Monday, December 28, 2009
But I do want to draw your attention to a couple of non-film items of interest. As regular readers know, I am a firm believer in and on-line champion of non-English literature in translation. Of course language in translation accounts for about three percent of the American book market, which is why any sign of movement in a positive direction is cause for celebration. I have frequently drawn your attention to Words Without Borders, which does a splendid job of disseminating new writing from around the world. I want to add a few more webpages to your bookmarks/favorites file on the subject before the year ends:
The Literary Saloon --a literary blog attached to the excellent Complete Review website. Both are excellent sources of information and reviews on contemporary writing in translation from just about anywhere you can imagine. As a clearinghouse alone, Saloon is an absolute necessity.
Open Letter Books -- a new publishing venture supported by the University of Rochester, specializing in literature in translation. There's a nicely judged piece on the press by Larry Rohter of the New York Times that sets the tone. Open Letter's subscription plan is an innovative way of selling their wonderfully variegated list, too. They also have a blog, Three Percent.
African Writing Online -- a web journal of new writing from a region that has yet to experience a much-deserved and -needed equivalent of the Latin American "boom" of the 1970s. Covers the whole impressively wide range of African literary writing and darned well. Issue 8 is currently up.
Now, goddamit, go buy some books for the new calendar year. Buy 'em from an indie bookstore near you.
Wednesday, December 02, 2009
Actually, this year's Israel Film Festival, which kicks off on the 5th, is the usual mixed bag, as festivals of new film generally are. The good seems to outweigh the bad -- hey, I didn't see everything they're showing -- but that is to be expected in these halcyon days for Israeli film. So there really isn't much tsuris, except of course for the constant low-level aggravation that comes from living in the midst of an embattled place like the Middle East. At any rate, you can find my two pieces on the Festival in Jewish Week, here and here.
Incidentally, one of the most exciting prospects from the festival, a three-hour documentary History of Israeli Cinema by the excellent Raphael Nadjari (director of Tehillim and Avanim, two terrific films) isn't reviewed in those two articles; the only screeners available didn't have subtitles. I hope to add something on that and two other films from the event that arrived the day after my deadline in the next few days right here. (And that was the tsuris, entirely mine and I'm not passing it along, you should only live and be well, dah-link. But why don't you call more often?)
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Yoav Shamir's Defamation, an elegantly structured documentary about the political uses of contemporary anti-Semitism, had that effect on me. My review of it is here. I hope that if you see it, it affects you as strongly.
This is the price of filming in a police state. I have written about this before in this space. Unfortunately, I will have to write about it again. It's not a problem that ever goes away.
However, if you want to do something concrete to help, you can connect with the Committee to Protect Journalists and Cineastes sans Frontieres.
Monday, November 16, 2009
Needless to say, the reason I'm mentioning this is that I'm speaking once again at the next offering in the series, and it's recent favorite of mine, Eran Kolirin's bittersweet comedy, The Band's Visit. That is a film I did manage to see, and review, when it opened last year. In fact, my review for Jewish Week is below:
Loneliness seems to be built into the human condition. Blaise Pascal said, “We die alone,” and that limitation on human aspirations – mortality – both unites and divides us all. Mortality and solitude both cut across national boundaries and religious differences.
That gloomy thought has its obverse, though. If we can recognize our shared humanity, our common fate, we can reach across the divisions between us and alleviate our loneliness, if only for a moment. All that is necessary is a willingness to accept the Other, to see oneself in that person.
Heavy thoughts to open a discussion of what is, essentially, a very, very funny comedy, Eran Kolirin’s The Band’s Visit. The film’s basic premise is a simple comedy of errors: the Alexandria Police Orchestra has been brought to
The queen of this admittedly dubious realm is Dina (Ronit Alkabetz), a tough-but-tender divorcee with an endearingly tolerant personality. Over the course of a long evening in a town with nothing but a falafel joint and a drab, mostly empty roller disco (yes, ”Xanadu” fans, there is roller disco somewhere in Israel), she establishes a warm rapport with the band’s compulsively dignified and proper leader, Tewfiq (Sasson Gabai). She even manages to get him to warm up to his youngest, most obstreperous underling, Khaled (Saleh Bakri), a womanizing Chet Baker fan. Elsewhere in this godforsaken town, the feckless Itzik Rubi Moscovich) will inspire would-be composer Simon (Khalifa Natour) to reconsider his abandoned clarinet concerto, and Khaled will give Papi a lesson in seduction that provides the film’s most utterly hilarious sight gag.
