This Week in New York Insider's Guide to Arts & Culture in New York City Since 2001

PEMA TSEDEN — CELEBRATING A TIBETAN VOICE: OLD DOG

OLD DOG

An old man (Lochey) would rather sell himself than his canine companion in Pema Tseden’s Old Dog

OLD DOG (LAO GOU/KHYI RGAN) (Pema Tseden, 2011)
Asia Society
725 Park Ave. at 70th St.
Sunday, January 28, free with advance registration, 2:00
212-288-6400
asiasociety.org

In June 2016, Tibetan filmmaker Pema Tseden, who lives and works in Beijing, was arrested by Chinese authorities at Xining airport in western China for “disrupting social order” supposedly over a luggage dispute, then was admitted to a local hospital with various injuries and illnesses. He was shortly freed following international outcry, and he went right back to making films about Tibet. The forty-eight-year-old writer and director, who spoke at Asia Society in 2010, returns to the institution this weekend for “Pema Tseden: Celebrating a Tibetan Voice,” a two-day free retrospective of all four of his feature films, two of which will be followed by Q&As with Tseden, whose Chinese name is Wanma Caidan. One of the films Tseden will be speaking after is his 2011 drama, Old Dog, a beautifully told, slowly paced meditation on Buddhism’s four Noble Truths — “Life means suffering”; The origin of suffering is attachment”; “The cessation of suffering is attainable”; and “There is a path to the cessation of suffering” — that ends with a shocking, manipulative finale that nearly destroys everything that came before it. In order to get a little money and to save the family’s sheep-herding dog from being stolen, Gonpo (Drolma Kyab) sells their Tibetan nomad mastiff to Lao Wang (Yanbum Gyal), a dealer who resells the prized breed to stores in China, where they’re used for protection. When Gonpa’s father (Lochey) finds out what his son has done, he goes back to Lao Wang and demands the return of the dog he’s taken care of for thirteen years. “I’d sell myself before the dog,” he tells his son.

And so begins a gentle tale of parents and children, set in a modern-day Tibet that is ruled by China’s heavy hand. Gonpa’s father doesn’t understand why his son, a lazy man who rides around on a motorized bike and never seems to do much of anything, doesn’t yet have any children of his own, so he pays for Gonpa and his wife, Rikso (Tamdrin Tso), to go to the doctor to see what’s wrong. Meanwhile, the old man keeps a close watch on his dog, wary that Lao Wang will to try to steal it again. Writer-director Tseden (The Sacred Arrow, The Weatherman’s Legacy) explores such themes as materialism, family, and attachment in a lovely little film that sadly is nearly ruined by its extreme final scene. Old Dog is screening January 28 at 2:00; “Pema Tseden: Celebrating a Tibetan Voice,” being held in conjunction with the upcoming exhibition “Unknown Tibet: The Tucci Expeditions and Buddhist Painting,” also includes 2005’s The Silent Holy Stones, 2009’s The Search, and 2015’s Tharlo.

A JOURNEY THROUGH CINEMA — TEN YEARS OF THE COHEN MEDIA GROUP

Documentary examines the extraordinary interview sessions between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock (photo by Philippe Halsman)

Documentary examines the extraordinary interview sessions between François Truffaut and Alfred Hitchcock (photo by Philippe Halsman)

HITCHCOCK/TRUFFAUT (Kent Jones, 2015)
Quad Cinema
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Monday, January 22, 5:00
Series runs January 19-25
212-255-2243
quadcinema.com
cohenmedia.net/films

