Saturday, March 31, 2012

Back to the Future' '50s Edition

After the exciting, entertaining and educational exercise of compiling our 100-best-films lists, the New York Independent Film Critics Circle decided that for next year's awards we would create a list of the best 100 films of the 1950s. One result of that decision is that I find myself immersed in the films of that decade. I have long argued that the '50s -- not the '70s -- is the most interesting ten-year stretch in American film history, with the chaos in the studios and political tensions creating a fascinating dialectical tension between the bland surfaces of American life and the subterranean violence beneath them. (Think Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock, folks.)

So I'm trying to grab at least one '50s film a day over the next seven-and-a-half months (our chosen deadline for submission of members' lists is 12/12/12 -- just for the symmetry of it), and I will share my reactions with readers of the blog.

Very briefly, then, here are some first offerings.

My first official viewing for the '50s list is a nice little noir, Appointment with Danger (1951, directed by Lewis Allen). It's a brisk little number with Alan Ladd as a hard-bitten postal inspector (Hey, as the film notes, they are the oldest police force in the nation) whose current case puts him face-to-face with a nun (Phyullis Calvert) who has witnessed the murder of another postal inspector. The plot has a few holes in it, but at 89 minutes you barely notice. Great cinematography from the estimable John Seitz and a clever little screenplay by Richard Breen and Warren Duff. One of the 100 best films of the decade? Hardly, but fun all the same.

A couple of nights later, I caught the last 40 minutes of Preminger's River of No Return, a film of which I had fond memories. Regrettably, it's not as good as I remembered. Preminger, despite his other considerable virtues, isn't really an action director and the big setpieces are rather flat. Plus the process work for the raft and the river looks awful on television. Mitchum, of course, is splendid and Tommy Rettig is serviceable. Monroe and Rory Calhoun, on the other hand . . . . Preminger is all wrong for the western anyway; he needs fully endowed social institutions for his characters to interact with. His best work is set in urban societies (or in the case of something like Anatomy of a Murder, a rural outpost of a modern predominately urban society. Even a costumed kerfuffle like Forever Amber (which holds up surprisingly well) takes place in a social settign with a highly stratified system. That's seldom the case in the western -- especially in the '50s -- where we're dealing more in archetypes than institutions. Of course, in the late '60s you get all those fin-de-siecle westerns that are specifically about what happens when the frontier is finally subsumed into "civilization," a process that is always assumed in the '50s flms but rarely seen.

Naturally, a bullfighter-poker player like Budd Boetticher is particularly well-suited to the '50s western. I saw a minor Boetticher, Seminole, with Rock Hudson trying to avert a war with the eponymous tribe, which is led by his boyhood friend, Anthony "Osceola" Quinn. It's actually a workmanlike B picture with some hints of what ol' Budd will get up to later in the decade (including the appearances of Lee Marvin and James Best). As in the Scott cycle, he pits a truculent, taciturn male lead against a foe/friend who is distinguished from him by his colorful garb and hyper-articulate nature. There is an understated sense of the futility of human action, especially violence, and a rather complicated schema of good guys and bad guys who are often at war among themselves. In short, it's a very rough draft for the Ranown cycle, but with none of the later films' charm. Plus Hudson is a real lightweight at this point in his career, whereas Scott has already built a formidable iconography and has a wry quality that Hudson desperately needed for much of his career. In short, no, it's not one of the 100 best films of the '50s but I'm glad I saw it.

So it begins.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Housekeeping. A Whole Lot of Housekeeping

I've been out of the loop for a while, thanks largely to a kidney stone, a medical procedure and the tedious aftermath. Mind you, I haven't been inactive. In fact, let me quickly fill you in on some of my recent Jewish Week film pieces: my review of Claude Lanzmann's memoir, The Patagonian Hare; a trio of entries from New Directors/New Films; a disappointing documentary about Simone Weil (actually, it's about the filmmaker, which is part of the problem); a workmanlike thriller about Jews and Muslims in Occupied Paris; and a round-up of the recently completed Sephardic Film Festival.

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Family and friends have been busy too. The following is an e-mail from Margalit Fox who is, as regular readers know, my wife and a fine writer and reporter at the New York Times:

As many of you know, the New York Times unit of the Newspaper Guild has been locked for the past year in the contract fight of its life. Management's untenable (and thus far intractable) demands include freezing staff pensions at the current level -- in other words, even if my colleagues or I continue to work at the paper another 20 years or more, we will retire with not a dime more accrued in our pension than we have right now. The effect our newsroom's brilliant staff, many of whom routinely risk their lives to provide coverage from far-flung danger zones, would, it goes without saying, be devastating.

I would be so grateful if you could follow the link below to learn more fully about this issue, and disseminate this widely to all the Times readers you know, urging them to do likewise. There is strength in numbers.

With thanks and all best wishes,
Margo



---------- Forwarded message ----------
From: Info <info@nyguild.org>
Date: Fri, Mar 30, 2012 at 2:40 PM
Subject: From the Guild: Volunteer to spread the word #saveourtimes
To: info@nyguild.org

Today, the Guild released a video asking the public to join us in our campaign to "Save Our Times."

