Friday, October 31, 2008
A Quick One While I'm Away (Okay, I'm Not Away, but the Who Never Recorded a Song Called "A Quick One While He's Installing a New Computer")
It all depends, of course, on how long it takes me to set up the new desktop. (heh, heh)
Friday, October 24, 2008
Amos Gitai, still the best filmmaker to come out of Israel, is the subject of a mini-series dedicated to several of his documentaries, virtually unseen here, at the Museum of Modern Art. I chatted with MoMA curator Larry Kardish about the series here. The trigger for the event is a week-long run of Gitai's most recent documentary, News From Home/News From House. Both the series and the new film open today at MoMA.
Gitai began his career as an architecture student, largely as a tribute to his recently deceased father, Munio Weintraub Gitai, a Bauhaus alumnus who was instrumental in the creation of
Eighteen years later, Gitai revisited the house for a second film, “A House in
In truth, although Gitai has used the house as a lens through which he views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the house is actually more interesting as a vehicle for Gitai to explore the lives of the workers and inhabitants than as a metaphor for the
"Come On Over to the Dark Side: The Obituary as Social History" is the title of her presentation and I can tell you -- and I am, honestly, an unbiased observer -- no, really I am -- having heard her deliver it twice, that it's fascinating and quite funny. For more information, go here.
If you are one of those folks who is obsessed with seeing what your favorite bloggers are really like, I'll be there too, so you can find out.
(For some reason that reminds me of a famous exchange between Ralph Kiner and Mets catcher Choo-Choo Coleman. Kiner asked Coleman where he got his nickname, to which he replied, "I don't know." Kiner, no doubt thinking that this wasn't going real well, tried an even more innocuous question, "What's your wife's name and what's she like." Coleman replied, "Her name is Mrs. Coleman and she likes me." Indeed. Well, as Casey Stengel said when asked why the Mets' first choice in the expansion draft was Hobie Landrith, said, "You gotta have a catcher or you'll have nothing but passed balls." Coleman was about as useful a choice as Landrith.)
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
The reason I mention it is that I just received a press release announcing the re-opening of the Beekman, now a two-screen house at 1271 Second Avenue between East 66th and East 67th Street, on Friday October 24.
My strongest memory of the Beekman takes me back to high school, an afternoon that I shlepped into the city from the Five Towns in order to see Z. I've since gone back and forth on Costa-Gavras. I think his earlier films are underrated; I have particularly fond memories of his Resistance thriller, Un Homme de Trop (Shock Troops), which I saw on 42nd Street, and his debut feature, The Sleeping Car Murders. On other other hand, almost everything that comes after Z is seriously flawed in some fundamental way. I must confess that I haven't seen Z since that afternoon at the Beekman. I don't know how it would look to me now, but at 17 I thought it was fabulous, a genuine left-wing thriller with serious action-movie chops. The most vivid memory I have of the film is the way that Costa-Gavras tried to use his editing rhythms to mimic the motor-drive of the crusading journalist's camera. For anyone who wasn't a professional photographer, the motor drive was apparently quite an exotic device in 1970; I remember that in a display case in the lobby of the Beekman, there was a replica of one for all to see. (Little did I suspect that five years later, my closest friends would be photographers who used their motor-drives all the time.)
At any rate, it's always nice to have one of the golden oldies resurface. It would be nice if they program with some imagination.
Tuesday, October 14, 2008
In 1969 Ken Jacobs reinvented himself and the experimental cinema when he made “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son,” a reworking of a 1905
Earlier this year, I described Jacobs’s method in his use of found film footage as Talmudic, with his own version of the “text” being a commentary erected on the grounds of the original film. “Return,” which he amusingly calls “forensic cinema” in a title card midway through the film, is a gemara to his earlier film’s mishnah, a reexamination of the space and time of both the Edison “Tom, Tom” and the 1969 Jacobs reworking of that short. (If you have forgotten the nursery rhyme, the key element is that Tom “stole a pig and away he run,” hence the playful title of Jacobs’s new version.)
If the fabric of the Talmud is the text of the Tanakh, the actual letters themselves, the material with which all filmmakers work are space and time. Hence, when Jacobs offers commentary on the 1905 short, he does so by altering our perception of those two elements of the film, and the rich dialectical relationship between them. Even a seemingly extraneous element like his introduction of color into the frames of the new film alters our perception of the screen space, and his wildly variegated editorial strategies – stroboscopic flicker effects, multiple superimpositions, rapid, repetitive cutting – expand our experience of film-time turning a brief nursery rhyme into a 92-minute meditation on the ways in which we understand time. Like Achilles chasing the hare in Zeno’s paradox, the characters in the original “Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son” are fated never to catch the miscreant in “Return,” trapped in the engaging and witty amber of Ken Jacobs’s palimpsestic “remake.”
“Return to the Scene of the Crime” and a program of five other recent works by Ken Jacobs will both be playing at the
I blow hot and cold on Barry Levinson. As you will see momentarily, I like the Baltimore films quite a lot, but the rest of his work leaves me very unimpressed, to say the least. However, his latest film, What Just Happened, while flawed is quite amusing and, if you are a serious student of the psychopathology of the film industry, you will probably find much to laugh at. My review is in next week's issue of Jewish Week and can be found here.
