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The Greater Circulation
reviewed by Jesse Walker

Director: Antero Alli
Studio: Vertical Pool

January 25, 2006 | Making a movie out of "Requiem for a Friend," the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke's tribute to the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker, might sound completely mad, like a plan to film a sculpture or a symphony. Yet Antero Alli has done it not once but twice. His very first video project, made in 1990, was the 44-minute Requiem for a Friend; Alli describes it as "a straight-ahead docudrama of a performance we staged in Seattle (and restaged for the three-camera video shoot)." His most recent picture, 2005's The Greater Circulation, is a more complex work: It doesn't just contain and illustrate the text, but explores how it was composed, debates what it means, and presents a present-day story of actors attempting to bring it to the stage. "After completing Requiem for a Friend...I felt that we had accomplished something but that the material was still over my head," Alli recalls. "Over the years I have been haunted by this work and called to return to it and do it justice."

The results are difficult to describe without revealing too much, and I will untangle the movie's threads carefully. In Berkeley, an avant-garde theater group is staging its own adaptation of "Requiem," a combination of dance, drama, and recitation that is, the performers insist, not "theater" but "a ritual." This draws the attention of Albert (Lloyd Bricken), a Rilke-obsessed critic who's so eager to see how the text could possibly be staged that he breaks into the performance hall to watch the rehearsals after the director (Lee Vogt) refuses his requests for an interview. That might seem a little extreme, but Albert is a self-confessed voyeur -- he even watches the actors through a peephole. His voyeurism isn't a fetish so much as a deeply ingrained character trait, the quality that made him a critic in the first place; he's more interested in observing the world than in creating something himself. Bricken strikes a delicate balance between playing him as a comic bumbler and as something more poignant.

Meanwhile, there are flashbacks to 1908, as Rilke (also played by Bricken) struggles to write his requiem. The setting doesn't lend itself to dialogue -- it's just one man holed up in a Paris hotel room -- so instead we hear readings from "Requiem" and other Rilke-related texts, including his correspondence with Modersohn-Becker. These scenes are shot on Super 8 film, and they show us the poet in faded, almost sepia tones, until he falls asleep and we enter his full-color, high-definition dreams. Those are remarkable collages: Many of Alli's films include strange, psychedelic interludes, but these are easily the most dense and engaging sequences of this sort that he's ever made.

Meanwhile, the director and his cast (Felecia Faulkner, Leah Kahn, Sylvi Alli, and Nick Walker) discuss both what "Requiem" means and how best to represent it on stage. There are hints that the events of 1908 and 2005 are influencing each other, and Bricken's two characters begin to act in parallel: Both are driven by deaths to engage in an act of creation. There are other parallels between past and present as well, but again, I don't want to give too much away.

And we watch the actors' performance. Just to add to all the intertextuality, this was shot at four actual live performances staged by Alli and his cast to raise money for the film.

If you already like Rilke, you should enjoy the movie immensely: It's a rich meditation on the man's work, created by someone who is clearly deeply moved by it. If you haven't been exposed to his writing before, on the other hand, I'm not sure whether you'll be drawn in or puzzled -- maybe a little of both. But even outright Rilke-haters should appreciate the formal achievement of the dream sequences. There Alli proves, yet again, that there's no reason a low-budget video can't be visually interesting.

Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason and author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).

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