First-time feature director Kolirin, who also wrote the excellent script, understands the valuable lesson of great comedy directors like Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges, that underneath the laughter there lurks deep personal pain and the balancing act that keeps both those moods in play is a delicate but rewarding one (a lesson lost on most contemporary American filmmakers). His script is never remotely preachy, but the film’s points are gotten across with subtlety and wit.
Screenwriter Kolirin is helped in no small way by director Kolirin. The Band’s Visit, from its opening shot of an airport van framed solemnly by two columns that hold up a most unprepossessing bus shelter, much of the film’s visual humor derives from Kolirin’s highly formal, generally symmetrical staging. He gives the film an intentionally funny gravitas by emphasizing the incongruously ceremonial elements of the situation, such as the band’s powder-blue uniforms that stand out absurdly in the grey concrete dustiness of the town, and their military bearing in the unlikeliest situations, which will be echoed by Tewfiq’s awkward dignity in the face of Dina’s insouciance.
And he is aided immeasurably by a uniformly superb cast, starting with Sasson Gabai’s impenetrable sang-froid, which makes such a perfect counterpoint to Ronit Alkabetz’s no less unshakeable wry humor. Saleh Bakri, in his first film appearance, is a particularly fortuitous discovery, sort of a young Palestinian George Clooney, knowing that he is flat-out sexy and rather amused by the consequences. Kolirin has a good eye for the telling behavioral detail that transforms his protagonists from potential caricartures into warm-blooded characters.
In a film industry as economically tenuous as Israel’s has proven in the past decade, one hestitates to make predictions for anyone’s budding career, but is a splendid calling card for Eran Kolirin; he is definitely another name to add to the growing list of highly promising Israeli filmmakers to watch.
The Band's Visit will be shown Thursday, November 19 at 7 p.m. at Fort Washington Collegiate Church (181st St. & Ft. Washington Avenue). The event is free and for those of you with nothing better to do than read this blog -- a frightening thought, that -- you can meet its author and buy him a drink.
Friday, November 13, 2009
In the meantime, here's my latest cinema-related offering at Jewish Week.
Wednesday, September 09, 2009
Should be a busy fall, though. If you check out my JWeek film preview here and here, you'll note that there is a lot of interesting stuff coming up. And a rather nice little film opening this Friday, which I review this week, too.
Monday, August 03, 2009
Thursday, June 04, 2009
Thursday, May 28, 2009
Well, there's good news for once. Filmmakers Co-op has found a new home, and quite a nice one, too. Check out the Times story here.
And I have a sweet little film to recommend, "Laila's Birthday," which is doing a week at the Museum of Modern Art. My review can be found here.
And an excellent documentary at Film Forum. For some reason this one hasn't made it onto the Jewish Week website, so I've taken the liberty and posting here.
There is a longstanding belief in many Hasidic circles in reincarnation, one that ultimately doesn’t differ all that much from the Buddhist version. And both faith traditions place a significant weight on meditation, the attempt to achieve oneness with the infinite and a regard for the sanctity of life that extends beyond the human.
It is impossible not to think of these similarities while watching Unmistaken Child, a new documentary by Nati Baratz that opens on June 3. After all, here is a quietly charming film about the search for a reincarnated Tibetan Buddhist master written and directed by an Israeli filmmaker. What, you wonder, drew Baratz to this subject? More important, what is there about this story that so clearly moved him to produce such a lovely, understated film?
The story the film tells is one that will be familiar to anyone who saw Bernardo Bertolucci’s underrated Little Buddha. Lama Konchog, a world-renowned Tibetan monk, died in 2001 at the age of 84. His disciple Tenzin Zopa, 28, who had been in service to the older man since he was a boy of seven, is sent off to search for the child who is the reincarnation of his master. Eventually, a small boy is found is deemed the “unmistaken” spiritual descendant of Lama Konchog. Given that the child might be anywhere in the world, Tenzin needs somew help in his search, which ultimately takes him to his own home valley.
Since the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Tibetan Buddhism has been dragged into its own confrontation with modernity and the Dalai Lama has made a surprisingly comfortable peace with modern technology, reminiscent of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson’s embrace of the world of cellphones and televisions as the Lubavitcher rebbe. Much of the charm of Unmistaken Child comes from unlikely juxtapositions like the ancient Tibetan astrology used to narrow the search for the special child, the findings of which are conveyed to Tenzin by videotape. And while he uses a hand-drawn map of his mountaintop monastery and other locations of significance as a starting point for the astrologer, Tenzin draws that map with a large yellow pencil covered with smiley faces.
