Past imperfect

YEAR IN FILM: Digging through the year in archival footage

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Andrei Ujica's The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu uses masterful editing

arts@sfbg.com

YEAR IN FILM We're all media scavengers now, but archival sounds and images remain a tantalizing lure for both the documentary profile and its surrealistic double, the found footage film. The first repackages capsules of the past while the second hijacks them — different economies of exchange, to be sure, though perhaps less starkly contrasted to those accustomed to hyperlinking their way through the dustbin.

The use of obscure footage as leverage is exceedingly clear in Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child, a film structured around director Tamra Davis' intimate camcorder interview with the artist in 1985. The close-up portrait gives us Basquiat's sly intelligence, spacey charisma, and tragic oversensitivity to judgment — all to the good, but Davis' inability to reckon with the exchange value of her insider access is disappointing. Selling and chronicling are inextricably linked with the celebrity artist, but Basquiat's early graffiti partner Al Diaz is the only interviewee who addresses the issue of the golden goose frankly.

The Rolling Stones have always excelled at selling themselves, so it's no surprise to see Mick and Keith's executive producer credits on Stones in Exile. Fortunately for us, director Stephen Kijack (2006's Scott Walker: 30 Century Man) recognizes 1972's Exile on Main Street as a masterpiece of vibe and accordingly focuses great attention on the zonked record's mise-en-scène. But the strictly MOR slate of interviewees — alas, no Pussy Galore here — makes the scraps of Robert Frank's long suppressed Cocksucker Blues (1972) feel all the more bowdlerized.

The bankable aura of the rarely seen supplants Frank's prickly immediacy, and the dream of a rock 'n' roll cinema is the poorer for it. If it's easier to accept the brief stream of Jonas Mekas' New York City film-diaries borrowed in LennonNYC, that's because the footage serves a narrow expositional purpose in establishing the bohemian milieu that John Lennon and Yoko Ono embraced — and also because Mekas is himself interviewed. The PBS-produced doc's failings are the conventional ones, but its archival trove does illuminate Lennon and Ono's creative collaborations, especially insofar as their art hinged upon probing self-consciousness and the redemptive potential of intimacy.

On the other side of the archival aisle, the mad detectives and film theorists who whisper hidden truths in our ears have become increasingly ambitious storytellers. Johan Grimonprez's inventive Double Take slips into the realms of the unreal by characterizing the Cold War as a literally Hitchcockian play of ciphers, while Yael Hersonski's A Film Unfinished submits an oft-cited, little-understood Nazi propaganda film to ontological deliberation. Adam Curtis introduces his most recent raid of the archive, It Felt Like a Kiss, with print titles that speak for all these projects: "When a nation is powerful it tells the world confident stories about the future/ The stories can be enchanting or frightening/ But they make sense of the world/ But when that power begins to ebb the stories fall apart/ And all that is left are fragments which haunt you like half-forgotten dreams."

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