The video marks the one-year anniversary of the expiration of the Guild's contract with The Times and reminds folks that without dedicated staff and excellent journalists, The Times is just white space.

Please help us spread the word by visiting @saveourtimes and writing your messages with the hashtag, #saveourtimes.

Re-tweeting the Guild's message is an easy way to support the fight for a good contract.

If you're new to Twitter, just set up an account, find a bunch of friends on Twitter and visit the Guild's Twitter page @saveourtimes to "re-tweet" messages you like.

If you're not sure how Twitter works, ask a colleague. A list of Times colleagues who are familiar with Twitter can be found at https://twitter.com/saveourtimes/following, once you’ve set up your Twitter account. Also, feel free to use your Facebook accounts to post links to our video, SaveOurTimes.com and other news about the campaign.

Thanks and stay tuned!

In Solidarity,
The Guild Bargaining Committee


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My good friend and colleague Andrew Dickos is the editor of an important new volume of interviews with Abraham Polonsky, the writer-director of Force of Evil, which I consider to be the best first feature by any director (yes, including Citizen Kane and The 400 Blows and Breathless). Polonsky, of course, was blacklisted because of his political beliefs, and the promise of that film would go unrealized until the late 1960s. Andy's book is being published in the fall by University of Mississippi Press, and he will be discussing Polonsky's career as part of a program on the blacklist in Hollywood on KXRA 540-AM in Monterey, CA, on April 5 at noon, EDT. For those of you not in Monterey (which I suspect is almost anyone reading this blog), you can hear the program on-line.

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And now the news you've all been waiting for, I'm sure.

The 36th annual meeting of the New York Independent Film Critics Circle took place over a long, long weekend at the Mohegan Sun Hotel and Casino last week. As we do in every year ending in a 2, we voted on our all-time films list, to coincide with the Sight and Sound poll. This year, we really did it up brown, issuing a hundred-best films list. You can see my individual ballot elsewhere on this blog. But you can find the final tally for the group list and the winners of the 2011 Iras posted on the blog of fellow-Ira-voter Michael Giltz, as well as the joint blog of members Aaron Rich and Alex Lewin.

My ten-best list for 2011 (based on a paltry 85 films -- not a good year for me) is as follows:

1. In Darkness – Agnieszka Holland

2. Cave of Forgotten Dreams -- Werner Herzog

3. A Separation – Asghar Farhadi

4. Mysteries of Lisbon – Raul Ruiz

5. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – Tomas Alfredson

6. Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow – Sophie Fiennes

7. Of Gods and Men – Xavier Beauvois

8. Nostalgia for the Light – Patricio Guzman

9. Tuesday, After Christmas – Radu Munteanu

10. A Dangerous Method – David Cronenberg

Honorable Mention (in no particular order): Pina (Wim Wenders), Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki), The Time That Remains (Elia Suleiman), sleep furiously (Gideon Koppel), Project Nim (James Marshall), Shalom Aleichem: Laughter in the Dark (Joseph Dorman), The Artist (Michel Hazanvicius), Khodorkovsky (Cyril Tuschi), Puzzle (Natalia Smirnoff)





Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Another Piece From Jewish Week

The Museum of Jewish Heritage way downtown at the southern tip of Manhattan is doing a brief but interesting series on Welsh-Jewish films, a subject unusual enough to be worth two stories. The first is an interview with Nathan Abrams, whose book, The New Jew in Cinema, is well worth a look. The second is an interview with Gideon Koppel, whose mesmerizing film sleep furiously is being shown in the series,which takes place this weekend. For more information on the series itself, go to the Museum's website. They have another film-related exhibition coming up that should be of interest to readers of this blog, Filming the Camps: John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens: From Hollywood to Nuremberg, which will open March 22.



As Promised, Footnote

Joseph Cedar's career path has been exhilarating to watch. I've seen each of his four feature films as they've been released here, and each has been better than the one before it. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that his latest, Footnote, which opens Friday, is more complex and audacious than Beaufort, its predecessor, which was stunning in its mastery of screen space and violence.

The violence in Footnote, by contrast, is all verbal and psychological, and no less distrubing and powerful for that. My review of the film is up on the Jewish Week website now.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

General Housekeeping

Baseball is back, so I'm a happy guy.

I passed a kidney stone -- don't ask -- so I'm a somewhat relieved guy.

Have a great website to recommend, so I'm delighted:
Film Studies for Free is a terrific resource, linking to tons of free on-line materials covering the entire range of moving-image analysis. Bookmark this one pronto.

At the risk of being a cliche-spouting guy, if you can only see one movie this spring, you should get to Film Forum or whatever local venue is carrying it, and see Jafar Panahi's This Is Not a Film, not so much because it's an ingenious use of a very straitened set of circumstances -- house arrest, among other things -- although it is excellent film-making, but in solidarity with Panahi, whose plight you may have followed here.

I haven't been idle all this time, recuperation notwithstanding. As utterly indifferent as I am to the Oscars, I do have a few items regarding the foreign-language film award to pass along, my interview with Agnieszka Holland, whose In Darkness is a brilliant film, and at the end of the week my review of Joseph Cedar's Footnote, which impressed me, too. Both of them are filmmakers whose careers I have followed avidly, and I'm delighted to see them continue to make really stirring art.