Sunday, June 29, 2008

Elsewhere on the Jacobs Beat . . .

I forgot to mention one of the nicest pieces of new-release news I've gotten this week, incidentally apropos of Ken Jacobs. Azazel, his son, is responsible for one of my favorite films from this year's edition of New Directors/New Films, Momma's Man. I'm delighted to report that the film was acquired by Kino International shortly after ND/ND and is scheduled to open on August 22. Of course I'll have more to say around that date, but you should mark your calendars.

The Great Summer Slowdown?

Wow! I was just checking my favorite blogs -- okay, blogs by two friends, Daryl Chin and Michael Giltz, and you can click on the links on the blogroll to do the same -- and realized that all three of us have slowed down our posting habits lately. Must be the hot weather, rain and general summer malaise. Well, I'll let them speak for themselves, I'm just goddamned lazy.

Be that as it may, I urge you to dash to Anthology Film Archives to catch the lovely new Ken Jacobs film Razzle Dazzle: The Lost World. I had a delightful afternoon with Jacobs recently and some of the fruits of that conversation can be found here. I'll be adding some materia on the blog shortlyl that I didn't have space for in Jewish Week, so keep your eyes on this spot. The film itself is a gorgeous and moving kaleidoscope and well worth the trip to Second Avenue and Second Street. (Unless you are reading this blog in, say, Banska Bystrica (a region of Slovakia that I chose because I like the name. if you really want to know more about it, go here. And don't every say that you never learn anything from reading blogs.)

As I write this, Madrid (and probably every other large city in Spain, with the possible exceptions of Bilbao and Barcelona) is awash in cheering humanity and fireworks displays. I have to say, the Spanish really earned the European title. They scored more goals (12) than any other team in the tournament, conceded the second-fewest (3, with only Croatia stingier, although both teams had an average of 1/2 goal allowed per match), averaged nearly 20 shots per game whle blocking the most (19) and had the highest percentage of complete passes. Of course football (the real football, not American football, which is played mostly with the hands) is not a sport that really lends itself to statistics, which I suspect is one of the many reasons North Americans just don't get it. So let me add that Spain, whatever story the numbers tell, also played stylish, exciting attacking football and for that, if nothing else, they deserved the victory they worked so hard for.

Now I can turn my flagging attention to New York's two struggling baseball teams. I think that the subway doubleheader tells you everything you need to know about the Yanks and the Mets; when one team wins a game 15-6 and lose the second game 9-0, you're looking at a couple of teams that have serious pitching shorts. Could be a long, ugly summer.

Monday, June 23, 2008

After Holland Crashed Out . . .

For those of you who are wondering how I'm feeling about Holland's disastrous performance against Russia in Euro 2008, I offer you the sage words of Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday) from Born Yesterday:

"Do me a favor, Harry. Drop dead!"

Well it's been a very exciting tournament anyway, and I'm looking forward to the semis and the final despite everything.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

On Film Criticism and Blogging

I was charmed and grateful by a recent posting by my friend, colleague and fellow Ira voter Daryl Chin, who in his blog has characterized my recent writing as "energetic and insightful." I would be the last to argue with Daryl . . . unless he was wrong, of course. (This is what happens when you sit down to write in your blog after reading Steve Martin's book Born Standing Up.)

Is film writing done for a blog somehow significantly different from that done for print. After writing this blog for about two and a half years, I must confess that I'm not sure three is a simple or single answer; I suspect every blogger has a different relationship with his blog and with its readers. I'm not even sure what my own answer is, but Daryl's kind words set me to pondering.

Here is the basic gist of what I have come to believe. My writing here is at once less methodical and yet more personal than my writiing for various periodicals, and the difference from what I put between hardcovers is even more substantial. In a way, although newspaper and magazine writing are pretty ephemeral, blogging is by its very nature, almost always occasional writing in the literary sense (i.e., writing for a specific occasion or event). And this has its plusses and minuses. On the one hand, I can respond with greater immediacy to events and, with no set deadline -- although I generally try to post on Fridays, since that is when movies are opening in this town -- I can either wait until release day or jump in at my leisure on a topic. And because I have chosen not to tie the blog to whatever new films are opening, I have the luxury of writing on whatever grabs my fancy (like this post). Also, I have unlimited space in which to discuss a subject, so if I decide to devote 10,000 words to the new Sidney Lumet film (to name a favorite whipping boy), I can do so. Granted, that specific example will happen about the same time that Dubya admits that the war in Iraq was a bad idea. Finally and most importantly, although I look at my writing in those few venues that carry me regularly as a dialogue with long-time readers, I virtually never write in as casual or conversational a tone in print as I do here. (Ironically enough, there is probably more of that in my books than in my newspaper and magazine work.)

