Monday, December 25, 2006

A Brief Note

Okay, I was swamped with paying work for a change. I will be doing a rather longer posting in the next day or two, but in the interest of housekeeping, I thought I'd quick hit with a few items of importance.

First of all, if you are in New York City, you absolutely MUST go to Film Forum and see the delightful program of Chris Marker films. The five shorts that make up the "Bestiary" are quite charming. I particularly like the first two, "Cat Listening to Music," starring Marker's own Guillaume-en-Egypte, who flicks his ears quick amusingly in time to the music at one point, and "An Owl Is An Owl Is An Owl," which displays an astonishing selection of Marker's other favorite animal. As for The Case of the Grinning Cat, it is prime Marker, astute, funny, bittersweet, a splendid hour-long epilogue to Cat Without a Grin, his mordant retrospective on the rise and fall of the European left in the '60s and '70s. It will be there through January 2, so hustle, dammit.

I also want to get in a quick plug for Flannel Pajamas, Jeff Lipsky's romantic comedy-drama. My review for Jewish Week can be found here. The film is apparently running out of box-office steam, so move your butt quickly and go see it. Not quite ten-best list quality but a lithe and intelligent work with some lovely acting and a terrific look. Kudos to DP Martina Radwan. And if you are as put off by Julianne Nicholson's work on Law and Order: Criminal Intent as I have been, you are in for a huge surprise; Lipsky elicits a sharply observed, highly nuanced performance from her and she is incredibly sexy as well.

Speaking of pleasant surprises that probably won't make my ten-best list but definitely are worth seeing, my lovely spouse and I watched the DVD of Spike Lee's Inside Man last night and it's quite amusing. Perhaps Lee needs to work with someone else's material on a regular basis to rein in his rather desultory narrative sense, but this is one of his sharpest films, fast and witty, pointed and effective. It seems to have been utterly forgotten in the end-of-year awards orgy, so you will probably have a hard time getting to see it on a big screen, but the disk is a competent transfer.

For those of you who observe it, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Three Kings Day, and may you have an easy Fast of Tevet. If that doesn't cover you in some way, I'd wish you a happy new year, but I expect to be posting here again before that happens.

Among the items lying on my desk -- not counting Sabrina, one of our cats (who recently decided to print an e-mail I was about to delete) -- are a trio of East German westerns, some key Eastern European cinema, a new Claude Chabrol that will open shortly after the New Year, the Quay Brothers and who-knows-what-else. And hey, it's over three weeks away, but I ought to do something interesting for the first anniversary of Cine-Journal. I'm open to suggestion, but keep them clean (or not too painful).

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Daddy Roberto and the Dark Ingmar

Fascinating double-bill at Film Forum right now, a pairing of Guy Maddin's delicious tribute to Roberto Rossellini, courtesy of Isabella, "My Dad Is 100 Years Old," and Marie Nyrerod's Bergman Island, a surprisingly candid 85-minute profile of Ingmar Bergman, who is nearing the century mark himself. (Okay, he's only 88.)

The Maddin is a little gem, a chamber piece for solo instrument, with Isabella providing all the voices -- Hitchcock, Selznick, Chaplin (well, he doesn't speak), Fellini and, luminously, her mother Ingrid Bergman. Given that it is, as the title of the Maddin short says, Roberto's centenary, one is amazed that so little has been said and done about his work. MoMA is working its way through his filmography -- and if you haven't seen these films, get your ass to 53rd Street while they are still there -- but that's been about all, except for this love letter from his adoring daughter. Of course, everything in the contemporary cinema world militates against Rossellini; it's a replay of his actual career, with the morons paying lip service to the neo-realist films while ignoring the even greater achievements of the remainder of his career. Isabella and Maddin replay all the stupidity of his detractors -- "he never moves the camera, his films are so slow, yada yada yada" -- but the joke is on the oafs whose idea of great cinema is Mel Gibson disembowelling people. (And, no, I have no interest in seeing the little Nazi bastard's latest 'epic.')

Of course, the people who never got Rossellini were the ones who always sang Ingmar Bergman's praises. Bergman, whatever you may think of him, was a director whose on-camera concerns were impossible to miss, even for the most cretinous reviewers. I won't start on Bergman here -- the man who made Persona and Smiles of a Summer Night has nothing to apologize for, not even to an agnostic like me -- but the person who emerges from Nyrerod's documentary is infinitely more complex and interesting than his art. He's a canny old party, is Ingmar, with his reclusiveness tempered by his possession of a private movie theater with a projectionist and a housemaid who comes in daily. He can even be quite funny when the mood takes him, as in his explanation of how he and an architect came to design the odd fireplace in his living room. As one might expect, the Bergman house on Faro Island is impressive but austere. Rather like the man himself, you might say.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

A small change to the comments section

With great reluctance, I have added 'word verification' to the comments section. This means that if you want to post a comment, you will have to type in a word given on the page to verify that you are not a machine posting but a human being (or a reasonable approximation thereof). I hate having to do this, although it is only a minimal nuisance for posters, but the spam comment from earlier today is one spam comment too many. I get enough of this crap in my inbox without adding to it on the blog.

Good Indy, Bad Indy

Two new independent films opening yesterday (Friday, Dec. 1, that is), sort of point up the pros and cons of indy film.

Brad Silberling has been responsible for some of the most egregious studio films of the last 20 years (City of Angels and Moonlight Mile simply reek of faux sincerity and unearned tears), so when I was asked to speak at the Key Sunday Cinema Club for a showing of 10 Items or Less, I was reluctant. I'm glad my wallet whispered in my ear, because otherwise I would have missed a very pleasant surprise, a sweet, unpretentious little film that showcases nice performances by Morgan Freeman and Paz Vega. Freeman plays an actor who is fighting burnout and a tendency towards reclusiveness by making a timid first step towards doing a low-budget independent film. He meets cashier Vega at a supermarket in the very unfashionable town of Carson, an LA neighbor, and the two spend a day together.

Silberling, like the Morgan Freeman character in this film, has been working in mainstream Hollywood for a long time; he began his directing career in television in the mid-‘80s before moving into feature films in 1995 with Casper. But after two years of a highly controlled soundstage environment shooting the effects-driven Lemony Snicket film, he desperately wanted to recharge his batteries, so he set out to make a low-budget independent film in real settings, no special effects, no control over the environment.

Like the Freeman character, he felt he had reached a turning point in his career, and was ready to make a radical break. And this film is the result.

What I think is really lovely about 10 Items or Less is that the film works entirely on the behavioral charms of its two leads, it is filled with little grace notes the reveal things about the characters, rather than the kind of plot-driven contrivances that have marred Silberling’s previous work for “adult” audiences. The movie doesn’t end with Scarlet (Vega) and the actor leaving their families and driving off into the sunset. It doesn’t end with her getting a new job, with him reviving his career. The ending is open, although guardedly optimistic, and that, I think is the best you can hope for from real life.

10 Items or Less works because its writer-director has his mind on what really matters when you tell a story of human interaction: how do these people interact, with one another, with their environment and, finally, with themselves. And it’s the last element that makes the film such a perfect collaboration between director and star. Silberling spends a lot of screen time just showing us Morgan Freeman watching other people. We sense that the character Freeman is playing – not to far from the real man himself, I suspect – is a great observer of human behavior himself, someone who can sit quietly and learn the most important aspects of a personality merely by watching how that person sits, walks, punches a cash register’s buttons or drives a car.

(Incidentally, 10 Items or Less may become a historical landmark in the film history. The film is the first to be offered for download on the 'Net shortly after its theatrical release, through a system called Clickstar. For some interesting commentary on this development, I recommend a look at Friday's posting from CinemaTech.)

John Stockwell, who is probably most familiar from his brief stint as boy-hunk of the week in films like John Carpenter's Christine, also chose to work in the low-budget indy mode for his new film, Turistas. Unfortunately, the result is not appreciably different from his recent studio work on films like Blue Crush and Into the Sunset. Turistas starts out as a vaguely amiable, aimless teen flick, with Josh Duhamel (of NBC's vapid Vegas) chaperoning his sister and her beast friend on a beach-bum trip through Brazil. When their bus crashes, they are seemingly stranded in the backwoods, along with a fetching Australian tourist (Melinda George, the only person to emerge from this dreck with her dignity intact) and two oversexed Brits. They take a detour to an apparent paradise, only to find themselves the prey of a mad doctor who snatches tourists for their organs, which he donates to a charity hospital in Rio.

A director and writer with a sense of humor or irony could have made a George Romero-type political horror film out of this material. Stockwell and first-time screenwriter Michael Ross have neither. Stockwell and cinematographer Enrique Chediak have given the film a murky, muddy look that combines with Stockwell's total lack of understanding of screen space to make the film's action sequences utterly incomprehensible. The result is a film that is too dull to offend, too ugly to titillate and to stupid to sit through. Turistas is the kind of movie that makes me think I don't get paid enough to do this job.

And it's a useful reminder that independent and good are not synonyms.

Friday, November 24, 2006

A Rediscovered Gem -- Are There More Here?

(This piece appears in a slightly shorter version in this week's issue of Jewish Week; however, it is not on their website, and I really want you to go to Brooklyn to check out this series.)

