Sunday, March 30, 2008

A Temporary Solution (Courtesy of Michael Giltz)

I'm walking around in a haze of sleep deprivation. so for the moment, I'll pass you along to friend and fellow Ira voter Michael Giltz, who did a superb job as vote keeper (Jeb Bush, watch out!); Michael has a comprehensive report on the Iras on his excellent blog POPSURFING.COM. As soon as I get my bearings again I'll add my own ballot, my ten-best list and a few final thoughts on 2007. In the meantime, to all a good(yawn)night.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

The Day Is Upon Us

Yes, the Iras take place tonight. I thought of live blogging from the event itself then I realized that almost the only people who are likely to read it will be sitting there beside me. Plus I don't need the distraction.

I would post my ballot and my ten-best list but as usual there are a couple of things I need to catch before the evening begins and I suspect that they will necessitate changes in both.

At any rate, you shall read the results of the voting tomorrow or thereabouts. (I have not one but two engagements tomorrow during the day, speaking at screenings of Imaginary Witness at the Rockland County Jewish Film Festival and Hiding and Seeking at my shul, Hebrew Tabernacle. Needless to say, I won't be free to write until after that. Oh, and there's the little matter of two stories I have to file for Jewish Week.)

Friday, March 28, 2008

"Art" or "Truth"

Duke Ellington used to say that there were only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. When I taught film to undergrads, I counseled them that there were certain basic elements of film aesthetics that crossed all boundaries -- they applied to animation, abstract non-narrative, documentary, shorts and features -- that all filmmakers ultimately worked with the same two tools, space and time.

All well and good, but there are some questions that those dicta don't answer. What got me thinking about this dilemma as it applies to the non-fiction film is an excellent article by Michael Massing in the current issue of Columbia Journalism Review. I'm up to my neck in deadlines and Ira prep, so I don't have the time right now to comment on it, but I commend the article to your attention. It raises important questions.

What I will say is this: I'm not fundamentally in disagreement with Massing. I do think that there are times when the competing imperatives -- journalistic vs. aesthetic -- put a filmmaker in a difficult position and I would add, hesitantly, that at a time when the U.S. government has become a platform for pathological liars, a filmmaker's first commitment as a citizen and a human being probably should be to truth before art. I haven't seen Meeting Resistance, but I share Massing's enthusiasm for Charles Ferguson's No End in Sight. Moreover, I would argue that it is precisely this film that shows that a lot of the time, the conflict between aesthetics and journalism is a false one, that clarity is an aesthetic virtue as well as sign of good reporting. Ferguson is not a filmmaker by training, but No End in Sight is among the best films to date on the Iraq War.

I know all the arguments about the nature of reportorial objectivity -- I agree with many of them -- but I think that the appearance of objectivity is the least we can ask, and to the extent that objectivity is possible, Ferguson brings it to the table admirably.

At any rate, read the Massing article; it is highly suggestive and should spawn a lot of interesting debate.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Way Out West . . .

As part of my seemingly never-ending prep for the Iras, which take place in our humble home Saturday night (and if you don't know about the Iras, go to the postings for March 25 of last year for the gory details), Margo and I found ourselves watching the James Mangold remake of 3:10 to Yuma last night. As James Cagney and Horst Bucholz say about vivisection in One, Two, Three, it shouldn't happen to a dog. I'm a bit baffled about the thought process that leads a man to remake a film with which he is so clearly out of sympathy; the fact that Mangold and his writers have kept almost nothing from the Delmer Daves film is not inherently a problem, but what they've chosen to replace what they left out is so attenuated, so feeble that it defies comprehension.

By now you've either seen the Mangold or you probably don't intend to. As regular readers know, I'm a convert on the origiinal, having only seen it last year. I think it may be the single most underrated western of the '50s (and given what a great decade that was for the genre, this is high praise). But a film inevitably reflects its period and I can certainly understand a director who, 50 years later, feels the urge to revisit a good piece of material, to reimagine it for his own time. Too bad that this one hasn't got much to add to the discussion.

