Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Dry as a Dry Martini

I’ve often thought that the dry martini was invented by a Jew. Dry, tart, with a spark and a hidden kick, it’s a lot like Jewish humor. That thought crossed my mind most recently as I was watching Silvia Prieto, a 1999 film by Jewish-Argentine director Martin Rejtman, which will be playing at the IFC Center (Sixth Avenue at 3rd St.) November 3-5.

The title character of the film is a pleasing young woman (Rosario Blefari) who is suffering from an acute lack of direction. On her 27th birthday, she decides it is time to completely change her life. So she goes to the laundromat and washes her clothes. She also takes a new job as a waitress in a local cafe, then has coffee with her ex-husband. For Silvia, this apparently constitutes opening up new horizons.

Marcelo, her ex (Marcelo Zanelli), looks her over and says with concern, “You’ve put on weight.”
“The shirt is a size too small,” she replies in a matter-of-fact tone.
“They gave me the wrong bag of clothes at the laundromat.”
She pauses, then adds, “I’ll have to go on a diet.”

It’s a perfect non sequitur, delivered in a perfect, logical deadpan, and it sets the tone for the wry lunacy that follows, a series of interlocking shaggy-dog stories involving TV dating shows, the endless exchange of unwanted gifts, the theft of an Armani jacket that manages improbably to make its way back to its owner, and Silvia’s discovery that there is another Silvia Prieto in the Buenos Aires phonebook.

Rejtman’s Buenos Aires is a hermetically incestuous collection of interlocking friendships, sort of a tangofied variation on Woody Allen’s Upper West Side-as-microcosm-of-New York, only a lot funnier and less pompous. It seems as if everyone in the film either went to school together, went to bed together or worked together at some incredibly low-level job. So Marcelo dates Brite (the delightful Valeria Bertucelli), who hands out samples of a detergent named — of course — Brite; Brite’s masseuse is engaged to a classmate of Marcelo’s who she met on a TV show; Brite’s ex turns out to be a classmate of theirs, and ends up dating Silvia, who ends up working with Brite. And so on.

What makes all this nonsense work brilliantly is Rejtman’s utterly deadpan, uninflected treatment of the material. It is as if Robert Bresson had directed a script by Hal Hartley. Rejtman’s unblinking camera and dryly witty cutting rhythms give the film a comic charge that goes well beyond the charms of the script and acting.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Dow Filmmaker Average Plummets

What follows is a piece I wrote for this week's issue of Jewish Week. It's not on the website but the film event is important enough for wide dissemination. Obviously there is a lot more to recommend Jancso's work than his unusual affinity for Jewish themes; his mastery of the long take is legendary and well-deserved, and his films are the closest thing to pure dance of any narrative filmmaker I can name. If you're in New York while this series is going on, trundle over to Lincoln Center and see as many of the Jancso films as you can. Who knows when you'll get another chance to see them on a big screen.

The Hungarian filmmaker Miklos Jancso is perhaps the finest living example of the fickleness of what Northrop Frye called the stock exchange theory of criticism. In the 1960s and early ‘70s, Jancso was among the best-known Eastern bloc directors, acclaimed for his strangely lyrical historical dramas in which the violence of his country’s history was turned into a dance of hunter and hunted, oppressor and oppressed, with those roles changing hands at a bloody moment’s notice. In the late ‘70s he went to Italy where he extended his unique historical vision to encompass more of Europe’s past. But after The Tyrant’s Heart played the 1982 New York Film Festival, Jancso vanished from American theaters. What happened?

The Film Society of Lincoln Center, which has long been one of Jancso’s strongest supporters, offers no answer in its upcoming series “Resistance and Rebirth: Hungarian Cinema, 50 Years After ’56,” but one of the tree components of the program is a seven-film tribute to Jancso, who is still an active filmmaker at the age of 85. In fact, he has a film in post-production right now. In the 24 years since his last New York exposure, he has directed 21 film and television projects, many of them with Jewish themes, including an Israeli project, The Dawn in 1985.

Jancso has always had an affinity for Jewish themes. As he explained in a 2002 interview with Andrew Horton, as someone of Transylvanian descent and half-Romanian, he always felt like an outsider in Hungarian circles, and identified with his Jewish cousins. Indeed, in the 1980s he seriously considered relocating permanently to Israel, and among his unseen works from 24 years his films weren’t shown in New York are a series of documentaries and film-essays on the Shoah.

