Friday, October 31, 2008

A Quick One While I'm Away (Okay, I'm Not Away, but the Who Never Recorded a Song Called "A Quick One While He's Installing a New Computer")

Busy, busy, busy. Four stories in Jewish Week this time, three of them film-related, but only two on-line. The most important one is my review of the new Amos Gitai, which is quite a challenging film, One Day You'll Understand. (I also finally had my first-ever meeting and interview with Gitai, which will soon be a story of Hadassah Magazine.) And, appropriately enough, the second of two pieces on the Israel Film Festival. Finally, let me recommend to any of you who are sports fans the new documentary The First Basket, a deft little history of the Jewish presence in basketball. An eminently entertaining and frequently enlightening film, it does credit to its director, David Vyorst, who is a first-time helmer (as they say in Variety), who has spent more time in the halls of Congress and on the hardwood than in film school. The film is playing at the Village East for ten days, and it got shockingly short shrift from the Times. I interviewed Vyorst for Jewish Week and the piece in in the print edition, but didn't make it to the webpage, but I will post it tonight or tomorrow.

It all depends, of course, on how long it takes me to set up the new desktop. (heh, heh)

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Busy Weekend

The Israel Film Festival kicks off in the coming week, with the usual full slate of films and guest appearances by filmmakers, actors and the like. I interviewed Meir Fenigstein, the founder of the festival and still its director after nearly a quarter-century, and preview the first batch of features in this week's Jewish Week.

Amos Gitai, still the best filmmaker to come out of Israel, is the subject of a mini-series dedicated to several of his documentaries, virtually unseen here, at the Museum of Modern Art. I chatted with MoMA curator Larry Kardish about the series here. The trigger for the event is a week-long run of Gitai's most recent documentary, News From Home/News From House. Both the series and the new film open today at MoMA.

Gitai began his career as an architecture student, largely as a tribute to his recently deceased father, Munio Weintraub Gitai, a Bauhaus alumnus who was instrumental in the creation of Israel’s first architectural education programs. But he was even more interested in becoming a filmmaker and for a decade after he completed studies at UC-Berkeley, he made a wide range of short documentaries for Israeli television. His world was spinning on greased grooves until 1980, when he decided to make a 51-minute documentary about the rebuilding of a house in West Jerusalem. Abandoned by its Palestinian owner in the chaos of the ’48 war, by 1980 the house had been acquired by an Israeli professor with definite ideas about transforming it into a showplace. Gitai focused as much on the Palestinian construction workers, the original owners and the neighbors as on the professor, never hiding the tensions on the worksite. The result was his first encounter with government censorship as the network refused to broadcast the film.

Eighteen years later, Gitai revisited the house for a second film, “A House in Jerusalem,” and last year, he made one more pilgrimage to the building for his most recent documentary, News from Home/News From House, a handsome and intelligent rumination on more than two decades of uneasy living in the middle of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In truth, although Gitai has used the house as a lens through which he views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the house is actually more interesting as a vehicle for Gitai to explore the lives of the workers and inhabitants than as a metaphor for the Middle East. I suspect that familiarity with the two earlier films would help an audience to appreciate the final chapter of this trilogy, but it is compelling even without such knowledge.

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In a very different vein, I have to recommend an excellent, educational and very entertaining talk on a somewhat unlikely subject of obituaries. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that my wife, Margalit Fox, is a writer for the New York Times in their obits section. Contrary to most people's expectations, the job is neither morbid nor dull, and on Wednesday, October 29, she'll tell you why, if you are in midtown Manhattan at 6:30 p.m. The event takes place at the Mid-Manhattan Library.

"Come On Over to the Dark Side: The Obituary as Social History" is the title of her presentation and I can tell you -- and I am, honestly, an unbiased observer -- no, really I am -- having heard her deliver it twice, that it's fascinating and quite funny. For more information, go here.

If you are one of those folks who is obsessed with seeing what your favorite bloggers are really like, I'll be there too, so you can find out.

