‘The Velvet Underground’ Above Ground

Another dispatch from the New York Film Festival

This past weekend marked the midpoint of this year’s New York Film Festival, with multiple screenings of its Centerpiece Selection, Jane Campion’s neo-Western/examination of masculinity The Power of the Dog, on Friday night. But some of my favorite films at the festival so far have been in the nonfiction realm—or, in the case of Michelangelo Frammartino’s Il Buco, nonfiction-adjacent.

In cinephile circles, at least, documentaries have become something of a flashpoint in recent years, especially regarding ways to expand the aesthetic boundaries of nonfiction beyond the standard talking-heads aesthetic that has become de rigueur on television in particular. Legendary filmmakers like Frederick Wiseman, Albert & David Maysles, Barbara Kopple, and more have been pioneering new approaches to cinematic nonfiction since the 1960s. But more recent filmmakers like Robert Greene (Actress, Kate Plays Christine, Bisbee ’17); and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Pacho Velez, and other alumni of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab have pushed the boundaries even further, blurring the lines of reality and fiction and even introducing avant-garde aesthetics in their approaches to history and ethnography.

Not as Underground as you might expect

One might have expected Todd Haynes, a filmmaker who frequently wears his loves of movies, music, and semiotics on his sleeve, to be similarly experimental with his first documentary feature, ‘The Velvet Underground’. For the first 15 minutes of this portrait of the seminal 1960s rock band, Haynes adopts a version of the split-screen format that Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey pioneered with his 1966 avant-garde epic Chelsea Girls—a historically appropriate choice since Lou Reed, John Cale & co. were very much a part of Warhol’s Dream Factory orbit.

Once Lou Reed and John Cale finally meet, however, ‘The Velvet Underground’, in both style and content, becomes a fairly straightforward music documentary, with talking heads galore. It ends up chronicling what is a by-now all-too-familiar arc of warring temperaments and egos, which eventually tear the band apart. At least there are a lot of familiar Velvet Underground tunes on the soundtrack, all of which sound especially majestic in a theater.

The most interesting stuff in ‘The Velvet Underground’—what moves Haynes beyond mere reverence—lies in his detailed and passionate evocation of the New York underground arts scene surrounding the band in that decade. He connects the sonic experiments of composers like John Cage and La Monte Young to Cale’s own avant-garde musical interests, and connects the transgressive cinematic provocations of Warhol, Jack Smith, Jonas Mekas, and others to Reed’s own fascination with the moving image. A sense of limitless artistic possibility thrums throughout the first half of ‘The Velvet Underground’, only to have the band’s internal infighting grind down its second half. Still, for those going into this film not super-familiar with the music of the Velvet Underground and their artistic era, Haynes’s film offers enough to give one a sense of what made them special.

The sheer beauty of ‘Flee’

Flee (screening once more on Thursday, October 7, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music) offers a more aesthetically interesting experience. My colleague Sara Stewart already covered this animated documentary from Sundance earlier this year, so my only other observation about Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s film is to suggest possible reasons for the director’s choice to tell Afghan refugee Amin’s (not his real name) harrowing journey from his home country to Denmark as an animated film. Part of it is practical: to protect his friend’s identity as well as to make him feel more comfortable opening up to him.

But far from trivializing Amin’s experiences, the animation carries an additional thematic resonance: As a gay man who is forced to, at various points in his life to date, hide his ethnic identity, his sexuality, and his past in order to simply survive, the animation offers another subterfuge of sorts, creating a fascinating tension between the harsh nature of Amin’s experiences and the sheer visual beauty on display. Thankfully, that beauty never overwhelms the affecting personal story at the heart of Flee. It tells its story through Amin’s own voice, one that, even now, still vibrates with the fear of going on the run again.

The spelunking movie

Il Buco (screening once more on Sunday, October 10, at the Francesca Beale Theater), Italian director Michelangelo Frammartino’s belated follow-up to his 2010 film Le Quattro Volte, isn’t a documentary per se. He based it on a true story of a group of speleologists who, in 1961, explored what was then the world’s third-deepest cave in Italy’s Calabria region. In re-creating this expedition, Frammartino has cast real-life spelunkers and captured them doing their thing for long stretches of the film in an immersive observational style. Elsewhere, Frammartino features snippets of life in nearby villages and fields that, unmoored from any semblance of a narrative, evokes an ethnographic feel, however staged they may be. The closest thing to a “plot” in Il Buco is a secondary thread revolving around an elderly shepherd who becomes stricken by illness as this band of spelunkers make their way down the cave.

The shepherd character perhaps offers a key to understanding Frammartino’s intentions behind this blurring of fiction and nonfiction. Early on in the film, a group of children in a village are seen watching a TV special in which a news anchor and a construction worker ascend a skyscraper, trumpeting the virtues of progress. In a sense, this band of speleologists represent the forces of modernization intruding on a pastoral environment—an intrusion that makes the shepherd, a representative for an older, more natural way of life, physically ill.

As on-the-nose as that bit of allegorical symbolism might seem, it’d be short-sighted to view Il Buco as a mere conservative tract. There’s a genuine sense of wonder and exploration as the spelunkers slowly descend into the cave, discovering long-hidden artifacts of a bygone era. And even if the film ends on a mystical note with the shepherd getting the aural equivalent of a last laugh, one could view it more as Frammartino understanding that old and new can peacefully coexist in the world, that one does not have to destroy the other.

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Kenji Fujishima

Kenji Fujishima is a writer and editor based in New York City. He has previously written about film for publications including Village Voice, Slant Magazine, and Paste, and about theater for TheaterMania.

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