New Directors/New Films Returns to Shatter Expectations

Audiences tend to think of movies as a basically imaginative art — a means of expression by which, to invoke an enduring cliché, anything is possible. But in fact most movies refute the point. It isn’t merely studio genre pictures whose conventions today seem ironclad; the timely advocacy doc, no-budget relationship drama, and lyrical coming-of-age story have in their way become as derivative and predictable as the slasher or the western. Too often banality prevails. Inspiration is scarce. And thus rarely do we go to the multiplex anymore and leave astonished or surprised.

New Directors/New Films, the twelve-day festival mounted annually since 1972 by the Museum of Modern Art and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, arrives, as it does every year, like a cinematic antidote — a potent tonic for the revival of the spirit. “At this point in its long history,” Film Society director of programming (and former Voice film editor) Dennis Lim writes of the fest, “it goes without saying that New Directors/New Films is very much about discovery and revelation.” Indeed it is: Finding what’s new, scouting out the vanguard, is the festival’s raison d’être. New York is richer as a consequence. No local moviegoing event affords so indispensable an occasion for surprise.

Here even a simple logline has the capacity to amaze. Interest could hardly fail to be aroused by The Challenge: Italian artist Yuri Ancarani’s singular documentary is a portrait of billionaire Qatari sheikhs and the amateur falconry (!) that is their peculiar pride and hobby. With recourse to neither narration nor talking heads, Ancarani offers a panoptic view of a landscape that defies reflection or commentary. The sheikhs chart upscale private jets outfitted with custom falcon seating, drive immaculate Ferraris through the desert next to well-behaved cheetahs, race (and gloriously flip) luxury SUVs in and around roadless sand dunes, and, of course, buy, trade, care for, and flaunt their killer birds. Ah, and did I mention the falcons wear GoPros? This is, needless to say, an original film. It is also wildly delightful.

Of course, this desire to pursue the truly original is not without risk. Take Angela Schanelec’s The Dreamed Path, whose inscrutable, radically idiosyncratic style confounded as widely as it charmed when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival’s avant-garde Wavelengths program last September — an event remembered by attendees perhaps as much for its antagonistic audience Q&A (during which bewildered viewers rather angrily demanded that Schanelec explain her intentions) as for the film itself. But this time-leaping, logic-defying drama, in which connections are tenuous and communication often thwarted, always intrigues, however vague its overarching import or elusive its apparent meaning. We should in any case welcome the opportunity to be challenged and frustrated by a movie. For every answer unprovided by Schanelec, a question fruitfully lingers.

The Dreamed Path is a bifurcated romance divided obliquely across time and place, one that brings to mind the playful approach to structure favored by Korean master Hong Sang-soo. And the influence of Hong, incidentally, looms unmistakable over Autumn, Autumn, the boozy, breezy second feature from young director Jang Woo-jin. But while Jang borrows much from the vaunted poet laureate of soju and sadness — late-night beer-fueled confessions, poorly conceived trips into and out of town, even awkward discussions over barbecue — he evinces an aesthetic panache and eye for detail entirely his own. (One wide shot in particular, of a character pinned in silhouette against the Chuncheon skyline, is uniquely stunning.) The film has a searching quality, doleful and true, that distinguishes it not only from Hong’s justly cherished oeuvre, but from a whole range of delicate indie comic-dramas to which it might otherwise be superficially compared.

Comparisons of all kinds, no doubt, will soon enough dog Beach Rats, which follows the adventures of a young man doomed to root out the true nature of his sexuality in a milieu organized implicitly to suppress it. There are worse shadows to languish in than a universally beloved Best Picture winner’s, to be sure, but it would prove a disservice to director Eliza Hittman’s accomplishment to leave it at “Moonlight on Coney Island.” Much like Hittman’s superb debut feature — the exquisite and assured It Felt Like LoveBeach Rats homes in with diaristic intimacy on adolescence in flux, cleaving so closely to its teenage subject that we seem to share his emotional space.

The teenager in question is Frankie (London theater actor Harris Dickinson, outrageously good in his first film role), an indolent, dope-smoking Adonis who’s begun to develop an appetite for cruising. Hittman follows his first tentative initiatives, as well as his more perfunctory efforts to fit in and fly straight (so to speak), with a tender and utterly nonjudgmental omniscience. She’s attuned to the delights of Frankie’s self-discovery as much as to its attendant peril, and her camera — roving, caressing, gazing back on him as in a selfie — seems to identify the difference between fleeting encounters both thrilling and treacherous, even when Frankie himself cannot. It is a film about trying to find yourself. Its secret is that not everybody does.

Finally, Dustin Guy Defa’s Person to Person might seem an odd choice for the program, if only because neither director nor film is precisely new. Defa had a marvelous short film of the same name screen as part of New Directors/New Films in 2014, one about a charismatic Brooklyn record collector (Bene Coopersmith) and the obstinate twentysomething (Deragh Campbell) who refuses to vacate his couch; the feature is a kind of long-form expansion on the same setting, style, and themes, and though Campbell is mysteriously (and regrettably) absent, Coopersmith happily returns to reprise his (I suspect not overly fictionalized) role. The short was a charming hors d’oeuvre. The full-course feature is sublime.