“New Wave” cinemas don’t spring fully formed from the heads of their young maverick directors. They have predecessors, even if only to give the young turks something to rebel against. This is nowhere more apparent than in the former Czechoslovakia, where the highly acclaimed New Wave of the mid-60s had a distinguished but little known set of forebears whose work fits nicely with the great modernist films of the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.

BAMCinemathek is paying homage to the freewheeling spirit of Czech modernism with a selection of rare films beginning November 30. Among the films being screened are several that testify to the role that Jews and philo-Semites played in Czech cinema when it wasn’t being suppressed by the Nazis or the Stalinist.

Among the most striking of these films, The Distant Journey, was made in Prague in 1948 and is a startlingly uncompromising look at the Shoah from an explicitly Jewish point of view. The film’s director, Alfred Radok, was half-Jewish, lost most of his family in the concentration camps and was himself imprisoned in a Polish camp from which he managed to escape as the war dragged to an end. Drawing on his own experiences and those of survivors of Terezin, he managed to make one of the first and still most honest films about the mass murder of European Jews by the Nazis.

The Distant Journey is an astonishingly forward-looking film in several ways. Radok makes skillful use of documentary footage (some of it drawn from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, an appropriate reminder of the uses to which Riefenstahl willingly let her artistry be bent), juxtaposed against the drama of a family caught up in the roundups and deportations. At key moments in the film, Radok will suddenly freeze the frame in which the dramatic material is being shown, then reduce it to a small inset in the corner of the screen while documentary footage shows us the progress of the larger historical action. And, at a time when American films still didn’t discuss the murder of the Jews, this film is about nothing else.

More striking, the scenes set in Terezin are a remarkable use of expressionist techniques, creating the ghetto as a dense spider’s web of suffering, with Radok’s restlessly moving camera linking the Jews in a community of shared misery. In these sections of the film, Radok seems to be groping towards a narrative structure driven by a collective protagonist, denying the “heroism” of individual action so in appropriate to the subject of the Shoah. At those moments, The Distant Journey, overcomes its pat melodramatic main story and becomes a work of astonishing power, brutally unsentimental and agonizing to experience.

Also included in this intriguing series are several films by Gustav Machaty. Machaty is best remembered for Ecstasy which is, in turn, best remembered for a nude scene by the young and astonishingly beautiful Hedy Lamarr. Machaty and Lamarr moved on to Hollywood but, like Mauritz Stiller and Greta Garbo, only the star would flourish there. Machaty returned to Prague and his radical visions, while Lamarr became the most beautiful and inert of Hollywood goddesses.

“Czech Modernism: The 1920s to the 1940s” will be playing at BAMCinemathek (30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, from November 30-December 10. For information, click on the link on the right-hand side of this page.

Monday, November 20, 2006

A quick reminder

If it has always been your life's ambition to see me in person . . . you need to do something more interesting with your life.

However, if you still have a yen to tell what you think of me to my face, you will have an excellent opportunity on December 4, two weeks from today, when I am appearing at the Barnes & Noble store at 82nd St. and Broadway in Manhattan at 7 p.m.

According to the listing on one of the many free-events lists for NYC, "Robinson summarizes all 54 portions that make up the Torah and gives us a brilliant distillation of 2000 years of biblical commentaries." Wow! I can't wait to hear that myself! But I guess that means we'll be there for a few weeks.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

We're None of Us Getting Younger . . . .

Saw Michael Apted's 49 Up with the b.w. the other night. We've been following the series for 21 years now. I bought her the boxed set that goes up to 42 Up a few birthdays ago, so you can see we're pretty hardcore on this. Indeed, it wouldn't be much of a fighting point to suggest that these films are by far Apted's best work. (What then? His Bond movie?)

The new film is nicely judged and structured, as usual. Everyone from the last two films is back. They all look a bit more haggard, heavier, jowlier. There are several sets of grandkids and a few surprises but, as Margo observed over breakfast, nobody has changed much in the past seven years. Still, it's never dull and although the aging process -- loss of parents, loss of powers -- gives the new film a certain autumnal feeling, it's no more depressing than running into an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend who has put on 40 pounds. (Or looking in the mirror while shaving.)

What I found fascinating personally was how many of the people who I thought would turn out to be "Upper-Class Twit of the Year" contestants have turned into fairly decent human beings. Maybe Hepburn is right in The Philadelphia Story when she says, "The time to make up your mind about people is never."

At any rate, First Run Features has already released the DVD, which includes an excellent interview with Apted by Roger Ebert (although there is some strange machine noise in the background throughout their talk) and the film, surprisingly since it's the first one Apted shot on video, is probably the best-looking in the whole series. Of course, that's a good reason to try to see it in a theater. Either way, the DVD is a good investment, especially if you have been following the series.

Friday, November 17, 2006

An Apology and a Recommendation

Okay, I went over the top quite a bit in my attack on Hillary Clinton. Let's just say that she is my very last choice among potential Democratic candidates; I would reluctantly vote for her against anyone likely to get the Republican nomination. And, yes, I do hold her and Bill responsible for the health care fiasco; they offered a plan that was all tepid halfway measure and doomed it to failure by the way it was advanced.

Now, back to film. It has been a few months since I saw Fabian Bielinsky's The Aura, but the film left me with some deep, disturbing feelings. Like Bielinsky's Nine Queens, it's a quasi-noir, very much the product of the chaotic Argentine economic situation and the cynicism it bred. A taxidermist on a hunting holiday with a colleague accidentally kills a man and finds himself plunged into a complicated casino heist. Bielinsky, who died in June at the age of 47, joins the very short list of directors felled as they achieved a mastery of their craft -- Michael Reeves is the most obvious cross-reference. The Aura is taut and imaginative, with a visual surehandedness that is impressive. It's playing in NYC at the IFC Center.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Why the Destruction of the Voice Film Section Matters

There is an excellent rundown on the gutting of the Village Voice film section at The Reeler, a blog on NY film that I hadn't seen before Ira Hozinsky brought it to my attention. As I wrote in the comments section there, if there were other publications that covered the indie/alternative/avant-garde film scene in NY with the same thoroughness and the same clout, the fact that the assholes from New Times chose to wreck the section wouldn't be as significant -- it would be unfortunate because they dumped some good writers (and a few I won't miss), but not potentially tragic.

J.Hoberman remains, albeit with much less space in which to write, a problem for most print journalism today, thanks to TV and the success of the USA Toady (and that's NOT a typo). I don't know Nathan Lee personally, but found his Friday work in the NY Times to be pretty smart, and I'm delighted that he has a full-time job now. (No one should have to be without health insurance in this country, which is one of the reasons I won't be voting for Hillary Clinton for president unless she runs against Satan himself, always a possibility with the Republicans, of course; she and her husband dropped the ball bigtime on that one.) My good friend Mark Sprecher, a native Angeleno and current resident of that great sun-baked metropolis of the West, tells me that Scott Foundas is a smart, gifted critic and I generally find Mark's judgment reliable. I didn't stop reading the Voice when Andrew Sarris left, and I had a lot more emotional and professional investment in his work than I do in the people who got tossed out this time.

So what's the problem?

The problem is, clearly, that the dullards from New Times have deliberately dumbed down the section, are deliberately shifting its focus towards the mountain of crap being released by the studios, to the detriment -- and on occasion, downright exclusion -- of important work being done by filmmakers outside the mainstream. And there is no New York publication that can take the place of the Voice when it comes to those filmmakers and venues. I make it my business to cover those films and venues whenever I can in Jewish Week but, obviously my reach there is limited. (I don't have a problem with that; in fact, I really enjoy the notion that by writing on Anthology, for instance, in JWeek, I might be convincing somebody's zayde to go to 2nd and 2nd.) Look, I'm a good Jew, I feel the weight of the entire world on my shoulders and the guilt that accompanies my not saving it every day is excruciating. And that's only partially a joke.

What is even more disturbing is that the changes in the film section are merely the tip of the iceberg, as far as I can tell from the front page of the NT'ed Voice. The Voice was as important for its muckraking coverage of local politics as it was for its spiky arts reporting. No matter how good Scott Foundas is -- and I mean him no offense -- he can't take on that mantle from Los Angeles. Neither can some smartass schmuck editor in Cleveland. I wouldn't expect smartass schmuck editor in New York to spearhead enterprise reporting about Cleveland politics either.

And this, finally, is the part of this story that is missing from the discussion at The Reeler, through no fault of the author there, who did an excellent job. When local alternative papers are bought up by would-be media magnates like New Times who, in the interests of increasing their profits, cut back on local coverage, the only people who gain -- besides the would-be media magnates -- are the local pols, slumlords and other scum who no longer have to face the possibility of seeing their behavior analyzed in public. I had the unfortunate experience several years ago of taking a 7-1/2 hour-long train ride from Rochester, NY, to New York City; before I boarded the train that morning, I bought a large stack of daily papers from across Central New York. That was a stupid mistake on my part, because almost all those papers were owned by the Gannett chain (the lovely people who gave us the Toady), and except for stories about local traffic accidents and police blotter crap, the newspapers were virtually identical.

And that, dear readers, is what the problem is with the emasculation of the Village Voice.

Here endeth the sermon. Amen.