None of this should come as a great surprise to anyone who has seen his masterpieces, films like The Round-Up, The Red and the White, Red Psalm and Elektra, My Love. These films, with their omnipresent images of cruelty and oppression, built on shifting sands of power, of men and women stripped naked and paraded for the perverse amusement of their captors, echo the Holocaust almost directly, even when the events they depict are drawn from Hungarian history or, in the case of Elektra, Greek tragedy.

It is unfortunate that the Film Society is only showing one of Jancso’s post-1982 films, an off-beat comedy The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest. It would be very exciting to see where he went in those years lost to U.S. audiences. But it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to rediscover this all-but-forgotten master. Maybe his stock will rise once again.

“Resistance and Rebirth: Hungarian Cinema, 50 Years After ’56” will be presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center at the Walter Reade Theatre (70 Lincoln Center Plaza) October 27-November 15. For information, phone 212-875-5600 or go to www.filmlinc.com. To read the Andrew Horton interview with Jancso in full and a very interesting selection of other pieces on his cinema, click here.



Thursday, October 26, 2006

Hypnotized by Cinema

What do the new film by Turkish director Nuri Blige Ceylan and a DVD of early 20th-century silent film actualities from the Midlands have in common?

Actually, nothing much, except that each is, in its way, utterly hypnotic and a testament to the power of moving images on a screen.

Climates, Ceylan's new film, which opens tomorrow at Film Forum, is a terse, tense drama of romantic discord, with the director and his wife (the luminous Ebru Ceylan) play a mismatched couple struggling to make sense out of their foundering relationship. Ceylan works in long, long takes, but makes fascinating and effective use of foreground/background spatial relations to amplify our sense of the literal and figurative distance between the two. He is a middle-aged college professor, she a much younger art director for a TV series and, although his field is architecture history, they seem to have little in common. Almost from the first shot of the film, Ceylan is manipulating depth of field to keep them in separate planes within the image; even the two-shots end with her walking out of frame. The result is a portrait of two people held together by the inertial effects of gravity and little else.

There is an extraordinary shot two-thirds of the way through the film that sums up the entire project for me. On a whim, Isa (Ceylan) has taken a plane to the eastern part of the country, where Bahar is on location with her TV show. The sequence opens with a truly bizarre and haunting image, a passenger jet emerging out of a pure white screen, looking almost as if the image were solarized. As the camera pulls back and the shot continues we slowly realize that what we are seeing is a plane landing in a swirling, blurring snowfall. The sense of spatial dislocation and uncertainty is a reflection of Isa's own almost aimless emotions. The shot, like the rest of the film, is both eerie and riveting.

***************

That shot from Climates works in no small part because of the sheer fascination of watching filmed movement. After more than a century of motion pictures, the simple fact of moving images is still enchanting in itself. But to get a real sense of that kind of wonder, you have to go back to the earliest days of silent film. And that is
why Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell and Kenyon is such an endearing and charming DVD. Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were filmmakers based in the north of England at the beginning of the 20th Century, shooting actualities of such mundane events as schoolchildren on parade, fairgrounds, crowds at sports events and the inevitable workers leaving a factory. They trumpeted their product as "Local Films for Local People" and their audiences clearly came to see themselves. In fact, their advertisements centered on precisely that possibility: "Come and see yourselves on the screen as living history." Of course, when one sees ostensibly documentary footage of ordinary people, there is the inevitable bittersweet realization that many of those schoolboys filmed in 1903 would be dead in the trenches in a dozen years. It is impossible to watch these films without a feeling a certain sadness for the evanescence of human life, yet there they are, "living history," given something like eternal life through the miracle of motion pictures. The disk is aided immeasurably by an excellent commentary from Dr. Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield, and a lovely score by In the Nursery. You can order it from Milestone Films, and I recommend that you do.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Another Addition to the Straub-Huillet Files

This one's from Liberation, so if you read French, go here.

In the next day or two, I'll be posting my review of Ceylan's Climates, a very interesting film that I haven't quite got a handle on. It's opening at Film Forum on the 27th. (Link on the right-hand side.)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A DVD You Must Own

More timely than ever, the London-based Second Run DVD is releasing a disk of Avi Mograbi's Avenge But One of My Two Eyes, a startling and powerful film by one of the most unfairly neglected of Israeli film and video artists. Avenge played the New York Film Festival in 2005 and at the time I wrote this about it:


The line between life and death, this year’s New York Film Festival seems to be telling us, is getting thinner all the time.

This somber thought is at the heart of both Middle Eastern films selected for this year’s event: Avi Mograbi’s Avenge But One of My Two Eyes and Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now. Both films are stark studies of homicidal-suicidal political rage and how it is created and stoked.

