Wednesday, March 01, 2023

This blog no longer exists

 As you can probably tell, I have been too busy (and/or too porrly motivated) to continue Cine-Journal. The final straw was that some genius turned a 16-year-old posting into a plug for a porn site and the folks at Blogger, understandably put the entire blog behind a warning for content. 

While I am completely sympathetic to their situation, there doesn't appear to be a coherent process for responding and it's a lot simpler for me to just take down the whole thing, other than this message.

It was fun for a while. I'll be back in the future with something else film-related.

Keep watching the screens!

Sunday, November 05, 2017

My latest, and a brutally funny farce from Sweden

I'll be brief.

My latest piece in Jewish Week focuses on three of the films in this year's Other Israel Film Festival, and they're all quite good. You can read it here.

And you probably should see the new Ruben Ostlund film, The Square. Like his other films, this is a withering satirical attack on the weaknesses of a certain rarified kind of liberal good will and its detachment from the real world. Where his most recent previous film, Force Majeure, was a barbed look at the workings of the haute bourgeois family, The Square is a merciless send-up of postmodern art and the corporate interests that make its exhibition possible. Two-thirds of the way into the film it starts to fly apart like a Tinguely kinetic structure and, as is usual for Ostlund, the cringe quotient is high, ratched up to almost unbearable levels by his delight in testing how much an audience can stand (both within the diegesis and in the theater). The first two thirds are about as funny as anything I've seen this year, but the end result is undeniably disappointing.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

I am fine and there is nothing to report from Chambers Street

Friends --

I know that many of you have been hearing/reading about a police incident involving a truck driver who plowed through the bike lane in Lower Manhattan and ended up being apprehended by the NYPD on Chambers Street earlier this afternoon. I am happy to report that although I am actually in the neighborhood -- I teach at BMCC in about an hour -- I am fine. I saw nothing other than a lot of traffic disrupted. I'm in the building in which I teach, a few blocks away and all is well.

And as the announcer says in Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps, stay tuned to the Kyne News Service for further developments.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Back from the Underground

About the only thing more worthless than a blogger's promises would be his bank account. That said, I hope that this post will mark a small return to activity.

It's certainly been an interesting couple of months, as witness my coverage of the NY Film Festival in Jewish Week. I have two pieces that ran during the recently concluded event, which you can read here and here.

Perhaps more important, the paper just put my response to the Harvey Weinstein controversies here.

And, finally, a shout-out to a new documentary, Thy Father's Chair, a portrait of twin brothers, both Orthodox Jews, trying to deal with their hoarding problem. The primary focus is on their developing relationship with the cleaners,


who are specially trained to deal with this neurosis. The result is a markedly compassionate film and as such a blessed departure from the prurient freak-show treatment that the subject usually receives in the media. The film, directed by Alex Lora and Antonio Tibaldi, is currently playing at the Village East Cinema in New York City, and opens in LA on Friday, October 20, at Laemmle’s Music Hall.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Frederick Wiseman Shows How It's Done

My monthly culture column for Jewish Week appeared a week or two ago and, for some unknown reason, never seemed to make it onto the newspaper's website. After last night's stealth pardon of serial Bill of Rights violator Joe Arpaio by the Commander-of-Thieves, it seems more relevant than ever and well worth repeating here.

Here's what I wrote:

This is why our parents, grandparents, great grandparents came here

In a democracy the major institutions are created and shaped by something like the will of the people. At their best, they are responsive to a multiplicity of pressures  reflecting the manifold interests operating in a diverse  society. It’s a maddengly imperfect system and one that in recent years responded less to the needs of those who cannot wield great economic power and the political clout it bestows. 

What brings this thought to mind is the unplanned but felicitous collision of Donald Trump’s call for massive cuts in legal immigration earlier this month with the early September schedule of Film Forum, which features the latest offering from Frederick Wiseman and the continuation of a retrospective of his work.

Wiseman is one of the last of the pioneering documentary directors who created and sustained the tradition of “direct cinema,” using lightweight cameras and sound equipment to gain unprecedented access to significant moments in history or, in his case, the daily life of great institutions. Wiseman’s work seldom touches directly on Jewish topics -- although his brilliant essay in fiction film, “The Last Letter” does so with exceptional power -- but his attitude and interests bespeak a personality steeped in Jewish ethics and values, for tikkun olam.