This begins at the level of casting. Defa has assembled a staggering troupe: There are indie-canon luminaries (Michael Cera, Philip Baker Hall), fashionable television stars (Broad City‘s Abbi Jacobson), and a number of minor actors and nonprofessionals whose obscurity and inexpertise don’t begin to suggest the prodigious volume of their talent. Indeed the film’s two standout performances come from the least likely sources: Tavi Gevinson, founder and editor of Rookie magazine, practically embodies Falconetti reincarnated, invigorating with near-miraculous depth and fervor every frame in which she appears; she is ludicrously, stupefyingly good, and Defa’s close-ups — of just her face, thinking, feeling — simply devastate. Coopersmith, meanwhile, remains a wonder. Any minute this man is on a movie screen is a minute’s more joy bestowed upon the world. Defa has found in this makeshift star a treasure.



MoMA Explores the Rise of the Avant-Garde in Bolshevik Russia

It’s a withering irony of the human condition that decimation often lays the foundation for progress. In the early twentieth century, as it endured the ruinous repercussions of brutal and unrelenting political and ideological struggles, Russia also witnessed electrifying cultural innovation. The spirit of the avant-garde was alive and thriving. Out with the old, in with the new. The revolution wasn’t only in the streets. It was in paint and ink, on paper and celluloid.

To mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution, Museum of Modern Art curators Roxana Marcoci and Sarah Suzuki, together with Hillary Reeder, organized “A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde,” a succinct yet marvelous exhibition that makes vivid the full force and reach of the rebellious minds and hands working between 1912 and 1935. Although these artists will always stir the air in their own right, right now they pose a question and perhaps offer a model, too: In the midst of political upheaval — in the violent shaking of the social order, whether outmoded or outvoted — how might an artist be?

Friction. Destruction. Invention. Vision. Though there was a shared desire to topple tradition, there was no consensus as to how this might look. In the early 1910s, artists such as Lyubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, and Kazimir Malevich were dabbling in cubo-futurism and neo-primitivism, lively if strained hybrids of modernist gestures borrowed in part from Western European counterparts such as Picasso and Braque. (The delight of seeing a work like Malevich’s Samovar, from 1913, is knowing what would follow from the artist, at that point painting in a cubist-manqué style.)

“We leave the old art to die and leave the ‘new’ art to do battle with it,” wrote Natalya Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov in their 1913 manifesto, “Rayonists and Futurists.” Rayonism declared itself free of debts to the past and the present, forging an aesthetic rooted in “the reflected rays of various objects, forms chosen by the artist’s will.” In other words, its canvases were dominated by strokes and colors applied in rays, vigorous attacks that produced dense, vibrant abstractions to dissolve the distance between viewer and artwork.

In 1915, while Russia was embroiled in the horrors of World War I, Malevich notoriously declared “the supremacy of pure sensation” — suprematism — as the way forward for art, embracing abstraction over representation and distilling art into its most essential components: line, color, form. Why illustrate a subject when instead an artist could capture and impart its feeling? Although Malevich appears and reappears throughout the exhibition, one wall is dedicated to these earliest experiments: cool compositions of geometries — square, circle — that were supposed to elicit great feeling.

Image wasn’t everything. The written word was central to the avant-garde movements. The manifesto, the poem, the journal, the poster, the newsletter: all communiqués, often collaborations, meant to articulate and circulate ideas, sometimes to small circles, at other times more widely. From the futurists came zaum (“ZA-oom”), loosely translated as “trans-sense” or “beyonsense,” a mode of poetry that abstracted language, messy medium that it is, plucking at words not for meaning but for sound. Here in the exhibition, we “hear” zaum via humble yet stunning handmade books by its practitioners. Of particular note: Varvara Stepanova’s 1919 poem “Gaust Chaba,” which she wrote in watercolor, gouache, and crayon on newspaper — her colorful and fluid-handed “beyonsense” floating over the regimented black type of the broadsheet — transmits at least one message clearly. News reports on the world, while zaum seeks to transcend it. (It must be noted that it is thrilling to see women artists so central to an era. The Russian avant-garde feels far more advanced than the modernists for this reason alone.)

After the revolution of 1917, Lenin encouraged artists to support the new Marxist regime by creating art in the spirit of this new vision. Having initially embraced the power of total abstraction, the constructivists — led by Aleksandr Rodchenko and Vladimir Tatlin — took on the challenge of how to bring their ideas from the margins to the masses. They embraced popular forms, ones that could transmit news of the new more widely than a painting or a sculpture ever could. Film, photography, scenic design, posters, porcelain, children’s books: These were the media that would herald the dawn of the Soviet Union.

Rodchenko’s photographs — the canted angles, the foreshortened perspectives — estrange viewer from subject just enough so that the eye looks a little longer before it sees. The exquisitely collaged film posters by the Stenberg brothers (Vladimir and Georgii) likewise announce a new way of seeing. And perhaps most important of all, though represented least well here, are the Soviet filmmakers, whose lasting contributions to cinema cannot be overstated. Here in the galleries, clips from Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), and other greats are looped and projected onto the walls, reducing them to a purely graphic experience. Although frustrating, this does keep these artists inside the arc of the story rather than quarantined in a movie theater. Filmmaker Esther Shub was a pioneer of the compilation film, which she edited together from found newsreel. Her most famous, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), is the first work in the show, and sets the tone for what’s to come. Made for the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, the film weaves a pro-Bolshevik narrative by juxtaposing images from the opulent lives of the Romanovs with those of the violence and despair of the country.

