Thursday, January 29, 2009

Elsewhere in the Lowlands

We've been spending time in Belgium, courtesy of Chantal Akerman (well, actually, it was a 'phone interview and she was in Paris, but who's counting?), so it seems only fair and appropriate that I bring you a newsflash from the Netherlands. After much fanfare and many delays, the European Foundation Joris Ivens, which holds the rights to all Ivens's films, is releasing a massive five-CD box set that will include all of his works, in addition to numerous extras (a previously unreleased interview with Ivens, alternate soundtracks for Spanish Earth including one read by Orson Welles, and a dialogue between Ivens and Jean Rouch). The U.S. distributor for the package will be Facets Multimedia. For more information on what will be in the set, go here.

Meanwhile, around the globe again, my piece on the upcoming New York Sephardic Film Festival is here. Some interesting films on display, including several that I just didn't have time to see.

Chantal Akerman Looks Back

One of the mixed blessings of being a working journalist is that you almost never can use all the good stuff you get in an interview. Unless you have unlimited space, something interesting is always going to end up on the cutting room floor. One of the joys of blogging is that you, heh, heh, have unlimited space.

When I interviewed Chantal Akerman a few weeks ago for Jewish Week, we spoke at length about Jeanne Dielman but, given my mandate from the newspaper, some of the best stuff about the film itself couldn't be squeezed into the article. Happily, Cine-Journal provides me with another place to offer readers this material. Indeed, it's one of the reasons I blog at all. (That, and the huge amounts of glory, money, adulation, sexual favors and, oh yeah, more unpaid work.)

As she was quick to point out to me, when Akerman made Jeanne Dielman, she was only 25 and had no idea of the impact the film would have beyond her own circle of friends and colleagues.

“I wrote another script with a friend of mine. And I didn’t like it and tried to change it and change it, but something was not right. One night I had Jeanne Dielman in my mind totally. I took a pad, put three words, what she put on the bed to leave the bed clean after the customer and the next day I started write this -- very fast but very detailed. All the details were there. The details that you have seen as a child, what you see when you don’t go to school. It just came out like that. After that I realized that there were many ways of thinking of it. When I wrote it, it was like my unconscious coming on the page.”

As befits a film that is minimal in its means, Akerman didn’t storyboard. (I suspect it would have been something of a waste of time.)

“I had a shot list and that was it. It’s a very simple way, I knew exactly how to do it. Everybody [who wrote about the film] was thinking about real time. But it’s not real time, it’s recomposed to make it feel like real time. It’s really choreographed.

One aspect of the film that reflects the focus on a detailed depiction of the ordinary is its title, with that full address in Brussels. I asked Akerman for the reasoning behind the lengthy title.

“I don’t know. It’s the address of one of my grand-aunts. In fact, We shot the elevator and street in her place. My aunts recognized themselves, it was their world that I was picturing, a world that so many women went through.”

Picture this situation: Delphine Seyrig, who is never off-screen in the film, is one of the great icons of post-war French cinema. Her director is a 25-year-old with only a handful of credits to her name. The film is a radical departure from anything Seyrig has done before (or since, for that matter). How does a relatively green kid direct this presence?

“She wanted to make the film. What was difficult, although I wasn’t totally aware of it at the time is that everything is written. When she puts the two sugars together everything is written out, like in nouveau roman. She said to me, ‘I should bring [these things] as an actress and now I don’t know what to bring.’ ‘You bring your presence. That’s exactly it.’

Talk about casting someone for their iconic significance! So Akerman’s directions to Seyrig were detailed but strictly functional.

“’Take one second here, one second less here.’ We were videotaping the scene and I would show it to her. ‘Here you missed a second or ten seconds.’ So she would feel like she was participating.

“It was difficult for her, coming from the [Lee] Strasberg school. She was asking me, ‘Wwhen I do the veal, what should I think?’ ‘Nothing, just do the veal.’ For her it was surprising, but I didn’t know that. I learned about it after, she explained to me that it was not enough because everything was written and I didn’t want her to add anything.”

Akerman professes herself surprised – and a little baffled – by the film’s ostensible influence.

“I don’t know. A lot of people have told me that – well, some -- and I don’t get it. When I see their films I don’t understand it. [Jeanne Dielman] was the opposite of the films you could see in a ‘normal’ cinema.”

And thank God for that.



Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Long Silence . . .

I seem to be incubating a low-grade infection of some sort. I'm sleeping around the clock at odd hours (yeah, I do that anyway) and generally feeling listless. I keep up with the paying work, though and have a couple of new pieces at Jewish Week as usual. I think that regular readers of this blog will find my interview with Chantal Akerman particularly interesting. And there's some wonderful stuff from that interview that didn't get into the paper -- happens with every interview, you know -- which I'll post here as soon as I'm up to it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Gem from Argentina and a Backward Glance at France

The New York Jewish Film Festival continues apace at the Walter Reade, and my rundown on the second week can be found here. The new Daniel Burman, Empty Nest, is quite good, and he is going from strength to strength. Burman makes quiet, understated films, so he doesn't get the critical attention he deserves in the U.S., but he is gradually climbing the ladder of quality with low-key mastery.

