Thursday, May 31, 2007

Fight to Keep This Cinema Open

I'm not talking about some nice rep house that should be preserved from the clutches of a marauding theater chain here in the United States of Greed. God knows there used to be plenty of cases like that (not anymore, though -- there aren't enough rep houses left to bother).

This is a lot more serious. The cinema in question is in Vilnius, Lithuania, and it is a lightining rod for political opposition groups, an example of the ever-increasing commericialization and privatization of the commons, of public space that should belong to an entire community and not just to a handful of profit-seekers.

Neil Harrison made the case nicely in an article in the Baltic Times:

How do you measure, in a non-monetary sense, the value of a cinema to the community it serves?

How would you quantify its contribution toward the well-being and social development of a community and its positive knock-off effects to the economy? Such questions have always been fiendishly difficult to answer, but if there was ever a pressing need to do so, it is now.

By the end of the summer, if property developers get their way, the iconic Lietuva cinema will disappear from the Vilnius landscape altogether. In a city that has already lost 15 cinemas in recent years, the theater’s demolition will effectively signal the end of independent film screening in Vilnius. Not only does this mean that the viewing choices of thousands of filmgoers will be severely limited, but valuable cultural and economic benefits will also be lost to the so-called European Capital of Culture 2009.

(For the rest of this article, published June 8, 2005, go here.)

Now what, you may ask, can I do about a cinema in Lithuania? You can go here, and sign a petition supporting the people of Vilnius in their efforts to keep this public space out of the hands of the globalizers.

What you can't do, from hereon, is say you didn't know that globalization was having such a negative effect on public discourse.





There's More to Life than Just Movies

I know. That is a heretical statement. And I will probably be burned at the stake by the Cinematic Inquisition. (Well, I would be, if I weren't one of the leading inquisitors myself. In honor of the great Warner Brothers cartoons, I call myself -- wait for it -- Porky-Mada.)

However, just to put your minds at ease, allow me to open up another round of random entries by giving you an advance head's-up on an upcoming film opening. Ira Hozinsky and I spent a very entertaining 90 minutes at Film Forum this morning at the press screening of Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08, East of Bucharest, one of the late spring's more eagerly anticipated releases, and I can say quite happily that Porumboiu's debut feature is every bit as good as the advance word on it. Very dark, very dry and very funny, with an ingenious use of diegetic camerawork and some of the best deadpan humor in recent film. It opens at Forum on June 6 and I'll have more to say about it next week.


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Some of us also read books. Actually, thinking back to Steven Spielberg's quasi-infamous Oscar speech about the need to read books, I have always thought that the Blessed One was being incredibly condescending or astonishingly naive in his heartfelt appeal to the industry. After all, it was Spielberg and Lucas who churned out all that toy-marketing crap in the '80s and, in the process, created the next generation of manipulative film-school nitwits. (Hey, I went to film school too, so back off.) In truth, the film people I know were all voracious readers, frequently with deliciously esoteric taste that spoke quite nicely for their heightened literacy and literary interests.

God knows, we need more people like that today. I can't remember the figure offhand, but the percentage of fiction published in the US and UK that is translated from other languages is infinitesimal -- less than 10%, I'm sure -- and the result is that our willful ignorance of history and of cultures other than our own just grows and grows.

That's why I'm stepping out from under my film-critic hat (it's a colorfully embroidered sombrero, by the way) to urge you to check out one of my favorite websites/on-line magazines, Words Without Borders. Their focus in May was on prison writings from around the world, not surprisingly concentrating on Latin America and the Middle East, two regions in which writers are found behind bars as often as they are found at bars in New York City.

WWB is also one of the prime movers behind a worthy endeavor, Reading the World 2007, an attempt to get booksellers and readers behind recent translated literature. They have an excellent website with links to international reading blogs, an admirable list of recently published titles, and all the requisite links you could possibly want.

Of course, you could go to one of the giant chain booksellers, particularly those on-line behemoths who shall remain nameless, to buy these books, but I urge you -- as I frequently do -- to go to your local independent bookseller in person and buy or order the titles you want. They need the money and deserve your support. Riggio, Bezos and their ilk do not.
If you must buy on-line, go to Powell's; they are a union shop and have every bit as impressive a selection as the Burger Books chains.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

This 'n' That

A whole bunch of mildly interesting insights and thoughts -- well, they were interesting to me when I was thinking them, so if you don't find them interesting, write your own damned blog -- that don't add up to much of a substitute for actually reviewing new movies, but most of what I've seen lately is Jewish-themed, so my paying clients have first dibs. Anyway, you can go to Jewish Week if you want to know what I've been seeing lately.