On the downside, at present my readership here is literally 1/1000th of my readership in Jewish Week. And I don't get paid for doing this, which is more of a disincentive that it ought to be, but when you write as often and as much as I do for pay, doing it for free sometimes seems like a misuse of time. Happily, the desire to write about films I can't cover for my print venues (i.e., films with no Jewish content) and the pleasure of writing in a more relaxed style generally outweigh the urge to make a buck. (Hell, if I really wanted to make a lot of money, I wouldn't be a film critic at all.)

How much meaning or importance does any of this have? Not much to you, perhaps, but a bit to me.

There is some minor irony in all this. When I was in my 20s and still new(ish) at this game, my favorite leisure reading (particularly in the bathroom) was other people's film criticism. I would read several film magazines religiously and eargerly awaited the new issues of those periodicals. On Wednesdays (which used to be the main opening day for new releases) and Fridays the first thing I would turn to in the Times was the film section. And on Wednesdays (or was it Thursdays, I no longer remember), I would dash to the newsstand to buy the Village Voice, whose pages were filled by the likes of Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, Bill Paul, Michael McKegney, George Morris and so on. Atlhough I hold J. Hoberman in high regard, I don't read the Voice any more; they fired a lot of people I know and have done real violence to the film section.

These days, there are very few English-language film magazines worth reading. The most notable exceptions, Vertigo and CinemaScope, are published in the UK and Canada, respectively. Cineaste has turned into the best US-based film periodical, a pleasing development. Film Comment and Sight and Sound always have something of interest, but they don't feel essential the way they used to. Film Quarterly has become too narrow, too academic in the worst sense. I read almost every issue of Cahiers and Positif, although the former has become disappointingly stodgy and they are both pretty expensive purchased here.

The bottom line for me is, I suppose, that I'm no longer that interested in reading film criticism for its own sake (not even my own). Is that bad? Good? A sign of disillusion with the field? A symbol of growing maturity?

I haven't the faintest idea.

Monday, June 16, 2008

He's Certainly Peerless

Okay, I couldn't resist that pun on the name of Spanish director Pere Portabella. But he is that good. If you saw The Silence Before Bach at Film Forum earlier this year, or the mini-retro of his work at MoMA last fall, then you know how good and how interesting Portabella is. If you haven't been introduced to his sly humor and visual rigor, then you must run to the Museum of Modern Art this week to see Warsaw Bridge, his 1990 film which is having a week-long run there (through Thursday, June 19).

Portabella is usually described as an "experimental" filmmaker, and he certainly doesn't make conventional narrative films. The starting point for Warsaw Bridge was a news clipping that Portabella found provocative, about a scuba-diver who was found dead in the midst of the burned-out remnants of a forest fire. And, in truth, the film does explain this highly mysterious event. But it doesn't explain what the dead scuba-diver has to do with a writer receiving an important award, his wife who may -- or may not -- be having an affair with his best friend, or any of the several other suggestive episodes, none of which seems to be connected by narrative links.

If The Silence Before Bach reminded me of my favorite moments from Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, Warsaw Bridge is full of fond echoes of late Bunuel -- think Phantom of Liberty and Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. This probably shouldn't be a great shock; Portabella was one of the producers of Viridiana, and apparently was a close friend of Don Luis. (The flak from Viridiana cost Portabella, a Catalan and proud of it, his Spanish passport.) What he takes from Bunuel is the realization at the heart of his surrealism, that it is in the nature of cinema that an audience accepts as "reality" what it sees on screen, so the more straightforward and unexceptional the presentation of events, no matter how bizarre, the more the audience buys; this makes the medium a wonderful vehicle for the sort of narrative disconnections Bunuel and Portabella favor.

These jumps are also a splendid source of humor, particularly in the hands of a hyper-articulate writer like Portabella (wo co-wrote the film with Octavi Pellissa and Carles Santos, who also contributed the film's luscious score), working in a milieu in which people express themselves deftly. Visually, Warsaw Bridge is incredibly elegant, full of wonderfully sinuous camera movements and exquisite cinematography by Tomas Pladevall. And you have to love a film in which the credits suddenly pop up 20 minutes after it has begun, another sign of Portabella's devious, meta-cinematic humor. I'd be lying if I said I understood Warsaw Bridge; I suspect that will take several more viewings. But I certainly haven't enjoyed any other film as much so far this year. Portabella has only directed ten films and, at 79 it's hard to know how many more films he has in him (unless, for course, he is privy to Manoel de Oliveira's secret stash from the fountain of youth), but if we have to wait another 17 years for the next one, it would be most unfortunate indeed. And I'm not just saying that because we share a birthday, although we do.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Sound of My Voice . . .

If you desperately need to hear my voice, you can go over to NPR's "All Things Considered," where my oldest friend Jon Kalish (we were in Mrs. Levin's third-grade class at PS 5 a few years ago) has a lovely item about the excellent violinist Jenny Scheinman. I'm there under my Jewish=music-critic chapeau, talking about the estimable Ms. Scheinman. So now you'll know I'm not just another pretty face. (Or not even a pretty face.)

Coming Up . . .

