Thursday, August 31, 2006

Abraham Ravett Redux or Who Would Be an Indie Filmmaker?

Got an e-mail a little while ago from my friend and colleague Daryl Chin (whose excellent blog is here) about my posting on Abraham Ravett. Daryl, who is very involved in the indie film scene, offered the following observations:


I'm sorry i didn't get to see Abraham Ravett's new work, but i've seen it in progress. One problem is that the whole Boston/New England film scene has just about disintegrated. A lot of the organizations (Boston Film/Video Foundation, Massachusetts Cultural Council, etc.) were faced with severe cutbacks, and a number of them closed. The same thing is happening in NYC, of course. But over the years, i was a panelist for BF/VF, for the Massachusetts Arts Council, the Mass Cultural Council, etc. (Once you're on these lists, you get called a lot; also, i was the "anomaly", i was the nonwhite person who knew about avantgarde film.) One year, i was on the Media Arts panel for the Massachusetts Arts Council, and part of the deal was that i got to make two trips to the area to spend a day investigating two of the media organizations. (The ones i was assigned: the Boston Jewish Film Festival and New England Women in Television and Film.) And it was fascinating, because it taught me a lot about the network of support that there was for "independent" film in the area.
But as the economic crunch has set in (though the economy is on an "upswing" as many people have noted, it's for the top 1% of the country; the rest are floundering), a lot of these organizations have closed.
So it's going to be interesting to see how someone like Abraham Ravett is able to continue, because so many of the organizations which provided his network of support. Not just money, but things like access to archival materials, sound equipment, etc.

Many thanks to Daryl.
Of course, I am reminded of the famous words of Dr. Johnson: "Who, sir, but a blockhead ever wrote but for money?" If only he and Boswell had known about film.

Or blogs, come to that.

Not a film item, but quite interesting

My e-mail box, overflowing as usual, included the regular missive from Contemporary Poetry Review, an excellent on-line magazine that is, as its title says, a review of contemporary poetry. (Now that's clever.) I was intrigued by the title of one of the essays and went to the website to read it.

Now I am more than intrigued. The poet under discussion is Brian Turner, formerly an infantry sergeant with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Iraq. I gather that his book, Here, Bullet,
has already received a lot of publicity and was fairly high up on the Amazon list. (As I write this it's
ranked #49,432 in books, which is probably pretty good for contemporary poetry.)

But I'm out of the contempo poetry loop, so to speak, although I do read a lot of contemporary poetry myself. (I've even published some, which proves that there are so many poetry magazines in America that anyone, absolutely anyone, can get a poem published.) So Turner's existence is news to me. I was very impressed by the poems quoted in the review, by Aaron Baker. I was also very impressed by Baker's analysis of the book.

If you want to see what I'm talking about, go here.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Quick Tash Flash

My reliable sources inform me that the Tashlin retro at Film Forum will be all 35mm prints, except for Hollywood or Bust, of which no decent 35 exists (sigh). But the 16mm should be a good one. And who knows when you're gonna get another chance to see these on a big screen.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Frank Tashlin -- Master of the Live-Action Cartoon

Yeah, Tashlin started out as a cartoonist -- if memory serves, he was one of the guys who tried to bring the Cartoonists Guild into Disney, God bless him -- and it's one of the trademarks of his live-action features. Watching It'$ Only Money, his fourth effort with Jerry Lewis solo, at a press screening a week or so ago at Film Forum, I was struck by the fact that some of his most gentle gags are the ones that are most cartoon-like. My favorite in that film, not a major Tashlin or Lewis offering by the way but seldom shown on a big screen, is the moment when Jerry pulls his truck up alongside a parking space that is just-not-quite-but-almost big enough. He stops parallel to the spot, gets out of the truck and pushes it sideways into the spot, almost overshooting it onto the curb until he reaches under the truck to stop its motion. It's a charming moment and surprisingly low-key for both director and star.

