Work in Progress

Brakhage is always rediscovering creation. His main interest here is the quality of light reflected on water. Some shots manage a half-dozen distinct shades of blue. Others show the surface of the sea as a startling Monet-like pattern of purple and pink. There are no superimpositions and only one brief passage involving a distorting lens. When Brakhage wants to break the spell he introduces a sudden abstracting effect—a full-frame burst of bright red leaves or the striated symmetry produced by rapid panning.

The film's title (taken from David Copperfield) and Brakhage's notes suggest that it is a melancholy reverie on mortality; the result, however, is quietly ecstatic.

Brothers in arms: Lavant (right) in Beau Travail
photo: New Yorker Films
Brothers in arms: Lavant (right) in Beau Travail


Beau Travail
Directed by Claire Denis
Written by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau
A New Yorker Films release
Opens March 31

The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him
A film by Stan Brakhage
At Millennium
April 1

The Filth and the Fury
Directed by Julien Temple
A Fine Line Features release
At Film Forum

Julien Temple's The Filth and the Fury feels familiar and it is—the third feature-length documentary on the rise and fall of the Sex Pistols (in addition to Alex Cox's estimable Sid Vicious biopic Sid and Nancy) and the second by Temple. The filmmaker might be accused of preaching to the choir were the story not so compelling and the performances so strong. Twenty-three years have scarcely dulled the frisson of Johnny Rotten's "Anarchy in the U.K."

Alternating between appreciation and analysis, Temple links the advent of British punk rock to the prole confusion of the mid '70s, using urban riot footage to set the scene: "The Sex Pistols should have happened and did," the voiceover announces. Managed by the self-proclaimed Situationist Malcolm McLaren, the band inspired more public antipathy in less time than any act in pop history. The movie's title is taken from the tabloid headline the morning after their fabulously profane and insulting debut on British TV.

The Filth and the Fury has a proudly cruddy look, and it's filled with what the Situationists called détournement ("the integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction"). Temple incorporates grainy Super-8 performance footage as well as cartoons from The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle and American concert material from Lech Kowalski's still scary D.O.A. Repeatedly, he juxtaposes Johnny Rotten with images of Laurence Olivier's over-the-top Richard III. Suddenly, Rotten's hunchback stance and hilarious wide-eyed smirk have a classical pedigree.

Temple also places the Sex Pistols in the context of low comics like Norman Wisdom and Benny Hill. "There's a sense of comedy in the English," the present-day former Rotten muses. True enough, although more might have been made of the singer's Irish background. The gleeful glint of madness in Rotten's taunting performances goes well beyond vulgar pratfall—as does his sometimes sentimental moralizing. Indeed, he all but delivers a punk version of "Danny Boy" when, tearfully recalling the pathetic tale of Sid Vicious, he tells Temple that "only the fakes survive."

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