The new issue of Jewish Week is up on the webpage and I've got two stories in it that should be of interest to anyone who reads Cine-Journal. The first is an interview with Jan Schutte, the German director of a new film based on stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, Love Comes Lately. As my piece probably makes clear, I'm very impressed by his adaptation. The film's direction is competent, but the acting and writing are something more.

The second piece is a rundown on the Jewish-themed films playing in this year's Human Rights Watch Film Festival, including a striking hour-long film, "To See If I'm Smiling," that profiles a half-dozen Israeli women who served in the IDF in the Occupied Territories. It's a brutally frank reminder of the dehumanizing nature of military service and combat. In case you haven't figured that one out already.

There's a bunch of exciting stuff in the offing here in NYC over the next couple of weeks. Anthology Film Archives is in the midst of a showcase of late films by Howard Hawks, most notably two of my favorites, Rio Bravo and El Dorado. and at the end of the month, they'll be presenting the theatrical premiere of the latest Ken Jacobs film, Razzle Dazzle, which I saw this afternoon. I'll be doing something on it for Jewish Week when it opens, so all I'll say right now is that it is quite lovely, at once both elegiac and angry.

The Museum of Modern Art will be doing a salute to Zeitgeist Films and a program on Salvador Dali's involvement with cinema, and their excellent Jazz and Film program continues as well. I'll be posting on the new Portabella in the next day or two, as promised; it opens a week-long run at MoMA on Friday and really should be seen.

Monday, June 09, 2008

It's Not How Long You Make It . . . .

Long time between drinks, as the joke goes. I wish I had some plausible explanation for this long silence, something medical or work-related, preferably involving a secret mission overseas. Unfortunately, the simple fact is I'm a lazy SOB and just couldn't drag myself to the keyboard. (Or something like that.)

One of the most unfortunate by-products of that long silence is that one of the best programs of films that i have seen in this already excellent year may evade your glance. I'm referring to "L'Origine de la Tendresse" and Other Tales, a program of recent French short films that played all too briefly at the Cinema Village here in New York City. For once, you are in better shape if you're outside the (Baked) Apple, because The World According to Shorts, the good people who distribute this program, have numerous dates planned elsewhere (which can be found here). As to the films themselves, there are a half-dozen films, all by directors whose names are new to me:
  • "Penpusher" by Guillaume Martinez is a smart, cute quickie (8 moinutes) that pulls off a nice little meet-cute on the Metro. It's just as long as it needs to be and gives a great argument in favor of reading books during your commute.
  • "My Mother: The Story of an Immigration," directed by Felipe Canales, using the photographs and narration of Farida Hamak, is a quietly understated black-and-white study of Hamak's family, particularly her mother, and the trials of emigration from Algeria to France. Her mother's final triumph is particularly satisfying as we move into an election season in which it looks to be open season on immigrants.
  • "One Voice, One Vote" by Jeanne Paturle and Cecile Rousset, is certainly timely viewing here in the States (speaking of election season). Based on a series of interviews with ordinary voters during last year's French elections, this charming animated short offers a look at two contrasting people-in-the-streets, a gentle activist and a disillusioned non-participant, both of whom allow, at the end, that they could learn something from one another.
  • "The Last Day" by Olivier Bourbeillon is a 12-minute glimpse of the last day at a Brest shipbuilding company, as experienced by the only remaining employees. It is at once lyrical and incisive, a paean to the old industrial world and an analysis of the ongoing ill-effects of globalization.
  • "L'Origine de la Tendresse" by Alain-Paul Mallard is the centerpiece of the collection, a half-hour-long study of Elise, a museum attendant to whom nothing much happens. Mallard uses a dryly humorous deadpan, somewhere between Tati and Bresson but even less demonstrative, to construct a sweetly, gently goofy portrait of loneliness and the resourcefulness of at least one person who suffers from it.
  • "Kitchen" by Alice Winocour is the only film in the package with an identifiably familiar face, actress Elina Lowensohn; she plays the ungrudging but put-upon wife of an upper middle-class professional, who is confronted with his request for a fancy lobster dish for dinner. The film quickly turns into a superb variation on the age-old struggle between woman and crustaceans, with a nod to Joe Dante's Gremlins and a climactic gag that is the single funniest thing I've seen all year.
Each of these films is a small gem. Even the weakest (I would say, "My Mother," although it stands up quite nicely) is well worth a look. In short, the entire program is a vivid reminder that you don't have to make a three-hour film to say something intelligent. And the folks at The World According to Shorts are to be applauded and thanked for trying to get audiences to take the short film more seriously.

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

I promise, I swear, I affirm that it won't be three weeks before I post again. In fact, I can tell you right now, that in the next day or two I'll have some things to say about the great Japanese actor Tatsuya Nakadai, the subject of a long-overdue retrospective at Film Forum, a wonderful if somewhat baffling new film by Pere Portabella at MoMA, and the latest from Fatih Akin, one of the several rising talents coming out of the Turkish film industry. (And I'll probably throw in some random observations about Euro 2008 -- Go Holland!!!)