Thursday, April 24, 2008

Out of the Starting Gate at Tribeca

This year, the good folks at the Tribeca Film Festival chose to press-screen many films before the festival opened (which it did Wednesday night). Needless to say, as regular visitors to this lemonade stand have surmised, I didn't get out much the past two weeks, so missed all but one of those screenings. But I didn't sit idly by letting the festival pass without me; thanks to the wonders of the DVD, I was able to do a little prescreening of my own, and the result is my piece in the new issue of Jewish Week, which you can find here. As you can see, there are several interesting Jewish-themed offerings in the festival. (Okay, Katyn, the Wajda isn't exactly Jewish-themed, but you can see why I included it.)

And I finally got downtown to pick up my press credentials and slipped into one of the remaining pre-festival screenings. As a wise man once said, "I shoulda ate the eclair." I saw about 75 minutes of Amos Poe's three-hour Empire II, ostensibly an homage to Andy Warhol's (in)famous Empire, an eight-hour epic consisting almost entirely of a series of reel-long takes of the Empire State Building at night. I saw a 45-minute sequence from the Warhol many years ago at MoMA and much to my surprise enjoyed it thoroughly. almost a parody of the idea of early cinema, the fascination with the mere fact of movement which, obviously, Warhol's film lacks. Intentionally or not, it is a wonderful riposte to all those fathers and mothers who grabbed a home movie camera, pointed it at the kids and said, "Don't stand there! It's a movie camera -- move!"

Unfortunately, what Poe has devised -- at least in the film's first third -- is a variation on what somebody would do with their very first video camera. Empire II is an encyclopedic collection of visual tics based on the possibilities of zoom, rack focus, color filters, light flashes and pointless camera hysterical movement, all of them on display in a seeming tribute to the New York cityscape. Within that first 75 minutes there are some moments of startling, transcendant beauty, particularly when Poe is using water and ghostly black-and-white printing (or filters?) with the result that city dissolves into a series of ghostly liquid hallucinations. And I never get tired of seeing my hometown on film. But between the infuriatingly fragmented soundtrack (can't we hear a song all the way through just once, especially when it's Patti Smith?) and the repetitive shapelessness of Empire II, there was just no way I could stick it out. I won't say that I hope the rest of the festival will be better -- there are some pretty significant pleasures to be had in the films I've reviewed already -- but I sure hope it won't get worse.

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Just a couple of other quick items to pass along. If you don't go to any other movies the rest of the spring -- and there are plenty of good ones out there right now, so you really should go to as many as you can -- you should get down to the IFC Center on the next six weekends for their series of masterpieces by Kenji Mizoguchi. It is a source of unending amazement and dismay to me and many others that so few of Mizoguchi's films get shown in the U.S., that almost none of them are available on disk, that there is almost no English-language literature on this most sublime of Japanese directors -- hell, one of the most sublime directors from anywhere. If you are in New York and have never seen a Mizoguchi film -- and these days there's a good chance you haven't -- then by all means, go to the IFC Center. It's hard for me to sum up Mizoguchi in a short space, but suffice it to say that he stands alongside Max Ophuls as one of the great poets of camera movement. Mizoguchi is at once a full-blooded romantic and an incisive analyst of the movement of history and how it crushes ordinary people. I'm sorry that the series doesn't include the two late films I consider to be his greatest, The Empress Yang Kwei Fei and Tales of the Taira Clan, but the ones they are showing are pretty special.

In the meantime, speaking of film festivals, the competition list has been posted for this year's Cannes festival and it suggests that this already rich film year is about to get even better. Among the filmmakers with new films opening at Cannes are the Dardenne brothers, Wim Wenders, Clint Eastwood, Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Atom Egoyan, Arnaud Desplechin, Philippe Garrel, Pablo Trapero and Lucretia Martel. (I'm rather less thrilled by the prospect of a new Spielberg Indiana Jones epic and a four-hour double-feature biopic about Che Guevara by Steven Soderbergh, whose charms have been, until now, lost on me, not to mention another Woody Allen.) In "Un Certain Regard" this year's slate includes new films by Raymond Depardon, Abel Ferrara and Kiyoshi Kurosawa. Could be a very good festival on the beach this May. I'm sure my friend and fellow Ira voter Michael Giltz is packing already. (Check out his blog to see if he's ready to go yet.)

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Playing Catch-Up

Two weeks after my knee surgery and I'm still a bit wobbly. At least that's the excuse I'm using to explain a longer than usual silence in this space. In fact, an entire week spent at home, followed by Passover would probably meant some delay in posting anyway.

