Monday, February 27, 2006

Before I forget

Yeah, I know, I promised more postings on the French series at the Walter Reade.
In the next day or two I will, in fact, add my comments on new films by Laurent Cantet (it's brilliant), Stephane Brize (I liked it but apparently nobody else did), and Valerie Lemercier (proof that not everyone who directs a film in France is a professional filmmaker -- in any sense of that phrase).
In the meantime, paying work must come first.

The benefits of free association

One makes the oddest connections by juxtaposing unlikely films.

This not terribly original thought occurred to me as I was filing my second report on the Israel Film Festival for Jewish Week a few hours ago. (If you want to know what I thought of the films I have had time to see go to the newspaper's website, linked on the right of this page. You will also find the webpage of the film festival itself linked from there.)

For example, because the b.w. is a devotee of POW escape films and we both have an incomprehensible weakness for the stiffened upper lip of British WWII thrillers, we watched Guy Hamilton's fairly drab The Colditz Story (1957) over the weekend. Then I found myself looking at Thorold Dickinson's Hill 24 Doesn't Answer, a 1956 film that might be characterized as one of the first Israeli features. What grabbed me by the throat was the drab air of melancholy that pervades both films, distinctly a British mid-5os sense that the best is behind us and we must soldier on despite everything. It's sort of a strange Anglo twist on Ford's "gallantry of defeat" theme, amplified almost to a whispered scream by the beautifully bleak monochrome cinematography that DPs Gordon Dines (Colditz) and Gerald Gibbs (Hill 24) bring to the party.
Then I realized that on some level, this is true of almost any British film I've seen made between the end of the war and the early '60s. They all seem infected by a hang-dog air that is almost palpable. It's not just because they're almost always in black-and-white; Hollywood is still being somewhat sparing with color into the middle '50s, too. It's a sort of downright mopiness.

In a totally different vein, but no less interesting, is the connection I stumbled upon watching one of the new films in the Israel festival, a terse, intelligent melodrama by Shai Kanot, Wolves' Moon. This is -- if you can believe it -- sort of a contemporary Western, inasmuch as the hero is a cattle rancher in northern Israel. (An Israeli cattle rancher? Who knew?!) Played by Liron Levo (who should be familiar from some of Amos Gitai's films), he has the chiseled, dark, brooding good looks of a young Montgomery Clift, but the laconicness of a classic American cowboy hero. But when he is responsible for a driving accident that leaves his best friend paralyzed from the neck down, he is faced with a situation that his laconic "man of action" skills haven't prepared him for.

Which is, of course, the central dilemma of Ennis Del Mar in Lee's Brokeback Mountain, another contemporary Western that invokes Ford (Kanot has a direct visual homage to the opening/closing shots of The Searchers) for distinctly unFordian purposes. (And before anyone asks, I don't see any real connection between the Israeli film and Wings of Eagles, although it's an obvious cross-reference; the injuries and their aftermath have entirely different thematic resonances in the two films.)

I've also been watching a lot of Three Stooges shorts lately. I guess I'd better stay away from White House press conferences for a while. That's too obvious a link.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Rendezvous w/French Cinema, Day 1

The mixed blessing of working for a living is that you don't get to see all the movies you would like, even if one of the day jobs is as a film critic. I say mixed because there are days when you know that the best thing that could happen would be to NOT see all the movies you think you would like to see. But I guess that's self-evident to anyone who has ever covered any kind of film festival.
The Film Society of Lincoln Center stages an annual French series that is, usually, one of my favorite events of the year, although the last couple of years have been rather disappointing. (At least some of the disappointment has come from the failure of any distributors to pick up the two most recent films by Andre Techine, Loin ("Far") or Changing Times.) Even the French have their down years.

This year's festival has the added attraction of showcasing mostly unfamiliar names. No Chabrol, no Techine, no Denis, to name three of the highlights from the past two otherwise rather otiose gatherings. The endless stream of feeble comedies from the likes of Tonie Marshall inspire little enthusiasm in me.

