With the success of films such as the improvisational works of Christopher Guest and television comedies such as The Office, the language of nonfiction cinema has become increasingly scrutinized, satirized and reconstituted. This series presents an overview of some of the more compelling works which use reflexive strategies to challenge the boundaries between fiction and documentary. Rather than more recent attempts to employ these conventions as a tool for parody, these works pose more challenging questions about truthful modes of representation in cinema.
Director William Greaves In Person – March 24
March 24 (Friday) 7 pm
March 25 (Saturday) 7 pm
March 25 (Saturday) 9 pm
March 26 (Sunday) 7 pm
March 26 (Sunday) 9 pm
Directed by William Greaves
US 1968, color, 70 min.
With Patricia Ree Gilbert, Don Fellows, William Greaves
In this film-within-a-film, director William Greaves dares to break the accepted rules of cinema. It is 1968 and Greaves and his crew are in New York’s Central Park, ostensibly filming a screen test. The drama involves a bitter break up between a married couple, but this is just the “cover story.” The real story is happening “off” camera, as the enigmatic director pursues his hidden agenda. The growing conflict and chaos—accompanied by moments of uproarious humor—explode on-screen, producing the energy, and the insights, that the director is searching for. Mixing multiple cameras, split-screen images, and cinema-verité and conventional shooting styles, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One offers multiple levels of reality that reveal, and comment upon, the creative process.
Director William Greaves In Person
March 24 (Friday) 9 pm
Directed by William Greaves
US 2005, color, 94 min.
With Audrey Henningham, Shannon Baker, William Greaves, Bob Rosen
35 years later after the making of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, William Greaves is back in Central Park filming the same actors playing the same roles. Alice and Freddie—the young married couple bitterly arguing in the 1968 film—have gone their separate ways. Alice is now a successful, if somewhat fading, cabaret singer; Freddie a much-in-demand group therapist. It is a beautiful fall day. The New York City Marathon is about to begin and all looks well as they meet for the first time since their nasty break-up 35 years earlier. It is obvious that they both want to bury the past. But the director has other ideas.
March 27 (Monday) 7 pm
Directed by Shirley Clarke
US 1961, b/w, 110 min.
With Warren Finnerty, Jerome Raphael, Carl Lee
Shown at Cannes the year before the official advent of International Critics’ Week, the out-of-competition screening of The Connection nevertheless served as the model for what the Semaine was to become. Clarke’s debut feature was a canny adaptation of Jack Gelber’s celebrated Off-Broadway play about a group of heroin addicts waiting for their “connection.” While the original Living Theater production had used a play-within-a-play strategy for its narration, Clarke devised a more cinematic frame involving a documentary director at work on his cinema-vérité portrait of the drug scene—a technique which, as the distinguished French critic Georges Sadoul pointed out, “works brilliantly in this film.” While the film garnered rave reviews at Cannes (even the conservative American trade journal Variety noted that it would be a hit in “enlightened spots”), it faced a withering censorship battle back in the States that delayed its release by a year and a half.
March 27 (Monday) 9 pm
Directed by Jim McBride
US 1967, b/w, 73 min.
With L.M. Kit Carson, Eileen Dietz, Lousie Levine
David Holzman is a struggling young filmmaker living in New York City who decides to make a film about his life. Inspired by Godard’s famed quote that film is “truth at 24 frames per second,” David throws himself headlong into the process, alienating his girlfriend and pushing himself to the brink of sanity. A vital piece in the New York-based American independent film movement of the 1960’s, McBride’s faux documentary offers an immediate critique on the truth-telling claims of non-fiction film.
March 28 (Tuesday) 7 pm
Directed by Robert Frank
US 1969, b/w and color, 91 min.
With Julius Olovsky, Joseph Chaikin, John Coe
Frank makes a serious attempt to deal with mental illness in this film, which begins as a cinema-verité portrait of a catatonic schizophrenic, but veers into a bizarre mixture of fact and fiction. Julius, the schizophrenic, is taken from the hospital by his poet brother (Orlovsky) and follows a tour of poetry readings with Allen Ginsberg. The result is not only sprawling and chaotic but also touching, as Frank remains sensitive to the concerns of the central character. The film features odd cameos by Christopher Walken and Roscoe Lee Browne.
March 28 (Tuesday) 9 pm
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard and D.A. Pennebaker
US 1972, color, 90 min.
One of the Dziga Vertov Group projects of the 1960s, Jean Luc Godard’s collaboration with filmmakers Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker on the 1968 film One A.M. (One American Movie) fell apart when Godard became disillusioned with the project. After Godard's departure, Pennebaker and Leacock edited the resulting footage into One Parallel Movie (aka One P.M.). A reflexive piece that marks the unceremonious end of the decade, the film includes footage of Rip Torn, Tom Hayden, Eldridge Cleaver, The Jefferson Airplane and Godard himself.
March 29 (Wednesday) 7 pm
Directed by Peter Watkins
UK 1966, b/w, 47 min.
With Michael Aspel, Peter Graham
In this highly controversial dramatization of the aftereffects of a nuclear attack on England, Watkins claims to have used "mathematical logic" to estimate the likely experience—both logistic and personal—of nuclear war, basing his visualization on the British government’s contingency plans and scientific research into the effects of radiation on the human body. The BBC considered the film to be excessively graphic and disturbing and refused to air it. Only reluctantly, after Watkins resigned from the BBC in protest, did the network agree to a theatrical release, although the broadcasting ban remained in place for twenty years. In an odd testament to its striking realism, the film went on to win the Academy Award for best documentary. Filmed in what would become the director’s trademark "semidocumentary" style, The War Game interrogates the clash between "subjective" and "objective" forms and refuses to allow the viewer a safe distance from the issues it presents.