Mind you, I haven't been entirely idle. My review of the new documentary Constantine's Sword is in Jewish Week, and I spent the last few days working my way through screeners for Tribeca (about which more on the Jewish Week site Thursday).

Then there's The Life Before Her Eyes, the second feature from Vadim Perlman. I haven't seen House of Sand and Fog, so I can't put the film into a career context, but on the strength of Eyes, I'm in no hurry to rectify that omission. The current film, adapted by Emil Stern from a novel by Laura Kasischke, is a ponderous family melodrama about Diana (Uma Thurman), a school teacher who is being assailed by memories of her wild youth, including a high-school shooting to which she was a terrified witness. (Back then, she was Evan Rachel Wood, by the way.) The film is ponderous, galumphing through an intricate web of flashbacks, fantasy sequences and delusions at a glacial pace. It finishes with a twist ending of startling transparency and foolishness, one that will not surprise anyone who has ever watched an episode of The Twilight Zone. But before that, the film founders on its own sense of importance and a numbing lack of humor. Dour and sour, The Life Before Her Eyes is barely redeemed by Pawel Edelman's shimmering cinematography (and that is put to better use in Andzrej Wajda's Katyn, on which more next time).

Friday, April 11, 2008

What's in a Name?

The title of Tom McCarthy's new film, The Visitor, is intriguingly ambiguous. The film depicts a middle-aged economics professor, Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), who is in the midst of a prolonged mid-life crisis. His wife is dead, his grown son lives in London (although this piece of information is thrown in gratuituously late in the film). He is bored by teaching and stuck on his fourth book. Then circumstance takes him to New York, where he finds a charming couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zeinab (Danai Gurira), who have been squatting in his seldom-used Village digs. he lets them stay, first out of decency, then because he is increasingly drawn to them. Tarek is a professional drummer, originally from Syria, who picks up on Walter's nervous habit of drumming his fingers on any available surface and shows him how to harness it to music.
The two bond over their djembes. Then mischance leads to Tarek's arrest on a fare-beating charge and his removal to a detention center for undocumented immigrants. Now Walter is committed, determined to do whatever he can to extricate Tarek from a situationfor which he feels partly responsible. And when Tarek's handsome mother Mouna (the always splendid Hiam Abbas at her most warmly regal) arrives from Detroit, he finds himself with another reason to help.

Who, then, is the titular visitor? It goes to the heart of the film, to its appeal, which is based on MrCarthy's gently unpredictable approach to character and narrative, at once both quirky yet reassuring. As in McCarthy's charming debut feature The Station Agent, one feels very strongly that nothing very terrible will happen to the characters we care about, yet neither film slips into the treacly faux-humanism that disfigures most studio product.

At first glance, Mouna might seem to be the visitor of the title, flying into Walter's life at the last possible moment from someplace more alien to him than Detroit. Yet she has as much reason to be in New York as anyone, coming to protect her son. Zeinab and Tarek aren't visitors either; they've been living in the city for several years. No, the real stranger is Walter, the American citizen, born and raised in the U.S. and a representative of everything typical of American society at its most enlightened -- education, a civilized approach to a globalizing world, classical music (his late wife's field). It is only by visiting New York, that multicultural resting point for all the world's cultures that he can regain a sense of his self, getting in touch with his own different drummer, so to speak. (Margo pointed out to me that another famous example of a character named Vale occurs in Now Voyager, in which Bette Davis, as Charlotte Vale, is shaken out of her mid-life crisis by two foreign-sounding men, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.)

This more than a clever writing trick. Richard Jenkins's performance as Walter is so carefully gauged that one sense the man sloughing off an old dead skin to be very cautiously reborn. I have my misgivings about The Visitor's somewhat ramshackle structure (and a lot of plausibility problems with it musically), but at its heart, The Visitor is a deeply felt and intelligently crafted film.

Who Do You Make Films For?

Like most writers, I'm frequently asked "Who do you writer for?" (Or, if they are sticklers for good grammer, "For whom do you write?" Okay, I don't get asked that one as often.) I have always answered, "I write for myself. I write in order to learn things about the films I write about and to convey to you." (There is a made-to-order pick-up line here, but I"m happily married. I offer to anyone who needs it, with my blessings.)

