Saturday, April 25, 2015

Painterly Recollections of Hell

There is something unnervingly eerie about dead silence in a motion picture. Not quiet, but total silence. 

French documentarian Christophe Cognet uses this quality brilliantly in his new film Because I Was a Painter, a meditation on the work of artists who were prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps.Taking a useful leaf from the Claude Lanzmann playbook, Cognet shows us contemporary footage of the artists being interviewed, of the museums and their curators in which the works are preserved and the camps including Auschwitz, Birkenau, Treblinka and Buchenwald.

 Gray skies over Buchenwald

Cognet is trying valiantly to reach some sort of conclusion about the dangers of aestheticizing mass murder, returning repeatedly to the image of an empty gray sky, but the poignancy of the drawings on display here makes for a fascinatingly dissonant experience.  It's the sort of film in which Zoran Music can write of his time in the camps that he felt compelled to depict "all the inner pain" in the faces of the dead, adding "I drew all that because I was a painter," yet Walter Spitzer can tell the filmmakers "I wasn't a painter, I was only 17."

A thoughtful, intelligent and discomfiting film and, because of its severely restricted subject matter, a somewhat fresh perspective on the Shoah. (Currently playing at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Lean, Clean Boccaccio?

I have been a supporter of the work of Paolo and Vittorio Taviani for many years. Their coolly distanced Brechtian take on the world in films like Allonsanfan, Padre Padrone, Good Morning. Babylon,and Night of the Shooting Stars, laced as it is with a certain Italian operatic intensity has always struck me as rewarding. It's the sort of thing I could imagine Antonio Gramsci doing had he been a filmmaker. The multi-layered theatricality of their last film, Caesar Must Die, built around a performance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar by the inmates of an Italian maximum security prison was nothing short of thrilling, a word that I almost never use.

The Taviani Brothers

So when I saw that their new film, having an American premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last week, would be an adaptation of some of the Decameron, Wondrous Boccaccio, I was delighted. Unfortunately, the result was totally unexpected. The opening scenes of plague-induced panic should have given me some inkling that this would be  hard slog rather than a pleasure trip; a father allows himself to be buried with his dead children, the streets of Florence are deserted except for a few desperate, seething people dashing about looking for a place to hide from the plague and a few artfully arranged dead animals. Large plazas become staging areas for highly stylized and utterly unconvincing arguments about what to do next. Everyone and everything is too pretty, too theatrical, too allegorical.

Looks like the Phi Kappas are having a picnic and we weren't invited.
No, it's a bunch of folks waiting out the plague in Wondrous Boccaccio

Finally, the Tavianis gather together their ten young people who will seclude themselves at a farmhouse some distance from the city to entertain each other with stories while waiting out the departure of the lethal visitation. Three young men, seven young women, all of them gorgeous and about as believably medieval and daunted by the specter of their own mortality as a band of lower-ranked tennis pros.Unfortunately, the stories they tell are as antiseptic and unerotic as their demeanors would lead you to expect. One tale about a backward apprentice in an artist's studio, conned into believing that a stone he has found confers on him the gift of invisibility, feels like it should be played at Three-Stooges pace, but the directors stage it with an incomprehensibly stately rhythm that suggests ballet rather than comedy. Similarly, a throwaway anecdote about naughty nuns feels like a left-over Carry On sketch but is played more like Everyman. But even the serious stories suffer from a pain-inducing mixture of lugubrious solemnity and an excess of sanitary zeal. The sex isn't sexy, the plague victims look like they're in starched swaddling clothes and everyone has astonishingly nice teeth. It is so tasteful you could think you were watching Merchant-Ivory.  Apologies to the Taviani brothers, but this Boccaccio needs some filth, literal and figurative, a heaping helping of shit, pus and blood, sweat, semen and nudity.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Tribeca and Elsewhere