Directed by Peter Watkins
UK 1967, b/w, 95 min.
With Paul Jones, Jean Shrimpton, Mark London
With Privilege, Peter Watkins merged documentary style with metaphor to expand his interrogation of media and politics. The film was a product of Universal’s late 1960s European production program, which invited young European directors such as Watkins and François Truffaut to create low-budget features for the studio. More conventional than the director’s debut efforts, it nonetheless retains his trademark first-person interviews and pseudodocumentary style. The story concerns Steven Shorter (Jones), a successful pop singer who is convinced by the government to perform violent theatrical rock that will distract youth from politics and social problems and lull them into a "fruitful conformity" with church and state. When Shorter withdraws after realizing he is being manipulated to control the public, his fans turn against him and he becomes an enemy of the state.
Director Alex Karpovsky In Person
March 31 (Friday) 7 pm
Directed by Alex Karpovsky
US 2005, color, 86 min.
With Alex Karpovsky
Boston-based filmmaker Alex Karpovsky is a former karaoke video editor who travels to Brainerd, Minnesota to document a strange natural phenomenon for a new cable television series. His pursuit of a “black hole” which emerges on the frozen lake in the dead of winter leads him on a taxing journey in which he invests all of his financial and emotional resources into the project at the sake of his own sanity. Using interviews with the amiable residents of Brainerd, Karpovsky crafts an intriguing puzzle of a film in which questions of reality become secondary to deeper existential pursuits.
March 31 (Friday) 9:15 pm
Directed by Avi Mograbi
Israel/ France 2002, color, 72 min.
With Meital Dohan, Adi Ezroni, Avi Mograbi
Hebrew with English subtitles
Avi Mograbi, a filmmaker known for both his strong political opinions and his sense of humor, decides to document the anger and unrest he witnesses in his homeland of Israel during August of 2001. Using only a video camera – no script, no cast, no crew – Mograbi tries to make sense of the complex problems facing Israel. A deeply personal film, August: A Moment Before the Eruption is, like its director, at turns tragic and comic.
Director Sam Seder In Person
April 1 (Saturday) 7 pm
Directed by Sam Seder
US 1997, color, 95 min.
With Sam Seder, Sara Silverman, Jon Benjamin
This delightfully scathing send-up of L.A. s comedy biz stars Sara Silverman as Susan, a 20-something New Yorker goes out west for "pilot season," when a multitude of aspiring actors vie for scant employment opportunities in network sit-coms. A documentary crew "from NYU Film School" abandons a thesis project about homelessness to follow her. Much to Susan's delight, the crew has little respect for her privacy, which gives her instant cachet in Hollywood and adds drama to her blundering relationship with her boyfriend Max, who also follows her to L.A. (though he is not invited). The road to network fame is a hilarious parade of stressed-out personal assistants, shady agents, ruthless casting agents and turncoat friends.
Film description reprinted from SJFF.
April 1 (Saturday) 9:30 pm
Directed by Robert B. Weide
US 1999, color, 57 min.
With Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines
Originally presented as an HBO special, this precursor to the hit series, Curb Your Enthusiasm, presents a mock observational documentary portrait of Larry David’s return to stand-up comedy after a ten-year absence. The crew follows David and his agent Jeff Greene (Garlin) as they negotiate with HBO to film the performance for a network special. Although most of the film focuses on David in his everyday life, it is introduced by stock footage of David from his early days in comedy and a series of interviews with comedy notables such as his former Seinfeld cohorts, Jason Alexander, Larry Charles and Jerry Seinfeld, all of which complicates the lens through which these hilarious events can be appreciated.
April 3 (Monday ) 9 pm
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
Iran 1990, color, 100 min.
Farsi with English subtitles
A young man aboard a crowded Tehran bus, Ali Sabzian, introduces himself to a middle-aged woman as Mohsen Makhmalbaf (celebrated director of The Cyclist, Salaam Cinema, and Gabbeh). On the pretext of scouting locations for a film project, he enters intimately into the life of her family. Deeply suspicious of the stranger, the father investigates the guest and, ultimately, the con- artist is exposed and arrested. At this stage, Abbas Kiarostami and his film crew enter the story to film the impostor’s actual trial. The events preceding the young man’s arrest have been reconstructed, using the real-life participants. Kiarostami captures the narrative through the contrasting perspectives of a journalist covering the arrest, the deceived family members, and the unstoppable Sabzian. What emerges gradually in Close-Up is a narrative of continual Escher-like turns and a brilliant exploration of the nature of cinematic truth and illusion.
April 4 (Tuesday) 9 pm
Directed by Vilgot Sjöman
Sweden 1967, b/w, 116 min.
With Lena Nyman, Börje Ahlstedt
Swedish with English subtitles
A record-breaking sensation at the box office, I Am Curious (Yellow) had to win a highly publicized legal battle before it could be shown to American audiences. It aroused interest and discussion because of its direct portrayal of the attitudes and problems — social, sexual, and political — of contemporary youth. Norman Mailer wrote at the time that it was “one of the most important pictures I have ever seen in my life. . . . I felt I had encountered a major work. . . . I think it is a profoundly moral movie.”
April 5 (Wednesday) 9 pm
Directed by Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel and Benoit Poelvoorde
Belgium 1992, b/w, 92 min.
With Benoit Poelvoorde, Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel
A documentary crew, played by filmmakers Belvaux and Bonzel, takes on a most unorthodox project when they agree to document the life of a serial killer (Poelvoorde). The crew’s lurid fascination with their subject matter takes an unnerving turn when they become culprits in their subject’s violent escapades. This pitch black comedy offers an excoriating take on the preponderance of media violence in contemporary society. Poelvoorde is both hilarious and chilling in the role of the killer.