot escape.

The script, by Aaron Guzikowski, remains a lot more faithful to the 1973 film (which was penned by two legends, Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.) than to Charrière’s written accounts, the veracity of which have always been in some dispute anyway. Both pictures feature lots of on-the-nose dialogue, the words working like cheat sheets to the characters’ motivations and the films’ themes: “This is for the greater good that is French expansion,” the prisoners are told in this new version, as they’re sent off to the colonies. “As for France, she has disowned you.… Forget France!” Or, here’s a line from Dega: “I should know how to throw a punch, given how often my father used to beat me.”

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Nobody talks like this! But in Schaffner’s film, the unrealistic, expository dialogue meshed well with the director’s classicism. In this new version, there’s something of a disconnect between the immediacy of Noer’s stylistic approach and the unconvincing words the characters are uttering. Even so, the performers are excellent. Hunnam has, over the past several years, proven himself an actor of surprising refinement and grace, capable of physically articulating the subtlest of emotions. (His turn in The Lost City of Z might have been last year’s most undervalued performance.) He’s best here in the more quiet moments, achieving a deep, unreal stillness that can, with the slightest shift, reveal confidence or ruin. We understand early on that he’s a man who can and will protect the mousy Dega from the prison’s more loathsome denizens. But later on, after years of solitary confinement, abuse, and humiliation, we also sense the existential change that has come over Charrière. From beneath his steely exterior, a certain fragility slowly comes to the fore.

As for Malek, he manages the opposite: He’s angular and fidgety, nervous and weak, but beneath all that vulnerability we sense a certain toughness, a killer instinct waiting to surface. (Spoiler alert: It does.) In a world that brings out the worst in everybody, these two men bring something good out of each other. It is both agonizing and joyful to watch.

Papillon
Directed by Michael Noer
Bleecker Street
Opens August 24

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES

The Secret of “Andrei Rublev”

In the most powerful section of Andrei Rublev, Andrei Tarkovsky’s hugely ambitious 1966 epic of medieval Russia, a young man whose village and family have been destroyed by the plague convinces the Grand Prince to let him make a beautiful new bell. The boy, named Boriska (and played by Nikolai Burlyaev with a whipsawing combination of youthful exuberance and self-flagellating despair), comes from a family of bell makers. Boriska claims that before his father died, he revealed to him the secret of casting a bronze bell. The boy, fresh-faced and inexperienced as he is, is hired. He enlists a small army of workers and runs them ragged as the seasons pass. Bouncing around like a busy bumblebee, he berates them about the right kind of clay, the right kind of pit, the right amount of silver, and at one point even has his best friend flogged for insubordination. Only briefly, and secretly, does he betray any hesitation, any sense that he might fail.

Tarkovsky takes in the epic scope of this undertaking. The camera peers down from mountaintops, from the sky at the workers toiling amid the dirt and mud. Then it hovers in closer, capturing the raw textures of their endeavor. Giant holes are dug; coarse chunks of dirt pass among dry, scabbed hands; massive fires are built; mad, exasperated eyes stare out at us in indignation, fear, doubt, petulance. Are these people forging a bell or a new world?

Finally, the bell is built, and hung, and rung. We wait an unbearably long time for its clapper to finally strike and send off a loud, low, clear, and perfect chime; Tarkovsky was known for making long, deliberately paced movies, but he was also a master of suspense. Having succeeded at long last, Boriska collapses in tears and frustration. Now, the film’s protagonist, the legendary Russian monk and icon painter Andrei Rublev (Anatoly Solonitsyn, in one of the great passive performances of cinema history), comes to the young man and comforts him. Amid his tears, Boriska reveals that his father never imparted to him the secret of bell making. The boy has been, essentially, flying blind.