What does link the two films, besides genre and basic situation -- poor farmer, almost beaten by drought, agrees to put outlaw on the title conveyance and must face down the bad man's gang -- is that each, in a way that reflects the period in which it was made, is an examination of the nature of masculinity and the social responsibilities implied by being a man in America. That the new version has a very confused notion of what those things mean is not surprising; in the early years of the 21st Century, I suspect most of us are uncertain about what it means to be a man. (Sam Shepard probably said it best in The Tooth of Crime: "Teach me to be a man." "A man is too hard. . . . Too many doors into that room.") So William (Logan Lerman), the older son of the farmer Dan Evans (Christian Bale), is presented with two competing visions of male identity. His father is dour, humorless and unhappy, broke and broken by his life experiences, a compromiser and something of a downbeat realist. By comparison the outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) is jaunty, aggressive, self-assured and dangerous in an enticing way. (Or he would be if Crowe weren't such a charmless lug; if he weren't good-looking, he could be the new Broderick Crawford.)

Okay, here's your warning:

Spoiler Coming -- Avert Your Eyes If Must!!!

But at the end of the film, when Dan successfully gets his prisoner onto the train, Charlie Prince (Ben Foster), Wade's second-in-command, shoots him to death. Then Wade steps down from the train, looks incredulously at Charlie and kills him and everyone else in the gang, before getting back on the train to Yuma Prison. So what exactly is the lesson that William is supposed to learn from this? What is Mangold saying about manhood?

The most interesting notion I gleaned from 24 hours of turning this film over and over in my mind was the realization that, fundamentally, the western genre is very much
about the nature of masculinity, among its many other themes. Even a gender-bending western like Johnny Guitar pivots to a large extent around the competing visions of male identity presented by Johnny Logan, the Dancing Kid, Bart, Corey and Old Tom and how Turkey drinks them in. Sure, the final gunfight is between Vienna and Emma, but it starts with Mercedes McCambridge putting one right through Scott Brady's generous forehead. For Ray, in Johnny Guitar as in almost all his films, masculinity is performance, it's dressing up and accessorizing: Jim Stark's red jacket, which ends up on Plato, his ardent worshipper; the Kid snatching up Emma as an unwilling dance partner; Tommy Farrell using his "father's" pocket watch to milk tears from jurors in Party Girl; the knife fight in Hot Blood, like the "chickie run" in Rebel, a theatrical presentation of male ardor rechanneled. That's why I'm always surprised that Ray made so few westerns and, with the exception of Johnny Guitar, they're among his weaker films.

But, to return to the genre, the shifting sands of male identity and desire intersect quite neatly with the other major themes of the western. The whole garden vs. wilderness dichotomy is really about what it means to be civilized in an modernizing world, about abandoning your guns to live by the law (
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), learning to accept a sexualized Other (notably in the Aldrich films Apache and Ulzana's Raid), deciding what part women and children will play in this one-time wilderness as it transitions to garden status (just about every western you can name).

I wonder if there is any other major genre in American film that is as centered on questions of masculinity as this one. I suppose if you accept the old Laura Mulvey line that film is always about the male gaze, yearning to possess the female, then on some level they all do. But even Mulvey has moved away from that position.

At any rate, although I think the film is a pretty complete failure, I'm glad
3:10 to Yuma did good business. Maybe we can get westerns on a more regular basis made again.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Busy, Busy, Busy

No sooner has one festival ended than another one begins. The French series at the Film Society was a bit of a disappointment this year, but New Directors/New Films more than makes up for it. I'll write about the rest of the event in a day or two (it doesn't officially open until the 26th), but for my piece on the Jewish-themed films, go here.