"New" Marcel Ophuls film coming up

Marcel Ophuls's career is littered with detours and potholes, sort of like the FDR Drive, but unlike that usually homely stretch of highway (it does look great at dawn, when the East River and Queens are gilded by the rising sun), he has several masterpieces to show for all the travails. Regrettably, he hasn't made a new film since 1994's The Troubles We've Seen, and that one was unshown here in the US for over a decade, except for a couple of one-time-only screenings.

Now Milestone Films has Troubles and will, I assume, be releasing it on DVD sometime soon. However, the film will have a truncated theatrical run at Anthology Film Archives over the weekend of November 17-19. I have already reviewed it for Jewish Week (here), and have nothing to add to that piece, other than to say that, while I think the second half of the film is something of a mess, it is well worth seeing for all the virtues that Ophuls brings to his documentaries, a cunning and sarcastic humor, profound sense of moral outrage, and a sense of decency.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Monsters From My Subconscious

Last night I dreamed I was back on the pre-Disney 42nd Street. This was as much my film school as Columbia, a string of last-chance houses where double-bills were the order of the day and you could catch some really great (or lousy) action films for next to nothing. The other great attraction of these theaters was that they opened at 9:30 a.m. and closed at 3:30 a.m. For a lot of working people, this was the only place they could go to a movie after a night shift. For me it was a place I go to a movie before or after class, cheap. (Yeah, and occasionally during class.)

So I dreamt last night that I was back there, early on a weekday morning, looking for a promising pairing. One theater was playing Ryan's Daughter with a title I can't recall now. But the one that remained in my mind after I woke up -- and the reason I'm recounting this fragment at all -- was part of a triple-bill:

Dracula vs. Gandhi

I guess this proves you can make this stuff up. But you have to be asleep to do it.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Come Back to the Yurt, Lassie, Honey

Byambasuren Davaa co-directed The Story of the Weeping Camel, an elegant piece of semi-documentary filmmaking that was one of the bigger surprises of 2004. Davaa may not be the first Mongolian filmmaker, but with her new film, The Cave of the Yellow Dog, a solo effort, she becomes the first to inadvertently remake an American chestnut. Think of Yellow Dog as Lassie Come Home with yak milk. The story is absurdly simple -- girl finds dog, dad hates dog, dad wants to leave dog behind when the family ups stakes and moves on, but dog saves youngest child and joins the family.

Davaa is trying hard to do something with the relationship of her characters to the vast, verdant landscapes of Mongolia, something like a John Ford western I suppose, but she allows her penchant for pictorialism to overwhelm any larger thematic concerns. She also seems bent on using film as a way to preserve a dying nomadic culture; the most telling moments in the film revolve around the encroachment of modern conveniences on traditional life, such as the plastic ladle that the husband brings back from a nearby town, riding on his motorcycle (!), or the school uniform that the oldest daughter wears at the film's outset. Clearly the family in Yellow Dog is poised between two cultures, and that would make a very interesting film.

Instead, we get an awkward mixture of ethnographic film and sentimental fiction. It might make more sense to imagine The Cave of the Yellow Dog (and The Story of the Weeping Camel, much of which was also staged apparently) as a throwback to early exotica by directors like Schoedsack and Cooper (Chang, Grass) or Flaherty (Nanook of the North, Man of Aran), well-intentioned attempts to document ways of life that are being superseded by modernity, films that are hopelessly compromised by their makers' penchant for scripted melodrama.

In New York, The Cave of the Yellow Dog is playing at the Angelika Film Center.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Return of a Classic Film Book

I bow to no one in my respect and admiration for David Bordwell. When I was teaching film, I always used Film Art: An Introduction (which he co-authored with Kristin Thomson) as the textbook; it is, quite simply, the best intro film text I have read. His other work is equally important, incisive, insightful.

But one of his most important books -- and I'm told, one of his favorites -- has long eluded my clutching fingers, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema. It has been out of print for a long time, and even on Bookfinder goes for a couple hundred bucks. But now, hallelujah, the book is available on-line in PDF format. Go here and download a classic.

And there's even more Bordwell at his website.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Dry as a Dry Martini

I’ve often thought that the dry martini was invented by a Jew. Dry, tart, with a spark and a hidden kick, it’s a lot like Jewish humor. That thought crossed my mind most recently as I was watching Silvia Prieto, a 1999 film by Jewish-Argentine director Martin Rejtman, which will be playing at the IFC Center (Sixth Avenue at 3rd St.) November 3-5.

The title character of the film is a pleasing young woman (Rosario Blefari) who is suffering from an acute lack of direction. On her 27th birthday, she decides it is time to completely change her life. So she goes to the laundromat and washes her clothes. She also takes a new job as a waitress in a local cafe, then has coffee with her ex-husband. For Silvia, this apparently constitutes opening up new horizons.

Marcelo, her ex (Marcelo Zanelli), looks her over and says with concern, “You’ve put on weight.”
“The shirt is a size too small,” she replies in a matter-of-fact tone.
“They gave me the wrong bag of clothes at the laundromat.”
She pauses, then adds, “I’ll have to go on a diet.”

It’s a perfect non sequitur, delivered in a perfect, logical deadpan, and it sets the tone for the wry lunacy that follows, a series of interlocking shaggy-dog stories involving TV dating shows, the endless exchange of unwanted gifts, the theft of an Armani jacket that manages improbably to make its way back to its owner, and Silvia’s discovery that there is another Silvia Prieto in the Buenos Aires phonebook.

Rejtman’s Buenos Aires is a hermetically incestuous collection of interlocking friendships, sort of a tangofied variation on Woody Allen’s Upper West Side-as-microcosm-of-New York, only a lot funnier and less pompous. It seems as if everyone in the film either went to school together, went to bed together or worked together at some incredibly low-level job. So Marcelo dates Brite (the delightful Valeria Bertucelli), who hands out samples of a detergent named — of course — Brite; Brite’s masseuse is engaged to a classmate of Marcelo’s who she met on a TV show; Brite’s ex turns out to be a classmate of theirs, and ends up dating Silvia, who ends up working with Brite. And so on.

What makes all this nonsense work brilliantly is Rejtman’s utterly deadpan, uninflected treatment of the material. It is as if Robert Bresson had directed a script by Hal Hartley. Rejtman’s unblinking camera and dryly witty cutting rhythms give the film a comic charge that goes well beyond the charms of the script and acting.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

The Dow Filmmaker Average Plummets

What follows is a piece I wrote for this week's issue of Jewish Week. It's not on the website but the film event is important enough for wide dissemination. Obviously there is a lot more to recommend Jancso's work than his unusual affinity for Jewish themes; his mastery of the long take is legendary and well-deserved, and his films are the closest thing to pure dance of any narrative filmmaker I can name. If you're in New York while this series is going on, trundle over to Lincoln Center and see as many of the Jancso films as you can. Who knows when you'll get another chance to see them on a big screen.

The Hungarian filmmaker Miklos Jancso is perhaps the finest living example of the fickleness of what Northrop Frye called the stock exchange theory of criticism. In the 1960s and early ‘70s, Jancso was among the best-known Eastern bloc directors, acclaimed for his strangely lyrical historical dramas in which the violence of his country’s history was turned into a dance of hunter and hunted, oppressor and oppressed, with those roles changing hands at a bloody moment’s notice. In the late ‘70s he went to Italy where he extended his unique historical vision to encompass more of Europe’s past. But after The Tyrant’s Heart played the 1982 New York Film Festival, Jancso vanished from American theaters. What happened?

The Film Society of Lincoln Center, which has long been one of Jancso’s strongest supporters, offers no answer in its upcoming series “Resistance and Rebirth: Hungarian Cinema, 50 Years After ’56,” but one of the tree components of the program is a seven-film tribute to Jancso, who is still an active filmmaker at the age of 85. In fact, he has a film in post-production right now. In the 24 years since his last New York exposure, he has directed 21 film and television projects, many of them with Jewish themes, including an Israeli project, The Dawn in 1985.

Jancso has always had an affinity for Jewish themes. As he explained in a 2002 interview with Andrew Horton, as someone of Transylvanian descent and half-Romanian, he always felt like an outsider in Hungarian circles, and identified with his Jewish cousins. Indeed, in the 1980s he seriously considered relocating permanently to Israel, and among his unseen works from 24 years his films weren’t shown in New York are a series of documentaries and film-essays on the Shoah.

None of this should come as a great surprise to anyone who has seen his masterpieces, films like The Round-Up, The Red and the White, Red Psalm and Elektra, My Love. These films, with their omnipresent images of cruelty and oppression, built on shifting sands of power, of men and women stripped naked and paraded for the perverse amusement of their captors, echo the Holocaust almost directly, even when the events they depict are drawn from Hungarian history or, in the case of Elektra, Greek tragedy.

It is unfortunate that the Film Society is only showing one of Jancso’s post-1982 films, an off-beat comedy The Lord’s Lantern in Budapest. It would be very exciting to see where he went in those years lost to U.S. audiences. But it is a pleasure to have the opportunity to rediscover this all-but-forgotten master. Maybe his stock will rise once again.

“Resistance and Rebirth: Hungarian Cinema, 50 Years After ’56” will be presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center at the Walter Reade Theatre (70 Lincoln Center Plaza) October 27-November 15. For information, phone 212-875-5600 or go to To read the Andrew Horton interview with Jancso in full and a very interesting selection of other pieces on his cinema, click here.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Hypnotized by Cinema

What do the new film by Turkish director Nuri Blige Ceylan and a DVD of early 20th-century silent film actualities from the Midlands have in common?