Meanwhile, the Museum of Jewish Heritage is running a quite unusual series of French films in conjunction with their exhibit on the novelist Irene Nemirovsky. There have been, to the best of my knowledge, only two adaptations of her work for film, both in the early '30s, and they are showing one of them, Julien Duvivier's David Golder (1930). But Dudley Andrew has put together a very ingenious series of more recent films that dance around Nemirovsky's brief life to great effect. David Golder is definitely worth a trip to Battery Park; it's so rare that thre aren't any subtitled prints (the Museum will be projecting new subtitles under the image). It's Duvivier's first sound film and you can sense his relief at moving into talkies, from the film's explosive opening montage. Harry Baur gives a dominating performance in the title role, and who knows when you'll ever get another chance to see this one. I had a nice chat with Prof. Andrew, which you can read here.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Right Way to Handle an Economic Downturn

Earlier today, I received an impassioned e-mail from an arts lobbying group in New York State, trying desperately to avert a $7m cut in state arts funding. My first reaction was that, although I make my living in the arts as a film and music critic and reporter, I can think of even more worthwhile ways to spend tax dollars. (I spent 20 years as a volunteer in the Buddy Program of Gay Men's Health Crisis, so I'm particularly peeved about cutbacks in AIDS funding at the state and municipal levels, to choose one obvious example.)

Then I looked at a series of stories that appeared in The Art Newspaper, an excellent trade paper covering the visual arts world. The headlines say it all:

Government in France Increases Cultural Spending
Government in Germany Increases Cultural Spending
Government in Israel Increases Cultural Spending

Two thoughts occur to me after reading these stories. First, The Art Newspaper needs some new headline writers and, second and more seriously, here are three western nations, each of them with plenty of problems caused by the worldwide economic -- oh hell, let's call it what it is -- depression, that have decided to use cultural spending as a kind of pump-priming mechanism, secure in the belief that major cultural projects create jobs, promote tourism and help keep money moving through their national economies.

Pretty radical idea, that. Somewhere, Jesse Helms is rotating mighty fast, I hope. In fact, UNESCO has recommended that member states have culture budgets that are 1% of the national budget. I'd love to see Congress implement that number in the U.S. The 2008 federal budget totals $2.9 trillion, which means that NEA funding would be just under $3bn. In fact, for FY 2008, the NEA budget is $144.7 million, the NEA's about the same. There are, undoubtedly, other culture-related items in the federal budget (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for example), but I'm betting that they don't bring total to $2.9 bn.

When President-elect Obama is thinking about economic stimulus, I hope he includes cultural funding in his infrastructure package. Franklin Roosevelt did, and the WPA was one of the great examples of what can be done by a government that is willing to put money into the cultural realm without meddling in the content of the programs that result. I guess I will write that letter after all. (And if you are a New York State resident, you can do likewise here.

There's Good News and Bad News . . .

The bad news is that the Masters of Cinema website is shutting down, as Eureka absorbs their DVD catalog. I will, regretfully, change my links list accordingly.

The good news is that, thanks to MOC webmaven Doug Cummings, who was explaining the situation on the DVD Beaver list (highly recommended, by the way), I was led to a new website that looks very promising indeed, The Auteurs. This website has a formidable library of films available to watch on-line (if you can sit at the computer that long!) and forums and a blog-like publication for discussing them. The selection of free films alone makes worth registering (a large selection from the Criterion Eclipse series -- Fuller, Ozu, early Bergman).

Big sigh. They come and they go.

A Surprise, Pleasant For Once

Moshe Mizrahi is not a director whose work I take very seriously. Although Omer Bartov makes a very interesting case for Madame Rosa in his recent book, The "Jew" in Cinema, my recollection of the film is that it is treacle on the half-shell. So when I saw that among the offerings in this year's New York Jewish Film Festival was Mizrahi's first feature film in over a decade, I was less than enthused.

For once, I got a pleasant surprise. Weekend in Galilee, Mizrahi's reworking of Uncle Vanya as a tale of domestic disturbances among the Israeli middle class, is actually quite a nice film. For more on this and some of the other films from the first week of the festival, which actually opens on the 14th, you can read my article in Jewish Week.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Off-Topic but Very Important

Important event in Washington Heights, Sunday January 18

On Sunday, January 18 at 1:30 p.m. Hebrew Tabernacle and Beth Am, the People's Temple will be hosting their third annual Amnesty International Write-a-Thon. Here is an opportunity to save a human life by doing something as simple as writing a letter. During last year's Global Write-a-thon, people in more than 30 countries sent over 150,000 letters, postcards and emails on behalf of prisoners of conscience, human rights defenders, and others at risk. At least three of the prisoners were freed because of your support.

At HT-BA, we sent out over a hundred letters in one afternoon. And you won't even have to pay the postage. Plus, we'll supply soda and pizza. It's a great opportunity to contribute to the ongoing struggle for human rights and share a pleasant afternoon with friends and neighbors.

When: Sunday, January 18, 1:30 p.m.
Where: Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation, 551 Fort Washington Avenue (at 185th St.)
For directions go to http://hebrewtabernacle.org/directions.htm or phone 212-568-8304.

I look forward to seeing you there.