Next week also sees the debut of some non-Festival offerings worth your time. Well, actually, Alexandra, the excellent new Alexander Sokurov film, played the New York Film Festival last fall. It's opening at Film Forum on Wednesday. When it played the festival, I wrote this:

Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov). After his last couple of films, I began to fear that Sokurov had lost his way. I have a sense that Russian Ark represented more of an epistemological break than even he had intended and films like Father and Son feel distinctly like the work of someone treading water until he figures out his next move. (I, for one, wouldn’t be heartbroken if he never completed that trilogy.) In fact, Alexandra feels like a deliberate and refreshing throwback to the political films that Sokurov made around the time the Soviet Union began to collapse. The film is simplicity itself: Alexandra Nicolaevna (the magnificent Galina Vishnevskaya) is the grandmother of a Russian officer stationed in Chechnya, not in a combat zone exactly, but close enough for discomfort. She goes to visit her beloved grandson Denis (Vasily Shevtsov), stays for a few days, meets his comrades, goes into town and becomes friendly with a local Chechen woman, then gets back on the train to go home.

Sokurov deliberately avoids every temptation of melodrama and the film’s palette (it was shot by Alexander Burov) is similarly muted, seemingly coated with a patina of brown dust. Vishnevskaya is commanding as the old woman, bringing all her diva-ness to bear with a delicious show of dignity and self-assurance. Although nothing much happens during the film’s 92 minutes, there is an air of impending violence hanging over events and the town itself is seen as a dilapidated, bullet-riddled wreck, punctuated by a bedraggled open-air market filled with Russian military gear that soldiers have bartered away. With their omnipresent cellphones, the Russians are apparently seldom out of contact with home, but the result is not solace but a sullen dissatisfaction. Like the violence that never happens, the Sokurov’s deep distaste for Vladimir Putin’s imperial venture in Chechnya is never stated but always in the air. The result is one of his best films in a long time.

Another local debut takes place on Tuesday evening at the JCC in Manhattan. The film is a new documentary called Cut: Slicing through the Myths of Circumcision, and it is, needless to say, of particular interest to Jewish audiences (and Muslim ones, too, I would surmise). I approached the film with a complex set of preconceptions and, to the filmmaker's great credit, after it was over my certainties were utterly shaken. My review, which appears in this week's issue of Jewish Week but isn't on the website, is as follows:

It would be entirely too easy to make a joke about the subject of Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon’s thoughtful new documentary, “Cut:Slicing Through the Myths of Circumcision.” After all, Jewish comedians have been doing that for decades. And at the beginning of his film, one expects from its tone that Ungar-Sargon may be planning to do the same.

But “Cut” is a deadly serious and admirably balanced look at the medical, sociological, ethical and religious aspects of male circumcision. The filmmaker interviews a profusion of doctors, activists and rabbis, returning periodically to a non-observant Jewish couple who are preparing for the brit milah of their second son, which we see towards the end of the film.

Ungar-Sargon was himself raised as an Orthodox Jew, and describes his uneasy investigation of this issue as one more step in his “lifelong struggle with Jewish tradition.” As his father notes, he was circumcised by the same mohel who had performed the rite on the filmmaker’s grandfather and father, a detail that underlines the significance of circumcision as a practice that unites Jewish men across generations.

Despite his own misgivings about circumcision, Ungar-Sargon is admirably even-handed in his choice of witnesses and the use of their statements. It would be very easy to caricature some of the odder “intactivist” activists, and one cannot help but bristle a little at the non-Jewish anti-circumcision organizer who says, “I don’t prescribe for Jews at all,” with a certain air of disdain, or the non-observant Jewish anthropologist who takes obvious delight in pointing out the preponderance of Jewish physicians doing research to support the purported medical benefits of the procedure.

Yet it is hard not to be moved when both a midwife and anti-circumcision speaker and the woman rabbi who runs the Reform movement’s Berit Milah program speaking passionately about the responsibility to protect our children. The question remains, of course, whether that is best done by circumcising the male infants or eschewing that practice.

In a sense, the entire film is leading up to the final scene between the director and his father, who has been a highly articulate but intransigent defender of Orthodox ritual. Over the course of making the film, Ungar-Sargon returns to his father in his home study repeatedly, but it is only in their final chat that the older man admits that even he is prepared to acknowledge that the question is a fraught one and that he can live with his son’s answer (or lack thereof).

The questions surrounding male circumcision do not admit of any easy answers but, to his credit, Eliyahu Ungar-Sargon has resisted the easy laugh and the pat response to convey something of the thorniness of the issue. He has confronted in a specifically and intensely Jewish way, and that is all you could possibly ask of a filmmaker under these circumstances.

