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Saturday, July 20, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 'Taking Venice' questions 1960s US avant-gardists' possible...

Screen Grabs: ‘Taking Venice’ questions 1960s US avant-gardists’ possible Cold Warfare

Plus: 'MaXXXine' just may over-rely on Mia Goth and 'Last Summer' spins Ms. Robinson tale into trainwreck.

Amidst myriad other disasters at home and abroad, it’s become almost ignorable that we’re in a new Cold War. The instability of the US political scene—which he did a great deal to foster—has emboldened both Putin’s aggression and desperation. That particular international dynamic hasn’t been so bad (or so close to triggering global conflict) in six decades, an interim mostly spent in a post-Soviet world. Wasn’t the collapse of that alleged evil empire supposed to bring every country within grasp of perfect democratic freedom? Yet here we are, with very old-school sabers rattling once again, and democracy under grave threat in places where it was assumed “it can’t happen here.”

Sixty years ago the original Cold War was at its peak, with both real hostilities and propaganda-fed paranoia leading many to expect WWIII lay just around the corner. (It had certainly seemed imminent during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.) A colorful footnote to that tense era is explored in Taking Venice, which opens at the Roxie this Friday. The ideological battleground depicted here seems unlikely, to say the least: The Venice Biennale, that biannual cultural behemoth then considered “the Olympics of art,” with each participating nation showcasing work in its own pavilion. 1964 was in many conspicuous ways a turning point for the event, for contemporary visual art in general, and for US artists in particular. So much so that many accused the Americans of deliberately plotting to “steal” the spotlight (and the Grand Lion prize) through an elaborate conspiracy of governmental and allied civilian forces.

Is that what really happened? Amei Wallach’s documentary ultimately thinks not. History soon proved the Biennale’s judgment correct: Jarring as it seemed at the time, the radical work being produced at the time by the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, Andy Warhol et al. was the future, and the future had arrived. That it was improbable the State Department somehow hoped to spread democracy by championing a bunch of gay male avant-gardists did not ease the “indignation and hysteria” (as it’s described here) of primarily European observers. What they were really agitated about, Wallach suggests, was that the ’64 Biennale underlined an uncomfortable truth: Paris was no longer the center of the art world, save in nostalgic stereotype. That crown now belonged to New York City, with London, Los Angeles, and perhaps even other places now more “happening” than the City of Light. (Moscow wasn’t even on the long list.)

More conventionally crafted than the disruptive art it chronicles, Taking Venice nonetheless uses plentiful archival materials and latter-day interviews to tell a fascinating story. It’s one that in some respects commemorates traditional cultural watchdogs’ last stand against the invasion of those rude arrivistes, the Americans. Rauschenberg’s “combines” of painting and sculpture were considered “anti-art” at worst by conservative critics, at best a crass celebration of consumerist culture. He himself was dismissed as “a clown, a novelty.” But their innovative explosion of standard categorizations was simply too new for most such viewers to take in; by the decade’s end, they’d find themselves forced to go with the flow or be left behind. His Lion, despite much politicized infighting amongst jurists, also thrust Pop Art into international consciousness, even if certain fellow countrymen represented that school more clearly.

At the end of the day, a prestigious institution had shaken off some of its more staid values, willingly or otherwise. The rules allegedly broken (mostly ones of publicity-magnetizing that the media abetted, like the last-minute addition of a Cunningham Dance Co. performance with sets designed by Rauschenberg) turned out to be simply a harbinger of tactics and trends that would soon grow commonplace. Plus, the “turbulent ’60s” were just getting started: This particular hubbub would soon seem silly, as by the next year Vietnam War protests and myriad other issues would make waging war against Mother Russia (let alone the Louvre) look antiquated. Rauschenberg himself, battered as well as boosted by his controversial win, responded by burning his silkscreens—so he wouldn’t be tempted to repeat himself—and creating new work of a much more overtly political bent.

Coincidentally (or not), as of next week the Roxie is also hosting an 11-day event that provides further dialogue between artists of different media. The Fraenkel Gallery’s 45th anniversary has occasioned a first-ever Fraenkel Film Festival, in which 10 of its esteemed exhibition veterans each chose two feature films of special importance to them. Their choices encompass a wide range of celluloid auteurs: Carrie Ann Weems selected Bergman (Wild Strawberries) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight); Nan Goldin picked a Kubrick (Paths of Glory) and Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying).

Other artists doing the curating are Kota Ezawa, Christian Marclay, Lee Friedlander, Robert Adams, Sophie Calle, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Martine Gutierrez, and Richard Misrach. Their favorites run a gamut from anime (Ghost in the Shell) to “golden age” Hollywood classics (CasablancaThe African Queen), plus works by Godard, von Trier, Ozu, Wenders, Lynch, De Palma, Varda, Elaine May, Ridley Scott, Peter Weir, and more. Films will be screened in 35mm when available; the series’ closing night on Sat/20 will see Misrach in live conversation with director Philip Kaufman before a screening of the latter’s 1983 The Right Stuff. For the full July 9-20 schedule and program details, go here.



