James + Semaj is a column where James Franco talks to his reverse
self, Semaj, about new films. Rather than a conventional review, it is
place where James and Semaj can muse about ideas that the films provoke.
James loves going to the movies and talking about them. But a one-sided
take on a movie, in print, might be misconstrued as a review. As
someone in the industry it could be detrimental to James’s career if he
were to review his peers, because unlike the book industry—where writers
review other writer’s books—the film industry is highly collaborative,
and a bad review of a peer could create problems. So, assume that James
(and Semaj) love all these films. What they’re interested in talking
about is all the ways the films inspire them, and make them think. James
is me, and Semaj is the other side of me.
James: This is a documentary about people doing weird things in their basements in Austria.
Semaj: Yeah, it’s by Ulrich Seidl. He normally does feature films, like the Paradise Trilogy. But those are also about people doing extreme things like sex tourism, religious self-punishment, and going to fat camp.
James: Everything seems to have an undercurrent of sex in his work.
Semaj: No, that’s just everything in general. Like the prostitute told Rachel McAdams in “True Detective”: “Everything is
James: Okay, so everything is fucking. These are real people in this movie. But Fritz Lang is in it. Is that the Fritz Lang who directed “Metropolis,” “Fury,” “M,” and “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse”?
Semaj: No. Don’t be stupid. He was a director, and those movies were made in the ’30s.
James: But he acted in Godard’s “Contempt” with Bridget Bardot.
Semaj: Fritz Lang the director is dead. He died in 1976. This Fritz Lang is just one of the Austrians doing weird things in his basement. I think he’s the one with the shooting range, who gives shooting lessons to old guys who think that burkas should be banned because they were invented by insecure men whose culture is centuries behind theirs.
James: And he sings opera songs alone in his shooting range.
Semaj: Yes, he does.
James: He seems lonely.
Semaj: They all do. But I think that’s because we are seeing them in their private moments. We’re seeing what no one else sees. Some of them actually do have friends who take part in their secret proclivities and fetishes. In fact, the bond between some of them must be pretty strong because they’re fused by their mutual interest in fringe behavior, such as Nazi worship, and hardcore S&M.
James: You call it “fringe behavior,” but maybe one of the points of this movie is that we’re all a little freaky. That these people might be a little more extreme than most, but they are only further down a continuum that most of us are on in some form or another.
Semaj: Like in “American Beauty,” everyone has secrets behind the pretty façade of suburbia.
James: Yeah, in a way.
Semaj: Talk about how it’s shot.
James: It seems like a lot of the shots are locked off, and at a fixed level, almost like Ozu or the way Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman” is shot.
Semaj: Good reference. These portraits seem very much like “Jeanne Dielman,” where we’re watching people in their private spaces doing what they do when no one is watching. And Jeanne Dielman is a prostitute, but instead of seeing her walk the streets, or work in a brothel, we just see her make meals, and eat dinner with her son.
James: Let’s take a moment of silence for the late Chantal Akerman. Her films were a big influence on directors like Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant, especially “Gerry,” “Elephant,” “Last Days,” “Paranoid Park,” and “Milk.”
(After a moment of silence).
Semaj: Okay. So, what about the way he holds on the shots a long time? Like the opening — we just get these still frames of the exteriors of houses, almost like he’s showing us the facade that hides the kinky stuff that is going on inside.
James: Exactly. The opening reminds me of the shots at the end of Antonioni’s “L’Eclisse”: just still shots of different things in an Italian suburb.
Semaj: You’re getting a little pretentious with your references.
James: I’m going to get a little more pretentious. The way that Seidl holds the shots for a long time reminds me what Bela Tarr does in films like “Sátántangó,” where the pace slows down and we are forced to look. When you hold on a shot for a long time the audience starts to look at the background, and the setting starts to tell its own stories.
Semaj: A bit like Wes Anderson.
James: Well, Wes is a master of set design, and a certain kind of precise composition. But he doesn’t hold his shots inordinate amounts of time like the shots in this movie. Wes is packing every frame with something interesting, but “In The Basement” holds on shots for a long time so that the walls, and the little things, the pictures on the walls, the items in the room start to resonate with meaning. We’re looking at them for so long they start to become part of the story.
Semaj: Right. And they inform character because they belong to the people we’re watching.
James: Well, duh. These are their private rooms. We see the woman who goes around her house finding little dolls that she treats as if they were real babies, or the guy in the amateur brass band who has a room devoted to Hitler, or the bondage couple who practice their master/slave thing all over the house.
Semaj: They actually seem like the happiest of the people. He’s this bald dude with a super hairy back who crawls around the house naked and cleans, while she bosses him around and makes him lick her vagina clean after she pees.
James: Is that sort of like Topless Maids in L.A.?
Semaj: I don’t think so. Anyway, I want to go back to what you said about Ozu, and the camera being at a certain height.
James: I think it was called the “Tatami Shot,” because he would usually put the camera at the eye level of someone kneeling on a tatami mat.
Semaj: Seidl does that a lot. Why, do you think?
James: Paul Schrader, the dude who wrote “Taxi Driver,” and some of “Raging Bull”—
Semaj: I know who he is.
James: He wrote a book about Ozu, Bresson, and Dryer. It’s amazing. It’s called “The Transcendental Style.”
Semaj: Talk about pretentious.
James: Anyway, you asked. He says that Ozu’s regular framing and camera height help achieve a kind of emptiness, or stasis, that is very Japanese in its purity.
Semaj: So, why does Seidl do it?
James: I think to give austere frames to the otherwise odd behavior.
Semaj: And do you think Seidl is on the side of these people, or making fun of them?
James: Well, last pretentious comparison…
James: I think his approach is akin to Errol Morris’ in his early films: “Gates of Heaven,” which is about people who bury their pets in a cemetery, or “Vernon, Florida,” which is a bunch of portraits of quirky people in Florida.
Semaj: “Gates of Heaven” was filmed in Los Altos, near our hometown of Palo Alto.
James: Yeah, it was Errol Morris’s first film, and it’s the one that Werner Herzog ate his boot for.
Semaj: The Herzog is wild.
James: He’s a soldier of cinema.
Semaj: Anyway, you’re right. I think Seidl’s approach is similar: a detached observer who knows how to make the odd seem funny, disturbing, and eerily normal all at the same time.
“In the Basement” opens Friday at Anthology Film Archives in New York.