A voice from the frontier of both post-post-industrial civilization and art-film reductionism, Lithuanian filmmaker Sarunas Bartas may be the ultimate litmus test for hardcore cineastes. His films represent a polar cap of inhospitable cinematic ordeal—they withhold orthodox pleasures so strenuously you imagine the filmmaker as a marching ascetic, disgusted with a decadent movie world. A Bartas film rarely moves, and is never host to more than a few mumbling moments of inconsequential dialogue—you arrive long after life has already wound down into hopeless silence. Stripped of even the barest efforts toward narrative and character, Bartas’s aesthetic also calls for the spectacular capture of natural desolation, whether it be the hovels of Lithuanian capital Vilnius, or the Siberian Sayan Mountains, where Tofolar nomads still hunker down amid the reindeer dung.
Immersion into the Anthology retro will knee-jerkedly bring Sokurov and Tarkovsky to mind, but they’re plan sequence song-and-dance men compared to Bartas, who suggests both Godard’s recent watchfulness and Herzog’s devotion to extreme landscapes. The films, starting with the semi-doc featurette To the Day Passed-By (1990), further skirt total sensory deprivation by way of extraordinary ambient-layer-cake soundtracks, seething with distant voices, wind roar, mechanical white noise, pin-drop minutiae, and the despairing wheeze of relentless exhalations. Bartas is wholly concerned with the dire, sun-crystallized locations themselves, and the quality of eternal downtime spent in the planet’s forgotten valleys.
A zombified portrait of the Vilnius streets haunted by a shambling homeless hulk, To The Day Passed-By is an ethnographic nightmare—few places on Earth are as bombed out by industrialized decay as ex-Soviet nations. (One startling sequence watches a massive queue of coated figures filing into a doorway; only after several minutes, when a car passes in the foreground, are we shaken from the De Chirico weirdness.) And it looks like everything you ever threw away ended up in Lithuania as secondhand goods. Bartas’s first feature, Three Days (1991), is a severe stumble through Vilnius by two guys and a single girl (Katerina Golubeva), who try and fail to find a suitable place to fuck near the busy yet dissolute Baltic harbor-works. We’re never sure what they’re searching for, but there’s little else this wind-blasted aussereuropa has to offer.
Golubeva is in nearly all of Bartas’s films, but, given the director’s minimalism, she is more of a compellingly emotionless visage than an actress. (It is surprising that, based on her work for Bartas, Leos Carax cast her in Pola X, and even more so that she acted up a storm.) She is literally air-dropped into the center of Bartas’s best film, Few of Us (1996), materializing from a helicopter onto a huge hill of loose rocks it takes a full minute to treacherously descend. Who she is or why she is infiltrating the Tofolars in their remote valley are merely the first questions Bartas is deliberate in never answering; when a few drunken villagers eventually close in for a rape, the movie cuts away to the gelid exteriors again, and when we return the confrontation is over, with a stabbed body slumped on the floor. Outside, the trees creak in the wind.
Bartas may be building the bitterest career vision in film history. His first four films are centered squarely on the anomie of post-Soviet destitution—their specificity is their vindication—but his latest films are a different story. The House (1997), co-written by Golubeva, is a meandering tour of a dilapidated manor filled with symbolic nonsense: a huge litter of puppies, an old man cultivating a mini-graveyard, a crowd of naked children, and so on. (Carax shows up, too.) Nudged into a pretentious modernism, the filmmaker’s rigorous strategy falls on its inexpressive face, and Bartas seemed to realize it himself—he culminates the movie with an indulgently Tarr-like, room-to-room traveling shot. Freedom (2000) is Bartas reasserting his perspective in what begins as an almost fully contextualized adventure story: two men and a woman stranded in the Moroccan desert after a smuggling trip goes awry (that single, distantly observed scene, with the coast patrol boat firing away while both boats nearly capsize in rough seas, is one of Bartas’s most breathtaking). Speech is a useless recourse in this dangerously gorgeous terrain, and the starving characters join us in simply killing time before the earth swallows them. That may be Bartas’s essential idea: The waiting is the hardest part.
Certainly a rebel of a more frivolous type, Terry Gilliam famously creates most of his own tribulations, but according to the new doc Lost in La Mancha, which details the 2000 abandonment of Gilliam’s version of Don Quixote, the film ground to a halt after only a week of shooting because of star Jean Rochefort’s herniated discs. It’s not a terribly dramatic or even quixotic denouement to what is seen here as a series of dull production meetings and then, alarmingly, a flash flood in the Spanish countryside that washes most of the equipment away as the video documentarians watch from inside a Jeep. Welles’s aborted Don Quixote is recalled fruitlessly as a parallel, as if insurance regulations were all that held him back. (Gilliam even waxes frustrated about it being a “jinxed” subject, despite the scores of existing hitch-free Quixote adaptations, starting with Pabst and Kozintsev and winding down to Hiller and the various TV series.) Compared to fellow unmaking-of docs like Mika Kaurismäki’s Tigrero and the BBC’s The Epic That Never Was, the movie neither inspires us to pine for what might’ve been nor makes Gilliam-style filmmaking seem like a noble pursuit. In the end, Gilliam is clearly a Beverly Hills rebel, uninterested in hell and high water.
Film Forum’s Peter Sellers retro showcases one of the 20th century’s most sui generis performers, a chameleonic meta-clown with untold recesses of deranged history lurking behind his deadlight eyes. Sellers was such a momentously unique and beguiling comic figure for so long (nearly 30 years), it still seems difficult to believe modern culture can roil onward without him. It’s of no importance that most of Sellers’s movies were underwritten and clumsily conceived—he was always addictively watchable. Only Dr. Strangelove, Lolita, The Ladykillers, and Being There fully live up to Sellers’s measure, but even I Love You, Alice B. Toklas is twice the hash high it should be thanks to his impish energy.
“The Meaning of Strife: Documenting the Ruins of Terry Gilliam’s Quixotic Dream Project” by Jessica Winter
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 28, 2003