The exhibition ends in 1935, when Stalin’s administration announced that socialist realism would be the only sanctioned style of Soviet art. Artists were tasked with the glorification of communism in a representational style that felt closer to life. Ideas gave way to image-making, and image-making curdled into propaganda — what we now call “alternative facts.” Such is the other irony of the human condition: We not only write our own fates, but we paint, sculpt, photograph, and film them too.

‘A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde’
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through March 12



Feast of Restoration: An Abundance of Discoveries Live Again on MoMA’s Screens

The fourteenth edition of “To Save and Project,” MoMA’s august rescue mission, arrives with the usual bounty; showcased this year are forty-plus newly restored (many digitally) features and shorts from thirteen countries. After sampling the titles available for preview, I plan to make return trips to West 53rd Street in the next few weeks for more cine-gorging, to catch the films not available by press time.

As in previous iterations, TSAP ’16 boasts a handful of pre-Code rarities, such as Tom Buckingham’s Cock of the Air (1932), a frothy Continental romp centering on Parisian stage goddess Lilli de Rousseau (Billie Dove), whose décolletage proves so distracting to various heads of state assembled in the French capital that she is asked to leave her homeland as a “patriotic duty.” She fulfills it by heading to Italy, where she seduces — and bedevils — military pilot Roger Craig (Chester Morris), a libertine unaccustomed to being told no. The erotic push-pull between these two supremely self-regarding individuals is illustrated with kinky touches: Lilli’s fondness for donning a suit of armor and Roger’s attempts to disrobe her with a can opener; his predilection for wearing nothing but a perilously secured towel around his waist and for administering some light s/m on his beloved. Lewd violence also pops up in John Ford’s The Brat (1931) in the form of a lengthy, class-clashing tussle between a peewee Gotham street urchin (Sally O’Neil) and a lithe, soignée aristo (Virginia Cherrill).

Other types of battles — of wills — surface in the MoMA series. Completed early in his career — a decade before Hitler: A Film From Germany (1977), his notorious Gesamtkunstwerk — Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s Romy: Anatomy of a Face (1967) reveals his fascination with outsize individuals and their myths. This hour-long, made-for-TV documentary about Romy Schneider, the Austro-French gamine, twenty-seven at the time, finds its subject chafing at her celebrity — and being put on the defensive by the director. In Romy‘s first half, Syberberg tracks the star on a ski holiday in Kitzbühel, the luxe Austrian resort town, silent footage that is accompanied primarily by the sounds of Schneider’s off-screen colloquies with the filmmaker. The sight of the actress seemingly carefree in a gondola lift clashes with the creeping anxiety in her voice. “I have lost this burning ambition,” she laments, only to mock herself a few minutes later: “This is so typically German, the famous ‘sky-high rejoicing’ or ‘despair of death.’ ”

For Romy‘s second part, sound and vision are in sync: In between cigarette puffs and sips from a Champagne coupe in a fireplace-lit room, the actress shows flashes of rage at Syberberg, who’s still off-camera; she becomes especially tetchy when he asks about the films she made as a teenager and when he wonders, with just a hint of disdain, which roles she might like to play onstage (“But I can’t make my debut with Shakespeare — that would be madness!”). A biting dissection of the labor and dissembling required to become a legend, Romy reminded me of another chronicle of a German-speaking screen deity, Maximillian Schell’s Marlene (1984; not in TSAP), in which Dietrich refuses to be photographed.

Near the end of Romy, the star, her hair a bit mussed, appears slightly in her cups; at the beginning of Andy Warhol’s Drunk a/k/a Drink (1965), the subject — far-left documentary filmmaker Emile de Antonio — is already blitzed. Unseen for more than fifty years, Warhol’s project originated at the Russian Tea Room with de Antonio’s reluctant proposal for a collaboration: He’d drink an entire quart of scotch in twenty minutes while the pop artist’s camera rolled. The stout documentarian sits on the Factory’s filthy floor, looking mischievously into the lens while adding more ice to his tumbler of J&B. Silent at first, de Antonio grows ever more garrulous, the torrent of words pouring out of him — some in French, some in Latin — decreasing in coherence while increasing in combativeness. “Anyone who isn’t paranoid, I’ll give them a karate chop across the neck. I want ice. I want soda. I want reality. Is there any reality left, Andy?” de Antonio bleats near the end of the first 33-minute reel. By the second (and final) one, speech is impossible, as is the ability to sit up; lying on his back, twitching, and mumbling unintelligibly, de Antonio looks and sounds like a giant toddler trying to fight off a nap.

A Warhol-scholar friend recently described Drunk a/k/a Drink as “an alcohol snuff film,” and there are moments when witnessing de Antonio’s growing helplessness becomes excruciating. The pope of pop considered the film part of a trilogy with his Sleep (1963) and Eat (1964). Yet with its emphasis on its subject’s extreme, almost unbearable vulnerability, Drunk a/k/a Drink suggests a diptych with Warhol’s Blow Job (1964; not in the series), which features a 35-minute close-up of a man who’s being fellated below the frame, his face contorting into grimaces of agony and ecstasy as he climaxes.

