Invoking “Babylon” in the title of Julien Temple’s documentary on London seems bleak, but it’s really a dare. This is a montage spanning 100 years, from the turn of the 20th century to the 2012 Olympics. Temple splices in anachronistic images and music throughout, so that the future cuts into the past and the past is ever-present. He has a penchant for punk, a subject he’s covered before, and when Edwardian-era suffragettes smash windows to X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” it’s not the first or last time the movie feels like one long music video, something else Temple’s spent time on. T.S. Eliot and William Blake have their say, and a pigeon-capturing lady on the streets gets more screen time than Lady Diana. But this is no crazy quilt. Temple and editor Caroline Richards demonstrate that the London mob (it can seem like there’s been only one mob through the ages) time and again rescues the city from its complacency—and safeguards it from the suffocation of class-bound England. Temple never shirks from the city’s racism, poverty, or unfair policies. Ordinary people, old ones with long memories, and icons like Malcolm McLaren testify to London’s elusive redemption. But Temple doesn’t seem to believe that angry angels will fell this place. Rather, salvation will come from the flowers in the dustbin, and London will thrive as long as its downtrodden can shake a fist.
Punk died, the Silver Jews sang, the first time a kid shouted “Punk’s not dead!” The words are never uttered in Julien Temple’s Joe Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten, and maybe that’s why you come away from this epic doc feeling hopeful about the health of punk’s lingering ideals. Piecing together snippets of everything from Raging Bull to an animated Animal Farm, along with archival scraps, performance clips, and a mosaic of witness testimonies, Temple’s engrossing portrait of the Clash’s late frontman uses endlessly suggestive montage to show how he kept punk’s precepts alive, even after he left the music and eventually the earth itself.
Was there ever any question about Strummer’s cred? Yes, children, depressing as it is to say, people have been arguing what is or isn’t or wasn’t or shouldn’t be punk since Green Day was in Romper Room. The ’70s start, and suddenly you’re not the only one who wears rip-kneed jeans, loves three-chord bubblegum played by knock-kneed Bowery hoodlums, and thinks, “Hey, maybe I could do this, too!” The ’70s end—and suddenly the shapeless horde you found by accident is as regimented and exclusionary as any country club.
A musician in a militantly artless movement, a star who was supposed to disdain celebrity, Joe Strummer didn’t so much embody punk as transcend it. Sure, the Sex Pistols were the bomb throwers—in The Future Is Unwritten, their arrival on-screen is greeted with an explosion. But in Strummer, punk got an ambitious (and unironic) generalissimo with the stage presence, the songwriting skill, and the rhetorical firepower to take the revolt over the barricades. And in the quantum leap from the self-titled Clash album to London Calling, punk got exactly what it wasn’t supposed to have: a future.
The Future Is Unwritten doesn’t smooth over the contradictions in Strummer’s story: It leads with them, intercutting shots of the singer snarling the classic “White Riot”—that electrifying hoarse barrage of accusatory verbal eighth-notes—with glimpses of a fresh-cheeked lad enjoying his well-off boyhood. A career diplomat’s son, the young John Mellor got the best education that posh British schools could provide—in class resentment. He retained the lessons well. Like Bob Dylan, he initially modeled himself on Woody Guthrie, the man whose guitar was a machine that killed fascists.
Temple heralds the awakening of Strummer’s political conscience with the schoolyard uprising of Lindsay Anderson’s If . . . and the meat-grinder chords of the MC5’s “Kick Out the Jams”—a juxtaposition that packs a page’s worth of high/low cultural analysis into a few fleeting frames. In his school days, Strummer says on the soundtrack, he learned “you either formed a gang or were crushed.” After attempts to reinvent himself as a busker and a quasi-rockabilly cat, he found his gang—and with it his destiny as the bullhorn for Britain’s roiling underclass.
Temple—who directed Johnny Rotten & Co. in The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, then made up for it 20 years later with the superior Pistols doc The Filth and the Fury—has compiled the testimony of adoring fans, from the inevitable (Bono, Jim Jarmusch) to the inexplicable (ahoy, Captain Jack Sparrow!). He’s gathered pungent drugs-to-fistfights dish from Clash mainstays Mick Jones, Paul Simonon, and Topper Headon; he’s found sizzling concert clips that chart the band’s bewildered rise to top of the pops, along with their desultory breakup. Factor in the bittersweet triumph that caps Strummer’s story—his success with the roots-rocking Mescaleros after years of indirection, and a surprise Clash mini-reunion before his death in 2002—and the film has all the ingredients for DIY pop hagiography.
