Sunday, January 28, 2007

Meanwhile, On Line . . .

Very interesting blog-a-thon going on at Unspoken Cinema on the subject of 'contemplative cinema,' i.e., films by people like Bela Tarr, Tarkovsky, Sokurov and the Schrader 'Transcendalists,' that use the slenderest of narrative threads upon which to hang long takes, slow camera movement and a lot of landscape. And if that sounds like I'm belittling them, I'm not. Indeed, these are some of my favorite filmmakers and film tropes of the last 25 years or so. I find this style enormously satisfying. Indeed, the list of films that is available elsewhere on their site includes several movies that made my ten-best lists. I'm mildly surprised that they seem to have omitted the Dardenne brothers from their purview. Surely films as heavily influenced by Bresson as L'Enfant and Le Fils merit discussion in this context. I mean, consider how much of Le Fils consists of shots of the back of Olivier Gourmet's neck.

Joking aside, it's a fruitful discussion and one that I hope will continue to spread across the 'Net.

A Quick Postscript on Gibson

For anyone who is slightly interested, my review of Passion of the Christ can be read here.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Mel Gibson -- No Mistake Last Summer

For those handful of die-hard Gibson fans -- I don't even like him as an actor or director, but we can come back to that shortly -- who think that ol' Mel isn't really a bad guy once he gets his apparent substance abuse problems in order, I direct your attention to a fascinating and disturbing report on the "radical traditionalist Catholic" movement of which he and his father are prominent members. Obviously, Mel is who he is, drunk or sober, and there's plenty more where that came from. (It would be interesting to see what if any connection there is between these ultra-right anti-Semites and the Catholic clergy who aided fleeing Nazi war criminals after WWII. Of course the blame for that does not rest on the Church itself; indeed, as anyone who has seen Marcel Ophuls's Hotel Terminus knows, it was American intelligence officers who smuggled Klaus Barbie out of danger.)

As for Gibson the actor, the stupid pet tricks that mark most of his performances since the beginnings of the Lethal Weapon franchise have turned his once impressive acting instrument into five-cent kazoo. And his direction is beneath contempt. The relentless sado-masochism of his films cannot disguise their utter lack of intelligence. He's the Peter Collinson of the new millennium. I'm thrilled that Apocalyto -- okay, Mel Gibson's Apocalypto and he's welcome to it -- seems to have sunk without a trace.

Regardless, you should definitely check out the article at the AlterNet website to get some idea where he's coming from ideologically and theologically. In fact, as an antidote to the mainstream media, AlterNet isn't half bad. I'm less than enthused by a lot of their arts coverage, which all too frequently falls into trap of separating form from content in the name of a spurious version of progressive thinking. But as another news source, it's useful.

While I'm on the subject, allow me also to recommend a daily trip to the webpage of truthout, another source of progressive reporting, often drawn, I might add, from the mainstream media. You just have to know how to look for it, but these guys save you the trouble of searching yourself.

Hey, the mainstream media pays my mortgage and buys my groceries. I've published three books with three different Fortune 500 companies and they never tampered with my political or theological content. Writing only for the progressive press is a good way to starve to death. As Calvin Trillin once observed of The Nation, a magazine I hold in high esteem, they pay in the "low three figures." Believe me, writing for Jewish newspapers isn't a quick route to financial security either. It's something you do because you want to speak to that audience specifically.

(Hell, blogging doesn't pay at all. I could put advertising on this site if I wanted to make this pay for itself, but that's not what it's about.)

Friday, January 26, 2007

Madness! This is utter madness!

Yeah, I'm sure Sir Alec would have said those words again had he read this story in the LA Times (many thanks to Michael Giltz for this one). A ten-year-0ld Orson Welles wannabe sues his equally diminutive producer for creative control on a short film that stars Kevin Bacon.

Oh fine.

From the story:
"She wanted to make all the decisions and stuff," Kay said. "She wanted final cut and everything."