Mograbi, who some may recall from August and How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Ariel Sharon, is an Israeli director who works very effectively in video, using the medium’s immediacy to great effect. This is nowhere truer than in his new work. Over the past few years, Mograbi shot a series of short cinema verite documentaries at army checkpoints, showing the nerve-wracking incidents that make up daily life there. Now he has integrated that footage into a feature-length work, one that departs startlingly from the pointed satire of his earlier work.

It’s not hard to guess where Avenge is headed from its opening scene, a black screen with a phone conversation between Mograbi and a Palestinian friend who is bemoaning the latest curfew and lockdown in his town. One immediately guesses that this is not going to be mordantly funny like August and if there is self-deprecation ahead, it will be much darker than in that film. But nothing in Mograbi’s work—not even the "Checkpoint" shorts—could have prepared us for the somberness of his new film.

Avenge is cunningly structured, moving back and forth between scenes of Israeli soldiers exercising infuriatingly arbitrary and seemingly pointless power over Palestinian civilians at the checkpoints, school groups listening to guides at Masada extol the suicidal choice of the Judeans that ended the siege by Roman troops and Mograbi’s dispirited friend contemplating the Occupation. The cuts between Masada (as well as similar discussions of Samson’s destruction of the Philistines, itself a suicidal act) and the checkpoints, often involving sound overlaps in which we hear the guides and teachers while watching the beginning of the next confrontation, make the ideological connections abundantly clear.

If that were all there was to the film, its 104-minute running time would be unbearable, repetitive and clumsily didactic. However, Mograbi is smarter than that. The film is woven of a more complex series of thematic skeins that often are only revealed gradually. Thus, one docent explains the Roman siege wall around Masada: “This wasn’t just a ‘separation wall’ as we call it today, it was a statement by the Romans that they were here to stay.” Yet we learn from another guide later that the Roman wall was “only 2.5 meters high, and the guard posts were basically just wooden platforms,” while we see sections of the current “separation wall” that are clearly larger and much more permanent structures. Mograbi is much less a defining presence in this film than in his previous work, which in part explains the melancholy humorlessness of Avenge. The one scene in which he is clearly an active participant comes late in the film and involves him in a heated argument with a young Israeli lieutenant. Where the anger in August was a subject for much of the film’s humor, this time the filmmaker is deadly serious, nearly apoplectic with rage, and the result is, like the rest of this deeply disturbing work, profoundly upsetting.


Back to October 2006, and my feelings about the film haven't changed at all. If anything, with the events of this summer, Mograbi's vision resonates even more powerfully. This is not a pleasant film, no question about it, but it is one that cries out to be seen. It is opening in London on November 5, and will be released by Second Run on DVD on November 13. By all means go to their website and buy a copy. That this film hasn't been more widely shown in the US is a disgrace.

Second Run is also releasing a whole bunch of other goodies, a bit easier on the ears and conscience perhaps, but no less compelling, including several important East European films and Blissfully Yours by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I'll write about some of those shortly. (And before you ask, no, I didn't double-check the spelling of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. What do you think I am, a dope?)

Friday, October 13, 2006

News Update on Johnnie To

Triad Election, which I wrote about early this week, has had its US premiere pushed back from January to the spring. It will open at Film Forum on April 25, then break wider afterwards. His latest film, Exiled, will be opening here sometime in late spring/early summer.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sad news

It hasn't hit the newspapers yet as far as I can tell, but the film blog world is full of the news that Daniele Huillet died earlier this week. Huillet was one-half -- the much neglected half in film journalism -- of a brilliant partnership with her husband and co-director/writer Jean-Marie Straub. Their films were difficult, occasionally annoying, but always provocative in the best sense, highly intelligent and breathtakingly conceived. There are few more incisive meditations on the nature of political power than History Lessons or Othon, no Kafka adaptation so skillful as Class Relations, no opera film as rigorous and beautiful as Moses and Aaron, no biopic as insightful on the relationship between creator and creation as The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. When the rest of the film world was retreating from political concerns, Huillet and Straub soldiered on. There really is no one else in cinema quite like them, and Huillet will be missed. For more on her work, check out the excellent pieces by Andy Rector and Doug Cummings, and Barton Byg's excellent book, Landscapes of Resistance, all of which are available on line. (Many thanks to Ira Hozinsky for passing along the news and these links.)

No Film Content -- But Read It Anyway

Got up a little earlier than usual yesterday and shlepped to midtown.
Went to the offices of Random House, up to the 21st floor and my editor handed me five copies, hot off the press, of my new book, Essential Torah. And I must say, it looks pretty snazzy.

Of course, if you don't want to take my word for it, you can go here and see for yourself.