An unintentionally funny article in yesterday's USA Today, notes that the Regal Theater chain is installing little hand communicators that will allow patrons to signal the theater manager to offer an anonymous complaint about projection or unruly audience members. Not an entirely bad idea, although it wouldn't be hard to see it degenerating into open warfare. (I can remember not that long ago when a theater near where I grew up on Long Island became a site for gang war when they played some crime film. Ah, life imitating bad art imitating low-life.) Somehow, though, I found myself thinking of William Castle when I read this story.

Of course, in the good old days before 42nd Street became Disneyfied (okay, also before the crack epidemic), you could count on a grindhouse crowd for self-policing. I can vividly recall going to some double-bill of Italian gangster and western fodder -- I don't remember the films but it was probably a Lee Van Cleef pairing -- with Wallace Gray, who was my senior advisor in the Columbia English department. Some of the denizens of the Spectator film crew -- you know who you are -- were trying to turn Wallace on to the joys of action cinema and he, as a teacher of Homer and Shakespeare, had no trouble assimilating the joys of Fuller and Aldrich.

So we're sitting there in the half-darkened theater, me on the aisle, Wallace one seat in, and some guy starts whistling along with the musical score of the film. Well, sort of along. I turned and glared at him -- he was a lanky black guy in his 30s, seated a few rows back on the other side of the aisle. He looked at me quizzically, then grinned sheepishly and gave me a slight wave of the hand. He stopped whistling (I suspect he hadn't even realized he was doing it), and that was the end of that. Wallace turned to me and whispered, "I have to stop coming here with you. You're going to get us both killed." And with impeccable logic I replied, "Hey, he was distracting me from the movie."

So if the Regal folks are looking for an enforcer, I'm your man. (Remind me to tell you about the time I threatened some leather-jacketed moron at the Thalia during a screening of an obscure film by the Hungarian director Geza von Radvanyi.)

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I can't recall what got me thinking about the designation of some film noirs (or should that be films noirs? French grammar police, please advise) as "B" films. I was thinking about the beauteous Margo's observation that the really good B westerns didn't need all that damned comedy relief (she has conceived a deep hatred for Gabby Hayes, made all the deeper when I noted to her that he actually had his own TV series at one point), and it dawned on me that not only are the noir Bs devoid of such folderol, but some of the noirs we think of automatically as B films -- the Anthony Mann gems of the late 1940s, for example -- are significantly longer than the series westerns. For example, Desperate is 73 minutes long, Railroaded! 72, T-Men 92, Raw Deal 79, Reign of Terror 89 and so on.

What makes these B films? Okay, by 1947 when the first of these is released, the average running time of a studio A-budget picture is probably significantly over 90 minutes (like the budgets of the past 35 or so years, it rises steadily after WWII, if memory serves). And the stars of these films, such as they are, hardly are names to conjure with: Dennis O'Keefe, Steve Brodie, Bob Cummings (hey, he starred in a Hitchcock film) and Arlene Dahl. But they don't look especially cheap, thanks to John Alton's magic, and they certainly don't look or feel like the series Bs. (Okay, very little on this earth looks like the Monogram Charlie Chans, other than a very small but lethal train wreck.) No comedy relief, no interpolated musical numbers designed to give the film a very, very faint patina of class. In literal terms, they probably all carried B budgets, but what separates them from other semi-documentary style noirs with bigger budgets and star names? Oh, yes. Longer running times: Mankiewicz's Somewhere in the Night is 110 minutes, long and Call Northside 777 is 111, to name two favorites of mine from the same period.

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Finally, a brief but heartfelt tribute to Stella, one of our two cats, who departed this life sometime last evening. Margo and I buried her with one of her favorite pillows and our deepest regrets. I will miss her almost as much as many of my departed human friends.



Thursday, May 24, 2007

An Opportunity to Help Many Artists Simultaneously

It is, I suppose, a sign of the times -- changes on Capitol Hill, to be specific -- that this posting is written to urge you to support one small part of the federal budget, a proposed increase of
$35 million in funds for the National Endowment for the Arts for FY 2008. Certainly, it's been a long time since the last significant increase at the NEA, so this comes as something of a welcome relief. Indeed, it marks the largest increase in NEA history.

