Invisible Cities

Having first seen In Praise of Love in Toronto last September 12, I found Godard's rote anti-Americanism particularly tiresome. A year later, his not unwarranted grievances seem subsumed in his melancholy film's overall sense of loss. It's not that America appropriates the rest of humanity's history so much as it solipsistically replaces that history with its own. The events of September 11 may well be the most extensively documented catastrophe in human history. Among the numerous anniversary series and screenings, I'd single out Ken Jacobs's feature-length video Circling Zero: We See Absence, showing twice this weekend as part of the "Attack and Aftermath" program at the American Museum of the Moving Image.

No less than his acerbic Swiss contemporary, Jacobs is a cine-philosopher whose continually innovative and richly eccentric movies mix heady formalism with deeply intuited film-historical and social concerns. Circling Zero is less focused on the attack than its aftermath. Jacobs, who lives on Chambers Street (formerly in the shadow, literally, of the Trades), was out of town the day the buildings fell, and much of Circling Zero concerns his and his wife Flo's attempt to slip past the police barricades that marked the militarized forbidden zone and re-enter their loft. (Amazingly, they get through. Pasted on a neighbor's door is the scrawled note, "I Just Started Walking North.")

Resistance as a factor of memory: Putzulu in In Praise of Love
photo: Manhattan Pictures International
Resistance as a factor of memory: Putzulu in In Praise of Love


In Praise of Love
Written and directed by Jean-Luc Godard
Manhattan Pictures
Opens September 6, at Lincoln Plaza

Circling Zero: We See Absence
A videotape by Ken Jacobs
September 7 and 8, at the American Museum of the Moving Image

Jacobs interpolates some footage of the WTC aflame that was shot by his daughter Nisi from the building's roof. It's striking to note how many other people are up on their roofs similarly documenting the unfolding disaster. (One result is the real-time WTC Uncut, screening at AMMI September 11.) Circling Zero is intensely personal—in visual terms, it's totally first-person—but it's also a portrait of the body politic. The crowds of cops, volunteers, vendors, and tourists that circle the absence are as organic as antibodies surrounding a wound. The tape's last half explores another fact of nature: the Sargasso Sea of flowers, votive candles, and handmade placards that consumed Union Square last fall. Jacobs is fascinated by the fantastic assemblage and new public space. The impromptu performances and metaphysical debates of this spontaneous agora are, in every sense, signs of life.

Billy Wilder's 1951 Ace in the Hole—revived this week at the Pioneer Theater in a new 35mm print (through September 10)—has its own unsettling relevance to the Events. Never more abrasive, Kirk Douglas plays a snarling newshound who, stranded in New Mexico, stumbles upon and shamelessly exploits the story of a man trapped by a cave-in to create a full-blown media circus.

A onetime reporter for a Vienna tabloid, Wilder co-wrote, produced, and directed Ace in the Hole, and Douglas's reporter is in some ways his surrogate—not least in his juicy contempt for the boobs and knaves among whom he finds himself. (Godard's anti-Americanism is kid stuff by comparison.) Attracting a horde of local gawkers and vacationing tourists as well as the national press, the disaster is a windfall—for the unscrupulous reporter, the trapped man's mercenary wife (who is soon charging admission to the site), a traveling circus, a band of itinerant country singers, and inevitably opportunistic local politicians, most memorably a glad-handing sheriff with a pet rattlesnake. Wilder isn't particularly subtle in choreographing the hoopla—the circus trucks are emblazoned, "The Great S&M Amusement Corp."

Ace in the Hole is a movie about the fascination of disaster that is itself a fascinating disaster. (The initial response was so hostile that Paramount not only withdrew the picture from circulation but, just to be safe, gave it another title.) Ace in the Hole is by no means a great—or even a particularly good—movie, but its sustained nastiness shows a stunning disregard for box-office niceties.

Related article:
"His Life to Live: Wrestling With the Legacy of Cinematic Colossus Jean-Luc Godard" by Michael Atkinson

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