Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Iranian Government Is At It Again

It just isn't safe to be a filmmaker (or a writer or a painter or any other kind of expressive artist) in a police state. As regular readers of this blog already know, Jafar Panahi and Mohammed Rasoulof are prisoners of the Iranian government, banned from making films. Now, Bahman Ghobadi, the Iranian Kurdish director of No One Knows About Persian Cats and A Time for Drunken Horses, is under indirect pressure from the country's Ministry of Intelligence. Ghobadi has lived in exile for several years so, short of dispatching an assassination squad, there isn't much the authorities can do to him. But his brother Behrouz was apparently  arrested two weeks ago by these charmers.

 Bahman Ghobadi in happier times

Ghobadi told Screen Daily “He has never been involved in any political or opposition activities. He was interested in film, served as a production manager in some of my movies, and directed a few short films.” Complicating matters, Behrouz suffers from several chronic health problems including respiratory trouble, gout, a weak heart and the after-effects of a serious car accident.

The probable trigger for this official kidnapping is Ghobadi's new film Rhino Season, which was shot in Turkey. Like his previous features, this one is a frontal assault on theh use of arbitrary state power to crush the will of the Kurdish people. He told Screen Daily, “This film is very different to my previous works. It is a poetic film about an artist whose life was interrupted for thirty years when a person he knew used the political situation at the time to throw him and his wife in prison out of  a deeply-seeded obsession and personal vendetta.”

Aesthetic nuance is not one of Prime Minister Ahmedinejad's strong points. Nor is a sense of justice.


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Another Excellent New Documentary from Israel

Just a quick note to draw your attention to my review of a new documentary from Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, the director of James's Journey to Jerusalem and The Inner Tour. After a long silence, Alexandrowicz is back with a steely-eyed assessment of the way the military legal system works in the Occupied Territories, The Law in These Parts. Obviously,  the Wild-West sound of the title is deliberate, and one can't help but recall Clemenceau's famous dictum, "Military justice is to justice as military music is to music." Perhaps given the events in Gaza and Israel the timing of the film's release is a bit unfortunate, but it was planned many, many months ago, and when is there a good time for a film like this one? The problems it delineates won't go away if the only response we have is, "I don't want to talk about that now."

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Never an End to the Story of the Shoah

It certainly seems that way at times. Two more films about the murder of six million European Jews this weekend, both at the Quad Cinema. The first is a genuinely excellent documentary that takes a very different perspective on the Nazis, that of their children and grandchildren. The second is the first French fiction film written and directed by a Jew about the infamous Vel d'Hiv round-up. I would definitely not suggest seeing them back-to-back although, given the proximity of the screening rooms -- maybe twenty feet separates them -- it might be tempting.

Jean Reno as a valiant Jewish physician in La Rafle

I find it interesting that as a subject for fiction films the subject has become so codified that it is now indisuptably a genre of its own. All the elements that make a genre cohere -- iconography, visual style, narrative structure, central themes -- are present now, and you can mark out how a film fits in within the first few seconds of its running time. La Rafle, the new French film, eschews one visual element that unites most of its predecessors -- desaturated color -- but in most other respects it is of a piece with them.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me

So at 8:33 a.m. this morning I reached the august age of 59. Yeah, the hard one is 365 days off.

In the meantime, let me pull your coat to a few very cool items on the World Wide Internut. A lovely photoessay on a subject near and dear may be found here: The Waning Art of the Projectionist

And my dear friend, colleague and Ira voter, Ed Sikov, has finally given in to temptation and started a blog. Anytime a film critic of his stature begins blogging, with a post about pickles yet, the world is a better place. I know that Ed has been avoiding the movies lately -- who can blame him this year? -- but I hope he can be coaxed into a theater occasionally.

