Sunday, November 05, 2017

My latest, and a brutally funny farce from Sweden

I'll be brief.

My latest piece in Jewish Week focuses on three of the films in this year's Other Israel Film Festival, and they're all quite good. You can read it here.

And you probably should see the new Ruben Ostlund film, The Square. Like his other films, this is a withering satirical attack on the weaknesses of a certain rarified kind of liberal good will and its detachment from the real world. Where his most recent previous film, Force Majeure, was a barbed look at the workings of the haute bourgeois family, The Square is a merciless send-up of postmodern art and the corporate interests that make its exhibition possible. Two-thirds of the way into the film it starts to fly apart like a Tinguely kinetic structure and, as is usual for Ostlund, the cringe quotient is high, ratched up to almost unbearable levels by his delight in testing how much an audience can stand (both within the diegesis and in the theater). The first two thirds are about as funny as anything I've seen this year, but the end result is undeniably disappointing.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

I am fine and there is nothing to report from Chambers Street

Friends --

I know that many of you have been hearing/reading about a police incident involving a truck driver who plowed through the bike lane in Lower Manhattan and ended up being apprehended by the NYPD on Chambers Street earlier this afternoon. I am happy to report that although I am actually in the neighborhood -- I teach at BMCC in about an hour -- I am fine. I saw nothing other than a lot of traffic disrupted. I'm in the building in which I teach, a few blocks away and all is well.

And as the announcer says in Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps, stay tuned to the Kyne News Service for further developments.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Back from the Underground

About the only thing more worthless than a blogger's promises would be his bank account. That said, I hope that this post will mark a small return to activity.

It's certainly been an interesting couple of months, as witness my coverage of the NY Film Festival in Jewish Week. I have two pieces that ran during the recently concluded event, which you can read here and here.

Perhaps more important, the paper just put my response to the Harvey Weinstein controversies here.

And, finally, a shout-out to a new documentary, Thy Father's Chair, a portrait of twin brothers, both Orthodox Jews, trying to deal with their hoarding problem. The primary focus is on their developing relationship with the cleaners,


who are specially trained to deal with this neurosis. The result is a markedly compassionate film and as such a blessed departure from the prurient freak-show treatment that the subject usually receives in the media. The film, directed by Alex Lora and Antonio Tibaldi, is currently playing at the Village East Cinema in New York City, and opens in LA on Friday, October 20, at Laemmle’s Music Hall.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Frederick Wiseman Shows How It's Done

My monthly culture column for Jewish Week appeared a week or two ago and, for some unknown reason, never seemed to make it onto the newspaper's website. After last night's stealth pardon of serial Bill of Rights violator Joe Arpaio by the Commander-of-Thieves, it seems more relevant than ever and well worth repeating here.

Here's what I wrote:

This is why our parents, grandparents, great grandparents came here

In a democracy the major institutions are created and shaped by something like the will of the people. At their best, they are responsive to a multiplicity of pressures  reflecting the manifold interests operating in a diverse  society. It’s a maddengly imperfect system and one that in recent years responded less to the needs of those who cannot wield great economic power and the political clout it bestows. 

What brings this thought to mind is the unplanned but felicitous collision of Donald Trump’s call for massive cuts in legal immigration earlier this month with the early September schedule of Film Forum, which features the latest offering from Frederick Wiseman and the continuation of a retrospective of his work.

Wiseman is one of the last of the pioneering documentary directors who created and sustained the tradition of “direct cinema,” using lightweight cameras and sound equipment to gain unprecedented access to significant moments in history or, in his case, the daily life of great institutions. Wiseman’s work seldom touches directly on Jewish topics -- although his brilliant essay in fiction film, “The Last Letter” does so with exceptional power -- but his attitude and interests bespeak a personality steeped in Jewish ethics and values, for tikkun olam.

