Saturday, June 30, 2007

Serious Book Recommendation

I want to pull your coat to an excellent book that will be officially published in August, but which you can order right now. Take yourself to the website for Talking Hands: What Sign Language Reveals About the Mind by Margalit Fox. Now, as many of you know, Ms. Fox is a very talented journalist who writes obituaries for the New York Times; she also is, coincidentally, my wife. However, I am telling you sincerely and utterly without bias, that Talking Hands is an elegantly structured, stunningly clear book that elucidates the complexities of human language, a topic that should be of interest to anyone who is concerned with film.

Huh? You're asking why an interest in film should be accompanied by an interest in language. Perhaps I'm showing my age by noting that when I was in film school the structuralists and their offspring held sway, and a grounding in linguistics would have come in handy. One thing that Ms. Fox's book proved to me -- albeit quite indirectly -- is that the idea the film operates like a language "system" is utter nonsense. I won't go into a long song-and-dance right now, but suffice to say that when one writes about "film grammar" it can only be a metaphor, not a scientific reality.

Of course, Talking Hands is unconcerned with film (although videotape plays an integral part in the scientific research about which Margo writes). That's just my reaction, like the dentist who used to review films on David Letterman's show by remarking on the actors' orthodontia. But the book is fascinating in and of itself, and I recommend it heartily.

Friday, June 29, 2007

A Silky, Smooth Way to Die

Jean-Pierre Melville's 1962 film, Le Doulos, opens today at Film Forum and you should dash over and see it sometime in the next two weeks. In some ways, it's something of a dry run for his masterpiece, Le Samourai, a coolly deliberate, methodical noir, immersed totally in the mores and culture of a higly stylized French underworld. Of course, those of you who are just recovering from the end of The Sopranos will immediately recognize the utter falseness of this picture of criminal behavior and code, but Melville is without irony, a moralist to the core and, as Tim Cawkwell suggests in his intelligent (if not entirely convincing) The Filmgoer's Guide to God, creator of an existential world in which ethics takes on the role of faith.

As is the case in almost all of Melville's gangster films, the plot is vastly more complicated than it would be in a comparable American genre film. (The same may be said of Leone's westerns, which raises an interesting question: are these Europeans more interested in the working-out of intricate plots for their own sake or is there some larger intellectual/cultural difference at work here?) Maurice (Serge Reggiani, looking shockingly like the young Walter Matthau) has recently been released from prison. He seeks out the fence who may have ratted on him and kills him. When he is picked up by the cops for questioning, he begins to think that an old acquaintance, Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo), may have fingered him this time. Needless to say, nothing is that simple.

Melville creates his shades-of-gray Paris with gliding camera movements that help him establish a moral equivalence between thieves and thief-takers that Sam Fuller would love. Just as the Syndicate in Underworld USA, made at the same time, follows the same rules and superficially obeys the law, therefore bearing more than a slight resemblance to the Feds who are tracking them, Melville's cops and crooks are visually undistinguishable. Yet the casting of Belmondo, an actor who exudes a kind of moral certainty onscreen, gives the bad guys a heft that goes beyond our natural desire to side with outlaws. The devil not only has the best tunes, he also has star quality.

Of course, in the Melville universe, the devil is a medieval irrelevance. What matters is the tilt of your hatbrim, the way you light your cigarette, the sharpness of your lapels. I have too great a love for Melville's films to reduce his ethical code to a matter of Parisian haute couture; he's much too great a filmmaker for that. But stylishness is certainly a valid visual signifier for moral potency. American filmmakers prefer to do it the other way 'round, of course. The guy with the colorful mode of dress in a Boetticher western is invariably the villain, the rapid ascent of the gangster in Hollywood films is usually accompanied by overt displays of expensive gaucherie. Tony Camonte (in Hawks's Scarface) isn't the only guy ever to mistake "gaudy" for a compliment.

Melville's underworld, then, is a fairy land. His gangsters are more like medieval knights than the real knights were. But that's fine. He is offering us parables, tales with moral lessons to teach, not documentaries on the actual Parisian version of Five Families. And his crisply analytical approach to action sequences is both emotionally and intellectually satisfying, shot through with a detached architecture of violence, just cool enough to keep us from turning away, but plenty smart enough to keep us engaged. Le Doulos isn't as transcendentally brilliant as Le Samourai, but an artist only makes one work like that in a lifetime, and Le Doulos is more than good enough.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Thrills Galore in the New Anthology Schedule

The three-month schedule for Anthology Film Archives came in the mail yesterday and the programming there for July through September is so exciting that I almost shrieked out loud in the bank. I'll just give you the highlights, of which there are many.

