Luminous Motion

In cinema’s purported Age of Democracy, the herky-jerky aesthetic of the faux-verité drama forgives and even embraces technical roughcasting; most of these art-house staples achieve imitations not of life but of an instantly recognizable (and inexpensive) style. A rarefied exception is the work of Belgium’s Dardenne brothers, Luc and Jean-Pierre. These former documentarians shape half-concealed parables out of the messy incongruities and lurching rhythms of real time, but their films can also be distilled into near abstract studies in motion: a young woman’s famished job-hunt stampede in Rosetta (1999), a carpenter’s stolid march toward a reckoning of his child’s death in this year’s Cannes prizewinner The Son. Represented in the Walter Reade’s Belgian program by The Promise (from 1996), a wrenching moral conundrum set within an immigrant-smuggling ring, the Dardennes exemplify a sociologically engaged realist strain in their nation’s recent cinema. The series also offers up a handful of actual documentaries, including Chantal Akerman’s latest, From the Other Side, an essay on Mexicans attempting to traverse the Arizona border.

In the opener, Dominique Standaert’s Hop, an illegal émigré boy from Burundi finds refuge with a craggy boho couple after his father’s arrest. One of Belgium’s first digital-video features, Hop is uniformly well acted—the young lead, Kolomba Mbuyi, infuses pre-adolescent swagger with childlike vulnerability—but the characters themselves amount to mere binary oppositions: immigrants and anarchists good, everybody else bad.

A hint of gendered finger-wagging can be detected in Meisje and Villa des Roses, which find provincial heroines setting out for the dreamy big city. The Brussels-set Meisje benefits from a quietly plaintive performance by Charlotte Vanden Eynde (a dead ringer for Julia Stiles) as Muriel, a working-class girl with art-historical aspirations. But aiming for feminist frankness, director Dorothée van den Berghe hits non sequiturs instead—for example, a candid-camera account of Muriel having a pee. (You are there!) Frank van Passel’s Villa des Roses also enters a drab chapter into the Smart Women, Foolish Choices handbook, as widowed French maid Julie Delpy moons after a feckless German artist in Paris on the eve of World War I.

Among the films that most overtly mimic the verité patois, Vincent Lannoo’s Strass compiles a mockument of a Brussels acting school tyrannized by a sadistic Method chieftain; smug and bewilderingly unfunny, the film comes with the Dogme stamp of approval. Les Enfants de l’Amour, on the other hand, is an intriguing if badly flawed matrix of blurred lines. Director Geoffrey Enthoven originally set out to make a doc about children of divorce, but when the subjects withdrew their participation, his research became the springboard for a fictional weekend-in-the-life: one mother, two fathers, three kids. Swirling, histrionic cameras and the string cheese on the soundtrack do not negate the film’s frequent white flashes of insight into the longing, resentment, and anger eating away at each limb of this gnarled tree—a family at once hopelessly estranged and irrevocably tangled together.


We Hear and eBay

Nobody likes a middleman. I don’t mean a yenta or a middle reliever, but a middleman: somebody who slides in between a buyer and seller out of some supposed necessity, and turns a dime doing it.

Much of e-commerce’s thrillette (and a lot of its legal flux) involves the net’s capacity for cutting out the middleman. Buy a song from the label and cut out Tower; hell, buy it from the artist and cut out the label, too. It’s streamlined, sensible, and oughta be a nickel cheaper. That should make all the difference, and, after all, money talks.

Money actually has only one thing to say, in the sexiest voice ever invented. Money winks and whispers and swears it makes it easier for you to get things. That’s a lie. Money is an intermediary between you and things, an extra step you have to pass through. Money itself is a middleman.

Which brings us to eBay. Most eBaywatchers talk about the auction site as a guilty pleasure (“I know it’s stupid, but I found the darlingest faux-fur car coat for $11!”), a few as a genuine boon (“I made my rent selling my furniture!”); the rest of us look away in blank uninterest. That’s a mistake. We should hate eBay.

