Damaged Goods: Talking Head by Craig Hubert

Craig Hubert discusses Anthology Film Archives’ new film series, Talking Head.

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Joe Gibbons in Sabotaging Spring. Image copyright of the artist, courtesy of Video Data Bank.

The phrase “talking head” has become something of a pejorative catch-all when discussing what is wrong with documentary film. Initially associated with television news magazine productions, in which closely framed floating heads provide the connective tissue of sound-bites in service of the persuasive overhead narration and archival footage, the style is now widely used in feature documentary as well. It is commonly put to use by filmmakers when tackling historical subjects which have a perceived objective truth—this mode of documentary seems designed to enforce an argument, not to encourage further questions. Talking Head, a new series at Anthology Film Archives, presents a collection of films which undermine this practice. Using components from the expository mode, most often that debased talking head, these films invert perceived conceptions of how a traditional documentary is structured.

In Joe Gibbons confessional work, he is the talking head. His masterwork, Confessions of a Sociopath (2002), is the most fascinating film in the series, a gonzo self-portrait of the artist’s life told through his obsessive filming of his crimes, addictions, and a stream of dimly lit monologues. We are tethered to the artist as he obsessively steals books, talks to his parole officers on the phone, shoots heroin, drinks, and does it all over again and again. The film is acutely self-aware and extremely frustrating; like the artist’s other work, the film locks you inside the mind of the artist and refuses to let go. The short Barbie’s Audition (1995), also screening at AFA, is essentially a static shot of Gibbons playing a scummy “casting couch” director auditioning a Barbie doll for the lead female role in his film. Comedy is built into the conceit, and it’s easy to laugh when Gibbons begins to get sexual with the doll. At a certain point, the position of the audience turns. The act has been going on too long, and the film becomes a little creepy, almost scary at moments. The anger at the female doll, the compulsion to film this ridiculous scene, looks to be deeply affecting Gibbons, and in turn the audience. A nice companion piece is Saul Levine’s Driven (2003), a single long take of Gibbons driving around Boston and endlessly talking about different memories of the city: the book stores he is not allowed in anymore, his new job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the different apartments he lived, where he scored drugs, etc. Levine’s film is conversational in tone where Gibbons’ are confrontational, and provides a contrast to the oppressive intimacy of the latter’s work.

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Jason Holiday in Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason. Courtesy of Milestone Films.

Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967) is conversational, with hints of confrontation bubbling under the celluloid. The subject, Jason Holiday, is a black, gay hustler with dreams of being an entertainer. His long, draining interview is a fascinating portrait of a man conflicted and on the brink, swinging from unnerving intimacy to flamboyant sexuality, sometimes in a few sentences. We don’t often hear the questions from behind the camera, but we’re certainly aware of its presence. The camera jolts back and forth, following the subject as he gestures one way, mimicking a friend; or suddenly falls out of his seat with a startling deep laugh. There are also moments that make the whole thing feel like a Hollywood audition reel filmed by Andy Warhol: the performer continues to perform because the camera continues to stare him down, even after his shtick is up, and he often directly address the perceived audience instead of the filmmakers. When the performance seems to drag—and it’s hard to call what Jason does for the camera anything but a performance—the subject is at his most revealing. Impatiently smoking a cigarette, nervously asking for drink after drink to fill the time, Jason often looks to be on the verge of passing out, the facade cracking slightly. His vulnerability and pathos become intensely present in these moments, the camera’s persistence forcing its way through Jason’s many jury-rigged personas to the glimpse the person himself.

