Sunday, October 28, 2007

Scriptwriting and the French New Wave

I’ve been re-reading Michel Marie’s book, The French New Wave: An Artistic School (1997; translated by Richard Neupert). Marie is professor and department chair of film studies at the Sorbonne and, according to Dudley Andrew, a “legendary cinephile and scholar of French cinema.”

Even though it’s a slim 140-page text, this book is packed with “bloggable” ideas. Let me focus on one: the role that scriptwriting played in the aesthetic of the French New Wave. I’m often drawing from and paraphrasing Marie below.

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In 1948, Alexandre Astruc, in the hugely important essay-manifesto, “The Birth of the Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo,” declared that a prerequisite for auteur filmmaking was that “the scriptwriter directs his own scripts; or rather, that the scriptwriter ceases to exist, for in this kind of filmmaking the distinction between author and director loses all meaning.” The influence of this essay on the future French New Wave is well known, but was this principle really borne out in practice? As it turns out: not quite.

Some facts. Chabrol’s first film, the loosely autobiographical Le Beau Serge, was one of the few early New Wave films written solely by the director. Soon after, Chabrol began a long scriptwriting collaboration with Paul Gegauff. Truffaut’s The 400 Blows is autobiographical as well but he hired a professional TV scriptwriter, Marcel Moussy, to collaborate with him. For the rest of his career, Truffaut worked steadily with a small core of scriptwriters. The first features by Rohmer (The Sign of Leo) and Rivette (Paris Belongs to Us) also had help from other writers, Paul Gegauff and Jean Gruault respectively. In fact, Gruault also collaborated with Godard (Les Carabiniers), Truffaut and Resnais (multiple films each).

Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy were exceptions; they wrote their early films alone. Godard used collaborators and pre-existing material that he adapted for his films, but in fact he’s the one who took the idea of the director-as-scriptwriter furthest. The source material of his films is usually unrecognizably transformed, and even the classical notion of a script doesn’t quite apply to his late 60s films.

Still, it’s interesting to realize that the proportion of original scripts actually declined from 1956 to 1963—the period of ascendancy of the New Wave—while that of literary adaptations rose. Marie writes:

Directors, producers, and writers thus continued to adapt novels, but less and less were they the sort of novels by Emile Zola and Stendhal that had typified 1950s French production. By the early 1960s, those sorts of adaptations were gradually becoming the subject-matter for television projects. There was a shift from the dominant naturalist model offered by René Clement’s Gervaise or Yves Allégret’s movies toward a model more influenced by Balzac, though it was greatly transformed by Rivette, whose Out One, for instance, was inspired by Balzac’s Story of 13 and La Belle Noiseuse by The Unknown Masterpiece. Truffaut and Chabrol also cite Balzac in The 400 Blows and Les Cousins. The naturalist model privileged costume dramas, social class conflicts, and a strong “typage” of characters, bordering on stereotyping. The Balzacian model dealt more with a critical description of contemporary society, underlining the contradictions that determined the conflicts that were as much psychological as social.

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Francis Vanoye proposes two opposing conceptions of the script: the “program-script” that situates story events in a fixed structure, rendering the script ready for filming; and the “plan-of-action” script that is more open to uncertainties, chance and improvisation. The latter is strongly favored, at least in theory, by the New Wave. Here’s Marie:

But, although the program-script dominates “classical” cinema, it is far from absent from some New Wave films, since it governs productions by Agnès Varda, Alain Resnais, and Jacques Demy. The films of Truffaut and Chabrol oscillate from one pole to the other, although the program-script clearly dominates their output.

The plan-of-action script is an ideal that the New Wave often attempts to achieve, but it reigns supreme in the aesthetic approach of Jean Rouch and Jacques Rozier. Rouch’s experiments, even those that seem less convincing in regards to their outcome, never cease to haunt the creative imagination of Godard, Rivette, and Rohmer. At the opening of The Human Pyramid, Rouch, seated in the grass, explains to the young students he had gathered together that they will write the “script” at the same time as he directs it. In Punishment, the director “unleashes” a young actress whom he asks to play the role of a high school girl who is shut out of school one morning by her teacher and now heads off to Luxembourg Gardens where she encounters three young men hanging out there. While Godard wrote the dialogue for his characters in All the Boys are Called Patrick in a very personal manner, Rouch, by contrast, let his actors improvise their lines completely.

