Back Stories


Touted as the first American feature shot in Vietnam since the war, Tony Bui’s Three Seasons is a movie of multiple nostalgias. The big story at Sundance, where it won both Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award, the movie evoked the festival’s more-innocent past as purveyor of dull but worthy regional product. Bui’s respite from neo-new-wave attitude orgies transported the festival back to its origins just as, in another way, it did the 26-year-old filmmaker himself.

Bui, whose family moved from South Vietnam to Southern California in 1975, returned to his ancestral homeland to make his movie, and, to judge from the evidence onscreen, the place must have acted on him like a drug. Three Seasons is languorously, almost glacially, picturesque. Motion is always slightly retarded. The simplistic narrative is as cloyed by time-consuming fillips as the lake where one character harvests her lotuses is choked with flowers.

The Sundance audience must have been so impressed Bui got Three Seasons made that they didn’t care if he had anything to say. Set in the former Saigon, the movie focuses on a handful of recognizable types—the young flower-seller, a romantic cyclo driver, a cute li’l street kid named Woody, a not-so-hard-boiled hooker, and an American veteran of the Vietnam War (Harvey Keitel) searching for his lost shaker of salt—in this case, the daughter he left behind. Relationships ensue: The innocent flower girl befriends her bitter, leprous employer; the cyclo driver (played by local star Don Duong) gets hung up on the hooker (American-raised Zoë Bui); the Viet vet stares at the big Coca-Cola sign over the Apocalypse No bar while Woody searches the city for his purloined box of lighters, watches, and Chiclets.

Bui coats the clichéd script with a thick lacquer of improbability. The atmosphere of imposed drama and rampant inauthenticity is complicated by the personal weather systems of the various characters. The kid lives a perpetual monsoon; the hooker enjoys the sultry heat. Perhaps the movie really does take place over three seasons, but if so, they’ve all been superimposed: The American and the cyclo driver both buy lotuses from the flower girl; the cyclo driver rescues Woody after he disrupts a screening of an old Clint Eastwood movie and runs bewildered outside (into the pouring rain), still looking for the suitcase that he thinks the Keitel character has stolen.

Three Seasons culminates in a sentimental crescendo of wild coincidence during which just about all the characters get their heart’s desire (including, ultimately, the bored spectator, if not soon enough). So much for what the press notes call the “new” Vietnam. There’s not much trace of communism in this Ho Chi Minh City—but then there’s not much evidence of anything beyond cinematographer Lisa Rinzler’s capacity to produce a crisp image.

Respectably crafted to familiar standards, Three Seasons looks better than it plays. This totally unconvincing travelogue accomplishes something that the longest foreign war in American history never could—it turns Vietnam into a Bennetton ad.

The 300 movies that Stan Brakhage has brought into the world, more or less single-handedly, since 1952, provide an alternate history of motion pictures. Brakhage’s vast and unique oeuvre has points of contact with surrealism, action painting, home movies, and what was once called the New American Poetry—but mainly it’s the demonstration of a distinctively American heroic modernism.

There’s no place for Brakhage’s unfashionably ornery stance at an industrial trade show like Sundance, where Jim Shedden’s documentary Brakhage was generally ignored. This extremely reverent portrait of the artist (having its local premiere this weekend at AMMI and showing at Millennium on May 21) is most definitely not Crumb. But then, although he has a knack for provocative hyperbole and a propensity for presenting himself as a black-clad Johnny Cash cowboy, Brakhage is not an obvious character—except when he is working. Among the movie’s most evocative scenes are a clip of the young Brakhage interviewed on TV, directing the camera to “see” like a person, and a shot of the old Brakhage crouching down to stick his camera lens a fraction of an inch from the surface of a sylvan stream.

For two decades, Brakhage’s films focused largely on his wife and their five children. Shedden gingerly interviews a few members of the family, who describe the artist’s behavior when he was possessed, as they say, by his muse. “Sometimes it was the only attention I would get from Stan,” one now-grown son says of his documented childhood. “That made me feel good.” Brakhage himself has somewhat less to say, but, as he functioned as a talisman for other avant-garde filmmakers over the years, Shedden excerpts material from films by Jonas Mekas, George Kuchar, and R. Bruce Elder. Brakhage is also punctuated by observations made by the artist’s mainly male friends and associates—including composer James Tenney (who provides a spare and tasteful score).

Brakhage is less a context for its subject than an introduction. Still, it’s rare to see a profile concerned with something other than personality. Shedden samples many of Brakhage’s greatest hits, from the early psychodrama The Way to Shadow Garden and the birth film Window Water Baby Moving through the multiple superimpositions of Prelude, the intricately edited 8mm 23rd Psalm Branch, the shock vérité of The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes, and the pure prismatic Text of Light, to the filmmaker’s recent painted or scratched films. To see the equivalent of Brakhage’s reel, annotated by the filmmaker, is to recognize the awesome breadth of his accomplishments in, and dedication to, what sometimes seems the most fragile of media.

Screening twice Thursday at Anthology, James Benning’s Utopia is a genuinely experimental sound-image juxtaposition. Benning has long been interested in the relationship between landscape and narrative; here he appropriates the audio from Richard Dindo’s documentary Ernesto “Che” Guevara: The Bolivian Diaries (shown at Film Forum in 1996) as the accompaniment for a series of “empty” landscapes shot in and around Death Valley and the U.S.-Mexican border.

Benning isn’t the first avant-gardist to lift a ready-made soundtrack (Ken Jacobs used Ulmer’s Black Cat to accompany one of his projection pieces), but, thanks to the Dindo documentary’s romantic subject and Benning’s underpopulated vistas, Utopia is predicated on a tangible absence. The timeless vistas echo with once world-historical derring-do and overheated rhetoric, even after the desert gives way to a succession of refineries, mines, and motels. Although Utopia‘s shots feel roughly the same length, there doesn’t seem to be any particular pattern to their assemblage or any consistency to their relationship with the narrative. At one point someone mentions a river and Benning shows one; at another, he intervenes in the landscape by inscribing an embankment with the slogan “Che Lives”; after a while, he begins adding his own ambient sound.

The strategy is minimal but undisciplined; the imaginary connection between sound and image flickers like a bulb in a bad socket. (After running on empty for perhaps 20 minutes during its last reel, Utopia‘s windup recaptures something of its earlier global-village feel—Benning juxtaposing a long road with an articulation of Che’s dream and then trumping it with a shot of a derelict trailer park.) Dependent as it is on feelings stirred by an archaic revolutionary myth, Utopia is ultimately a variation on Dindo’s movie—which itself returned to document the scene of Che’s last stand a quarter of a century later. Benning’s postscript attributes particular significance to his border landscape, but, reminding us that the original meaning of utopia is “nowhere,” the point would have been made equally well with images of Berkeley or Disneyland.

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