Consider a brief passage midway through his 2015 masterpiece “In Jackson Heights.” We see a few minutes of a typical workday in the office of Councilman Daniel Dromm. Two of Dromm’s staff are fielding irate calls from constituents. We hear only their side of the conversations, so it takes a moment before it becomes clear what very local issue the callers are discussing. But it is impossible to miss the interplay of exasperation, concern and slowly eroding patience in the faces of Dromm’s long-suffering staffers. In that single scene, Wiseman encapsulates brilliantly the microphysics of democracy, the personal side of the political and vice versa. I can’t think of another filmmaker working in either dramatic features or non-fiction films who better understands this reality or conveys it more succinctly. For the system to work at all a downright Talmudic balance must be reached.

The aptly named Frederick Wiseman

Wiseman’s new film, his 43rd since 1967’s landmark “Titicut Follies,” focuses on a typically diverse projectat the heart of New York City’s wildly variegated cultural gumbo. “Ex Libris: The New York Public Library,” which opens September 13, offers an extended look at an essential part of the life of the city. As a repository of knowledge in printed, digitized, microfilmed and other forms, the NYPL is exemplary, but its role as a place in which the newly arrived can ease their way into the city is no less important. The library offers English classes, computer classes, children’s programs, emanating from 92 branch libraries across Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, not to mention free computer time and wi-fi, concerts, author talks, art exhibits and more. 

As such, it represents a perfect subject for Wiseman’s camera and sound recorder, a blend of the micro and macro and a useful reminder of how American democracy should function, responsive to the needs and desires of both the many and the few. Taken in tandem with the older films on show from September 6 at Film Forum, ranging from “Central Park” to the epic tetralogy, “Deaf,” “Blind,” “Multi-Handicapped” and “Adjustment and Work,” Wiseman’s body of films offer a unique insight into the complex dance that is required of a pluralistic democratic nation.

That dance, as any Jew should know, is predicated on society’s willingness to welcome and to accommodate new arrivals. One need not have Wiseman’s level of access to institutions in order to read the historical record. Nations that accept and acclimate bearers of unfamiliar cultures are the ones that thrive. Without debating the substantial negatives of the Roman, Ottoman or British Empires, each of those was a long-lasting political, cultural and social phenomenon whose impact outlived its existence, enjoying unprecedented periods of success, power and influence. 

For a number of reasons, I would rather not see the United States continue down the imperial path on which we have already traveled too far. But as a haven for the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. . . . the homeless, tempest-tost,” we’ve done pretty well. Reducing the number of such people that we accept or changing the basis on which they are admitted to one centered on their ability to fill a transitory economic role, in short, the plan offered by the current administration, would not only betray the meaning of this country but would obviate the need for the democratic institutions that Frederick Wiseman has painted in all their glorious, flawed strivings.

Incidentally, I saw Ex Libris earlier this week. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will comment at greater length after its premiere on September 6.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Boycott B+H Photo and Video

I have never made any secret of my non-cinematic affiliations in this blog and I certainly don't intend to start doing so now. Besides, given the huge number of filmmakers and photographers who buy needed materials from B+H Photo and Video, this really is a film-related post anyway. At any rate, they are currently under much-deserved scrutiny for their treatment of the workers in their warehouses. Since 2007, the company has been monitored by the EEOC and has repeatedly been sued for gender and racial discrmination. More than that, the work conditions in the warehouse are highly undesirable, even dangerous. To quote from a website created by the local chapter of Democratic Socialists of America (of which I am a member) in support of the boycott of the firm:

During a 2014 fire at the Brooklyn Navy Yard ware-house, being denied access to fire exits so management could run employees through metal detectors to check for potential theft while flames continued to grow.
Following the fire, workers contacted the Laundry Workers’ Center (LWC) to help them organize and address their grievances. In November 2015, almost 200 of B&H’s 240 warehouse workers voted to join the United Steelworkers to secure a union contract.

