Art of the Real Keeps Redefining Documentary Film

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Art of the Real
April 8-21 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

José Luis Guerín’s The Academy of the Muses, the highlight of the third annual edition of Art of the Real, casually yet thrillingly embodies much of what drives the nonfiction showcase’s unique curatorial initiative. Indicative of co-programmers Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes’s liberal programming ideology and predilection for works of shapeshifting provenance, Guerín’s film is likewise exemplary of a primary theme coursing through many of this year’s best selections. One of the oldest and most fruitful of creative gambits, the muse—as vague, elusive, and oft-intangible a conception as it may be—nonetheless continues to motivate many an artistic pursuit; it follows that filmmakers should frequently extol the virtue of such sources.

Guerín, director of the beloved In the City of Sylvia (2007), examines the muse as both a concept and a crutch, as a totem of spontaneity and a cipher for theologic paralysis. The manner in which the film presents this duality is simple yet inspired, via a narrative with an equally nested logic, one by which Guerín is able to articulate a worldview from the praxis of everyday psychology. Commencing with an extended opening seminar on the history and identity of the female creative surrogate conducted by University of Barcelona professor Raffaele Pinto, the film imperceptibly flowers into a parable of moral comeuppance in which the role of the professor and his relationships with his wife and students—all actresses—are brought into reflexive dialogue. Filming with modest scope and richness of detail, from (and often through) increasingly dense and reflective depths, Guerín expertly transforms a thesis into a kind of cinematic chimera.

About halfway into Ben Rivers’s What Means Something, the British painter Rose Wylie reads a passage from Gertrud Stein’s Look at Me Now and Here I Am: “Entity is a thing a masterpiece has to have,” she explains. “It has no identity. […] It is not about psychology. It is not of necessity. It is not in relation. It has no action. It is hard to recognize.” Though Stein’s essay, “What Are Masterpieces,” is a reflection on art and its preeminent manifestations, these words could just as easily refer to the illusory essence of the muse. Rivers’s film, an intimate portrait of Wylie at work in and around her home studio in Kent, observes the artist with a similarly inquisitive sense of the ephemeral. Alternating casual conversations about her philosophy and past accomplishments with sequences of Wylie at work on a wall-size mural, the film patiently explores the creative process and the nature—both literal and figurative—of its intuitive gestation. Perhap’s its simply a result of his recent passing, but with its beautifully textured celluloid imagery (shot on Rivers’s preferred 16mm format) and interest in the instinctive spirit of creation, I was frequently reminded while watching Rivers’ film of Jacques Rivette’s own ode to the phantom of inspiration, La belle noiseuse (1991). Low-key and deceptively insightful, What Means Something radiates warmth and a palpable harmony between two unlikely artistic compatriots.

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A more spiritual search commences in Ju Anqi’s Poet on a Business Trip, an existential character comedy presented in the guise of a road movie. The “business” our eponymous poet, Shu (played by Hou Xianbo, an actor and real-life poet), must attend to is thus of a more ontological variety, as he embarks on a journey across China’s barren Xinjiang Uygur region in what we can only assume is an attempt at refortifying his creative energy. As he buses and wanders between hotels and truck stops, often picking up prostitutes or engaging in idle conversations with the locals—seeming to not prefer one over the other, or either for that matter—a selection of Shu’s poems appear on both the screen and soundtrack as a kind of inner/contextual monologue, disclosing in evocative and occasionally humorous fashion the plight of a man that otherwise remains of ambiguous integrity. As opposed to some of the other, more narrative-driven films in this year’s Art of the Real, Poet on a Business Trip’s nonfiction elements are uniquely organic outgrowths of the particulars of its production. Originally shot in 2002, but only revisited and eventually edited by Ju over a decade later, the film is both a contemporary document of a pre-digital mode of production and a salient vision of an industrially suspended Chinese landscape, one situated on fault lines both personal and political.