Actually, nothing much, except that each is, in its way, utterly hypnotic and a testament to the power of moving images on a screen.

Climates, Ceylan's new film, which opens tomorrow at Film Forum, is a terse, tense drama of romantic discord, with the director and his wife (the luminous Ebru Ceylan) play a mismatched couple struggling to make sense out of their foundering relationship. Ceylan works in long, long takes, but makes fascinating and effective use of foreground/background spatial relations to amplify our sense of the literal and figurative distance between the two. He is a middle-aged college professor, she a much younger art director for a TV series and, although his field is architecture history, they seem to have little in common. Almost from the first shot of the film, Ceylan is manipulating depth of field to keep them in separate planes within the image; even the two-shots end with her walking out of frame. The result is a portrait of two people held together by the inertial effects of gravity and little else.

There is an extraordinary shot two-thirds of the way through the film that sums up the entire project for me. On a whim, Isa (Ceylan) has taken a plane to the eastern part of the country, where Bahar is on location with her TV show. The sequence opens with a truly bizarre and haunting image, a passenger jet emerging out of a pure white screen, looking almost as if the image were solarized. As the camera pulls back and the shot continues we slowly realize that what we are seeing is a plane landing in a swirling, blurring snowfall. The sense of spatial dislocation and uncertainty is a reflection of Isa's own almost aimless emotions. The shot, like the rest of the film, is both eerie and riveting.


That shot from Climates works in no small part because of the sheer fascination of watching filmed movement. After more than a century of motion pictures, the simple fact of moving images is still enchanting in itself. But to get a real sense of that kind of wonder, you have to go back to the earliest days of silent film. And that is
why Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell and Kenyon is such an endearing and charming DVD. Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon were filmmakers based in the north of England at the beginning of the 20th Century, shooting actualities of such mundane events as schoolchildren on parade, fairgrounds, crowds at sports events and the inevitable workers leaving a factory. They trumpeted their product as "Local Films for Local People" and their audiences clearly came to see themselves. In fact, their advertisements centered on precisely that possibility: "Come and see yourselves on the screen as living history." Of course, when one sees ostensibly documentary footage of ordinary people, there is the inevitable bittersweet realization that many of those schoolboys filmed in 1903 would be dead in the trenches in a dozen years. It is impossible to watch these films without a feeling a certain sadness for the evanescence of human life, yet there they are, "living history," given something like eternal life through the miracle of motion pictures. The disk is aided immeasurably by an excellent commentary from Dr. Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield, and a lovely score by In the Nursery. You can order it from Milestone Films, and I recommend that you do.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Another Addition to the Straub-Huillet Files

This one's from Liberation, so if you read French, go here.

In the next day or two, I'll be posting my review of Ceylan's Climates, a very interesting film that I haven't quite got a handle on. It's opening at Film Forum on the 27th. (Link on the right-hand side.)

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A DVD You Must Own

More timely than ever, the London-based Second Run DVD is releasing a disk of Avi Mograbi's Avenge But One of My Two Eyes, a startling and powerful film by one of the most unfairly neglected of Israeli film and video artists. Avenge played the New York Film Festival in 2005 and at the time I wrote this about it:

The line between life and death, this year’s New York Film Festival seems to be telling us, is getting thinner all the time.

This somber thought is at the heart of both Middle Eastern films selected for this year’s event: Avi Mograbi’s Avenge But One of My Two Eyes and Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now. Both films are stark studies of homicidal-suicidal political rage and how it is created and stoked.

Mograbi, who some may recall from August and How I Learned to Overcome My Fear and Love Ariel Sharon, is an Israeli director who works very effectively in video, using the medium’s immediacy to great effect. This is nowhere truer than in his new work. Over the past few years, Mograbi shot a series of short cinema verite documentaries at army checkpoints, showing the nerve-wracking incidents that make up daily life there. Now he has integrated that footage into a feature-length work, one that departs startlingly from the pointed satire of his earlier work.

It’s not hard to guess where Avenge is headed from its opening scene, a black screen with a phone conversation between Mograbi and a Palestinian friend who is bemoaning the latest curfew and lockdown in his town. One immediately guesses that this is not going to be mordantly funny like August and if there is self-deprecation ahead, it will be much darker than in that film. But nothing in Mograbi’s work—not even the "Checkpoint" shorts—could have prepared us for the somberness of his new film.

Avenge is cunningly structured, moving back and forth between scenes of Israeli soldiers exercising infuriatingly arbitrary and seemingly pointless power over Palestinian civilians at the checkpoints, school groups listening to guides at Masada extol the suicidal choice of the Judeans that ended the siege by Roman troops and Mograbi’s dispirited friend contemplating the Occupation. The cuts between Masada (as well as similar discussions of Samson’s destruction of the Philistines, itself a suicidal act) and the checkpoints, often involving sound overlaps in which we hear the guides and teachers while watching the beginning of the next confrontation, make the ideological connections abundantly clear.

If that were all there was to the film, its 104-minute running time would be unbearable, repetitive and clumsily didactic. However, Mograbi is smarter than that. The film is woven of a more complex series of thematic skeins that often are only revealed gradually. Thus, one docent explains the Roman siege wall around Masada: “This wasn’t just a ‘separation wall’ as we call it today, it was a statement by the Romans that they were here to stay.” Yet we learn from another guide later that the Roman wall was “only 2.5 meters high, and the guard posts were basically just wooden platforms,” while we see sections of the current “separation wall” that are clearly larger and much more permanent structures. Mograbi is much less a defining presence in this film than in his previous work, which in part explains the melancholy humorlessness of Avenge. The one scene in which he is clearly an active participant comes late in the film and involves him in a heated argument with a young Israeli lieutenant. Where the anger in August was a subject for much of the film’s humor, this time the filmmaker is deadly serious, nearly apoplectic with rage, and the result is, like the rest of this deeply disturbing work, profoundly upsetting.

Back to October 2006, and my feelings about the film haven't changed at all. If anything, with the events of this summer, Mograbi's vision resonates even more powerfully. This is not a pleasant film, no question about it, but it is one that cries out to be seen. It is opening in London on November 5, and will be released by Second Run on DVD on November 13. By all means go to their website and buy a copy. That this film hasn't been more widely shown in the US is a disgrace.

Second Run is also releasing a whole bunch of other goodies, a bit easier on the ears and conscience perhaps, but no less compelling, including several important East European films and Blissfully Yours by Apichatpong Weerasethakul. I'll write about some of those shortly. (And before you ask, no, I didn't double-check the spelling of Apichatpong Weerasethakul. What do you think I am, a dope?)

Friday, October 13, 2006

News Update on Johnnie To

Triad Election, which I wrote about early this week, has had its US premiere pushed back from January to the spring. It will open at Film Forum on April 25, then break wider afterwards. His latest film, Exiled, will be opening here sometime in late spring/early summer.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Sad news

It hasn't hit the newspapers yet as far as I can tell, but the film blog world is full of the news that Daniele Huillet died earlier this week. Huillet was one-half -- the much neglected half in film journalism -- of a brilliant partnership with her husband and co-director/writer Jean-Marie Straub. Their films were difficult, occasionally annoying, but always provocative in the best sense, highly intelligent and breathtakingly conceived. There are few more incisive meditations on the nature of political power than History Lessons or Othon, no Kafka adaptation so skillful as Class Relations, no opera film as rigorous and beautiful as Moses and Aaron, no biopic as insightful on the relationship between creator and creation as The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. When the rest of the film world was retreating from political concerns, Huillet and Straub soldiered on. There really is no one else in cinema quite like them, and Huillet will be missed. For more on her work, check out the excellent pieces by Andy Rector and Doug Cummings, and Barton Byg's excellent book, Landscapes of Resistance, all of which are available on line. (Many thanks to Ira Hozinsky for passing along the news and these links.)

No Film Content -- But Read It Anyway

Got up a little earlier than usual yesterday and shlepped to midtown.
Went to the offices of Random House, up to the 21st floor and my editor handed me five copies, hot off the press, of my new book, Essential Torah. And I must say, it looks pretty snazzy.

Of course, if you don't want to take my word for it, you can go here and see for yourself.

And if you're really clever, you can buy yourself a copy. Heck, if you ask nicely, I might even sign it for you.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Somber Classicism Trumps Lunacy Every Time

God, I must be getting old if I can write that headline with a straight face. But in the case of the new Johnnie To film, which was screened for the press on Monday morning, it's fairly accurate. I can't think of a more delirious, over-the-top piece of action cinema madness than To's Fulltime Killer, and I mean that as a compliment. The film is audacious beyond the wildest imaginings of John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, a complete balls-to-the-wall piece of glorious excess (which masks a deeply sentimental worldview).

So I went to Triad Election, his latest, expecting more of the same. (No, not on the basis of one film in a 25-year-long career. I was also thinking of nutcases like Executioners and Heroic Trio.) Perhaps if I had seen Election, to which it is the sequel, my expectations would have been different, I don't know. But Triad Election is a smart, tight (85 minutes) organized crime film that appropriates some of the visual bleakness of the Godfather trilogy while exploring the same themes of crime as capitalism unleashed, the tensions between straight and underworld society, and the dangerous responsibilities that come with ascending to power. The film is meditative, almost classicist in its dark, stark repose, with rising gang power Jimmy (Louis Koo) who would rather be doing legitimate business; he's got an MBA you see. But in order to become head of his triad and curry favor with the PRC security honchos, he will be steeped in blood like a tea bag.