And the opening trio of press screenings threatened more of the same. I didn't go to the screening of Brigitte Rouan's new film, Housewarming, for the unusual reason that I had seen it on an airplane last fall. Given the praise heaped on her Post-Coitum Animal Triste, I had high hopes. By the time this over-sugared confection had finished I wanted a parachute. It reminded me of nothing so much as Chantal Akerman's Today We Move, a huge disappointment in itself, with what little wit that film displayed drained out by hypodermic needle. Carole Bouquet is a magically successful lawyer -- she dances in court, so you already know you're in for a surfeit of whimsy -- who hires an army of clods to redesign her apartment. It reeks of stale humor.

L'Enfer by Danis Tanovic is the second film of a trilogy originally conceived by Krzyzstof Kieslowski and his long-time collaborator Krzyzstof Piesiewicz. Piesiewicz wrote the three screenplays after Kieslowski's death and the first, Heaven, was filmed in 2002 by Tom Tykwer. I haven't seen it, but I can't imagine it is any worse than the Tanovic. This film is truly "Kieslowski for Dummies," a collection of stylistic flourishes in search of a unifying style, of themes in search of an expression; the film is tenth-rate Freud, noodle-headed family melodrama of the sort that Douglas Sirk flayed alive in his best American films. Karen Viard, Marie Gillain and Emmanuelle Beart are all scarred by the mysterious catastrophe that befell their father and live under the thumb of their largely absent mother (Carole Bouquet in the worst age makeup since Rock Hudson in Giant). The secret, when revealed, is almost as huge an anticlimax as the ludicrous last shot of the film, which indirectly (and perhaps inadvertently) name-checks Piaf.

Happily, the third film screened last week, Emmanuel Carrere's adaptation of his own novel, The Moustache, is a quirky, tricky joy. His second film as a director (the first, Retour a Kotelnitch, was shown on TV5 here in the States a few months ago; naturally, I have it on tape but haven't seen it), The Moustache is an elegant puzzle without a conventional answer. Marc (Vincent Lindon) shaves off his moustache for the first time in 15 years, but his wife (Emmanuelle Devos, glorious as usual), sees no difference. In fact she denies he ever had a moustache. As do his friends and colleagues. What starts out as an Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode quickly becomes a fascinating examination of the truth-value of photographic "reality," a subject that will be familiar to anyone who has studied film theory for more than fifteen minutes. Carrere plays straight with his material, which makes the film's denouement all the more satisfying for its obstinate refusal to explain anything. Marc, like any film viewer, is simply taken where the narrative goes. As Chico Marx says, "Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?" The result is sort of like Psycho with the last ten minutes lopped off. Happily, The Moustache has a distributor, so you might get to see it without having to come to New York. Of course, if you are already here, the public screenings are March 10 (1 p.m.), March 11 (6:15 p.m.) and March 12 (3:45 p.m.). Click the link to the Film Society for more particulars.

And a quick PS:
The co-producers of the event are UniFrance USA, who do a splendid job of promoting French film here in the States. They ought to be a model for other national film industries. Which also reminds me to note that Catherine Verret, who has been running the French Film Office longer than I can remember, has resigned. She will be much missed on the screening circuit and I don't mind saying that her leaving is a reminder to me of just how damned long I've been doing this stuff.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Iras, A shameful exercise and thank goodness for that.

For the past thirty years an intrepid band of cinematic explorers have ventured where only the brave and foolhardy go. They call themselves the New York Independent Film Critics Circle, although those who know and fear them call them many other things that good manners prevent me from repeating.
Cue dramatic music here:
I know. I am one of them. (A drumroll please.)
My name is Saturday. I carry a badge.
I was working the Ira-watch out of Burglary and Mopery when the phone rang.

Okay, got that out of my system.
So this gang of lunatics, one of them me, have been gathering together since 1975 -- engendering a lengthy debate over whether this is our 30th anniversary or our 31st awards; when did the Millennium begin, chumps? -- and voting our own film awards, with an eye towards defying the popular taste and that of our better-known colleagues in other more publicized critics groups.
The results have been nicely marinated in beer and wine and so we have continued.