Cut is a sound piece of documentary filmmaking on a difficult issue. If you want to see it, go here for more information.


Monday, March 17, 2008

It Pays to Stay Awake

Here's another vote for insomnia. It's 2 a.m. as I write this -- as you can probably see by the time it will be posted -- and I was fiddling with the TV a little while ago. Not that I was going to look at the films I'm on deadline to review -- heavens, no. But I was running the dial and stopped at the International Movies on Demand channel (up here in Northern Manhattan, TimeWarner Digital assigns that one to Channel 500), and what should be among the offerings but Roberto Rossellini's 1960 drama "Era Notte a Roma." Now that is what I would call an obscure Rossellini. I mean, the film stars Leo Genn and Sergei Bondarchuk, for crissake.

So why is TimeWarner giving us splendid gift? It's a black-and-white film almost 50 years old, with a cast whose names will mean nothing to anyone but a serious film student. It can't be a belated recognition of the Rossellini centenary (off by two years, folks), or an overdue observance of his 30th yahrzeit (which fell last summer, and I don't think his family observes a yahrzeit, but I must remember to ask Isabella if I ever chance to interview her).

Whatever the reason, I'm delighted and if you are fortunate enough to live somewhere that gets this International Movies on Demand service, you should spend the measly $4.99 and see the film. God only knows when you'll get another chance.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

French in a Flash

Okay, never let it be said that I am not a man of my word. (The word is 'eat.') Here is a quick-and-dirty guide to the Rendezvous with French Cinema, excluding the films I've already reviewed in Jewish Week.

For many years, as I believe I've said before, this was one of my favorite film events on the calendar. Lately, I've fallen out of love with it; the Film Comment Selects, ND/NF, Tribeca and other events have siphoned off a lot of the best films, and the remainder have frequently been either uninspired attempts to imitate American trends or second-rate work from directors who ought to know better. This year was, regrettably, no exception. The Claude Miller, A Secret, was by far the best of the films I saw; frankly, nothing else came close. At any rate, here's the remainder, standing on one foot.

Shall We Kiss? The Miller film was the best of the series, but this sprightly romantic comedy by Emmanuel Mouret was my favorite. The plot is simple but the presentation is complicated, an intricate series of flashbacks and flashbacks within flashbacks. Gabriel (Michael Cohen) and Emilie (Julie Gayet) meet by chance and become friendly one evening. He is somewhat taken aback when she refuses a seemingly innocent kiss. She explains by recounting the story of her friends, Judith (Virginie Ledoyen, more luminous than ever), her husband Eric (Stefano Accorsi) and her oldest friend Nicolas (Mouret). It seems that another seemingly innocent kiss between Judith and Nicolas led to awful complications . . . . Mouret seems set on being another claimant to the title of "the Gallic Woody Allen," but he mugs a lot less and is not nearly as solipsistic as Allen or, say, the insufferable Yvan Attal. This is a film with considerable charm, thanks to a witty script by Mouret and delicious performances by all. A very pleasant surprise.

Those Who Remain. The great thing about programs like this is the opportunity to sample unknown filmmakers. I don't really need anyone to tell me I should take a look at a new film by Claude Miller -- I know that. But I went into this film by Anne Le Ny with a clean screen. Her acting credits are considerable, but I didn't recognize her name and this is her first film as a director. The story is deceptively simple. Bertand (Vincent Lindon) and Lorraine (Emmanuelle Devos) meet while visiting their significant others in the hospital. Each partner has a fairly pernicious form of cancer. Although they are radically dissimilar in temperament -- he is a rather buttoned-down academic, she is a flaky graphic designer -- they bond gradually over their shared misery. Eventually, they end up in bed together, against their better judgment. When their partners die, things begin to fall apart. Le Ny handles the situation with considerable aplomb and a much-needed dose of humor, although the film is, finally, quite somber. It's nice to see Lindon and Devos together again -- his depressed-beagle face works nicely in tandem with her wry moue. An intelligent piece of filmmaking and one that makes me curious to see what Le Ny will do next.