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It’s a wonderful, mysterious confession, and it lies at the heart of this wonderful, mysterious film, which is now getting a revival run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in a lovely restoration, and coming soon in a new Criterion edition. Over the course of his journeys, Rublev confronts jealousy, pettiness, carnality, and unspeakable violence. He even kills a man himself, in an attempt to save a woman from rape and murder during a brutal Tartar raid. Once criticized for the lack of emotion in his icons — his work, we’re told early on, is technically brilliant and subtle, but has “no awe…no faith that comes from the depths of his soul” — he finds himself unable to paint, even unwilling to speak.

Rublev is a mesmerizing portrait of an artist and cleric undone by a world that is cruel, chaotic, unexplainable. And it’s obviously about a lot more than medieval Russia; Tarkovsky never shot an impersonal frame, and he spent his entire career struggling for the integrity of his work. Suppressed by Soviet authorities, Rublev wasn’t seen in the USSR until 1971. Tarkovsky’s diaries from the period, among the most candid and anguished writings you’ll ever read by a filmmaker, are filled with exasperated accounts of officials placing obstacles in the path of his picture’s release, even as it garners praise and awards internationally. When the movie finally opened at home, the director saw no ads or posters for it anywhere, even though it was selling out its screenings. Many of his later films would suffer even worse fates.

But back to Boriska. In interviews, Tarkovsky noted that the story of the young bell maker spoke to the fact that generations never really passed on anything to one another, and that each person had to make their way through this world on their own. It’s an existentialist notion, but quite different from the sort that was fashionable in the 1950s and ’60s. Tarkovsky’s version of an indifferent world is inflected with the spirituality that is ever-present in his work, a sense that while we may be on our own, we are never quite alone.

Boriska carries on as if he understands a secret that nobody else does; indeed, he uses this supposed knowledge to judge others. And yet, it turns out, he doesn’t know anything. All he has, in other words, is his faith — a faith that comes close to breaking multiple times. And not only does he not know the secret, but, as we might suspect, he doesn’t even know if there ever is a secret.

Similarly, Rublev’s crisis of faith comes as a result of confronting a world that doesn’t seem in any way to reflect the divinity to which he’s dedicated his life. He’s a monk wandering a godless world, unsure if there is anything beyond the misery and horror he sees all around him. Boriska has the bell he doesn’t know how to make, and Rublev has the icons he’s forgotten how to paint. To that duo we may also add Tarkovsky, with the films he’s not allowed to direct, or release.  All three men must find a way to persevere, to not only act as if there is a different, better world, but in some way to help bring it about through — and, perhaps more importantly, within — their work. What if, Tarkovsky seems to ask, the silence of God is the very essence of God? What if the fact that there is no secret is the secret?

Andrei Rublev
Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Janus Films
Opens August 24, Film Society of Lincoln Center

 

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In “Minding the Gap,” Skating Dreams and Family Demons Collide

A filmmaker being one of the subjects of his or her own documentary is certainly nothing new. But in Minding the Gap, director Bing Liu uses his participation to question his own role in the culture he’s documenting. He does it subtly at first, then allows the movie to transform before our eyes into something poignant, damning, even terrifying.

Longitudinal in its ambitions, Liu’s film follows the lives of three close friends, all skaters in the depressed Rust Belt town of Rockford, Illinois. The trio have known each other since they were little kids. We see their early years in rough glimpses: attempting skate tricks, goofing around, breaking their boards in both playfulness and rage. They’re a surprisingly diverse trio: Zack Mulligan is the floppy-haired, charming pothead anarchist; Keire Johnson is African American, with a bubbly, boyish personality; Bing himself is a quiet, Chinese-American introvert. None of them have good relationships with their families; indeed, they say early on that they formed their own family together — “to look out for each other, because no one else was looking out for us.”

Though it’s been assembled from all types of footage over many years, Minding the Gap is visually mesmerizing, and the fact that the director belongs to this subculture turns the film’s style into a kind of philosophical stance. Bing privileges expressive moments and emotional movements over narrative arcs and clear through lines. The film is filled with lengthy, sensuous skateboarding scenes, which feel meditative, therapeutic; we sense that these kids skated not because it was fun, but because it helped them to survive. The movie’s focus seems at times to drift from character to character, theme to theme. Ideas and problems only glancingly mentioned early on grow to become crises later. That may feel like a lack of precision on the filmmaker’s part, but it gives the film the unsettling cadence of reality — of lives routed into troubling detours and dead ends.

