DIAL H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997) ^ * * * * 1/2 ^ Belgian Johan Grimonprez’s “Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y” is a minor masterpiece. The 68-minute video, cobbled together from old network news footage and filtered through voice-over excerpts from two Don DeLillo novels, tells the history of airplane highjacking. This might sound a little dry, but don’t misunderstand: the history in “Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y” is primarily a poetic one. Grimonprez is after images that tell the story of skyjacking in all its horrific splendor and fascination. He’s a one-man media poet/pirate using his AVID as deftly as DeLillo uses his pen. ^
Grimonprez is an astute observer of our culture and like DeLillo his theory comes from his practice rather than the other way around. When asked about his influences, he suprised everyone by skipping over such found-footage avant-guardians as Bruce Conner, Craig Baldwin and their Situationist forebearers straight to what Grimonprez claims as his biggest inspiration: CNN.
C********R BLUES (1972) ^ * * * * * ^ Because of a bizarre court order, Robert Frank’s legendary Rolling Stones documentary is the most underground of all underground films: it literally can’t be shown unless the director is present at the screening, and even then with much legal difficulty. This makes such screenings more precious than a layman’s chance to see the insides of a Mormon church. No wonder the single showing of “C********r Blues” was a complete sellout at this year’s San Francisco Film Festival. ^
Incredibly, “C********r Blues” lives up to all of the hype and anticipation. It may be the best movie ever made about rock and roll. “C********r Blues” offers an unflinching look at the side of rockstardom that was touched only glancingly in movies like “Don’t Look Back” and “The Last Waltz.” Many of the antics of the badboy Stones are not as shocking to us today as they may have been when the film was first made, but what’s ultimately so special about this documentary is that it hasn’t dated a day. Robert Frank has a knack for exposing the cheap and degrading dullness and the desparate boredom of the day-to-day touring life for all involved.
ME AND MY BROTHER (1965-68) ^ * * * 1/2 ^ When John Cassavetes’ “Shadows” first played in New York City, it was on a double bill with Robert Frank’s Kerouac-dubbed beat frolic “Pull My Daisy.” Robert Frank is the other grandfather of American independent film, the one you hear less about. Yet his work in a variety of forms and genres (most of which could be loosely called “nonfiction”) shares a concern with the fundamental questions of humanity as vital and searing in his own way as Cassavetes’. ^
“Me and My Brother” is an experimental documentary Frank made about brothers Julius and Peter Orlovsky, the former of whom is mentally ill, the later of whom is best know as Allen Ginsberg’s longtime companion. The film focuses on how the relationship between the two is tested by Julius’ condition.
The style of “Me and My Brother” is a wild collage of film formats and a strange blend of verite and scripted situations. Frank’s experimentation doesn’t always succeed and sometimes feels a little passe. His wildly inventive sense of humor is also occasionally a bit too arch. But in terms of sheer feeling for his subject and a complicated appreciation of life itself, Frank has no equal.
4 SHORTS BY ROBERT FRANK (1981, 1985, 1996, 1997) ^ * * * * 1/2 ^ At his acceptance for the S.F. Film Festival’s Persistance of Vision Award, Robert Frank quoted Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame.” Hamm anxiously inquires about what’s happening outside the window. Clov replies: “Something is taking its course.” ^
“I have often thought of that remark,” Frank said, and his work, especially the more recent diaristic films, bears witness to it. An astute and ironic sense of visual observation is not the only quality he shares with Beckett. Frank’s persona in his films is that of a character who is generally befuddled-at-life, taking in the world slowly and wryly with a funky deadpan voice-over. And further in line with Beckett, Frank’s chief concerns are big questions about life and death, but he gets at them obliquely, with much humor and many stunning images along the way.
Films like “Home Improvements,” “The Present,” and “Flamingo” are peerless personal examintions of one human’s walk through the landscape of the world. Visually, they often play like something in-between the jokey handheld camcorder home movies of George Kuchar and the serious, carefully composed mediations of Bill Viola. Frank’s photograper’s eye serves him well, often sponataneously catching moments of striking humor or beauty — and these moments are never simply funny or pretty in and of themselves but are always made meaningful in the wider context of the work.
Also shown with these diaristic films is “Energy and How to Get It,” a genre-bending slice of tacky Americana from 1981 that once-again shows Frank to be cable of great diversity in style and subject. This nonfiction film, made with help from the likes of Rudy Wurlitzer, Gary Hill and William S. Burroughs is most like something by Errol Morris, but less structurally rigorous, more playful. “Energy and How to Get It,” is a lovingly tongue-in-cheek investigation of a desert crackpot who claims to be inventing atomic fission in his own backyard.
THE ROCKING HORSE WINNER (1997) ^ * * * * ^ Michael (“Nadja”) Almereyda’s 23-minute pixelvision short, one of the best things period at the S.F. Fest this year, is probably also the best work in this medium since Michael O’Reilly’s harrowing “Glass Jaw.” Unlike what seemed a rather arbitrary use of the Fisher Price toy camera for vampire POV shots in “Nadja,” here the form and content flow seamlessly together. Almereyda trains his camera on high-contrast close-ups and silhouettes, the jerky motion of cocktail shakers and children’s rocking horses, the play of light and water from a sunny day garden hose. All this wrapped in a unique, funny and compelling story, starring Eric Stoltz among others. ^
IMMER ZU (1997) ^ * * * 1/2 ^ Along with Kerry Laitala’s beautiful “Retrospectroscope” (already well-reviewed in a previous Film Threat), Janie Geiser’s 9-minute short is one of the few shorts at this year’s festival, experimental or otherwise, which deserves more attention than it’s getting. Geiser has made an extremely cryptic piece of highly original cut-out animation with a mystery and menace that recall David Lynch’s early shorts. ^
BETWEEN THE LINES (1997) ^ * * 1/2 ^ Sophia Constantinou’s 21-minute black-and-white film is a well-shot and intriguing documentary about women who cut themselves. It’s a shame that many of the interviewees seem to have read so much cultural and psychological theory that their distanced self-consciously intellectual explainations of their own behavior don’t seem to do justice to the fundamental mystery of their painful need. ^
DIARY OF A MIDLIFE CRISIS (1998) ^ * * * 1/2 ^ From the title, you might expect this 16-minute short to be yet another highly serious embarassingly confessional diary film, the sort that one sees far too many of at film festivals nowadays. Instead former photographer Judy Fiskin uses her softly self-deprecating wit to guide us gently through a series of comic reflections about the everyday life of an aging artist. Though this is her first video, Fiskin has an authentic feel for the medium–let’s hope she makes more. ^
NO SUNSHINE (1997) ^ * * * * ^ There’s simply nothing else like Bjoern Melhus’ 6-minute video short–on this planet or any other. Mixing pop-art-inflected CGI imagery of humanoids in strange floating orbs with the fragmented pop song lyrics they use to communicate with one another, Melhus has created a hermetic mini-world that teaches us its rules as we follow along. “No Sunshine” is as fun to watch as it is bizarre. ^