The Tribeca Film Festival kicked off today and, of course, I'll be downtown and covering it both in Jewish Week and here. My first recommendation is an off-beat one, Gored,  a new documentary about the world's most-gored bullfighter, directed by a young Israeli filmmaker, Ido Mizrahy. The film is a surprisingly low-key portrait of Antonio Barrera, who prepares, as the film shows us, for his farewell performance. He has been gored by his taurine opponents 23 times, a rather unfortunate record that is something of a testimony to his commitment to his art. It would be easy for Mizrahy (and screenwriter and producing partner Geoffrey Gray) to sensationalize Barrera's story, but Gored is a thoughtful examination of a man whose professional limitations have combined with his deep desire for success in the eyes of the aficionados to make him repeatedly put himself in harm's way. If you watch the Ruslan Provodnikov-Lucas Mathysse fight this weekend (and you should), think of Provodnikov as a torero and you'll have some idea of what Barrera's style is like. Or you could go downtown and see Gored.

What, Me Worry? Antonio Barrera gets ready for work in Gored.

In the meantime, you can read my interview with Mizrahy here

While you are on the Jewish Week website, you should also check out my review of Felix and Meira, a gratifyingly intelligent new drama from Canadian filmmaker Maxime Giroux. It is a ravishingly beautiful, quietly thoughtful film. And those are virtues that are all too rare in contemporary mainstream films these days.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Richie Benaud RIP

Okay, it's not a film story but Benaud was one of the classic voices of cricket and a very fine player as well, and as a (still tyro) fan, I was sorry to learn of his death today. A real gentleman in every sense of the word.

Richie Benaud in 1956

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

James Best RIP

I was sorry to learn of the death of the underrated character actor James Best, but even more upset to see that his obituaries, which focused on his lengthy stint on The Dukes of Hazzard and, at least in the ones I read, neglected to mention his pivotal work for Samuel Fuller in Verboten! and Shock Corridor, and for Budd Boetticher in Ride Lonesome. His filmography is long, filled with work on TV westerns -- some of them quite good like Have Gun, Will Travel -- and WWII series like Combat!, but those three films stand out, and he is damned good in them.

James Best lays down the law in Verboten!

Friday, April 03, 2015

I Married a Who?

I began my 1940s homework with Réné Clair’s I Married a Witch (1942), which turns out to be a rather inauspicious opening for a two-year project. It’s a scatter-brained comedy in which Jennifer (Veronica Lake), a witch who is burned in 17th-century New England, her soul imprisoned in a tree, returns to seek revenge on the descendant of the man who exposed her, a gubernatorial candidate with the rather unfortunate name of Wallace Wooley (Fredrick March). She manages to ingest a love philter intended for him with predictably complicated, ostensibly comic results. Her path to happiness is obstructed by her father, a bibulous sorcerer played by Cecil Kellaway. And so on. 

I am in the middle of teaching four of Preston Sturges’s best films right now, so perhaps I’m overly sensitive to ramshackle comic conceits that lack the punch to make their laughs stick. The plot of Witch is certainly no less of a Rube Goldberg device than any of Sturges’s madly jury-rigged narratives, but the Dickensian profusion of live-action cartoons that is the Sturges stock company drives his films forward relentlessly. All through the Clair I found myself wishing for a small injection of Bill Demarest, Al Bridge, Dewey Robinson (not a relative of mine), Jimmy Conlin or Torben Meyer. Where Sturges paces his films like a Usain Bolt sprint, Clair is leisurely to the point of snoredom. Robert Pirosh and Marc Connelly ae no substitute for the linguistic dexterity and invention of Sturges; frankly, the verbal gags just aren’t funny. March, who is certainly capable of deft comic performances (viz. Design for Living), is just too eager to embrace Wally’s puritan roots with a performance that is about as amusing as his unintentionally pompous minister in the previous year’s lugubrious One Foot in Heaven

What makes all this bearable is Lake’s performance. The writing is too unfocussed to follow through on ideas it proffers – how much mores have changed while Jennifer and her father were trapped in a tree’s roots, the after-effects of the love potion, Jennifer’s desire for revenge – so the film plays like a series of “senior moments,” but Lake gives the narrative line a spine through the nuances of her acting, making the incomprehensible shifts of focus seem altogether logical by playing Jennifer as a whimsical, mercurial eccentric, coquettish one moment, almost sinister the next. I Married a Witch is one of her least effective films but she isn’t to blame.

