Friday, November 24, 2006

A Rediscovered Gem -- Are There More Here?

(This piece appears in a slightly shorter version in this week's issue of Jewish Week; however, it is not on their website, and I really want you to go to Brooklyn to check out this series.)


“New Wave” cinemas don’t spring fully formed from the heads of their young maverick directors. They have predecessors, even if only to give the young turks something to rebel against. This is nowhere more apparent than in the former Czechoslovakia, where the highly acclaimed New Wave of the mid-60s had a distinguished but little known set of forebears whose work fits nicely with the great modernist films of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.

BAMCinemathek is paying homage to the freewheeling spirit of Czech modernism with a selection of rare films beginning November 30. Among the films being screened are several that testify to the role that Jews and philo-Semites played in Czech cinema when it wasn’t being suppressed by the Nazis or the Stalinist.

Among the most striking of these films, The Distant Journey, was made in Prague in 1948 and is a startlingly uncompromising look at the Shoah from an explicitly Jewish point of view. The film’s director, Alfred Radok, was half-Jewish, lost most of his family in the concentration camps and was himself imprisoned in a Polish camp from which he managed to escape as the war dragged to an end. Drawing on his own experiences and those of survivors of Terezin, he managed to make one of the first and still most honest films about the mass murder of European Jews by the Nazis.

The Distant Journey is an astonishingly forward-looking film in several ways. Radok makes skillful use of documentary footage (some of it drawn from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, an appropriate reminder of the uses to which Riefenstahl willingly let her artistry be bent), juxtaposed against the drama of a family caught up in the roundups and deportations. At key moments in the film, Radok will suddenly freeze the frame in which the dramatic material is being shown, then reduce it to a small inset in the corner of the screen while documentary footage shows us the progress of the larger historical action. And, at a time when American films still didn’t discuss the murder of the Jews, this film is about nothing else.

More striking, the scenes set in Terezin are a remarkable use of expressionist techniques, creating the ghetto as a dense spider’s web of suffering, with Radok’s restlessly moving camera linking the Jews in a community of shared misery. In these sections of the film, Radok seems to be groping towards a narrative structure driven by a collective protagonist, denying the “heroism” of individual action so in appropriate to the subject of the Shoah. At those moments, The Distant Journey, overcomes its pat melodramatic main story and becomes a work of astonishing power, brutally unsentimental and agonizing to experience.

Also included in this intriguing series are several films by Gustav Machaty. Machaty is best remembered for Ecstasy which is, in turn, best remembered for a nude scene by the young and astonishingly beautiful Hedy Lamarr. Machaty and Lamarr moved on to Hollywood but, like Mauritz Stiller and Greta Garbo, only the star would flourish there. Machaty returned to Prague and his radical visions, while Lamarr became the most beautiful and inert of Hollywood goddesses.

“Czech Modernism: The 1920s to the 1940s” will be playing at BAMCinemathek (30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, from November 30-December 10. For information, click on the link on the right-hand side of this page.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A quick reminder

If it has always been your life's ambition to see me in person . . . you need to do something more interesting with your life.

However, if you still have a yen to tell what you think of me to my face, you will have an excellent opportunity on December 4, two weeks from today, when I am appearing at the Barnes & Noble store at 82nd St. and Broadway in Manhattan at 7 p.m.

According to the listing on one of the many free-events lists for NYC, "Robinson summarizes all 54 portions that make up the Torah and gives us a brilliant distillation of 2000 years of biblical commentaries." Wow! I can't wait to hear that myself! But I guess that means we'll be there for a few weeks.


Saturday, November 18, 2006

We're None of Us Getting Younger . . . .

Saw Michael Apted's 49 Up with the b.w. the other night. We've been following the series for 21 years now. I bought her the boxed set that goes up to 42 Up a few birthdays ago, so you can see we're pretty hardcore on this. Indeed, it wouldn't be much of a fighting point to suggest that these films are by far Apted's best work. (What then? His Bond movie?)

The new film is nicely judged and structured, as usual. Everyone from the last two films is back. They all look a bit more haggard, heavier, jowlier. There are several sets of grandkids and a few surprises but, as Margo observed over breakfast, nobody has changed much in the past seven years. Still, it's never dull and although the aging process -- loss of parents, loss of powers -- gives the new film a certain autumnal feeling, it's no more depressing than running into an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend who has put on 40 pounds. (Or looking in the mirror while shaving.)

What I found fascinating personally was how many of the people who I thought would turn out to be "Upper-Class Twit of the Year" contestants have turned into fairly decent human beings. Maybe Hepburn is right in The Philadelphia Story when she says, "The time to make up your mind about people is never."