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As the film wears on, the sense of family and belonging depicted earlier starts to dissipate. And as the years pass, the picture begins to question some of the trio’s own notions of self-knowledge. Each of their families has suffered from some form of domestic abuse — from casual beatings to far more sinister acts. And none of the boys has ever really reckoned with this dark reality in their lives. They have escaped through skating and friendship — but that kind of avoidance merely kicks the can down the road. Zack winds up with his own family early on in life, and we learn that he might be reenacting some of the same things that happened to him. As they become men, and as their lives diverge, the trio begin to ask how well they really know each other, and themselves. Eventually, at times, skating itself seems to have become a distant memory.

This sense of questioning becomes part of the aesthetic of the film. And Bing’s status as filmmaker and participant starts to take on a different tenor. The people onscreen know him and trust him, and there’s a genuine intimacy to their interactions. But eventually, he trains the camera on his own life, as he decides to delve into his family’s past and the abuse he suffered. A visit back home and an interview with his mother make for incredibly moving scenes, but they also reveal the limitations of our knowledge and vision.

Minding the Gap starts in curiously formless fashion and eventually gains a surprisingly elaborate structure, as Bing starts to cut between memories and events and characters, as if he is suddenly starting to see things differently. That can be jarring: Longitudinal docs aren’t supposed to suddenly turn into essay films. But it’s powerful nonetheless. Again, isn’t this how life works? You drift for a while and then at some point, maybe after it’s too late, certain things start to reveal themselves, forcing you to reckon with your earlier experiences — even if it remains impossible to achieve closure or peace. Minding the Gap is the work of a filmmaker willing to acknowledge that sometimes seeing better, seeing differently, is more important than understanding.

Minding the Gap
Directed by Bing Liu
Hulu
Opens August 17, Metrograph

 

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BOOKS ARCHIVES CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Meet Me at the Fair: In Praise of Film Books

I’m holding in my hands a novelization of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death. It’s an elegant, slim hardcover, published in 1946. The author credited is Eric Warman. I’m familiar with movie novelizations, of course, but I think of them as having had their heyday in the Sixties and Seventies. In truth, they’ve been around since the days of silent cinema. Either way, it’s fascinating to see one from 1946 — for a title that was extremely hard to see for many years, no less. (Happily, the film is now out on Criterion, and all is right with the world.)

I haven’t read this novel, and I don’t plan on buying it, but it does feel good to be able to hold the delicate little thing in my hands. It’s just one of the books on display at the Metrograph’s first annual book fair, being held this Saturday and Sunday at the Lower East Side cinema. The idea of a book fair grew out of the theater’s plans for its own bookstore, which is located on the second floor. “We always wanted to have a bookstore that had a large section of rare books, that would rotate often, so every time you looked, there was a good chance of finding something that wasn’t there before,” says Jake Perlin, Metrograph’s artistic and programming director. “Then, by coincidence, three incredible collections came our way, so we had an office full of books which I would show off to people. One after the other, their eyes would light up, and I thought a fair was the best chance to put it all out at once.”

The fair contains about 2,000 individual items — “hundreds of books and over a thousand periodicals, roughly,” says Perlin. There are also some posters as well as some VHS cassettes — from art documentaries to an old and very fuzzy copy of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, which was how many of us discovered it back in the day. (That film too is now available on Criterion.) There are piles and piles of Sight & Sounds from across the decades, as well as a sizable collection of the legendary French journal L’Avant-Scène Cinéma, which dedicated each issue to one specific film. (And the film in question wasn’t always an obvious choice. Among the titles featured: Adolfas Mekas’s Hallelujah the Hills!)

