Film

Don’t Watch That, Watch This: Geek Cinema Selfie Party

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What’s fascinating, new and neglected across all major video platforms.

Among other things, cinema has always been a ready-made self-eulogizer — Hollywood was making two-reeler silent comedies about the craft of moviemaking before the viewing public even knew what it entailed, and documentaries about famous and forgotten threads of film history were being assembled before there was even a history to speak of. As the medium slinks limping toward its own quasquicentennial, documentaries excavating neglected film-history detours have proliferated, many coming from countries and cultures that have turned upside down since their film cultures began. Mila Turajlic’s Cinema Komunisto (2010), a Tribeca Film Fest vet and now available from Music Box Films on DVD and VOD, puts this idea up front, labeling itself as the story of a nation, Yugoslavia, that “doesn’t exist — except in movies.”

It’s still there, of course, sliced bloodily up into seven smaller states, but Turajlic is right: the old Yugoslavia survives as a cinematic ideology, an idealized fantasy-world version of itself, complete with its own Oz-ish wizard-deity, Tito. The President for Life was, like so many 20th-century dictators, a bonafide movie geek, and the nation’s devotion to reinventing itself on screen reflected his own unquenchable cinemania. Tito watched a movie a day, so says his devoted projectionist, no matter how late he arrived home, and he regularly read and edited scripts for films going into production.

Turajlic’s movie takes a slam-bang chronological approach, interviewing now-elderly production alumni (including ubiquitous movie star Bata Zivojinovic, the Yugoslavian Steve McQueen), and tracing the history of her erstwhile nation’s sole film studio, Avala, as its culture bumped and boogied alongside the struggles of European history since WWII. She goes from the early Nazi-killing “partisan” war films, which one old-timer dubs as “terrible” but which look pretty dynamic, to the massive global co-productions of the ‘60s (The Long Ships, Genghis Khan), employing Hollywood megastars and made possible only by the whole-hog allocation of state resources. (The ruins of a very real bridge filmmakers were allowed to blow up for Battle of Neretva remains a rusted tourist attraction.) Embedded in the story is a varietal of what J. Hoberman dubbed “the red Atlantis” — ideological nation-states expressly and at great effort conceiving of themselves by way of movies, and then, once they vanish, leaving only the illuminated daydreams of film behind. On film, Yugoslavia was a perfect country, just as all countries are in their official mainstream narratives. Of course, Turajlic’s doc ends in 1990, because Yugoslavia after that wasn’t Yugoslavia, and its cinema became history.

The ironic inverse is picked over in Davy Chou’s doc Golden Slumbers (2011), which wonders in an awestruck daze about the erasure of Cambodian cinema by the Khmer Rouge from 1975 to 1979. Directors and actors were killed by the score, and every reel of film found was incinerated, leaving behind a brutalized country and no cinema at all. (Chou’s film is not yet available via American video streams, but can be had on French DVD.) Movies about movies don’t need sociopolitical earthquakes to justify themselves; being cultishly marginal is more than sufficient. Like Jack Smith, Ed Wood, Herschell Gordon Lewis, and the Kuchars before him, antique sexploitation master Joe Sarno was a compulsive fringe-dweller who late in life enjoyed the laurels of hipster-retro culture studies, and so with Wiktor Ericsson’s A Life in Dirty Movies (2013), coming to VOD from Film Movement on September 19th, he receives the ultimate: a biopic benediction.

Sarno made softcore films starting in the early ‘60s, figuring as a kind of Bergman/Cassavetes auteur in the mini-industry pioneered by Russ Meyer and doomed to obsolescence with the advent of popular hardcore in the ‘70s. His leeringly salacious but sometimes doggerel-poetic titles (my favorite is Scarf of Mist, Thigh of Satin) disguised films that didn’t indulge in fleshpot spectacle so much as brooded to an obsessive degree about sex and its damages. They do have a distinctive, almost menacing visual personality, but they’re also far from being art-film classics, and so Ericsson’s movie, which visits at length with the 89-year-old Sarno and his nicotine-fairy wife Peggy in Manhattan, is cuddly and hagiographic when it could be ironic and analytical. Sarno thought of himself as an artist to his death in 2010, and claims to have hated hardcore porn because of its male-focused money-shot perspective; Ericsson therefore respectfully leaves out any mention of the 70+ hardcore films Sarno shot between 1974 and 2004 under pseudonyms. But the restoration project begins: The doc whets your appetite for the ‘60s Sarnos films, which deserve to be remembered, if perhaps not seen very often, as a window on a wild-west day and age when movies were just beginning to snap their bra straps and test the unknown.

Movies about movies: Charlie Chaplin was playing inside baseball as early as 1916, as a hapless but acrobatic props assistant in Behind the Screen, one of twelve landmark two-reelers he made for Mutual, all of which are now restored (after decades of crummy public-domain knockoff video editions) and encased in, it should be said, a beautifully collectable aluminum DVD/Blu-ray box set from Flicker Alley. It’s the stone knives and bear skins of movie comedy, an essential for anyone with a cinephiliac conscience, and history, as a fool once said, written in lightning.