Sunday, December 30, 2007

Closing the Year with a Bong -- er -- Bang

I see by the old calendar on the wall that this is almost certainly my last posting of 2007, and I'm happy to leave the old year on a positive note. Gregg Araki is not a filmmaker known for his keen sense of humor, so the idea of a slapstick comedy directed by the auteur of Mysterious Skin sounds less than appealing. However, his newest film, Smiley Face, which is currently playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan, is a giddy stoner frolic, equal parts Preston Sturges and Cheech and Chong. The film powered by a delightfully vacant performance by Anna Faris as Jane F, a stoner actress who manages to devour an entire platter of marjuana cupcakes that her ominous apartment mate (Danny Masterson) has baked for a sci-fi convention he is hosting. She also manages to get in dutch with her dealer (an amusingly detached Adam Brody in dreads), her agent, a casting director, a Marxist professor and what appears to be half the LAPD.

Smiley Face is a fairly entertaining example of a subgenre of comedy that Sturges, among others, raised to a sort of demented perfection, the tale of a single day of cumulative catastrophe. It's not hard to think of examples: Hawks's Bringing Up Baby and Monkey Business leap to mind immediately, as well as numerous Sturges films, particularly Christmas in July and Mad Wednesday. All a filmmaker has to do to make one of these work is to find the perfect Rube Goldberg snowballing logic of disaster and start the machine rolling. Araki and screenwriter Dylan Haggerty have the advantage of a ready-made story illogic, since Jane's reactions to reality are inevitably a bit left-handed. It would be very easy, under the circumstances, for them to allow the film to be washed away on a euphoric cloud of dope smoke, casting anything resembling plot to the four winds, but they are too smart to fall into that trap.

The film is aided immeasurably by Faris's performance. She's like something out of a Tex Avery cartoon come to life, her eyes swiveling wildly, periodically bugging out of her head, her chin seemingly receding into her neck as she desperately tries to parse the grammar of a drugged-0ut reality. Araki accompanies her with a crazy day-glo palette, alternating with the drab colors of reality. The final shots are a perfect melding of the two, balancing orange jumpsuits against the muddy earth of suburban California. The result is an engaging, frequently very funny comedy of escalating errors, a very pleasant way to end the calendar year.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A little touch of Otto for Xmas

At least one film event worth waiting for to kick off the new year, a major retrospective of the works of Otto Preminger, 23 films worth, at Film Forum from January 2-17. The occasion is the publication of Foster Hirsch's splendidly comprehensive biography, Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King (Alfred A. Knopf, $35). As I note in my Jewish Week piece on the program, this volume is required reading for anyone who wants a glimpse into the workings of the studio system and the handful of filmmakers who challenged it in the early '50s.

As for the films, Preminger's filmography is his own best defense. Although Hirsch finds Preminger's personality an uncongenial fit for the film noir -- Otto was basically an optimist, he argues -- it's pretty hard to argue with Laura, Fallen Angel and Where the Sidewalk Ends, three key works of the cycle. Each is shot through with a certain erotic perversity but they all end with the possibility of redemption for a self-satisfied, self-absorbed character (exquisitely underplayed by Dana Andrews) In fact, although the noir is usually pretty pessimistic, you could argue that The Big Sleep, directed by an arch-optimist, Howard Hawks, is another example of one such film that works because of the director's temperament.

When you start to talk about family melodrama and epic historical melodrama, you are right in Preminger's sweet spot. More than any other directors of widescreen films, except for Minnelli and Nick Ray, Preminger knows exactly how to make the very small adjustments that create a sense of the literal and metaphoric space between his characters, balancing their positions within deep-focus long takes that allow everyone their turn at the podium. Bonjour Tristesse and the institutional blockbusters -- Advise and Consent, Anatomy of a Murder, The Cardinal, In Harm's Way -- are breathtaking in their formal rigor and classical elegance. Among the pre-'Scope films, Daisy Kenyon and The Fan are also superbly thought-out in terms of the ways that the interplay of characters and mise-en-scene gives the audience insight into the combative relationships.

I had not seen The Fan before, but watched it as part of my prep for the Hirsch interview. He describes it as one of OP's most underappreciated films. He's absolutely right. It's a delicate little gem, really quite lovely, with a luminous Jeanne Crain, one of the more emotionally committed performances I've seen from George Sanders and a remarkably nuanced turn from Madeleine Carroll. It's a great looking film, too (Joe LaShelle shot it). preminger plays the film as a subtle chamber drama, which works quite nicely. If you consider that comedy is the one genre in which his work is usually pretty awful, it's a particularly felicitous decision.

At any rate, after you recover from your 1/1 hangovers, toddle on down to Film Forum for some of the Premingers. God only knows when you'll get to see some of these films on a big screen ever again. And if you are in Los Angeles, you're in luck; the American Cinematheque will be hosting the series in the second half of January. Go here for more information.

A Pleasant Little Surprise

As I have written before, in recent years I have become less interested in identifying yet unnoticed auteurs -- if there any older ones left unnoticed -- and more concerned with the nuts-and-bolts workings of narrative. I have also been increasingly fascinated by the pre-Code era of Hollywood films. Those interests tend to converge frequently at TCM, and this weekend, interspersed with some Ira-eligible films and screeners for the New York Jewish Film Festival, which takes place next month, Margo and I watched several Warners and Fox programmers -- Dwan's Black Sheep, a sprightly shipboard number with Edmund Lowe and a very young Claire Trevor; Curtiz's Private Detective 62, a snappy William Powell vehicle; Del Ruth's 1931 version of The Maltese Falcon; and about 15 minutes of a ghastly tear-jerker by Herbert Brenon, Transgression, with a particularly tedious Kay Francis effort.

Those ran fairly true to form. I've seen the Del Ruth before; it's interesting and, in its rather coarse way, somewhat closer to Hammett's conception of Spade than the vastly better Huston of ten years later. The Dwan has a good reputation and it earns it by virtue of its amusing banter and a slightly convoluted but imaginative plot. The Curtiz is . . . well, it's a '30s Curtiz, so it moves faster than hell, Powell is delightful, there's a lot of chewy dialogue and a happy ending. As for the Brenon -- well I didn't expect much and it merely confirmed for me the notion that Lubitsch must have hypnotized Francis to get that delicious performance in Trouble in Paradise, so atypical and so wonderful.

But the real surprise was a 1932 programmer, Union Depot, directed by Alfred E. Green. Green's career stretched from 1916 to the late '50s when he was doing episodes of The Millionaire and The Lone Wolf. His best-known films are biopics like The Jolson Story, The Eddie Cantor Story and The Jackie Robinson Story. He also directed one of the most notorious pre-Code films, Baby Face, the movie in which Barbara Stanwyck sleeps her way up the corporate ladder, her conquests including a very callow John Wayne.

Needless to say, nothing prepared us for Union Depot, which is one of those weird little films that the pre-Code studios tossed out from time to time. The film opens with an astonishingly elaborate long-take tracking shot that introduces about a half-dozen minor characters and motifs. Then it really picks up speed. Doug Fairbanks, Jr. is a hobo who accidentally acquires some cash and a new suit from a cameo-ing Frank McHugh, then gets mixed up with out-of-work dancer Joan Blondell, a sexual psychopath, a ring of counterfeiters represented by Alan Hale and the federal agents chasing him. If this sounds crazy, well, it is. It's beautifully shot by Sol Polito and almost never stops moving. The film's forward narrative drive is terrific, and the ending is unexpected and totally satisfying in a way that wouldn't have been possible two or three years later. I think what is most surprising, though, its the fluidity and fluency of Green's camera movements, from that impressive opening crane-and-track through a finale at the site of a departing train.

I don't expect this one to turn up on a DVD package any time soon. Regrettably, it isn't included in the Museum of Modern Art's little tribute to the always wonderful Joan Blondell, although that series includes some wonderful films (Blonde Crazy, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Nightmare Alley are the best offerings in the series, although Wellman's Night Nurse is absolutely wacky and should be seen, if only for Stanwyck facing down Gable). So the odds are against your seeing Union Depot soon. Unless, of course, you write to TCM and beg. Hey, a little groveling is good for the soul.

(Incidentally, the Blondell tribute at MoMA runs through January 1. An excellent way to say goodbye to 2007.)

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Reports from a War

I don't know what, if any, film industry Iraq had under Saddam Hussein or his predecessors. IMDB shows 62 titles for Iraq, although I recognize one or two as being made by Iranians. (Bahman Ghobadi's Half-Moon, on which more momentarily, is the first one that jumps out at me.) Of course in these days of cheap video cameras, anybody can be a filmmaker, which brings me to my point.

Regardless of our politics, the view we have of the war is almost entirely the one that comes from American media outlets (okay, the media outlets of the major industrial nations). I am neither denigrating nor endorsing those outlets, merely noting that what we seen at home on our TVs, in movie theaters and, for the most part, on our computers, comes from a single set of sources. And that means that the bulk of what we see takes place in Bagdad's Green Zone. But what are Iraqis thinking outside the Green Zone?