Film books (and magazines) used to be quite popular, with bookstores often priding themselves on the breadth of their film-related offerings. Some bookstores even specialized in film and entertainment. In part, that’s because the genre was an ecosystem unto itself. You had in-depth academic studies on the work of specific directors, movements, or countries. You had memoirs and biographies, some dishier than others. You had novelizations. You had “making of” books. You had reference volumes, like the various Leslie Halliwell and Leonard Maltin guides. You had big heavy coffee-table books filled with stills and fine photography. You had published screenplays, which, in the days before the wide availability of films on video, were often the best way to make sure you got your plot details and quotes right.

And you had anthologies of criticism. Many of us were introduced to Pauline Kael not from reading her reviews in the New Yorker but from reading them in collections such as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Reeling. Similarly, Andrew Sarris, who had his celebrated perch at the Village Voice for decades, probably gained as many acolytes from his legendary book American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968 as he did through his weekly reviews.

There are numerous reasons why many of these subgenres have since been obliterated. The bottom fell out of the published-screenplay market with the dominance of video; novelizations were a casualty soon to follow. (Examples of both do still see the light of day, particularly for blockbuster-type films: Star Wars novelizations have always been a thing.) Nowadays, few people are interested in reading collections of film reviews — let alone paying to purchase them — when so many reviews are available on the internet for free. Close studies of directors’ works or individual films or periods of filmmaking do still exist, though perhaps not in the numbers they once did. You also do get variations on the “making of” book — interesting recent ones have been dedicated to High Noon, La Dolce Vita, Network, and Caddyshack. Meanwhile, some savvy writers have fused the coffee table–book concept with artful criticism and produced lovely hybrids: Matt Zoller Seitz’s big, beautiful Wes Anderson Collection, filled with interviews, essays, and stills, remains the foremost study of that director’s work.

Perusing the books and magazines at the Metrograph fair has a certain nostalgic glow to it, but visiting a place like this is not entirely a matter of basking in the past. You’re reminded of how much more of everything is out there, beyond the confines of our convenient screens, which may seem boundless but are in fact quite limited. The democratization and preservation that the internet once promised now seem like pipe dreams. True, it’s now easier than ever to publish your work online, but the cacophony of voices and the sheer disorganization of the digital experience means that this work often can’t find its audience. We’re all now directed by bots toward that which is most popular or controversial — precisely the kind of tunnel-vision phenomenon the internet was once supposed to combat.

Meanwhile, the notion that our work will live on digitally seems dodgy at best. Sites go down, or are bought, or are redesigned. Archives are nuked with the touch of a button because nobody can monetize them. Recently, a couple of writer friends and I realized that years and years of our online work quite simply does not exist anymore.

The internet can still be a wonderful resource. Online journals like Senses of Cinema and Cléo publish some of the most insightful pieces you’ll find about both new and old work. But we ignore film books at our peril. If you want to find the best writing on Luchino Visconti, you still need to go to the books written by Monica Stirling and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and others. Peter Bondanella and Millicent Marcus’s tomes on Italian cinema remain the best sources for in-depth analysis of that country’s films. Robert Phillip Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness is the sharpest study of American cinema in the Seventies. Once upon a time, Spike Lee used to publish a book about the making of each of his films; his volumes on Do the Right Thing, She’s Gotta Have It!, and Malcolm X are essential to understanding those pictures, as well as his work in general. I could go on and on. Why am I mentioning these specific books? They’re all ones I’ve had to reference in the past week alone.

Anecdotally, there does seem to be a newfound surge of interest in film books — related, perhaps, to the renaissance  in repertory moviegoing and physical media. (The Metrograph is just one of the theaters in the city that has benefited from renewed cinephile interest in 35mm prints.) “The response to the bookstore and our book events with authors has been terrific,” Perlin says. “I always think of the scene in Day for Night when Truffaut gets a delivery of film books on the set. One can go a few days without seeing a film, but those days need to be filled with reading about them.”

