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Films for Fans of Visionary Directors

In film, "visionary" has become a marketing adjective, like "iconic". Here, on the matter of visionary directors, we separate the claret from the beaujolais, if you will.

Above: Russell Crowe in Noah (2014)

I watch videos for a living. Not that it's much of a living, but at least it keeps me in debt. In my most delusional moments, I fancy myself along the lines of the late Herman G. Weinberg, a film writer who provided English subtitles for the US releases of most European movies in the middle of the 20th Century. He wrote a column in Film Culture called "Coffee, Brandy and Cigars" (collected in a book called Saint Cinema) in which he rambled over whatever came into his head. I invite you now to pull up a chair and try one of these lady-fingers as we glance over a few titles.

In my idle survey of recent DVDs, I'm struck more than ever by cinema's thriving traffic in visionaries. You see it in the occasional blockbuster, such as Darren Aronofsky's Noah with Russell Crowe, arriving on video at the end of July. I haven't seen this picture yet, though I think I know how it ends. Anyway, I'm leery of movies with lots of water, although not for the same reason W.C. Fields said he avoided water ("Fish fuck in it.")

Son of Man (2006)

Here is Aronofsky with a big-budget blockbuster on his hands, a current worldwide gross of over $350 million (over $100 million of it in the US) according to Wikipedia. You might think Bible movies tend to make lots of money, despite or because of controversy, but that's not really so. One of the most jaw-dropping films I've watched recently is the South African production, Son of Man (2006), a retelling of Christ in contemporary African terms, and I'm the only one I know who's seen this beautiful vision.

I wish this could be a world-beater, for it reminds me that filmmaker Mark Dornford-May, aided and abetted by his wife and muse Pauline Malefane, is another visionary among us. They also made the wonderful U-Carmen, a re-imagining of Bizet's Carmen, that shouldn't be confused with another wonderful re-imagining called Karmen Gei from Joseph Gai Ramaka. I hope you're taking notes.

Getting back to Aronofsky's success. This is the same guy who made the gorgeously black and white Pi on a budget of $60,000. He clearly had a dazzling visual compulsiveness from the get-go, aided by cinematographer Matthew Libatique. I'm partial to his pie-eyed gonzo floperoo The Fountain, but he proved capable of popular Oscar-bait with the more accessible Requiem for a Dream (which struck me as Reefer Madness gone arty), The Wrestler and Black Swan. Now that he's so successful, it's probably fashionable to knock him. Lots of people seem to be invested in the idea that personal visionaries go nowhere in film today.

Transcendence (2014)

You can't tell that from PR, where "visionary" has become a marketing adjective, like "iconic". I see the Blu-ray/DVD combo of Transcendence describes a bonus feature in the terms "step inside the creative process of visionary director Wally Pfister." In this context, the word seems to mean "he made a sci-fi movie". Don't let the term get you excited. Here's a movie whose ideas and some of its technical challenges might have justified a commentary track, but all we get are a bunch of "special features" that are two-minute puff pieces, as if the project must still be sold to us.

Shall we call Pfister a visionary? His career as a Christopher Nolan's cinematographer comes slightly closer to the word, but let's not get carried away. This directorial debut handles Jack Paglen's script in a simple and direct way. That's a wise approach, though I never felt I was seeing what I hadn't before. What's most interesting to me about the film is that it's so glum, elegiac, and low-key for a movie aiming at the popcorn blockbuster-dom its budget needed, and this subtly "low-tech" sense may be underlined by shooting in 35mm instead of digital.

The story opens in a world where electronic communication has gone away, and for some reason that looks like the desuetude of television's Revolution, if not The Walking Dead. I'm not sure why a virus that shuts down the internet would mean that, five years later, it looks like nobody has cars or air conditioning, but whatever; it's only one street full of extras.

We learn, as we learned in such chestnuts as Colossus the Forbin Project and WarGames, that artificial intelligence is dangerous -- but wait, we actually learn, as in last year's wondrous Her, that our fears may be groundless and that, although the new consciousness is desirable, we just aren't ready for it and it might leave us behind. Although the movie indulges in simple, fraught confrontations, it benefits from being slower and more thoughtful than required. Except at the box office.

Some visionaries are quite happy with their defined realms of success. The late James Broughton, a fixture in San Francisco's cultural life and a teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute, is the subect of Big Joy, a profile of his life, his witty poetry, and his fun, hedonistic avant-garde films. We hear from friends, colleagues (such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti and filmmaker George Kuchar), Broughton's younger lover/husband (Joel Singer), the wife he dumped (Suzanna Hart), a son (nervous before the camera) who regrets not spending more time with him, and snippets of a taped interview with critic Pauline Kael, with whom he had a daughter. (The two daughters didn't participate in the interviews.)

The thorny theme is that if you don't pursue your joy, you'll feel damaged, and if you do pursue it, you may leave behind others who feel damaged. Aside from the talking heads, we see clips from such poetic films as The Pleasure Garden, to which Jean Cocteau presented a prize at the Cannes Festival, and the saucy burlesque dream of The Bed. Facets Media released an essential set of The Films of James Broughton several years ago; it has most but not all. This new documentary is a giddy cocktail with a trace of hangover. Extras include delightful poetry readings; his ingenious zen-through-wordplay poems include "This Is It" and the earthy "Nipples and Cocks".

Speaking of cleansing the palate, won't you try one of these parfaits?