He could do worse than to shlep to the UWS (Ed's in Chelsea, another planet altogether) and check out this year's edition of the Other Israel Film Festival. As I explain in the current issue of Jewish Week, this splendid event is expanding its mission in some very intelligent and exciting ways. I don't expect any of these films will turn up in theaters in the future, and that is a shame, but that makes it more important that you haul yourselves to the JCC in Manhattan.

Finally, if you haven't done so already, let me urge you to pitch in and help the victims of Hurricane Sandy. One thing you can do that would be of great help in the New York metropolitan area is to give blood at the local Red Cross. With so much of the Red Cross's resources tied up in recovery and repair work for the hurricane victims, it's pretty much impossible for them to keep up with the daily need for blood; if you give, that would help a lot.And if you want to know other ways you can help, they're a good place to start.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Too Late Quartet

Putting a small number of people in proximity in a situation in which they become dependent on each other – a journey or a collaboration – is a quick way to jump-start a drama. It becomes even better if they are family or in a family-like relationship.A small, tightly knit musical aggregation will do nicely. 

Consider, for example, Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet. In the 1940s Hollywood produced a few melodramas set in the world of classical music (Deception and Humoresque come to mind), with hilariously inappropriate cocktail party chatter about Ravel and Mozart mixed in with the bared talons of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. The films had a certain, camp-laden amusement but the music tended more towards the post-Romantic wailings of Max Steiner at his most stentorian rather than actual concert pieces. To its credit, A Late Quartet takes its central musical vehicle, Beethoven’s Op. 131, very seriously and has some highly intelligent discussion of the piece and its extraordinary demands on its players. It gives the film an underlying gravitas that keeps it from flying apart at its most outrageous moments.

The premise is simple. The Fugue Quartet (Christopher Walken as cellist, Catherine Keener as violist, Mark Ivanir and Philip Seymour Hoffman as first and second violins, respectively) is celebrating its 25th year together but there’s a serious hitch. Walken, who is supposed significantly older, is struggling under the dual burdens of the recent death of his wife and Parkinson’s Disease. He wants to retire, but without him as the glue that holds the others together, the other three are soon at each other’s throats. Hoffman’s marriage to Keener is severely strained, their daughter (Imogen Poots) begins an affair with Ivanir, Hoffman covets the first chair and on it goes. Despite a performance of beautifully modulated injured dignity from Walken, the film is much more concerned with the banalities of the other characters’ domestic issues than his struggle with his own body in rebellion.

In a fugue state . . . Ivanir, Hoffman, Keener, Walken

It is possible – indeed, it is hinted at – that the Jewish women’s swim team in Zilberman’s splendid first film “Watermarks” was prone to similar jealousies and petty rivalries, but those estimable ladies had the Nazis to worry about and their athletic opponents on whom to focus any otherwise inappropriate rage. The Fugue have only one another, the mixed blessing of the hermetic existence of a long-running chamber group with its incestuously claustrophobic atmosphere. And of course when you put at least three Jews (Ivanir’s character, like the actor himself, is an émigré from the former Soviet Union, and Hoffman and Keener are playing characters named Gelbart) in a room, there are bound to be some fireworks.

The problem with “A Late Quartet” is that the fireworks are entirely too muted. The film is too solemn for its own good. Zilberman’s direction is carefully considered but, like Ivanir’s character, wrapped much too tight. The result is a classical music drama that could benefit from some of the unbuttoned lunacy of Bette and Joan.

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Ulmer, Cineaste Pas Maudite?

Anthology Film Archives and Film Forum are re-opening today, which is good news, and as I said yesterday, I urge you to support independent screening rooms like these, especially after the past week's events.

I can give you a more concrete reason to drop by Anthology over the next week or so, an excellent mini-retrospective of Edgar G. Ulmer, including  several 35mm prints. I can't vouch for the other prints, but I've seen the one they have of The Naked Dawn, and it is simply beautiful. Frankly, it looks brand new -- not a scratch even at the reel ends -- and the color is pretty good. (If this is an IB Technicolor print, where have they been hiding it?)