Founded in 2008 by Charles S. Cohen, the Cohen Media Group is an independent theatrical production and distribution company that specializes in high-quality new films and restorations of classic cinema. The Quad is paying tribute to the group’s first decade of operation with the twenty-two-film series “A Journey Through Cinema: Ten Years of the Cohen Media Group,” continuing through January 25. On January 22 at 5:00, the Quad is screening the widely praised 2015 CMG documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut. “In 1962, while in New York to present Jules and Jim, I noticed that every journalist asked me the same question: ‘Why do the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma take Hitchcock so seriously? He’s rich and successful, but his movies have no substance,’” French Nouvelle Vague auteur François Truffaut wrote in the preface to the second edition of what he called “the hitchbook,” the seminal film bible Truffaut/Hitchcock. “In the course of an interview during which I praised Rear Window to the skies, an American critic surprised me by commenting, ‘You love Rear Window because, as a stranger to New York, you know nothing about Greenwich Village.’ To this absurd statement, I replied, ‘Rear Window is not about Greenwich Village, it is a film about cinema, and I do know cinema.’” Truffaut was determined to change the prevailing belief that British director Alfred Hitchcock was a maker of studio fluff. “In examining his films,” Truffaut continued, “it was obvious that he had given more thought to the potential of his art than any of his colleagues. It occurred to me that if he would, for the first time, agree to respond seriously to a systematic questionnaire, the resulting document might modify the American critics’ approach to Hitchcock. That is what this book is all about.” The tome compiled a weeklong series of conversations between the thirty-year-old Truffaut and the sixty-three-year-old Hitchcock — the talks began on Hitch’s birthday — in the latter’s Hollywood studio office, with Helen Scott serving as translator. Although the interviews were recorded for audio, no film was shot; instead, Philippe Halsman took still photos. The story of the unique relationship between Truffaut, who as of 1962 had made only The 400 Blows and Shoot the Piano Player (he was in the midst of finalizing Jules and Jim), and Hitchcock, who was preparing his forty-eighth film, The Birds, is told in this splendid documentary, which cleverly reverses the order of Hitchcock and Truffaut’s names from the book it’s based on. Writer-director Kent Jones (head of the New York Film Festival), cowriter Serge Toubiana (former editor in chief of Cahiers du Cinéma) and editor Rachel Reichman lovingly combine Halsman’s pictures, audio clips from the original sessions, scenes from many of Hitchcock’s films (and a few of Truffaut’s), close-ups of dozens of pages from the book, rare archival footage, and new interviews with ten directors from around the world who weigh in on what makes Hitchcock’s work so special, so illuminating, so influential.

Sharing their praise are Martin Scorsese, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Olivier Assayas, Peter Bogdanovich, Arnaud Desplechin, James Gray, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Richard Linklater, and Paul Schrader, as they shed light on such classic films as Vertigo, Psycho, I Confess, The Wrong Man, Sabotage, Marnie, Rear Window, and others, with detailed shot-by-shot analysis while also praising the importance of “the hitchbook” itself. It all makes for an eye-opening crash course in cinema, and it’s likely to change the way you look and think about motion pictures. “It was a window into the world of cinema that I hadn’t had before, because it was a director simultaneously talking about his own work but doing so in a way that was utterly unpretentious and had no pomposity,” Gray (Little Odessa, Two Lovers) says about the book. “There was starting to be these kind of erudite conversations about the art form, but Truffaut was the first one where you really felt that they were talking about the craft of it,” Schrader (American Gigolo, Mishima) points out. “It’s not just that Truffaut wrote a book about Hitchcock. The book is an essential part of his body of work,” Olivier Assayas (Clouds of Sils Maria, Carlos) explains. “I think it conclusively changed people’s opinions about Hitchcock, and so Hitchcock began to be taken much more seriously,” Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon) asserts. And Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) sums up, “It was almost as if somebody had taken a weight off our shoulders and said yes, we can embrace this, we could go.” Of course, the book not only created a critical reassessment of Hitchcock but also helped Truffaut’s budding career. Narrated by Bob Balaban, the film places the work of the two men, who remained good friends until Hitchcock’s death in 1980 at the age of eighty (sadly, Truffaut died four years later at the age of fifty-two), in context of the history of cinema. “Why do these Hitchcock films stand up well? Well, I don’t know the answer,” Hitchcock is heard saying at the beginning of the documentary. By the end of the documentary, you will surely know the answer.