Consider a brief passage midway through his 2015 masterpiece “In Jackson Heights.” We see a few minutes of a typical workday in the office of Councilman Daniel Dromm. Two of Dromm’s staff are fielding irate calls from constituents. We hear only their side of the conversations, so it takes a moment before it becomes clear what very local issue the callers are discussing. But it is impossible to miss the interplay of exasperation, concern and slowly eroding patience in the faces of Dromm’s long-suffering staffers. In that single scene, Wiseman encapsulates brilliantly the microphysics of democracy, the personal side of the political and vice versa. I can’t think of another filmmaker working in either dramatic features or non-fiction films who better understands this reality or conveys it more succinctly. For the system to work at all a downright Talmudic balance must be reached.

The aptly named Frederick Wiseman

Wiseman’s new film, his 43rd since 1967’s landmark “Titicut Follies,” focuses on a typically diverse projectat the heart of New York City’s wildly variegated cultural gumbo. “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library,” which opens September 13, offers an extended look at an essential part of the life of the city. As a repository of knowledge in printed, digitized, microfilmed and other forms, the NYPL is exemplary, but its role as a place in which the newly arrived can ease their way into the city is no less important. The library offers English classes, computer classes, children’s programs, emanating from 92 branch libraries across Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, not to mention free computer time and wi-fi, concerts, author talks, art exhibits and more. 

As such, it represents a perfect subject for Wiseman’s camera and sound recorder, a blend of the micro and macro and a useful reminder of how American democracy should function, responsive to the needs and desires of both the many and the few. Taken in tandem with the older films on show from September 6 at Film Forum, ranging from “Central Park” to the epic tetralogy, “Deaf,” “Blind,” “Multi-Handicapped” and “Adjustment and Work,” Wiseman’s body of films offer a unique insight into the complex dance that is required of a pluralistic democratic nation.

That dance, as any Jew should know, is predicated on society’s willingness to welcome and to accommodate new arrivals. One need not have Wiseman’s level of access to institutions in order to read the historical record. Nations that accept and acclimate bearers of unfamiliar cultures are the ones that thrive. Without debating the substantial negatives of the Roman, Ottoman or British Empires, each of those was a long-lasting political, cultural and social phenomenon whose impact outlived its existence, enjoying unprecedented periods of success, power and influence. 

For a number of reasons, I would rather not see the United States continue down the imperial path on which we have already traveled too far. But as a haven for the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. . . . the homeless, tempest-tost,” we’ve done pretty well. Reducing the number of such people that we accept or changing the basis on which they are admitted to one centered on their ability to fill a transitory economic role, in short, the plan offered by the current administration, would not only betray the meaning of this country but would obviate the need for the democratic institutions that Frederick Wiseman has painted in all their glorious, flawed strivings.

Incidentally, I saw Ex Libris earlier this week. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will comment at greater length after its premiere on September 6.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Boycott B+H Photo and Video

I have never made any secret of my non-cinematic affiliations in this blog and I certainly don't intend to start doing so now. Besides, given the huge number of filmmakers and photographers who buy needed materials from B+H Photo and Video, this really is a film-related post anyway. At any rate, they are currently under much-deserved scrutiny for their treatment of the workers in their warehouses. Since 2007, the company has been monitored by the EEOC and has repeatedly been sued for gender and racial discrmination. More than that, the work conditions in the warehouse are highly undesirable, even dangerous. To quote from a website created by the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (of which I am a member) in support of the boycott of the firm:

During a 2014 fire at the Brooklyn Navy Yard ware-house, being denied access to fire exits so management could run employees through metal detectors to check for potential theft while flames continued to grow.
Following the fire, workers contacted the Laundry Workers’ Center (LWC) to help them organize and address their grievances. In November 2015, almost 200 of B&H’s 240 warehouse workers voted to join the United Steelworkers to secure a union contract.

The company's response to the organizing drive was about what you would expect. They have prolonged talks unconscionably, and threatened to move the warehouse operation to New Jersey, which would be inaccessible to the vast majority of their underpaid and largely immigrant workforce. And if all this sounds familiar, it's the same playbook union-busters have always used: Delay, Linger and Wait.

Of course, there are two more elements in the equation now. If Donald Trump can stay in office a bit longer -- an open question, I'll gleefully grant -- he will appoint several new members to the National Labor Relations Board and they can be expected to rule against workers regularly. And if the Orange One sticks around long enough, he will try to deport anyone he can. If it sounds like I'm joking about this, trust me, I'm not. I urge you to go to the website, sign on to the letter supporting the workers and stay the hell out of B+H. Keep in mind, too, that much of their business now comes from the Internet, not just from NY-based customers, so spread the word anywhere you can.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Truth Speaks Louder

As long-time readers of this blog know, I am a founding member of a group that calls itself the New York Independent Film Critics Circle.  A couple of years ago we reluctantly and much debate decided to add a non-fiction film category to our annual awards, the Iras. I say "reluctantly" because up to that time we had proudly disdained the traditional segregation of non-fiction from theatrical narrative and, in fact, had given our best picture nod to several documentaries. As I scan the list of 2017 releases I've seen so far this year, I notice that much of what I have found praiseworthy turns out to be non-fiction.