Which tells you a lot about how little Congress cares about the arts. But without going into a lengthy and disheartening review of the NEA's history over the past 25 or so years, it's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

That said, you can help make this proposal a reality by writing to your Congresspersons. Take yourself over the Americans for the Arts and their on-line advocacy center, and do that immediately.

And if you want a reason why Congress should support funding for artists, forget about the moral uplift stuff and tell 'em this, from a new study by AftA: "Nationally, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity every year—$63.1 billion in spending by organizations and an additional $103.1 billion in event-related spending by their audiences."

Friday, May 18, 2007

In Flanders Fields . . . .

The new Bruno Dumont film, Flandres, has been rightly touted as a return to form after the utter awfulness of Twenty-Nine Palms. The film, which opens today at the Cinema Village, is certainly of a piece with The Life of Jesus and L'Humanite, his first two films; each of these is a study of humanity reduced to a level just short of barbarism, and the relationship between men and women in all four films is a devastating mix of primal need and brutality. At least in Flandres the situation is such that this seems almost normal; his protagonist, a sullen, almost silent farmer named Demester (a handle as disproportionate to its owner as Jesus is to the motorbike-riding hellraiser of Dumont's debut feature), played with an earthy hungriness by Samuel Boidin, is drafted to fight in an unidentified war in a seemingly North African nation. Once there, he and his homies manage to inflict rape and disaster on the inhabitants, who are more than happy to return the favor in equally vicious ways. The casualness with which everyone commits atrocities is frightening but, in the age of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, all-too-believable. What gives the film its ultimate power, though, is that Dumont is able to convey in its final scenes how badly even a seeming thug like Demester has been by what he has experienced and witnessed. Dumont's vision of the world is remorselessly unpleasant and the amount of redemption he allows his characters is pretty minimal, but in Flandres his sure-footed relation of character to environment and action is painfully effective. Not a pretty picture but one that has a certain blunt-force-trauma kind of power.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Round and About

Here's a bunch of links you should follow for various film-related items.

1. Needless to say, I'm putting myself first on this list. This week's issue of Jewish Week includes an interview with Ido Haar, the director of the new Israeli documentary 9 Star Hotel, right here.

2. And here's my review of another new documentary from Israeli director Ilan Ziv, Six Days, a very interesting re-examination of the Six-Day War from the perspective of 40 years. Incidentally, I also wrote an essay on the effects of the '67 War on Israeli filmmakers, which is here.

3. I wouldn't want you to think that I'm the only film person posting on the 'Net (God forbid). My friend and fellow Ira-voter Michael Giltz is blogging from the Cannes Festival (the lucky dog) for The Advocate. Michael's daily ruminations on the most glittery of film events can be found here, and I take some small Schadenfreude-ish pleasure in the knowledge that he is too busy working to ogle the sun-soaked, lithe bodies on the beaches or to work on his own tan.

4. For those of you stuck here in New York City with me but craving a dose of La Belle France on film, the nice people at FrenchCulture.org have instituted a new weekly PDF newsletter enumerating all the French films to be found on NYC screens. You can find more info here, if you are inclined to subscribe and the first issue is here.

5. Finally, a couple of news items that raise my expectations for the coming months. First, among the many other films on display at Cannes this year is a restored version of Terence Fisher's Dracula. It's the BFI's birthday gift to the festival, which turns 60 this year.

And the New York Film Festival announced its 2007 dates, September 28 to October 14, so mark your calendars. While Alice Tully Hall continues to undergo renovations -- if you've walked by, you know that this is no mere cosmetic facelift, more like an extreme makeover -- the Festival will be held at the Frederick P. Rose Hall, home of Jazz at Lincoln Center. (So nice of Wynton loan out the place.) Also of great interest, this year's main sidebar event at the Walter Reade will be a comprehensive look at the career of Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, one of the fathers of the Cinema Novo in Brazil.

Friday, May 11, 2007

New Issue of Senses of Cinema

Let me draw your attention -- if I haven't already -- to a very good on-line film magazine, Senses of Cinema. Their newest issue, Number 43, is now available at their website, and it includes a couple of articles by an old acquaintance of mine, Tag Gallagher, on the Straubs and Pedro Costa and the relationship between King Vidor and Andrew Wyeth (now there's an interesting, initially counterintuitive but ultimately very logical pairing!). There are special sections on Hitchcock and Bresson and an interview with Andrew Bujalski, whose Funny Ha Ha was a very pleasant surprise in 2005, among other things.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Check Out This Brief But Pithy Festival

Just a brief note, but with more to follow, on the New York Polish Film Festival, which is celebrating its third year of existence. A very interesting collection of recent Polish films, including Agnieszka Holland's Copying Beethoven and a new film from Krzysztof Zanussi. The festival is playing all over town. You can find information on the screening schedule and such at their website. I'll have more to say about some of the specific films shortly.