There is a new website, Iraqiscope, that offers us a chance to see and hear precisely that, films and videos made by Iraqis about their embattled nation. Who is behind this site? They describe themselves as follows:

Iraqiscope is financed by the German Federal Foreign Office and the UNESCO and realized by MICT in cooperation with the Arab Film Festival Rotterdam, Kirkuk TV (Baba Gur Gur), Baghdad Short Film Festival, Susanne Kaufmann, Haider Helo, Diar Bakr, Sheelan Hassan, Amena Al-Zahabi, Zaki Ziad, and Hadi Mahoud and Fayez Alqanani. MICT - Media in Cooperation and Transition is a non-profit media organization with offices in Berlin and Amman. MICT's activities comprise the training of journalists and media producers, program and content development, production of radio programs, films and books. Since being founded in early 2004, MICT has been implementing media projects on political and cultural topics in Iraq in cooperation with Iraqi activists, journalists, artists, and media producers. Check out: www.mict-international.org and www.niqash.org

The one unfortunate drawback I've found on the Iraqiscope site so far is that many of the films -- but not all ot them -- I looked at were in Arabic without subtitles in any other language. With that proviso, the site is definitely worth a long look.

(Did I mention that there are cooking shows? Those seem generally to be subtitled. I can't wait to try some of these recipes. But that's another story, possibly for another blog.)



If you thought I was kidding about "Empire" . . .

Take a look at this story from Hollywood Reporter. A new overseas box office record for American films set in 2007; all six MPA member studios top $1 billion in foreign box office receipts. I needn't tell you at whose expense those numbers are being rung up.

A free-market type might point out that people go to see the movies that they want to see. And that is certainly true. (I, for one, have never had my finger on the pulse of the American movie-going public and I'd like to keep it that way. ) But that rather simplistic view of economics is based on the mistaken notion that there is a level playing field. In truth, the only times that local film industries thrive outside the U.S. is when national governments take a hand. The obvious example is South Korea, whose high-flying film industry has survived because by law a theater owner has to book a certain percentage of Korean-made films. (Of course, as anyone who has had the misfortune to see any of the '30s British films called "quota quickies" can tell you, such laws can be circumvented when American companies manipulate their foreign subsidiaries for that purpose. )

The playing field isn't equal when one of the players is astronomically more powerful, better funded and more willing to spend than anyone else in the game. If you are a poker player, you know damned well that anyone who comes to a game with significantly less money than the others at the table will need a spectacular run of early luck just to survive.

We've reached the point where, to pick the most disheartening recent example, French filmmakers feel obliged to imitate the worst American examples in order to compete for the domestic audience. How else to explain the unspeakable crap turned out by Luc Besson and his subordinates? Even French box office is now dominated by American product. And when the world economy takes a nosedive, three guesses who will still be at this particular poker table. Hint: they will have little American flags in their lapels.

Thirty years ago, that might not have depressed me as much as it does now. In the 1970s, American film was still vital and exciting, a few of the old masters were still alive and the young filmmakers who were emerging looked promising. But the spectre of a world in which the dominant narrative paradigm is determined by Jerry Bruckheimer and his ilk . . . well, it doesn't bear thinking about.

The problem isn't just that American film ain't what she used to be. The problem is that even at its best -- and that would be pretty damned good -- it was never the only viable film model in the world. Artistic diversity in the medium is as important as biodiversity in the ecosystem. Unhappily, we are losing both.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Not Over Quite Yet . . . .

The critics groups are busily tucking presents under some people's trees -- those that have trees, that is -- and the ten-best lists should start flooding the press, tv and the 'net any nanosecond now. But for the Ira voters, the year won't end until March. That's when we will get together to vote on our awards, the ones that really count, the Iras. Of course, if you are a loyal reader of this blog, you know that. You also know, then, that I won't post my ten-best list until then.

Hey, the Jewish ritual year starts in the fall, the Jewish "new year for the trees" starts in late January and Tet, the Buddhist lunar new year starts in February. You got a problem with that, buddy?

All joking aside, 2007 has been a pretty spiffy year for film. I have only 85 films on my list of Ira-eligibles seen for the 2007 awards -- I expect to knock down another 50-60 before Ira night -- and I already have a very strong ten-best list with four or five honorable mentions that would be creditable additions to a ten-best list most other years. But that is a story for another time.

The real reason for this dithering is that the estimable Ira Hozinsky, the man for whom the Iras are named, passed along to me a link that I want to share. Back in the heady days of auteurism triumphant, there was a particularly trenchant magazine published by the Seattle Film Society, Movietone News, and one of their most elegant features was a year-end wrap-up column called "Moments Out of Time," a collection of the most resonant images, sounds, lines from that year's films. When they moved up the ladder to Film Comment, the feature migrated with them, but when they left FC it disappeared. Until now.

You can find a 2007 edition of "Moments Out of Time" here. Feel free to offer some of your own, either on their page or in the comments to this posting. I'll wrack my brain looking for some of my own favorite moments shortly.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Anatomy of a Mass Murder

A film about the devastation wrought by the Japanese Army on the city of Nanking in 1937 ought to be disturbing. After all, In the space of a few weeks, the invaders murdered about a quarter-million civilians, raped some 20,000 women and utterly destroyed the capital of China (as the city was then). But for the courageous intervention of a small band of Western missionaries, doctors and a few businessmen, those numbers would have gone much higher. In short, the "Rape of Nanking" is one of the terrible scars on the 20th Century.

And to a certain extent the new documentary Nanking, which opens today at Film Forum, tells this story unflinchingly, with candor and passion. But almost from the film's opening shots, there is something painfully upsetting about the way directors Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman have chosen to present this story and the result, I think, detracts from their intended message, albeit in a subtle way. The film opens with a group of actors in a large room that looks at first glance rather disconcertingly like a high school gymnasium. They slowly take their seats and begin to read from the actual writings of the men and women who spearheaded the effort to create a safe zone for the civilian population of Nanking. Throughout the remainder of the film, Guttentag and Sturman will cut between the testimony of actual survivors of the Japanese onslaught, newsreel and home movie footage of the events as they happened, and close-ups of the actors reading from the witnesses' letters, journals, diaries.

In fact, what we are seeing in those acted sequences is a staged reading of these materials. But the film never identifies it as such and the filmmakers have chosen to frame the actors, who are wearing period clothes, in tight close-ups so that we never see the audience at the reading, never actually know what we are seeing while these scenes take place.

These choices, which are at the heart of the film's structure and therefore inseparable from every other aesthetic choice Guttentag and Sturman make, are troubling for several reasons. Most obviously, we are never informed of the reality of what we are seeing; it's sort of a cheap way to make a Hollywood film about Nanking without having to recreate the terrible reality. (Granted, the opening pre-performance shots alert us that something unconventional is happening, but the film never returns to a long shot that would situate the actors in a theatrical space. Rather, the close-ups seem designed for the explicit purpose of integrating them into a cinematic continuum with the actual witnesses and the period footage.)

Second, the cross-cutting between actors and real participants creates an unfortunate moral equivalence between the actual survivors and people impersonating survivors. I would also argue that the use of on-screen actors inadvertently lends credence to the ultra-right Japanese militarists who still insist that nothing out of the ordinary happened in Nanking; when you mix modes like this, you are unwittingly casting doubt on how an audience is supposed to read the film's various registers.

Finally, to get more practical and less theoretical, except for Woody Harrelson, who reads the words of Dr. Bob Wilson, an American who stayed in Nanking to keep the city's only still-functioning hospital alive, Jurgen Prochnow, who reads from the diaries of John Rabe, a pro-Nazi businessman who led the committee that created and supervised the safety zone, Stephen Dorff and John Getz, who read the words of two of the missionaries, the acting is too florid, too . . . actorly. The worst offender by far is Mariel Hemingway, who positively throbs with emotion every time she opens her mouth, and bobs her head enough to give any viewer motion sickness. I'm reminded of the absolutely deplorable Holocaust documentary, Genocide, an Oscar-winner needless to say, in which Elizabeth Taylor practically sobs throughout her narration and Elmer Bernstein's score jabs you in the ribs to cue you when to tear up. (By the way, Philip Marshall's score for Nanking is one of the film's strengths, intelligent and understated.)

Yet, for all its shortcomings, Nanking is a film that should be seen. Despite the central conceit, the film is intelligently structured and the material is inherently fascinating. It is unlikely that another film on this subject is going to be made any time soon. Given its 90-minute running time, the film manages to convey the grim and terrible reality of what happened in Nanking 70 years ago this month. If there are oversimplifications, they are minor and unavoidable; if you want the entire gut-wrenching story, you should start with Iris Chang's book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, as the filmmakers wisely did. (John Rabe's diaries are also in print.) There are many moments in this film that will cost you sleep and it's definitely not something to see on a full stomach. But that is what the 20th Century was. As the American short-story writer Lee K. Abbott wrote, "This is the 20th Century, pal. Bad is its middle name."