To doesn't flinch from the violence, although some of the worst stuff happens off-screen or in almost complete darkness. And his depiction of the world of the triads is unsentimental, cynical and corruscating. Like most of the characters on The Sopranos, these may be wiseguys, but they're definitely not wise guys. And like Coppola (of whom I am not an admirer, but credit where due), Abraham Polonsky in Force of Evil, and Francesco Rosi in many of his films, Johnnie To understands that crime doesn't arise from nowhere, that there are socioeconomic and political forces driving the Triads. The film's political analysis isn't as sophisticated as Rosi's or Polonsky's, but it's not for lack of ideas. The result is a splendidly mean little crime film that is redolent of the Warners backlot. If they sold sesame noodles there.

Sunday, October 08, 2006

One Up, One Down and One in the Middle

Of the handful of films I managed to see in the first two weeks of screenings for the New York Film Festival, Manoel de Oliveira's latest offering, Belle Toujours, a sprightly sequel to Bunuel's Belle de Jour, is by far the most satisfying. At slightly over an hour in length, the film is compact, funny and elegantly crafted by the soon-to-be 98-year-old director, at once a loving tribute to his fellow Iberian master and a slyly humorous meditation on memory and desire. Michel Piccoli reprises his role as the avuncular yet sinister Husson, while Bulle Ogier, suitably coiffed and dressed, stands in for Catherine Deneuve as the self-tortured hooker/housewife. Ogier spends most of her screen time glaring resentfully at Husson, who is downright gleeful in his wallowing in the past. Piccoli relishes this role which, paired with his more somber turn in Oliveira's I'm Going Home, must stand as one of the best double acts any actor has ever been offered so late in his career. You needn't have seen Belle de Jour recently (or, I suppose, at all) to appreciate Oliveira's delightful little jokes, but it couldn't hurt. Besides, one should revisit Don Luis at every possible opportunity.

Tian Zhuangzhuang has been as embattled in his rather more brief career as Luis Bunuel. After his magnificent 1986 film The Horse Thief attracted the attention of the Chinese authorities, his 1993 film The Blue Kite just pissed them off completely. It would be nine years before he was allowed to direct again, but his lovely remake of the classic Springtime in a Small Town was both a very handsome chamber drama and politically neutral. His new film, The Go Master, is also highly circumspect in its political implications and, in several sequences, quite an accomplished work as well. But for too much of its rather 107 minute-running time the film seems strangely detached from its subject, a Chinese-born go champion whose decision to live and and work in China throughout the turbulent period between the 20s and '50s is never really explained and whose life is filled with incident but not with drama. The film never finds a balance between the intimate and epic, Wu Quingyuan, the protagonist, never becomes a rounded character, and even his persecution as part of a fringe religious sect seems strangely bland.

Alberto Lattuada is one of those Italian directors whose work is clearly worthy of greater exploration. His 1962 black farce Mafioso is one of those strangely bitter comedies that Italy seemed to turn out in quantity in the early '60s, with Alberto Sordi excellent in the type of role that made his career, the pushy bourgeois dope, good at his mediocre job but utterly without self-knowledge or ambition larger than the next pay raise. In this case, he is a quality control manager in a large factory who takes his wife and kids with him on an ill-advised vacation in the small Sicilian town where he was raised. He immediately falls back into old habits and haunts with predictably disastrous results. The film is aided immeasurably by Armando Nanuzzi's inky chiaroscuro cinematography and the new print struck for the film's eventual re-release by Rialto Pictures, is sharp and clear. The film is entertaining and worth seeing for Sordi in particular, but some of its humor is pretty dated and most of it is pretty obvious.

Friday, October 06, 2006

I'm not picking on Bette/Helen Mirren is the next best thing

I'm sure that the diehard Davis fans were seething over the All About Eve post from earlier this week. (That, of course, assumes anyone is reading this at all; sometimes I'm dubious about the whole blog thing, but I know that some folks are out there 'cause I hear from them.) The target of that little arsenic valentine wasn't Ms. Davis, of course, but Joe L. If there was ever any doubt in my mind about ol' Bette, I got a vivid reminder this evening of why she has the rep she's got when the b.w. and I watched The Letter on TCM. Turner's print is a gorgeous reminder of how good a DP Tony Gaudio was -- sometimes I think we take the Warners cameramen for granted, but Edeson, Polito and Gaudio are responsible for some of the most glorious black-and-white cinematography in America.

It's also a splendid aide-memoire to Davis, whose performance is even more nuanced than I had remembered. She gets more mileage out of the play of the "moonlight" on those huge eyes than any dozen young actresses today could wring out of a multi-volume set of great monologues. Indeed the best moments in the film are the quietest ones, those moments when Max Steiner's score shuts the fuck up and Davis just sits and mulls her duplicities and mistakes.
I'm not engaging in mere Ira-esque partisanship when I tell you that I can't wait for Ed Sikov's biography of Davis -- a perfect choice of subject for Ed's insightful pen.


I've been delinquent in both viewing and reviewing the NY Film Festival. I spent almost all of this week cooped up in the apartment with a variety of ailments -- okay, I slept late and watched playoff baseball -- sue me -- and deadlines. I will, however, venture this much comment for now. Watching the festival's opening night film, Stephen Frears's skillful The Queen, one is struck by how much Helen Mirren has become our modern equivalent of Bette Davis, a woman who can handle royalty without invoking unintentional laughter, unflappable and poised, alternately chilly and volcanic. Mirren's Queen Elizabeth II is one of the most complex female characters in a film this year, not because of Peter Morgan's script, which is clever and workmanlike but a trifle cartoonish (albeit by design), but because Mirren's combination of compassion and sang-froid makes her a richly realized, multi-faceted human being. Although the rest of the cast are excellent and Frears handles the whole project with a deft hand and light touch, it's Mirren that makes it worth watching, regardless of how you felt after Princess Diana's death or what you think of the Royals.

(I think the Royals were much better after the All-Star Game than I expected them to be, but I still figure they're five years away from being a contending team.)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

All About . . .

I'll be getting to the NY Film Festival shortly -- no, really, I promise -- but I had an interesting experience over the weekend, wedged in among the Yom Kippur observances. For reasons I won't bore you with, the b.w. had to look at All About Eve a couple of nights ago and, loyal spouse that I am (and movie junkie), I watched alongside her.

Quite a shock. I had vague memories of the film being a bit stodgy but clever, so I was appalled when I saw it again. It is, quite simply, dull, dull, dull. Mankiewicz takes a 90-minute script and in his trademark self-congratulatory 'cleverness' blows about 45 minutes of hot air into it. Except for Eve, who is a caricature of innocence unprotected -- until she becomes a caricature of evil unleashed -- every one of the characters speaks exactly alike, in a tortured, pompous cartoon of Broadway 'wit.' It's as if someone regurgitated the worst of the Algonquin Round Table. With the honorable exceptions of Bette Davis and George Sanders who, for better or worse, are iconic, and the always wonderful Thelma Ritter (whose character disappears without trace or explanation after 45 minutes), the acting is excrutiating. The script's structure -- the passing from hand to hand of flashback narration -- is awkward to no purpose, a reworking of the similarly clumsy Letter to Three Wives.

Andrew Sarris has admitted to having missed the boat on a few of the directors in his "Less Than Meets the Eye" category -- most notably Billy Wilder, who he has said he would now move into the Pantheon -- but I think he pegged Mankiewicz absolutely right. His best films -- Somewhere in the Night, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, House of Strangers, There Was a Crooked Man -- were written by others. His most gaseous works -- and I'd put All About Eve squarely in that category, alongside the obnoxiously self-righteous People Will Talk -- are entirely the product of an egomaniac so delusional that he rewrote F. Scott Fitzgerald (Borzage's luminous Three Comrades). It's obvious from comparing their writing credits that Herman was the talent in this family.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Su Friedrich in Mid-Career

I have to start this post with a profound apology to Su Friedrich and to the Film Department of MoMA; I had every intention of writing and posting this interview before the mid-career retrospective of her work at MoMA. I had already written a shorter version of the interview, which can be read at Jewish Week here. And the program does have one more day to run, Saturday. Still, I was swamped by work, by preparations for Yom Kippur (and may those of you who are reading this and will be observing that day have an easy fast), and by sheer indolence.

Which is not merely unfortunate but genuinely rude of me, because Ms. Friedrich gave me three hours of her time, not your usual interview, and I had an absolute ball, because she is a gracious hostess and a smart and funny interview subject.

If you look at some of her recent films -- I'm thinking particularly of her dense, witty rumination on aging and health, "The Odds of Recovery," and her 17-minute essay on anger management, "Seeing Red" -- you would expect Friedrich to be a twitchy, flashily neurotic New Yorker, sort of a lesbian Woody Allen. In person, however, she is wonderfully calm, centered and focussed. Maybe that's because she can smoke at home. (She is the first person I've ever met who rolls her own filter cigarettes.)