For a more balanced view of our gathering from last night, I urge you to read Michael Giltz's blog, Popsurfing; just click the link on the right. For those of you too lazy to bother, here are the results of the voting:


Best Picture: Mysterious Skin
Best Director: Gregg Araki
Best Actor: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Mysterious Skin)
Best Actress: Maria Bello (A History of Violence)
Best Supporting Actor: Frank Langella (Good Night and Good Luck) rescinded
Clifton Collins, Jr. (Capote) rescinded
Paddy Considine (My Summer of Love)
Best Supporting Actress: Catherine Keener (Capote, The 40-year-old Virgin, The Interpreter, The Ballad of Jack and Rose)
Best Screenplay: Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin)
Best Cinematography: Robert Elswit (Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana)
Best Production Design: William Chang Suk Ping (2046, first segment of Eros)
Best Music: Howard Shore (A History of Violence)
Best Costumes: William Chang Suk Ping (2046, first segment of Eros)
Sominex: Saraband
Dramamine: Crash
Mechanical Actor: Tom Cruise (War of the Worlds)
Mechanical Actress: Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds, Hide and Seek and other crap too numerous to mention)

I could explain the byzantine rules under which a majority of the voters are able to rescind an award (as happened in the supporting actor category) but if I did, I'd have to kill all of you. Also, as is probably apparent, we give awards for a year's body of work; at least that's what it says here, although I suspect that none of us saw all of Dakota Fanning's films this year (you couldn't pay me to sit through yet another "uplifting" sports movie like Dreamer).

Suffice it to say, I'm proud that, as is frequently the case, we made the off-beat, edgy choice that none of the other critics groups would go for. After all, we are the folks who gave best picture to such oddly assorted films as Decasia, Werkmeister Harmonies, Kinsey and L'Humanite, just to name a few recent proud moments.

And while we're wrapping up the year, I always base my ten-best list on the releases I saw up to and including the day of the Iras, with the result that I am probably the last human on earth to put up a list each year. Here, based on 117 films released in 2005 (including a few things that didn't get what you would consider a bona fide theatrical release, but that's a subject for another time), is my ten-best list for the year, uh, recently completed.

1. Kings and Queen -- Arnaud Desplechin
2. 2046 -- Wong Kar-Wai
3. A History of Violence -- David Cronenberg
4. Broken Flowers -- Jim Jarmusch
5. The White Diamond -- Werner Herzog
6. Head-On -- Fatih Akin
7. Grizzly Man -- Werner Herzog
8. The World -- Jia Zhangke
9. Or (My Treasure) -- Keren Yedaya
10. Mysterious Skin -- Gregg Araki

Honorable Mention:
Odessa . . . Odessa! (Michale Boganim) Tropical Malady (Apichatpong Weerasethakul), George Romero's Land of the Dead (George Romero), My Summer of Love (Pawel Pawlikowski), Chain (Jem Cohen), L'Intrus (Claire Denis), Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July), Good Morning, Night (Marco Bellocchio), My Mother's Smile (Marco Bellocchio), Paradise Now (Hany Abu-Assad), CineVardaPhoto (Agnes Varda), Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee), Best of Youth (Marco Tullio Giordano), Another Road Home (Dani Elon), Three Rooms of Melancholy (Pirjo Honkasalo), Wall (Simone Bitton), Last Days (Gus van Sant), Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit (Nick Park and Steve Box).

Despite the bleating of the "cinema is dead" naysayers, a pretty damned good year on the whole. Especially if you consider that the average of the directors on my ten best list is probably below 50. (NB: The average age of the nine filmmakers on the list is almost exactly 46.)

Tomorrow, I'll start filling you in on the annual Rendezvous With French Cinema at Lincoln Center.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Another blog worth checking out

My friend, colleague and fellow Ira-voter Daryl Chin has joined the ranks of bloggers. His insights are keen and you should definitely check out his blog. (Link on the right-hand side of this page.)