  • The theatrical premiere of Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth, along with six more features and three shorts by Costa;
  • Four melodramas by Vincente Minnelli (on whom I did my long-ago master's thesis);
  • A complete retrospective of the late Bill Douglas, including a documentary his life and work;
  • A large Abraham Polonsky series that includes all three of his features and several films he wrote, including Don Siegel's Madigan, as well as Thom Anderson and Noel Burch's Red Hollywood;
  • A huge Norman Mailer retrospective, with all of his films and some other oddities;
  • Fassbinder's Bremen Freedom, which I don't recall having been shown in NYC since it was made in 1972;
  • A series highlighting the work of three of the great Latin American documentarist-activists, Santiago Alvarez, Fernando Solanas and Patricio Guzman, including the complete Hour of the Furnaces.
Something about this calendar has a real '70s cinephilia air about it. It reminds me of the years in which I first started watching film avidly. Now, if only I were 35 years younger . . . .

There's a link to Anthology's webpage on your right. Use it.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

A Woman's Touch

Last night I had the interesting experience of watching two films directed by Ida Lupino, The Bigamist and Outrage, on TCM. I'm surprised that no one has talked about Lupino and her ex-husband/producing partner Collier Young as pioneers of American independent cinema. Here are two films that essentially were made at the fringes of the studio system, dealing with issues that were largely taboo in Hollywood. They aren't great films -- Sarris is rather uncharitable in his assessment of Lupino in The American Cinema, she isn't a fluid director -- but they are interesting and, for the very early '50s, quite courageous.

What struck me about the two films is that Lupino's ostensible feminism, while thematically quite real, is not focussed on the empowerment of her female characters. The mere fact that she could make films about a rape victim (Outrage), out-of-wedlock children (Not Wanted and The Bigamist) speaks volumes about her concerns, but what is interesting about the two films I saw last night is that the real political subtexts are not about strong woman characters but about surprisingly tender males. Neither film ever gets inside the heads of the three principal females, the two wives (Joan Fontaine and Lupino herself) or the young woman who is raped (a rather florid performance from Mala Powers). Perhaps that is the inevitable product of the strictures of the studio system and the Production Office code, but it seems to me Lupino is more interested in how her male leads are affected by the suffering of the women. And the result is a couple of strikingly vulnerable, complex performances by Edmond O'Brien and Tod Andrews.

What makes this all the more fascinating is that, having seen several of her Have Gun, Will Travel episodes, I had previously noted to myself that her touch was strong and sure, and her interests seemed to lie elsewhere than in the gunplay and self-defining codes of conduct that are at the center of many of that show's episodes. Lupino takes the assumptions of her time about masculinity then works around the edges to subvert them in subtle but telling ways.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

You've got about 24 hours to catch up with the Kaurismaki

Yeah, I screwed up good. I confess and I apologize. If you are a regular reader of this blog you have a good idea what's been going on this month and won't be surprised that this happened. If you aren't, scroll down and read on.

Now, apologies out of the way, let me tell you to run to the IFC Center in Manhattan and see Lights in the Dusk, the last film in Aki Kaurismaki's "loser" trilogy. I never saw Drifting Clouds, the first film of this trio, but it's not hard to see how this deliciously deadpan black comedy fits with The Man Without a Past, the second film. This is minimalist narrative filmmaking at its most impressively precise, without a single false step.

Briefly, Lights in the Dusk -- a title more optimistic than the film itself -- is about Koistinen, a security guard at an ultramodern, glass-enclosed, soulless shopping arcade, who is seduced and set up by a blonde so icy she makes Hitchcock's glacial goddesses look like Tex Avery cartoons. He loses his job, his dreams and, although the final shot is almost parodistically ambiguous, very possibly his life. Imagine Siodmak's Criss-Cross remade by an infernal duo of Jim Jarmusch and a guy who decorates pinball machines. Or by the director of The Match Factory Girl.

