Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Excellent New Website

Just a quick note to pull your coat to an important new website. Those of you who lived in New York in the '70s and '80s will undoubtedly remember the wonderful William Everson. I have often said that no one could see every movie ever made and no one should, but Everson came as close as any human being I can imagine. More than that, Bill Everson was one of the most generous film scholars to ever walk this earth, a man who was always willing to help out a fellow film lover with an obscure piece of information or the loan of a rare print. His classes at the New School, which consisted mainly of screening material from his vast collection, were legendary and his program notes for those screenings were models of film history on the fly.

NYU's film program has recently added a splendid new website on which there is a windfall of materials from Bill's archives. I urge you to check it out.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Age is a matter of attitude

That would seem to be the message of Heather Lyn MacDonald's new documentary "Been Rich All My Life," which opened Friday in New York. MacDonald spent several years following the Silver Belles, a group of women dancers whose careers began in Harlem in the '20s and '30s, but who refuse to hang up their tap shoes as they gradually approach their eighties and nineties. The Silver Belles and their supporters gave MacDonald pretty complete access and the result is a film whose charm lies in both the sparkling personalities of its protagonists and in their delicious candor. They have undergone all the pleasures and disappoints that an entertainer can have in life and all of them have achieved a blessedly mellow viewpoint of the world. More than that, they can still dance pretty damned well. MacDonald never condescends to the Belles, and one suspects that if she had, they would have kicked her butt good and hard. Back when they were among the most beautiful chorus girls in Harlem -- indeed, judging from the photos they proudly display, I would say in all of New York -- they enjoyed life to the fullest and didn't suffer fools. Clearly nothing has changed. MacDonald tells this story with considerable vigor. I could have done without a few of the artier touches (a point-of-view shot of one of the women falling down subway stairs is really over the top), but for the most part, she lets the Silver Belles do all the talking, dancing and jiving. The result is a perfect complement to George T. Nierenberg's "No Maps on My Taps," a loving ode to the great, dying art of jazz dance as practiced by some of its greatest artists. It is at the Quad Cinemas in Manhattan.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Helping Amnesty International fight the repression of on-line info

If you use the Internet at all -- and I assume you do or how could you be reading this -- you should be concerned about the repression of on-line dissent by totalitarian governments.
AI is making this issue a priority and I urge you to go to their new webpage, http://irrepressible.info and sign their pledge. If you have a webpage or blog of your own, you can also help by posting information that would otherwise be censored. Amnesty will even provide you with the means to do so. You can expect to see such info on this page on a regular basis.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Three New(ish) French Films On Bastille Day!

A consolation prize after the World Cup final?

Okay, strictly speaking, that headline is flawed. First of all, Andre Techine's Changing Times is at least a year old, and I've already written about Time to Leave, the new Ozon, but it is opening in New York today. Then there's Gabrielle, the new Patrice Chereau with the usual sterling performance from Isabelle Huppert. . . .

Changing Times is typical Techine, a film about ambivalent people crossing borders, either literal or figurative, and finding themselves someplace (this time metaphorical) that they never expected. Like his other recent films, Loin/Far and Les Egares/Strayed, Changing Times is coolly dispassionate, which allows the intense feelings of its characters to take center stage. An ex-critic, Techine brings a certain clinical detachment to his material, yet the films never feel cold. This one juggles multiple storylines, with Antoine (Gerard Depardieu) seeking out old flame Cecile (Catherine Deneuve), now unhappily married in Tangier, while her son (Malik Zidi) juggles male and female partners.

The film has a complicated structure revolving around a single, terrible accident that strikes one of its key figures. We see the event three times in the film, with a bit more information provided each time, and one could, I suppose, read the entire story as the hallucination of the comatose character, although I doubt if that is what Techine intends. Rather, I think he is exploring the mutual attraction of star power, with Depardieu and Deneuve, old sparring partners in at least five other films, fated to be mated by sheer force of iconography. It's the same game that George Cukor plays in several of his best films, but the stakes are made higher by the potential for catastrophe that Techine finds lurking throughout.

Techine has one directorial tic that used to bother me until I saw this film for the second time and realized how expressively he uses it in almost every one of his films. He will focus in medium shot or long closeup on a character (occasionally two characters) as they run headlong through a scene; his camera follows them closely enough that we never lose sight of their expression, yet their surroundings are reduced to a blur. It is, of course, a perfect visual equivalent for how utterly lost his protagonists are in the moment, how incapable they remain of assessing their enivronment, of making judicious choices. Yet Techine never loses sight of them, their reactions, their humanity. These are not jagged, hand-held shots in which the actors are rendered as inscrutable as their surroundings. Quite the opposite. And that is the strength of Techine's cinema, a coolly thoughtful attitude towards its characters that neither condescends nor makes excuses for their choices, however wrong or foolish they may appear.

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I am a bit embarrassed to confess that although I have almost all of his work on tape, Gabrielle is the first film directed by Patrice Chereau that I have actually seen. (Hey, I taped the movie, I don't have to actually watch it, right?) And I have to admit, with slightly less embarrassment, that Gabrielle does not whet my appetite for a weekend of screening those other films.