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Crucial to this discussion is Truffaut’s landmark essay and infamous salvo, “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema” (1954). In effect, Truffaut charged that “Tradition of Quality” filmmakers and scriptwriters didn’t trust the original literary material enough. They found visual “equivalences” between the original material and the cinematic adaptation, thus either hiding or trying to ‘improve upon’ their literary sources for cinematic purposes. He derisively called their works “scenarists’ films.” A few excerpts from his essay:

In adaptation there exists filmable scenes and unfilmable scenes, and that instead of omitting the latter (as was done not long ago) it is necessary to invent equivalent scenes, that is to say, scenes as the novel’s author would have written them for the cinema. […] What annoys me about this famous process of equivalence is that I’m not at all certain that a novel contains unfilmable scenes, and even less certain that these scenes, decreed unfilmable, would be so for everyone.

[…] I consider an adaptation of value only when written by a man of the cinema [sic]. Aurenche and Bost [the screenwriters who were a primary target of Truffaut’s attack] are essentially literary men and I reproach them for being contemptuous of the cinema by underestimating it. They behave, vis-à-vis the scenario, as if they thought to reeducate a delinquent by finding him a job; they always believe they’ve done the maximum for it by embellishing it with subtleties […] When they hand in the scenario, the film is done; the metteur-en-scène, in their eyes, is the gentleman who adds the pictures…

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According to Marie, two alternative film adaptations proved to be models for the New Wave: Melville’s The Silence of the Sea (1949), and Astruc’s The Crimson Curtain (1953). Both films remained faithful to the details of the original texts without attempting to supplant them with ‘more cinematic’ equivalents; the author of the latter text, by the way, is Barbey d’Aurevilly, who was adapted by Catherine Breillat for her latest film, The Last Mistress.

In addition to this faithfulness to the text, it was also common New Wave practice to draw generously from and pay homage to it in the film by reproducing the text as voice-over commentary, interior monologue, dialogue or intertitles (e.g. the way Jules and Jim alternates Georges Delerue’s music with large sections of Michel Subor’s voice-over). Marie writes:

The New Wave advanced the notion of a mise-en-scène of the voice. Three decades after the coming of sound, it allowed directors to exploit all the possibilities in the soundtrack, and especially speech. It offered a cinema that was not afraid to speak, helping dismiss the out-of-date myth, imposed by theorists in the 1920s, that located the primacy of the cinema in the image.

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Let me conclude with a quick personal detour. The early French New Wave films were my first exposure to foreign (i.e. non-Indian) ‘art cinema’ and thus formative. I’ve seen many of them multiple times over the years. But reading the Marie book reminds me that there are a number of films of the era (not just New Wave but also preceding it and related to it) that I’ve hunted for years without success. That wish list includes: anything at all by Jacques Rozier, Alexandre Astruc, Roger Leenhardt, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Pierre Kast. And the one film from that period I most want to see is Jacques Rozier’s Adieu Philippine (1963).

pic: A loose adaptation of a wall-hanging in Alain Robbe-Grillet's "L'Immortelle" (1963)

Monday, October 22, 2007


A terrific show last weekend: Michael Snow came to town to screen three recent films/videos and talk about them. The film I was taken with most was Triage (2004). Let me briefly describe it and then I’d like to use it as a springboard for some general reflections. One question I’ve been asking myself in the past week is: What exactly are the various perceptual effects of single-frame films?

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Triage is a collaborative work that consists of two side-by-side simultaneous projections. Snow and fellow Canadian Carl Brown each made a film that was exactly 30 minutes long. As in a Surrealist “exquisite corpse” game, the collaboration was “blind”—neither knew what the other was doing.