All Is Forgiven. Another first feature, by Mia Hansen-Love, this time with even less information to go on. Pierre Blain (who looks a lot like his late father, Gerard) is a ne'er-do-well with multiple substance abuse problems. He spends his time playing at being a writer and scoring drugs in Vienna, his wife's hometown. They move back to Paris where she (Marie-Christine Friedrich) hopes he will get himself together. He doesn't, and she walks out, taking their daughter with her. Jump ahead 11 years and the daughter Pamela (Constance Rousseau) is a troubled teen, living with her mother. She discovers that her long-lost father is living nearby and seeks him out with predictably painful results for all. Hansen-Love has seen plenty of Cassavettes and learned her lessons well. The film is artfully crafted and thoughtful, but there is something hollow at the center that I can't quite put my finger on. Perhaps it's simply that the script sidesteps major confrontations so that we never get the long-awaited resolution to any situation.

Love Songs and The Feelings Factory. It's a fast downhill slide after that. Love Songs by Christophe Honore (Dans Paris) is a strained and irritating farrago that purports to be a musical about love and lust in contemporary Paris. It is designed as a showcase for the rather cliched maunderings of songwriter Alex Beaupain, who makes one yearn for the cotton-candy artifice of Michel Legrand who is, at least, an honest hack. The revolving-beds plot would take a more appealing cast than Louis Garrel, Ludivine Sagnier, Clotilde Hesme and Gregoire Leprince-Ringuet to work. The Feelings Factory, a second feature by Jean-Marc Moutout is a relentlessly unpleasant film aobut a real estate lawyer (Else Zylberstein) who tries speed-dating in a desperate attempt to ease her loneliness. She ends up with a remarkably unpalatable mate, which is no less than she and the film deserve. If Moutout had any sense of irony, this might have been an amusing film about the traps life sets for the terminally solipsistic. Instead, it is merely a reminder of all those cliches about mad, romantic Parisians. Feh.

The Rendezvous with French Cinema finished up its schedule last night. (Good one, George.) However, several of the films have distributors, most notably A Secret, and I should be both surprised and disappointed if Shall We Kiss? doesn't turn up in theaters sometime in the near future.

And now, on to New Directors/New Films. Big sigh.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Gus van Sant on Wheels

Gus van Sant's latest film, Paranoid Park, opens today and you should definitely run out and see it pronto. When it played the New York Film Festival last year, I said this:

Van Sant continues to explore the nether regions of the teen psyche in this bleak, yet strangely lyrical film about a kid who accidentally causes the death of a security guard then tells no one what has happened. The boy, Alex (Gabe Nevins) is the latest in a series of opaque, impassive protagonists that van Sant has been exploring in his recent, Bela Tarr-influenced films as he turns his back on Hollywood narrative to try something more indeterminate, more elusive. Paranoid Park is probably the most accessible of his films since Elephant, particularly since it lacks that film’s insistently slow rhythms and occasionally offers us a fleeting glimpse into its central figures mind in sumptuously shot skateboarding sequences. The title refers to a skateboard park of sinister reputation in Portland, where the film was shot and set, but it could just as easily stand for the state of mind of its disaffected adolescents. As in Elephant, these kids aren’t exactly rebelling against the world their parents made for them. It’s more like they’re opting out, although without any particular animus or display of strong feelings. An elegant piece of filmmaking and an disturbing ride.

A couple of thoughts occurred to me since then. First, I suspect that the importance for his artistic develoopment of van Sant's remake of Psycho will eventually turn out to be much greater than anyone suspected at the time. On some level, I think that odd venture was van Sant's farewell to the Hollywood paradigm, coming after he had hit the jackpot with Good Will Hunting and had already begun to repeat himself. Psycho must have been something of a purgative, a homeopathic overdose of exactly the thing to which he was becoming allergic, conventional narrative. Since then, he has moved in a wildly different direction with mixed but fascinating results.