(For some reason that reminds me of a famous exchange between Ralph Kiner and Mets catcher Choo-Choo Coleman. Kiner asked Coleman where he got his nickname, to which he replied, "I don't know." Kiner, no doubt thinking that this wasn't going real well, tried an even more innocuous question, "What's your wife's name and what's she like." Coleman replied, "Her name is Mrs. Coleman and she likes me." Indeed. Well, as Casey Stengel said when asked why the Mets' first choice in the expansion draft was Hobie Landrith, said, "You gotta have a catcher or you'll have nothing but passed balls." Coleman was about as useful a choice as Landrith.)






Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Throwback to My Youth

How many of you remember the Beekman Theater? If you grew up in and around New York City in the '70s and were at all interested in art-house films, you probably made more than an occasional visit to the Beekman. Back then it was part of the Cinema 5 chain (or was it the Walter Reade -- us old folks forget), and it showed foreign films and the occasional independent American film, back before the indie label became ubiquitous.

The reason I mention it is that I just received a press release announcing the re-opening of the Beekman, now a two-screen house at 1271 Second Avenue between East 66th and East 67th Street, on Friday October 24.

My strongest memory of the Beekman takes me back to high school, an afternoon that I shlepped into the city from the Five Towns in order to see Z. I've since gone back and forth on Costa-Gavras. I think his earlier films are underrated; I have particularly fond memories of his Resistance thriller, Un Homme de Trop (Shock Troops), which I saw on 42nd Street, and his debut feature, The Sleeping Car Murders. On other other hand, almost everything that comes after Z is seriously flawed in some fundamental way. I must confess that I haven't seen Z since that afternoon at the Beekman. I don't know how it would look to me now, but at 17 I thought it was fabulous, a genuine left-wing thriller with serious action-movie chops. The most vivid memory I have of the film is the way that Costa-Gavras tried to use his editing rhythms to mimic the motor-drive of the crusading journalist's camera. For anyone who wasn't a professional photographer, the motor drive was apparently quite an exotic device in 1970; I remember that in a display case in the lobby of the Beekman, there was a replica of one for all to see. (Little did I suspect that five years later, my closest friends would be photographers who used their motor-drives all the time.)

At any rate, it's always nice to have one of the golden oldies resurface. It would be nice if they program with some imagination.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Forensic Cinema (That Has Nothing to Do With Jerry Bruckheimer, Thank Goodness!)

In 1969 Ken Jacobs reinvented himself and the experimental cinema when he made “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son,” a reworking of a 1905 Edison short by an unnamed director, based on the famous nursery rhyme. It was one of his first explorations of the possibilities of screen space and time to be found in early cinema as chopped and changed under his careful eye. Now, 39 years later, Jacobs has returned to the Edison film, this time using only one shot from it, to take another look at those fundamentals of cinema and the felonious Tom, with his amusingly titled “Return to the Scene of the Crime.” The film will be playing for a week at the Museum of Modern Art, along with a program of other recent Jacobs efforts.

Earlier this year, I described Jacobs’s method in his use of found film footage as Talmudic, with his own version of the “text” being a commentary erected on the grounds of the original film. “Return,” which he amusingly calls “forensic cinema” in a title card midway through the film, is a gemara to his earlier film’s mishnah, a reexamination of the space and time of both the Edison “Tom, Tom” and the 1969 Jacobs reworking of that short. (If you have forgotten the nursery rhyme, the key element is that Tom “stole a pig and away he run,” hence the playful title of Jacobs’s new version.)

If the fabric of the Talmud is the text of the Tanakh, the actual letters themselves, the material with which all filmmakers work are space and time. Hence, when Jacobs offers commentary on the 1905 short, he does so by altering our perception of those two elements of the film, and the rich dialectical relationship between them. Even a seemingly extraneous element like his introduction of color into the frames of the new film alters our perception of the screen space, and his wildly variegated editorial strategies – stroboscopic flicker effects, multiple superimpositions, rapid, repetitive cutting – expand our experience of film-time turning a brief nursery rhyme into a 92-minute meditation on the ways in which we understand time. Like Achilles chasing the hare in Zeno’s paradox, the characters in the original “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son” are fated never to catch the miscreant in “Return,” trapped in the engaging and witty amber of Ken Jacobs’s palimpsestic “remake.”


“Return to the Scene of the Crime” and a program of five other recent works by Ken Jacobs will both be playing at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53rd St.), October 16-22. As I pointed out earlier this month, tank.tv is offering most of Jacobs's films on-line in conjunction with a season of his work all over London (see here). And Anthology Film Archives will be showing several of his films on December 19 and 20.