The technology and scope that allow eBay to operate ought to do something a little more dramatic than marginally extend everybody’s capacity to buy and sell shit. Am I supposed to feel good about that, ever, even if someone’s aunt just found a lovely French pocket watch she’d always wanted? If eBay’s so damn good at cutting out middlemen, shouldn’t it be able to outmaneuver money’s seduction altogether?

Money was invented, basically, to move value through space and time. It’s a way to exchange your Florida oranges for Belgian chocolate, or your winter wheat for summer squash. People used to barter such things directly, and in some places they still do. But let’s be practical: The world got complicated. You can’t magically blink over to Brussels or to next summer, so you agree to let money slide between you and and your corresponding trader. Maybe you take the money from your wheat and buy auto repairs. Maybe the Belgian buys himself a book of poems. The world moves along.

Meanwhile money, like every other middleman in history, charges you a little fee. It charges you to buy checks and use ATMs. It charges you for letting time pass while prices rise. Change currencies and money charges you. Money takes a cut of your paycheck to salary the paymasters and accountants. It does more insidious things, like hang out in huge mobs of money with names like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, dictating third world social policies. It’s evil, it’s annoying, it makes you carry a wallet. But it’s necessary, right, because you can’t barter anymore. Without money, your oranges rot in their crates.

That’s where eBay should come in. A vast, connected network of Wants and Haves provides the foundation for a barter economy. All you need then is some way to build complicated, dynamic chains: This week Ignatz wants to trade oranges for car repair, but his mechanic Imogene wants a faux-fur pocket watch. So you need a system that can efficiently arrange for Ignatz to trade oranges to the chocolate guy, who sends chocolate off to the poet with a sweet tooth, who delivers a poem to the curio dealer, who just happens to have a faux-fur pocket watch.

That system exists already—the flight-booking software used by travel agents could handle it. As an anarchist friend says, “Big collectives always fail because there are too many meetings. But the Net could essentially become the meeting.” And still we use it for the most dull, incremental steps in the wrong direction—to extend capital’s creeping banalities a centimeter further into our lives. And pretend it’s kicky and liberating. Swell.

As charming as Luddite types are, there’s little evidence that technological advances ever roll backward. So it seems like the good folk rediscovering the joys of kicking up shit in the streets of Seattle and the malls of D.C. might also want to turn their thoughts to the Web, and to imagining how big tech can rethink big issues. In the meantime, the men in the middle keep purring, cozily cradled between you and the fruits of your labors.


Soldiers’ Stories

“What does the world of work demand? Just this: a place in society.” Not a slogan from the barricades of May ’68 in Paris, but from Liège, in 1960. That year, this city in southern Belgium was a flashpoint in a general strike that paralyzed the nation, as workers and government forces clashed in warlike confrontations.

Liège is the home of Jean-Pierre Dardenne; his brother Luc lives in Brussels, about an hour away. For the past 25 years they’ve made the industrial region around the Meuse River, where they were born, the focus of cinematic investigations-first in documentaries about its social history and, more recently, in two extraordinary features, La Promesse (1997) and Rosetta (opening November 5), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival this year. A straight line runs from their earliest work to their latest, for the strikers’ demands from some 40 years ago remain largely unanswered; in Rosetta the same needs fuel the heroine’s frantic, obstinate search for work.

“Employment today is like a game of musical chairs,” says Jean-Pierre Dardenne. “There are seven chairs, and eight people. When the music stops, the person who can’t find a seat is eliminated. So it is with work. The only way to find a job is to take someone else’s. So when Rosetta sets out to look for work, it’s as if she’s going off to war. For her it’s a matter of life or death. She thinks that if she doesn’t find a place in society, she’ll die, she’ll simply cease to exist.”

The Dardenne brothers grew up in Seraing, a working-class town where daily life revolved around the sirens of steel mills and coal mines. “Our school was next to a factory,” Jean-Pierre, who is 48, remembers. “When the wind would blow in a certain direction, the courtyard would fill with red smoke from the steel furnaces, and we’d have to stop playing soccer, because we couldn’t see. So that ambience was something we breathed in, literally.”