 

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“Madeline’s Madeline” Makes Brilliant Order Out of Chaos

“In all chaos there is a cosmos. In all disorder a secret order.” Experimental theater director Evangeline (Molly Parker) says this to her troubled teenage star Madeline (Helena Howard) early on in Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline, and it’s a sentiment the movie both takes to heart and persistently questions. Decker’s film, the best thing I saw at Sundance earlier this year, is built around tension and chaos. Its unruly scenes emerge out of disorder, out of chants and shrieks and fractured images, and always threaten to fade back into abstraction. The focus slips; the camera drifts. Whispers and wails intrude. A simple dialogue exchange might suddenly splinter into tight-angled close-ups of a face; a shot might disintegrate into a shimmering field of red. But one senses a method in this madness. The narrative might be shattered, but the film’s slipstream of emotion is powerful and inescapable.

As Madeline, the nineteen-year-old Howard — an explosively gifted performer — seizes your attention. She plays a precocious teen with what may or may not be mental issues (there are mentions of a psych-ward stint and glimpses of pill bottles and medical bracelets, but as with so much in this film, we’re never sure how much of what we’re seeing is real). Madeline’s talent is being both nurtured and exploited by Evangeline. Improvisational role-play exercises in rehearsal come too close for comfort to Madeline’s volatile relationship with her caring, fragile mother Regina (Miranda July). The girl immerses herself in the part, then takes her work home: Acting exercises in one context become troubling behavior in another. Is she building a character or is the character building her? At times, Madeline pretends to be a cat, a pig, a sea turtle. She attacks her mother with an iron. (Was it a dream? A memory? A desire? A fear?) Mom observes her daughter with anticipation and fright; July cracks the most mysterious of smiles, perched between terror and bewilderment. A flash of pride can, in an instant, become a moment of deep humiliation.

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Evangeline’s theater work is built around dance and poetic movement, and Decker and her cinematographer, Ashley Connor (who also shot The Miseducation of Cameron Post, a lovely film that looks so different visually from this one that you can’t help but be astounded at her range), shoot the bodies in motion with an eye toward sensuality and distortion. They do the same for reality, too. The camera constantly wanders among faces and gestures, as if overwhelmed by all the possibilities of where to go. For a viewer, it’s a curiously lovely feeling — that sense of being suspended between clarity and entropy.

Decker built the picture around Howard after seeing her at a teen performance contest in New Jersey. Much of what’s onscreen was developed out of improvisations with the young actress and others. But whereas directors like Mike Leigh use this form of collaboration to create self-contained works of immersive realism, Decker deconstructs the very nature of a closed work of art. Who is Evangeline to tell Madeline’s story, and who is Decker to make a movie around Howard? Slowly, Madeline realizes her power in Evangeline’s world. The latter brings her into her life — does she want to displace the girl’s mother? — and hesitant, haunted Madeline begins to seize control. And onscreen, Howard comes to dominate the frame more and more. Who’s telling this story? you might wonder, and therein lies the radical, breathtaking beauty of this film. Madeline’s Madeline is at once intoxicated by the world and deeply terrified of it.

Madeline’s Madeline
Written and directed by Josephine Decker
Oscilloscope Pictures
Opens August 10, Quad Cinema

 

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Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” Is Every Kind of Movie It Can Be

Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is a tonal roller coaster, and therein lies much of its unique power. It’s alternately comic, heroic, tragic, horrifying, ridiculous, dead serious, clear-eyed and confused; it shifts into moments of documentary and even essay film, but it’s also one of Lee’s more entertaining and vibrantly constructed works. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a movie exploit its tonal mismatches so voraciously and purposefully.

Based on a crazy true story (or, as an opening title puts it, “some fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t”), BlacKkKlansman follows the efforts of Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), an African-American detective in the Colorado Springs police force. He infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan in the mid-1970s, passing as white over the phone, with fellow cop Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) posing as Stallworth’s white avatar at actual Klan meetings. Lee seizes every opportunity in that startling setup to play with the notions of identity and belonging that have always fueled his work.