And if you're really clever, you can buy yourself a copy. Heck, if you ask nicely, I might even sign it for you.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Somber Classicism Trumps Lunacy Every Time

God, I must be getting old if I can write that headline with a straight face. But in the case of the new Johnnie To film, which was screened for the press on Monday morning, it's fairly accurate. I can't think of a more delirious, over-the-top piece of action cinema madness than To's Fulltime Killer, and I mean that as a compliment. The film is audacious beyond the wildest imaginings of John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, a complete balls-to-the-wall piece of glorious excess (which masks a deeply sentimental worldview).

So I went to Triad Election, his latest, expecting more of the same. (No, not on the basis of one film in a 25-year-long career. I was also thinking of nutcases like Executioners and Heroic Trio.) Perhaps if I had seen Election, to which it is the sequel, my expectations would have been different, I don't know. But Triad Election is a smart, tight (85 minutes) organized crime film that appropriates some of the visual bleakness of the Godfather trilogy while exploring the same themes of crime as capitalism unleashed, the tensions between straight and underworld society, and the dangerous responsibilities that come with ascending to power. The film is meditative, almost classicist in its dark, stark repose, with rising gang power Jimmy (Louis Koo) who would rather be doing legitimate business; he's got an MBA you see. But in order to become head of his triad and curry favor with the PRC security honchos, he will be steeped in blood like a tea bag.

To doesn't flinch from the violence, although some of the worst stuff happens off-screen or in almost complete darkness. And his depiction of the world of the triads is unsentimental, cynical and corruscating. Like most of the characters on The Sopranos, these may be wiseguys, but they're definitely not wise guys. And like Coppola (of whom I am not an admirer, but credit where due), Abraham Polonsky in Force of Evil, and Francesco Rosi in many of his films, Johnnie To understands that crime doesn't arise from nowhere, that there are socioeconomic and political forces driving the Triads. The film's political analysis isn't as sophisticated as Rosi's or Polonsky's, but it's not for lack of ideas. The result is a splendidly mean little crime film that is redolent of the Warners backlot. If they sold sesame noodles there.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

One Up, One Down and One in the Middle

Of the handful of films I managed to see in the first two weeks of screenings for the New York Film Festival, Manoel de Oliveira's latest offering, Belle Toujours, a sprightly sequel to Bunuel's Belle de Jour, is by far the most satisfying. At slightly over an hour in length, the film is compact, funny and elegantly crafted by the soon-to-be 98-year-old director, at once a loving tribute to his fellow Iberian master and a slyly humorous meditation on memory and desire. Michel Piccoli reprises his role as the avuncular yet sinister Husson, while Bulle Ogier, suitably coiffed and dressed, stands in for Catherine Deneuve as the self-tortured hooker/housewife. Ogier spends most of her screen time glaring resentfully at Husson, who is downright gleeful in his wallowing in the past. Piccoli relishes this role which, paired with his more somber turn in Oliveira's I'm Going Home, must stand as one of the best double acts any actor has ever been offered so late in his career. You needn't have seen Belle de Jour recently (or, I suppose, at all) to appreciate Oliveira's delightful little jokes, but it couldn't hurt. Besides, one should revisit Don Luis at every possible opportunity.

Tian Zhuangzhuang has been as embattled in his rather more brief career as Luis Bunuel. After his magnificent 1986 film The Horse Thief attracted the attention of the Chinese authorities, his 1993 film The Blue Kite just pissed them off completely. It would be nine years before he was allowed to direct again, but his lovely remake of the classic Springtime in a Small Town was both a very handsome chamber drama and politically neutral. His new film, The Go Master, is also highly circumspect in its political implications and, in several sequences, quite an accomplished work as well. But for too much of its rather 107 minute-running time the film seems strangely detached from its subject, a Chinese-born go champion whose decision to live and and work in China throughout the turbulent period between the 20s and '50s is never really explained and whose life is filled with incident but not with drama. The film never finds a balance between the intimate and epic, Wu Quingyuan, the protagonist, never becomes a rounded character, and even his persecution as part of a fringe religious sect seems strangely bland.

Alberto Lattuada is one of those Italian directors whose work is clearly worthy of greater exploration. His 1962 black farce Mafioso is one of those strangely bitter comedies that Italy seemed to turn out in quantity in the early '60s, with Alberto Sordi excellent in the type of role that made his career, the pushy bourgeois dope, good at his mediocre job but utterly without self-knowledge or ambition larger than the next pay raise. In this case, he is a quality control manager in a large factory who takes his wife and kids with him on an ill-advised vacation in the small Sicilian town where he was raised. He immediately falls back into old habits and haunts with predictably disastrous results. The film is aided immeasurably by Armando Nanuzzi's inky chiaroscuro cinematography and the new print struck for the film's eventual re-release by Rialto Pictures, is sharp and clear. The film is entertaining and worth seeing for Sordi in particular, but some of its humor is pretty dated and most of it is pretty obvious.