Reminds me of a wonderful piece that ran in the New York Times eons ago about a third- or fourth-grade class that was making its own movies. One of the little directors was interviewed and she said that directing was hard because "you tell people what to do and they don't always do it."

Well, Bacon has a good reputation as a cooperative actor. Otherwise, you can hear the kid telling him "Kevin, you'll never work in this town again, dammit." I wonder if Otto Preminger and Fritz Lang were like this at ten.

As for the idiocy of going to court every time you don't get your way . . . well, I guess it's better than pushing her off the swings the next day on the playground.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Iran at War

I'm not going to dignify the mendacious stupidity of the Bush administration's foreign policy by addressing it here, but I would like to draw your attention to a promising film series that will be beginning in Manhattan towards the end of this month. The latest offering from CinemaEast, a resourceful organization that focuses its attentions on the films of the Middle East. From January 31-February 14, they will be showing "War in Iranian Cinema," a program of five films made between 1989 and 2005 that ruminate on the horrors of the Iraq-Iran war (you remember, that's the one in which Saddam Hussein was "the good guy"), as experienced by Iranians. What makes this series particularly exciting is that none of these films has been shown in the United States before. Indeed, except for Rakhshan Beni-Etimad I don't even recognize the directors' names.

For more information on this series and their other spring film programs, go here.

This series should be another nice corrective to the demonization of the Iranian people by certain unnamed figures in Washington, D.C. and on your radio and TV dials.

Very Useful New Website

With the proliferation of on-line video and film, it's about time somebody offered a guide to what's available out there (besides porn, that is).

And, happily, someone has. Check out this new website, The Daily Reel. A lot of what's on display here is not much more than glorified advertising, but there are a few goodies worth exploring.

Monday, January 22, 2007

MPAA Finally Listens to Reason. Sort of.

Sundance is always a buzz capital, and I try to ignore both the awards and the chatter. (It helps to be on the other side of the country, of course.)

But there is one story coming out of Park City that is, at least on the surface, good news. Variety is reporting that the MPAA, goaded by Kirby Dick's documentary This Movie Is Not Yet Rated, is planning to make some significant revisions in the ratings process. Almost any change would be an improvement. I must say that Dan Glickman's description of Jack Valenti's system as "a gem . . . in need of a little polishing" is pretty damned funny. At any rate, the story is here.

Friday, January 19, 2007

A couple of quick takes

Item 1: Les Amants Reguliers opens in New York City.
Unfortunately, for reasons known only to the arts section editors, the New York Times doesn't review it today. I assume the problem is space, since the film was originally reviewed at last year's NY Film Festival and they could always re-run that review. (I just checked and Manohla Dargis has it as a "critic's pick," and rightly so.)

Regardless, hustle your butt down to the Cinema Village and see it. Well worth the three hours running time.

Item 2: Lynne Sachs at Anthology Film Archives.
What follows is what I wrote about this weekend's program for Jewish Week; it's not on the website, so I reproduce it here for those of you not wise enough to subscribe.


The documentary can trace its history back to the very beginning of cinema and in its more than a century of existence has taken many forms. In the past 25 years there has been a very fruitful intersection between documentary and the diary film favored by many experimental filmmakers. Although Ross McElwee is probably the best-known practitioner of this hybrid, he’s far from the only director working this field. Lynne Sachs, whose recent works are on display at Anthology Film Archives January 26-28, is one of the most capable of these filmmakers, although even less of a household name than McElwee.

Sachs’s name may be familiar to Jewish Week readers. The DVD containing her “A Biography of Lilith” was reviewed here a couple of years ago and her most recent film, “States of UnBelonging” was one of the most overlooked films of 2006. That film, a powerful rumination on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the final film in the Anthology series.