(By the way, if you are wondering why I always link from a list on the right rather than directly from the text, the answer -- as you know doubt have surmised -- is that I haven't figured out how to do that yet. Gotta love modern technology, right?)

Monday, February 13, 2006

A quick head's-up and an apology

But not in that order.

The apology is for not posting a new entry with more alacrity. Just filed my spring arts preview pieces for Jewish Week the other day and those suckers take a lot of time. And now I'm immersed in catching up for the Iras, about which more later this week for sure.

For those of you who get the Westerns channel (it's part of the Starz cable package) you should be aware that on Sunday they showed the newly restored version of Peckinpah's Major Dundee -- at least I assume they did, since the running time was given as two hours 16 minutes and when I tuned in out of sheer luck I didn't hear the atrocious music from the theatrical release version. Mose important, they were showing it letterboxed, which is a nicety the Westerns channel seldom observes. (Too bad, since they show a lot of possibly interesting Italian westerns and they don't have commercials.) As they say, check your local listings for times. This offer void where prohibited by law (or Presidential fiat).

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A first candidate for my 2006 Ten-best films list

There are many reasons a film doesn’t get distributed in the United States. The mere fact that it isn’t in English and has subtitles already puts it at a disadvantage. An unconventional approach to narrative, an unusually long running time, being a documentary – these all are frequently counted as demerits when the distributors are looking for a film that will fill seats. It would not be hard to assemble a long list of important films that have had little or no theatrical exposure here. Indeed, the editors of Film Comment do something like that every year at the Walter Reade Theater, and their annual Film Comment Selects series is usually a good showcase of movies that either never or only barely make it onto a larger American stage. This year's program, which I will talk about in a few days, features a tribute to Raul Ruiz, the Chilean expat who is a veritable poster child for unreleased films.

However, right now I want to draw your attention to a film opening Friday, Feb. 10, at Anthology Film Archives (see link to the right), that I first saw in that same series last year.

The Ister, directed by David Barison and Daniel Ross, is an excellent example of a film that would probably slip through the cracks without such a forum. It is mostly in French, three hours long and about philosophy. The filmmakers, Australian grad students in philosophy, set out on a journey up the Danube from its delta to its source, nearly 2900 kilometers through Central Europe, a trip through the hellish heart of the 20th Century.

What they have in mind, then, is not a travelogue. Rather, they use the river as the string holding together an incredibly intricate and complex structure, with Martin Heidegger’s lecture on Friedrich Holderlin’s poem “The Ister” (the ancient Roman name of the Danube) as the jumping-off point for a series of dialogues with French philosophers Bernard Stiegler, Jean-Luc Nancy and Philip Lacoue-Labarthe and German filmmaker Hans-Jurgen Syberberg. The result is nothing less than a dissection of nightmarish role of technology in human culture, culminating in the Shoah, and Heidegger’s eager acceptance of the Nazi rise to power.

As unpromising as the premise may sound, “The Ister” is seldom less than fascinating, not only because the filmmakers chose their interview subjects wisely and the footage of the great river in its various states is quite handsome. More important, the film is cunningly structured in both small and large segments. There is frequent dry humor in the juxtaposition of image and soundtrack, as in the counterpart of Stiegler’s discussion of the innate characteristics of the gazelle with a shot of an enormous garden snail. But the larger structure of the film is an intricate interweaving of shots from the whole of the journey, repeated in a variety of contexts, their significance being altered by their placement within the flow of images.

The structural sophistication of the filmmakers is nowhere more apparent than in the introduction of the subject of the Holocaust and Heidegger’s obstinate refusal to face the reality of Naziism even after the war. In the first half of the film, Stiegler speaks on length about his concept of technics (technology) as the extension of man’s self and the creation of the ability of a culture to remember its past; then Nancy talks about the historical development of democracy and the Greek idea of the polis. Like a skilled angler, Barison and Ross have baited their hook, and it strikes home at the end of the segment when a title reminds us that Heidegger’s lecture on “The Ister” was given in 1942 and that the polis in Germany that the great Grecophile was addressing were Nazis. Immediately following the intermission, the second half of the film opens with a clip from Syberberg’s Hitler: A Film From Germany in which we hear Himmler’s infamous 1942 speech telling the SS what their new task would be, the murder of Europe’s Jewish population. The formal ingenuity and audacity with which Barison and Ross achieve this coup de cinema is breathtaking, and the discussion that follows, in which Lacoue-Labarthe considers and dismisses defenses of Heidegger’s later, callous mention of the Holocaust in connection with the Berlin Airlift, would almost be superfluous, were it not so superbly argued.

