INTERVIEWS Apt Pupil: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night By Blake Williams I Like America and America Likes
“As a filmmaker, I think we have to venture into the no man’s land that lies between reality and imagination, between documentation and fiction…Filming the impossible is what’s best in life.”—Joris Ivens
“New languages aren’t invented in the editing phase, it is life undergoing a transformation that demands new languages…”—Alberto Grifi
Certain images brand themselves on you. They take hold and refuse to relinquish their grasp. Troubling in more ways than one, they sometimes surpass their aesthetic worth and lodge themselves into the annals of memory where they continue to reverberate and disturb long after being encountered. Such is the case with an image of a young, vulnerable, and feisty Anna, the 16-year-old subject of Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli’s masterpiece, shot in 1972-73, first exhibited in 1975, and recently restored by the Cineteca Nazionale in collaboration with the Cineteca di Bologna. It’s a moving image that appears static yet sprawling, sculptural yet fluid. We see Anna in the shower, naked, with water dripping from her long, wet stringy hair, her cherubic body glistening as her engorged breasts, squeezed by the hands of co-director Massimo, dribble mother’s milk; a child’s giggle escapes from her fulsome mouth. Her eyes are as blank and round as a Greek statue’s. We watch in stunned disbelief as a welter of contradictory senses and emotions overcomes all at once: pity, compassion, anger, strange anticipation, immense frustration, skepticism, and the like. Disarmingly close to this nubile, yet incredibly pregnant adolescent, the camera—and we, by extension—combs over her sinuous body, just as Massimo later combs through her long mane, and also her pubic hair, for lice; Grifi films the entire head-to-toe delousing in nervy close-ups.
While the shower scene, in which Massimo lathers and scrubs the girl down, copping a full feel, stands out as one of the most troubling, the nearly four-hour Anna is replete with such images—ones that seem to be captured directly from life with startling immediacy, and others that are clearly re-enacted or scripted for the sake of the film. The observed and re-enacted are all the same to the young girl who alternatively appears high as a kite, confused, or oddly malleable, likely from the physical and emotional exhaustion of having lived on the streets before the filmmakers took her in, ostensibly to care for her, but under the persistent, probing gaze of their camera for which she conveniently becomes a subject-star-experiment. The camera’s unflinching presence awakens in Anna a complex screen persona, allowing her to wield remarkable power, her coy and cunning performance a respite from the tragedy of the situation which one senses she suspects despite her often crude, reckless and dazed front. Anna is astonishingly inscrutable, part enfant sauvage, part pre-Raphaelite Ophelia. In quieter moments she appears a frightened child in need of a teddy bear, but her deep melancholia is that of Botticelli’s Venus, with a supple, eroticized, and knowing vacancy.
The domestic scenes bear some resemblance to those of early Cassavetes or Tarr, replete with incessant conjugal jousting matches tempered by moments of poignant tenderness and disarming silences. But those silences are few and far between, as Anna largely presents a dizzying manic energy; a result of the fidgety teen, and the hyper-mobile filmmakers recording life—before, when, after, and as it re-happens. They also film at the Piazza Navona café where Massimo first encountered Anna; the café’s habitués form a motley Greek (yet very Roman!) chorus, providing the socio-historical and political backdrop to the scene, as well as a self-reflexive forum for debating the ethics of the filmmakers’ deeds. Are Grifi and Sarchielli enacting compassion and societal responsibility or guilty of exploitation and sexual harassment? Is the film an expression of naïveté or extremely crafty? The numerous digressions at the café, which lend the film its zigzag structure, are hashed out among hippies, wannabe communists, feminists, flâneurs, and members of the bourgeoisie all too keen to voice their diverse views on the matter, and on the tumultuous state of contemporary Italy in general.
Not unlike Robert Kramer’s seminal and kaleidoscopic Milestones (also 1975), which uses similar crossbred strategies and concludes with the birth of a child, Anna is less a merging of fact and fiction than a confrontation of and bracing penetration into these two modes of filmmaking, a dual and duelling desire to document and to create. A more lyrical and polished of these benchmark blenders of reality and representation can be seen in Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (1961), its poeticized form light years from Anna’s rough-hewn, jittery recordings. Still, the two share in their pseudo-ethnographic approach to individual narratives in face of a greater socio-political panorama much informed by a pre-revolutionary (Chronique d’un été) and post-revolutionary (Anna) verve and freedom, but also of a newly installed malaise and aimlessness. Chronique d’un été quickly became part of the canon, Milestones rose from an underground cult status with a consistent smattering of small-scale releases, and now Anna is finally resurfacing as one of the most important works of “direct cinema” from the era.