Perhaps the disparity is merely reflective of my own temperament. These days I'm more likely to see a non-fiction film as anything. The part of me that is sick of CGI as a substitute for concrete images could happily skip 99% of the new fiction films and never notice the difference. This posting's selections are a case in point.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is the latest film from the prolific and prolifically talented Bill Morrison. As with almost all of Morrison's previous work (including an Ira best film winner, Decasia), the new film is a brillian assemblage of found footage in varying states of disrepair. Morrison is neither the only nor even the first filmmaker to use such footage -- Gustav Deutsch and Bruce Connor have achieved wonderful results with such material. But Morrison, working with a succession of composers and sound designers, including several of the Bang On a Can mob, has achieved the extraordinary feat of turning such footage into a kind of poetry of sound and light, a poetry that increasingly has taken on a powerful political dimension, nowhere moreso than in Dawson City. The film's score is by Alex Somers, the sound design by John Somers.

The film has a densely allusive structure with several thematic braids that interlace themselves seamlessly, cunningly connecting the history of nitrate film stock, the rise and fall of the mining boom town that gives the film its name, the infernal economics of extractive mining industries, the inexorable working of big capital and, even, the Canadian love of ice hockey.

Bill Morrison: Is this guy one of the world's greatest living filmmakers?
He is on the short list for sure.
Photo credit: Wolfgang Wesener

The footage is signficantly different from much of what has appeared in Morrison's work before, in large part because of its unusual provenance, which is a major part of the story. Due to a series of complicated chain reactions, Dawson City became the unintentional repository for a treasure trove of hundreds of otherwise lost silent films. they were literally frozen in an abandoned swimming pool underneath an ice rink in the town and dug up in the late 1970s when the lot on which they rested was being prepped for a new purpose. One of the results of this discovery is a massive restoration project that will eventually make these rarities available to scholars and, one hopes, exhibitors. The odd thing, which Morrison's on-screen titles explain, is that some of the films have sufred from a very different kind of deterioration than the footage in, say, Decasia. As anyone who has seen that film or any nitrate film that has undergone the chemical changes that the stock is prone to will tell you, the resulting images have a sort of almost liquid beauty, as if the images themselves were in eruption, with strange colors and distortions. By contrast, water-damaged clips from the Dawson City cache have sections of their images washed clean, with a gleaming, undulating white all that remains. What results is every bit as stirring but quite different in a way I can't articulate on a single viewing of the film.

Granted that filmmakers love films about film (and so do almost all film critics and scholars). But Dawson City: Frozen Time roots that fascination in a here-and-now that is more than navel-gazing self-regard. As I've noted above, Morrison is sensitive to the issues that are powerfully implicated in the rise and fall of Dawson City as it went from a big boomtown on the edge of the Klondike Gold Rush to a near ghost town, left behind when the gold ran out. And he even manages, amusingly, to tie in the city's rise and fall to the very early machinations of a certain real-estate mogul from Queens, a fan of the Ku Klux Klan whose name will be familiar to all.

Hotel, restaurant and brothel. Trump one-stop shopping at its finest

Morrison's production company is named Hypnotic Pictures, and it fits perfectly. Although Dawson City is two hours long, the film rushes by blithely. One's time in the movie is anything but frozen. 
Dawson City: Frozen Time is playing in NYC at the IFC Center, and it cries out to be seen on a big screen.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the Canadian-made doc, I Am the Blues, which just opened at the newly refurbished Quad Cinema. I can certainly offer an undiluted endorsement of the music on display. Director Daniel Cross chose to focus his attention on the disappearing juke joints of the Mississippi Delta and the hardscrabble Northern Mississippi hill country with a side journey into the Louisiana bayous. That variegated itinerary may suggest where the film's problems lie. Simply put, Cross seems unwilling to structure his material and the rsult is baggy, almost shapeless.