Before his Klan investigation, Ron’s first assignment is to go undercover at a Stokely Carmichael speech. (“They say he’s a damn good speaker, so we don’t want this Carmichael getting into the minds of the good Negroes of Colorado Springs,” his fellow officers tell him.) There, he meets and falls for local college activist leader Patrice (Laura Harrier), and even as he woos her, he tries and fails to stop her from using the word pig to describe cops. Ron remains loyal to the force, but he’s also moved by Patrice’s passion and righteousness. In some ways, the investigation of the Klan feels like Ron’s attempts to solve this tension between his dedication to police work and his growing activism. Ron wants to reconcile his two tribes by going after a common adversary.

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This awakening awareness of identity goes beyond just Ron: Flip repeatedly gets asked by Klan members if he’s a Jew. He later confides to Ron that, while he is Jewish, he wasn’t raised with any real religion or sense of difference. “I never thought about it before,” he says, but now, thanks to these constant accusations and hatred, “I’m thinking about it all the time.” That’s just one of the great truths about today that the film casually tosses off with such seeming effortlessness. Lee is the rare director who can maintain the integrity and beauty of a film overstuffed with ideas. He prefers vigor over rigor; he’s an artist of chaos and energy, of blurred character lines and narrative curlicues. That’s not just because of the boundless vitality of his style, but because he understands that, on some level, all these seemingly disparate elements are connected.

Identity throughout BlacKkKlansman can be a disorienting, ever-shifting thing — acted upon by one’s allies as well as one’s enemies. The movie embraces this aesthetically as well. Lee adopts contrasting styles for each of the tribes that Ron moves through in the movie — the police, black activists and the Klan. The Klan are usually shown as a bunch of bozos, a dangerous but also often hilariously incompetent collection of ignorant brutes and slack-jawed yokels. Meanwhile, Patrice and her fellow activists are often presented in essayistic, almost agitprop fashion. During Carmichael’s speech, in which he talks about white standards of beauty and the racially disturbing aspects of Tarzan movies, the edges of the frame go dark and we see his listeners in soft spotlights, highlighting their features; when Patrice and Ron argue over depictions of heroism in blaxploitation movies, the screen fills with movie posters and clips. (Among other things, BlacKkKlansman stands as an urgent essay on cinema’s depictions of blackness and racism over the decades. As noted above, it’s all connected.)

Later, Lee intercuts between a speech by Harry Belafonte about the 1916 lynching of Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas, and one delivered by KKK Grand Wizard David Duke (Topher Grace, giving another of his insincere, aw-shucks nice-guy performances, which in this context is both chilling and surreal). “Give us true white men,” Duke declares, while Belafonte goes through every agonizing detail of the horrors visited upon Washington’s body. It’s a terrifying juxtaposition, and watching it, I got the sense that Lee had laid a kind of brilliant trap for us with his earlier, satirical depiction of the Klan: Laugh all you want, he seems to say; you laughed at Donald Trump, too, and look where that got us.

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As you might expect, Trump and our current predicament hang heavily over this film, and the script (credited to Lee, David Rabinowitz, Charlie Wachtel and Kevin Willmott, based on Ron Stallworth’s own book) goes out of its way to make the connections. At one point, Duke declares, “It’s time for America to show its …” — briefly struggling to find the right word — “greatness again.” That’s one of the subtler references, and while most movies about the past botch this sort of call and response with the present, Lee generally achieves this with panache; he’s rarely self-important about it. He knows he’s making points that are obvious to many in his audience, and he embraces it with a combination of exuberance and despair.

And within this heavy-handedness can lie a kind of ambiguity. Without giving too much away, I must report that some of the film’s close-to-final scenes have an almost utopian, wish-fulfillment quality to them, with bits that are sure to get roaring audience responses. But Lee then quickly cuts to images of such raw, disturbing power that any momentary sense of triumph is sure to catch in our throats. The film is being released on the one-year anniversary of the white supremacist violence at Charlottesville, Virginia. BlacKkKlansman resists closure, reconciliation, or catharsis, and Lee has no interest in keeping this thing formally unified. What use is that kind of unity in a society that’s falling apart? Fo’ real, fo’ real sh*t, indeed.

BlacKkKlansman
Directed by Spike Lee
Focus Features
Opens August 10
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