The breadth of narrative avenues explored by just these few films speaks to Art of the Real’s invigoratingly egalitarian approach to nonfiction’s porous borders. Amongst the wider program almost no form is left unexplored. Along with a number of ever engaging hybrid productions, including Roberto Minervini’s inspired opening night selection The Other Side, Sergio Oksman’s O Futebol, and Andrea Bussmann and Nicolas Pereda’s Tales of Two Who Dreamt, there are also notable variations on the essay film (Brett Story’s The Prison in Twelve Landscapes), the musical portrait (Andrés Duque’s Oleg and the Rare Arts), the investigative travelogue (Jeronimo Rodriguez’s The Monument Hunter), the talking-head exposé (Im Heung-soon’s Factory Complex), the speculative biography (Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis’s Il Solengo), the wartime testimonial (Federico Lodoli and Carlo Gabriele Tribbioli’s Fragment 53), the archival compendium (Jean-Gabriel Périot’s A German Youth), and the observational documentary (Kazuhiro Soda’s Oyster Factory)—not to mention a selection of shorts ranging from the topical (Camilo Restrepo’s Impression of a War), to the historical (Phillip Cartelli and Mariangela Ciccarello’s Lampedusa), to the purely visceral (Daïchi Saïto’s Engram of Returning).

Dead Slow Ahead - Art of the Real

First-time director Mauro Herce reformulates a number of these modes in Dead Slow Ahead, a unique aesthetic object that plays at once like an vocational ethnography and an experiential view of industrial advancement. Filmed on a commercial freighter off the coasts of Ukraine and New Orleans, the film situates the viewer, sans context, directly in the bowels of the ship’s titanic hull, with clanking machinery, whirring turbines, and swells of oceanic furor enveloping the senses as we barrel forward in the grip of unforgiving conditions. With a background in cinematography, Herce captures an astonishing array of natural wonders and crafts an extra-sensory tableaux of near-surrealist imagery with a steady hand and acute eye for the beauty of his surroundings. With its prismatic range of primary colors, aural ambiance, and disorienting spatial arrangements, the film constructs an immense formal infrastructure through which to conceive of the sheer physicality of life aboard the freighter. The Filipino crew, glimpsed mostly as specters engaged in routine labor (with only evening karaoke sessions to assuage the repetition), add an ever more precarious edge to the proceedings, their combined efforts seemingly just able to steady the ship’s lumbering gait. Surely there are obvious metaphors to be gleaned from the aesthetized rendering of such elemental phenomena; luckily, the sheer act of experiencing the film drowns out all but the most immediate sensations.

The Woods Dreams Are Made Of, a more pastoral example of observational nonfiction, explores an idyllic space through the thoughts and activities of everyday individuals. Set in Paris’s Le Bois de Vincennes, an enormous public park encompassing a broad cross-section of human experience, the film takes a proverbial stroll through the ground’s many meadows and forests, along the way encountering folks of diverse interest and personality. Director Claire Simon brings a curious, curatorial eye to the act of exploration, giving equal time to a pair of prostitutes who work the park’s less trafficked paths, to hermits living off the land, and to painters and artists who search the terrain for inspiration. There’s a hint of Frederick Wiseman to the film’s at once expansive (running nearly two-and-a-half hours in length) and intimate approach, though Simon’s subtle adornments suggest additional dimensions of philosophical inquiry. Beginning with a quote by Baudelaire, the film returns to this reflexive mode in its closing passages with softly superimposed clips of Gilles Deleuze presenting a master class at the University of Vincennes in 1980. “We think we’re each a person but we’re not,” he states. “In our own way we’re little events.” The Woods Dreams Are Made Of is a film of persons as events, a registry of familiar faces whose seemingly modest virtues contain multitudes.

In an interesting bit of serendipity, Simon’s film isn’t the only Art of the Real title to take inspiration from Deleuze. The Thoughts That Once We Had, the latest feature from veteran essay filmmaker Thom Andersen, parlays the director’s longstanding interest in Deleuze’s two books on film, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image, into a wide-ranging examination of his own personal journey through cinema history, uniting a constellation of inspirations from D.W. Griffith to Laurel and Hardy to Pedro Costa. Like his landmark Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), Andersen’s latest is made up entirely of footage from other directors’ films, though in lieu of sardonic voiceover, commentary is here limited to onscreen passages from Deleuze’s texts which reflect poetically upon the moving image source material, which Andersen edits into frequently startling juxtapositions based as much on movement and mise-en-scène as frequencies of psychological and historical correspondence. By its very nature as an intuitive, highly subjective, and associative assemblage, the film is discursive in its analysis and occasionally inscrutable in its logic, revealing of its maker’s worldview as much as his methodology. Andersen, like the best of this year’s Art of the Real class, remains in thrall of the possibilities afforded the cinema, unafraid of following his instincts and impulses wherever they may lead.

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