Monday, July 30, 2007

What Do You Call a Broadcast Billionaire Who Hates the First Amendment?

How about, "His honor, the Mayor?"
On the whole, I've been pleasantly surprised by Michael Bloomberg's performance as mayor of New York. Unlike his predecessor, he has actually tried to be a mayor for the whole city, not just the think-tankers at the Manhattan Institute and a handful of other aging white men. And he is open to appeals to reason.

Except, it would seem, when it comes to First Amendment rights. As a case in point, one could refer to the way the city handled protests during the Republican National Convention, but for our purposes -- this is, after all, a blog about matters cinematic -- it might be more useful to direct your attention to this story on INDIEWire about the attempt to revise the rules governing film and photo permits. As you can see from Agnes Varnum's excellent reporting, the city is trying -- whether by design or foolishness -- to strangle documentarians and independent filmmakers in red tape.

Look, I'm a First Amendment absolutist by both ideology and temperament. (Okay, I'm a Stalinist by temperament. You got a problem with that, you can take it up with my right fist.) And as a writer I believe that the First Amendment is not some high-flown piece of idealism -- this is a bread-and-butter issue for me and my colleagues. As the Lenny Bruce character pleads in the Julian Barry play Lenny, "Don't take away my words!" Needless to say, for a filmmaker, the right to shoot is tantamount to the same thing. But I also recognize a compelling need for the State to balance the rights of ordinary citizens -- those who aren't making a movie -- their ability to navigate the streets, their right to privacy and so on.

What it comes down to is this: the city of New York wants the money, the attention and the prestige that comes from being one of the most-filmed places on earth. It's good for business, good for tourism and good for the ego. But it doesn't want the messiness of having to deal with the process of filming. If there were a way to make movies without actually filming on the streets, city officials would be all for it. As it is, they're stuck, so they try to make life difficult for those who have the least clout. Ironically, those are the people whose shoots involve the least disruption. In this respect, Mayor Mike is no different from his predecessor, Savanarola. If they could turn the entire city over to the Disney organization, they would.

At any rate, I suggest you visit the website of the new organization that has come together to fight this battle for the indies, Picture New York. The filmmaker you save may be your own.

*******************************

I know what you're thinking.

Is he not going to say something about Ingmar Bergman?

Sure, why not?

Anyone who knows me well is aware that Bergman has never been one of my favorite filmmakers. As a director of performances he has few equals and I suspect his theater work was extraordinary. But I have always felt that he had little affinity for "motion pictures" in the simplest sense of "pictures that move." Watching Wild Strawberries for a few minutes on TCM several months ago, I was struck once more by how studied the compositions are, what wonderful still photos they make, and how clumsily Bergman gets from one splendidly composed frame to another. To be blunt, with a very few exceptions, he never seemed a natural, and I always felt like I was being beaten over the head with his seriousness. And yet . . . .

Anyone who could make Monika, Smiles of a Summer Night, Persona, The Touch, Scenes from a Marriage and Wild Strawberries (without the opening dream sequence) is not an artist to be dismissed with a shrug. I could happily live forever without sitting through The Seventh Seal ever again -- if ever there was a film that seems to have been made for the express purpose of allowing callow undergraduate boys to impress unsuspecting coeds with their seriousness . . . .

But there probably aren't ten filmmakers in history who were better with actors, and that is no small thing.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Witness's Responsibility

The Devil Came on Horseback, the new documentary by Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg, may not be the best non-fiction film you will see this year, although it is quite good. But it is probably the most important one you will see because the events it depicts are ongoing -- the genocide being committed on behalf of the Sudanese government in Darfur. Don't let the conmen from President Omar al-Bashir's government tell you otherwise. I'm not a diplomat and I don't have to use the soft weasel-words of professional diplomacy; Bashir is a liar, his subordinates are liars, his government is directly complicit in mass murder. If you don't believe that, you really must see this film. In the meantime, though, you can read this story in The Economist, hardly a source of left-winging hysteria.

If you are interested in my chat with Ricki Stern, the co-director, it's in this week issue of Jewish Week and you can find it on line here. The film is playing at the IFC Center, and you should go. After that, you should surf on over to the Save Darfur Coalition and help out.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Strange Bedfellows Indeed

This one comes from CinemaTech, otherwise I wouldn't have read the NYTimes story involved. It seems that the studios are, with great relish, sending advance copies of all their new releases to the quasi-porn site, MrSkin.com, which prides itself on having an astonishingly complete catalog of nude scenes by actresses in the movies. The website enjoyed revenues of over $5 million dollars last year, almost all of it from selling subscriptions to the site that allow a surfer to watch clips of said naked ladies.

