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.

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...