Catherine Deneuve dreams of a better life in Luis Buñuel’s Tristana

TRISTANA (Luis Buñuel, 1970)
Quad Cinema
Wednesday, January 24, 4:35
quadcinema.com/film/tristana
www.cohenmedia.net/films/tristana

Luis Buñuel’s adaptation of Benito Pérez Galdós’s 1892 novel Tristana is an often underrated, deceivingly wicked psychological black comedy. A dubbed Catherine Deneuve stars as the title character, a shy, virginal young orphan employed in the household of the aristocratic, atheist Don Lope (Fernando Rey), an avowed atheist and aging nobleman who regularly spouts off about religion and the wretched social conditions in Spain (where the Spanish auteur had recently returned following many years living and working in Mexico). Soon Don Lope is serving as both husband and father to Tristana, who allows the world to pile its ills on her without reacting — until she meets handsome artist Horacio (Franco Nero) and begins to take matters into her own hands, with tragic results. Although Tristana is one of Buñuel’s more straightforward offerings with regard to narrative, featuring fewer surreal flourishes, it is a fascinating exploration of love, femininity, wealth, power, and a changing of the old guard. Deneuve is magnetic as Tristana, transforming from a meek, naive, gorgeous girl into a much stronger, and ultimately darker, gorgeous woman. Lola Gaos provides solid support as Saturna, who runs Don Lope’s household with a firm hand while also taking care of her deaf son, Saturno (Jesús Fernández), yet another male who is fond of the beautiful Tristana. The film is one of Buñuel’s most colorful works, wonderfully shot by cinematographer José F. Aguayo, who photographed Buñuel’s 1961 masterpiece Viridiana, which was also based on a novel by Galdós and starred Rey. Tristana is screening January 24 at 4:35 in the Quad series “A Journey Through Cinema: Ten Years of the Cohen Media Group,” which continues through January 25 with such other works as Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, Ziad Doueiri’s The Attack, Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning The Salesman, Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang, and Paolo and Vittorio Taviani’s The Night of the Shooting Stars.

NEW YORK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL CLOSING NIGHT: WEST OF THE JORDAN RIVER

makes its U.S. premiere at the New York Jewish Film Festival

Amos Gitai’s West of the Jordan River makes its U.S. premiere as the closing selection of the New York Jewish Film Festival on January 23

WEST OF THE JORDAN RIVER (Amos Gitai, 2017)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th St. at Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday, January 23, 12:30 & 6:00 pm
212-875-5601
www.filmlinc.org

Quad Cinema
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Opens Friday, January 26
212-255-2243
quadcinema.com

The New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, concludes January 23 with the U.S. premiere of Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai’s West of the Jordan River, screening at 12:30 and 6:00 at the Walter Reade Theater. Both are followed by a Q&A with Gitai; the first will be moderated by New York Film Festival director emeritus Richard Peña. The eighty-seven-minute documentary revisits a familiar theme for Gitai, the continuing crisis between Jews and Palestinians, which he previously explored in such nonfiction works as 1982’s Field Diary, 2016’s Rabin, the Last Day, and last year’s Shalom Rabin. The camera follows Gitai from the Erez checkpoint at the Gaza Border in 1994 to Hebron in the West Bank in 2016, from a conference room where he interviews Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 to a backgammon tournament in Jerusalem in 2016. “I’m making a film which will have entries like a travel diary and it will chronicle the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians,” he explains at the beginning. “I decided that my role in this visual diary should be like an archeologist. I want to scratch layer after layer to get to the substance of the matter to understand how we could possibly reach some reconciliation in the region.” Gitai, who likens himself to an architect (he has a PhD in architecture), speaks with groups of angry Palestinians in the street, demanding fair treatment; Israeli soldiers explaining how complicated it can be dealing with Arab children throwing rocks; the Parents Circle in Beit Jala in the West Bank, where Israeli and Palestinian women who have lost children in the conflict get together to promote peace; the NGO B’tselem, an Israeli organization that teaches women to document human rights violations in the occupied territories safely using their cell phones; Khan Al-Ahmar, who runs a Bedouin school in the West Bank that is threatened with demolition; and terrorist victim Michal Froman and her sister, Lia Raz Twito Froman, who live in the Israeli settlement of Teqoa and offer a surprising reaction to Michal’s stabbing by a fifteen-year-old Arab boy when she was pregnant.