Here is the good part. You might ask, why aren't the studio lawyers coming after Jim McBride, the CEO of MrSkin.com for copyright violation? Because the studios -- as previously noted -- are the ones who supply him with the films. MrSkin.com claims to be a movie-review site and that the clips represent fair use, a debatable but clever premise, but it doesn't matter.

The Times story, by Andrew Adam Newman, notes, "The site’s membership is 98.4 percent men; members spend an average of 13 minutes at the site per visit." That is probably because the nude performers indexed by the site are all female. I suspect that a similar website showing actors wouldn't make as much money, but I doubt if it would go broke.

So I am considering a policy whereby paid subscribers to Cine-Journal would be able to see fabulous film clips of me naked. Or maybe I'll post the clips and ask subscribers to pay NOT to see them.

Monday, July 23, 2007

On Film and Off

A couple of interesting film-related e-mails crossed my virtual desk today. First Run Features, which has one of the most fascinatingly variegated catalogs of any distributor I know, is releasing two new DVDs that are worth a look. The first, Lizzie Borden's deliciously funny Working Girls, is a deft skewering of male sexuality as seen by an ill-assorted group of prostitutes. The film, which was released in 1986 hasn't been seen much since its initial theatrical run, which is a shame because it is witty and trenchant and puts on-screen a point-of-view that is still not aired too often.

The other film First Run is releasing on disk is the controversial September 11. What sparked controversy at the time of the film's release in 2002 was the fact that several of the eleven directors who participated in its making did not show a proper awe for the Stars and Stripes. Ken Loach, for example, chose to remind viewers of another catastrophic 9/11, the day that the Chilean military overthrew the elected government of Salvador Allende and murdered him and thousands of others, with the connivance of the U.S. In truth, my recollection is that much of this film is more irrelevant than irreverent, with Sean Penn's lachrymose offering representing the nadir of soft-headed sentimentality, but the episodes by Loach, Samira Makhmalbaf, Amos Gitai (who chose to stage his 11-minute segment in a single dizzying take) and Shohei Imamura are worth a look. Both DVDs will be available on August 21 from First Run.

Finally, I want to draw your attention to an item that is considerably more important than a new DVD or another theatrical release. In the past few months The Decider has decided that he is now completely above the Constitution. On May 9, Dubya issued "National Security Presidential Directive/NSPD 51" and "Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD-20," in which he says that in the event of a catastrophic attack he, and he alone, is entrusted with leading the entire federal government, not just the Executive Branch. He also gives himself the responsibility “for ensuring constitutional government.” (I assume that means that in the event of a catastrophic attack, Dubya will finally show some interest in constitutional government, which would be a welcome change.) For a more detailed look at what this means, I refer you to Matthew Rothschild's column in The Progressive.

But wait, folks, that's not all. Besides the Ginsu knives he's planning to stick in your back, Dubya is also preparing to punish dissent in the most direct way possible, by seizing the assets of anyone who obstructs his "reconstruction of Iraq." In an exective order issued on July 17, he gives the Secretary of the Treasury the authority to freeze the assets of any person opposing Bush’s Iraq policy who may have committed an act of violence, or even posed “a significant risk of committing” such an act, or “assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, logistical, or technical support” for others committing such acts." Now that is a nice broad net he's throwing out, and I assume that by writing this post I have just become ensnared in it. (My assets are so meager that I'm as judgment-proof as O.J., and a hell of a lot more innocent.) Again, I refer you to Matthew Rothschild and The Progressive.

What has all this to do with film? As Jimmy Stewart says to Rock Hudson in Anthony Mann's Bend of the River, in a similar context, "If you don't know, I can't tell you."

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Slightly Off-Topic but Completely On Target

I think that the phrase "canaries in the mineshaft" belongs on that list of metaphors to be retired, along with "Proust's madeleine" and other little hints that writers often drop to tell their readers "See, I read books." I feel comfortable saying that because I will confess to doing it myself from time to time. However, that's not what I want to write about here.

