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Cinema and Counter-cinema

William Klein in Agnès Varda’s Salut les cubains (1964)

The week ends under the shadow of a giant. In a remembrance that went up this morning at the Nation, J. Hoberman writes that Jean-Luc Godard “understood film history as a text to be referenced, criticized, and revised . . . Cinema needed the movie intellectual who exercised the capacity to rethink his medium with every new film. A cinephile before he was a critic and a hyper-opinionated critic before he was a filmmaker, Godard created this role and cast himself.”

Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri writes that “Godard’s films would never be labeled humanist, but the arc of his career is one of the most human journeys you’ll encounter—of an artist discovering his powers, becoming aware of his limitations, rejecting his work outright, then slowly forging his identity again before embarking on a wiser form of self-reflection.”

The Guardian has gathered thoughts on Godard’s passing from Mike Leigh, Martin Scorsese, Claire Denis, Paul Schrader, Carol Morley, Luca Guadagnino, Mark Cousins, Kelly Reichardt, Kevin Macdonald, Abel Ferrara, Terence Davies, Peter Webber, and John Boorman. As tributes, the Cinémathèque française has made a two-hour interview that critic Serge Daney conducted with Godard in 1988—with English subtitles—freely available, and Verso Books has posted a sweeping essay on Godard from Peter Wollen’s 2002 book, Paris Hollywood.

Three days before Godard left us, photographer, painter, and filmmaker William Klein passed away at the age of ninety-six. Whether shooting fashion models for Vogue or the streets of New York, Rome, or Tokyo for himself, Klein’s photos “exploded with the vulgar purity of a tabloid headline,” wrote Arthur Lubow in his review for the New York Times of William Klein: YES, the recent exhibition at the International Center of Photography. The 1955 book Life Is Good & Good for You in New York: Trance Witness Revels, appearing three years before Robert Frank’s The Americans, “showed us long before so many contemporary American movies how America is often seen through a windshield, how its cities are kaleidoscopes of flashing neon, from the sublime to the breakfast special,” wrote Katherine Knorr in the International Herald Tribune in 1996.

David Campany, who curated William Klein: YES, points out that Orson Welles once “said of Klein’s first film, Broadway by Light (1958), that it was the first movie that really needed to be in color. A decade later, Stanley Kubrick suggested Klein was too far ahead for his own good.” Chris Marker, who was the first to encourage Klein to take up filmmaking, oversaw Far from Vietnam (1967), a collective project from himself, Klein, Godard, Joris Ivens, Agnès Varda, Claude Lelouch, and Alain Resnais. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody wrote a few years ago that “Klein’s footage of demonstrations in New York in 1967 is one of the crucial documentary distillations of the moment.”

Klein directed nearly two dozen documentaries, including Muhammad Ali: The Greatest (1969), Eldridge Cleaver: Black Panther (1970), and The Little Richard Story (1980), and he also made fictional features such as Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966) and Mr. Freedom (1969), both boisterous satires shot through with the spunky spirit of the era, and both featuring Delphine Seyrig. “If the French New Wave had a Frank Tashlin equivalent, it was William Klein,” wrote Eric Henderson at Slant in 2008.

Swiss filmmaker Alain Tanner, who won the Golden Leopard in Locarno with his first feature, Charles, Dead or Alive (1969), and the Grand Prix in Cannes for Light Years Away (1981), died on Sunday. He was ninety-two. Tanner worked with the renowned English art critic John Berger on two of his best-known films, The Salamander (1971), starring Bulle Ogier, and Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), “a polemical comedy,” as Ronald Bergan described it in the Guardian. The film “views its eight characters—who include a copy editor, a rural worker, a teacher, and a supermarket cashier—warmly and vividly as they try in different ways to maintain the ideals of May ’68 and find alternatives to capitalism.”

Marsha Hunt had acted in more than fifty films—appearing alongside such stars as John Wayne, Laurence Olivier, and Joan Blondell—and had posed for the cover of Life, and had been asked by three major networks to host her own television show when, as film historian Alan K. Rode writes in Variety, her “career was derailed by the Blacklist, a perfidious period of American history that has been endlessly chronicled and misunderstood. Never a communist or radical, she was a forthright liberal who refused to accept her voice being marginalized by the endemic sexism and politics of the period.” Hunt died last week at the age of 104.