Friedrich makes her home and office in a converted industrial building in Williamsburg, just on the cusp of the gentrifiers' nefarious work. The most depressing evidence of their encroachments is just around the corner from her building, a grotesque red brick and sandstone monstrosity that advertises itself as luxury apartments but looks like a cross between a 1950s public school and a minimum security prison. The neighborhood is one of those uniquely New York mixtures of boho and Old World, a strong Polish presence making itself felt in the bars, shops and, most of all, the food stores.

At 52, Friedrich is somewhat amused to find herself the subject of a retrospective although, as she points out, this isn't the first.

"At the risk of sounding like I'm bragging, I've had a bunch of retrospectives already. There was one at the Whitney in 1987. What I like about this one is they're calling it a 'mid-career' retrospective. That makes more sense to me."

She laughs, and adds, "Of course that means I have to keep doing this for another 30 years."

In a sense the timing of the MoMA program was fortuitous, because circumstances had put Friedrich into a retrospective frame of mind.

"It's connected to the way I've been feeling about the DVDs of my films," she explains. "I did all the tech work on the disks and it was really difficult because it entailed an microscopic look at all the films I'd ever done. It made feel as if things were over."

Outcast Films is distributing the DVDs, which include almost all of Friedrich's work. The transfers are excellent and the films are both thought-provoking and entertaining. (If you want to purchase them -- and I urge you to do so -- go here.)

"I don't think it's possible to have that much perspective on one's own life," she says, ruminating on the conjunction of DVD and retrospective. "I don't think in terms of career. I think day-to-day."

For a film critic, the inevitable tendency is the opposite, to look at a filmmaker's body of work and seek out the common threads that unite the disparate films. I suspect most critics -- myself included -- tend to agree with Jean Renoir's assessment of his films as merely being individual chapters in a lifelong work. Certainly, seen en masse in a concentrated period of time, it's not hard to find the links within Friedrich's first 28 years of work. And there are several formal devices common to most of her films that I find highly appealing -- her use of silence as a punctuation, her fascination with the written word on-screen, her attraction to music as counterpoint to her images.

Not surprisingly, these elements are intricately related to one another, a major part of the complex and rich tapestry of Friedrich's films. And when she talks about them, the are intertwined as well.

"When I started using words scratched onto the film itself, it was partly a practical choice, but it was also an attempt to creat a certain tone, a sort of child's voice. When I added audio, there was so much talking, I felt that I needed some breaks. With sound you start losing the visual element and I wasn't going to give that up. With texts -- well, I'm just a very verbal person. I grew up reading huge amounts of everything. And I like the written word as a graphic element in my films. I like showing an audience one word at a time -- there's a lot of engagement [when you do that]."

As her career has gone on, Friedrich has moved from a certain distance from her stories -- her voice is almost never heard in "The Ties That Bind" and she deliberately chose to write the narration of her autobiographical film "Sink or Swim" in the third person, to be read by a young girl -- to the direct address of later films, particularly "Rules of the Road" (a personal favorite of mine), "The Odds of Recovery" and "Seeing Red." Indeed, you couldn't get much more personal than "Recovery," a film that is filled with images of her body and her medical records. On some level, this trajectory is of a piece with the fascination with the written word and the limitations of the spoken word.

"I had a bit of fear in the past about speaking directly. With 'Sink' I started writing the script in the first person but it was too traumatic. When I got to "Rules of the Road" by the very nature of the film I had to do the narration in my own voice. It partly has to do with a greater maturity, but it's also a requirement of the subject matter."

It would be pretty hard to do her recent films with anyone else's voice but Friedrich's.

And it's a voice worth hearing, a vision worth sharing.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Palestinian Films at the Walter Reade

Just a quick head's up to draw your attention to a forthcoming brief series by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, "Emergence: A Brief Introduction to the Palestinian Cinema," which is playing Sept. 26-7 to coincide with the publication of Dreams of a Nation: On Palestinian Cinema, edited and with an introduction by Hamid Dabashi, published by Verso Books. The three features in the series, Michel Khleifi's Wedding in Galilee, Elia Suleiman's Chronicle of a Disappearance and Hany Abu-Assad's Paradise Now, are not just significant signposts in the development of a Palestinian film language, they are damned good movies too. For more info on the films, go to the Film Society's website. For more information on the book, go here. And to read my piece, with interviews with Prof. Dabashi and Richard Pena, the Film Society's director, go to Jewish Week.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Here's what's coming up

I know, you're probably thinking, he's gone almost two weeks without a posting, the lazy SOB.
Well, I promise you will not have to wait much longer for an avalanche.

I spent nearly three hours -- all of them delightful -- with filmmaker Su Friedrich, who is the subject of a mid-career retrospective at MoMA later this month, and you will be getting the benefit of that interview later this week.

And the press screenings for the New York Film Festival begin later today, so you can expect me to weigh in nearly on a daily basis.

Lucky you.

Friday, September 08, 2006

DVDs not so new, but definitely for your library

As I have mentioned elsewhere in this blog, I was doing a DVD column for Inside Magazine in Philadelphia. After talking to my editor today, it became evident that, advertising being what it is, my column is no longer needed. (Sigh.)

Well, they had one they've been sitting on for months and I hate to let anything go to waste. Besides, the DVDs I was writing about are deserving of your attention. So here it is, with minor changes to bring it up to date.

Let’s get something straight right off the bat.

There is no substitute for seeing a movie in a theater, projected on film, on a screen that is bigger than you are.

It’s that simple. As wonderful as many of today’s DVDs can be – and the ones I’m writing about are pretty wonderful – they haven’t got the range of color, the texture, the vibrancy of a good film image. And seeing a movie on your TV screen, no matter how big it is, in your living room, no matter how dark you can make it, isn’t the same as seeing an image that dwarfs you and that is nearly the only source of illumination in the room. Sitting in a darkened room full of other people and gazing up at a screen that is several stories tall is the best way to see a film.

But that is not always an available option and, for the films under discussion in this column, it’s pretty unlikely.

So you get the best DVD player you can (I recommend a region-free player that can deal with PAL and NTSC disks equally well), the best TV set your wallet permits, and hope for the best.

When it comes to the best, at least in terms of content and presentation, you could do a lot worse than Unknown Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film, 1894-1941, produced by Anthology Film Archives and curated ably by Bruce Posner. This seven-disk set offers over 19 hours of the cream of the early American avant-garde, and the compilers have exercised some shrewd judgment casting their net wide enough to include such surprises as Busby Berkeley’s “Lullaby of Broadway” number from Golddiggers of 1935, and memorably surreal dream sequences from otherwise mainstream fare starring Doug Fairbanks and Edward Everett Horton.

But the real thrill here is seeing the roots of the American underground, films like Jerome Hill’s 1934 “La Cartomancienne (The Fortune Teller),” with its anticipation of Maya Deren’s pivotal “Meshes of the Afternoon” or a half-dozen of Joseph Cornell’s fascinating and often disturbing collage films. Posner has chosen the films wisely, and the supporting notes come from outstanding scholars of the avant-garde, and are rief enough to be enticing but not flatulent. The transfers are stunning and the original music is splendid throughout. This is a must-have box for anyone interested in film as art, and a source of endless hours of pleasure. (Available from

One set of offspring from the men and women of Unseen Cinema are the Kuchar brothers, George and Mike, twins from the Bronx who have been making their own brand of inventively fractured cinema since the early 1950s. Although George is slightly better known, Mike is no less a figure in the world of underground cinema. Both of them are drawn to the high-camp world of the ‘50s melodrama, fascinated by recreating the high-gloss, high-budget antics of antics of Joan Crawford, Lana Turner and their ilk, not to mention the spicy doings of trash sci-fi and film noir, but on budgets so small that to call them shoestring would be to exaggerate. The send-ups are affectionate and not without feeling.

One of Mike’s finest achievements, and a film that John Waters apparently claims as a major influence, is his futuristic farrago, Sins of the Fleshapoids, made in the mid-60s. This little gem is set “a million years in the future” when humanity no longer does anything except to indulge in pure pleasure. Pleasure seems to consist of such dubious delights as eating a Clark bar, Wise potato chips and an ice cream cone. But the “fleshapoids,” robot slaves of the human, want their share of the fun and, as you might expect, trouble lurks around the corner. The Other Cinema’s DVD of Fleshapoids also includes two of Mike’s delirious short films, “The Secret of Wendel Samson,” with a hilariously befuddled Red Grooms in the title role, and “The Craven Sluck,” as its title suggests, a tale of incest and alien invaders. Given the age of the 8 and 16mm footage, the transfers on the disk are surprisingly sharp and the colors are delightfully lurid. (Available from

I’m not sure how Ross McElwee would feel about being linked with the Kuchar brothers, although his dry wit is not entirely dissimilar to Mike’s. McElwee, of course, is one of those capable filmmakers who are redefining documentary film in ways that draw on the essay and diary while not neglecting social commentary. His best work, Sherman’s March, Time Indefinite, and 2004’s brilliant Bright Leaves offer warmly affectionate but balanced and incisive views of the modern American South, leavened by his own self-deprecating humor. Now First Run Features has made most of McElwee’s films available on DVD in a five-disk set, The Ross McElwee DVD Collection. The package includes the three films mentioned above as well as his earlier shorts, “Charleen” and “Backyard” and his 1997 feature Six O’Clock News. The transfers are fine, the interviews with the filmmaker are highly intelligent, as one might expect, and the outtakes are amusing. An excellent introduction to a uniquely American voice. (Available from