Some oral servicing makes it way into TSAP, too: In Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus (1979), a phantasmagoric marvel of lysergically colored hand-drawn animation (and other elements), the spring vegetable is deep-throated before transforming into a cascade of water, a flow of shiny candies, an explosion of stars and firecrackers. Before looking at the lineup for “To Save and Project,” I shamefully had never heard of Pitt. MoMA’s invaluable series ensures that her work, along with that of so many others here, will be discovered (or rediscovered) for years to come.

‘To Save and Project: The 14th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation’
November 2–23


Best Repertory Film Venue for seeing Audience Members Fight About Theater Etiquette

New York remains second only to Paris among the best cities in the world for repertory filmgoing. The city’s temples of revival cinema attract all ages and all stripes of cinephiles — and all levels of mental stability and rage control. Among the fortresses of moviedom’s past, MoMA has the particular distinction of offering its spectators the possibility of witnessing a bare-knuckle brawl. Twice last year at two of the museum’s theaters, altercations, both involving the same person, nearly escalated into physical violence during films that could not have been more incongruous given the bloodlust they almost inspired: the Ginger Rogers–starring marital melodrama Kitty Foyle (1940) and Cover Girl (1944), a Technicolor musical with Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. At issue was the instigator’s perceived lack of decorum among his seatmates — too much talking during the former, not turning off a smartphone during an introduction for the latter. And yet, as alarming as it was to witness this unhinged behavior (both that of the antagonist and the antagonized), there was something perversely admirable about how far one movie-mad viewer was willing to go to preserve…his movie madness. 

11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan



MoMA’s Unblinking Look at the Refugee Crisis

What is shelter? For thousands of refugees and migrants who have made their way to northern France in recent years, clustering in encampments as they wait for a way to reach Britain, it has meant makeshift structures in often squalid settings. Three images shot near Calais by Dutch photographer Henk Wildschut, part of “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter,” at the Museum of Modern Art, show refugee habitation at its most precarious: tent-like dwellings made of tarps, rags, and bits of wood, one set in a mud field.

Beside this stark triptych hangs a very different depiction of refugee shelter. A tapestry by the National Union of Sahrawi Women, in collaboration with the Swiss firm Manuel Herz Architects, it presents a map of Rabouni, a camp in the Algerian desert and capital-in-exile of the Sahrawi Republic, which advocates independence for the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. Rabouni was set up in 1976; the weavers are refugees, to be sure, but also long-term residents of what has become a town. Indeed, the map shows the location of the market, the school, various government ministries — even a museum.

“Insecurities” is a timely, albeit slightly scattered, take on a vast, urgent subject. There are 65.3 million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), according to 2015 data from the United Nations — the most on record. Many have been refugees for decades, but the crisis has lately found heightened visibility through images of the Syrian civil war, of frail overcrowded boats adrift in the Mediterranean, of dreary processions across Europe on foot. Where refugees arrive, the question of shelter arises. What does it look like? How does it address safety and dignity?

Through photography, installations, and artifacts from the field, “Insecurities” looks for answers in art and design. A map of Syria and its neighbors by Vietnamese artist Tiffany Chung registers, with red and yellow dots in varying densities, the number and location of refugees on a given day in 2013. Part of Chung’s cartographic “Syrian Project,” shown at last year’s Venice Biennale, it is paired with a dozen light boxes taken from her series “finding one’s shadow in ruins and rubble,” featuring sepia images of the city of Homs, from buildings shattered by bombardment to streets strewn with rubble. These remind us of the starting point: the launch of the refugee’s odyssey.

Nearby, a wall shows a grid of 42 photos of migrants at sea, versions of a familiar visual (dark bodies, blue water, clear danger), compiled by New York–based artist Xaviera Simmons back in 2010. There are almost no other direct depictions of human beings in the show. Instead, says curator Sean Anderson, the emphasis is on place. “It was a choice: What we don’t see are people,” Anderson says. This averts what he calls the “choreography” often found in refugee photojournalism. More bluntly, it protects against poverty-porn exploitation. It also tilts the exhibition’s formal balance toward architecture and design.

Indeed, the show’s strongest theme is shelter and its variants. Along with the works by Wildschut and the Sahrawi women (each, too, excerpted from a series), a layout of twenty photos and diagrams shows staggering range. Shatila, the old Palestinian camp in Beirut, photographed by David Brunetti, is fully urban, with multi-story buildings and tangled power lines. Turkey’s Nizip II, shot by Tobias Hutzler, is an expanse of shipping containers set like barracks in straight lines. A photo by Gordon Welters shows a field of cubicle-like spaces inside a hangar at Berlin’s decommissioned Tempelhof airport.

Then there are the innovations: photos of DOMO mega-tents by More Than Shelters; elegant, prefabricated Moving Schools, in Thailand, by Building Trust International; Rwandan shelters made of paper stretched on wood frames by the starchitect Shigeru Ban. There are diagrams, too, for new quick-deploy shelters: One, by Suricatta Systems, stretches like an accordion; another, by Suisse Studio, is a foldable private pod.