In Costa-Gavras’s Z (1969), Irene Papas, playing the widow of a Greek left-wing activist (Yves Montand), “evoked the film’s meaning with one final grief-ridden look out to sea,” writes Anita Gates in the New York Times. Papas died on Wednesday at ninety-six, and Gates notes that Michael Cacoyannis, who directed her, Anthony Quinn, and Alan Bates in Zorba the Greek (1964), also directed Papas in Greek adaptations of ancient classics such as Antigone (1961), Electra (1962), and Iphigenia (1977). Papas won a Best Actress award from the National Board of Review for her performance as Helen in Cacoyannis’s The Trojan Women (1971), costarring Katharine Hepburn, Vanessa Redgrave, and Geneviève Bujold.

It’s been a tough week, but here are a few of the brighter highlights:

  • Like Godard and his fellow French New Wave directors, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen began their careers as critics and theorists. In a piece for the New Left Review on a recent exhibition devoted to their work, Erika Balsom writes that they “ventured into filmmaking in the early 1970s to put into practice their conception of ‘counter-cinema,’ one which would embrace radicalism of both form and content.” In a 1976 conversation collected in The Afterimage Reader, Mulvey and Wollen described their 1974 film Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons “as an attempt to bridge what Wollen had identified a year earlier as the ‘two avant-gardes’—on the one hand, ‘experimental or avant-garde film,’ and on the other, ‘political film, in the agitational or militant sense.’”

  • Writing in the new e-flux Journal, Saulius Sužiedėlis, Professor Emeritus of History at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, lays out a point-by-point response to the accusations made by historian Michael Casper in the New York Review of Books and Jewish Currents against Jonas Mekas. Casper portrays the late poet and filmmaker, “an eighteen-year-old when the Wehrmacht invaded Lithuania in 1941, as a Nazi sympathizer, if not outright collaborator,” writes Sužiedėlis. During the Second World War, there were “too many notable intellectuals, artists, and literati who either justified or embraced murderous extremist movements . . . Jonas Mekas was not one of them.”

  • Carolee Schneemann: Body Politics, an exhibition at the Barbican in London, is now open through January 8, and the accompanying five-part film series begins tomorrow. AnOther Magazine’s Laura Allsop talks with artists and writers about Schneemann and her work. “Ordinarily it would feel like a betrayal to focus on the beauty of a female artist,” says Philippa Snow, the author of Which as You Know Means Violence, but Schneemann “was a master at using all of the attributes that made her an ideal subject for the mainstream, patriarchal gaze . . . No wonder male audience members, as they sometimes did, expressed anger or approached her violently: she made fools of those who dared to see her as a naked bauble by reminding them that even hot girls bled, got angry, were artistic geniuses, had freaky libidos, were essentially made of meat, and occasionally took pleasure in being gleefully unhinged.”

  • In the new issue of the London Review of Books, David Trotter writes about “the strength of the moral undertow” in every film Andrea Arnold has made, from the 1998 short Milk to last year’s Cow, Arnold’s first documentary. The success of her second feature, Fish Tank (2009), “established her as a standard-bearer for the ‘new British realism,’ in David Forrest’s phrase: an attempt to build on Ken Loach’s dialectical or discursive approach to the social and political realities of working-class life by developing a more ‘poetic’ or ‘phenomenological’ emphasis.”

  • Sierra Pettengill’s Riotsville, USA, opening in theaters across the country today, is a study of the model towns the U.S. government built in the mid-1960s so that the military and police could practice quelling potential uprisings. The film is “a polemic, a work of activism, a challenge to the viewer,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “As made plain by the film’s eloquent, simmering voice-over narration (written by Tobi Haslett),” writes Leo Goldsmith for Artforum, “Riotsville, USA, is Anytown, USA, and its never-ending dream of rebellion—continually quashed by an increasingly militarized police force—is one that very much informs, even creates, our present reality. Like Borges’s proverbial map, it is the representation that grows to cover and supersede the territory it is intended to describe.”

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