The company's response to the organizing drive was about what you would expect. They have prolonged talks unconscionably, and threatened to move the warehouse operation to New Jersey, which would be inaccessible to the vast majority of their underpaid and largely immigrant workforce. And if all this sounds familiar, it's the same playbook union-busters have always used: Delay, Linger and Wait.

Of course, there are two more elements in the equation now. If Donald Trump can stay in office a bit longer -- an open question, I'll gleefully grant -- he will appoint several new members to the National Labor Relations Board and they can be expected to rule against workers regularly. And if the Orange One sticks around long enough, he will try to deport anyone he can. If it sounds like I'm joking about this, trust me, I'm not. I urge you to go to the website, sign on to the letter supporting the workers and stay the hell out of B+H. Keep in mind, too, that much of their business now comes from the Internet, not just from NY-based customers, so spread the word anywhere you can.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Truth Speaks Louder

As long-time readers of this blog know, I am a founding member of a group that calls itself the New York Independent Film Critics Circle.  A couple of years ago we reluctantly and much debate decided to add a non-fiction film category to our annual awards, the Iras. I say "reluctantly" because up to that time we had proudly disdained the traditional segregation of non-fiction from theatrical narrative and, in fact, had given our best picture nod to several documentaries. As I scan the list of 2017 releases I've seen so far this year, I notice that much of what I have found praiseworthy turns out to be non-fiction.

Perhaps the disparity is merely reflective of my own temperament. These days I'm more likely to see a non-fiction film as anything. The part of me that is sick of CGI as a substitute for concrete images could happily skip 99% of the new fiction films and never notice the difference. This posting's selections are a case in point.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is the latest film from the prolific and prolifically talented Bill Morrison. As with almost all of Morrison's previous work (including an Ira best film winner, Decasia), the new film is a brillian assemblage of found footage in varying states of disrepair. Morrison is neither the only nor even the first filmmaker to use such footage -- Gustav Deutsch and Bruce Connor have achieved wonderful results with such material. But Morrison, working with a succession of composers and sound designers, including several of the Bang On a Can mob, has achieved the extraordinary feat of turning such footage into a kind of poetry of sound and light, a poetry that increasingly has taken on a powerful political dimension, nowhere moreso than in Dawson City. The film's score is by Alex Somers, the sound design by John Somers.

The film has a densely allusive structure with several thematic braids that interlace themselves seamlessly, cunningly connecting the history of nitrate film stock, the rise and fall of the mining boom town that gives the film its name, the infernal economics of extractive mining industries, the inexorable working of big capital and, even, the Canadian love of ice hockey.

Bill Morrison: Is this guy one of the world's greatest living filmmakers?
He is on the short list for sure.
Photo credit: Wolfgang Wesener

The footage is signficantly different from much of what has appeared in Morrison's work before, in large part because of its unusual provenance, which is a major part of the story. Due to a series of complicated chain reactions, Dawson City became the unintentional repository for a treasure trove of hundreds of otherwise lost silent films. they were literally frozen in an abandoned swimming pool underneath an ice rink in the town and dug up in the late 1970s when the lot on which they rested was being prepped for a new purpose. One of the results of this discovery is a massive restoration project that will eventually make these rarities available to scholars and, one hopes, exhibitors. The odd thing, which Morrison's on-screen titles explain, is that some of the films have sufred from a very different kind of deterioration than the footage in, say, Decasia. As anyone who has seen that film or any nitrate film that has undergone the chemical changes that the stock is prone to will tell you, the resulting images have a sort of almost liquid beauty, as if the images themselves were in eruption, with strange colors and distortions. By contrast, water-damaged clips from the Dawson City cache have sections of their images washed clean, with a gleaming, undulating white all that remains. What results is every bit as stirring but quite different in a way I can't articulate on a single viewing of the film.