Snow introduced his half of the work by saying: “My film is built fundamentally on having a different image on each frame.” He subtitled it “King Philip Came Over From Germany Singing.” Perhaps that rings a bell from high school Bio? It’s a mnemonic for the scientific classification system of Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus and Species.

The film consists of single photographs of: rocks, minerals, fishes, insects, flowers, reptiles; as well as single-frame photos from pages of newspapers, phonebooks and porn mags. Also: close-ups of colored car surfaces and frames of pure color. As Snow put it: “It’s 24 frames of Everything.”

* * *

What struck me were the film’s structure and the ‘effects’ of that structure. Each section of the film collected together a burst of images of a particular type, e.g. fish, or erotica, or cars. For example, all the pictures of fish were cut together, a different one on each succeeding frame. This had an interesting perceptual effect.

In most films, no two sequential frames are completely identical, of course, but they are often very close. Which causes our faculty of “persistence of vision” to kick in. But in Snow’s single-frame film, each frame is different, thus frustrating the attempts of our internal perceptual processes to create an impression of continuous motion. But (and here’s the interesting part) because Snow groups similar imagery together for minutes at a time, two things happen.

First, an afterimage effect causes us to superimpose, in the mind’s eye, several images together to create, for example, ‘composite’ flowers or fish or sex acts. More abstractly, the eye starts blending colors on successive frames to conjure (it seems to me) new colors that never quite exist in the film’s images to begin with!

Second, the single frames also cause the viewer to unconsciously create movement, e.g. construing or constructing an up-down-or-sideways swimming movement of a ‘composite’ fish upon seeing 24 successive images of different fish in the duration of a single second.

So the real subject of this film seems to be: How do single-frame images get apprehended, combined and synthesized into something new by an act of the viewer’s creative participation, via the workings of human perceptual processes?

I’m wondering: Are there some key single-frame films in the avant-garde repertory? And do they create a variety of perceptual effects? I know that flicker films might also fall into this category. (Tony Conrad lives and teaches here in Buffalo but I haven’t seen The Flicker yet.)

* * *

An interesting paradox at work in Snow's films. On the one hand, he is deeply interested in the basic mechanisms of the cinema, unique and specific to the art-form. He's devoted entire films to sustained exploration of the zoom (Wavelength), panning (Back and Forth), and moving camera (The Central Region). On the other hand, being an accomplished musician, painter, sculptor and photographer, his work is also about the interpenetration of art-forms. (Think of So Is This, in which the viewer reads text on the screen, one word at a time, for the entire length of the film. It's both like reading a book and profoundly not.)

In the mid-70s, Snow founded an experimental music ensemble called CCMC that is dedicated to “spontaneous group composition.” The group’s members are Snow on piano, Paul Dutton on voice, and John Oswald on alto sax. The video Reverberlin (2004) shows them in performance, but here’s the twist: the image track and sound track are records of different musical performances by the same players. So, for instance, we see Snow playing piano but hear a different recorded performance by him. Which prompts the question: How exactly are seeing and hearing related to each other? Is one more dominant than the other when we are watching a film?

Just as in the case of Triage, it struck me that the viewer’s senses and perceptions want to synthesize the image and sound tracks into a unity whenever possible, even if that unity occurs only fleetingly and in the viewer's mind, not in the work itself.

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I have a close friend who was a poetry prof for 35 years. Although he’s been retired for a decade, he can still recall hundreds of poems in perfect detail, with effortlessness and clarity. I’ve always envied this, and would love to be able to do it with the works of my favorite filmmakers. (This familiar litany of mine can also be found in the posts “The Cinema In Your Head” and “Re-Viewing Films.”)

I’m anything but technologically au courant. My TV is over a dozen years old, and I use both my record player and VCR regularly. But a couple of weeks ago I picked up a portable 10-inch DVD player for my desk. It hasn’t exactly altered my viewing practices, but it's offered something supplemental, a new modality of viewing that's both productive and fun.