The film is only 78 minutes long and it is as stripped-down in both form and affect as that running time might suggest. No camera movement, little dialogue, no "acting," Lights is another sustained exercise in Bressonian rigor put to uses that Bresson would never have imagined. Or perhaps he might have; there is a certain sweetness of demeanor in Kaurismaki's best work that is not that far from a Bressonian grace, and the film's odd color scheme, with a red accent thrown into almost every shot, owes something to the formal and chromatic delirium of Minnelli (not to mention Kaurismaki's use of wildly emotional music as a counterpoint to his unemotional visual style).

So I finally have written about the Kaurismaki. Now get your butts down to wherever it's playing near you and see it. (And it is playing outside New York all summer. Go here to see the playdates booked so far.)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Help Me Make Some Money

Hey, you know I'm worth it.

So click on the ads that appear on this site -- no not the political stuff I post on the side of the page -- although you should definitely click on those too -- but the banner ads up top (so far, mercifully small and for good causes, but I can't guarantee that will continue). If you click on these, I may see some money from the folks at Google.

Surely you'd rather it went to me than, say, Dick "I'm not part of the executive branch, I'm just hanging around looking busy" Cheney.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Here's Another Film for Your Ten-Best Lists

No, it's not the Kaurismaki (hey, I didn't lie, I just haven't told the truth; I was thinking of a job with the Bush administration).

Joking aside, Pascale Ferran's Lady Chatterley opens today in NYC, and it is an absolute must. When it played at Tribeca I wrote this:

Where has Pascale Ferran been for the last ten years? Her first feature, Petits arrangements avec les morts, was a wonder, her second, L’Âge des possibles,, I remember as something of a disappointment, but I’d be lying if I said I could remember anything more specific about it. Then she vanished from the radar here. She has a 1997 screenplay credit, Eat Your Soup, directed by Mathieu Amalric, then nine years of silence. So it was with as much wonder as anticipation that I awaited her new film Lady Chatterley, which had already won five Cesars including Best French Film and Best Actress for Marina Hands in the title role. More significantly, the reviews were uniformly enthusiastic and I have to admit that the mere fact of that silence aroused my curiosity deeply.

I am happy to say that the wait was worth it inasmuch as the film is one of the best of the year to date, a really lovely, thoughtful and intelligent adaptation of Lawrence, based more on the second version of the novel, John Thomas and Lady Jane, than on the final one. Stripped of the verbosity of the latter, the film is constructed brilliantly as a dialogue between humanity and nature, with the passage of the seasons echoing the growing relationship between Parkin and Connie Chatterley. Intriguingly, Ferran’s version of the story is surprisingly sweet and almost chaste. We do not see the two lovers naked together until two hours into the film (which runs 168 minutes, although you’d never know it because the pacing is so adroit). Hands is quite fetching and her Connie sets the tone for the entire film, slowly blossoming and completely enchanting. And by forgoing much of the Lawrentian attitudinizing, Ferran moves the film away from his more absurd sex-and-blood-and-soil maunderings into something almost Wordsworthian in its natural ease and grandeur.

The film is playing at the Lincoln Plaza (
Broadway between 62nd and 63rd; 212-757-2280); by all means go.

And I promise to get to the Kaurismaki this weekend.
No, really.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Thrilling News on the DVD Front

Yeah, I know, I'm supposed to be telling you about the Kaurismaki (you know, I had to look up the spelling of his last name -- Aki wasn't too hard, thought). And I will do so shortly.

But Dave Kehr has some news on his blog that is much too exciting not to spread around. Rumor has it that we can expect a big box set of John Ford silents from Fox sometime near the end of the year. Kehr talks about it at length here.

Now wasn't that worth dropping everything for?

Monday, June 18, 2007

General Housekeeping

I'll have something to say about the new Aki Kaurismaki in the next day or so. For the moment, however, just a couple of notes.

I'm considering adding advertising to this page, mainly because being a full-time freelance writer is so goddamned remunerative. If you are opposed to this change, quite frankly I agree with you. There's too much advertising on-line and elsewhere. As regular readers know, I live in New York City and there are times when I'm awestruck by the grotesque ingenuity with which corporations foist their drivel on the urban landscape, not to mention the incredible annoyance of being bombarded with glorified TV commercials at the movies and ballparks. I'd love to tell you the old Soupy Sales line about taking those pictures of the presidents from Mommy and Daddy and mailing them to your old pal George, but I guess I'll let the opportunity pass me by. I'm not saying, by the way, that I'm definitely going to put advertising here, just that it is under consideration. (I'm appointing a blue-ribbon panel composed of several cronies of the Vice President to investigate.)