Also, you should definitely try to catch up with 9 Star Hotel when it opens at Film Forum on May 23. I reviewed it in Jewish Week during Tribeca and said this, comparing it to the new Simon Wiesenthal bio-documentary by Richard Trank (also quite good and opening on May 23):

Ido Haar, director of 9 Star Hotel, is equally deft, although he employs a different method and focus. Where Trank uses interviews and historical footage, Haar opts for cinema verite, with his small crew living with its subjects, a group of young Palestinian construction workers, illegally in Israel in order to find jobs, living rough on the outskirts of Modi’in, where they are building high-rise apartment complexes. Trank traces the life of a single man over 96 years; Haar shows us a dozen men over a period of a few months. But both tell us a distressing story of the cruelties that men inflict on one another.

Haar opens his film with a series of beautiful pastoral images — pine-covered hills, a rushing creek, sheep being herded — then shatters this picture with the sounds of construction crews at work. We watch as a dozen or so young men with backpacks and bedrolls cross this seemingly rural landscape, then dash across a busy highway. Eventually they will land at a remarkable makeshift cabin built from packing crates and other detritus, with electric light improvised from a handful of car batteries and furniture rescued from the trash. This is where the film’s protagonists live when they are not on construction sites working.

The film gives an unsparing but sympathetic portrait of these men, for the most part a bunch of likeable, hard-working guys whose primary desire is to make enough money to go home to the Occupied Territories to help their families, then to sneak back in to do it again. Their lives are punctuated by police raids at the work site and frantic runs through the woods to evade immigration authorities. When one of the main figures in the film collapses with a high fever, his mates do not dare call an ambulance, for fear of attracting police interest.

When they are not working, they sit and talk about the things that working-class men have always talked about: money, work, their family lives, their prospects for the future. Haar punctuates the film with shots of the changing sky over Modi’in, the light reflected off puddles of rain or glimmering in a trough filled with wet cement. He has a fascination with textures and the way they catch the light that gives the film a certain furtive beauty, much like its opening shots. As a result 9 Star Hotel is a film that fits comfortably on the shelf of great recent documentaries like The Gleaners and I, Agnes Varda’s reflection on the huge amounts of waste in modern society, or In the Pit, Juan Rulfo’s paean to the all-too-expendable workers building Mexico City’s new highway in the sky. It is both a work of art and a fine piece of reportage from the unseen underside of the modern world.

I interviewed Haar a few days ago and that interview will appear in Jewish Week on the 18th. He's an engaging and intelligent young man (hey, he's 33 and that's twenty years younger than me, so he's a young man by my ocunt), and has some interesting observations of the state of Israel as the separation wall is completed.


Thursday, May 03, 2007

And Yet more Tribeca

My second and last Jewish Week piece from Tribeca includes reviews of 9 Star Hotel and I Have Never Forgotten You: The Life and Legacy of Simon Wiesenthal, two excellent new documentaries, and the Brazilian drama The Year My Parents Went On Vacation. You can find it on the Jewish Week website here.

I may have a few more Tribeca items to squeeze out in the next day or so, but the train moves on and Monday afternoon I have a screening for something theatrical and not festive.

Before that, though, I have an engagement for the Key Theater Sunday Cinema Club branch in Boston, where we'll be doing Crazy Love, another Tribeca-prem documentary. You'll hear more very soon.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

A Major Head's-Up

My guess it is going to come and go pretty fast, so you really should pop down to the Cinema Village on Friday, May 4 (two days from now) and see the delightful French comedy L'Iceberg.

Directed by Dominique Abel, Fiona Gordon, Bruno Romy, the film is a deliciously Tati-esque comedy with genuine visual wit and grace and hilarious performances from Abel and Gordon as a gawky married couple whose household is riven when she locks herself in a deepfreeze at the fast-food restaurant she manages. Once she emerges and is thawed out, Gordon becomes obsessed with heading for the Arctic and throws herself -- almost literally -- at a not-overly-bright fishing boat owner (Philippe Martz), while her no less maladroit hubby tries to decipher what has happened. A crisp 84 minutes, the film makes great use of widescreen for comic value and is a complete delight.