The film itself is enchanting, a word I don't usually associate with Ulmer. It's his only western, I believe, and other than Green Fields, it's his most openly pastoral film. Working from a nicely judged script by blacklistee Julian Halevy, Ulmer brings a surprisingly sweet melancholy to this tale of a small-time bandido (Arthur Kennedy in one of his most effective performances) who is forced by circumstance to take refuge with a young couple (the charming Betta St. John and a sturdy Eugene Iglesias) on their meager farm.

Ulmer's protagonists are driven, obsessive to the point of paranoia. In his best films, The Black Cat, Bluebeard, Detour and Ruthless, to name four personal favorites, those qualities are flavored with a lethal helping of self-pity and the result is a path of self-destruction and near-apocalyptic climaxes. The Naked Dawn, thanks in no small part to the writing of the Kennedy character and his wonderfully relaxed performance, is an airier, more reflective piece, with the closest thing you'll find to a happy ending in an Ulmer film. It's a real surprise and a real gem.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Important Housekeeping

A whole lot of interesting and significant stuff going on right now. Let's go through this material quickly.

First, another important film archive is under financial threat from its local government, this time in (the admittedly beleaguered economy of ) Spain.

The following is a series of e-mails regarding the IVAC, the Valencia Film Institute, that has been circulating on the list belonging to the Association of Moving Image Archivists. I have taken the liberty of including only the English translations. The e-mail originated from Almudena Escobar Lopez, a writer and film curator.

   I am just fowarding this email I received yesterday from the workers of the IVAC (Valencian Film Institute) asking for support. The institute is going to be supressed and integrated within a new cultural entity created by the Valencian administration. This will mean a drastic cut in budgets and staff, estimated at 40%, which will affect the activities and quality of service. In addition, the extinction of the legal status of IVAC is accompanied by the probable dispersion of its services in the new body, and even the possibility of closing some of their branches. 

   I attached their manifesto with a brief explanation of the situation and their email below with the instructions to decide to show your solidarity with them:
Dear friend,

The workers of the IVAC turn to you for your relationship with the institution and appeal to your sensibility and solidarity with the problems besetting us. Given the uncertainty and black perspectives that accompany such a change in terms of the functions and services provided by the IVAC and the goal of the administration to fire 40% of the Valencian public employees, the workers of the IVAC have drafted a statement that you can find attached to this message.
if you agree with us, show your solidarity by responding to this email (trabajadoresivac@gmail.com) with the words:

I support  the statement  of the workers of the IVAC and I request to maintain  the integrity of the institution, its fonctions and its staff.

If you consider it appropriate, indicate your name and link to the IVAC, either as a user, researcher, professional, association, etc..

Thank you for supporting

The workers of the IVAC


On World Heritage Day, the workers of the Instituto Valenciano del Audiovisual y la Cinematografía Ricardo Muñoz Suay (IVAC) consider necessary to state the following. The IVAC, as we know it, goes away to join a new public entity called CulturArts Generalitat, which was approved by decree on Friday October 19th and that covers most of the cultural institutions now existing. This will mean a drastic cut in budgets and staff, estimated at 40%, which will affect the activities and quality of service. In addition, the extinction of the legal status of IVAC is accompanied by the probable dispersion of its services in the new body, and even the possibility of closing some of their branches. We understand this is a huge cultural loss, totally unnecessary.

Since its inception in 1985 the Filmoteca, IVAC now, has become an internationally recognized organization that counts among its partners and collaborators with professionals, historians, festivals and institutions worldwide. The IVAC concentrates all powers relating to the audiovisual field in Valencia fulfilling tasks of acquisition, conservation, restoration, cataloging, documentation, publications, programming, promotion, distribution and administration. All this is accomplished with by a small and highly specialized staff and without generating any debt.