At any rate, First Run Features has already released the DVD, which includes an excellent interview with Apted by Roger Ebert (although there is some strange machine noise in the background throughout their talk) and the film, surprisingly since it's the first one Apted shot on video, is probably the best-looking in the whole series. Of course, that's a good reason to try to see it in a theater. Either way, the DVD is a good investment, especially if you have been following the series.

Friday, November 17, 2006

An Apology and a Recommendation

Okay, I went over the top quite a bit in my attack on Hillary Clinton. Let's just say that she is my very last choice among potential Democratic candidates; I would reluctantly vote for her against anyone likely to get the Republican nomination. And, yes, I do hold her and Bill responsible for the health care fiasco; they offered a plan that was all tepid halfway measure and doomed it to failure by the way it was advanced.

Now, back to film. It has been a few months since I saw Fabian Bielinsky's The Aura, but the film left me with some deep, disturbing feelings. Like Bielinsky's Nine Queens, it's a quasi-noir, very much the product of the chaotic Argentine economic situation and the cynicism it bred. A taxidermist on a hunting holiday with a colleague accidentally kills a man and finds himself plunged into a complicated casino heist. Bielinsky, who died in June at the age of 47, joins the very short list of directors felled as they achieved a mastery of their craft -- Michael Reeves is the most obvious cross-reference. The Aura is taut and imaginative, with a visual surehandedness that is impressive. It's playing in NYC at the IFC Center.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Why the Destruction of the Voice Film Section Matters

There is an excellent rundown on the gutting of the Village Voice film section at The Reeler, a blog on NY film that I hadn't seen before Ira Hozinsky brought it to my attention. As I wrote in the comments section there, if there were other publications that covered the indie/alternative/avant-garde film scene in NY with the same thoroughness and the same clout, the fact that the assholes from New Times chose to wreck the section wouldn't be as significant -- it would be unfortunate because they dumped some good writers (and a few I won't miss), but not potentially tragic.

J.Hoberman remains, albeit with much less space in which to write, a problem for most print journalism today, thanks to TV and the success of the USA Toady (and that's NOT a typo). I don't know Nathan Lee personally, but found his Friday work in the NY Times to be pretty smart, and I'm delighted that he has a full-time job now. (No one should have to be without health insurance in this country, which is one of the reasons I won't be voting for Hillary Clinton for president unless she runs against Satan himself, always a possibility with the Republicans, of course; she and her husband dropped the ball bigtime on that one.) My good friend Mark Sprecher, a native Angeleno and current resident of that great sun-baked metropolis of the West, tells me that Scott Foundas is a smart, gifted critic and I generally find Mark's judgment reliable. I didn't stop reading the Voice when Andrew Sarris left, and I had a lot more emotional and professional investment in his work than I do in the people who got tossed out this time.

So what's the problem?

The problem is, clearly, that the dullards from New Times have deliberately dumbed down the section, are deliberately shifting its focus towards the mountain of crap being released by the studios, to the detriment -- and on occasion, downright exclusion -- of important work being done by filmmakers outside the mainstream. And there is no New York publication that can take the place of the Voice when it comes to those filmmakers and venues. I make it my business to cover those films and venues whenever I can in Jewish Week but, obviously my reach there is limited. (I don't have a problem with that; in fact, I really enjoy the notion that by writing on Anthology, for instance, in JWeek, I might be convincing somebody's zayde to go to 2nd and 2nd.) Look, I'm a good Jew, I feel the weight of the entire world on my shoulders and the guilt that accompanies my not saving it every day is excruciating. And that's only partially a joke.

What is even more disturbing is that the changes in the film section are merely the tip of the iceberg, as far as I can tell from the front page of the NT'ed Voice. The Voice was as important for its muckraking coverage of local politics as it was for its spiky arts reporting. No matter how good Scott Foundas is -- and I mean him no offense -- he can't take on that mantle from Los Angeles. Neither can some smartass schmuck editor in Cleveland. I wouldn't expect smartass schmuck editor in New York to spearhead enterprise reporting about Cleveland politics either.