On a more pleasant note, if you look somewhere on this page, you'll find the correct time (in NYC, at any rate), courtesy of a website called ClockLink.com. I stumbled on their site by accident and was amused by the service they offer. This page isn't nearly cluttered enough yet, so I thought I'd give you all the time of day.

Monday, June 11, 2007

New Italian Films at the Walter Reade

The Film Society of Lincoln Center is midway into their annual survey of Italian film, a program that has become as important as the Rendezvous with French Cinema. This year, I've been up to my ass in alligators for almost all of the press screenings, but I did manage to see on film for Jewish Week, and my review, which did appear on their pages, didn't make it to the website. So here it is:

In the eight months following his liberation from Auschwitz and recovery from typhoid and malnutrition, Primo Levi took a roundabout journey home from Poland by way of Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Romania, Austria and Germany. He documented that strange odyssey in his second book, “The Truce” (also know as “The Reawakening”), a surprisingly humorous and immensely moving volume that should be as well known as his more famous writings about the death camps.

It is that volume, rather than its better-known brethren, that is the jumping-off point for a new documentary by Davide Ferrario, “Primo Levi’s Journey,” which will be shown by the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of their annual showcase of new Italian films this month. And like its literary model, “Journey” meanders usefully across the now-changed landscape of Eastern Europe.

When Levi and his compatriots rode by train across these countries, they had been devastated by five years or more of war. Ferrario and his crew are surveying a landscape less blasted by events but buffeted by an only slightly less violent series of upheavals, the slow-motion collapse of the Soviet system, the lightning-fast end of the Communist era and the traumas of a globalized, unchecked capitalism installing itself. With Levi’s own words (beautifully read by Umberto Orsini) as an occasional guide, the filmmakers attempt to read the future from the past.

While they may not succeed in that endeavor, they paint a convincing picture of a Europe not nearly as changed as it might be. Indeed, one of the most sobering aspects of “Primo Levi’s Journey” is the realization that most of the small towns and cities that Levi and his fellow survivors passed through have change little, mainly through the addition of excruciatingly unattractive Stalin-era architecture and the no-less-dubious ornamentation of Socialist Realist sculptures and monuments. The towns of Poland are filled with pensioners who have been displaced by the new, more efficient methods of Western capital, Ukraine seemingly has exchanged the nationalist fervor of five years earlier for the more homogenized rubbish of European pop culture at its worst, and the only “new horizons” heralded in Romania is the name of an Italian-owned leather goods factory that employs a fifth of the labor force that it would have used before 1989. The oilfields of Ploesti are still ablaze at night, exactly as Levi described them fifty years earlier, and Ferrario finds a bunch of virulent and bullet-headed neo-Nazis on the streets of Munich. This truly is, as one of the film’s chapters is titled, “The New Old Europe.”

In “The Truce” Levi wrote of the final homecoming as being a trial in which the agonizingly earned knowledge of the returnees would be measured against what they found at home. In “Primo Levi’s Journey,” it is his the writer’s old friend and colleague, Mario Rigoni Stern, who offers the final verdict, “I have the treasure you left me, which helps me be less stupid and mean.” But one cannot help but wonder after seeing this film if Levi’s treasure has similarly enriched the rest of us.

“Primo Levi’s Journey” will be shown at the Walter Reade Theatre (70 Lincoln Center Plaza) as part of their series “Open Roads: New Italian Cinema,” which plays through June 14. “Journey” will be shown on Wednesday, June 13 at 6:30 p.m. and Thursday, June 14 at 2 p.m. For information, phone 212-496-3809 or go to www.filmlinc.com.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Another Film Festival on Its Way

Just a quick note to pull your coat to the New York Asian Film Festival 2007, which will be playing at the Japan Society and the IFC Center starting June 22. With so much of the world's most interesting films coming from Taiwan, Korea and Thailand these days, this is an event well worth your time. Besides, where else could you see "a screening of Pakistan’s first splatter film, HELL’S GROUND, with the producers and director in attendance and a magical mystery tour of Pakistani exploitation cinema featuring highlights from some of its most infamous movies, personally selected by the madmen behind the Mondo Macabro DVD label" -- you really can't make this stuff up and why would you want to?

You can check the festival website here, but you'll pardon me if I'm more interested in the retro screening of John Woo's Hardboiled or Patrick Tam's After This Our Exile (an appropriate title for his first directorial effort in 17 years), than in a Pakistani splatter film.