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I blow hot and cold on Barry Levinson. As you will see momentarily, I like the Baltimore films quite a lot, but the rest of his work leaves me very unimpressed, to say the least. However, his latest film, What Just Happened, while flawed is quite amusing and, if you are a serious student of the psychopathology of the film industry, you will probably find much to laugh at. My review is in next week's issue of Jewish Week and can be found here.


Finally, this bizarre tidbit from France, via the BBC:

A French court has rejected an attempt by a group of people with the surname, Bougon, which means "grumpy", to change the title of a new TV comedy series. The 60 claimants were upset at the way their name was being associated with a family of scroungers, fraudsters and alcoholics in the series, Les Bougon.

If there's a Mr. Homer Simpson out there somewhere, I recommend that he find a different legal system for his projected mega-buck lawsuit.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Quiet Afternoon (Almost No Film Content)

The b.w. is on a train right now, somewhere between Chicago and Austin, TX, on the first reporting and research trip of her next book. (Who would have imagined that UT-Austin would be the home of the world's foremost research center on ancient Aegean scripts? Sounds about as likely as the Tampa Bay Rays winning the AL East.) So I'm living the bachelor life for ten days, for the first time since . . . well, since her last reporting trip for her first book (which you should have bought and read by now, you loafers!).

So I spent almost the entire day watching sports -- how much more of a cliche of masculinity can you get? England over Kazakstan, Scotland haplessly drawing 0-0 with Norway, Wales over Lichtenstein, Spain over Estonia. With the doubleheader of Vi. Klitschko- Peter and Tarver-Dawson in prospect for the evening followed by whatever remained of Game Two of the ALCS (if I'd known how much remained, I might have gone to sleep after the fights), I looked out the window at a truly beautiful day and decided that I needed a walk and a cigar.

It's ironic that since we moved three blocks south (that's all it was), ten yers ago, I almost never get up to Ft. Tryon Park, but I had a large cigar, a book and the clearest blue sky imaginable, so I just started walking north until I hit the park and entered. I didn't take the heather garden route; I figure that with a cigar, I'd be competing with the scent of the flowers in the garden and most people would be less enthused by my smoking than I was. In a way, the roundabout route I settled on instead (down the road past the back of the New Leaf Cafe, then around the cafe and up to the upper part of the park, down through the underpasses to the northern lawn, then back out the way I had come in) was even more pleasant. No tourists snapping pictures or stopping to smell the flowers, no wedding photos being taken, etc. The sun was bright and warm, but not warm enough for me to break a sweat. It was a good cigar, and the people I passed by were interesting and pleasant. Finally, I made my way home by way of one of the supermarkets, with enough groceries for most of the ten days of my enforced bachelorhood, my mind clearer and my soul more relaxed than at any time in the past few insane weeks.

Tomorrow will be devoted first to Sukkah-building, then to several screeners from the upcoming Israel Film Festival, followed by dinner with the estimable Mr. Hozinsky (AKA the eponymous Ira of awards renown) and his lovely wife. Somewhere in the midst of that social/artistic whirl I should try and sneak off to the park again.

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A great find from Jonathan Rosenbaum's blog today, one that I feel obliged to pass along. It's a website called "The Site of Movie Magazines," a title that I must admit I find unintentionally hilarious, although I'm not sure I could tell you why. But the site itself is much more useful than funny. It is a highly sophisticated database of film magazines and 'zines from around the world, with links to the ones that are still publishing (and have an on-line presence) and a selection covers from most of them, living or dead. I find it very comforting to know that in the very early '6t0s there was a short-lived companion to Famous Monsters of Filmland called Famous Westerns of Filmland, which quickly became Wildest Westerns. And who knew that there was/is a 'zine dedicated to the German films based on the writings of Edgar Wallace and others of that ilk (called "krimis" in their homeland)? The site has a lot more to offer, and is worth a peek, if only reassure yourself that there are people who spend even more time than you do in the meaningless pursuit of film-related ephemera.

Me? I do it for the vast sums of money it brings me.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Drop What You Are Doing and . . . .