I knew all along that a prolonged theatrical run of The Ister was a longshot; a week at Anthology is certainly better than nothing. But it is a shame, because the film is much too densely worked-out visually and too loaded with complicated ideas to be absorbed in a single viewing, yet it is rewarding enough that I can’t wait to see it again. Happily, First Run Features has picked it up for domestic DVD distribution and, given that it was shot on DV (and quite handsomely, too), it shouldn't lose much on disk. (And I can't wait to see what the special features are!).

Friday, February 03, 2006

An Express Train of Thought, with John Cassavettes at the Throttle

The new issue of Bookforum, a publication that I find to be always worth a look, is ostensibly dedicated to film, although there are really only a handful of film books reviewed therein. However, in the course of a thoughtful reading of the new Cassavettes bio, Kent Jones makes an interesting observation, essentially to the effect that Cassavettes mise-en-scene was the human face. (I'm oversimplifying a bit, because I don't have the magazine close at hand, but I don't think I'm doing violence to his argument.) It has been a long time since I last saw a Cassavettes film but that struck me as fundamentally correct and it triggered an interesting thought. Given the chronology of his career, including his directorial work on his own show, Johnny Staccato, it might not be too far-fetched to say that Cassavettes was one of the first filmmakers to adapt the visual styles of television for the big screen, making the reliance of close-ups that was the hallmark of early TV into a basis for a coherent visual and thematic center for his theatrical films. I'm not sure I buy that idea myself, but it might be worth exploring further sometime.

On the other hand, as Jones and Phillip Lopate both drily observed in their reviews of the biography (which is by Peckinpah biographer Marshall Fine, by the way), Cassavettes would undoubtedly be less than thrilled to be described enthusiastically as the progenitor of the American independent cinema, at least in the milquetoast form it has taken in recent years. Faced with the endless flow of smarmy, warm and fuzzy coming-of-age films out of Sundance and its imitators, Cassavettes would probably have puked. I know I want to. I recently suffered through another of these enfeebled offerings, a prize-winner at the Hamptons International Film Festival and invoked Cassavettes as an example of everything that the film in question wasn't.

Which brought to mind another subject for a jeremiad. A few years ago, I briefly toyed with the idea of a book that would follow a handful of filmmakers through a year on the festival circuit. I figured one could do twelve chapters, one for each month of the year, and hit the major festivals -- Rotterdam, Berlin, Cannes, Venice, Montreal, Toronto, New York and whatever. (San Sebastian? Locarno? Tribeca?) Then I began to do some initial research preparatory to writing a proposal for this epic and realized that there are now so many film festivals that one could easily cover two a week for a year. The festival circuit has gotten to be like the PGA Tour. You could play an event a week, 52 weeks a year, if you are so inclined. Of course, the only people who would do that are guys who don't have any family, any life beyond the golf course and any grasp on reality. (Or guys who desperately needed to pump up their money-winning totals to avoid losing their tour cards and having to go through the agonies of qualifying school again.)

Yes, you could play 52 events a year, but it would destroy your physical and mental health and probably wreck your game. And a critic could attend 52 film festivals a year or even more. But the result wouldn't be a book but a lengthy stay in a sanitarium.

All that from thinking about John Cassavettes. Imagine what I could do if I saw a movie occasionally.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

A quick blog recommendation

My friend and fellow Ira voter (I'll explain that one soon) Michael Giltz has an excellent new(ish) blog also hosted here. It's well worth a look. Go to www.popsurfing.blogspot.com and drink in his considerable wisdom.