I’ve been taking brief breaks during the day and watching a couple of DVD chapters at a time on the portable. Probably because of this ‘discontinuous’ viewing manner, I’m finding the narrative to be less ‘absorptive’ than if I watched the film in a continuous, immersive fashion. The mise-en-scène and cutting are leaping out and registering more vividly. I’ve only been revisiting films I’ve seen before (and want to remember better), which may also have something to do with my heightened sensitivity to film form on the portable. Also, it keeps the computer, which I’d occasionally use before for viewing film excerpts, free for other work. Just curious: Does anybody else watch films ‘discontinuously’ on computers or portables?

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A few links:

-- Michael Sicinksi on the NYFF Views from the Avant-Garde: part 1, and part 2, both at Greencine. Also: a clutch of reviews including Eastern Promises and The Ex, at his own site.

-- Craig Keller, at Cinemasparagus, on Antonioni's The Dangerous Thread of Things.

-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on The Jazz Singer.

-- Zach on James Gray's We Own the Night. Gray's The Yards (2000) is one of my favorite American films of the decade so far (thanks to Andrew for turning me on to it), and I'm eager to see the new one tonight.

-- Personal reflections on experimental cinema from Jen Macmillan at Invisible Cinema.

-- Jim Emerson puts together an essay-experimental short film for Matt's Close-Up Blog-A-Thon.

-- 'Quiet Bubble' Walter on Frank King's Gasoline Alley and John Porcellino.

-- Jim Tata on the role of fiction editors and the writing of Raymond Carver.

-- Doug on women animators at the National Film Board of Canada.

-- via David Hudson: at Sight & Sound, some filmmakers (Olivier Assayas, Bruno Dumont, Paul Schrader, Eugène Green, and Aki Kaurismäki) answer questions on why Bresson is important to them.

Drawing: "Wavelength" (1967)

Sunday, October 14, 2007

A Cinephilia

This week: casting a sentimental glance backwards, trying to retrace the footprints of my passage into cinephilia…

Is it possible to identify a point in time, a moment, for such a passage or ‘conversion’? I can’t speak for anyone else—and I’d like to hear from you about this—but in my case, I think yes.

I’d always been movie-crazy as a kid, and my interest in film grew steadily over time. But my movement from devoted film buff into full-blown cinephilia occurred in the spring of ’99 when I wandered into a screening at the Cinematheque in Toronto. I remember the three films that ‘initiated’ me that week. They were part of a Brazilian Cinema Novo program: Vidas Secas (“Barren Lives,” Nelson Pereira dos Santos, 1963); Macunaima (Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, 1969); and Iracema (Jorge Bodansky & Orlando Senna, 1976). Marvelous as these films are, it was also a matter of circumstance—I happened to meet them at the right time, when I was ready to make my leap.

What exactly marked this passage from film buff to cinephile? In my case I can point to two things: (1) The awakening of a serious sensitivity to film form (how a film tells its ‘story’); and (2) The act of making an intellectual commitment to cinema—not just watching it but also reading, reflecting, talking and writing about it, even if it was just in my journal.

I vividly (and sentimentally) remember that spring at the Cinematheque and its profusion of new discoveries: an incendiary double bill of Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns and Elio Petri’s The Tenth Victim; Aki Kaurismaki’s Drifting Clouds; Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow and Hamoon; Mitchell Leisen’s Remember The Night; Agnes Varda's Le Bonheur; Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout; and Sarah Moon’s Mississippi One. Also, to this day, my most pleasurable screening experience ever: seeing a restored Scope print of Les Demoiselles de Rochefort for the first time with a packed audience that responded, vibrated, to every tiny modulation and frisson in the film, musical or otherwise. Cinematic bliss, or as close to it as I’ve managed to get.

* * *

When it comes down to it, I owe my cinephilic coming-of-age to one person, James Quandt of Cinematheque Ontario. Though we didn’t actually meet up in person until a few years later, right from the beginning his influence was formative and critical, specifically in two ways. First, opening up a world of great films through his comprehensive and painstakingly assembled retrospectives (Bresson, Rossellini, Godard, Ichikawa, Fuller, Nick Ray, Sokurov, and so many others). Second, the fleet, erudite, singing prose of his essays and program notes. My long-time Toronto cinephile comrade Andrew Proczek, who I also met during that first fateful spring, gave me a gift of a thick stack of old Cinematheque program books going back several years. For the autodidactic cinema student and auteurist in me, these director-centered ‘texts’ turned out to be foundational and invaluable.