With all the hoo-ha surrounding Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong, I was a little disappointed that more wasn’t written or said about the remarkable duo who made the original film (and still the best), Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper. Before they dreamed up the big ape (and ran RKO Studios), the unusual team of explorer-photographers directed two wonderful silent documentaries, very much the product of a time when the “exotic” was hugely prized on-screen. Remember, 1922 marked the debut of Robert Flaherty with Nanook of the North, and indie film companies proliferated wildly offering a glimpse of previously unseen cultures. But unlike some of their competitors Schoedsack and Cooper delivered the goods with Grass and Chang. These two utterly unique films depict, respectively, the migration of the Bakhtiari tribe across the Asian steppes to distant grasslands where they can feed their herds, and the struggles of a small farming family in the jungles of Thailand. The films are surprisingly sensitive for their era to issues of cultural difference, and much of the footage is extraordinary. Milestone Films has done an lovely job of preparing these two films for DVD, with new scores by indigenous musicians, beautiful hand-tinting and excellent supporting materials. (Both disks are available from

Finally, for an unmediated look at some independent filmmakers, I commend to you the “Screening Room” series. Originally broadcast in Boston during the 1970s and ’80s, the program featured 75-minute-long interviews with such stalwarts of the independent and documentary worlds as Alan Lomax, Robert Breer, Jean Rouch and Ricky Leacock. I’ve looked at the Lomax disk and another featuring avant-garde filmmaker Standish Lawder and philosopher Stanley Cavell, all questioned capably by Robert Gardner, himself an important ethnographic filmmaker, and the discussions are fascinating. Documentary Educational Resources is releasing these disks in three series, documentarians, animators and avant-garde filmmakers, and they are well worth exploring. (Available from

One more reason I can't wait for the Beijing Olympics

This from the useful Rotten Tomatoes website:

BEIJING -- China has banned acclaimed director Lou Ye from making movies for five years as punishment for sending his "Summer Palace" to the Cannes Film Festival without government approval in May, official media reported Monday.

Lou, who previously suffered a two-year blacklisting in 2000 for his Rotterdam Film Festival winner "Suzhou River" (HR 7/18), could not be reached for comment.

There's more, but you can go to website to read the reactions, etc.
Well, I can certainly see why Dubya doesn't want to alienate those fine folks in Beijing. He's hoping to get a few pointers on handling domestic dissent.

And it's an ideal situation for the IOC -- no noisy protestors, no snoopy press, clean streets and no panhandlers. Should make for great games as long as they can clean the blood spatter up before the TV cameras arrive.

Le Petit Lieutenant opens today

I won't say 'drop everything and go see it.'
For all I know you could be holding a large economy-size bottle of nitroglycerine.
However, after you put down the nitro, go see it.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

A Life in Jewish Music

Back in January, which right now seems a lifetime ago, the New York Jewish Film Festival premiered a delightful and frequently moving documentary, A Cantor's Tale, directed by Erik Greenberg Anjou. At the time, although I was enthusiastic about the film, I was frankly skeptical of its finding a theatrical distributor, although I hoped I would be proven wrong. Thank goodness, I definitely was. The film opens on September 6 at the Two Boots Pioneer Theater. However, it is currently scheduled for only a two-week run, so you'd better get over there and see it pronto.

Back in January, I wrote this about the film, and having seen it again this weekend, I find no reason to change a word:

A Cantor’s Tale is a gleeful profile of Jack Mendelson, president of the Cantor’s Assembly (of the Conservative movement), teacher at many institutions including Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and both a connoisseur and purveyor of spirited chazanut, the dying art of the improvising cantor. Cantor Mendelson is an ebullient, larger-than-life figure, a proselytizer for chazanut wherever — and I mean wherever — he goes. We see him trading cantorial licks with everyone from Orthodox cantor Benzion Miller to the counterman at a kosher deli. (“He looks like an axe murderer,” Mendelson says, laughing.) He teaches Golden Age style to Reform cantors-to-be and to children in his Westchester shul. And he does so with a mixture of humor and sound technique that is enthralling to behold.

With such a dominating central character (he even gives the director an impromptu singing lesson towards the end of the film), it would be hard to make a dull film, but Anjou does more than just stick the camera in Mendelson’s face and let it run. A Cantor’s Tale is a well-crafted documentary with a mix of wit and love matching Mendelson’s, filled with interviews with unlikely fans of his singing and teaching — who knew Alan Dershowitz could sing? — and some very serious discussions of issues facing the cantorate in the 21st century.

A lengthy debate on “kol isha” (the prohibition on hearing the voice of a woman during prayer) is so adroitly integrated into the film that it feels completely natural. The ongoing battle over the complex hybrid role of the cantor as prayer leader/representative of the congregation/entertainer/serious musician gets aired thoroughly but, to Anjou’s considerable credit, never feels anything less than an organic part of the film’s structure. A Cantor’s Tale is a real rarity, a very funny but very serious documentary that touches on issues of deep concern to the Jewish world.

As I noted above, the film is only scheduled to play at Two Boots through the 19th, and they only have one screening of it each day. Check the schedule on their website.

Serge Daney

It's 1:30 in the morning New York time, and I was tossing and turning in bed. Rather than wake up the b.w., I decided to go upstairs, maybe look at the screener of the Ric Burns doc on Andy Warhol; then I had the thought that although I have often mentioned to friends, colleagues, sources and so on that my blog was named in honor of the late French film critic Serge Daney, the overwhelming majority of Americans don't know Serge Daney from Serge Reggiani (or Sergeant Preston). That, of course, is easily remedied thanks to the Internet.

Please make the acquaintance of M. Daney, courtesy of the great Jonathan Rosenbaum, and the excellent on-line film magazine Senses of Cinema; and the invaluable blog, Serge Daney in English, curated by Laurent Kretschmar. Kretschmar has links to much of what is available of Daney in English, much of it in his own translations (and frequently published by Senses of Cinema).

Friday, September 01, 2006

I'm not gonna cry; I'm gonna hold my breath until I turn dark blue

I promised myself I wasn't going to be one of those nagging mothers -- oops -- bloggers who is constantly whining about how nobody ever comments and you don't love me anymore and it's okay I'll sit in the dark.

It's not as if my income depends on this blog. Thank God.

But it would be reassuring to know someone is out there. Of course, you don't have to leave a comment. Instead, why not just click on the link on the right-hand side of the page to buy my new book, Essential Torah, and make a practical contribution to the Robinson Fund for Lazy Film Critics.

Of course, if you feel you absolutely must leave a comment, far be it from me to stop you.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Abraham Ravett Redux or Who Would Be an Indie Filmmaker?

Got an e-mail a little while ago from my friend and colleague Daryl Chin (whose excellent blog is here) about my posting on Abraham Ravett. Daryl, who is very involved in the indie film scene, offered the following observations:

I'm sorry i didn't get to see Abraham Ravett's new work, but i've seen it in progress. One problem is that the whole Boston/New England film scene has just about disintegrated. A lot of the organizations (Boston Film/Video Foundation, Massachusetts Cultural Council, etc.) were faced with severe cutbacks, and a number of them closed. The same thing is happening in NYC, of course. But over the years, i was a panelist for BF/VF, for the Massachusetts Arts Council, the Mass Cultural Council, etc. (Once you're on these lists, you get called a lot; also, i was the "anomaly", i was the nonwhite person who knew about avantgarde film.) One year, i was on the Media Arts panel for the Massachusetts Arts Council, and part of the deal was that i got to make two trips to the area to spend a day investigating two of the media organizations. (The ones i was assigned: the Boston Jewish Film Festival and New England Women in Television and Film.) And it was fascinating, because it taught me a lot about the network of support that there was for "independent" film in the area.
But as the economic crunch has set in (though the economy is on an "upswing" as many people have noted, it's for the top 1% of the country; the rest are floundering), a lot of these organizations have closed.
So it's going to be interesting to see how someone like Abraham Ravett is able to continue, because so many of the organizations which provided his network of support. Not just money, but things like access to archival materials, sound equipment, etc.

Many thanks to Daryl.
Of course, I am reminded of the famous words of Dr. Johnson: "Who, sir, but a blockhead ever wrote but for money?" If only he and Boswell had known about film.

Or blogs, come to that.

Not a film item, but quite interesting

My e-mail box, overflowing as usual, included the regular missive from Contemporary Poetry Review, an excellent on-line magazine that is, as its title says, a review of contemporary poetry. (Now that's clever.) I was intrigued by the title of one of the essays and went to the website to read it.

Now I am more than intrigued. The poet under discussion is Brian Turner, formerly an infantry sergeant with the 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Iraq. I gather that his book, Here, Bullet,
has already received a lot of publicity and was fairly high up on the Amazon list. (As I write this it's
ranked #49,432 in books, which is probably pretty good for contemporary poetry.)

But I'm out of the contempo poetry loop, so to speak, although I do read a lot of contemporary poetry myself. (I've even published some, which proves that there are so many poetry magazines in America that anyone, absolutely anyone, can get a poem published.) So Turner's existence is news to me. I was very impressed by the poems quoted in the review, by Aaron Baker. I was also very impressed by Baker's analysis of the book.

