Thursday, February 28, 2008

W. C. Heinz, R.I.P.

He was 93 years old, so I can't say I was exactly shocked to pick up today's New York Times and see an obituary for W.C. Heinz. But I was saddened. Heinz was one of the best prose stylists in American journalism in the 20th Century, and I cherish the hour or so I spent on the phone interviewing him several years ago for a piece on journalists in danger. He was warm and engaging, utterly forthright about his feelings covering WWII, just as I had always thought he would be.

According to the Powell's Books website, at least five of his books are available. You can probably do even better if you use bookfinder.com. If you have never read Heinz, I recommend just about any of his work, but you should probably start with the piece cited in his Times obit, "The Morning They Shot the Spies," and move on from there to his sports journalism. I believe it is currently out of print, but you should definitely seek out Once They Heard the Cheers, a unique and moving journey in which Heinz revisits the subjects of some of his best pieces. Nobody wrote more movingly or perceptively about the state of mind of the former athlete, and his introductory essay captures beautifully the experience of the returning veteran (in his case, war correspondent) trying to find his old place in the world.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Israeli Jests, French Jews and An Amish Ernest Borgnine

Well, better late than never, I always say. (Gets very boring after a while, though.) Eran Kolirin's The Band's Visit opened three or four weeks ago, but I finally caught up with it on Monday. It's really quite a lovely little film, well worth a trip to the Angelika or the Lincoln Plaza if you're in NewYork City. My review runs this week in Jewish Week.

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As Daryl Chin noted Saturday in his excellent blog, the sudden profusion of Jewish-themed films from France is something of an oddity. The French have always taken a sort of arm's-length attitude toward their minorities, particularly the Jews (or so it seems to me), and that desire for distance extends into their movies. Obviously there are notable exceptions, Jean Renoir being the most distinguished and empathetic. But the presence of three films in this year's "Rendezvous with French Cinema" that deal directly with France's Jews and, more particularly, the Shoah, is unusual, to say the least. At any rate, it gave me plenty to write about in my Jewish Week survey of the event. I'll get to the other films from the series that I saw in a day or two. The 'Rendezvous," which opens on Friday, used to be one of my favorite film events of the year, but the last few have been dispiritingly ordinary. Claude Miller's A Secret, which I discuss in the JWeek piece, is an honorable exception, easily the best film I saw in the series.

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Monday was a singular day for me. I saw five films -- A Secret (on a DVD screener), Richard Fleischer's Violent Saturday at a press screening at Film Forum (and I'll tell you more momentarily), two films in Forum's Sidney Lumet series, A Third of a Nation and Bye Bye Braverman, and finally, The Band's Visit. I'd love to report that I came home energized and immediately pulled out a DVD of something memorable to keep the day going, but Margo and I actually watched an L&O rerun (what else?) and went to bed.

As I have noted earlier this month, there was a time when I thought nothing of seeing four or five movies in a day, and would do so several times a week. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I can still sustain that pace once in a while. It helps that of the five films, three were very good (the Fleischer, the Miller and the Kolirin), and another was quite interesting (Dudley Murphy's A Third of a Nation). The Lumet was funny for the first fifteen minutes but the joke quickly wears thin and, despite a cast that features George Segal, Sorrell Booke, Joseph Wiseman and Jack Warden, Braverman runs out of gas pretty severely after that initial quarter-hour.

The Murphy, on the other hand, is classic 1930s agitprop, leavened by some oddball expressionist touches like a tenement that vocally sneers at would-be reformers. There's the usual lachrymose Sylvia Sidney performance, but Sidney and his father, Baruch Lumet, are both quite good and Myron McCormick is his usual splendid self, younger than I can imagine him every having been. Watching a film like this inevitably brings up the question of whether it is possible to make a truly radical film using a traditional narrative form like melodrama. But its concerns are ultimately reformist rather than revolutionary, so the question is moot.

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A Third of a Nation was actually my second Sylvia Sidney film of the day. Until I saw the credits at the beginning of Violent Saturday, I had forgotten that she plays the local librarian, an offspring of the founder of Bradenville, the southwestern copper mining town in which the film is set. I have long thought that, with the possible exception of The Narrow Margin, this is Richard Fleischer's best film, and seeing it on a big screen confirmed that opinion. The new 35mm print that Film Forum will be showing beginning Friday is a good one; the color is a bit reddish, but it's De Luxe color, so that is to be expected and, given the setting of the film, actually sort of fits.

As for the film itself, it is an interesting collision of genres. Although the '50s gave us some of the best musicals, westerns and noirs, the central genre of the decade is, I believe, the family melodrama. That is what Violent Saturday really is, a family melodrama with several strands of unhappy bourgeois homes, shattered by the arrival of a trio of bank robbers (the marvelous triad of Stephen McNally, J. Carroll Naish and Lee Marvin). The film is full of strange undercurrents, some drawn in deft brushstrokes by Fleischer and screenwriter Sidney Boehm, others merely suggested. But ultimately, for all its announced violence -- remember, this is the movie in which Ernest Borgnine plays an Amish farmer driven to a particularly nasty act of violence to save Victor Mature's life -- it is the subtle eruptions of sexuality that really steer the plot and are at the center of its themes. Violent Saturday is a film that would sit comfortably alongside Bigger Than Life, Written on the Wind and Anatomy of a Murder as a study of how the rampant libido can tear apart the American home. And like those three, it is also an essay on how class intersects with sex in 1950s America. Great, nasty fun, and you have to love a movie in which Lee Marvin deliberately steps on a ten-year-old's hand and J. Carroll Naish hands another tot a handful of candies and tells him, "Now go over there, stick those in your kisser and suck on 'em."

