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Village Voice film critic Jim Hoberman reviews two films by Vivienne Dick.

VISIBILITY: MODERATE and LIBERTY’S BOOTY. Two films by Vivienne Dick. At the Millennium, March 7.

Northern Lights, an independent feature by Rob Nilsson and John Hanson, is a slow, uneven movie that's more affecting when it shows how capitalism chews up people's lives than it is when detailing what they can do about it. The film is on the Dakota plains at the time of World War I. Against a background of agrarian struggle and rural immigrant radicalism, it celebrates the organization of the Non-Partisan League, a political party by which farmers protected themselves from the exploitation of banks, railroads, and other monied interests. Northern Lights, which is having its New York premiere after playing various cities around the country, is the fair-haired child of American regional fllmmaking. A labor of love, the movie took three years to complete, then won the "Camera d'Or" as the best first feature at Cannes in 1979.

Nilsson and Hanson have made several short documentaries on the Non-Partisan League, and although Northern Lights is fiction, its informational bias is apparent.There's less depth of character or emotional resonance here than one would wish. A young farmer (Robert Behling), engaged to marry a local woman (Susan Lynch), is radicalized when the bank forecloses on her family's farm. After their wedding is postponed, he becomes an organizer for the League, and the strain on their relationship grows more acute. The League emerges victorious in the 1916 elections, but by then it's too late for Behling to save his own farm, which is foreclosed as well. Baldly described, Northern Lights sounds like a bitter tale. But despite a subtext of economic failure and sexual frustration, its dark elements are relatively unexplored. Half the film’s struggle is to stay upbeat and postive.

While Northern Lights avoids the Hester Street syndrome—it doesn't make the past seem cute, or infused with the attitudes of the present—there's actually less conflict here than in the Micklin Silver film. For all their rough-hewn appearance, Northern Lights's characters slip by each other with a minimum of friction. Lynch's big scene, the one attempt at emotional fireworks, turns out to be a damp fizzle. Indeed, her hysterical tirade against male "freedom" is both artistically and politically questionable. After all, her family was wiped out by the bank, so why should she be any less militant than Behling?

The problem with Northern Lights is that its ambitions run counter to the understated naturalism it projects. The film wants to tell a story, supply historical data, provide political inspiration-and still seem "real." I'm not suggesting that naturalism is a bankrupt strategy, but to work on its own terms it has to be better-textured and more oblique than it is here. The film's didactic elements squash the story to pancake thinness. It seems to me that Nilsson and Hanson should have opted for either a more complicated slice of life or a more epic didacticism. It's as though all their inventiveness had gone into solving the problems of getting the film made. (Appropriately, its strongest sequence is the trickiest logistically: an ensemble harvesting scene that takes place in a snowstorm.)

What's most consistent about Northern Lights is its look. Judy Irola's stark black-and-white cinematography papers over more than a few fissures in the script. There's a bleak sensuality to her static frames (animated by failing snow or rising steam) and deliberate pans across long, craggy faces. Every composition seems molded by wind and cold. Just as Northern Lights is flavored with extended passages of Norwegian dialogue, its visuals pay homage to earlier Scandanavian masters. If there's one too many Seventh Seal-style long-shot silhouettes, the low angle shot of Behling's father propped up dead in a snowy field is as unforgettable as any of Dreyer's askew close-ups.

Northern Lights opens a 17-film series of recent American independent features that will be running through mid-June at the Art theater. Many of these films—the political documentaries and regional movies, in particular—were made with funding from either the National Endowment for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Humanities (or through them, from various state art councils). As federal agencies go, the NEH and the NEA are rather modestly budgeted, together worth only a dozen or so F-14 bombers. Nevertheless, the Reagan regime plans to cut their appropriations in half—a move that will seriously undermine the plurality of film voices in this country.

Super-8 filmmaker Vivienne Dick calls her Visibility: Moderate a "tourist film," and it is, in fact, a travelogue of Ireland. However, since Dick is an Irish expatriate, the film deals more in contempt for the familiar than it does in amazement at the exotic. Much of Visibility is simply a parody of a super-8 vacation movie. As a stand-in tourist, Dick employs a new wave fashion plate resembling one of the tawdrier ingenues from The Blackboard Jungle. This provocative "American" is filmed visiting Celtic ruins, posing with nuns, kissing the Blarney Stone, and so on. Meanwhile, the soundtrack combines space music, punk jazz, and Irish radio commercials (the latter meant to show the Americanization of the local culture).

Dick has a gift for off hand verite. She visits local rock clubs, finds Hare Krishnas roaming the streets of Dublin, and a religious crazy ranting hymns amid rush-hour traffic. In some respects, Visibility: Moderate seems to be her most personal work, but, unlike her earlier feminist films, the political stance here is hard to find. There are various references to the “troubles," but they're so perfunctory you have to wonder if Dick's point is that sectarian violence is an indelible aspect of the Irish condition, and that she's as sick of the H-Block as she is of the Blarney Stone.

Along with her new film, Dick is showing a trimmed and re-mixed version of Liberty's Booty, which strikes me as a sharper and more mordant movie now than it did when I reviewed it here last year. The film is both an ironic exposition of American "permissiveness" and a work of sexual demystification. Dick invents a brothel, located in a Lower East Side apartment and staffed by nice, white, middle-class girls. Needless to say, the filmmaker doesn't subscribe to a sentimental male view of prostitution—the crux of the film is in its frank girl-talk about sex, rendered effectively disturbing for its matter-of-fact alienation. Like all of Dick's films, Liberty's Booty is a choppy assemblage. Old rock anthems and memo-rabilia keep surfacing like reproachful shards of the '60s, and there is a good deal of Loisaida local color as well. Typically, Dick is fascinated by the pseudo-immigrant decor of the McDonalds on lower First Avenue. It's the American Dream at is sleaziest—the sort of ruling metaphor that seems missing from Visibility: Moderate

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Jim Hoberman
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