More sadness

When I noted the death of our female cat Stella in a recent post, I never suspected that I would be reporting less than two week later that her brother Walter would be following her so soon. What we thought was the inevitable outcome of Stella's liver problems turned out to be something else, either a contagious disease or something that both cats ingested somewhere in the apartment. And sometime around 2-3 a.m. Friday, Walter died, too. I buried him next to his sister in one of his favorite cardboard boxes, with an old sweater of Margo's and a down vest of mine, both of which he had annexed for himself. Suddenly the apartment is uncomfortably quiet, especially at night, and I am dreading Monday when I will find myself here alone for the first time in over seven years.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Stan Brakhage on the Radio

Have I mentioned UbuWeb and the Internet Archive before? (Hey I've been doing this for 18 months and if you think I remember every post, you're giving me way too much credit, but I appreciate the vote of confidence.)

UbuWeb and the Internet Archive are two of the great resources available on the Internet, repositories of vast amounts of film, music, radio and text that runs the gamut from B westerns and live concert tapes (on the Archive) to Ubu's incredible collection of avant-garde radio programming. It's all free and, so far as I can tell, legal, right there for your downloading pleasure.

The reason I raise this now is that UbuWeb has recently added a really thrilling collection, a 20-episode radio show that the late Stan Brakhage recorded in 1982 at the University of Colorado radio station, KAIR. In addition to the shows themselves as MP3 files, they also have a PDF file of complete transcriptions of the programs. I have very mixed feelings about Brakhage as a filmmaker but enormous respect for his energy, intelligence and integrity as both a filmmaker, theorist and human being. I suspect I'll be listening to these radio shows all through the next couple of weeks. (Probably when I'm supposed to be working.)

Friday, June 08, 2007

Beefing Up the Ten-Best List

Well, it's been a great week for new releases in New York City. (If you don't live here, my apologies and condolences). I'm pretty sure that two of the new releases playing in town will be on my ten-best list come the new year (the secular new year -- not Rosh Hashanah, although it might be amusing to do a Jewish ten-best list every fall).

The first is one of the delayed openings from last fall's New York Film Festival, Manoel de Oliveira's delicious Bunuel hommage, Belle Toujours. Back in October this is what I wrote and I see no reason to take back a word:

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.

It's playing at the Lincoln Plaza (63rd and Broadway) in Manhattan.

The other gem -- and like the Oliveira, it's a smallish film with a delightful witty edge -- is the Romanian film 12:08, East of Bucharest, by Corneliu Porumboiu, currently at Film Forum. The wit here is very dry, a little edgy and politically pointed. The set-up is simple: Jderescu (Teo Corban) is a spectacularly self-important TV presenter -- he also owns the station -- in a small city that seems to have been relatively untouched by the 1989 upheavals. He decides to commemorate the 16th anniversary of the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime with a roundtable discussion on the question, did the revolution actually reach here?

Romania is a country that seems to have changed much too little since the fall of Communism, and Porumboiu milks the timidity of his countryman for some wonderfully mean-spirited laughs. Jderescu, understandably, has trouble finding anyone foolhardy enough to appear on the show, and ends up with a hard-drinking high school teacher and a cranky retiree who plays Santa Claus for his neighbors. Of course, these two ne'er-do-wells are set on claiming credit for spearheading the revolution in town, but the viewers who phone in have a rather differnt recollection of events.

Porumboiu shows us this giddy disaster with the same deadpan wit that runs through the entire film, long takes that allow his characters to slowly strangle on their own foolishness and, in the TV studio sequences some wonderfully understated slapstick that extends into the diegetic realm when the TV cameraman struggles with his tripod. 12:08, East of Bucharest is very, very funny, and the film's mordant wit has a real sting to it. Highly recommended.

Finally, BAMCinemathek, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is doing some very exciting programs this month. Their Sundance Institute tribute, which begins on Sunday, June 10, will include Raoul Peck's criminally underrated Lumumba, Nick Broomfield's Soldier Girls (which I haven't seen in over 20 years but have fond memories of) and a program of Maysles Brothers films that apparently includes previously unscreened footage from Gimme Shelter. On Monday, June 11, they have a program very rare Chris Marker films, including his documentary tribute to Yves Montand, The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Singer. (I'll be talking about BAM again in a few weeks when they begin a program of "Overlooked Aldrich.")