Goose Bumps: Oil Fields and Air Conditioning at Film Anthology

by

07/24/2005

2nd Ave & E 2nd St, New York, NY 10003

Neighborhood: East Village

It had been quite a long time since I’d last visited the Anthology Film Archives, that temple of avant-garde and everything cinema in the East Village. Last night, however, I lost my own personal battle with the heat and decided, fatigued and irritated, that a movie in the dark and cool of a film theater would be just the thing to calm my overheated self. A two-minute search online resulted in the news that “Lessons of Darkness” — Herzog’s short movie about the burning oil fields of the first Gulf war — was showing at the Archives. I had seen the movie once before, having rented it at Kim’s.

Upon my arrival, two strange things happened: First, a young woman standing outside and talking on a cell-phone smiled at me. I have inhabited the vaults where alternative movies are shown for a long period, even as a past Archives member, and I am familiar with the etiquette of cool, compulsory among avant-garde moviegoers, an etiquette that does not allow for the acknowledgement of strangers, let alone smiling at them. Perhaps I knew her from somewhere, I thought. But then the incident was repeated. This time, inside the theater, the cashier gave me a sweet smile and asked, “How are you?” Either something had happened to the people at the Archives or I had taken them too seriously back when I moved to New York and had entertained ideas of becoming a filmmaker. At any rate, I couldn’t remember going to the Anthology Film Archives as the kind of experience that made you feel comfortable, surrounded by pleasant and polite people who shared a common interest in the films you liked. The way I remembered it, everything in it was punk, the movies shown and the people who watched them. That is to say, the movies were loud, aggressive, made to shock, and the people hermetically self-sufficient, equally aggressive, and not smiling.

The two friendly exchanges disarmed me, and shifted my mood in the direction I wanted to go. The two smiles having put me at ease, I experienced the gratifying and admittedly vain satisfaction that comes with the sense of having taken the right decision. Had I stayed home, my misery would have escalated to the level of self-destruction, I most certainly would have opened a bottle of strong liquor, a sure shot action to more misery. The movie was a smart and healthy idea.

On my way up to the screening room, I was approached by a guy and a girl who looked most definitely like interns, their attitude displaying something of servitude and irritability, as if they knew that whatever it was that they were doing was not what they were born to do. They both handed me fliers announcing more movies, on different venues and at different dates. One of the papers I was given was a folded poster. On one side it bore a picture of an ugly modernist building and on the other an interview with the director of a movie that lasts for twenty-four hours. The movie, apparently, is a twenty-four hour shot of the facade of the building. I tried to read the interview, which had footnotes and was filled with allusions to Adorno, Nietzche, and Heidegger, but I failed. I could never tell where a question ended and an answer started, and I realized that it was a discussion, not really an interview. I decided that I would never sit for twenty four hours thinking about the perception of what I am seeing and went into the screening room.

Stepping inside the screening room I felt a shock. Not the temperature-shock of raging air-conditioners that I had wanted. Music was being played, loud music, horrible music. Some heavy-metal band, early nineties, definitely not classic rock, all bass, distorted guitars and a predictable low voice yelling “Yeah” at the end of every verse and every chorus. I shrieked and retreated to the lounge.

Adolescent. I could not understand how people could wait for a Werner Herzog movie to start, sitting inside a room listening to that, or rather, enduring it. The Anthology Film Archives is a place for many things, but I never thought of it as a refuge for heavy-metal fans, that dying breed that will not be missed.

I found a seat in the lounge and kept reading fliers, dozens of them. The world of underground cinema in New York City certainly knows how to promote itself. I could still hear the metal, and I thought how really shocking it would be after the movie started, and everyone saw those images of an almost alien landscape and listened to the music Herzog chose to match them: Wagner, Grieg, Arvo Part… If there is one thing I remember about movies it is the soundtrack, and Lessons of Darkness has a beautiful one. The contrast was going to be interesting, and I thought that, perhaps, everyone’s got it wrong, and the role classical music plays today in this culture has never been more progressive. It is certainly more underground than the heavy metal that was being played, and I smiled alone at that ironic thought.