In the early ’70s, Luc earned a degree in philosophy, while Jean-Pierre studied acting in Brussels. “I used to bring Jean-Pierre his laundry at school on Saturdays,” the younger brother, now 45, recalls. “His professor, the French director Armand Gatti, worked a lot with nonprofessionals. One day, he said I could join them.”

Inspired by Gatti’s experiments with video, the brothers worked for three months in a cement factory to earn money for a camera and sound equipment, which they quickly put to work in the service of a social vision. “We’d shoot strikes, and show the footage at union meetings,” Jean-Pierre says. “Or we’d go into low-income housing projects and videotape people who’d done something with their lives, who’d been active in the Resistance or the labor movement. On Sundays, we’d find a place in the projects, a garage or an apartment, and we’d show the tapes. We were trying to create links between people through video.”

In the late 1970s, they produced the first of a dozen documentaries for Belgian television. “We said to ourselves, things happened in this country that nobody talks about,” Jean-Pierre recalls. “There had been a Resistance movement against the Nazi occupation-nobody talked about it,” Luc continues. “There had been a huge strike in 1960-same thing. We were motivated by the idea that we had to transmit this history to our generation. Well, with La Promesse and Rosetta, we said, enough of memory-we’re going to take the people of today, and the things of the present.”

The bustling city of their childhood has changed. The steel mills stand empty and rusting; the coal mines are exhausted; downtown has been abandoned to recent immigrants and the people who exploit them. That landscape-a moral universe in disorder-is the setting of La Promesse, in which a young boy is forced to choose between his father, a ruthless black marketeer who traffics in immigrant labor, and his first inklings of conscience.

Rosetta’s geography is as tightly calculated as a battlefield. “We thought of it as a war film,” Jean-Pierre explains. “The town is the front where she battles for a job. Then there’s a kind of no-man’s-land, where the bus lets her off. And when she crosses the highway, and goes through the forest, she enters the trailer park, the rear camp, where she eats, sleeps, and tends to the wounded.” The latter includes her mother, a phantom figure with badly dyed hair, who prefers to drown her pride in alcohol.

“There are 10,000 people living in campsites in Belgium,” Luc explains, “who’ve lost their homes, and can’t get into low-income housing. It’s the last step before homelessness.”

Yet Rosetta transcends mere sociology. For Emilie Dequenne, it’s a story about what it means to be human. “At the beginning, Rosetta is a very absolute, die-hard kind of person,” says the actress. “She wants to break in and find her place in the fortress that is the world. She’s so obsessed with that idea that she becomes a fortress herself. And one day, she realizes that she can no longer be alone. At that point, she becomes a human being.”

In Dequenne’s visceral performance (for which she shared the prize for Best Actress at Cannes), Rosetta’s character is revealed through repeated, unexplained gestures-like pulling on a pair of rubber boots-that are as tense and ritualized as a warrior’s. The boots are meant to protect her from the mud that covers the campsite and, like her mother’s despair, threatens to engulf her.

From its handheld camera-work to its refusal to provide psychological interpretation, the film’s storytelling is as naked and direct as Rosetta’s fight for survival. “Rosellini called it ‘the dry eye’-not too much pathos,” Luc says, citing as reference points the Italian master’s Germany Year Zero as well as Bresson’s simplicity and the arid emotional terrain of Howard Hawks’s Scarface.

This lean, taut style is also a product of a lifelong conversation. “With age, we need to explain much less-so many things are simply understood between us. Like an old couple,” Luc says.

“Of course, as with old couples,” Jean-Pierre adds with a laugh, “sometimes things end in murder.”


Wail Like an Egyptian

Natacha Atlas has a whale (and a wail) of a voice and an instinct for drama and emotion and sensuousness. She’s also able to make her music visual—my friend John calls it “cinematic” and finds himself, while listening, straining his inner eye to see the movie that the music could be a soundtrack to. Her new album Gedida is my favorite because her singing is louder and more dominating, some how (I’m not sure why, since it’s not physically louder unless you turn the volume up), and has her best melodies.

