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?


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, 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.


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


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.


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

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