makes its U.S. premiere at the New York Jewish Film Festival

Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai meets with groups of Jews and Palestinians to get to the bottom of the Arab-Israeli conflict in West of the Jordan River

Gitai also interviews Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotovely, Knesset member and former minister of foreign affairs Tzipi Livni, Knesset member Tamar Zandberg, Haaretz journalists Ari Shavit and Gideon Levy, Yediot Aharonot journalist Ben-Dror Yemini, and Haaretz editor in chief Aluf Benn, who offer their intriguingly different views of the Israel-Palestine dilemma, discussing humanization and dehumanization on both sides. But Gitai, who has made such well-regarded sociopolitical fictional trilogies as Devarim, Yom Yom, and Kadosh and Kippur, Eden, and Kedma in addition to the play Yitzhak Rabin: Chronicle of an Assassination, does not take the passive role of documentary filmmaker; instead, he often puts himself front and center, sharing his own opinions and challenging those of some of his subjects. (The project was a commission by France Télévisions, which wanted Gitai’s personal point of view.) “Nothing is more solid than the coalition of those who oppose peace,” he tells a group of Arabs mourning the killing of a fifteen-year-old boy. Gitai is shown traveling in cars and on planes, setting up for interviews, and walking through various areas to talk to regular citizens, revealing significant parts of his creative process. “I want to look at the little moments in life and the general political discussions,” he says. He sees the Middle East conflict as a TV series in which “the roles of heroes and villains can be interchangeable,” and that’s how West of the Jordan River, which opens theatrically at the Quad on January 26, unfolds. Perhaps one of the most important lines in the film is one of the first. As Gitai sits down with Prime Minister Rabin in 1994, the thirty-five-year-old director says, “I understand we don’t have much time.” The next year, Rabin was assassinated, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, with no end in sight.

AN EVENING CELEBRATING JOHNNY HALLYDAY

French pop icon Johnny Hallyday stars as an alternate version of himself in Jean-Philippe

French pop icon Johnny Hallyday stars as an alternate version of himself in Laurent Tuel’s Jean-Philippe

French Institute Alliance Française, Florence Gould Hall
55 East 59th St. between Madison & Park Aves.
Monday, January 22, $14, 7:30
212-355-6160
fiaf.org

On December 5, 2017, singer and actor Johnny Hallyday, known as the French Elvis, died of lung cancer at the age of seventy-four after eight years of serious health problems. “We all have a piece of Johnny Hallyday inside every one of us. The public today is in tears, and the whole country mourns,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a statement. More than a million people lined the streets of Paris for the funeral procession of the national hero, who sold more than one hundred million records and was married five times to four women. On January 22, FIAF will pay tribute to the motorcycle-loving Hallyday, born Jean-Philippe Smet, with the special program “An Evening Celebrating Johnny Hallyday.” The tribute begins with a screening of Laurent Tuel’s 2006 film, Jean-Philippe, in which the pop icon portrays a fictional version of himself, just a regular person, opposite Fabrice Luchini. The screening will be followed by a wine reception with live performances of some of the Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur’s many hits.

REPRESENTATION: BLAME

Quinn Shepard Blame

Quinn Shepard is a sextuple threat in sexy, hard-hitting teen drama Blame

BRUNCH MOVIE: BLAME (Quinn Shephard, 2017)
Nitehawk Cinema
136 Metropolitan Ave. between Berry St. & Wythe Ave.
Saturday, January 20, and Sunday, January 21, 11:45 am
718-384-3980
nitehawkcinema.com
www.samuelgoldwynfilms.com/blame