Ravital Ohayon was a promising young filmmaker and mother of two, living in a kibbutz on the border of the West Bank. One night a single terrorist came into her home and, while her husband listened in horror on the other end of the phone, shot all three. That incident is the jumping-off point for “States of UnBelonging,” an unconventional meditation on terror, family, Israel’s security barrier and the Middle East. Structured as a dialogue between Sachs (in Brooklyn) and Nir Zats, an Israeli filmmaker and former student of hers, this haunting hour-long film traces the aftermath of Ohayon’s death, the reactions of her husband, brother and mother, and the developments in Israeli politics in the three years since.

“It’s a film about being caught in the vortex of war,” Sachs said last fall. “It’s my fourth film about the connection between war and the creative process. I didn’t intend to make four of these but it happens.” Unfortunately, war happens, so the subject keeps coming back. But creation happens too and, as Sachs notes, “States” is also about “what is it to be a mother and an artist and a teacher.” The result is surprisingly beautiful, like the embattled countryside it depicts.

Not surprisingly, the title of the Anthology series, “I Am Not a War Photographer,” addresses Sachs’s ambivalence quite directly. The other films in the series take us to contemporary Vietnam and revisit the anti-war movement and offer a grim look at the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Perhaps the most interesting work in the program is a series of short studies for Sachs’s next major project, retelling the story of her Hungarian cousin, Sandor Lenard, who survived the Second World War, served as an anthropologist with the US Army’s Graves Registry unit and finally fled to the jungles of Brazil.

War, creativity, beauty — it’s a depressingly frequent concatenation, but Sachs makes it sing without glorifying death, and that is what makes her films so compelling.

“I Am Not a War Photographer: Films of Lynne Sachs” will be presented at Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Avenue at 2nd St.) Friday, January 26 – Sunday, January 28 at 7:30 p.m. Sachs will present all three nights to introduce and discuss the films. For information, phone 212-505-5181 or go to www.anthologyfilmarchives.org .

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A Year in the Trenches

That's right. This is the first anniversary of this blog. I posted 81 times in the previous 365 days, which works out to better than 1.5 entries a week. I'm damned pleased.

Maybe this is the time to re-examine the all-time ten-best list thing. I have always said that if you asked me a half-hour after I compiled the list you might get eight different films. I'm not going to cheat and look at the one in my first entry. If you ask me right now to name my all-time ten-best films (best, most personally significant, whatever), at 12:06 EST on January 17, 2007, I would answer in no particular order):

1. Vertigo -- Hitchcock
2. The Searchers -- Ford
3. Man With a Movie Camera -- Vertov
4. Sans Soleil -- Marker
5. Once Upon a Time in the West -- Leone
6. Lancelot du Lac -- Bresson
7. Weekend -- Godard
8. An Autumn Afternoon -- Ozu
9. Tales of the Taira Clan -- Mizoguchi
10. French CanCan -- Renoir

Okay. Now, looking back, I see that eight of the titles on this list were on the 2006 list. The only changes are Man With a Movie Camera and Weekend, which replaced Sherlock Jr. and Shoah.
Nope, that's because last year I did a "dozen best films" list. "Duck Amok" and Chimes at Midnight were also on that list, so technically speaking there were four changes rather than two.
Hell, at this level of cinematic genius, it's just bookkeeping. You could certainly shuffle these 14 films and get a pretty good list.

Indeed, the whole list-making thing is not much more than a kind of game-playing, the cinematic equivalent of flipping baseball cards. (Does anyone still flip baseball cards or are they immediately encased in plastic to protect their market value? When I was kid those things were for fun, not an investment. Well, as Leland says in Citizen Kane, "My, what a disagreeable old man I have become.") Yeah, I know, it's the first step towards canon-building, but I rather doubt that a ten-best list posted on a blog -- however brilliant -- will lead directly to a re-evaluation of any academy's teaching methods.