Opening shortly

Adam Rifkin has a weirdly variegated filmography. He's probably best known for the cult film The Dark Backward, remembered as the film in which Judd Nelson grows a third arm out of his back. (From this, he makes a living?) His latest film, Look, which opens Friday, is aiming for something more serious and while I don't think it works it's an interesting idea. At any rate, my interview with him can be found at the Jewish Week website here.

Nanking, the new documentary by Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman opens later today (it's Wednesday where I'm sitting right now) and I'll have a review of it here before the sun sets.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

This 'n' That

If there is a more important active American documentary filmmaker than Frederick Wiseman, I don't know who it is. (Don't you dare say Michael Moore.) Wiseman's career spans exactly 40 years and from Titicut Follies to his most recent work, State Legislature, no one has offered more eloquent documentation of the institutions that govern the world in which we live -- in the broadest sense of "govern." Wiseman examines the disconnect between the individual and the large corporate body, whether it is in the private or public sector, with great incisiveness and insightfulness. But until very, very recently it was prohibitively expensive for an individual to own his films.

So I was delighted to receive an e-mail last week from his company, Zipporah Films, announcing that they are releasing 23 of his titles on DVD for the general public. Prices on the disks range from $29.95 to $39.95, and they can be purchased from Zipporah's website. I was going to suggest you start out with Near Death (1989), his six-hour film about the Medical Intensive Care Unit at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital and a great favorite of mine, but that happens to be one of the titles not included in the initial bunch. If you are looking for something a little less fraught for a first foray into Wiseman's cinema, perhaps you'd be better off with Ballet, one of the best films of 1995, a riveting three-hour look at the American Ballet Theater.

On one level, DVD is really an ideal format for Wiseman's films. You can get a lot of information into a small physical object, and his best work defies the boundaries of feature-film running times. Visually, most of his films look good, but retaining the visual nuances of 35mm isn't as important for his work as it might be others, so the drop-off in visual quality between theatrical projection and your home entertainment center isn't crucial. Of course, the great advantage of seeing the films in a theater -- even though many of them were conceived for public television -- is the communal nature of the experience and the overwhelming size of the image. You can't have that in your living room and it's a shame, given the thematic focus of Wiseman's work. But this is certainly better than not being able to see them at all.

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If you have an hour to kill while you're sitting at the computer, take a look at the National Book Critics Circle's blog, Critical Mass, where there's an interesting discussion of the group's recent survey of its members on issues of reviewing ethics. You can also get to the actual questionnaires from that page. Most of what is debated has only a slender relation to the ethical issues facing film critics; the day that I have the same agent as Tom Cruise (or Manoel de Oliveira, for that matter), one of us will be in big trouble. But it makes for piquant reading.

(Heck, I just wrote this item so I'd have an excuse to use the word "piquant.")

Come to think of it, if you have an hour to kill, why don't you read a book?

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Okay, you're too tired/lazy/ennervated to read a whole book. Let me make a suggestion. From the many, many literary blogs one finds on-line -- we won't talk about film blogs, just look at the links on this page if that's what you want -- which would be worth a look? Of course, there are plenty of answers to that question, but let me pull your coat to a few that I think are worth your attention.

Scott Esposito's The Quarterly Conversation is an excellent compendium of essays and reviews that ranges widely in its focus, but is filled with many works in translation. I take that to be the hallmark of a civilized litblog in an era in which the American people (who I assume are my primary readers) are as oblivious to the existence of other languages and literatures as the English were at the height of their empire. Of course, the main drawback for readres of a quarterly is that it's a quarterly. You want more than four issues a year if the publication is good. Happily, there's a blog here also.

I've extolled the virtues of Words Without Borders on more than one occasion here. So I will merely note that their December issue is about partings and farewells. Nice choice for the end of the year.

Finally, the Literary Saloon is the blog of The Complete Review and it's a must-read for its clever, occasionally snarky rundown on book news and the like. Plus, the two publications review a host of literary fiction from all over the place that you won't find in the pages of the New York Times Book Review.


Monday, December 10, 2007

The Glittering Surfaces of Paul Schrader

Perhaps it's the difference between American culture and French, or the difference between Jansenism and Calvinism, but there has always been a significant disparity of means between the films of Paul Schrader and those of his hero, Robert Bresson. This isn't a knock on Schrader, who is a director of considerable talents; I suspect even he would readily grant that Bresson is simply playing in another league.

What I am talking about, rather, is Schrader's approach to what he once called "transcendental style." To roughly paraphrase the idea at the heart of his now-famous book, Transcendental Style in Film, Schrader argues that Bresson, Carl Dreyer and Yasujiro Ozu, reversed the error of most ostensibly religious films, what Schrader calls “over-abundant means,” the cinematic excesses we associate with Cecil B. DeMille. Instead, each of these three directors constructed their visual universe austerely, with blank walls and restrained camera movement or none at all. Bresson went even further, eventually using only non-actors who he tried to purge of all “actorly” habits. For each of these directors, Schrader theorizes, there is a movement from ‘abundance’ to stasis that takes place when the main character is released from a set of circumstances in such a way that the audience experiences it as a moment of transcendence.

It's not a huge leap to say that for much of his career Schrader has been adapting and modifying the transcendental style for his own purposes, particularly, I would argue, in his "lonely man" trilogy of American Gigolo, Light Sleeper and his new film, The Walker. What sets these three films apart from the Bressonian model, obviously, is that where the French filmmaker pares away at the universe in which his films are set, Schrader actually does something like the opposite, albeit for similar ends.

The Walker is a sumptuously appointed film about the very wealthy and powerful. The production design by James Merifield and the cinematography by Chris Seager give the world of Washington power-brokers and their seemingly indolent wives a sheen, a patina that extends to their "friend" Carter Page III (Woody Harrelson), the "walker" of the title. But that patina is not a protecting shield, and when Page finds himself caught between his friendship with Lynn Lockner (Kristin Scott Thomas) and the police investigating a murder in which he may be a suspect, it is withdrawn.

Each of the three protagonists of Schrader's self-described trilogy is an outsider by choice: gigolo, courier, gay escort to the powerful. Schrader describes these men as "watchers," and they are, in a way, voyeurs to their own lives. They are also men who must live by their outward images, either because that is what they are selling (Julian in American Gigolo and Carter in The Walker) or because an imposture is a necessary part of their illegal business (John in Light Sleeper). So they retreat behind those glittering surfaces, the glossy and pricey clothing and accessories they wear and all that comes with them.

It is part of Schrader's ingenuity and talent that he can uses these most UnBressonian means to indicate the spiritual poverty of his heroes' lives and, of course, he gradually strips them of a lot of their pretty armor. Inexorably, both the heroes and the audience come to the realization that it may look nice when polished but it gives no protection. In The Walker, he starts that process almost immediately with a scene of Carter undressing after a hard day of canasta and gossip, finally divesting himself of his lush and handsome head of hair. (You can't get much more stripped-down than that.) The scene is so obviously a reference back to American Gigolo's dressing scene that it barely escapes being self-parody.

Like its predecessors, The Walker uses the trappings of the crime film to give the audience entree into its world and to set in motion the forces that will bring its protagonist to self-understanding. Unlike either of the earlier films in the trilogy, The Walker strives for a degree of political commentary, trying hard to cut the Bush administration down to size, albeit with a very expensive manicure set rather than a more practical weapon. (Not that a fiction feature is likely to sway political opinion in any meaningful way.) The conspiracy at the heart of The Walker is not all that far-fetched, but its verbal assaults on the right-wing ideologues and climbers running the government are not nearly as potent as they could be. If the film didn't aspire to a certain political savvy, I probably wouldn't even mention it.

Frankly, although I thoroughly enjoyed The Walker -- it's certainly never dull, it's handsomely mounted and wonderfully well-acted by a cast as glittering as Carter's cufflink drawer -- it feels like Schrader-Lite, transcendental style for dummies. What keeps you watching is a gracefully nuanced performance by Woody Harrelson, who is virtually never off-screen. It isn't hard to be convinced that Carter undergoes the same kind of revelatory moment as his predecessors in the trilogy, simply because Harrelson makes you believe it.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

"Ain't It Funny How Time Slips Away"

. . . as the great Willie Nelson sang. This evening marked the 23rd anniversary of my first date with Margo. In other words, when we met for the first time (about a week earlier), it was still the first ghastly term of the Reagan administration. American film was in the process of self-immolation under the guiding hands of Lucas and Spielberg and toy manufacturers everywhere.

Hmmm. Some things haven't changed all the much.