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Sad, but hardly unexpected news . . .

Manoel de Oliveira, the last silent filmmaker still working and the oldest feature filmmaker ever, died today at the age of 106. For more information, go here.

R.I.P. Don Manoel (1908-2015)

Oliveira is someone I've written about here before, a fascinating holdover from the age of high modernism, whose later work partakes eagerly of post-modernist playfulness. There are, I believe, still a few films of his that haven't been released theatrically in the States, so he may turn up on my ten-best lists for a few years to come, which seems only appropriate.

Back to the Future? Future to the Back?

As I noted in the previous entry, the NYIFCC has completed its survey of the top hundred films of the 1960s, adding to our list for the ‘50s and the all-time list that we compile every ten years to coincide with the Sight and Sound decennial poll. By fairly unanimous agreement we now proceed to the 1940s. 

However I would like to offer a couple of thoughts on the 1960s, a sort of cod-summation of what we “learned” from immersion in that decade over two years. I have always thought of the 1950s as the pivotal decade in American film, when the disconnect between the film industry and the mood of the country became so extreme that it was the subtext for almost every artistically significant movie released during the decade. It is  time when most of the tastemakers and the economic and political leaders of the country are on the Eastern seaboard and the West Coast is still somewhat isolated by the sheer size of the continent. Hollywood, naturally solipsistic by temperament, is preoccupied with a series of crises – the Blacklist, the rise of television, the fallout from the Paramount consent decree, the aging of the studio heads, introduction of new technologies like Cinemascope and 3-D, growth of independent production companies and so on – while the seemingly bland Eisenhower era goes on around it. The result is an underlying sense of tension, disorder, below the surface of conventional genres, an unease that periodically erupts into violence. Think of the central filmmakers of the decade – Fuller, Ray, Sirk, Anthony Mann – and the work of the older filmmakers who hit new peaks like Ford (The Searchers, Wings of Eagles) and most of all, Hitchcock (Vertigo, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much).  You could expand these lists with no trouble at all, but I think you get the idea.


By the 1960s the studios are becoming a non-issue, competing smaller outfits like AIP have altered the playing field in interesting ways, television has become the immovable object but also a source of talent and income. The advent of lighter equipment and faster film stocks has spawned a ‘new wave’ of filmmakers in Europe and they, in turn, fuel the American film equivalent of the youth culture. Plus a lot of the newer filmmakers, having trained in both live and filmed TV are used to working faster, cheaper and with edgier material. 

But what really sets the ‘60s apart, I think (and I only realized this when I began assembling lists of films I needed to see or re-see) is that it is the only decade in which you really have four basic generations of filmmakers all working simultaneously: the old-timers who started out in the silent era (Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, among others), the theater-trained guys who came in with the beginning of sound film, the writer-directors who emerged in the ‘40s and the TV-trained guys from the ‘50s. The influx of film-school grads doesn’t start until the ‘70s, but by then all but a tiny number of silent-film veterans are dead or retired. My point is that for one decade you have an institutional memory actually working in the field that goes back to the earliest days of the medium; yes, Griffith and Murnau and Stroheim are dead, but Ford and Walsh and Dwan are around to recall them.

I’m still uncertain what the overall impact of that generational concatenation might be, but it’s something to think about. I suspect that, ironically, the impact is greater for the film-school kids to come because they spent a lot more time asking the silent vets questions and looking at their films than working directors could spare.  I could go on at great and frankly tedious length about the ways in which the Internet and globalized media have changed this equation again and again but you know all that stuff yourselves.

I must say that it will be a bit odd to shift gears and go backwards in film history. The chronological juxtaposition of intensive immersion in films of the ‘50s and ‘60s produced some interesting experiences and ideas for me. Going backwards by twenty years should be an interesting experience. Needless to say, there is plenty more to come. Last night Margo and I watched I Married a Witch, the 1942 Rene Clair comedy, and I'll have a few brief observations on that film in the next day or so.