In the middle of the room stands one actual shelter, which was designed for the Ikea Foundation, the furniture giant’s philanthropic arm, and which ships in the familiar flatpack. It’s a mini-house with an internal partition, windows, and a door that latches, affording privacy and multiple uses: dwelling, office, field clinic. The wall text explains that more than ten thousand of these units have shipped since last year. Left out are the critiques: notably, how the city of Zurich discarded its batch after they failed a fire safety test.

Other artifacts are scattered about: a UNICEF tarp, an arm-measurement band from medical group Médecins Sans Frontières, school-in-a-box field kits. A walkable floor projection by Dutch
studio Submarine Channel diagrams a refugee camp with descriptions of the activities that take place in it, and comes with an interactive digital installation. The point of these seems to be public
education; fair enough. More distracting is a large piece by Reena Saini Kallat that uses a weave of electric wire to depict migrant routes across a world map, though some major flows — for instance, West Africa to Europe — are curiously missing. The map includes circuit boards and speakers and emits a soundtrack of hums, birdcalls, and sirens that fills the room. It would make more sense in a larger show.

“Insecurities” feels like a promising start. It invites, at the least, a fuller investigation of design for humanitarian settings — a busy field in architecture, with plenty of debate — as well as a broader panorama of art responses to forced displacement, including by the displaced subjects themselves. There is also an opportunity to involve the United States, which is represented here, oddly, only by one of Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs of a migrant mother. Linking, for example, the experience of Hurricane Katrina — America’s own IDP crisis, with its FEMA trailers and rebuilding experiments — to those evoked in this show would better underscore that the challenges of emergency shelter implicate everyone in a world of conflict, inequality, and ecological peril.

‘Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter’
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through January 22


Confront the Paranormal in ‘5-D’ at MoMA

“I’ve always been interested in thought systems, occult, magical thinking,” Tony Oursler said in an interview with artist-photographer Sarah Trigg for her book Studio Life: Rituals, Collections, Tools, and Observations on the Artistic Process. “How do certain people go from having a straight job to all of a sudden believing they’re going to fly on a comet tail, like the members of the Hale-Bopp cult? How does that happen? And somehow it’s connected to art — this belief in a system of transcendence.”

In Oursler’s latest installation, the feature-length video Imponderable, the artist takes on the subjects of art and magical thinking, weaving a story out of threads pulled from his own family history. The artist’s grandfather was the writer Fulton Oursler, who worked with magician and escape artist Harry Houdini in the Twenties to debunk spirit mediums — those who claimed they could speak to the dead — as charlatans. The plot thickens with the appearance of characters including his grandmother, the screenwriter Grace Perkins; author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; infamous spirit medium Mina “Margery” Crandon; and more. Over the course of ninety minutes, we watch Fulton and Houdini each take on popular pseudosciences — spirit photography and telekinesis among them — as Doyle and Crandon stump for the existence of supernatural realities that defy rational thought. Exhibited alongside selections from the artist’s formidable collection of dark-arts ephemera (including a letter from Doyle to Fulton Oursler; photographs of the author surrounded by an ectoplasm; the robe Crandon wore when holding séances; and an early-twentieth-century “spirit horn,” used to amplify voices of visiting souls), the video in essence pits believers and doubters against one another to see which side wins out — which side, one might say, transcends.

Imponderable is presented in “5-D,” a delightfully clever combination of screen projection with what Holmes might call more elementary illusions: a Pepper’s Ghost–inspired rig by which additional images are layered onto glass in front of the screen, and IRL theatrical tricks that playfully dissolve the lines between Oursler’s projected world and our own. (During the screening, fans occasionally turn on, blasting cool breezes into the theater; an overhead black light causes audience members to glow during a séance sequence; a loud banging shakes the seats as spirits rise onscreen.)

The push-pull between belief and doubt is also embedded in the uncool-cool art-world DIY style of the video itself, which is deliberately goofball and flat-footed, putting all its seams on view. Artifice is the real star of the show. The sets are built, or half-built, so that we sometimes catch glimpses of the world “offstage”; other scenes play out before backdrops constructed of composited images. The special effects (such as they are) are loose-handed and awkward, and the actors — some accomplished, some novices — all adopt a semi-self-conscious performance style (some even recite their lines from offscreen cue cards). In other words, all is to be seen, but not to be believed.

Which is too bad. For all the impish delight Oursler takes in devising his video and its installation — and for the staggering breadth and depth of his knowledge regarding his subjects — he ultimately debunks his own artwork right before our very eyes. Why? In part, perhaps, because he wishes to remind us of the simple facts of fiction. Or, as Fulton Oursler loudly declares in the video: “This image is a complete impostor!” But we in the 21st century are well aware that images are impostors, as are magicians and artists — and that this is part of their value, their presence. All dupe the eye into seeing things that aren’t there, boring portals in the real world for us to slip through to other dimensions, if only momentarily. Belief in an elsewhere is a strange thing, of course, slip-sliding between balm and delusion. What would it mean if Imponderable had suspended its audience in a transcendent moment between pure reason and a grand illusion, rather than settle in the safe space of artful knowingness? In the end, belief is a much more mysterious, more alluring experience. I myself would have preferred to see more magic, and fewer tricks of the trade.

