Playing Catch-Up -- On the Moon and Elsewhere

Okay, I promised a review of In the Shadow of the Moon and the film has been playing for over a week. Hopefully you can still find it at a theater near you, because you should definitely go and see it. Purely as a sensual experience, it is enormously rewarding. (In New York City it's playing at the Loew's Lincoln Square in IMAX, and at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in plain old 35mm.)

The film's story is a simple one. In the early 1960s, in a fit of macho posturing John F. Kennedy proclaimed that by the end of the decade, an American would walk on the moon. And, son-of-a-bitch if we didn't do it. Repeatedly. Between 1969 and 1972 a dozen American astronauts walked on the surface of the moon. British documentarian David Sington interviewed every living member of the Apollo crews that made the big trip, with the notable exception of Neil Armstrong, the first human to step on the lunar surface. (Understandably, Armstrong stopped giving interviews a long time ago, and who can blame him?)

Indeed, Armstrong's absence speaks louder than any interview he could have given. He is the unproclaimed hero of the film, a man whose colleagues speak of with nothing short of awe. The rest of them -- and there are ten in the film -- are wonderfully articulate, wry and thoughtful and, although the footage of the moon missions is the big selling point of the film quite rightly, their recollections are never less than riveting.

It is seldom that I come out of a film thinking of the word 'breathtaking.' And I cannot recall ever seeing a film and turning to a colleague to say, "It makes me proud to be a member of the human race," but that was my reaction to In the Shadow of the Moon. Simply put, the film is dazzling.

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In its own, highly idiosyncratic way, The Silence Before Bach by Pere Portabella is also dazzling, albeit in a very different way from Shadow of the Moon. Portabella is a Spanish avant-gardist whose non-directing credits include producing Bunuel's Viridiana, which should give you some idea of where Portabella stood during the Franco years. The Museum of Modern Art is showing 14 of Portabella's films, beginning on September 26, beginning with Silence, a U.S. premiere, and the first of his works that I have seen.

The film opens with a Bach prelude being played on a player piano on roboticized casters, gliding elegantly through an empty gallery. Portabella offers us a wide range of Bach interpreters, including a pair of long-haul truckers who play chromatic harmonica and bassoon, respectively, a large ensemble of cellists playing one of the solo cello pieces on the Madrid subway and so on. The result is at once both a drily witty series of jokes on the malleability of screen space and a lovely rumination on the possible permutations of Bach as performed both as intended and -- most definitely -- not.

Ira Hozinsky attended a screening that I missed of two more of Portabella's films -- Vampir Cuadecuc (1970) and Umbracle (1972), a pair of documentaries about Jess Franco making vampire movies with Christopher Lee, among others. He found the earlier film quite fascinating, especially when it veers from being a "Making of . . . " docu into the horror genre itself, but professed to find the later film impenetrable. On the other hand, he notes, it is nearly redeemed by the quite unexpected spectacle of Lee singing, quite well, too. You never know, do you?

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Press screenings for this year's New York Film Festival began yesterday, although I was tied up at home with deadlines. This morning, however, I got to my first NYFF offering of the year, Carlos Saura's love letter to his Portuguese neighbors, Fados. I'll have more to say about the film closer to its public screening date in mid-October but I will tell you this much -- even if you don't see the film you really should run out and buy the soundtrack. If you have never heard anyone sing fado, you are missing one of the great pleasures of world music and if you have, this set will tickle you with its unexpected juxtapositions.





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