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Caravaggio (#110 of 4)

Werner Schroeter: Palermo oder Wolfsburg

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Werner Schroeter: <em>Palermo oder Wolfsburg</em>
Werner Schroeter: <em>Palermo oder Wolfsburg</em>

Watching it in the Museum of Modern Art retrospective, I couldn’t help thinking how Fassbinder-like Werner Schroeter’s Palermo oder Wolfsburg seemed, but in reality the arrow of influence points the other way: Schroeter influenced Fassbinder. Such are the confused anxieties of influence, particularly with overlooked geniuses less famous than their contemporaries. If Schroeter is one, his secret lies in being protean. Palermo oder Wolfsburg starts out looking occasionally like neo-realism and gives way to something far more conspicuously theatrical. On the other hand, examined closely, the artifice is there from the start, and the affinity may be more to Brazilian filmmaker Glauber Rocha. Like Rocha, Schroeter harnesses the aesthetics of poverty to thrillingly radical ends. There’s the stagey, costumey feel to his work, and his characters that seem more like types, narrower but more vibrant than if they were verisimilar. In terms of technique, there are the discontinuities: between shots, between image and sound, subverting a logical progression to form a more disjointed but also more ample narrative, beyond the strict necessities of plot.

No Difference at All: Tilda Swinton and Sally Potter Talk Orlando

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No Difference at All: Tilda Swinton and Sally Potter Talk Orlando
No Difference at All: Tilda Swinton and Sally Potter Talk Orlando

The 1992 release of Orlando propelled director Sally Potter to forefront of independent filmmakers. She had achieved the seemingly impossible task of bringing to the screen Virginia Woolf’s fantastical 1928 novel about a 16th-century English nobleman who lives through three centuries, while aging only three decades and changing gender in the process. Not only did she create a sumptuous historical epic with independent financing (it marked the first film co-production with Russia), she also retained the wit and tongue-in-cheek lightness of the original, expanding Woolf’s story into the 20th century as well. The movie also launched the career of Tilda Swinton, the incandescent Scottish actress who played Orlando, as both male and female.

Potter had begun making experimental movies as a teenager in England and made her first full-length feature film The Gold Diggers, starring Julie Christie, in 1983. She had also pursued a career as a musician as well. The Museum of Modern Art in New York recently concluded a two-week retrospective of Potter’s four-decade avant-garde career, including her latest work Rage, a set of confessional vignettes about a New York fashion event seemingly recorded by a schoolboy on his cellphone, which was initially released on mobile phone applications prior to a theatrical release last year.

Derek Jarman’s At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament

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Derek Jarman’s At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament
Derek Jarman’s At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament

Derek Jarman’s films are, already, such a naked, passionate, intimate portrait of their creator and his ideas that one wouldn’t expect that Jarman would have had much energy left over to pour into written autobiography. Nevertheless, Jarman was a prolific writer as well as a filmmaker and artist, and his creative pursuits in multiple artistic forms constitute a unified body of work; the books are every bit as essential as the films to those who wish to understand Jarman. The University of Minnesota Press has thus done a valuable service in reissuing three of these books: Chroma, Jarman’s collection of writings on color, his 1989-90 diary Modern Nature, and At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament, a loose autobiographical book that traces Jarman’s experiences of society’s reactions to gayness.

At Your Own Risk is a very angry book, and rightfully so. Jarman was writing in the last years of his life, as he entered the advanced stages of AIDS-related illness, starting to go blind as many of his friends died from the same disease that he knew would soon enough claim him as well. Moreover, he was writing from within a culture that had, throughout his life, consistently restricted and tormented homosexuals, legislating their behavior and, with the onset of HIV/AIDS, all but ignoring the problem until it dawned on everyone that heterosexuals were being affected too. Jarman’s book is structured by decades, from the 1940s to the then-nascent 1990s (the book was written in 1992, two years before Jarman’s death), and in each decade-spanning chapter, Jarman chronicles how gays were treated by society and how his own dawning understanding of his sexual identity developed.