But what really makes Unmistaken Child a delight to watch is the fundamental decent humanity of its central figure. We watch as Tenzin gradually, tentatively comes to terms with his mission and, more important, the grace with which he develops a rapport with the boy who is finally pinpointed as the reincarnated Lama Konchug. The tenderness and genuine concern he displays is a reminder that at their heart, the best parts of all faith traditions have to do with the simple recognition of the humanity of others and a respect and caring for life. Whatever Nati Baratz’s own religious inclinations, his new film is an elegant and eloquent witness to that fact.
Unmistaken Child opens on Wednesday, June 3 at Film Forum (209 W. Houston St.), and is scheduled to play through June 16. For information, phone 212-727-8110 or go to www.filmforum.org.
Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Thursday, May 07, 2009
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
Some brief hiatus. Three months. Yeah, well. I wasn't actually sick all that time (thank God), just sort of hibernating.
I can’t even explain the long, long silence, although if you are a regular reader of Jewish Week, you know I’ve been anything but silent. It’s not even that I’ve been so preoccupied with paying work – or the lack thereof – that I couldn’t find the time for the blog(s). I suppose it’s a case of the cobbler’s barefoot offspring. Consider this some kind of an apology. The half-assed kind.
I haven't even seen all that many movies. However, allow me to draw your attention to three recent pieces from Jewish Week: my Tribeca review (yeah, I know, the festival is over, but the movies are still around); my review of Eran Riklis's Lemon Tree, a not uninteresting film distinguished by a fantastic performance by Hiam Abbas; and a review of a new documentary about the Jews of France that is enjoying a theatrical run at the Walter Reade Theatre.
And maybe, just maybe, I can get off my butt and post something of interest here. I have to admit that the temptation to just give up after two-plus years was strong, but the comment that was left on the February 11 posting really made me feel a responsibility to continue. Thank you to everyone who actually reads this blog. I'll try to be a bit more diligent in the coming months.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
I'm sure it's a message that Ari Folman, the film's director, would approve. I woke him out of a sound sleep to get an interview last week, and I figure I owe him at least this much of an apology. Besides, the film is terrific. You can find the interview here.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Meanwhile, around the globe again, my piece on the upcoming New York Sephardic Film Festival is here. Some interesting films on display, including several that I just didn't have time to see.
One of the mixed blessings of being a working journalist is that you almost never can use all the good stuff you get in an interview. Unless you have unlimited space, something interesting is always going to end up on the cutting room floor. One of the joys of blogging is that you, heh, heh, have unlimited space.
When I interviewed Chantal Akerman a few weeks ago for Jewish Week, we spoke at length about Jeanne Dielman but, given my mandate from the newspaper, some of the best stuff about the film itself couldn't be squeezed into the article. Happily, Cine-Journal provides me with another place to offer readers this material. Indeed, it's one of the reasons I blog at all. (That, and the huge amounts of glory, money, adulation, sexual favors and, oh yeah, more unpaid work.)
As she was quick to point out to me, when Akerman made Jeanne Dielman, she was only 25 and had no idea of the impact the film would have beyond her own circle of friends and colleagues.
“I wrote another script with a friend of mine. And I didn’t like it and tried to change it and change it, but something was not right. One night I had Jeanne Dielman in my mind totally. I took a pad, put three words, what she put on the bed to leave the bed clean after the customer and the next day I started write this -- very fast but very detailed. All the details were there. The details that you have seen as a child, what you see when you don’t go to school. It just came out like that. After that I realized that there were many ways of thinking of it. When I wrote it, it was like my unconscious coming on the page.”
As befits a film that is minimal in its means, Akerman didn’t storyboard. (I suspect it would have been something of a waste of time.)
“I had a shot list and that was it. It’s a very simple way, I knew exactly how to do it. Everybody [who wrote about the film] was thinking about real time. But it’s not real time, it’s recomposed to make it feel like real time. It’s really choreographed.
One aspect of the film that reflects the focus on a detailed depiction of the ordinary is its title, with that full address in Brussels. I asked Akerman for the reasoning behind the lengthy title.
“I don’t know. It’s the address of one of my grand-aunts. In fact, We shot the elevator and street in her place. My aunts recognized themselves, it was their world that I was picturing, a world that so many women went through.”
Picture this situation: Delphine Seyrig, who is never off-screen in the film, is one of the great icons of post-war French cinema. Her director is a 25-year-old with only a handful of credits to her name. The film is a radical departure from anything Seyrig has done before (or since, for that matter). How does a relatively green kid direct this presence?
“She wanted to make the film. What was difficult, although I wasn’t totally aware of it at the time is that everything is written. When she puts the two sugars together everything is written out, like in nouveau roman. She said to me, ‘I should bring [these things] as an actress and now I don’t know what to bring.’ ‘You bring your presence. That’s exactly it.’