We spent the evening watching The Saddest Music in the World, Guy Maddin's delicious cyanide cocktail and I was reminded once again that sometimes the best film critic in the world is someone who is merely highly intelligent with a smattering of film knowledge, someone like the b.w., that is. Within moments of the film's opening credits she had made a crystal clear connection that had eluded me the two or three times I saw the film before (at least once in the company of another estimable film expert who, like me, didn't spot this one). As soon as the Lady Pont Huntington beer jingle came on the soundtrack, she started laughing uproariously and turned to me with a grin and said, "It's a Preston Sturges film!" Of course, I had been so fixated on the more obvious influences -- the visual ones -- Murnau, the '20s Soviets, pre-Code melodrama, that I had missed an important point that was glaring at me all along. And, of course, The Saddest Music is the one Maddin film (to date) that does owe a lot to Sturges, particularly in the dialogue for Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), the brash, pushy Broadway denizen. It's nothing less than the motor that drives the plot and gives the film its title. Doh!

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It always strikes me as rather amusing to backtrack my train of thought and see how I reached some particularly arcane -- or just inappropriate -- subject. Tonight, the signs were easy to follow. I was listening to Maria de Medeiros doing a jazzed-up rendition of "The Song Is You," went and got the utterly indispensable Lissauer guide to American popular song and looked up the ditty. As I suspected, it's Jerome Kern, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. And they are damned clever but very flowery lyrics. They succeed brilliantly, as do similar words to another Kern tune, "All the Things You Are." Anyone who has known me for any length of time knows that I dislike almost all of the Rodgers and Hammerstein catalog (we won't even speak of the film versions, which are beneath contempt), yet I find myself thinking, 'Gee, these Hammerstein lyrics are so right, so apt. They're not any less self-consciously literary than the later ones. How come these work?"

And that's when the lightning struck. Of all the great American songwriters of the Golden Age (and if you don't know when and what I mean, get yourself a copy of Alec Wilder's book on American popular song and come back when you've read it), Jerome Kern is the one, I think, who owes the most to and travelled the fewest miles from the Old Country. His melodies and harmonies owe the most to his European musical forebears. I suspect that may be because he is the oldest of the giants, three years older than Irving Berlin, and the one whose career began when the American musical theater was still a young sprout from the operetta/light opera tree-trunk. Berlin was born in Russia while Kern was born in New York City, but musically, Kern could have been born next door to Rudolph Friml. Kern is the pivotal figure in the transition to an American musical theater, distinct from its Continental predecessors (although still owing a lot in terms of narrative structure and characterization); for that to be the case, he had to be the one who had something to break with. Hammerstein, for all the hoo-hah about the innovations of Oklahoma and subsequent R&H shows, was firmly rooted in that old-world tradition, too. He never entirely shakes that lilac-scented romanticism with its no less purple wordcraft. But when you put his words to Kern's music, magic happens.

I'd be curious to know what Guy Maddin was thinking when he decided to make "The Song Is You" the centerpiece of his film. Oh, yeah, and was he thinking of Sturges?

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Coming attractions time:
Sometime this weekend I'll be posting my review of The Walker, the new Paul Schrader, which I enjoyed, although it feels like a minor Schrader. And during the week, I'll pass along my review of Nanking, a new documentary that is deeply disturbing for both good and bad reasons. (You know damned well the only reason for doing this is to force myself to write the pieces. I can't stand reneging on a promise, especially one that millions of people, in theory, can read. I guess that finishes off my political career.)




Monday, December 03, 2007

Blows Against the Empire(s)

Pure coincidence, I swear, but the Ousmane Sembene retrospective at Film Forum, from November 30 to December 13, is yet another example -- the best example to date -- of a filmmaker from outside the world of the northern metropolis creating a cinema that is a direct affront to the hegemony of the corporate north. Sembene, one of the first and certainly the best filmmaker to emerge from sub-Saharan Africa, made films about his native Senegal for his fellow Senegalese. And he made them in direct response to the challenge of communicating with a population that even today has a literacy rate of 39 percent. Sembene began as a novelist -- and he is quite a good one -- but quickly realized that he couldn't reach most of the audience he wanted to engage, so he took up the movie camera instead.

Watching some of his films again, I was struck by how deeply they draw from the waters of Senegalese folklore. Xala, for example, his mordant satire on the bureaucrats eager to assume control when the French stepped back from their former colony, manages to be both affectionate and yet detached in its depiction of traditional medicine. At the same time, it is utterly ruthless (and very, very funny) in its portrait of self-inflated paper-pushers whose primary interest in self-government is the opportunities it presents for graft.

But the humor of Xala, as bitter as its aftertaste may be, is actually an oddity in Sembene's filmography. The dark, mournful tones of Emitai and Camp de Thiaroye are more typical. These tragedies are relentless in their portrayal of the dilemma of the Senegalese soldier commandeered into the "white man's war," and the endless betrayals that Africans have historically experienced at the hands of the colonizers (particularly the French who, to this day, treat their former African colonies with stupefying arrogance).

In his last films, Guelwaar and Moolade, there is a mellowing in tone that produces some of his finest work. These two films are every bit as fearless and uncompromising as Sembene's earlier work, but there is a lyricism and intimacy, a gentle acceptance of individual behavioral quirks that allows Sembene to keep his satirical edge without disregarding the humanity of the men and women he is observing. Guelwaar, in particular, is a profound meditation on the necessity and difficulty of compromise and a certain bittersweet resignation in the face of the seeh impossibility of letting everyone have their way. It is an autumnal film in both palette and tone, not weary but wry.

It would be easy for me to say that despite the fuss made over the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni at the end of the summer, Sembene's death at the beginning was the greater loss. It's the sort of in-your-face polemical position that used to delight me, and I'm not convinced it isn't true. But it is unproductive on so many levels that I will brush it aside and merely say that a year in which three directors of that caliber die is a very bad year indeed. Of this, however, I am certain: the sociopolitical ramifications of Ousmane Sembene's death are much more serious -- and sadder -- than the loss of Bergman or Antonioni -- and the artistic loss is every bit as great. Sembene should be a model for anyone who wishes to create an art of resistance. His integrity, courage and aesthetic judgment are exemplary. And if you want to verify that statement, you must haul yourself over to Film Forum in the next two weeks. The series schedule is here.

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While we're on the subject of African cinema as a counter-cinema to the American corporate model, let me call your attention to another, very different model, this one from Anglophone Africa. Nigeria has become a hotbed of direct-to-video filmmaking, so much so that people are referring to these films as "Nollywood" products, a two-edged homage to Hollywood and Bollywood. I haven't seen any of these films yet, although I hear interesting rumblings that position them all over the narrative and political map. However, if you are, like me, curious to know more, you can make an excellent start with the new issue of the British film journal filmint., which dedicates most of its current issue to Nollywood. There are also essays on TV, video and film in Ivory Coast and the spread of the Nollywood model to the Caribbean. Better get a handle on this bandwagon fast, folks, 'cause it's leaving the station in a big hurry. The journal's website can be found here.


Thursday, November 29, 2007

Joys of Insomnia

A couple of quick items that crossed the virtual desk while you (but not I) sleep.

From CinemaTech, the news that there is a new documentary on William Castle, the man who directed The Tingler, House on Haunted Hill and other such genial pieces of hokum. Margo and I have been watching a lot of Columbia B series mysteries lately, as noted earlier this month, and Castle directed quite a few of them. They are snappy and occasionally even stylish, the signs of a budding talent of some sort. Of course, in the long run Castle is better remembered for his masterful huckstering than his actual filmmaking. Let's hear it for the man who gave us Emergo! The list of films selected by the Sundance Festival includes documentary portraits of Roman Polanski and Derek Jarman (by Isaac Julien, so that should be very interesting); Castle is hardly in their class, but he did produce Rosemary's Baby, so what the heck.

Apropos of my post on Ibermedia (November 15, below), a group of Spanish indie producers are joining forces to create an on-line presence for Spanish film. (The Variety piece on this development is here. ) This could be another way of sidestepping Anglo-American dominance of the marketplace. At the very least, it may well offer those of us who practically live on the 'Net another way to obtain foreign films.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Norman Lloyd on Renoir, Hitchcock, Chaplin and Scorsese

Okay, as promised, here are some choice tidbits from my talk with Norman Lloyd. As soon as you finish reading these click your way over to Film Forum and get tickets for “Who Is Norman Lloyd?”

Several years ago, Lloyd wrote a book on directing for the Directors Guild of America. The focus, he says, was on his work with Chaplin, Hitchcock and Renoir. (The book, by the way, is apparently going to be offered for sale at Film Forum for the duration of the Lloyd program.)

“The reason they wanted that was that I had worked in the trenches with Chaplin, Hitchcock, Renoir, and withWelles in the theater,” he says. “Since I’d worked one-on-one with these guys and the Guild didn’t have anything on paper about these guys from someone who had been one-on-one with them, they wanted me to recount my experiences.”

On Jean Renoir:
“Orson Welles and Chaplin both thought Renoir was the greatest filmmaker of all. As a man, I cannot speak enough about him. He was beautiful, witty, brilliant. He was like a great big bear or a great grandpa. We would sit with him often, talking about everything.”