Chereau and frequent collaborator Anne-Louise Tridivic adapted a minor Conrad short story, "The Return, " about a wealthy and successful man who comes home one day to find a note from his wife announcing that she is leaving him for his seemingly less desirable friend (and employee). Then she returns home as well and things get messy. In the hands of, say, Max Ophuls this would be the jumping-point for a delicate rumination on fate and love. Chereau, regrettably treats it as a bombastic opportunity for grand-opera posturing, as befits a man who is probably still better known for his staging of Wagner than his filmmaking. On the positive side, Isabelle Huppert is the wife and she brings an astonishing unflappability to everything she does. Even when her husband, essentially, rapes her, she still maintains an icy reserve that rightly leaves him utterly deflated. Every time I watch Huppert, I am baffled that no one has seen fit to cast her as a rogue cop, a sort of implacable Dirty Harr(iette). Heck, she should be getting some of the parts that go to Depardieu. And she even makes Gabrielle bearable whenever she is on-screen.

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Finally, I have to admit that, despite my misgivings about it, expressed below, I find that Time to Leave has grown in my memory, nagging at me insistently. It is, I think, Ozon's best film to date, propelled primarily by Melvil Poupaud's performance. The film, as I noted a moment ago, opens today and you should see it and make up your own mind. (Now that's something I don't say very often!)

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Greatest Football Side Ever -- Not!?

So I'm sitting around the house feeling sorry for myself because with the World Cup over it's going to be, oh, a whole month before the English football season starts and what am I going to do with myself (besides watching baseball, boxing and, oh yeah, movies)? My good friend Bob, lifesaver that he is, calls me up and reminds me about Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos. To make a long story short, we saw the documentary this afternoon and I feel 25 again. Mind you, my twenties were probably my most miserable decade, so I'm not sure if that's a good thing.

I have fond memories of the Cosmos. One of my closest friends in film school was the son of an AT&T exec and we got to use the corporate box seats on several occasions. I also bought tickets to see them a few times as well (although then, as now, getting to Giants Stadium from northern Manhattan was a pain in the neck). Just being able to say you saw Pele and Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto and Chinaglia was pretty neat.

The rise and fall of the Cosmos happened to coincide with my years in film school, my first jobs and other miseries, so revisiting this period was a bittersweet joy. Happily, Once in a Lifetime is something of a bittersweet joy itself. Directors Paul Crowder and John Dower interviewed just about everyone involved with the team and its snug little berth in Warner Communications except for Pele, who declined to be interviewed, and Steve Ross, who is deceased. It was most pleasant to see Shep Messing and Werner Roth and all those other Cosmos survivors, many of them looking surprisingly good. (Where was Ricky Davis? Bob astutely noted that omission.) And the story is a vividly screwy one, redolent of '70s funk and party-hardy good times.

On the down side, the directors rely on too much of the '70s razzle-dazzle editing that makes it so hard to sit through many films of the period, and are rather too uncritical in their portrait of Ross, the head of Warner Communications and something of a corporate shark.

But, as Giorgio Chinaglia and several others note, the Cosmos really were the first international team in soccer history, pre-Bosman ruling but a perfect anticipation of the mercenaries of the 21st-Century footballing world. And unlike the galactico-heavy Real Madrid of recent times, they won cups. Their band of superstars sort of came together as a team, something that Real has been unable to do.

On the whole, an amusing 97-minute excursion into a peculiar cul-de-sac of American soccer history, with some great clips and some of the worst haircuts in human history.

In New York City it's playing at the Angelika.

Heading South opens -- you'd better head out and see it

Back in very early March, when it played the Rendezvous with French Cinema series at the Walter Reade Theatre, I touted Laurent Cantet's latest film, Vers le Sud/Heading South as one of the best films of the year. Happily, it has opened finally, at the Lincoln Plaza and the Angelika in NYC. (If you aren't in New York, you poor people, then you will have to -- as they say -- check your local listings.)

At any rate, I recommend the film without reservation. Here's what I said about it back when the snow was still on the ground:

At a time when mainstream American film has utterly abandoned any interest in issues of class (or in how people make a living, for that matter), it's fascinating to look at the work of Laurent Cantet, a filmmaker who is primarily concerned with precisely those issues, class and work. Even his new film, Vers le sud (Heading South), while set in a leisure paradise, the tourist side of Haiti in the late 1970s, is about the pernicious influences of those two pressing realities as much as it is about race or the nature of a repressive society. Cantet's protagonists are three women who have come to Haiti for sex, quite simply, sex with attractive younger men. Ellen (Charlotte Rampling) is a college professor from Boston, Brenda (Karen Young) is a recent divorcee from Atlanta, Sue (Louise Portal, in the most unflashy role of the trio) is a warehouse forewoman from Montreal. Brenda and Ellen find themselves in competition for the attentions of Legba (Menothy Cesar), a bright young man who is perfectly contented to live off their favors.