Finally, this bizarre tidbit from France, via the BBC:
A French court has rejected an attempt by a group of people with the surname, Bougon, which means "grumpy", to change the title of a new TV comedy series. The 60 claimants were upset at the way their name was being associated with a family of scroungers, fraudsters and alcoholics in the series, Les Bougon.
If there's a Mr. Homer Simpson out there somewhere, I recommend that he find a different legal system for his projected mega-buck lawsuit.
Sunday, October 12, 2008
So I spent almost the entire day watching sports -- how much more of a cliche of masculinity can you get? England over Kazakstan, Scotland haplessly drawing 0-0 with Norway, Wales over Lichtenstein, Spain over Estonia. With the doubleheader of Vi. Klitschko- Peter and Tarver-Dawson in prospect for the evening followed by whatever remained of Game Two of the ALCS (if I'd known how much remained, I might have gone to sleep after the fights), I looked out the window at a truly beautiful day and decided that I needed a walk and a cigar.
It's ironic that since we moved three blocks south (that's all it was), ten yers ago, I almost never get up to Ft. Tryon Park, but I had a large cigar, a book and the clearest blue sky imaginable, so I just started walking north until I hit the park and entered. I didn't take the heather garden route; I figure that with a cigar, I'd be competing with the scent of the flowers in the garden and most people would be less enthused by my smoking than I was. In a way, the roundabout route I settled on instead (down the road past the back of the New Leaf Cafe, then around the cafe and up to the upper part of the park, down through the underpasses to the northern lawn, then back out the way I had come in) was even more pleasant. No tourists snapping pictures or stopping to smell the flowers, no wedding photos being taken, etc. The sun was bright and warm, but not warm enough for me to break a sweat. It was a good cigar, and the people I passed by were interesting and pleasant. Finally, I made my way home by way of one of the supermarkets, with enough groceries for most of the ten days of my enforced bachelorhood, my mind clearer and my soul more relaxed than at any time in the past few insane weeks.
Tomorrow will be devoted first to Sukkah-building, then to several screeners from the upcoming Israel Film Festival, followed by dinner with the estimable Mr. Hozinsky (AKA the eponymous Ira of awards renown) and his lovely wife. Somewhere in the midst of that social/artistic whirl I should try and sneak off to the park again.
Me? I do it for the vast sums of money it brings me.
Friday, October 10, 2008
Although his work is in the collections of numerous museums and film archives, Beryl Sokoloff remains something of an enigma as a filmmaker. In the notes to an evening of his films being held on October 10, an Anthology Film Archives programmer says, “He completed more than 75 films, yet virtually nothing is known about his cinematic output.” Yet Sokoloff himself was hardly an enigma. He was, rather, a fixture on the Greenwich Village and Chelsea arts scene of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s.
In a sense, Beryl’s career trajectory is a typical one for a Jewish-American artist of a certain era. His parents were émigrés from Russia, he and his brother Vladimir were born and raised in the Bronx before the family moved to Philadelphia. There they attended high school, studying music and art at the Settlement Music School. Beryl was an accomplished cellist but it was Valdimir who pursued a musical career, becoming a distinguished accompanist on piano and a member of the faculty at the Curtis Institute.
Beryl’s path was less straightforward, taking him from WPA projects to the U.S. Army and the Pacific Theater. At the end of the war, he returned to New York City and became part of the circle of Abstract Expressionists who were altering the face of modern art. He painted, he photographed and, gradually, he began making films. (One of his more off-beat professional gigs was as the photographer for a Mexican newspaper; his life partner Crista Grauer told “The Villager, “[They] didn’t have anyone else but him in New York, so they ran whatever he wanted to shoot.”)
What of Sokoloff’s films?
Looking at the dozen films that Anthology is showing on October 10, certain motifs emerge clearly, strikingly. Sokoloff was fascinated by the human figure in all its plasticity. In his lovely film “Gaudi,” a vivid sampler of the great Barcelona architect-sculptor’s work in situ, Sokoloff constantly is seeking out the most anthropomorphic images embedded in the intricacies of Gaudi’s buildings. The same can be said of most of the other films in the program, but the most disturbing use of these images of humanity occurs in “Movie,” a film that circles repeatedly around what can only be described as a myriad of death’s heads.
Sokoloff was drawn to primitive artists, to those creations who today we label “outsider art.” Perhaps the most satisfying (and certainly the most conventional) of the films, “My Mirrored Hope,” is a profile of Clarence Schmidt, a grizzle-bearded mountain of a man, whose life’s work was a huge “house of mirrors” that he constructed in Woodstock, NY. The work is a jaw-dropping collage of mirrors, windows, metal sculpture, found objects ranging from false teeth to a Flying A gas station sign, and hundreds of tiny, graceful mobiles made of glass and mirrors. The film ends with a dizzyingly fast tracking shot that reveals at last the full extent of Schmidt’s obsessive creativeness.