THE IVAC is a member of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) since 1995 and of the Association de Cinématques Européennes (ACE), which she co-founded, and has participated and participates in numerous international projects, many of them financed by the European Union, along with other film archives and museums. Its archive holds a collection of more than 29,000 movies and includes valuable jewels. Restoration works, more than a hundred, have recovered lost films of great importance for the history of cinema. In these 27 years, the Film Library has published more than 150 books. Its documentation center, which includes video library, library and newspaper archives, has served so far this year more than 8000 people. It develops programs to help industry and promotes the establishment, training, and dissemination of audiovisual production, which has contributed to the existence of a Valencian audiovisual patrimony that becomes part of our cultural heritage. They are high impact programs as evidenced by the project Curts, whose short films called last year to more than 30,000 people worldwide only at festivals, not to mention its projection in cinemas, televisions and all screens, getting 40,000 euros in prizes. All this, with minimal investment by the Generalitat.

More than 100,000 people showed up at its theater rooms in Valencia, Castellón and Alicante, and more than 40,000 so far this year in the Valencian screening theater Luis G. Berlanga, that can also see cut their sessions. Since its opening, thousands of movies of all nationalities, ages, sizes and styles have been screened, offering open access to the entire history of cinema, and has brought to our city hundreds of local and foreign filmmakers. It also is responsible for the annual International Film Festival Cinema Jove. They manage over 1200 deposits, legacies and donations, including movies, documents and valuable artwork, from the personal archives of filmmakers, writers, film scholars and individuals who have relied on the prestige of the Cinematheque and on the good practice of its professionals. With the disappearance of IVAC, this confidence may disappear, both by the loss of its legal personality and identity, and the dispersion and dismissals of part of its personnel.

Five years before the creation of the Film Archive, in 1980, UNESCO drafted the "Recommendation for the safeguarding and preservation of moving images." In that document, UNESCO states that moving images are part of the cultural heritage of a nation and are part of the World Heritage as a whole. Recognizes the physical weakness of the moving images and the need to keep them in proper technical condition and considers the loss of these images as an impoverishment of the cultural heritage. Therefore recommends that the authorities ensure the safeguard of this heritage as they do with other forms of culture, creating nonprofit archives to prevent the loss of domestic production and where access is assured to the citizenship. That is the commitment of the IVAC and its reason to be: to preserve the audiovisual heritage and ensure the dissemination and citizen access to media culture.

The management of safeguarding heritage and visual culture by trained personnel, highly specialized and guarantor of the quality of service from the administrative tasks to the development of activities, has approved the IVAC to film archives and institutions engaged with cultural heritage worldwide. These duties, in better or worse circumstances, have been performed since the beginning, but now, with the cuttings, the loss of identity and the danger of disintegration and disappearance of their services and their employees, may be severely threatened.

This is a public service. We work for you and share your interest in film. Therefore, we notify you this situation, because we believe that affects everyone: workers, professionals, users and audiences. Be aware that damage to the heritage and culture will be irreparable.
                                                                                                    WORKERS OF IVAC


Next piece of dark news, this time not about film. There's a report from the Congressional Research Service about the effect of tax rates on economic growth that the  great apostles of "freedom" on the Republican side of the aisle in the Senate don't want you to read. I feel it is my civic duty to make sure you can find it.
It's here (thank you, New York Times):  


It might seem almost frivolous after those two items to mention one of my day jobs, as artistic director of the Washington Heights Film Class, but even a film critic has to eat.

We have two more regularly scheduled programs coming up and a special fund-raising event. In addition, we have our 2013 schedule completed and read for your perusal. I direct your attention to our website, and urge you to come by next Thursday, November 8 for our next class. I think you'll be glad you did, if you are really interested in film.

And you can find my review of three recent films on the Jewish Week website here. There should be another two-film piece up shortly and I'll link to it when it appears.

Finally, a lot of the NYC downtown and Brooklyn independent film venues are taking a severe beating thanks to the power outages caused by Hurricane Sandy; I urge you to support them even more avidly when they re-open. 

And don't forget to vote on Tuesday. If you don't, you'd better not show your face around me, pal.

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