I’ve always regretted that because Quandt writes mostly for the Cinematheque calendar/program books, his work is perhaps not as widely read as that of many film critics who write for cine-journalistic outlets with national or international reach. I even took out a subscription to Artforum a few years ago when he started writing regularly for them. A great example of a work that combines these two key aspects of Quandt’s contributions to film culture (curating and writing) is the Bresson book that he put together in 1998 to accompany the retrospective. Is there a richer single-volume collection devoted to a filmmaker in recent (or even not-so-recent) memory?

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If you feel like it, I’d love to know: What films or people or writings are important to your passage into cinephilia?

* * *

A couple of links:

-- The new Cinematheque Ontario season gets underway this week. Some essays: Quandt on Tomu Uchida and Max Ophuls; and Andréa Picard on the Zanzibar films.

-- The big event of the week in the blogosphere is undoubtedly Matt’s Close-Up Blog-A-Thon at The House Next Door.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

In the City of Sylvia

As much as I like José-Luis Guerín’s new film, En la ciudad de Sylvia (“In the City of Sylvia”), I wonder if Unas fotos en la ciudad de Sylvia (“Some Photographs in the City of Sylvia”), the film he made as a sort of ‘sketch’ or ‘study’ to precede it, is as good, perhaps even better. Alas, Toronto only showed the new film but Vancouver is showing them both on a double bill accompanied by a personal appearance by the filmmaker. It's also the first public screening of Unas fotos.

David Bordwell reports from Vancouver:

Rubbed together, the two films throw off sparks. En la ciudad is in color and very tightly constructed, Unas fotos consists of hundreds of black-and-white stills linked by associations and intertitles, with no sound accompaniment. Guerin, an admirer of Murnau, says that as a young man he watched old films in “a sacred silence” and he wanted to try something similar.

Unas fotos may not be factual—call it a lyrical documentary—but it illuminates En la ciudad in striking ways and is intriguing in its own right. Structured as a quest for a woman the narrator met 22 years ago, the film moves across several cities and invokes as its patrons Dante and Petrarch, each of whom yearned for an unattainable woman. But this isn’t exactly a photo-film à la Marker’s La jetée; it uses dissolves, superimpositions, and staggered phases of action to suggest movement. The subjects? Dozens of women photographed in streets and trams. Some will find a creepy edge to the movie, but it didn’t strike me as the obsessions of a stalker. Guerin becomes sort of a paparazzo for non-celebs, capturing the many looks of ordinary women.

The Spanish film critic Miguel Marías wrote a thoughtful essay about Guerín and Unas fotos that was published a year and a half ago in the FIPRESCI journal Undercurrent. It concludes this way:

With the new, cheap, almost cost-free equipment, and taking as his model not D.W. Griffith or Louis Feuillade, or even Louis Lumière, but rather the very earliest of pioneers, Étienne Marey and Edweard Muybridge, he has found again the true essence of cinema, its forgotten, invisible, taken-for-granted secret: that there are in fact no real images of movement, but only stills, a succession of photographs whose succession creates the illusion of movement. Between each, there is always at least a diminutive, almost unperceivable ellipse, the black blank piece of film between each frame. Godard was hinting at this very problem, I think, when he began employing videotape and started stopping the movement of images, or slowing it down, then accelerating again, so as to render visible the original isolation and the willful, deliberate linking of the frames that allows the passage from one photogram to another, which also explains Bresson's insistently calling what he did cinématographe instead of cinéma: after all, he was writing with the articulate movement of fixed, still images. That's why I consider it some sort of "poetic justice" that Guerín, reinventing cinema with digital means, has returned to the very beginnings, without any sort of sound, not even music or noise, without color, and has employed only the minimal, bare elements, those available when cinema was not yet entertainment, not even a show, but almost a scientific tool intended to look at what you cannot see with the naked eye, and to register it and keep a record, to take notes, to make annotations. But Unas fotos is not merely a remake of the early steps of cinema before Lumière: I don't recall a single silent film that used titles as some sort of inner monologue, as a kind of silent, written equivalent of voice-over commentary, as Guerín does.