Tony Oursler: Imponderable
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through January 8


A Monumental Film From Japan Finds Majesty in the Mundane

The word communication is uttered frequently in Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s spellbinding Happy Hour, a film that devotes much of its epic length to showing how emotions are conveyed and dissembled, whether verbally or nonverbally. Running nearly five and a half hours, Hamaguchi’s movie foregrounds the quotidian, revealing the latent drama in the most seemingly mundane moments.

Set in Kobe, Japan, Happy Hour centers on a quartet of female friends in their late thirties. The foursome is first seen riding a funicular to a hilltop picnic spot, their smiles and laughter during their ascent signaling their rapport. Jun (Rira Kawamura) is the fulcrum of the group, having introduced Sakurako (Hazuki Kikuchi), her pal of 25 years, to Fumi (Maiko Mihara) and Akari (Sachie Tanaka). When not focusing on the dynamics (and occasional fissures) among this coterie, Happy Hour concentrates on each member’s domestic and professional life in scenarios that introduce an expanding constellation of spouses, exes, in-laws, children, co-workers, crushes, rivals, and fleeting acquaintances. Like the protagonists, all of the minor characters, regardless of the screen time allotted them, are fleshed out with an abundance of piquant detail; no player in Happy Hour is insignificant or unmemorable.

Reportedly, Hamaguchi, who wrote Happy Hour with two others, developed the project through workshops with a cast of mostly first-time actors; the resulting alchemy leads to a superbly wrought ensemble performance. Though Hamaguchi’s is a film in which banal actions are imbued with grace — even the hanging up and removing of laundry from a patio clothesline kept me rapt — Happy Hour does have set pieces, showstoppers of a sort that play out almost in real time. The first of these sequences, occurring roughly half an hour in, involves a workshop with the highly unpromising title “Listen to Your Center,” held at the arts-and-events center where Fumi is a curator. For about 45 thoroughly absorbing minutes, we watch as the four friends and a dozen or so strangers engage in intimate exercises: standing forehead to forehead, placing an ear on another’s belly.

“It was nice to touch each other for no apparent reason,” Jun says afterward at a dinner honoring the seminar leader, Ukai (Shuhei Shibata), an ostensibly virtuous man later revealed to be a bit of a pickup artist. The observation — so moving in its simplicity and accuracy — is made by the character who suffers the most in Happy Hour; Jun’s marital crisis has ripple effects on her confidantes, prompting them to assess their own conjugal contentment. Funny (sometimes caustically so), rueful, and bracingly honest, Happy Hour is also a movie defined by an unshakeable belief that any encounter holds the promise of magic. As Jun says to a woman she’s just met on a bus: “There are so many wonderful people. It’s harder not to like somebody.”

Happy Hour
Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi
MoMA, August 24–30


Dada, Remediated: A Self-Portrait of the Anti-Art Movement, Two Ways

One hundred years ago, amid the devastation of WWI’s trench warfare, Dada — the political, absurdist avant-garde art movement that flourished from around 1916 to the mid-1920s — was born among artists and writers in Paris, New York, Zurich, and Cologne as a critique of the brutality, nationalism, censorship, authoritarianism, and conformity of the times. Dedicated to creating critical, hyper-contemporary, chance-based collaborative works that flew in the face of conventional notions of art, Dadaists made “anti-art” instead.

Any formal exhibition about Dada, therefore, is bound to reveal a contradiction. Outside the opening of MoMA’s 1968 exhibition “Dada, Surrealism and Their Heritage,” the Times reported, were “300 hippies” protesting with signs that read, “Surrealism means revolution, not spectator-sports.” And yet, according to “Dadaglobe Reconstructed,” now at MoMA, Dada’s fierce though often playful interrogation of what appears in a museum remains within the discourse of, and therefore belongs within, a museum — as co-curator and Dada scholar Adrian Sudhalter explained at the exhibition’s opening.

“Dadaglobe Reconstructed” is premised on an unrealized 1921 anthology, a 160-page magnum opus called Dadaglobe spearheaded by poet and Dada co-founder Tristan Tzara. Though never completed, the project spurred the creation of many Dadaist works, some of them iconic today. The exhibit now reunites — after six years of archival sleuthing by Sudhalter — over a hundred of those works by more than forty artists from all over the globe.

This book-turned-exhibit shows just how steeped Tzara’s project was in the idea of remediation, the translation of a work from one genre or medium to another — as was Dada itself. In his call for submissions, Tzara instructed the contributor to send: 1) a photo of his head (“which you can alter freely, although it should retain clarity”); 2) two or three photos of his works; 3) three or four black-and-white drawings (one could be colorful, but using no more than three colors — due to constraints on printing); 4) or, in place of a color drawing, a designed book page (“Every page must explode,” Tzara decreed).

The clever, often delightful, responses to these instructions now hang on the walls of MoMA. Sophie Taeuber’s photographic portrait includes a wooden head, half-concealing her own face — a striking answer to Tzara’s request for clarity. (Similarly, Theo van Doesburg, a/k/a I.K. Bonset, is photographed with the back of his head facing the camera, “Je suis contre tout et tous” scrawled over him like a halo.) The portraits are witty, irreverent — and even many of the other submissions feel like portraits, of the artists and of the movement: George Grosz’s Dadabild (1919), in which a man’s legs and head become “dada dadada,” in various repetitions and typefaces, emphasizes how this titular word is at once the language of every nation and none.