With Yom Kippur and a problem on the Jewish Week website (go live from technology!), one of my favorite recent pieces got lost in the shuffle. Ordinarily that wouldn't be cause for gnashing of teeth (although I gnash at the drop of a semi-colon), but the film program in question, an evening of the work of Beryl Sokoloff at Anthology Film Archives, is a one-time only gig, which goes on tonight. So drop whatever you are doing and get downtown right now.

Although his work is in the collections of numerous museums and film archives, Beryl Sokoloff remains something of an enigma as a filmmaker. In the notes to an evening of his films being held on October 10, an Anthology Film Archives programmer says, “He completed more than 75 films, yet virtually nothing is known about his cinematic output.” Yet Sokoloff himself was hardly an enigma. He was, rather, a fixture on the Greenwich Village and Chelsea arts scene of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.

In a sense, Beryl’s career trajectory is a typical one for a Jewish-American artist of a certain era. His parents were émigrés from Russia, he and his brother Vladimir were born and raised in the Bronx before the family moved to Philadelphia. There they attended high school, studying music and art at the Settlement Music School. Beryl was an accomplished cellist but it was Valdimir who pursued a musical career, becoming a distinguished accompanist on piano and a member of the faculty at the Curtis Institute.

Beryl’s path was less straightforward, taking him from WPA projects to the U.S. Army and the Pacific Theater. At the end of the war, he returned to New York City and became part of the circle of Abstract Expressionists who were altering the face of modern art. He painted, he photographed and, gradually, he began making films. (One of his more off-beat professional gigs was as the photographer for a Mexican newspaper; his life partner Crista Grauer told “The Villager, “[They] didn’t have anyone else but him in New York, so they ran whatever he wanted to shoot.”)

What of Sokoloff’s films?

Looking at the dozen films that Anthology is showing on October 10, certain motifs emerge clearly, strikingly. Sokoloff was fascinated by the human figure in all its plasticity. In his lovely film “Gaudi,” a vivid sampler of the great Barcelona architect-sculptor’s work in situ, Sokoloff constantly is seeking out the most anthropomorphic images embedded in the intricacies of Gaudi’s buildings. The same can be said of most of the other films in the program, but the most disturbing use of these images of humanity occurs in “Movie,” a film that circles repeatedly around what can only be described as a myriad of death’s heads.

Sokoloff was drawn to primitive artists, to those creations who today we label “outsider art.” Perhaps the most satisfying (and certainly the most conventional) of the films, “My Mirrored Hope,” is a profile of Clarence Schmidt, a grizzle-bearded mountain of a man, whose life’s work was a huge “house of mirrors” that he constructed in Woodstock, NY. The work is a jaw-dropping collage of mirrors, windows, metal sculpture, found objects ranging from false teeth to a Flying A gas station sign, and hundreds of tiny, graceful mobiles made of glass and mirrors. The film ends with a dizzyingly fast tracking shot that reveals at last the full extent of Schmidt’s obsessive creativeness.

There are many other similar works found throughout the dozen films on display here. In Sokoloff’s camera lens, we are made acutely aware that even a self-conscious and highly trained artist like Gaudi owes more than a little to the DIY aesthetic of these so-called primitives. And in his highly personal mix of avant-garde and documentary film, Sokoloff is something of a primitive himself.

He also is clearly a committed progressive of the post-WWII stripe. Running throughout the films are images of anti-war demonstrations, picket lines, civil rights protests and the like. “Line” is constructed in large part around an “artists’ strike” from the early ‘60s, when painters, sculptors and like-minded creators picketed city hall trying to save their loft-based studios (a reminder that in New York, the more real estate changes, the more it stays the same, except for the price tag). Yet there is a playfulness about Sokoloff’s work, a winking at the audience that can be seen in the fact that “Movie” is a film in which there is almost no motion on-screen, that “The Wall,” made in Berlin, shows us everything about the city except the title object.

Still, there is an underlying seriousness to Sokoloff’s films. In “Gaudi” he superimposes images echoing the Spanish Inquisition on the Barcelona streets. In “The Wall” Sokoloff shows us East Berlin’s profusion of Soviet-era housing blocs, set off against the idiosyncrasies of the city’s medieval architecture. In the film’s most striking moment, we see what looks like a sea of broken, upright stones; Sokoloff cuts between several different angles of this somber moonscape before we realize that it is a Jewish cemetery, filled with uprooted headstones.