Now who, I wonder, does a filmmaker think of as the ideal audience member? I'm quite sure that Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times is not who Rafael Nadjari had in mind when he made Tehilim, his excellent new film which is having its theatrical debut at the Museum of Modern Art this week. (It's playing only one week, so hustle over and see it.) I have no idea what Catsoulis's religious upbringing is/was, nor do I particularly care. Not being a Catholic hasn't handicapped my understanding of Robert Bresson (although it does guarantee that I need to have certain nuances pointed out and explained). Likewise Lutheranism and Carl Dreyer. (Some might say that being Jewish hasn't helped me to appreciate Woody Allen, but that's another argument for another time.)

But her utter unfamiliarity with Nadjari's work and her obliviousness to his cinematic forebears suggests a complete and utter lack of sympathy.

Not to hold myself up as a role model (it's bad enough that we treat athletes as role models, if it ever gets down to film critics, I'll know America is doomed), but below is my review of Tehilim, from my New York Jewish Film Festival round-up earlier this year:

“Tehillim,” a new film by Rafael Nadjari, is startling and stark in its focus on a family imploding in the face of apparent tragedy. Nadjari, whose previous film, “Avanim,” is one of the most unfairly neglected Israeli films in recent years, takes a seemingly ordinary family, an Orthodox father and secular mother and their two sons, and throws them into a shattering crisis when the father disappears after a minor car accident. His family copes by gathering with friends to read Psalms and by trying to hold spirit together in the context of their community. But the mother is beginning to feel the strain and her sons are torn between their sense of obligation to both sides of the family and their helplessness in the face of an impenetrable mystery.

Nadjari shoots the entire film with a handheld camera -- he is fortunate that his camera operator is remarkably steady – and very little actual camera movement. As a result, even static shots have a faintly perceptible instability that amplifies the audience’s sense of a world gone out of kilter. “Tehillim” is probably a little more accessible than the rigor and formal perfection of “Avanim,” and it is a deeply moving and disturbing film.

A difficult film, but one that rewards heightened attention. Someone who will give it the concentration it deserves -- that must have been who Nadjari had in mind.

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Hou Hsiao-Hsien is another filmmaker whose visual rigor is off-putting to some audiences and critics. He brings a certain, not-quite-chilly detachment to the melodramatic events he places on screen, and the tension between cool form and overheated subject matter is a highly productive one. On the other hand, when his subject matter is rather more desultory, as in his Ozu homage, Cafe Lumiere, the result is a bit disappointing, amiable but aimless.

So I approached his latest film, Flight of the Red Balloon, with a little bit of trepidation, despite the excellent word of mouth the film had garnered at the Cannes and New York festivals and from more recent screenings. The idea of a remake or re-thinking of the Lamorisse film namechecked in the title was not one I found even slightly attractive, but Hou's moving to the utterly unfamiliar world of Paris might recharge his batteries.

Happily, I was right on the latter count, and the references to the original Red Balloon are fleeting but witty, with the eponymous bag of helium following 7-year-old Simon (Simon Iteanu) around the streets of Paris for the first few minutes of the film, a rather ominous spectre in the aftermath of 9/11. Hou is much more concerned with the interplay between Simon, his harried mother (Juliette Binoche in a splendidly nuanced and layered performance) and Song, his new nanny, a Taiwanese film student (Song Fang). In truth, the film is mostly about the mother, the head of a puppet theater who is bouncing -- just barely in control -- between worries about work, an obnoxious downstairs tenant and her long-absent novelist husband.

If you've seen enough of Hou's films, you have some inkling of how Flight works, although this feels like a looser, freer variant on his previous work. He elides or downplays key moments in the narrative, is fascinated by a view of the city from the front of trains (the Metro does nicely for this), and has an uncanny sense of the vibrant life of the urbanscape. Clearly, coming to Paris was a good decision for Hou; to my mind Flight of the Red Balloon is better focussed and more visually adroit than his last few films, his most fully realized work in several years. Binoche is as self-absorbed and neurotic as Shu Qi, but less shrill, softer-edged and more sympathetic. And Simon is an interesting litmus-paper character, a way of gauging the behavior of the adults. The result is a film that will undoubtedly still be on my ten-best list at year's end.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

A Delightful Medical Experience

The most recent silence in this space is not the product of either over-work or laziness. Rather, I have been preparing for and undergoing arthroscopy on my left knee. In the interest of not wasting experiences, I'll tell you about it. Then tomorrow I'll tell you about a much more pleasant experience, the new Hou Hsiao-Hsien Flight of the Red Balloon.

Since so many of you have been so solicitous of my health and since I hate having to answer the same questions over and over, allow me to take the liberty of an e-mail to everyone that will bring you up to speed on my knee operation and its aftermath thus far.