The occasional sculpture sits atop its pedestal, but the exhibit most closely examines Dada’s preoccupation with text: letters and literary submissions, including poems and Tzara’s solicitations. (A choice sample: Man Ray writes to Tzara, “All New York is dada, and will not tolerate a rival.”) Dadaglobe the anthology was to have been a self-portrait of Dada. At its best, the exhibit helps us reimagine the movement’s radical media mix at a time when we’re so saturated with assembled images that we no longer see the seams.

Photograph of Höch’s <i>Dada Puppets</i> (1920)

Another recent Dadaist adaptation, meanwhile, goes the opposite way. A new book has been made from the final work of Hannah Höch, one of Dada’s few female artists. Her largest photo-collage, made in 1972–73, Life Portrait is self-referential, including images of Höch as a baby and at age 83, as well as pieces from collages made throughout various stages in her career. Each spread pairs images cropped from the larger work with text by art historian Alma-Elisa Kittner that offers historical and biographical context.

While Life Portrait was created well after Dada, the style of photomontage Höch helped to pioneer during the movement’s heyday remains front and center. Monochrome photographs of herself, and of the tiny objects she collected, are cut and placed among photos of plants, animals, furniture, outer space, and disembodied eyes and lips, and then pasted over colorful, abstract collages. Images of important figures in Höch’s personal life also appear — like Raoul Hausmann, fellow artist and self-named “Dadasoph,” with whom she had a long affair. Decades later, the look and feel has become familiar, and it’s a treat to see how Höch originated the form.

Flipping through the book, Life Portrait, originally a single four-by-five-foot piece, at times feels too expansive to be contained between two covers. I found myself wishing I could see it displayed as it was originally — whole, imposing, overwhelming.

And yet it was Höch herself who divvied it up: She’d separated it into 38 parts and planned to publish a book about the project herself. Motifs from the collage were to appear with excerpts from conversations between Höch and her collaborators, the photographers Liselotte and Armin Orgel-Köhne. (The new book is based on these old plans.) Either way, Life Portrait is visual autobiography, the ultimate self-portrait — a refraction of the artist through many eras of work and life, made by a woman in a male-dominated field (her work, Kittner tells us, was not widely received until the 1960s).

“I think that every artist gifted with fantasy is obsessed by some ever recurring ideas,” Höch said in 1959 — and if Life Portrait at times feels solipsistic, it’s worth recognizing that this final project was simultaneously an archive of society, culture, and history. Another portrait of the artist, A Thousand Greetings From Italy (1920), on view at MoMA, shows her young and unsmiling, but with the hint of a daydream in her eyes, surrounded by simple red doodles and the names of Italian cities. The work is of a piece with both Life Portrait and Tzara’s earlier anthology, and while it may not have wound up in either, it clearly belongs in the reconstructed “Dadaglobe.”

‘Dadaglobe Reconstructed’
11 West 53rd Street
Through September 18

Hannah Höch: Life Portrait
Introduction and text by Alma-Elisa Kittner
Photographs by Orgel-Köhne
96 pp., The Green Box


A Man Swallows the World: Bruce Conner’s Jumbled Truth Rages On at MoMA

Bruce Conner, that cheerful iconoclast of postwar American art, was also its greatest glutton. The current retrospective at MoMA is a shrine to his appetite. All the fatty morsels of American culture — our sexual hangups and our dances with death, the people and packages we swap and sell and pulp and discard — are here mashed and swallowed, warped into aesthetic objects by the fizzing metabolism of Conner’s sensibility. An event or concept will be fed to him (nuclear apocalypse, the Kennedy
assassination, punk) only to be fused with everything else into a lump of jumbled form. Little surprise that he was an early champion of assemblage and found-footage film: They bespeak a compulsion to consume, to masticate, to be nourished and replenished by the sheer mass of things that clog our sensorium. His was
an aesthetics of digestion: art as gut.

I knew of him, mainly, for his films. A MOVIE (1958) opens the exhibition, as it should. Conner’s first attempt at cinema,
it was a bugle call for the genre of found-footage film (a genre to which REPORT (1963–67), a deconstruction of the Kennedy assassination, is perhaps his most jarring and noted contribution). But that first film makes a bold wager: What if all the flashing pictures of American life could be stapled together? What if B-movie cowboys could be slotted in with ethnographic film and old newsreels, those sundry particles of
visual culture whose only common quality is that they move?

Sometimes the music is dainty woodwinds, sometimes pompous brass; in each case, the soundtrack locks Conner’s clips into place, where they butt up against cinematic cliché. Juxtapositions tickle and provoke — or they undo themselves, becoming dialectical montages whirling out of joint. A stomping elephant finds its echo in galloping Indians. A mushroom cloud rises slowly out of the sea, an ashen bloom of annihilating grandeur, but the scene is cut short by a clip of a surfer wiping out, and then another, and then another. There’s a wicked little rhyme here — the froth of a wave meets
the blast of the bomb — but this is no
flippant symmetry or snickering deflation. A MOVIE tests the limits of the film form: Reality isn’t dissolved by the moving image, but seems to congeal around it. As jagged fragments of the culture (water skiers,
canoers, a woman peeling off her nylons) are laid alongside a vision of man-made
Armageddon, our task becomes clear: how to order, or even apprehend, precisely the world we might so haughtily destroy?

