Beyond the Multiplex

Time to appreciate nubile young things cavorting and silent monks meditating, each of which offers its own sort of release.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published March 1, 2007 1:00PM (EST)

Cinema is conventionally described as an art form that blends image and sound. That's OK as far as it goes, but to my taste it overlooks the most important element, the very thing that makes movies movies, the reason they can haunt us and possess us and provoke such powerful emotional responses. That missing third dimension is time. Films are experiences in time, confrontations with time, escapes from time and sometimes meditations on time.

Most obviously, there's the time we spend sitting and watching a movie, and by the standards of fractured contemporary life even a 90-minute genre film demands a significant investment. (Ask anyone over 35, especially a working parent, why they rarely go out to the movies anymore: "Who has time?") Then there's the sense of time inside the dream world of the film itself. Within those 90 minutes, we may experience a decade of war, a six-week police investigation or the events of a single afternoon (and many other things besides).

Finally, there is the time that has passed since the film was made. Every movie is a document of the past, whether near or distant: It captures moments in the lives of the people who made it; it signifies or reminds us of moments in our own lives; it reflects episodes of our shared social history. Watching "L'Avventura" or "A Streetcar Named Desire" or, I don't know, "Risky Business" is a vastly different thing today than it was when they came out. Watching "Brokeback Mountain" in 2007 would be a subtly changed experience, now that it's an artifact of history (and a point of moronic political contention) as much as a movie.

Good filmmakers are always aware of the power they wield over time (and the power it wields over them). This applies in all movies, regardless of running time. Nothing distinguishes a bad film more clearly than its slack and careless use of time. We've all seen three-hour movies that passed in effortless delight, and 88-minute movies that lasted forever.

This week we've got two more fascinating entries in what's been a remarkably strong winter season at the art houses, both distinguished by their challenging use of time. Just a few minutes into the French film "Exterminating Angels," a beautiful young actress takes off her clothes and begins masturbating for the camera. So we are launched into the self-regarding erotic and/or pornographic dream state (pick your own adjective) of writer-director Jean-Claude Brisseau, who was himself charged and convicted of harassing and defrauding young actresses during rehearsals for his last film, "Secret Things" -- by coercing them into masturbating in front of him.

Viewers will have to form their own judgments about Brisseau, and you can read "Exterminating Angels" as both a confession and a defense. Simultaneously brilliant and naive, the film strives to manipulate and implicate the viewer, seducing us into Brisseau's sexual and mystical intrigues and then punishing us for our complicity.

At the opposite end of the time-management spectrum comes German director Philip Gröning's 162-minute documentary "Into Great Silence," shot without any crew or any artificial lighting over six months at Grande Chartreuse, the legendary Carthusian monastery in the French Alps. If Brisseau dares us to wrestle our sexual demons, Gröning dares us to be alone with ourselves, and with whatever concept of the Infinite we embrace. It's less a movie, in any conventional sense of that word, than a life experience. I fought it, and surrendered to it, and fought it again and mostly loved it. But let's face facts: The intensely introspective journey it demands is not what most people seek at the movies.

There's other stuff to cover too, including the long-overdue DVD restoration of the early films of Kenneth Anger, the avant-garde film pioneer whose pop-infused, expressionistic dreamscapes have had an enormous influence on generations of later directors. Anger's works may be said to exist outside time -- or to use "cinematic time," in film-theory talk -- but these days so do TV commercials and music videos.

"Exterminating Angels": Comment ça veut dire "Girls Gone Wild" en français?
For understandable and semi-high-minded reasons, the United States distributor has tried to insulate "Exterminating Angels" from the scandal surrounding writer-director Jean-Claude Brisseau, who (as I explained above) was convicted of sexually harassing several actresses who auditioned for his 2002 film "Secret Things." But, hell, I don't know about that. Not only is most publicity good publicity, but "Exterminating Angels" makes a lot more sense when you grasp that it's not just more French borderline-porn, but is also the tormented self-examination of a filmmaker who feels both misunderstood and fundamentally uncertain about his transgressions.

Some potential viewers will never make it past the fact that this is a film made by a 62-year-old man that features a pile of naked young nubiles cavorting in improvised, athletic configurations. (I don't know how "real" the sex in this movie is, and it doesn't strike me as an essential question.) Other viewers will revert immediately to the capital-A art defense: This isn't a dirty old man's fantasies but rather an intellectually rigorous exploration of erotic taboos, artistic creation, and the two-way street of male-female power relations.

Frankly, there's no conflict between the two modes. "Exterminating Angels" is a luminous picture, beautifully made, loaded with symbolism and mystical-religious imagery, about an artist's self-destructive quest for an unreachable grail. It's also a deliberately prurient spectacle designed to be arousing and troubling -- most viewers, I imagine, will have both reactions at various times (and maybe at the same time). While the sex scenes are technically not hardcore -- i.e., no penises and no penetration -- they possess that suspended-time quality specific to erotic material. There may be 10 minutes or less of explicit sex in the movie, but the ripple effects never stop.