But, ah, the music!
Much of the film's running time is spent in Bentonia, a legendary spot in the delta country that spawned a unique and haunting guitar and vocal style, based on unusual guitar tunings and haunting, high-pitched -- almost falsetto -- vocals. If you have heard Skip James then you know it. The primary representative of the Bentonia sound in the film is the deft and witty Jimmy "Duck" Holmes who demonstrates his continued mastery at 70. He is joined at several delightful moments by the likes of L.C. Ulmer, another superlative guitarist and earthy singer. Elsewhere in the film we get a taste of one of my favorite blues harpists, Lazy Lester, Little Freddy King (who looks like Danny Trejo's meaner brother but is really a sweetie) and, most of all, Bobby Rush.
Bobby Rush, looking a lot less than his 83 years, rocking the Club Ebony
Photo credit: Gene Tomko
Indeed, Rush's presence, running throughout the film, gives I Am the Blues what structure it can offer. At one point, he turns to the camera and says, "The road is my company," and like the film itself, he meanders throughout the geography of the deep southern blues routes. Rush, who won his first Grammy earlier this year, is a superb representative of both southern soul and a surprisingly pure strain of Delta blues. He is a charming guide and host and the film benefits immensely from both his presence and his music. In fact, I wish Cross had made the film about Rush, not to shortchange the superb collection of musicians on display, but there are moments when the filmmaker is trying to shoehorn in too much material. 
And it's a shame, because his footage of the the shacks and farmland is evocative and poignant and if he had just let those images and the music do most of the talking, the film could have been so much more than it is.

Incidentally, the newly revamped Quad is another interesting example of the sort of Industrial Deco style that seems to be the new go-to visual environment for NYC theaters. A lot of brushed steel on the walls, pastel-colored neon and a certain odd chilliness, although the staff are charming. The interior of the one screening room I was in was, by contrast, a sea of vermillion with plush new seats. Regrettably, the still use a center aisle, so you can't sit in the middle of the image, but these are smallish rooms so the loss isn't that bad. 

Intriguingly, the Metrograph, which I finally got to a couple of weeks ago, is not dissimilar, although it has a downtown-hipster vibe that is not unpleasant and a bookstore/cafe which discretion kept me from visiting. the room in which In Transit was playing, has no center aisle and it comfortable and dark. (No red seats here.) 

Right now, that screen is occupied by The Rehearsal, a new film from New Zealand directed by transplanted Canadian Alison Maclean. Like her previous features,  Jesus' Son (1999) and Crush (1992), The Rehearsal centers on uneasy post-adolescents who are juggling sexual exploration, burgeoning artistic impulses and a search for absolution for their life-shattering mistakes. At the heart of the film is the growing attraction fist-year acting student Stanley (James Rolleston) and a much younger Isolde (Ella Edward), whose sister is a budding tennis star who was scandalously involved in a sexual relationship with her married coach. the pair meet by chance and Stanley learns of the brouhaha, which becomes the basis for a performance project he is doing with four classmates. One of those classmates is his putative landlord, the witty but dissipated Theo (Marlon Williams in a flashy, scene-stealing performance), and his disastrous fate will send the entire school into a chaotic downward spiral.
Kerry Fox works her will on Michelle Ny in The Rehearsal
Adapted from Eleanor Catton's novel the screenplay is a sputtering, stuttering mess, with plot lines and themes left dangling and a final resolution that is deeply unsatisfying and profoundly unconvincing. What makes the film worth watching at all is a mesmerizing turn by Kerry Fox as the head of the theater school, a Lee Strasberg-type guru who is not adverse to torturing performances out of her young charges. Her energies ultimately turn out to be devoted to a major capital project involving a new building on waterfront property, and she seems all too willing to turn everyone's attentions to that goal. It's one of the few elements in the film that rings harshly true.
 Finally, there is one excellent documentary that has graced local screens all spring about which I( have been rather circumspect, for reasons that will become apparent momentarily. the film, Obit, is a handsomely crafted and witty examination obituary department of the New York Times, directed by Vanessa Gould. As regular readers will know, my better half, Margalit Fox, is one of the key members of that staff and, as a result, is one of the key figures in the film. I hasten to say that this is an exemplary piece of non-fiction filmmaking, a warm portrait of a bunch of people many of whom I know well, and Vanessa has become a family friend, but even were that not the case, I would still recommend Obit because it's that good.*
Times archivist Jeff Roth plumbing the depths in Obit

At any rate, I want to draw your attention to an opportunity for you to see the film on a big screen. It will be playing at the Thalia at Symphony Space as part of -- surprise -- a documentary series, with showdates on July 16, 23 and 29. More information here.  And for those of you who are concerned that I never step outside the New York city limits, the film is also playing at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley (August 11-20) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (September 1-4).
*Hey, we don't have a fiduciary relationship with the filmmakers, although I did score a terrific free razor and a very handsome baseball cap advertising a lunch-meat manufacturer for attending the film's Philadelphia Film Festival screening a few months ago. But I'm warning any filmmakers who may be reading this, you'll have to top that haul if you want to get into this blog. I'm thinking maybe a case of sausages to go with the hat?

This blog no longer exists

 As you can probably tell, I have been too busy (and/or too porrly motivated) to continue Cine-Journal. The final straw was that some genius...