And yet, it’s anything but direct: its vérité is what’s at stake. While much of the film’s fascination lies in its self-reflexive construction, its own contradictory impulses toward guilt, hyperactivity, curiosity, and honesty imbue the work with a profluent agitation. Ultimately, Anna is about cinema: cinema confronting life and life devouring the act of creation, as it in turn attempts to swallow it whole. Vincenzo, the film’s sentient gaffer, is unable to resist Anna’s obvious call for love and pulls the plug on the entire scripted affair. He steps into the frame, irrevocably rupturing the grander frame of the project. It’s an act of resistance and quiet complicity, and above all, of passion. As he earlier did in the Pirelli factory, where he rallied against exploitation, Vincenzo abandons his post and regains individual freedom, seeking love not justice. From that point on, Anna becomes something else entirely…
Along with being shot partly on 16mm, Anna was the first Italian film to use portable analogue video equipment: some invented by Grifi, whose father specialized in conceiving curious recording apparatuses. The film suffered a fairly short lifespan upon its initial completion, premiering at the Berlinale in 1976, and showing next in Venice and Cannes the following year. Despite its mythic status among the Italians, Anna fell into oblivion and is largely unknown to North Americans. But suddenly Grifi is everywhere. The recently restored version of Anna was included in last year’s Venice Orizzonti retrospective, championed at the venerable, left-leaning Lussas documentary festival in Ardèche, and, most recently, accounts for one of the major discoveries of this year’s Rotterdam. (Also soon to appear is a restoration of 11 hours of unedited footage that Grifi and Sarchielli shot with Anna.) The restored version is being presented from a DCP that reflects the video’s petrified and ghostly diffusion: its blocky analogue images, originally transferred to 16mm through an invention of Grifi’s called the “vidigrafo,” were digitized with the acid-washed grey glitches and stuttering striations philosophically preserved. At 9 o’clock in the bloody morning (thankfully, ristretto in hand), I found Anna just as disturbing and unshakable as last year’s major IFFR rediscovery, Augustí Villaronga’s sado-psycho-horror In a Glass Cage (1987). But there the similarities end.
In Paris a few days later, I stumbled upon some of Grifi’s short films sharing a room with works by Paolo Gioli in the latest acquisitions galleries of the Pompidou, all digitized and shown looping on sleek, silver monitors. Then in the Berlinale’s Forum Expanded, Harun Farocki presented what is perhaps Grifi’s most well-known work, and a key film of ‘60s Italian experimental cinema, La verifica incerta (1964-65, also shown in the Orizzonti retro last year). Co-conceived and constructed by Gianfranco Baruchello (an artist with significant gallery representation at the time), this half-hour 16mm montage opus was first shown in Paris at Marcel Duchamp’s studio, then in New York at MoMA and the Guggenheim at the invitation of John Cage, two artists to whom the work is indebted. An endlessly rich and anarchic found-footage film culled from 450,000 feet of moving images from 47 films, mainly ‘50s Hollywood CinemaScope films (but also ‘60s Italian cinema, most notably the noxious, neon steam belched from industry in Antonioni’s prescient 1964 masterpiece, Red Desert), La verifica incerta remains a major touchstone of the avant-garde.
In dialogue with the movements of the time—Fluxus, the New American cinema, Lettrisme, and Situationisme—and emerging from the trajectory that draws a line from Vertov to Dada (combining Duchamp’s ready-mades with the latter’s painterly concerns with movement and illusionism), La verifica incerta also careens from the idea of a troubling and unstable image. Its rigourous, yet playful refutation of Hollywood’s visual cultural hegemony (and its subconscious dream machine) is a gesture of desecration toward spectacle and complacent spectatorial habits. The deep mistrust of the image reflected in the film’s title can also be seen as clearing the way toward Anna, which in turn partakes in the paradigmatic shift in media culture marking the early ‘70s. A brief cameo by Jane Fonda in Anna can thus be interpreted in two ways. The ambiguity of what her presence symbolizes—let’s not forget that Letter to Jane was made in 1972—inevitably reflects the intertextuality in which La verifica incerta revels. Like in a magic trick, Jane appears and disappears in a flash. Anna, too, engages in a surprising disappearance act, vanishing before the film ends. Suddenly gone from the screen, Anna lives on in our imagination where she gives birth to her child in privacy, in darkness. She steadfastly refused to grant the filmmakers access to the clinic where she gave birth, subverting their hopes for a momentous conclusion. A final act of resistance in the tragedy that was her life.
What the restored version omits is a filmed introductory statement that Grifi recorded a couple of years after the film’s completion as a sort of prologue. It’s a deeply affecting apologia to an eternally lost Anna, and a candid acknowledgement of the missteps and flaws that are deeply woven into the film’s fabric. The last part of Grifi’s auto-interview merits excerpting, but is best read after having seen the film, as, not unlike La verifica incerta, it demythologizes as much as it exhumes:
“Massimo maintains that we exposed the decay of institutional systems, but ultimately we should have done something more. While living with Anna, we should have criticized ourselves as an institution, we should have self-managed and tried to find alternative solutions, or to create within and among us, relations that were radically different.
“The last time we spoke with Anna, it was she who called us on the phone. She was in a psychiatric hospital, and through tears, was pleading for our help to leave that place. All we knew to do was to record the phone call. We chose a film about reality over the struggle to change reality. Vincenzo, the gaffer who should have remained off-screen, is the only one who stepped in to live this story.”
Grazie mille to Davide Oberto for his indispensible translation help making this article possible.