Friday, October 06, 2006

I'm not picking on Bette/Helen Mirren is the next best thing

I'm sure that the diehard Davis fans were seething over the All About Eve post from earlier this week. (That, of course, assumes anyone is reading this at all; sometimes I'm dubious about the whole blog thing, but I know that some folks are out there 'cause I hear from them.) The target of that little arsenic valentine wasn't Ms. Davis, of course, but Joe L. If there was ever any doubt in my mind about ol' Bette, I got a vivid reminder this evening of why she has the rep she's got when the b.w. and I watched The Letter on TCM. Turner's print is a gorgeous reminder of how good a DP Tony Gaudio was -- sometimes I think we take the Warners cameramen for granted, but Edeson, Polito and Gaudio are responsible for some of the most glorious black-and-white cinematography in America.

It's also a splendid aide-memoire to Davis, whose performance is even more nuanced than I had remembered. She gets more mileage out of the play of the "moonlight" on those huge eyes than any dozen young actresses today could wring out of a multi-volume set of great monologues. Indeed the best moments in the film are the quietest ones, those moments when Max Steiner's score shuts the fuck up and Davis just sits and mulls her duplicities and mistakes.
I'm not engaging in mere Ira-esque partisanship when I tell you that I can't wait for Ed Sikov's biography of Davis -- a perfect choice of subject for Ed's insightful pen.

**********************************

I've been delinquent in both viewing and reviewing the NY Film Festival. I spent almost all of this week cooped up in the apartment with a variety of ailments -- okay, I slept late and watched playoff baseball -- sue me -- and deadlines. I will, however, venture this much comment for now. Watching the festival's opening night film, Stephen Frears's skillful The Queen, one is struck by how much Helen Mirren has become our modern equivalent of Bette Davis, a woman who can handle royalty without invoking unintentional laughter, unflappable and poised, alternately chilly and volcanic. Mirren's Queen Elizabeth II is one of the most complex female characters in a film this year, not because of Peter Morgan's script, which is clever and workmanlike but a trifle cartoonish (albeit by design), but because Mirren's combination of compassion and sang-froid makes her a richly realized, multi-faceted human being. Although the rest of the cast are excellent and Frears handles the whole project with a deft hand and light touch, it's Mirren that makes it worth watching, regardless of how you felt after Princess Diana's death or what you think of the Royals.

(I think the Royals were much better after the All-Star Game than I expected them to be, but I still figure they're five years away from being a contending team.)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

All About . . .

I'll be getting to the NY Film Festival shortly -- no, really, I promise -- but I had an interesting experience over the weekend, wedged in among the Yom Kippur observances. For reasons I won't bore you with, the b.w. had to look at All About Eve a couple of nights ago and, loyal spouse that I am (and movie junkie), I watched alongside her.

Quite a shock. I had vague memories of the film being a bit stodgy but clever, so I was appalled when I saw it again. It is, quite simply, dull, dull, dull. Mankiewicz takes a 90-minute script and in his trademark self-congratulatory 'cleverness' blows about 45 minutes of hot air into it. Except for Eve, who is a caricature of innocence unprotected -- until she becomes a caricature of evil unleashed -- every one of the characters speaks exactly alike, in a tortured, pompous cartoon of Broadway 'wit.' It's as if someone regurgitated the worst of the Algonquin Round Table. With the honorable exceptions of Bette Davis and George Sanders who, for better or worse, are iconic, and the always wonderful Thelma Ritter (whose character disappears without trace or explanation after 45 minutes), the acting is excrutiating. The script's structure -- the passing from hand to hand of flashback narration -- is awkward to no purpose, a reworking of the similarly clumsy Letter to Three Wives.

Andrew Sarris has admitted to having missed the boat on a few of the directors in his "Less Than Meets the Eye" category -- most notably Billy Wilder, who he has said he would now move into the Pantheon -- but I think he pegged Mankiewicz absolutely right. His best films -- Somewhere in the Night, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, House of Strangers, There Was a Crooked Man -- were written by others. His most gaseous works -- and I'd put All About Eve squarely in that category, alongside the obnoxiously self-righteous People Will Talk -- are entirely the product of an egomaniac so delusional that he rewrote F. Scott Fitzgerald (Borzage's luminous Three Comrades). It's obvious from comparing their writing credits that Herman was the talent in this family.