Another visionary avant-garde filmmaker (this one still alive) is the subject of Jodorowsky's Dune. In 1975, after making a midnight cult-film splash with El Topo (which basically invented the midnight cult film) and then The Holy Mountain, Alejandro Jodorowsky got the rights to Frank Herbert's science fiction epic and recruited artists Jean Giraud (Moebius), H.R. Giger and Chris Foss, effects man Dan O'Bannon, rock band Pink Floyd, and actors Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, David Carradine and Salvador Dali (!) before funding fell through. The primary reason seems to be that Jodorowsky refused to make a film of standard length, and they were asking for too much money.

Here's a clear exhibit to support the notion that visionaries can't make it in the Hollywood machine, yet apparently the project made a big impact without getting made. This documentary asks us to imagine the unmade epic and traces its influence in later films, comics, and TV. Those influences go beyond David Lynch's version of Dune. Jodorowsky, an aging, smiling scamp, goes off into amusing and prickly rants of broken English, as when he recounts his pain that Lynch, whom he reckoned the only other filmmaker who could pull it off, was going to make the film, and then his enormous relief at seeing it in a theatre and giggling "It's a failure!"

The influence on Alien is clear enough, since some of the same artists immediately moved to that project. As the documentary looks at possible influences in movies like Flash Gordon and Raiders of the Lost Ark, not to mention Star Wars, Jodorowsky is even ready to take credit for the development of TV mini-series and multi-part epics, and who can say that the circulation of his mammoth storyboard book for Dune made no contribution to people's thinking in Hollywood? It's fun to think about. Jodorowsky's producer, Michel Seydoux, later worked with Nikita Mikhalkov, Alain Resnais, and Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books, which I consider one of the most important and visionary films of the last 25 years.

Yet another stubborn, certifiable visionary is Alexander Sokurov. His bizarre transmutation of Goethe's Faust follows its hero's wanderings with a sinister moneylender (half goat, half insect) around a 19th Century German town. Sokurov's preference for drained colors, distorting lenses, and indirect or occluded compositions, plus the busy Altman-esque soundtrack, turn the "story" into a suspended, circling fever dream. I find this an arty, strange, intense alchemy of natural beauty (in the forest) and human ugliness (in the town). I can't say I "like" it, but I don't have to.

Then there's Lars Von Trier, arguably the most audacious and important artist in films today. It's often impossible to tear one's eyes away from the screen, so lyrical and appalling can he be. His two-part Nymphomaniac, which I haven't seen yet, is described as an explicit character study about characters played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard as they develop a relationship full of flashbacks to her adventures.

Why do I look forward to it? I know that Gainsbourg is either a gift to Von Trier or vice versa, because this actress, who suggests something of the intensity of Charlotte Rampling (with whom she's shared the screen without being blown away) plus something of the ethereal beauty of dare-I-say Catherine Deneuve, has illuminated Von Trier's gruelling and hypnotic Antichrist and Melancholia, so I tend to think their tandem can do no wrong. However, even if I should think it's an utter failure, I'm pretty certain I'll be glad I saw it. That's the thing about real visionaries. Even their bad stuff is rich, because it's so much of themselves.

Ernest & Celestine (2012)

The animated, Oscar-nominated Ernest & Celestine (2012) is about the friendship between a mouse and a bear who live in rival worlds--one on the surface, one below. Both are thieves and outcasts. The mice make their living scavenging bears' teeth because their own incisors wear down to nubs, while this particular bear is a busker who scavenges and scrounges at will, even breaking into shops.

On the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack from Cinedigm, you can see the French-made film in its original language (with Lambert Wilson as the bear) or dubbed with American stars Forest Whitaker (bear), Mackenzie Foy (mouse), Paul Giamatti, Stephen H. Macy, and, to our amazement, Lauren Bacall as an unpleasant old mouse. The directors are Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar and Benjamin Renner. Aubier and Patar created a charming and delightful whimsy known as A Town Called Panic, a stop-motion film with toys, so I was looking forward to this acclaimed item whose awards include the L.A. Film Critics Association, France's César, and Belgium's Magritte.

Here's where I'm swimming upstream. To me, the tone's more gloomy than enchanting, although the watercolor approach makes lovely, delicate images. It's inspired by a beloved series of books by Belgium's Gabrielle Vincent, which look very light and anecdotal, while the filmmakers construct a plot-heavy tale full of danger and oppression (what a dreary vision of society, for bears and mice) in order to make a big point about the unlikeliness and specialness of the central friendship of vagabonds. Whimsy is crushed as though stepped on by a bear.

Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013)

There's more literally crushing whimsy in Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (2013), an even darker fairy tale from Canada's Denis Côté. It follows a rocky affair between two female ex-convicts (played excellently by Romane Bohringer and Pierrette Robitaille) living in woodsy seclusion. We never learn their crimes, but oblique hints and sinister details imply that something from the past is catching up with them.

This occupies a border between the real, the pretty, and the disturbing. Because this isn't trying to be ingratiating, I found its uneasy, foreboding nature got under my skin in a good way. This is the first film I've seen by the busy, award-winning Côté, and what I've read about him suggests a budding visionary. If I had to stretch to a comparison based on one film, I might suggest Francois Ozon for the confidence and willingness to be sour.

I imagine most Canadian directors work somewhat under the shadow of David Cronenberg, a genuine visionary who casts a very odd shadow, indeed. He applies a classical, restrained, almost hermetic style upon great gonzo unleashings and outbursts--sometimes bursting out quite literally, as in Scanners. We have arrived at a cultural landmark when the definitive low-budget exploding-head movie gets lavish treatment from Criterion, but here we are. (Criterion already released a lavish edition of his even scarier Videodrome.) As a bonus, it throws in his black and white student film, Stereo, an antiseptic and avant-garde parody of science documentaries that already explores institutional exploitation of psychic powers and the sex drive.

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