Sensing that I was my seat at risk, I gave in and walked inside the room. I sat and observed. A somewhat homogenous crowd was filling the theater, fast. Sure, you could distinguish individual types, and the colorful differences between them: The Asian hipster in front of me, t-shirt stamped with some consciously bizarre cartoon, reading Don Quixote; two women with identical dark outfits and milky-colored skin, an indifferent expression on their faces; a boy of probably fourteen, dark curly hair covering his eyes, too young to do anything, but old enough to be in a billboard on Houston St.; a pregnant woman and her bearded husband. But differences aside, this was a crowd that belonged to something, and there were obvious traits that identified them. The first, and definitely most mysterious to me, was a total absence of fat in the theater. Everyone was skinny, and bony. No potbellies, salient chests, double-chins, or hanging cheeks could be observed. I couldn’t say that there were no fat asses in the audience, since everyone was sitting down, but I still doubt there were anyway. Why aren’t the chubby people allowed to watch Herzog’s movie at the Anthology Film Archives? A mystery. The other noticeable thing is that everyone was young. Even the “almost older” woman sitting next to me had a childish face and curious, glistening eyes that declared a restless impatience. She was young in attitude.

Finally the noise stopped, and the young woman I saw outside talking on her cell-phone walked in front of the screen and introduced the film. Knowing that she was responsible for the screening justified the sympathetic smile at the entrance. She was evidently happy that people showed up for something she had organized. After she explained that the copy we were about to see had Japanese subtitles, which sparked infantile giggles in the audiences, and finished reading something in a low and desperate-for-breath voice, a few people clapped, including me. I always clap, which is something that has to do with an education that primed politeness above all else.

The lights went dark. There I was, where I wanted to be, in the silence of a cool room, waiting for images to fill the whiteness of the screen. And slowly, the images materialized onscreen. The wide aerial shots of an atmosphere enveloped in black smoke, occasional bursts of fire darting up at the sky, the oil fields exploding. A desert made more eerie, more empty, because of the charred carcasses of destroyed vehicles that stained the sand, left to rot under the sun. Bones and rocks, dust and debris. Pools of oil reflecting the sky, abandoned installations, and smoke everywhere. The aerial shots let us see the horizon even though there is nothing to see at the end line of that devastated landscape. And, best of all, I could finally listen to the transcendental harmonics of Wagner’s Parsifal, the sad cellos of the slow movement of Grieg’s Peer Gynt, the religious and minimal melodies of Part’s Stabat Mater. Occasionally Herzog cuts the music, narrating what we see, and talking to people. Oil workers, seen closing some of the fields and trying to clean up the dark and liquid dirt, smoking cigarettes and raising their thumbs, dressed in jackets that bear the names of American companies. Their inconsequential laughter, the laughter of imbeciles. A woman who lost two sons, another who holds a baby that became mute after he witnessed the horror of war.

The thought that something must be wrong with me if this is the summer movie I choose to see in order to escape the heat passed, quickly, through my head. I don’t think anyone else there worried about that. I was probably the only person in the theater who goes to the movies just for the hell of it, no matter what it is. The contradiction of choosing just to pass the time a movie that, despite its alleviating soundtrack, has so much brutality in it, it is so gruesome. In fact, the strange balance between images that are so violent, but that the soundtrack makes so beautiful, that impresses us. Everything we see is so unreal, but at the same time so cruelly physical, so present, but, because of the music, transcendent. The biggest lesson in Lessons of Darkness is an old one. Art, especially film, is manipulation.

The movie ends with Mahler’s song Urlicht, from his famous Second Symphony. Following the image of a jet of fire in the sky that slowly fades out from the screen we hear the soprano sing “Der Mensch liegt in grosster Noth! (Humankind lies in greatest need!)” Her voice is, again, otherworldly, and I wonder who is capable of watching that image and listen to that line without feeling it, without allowing itself to be manipulated. Without, pardon me, getting goose bumps.

Yet the audience seemed unmoved. Even before the lights went up, people were standing up, quickly laughing, talking, checking their messages. They seemed unimpressed. Perhaps they would have preferred if the movie had ended with the heavy metal music playing before the film started. Would the movie be more alternative then, more punk?

I realized I was getting cranky again. I would have to face the steaming heat in the streets outside, and thinking carefully about it, I was being unfair to the audience. The hipsters that showed up to see the movie deserved some credit. After all, they had showed up, and sat quietly through the whole show. Who knows, maybe some of them were even moved by the Mahler song. Or perhaps they had just shown up to escape the heat and doze off under the air-conditioning of a screening room, and shouldn’t be judged by their emotional capabilities. Wasn’t that exactly what I had done? In the end, the lesson I really learned from watching Herzog’s film was that if you go to the movies to escape a hot New York summer day, you better choose a mainstream movie theater and watch a blockbuster. You’ll ask yourself fewer questions at the end, and, with luck, you could even get into another room and watch another movie, prolonging your rest in the dark freshness of powerful air-conditioning systems.

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