Of course, the keynote to Tashlin's humor -- and it's sooooo 1950s -- is a no-less-cartoonish approach to sexuality in which the notably asexual male -- Tom Ewell, Lewis, Tony Randall, Terry-Thomas -- is confronted with a hypersexual female -- Jayne Mansfield most memorably. On some level, Tash really is the archetypal '50s comedy director (with Howard Hawks seemingly taking his cues from the younger Tashlin in films like Monkey Business and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). You could make an equally good case for Billy Wilder, but there's a certain level on which Wilder is still an outsider, a Viennese Jew looking acerbically at a strange, decadent society, while Tashlin, born in Weehawken, NJ, dives headlong into the manic energy and unbridled vulgarity of the decade, approving of the trashiest manifestations of American pop with smirking glee. It is hard to imagine Wilder making a film that champions rock and roll with the ferocity of The Girl Can't Help It, or a film that revels in the sheer boneheadedness of the advertising business like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? For better or worse, Wilder is always a step back from American crassness; Tashlin could never make Love in the Afternoon, a consummately European film.

Whatever. This much is sure. You should haul yourself down to Film Forum for the new 35mm print of The Girl Can't Help It and try to catch as many of the subsequent films as your schedule permits. These days nobody is making films with the bright, hard-lacquered jukebox colors of Tashlin's best work; I'm tired of looking at desaturated palettes, even in films where they work well. Tashlin is the perfect antidote.

PS
Tashlin is the only film person of any significance born in Weehawken.
You could probably win a bar bet with that piece of information, but I'd hate to think of the bar in which it might come up.

Five posts in a week then two weeks of silence?

Yeah, well real life intervenes frequently. I will write at greater length about the Frank Tashlin retro at Film Forum and a few other goodies shortly. For the moment, though, go to the Film Forum website and check out the goodies in the Tashlin retro and -- as a Tashlin character would -- drool in anticipation.

Abraham Ravett -- Memory Out of Art

[This piece was written for and appears in this week's Jewish Week, but it didn't make it onto the paper's website. I consider Ravett an enormously significant filmmaker and urge you to get down to Anthology if you can.]


Abraham Ravett is unmistakably a Jewish filmmaker and a filmmaker whose films are frequently about Jewish subjects. But when you ask him about the eight films he has made about his family, highlighting fatal interludes in the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, he is reluctant to allow himself to be typed. Even with his most recent film, “Lunch With Fela,” an elegiac tribute to his late mother, which will be playing Sunday at Anthology Film Archives, Ravett is frank about his unease at being thought of as a Holocaust documentarian.

“A while ago, I showed one of my films and had a dialogue afterwards with a British writer comparing our work,” he says. “A woman was videotaping the event . . . and I got to chatting with her. She told me, ‘I really liked your film. I thought I was going to see another Holocaust film, but that’s not what it was like.’”

Ravett is not being defensive when he tells this story. He admits, “People have a certain image of what they’re going to see. I know the work that’s out there, and I have a certain resistance to having the work confined to certain areas. I’d like it to be thought of as a film that has an ethnic quality, rather than as a statement of ethnicity that almost incidentally has a certain filmic quality.”

A filmmaker who is Jewish rather than a Jewish filmmaker?

He sighs and says, “I guess it’s a question of how one describes the films without making it sound like a disclaimer and without assuming a worst-case scenario about people’s expectations.”

Let’s be frank about Abraham Ravett’s work. He is a highly gifted and accomplished filmmaker, but he is not making conventional non-fiction films. From the first of the films about his family, made in 1978, up to “Lunch With Fela,” his films have been as much about film form as Jewish content. These films – indeed, most of Ravett’s films – are about the way we remember, especially the way that art and love drive memory and the way that inanimate objects by their mere presence invoke the recollection of loved ones.

To that end, some of the most emotionally affecting moments in “Lunch with Fela” are lengthy stationery shots of objects that Fela Ravett, the filmmaker’s late mother, had collected over her years in the United States – a bright plaid change purse, a fistful of mismatched buttons, a small red transistor radio. To any viewer of a certain age, these otherwise worthless artifacts of the 1950s and ‘60s will evoke their own lost relatives.

Understandably, “Lunch with Fela” was a difficult film for Ravett to make.

“It took a lot out of me,” he admits. “I’m glad I was able to complete it.”

Audiences should feel the same way.

“Lunch with Fela” will be shown at Anthology Film Archives (2nd Avenue and 2nd St.) on Sunday, August 27 at 7 p.m. For information, phone 212-505-5181 or go to Anthology Film Archives

Friday, August 11, 2006

Great Acting Covers a Multitude of Sins

Ryan Fleck's new indie feature Half Nelson works almost in spite of itself. It works because it has a basic earnestness and care for its characters that is a refreshing change from the smugness that disfigures so many original screenplays these days. But more than that, it works because the film is superbly -- no, brilliantly -- acted.