Whatever else one can draw from Sokoloff’s work, he clearly subscribes to the centrality of memory in Jewish thought. When he began working in film in the latge 1950s, Sokoloff wrote, “Film is a medium of discovery, of ourselves and new relationships with the past and future.” It’s only appropriate that, two years after his death at age 88, we begin to discover Beryl Sokoloff.

“Discovering Beryl Sokoloff,” two programs of six films each, will be screened at Anthology Film Archives (2nd St. and 2nd Avenue) on Friday, October 10.

In the meantime, my review of the Larry Charles-Bill Maher farrago, Religulous, appears on the Jewish Week website here.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

A Wonderful Resource for Experimental Video and Film, and a Wonderful New Film in the Same Vein

Okay, I'm supposed to be doing a comprehensive Film Festival piece here and, I swear to God, I will shortly. (Where have we heard/read that before?) But I stumbled onto a terrific resource for experimental film and video -- okay, I didn't exactly stumble onto it, it was linked from an e-mail list I'm on -- and I want to share it with you. The site is called tank.tv, and it can be found at -- surprise -- http://www.tank.tv.

The site is updated monthly or bi-monthly, I'm not sure which, but the October-November featured artist is Ken Jacobs, and the site has a huge selection of his work for you to look at. The clips are in Quicktime, so you ought to have that software (heck, you ought to have that software anyway), and they run in a smallish pop-up screen so if you have a pop-up blocker, you'll need to permit the site to show them, all of which takes about 10 seconds and two mouse-clicks. To access the archives, which are substantial, you'll have to register for the site, but it's free and the material there is well worth the few minutes you'll need to do it.

Speaking of Ken Jacobs, his latest film and a large selection of his recent work will be on display at MoMA later this month (I'll be reviewing the new film Return to the Scene of the Crime for Jewish Week shortly) and Anthology Film Archives will be showing a selection of his early works on December 19 and 20, a perfect Hanukah gift (or something like that).

Now, speaking of the New York Film Festival, their 12th annual Views from the Avant-Garde showcase is running even as I sit here typing. I only had the time and opportunity to see one of the programs in the series this year, although the assembled total is very impressive (Nathaniel Dorsky, Andrew Noren, Bruce Connor, Craig Baldwin and many, many more). The one film I did see, however, is definitely worthy of any ten-best list I could imagine for 2008 (if it gets a minimal theatrical release, i.e., a week somewhere in town).

James Benning is, if I may be permitted a shorthand identification, one of the finest landscape filmmakers America has produced. Although his work frequently plays with narrative, many of his recent films, 13 Lakes, Ten Skies and the new one being shown tomorrow (Sunday, Oct. 5 at 9 p.m.), RR, are nothing less than meditations on the American landscape and/or skyscape.

Where the structure of the other two films I just mentioned were dictated by Benning's arbitrary decision to use sequence shots of ten minutes each, RR (which he pronounces "Railroad," saying to an interviewer that if you just sound the title out, "it sounds like a pirate movie") uses long takes whose duration is dictated by the time required for a freight train to appear on screen and wend its way through the shot until it has disappeared. The film is 112 minutes long and includes 43 trains, photographed all over the U.S., but mostly in California, where Benning is now based. In a structural film like this (and I'm using the word casually, not in the way that one might use it to classify the work of, say, Paul Sharits), variations are the heart and soul of the work. Benning makes cunning use of variations in camera angles, distance from the subject, the seasonal changes and a fascinating range of landscapes (desert, forest, water, hills, plains and so on) to create visual interest. (Of course, for some of us, the mere sight of trains in motion is interesting enough.) At the same time, he makes inventive use of the soundtrack, mixing in a few soundbites of local radio stations, with everything from a Blue Jays-Rangers game (Nolan Ryan on the mound) to Woody Guthrie singing "This Land Is Your Land," while most of the film uses direct sound, emphasizing the tension between nature sounds (lots of crickets here, and faint breezes) and the sounds of the man-made world, primarily the trains themselves. The result is a hypnotically beautiful work that, at the same time, offers a covert but very powerful rumination on the ways that industry has raped the American environment. RR is a must-see film, a phrase I am loath to use, but this time it's really true.