Early in the film, there is a shot of Brenda walking along the beach. The camera tracks along with her, with only the horizon visible in the background; with the camera moving alongside her, she appears to be standing still. It's a perfect metaphor for Ellen and Brenda's situation, with each struggling against the reality of their situation -- neither of them is going to "win" Legba and take him home to the States, and as Ellen says when taunting Brenda, they couldn't even if they did convince him to come away. The characters in Cantet's films (Human Resources, Time Out and now Heading South) are trapped by economics and by the class roles that accompany such a stern reality. The class structures are subtly indicated in this film, but omnipresent nonetheless.

One other grace note that I found particularly appealing, although I need to see the film again to see how Cantet is using it: Heading South is a film with an unusually variegated auditory texture, built on the contrasts between many different kinds of Francophony: Ellen's precise, almost literary French with her discernible English accent, Brenda's American-laden French, Sue's Quebecois and her own accented French, the Creole spoken by the Haitians among themselves and the various accents they bring to the French they speak to the tourists. There are more class differentiations at work here, but I need another viewing to unravel the patterns at work.

And I can't wait to do so. This is easily one of the best films shown in this program in many years, on the same level of ambition and achievement as the Techines and Chabrols that have highlighted the Rendezvous in the past few years.

Returning to the sleepy summery present and speaking of Techine (anybody know how to do an accent in these things?), his most recent film, Changing Times, opens on July 14. I saw it again last week and it's still terrific, highly recommended. I'll have more to say when it opens.

And a World Cup note:
Yes, the penalty shootout is a terrible way to decide the World Cup. I found myself watching Grosso lining up the final PK this afternoon (NY time, obviously) and thinking, 'Four years of sweat and tears and it all comes down to this idiocy,' but the fact is, I can't think of another better way to decide a knockout tournament with a final that just won't end. Of course, the ideal solution in a perfect world would be a replay, just like the FA Cup in its earlier rounds. Or perhaps as my lovely spouse suggested, they could settle it American-style, with a shootout using real guns and bullets.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Mea maxima culpa and a new release

I hereby promise not to skip an entire month of blogging ever again.
I hereby promise not to prepare readers for stuff I can't deliver.
I hereby promise not to be such a lazy SOB.

I could blame it all on the final stages of editing and proofing my book. I could claim illness and travel. I could just 'fess up and say I'm too indolent to stick to a schedule I don't get paid for. There is a grain of truth in all of those excuses.

At any rate, I didn't make it to the screening of the Antonioni films the day that I posted that last entry. I'm not sure that I would have found anything new to say about his work anyway. As Andrew Sarris once said at a class on L'Avventura, in Antonioni's films everything is right there on the surface. I'm not going to dismiss anyone who gave us Monica Vitti at her most stunning and the sequence in the car in the fog from Identification of a Woman, but I've never been able to figure him out, maybe because there really isn't much beneath those gleaming surfaces.

Whatever.


Francois Ozon, on the other hand, is a director for whom subtext is a real, living thing. Unfortunately, the subtext for much of his work consists of the movies he has seen most recently. The result, in films like Sitcom and 8 Women, is a sort of teasing, tedious jokiness that reads like the work of the Coen Brothers' clever Francophone cousin. For most of us, age has a way of beating that smirk off our faces -- although the Coen Brothers appear to be an exception -- and Ozon's latest film Time to Leave, which opens on Bastille Day, July 14, is more deeply felt than anything else of his I've seen (although I admit that I haven't seen Under the Sand, which has an impressive list of defenders).

Time to Leave is simple and brief at 85 minutes. Melvil Poupaud is a successful gay fashion photographer who learns that he has an inoperable form of cancer, leaving him between six months and a year to live. He systematically cuts himself off from his work, lover, family and friends, then almost reluctantly agrees to impregnate a woman (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) whose husband is sterile. Leaving the entirety of his estate to the unborn child, he achieves some sort of inner peace.

Ozon eschews both the film-school fabulous pastiches that plague most of his work and the narrative over-complexity that robs 5X2 of any emotional force. Poupaud is excellent and virtually never off-camera. The film has some stunning moments. My personal favorite comes early. Almost immediately after hearing his diagnosis, Poupaud is sitting on a park bench watching other people around him (Ozon makes a good deal out the character's detached voyeuristic personality), he takes out a small digital camera and begins to snap a trio of young people lying in the grass chatting. Ozon suddenly cuts back to a long shot of Poupaud, alone in the frame but awkwardly situated off-center and well to the end of the bench he's sitting on; he holds the shot for an unusually long time and, just before he cuts away, Poupaud bursts into tears. Ozon never moves the camera in closer, which makes the moment all the more effective for being so unaccented.

In a way, though, that points up the real problem with Time to Leave. The very distance that makes that sequence in the park work so well ultimately chills the film's emotional center. The result is a highly thoughtful and intelligent film, but not a particularly warm or moving one. Still, it's well worth a look.