But that’s not what Temple ends up with. The Future Is Unwritten is less a eulogy than a wake, and one in which the subject is startlingly present. Strummer started revising his epitaph in the mid-’80s, after his success began to feel like a cosmic joke: He wanted no part of singing “Career Opportunities” to a sold-out stadium, or watching as U.S. bombs labeled “Rock the Casbah” rained on the Middle East. He’s shown here in later years, mellow and heavier, presiding over a different kind of tribal bonding: a campfire ritual at the Glastonbury fest that served as a meeting ground for kindred spirits, much as punk first mustered its ragtag army of squatters and misfits.
These campfires continued after his death and give The Future Is Unwritten its shape as well as its spirit. From Los Angeles to New York to Ireland, friends, family, and fans gather around the fire pit to remember Joe as the glow fades into dawn. It’s Strummer’s own voice—a radio-show track filled with warmth and optimism—that threads together the separate locales, along with snatches of favorite songs. Temple’s punk-bred refusal to identify (and thus privilege) any of his interview subjects on-screen can be maddening. But in the final shots of these makeshift gatherings silhouetted against the lightening sky, the individuals combine into a joyous, vibrant community larger than any one component. As a definition of punk, that probably would have worked for Joe Strummer.
Claire Denis is a sensational filmmaker—with all that implies. Her Beau Travail, opening this week after its well-received local premiere at the New York Film Festival, is a movie so tactile in its cinematography, inventive in its camera placement, and sensuous in its editing that the purposefully oblique and languid narrative is all but eclipsed.
“I’ve found an idea for a novel,” a Godard character once announced. “Not to write the life of a man, but only life, life itself. What there is between people, space . . . sound and colors.” His words might serve as Denis’s manifesto. Her transposition of Herman Melville’s novella Billy Budd to a French Foreign Legion post on the Horn of Africa is a mosaic of pulverized shards. Every cut in Beau Travail is a small, gorgeously explosive shock.
Denis’s main principle is kinesthetic immersion. A former French colonial who spent part of her childhood in Djibouti, she introduces her material with a pan along a crumbling wall mural, accompanied by the legionnaire anthem; this is followed by close-ups of the soldiers dancing with their sultry African dream girls—a vision of sexual glory accentuated by the flashing Christmas lights that constitute the minimalist disco decor—and then by images of the shirtless recruits exercising in the heat of the day to excerpts from Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd oratorio.
The filmmaker’s style is naturally hieroglyphic. There is little dialogue, and although Beau Travail feels present-tense, it is actually an extended first-person flashback. Denis puts her version of the Melville tale of the “handsome sailor” martyred by an evil superior in the villain’s mouth. The movie is narrated by the ex-sergeant Galoup (Denis Lavant), after he has been expelled from the Legion for his mistreatment of the popular and gung-ho recruit Sentain (Grégorie Colin). Short and bandy-legged, with odd aquatic features and a face like a Tom Waits song, Lavant’s Galoup is a figure of pathos. The Legion, if not the legionnaire, he loved is lost to him.
Time drifts, memories flicker. Beau Travail is the recollection of elemental pleasure. The recruits drill under the sun or scramble around the empty fort, when they are not skin diving or performing tai chi. The heat, the disco, the golden beaches, and the turquoise sea suggest a weird sort of Club Med. Apparently crucial to their basic training is the ability to iron a perfect uniform crease. Forestier (Michel Subor), the commanding officer, is fond of chewing the local narcotic, qat. “If it wasn’t for fornication and blood we wouldn’t be here,” he tells someone.
Sentain rescues a downed helicopter pilot and Forestier takes a liking to him, further feeding Galoup’s jealousy. The sergeant orchestrates a situation to destroy Sentain, bringing the recruits to a barren strip of the coast for some character-building convict work, digging a purposeless road or doing their exercises at high noon. (The locals impassively watch these peculiar antics, modernistic hug-fests that might have been choreographed by Martha Graham.) The movie turns wildly homoerotic. Egged on by Galoup, and Britten’s incantatory music, these legionnaires are exalted in their minds. Finally, but without overt cause, Galoup and Sentain stage a one-on-one bare-chested face-off, circling each other on a rocky coast with Britten’s oratorio soaring.