The other fleeting thought that raced through my head while thinking again about Paranoid Park is that in some odd way skateboarding is a perfect cinematic subject, kinetic but human. It's the difference between a movie about baseball or boxing, where you can see the protagonists' faces and bodies, and a movie about American football, where everyone is masked and armored. Mind you, I'm not suggesting that everyone run out and make skateboarding movies -- what makes Paranoid Park work so well is precisely what makes most skateboarding films so uninteresting, the inarticulate hopes and dreams of adolescent boys. Personally, I'm not really up for a whole lot of that.

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

I'm not in the habit of recommending films I haven't seen, for obvious reasons. However, Philippe Garrel's 1991 drama J'Entends Plus la Guitarre is getting a belated American theatrical release this week in NYC at the Cinema Village, and I can honestly say that any Garrel film is worth your time. I don't love (or even like) everything he has made, but he is a unique and original voice that has never gotten the attention he deserves here in the States. Judging from the rather convoluted plot synopsis A.O. Scott gives in his enthusiastic review in the today's New York Times, the film sounds like a much more interesting version of several of the lesser works in this year's French series at the Walter Reade. (Yeah, I know, I promised a run-down on that collection. I swear I'll get to it. No, really.)






Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Beavering Away . . .

I've been a busy boy lately. (No wisecracks about the headline, please. Get your minds out of the gutter and back on your work.)

Three film pieces in Jewish Week this time: a short profile of J. Hoberman, who is celebrating his 30th anniversary at the Voice, a longer profile of Ira Sachs, whose Married Life is opening Friday, and a piece on the excellent Robert Hamer It Always Rains on Sunday, which is playing for a week at Film Forum. (I was really surprised to learn from the press notes on the Hamer that Henry Cornelius, creator of the divine Genevieve, perhaps the most sublime of the great Ealing comedies, was a Jew. We really are everywhere.) The juxtaposition of Hamer & Co. with Married Life is particularly fortuitous, because the Sachs has a feeling not unlike the best of the Ealings, no doubt because of the tone that Pierce Brosnan brings to the film's narration. At any rate, both Married Life and Sunday are worth seeking out.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Vivere

One film from last year's Tribeca Festival that I would not have expected to get theatrical release is Angela Maccarone's Vivere, but it opened today (well, yesterday New York time by about 33 minutes). Here's what I said about it last year when I saw it at Tribeca:

Moving back to a more purely cinematic vein, we have Vivere, directed by Angelina Maccarone who is, contrary to her name and the film's title, German and not Italian. (Hey, who knew?) This is her fourth theatrical film, essentially the same story told from the points-of-view of three women grappling with love and alienation. Francesca is a taxi driver in her 20s who is holding her family -- Italian father deserted by German mother, snotty 17-year-old sister Antonietta -- by sheer will. When Antonietta splits with her rock musician boyfriend on Christmas Eve, Francesca reluctantly follows her to Rotterdam. On the way, she becomes burdened with Gerlinde, an older woman who has been the victim of a car crash -- we don't know at first whether it is an accident or a suicide attempt -- depressed because her long-time lover is breaking off the relationship, apparently to return to her husband. With each subsequent repetition of the story, we learn a bit more about the three women and how they have become intertwined with one another. And, for the first two-thirds of the film, this device works adequately. Unfortunately, when we presented at last with Antonietta's version of the story, the film falls apart; the final set of repetitions is just once too often for what turns out to be a rather slender set of events on which to hang a feature film, and Antonietta's understanding of those events is by far the least interesting of the three. More problematic, though, is that Maccarone seems to have no concept of pacing or rhythm and, by the time the film is an hour old, viewers will feel a lot older. Too bad, because she wastes nice performances by Hannelore Elsner as Gerlinde and Esther Zimmering as Francesca; the near-seduction scene between the two of them in a dingy hotel room near the harbor is by far the best moment in the film.

I'll get to the French series this weekend. I would say, however, that with the notable exceptions of the Claude Miller film, A Secret, a charming comedy by Emmanuel Mouret, Shall We Kiss?, and a couple of interesting but problematic melodramas, this year's offerings were disappointing.( Of course, the fact that some of the more interesting recent French films were in the Film Comment series probably doesn't help.) The Miller, I'm told, has a distributor and I suspect that the Mouret will shortly.