One of Renoir’s traits that Lloyd found particularly admirable was his unwillingness to hold a grudge, his control of his anger. By way of illustration, he tells a story about Francois Truffaut, another of the directors who looked upon Renoir as a father figure. Truffaut was Jean and Dido’s guest in Hollywood for a screening of Lloyd’s TV production of Carola, a late Renoir play about actors in Paris during the Nazi occupation. The plot bears no small resemblance to Truffaut’s subsequent film, The Last Metro, and there is a line of dialogue in which someone says “You can just catch the last metro before curfew.” Several years later, Truffaut’s film came out; by then Jean had been dead several months. Truffaut heard shortly after from Dido who, as Lloyd recalls, merely said to him, “Francois, you have been very naughty.” And that was the last word said on the subject.

On the set, Lloyd says, “What you got from a man like Renoir if you’re an actor standing in front of him, you have a sense – to put it in a broad way – you have a sense of the world. You’re talking about a world citizen, a man who has a view of humanity, of art. It’s so big. That’s the kind of person he was. Physically, He reminded you of a bag of Idaho potatoes. The first time I saw him he was drinking coffee out of a cereal bowl, like a peasant. As a human being, I never had a conversation with him without some illumination taking place that I had never encountered before. He had an understanding of the human race.”

Lloyd says, “He worked in an improvisational way, not like the method, but he’d say, ‘maybe we go to this hill and come down and do thus-and-so.’” And if it worked, they’d keep it. If not they wouldn’t. Lloyd notes, “You were freed as an actor. I was freed to do all kinds of crazy things. Which he discarded in the most pleasant way.”

They talked frequently about his older films. Lloyd recalls a conversation about Boudu SauvĂ© des Eaux. “He modeled the character of Boudu after [Jean’s] dog Jerry. He was just like Jerry. Jerry disappeared one day and they found him in the pound. And the next day he was missing and Jean went to the pound and there he was. And the next day, too. Sure enough, the pound was next door to a butcher shop and they used throw food to the dogs. Jerry kept going back to the pound for the food.”

Towards the end of Renoir’s life, Lloyd would visit every Sunday and the filmmaker would screen a couple of his films. The physical setup for the screening room in Renoir’s home was memorable, Lloyd says. “There were two small painting on one wall that would slide back to reveal a 16mm projector. On the opposite wall, there hung two large Renoir painting and a large screen would be pulled down over those.” This informal Renoir retrospective lasted about a year and a half. Lloyd recalls, “One day, after he had run about 52 of the films, he said, in a ruminative fashion, ‘Everyone said, they’ll give this kid a break and he’ll imitate his father. So I made up my mind that everything I did would be as unlike my father as I could and I consciously attacked the material visually in a different way. Now I realize that I have been trying to imitate my father all along.’”

On Alfred Hitchcock:

Thanks to his long tenure as a producer on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Lloyd had a closer relationship with Hitch than with any other director of note. It was Hitchcock whose insistence on hiring Lloyd enabled the younger man to break the blacklist, and in the film and in conversation, Lloyd is voluble in his gratitude.

“I love Hitch. He meant so much to me in my life on every level. I find it difficult to talk about him. I can’t imagine my life without him.

“As a director he was very easy. He was always dressed in a black suit, white shirt and a black or blue tie. He looked like a banker or an undertaker. When he came on the set there would be a hush. They realized, here was a master, the master of masters, the top of our profession.

“He had wonderful humor. I remember that when he did an episode of the TV show with Billy Mumy (“Bang! You’re Dead”), who must have been about seven years old, he would welcome the boy to the set every morning by saying, ‘Good mooooorning Mr. Mumy.’”

Of course, unlike Renoir, Hitchcock preplanned and storyboarded everything. That meticulous preparation was reflected in his on-set working methods. Lloyd says “He’d look at the set after having rehearsed on it with the actors. Then he’d go back to his trailer and read the Wall Street Journal or the daily newspaper. [When the crew was ready, he’d come back on the set.] Then he’d stand next to the camera. He’d ask, ‘What have you [lens] got on? Where are you cutting [the frameline]? Fine, let’s shoot it.’ He was very specific in what he wanted shot and where he wanted to cut. He’d say ‘Cut it, that’s all you need.’”

Lloyd recalls an instance in which Joseph Valentine, the DP on Saboteur, had finished preparing a very complicated set-up and asked Hitch if he wanted to look through the camera to see the result. Hitch demurred, “Oh no, dear boy, I’ve looked in a camera before.”

With actors, Lloyd says, Hitchcock “was very specific. He would tell you where to look. He had his cuts in mind. He would have a cut to something else in his head already.”

Yet Hitchcock apparently was very conflict-averse. Lloyd says, “He did not believe in confrontation of any kind. He would just ignore you if you disagreed with him.”

On Charles Chaplin:
“Chapllin – now you’re talking about genius,” Lloyd says. “You know the line, ‘Rightly to be great is to find quarrel with a straw’?”. He was fantastic, he fastened in on the earth. He was sui generis. He had all the emotions.

When we were doing Limelight, Sydney. his son. was in it, Nigel Bruce, Claire Bloom and of course Buster Keaton. To Buster and me he was very easygoing, he did just what was necessary to stage the scene. He was wonderful with Keaton, it was wonderful to see them together. It was a thing of beauty and very moving.”

With the youngsters, things were different, to say the least. “With Sidney and Claire he was hell on wheels. He would sit under the camera and move from one to the other as they had dialogue. He was insulting and angry. With previous leading ladies it had been effective. It worked with Claire but she had a tough time. He really directed them by acting the scenes for them [until] they got the idea. That was the way he worked with them.”

As is well-known, Chaplin involved himself in every aspect of the filmmaking process. Lloyd says, “As a director he loved to immerse himself in everything. He wrote the music for the pictures and recorded the music before he shot. He danced to it. If the writing [of the screenplay] wasn’t going well, he’d go to the piano and compose.

“He had an ego that permitted him to ‘suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ because this man was attacked in such scurrilous way. But as a director he acted the part or if he respected you, he just told you, ‘you go here.’”

Chaplin’s editing method was probably unique. Lloyd says he printed every take of his own performance and “gave orders to the cutter not to cut anything until he got in the cutting room. Just break down all the stuff and hang it in the bins. Everything on Charlie that was shot was printed, every foot of film, and hing in the bins, because this is what he was going to take his picture from. He liked to take the gesture from one take, a look from another.”

On the modern set:
You could sit and listen to Norman Lloyd talk all day. He’s a great storyteller and a charming man. But time passes quickly, so after he finished recounting his work with three of the greatest filmmakers of all time, I asked him about his experience working on The Age of Innocence with Martin Scorsese. Interestingly, he said that Scorsese runs a rather old-fashioned set, with one notable difference.

“It was very much like the traditional set. We were shooting in a house in Brooklyn Heights. It was a mansion, but not a big mansion. The stuff I was shooting with Daniel Day-Lewis was in one room and Scorsese was in another room with a [video] monitor. It happens I think the monitor is insidious. I cannot imagine Hitch or Jean with a monitor. But as Marty explained to me, on this particular set-up there was no room for him to stand. On his monitor he had a rear-view mirror so that anyone came in while he was shooting, he would know and kick ‘em out. And when he wasn’t working he would be watching other films.”

Which comes as no surprise at all.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I'm Not (Only) Here and My Name Isn't Norman Lloyd, More's the Pity

I didn't go into this in the blog last week because I was on deadline for the story, but I spent most of my 54th birthday in the Weinstein Company hospitality suite waiting to interview Todd Haynes. As you know if you are a regular reader of this space, I was quite taken with his Dylan biopic (or is that bipolar pic?), and when I was asked to do a piece for the Jewish Journal of LA, one of my regular outlets, my eyes lit up like cash registers as I contemplated selling the piece to the Detroit Jewish News and Jewish Week as well. (There is absolutely no overlap in the circulation areas of the three papers, I retain all my copyrights, so I'm perfectly within my legal rights. This is the only way freelance writers can make a living.) Haynes is a terrific interview; the guy studied semiotics at Brown and he's very self-conscious about this work in a way few American filmmakers are, plus he's very bright and amusing.

So, to make a long story short, my editor at JWeek wanted a substantial shift in focus, so I did a rewrite and the result is two pieces on the film and its director and screenwriter, which can be found here and here. I think if you are interested in the film or Haynes, you'll want to read both.