Much of Conner’s work seems to
ricochet between those two poles: the shattered piles of actuality and a vision of the End. CROSSROADS (1976) is an awed, solemn film, composed of footage of the American government’s infamous nuclear bomb tests carried out at Bikini Atoll
beginning in 1946. The climbing smoke here has a balletic elegance. It seems, in fact, a bit abstract, banishing everything but its own doleful, looming form. The mushroom cloud as symbol, as concept,
or even (in that century of gleaming
capitalist accumulation) as logo.

<i>RATBASTARD</i> (1958)

There were other mushrooms, of course. Conner will always be considered a San Francisco artist — at a nose-thumbing distance from the pomp and protocol of New York. Psychedelia, the Beats, a certain breed of goofy Orientalism: All our caricatures of California seem to converge on this odd, blond man. Never mind that he came from Kansas or had close ties with members of the New York avant-garde (like the poet Lionel Ziprin and the artist Harry Smith). I imagine him as something of a trickster deity, springing up naughtily to announce his own death (which he did) or to scour the phonebook for people named Bruce Conner (which he also did) or to paint the word “LOVE” in the middle of the street. (See the
photograph LOVE OAK (2004), a
documentation of that last work.)

But the pieces never float into a hippie-inflected airiness or recline into some loftily empty pose: The work was always too cluttered with the stuff of experience, with the rough and sensuous textures of material life. Even ink drawings of his MANDALA SERIES from the mid-1960s, five of which hang in this exhibition, relinquish all claim to transcendence and the smugly misinterpreted “wisdom of the East” that came to characterize that
decade and locale: These are dense,
belabored visual confections, the result of an intricate and industrious temperament that nevertheless dared to dream of
unities, of cosmic principles.

This is perhaps the ethos of the assemblages: a sense that life is lived at a point
of insoluble climax and inane collision.
Brokenness cannot be denied — nor must
it be accepted. Creating is an act of joking reconciliation, of mixing incongruous parts. Conner began to stick things together — tar, feathers, metal, women’s nylons — when he grew frustrated with his paintings and, in a moment of private rebellion, started jamming objects in or onto the
canvas. RATBASTARD (1958), one of his early assemblages, is made of wood, canvas, fabric, newspaper, and oil, among other things — a brave new approach, though the piece has the paradoxical quality of looking like it was unearthed from a crypt.

“It’s All True” is the name of this exhibition, and the phrase is Conner’s own. In a letter to a friend, he once rattled off a long list of attributes taken from the press about him: He was, apparently, “an artist, an anti-artist,” “subtle, confrontational,” “accessible, obscure,” with work that was “beautiful, horrible” as well as “avant-garde, historical.” The litany ends with Conner’s peevish confession: “It’s all true.”

I thought of this as I watched his THREE SCREEN RAY (2006), a three-channel reprise of his iconic found-footage film COSMIC RAY, from 1962. Both the original and this latest version are bursting, pulsing visual events. Clips of nude women, scenes from combat, joyous crowds, and (of course) the inevitable mushroom cloud snap onto the screen, all to the raggedly lovely call-and-response jubilance of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say.” The doors to the sublime have all been flung open — far-off
violence, intimations of apocalypse,
and (most significantly) the lust for twirling, performing female bodies.
But one can’t help but ask, in the face
of all this eros and thanatos, whose
sublimity is this, whose eclecticism, whose fascination, whose dazzled gawk? Think of that medley of atavistic male impulses, roaring along a bit too easily to the beat of black music: Bruce Conner tried to take in the world, but couldn’t come unstuck from his place in it. A
facile point, I know — it’s wheedling,
and pedantic, and irritating, and obtuse. It is also, to use Conner’s word, true.

Bruce Conner: ‘It’s All True’
11 West 53rd Street
Through October 2


The Peculiar Evolution of Leo McCarey, One of Cinema’s Most Assured Voices

One of the most celebrated Hollywood directors of the Thirties and Forties, Leo McCarey honed his aesthetic in service of silent comedians like Laurel & Hardy and Charley Chase, performers who stood before an unblinking camera and bore the entire burden of shaping and transforming audience response.

McCarey’s first unquestioned masterpiece, Ruggles of Red Gap (1935), emerged just as Hollywood was codifying the conventions of cutting and framing that gave filmmakers power to regulate the fiction via a layer of form — a power that McCarey never put much store by, remaining loyal to the silent-comedy legacy of creating form from performance.

MoMA’s “Seriously Funny: The Films of Leo McCarey” traces the peculiar evolution of one of the American cinema’s most assured voices, from his two-reeler origins to Oscar-winning comedies (1937’s The Awful Truth, 1944’s Going My Way) to a perverse late period that blended daringly dawdling rhythms, a convivial but fervent anti-Communism, and a marked lack of interest in letting a new and inhospitable Hollywood mediate his personality.

“Seriously Funny: The Films of Leo McCarey”
July 15 – July 31
Museum of Modern Art