If you want to see what I'm talking about, go here.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Quick Tash Flash

My reliable sources inform me that the Tashlin retro at Film Forum will be all 35mm prints, except for Hollywood or Bust, of which no decent 35 exists (sigh). But the 16mm should be a good one. And who knows when you're gonna get another chance to see these on a big screen.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Frank Tashlin -- Master of the Live-Action Cartoon

Yeah, Tashlin started out as a cartoonist -- if memory serves, he was one of the guys who tried to bring the Cartoonists Guild into Disney, God bless him -- and it's one of the trademarks of his live-action features. Watching It'$ Only Money, his fourth effort with Jerry Lewis solo, at a press screening a week or so ago at Film Forum, I was struck by the fact that some of his most gentle gags are the ones that are most cartoon-like. My favorite in that film, not a major Tashlin or Lewis offering by the way but seldom shown on a big screen, is the moment when Jerry pulls his truck up alongside a parking space that is just-not-quite-but-almost big enough. He stops parallel to the spot, gets out of the truck and pushes it sideways into the spot, almost overshooting it onto the curb until he reaches under the truck to stop its motion. It's a charming moment and surprisingly low-key for both director and star.

Of course, the keynote to Tashlin's humor -- and it's sooooo 1950s -- is a no-less-cartoonish approach to sexuality in which the notably asexual male -- Tom Ewell, Lewis, Tony Randall, Terry-Thomas -- is confronted with a hypersexual female -- Jayne Mansfield most memorably. On some level, Tash really is the archetypal '50s comedy director (with Howard Hawks seemingly taking his cues from the younger Tashlin in films like Monkey Business and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes). You could make an equally good case for Billy Wilder, but there's a certain level on which Wilder is still an outsider, a Viennese Jew looking acerbically at a strange, decadent society, while Tashlin, born in Weehawken, NJ, dives headlong into the manic energy and unbridled vulgarity of the decade, approving of the trashiest manifestations of American pop with smirking glee. It is hard to imagine Wilder making a film that champions rock and roll with the ferocity of The Girl Can't Help It, or a film that revels in the sheer boneheadedness of the advertising business like Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? For better or worse, Wilder is always a step back from American crassness; Tashlin could never make Love in the Afternoon, a consummately European film.

Whatever. This much is sure. You should haul yourself down to Film Forum for the new 35mm print of The Girl Can't Help It and try to catch as many of the subsequent films as your schedule permits. These days nobody is making films with the bright, hard-lacquered jukebox colors of Tashlin's best work; I'm tired of looking at desaturated palettes, even in films where they work well. Tashlin is the perfect antidote.

Tashlin is the only film person of any significance born in Weehawken.
You could probably win a bar bet with that piece of information, but I'd hate to think of the bar in which it might come up.

Five posts in a week then two weeks of silence?

Yeah, well real life intervenes frequently. I will write at greater length about the Frank Tashlin retro at Film Forum and a few other goodies shortly. For the moment, though, go to the Film Forum website and check out the goodies in the Tashlin retro and -- as a Tashlin character would -- drool in anticipation.

Abraham Ravett -- Memory Out of Art

[This piece was written for and appears in this week's Jewish Week, but it didn't make it onto the paper's website. I consider Ravett an enormously significant filmmaker and urge you to get down to Anthology if you can.]

Abraham Ravett is unmistakably a Jewish filmmaker and a filmmaker whose films are frequently about Jewish subjects. But when you ask him about the eight films he has made about his family, highlighting fatal interludes in the Lodz Ghetto and Auschwitz, he is reluctant to allow himself to be typed. Even with his most recent film, “Lunch With Fela,” an elegiac tribute to his late mother, which will be playing Sunday at Anthology Film Archives, Ravett is frank about his unease at being thought of as a Holocaust documentarian.

“A while ago, I showed one of my films and had a dialogue afterwards with a British writer comparing our work,” he says. “A woman was videotaping the event . . . and I got to chatting with her. She told me, ‘I really liked your film. I thought I was going to see another Holocaust film, but that’s not what it was like.’”

Ravett is not being defensive when he tells this story. He admits, “People have a certain image of what they’re going to see. I know the work that’s out there, and I have a certain resistance to having the work confined to certain areas. I’d like it to be thought of as a film that has an ethnic quality, rather than as a statement of ethnicity that almost incidentally has a certain filmic quality.”

A filmmaker who is Jewish rather than a Jewish filmmaker?

He sighs and says, “I guess it’s a question of how one describes the films without making it sound like a disclaimer and without assuming a worst-case scenario about people’s expectations.”

Let’s be frank about Abraham Ravett’s work. He is a highly gifted and accomplished filmmaker, but he is not making conventional non-fiction films. From the first of the films about his family, made in 1978, up to “Lunch With Fela,” his films have been as much about film form as Jewish content. These films – indeed, most of Ravett’s films – are about the way we remember, especially the way that art and love drive memory and the way that inanimate objects by their mere presence invoke the recollection of loved ones.

To that end, some of the most emotionally affecting moments in “Lunch with Fela” are lengthy stationery shots of objects that Fela Ravett, the filmmaker’s late mother, had collected over her years in the United States – a bright plaid change purse, a fistful of mismatched buttons, a small red transistor radio. To any viewer of a certain age, these otherwise worthless artifacts of the 1950s and ‘60s will evoke their own lost relatives.

Understandably, “Lunch with Fela” was a difficult film for Ravett to make.

“It took a lot out of me,” he admits. “I’m glad I was able to complete it.”

Audiences should feel the same way.

“Lunch with Fela” will be shown at Anthology Film Archives (2nd Avenue and 2nd St.) on Sunday, August 27 at 7 p.m. For information, phone 212-505-5181 or go to Anthology Film Archives

Friday, August 11, 2006

Great Acting Covers a Multitude of Sins

Ryan Fleck's new indie feature Half Nelson works almost in spite of itself. It works because it has a basic earnestness and care for its characters that is a refreshing change from the smugness that disfigures so many original screenplays these days. But more than that, it works because the film is superbly -- no, brilliantly -- acted.

Dan Dunne (Ryan Gosling) is a teacher and girls' basketball coach at a NYC ghetto school who tries to instill in his students an inquisitiveness and creativeness that goes well beyond the curriculum he is supposed to be teaching. He is also a casual crack smoker when he is not in front of his class. One of his favorite players and students is Drey (Shareeka Epps), who is as concerned about him as he is her, particularly when she finds him stoned in the school buildling after hours. Her own family situation is entangled in the drug world as well; her older brother is in prison and his best friend, Frank (Anthony Mackie), is a dealer who is more than willing to use her as a courier should the opportunity present itself. As the film unspools, Dan's life slowly spirals out of control with what would seem to be an inevitable tragic ending in store.

For both better and worse, Fleck and co-writer Anna Boden, love their characters. I've already mentioned the better; they refuse to vilify Dunne's supervisor or less-motivated colleagues (one of whom gets a particularly lovely performance from Denis O'Hare), and only gently caricature his ex-hippie parents. But their feeling for their characters also causes them to flinch from the internal logic of the film's narrative arc, which can only go one way, to a sad oblivion. Fleck's directorial style is a bit heavy on quasi-documentary handheld camera, but it does give the film an off-the-cuff intensity that is fairly effective.

But what saves the film is the extraordinary work of the three leads, Gosling, young Epps and Mackie. Gosling has already shown himself to be one of the most electifying American actors of his generation, a master of conflicting emotions leading to moments of excruciating self-torment.
Mackie is not an unknown quantity either, a silky smooth Mephistopheles. But the real find of the film is Epps, a high-schooler who Fleck and Boden cast in the short film that was the origin of Half Nelson; to be blunt, the kid is terrific, graced with real screen presence and more than able to hold her own on-screen with Gosling or Mackie. Half Nelson is a flawed, but honorable first feature, saved by its acting. It opens in New York today.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Who Wears (Watches) Short Shorts?

I've been fiddling with the idea for a long time of a theater devoted only to short films. As my friend and colleague Ronnie Scheib sagely (and drily) observed, booking films for a feature rep house is already a huge amount of work and aggravation, and doing programs for a venue showing many shorts every day would be pure hell.

So there went that idea.

However, the very informative CinemaTech blog has an interesting item today about a new restaurant/cafe in Orlando that will be showing a program of shorts once a week at no charge to customers, with food service interspersed. (The blog also has a link to the Orlando Sentinel story about the venture.) Reminds me of a notion Brecht once had of creating a cabaret-theater-bar-restaurant where one could smoke and eat during the shows. Of course, as usual, BB was ahead of his time. Today we call it dinner theater. Ick. And I must admit the idea of having to try watching a film while people are clanking silverware and glasses -- not to mention chattering -- is not an appealing prospect. As if audiences didn't already think they were in their goddam living rooms all the time.

Still, I have felt for a long time that short film directors of all stripes are a vastly underappreciated breed. They're like children's book authors, who are constantly being asked, 'So when are you going to write a real book?" "When are you going to make a real film?"


By the way, apropos of nothing whatsoever, I do a DVD column for INSIDE Magazine in Philly, which is a quarterly. With only four opportunities to write about new(ish) disks each year, I have developed a huge backlog. So you can expect to see occasional DVD reviews in this space in the very near future.

Tribeca 3: Pride in the City

Tribeca has always been a film festival that focused on diversity and inclusion, from its beginning in 2002.  This year has been no exceptio...