Meanwhile, also at Film Forum shortly is a delightful documentary about the actor-director-producer and wonderful raconteur Norman Lloyd. It happens that Lloyd is Jewish, so I ended up doing an interview with him for JWeek for a story that can be found here. I had such a wonderful chat with Lloyd -- it really was more a chat than an interview and we stayed on the phone for about 85 minutes until he looked at his watch and said to me in a fatherly way, "I think it's time you ate some dinner" -- with some really fascinating insights into the three directors he considered his best, Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Chaplin, that I promise to relay more of the interview in this space in the next day or two. At the very least, though, you should try to catch the film at Film Forum (if you are in town), where it will play for a week with Saboteur, not one of my favorite Hitchcock films, but in 35mm, hey.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Seeing the Real Bette At Last

My good friend and fellow Ira voter Ed Sikov has finally published his long-awaited biography of Bette Davis. Ed is a terrific reporter and a very good writer and there is definitely stuff between its covers that you haven't seen before. Like so many of the great Warners stars, Davis is one of those actors who was almost always better than her directors, but she finally has the biographer she deserves. You can buy Dark Victory: The Live of Bette Davis in many places, but I recommend Powells if you are buying it on-line.

One Thermonuclear Family Can Ruin Your Whole Day (Not to Mention Your Movie)

Noah Baumbach’s new film Margot at the Wedding opened Friday. I reviewed it after its premiere at the New York Film Festival and here’s what I said in Jewish Week.

[In my first piece on the NY Film Festival], I remarked on the prevalence of Jewish filmmakers with films about dysfunctional families in this year’s festival. As you might expect from Noah Baumbach, the writer-director of The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, his new film, is another comedy-drama of family gone thermonuclear. Margot (Nichole Kidman) is a successful writer who is estranged from her once-favorite sister, Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Now that Pauline is marrying an overaged slacker (Jack Black), Margot decides to reassert herself in their relationship by turning up for the wedding with her 12-year-old son Claude (Zane Pais).

The result is predictably disastrous, with endless recriminations, replaying of old hurts and the accumulation of new ones. Baumbach is a not uninteresting writer, but he is too close to his material here (and in the previous film) to allow the film to breathe. His visual style is a stolid mix of cross-cutting close-ups and handheld point-of-view shots, and the film is disappointingly acted, with the honorable exceptions of John Turturro in a brief role as Margot’s husband, who she is abandoning, and Leigh who is nothing less than brilliant as Pauline, a wounded doe with some fight left in her.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Fighting Against a Tidal Wave

It is a source of profound disgust for me that Americans are so parochial when it comes to the arts. Of the approximately 300,000 books published in the United States every year, three percent are works in translation. No, that is not a typo or an error. Three percent. Maybe the answer to the question "Why do they hate us?" is that they hate us because we don't give a shit about anyone but ourselves.

As bad as the situation is in publishing, it is a thousand times worse in film and television, in part because it is so expensive to work in those fields. Even a cursory glance at box-office returns outside the U.S. will show that the overwhelming number of top-grossing films in the world are major-studio product from here. How can anyone stand up to the marketing/advertising/ distribution juggernaut that is Hollywood? It's like trying to stand off a tsunami.

Yet filmmakers around the world try every day.

I am reminded of this fact almost every time I sit down to write about film, in part because I have tried -- in this blog and in my print work -- to give more attention to non-mainstream films, to documentaries, foreign films and American indies.

And every so often, actually fairly frequently because I'm in New York and not someplace else in the U.S., an event comes along whose specific purpose is to give voice to those all-but-silenced filmmakers. A perfect example is the new series at the Museum of Modern Art, Iberoamerica: That's the Way We Are, which runs from November 14-30. The series is a small tribute to Ibermedia, an intergovernmental organization now celebrating its tenth anniversary, which is designed to support filmmakers in hispanophone and lusophone countries in the most concrete ways. In just one decade, Ibermedia has made possible the creation of over 300 films, facilitating and financing co-productions from its member countries, which now number 17.

MoMA and Instituto Cervantes held a press conference earlier this week involving seven of the filmmakers represented in the series as well as representatives of the two organizing groups and the executive director of Ibermedia, Elena Vilardell. Over and over the filmmakers struck the same note, best summed up by Esteban Schroeder: "We are trying to recover the Latin American cinema tradition so that we can tell our stories ourselves."

Schroeder is an Uruguayan filmmaker whose debut film, Matar a todos (Kill Them All). is a political thriller about a kidnapping engineered by supporters of Pinochet and an Uruguayan prosecutor (Roxana Blanco) who investigates it. The film is typical of Ibermedia at work; it is a co-production involving Uruguay, Chile and Argentina, with a serious subject that resonates in all three of those countries. As he noted on Wednesday, "It was important for us to integrate our efforts [across national borders] in order to find a common space for our audiences. Sharing distribution is a means to combat the dominance of American film in our cinemas."

Most of the films in the series are by younger filmmakers, and, in the case of Schroeder and several others, come from younger film industries like Uruguay, Colombia and Venezuela. The two names that will be most familiar to serious film students are both old-timers from two of the oldest film cultures in Latin America, Mexico's Arturo Ripstein and Argentina's Fernando Solanas. Yet each of them offers a vibrant and radical vision.

Ripstein, who was an assistant to Bunuel 45 years ago, is represented in the series by his 2000 film, Asi es la vida (Such Is Life). One of his first excursions into video production, it is a modern-day reworking of Seneca's Medea, set in a Mexico City slum. Ripstein uses the lightweight video equipment brilliantly to give us a film made entirely in sequence shots with a constantly prowling camera that emphasizes the claustrophobia of his sets and the hyper-melodramatic nature of the colliding forces of Julia, a curandera whose partner, a failed boxer named Nicolas, is leaving her for the younger and more prosperous Raquel. The film is unmistakably both an homage to and a parody of the telenovela with its outsized emotions and convoluted plots. Ripstein brings to the table wild changes in register, from the quasi-religious to the poetic to shrieking and obscene invective. He also makes brilliant and frequently hilarious use of the television as a Greek chorus. The result trades the precision and polish of his best films like Profundi carmesi (Deep Crimson) for the rough-and-ready high-energy of a seemingly improvised work. Asi es la vida suggests one way forward for young filmmakers, which is only appropriate, since Ripstein himself is a mere 64.

Fernando Solanas is 71, but he obviously has neither mellowed nor beat his cinematic sword into an "entertainment" ploughshare in the nearly 40 years since his most famous work, Hora de los hornos (Hour of the Furnaces). The Solanas film in the MoMA/Instituto Cervantes series, La dignidad de los nadies (The Dignity of the Nobodies), is a bit less openly manipulative than that classic piece of cinema engage, but in its chronicle of ten unsung heroes of the Argentine struggle against the neo-liberal policies that shattered the nation's economy at the beginning of this decade, it is no less committed. Solanas still has his trademark staccato rhythms and the whirlwind mixture of news footage, printed word and his own documentary footage, but La dignidad is more universal in both its theme and its appeal, a spirited attempt to show the "nobodies" whose everyday struggle just to live should be at the heart of any progressive politics. At one point early in the film, protestors chant, "If we aren't the people, where are they?" And several of his almost anonymous heroes are searching for new forms of representative government, new cooperative efforts that will allow them to improve their lives in spite of a government that willfully ignores the poor and the working class.

In a sense, La dignidad is a perfect film to speak for the festival itself. After all, what is Ibermedia but an attempt by the so-called have-not film industries to forge new methods of financing and distribution that will allow them to survive to make more movies, movies that speak in the voices of and on behalf of those who are silenced by their lack of access to mass media? At a time when mainstream American filmmakers have completely stopped making movies about people who work for a living -- unless they are serial killers, cops or supermodels -- what could be a more important basis for fighting against the tidal wave of multinational companies that utterly dominate the movie and TV screens of the world?

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This might be a propitious time to note that this is my 100th post of the year. The subject matter seems particularly apposite. Needless to say, the good people of Ibermedia and the Museum of Modern Art and Instituto Cervantes (which does a lot of excellent film programming, by the way) are doing exactly the kind of work that I believe in, helping bring marginalized works and creators to a larger audience. Of course, their efforts are meaningless if people don't attend. I strongly urge you to support cultural institutions that supply a platform for original, independent and oppositional artworks -- not just the three named in this post (and yes, I know that MoMA and the Instituto are hardly "oppositional" in their intent, but they frequently showcase work that is) -- but the whole range of such bodies. Some of them can be found in the links on this page and the links on those pages. But you should be seeking them out yourself. And if you find ones that I haven't mentioned over the nearly two years of this blog, please feel free to let me know.


The Crime Doctor's Courage (Hint: He Buys It by the Case)

So I'm at a press day for the Museum of Modern Art's IberoAmerican films series, which started last night (and which I'll discuss in more detail either tonight or tomorrow, sleep depending, but let me say right now that it's an exciting collection of films, including a terrific reworking of Medea by Arturo Ripstein and a new documentary by Fernando Solanas). Friend and colleague Daryl Chin and I get into a discussion of the pleasures of the B series mystery. I mention that for me the greatest attraction is to see how concise and compact a conventional narrative can be. As I've probably said in this space before, in recent years I've become more interested in how narrative "works" as we've reached the point of diminishing returns in the search for still-undiscovered auteurs.