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a teacher and girls' basketball coach at a NYC ghetto school who tries to instill in his students an inquisitiveness and creativeness that goes well beyond the curriculum he is supposed to be teaching. He is also a casual crack smoker when he is not in front of his class. One of his favorite players and students is Drey (Shareeka Epps), who is as concerned about him as he is her, particularly when she finds him stoned in the school buildling after hours. Her own family situation is entangled in the drug world as well; her older brother is in prison and his best friend, Frank (Anthony Mackie), is a dealer who is more than willing to use her as a courier should the opportunity present itself. As the film unspools, Dan's life slowly spirals out of control with what would seem to be an inevitable tragic ending in store.

For both better and worse, Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden, love their characters. I've already mentioned the better; they refuse to vilify Dunne's supervisor or less-motivated colleagues (one of whom gets a particularly lovely performance from Denis O'Hare), and only gently caricature his ex-hippie parents. But their feeling for their characters also causes them to flinch from the internal logic of the film's narrative arc, which can only go one way, to a sad oblivion. Fleck's directorial style is a bit heavy on quasi-documentary handheld camera, but it does give the film an off-the-cuff intensity that is fairly effective.

But what saves the film is the extraordinary work of the three leads, Gosling, young Epps and Mackie. Gosling has already shown himself to be one of the most electifying American actors of his generation, a master of conflicting emotions leading to moments of excruciating self-torment.
Mackie is not an unknown quantity either, a silky smooth Mephistopheles. But the real find of the film is Epps, a high-schooler who Fleck and Boden cast in the short film that was the origin of Half Nelson; to be blunt, the kid is terrific, graced with real screen presence and more than able to hold her own on-screen with Gosling or Mackie. Half Nelson is a flawed, but honorable first feature, saved by its acting. It opens in New York today.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Who Wears (Watches) Short Shorts?

I've been fiddling with the idea for a long time of a theater devoted only to short films. As my friend and colleague Ronnie Scheib sagely (and drily) observed, booking films for a feature rep house is already a huge amount of work and aggravation, and doing programs for a venue showing many shorts every day would be pure hell.

So there went that idea.

However, the very informative CinemaTech blog has an interesting item today about a new restaurant/cafe in Orlando that will be showing a program of shorts once a week at no charge to customers, with food service interspersed. (The blog also has a link to the Orlando Sentinel story about the venture.) Reminds me of a notion Brecht once had of creating a cabaret-theater-bar-restaurant where one could smoke and eat during the shows. Of course, as usual, BB was ahead of his time. Today we call it dinner theater. Ick. And I must admit the idea of having to try watching a film while people are clanking silverware and glasses -- not to mention chattering -- is not an appealing prospect. As if audiences didn't already think they were in their goddam living rooms all the time.

Still, I have felt for a long time that short film directors of all stripes are a vastly underappreciated breed. They're like children's book authors, who are constantly being asked, 'So when are you going to write a real book?" "When are you going to make a real film?"

++++++++++++++++++++++++++

By the way, apropos of nothing whatsoever, I do a DVD column for INSIDE Magazine in Philly, which is a quarterly. With only four opportunities to write about new(ish) disks each year, I have developed a huge backlog. So you can expect to see occasional DVD reviews in this space in the very near future.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Another Extraordinary On-Line Service

What would you give to have access to the catalogs of thousands of libraries around the world?
How about . . . nothing?
Check out www.worldcat.org and you will have just that. This is a new initiative that involves public libraries, university libraries, research libraries and so on, from around the world, who make their catalogs available on the Web. Using WorldCat, you can find books, videos, DVDs, recordings, whatever, available in your vicinity. Some of the material -- I don't know how much -- can be downloaded directly from the catalog. I am adding a WorldCat search box on the right-hand side of the page for your perusal and use.
Enjoy.

The First Good News of the Fall

Just got a press release announcing the September 8 opening of Xavier Beauvois's Le Petit Lieutenant, which I saw during the Rendezvous with French Cinema series at the Walter Reade.