There are many other similar works found throughout the dozen films on display here. In Sokoloff’s camera lens, we are made acutely aware that even a self-conscious and highly trained artist like Gaudi owes more than a little to the DIY aesthetic of these so-called primitives. And in his highly personal mix of avant-garde and documentary film, Sokoloff is something of a primitive himself.
He also is clearly a committed progressive of the post-WWII stripe. Running throughout the films are images of anti-war demonstrations, picket lines, civil rights protests and the like. “Line” is constructed in large part around an “artists’ strike” from the early ‘60s, when painters, sculptors and like-minded creators picketed city hall trying to save their loft-based studios (a reminder that in New York, the more real estate changes, the more it stays the same, except for the price tag). Yet there is a playfulness about Sokoloff’s work, a winking at the audience that can be seen in the fact that “Movie” is a film in which there is almost no motion on-screen, that “The Wall,” made in Berlin, shows us everything about the city except the title object.
Still, there is an underlying seriousness to Sokoloff’s films. In “Gaudi” he superimposes images echoing the Spanish Inquisition on the Barcelona streets. In “The Wall” Sokoloff shows us East Berlin’s profusion of Soviet-era housing blocs, set off against the idiosyncrasies of the city’s medieval architecture. In the film’s most striking moment, we see what looks like a sea of broken, upright stones; Sokoloff cuts between several different angles of this somber moonscape before we realize that it is a Jewish cemetery, filled with uprooted headstones.
Whatever else one can draw from Sokoloff’s work, he clearly subscribes to the centrality of memory in Jewish thought. When he began working in film in the latge 1950s, Sokoloff wrote, “Film is a medium of discovery, of ourselves and new relationships with the past and future.” It’s only appropriate that, two years after his death at age 88, we begin to discover Beryl Sokoloff.
“Discovering Beryl Sokoloff,” two programs of six films each, will be screened at Anthology Film Archives (2nd St. and 2nd Avenue) on Friday, October 10.
In the meantime, my review of the Larry Charles-Bill Maher farrago, Religulous, appears on the Jewish Week website here.
Saturday, October 04, 2008
The site is updated monthly or bi-monthly, I'm not sure which, but the October-November featured artist is Ken Jacobs, and the site has a huge selection of his work for you to look at. The clips are in Quicktime, so you ought to have that software (heck, you ought to have that software anyway), and they run in a smallish pop-up screen so if you have a pop-up blocker, you'll need to permit the site to show them, all of which takes about 10 seconds and two mouse-clicks. To access the archives, which are substantial, you'll have to register for the site, but it's free and the material there is well worth the few minutes you'll need to do it.
Speaking of Ken Jacobs, his latest film and a large selection of his recent work will be on display at MoMA later this month (I'll be reviewing the new film Return to the Scene of the Crime for Jewish Week shortly) and Anthology Film Archives will be showing a selection of his early works on December 19 and 20, a perfect Hanukah gift (or something like that).
Now, speaking of the New York Film Festival, their 12th annual Views from the Avant-Garde showcase is running even as I sit here typing. I only had the time and opportunity to see one of the programs in the series this year, although the assembled total is very impressive (Nathaniel Dorsky, Andrew Noren, Bruce Connor, Craig Baldwin and many, many more). The one film I did see, however, is definitely worthy of any ten-best list I could imagine for 2008 (if it gets a minimal theatrical release, i.e., a week somewhere in town).
James Benning is, if I may be permitted a shorthand identification, one of the finest landscape filmmakers America has produced. Although his work frequently plays with narrative, many of his recent films, 13 Lakes, Ten Skies and the new one being shown tomorrow (Sunday, Oct. 5 at 9 p.m.), RR, are nothing less than meditations on the American landscape and/or skyscape.
Where the structure of the other two films I just mentioned were dictated by Benning's arbitrary decision to use sequence shots of ten minutes each, RR (which he pronounces "Railroad," saying to an interviewer that if you just sound the title out, "it sounds like a pirate movie") uses long takes whose duration is dictated by the time required for a freight train to appear on screen and wend its way through the shot until it has disappeared. The film is 112 minutes long and includes 43 trains, photographed all over the U.S., but mostly in California, where Benning is now based. In a structural film like this (and I'm using the word casually, not in the way that one might use it to classify the work of, say, Paul Sharits), variations are the heart and soul of the work. Benning makes cunning use of variations in camera angles, distance from the subject, the seasonal changes and a fascinating range of landscapes (desert, forest, water, hills, plains and so on) to create visual interest. (Of course, for some of us, the mere sight of trains in motion is interesting enough.) At the same time, he makes inventive use of the soundtrack, mixing in a few soundbites of local radio stations, with everything from a Blue Jays-Rangers game (Nolan Ryan on the mound) to Woody Guthrie singing "This Land Is Your Land," while most of the film uses direct sound, emphasizing the tension between nature sounds (lots of crickets here, and faint breezes) and the sounds of the man-made world, primarily the trains themselves. The result is a hypnotically beautiful work that, at the same time, offers a covert but very powerful rumination on the ways that industry has raped the American environment. RR is a must-see film, a phrase I am loath to use, but this time it's really true.
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