Of course when I get home the b.w. and I watch one of the several Crime Doctor Bs that TCM showed in an mini-marathon last week. For those of you unenlightened I'll merely say that Robert Ordway, the Crime Doctor, is a psychatrist played rather nicely by Warner Baxter who solves mysteries. The first film in the series, Crime Doctor, gives you all the backstory, with Ordway an amnesiac who eventually investigates his own past and finds out that he was a criminal mastermind. These epics were drawn from a radio show created by Max Marcin, who is probably best remembered as one of the toilers on Dashiell Hammett's script for City Streets (1931), although he also directed a half-dozen potboilers in the early '30s.

We're watching The Crime Doctor's Courage (1945), the third film in the series, directed by George Sherman and written by Eric Taylor. Taylor is a hack of no great consequence; he wrote several of the Ellery Queens and other Crime Doctor pics. Sherman, on the other hand, is a solid B westerns director who made a couple of decent films (including a very underrated Jock Mahoney-Gilbert Roland vehicle Last of the Fast Guns, well worth seeking out if you can get it letterboxed.

Now here comes the part I find fascinating. The entire first third of the film is a red herring. Seriously. The film, which only runs 70 minutes, opens with a couple on their honeymoon; we learn that the husband's first wife died on their honeymoon and he has a spirited, er, discussion with wife number two before the rocks under her feet crumble, sending her plummeting to her death. Then the brother-in-law from marriage number one turns up at the local sheriff's office to piss and moan about this dead sister and this second supposedly accidental death. Flashforward to Hollywood, where Ordway is on vacation. A former patient of his (Hillary Brooke of Abbott and Costello fame) importunes him to examine her fiancee -- guess who -- to see if he is actually crazy. And so on. The first murder occurs at the dinner party and after that the entire backstory about the two honeymoons essentially disappears.

For sheer nonsensical stupidity, this is hard to beat. And it flies in the face of everything I know about the B series mystery. But it gets worse from there, because the film has more red herrings than all the Boston Blackie, Charlie Chan, Ellery Queen and Mike Shayne films combined. Frankly, when the murderer's identity is revealed, you are utterly flummoxed primarily because he's a character we barely recall. Add to that the ineffable presence of Lloyd Corrigan as some kind of comic relief-cum-possible suspect and you are sitting through the longest 70 minutes since your last dentist visit.

I only mention this entire fiasco because it is such a vivid reminder that for all the obvious strengths of the studio system (even at the Columbia B level of near-poverty), there are plenty of obvious weaknesses as well. The irony of it is that I suspect Taylor's motivation for this mess was that he wanted to try something that would be a slight break with the series formula. It certainly was.

Anyway, haul yourself over to the Museum of Modern Art for some of the IberoAmerican films -- at least to their website to check out the schedule.

And while you're at it, check out my latest reviews at Jewish Week, of Alexsander Ford's unusual 1949 film Border Street and a charming new documentary about a dying Yiddish theater company and its stalwart leader.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Couple of Jewish Films (Hey, It's What I Get Paid to Do)

I like to keep readers up to date on what I do elsewhere, at least when it involves film (or something that means real money, like my books), so here are a couple of links to my latest efforts in Jewish Week. The first will take you to my review of the new documentary "Steal A Pencil For Me." The second is a quick plug for a charming short documentary (about an hour) on the fading Jewish communities of Ireland, which will be shown at the Irish Arts Centre on November 13.
Just so you know.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

"Albert Did It With Love"

Jazz was my first musical love and remains my primary musical love. My parents both were serious big band fans when they were in their teens and twenties and they carried that love with them through my childhood and adolescence. Of course, ever the wise guy, when I started to stake out my own musical turf I gravitated towards – of all things – free jazz and what we didn’t yet call post-bop. I was listening to John Coltrane in 9th grade and after, and only came to rock in my later teens when I began to hear music that I could identify as jazz- and blues-influenced. (Please, no comments or e-mails stating the obvious. I was a stubborn kid and wore my mulishness with pride. Obviously, that hasn’t changed.)

But I have to admit that while my affinity for ‘Trane and his growing stable of acolytes on the Impulse! label, Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry was largely instinctive rather than intellectual, I missed the boat on Albert Ayler. I owned a copy of New York Eye and Ear Control because it had Cherry and John Tchicai and the latter had played on Coltrane’s Ascension. (By the way, here’s a bizarre jazz trivia question: who is the only musician to play on both Ascension and Free Jazz, two keystone recordings of group free improvisation? Answer below.) At the time, I had no idea that NYEEC was a Michael Snow soundtrack; I doubt if I knew who Michael Snow was. Of course the multiple irony of that fact is that it was long after I became familiar with his work as a filmmaker that I found out that he had also recorded free jazz.

Yeah, Ayler eluded me for a long time. I think what I didn’t hear were two things that were strongly interrelated in his music. First, I had no concept of spirituality and was disdainful of the whole subject. Anyone who has read Essential Judaism knows that when I first returned to synagogue in the 1980s, I thought I was seeking a political community and only realized later that it was a spiritual center for my life that I had been needing. So Ayler’s intensely – INTENSELY – spiritual music zipped over my head. Second, what I responded to in free jazz was the sense of anger and danger. Somehow I instinctively understood that this was not a component of Albert Ayler’s music.

No, as the great Sunny Murray, who played drums with Ayler for much of the tenor man’s all-too-brief career, says at the end of My Name Is Albert Ayler, a Swedish docu about his music, “Albert played it with love.”

Kasper Collin’s film, which opens today (November 8) at Anthology Film Archives for a week-long run, is a very handsome valentine to Ayler’s music. Make no mistake about it, the focus of the film is very much on the music, although it is impossible to talk about his art without delving into some of Ayler’s life. He and younger brother Donald were born in Cleveland in what looks like a fairly middle-class home. His mother was apparently a semi-invalid, his father a part-time musician who taught Sunday school and who is the very embodiment of dignity. Albert began playing sax as a child. He encouraged his brother to play trumpet and would eventually bring him to New York to join his quixotic musical crusade.

As the film makes abundantly clear, the happiest times of his professional life came in Europe, mainly Sweden, where his undeniably difficult but very beautiful music found a responsive audience. Back in the States he won some acceptance from Coltrane and Ornette but audiences booed him off the bandstand on more than one occasion. Eventually Donald succumbed to mental illness and was sent back to Cleveland and institutionalized (although, as the film notes, he came out of retirement in the ‘80s briefly for a successful Italian tour). Albert experimented disastrously with rock music, possibly under the baleful influence of one of his many girlfriends. Then the 34-year-old Ayler disappeared one November morning from his Brooklyn home. On November 25, 1970 his body was found in the East River.

Unlike Coltrane, but with some affinity with Coleman and Steve Lacy, Ayler's compositions are fairly simple. As Margo observed while we were watching the film, they have an almost folksong-like quality and structure. And his improvising, while intense and densely layered, feels more like a cry of joy to the Creator than a scream of pain or rage. I hear a lot less of the split tones and the multiphonics they create in the playing of Coltrane and his followers; as Murray says, "his playing was so clean." But I won't lie -- it would be unfair to tell a first-time listener that this "easy" music, anymore than Michael Snow's films could be called easy.

When Collin began work on My Name Is Albert Ayler in 1998 he must have known that there wasn’t much footage of Ayler playing. He would have to build the film around interview material, some scratchy home movies and occasional newsreel footage to establish period, a process that took seven years. But Collin has brilliantly transformed an obstacle into an inspiration. The film is a superbly crafted visual fugue, utilizing repetitions on both soundtrack and image track to create a cinematic equivalent of musical motifs, all of which come together movingly in the film’s final dozen or so images, ending with Sunny Murray sagely observing that while contemporary tenor players are frequently brilliant, “They play so hard. Albert played it with love.”

The result is a deeply beautiful film that manages the rare feat – even more so these days – of being tragic without resorting to sentimentality, honest but deeply caring. It’s sort of like Albert Ayler’s music. I didn’t get that in 1970. I get it now.


*The only instrumentalist to play on both Ascension and Free Jazz is -- brace yourself -- Freddie Hubbard. Hard to believe if you're primary acquaintance with Hub is his work for Creed Taylor.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Got an All-But-Finished Film You Want to Show Off?

MoMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center are about to open the floodgates for submissions to the New Directors/New Films series. This is one heck of a good showcase for new films both documentary and fictional, a chance to launch yourself in the biggest film market in America. As their press release puts it, "Entries are being accepted Nov. 15, 2007, through Jan. 9, 2008. Feature-length and short films of any style are considered. Additional guidelines and further information can be found at the New Directors/New Films page at www.filmlinc.com, or by calling the Film Society at 212-875-5610."