Whatever.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Memories of '68

For those of you whose knowledge of the '68 rebellion in France is limited to having seen Bertolucci's The Dreamers -- and I feel sorry for you if that's the case -- there is an event coming up at Yale that definitely would be worth three days in New Haven. "Sixty Eight! Europe, Cinema, Revolution" will be running at the Whitney Humanities Center Auditorium from February 15 - 17. Whoever programmed this series and conference was really on top of the subject. In addition to some obvious choices -- Godard's La Chinoise, the SLON Collective's Far From Vietnam, Bellocchio's China Is Near -- they included an excellent representation of East European films (Jancso, Zanussi, Jukubisko), materialist experimental films (Nekes, Straub-Huillet) and other heavyweights (Varda, Pasolini, Kluge, Garrel). Except perhaps for the Godard and the Bellocchio, none of these films is easily available on disk, and none of them is shown much anywhere else. The list of participating scholars is also impressive, including Paul Arthur, Richard Pena and Thomas Elsaesser, whose work I have long admired. (I should also draw your attention to the presence of John McKay, from Yale's Slavic languages department; John is one of the moderators for the Key Theater Sunday Cinema Club and I have had the pleasure of sharing the podium with him on several occasions. He's very sharp and also quite entertaining.)

I have no idea what registration and attendance costs or where you can stay in New Haven. The webpage is not forthcoming on the former and you're on your own as far as housing is concerned. But if you can find your way there, sleep in the park or the bus station, the lineup of films is worth the trip.

By the way, although I found the Bertolucci to be an utter catastrophe, it does have several redeeming features, all of which belong to the divine Eva Green. If you really want to see a fiction film about the '68ers that catches some of the frenzy and confusion, you should seek out Philipe Garrel's Les Amants Reguliers. God only knows when this masterful film will ever get a theatrical release in the States. American distributors are much to busy catering to the talentless likes of Luc Besson.

Friday, January 12, 2007

I Feel Guilty When . . . .

I was just looking at the blogs of two pals -- Michael Giltz of "Popsurfing" and Daryl Chin of "Documents on Art and Cinema" -- and I feel nothing less than shame. I mean, these guys post every day, sometimes more than once a day. Oh the degradation!

I could blame it on our cats, of course. After all, keeping tabs on Walter and Stella is a very time-consuming job. As I always tell Walter when he starts acting needy -- which is most of the time since he loves attention -- I understand that being a pussycat is a demanding job, it's 24/7.

That certainly doesn't cut it as an excuse. (Gee, the cats ate my homework.)

On a more serious note -- like this isn't serious already -- watching Children of Men on a really big screen a couple of weeks ago was a wonderful reminder of how exhilarating the sheer act of moviegoing can be. I love Film Forum and the Walter Reade, where I've been spending much of my film time these days, but there really is nothing quite like seeing a film image that just dwarfs you. I don't know if it is still the case, but in the heyday of Cahiers du Cinema movie theaters in Paris were designed the opposite of ours, with the screen elevated above the patrons and the seats raked back (i.e. descending as you walk away from the screen). Having never experienced this configuration, I can only guess what it does to sightlines; I suspect it makes them better, since the screen is the highest object visible, but I don't know what it would be like to sit behind, say, Shaquille O'Neal. (Okay, you sit behind Shaqille O'Neal and you are going to be unable to see the screen no matter how the seats are arranged. Unless you're Tim Duncan or Yao Ming.) At any rate, the result, sightlines aside, is that the film image becomes an object for adoration, worship. Explains a lot about the mindset of people like Godard, Rivette, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer and so on.

Speaking of film critics and blogs, I highly recommend the Chicago Reader's film blog, which can be found here. It gives you one more opportunity to read Jonathan Rosenbaum, who I think is probably the best working critic in America today (yeah, he's better than me). This week he goes after one of my great betes noirs, the wildly over-rated, ever self-promoting David Thomson. The sad thing about Thomson is that at one time he was quite a brilliant critic himself. His book Movie Man is extraordinarily astute. Unfortunately at some point he fell in love with the trappings of his subject, at the expense of any analysis he might have had to offer. By the time he began writing "novels" based on favorite film characters, he had become a truly lost soul, although the real nadir was his veritable love note to Warren Beatty.