Two films in the series approach family history through long, conversational interviews that resemble a casual flip through an old photo album. Martin Scorsese’s Italianamerican (1974), a rare early documentary from the famous filmmaker, is built around his mother and father and their histories as immigrants in America. The film takes place in the living room, dining room, and kitchen, and the conversation is about crammed apartments, the busy streets, jokes about family, and pasta sauce (the film ends with Mrs. Scorsese’s famous recipe in the credits). The film resembles what the viewer can imagine a typical dinner with the lively subjects would be like. In Jacob Burckhardt’s A Guided Tour of Edith’s Apartment (2010), the downtown New York director focuses his camera on his mother, the artist Edith Schloss. Navigating her way through the maze of an apartment, Edith uses the art on the walls—and there is a lot of it—to open up stories about her time spent at the Art Student’s League, Edwin Denby (a friend of her former husband, the photographer and filmmaker Rudy Burckhardt), the recently departed Cy Twombly, and many more. Edith has certainly lived a full and eventful life, and the film interestingly steps back from any personal information; the artist’s life is explored through the work of her and her friends. History is hung on the walls in Edith’s apartment. When she mentions that certain pieces of art make her sad because they will soon deteriorate, you feel as if the stories will go along with them.

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Still from Italianamerican (1974) Martin Scorsese interviewing his parents, Charles and Catherine Scorsese in their Elizabeth Street walk-up apartment in 1974. Courtesy of the Martin Scorsese Collection.

While these filmmakers handle personal history, familial or subcultural, that is insular and exotic, others featured in the series document personal history with larger implications. The main subject of Thomas Harlan: Moving Shrapnel (2006) is the son of Veit Harlan—director of legendary anti-Semitic propaganda film Jew Süss (1940)—who does not shy away from discussing the problematic stigma of growing up the son of an notorious Nazi. In the long interview the film is based around, recorded over a series of days in the hospital room where Harlan was living (he passed away in 2010), you only hear the voice of the director twice; the viewer is left completely in the hands of the subject, who still grapples with the guilt that has shaped his life. There is an internal struggle that brews in Harlan’s long monologues between the obvious love he has for his father, and the hatred he has for what he produced and came to represent. Harlan does not defend the actions of his father; he is completely aware of the severity of his father’s decisions. The main character of The Confessions of Winifred Wagner(1975), Hans-Jürgen Syberberg’s stunning portrait of the daughter-in-law of controversial composer Richard Wagner, does not share the same awareness. She was a friend of Hitler and is not timid in her admiration for her fellow lover of the arts. Winifred does not make a mission to defend her former friend; she seems almost oblivious to the fact that he would need defending, or that his non-political connection with her has anything to do with his horrible contribution to history. The film draws its power from the viewer’s consciousness of the subject’s complete lack of self-awareness.

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Edith Schloss in Jacob Burkhardt’s A Guided Tour of Edith’s Apartment. Courtesy of Jacob Burckhardt.

A series called Talking Head would not be complete without a sampling of the work of Claude Lanzmann, whose most famous work, Shoah (1985), has been both praised and criticized for its exclusive use of interviews to portray the Holocaust. Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 P.M(2001) is a companion piece to Shoah, and focuses on one subject, Yehuda Lerner, an instrumental figure in the Sobibor revolt, the only successful death camp uprising. Lanzmann keeps the focus entirely on his subject, who goes through his story step-by-step, in great detail. The film is gripping and exhausting in equal measure. Since a translator is needed for the interview, every point of the story is held out a little longer, heightening the suspense. The release, a direct and painful account of the violent and heroic uprising, is one of the more memorable pieces of film I’ve seen in my life, a sequence so intimate in its intensity that it’s hard to leave your seat when the films ends.

Many of the films in Talking Head deal with conflicted histories, of stories buried or obscured just beneath the surface. The power of commentary is evident, but it is not separated from image; it is intertwined, on equal levels. The stories, conversations, and interviews featured in the series are delicate. Without documentation, they would slip away into the abyss of history. So it’s appropriate that Scorsese’s profile of his friend Steven Prince, American Boy (1978) is bookended by a Neil Young song whose refrain succinctly expressed my experience of these powerful films: “Well, you know how time fades away.”

Craig Hubert is a writer based in New York City.

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