It would give me no end of pleasure to say that this operation, arthroscopy for a torn meniscus in my left knee, was the result of hard-fought wars on the playing fields of Central Park and Long Island. However, as my orthopedist (who is one of the Jets’ team physicians) rather drily noted, “Eighty percent of adults over the age of 50 have similar tears. It comes from being over 50.” Needless to say, I’m just thrilled to be able to brag that . . . I’m over 50. Thanks, Doc.

So Monday early morning – and I mean early, 6:35 a.m. – I checked into Manhattan Ear, Nose and Throat Hospital for surgery that was scheduled for 8:30 a.m. That is not an elaborate typographical error; Manhattan ENT was merged into the Lenox Hill complex several years ago and they now do other kinds of surgery as well as the original list. I was kind of disappointed, ‘cause I thought maybe doctors had discovered some new, elaborate path connecting your sinuses to your knees, but that turns out not to be the case.

The staff at the hospital are uniformly pleasant and friendly and I have to say that for all the time I was there – and we didn’t leave until 2:30 in the afternoon – I have no complaints whatsoever or, rather, none that have to do with the people. I could do without some of their taste in daytime TV and piped-in music, but what can you do.

I had no idea what to expect as far as the actual procedure was concerned. I assumed they wouldn’t just give me a local and tell me not to wiggle around while they drilled holes in my knee. That assumption was correct. But they wouldn’t give me a general anesthetic because I have a history of sleep apnea and apparently there is concern that the apnea might have a bad effect on the anaesthesia or vice versa. So they gave me a spinal.

And that was a treat. I’m reminded of Mark Twain’s friend, a newspaper editor who was tarred and feathered and ridden out of town on a rail. Asked how he felt, he told Twain, “If it weren’t for the honor of the thing, I’d have just as soon walked.” If it weren’t for my intense sense of medical curiosity (heretofore non-existent), I would have passed up the spinal.

The first time the anaesthesiologist tried to administer it, I became nauseous and started having violent dry heaves. That was the moment at which another surgeon, my doctor’s partner and an old high school classmate of mine, walked in to say hello. He took one look at me, said, “He’s turning white, I’ll come back later,” and left.

Everyone waits while the idiot in the surgical gown tries to calm down enough to be sedated. (Where are the Ramones when you really need them? Well, I guess I didn’t really want to be sedated.) Second try and I’m telling myself that this is absurd, a simple and non-threatening procedure. They swab my back with some germicidal liquid that is obviously kept in the freezer before being applied to a human body, and a mild topical solution that numbs the skin. We’ve gotten that far already and I didn’t realize what would come next: the nice man in the mask sticks a needle into my spinal column and pushes down the plunger.

I don’t know if you have ever had a spinal anaesthetic. If you have then you know what it feels like and that’s good because I’m not sure I can articulate the sensation in words. Essentially, it goes beyond any conventional pain into some other region, some metaphysical arena where you feel something like the earth rocking on its axis. And when the needle is withdrawn, you have that feeling again. Goody.

I hadn’t slept the night before, so now I was over-tired, overwrought and rapidly losing all feeling below my waist. I think I wanted to cry but didn’t have the energy. Other than hearing R.E.M. doing “Losing My Religion” on the radio in the O.R. I don’t remember much else. The actual procedure must have taken about 40 minutes. When they wheeled me into the recovery room, I was exhausted and giddy. I had no feeling in my legs, my butt or my male organ – I couldn’t even tell if my legs were straight or bent, even though I was looking right at them.

The feeling comes back in the most peculiar pattern – waist first then feet and up the legs, then finally midsection. My ass was numb almost until we left the hospital. We took a car service home and I was in agony all the way because there wasn’t any good place to extend my left leg.

Since then, for the past day and a half, I’ve been basically living in the living room and my office, with the convertible sofa open. This morning – Wednesday – was the first day that I went downstairs for a shower and took off the dressing on my left leg. Other than two small incisions, stitched up now, and the fact that they shaved my knee, the leg doesn’t look any different than it did when we left the house Monday morning.

As for the aftermath, I’ve gone from needing a cane to walk even with difficulty and pain, to being able to get around pretty much normally, albeit very slowly and awkwardly and with some pain in the knee still (mostly muscular and that will pass, too).

I expect I will be back to my normal routine after the weekend, with PT added to it. The Tribeca Film Festival starts soon and the pre-fest screenings are already underway, so I’ll probably be running down there frequently. Hey, I wrote and filed a story Tuesday morning even though I still was dopey from the procedure and the painkillers. Work is work.