Twenty-two-year-old Quinn Shephard proves herself to be a sextuple threat in the daring, sexy teen thriller Blame. The New Jersey native wrote, directed, edited, produced, and stars in the film, in addition to writing the lyrics for several songs performed by Peter Henry Phillips. Her mother, Laurie Shephard, also produced and cast the movie, which takes place in a New Jersey high school where Abigail Grey (Quinn Shephard) has returned after a mysterious psychotic incident. She is immediately targeted by mean-girl leader Melissa Bowman (Nadia Alexander) and her trusted bestie, Sophie Grant (Sarah Mezzanotte), while the third member of the clique, Ellie Redgrave (Tessa Albertson), might be on the outs for showing sympathy for Abigail. Melissa sics her boyfriend, T.J. (Owen Campbell), and Sophie’s beau, Eric (Luke Slattery), on Abigail, taunting and teasing her, calling her Sybil, after the book and movie about a woman with multiple personalities. When Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina) takes over their drama class, he switches the play they’re presenting from Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, casting Abigail as protagonist Abigail Williams, who might be involved with witchcraft, and Eric as John Proctor, a married man she might be having an affair with. Melissa, who wanted the lead role, is furious when she is named Abigail’s understudy. When Eric doesn’t take things seriously, Jeremy steps in to play John, angering Melissa further as Abigail gets to spend more time with the rather attractive teacher, especially as she watches Abigail and Jeremy grow very close. And Melissa doesn’t like to lose.

Quinn Shepard

Quinn Shepard, wrote, directed, produced, edited, stars in, and composed lyrics for for her feature-film debut, Blame

Blame is a carefully crafted, intimate tale of lust, jealousy, and obsession, capturing the complicated zeitgeist of high school life, the fear and trepidation along with the experimentation and confusion. In shifting from The Glass Menagerie to The Crucible, Shephard equates mental illness with witchcraft as seen through a feminist lens as her story parallels Miller’s, much as Amy Heckerling’s Clueless follows Jane Austen’s Emma (only without the laughs) and Roger Kumble’s Cruel Intentions is based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses. The scenes between Shephard (Hostages, The Miseducation of Cameron Post) and Messina (The Mindy Project, Damages) are sizzling hot as teacher and student teeter on the edge of a major taboo. Shephard, who appeared in a high school production of The Crucible, also gets to show off her fab eyebrows, which are a character unto themselves. She is one talented filmmaker deserving of attention in an industry that must do a much better job cultivating, acknowledging, celebrating, and rewarding films by and about women. Blame is screening January 20 and 21 at 11:45 am in the Nitehawk series “Representation,” which focuses on films by female directors, continuing January 27-28 with Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between and February 1 with Alex H. Fischer and Rachel Wolther’s Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone and Catherine Fordham’s Best Thing You’ll Ever Do, followed by a Q&A with Fordham, Fischer, and Best Thing star Monica West and a live performance by Tallie Medel, Sunita Mani, and Eleanore Pienta, who all appear in Snowy Bing Bongs.

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON x 6: INHERENT VICE

INHERENT VICE

Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix reveal that opposites attract in Inherent Vice

INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
Metrograph
7 Ludlow St. between Canal & Hester Sts.
Friday, January 19, 3:45
Series runs through January 25
212-660-0312
www.inherentvicemovie.com
metrograph.com