François, the protagonist, is a respected French director who's interested in making a semi-improvised film in which young actresses volunteer to explore the sexual taboos they find most alluring. Brisseau has made ritual declarations that the character is not quite him, and no doubt that's true. But Frédéric van den Driessche, who plays the part, adopts Brisseau's clothes and mannerisms, and has something of the latter's raffish, middle-aged charm. As with many lady-killers, there is something cuddly and something almost feminine about François; around his young actresses, he veers from vague, fatherly affection to intimate, schoolmaster-like coldness.

Most of the actresses François interviews express no interest in his salacious project; several walk out as soon as he explains what he wants. But eventually he accumulates candidates. Julie (Lise Bellynck), a straightforward, healthy-looking blonde, approaches him in a cafe and announces her interest. Charlotte (Maroussia Dubreuil), an intense, neurotic rich girl with a self-mythologized life story, asks him out to dinner the minute they meet. Once they're seated in an upscale Parisian restaurant, she begins to fondle herself under the tablecloth and says breathlessly: "Now let's play a game." Julie shows up and joins in, and the waif-like waitress, Stéphanie (Marie Allan), can't help noticing what they're up to.

Throughout "Exterminating Angels," as François takes Julie and Charlotte (and later Stéphanie too) to hotel rooms and encourages them to perform, the question always is: Who's really in charge of the game? At first François remains on the other side of the camera, affecting a blasé demeanor -- before going home and, as his wife (Sophie Bonnet) observes, making love to her with a ferocity that's been missing in their marriage for years. She warns him that he is both manipulating these girls and being manipulated by them; of course he's the director making the film, and the stage manager of these voyeuristic/exhibitionistic encounters. But the girls begin to drag him into their dramas as well, confiding crushes, calling him at night from random boys' cars and sex clubs and each other's beds.

Maybe all this is Brisseau's attempt to justify whatever it was happened on the set of his last semi-improvised erotic thriller. But the brilliance of "Exterminating Angels" is that he has been able to separate his art from his life, if only barely, to make a film that spares no one. François is charming and cruel and stupid, and wants to understand something -- another person's sexuality -- that none of us ever can. Charlotte and Julie and Stéphanie are vain and egotistical and also stupid, and want something François can never give them.

If the film relies on hoary sexual stereotypes we'd like to stick asterisks onto or wiggle free from -- that men tend toward voyeurism, and women exhibitionism -- it remains difficult to deny their validity. After all, the young women who actually got the parts in both "Secret Things" and "Exterminating Angels" were more than willing, it appears, to doff their togs, talk dirty and wax philosophical, as the aging lothario behind the camera demanded.

I haven't even discussed the murky spiritual subtext of "Exterminating Angels," whose title refers not just to the young actresses, but to the mysterious pair of renegade devils or angels or mystical messengers (played by Raphaële Godin and Margaret Zenou) who follow François around invisibly, whispering in his ear or nudging women into his path. Again, this plays both like a laughable, even pathetic excuse -- it wasn't my fault! Demons made me do it! -- and like a shimmering recognition of the ultimate inexplicability of human desire.

"Exterminating Angels" opens March 7 at the IFC Center in New York, March 16 in Boston, April 13 in Cleveland and Los Angeles, April 27 in Las Vegas, May 4 in Denver and May 11 in Chicago, with more cities to be announced.

"Into Great Silence": Time, space, light, mountains, prayer. Repeat
There was a woman sitting near me who I believe was driven mad at the New York press screening of "Into Great Silence." Maybe 20 minutes into Philip Gröning's long, slow non-narrative drift through the isolated life of the Grand Chartreuse monastery, she started to check her cellphone. At first she'd flick it open, gaze at its reassuring glow for a few seconds, then close it again. As the seasons began to shift in the French Alps, and Gröning's Carthusian monks followed their silent daily rituals of work, prayer and contemplation from frozen winter into spring warmth, she grew even more restless.

She bounced from leg to leg, kicked the seat in front of her absently, drummed her fingers on her skull. The gaps between cellphone communions grew shorter: every five minutes, then every three. At last, maybe halfway through the film, she just opened the phone up inside her bag -- perhaps unaware that her rustling, snuffling, clicking sounds had the effect of a herd of bison in a dead-quiet theater -- and sat there staring at it. She stuck with that tactic for a while, as if her talisman of the oh-so-urgent LED-lit outside world might enable her to tolerate life in the monastery, before finally getting up, amid heavy sighs of exasperation, and leaving.