In its hypnotic ritual, Beau Travail suggests a John Ford cavalry western interpreted by Marguerite Duras—Galoup always has time to scribble his obsessions in a diary. As in Billy Budd, the sergeant suckers the enlisted man into the fatal mistake of slugging him. (Typically, the filmmaker handles this crucial incident in four quick shots.) But, unlike Melville, Denis has no particular interest in Christian allegory. She distills Melville’s story to its existential essence. A final visit to the disco finds Galoup flailing out against the prison of self, dancing alone to the Europop rhythm of the night.
Like Denis’s previous films, I Can’t Sleep and Nénette and Boni, her latest is a mysterious mix of artful deliberation and documentary spontaneity. To watch it is to wonder about the process. Are her often elaborate shots generated by the scenes she’s set up? Does she find her structure in the editing room? One thing’s for sure, along with her regular cinematographer, Agnes Godard, Denis always opts for beauty. Beau Travail indeed.
Denis’s fluid impressionism recalls the virtuoso short films—Castro Street and Valentin de las Sierras—made by California avant-gardist Bruce Baillie in the late ’60s. The master of such lyrical montage is, of course, Stan Brakhage, who, after a number of years of painting on film and having apparently recovered from a serious illness, premieres his first long, fully photographic work since the early ’90s this Saturday at Millennium.
The return to photography brings with it a return, however painterly, to narrative. The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him takes the form of a short sea voyage to some scarcely populated land. There are mountains visible in a flat Chinese perspective, but Brakhage never gets very far from the beach. For the better part of an hour, his camera contemplates a range of floating organisms—from seaweed and leaves to seals and (distant) kayaks—or, more often, the rolling surf. The film has a slight stutter-step progression, a reminder perhaps that memory is integral to perception.
Brakhage is always rediscovering creation. His main interest here is the quality of light reflected on water. Some shots manage a half-dozen distinct shades of blue. Others show the surface of the sea as a startling Monet-like pattern of purple and pink. There are no superimpositions and only one brief passage involving a distorting lens. When Brakhage wants to break the spell he introduces a sudden abstracting effect—a full-frame burst of bright red leaves or the striated symmetry produced by rapid panning.
The film’s title (taken from David Copperfield) and Brakhage’s notes suggest that it is a melancholy reverie on mortality; the result, however, is quietly ecstatic.
Julien Temple’s The Filth and the Fury feels familiar and it is—the third feature-length documentary on the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols (in addition to Alex Cox’s estimable Sid Vicious biopic Sid and Nancy) and the second by Temple. The filmmaker might be accused of preaching to the choir were the story not so compelling and the performances so strong. Twenty-three years have scarcely dulled the frisson of Johnny Rotten’s “Anarchy in the U.K.”
Alternating between appreciation and analysis, Temple links the advent of British punk rock to the prole confusion of the mid ’70s, using urban riot footage to set the scene: “The Sex Pistols should have happened and did,” the voiceover announces. Managed by the self-proclaimed Situationist Malcolm McLaren, the band inspired more public antipathy in less time than any act in pop history. The movie’s title is taken from the tabloid headline the morning after their fabulously profane and insulting debut on British TV.
The Filth and the Fury has a proudly cruddy look, and it’s filled with what the Situationists called détournement (“the integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction”). Temple incorporates grainy Super-8 performance footage as well as cartoons from The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle and American concert material from Lech Kowalski’s still scary D.O.A. Repeatedly, he juxtaposes Johnny Rotten with images of Laurence Olivier’s over-the-top Richard III. Suddenly, Rotten’s hunchback stance and hilarious wide-eyed smirk have a classical pedigree.
Temple also places the Sex Pistols in the context of low comics like Norman Wisdom and Benny Hill. “There’s a sense of comedy in the English,” the present-day former Rotten muses. True enough, although more might have been made of the singer’s Irish background. The gleeful glint of madness in Rotten’s taunting performances goes well beyond vulgar pratfall—as does his sometimes sentimental moralizing. Indeed, he all but delivers a punk version of “Danny Boy” when, tearfully recalling the pathetic tale of Sid Vicious, he tells Temple that “only the fakes survive.”