Hey, you could be putting yourself in the company of John Sayles, Pedro Almodovar, Spike Lee and Richard Linklater, all of whom had films in the program in years past. And you will probably have the great honor of seeing my review of your masterpiece in this space come spring. (Or, for a nominal fee that we can negotiate privately, I could skip your film. Remember, I know what school bus your kids take every afternoon.)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow

A couple of interesting notions crossed my mind in the past few days. I was presenting Elie Chouraqui's O Jerusalem at the Westchester branch of the cinema club of which I am a guest speaker and I got into an amusing sidebar on the choice of directors today to depict the recent past in desaturated color. Not black-and-white, not sepiatone, but the sort of washed-color that you get from a very old print of the early two-strip Technicolor. (If you was Mystery of the Wax Museum on TCM last week, you have some idea of what I mean.)

Of course, as Margo drily noted, "It's a convention. Why are you looking for a logical explanation?" Sure, it's a convention, like all film grammar, like all grammar, the product of the arbitrary nature of the sign. I get that. But this one strikes me as particularly odd. We don't actually remember the past that way -- well, I don't -- and it's not the way we see the past when we look at old films. Why not depict the 1940s in black-and-white, the '50s in the supersaturated color of Technicolor in IB prints, or the redder-than-normal color of the various Eastman color processes. By rights, a film like O Jerusalem should look more like Pork Chop Hill or The Quiet Man than Schindler's List.

That's the crux of the matter right there. It's the Spielbergization of mainstream film. He did in Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan (and to a less obtrusive extent in Munich), so it must be right. Well, I may be heaping opprobrium on Steven S for the wrong reasons here, but I think he was one of the first filmmakers to choose the desaturated color palette for an historical film.

Or is my memory playing me false? Dear readers, enlighten me. If you can think of another example of an early use of this device, clue me in.

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Getting myself ready for the Sembene series at Film Forum, I was looking at a excellent anthology of essays on Sembene's films (A Call to Action: The Films of Ousmane Sembene, edited by Sheila Petty, published by Praeger), and I found myself thinking about one of my favorites from his work, Guelwaar. Given that the film's central concern is relations between Christians, animists and Muslims, it should be required viewing these days, especially since the film counsels patience and tolerance, two commodities in scarce supply right now. (Islamofascism Awareness Week. my ass).

Which, in turn got me to thinking about political films, that is, fiction films about the political process as experienced by people caught up in its gears. I wouldn't want to put together a ten-best list, but Guelwaar would certainly be on mine, alongside several Francesco Rosi titles, two films by Park Kwang-su, To the Starry Island and A Single Spark and Preminger's Advise and Consent. That's a pretty good start right there.

Anybody want to take up the challenge?


Friday, November 02, 2007

What Would Lubitsch Do?

That's what the sign on Billy Wilder's office wall read. I thought about it a lot while I was watching one of the two Jewish-themed films in this year's Kino! series which opened at MoMA yesterday. My article on the series is the "culture box" in the new issue of Jewish Week (which has a link, by the way), but that feature isn't generally on the webpage, so I include it here for your edification.

Given his pivotal role in the growth of the Berlin film industry in its infancy, it is only appropriate that with the Museum of Modern Art’s annual New German Cinema series focused on films about the German capital should have as one of its centerpieces a new documentary on Ernst Lubitsch’s career there. Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schoenhauser Allee to Hollywood, written and directed by film historial Robert Fischer is a heartfelt and entertaining tribute to one of the greatest of all Jewish filmmakers. Fittingly, Fischer’s film devotes a fair amount of time to exploring the Jewishness of Lubitsch’s humor and includes several of the brighter lights of contemporary German cinema who are devotees of his work, Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), Wolfgang Becker (Good Bye Lenin) and Dani Levy (Go for Zucker).

The documentary is a treasure trove of clips from Lubitsch’s early comedies and a vivid reminder of his mastery of the historical epic, a genre he left behind when he went to America. Fischer assembled a distinguished group of film historians as well as Lubitsch’s daughter Nicola and granddaughter Amanda Goodpaster, who offer some interesting personal insights into the master’s world and work. The result is a tribute that would undoubtedly have amused Lubitsch himself and which fills a major gap in our understanding of his work.

The other feature film in the series that touches on Jewish concerns, And Along Come Tourists, written and directed by Robert Thalheim, has something of Lubitsch’s delicacy of touch, albeit in a somewhat darker mood. Tourists is the 33-year-old Berliner’s second feature, a gentle, almost fragile comedy-drama about the duty to remember and recount the past at its most terrible. Sven (Alexander Fehling, who looks like the young Paul Newman) is a German youth doing his year of civil service as a volunteer at the Auschwitz Museum. There he finds himself playing nursemaid to a truculent Polish survivor, Krzeminski (Ryszard Ronczewski), who now works there repairing the battered suitcases that are part of the museum exhibits. He also has a developing relationship with Ania (Barbara Wysocka), a tour guide there.

Thalheim balances this pair of attachments quite nimbly, showing the growing sympathy Sven feels for the crusty old man with as much tenderness as the budding love between him and Ania. And Along Come Tourists is a slender but surprisingly sturdy film that carries an emotional punch far beyond the seeming slightness of the material. Lubitsch, I think, would approve.

“Kino!2007: New Films From Germany” will run at the Museum of Modern Art (11 W. 53rd St.) from November 1-14. For information, phone 212-708-9400 or go to www.moma.org.

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Two important programs of women's films preserved coming up next week.

On Thursday, November 8 at the Walter Reade Theater at 6:30 p.m., a screening of the recently restored Attica, by Cinda Firestone. When it played the Tribeca festival this spring, here's what I said:

Attica is a film that I saw when it first was released in 1973. At the time I was a gung-ho radical with shoulder-length hair. (I would post a picture to prove this, but then I would have to kill everyone who visits the blog.) Here it is thirty-four years later, and 36 since the massacre of inmates and hostages by NY State Troopers and local sheriffs at the state prison at Attica and I'm a gung-ho radical with a growing bald spot and a yarmulke. Plus ca change . . .

Joking aside, I was curious how the film would hold up, particularly since I didn't have a strong memory of it from my original viewing. But I do have strong, almost ferocious memories of my rage when the all-too-brief negotiations with the striking prisoners were cut off and the D Block prison yard was turned into a killing field. In recent years, I have re-viewed many films that I remembered fondly from my anti-Vietnam War activist days and, regrettably, most of them didn't look too good to my fifty-something self.

Happily, Cinda Firestone's Attica is an exception, perhaps because it is a piece of very good reportage as well as an act of advocacy. This is never more apparent than towards the end of the film when she shows headlines from the major NYC dailies, reporting that the coroner's autopsies of the victims revealed that every single hostages who died was shot by the state troopers and local police who were sent in to retake the prison, in direct contradiction to what had been said by state officials. What makes this detail important is that it comes immediately after several people (including the late Bill Kunstler unfortunately) attacked the mainstream media for failing to report the autopsy results.

Truthfully, it is painful to watch Attica and to be reminded that Nelson Rockefeller, the governor who was responsible for the lethal decision to attack despite signs of hope in the negotations, and Russell Oswald, Rocky's commissioner of corrections, were never brought to book for those deaths. The cops were firing dum-dum bullets -- illegal under the Geneva Convention and in many states at the time -- indiscriminately. In the aftermath, there were violent reprisals against the cons that the film documents amply. And the final irony is that the demands that were being made were mostly entirely reasonable ones involving better health care, food and educational programs.

Of course, the situation today is vastly worse. America has more men and women incarcerated than almost any nation on earth and, with the privatization of prisons, the profit motive guides correctional decisions more than ever. While I was watching Attica, the thought occurred to me that if I wanted to do something concrete about the problem, it was imperative that instead of another film link, what I need to place here is links to criminal justice and penology websites. So here are a couple that may inspire you to action:

Vera Institute of Justice
The Family and Corrections Network
Action for Prisoners' Families (UK)
CURE (Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants)
The Criminal Justice Policy Foundation

Don't just stand there. Do something, dammit.

The CUNY Graduate Center (365 Fifth Avenue) has an interesting program on Friday November 9 at 4 p.m., at their Martin E. Segal Theatre. "Lost and Found: Seven Extraordinary Short Films by Women" includes works by Maya Deren, Mary Ellen Bute and others, followed by a panel discussion with Drake Stuteman from the Women's Film Preservation Fund; Patricia White, Associate Professor of English and Film and Media Studies at Swarthmore College; and Mary Ann Caws, Distinguished Professor of English, French, and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY; moderated by Heather Hendershot, Professor of Theater and Media Studies and Coordinator of the Film Studies Certificate Program. Should be an interesting afternoon.

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November looks to be a very exciting month to be in NYC. Just a few things to look forward to:
Humphrey Jennings at Anthology, Max Ophuls at BAM, Ousmane Sembene at Film Forum, and the usual round of new films opening. As they used to say on billboards, "Watch This Space."

Of course, they also used to say, "If you lived here, you'd be home now," which always made me wonder what the great advantage would be of living on a billboard in the middle of nowhere, but I guess I'm just literal-minded.

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...