Talk about casting someone for their iconic significance! So Akerman’s directions to Seyrig were detailed but strictly functional.
“’Take one second here, one second less here.’ We were videotaping the scene and I would show it to her. ‘Here you missed a second or ten seconds.’ So she would feel like she was participating.
“It was difficult for her, coming from the [Lee] Strasberg school. She was asking me, ‘Wwhen I do the veal, what should I think?’ ‘Nothing, just do the veal.’ For her it was surprising, but I didn’t know that. I learned about it after, she explained to me that it was not enough because everything was written and I didn’t want her to add anything.”
Akerman professes herself surprised – and a little baffled – by the film’s ostensible influence.
“I don’t know. A lot of people have told me that – well, some -- and I don’t get it. When I see their films I don’t understand it. [Jeanne Dielman] was the opposite of the films you could see in a ‘normal’ cinema.”
And thank God for that.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Meanwhile, the Museum of Jewish Heritage is running a quite unusual series of French films in conjunction with their exhibit on the novelist Irene Nemirovsky. There have been, to the best of my knowledge, only two adaptations of her work for film, both in the early '30s, and they are showing one of them, Julien Duvivier's David Golder (1930). But Dudley Andrew has put together a very ingenious series of more recent films that dance around Nemirovsky's brief life to great effect. David Golder is definitely worth a trip to Battery Park; it's so rare that thre aren't any subtitled prints (the Museum will be projecting new subtitles under the image). It's Duvivier's first sound film and you can sense his relief at moving into talkies, from the film's explosive opening montage. Harry Baur gives a dominating performance in the title role, and who knows when you'll ever get another chance to see this one. I had a nice chat with Prof. Andrew, which you can read here.
Thursday, January 08, 2009
Then I looked at a series of stories that appeared in The Art Newspaper, an excellent trade paper covering the visual arts world. The headlines say it all:
Government in France Increases Cultural Spending
Government in Germany Increases Cultural Spending
Government in Israel Increases Cultural Spending
Two thoughts occur to me after reading these stories. First, The Art Newspaper needs some new headline writers and, second and more seriously, here are three western nations, each of them with plenty of problems caused by the worldwide economic -- oh hell, let's call it what it is -- depression, that have decided to use cultural spending as a kind of pump-priming mechanism, secure in the belief that major cultural projects create jobs, promote tourism and help keep money moving through their national economies.
Pretty radical idea, that. Somewhere, Jesse Helms is rotating mighty fast, I hope. In fact, UNESCO has recommended that member states have culture budgets that are 1% of the national budget. I'd love to see Congress implement that number in the U.S. The 2008 federal budget totals $2.9 trillion, which means that NEA funding would be just under $3bn. In fact, for FY 2008, the NEA budget is $144.7 million, the NEA's about the same. There are, undoubtedly, other culture-related items in the federal budget (the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for example), but I'm betting that they don't bring total to $2.9 bn.
When President-elect Obama is thinking about economic stimulus, I hope he includes cultural funding in his infrastructure package. Franklin Roosevelt did, and the WPA was one of the great examples of what can be done by a government that is willing to put money into the cultural realm without meddling in the content of the programs that result. I guess I will write that letter after all. (And if you are a New York State resident, you can do likewise here.
The good news is that, thanks to MOC webmaven Doug Cummings, who was explaining the situation on the DVD Beaver list (highly recommended, by the way), I was led to a new website that looks very promising indeed, The Auteurs. This website has a formidable library of films available to watch on-line (if you can sit at the computer that long!) and forums and a blog-like publication for discussing them. The selection of free films alone makes worth registering (a large selection from the Criterion Eclipse series -- Fuller, Ozu, early Bergman).
Big sigh. They come and they go.
For once, I got a pleasant surprise. Weekend in Galilee, Mizrahi's reworking of Uncle Vanya as a tale of domestic disturbances among the Israeli middle class, is actually quite a nice film. For more on this and some of the other films from the first week of the festival, which actually opens on the 14th, you can read my article in Jewish Week.
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
At HT-BA, we sent out over a hundred letters in one afternoon. And you won't even have to pay the postage. Plus, we'll supply soda and pizza. It's a great opportunity to contribute to the ongoing struggle for human rights and share a pleasant afternoon with friends and neighbors.
When: Sunday, January 18, 1:30 p.m.
Where: Hebrew Tabernacle Congregation, 551 Fort Washington Avenue (at 185th St.)
For directions go to http://hebrewtabernacle.or
I look forward to seeing you there.
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