I was delighted to see her leave, but I also feel some sympathy for her predicament. "Into Great Silence" is a long, slow movie, and to appreciate it you have to battle boredom -- an underappreciated phenomenon in our society -- and get to the other side of it. I'm sure the messages she was retrieving were irresistible matters of money or love. But if she really wanted to make it all the way through this film, her strategy was flawed. Gröning's film asks you to do, in miniature, the same thing that the Carthusians ask their novices to do: Give up the outside world. That's a devilishly difficult thing to manage, at first, but a delightful release once accomplished.

Drawn from 120 hours of digital video footage Gröning shot over six months in Grand Chartreuse, "Into Great Silence" is a rapturous, absorbing experience -- it has no voice-over, no back story or history, no archival footage and no talking heads -- but only if you can surrender yourself to it. It isn't just that checking the time or reading your e-mails is missing the point, and interferes with your appreciation of the film. As a practical matter, it's pointless and agonizing: Oh, good! Only 97 minutes to go! It makes the film seem much longer, and difficult to take, than it needs to be. If you allow the world of the Carthusians to become yours as far as possible, allow your mind to whirl in whatever eddies it wants to while they pray and garden and mend and pray and eat, the film washes past you like stream water. When it actually ended, I was quite surprised: I was just getting comfortable.

There are several ascetic orders of Roman Catholic monks, but the Carthusians -- makers of the famed Chartreuse liqueur -- may be the most demanding. Total silence is maintained for six and a half days a week; on Monday afternoons the monks socialize with explosive vigor, debating community issues, playing giddy games or tobogganing snowy slopes like so many 12-year-old boys. The rest of the time, life in Grand Chartreuse has varied little since the order was founded in the 11th century. Monks sleep in two three-hour stretches, interrupted by midnight prayers. They grow herbs, feed animals, meditate silently and live in voluntary poverty, recycling and reusing every scrap of fabric or consumer item they acquire.

There's very little dogma in "Into Great Silence," and where it does appear -- as in an interview with an older monk about destiny and death -- I found it frankly disagreeable. Of course the Carthusians are specifically Christian and Catholic, and it would be dishonest to portray them as anything else. But what Gröning captures so beautifully is the essence of monastic life as an ancient quest for self-knowledge (and knowledge of whatever is Out There) that transcends all such strictures. This is a remarkable work of pure documentary cinema, and a mystical accomplishment on the order of Wagner's "Parsifal" or Tarkovsky's "The Sacrifice." That's hardly anybody's thing these days -- it's not often mine. But the effort, in this case, is worth it.

"Into Great Silence" is now playing at Film Forum in New York. It opens March 9 in Los Angeles; March 16 in Boston and San Francisco; March 23 in Kansas City and Washington; March 30 in Minneapolis and Seattle; April 6 in Chicago, Dallas, Portland, Ore., and San Diego; and April 27 in Atlanta and Austin, Texas, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: Look back at Anger; "The Cats of Mirikitani"
Kenneth Anger is probably better known as the author of the barbed (and entirely non-fictional) atrocity catalog "Hollywood Babylon" than as the director of "Scorpio Rising" and other semi-experimental films that were years, even decades, ahead of their time. That's why "The Films of Kenneth Anger: Volume One," just released on DVD, is such an essential document. This lavishly packaged set comes with an affectionate introduction by Martin Scorsese, who's been much in the news lately. It's a long, long way from a homoerotic dream film like Anger's visionary 1947 "Fireworks" to "Raging Bull," let alone "The Departed," but if you squint you can see the lines of connection.

Anger not only invented "queer cinema" many years before the world was ready for it, he also combined pop music and the symbology of classic Hollywood with a film vocabulary drawn from European surrealism and modernism. You could argue that almost all post-1970s cinema flowed from that combination. Even in unpolished and unfinished works like "Puce Moment" or "Rabbit's Moon" -- both fragments of longer films that were never completed -- Anger's images are arresting, and his ability to create something like a plot out of abstract elements is strikingly contemporary. This essential disc concludes with Anger's first successful effort to make a longer film, the hallucinatory 1954 "Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome," a key influence on the work of David Lynch, John Waters, R.W. Fassbinder and others.

This week also brings us "The Cats of Mirikitani," a haphazard but heartwarming documentary by Linda Hattendorf that tells the extraordinary story of Jimmy Tsutomu Mirikitani, an aging, eccentric Manhattan street artist whom Hattendorf took in during the post-9/11 chaos. As she gets to know Jimmy better, his history becomes stranger and stranger: He's a Japanese-American who was interned during World War II and forced to renounce his U.S. citizenship. Living on the run and under the radar ever since, he had never learned that all such renunciations were later deemed null and void. Jimmy's a crotchety, angry character -- and who could blame him? -- but in the end "The Cats of Mirikitani" is an irresistible fable of reconciliation and forgiveness. (Opens March 2 at Cinema Village in New York; other cities may follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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