It makes sense that award-winning writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who has made such complex, challenging films as Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and The Master, has made the first cinematic adaptation of a novel by reclusive, iconoclastic author Thomas Pynchon, who has written such complex, challenging books as Gravity’s Rainbow, V., and Vineland. It also makes sense that the book he chose to adapt is Inherent Vice, probably the most lighthearted and breezy of Pynchon’s tomes. But it also makes sense that the film itself is complex and challenging — and downright confusing. Walking out of the theater, we were pretty sure we liked what we had just seen, even if we didn’t completely understand what had happened. (As Jena Malone said of the making of the film, “The logic becomes the chaos and the chaos becomes the logic.”) The neonoir takes place in 1970 in the fictional Valley town of Gordita Beach (based on Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon lived for a long time). Joaquin Phoenix stars as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a mutton-chopped ex-hippie who is now a private gumshoe working out of a health clinic. One day his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (a transplendent Katherine Waterston), shows up to ask him to get her out of a jam involving her billionaire boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who has gone missing, perhaps at the hands of Wolfmann’s high-society wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas). Meanwhile, Doc is also hired by Hope Harlingen (Malone) to determine whether her supposedly dead husband, surf-sax legend Coy (Owen Wilson), is actually alive. As Pynchon himself says in the book trailer, “At that point, it gets sort of peculiar,” and peculiar it does indeed get, as Doc becomes immersed in a web of lies and deceit, dealing with a dangerous cult known as the Golden Fang (where Martin Short plays a sex-crazed dentist with a wild abandon), a curious health facility called the Chryskylodon Institute run by Dr. Threeply (Jefferson Mays), and Det. Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a “renaissance cop” who has no time for any of Doc’s hippie crap, as the Manson murders hover over everything. Well, at least that’s what we think the plot is about.

INHERENT VICE

Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) and Bigfoot (Josh Brolin) don’t agree on much in Paul Thomas Anderson adaptation of Thomas Pynchon novel

As with all Anderson films, Inherent Vice looks and sounds great; cinematographer Robert Elswit, who has shot most of Anderson’s works, bathes the quirky drama in hazy, syrupy colors, while Jonny Greenwood’s score is accompanied by songs by Can, Sam Cooke, Minnie Riperton, the Marketts, and Neil Young. (In fact, Young’s Journey through the Past experimental film served as an influence on Anderson when making Inherent Vice, as did David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker’s Police Squad and Naked Gun series, Robert Altman’s 1973 Philip Marlowe movie The Long Goodbye, and Howard Hawks’s 1946 version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.) It all has the feel of the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski as reinterpreted by Anderson and Pynchon — who might have been on-set during at least some of the shooting and supposedly makes a cameo in the picture. The film is littered with absurdist jokes and oddities, from the way Bigfoot eats a chocolate-covered banana to a trio of FBI agents picking their noses, from the right-wing Vigilant California organization to a clip from the 1952 Cold War propaganda film Red Nightmare. Phoenix once again fully inhabits his character, who putt-putts around in an old Dodge Dart and just wants life to be mellow and groovy. Brolin is hysterical as his foil, the straitlaced, flattop cop who has a penchant for busting down doors. The large cast also includes Benicio del Toro as Sauncho Smilax, Doc’s too-cool lawyer; Reese Witherspoon as Penny Kimball, Doc’s well-coiffed girlfriend; Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s real-life partner and the daughter of Riperton) as receptionist Petunia Leeway; Sasha Pieterse as Japonica Fenway, who hangs with Golden Fang dentist Rudy Blatnoyd (Short); and Joanna Newsom as Sortilège, the film’s narrator (who does not appear in the book). Inherent Vice is yet another unique cinematic experience from Anderson, one that is likely to take multiple viewings to understand just what is going on, but as with his previous films, it is likely to be well worth the investment. Inherent Vice is screening January 19 at 3:45 in the Metrograph series “Paul Thomas Anderson x 6” and will be preceded by Anderson’s Radiohead: Daydreaming music video in 35mm. The mini-festival is being held in conjunction with the release of his latest work, Phantom Thread, and continues through January 25 with Punch-Drunk Love and Boogie Nights.

BEUYS

Joseph Beuys. (Image copyright zeroonefilm/ bpk_ErnstvonSiemensKunststiftung_ StiftungMuseumSchlossMoyland_Foto: UteKlophaus)

Joseph Beuys declares that everything is art and everyone is an artist in new documentary (copyright zeroonefilm/bpk _ErnstvonSiemensKunststiftung_StiftungMuseumSchlossMoyland_Foto: UteKlophaus)

BEUYS (Andres Veiel, 2017)
Film Forum
209 West Houston St.
Opens Wednesday, January 17
212-727-8110
filmforum.org