And that in essence is my re view—”sensuous,” “visual,” “melodic”—I mean, for a critic there isn’t much to do with “sensuous” other than to state it and wallow in it. But consumers usually want to know a record’s genre or at least what part of the store to find it in; and there are obvious biographical details that come up in every press kit or artist profile of Atlas that are fun to think about.

Where To Find It in the Store: Look in “International” or “Mideast Fusion” or “World Music” (dismally unpoetic category names, but I haven’t thought of an alternative).

Its Genre: Arab. That’s vague enough, but my point is that, though she pulls styles in from everywhere—reggae bass, British dance beats, European orchestrations—the music is held together by her singing, which is Arab to its core: Arab melodies, Arab pitch, Arab ways of connecting notes, Arab feeling.

In my ignorance I’m perfectly capable of hearing elements as “Western” that in fact are not. For in stance—it’s associations such as these that make me find her music so visual—she uses cheesy skating-rink organ seemingly from my youth (track 10), garage-rock organ seemingly from my adolescence (track four), and soap-opera organ seemingly from my mother’s adolescence (track one). But this is what Atlas told Peter Shapiro in The Wire for April: “I was in a band for a while, just mucking around, but it was more psychedelia—crap really. It was more Doors-influenced really with the organ sound, which you can also hear in Abdel Ha lim Hafez’s music, in the song ‘Mawood,’ which is where I got that influence from.”

Artist Profile: Natacha Atlas spent her childhood in a Moroccan suburb of Brussels—father Jewish, mother of Muslim and Christian de scent, ancestry Moroccan by way of Egypt and Palestine—then moved with her family to Britain as a teenager, then when school was done she went back to Brussels to belly-dance and sing in the Arab quarter, and after that went back to England where she became part of the pan-poly-everything dance-and-world-music bohemia.

So it’s obvious, since she’s such a mixture of experiences and influences, to say that the mixture in her music reflects the mixture in her psyche. But I think it is possible to overemphasize the importance of her mixed heritage, of her place (trans-poly-everything British dance bohemia), and of her time (the global electronic ’90s). Mixing styles is simply what musicians do, whatever their heritage (in The Wire she cites the Rahbani Brothers in ’60s Beirut for combining European film music with Lebanese music); the non bohemian Spice Girls play music that’s as much a mixture as hers, though no one makes a big deal of it (e.g., “Spice Up Your Life,” Bananarama-like unison ski-resort vocals accompanied by Caribbean chords and rhythms); in Indonesia, rock musicians play Arab-sounding melodies in order to proclaim their commitment to Islam. And may be more to the point, Arab music mixes into the heritage of non-Arab music. This dawned on me as I was listening to New York freestyle dance music; I realized that as the music began to sound more Hispanic in the late ’80s it was also sounding more “Middle Eastern”—sliding vocals, mournful melodies, and so on. I attribute this to the Arab-Jewish-Gypsy presence in Spain over a couple millennia.

And even more to the point, in listening to Natacha Atlas I don’t perceive her music as polyglot. If I want I can put on my analysis hat and have fun picking out the various styles—”Animals-like house-of-the-rising-sun organ, then a rap with the guitar doing reggae scratches, then psychedelic guitar (like coals to Newcastle in this Eastern context)…”—but I hear the music as a unity; I hear the songs as songs, in other words, not as amalgams. The range of styles is fundamentally a reflection of her musical instincts—she likes color in her music, and so she’ll use any color she has, from anywhere. On “The Righteous Path” you could say that the Euro-romantic strings return at the end as if they’d only been waiting for an Egyptian voice to call them. But ultimately the ethnic sources of the sounds don’t matter. Just the sounds.