And this, finally, is the part of this story that is missing from the discussion at The Reeler, through no fault of the author there, who did an excellent job. When local alternative papers are bought up by would-be media magnates like New Times who, in the interests of increasing their profits, cut back on local coverage, the only people who gain -- besides the would-be media magnates -- are the local pols, slumlords and other scum who no longer have to face the possibility of seeing their behavior analyzed in public. I had the unfortunate experience several years ago of taking a 7-1/2 hour-long train ride from Rochester, NY, to New York City; before I boarded the train that morning, I bought a large stack of daily papers from across Central New York. That was a stupid mistake on my part, because almost all those papers were owned by the Gannett chain (the lovely people who gave us the Toady), and except for stories about local traffic accidents and police blotter crap, the newspapers were virtually identical.

And that, dear readers, is what the problem is with the emasculation of the Village Voice.

Here endeth the sermon. Amen.

"New" Marcel Ophuls film coming up

Marcel Ophuls's career is littered with detours and potholes, sort of like the FDR Drive, but unlike that usually homely stretch of highway (it does look great at dawn, when the East River and Queens are gilded by the rising sun), he has several masterpieces to show for all the travails. Regrettably, he hasn't made a new film since 1994's The Troubles We've Seen, and that one was unshown here in the US for over a decade, except for a couple of one-time-only screenings.

Now Milestone Films has Troubles and will, I assume, be releasing it on DVD sometime soon. However, the film will have a truncated theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives over the weekend of November 17-19. I have already reviewed it for Jewish Week (here), and have nothing to add to that piece, other than to say that, while I think the second half of the film is something of a mess, it is well worth seeing for all the virtues that Ophuls brings to his documentaries, a cunning and sarcastic humor, profound sense of moral outrage, and a sense of decency.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Monsters From My Subconscious

Last night I dreamed I was back on the pre-Disney 42nd Street. This was as much my film school as Columbia, a string of last-chance houses where double-bills were the order of the day and you could catch some really great (or lousy) action films for next to nothing. The other great attraction of these theaters was that they opened at 9:30 a.m. and closed at 3:30 a.m. For a lot of working people, this was the only place they could go to a movie after a night shift. For me it was a place I go to a movie before or after class, cheap. (Yeah, and occasionally during class.)

So I dreamt last night that I was back there, early on a weekday morning, looking for a promising pairing. One theater was playing Ryan's Daughter with a title I can't recall now. But the one that remained in my mind after I woke up -- and the reason I'm recounting this fragment at all -- was part of a triple-bill:

Dracula vs. Gandhi

I guess this proves you can make this stuff up. But you have to be asleep to do it.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Come Back to the Yurt, Lassie, Honey

Byambasuren Davaa co-directed The Story of the Weeping Camel, an elegant piece of semi-documentary filmmaking that was one of the bigger surprises of 2004. Davaa may not be the first Mongolian filmmaker, but with her new film, The Cave of the Yellow Dog, a solo effort, she becomes the first to inadvertently remake an American chestnut. Think of Yellow Dog as Lassie Come Home with yak milk. The story is absurdly simple -- girl finds dog, dad hates dog, dad wants to leave dog behind when the family ups stakes and moves on, but dog saves youngest child and joins the family.

Davaa is trying hard to do something with the relationship of her characters to the vast, verdant landscapes of Mongolia, something like a John Ford western I suppose, but she allows her penchant for pictorialism to overwhelm any larger thematic concerns. She also seems bent on using film as a way to preserve a dying nomadic culture; the most telling moments in the film revolve around the encroachment of modern conveniences on traditional life, such as the plastic ladle that the husband brings back from a nearby town, riding on his motorcycle (!), or the school uniform that the oldest daughter wears at the film's outset. Clearly the family in Yellow Dog is poised between two cultures, and that would make a very interesting film.

Instead, we get an awkward mixture of ethnographic film and sentimental fiction. It might make more sense to imagine The Cave of the Yellow Dog (and The Story of the Weeping Camel, much of which was also staged apparently) as a throwback to early exotica by directors like Schoedsack and Cooper (Chang, Grass) or Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran), well-intentioned attempts to document ways of life that are being superseded by modernity, films that are hopelessly compromised by their makers' penchant for scripted melodrama.

In New York, The Cave of the Yellow Dog is playing at the Angelika Film Center.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Return of a Classic Film Book

I bow to no one in my respect and admiration for David Bordwell. When I was teaching film, I always used Film Art: An Introduction (which he co-authored with Kristin Thomson) as the textbook; it is, quite simply, the best intro film text I have read. His other work is equally important, incisive, insightful.

But one of his most important books -- and I'm told, one of his favorites -- has long eluded my clutching fingers, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. It has been out of print for a long time, and even on Bookfinder goes for a couple hundred bucks. But now, hallelujah, the book is available on-line in PDF format. Go here and download a classic.

And there's even more Bordwell at his website.