* * *

I liked David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises but I had the same reaction to it as Steven Shaviro when he wrote that it “is so tightly organized, and so perfectly self-enclosed, that it doesn’t leave the viewer with any wriggle room.” By contrast, In the city of Sylvia seems unenclosed, open. Thinking about it generates all sorts of questions.

The film functions as a sort of ‘romantic’ essay-fiction about the process by which an artist perceives the world and what interests him most about that world. For the young artist-hero of the film, the ‘object’ of interest is a woman and all women.

I've been wondering: Do the pleasures of this film come too easily to me because I’m straight and male? Does the film feel ‘safer’ because its protagonist is a blank and blandly good-looking, seemingly unthreatening young man, unburdened by the creepy psychological backstory of, say, James Stewart in Vertigo? Does the film unproblematically romanticize the creative process and the obsessions that process might entail? If a film indulges and celebrates the “male gaze,” is it obliged, required, to include any autocritique as a counterweight? Finally, I'm curious to know: How will women and gay viewers react to this film? I like it that the film stimulates, even accommodates, such skepticism and questioning.

Please also see: Darren and Daniel on the film; and an interview with Guerín at Cineuropa.

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More from Steven Shaviro on David Cronenberg’s recent films:

To a certain extent, by making himself into a formally more powerful and contained director, by transcending or giving up the sloppiness and (even) exploitativeness of his earlier films, Cronenberg in effect undermined his films’ very significance. The recent films are aesthetically superior to the earlier ones (taking “aesthetically” in a narrowly formalist sense), but there is something sterile about them: their fascination is too narrowly focused, too contained. A History of Violence represented something of a change of direction, and, I thought, a substantial reinvigoration. But Eastern Promises, despite being the same genre as A History of Violence, somehow doesn’t seem anywhere near as fresh or as thoughtful (or affectful). This is all relative, of course: I only find Cronenberg at fault because I expect so much more of him. I am holding him to higher standards than I do most other contemporary filmmakers.

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Good news: Adrian Martin has a new monthly column at the Dutch magazine De Filmkrant. The column is called "World Wide Angle" and he'll be writing on film and the Web. In the inaugural entry, he discusses the Bergman/Antonioni debate. Here's an excerpt:

What does it really mean for us, as critics or viewers, to demand of any filmmaker that he or she should 'invest in the modern world' - or else be declared outmoded, old-fashioned, a dinosaur? As cinema spectators, we can only judge whether a film is 'pertinent' from the often mysterious resonance that it sets off in us - far more than its surface content, topic or theme - that deep sense that it touches us, and thus touches upon something that, more generally, matters to the contemporary world. What if a filmmaker sticks to what he or she knows best or feels most deeply - if he or she decides to 'plough their field' deeper and deeper as the years go by, as Rohmer's producer once said, admiringly, of him? If he or she settles upon what Nietzsche called an 'untimely meditation', free from the ephemeral influence of cultural fashion or social topicality? Bergman, certainly, took this untimely, in fact obsessive option - and when his final film Saraband (2003) finally came along and shook so many of us to our core, did we feel like complaining that he was 'out of touch'? Maybe some of the greatest artists of cinema know what many critics don't: that history will keep rediscovering them, at those secret moments when their work, once more, begins to resonate.

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A few links:

-- Zach on television and low culture.

-- Doug on Oskar Fischinger and Jordan Belson.

-- Ray Carney delivers a talk to high-school students and recommends a list of films for them. (via CelineJulie.)

-- At My Gleanings: Pierre Kast’s ten-best lists for Cahiers du Cinema.

-- Peter Nellhaus has an annotated list of his favorite horror films.

-- J. Hoberman on Tony Kaye: “something of a visionary: 17 years in the self-financed making, Lake of Fire may be as daringly aestheticized as any social documentary since Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line.”