Atlas has led a second life in the ’90s, recording with the dance band Transglobal Underground, which deliberately doesn’t pull its styles together but instead plays them for discontinuities. In this music the styles are on parade: here’s the dub beat, here’s the Arab vocal, here’s the laughing sample, here’s the reggae rap, here’s the giraffe, here’s the elephant, here the Macy’s float. The result is fun but rarely passionate, which ultimately makes the music less fun than Natacha Atlas’s more sober solo work.

Appropriately enough, the one song on Gedida where she attempts to be fun is the one that I don’t like: “Mahlabeya,” which she sings with godawful frenetic cheerfulness. But her other songs are intense cries, of joy and rebirth occasionally, of abandonment and confusion mostly, and as for the way she sings them the former may as well be the latter. Wailing vocals, crying words.

And she makes the passion of sadness very sexy. (Dreiser in Sister Carrie—”As she went on frowning, looking now at one principal and now at the other, the audience began to smile. The portly gentlemen in the front rows began to feel that she was a delicious little morsel. It was the kind of frown they would have loved to force away with kisses.”) I told my girlfriend that Atlas’s singing reminded me of someone having nails driven through her feet, and she replied (she’d lived in the Middle East for several years) that all the women singers sound like that. Let me hasten to add that people tend not to look, act, or feel very sexy when nails are being driven through their feet. At least not in my experience. But nonetheless in music the sound of anguish does it for me. Which says something about Atlas’s sensuousness after all.


International Male

At 35, John Jasperse may be the prodigal son of the American dance family. After graduating from Sarah Lawrence College and performing with Lisa Kraus for two years, he left for Brussels in 1988 to dance with Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s Rosas, commuting home to work with Jennifer Monson. Now based in New York, he’s a savvy international success. His meticulously detailed, intellectual dances haunt and mesmerize viewers. His newest production, Madison as I imagine it, premiered in Utrecht, the Netherlands, April 16; it opens at Dance Theater Workshop May 6, and plays Houston’s Diverse Works in the fall.

“My work situates itself somewhere between American postmodern dance and a tradition of European dance theater,” explains the lanky, soft-spoken artist. His 1995 Excessories, which exploits dancers’ sexual attributes in a dainty, deadpan way, received international acclaim and financial support: $7768.89 at the 1996 Rencontres Internationales Chorégraphiques de la Seine-Saint-Denis (a/k/a the Bagnolet), the $9982.50 choreography prize at the 1997 Suzanne Dellal International Dance Competition in Tel Aviv, and the 1997 Mouson award from Frankfurt, worth $17,295. Even so, he says, “We were hoping to have a fall tour, but it fell apart; the dollar was high, which made us more expensive. We’re not receiving large amounts of state subsidy, so we have to meet costs with performance fees in a way that many companies of our size in Europe don’t.”

In his impeccably decorated Westbeth studio, he converses frankly about the realities choreographers face when operating internationally. He’s shown his work in Mexico and across Europe, has been invited to Japan, has a commission at the American Dance Festival this summer, and another from Israel’s Batsheva. “There is a sense of people seeking the new look. ‘Who is the hot young thing?’ This natural mechanism is a functional part of the presenters’ job. They try to identify artists emblematic of a particular movement. People in Europe have grabbed onto my work because it isn’t as formal as others; it poses certain kinds of questions, and still has qualities familiar to Europe, so there’s a doorway in.”

Jasperse has mixed feelings about his decision to work in New York. Had he remained in Brussels after leaving Rosas in 1989, he’d have had an easier time financially, but, he says, “Other parts of life need focus and attention, and those parts of myself are more easily connected into a New York environment than, say, a small city in Germany.”

The economic situation in Europe—specifically France—leans in Jasperse’s favor now. “For midsized companies doing relatively experimental work, the economy is much more vibrant. Presenters who used to do large-scale projects can no longer afford to do that, and have switched to [less expensive troupes].”

In the U.S., box-office success is a primary concern. Producers attempt to develop audiences by focusing on community interaction and ethnic diversity; Jasperse is a white guy, “and in the climate where there are very limited resources, it is much more difficult for someone doing the work I’m doing.” These decisions, he thinks, filter down through the funding structure.