In truth, in societies in the throes of violent change, Jewish intellectuals are often very useful barometers of danger, like those damned canaries. The most obvious example is Weimar Germany, where Jewish cabaret artists and satirists saw the coming of the dark times more clearly than most (other than Bertolt Brecht, from whom the phrase "the dark times" comes). And few were more prescient than Kurt Tucholsky, who is all but forgotten outside the Germanophone world. Tucholsky was a left-wing democrat, a socialist and pacifist, as well as a sparkling wit and songwriter.

The reason I draw your attention to Tucholsky is that so much of his writing from the '20s and '30s resonates powerfully in today's atmosphere of strangulated discomfort and choked-off rage. You can find his scathing piece on the life of a fetus (written in 1927, long before Pat Robertson and his ilk were able to formulate a coherent sentence) and many other pieces ably translated by American ex-pat blogger Indeterminacy at http://kurttucholsky.blogspot.com
In addition, the excellent music blog Zero G Sound has several recordings of Tucholsky's songs and stories here. (I cannot vouch for the legality of these MP3s; all I will say is that they are German recordings, hard to find in the States but available through the Internet.) Finally, several of Tucholsky's books, including his novel Castle Gripsholm, about his exile in Sweden after the Nazi ascent to power, are available in English. Check out Powell's Books for more info.

To put this back on a cinematic footing, Gripsholm has been filmed twice, in Germany in 1963 by Kurt Hoffman, with Walter Giller as the author, and again in Switzerland in 2000 by Xavier Koller, with Ullrich Noethen as Tucholsky. I haven't seen the '63 version but was disappointed by the Swiss film. When it played New York in 2003 I wrote, "As directed by Xavier Koller (best known for the Oscar-winning “Journey of Hope”), the result is sentimental and predictable, with old friends parting as enemies divided by the rising tide of Nazism."

Friday, July 20, 2007

Patrice Leconte, Jack of All Directorial Trades


Patrice Leconte's latest film, My Best Friend, has finally had its theatrical release and is currently playing at the Lincoln Plaza and the IFC Center. When it was at Tribeca, I had this to say:

Patrice Leconte strikes me as a sort of Gallic version of Henry Hathaway. He is a dependable director whose filmography is filled with excellent genre pieces, most notably M. Hire, Intimate Strangers and Ridicule. He’s much too skilled a technician and surrounds himself with too many good people to create disasters. And like Hathaway, his work doesn’t bespeak a strong stylistic or thematic identity, but the results are too damned likeable to ignore. The beauty of Leconte is that there just aren’t that many solid craftspersons working in either French or American film any more. I cannot think of a contemporary equivalent of Hathaway in America or Leconte in France.

That said, it must be noted that My Best Friend is one of his slighter works, a pleasant trifle about a cold, calculating antiques dealer (Daniel Auteuil) who is bluntly informed at his birthday party that none of his colleague particularly like him. Even his partner (Julie Gayet), who seems genuinely sympathetic to his bewilderment at this discovery, is not above accepting when he proffers a wager that he can produce his “best friend” within ten days. When he meets a cabbie (Dany Boon) who seems to have a real gift for friendship, he decides to study him in the hope of learning how to make friends. It’s a slender premise, aided immeasurably by Auteuil’s cool demeanor and Boon’s goofiness. The end result is predictable but, appropriately enough, amiable.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

While Murdoch Wastes Time and Money Acquiring Dow Jones. . .

The ever-expanding empire of the Ira-voters just gets bigger all the time. Michael Giltz is the latest to add to his already full platter yet another choice dish; as of yesterdayk, Brother Giltz is now reviewing DVDs for The Huffington Post. (Given that MG is the closest thing to a centrist in the organization, I must remember to ask him how he feels surrounded by all those left-wingers.) Michael kicks things off in fine style with Wilder's Ace in the Hole, a Brit mystery series and a poolful of Esther Williams films.

Which reminds me of the time I was studying the MGM musical under the tutelage of my friend and thesis advisor, Steve Handzo, who said to me with an utterly straight face that the next big rediscovery from Metro would be the Williams musicals. Fortunately, the local ABC station in the Apple was doing a five-day series of her films in what was then their afternoon movie slot (long since replaced by Oprah or somebody like her). So I watched all of them. Undoubtedly you all know how that turned out. If Cheny and Bush are looking for another torture method for the poor bastards being held in Guantanamo, I can recommend Ms. Williams's cinematic exploits, guaranteed to make anyone confess to anything. Many years later, this particular Queen Esther authored an autobiography which my wife read as part of her duties at the New York Times Book Review; surprisingly enough, Margo says it is a smart and very funny book. Seems Ms. Williams had a more developed sense of irony than the filmmakers she with whom she worked.

