Now that I have time to watch movies at home (and, it would seem, as many of them as I’d like), I find myself overwhelmed by the number of choices I have. Firstly there are all the DVDs my wife Kathleen and I have collected over the years, many of which we still haven’t watched. Then there are the films available through our subscriptions to Netflix and the Criterion Channel. And on top of that, there are those movies popping up online in brief windows or at scheduled times. On Sunday night I watched IWOW: I Walk on Water, a new 200-minute experimental documentary-cum-autobiography by Khalik Allah (Black Mother), during the short interval after Allah put the movie on YouTube and before it was taken down. This week Kat plans to virtually attend shorts programs at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which is currently taking place online.
Most of our viewing since becoming homebound has been united by a common ambition. Since we’re stuck in place for another several weeks (Kat and I are both working from home for the foreseeable future), we figure this is a good time to undertake epic projects—entire TV series, filmmakers’ bodies of work, movies with exceptionally long running times. Indeed, IWOW was one of the less daunting things I’ve watched in the past week, though I don’t write that to diminish Allah’s remarkable accomplishment. The latest feature by the New York street-photographer-turned-filmmaker is one of the breeziest three and a half hours I’ve encountered, organized according to an associative, poetic logic that I found easy to get swept up in. IWOW considers Allah’s life over most of 2019, during which time he photographs homeless people and drug addicts in Harlem, rekindles a friendship with one of his subjects, works to sustain a long-distance relationship with his wife (who’s living in Brussels), and ingests a lot of psilocybin mushrooms. The film feels like a giant sketchbook, moving freely between Allah’s personal and global concerns while advancing a constant aesthetic. (Allah’s use of 16-millimeter film is frequently gorgeous, and his editing achieves a dreamlike flow.) Throughout, the filmmaker raises compelling questions about artists’ responsibility to society, life under globalization, and his own sanity. The results surely aren’t for everyone, but I, for one, look forward to revisiting IWOW when it becomes available through other channels.
The most daunting thing I’ve tackled in the past week has been Argentine filmmaker Mariano Llinás’s La Flor (2018), which is available to rent, in three parts, at distributor Grasshopper Film’s website. With intermissions included, La Flor runs almost 15 hours, which makes it one of the longest films ever made. Yet it’s easy to break up into manageable segments; the film consists of six episodes, some of which unfold in multiple chapters. Watching it feels like reading an avant-garde epic like Ulysses or Gravity’s Rainbow, in part because Llinás employs so many literary devices. Much of La Flor is narrated, and the writer-director (after the fashion of many modern and postmodern novels) frequently draws attention to his position as a storyteller. The film’s very structure suggests a literary experiment. The six episodes, each of which riff on a different genre, proceed according to certain arbitrary rules; the first four feature beginnings but no endings, the fifth contains a beginning and an end, and the last just the final passages of a story. Five of the episodes star the same four actresses, and their presences ground the ever-shifting narratives in a sense of familiarity.
On a basic level, La Flor is an exercise in the pleasures of storytelling; the longest episodes are rife with flashbacks, subplots, and digressions. But Llinás’s joy at spinning out shaggy dog tales reflects larger questions about how we—and larger structural forces in the world—organize our lives. The single longest portion of La Flor, which runs almost six hours, is a knotty cold war espionage epic that takes place across multiple continents; like Gravity’s Rainbow, it compiles a trove of overlapping narratives to consider the complex geopolitical forces that shaped the fate of the postwar world. The spy epic at the heart of La Flor throws the film’s other stories into a different light, leading one to ponder the ways that modern life resembles a modern novel. As you might imagine, this isn’t the only theme Llinás develops across his gargantuan achievement. La Flor also employs female-driven narratives to consider the subject of female autonomy; the film derives a certain tension between Llinás’s overt control over the stories and the four leads’ increasing influence over their characters.
In its genre play, metafictional techniques, and adoring focus on female performers, La Flor suggests an expansion on Jacques Rivette’s 1974 classic Celine and Julie Go Boating, yet there’s something distinctly South American about Llinás’s literary sensibility. The writer-director chases premises regardless of where they lead him, and this reminded me of the fiction of such giants as Julio Cortázar, Felisberto Hernández, and Gabriel García Márquez. The second episode, for instance, begins as a 50s-style women’s picture about a melancholy singer before evolving into a bizarre conspiracy narrative involving scorpion venom; the fourth episode starts as a self-reflexive, making-of mockumentary before venturing into the delusions of a madman at a sanatorium. The latter development playfully equates storytelling (particularly the sort of epic storytelling one finds in La Flor) with madness, reminding us that both suck us into vast, internal experiences.
Such experiences seem especially welcome now that we all have so much time to spend with ourselves, though of course epic narratives don’t have to be inward-looking. While taking breaks from La Flor, I finally watched, with Kat, Patricio Guzmán’s three-part documentary The Battle of Chile (1975–79), about Salvador Allende’s presidency and the coup that overthrew it. How nice it was to get away from so much fiction with these shots of real history! Guzmán is a major figure that I’d neglected for too long. In the coming weeks, I plan to catch up with some of his other documentaries, which comprise a grand portrait of Chile over the last 50 years. Between Guzmán and Fritz Lang (with whom I’m also having a phase, watching or rewatching most of his films), I hope to maintain a healthy balance between fiction and nonfiction. v