While the genre grows ever more popular, horror movies are often so formulaic that any sign of innovation tends to be overpraised. That was certainly the case with X and Pearl, the first two films (both released in 2022) in a collaboration between writer-director Ti West and star Mia Goth that now has a third chapter—probably, not its last. Where X was a throwback slasher set in the late 1970s, and Pearl a violent melodrama set 60 years earlier, MaXXXine takes place in 1985. It apes that era’s sleazy grindhouse or direct-to-video flicks, especially gory titillations like Angel or Streetwalkin’, in which sex workers were stalked by serial killers. As before, West’s very meta toying with genre tropes is entertaining. But as before, his premise is also more impressive for its novelty than for its execution. Nor am I sure Goth is as charismatic a performer as she and her director seem to think.

As the sole survivor of X’s amateur-rural-porn-shoot-turned-massacre events, Maxine (Goth) is now a bona fide adult film star. But at 32, she’s aging out of that biz, her thirst for fame as yet unquenched. So, she auditions for and wins a role in a mainstream horror sequel from a somewhat tyrannical director (Elizabeth Debicki). But this being the height of the Reagan era, with “Satanic panic” and other “Moral Majority” causing hyperventilation, The Puritan II is being protested as blasphemous, as the porn industry in general gets branded as a societal plague. Even more alarmingly, people close to Maxine (herself the runaway daughter of a televangelist) keep getting killed. Are these grisly murders the work of the real-life Night Stalker, who killed at least 14 people before being caught in August of the year depicted? Or is someone using those high-profile crimes as a cover to beat a bloody path towards our heroine?

The much-lauded Pearl failed for me in its attempt to replicate (however ironically) the major-studio soundstage gloss of peak MGM circa 1939, a very difficult style to approximate today. 1980s exploitation cinema is easier to mimic, and in further evoking the conventions of European gialli (the faceless black-gloved killer, etc.), MaXXXine’s often sloppy narrative continuity can be excused as homage to a notoriously illogical subgenre. From Casey Kasem and synthpop hits on the radio to the revival of retro Sunset Strip tawdriness, this movie has its reference points down—though there are arguably way too many of them, including usage of the actual Psycho backlot set.

West’s best film remains in some respects the simplest, 2009’s House of the Devil. Here, he’s so busy checking off a long list of in-jokes, the plot—as well as suspense, character involvement, connections to prior chapters in this franchise—becomes an afterthought. Even the gore seems to arrive with quote marks around it. Such Scream-y commentary can be fun. But it needs to be clever, and wit isn’t this filmmaker’s forte. He’s assembled an interesting cast (Michelle Monaghan, Lily Collins, Bobby Cannavale, Giancarlo Esposito, musicians Halsey and Moses Sumney) but doesn’t use them well, with the exception of Kevin Bacon, who gleefully disappears into a private-dick role so scummy it might’ve been written for the very recently deceased M. Emmet Walsh. West simultaneously over-relies on Goth. Stuffed with too many ideas that go undeveloped, MaXXXine is not dull, but it’s a bit of a hot mess. It opens in theaters nationwide this Fri/5.

Last Summer

Much more focused is this latest from Catherine Breillat, who’s been laying siege to propriety for half a century. Her 1976 directorial debut A Real Young Girl was considered so shocking, it went unreleased for another 25 years, by which time she was pushing the envelope by casting a porn icon (Italy’s Rocco Siffredi) in sexually-explicit-if-verbose dramas. She’s a distinctive, highly uneven auteur, now past 75, yet back to familiar taboo-breaking ground after some milder exercises with her first work in a decade. Summer is actually a remake of May el-Toukhy’s 2019 Danish Queen of Hearts. Still, it could hardly seem more in character for Breillat, who has frequently trained a discomfiting lens on carnality between adults and the underage.

Anne (Lea Drucker, styled in a rather classic “Karen” style à la Laura Ingraham) is a sharklike Parisian lawyer married to wealthy businessman Pierre (Olivier Rabourdin). These privileged people don’t seem very nice, despite adopting twin Asian preschoolers, and even if Anne primarily takes on the defense of rape victims. Their shared complacency at home is disrupted by the arrival of Theo (Samuel Kircher), Pierre’s son by a prior relationship. Shipped from Geneva, where his mother can no longer handle him, the smirking teen openly dislikes his father. But he gets along surprisingly well with his young step-sisters. Even more so with his stepmother… in fact, a little too much so. Soon he and Anne are shagging up a frenzy at every opportunity, an insane lapse in judgment made yea riskier by the boy’s heedlessness—he has zero emotional stake in keeping their “secret” from a parent he’s always resented.

Of course things spin further out of control, though that’s where Last Summer gets interesting, transforming from jailbait prurience in arthouse drag to a more disturbing level of psychological gamesmanship. Suffice it to say that even when basically caught red-handed, Anne is not about to let her bourgeoise respectability go without a fight. A dirty fight, if need be.

Though Breillat has pushed the envelope of graphic content much further before, this is one of her most successful narratives—perhaps because, as with 2007’s costume meller The Last Mistress, its firm storytelling bones were sourced from another author. This rather misanthropic tale provides no one you’ll be much enthused to root for, but there is no questioning the trainwreck appeal of watching their wildly inappropriate actions bring ugly consequences. Last Summer opens Fri/5 at SF’s Roxie Theater.

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