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Whatever else can be said regarding the crossed vectors of September 11 and the legacy of mass entertainment, one thing’s certain: We have joined the globe’s people at last. Images of close-to-home urban obliteration are not merely news footage or blockbuster essence any longer, but the bedeviling stuff of stare-at-the-ceiling nightmares. The immense worldwide success of American movies, with their yen for local destruction, may have been partially due to our apparent untouchability—America as a comfort zone of impossible Armageddons. Londoners, Germans, Japanese, Bosnians, Panamanians, Lebanese, Vietnamese: All could watch ID-4 without revisiting their own rubble. For stateside ticket-buyers, of course, the ridiculous dream of movies had no holocaust to evoke.
Now we are the world—the taste of ruin is on our tongues. Surely, footage of the last 100 years’ worth of bombed cities will have a new and awful substance for us, and the History Channel will seem significantly less quaint. The New York release of the new documentary Berlin Babylon, for example, generates a desolate ruefulness. The Wall’s removal left a huge, ghostly central wedge of Berlin open and undeveloped, and Hubertus Siegert’s film focuses on Berliners’ efforts to make logistical and aesthetic sense of the space. Fiercely literal, the movie’s concern with historicized urban planning may seem somewhat anecdotal to New Yorkers, but its textual torque is disquieting. This begins with an opening title retelling the story of Nebuchadnezzar, whose Babylon tower, a product of mythic wealth and hubris, was brought down by invading forces, leaving “a vacant lot.” The Wall isn’t what leaps to mind; writer-director Siegert is simply suggesting the size of the emptied space and the job ahead for the film’s many architects, developers, and bureaucrats in filling it.
In fact, Siegert seeks to de-metaphorize the city as it evolves, brick by brick, into a workable, ordinary megalopolis. The multifarious arguments, cases, and designs made toward that end are interesting, but Siegert’s movie succeeds most in visually pondering the nature of a cityscape and its more or less permanent state of collapse and rehabilitation. Large sections are given over to a brooding, melancholy contemplation of Berlin, shot in Herzogian traveling shots and Wenders-like helicopter sweeps, as if it were a 3-D puzzle-picture that, if looked at long enough, would yield a city image molded by reason and hope. To many eyes, Berlin was the saddest city in 20th-century Europe, divided and lost, and as city symphonies go, Siegert’s is pragmatic and optimistic. But the lost buildings and historical wreckage helplessly salt new wounds.
In another postwar world, the notorious French film mag Cahiers du Cinéma has been celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, and so the Walter Reade hosts a massive series featuring not only the films the magazine held to its fervent breast as only it could, but also the films made by its former writers and editors. Thus, hallowed classics like Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, Renoir’s The Golden Coach, Fuller’s Forty Guns, Mizoguchi’s Ugetsu, and Tashlin’s Artists and Models (the reflex to include Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln was resisted) are accompanied by the nouvelle vague’s familiar keystones (Breathless; The 400 Blows; Hiroshima, Mon Amour, etc.). But the subsequent editorial generations’ obsessions (Assault on Precinct 13, A Touch of Zen) and productions (by Rene Allio, Olivier Assayas, André Téchiné) are also acknowledged, and there are rarities: Claire Denis’s 1990 doc Jacques Rivette, le Veilleur (in which the late French megacritic Serge Daney joins Rivette for a babbling meeting of minds), Jacques Rozier’s forgotten 1963 debut, Adieu Phillipine, and anthro-riddle/Godard fave Moi, un Noir (1958) by pioneering metacinema master Jean Rouch.