‘The Velvet Underground’ above ground


The past weekend marked the middle of this year’s New York Film Festival, with several screenings of her Centerpiece selection, Jane Campion’s neo-Western / masculinity review, The Power of the Dog, on Friday night. But some of my favorite films at the festival so far have been in the realm of non-fiction – or, in the case of Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il Buco, adjacent to non-fiction.

In film circles, at least, documentaries have become something of a flashpoint in recent years, especially when it comes to ways to extend the aesthetic limits of non-fiction beyond the standard aesthetic. talking heads that became de rigueur on television in particular. Legendary filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman, Albert & David Maysles, Barbara Kopple and many others have pioneered new approaches to cinematic non-fiction since the 1960s. But more recent filmmakers like Robert Greene (Actress, Kate Plays Christine, Bisbee ’17); and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Pacho Velez and other Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab alumni have pushed the boundaries even further, blurring the lines of reality and fiction and even introducing avant-garde aesthetics into their approaches. of history and ethnography.

Not as underground as you might expect

One would have expected Todd Haynes, a filmmaker who frequently wears his loves for movies, music and semiotics on his sleeve, to be just as experimental with his first feature documentary, “The Velvet Underground”. For the first 15 minutes of this portrayal of the seminal 1960s rock band, Haynes adopts a version of the split-screen format that Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey invented with their pioneering 1966 epic Chelsea Girls – a historically appropriate choice since Lou Reed, John Cale & co. were an integral part of the orbit of Warhol’s Dream Factory.

Once Lou Reed and John Cale finally meet, however, “The Velvet Underground,” both in style and content, becomes a fairly straightforward musical documentary, with talking heads galore. He ends up recounting what is a now all too familiar arc of warring temperaments and egos, which end up tearing the group apart. At least there are a lot of familiar Velvet Underground tunes on the soundtrack, all of which sound particularly majestic in a theater.

The most interesting thing about ‘The Velvet Underground’ – what pushes Haynes beyond simple reverence – is its detailed and passionate evocation of the underground New York art scene surrounding the group during that decade. It links the sonic experiences of composers like John Cage and La Monte Young to Cale’s own avant-garde musical interests, and links the transgressive cinematic provocations of Warhol, Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas and others to Reed’s own fascination. for the moving image. A sense of limitless artistic possibilities resonates throughout the first half of ‘The Velvet Underground’, only for the group’s internal feuds to resolve its second half. Still, for those new to this movie who aren’t very familiar with the music of the Velvet Underground and their artistic era, Haynes’ film offers enough to give a sense of what made them special.

The pure beauty of ‘Flee’

Flee (premiering Thursday, October 7 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) offers a more aesthetically appealing experience. My colleague Sara Stewart already covered this animated documentary from Sundance earlier this year, so my only other observation on Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film is to suggest possible reasons for the director’s choice to recount the heartbreaking journey of Afghan refugee Amin (not his real name) from his country. originated in Denmark as an animated film. One part is practical: to protect the identity of his friend as well as to make him feel more comfortable opening up to him.

But far from trivializing Amin’s experiences, the animation carries an additional thematic resonance: as a gay man who is forced, at various points in his life to this day, to hide his ethnic identity, his sexuality and his past for Simply survive, the animation offers a different kind of subterfuge, creating a fascinating tension between the harsh nature of Amin’s experiences and the sheer visual beauty on display. Thankfully, this beauty never overwhelms the touching personal story at Flee’s heart. He tells his story through Amin’s own voice, a voice that even now still vibrates with fear of running away.

The caving movie

Il Buco (replayed on Sunday October 10 at the Francesca Beale Theater), Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino’s late sequel to his 2010 film The Quattro Volte, is not a documentary in itself. It was based on the true story of a group of cavers who in 1961 explored what was then the third deepest cave in the world in the Italian region of Calabria. In recreating this expedition, Frammartino chose actual cavers and captured them doing their job for long stretches of the film in an immersive observing style. Elsewhere, Frammartino presents excerpts from life in the neighboring villages and fields which, detached from any semblance of narrative, evoke an ethnographic sensation, no matter how staged. The closest thing to an “intrigue” at Il Buco is a side thread circling around an elderly shepherd who falls ill as this band of cavers descend the cave.

The character of the Shepherd perhaps offers a key to understanding Frammartino’s intentions behind this confusion between fiction and non-fiction. At the start of the film, a group of children in a village are seen watching a TV show in which a news anchor and a construction worker climb a skyscraper, trumpeting the virtues of progress. In a sense, this band of cavers represents the forces of modernization that intrude into a pastoral environment – an intrusion that makes the shepherd physically ill, representing an older and more natural way of life.

As capricious as this little allegorical symbolism may seem, it would be shortsighted to regard Il Buco as a mere conservative tract. There is a genuine sense of wonder and exploration as cavers slowly descend into the cave, uncovering long-hidden artifacts from a bygone era. And even though the film ends on a mystical note with the Shepherd getting the sonic equivalent of a last laugh, it could be seen more as Frammartino understanding that the old and the new can coexist peacefully in the world, than the one does not have to destroy the other.


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