Testimony from the Front Lines of Life in “Talking Head”


If nothing else, there is general agreement that a vocabulary of camerawork and editing define “cinematic” moviemaking. “Talking Head,” a series opening this week at Anthology Film Archives, finds the essence of cinema in the silence of that language.

The title of Anthology’s 24-film program comes from a term for television pundits, and its air of David Brooks seems intended as an extreme counterbalance to the acrobatic ideals of filmmaking. The curator of this series, however, is using the phrase loosely: There are bodies, sometimes expressive; heads, sometimes mute. What draws these films together, then, is that they are made from the vantage of a patient listener, the camera playing the part of podium or confessional to a single subject.

The head in Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002) belongs to Traudl Junge, whose assignment with Der Führer began in 1942 and ended with taking down Hitler’s final will and testament. Slipping between an old woman’s unconscious tenderness for the companions of her youth and a conscious revulsion at her own culpability, Junge recounts the slow death-through-constriction of the Reich. The only cutaways from Junge’s narrating show Junge wordlessly watching, as we are, her own last testament. She is emotional in listening as she rarely is in speaking, an illustration of the power of playback.

Where Blind Spot maintains apparent neutrality, The Smiling Man (1966) is an ambush. The target is Siegfried Müller, a Prussian ex-Nazi who gained a measure of wire-service fame for his mercenary soldiering during the 1960s Congo Crisis. Undercover East Germans Gerhard Scheumann and Walter Heynowski coax Müller into confidence. Proudly wearing his Iron Cross pin, increasingly sloshed as the interview proceeds, Müller recounts his “peacekeeping” exploits with grinning pride. It’s a version the filmmakers can later contradict from the editing booth (meanwhile propagating their own government’s official fallacy that all the “bad” Germans, like Müeller, went to the West with partition).

Documentary work from name auteurs provides one subsection of Anthology’s program, showing the raw materials out of which their authors built more famous fictions. Jean Eustache’s later films, notably 1973’s The Mother and the Whore, were narcissistically tied to his autobiography; in the rarely screened Numéro Zéro (1971), Eustache records grandmother Odette Robert’s history—and, by extension, his own. Martin Scorsese’s Italianamerican (1974) is another family album in the round, showing the young filmmaker sitting down at the table with his parents in their Elizabeth Street apartment. In American Boy (1978), Scorsese offers a living-room forum for Steven Prince, who came through junkiedom and stage-managing Neil Diamond with a load of terribly good and often terrible tales, the backstories to the lowlife authenticity that Prince brought to his walk-on as the gun salesman in Taxi Driver. Watching this work is a reminder that Scorsese, more recently a profiler of boomer celebs, once stayed close to the mean streets.

We go beneath those streets in Notes From the Basement (1993–2000), the home-video confessionals of Peter Haindl, a Viennese hospital orderly in his fifties who offers the camcorder a self-performance repellent in its vanity, loutishness, and misogyny—and touching in its vulnerability and self-revelation. This ambiguous balance must be attributed in part to filmmaker Rainer Frimmel, who edited Haindl’s raw footage. There is no such intervention in Andy Warhol’s Paul Swan (1965), composed of two 16mm reels, shot head to tail, then screened uncut. Swan, an artist/dancer/poet born during the Chester A. Arthur administration, is filmed in his Eighth Avenue studio performing a complete stage show for a silent audience; it’s replete with blustery recitations, modern-dance poses, and, displaying a body collapsed by age, time-consuming wardrobe changes between moth-eaten costumes. During Swan’s endless search for a missing shoe, even the usually static Warhol camera gets restless.

Warhol’s two-reeler Screen Tests eliminates even the distraction of movement. The talking head here is mostly off-screen: Scriptwriter Ronald Tavel, auditioning would-be contract “stars,” provides surreal and lecherous direction. Transvestite Mario Montez grovels dutifully for Tavel’s amusement, but the real frisson comes between Tavel and Warhol’s assistant/lover Philip Fagan, as Fagan moves from bashful to wary to hostile in reaction to the suggestive nonsense from behind the camera until the film finally runs down with Tavel carrying on, Fagan staring at the camera in sullen silence, and the camera fulfilling its essential function: capturing life for posterity.