Speaking of comic irony, you would be much better off dropping in at the Museum of Modern Art which is in the midst of a comedy series that runs through September 23. Drawing on their own formidable collection, MoMA is showing 29 films, including such not-to-be-missed pleasures as It Should Happen to You (Judy Holliday directed by George Cukor), McCarey's Ruggles of Red Gap, Show People (in which King Vidor proves that Marion Davies was no Susan Alexander Kane), Bananas (when Woody Allen was still satisfied with being very, very funny), The White Sheik, which is one of the few Fellini films I can still watch, Ozu's wonderfully wry I Was Born But . . . , Adam's Rib (Cukor again), and a Laurel and Hardy triple-bill. Nothing very rare, although seeing these films in 35mm prints is rare enough, but a delightful selection all the same.
Speaking of New York City and the movies, Film Forum's annual summer noir series is centered on those films that depict my hometown as the dark and sinister place we all know it to be. They're calling the series NYC Noir, although some of the inclusions don't quite fit that label. I'm thinking of Joseph Sargent's underrated Taking of Pelham One Two Three, which is definitely post-noir by at least 15 or 20 years. Again, not to many rarities -- Deadline at Dawn, Harold Clurman's only excursion behind the camera, and a triple-bill of Blast of Silence, Cop Hater and The Tattooed Stranger certainly qualify -- but 35mm prints and some great films. You definitely should try to get to Siodmak's Cry of the City on August 21; this is one of the most unfairly neglected films in the cycle, with memorably edgy performances by Richard Conte and Victor Mature and one of the great cinematic gargoyles of all time from Hope Emerson.

Interspersed with the noirs are a series of NY-set silent films, again mostly familiar fare but one should never pass up a chance to Sternberg's Docks of New York, and I am thrilled by the inclusion of Paul Fejos's legendary film Lonesome, which has been impossible to see for as long as I can remember. I'm sorry they aren't including Allan Dwan's East Side, West Side, a minor gem with George O'Brien, which I was lucky enough to catch in the Dwan series at the Walter Reade several years ago, but they are showing Dwan's Manhandled, with an emphatic and funny performance from Gloria Swanson. If you only know Swanson from Sunset Boulevard and Airport 1975, you must see her in her prime, if only so you'll know what she meant when she told Bill Holden, "We had faces then!"

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Random Notes from the State of Exhaustion

It's near New Jersey.

The cause of the long silence on this page (comparatively speaking) is a combination of total physical and mental exhaustion and a complete lack of anything much to say. I've reached that point in the summer when I don't want to even think about going out of the apartment, let alone to a movie, have been skipping screenings regardless of the film, sleeping late and staying up late. Plus most of my recent assignments have been music stories, so there isn't even much to link you to.

That said, I did watch about a half-hour of Billy the Kid vs. Dracula. I won't say I was anticipating this epic, although I certainly was aware of its existence. I taped both this epic and its companion piece, Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter courtesy of TCM, but couldn't bring myself to watch any more than the first 30 minutes of the aforementioned BKvD. You have to wonder what exactly happened to William Beaudine. I mean, here's a guy who directed Sparrows, which is generally considered one of Mary Pickford's best films. By the mid-'30s he's doing Torchy Blaine films and from there it's only a short step to the Bowery Boys and these two western-horror mashup, which make the Bowery Boys movies look positively Bressonian. I mean, who did he piss off (or on, as Lee Tracy might have added)?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

More Skullduggery by New Labour

Looks like the British Film Institute is about to become the latest casualty of the now-departed Tony Blair and his odiferous policies. Hard to believe that this telejerk ever was a socialist, but then so was Mussolini. At any rate, you can read the bad news in the Guardian, right here. The whole story bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the kind of priority-making that the AFI used to engage in.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

A Quick, Sad Note

I just read an e-mail from friend Daryl Chin (of Documents on Art & Cinema) telling me that Edward Yang died Friday after a long battle with colon cancer. This one makes me very sad. Anyone who could make a film as vibrant with life and as full of the balanced bittersweetness of it all as Yi Yi is an artist we will surely miss. At the risk of sounding maudlin, the world seems a poorer place anytime someone like that leaves it.