About ten years ago, I was visiting Chelsea galleries on a sunny afternoon when a car pulled up on the corner of Eleventh Ave. and Twenty-second St. A father and a young boy of about five or six got out, and the man led the child to one of the stone sculptures that make up Joseph Beuys’s “7000 Oaks.” The boy relieved himself on the stone; the pair then returned to the car and the family drove off. I always thought that the German avant-garde artist would have gotten a kick out of that scene; after watching Andres Veiel’s new documentary, Beuys, I’m sure of it. If you’re going to make a documentary about Beuys (pronounced boys), one of the most influential artists of the postwar generation, it had better not be a straightforward, talking-heads film but something that pushes the boundaries and challenges the viewer, much like his art. Award-winning director Veiel (Balagan, Black Box Germany) does just that with the film, which concentrates primarily on rarely shown and never-before-seen archival footage of Beuys, including radio and television interviews, art openings, panel discussions, live performances, photographs, and home movies, mostly in black-and-white. Veiel conducted approximately twenty new interviews and met with more than five dozen people who knew Beuys, but he only uses spare clips from art historian Rhea Thönges-Stringaris, publisher Klaus Staeck, collector Franz Joseph van der Grinten, and critic, curator, and writer Caroline Tisdall, who wrote seven books about Beuys and worked with him on several major exhibitions and lecture tours. “The anonymous viewer is back there, yeah?” Beuys says early on, looking straight into the camera, and it’s a critical moment, as the documentary emphasizes how important it was to him that his work be seen. “I want to inform people about the true culprits in our system. I want to inform and educate people,” he says. Beuys, who also taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, is eminently quotable, his speech filled with manifesto-like declarations. “Forget the conventional idea of art. Anyone can be an artist. Anything can be art, especially anything that conserves energy,” he explains. “I’m not an artist at all. Except if we say that everyone is an artist,” he opines. “The concept of what art is has expanded to such a degree that, for me, there’s nothing left of it,” he offers.

Joseph Beuys. (Image copyright zeroonefilm_bpk_Stiftung MuseumSchloss_Moyland_UteKlophaus)

Wearing his trademark outfit, Joseph Beuys shares his thoughts about art and life (copyright zeroonefilm_bpk _ Stiftung_MuseumSchloss_Moyland_UteKlophaus)

Veiel, cinematographer Jörg Jeshel, and editors Olaf Voigtländer and Stephan Krumbiegel begin many scenes by scanning a contact sheet of photos of Beuys and zeroing in on one, which suddenly comes to life. Among Beuys’s projects they focus on are 1969’s “The Pack” (das Rudel), sleds tied to the back of a VW bus; the 1974-75 installation “Show Your Wound,” which might have been inspired by the injuries he suffered as a pilot in WWII; the 1965 performance piece “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare”; “Boxing Match: Joseph Beuys & Abraham David Christian”; “Honey Pump in the Workplace,” an example of what Beuys called “social sculpture”; and the expansive “7000 Oaks,” in which he paired stone sculptures with tree plantings. Usually smoking a cigarette, baring his big, white teeth, and wearing his vest and trademark hat — perhaps to cover up war injuries — Beuys is always aware he is being watched, on exhibit himself, and it’s something he toys with, tongue often in cheek as he expounds on concepts about life and art and plays around with interlocutors. The film touches on his childhood, his war experience, his association with the Green Party, and his descent into a deep, dark depression, but it evades various controversies, from possible Nazi ties to shamanism to his oft-told tale of a plane crash in which he was supposedly saved by Tartars. Veiel also doesn’t delve into Beuys’s personal relationships or the illness that led to his death in 1986 at the age of sixty-four. Instead, he gives us a Beuys who is ever-present, an iconoclastic, often inscrutable, and wildly intelligent artist and innovative provocateur who constructed his own mythology that continues to tantalize us today — even when his work is used as a public toilet. Beuys is making its U.S. theatrical premiere January 17 at Film Forum; Veiel will participate in a Q&A with MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach following the 7:00 show on January 19.