French artists, he observes, wouldn’t conceive of working without financial support. “They have never done that. I think they’re having a really difficult time because the bottom layer has been decimated in the interest of maintaining the choreographic centers.” Funds are diminished now in France, but in the U.S., “the economic situation is fucked up… Young choreographers work for essentially nothing.” The motivation of young American artists, not the money, holds the dance community here together; in Europe, when the funding is ripped out from under them, choreographers are more likely to quit.

“I’m a very small piece of a very large picture,” says Jasperse. “I can try to make work that has honesty and integrity and hopefully will be evocative to audiences. That’s all I can do.”

Madison as I imagine it attempts to shed light on circumstances that may otherwise seem impossible. Jasperse’s choreographic scenario in the piece may reveal larger, real-life concerns. When two of his dancers find themselves entangled in a mess of string and buckets, he comes to their rescue with a pair of scissors and a pocketful of pennies.


The Winners

A stark irony underpins the title of this Dutch-produced documentary about the often unbridgeable gap between the promise and fulfillment of prodigy. Cohen’s subjects—
two Russian violinists, an American violinist, and a
Russian pianist— are past
winners of Brussels’s Queen Elizabeth Competition; a first-place prize is widely considered the most prestigious accolade in classical music but does not, apparently, guarantee a
stellar career. All four of
these champions went on to middling-at-best success,
variously hampered by illness, depression, bad luck, sheer
indifference, and, for the
Russians, the vagaries of the Soviet regime. Soon after
winning the 1964 competition (even though another member of the Soviet delegation had been “planned” for the prize), pianist Yevgeny Moguilevsky was officially branded
“politically unreliable” and prohibited from leaving his country for 10 years despite
invitations from orchestras around the world.

The disappointments met by the other men are less readily explicable. Violinist Philipp Hirshhorn, who won in 1967 and now exudes stultified self-contempt, simply collapsed under the weight of expectation once he’d emigrated to the West. He now likens his winning performance to artistic deceit: “It seems I did something tricky to convince the jury, like a successful lie.” Scenes in which the bitter, slightly daffy Hirshhorn (who died in 1996) watches 30-year-old footage of his Queen Elizabeth win, scoffing at his broodingly handsome former self, are painful to watch.

The dark, melancholy air
of The Winners unfortunately carries with it a distinct whiff of condescension toward its subjects. I’m not sure what
Cohen is out to prove when his camera gawks at paunchy,
elderly Berl Senofsky while he lumbers about his apartment, knocking over plants as he searches in vain for his Queen Elizabeth medal, or when it stares at Hirshhorn for long intervals between Cohen’s questions. Cohen feels sorry for these men whose lives
never matched their brilliance, but offers little insight into the slow leaking process by which their gifts went to waste. The simplicity and straightforwardness of his approach is too pseudo-objective for such a murky, elusive topic as
genius and its betrayals. At times, Cohen comes off as little more than a pitying voyeur; his subjects have always deserved a better audience.


Brussels Sprouts

Having long lingered in the shadows of Paris, Brussels is now home to a vital if emerging film community. The 10-film
Belgian series “Voice and
Visions” (at the Quad, December 4 through 10) includes eight New York premieres, among them two features by first-time directors in which Belgium appears as land of the lovelorn.

Rosie is set in a no-man’s-land of dour apartment houses and abandoned fields of machinery, where the perennially gray weather colors all the characters’ emotions. Director Patrice Toyne’s sensitive debut film stars newcomer Aranka Coppens as a 13-year-old in juvenile detention for a mysterious crime. With its bedraggled,
understated charm, the film offers a subtle portrait of a young girl’s inner life unraveling.

In Frank Van Passel’s
Manneken Pis, Harry, a young man with a traumatic past and limited ambitions, gets on a tram in Brussels and falls in love with Jeanne, the driver. A comedy that begins with the suicide of a 70-year-old woman, Manneken Pis is decidedly off-kilter, but its deadpan humor and sweet performances are gently appealing.