The film's only real lapse is the casting of Richard Egan as the liquor-soaked son of the local copper baron. I wish someone would explain this man's career to me. He's not a particularly good actor and he's not that good-looking. What the heck is he doing as the lead or co-lead in so many movies? Anyone have a clue?


Friday, February 22, 2008

Dark Days Fore and Aft

Here's a movie recommendation for you. Stefan Ruzowitzky's The Counterfeiters is one of the more inventive films about the Holocaust, a tight little offering that works as both a meditation on morality and community and as a suspense film. My review, in this week's Jewish Week, is here.

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Sad news from outside the film world. As some of you know, I am an ardent follower of English football (a hangover from my brief and undistinguished career as a defensive midfielder at Lawrence Junior High and Lawrence High). Anyway, the great -- and greatly troubled -- Paul Gascoigne, the George Best of his generation, i.e., an immensely talented footballer whose off-field antics wrecked his career and his life, was picked up by Newcastle police and committed under the Mental Health Act after he caused a disturbance at a hotel. For all you film folks who don't know about Gascoigne, I think the best analogy would probably be Sam Peckinpah, a man whose demons chased him out of the film industry despite a monumental talent.

On Gascoigne's website there is a sentence that reads, "Sometimes it isn't much fun being Paul Gascoigne." Understatement, to say the least. Gazza, as he is known, is someone who has wrestled with alcoholism, depression and panic attacks, apparently for all of his adult life. This latest chapter in his downward spiralling saga just makes me feel very, very sad.




Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Truly a Cinema to Die For

Whatever fantasies we have entertained about dying to save a movie, there are people who have really had to choose between film and death. I want to draw your attention to a story in today's Guardian, about the remarkably heroic men who saved some historically significant items from the former Afghani cinematheque. Puts this stuff into a very different light, no?

Monday, February 18, 2008

Robbe-Grillet Dies -- I Hope He Hadn't Read My 'Marienbad' Piece

I swear I had nothing to do with Alain Robbe-Grillet's death this morning. Heck, I didn't even wish him ill. On the other hand, I have to say that of all the nouveau roman writers, I think his work has worn the worst, and as a filmmaker, he wasn't much more than a very slick smut-merchant. But I guess I said all that a few weeks ago.

I will say this in his defense: as writers of fiction-as-a-rarefied-form-of-puzzle-making go, he was moderately amusing, neither as intellectually rigorous as Borges nor as playful as Calvino. And as my mother always tells me, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." So I'll stop here. for a somewhat more reverential take on the author/director and his work, go here
or here or here.

Spring Is Coming

I know, because pitchers and catchers have reported (the five most beautiful words in the English language). Also because I have done my spring arts preview pieces for Jewish Week. I won't bother you with the music preview (although you are welcome to read it, obviously), but the film preview can be found in two parts: short pieces on three films here, and a list of ten other upcoming film events of Jewish interest here. Come to think of it, at two of the featured music events are also film-related, so check those out here.

In the next day or two I'll run down some of the films in this year's Film Comment Selects series at the Walter Reade.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

News, News, News

A couple of items to which I want to draw your attention. In fact, these would seem to be linked in theme, namely, how do we see older films.

First, the exciting news that a sizeable consortium of European film archives is being created to make rare films available on-line for free.


And a very depressing piece from the San Francisco chronicle about the economics of running a rep house. If a rep programmer can't make a go in SF, there really isn't much hope left for seeing older films on a big screen, is there?

It's sort of a cruel irony. When I first started studying and writing about film, there were so many titles that were nearly impossible to see, films that were supposedly lost, films that were out of circulation due to rights issues, films that just never turned up on television. And, of course, letterboxing was unheard of, so seeing a widescreen film on television was a form of medieval torture. But there were dozens of repertory houses in New York City. As I noted in my posting of Jan. 22, I used to run from the Elgin to the New Yorker, or the Regency or Theater 80 St. Marks, and so on. Now I just look at my mailbox to see what Netflix has sent. On the positive side, I now own -- on disk or tape -- hundreds of films that I could only dream of seeing 30 years ago. If I want a Cinematheque, I just have to walk across my living room (or my office, or our downstairs parlor -- damned things have proliferated so much that the only places in the apartment that I don't have DVDs or VHS tapes are the bathrooms), and there are 20 Ozu films at hand.

But there simply is no substitute for seeing a film in an audience, on a big screen, in a theater. And the opportunity to do that for older films is obviously fading like a Metrocolor print.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Don't Go Away Yet

I know, I've been derelict in my duties to my readers and to all those nice people who invite me to screenings and send me screeners. Okay, I'm sorry. Very, very sorry. (Don't say it.)

At any rate, the Museum of Modern Art is embarking on their annual Documentary Fortnight shortly and you can find my review of two of the films from that series here. Some very interesting films on offer, by the way.

The 12th Annual New York Sephardic Jewish Film Festival kicks off tonight and that is worthy of note simply because as the festival has grown, the quality of the films has done likewise. There are several notable items this year, and you can find my review here.

For everyone except the Ira voters, 2007 is over. Senses of Cinema has compiled their annual poll of critics and filmmakers and it's online at their website. if nothing else, this multinational gathering proves again how quirky global distribution has become. Sokurov's Alexandra, which is a real return to form for him, is on several people's lists. It would be on mine too, except it isn't opening here until the end of March. Go figure.

Tomorrow, hopefully, I'll be back in the saddle again (out where a friend is a friend, where the lonesome tumbleweed . . . oh, skip it), and play a little catch-up on recent releases.