Back then, in very early March, I wrote this:

Beauvois is one of the darlings of Cahiers, which ain't a bad thing, but I must admit that this is my first exposure to him. It's not hard to figure out what attracts them to his work, the same thing I like about this police procedural is its dry, uninflected coolness. Jalil Despert plays the title role, a young Lt. fresh out of the national police academy who is assigned to the Homocide squad in Paris. Nathalie Baye, his immediate superior, is just returned to active duty after a long stint behind a desk resulting from a serious drinking problem. They begin working on a case involving the murder of a homeless Russian immigrant worker and . . . .

Sounds like an episode of Law and Order stretched to almost two hours, except that Beauvois uses his camera like a scalpel and the film is richer in texture than any TV show could be in one hour. (TV at its best works on the accumulation of detail over many episodes; texture is the result of such an accumulation.) Baye won a Cesar (the French equivalent of the Oscar) for her performance, which I thought rather ironic since the best thing about it is how unshowy it is; no American actor ever wins an Oscar for this kind of understatement. But she's terrific, as is the entire ensemble. This is another film I can't wait to see released here.

I still feel that way. When this opens on the 8th (or whenever, if you are not in NYC), by all means, go and see it.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Chabrol's "The Bridesmaid"

There is an understandable tendency in film criticism to reduce a filmmaker to a sort of thematic shorthand. For someone writing on deadline for a readership that may not be film-savvy, it's often an unavoidable if regrettable necessity. And if you are loathe to divulge plot twists, it may be the only way to convey anything of the content or style of a movie.

This shorthand usually reduces Claude Chabrol to a Gallic version of Hitchcock, a Catholic student of guilt who delights in putting a kink in the tails of the bourgeosie.

Which is certainly true, on the most simplistic level. But a guy who has made over 50 feature films has surely staked out an identity of his own. Looking at Chabrol's perversely delicious The Bridesmaid, which opened this weekend in New York City, one is reminded forceably that his book on Hitchcock (co-authored improbably with Eric Rohmer -- he's a Hitchcockian, too but not in the ways you'd expect) was published nearly a half-century ago. The influence of Hitchcock in The Bridesmaid isn't that hard to find, if you are looking for it; the final sequence of the film is an archly clever reinvention of and homage to Psycho.

But one might just as easily cite Lang, Bunuel and Sirk in cataloguing the film's forebears. In short, it's a Chabrol film, not just an inventory of auteurist favorites. What sets this film -- and most of Chabrol's filmography -- apart from the predecessors he tacitly acknowledges is the density of psychological and sociological detail that replaces the technics of suspense. The Bridesmaid derives a lot of its power from the quotidian detail of petit bourgeois life that permeates the film and the strange psychosexual tensions that are rife in the family on which the film centers.

Philippe (Benoit Magimel) is a salesman for a home fixtures firm, a promising young man who will be offered a partnership before the film is over. He lives with his mother (Aurore Clement), who is a hairdresser working out of the family home, and his two sisters, Sophie (Solene Bouton) and Patricia (Anna Mihalcea), who seem not to work at all. Sophie is about to get married, and at the wedding Philippe meets and is enchanted by one of the bridesmaids, the enigmatic Senta (Laura Smet). Or is her name Stephanie? She lives in the basement of a vast and decrepit mansion with a woman who may be her mother, her stepmother or some sort of family friend, a professional tango dancer.

As this synopsis suggests, Senta is a bundle of mysteries and as Philippe falls in love with her, the film seems to be turning into a "Had-I-But-Known" thriller with genders reversed. But Chabrol keeps throwing these nagging tensions from the family at you. Philippe's relationships with his mother and his younger sister are both simmering with incestuous undercurrents. Patricia seems to have a serious problem -- drugs? -- that will cause her fate to intersect with that of her brother's lover in a completely unforeseen way.

Chabrol isn't interested in pulling all these plot threads together neatly, which is where he departs radically from the old models. His focus on an amour fou that never becomes a folie a deux. In an odd way, one senses that Chabrol's sympathies lie with Senta's deluded love rather than Philippe's pragmatic emotional distance. As a result, we come to see Philippe as being as painfully deluded, in his way, as Senta; The Bridesmaid isn't a "had-I-but-known," but a "had I not convinced myself that I didn't know."

Perhaps by its very nature, the film never achieves the delirium of Chabrol's best work. It fits rather nicely with the chilly perfections of Merci Pour le Chocolat and Fleurs du Mal, its two immediate predecessors (in terms of American release), rather than the white-hot madness of La Ceremonie, but it's still one of the best films of the summer.