As for the Atlantic's literary editor Benjamin Schwarz calling Thomson's Biographical Dictionary of Film the "finest reference book on the movies," all I can say is that a reference book is supposed to be a) comprehensive; b) a reliable source of basic information; c) at least somewhat objective in its judgments. Thomson's book is none of these. It is an idiosyncratic and occasionally frivolous collection of Thomson's opinions. As such it is often entertaining and frequently intelligent, but hardly a reference book. Mr. Schwarz, you'd be well-advised to look at the Ephraim Katz Film Encyclopedia, an actual reference book. I can't say I entirely approve of some of the choices made by the new writer-editors in the year's since Katz's death, but it is a vastly more valuable reference work, more usable, more inclusive and more objective than Thomson. Of course, for the slumming filmgoer of Schwarz's ilk, that is the point, isn't it?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

And a Belated Happy New Year

It's been a lethal combination of Ira-rush and the New York Jewish Film Festival that's kept me from posting lately. Oh, yeah, and some laziness. But mostly the first two. In a sense, I've been watching so many movies that I haven't had the time to write about them (well, except for money). For a look at the NYJFF, you can read this week's Jewish Week here. Next week's issue, which will be on-line on Thursday, will feature the second half of the festival and a very interesting Germany documentary, Verdict on Auschwitz, made from the 430 hours of audiotape of the 1963-5 trial in Frankfurt of 20 of the top Nazi perps from that death camp.

As for the Iras, as is our tradition, we will be holding our annual get-together late -- March 25 this year, the latest ever -- and rather ludicrously I won't post my 2006 ten-best list until then. (That's because I will still be catching the last strays right up to the evening itself.) But I can safely say this much: it has been an interesting year.

I won't bother you with a preliminary ten-best list, but if you haven't seen any of these titles by now, you really need to catch them (listed in the order I saw them):

Ten-best list quality: La Petite Jerusalem, Fateless, The Moustache, Le Petit Lieutenant, Heading South, L'Iceberg, L'Enfant, Free Zone, Clean, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Changing Times, The Bridesmaid, The Aura, Family Law, 51 Birch Street, Climates, 49 Up, "My Dad Is 100 Years Old," Bestiary: Five Short Films, The Case of the Grinning Cat, This Filthy World, Children of Men

Very good, but not quite : Three Times, A Cantor's Tale, 12 and Holding, The Beauty Academy of Kabul, Mardi Gras: Made in China, Keeping Up with the Steins, Mendy: A Question of Faith, Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, Paper Dolls, The Illusionist, The Queen, Commune, Shakespeare Behind Bars, 10 Items or Less, Flannel Pajamas, Bergman Island, Inside Man, A Prairie Home Companion, The Notorious Bettie Page, A Scanner Darkly

Distinguished by some achievement (might be a great performance or two, an outstanding script, etc.): Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Cavite, Old Joy, Nathalie, Gabrielle, Time to Leave, Half Nelson, The Troubles We've Seen, The Devil's Miner

Unreleased, but keep watching the skies, er, ads: "Golub: Late Works are Catastrophes," Roots, Ce-Jour La, October 17, 1961, The Treatment, Belle Toujours, Triad Election

Any year in which Altman, Spike Lee and Mary Harron get onto my honorable mention list is already pretty surprising; people who know me are well aware that none of those three turn up at my desert-island movie house. And 23 films for my potential ten-best list (and I haven't even seen several other likely candidates) suggests a year in which good films outweighed the other kind. I don't know if this is a trend in the making. All I know is that the people who have been predicting the death of cinema are dead wrong.

Of course, for me the year isn't over, although the new one has already begun (ten films worth, including the NYJFF). I wouldn't change jobs with anyone -- okay, with Robinson Cano maybe -- but right now I can barely sort out what I've seen in the past three weeks.

And a quick PS: You'll immediately notice the new look of Cine-Journal. Hey, a new year means a new wardrobe. Same obnoxious opinions though (and damned proud of it).