Granted that filmmakers love films about film (and so do almost all film critics and scholars). But Dawson City: Frozen Time roots that fascination in a here-and-now that is more than navel-gazing self-regard. As I've noted above, Morrison is sensitive to the issues that are powerfully implicated in the rise and fall of Dawson City as it went from a big boomtown on the edge of the Klondike Gold Rush to a near ghost town, left behind when the gold ran out. And he even manages, amusingly, to tie in the city's rise and fall to the very early machinations of a certain real-estate mogul from Queens, a fan of the Ku Klux Klan whose name will be familiar to all.

Hotel, restaurant and brothel. Trump one-stop shopping at its finest

Morrison's production company is named Hypnotic Pictures, and it fits perfectly. Although Dawson City is two hours long, the film rushes by blithely. One's time in the movie is anything but frozen. 
Dawson City: Frozen Time is playing in NYC at the IFC Center, and it cries out to be seen on a big screen.

I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the Canadian-made doc, I Am the Blues, which just opened at the newly refurbished Quad Cinema. I can certainly offer an undiluted endorsement of the music on display. Director Daniel Cross chose to focus his attention on the disappearing juke joints of the Mississippi Delta and the hardscrabble Northern Mississippi hill country with a side journey into the Louisiana bayous. That variegated itinerary may suggest where the film's problems lie. Simply put, Cross seems unwilling to structure his material and the rsult is baggy, almost shapeless.

But, ah, the music!
Much of the film's running time is spent in Bentonia, a legendary spot in the delta country that spawned a unique and haunting guitar and vocal style, based on unusual guitar tunings and haunting, high-pitched -- almost falsetto -- vocals. If you have heard Skip James then you know it. The primary representative of the Bentonia sound in the film is the deft and witty Jimmy "Duck" Holmes who demonstrates his continued mastery at 70. He is joined at several delightful moments by the likes of L.C. Ulmer, another superlative guitarist and earthy singer. Elsewhere in the film we get a taste of one of my favorite blues harpists, Lazy Lester, Little Freddy King (who looks like Danny Trejo's meaner brother but is really a sweetie) and, most of all, Bobby Rush.
Bobby Rush, looking a lot less than his 83 years, rocking the Club Ebony
Photo credit: Gene Tomko
Indeed, Rush's presence, running throughout the film, gives I Am the Blues what structure it can offer. At one point, he turns to the camera and says, "The road is my company," and like the film itself, he meanders throughout the geography of the deep southern blues routes. Rush, who won his first Grammy earlier this year, is a superb representative of both southern soul and a surprisingly pure strain of Delta blues. He is a charming guide and host and the film benefits immensely from both his presence and his music. In fact, I wish Cross had made the film about Rush, not to shortchange the superb collection of musicians on display, but there are moments when the filmmaker is trying to shoehorn in too much material. 
And it's a shame, because his footage of the the shacks and farmland is evocative and poignant and if he had just let those images and the music do most of the talking, the film could have been so much more than it is.

Incidentally, the newly revamped Quad is another interesting example of the sort of Industrial Deco style that seems to be the new go-to visual environment for NYC theaters. A lot of brushed steel on the walls, pastel-colored neon and a certain odd chilliness, although the staff are charming. The interior of the one screening room I was in was, by contrast, a sea of vermillion with plush new seats. Regrettably, the still use a center aisle, so you can't sit in the middle of the image, but these are smallish rooms so the loss isn't that bad. 

Intriguingly, the Metrograph, which I finally got to a couple of weeks ago, is not dissimilar, although it has a downtown-hipster vibe that is not unpleasant and a bookstore/cafe which discretion kept me from visiting. the room in which In Transit was playing, has no center aisle and it comfortable and dark. (No red seats here.) 

Right now, that screen is occupied by The Rehearsal, a new film from New Zealand directed by transplanted Canadian Alison Maclean. Like her previous features,  Jesus' Son (1999) and Crush (1992), The Rehearsal centers on uneasy post-adolescents who are juggling sexual exploration, burgeoning artistic impulses and a search for absolution for their life-shattering mistakes. At the heart of the film is the growing attraction fist-year acting student Stanley (James Rolleston) and a much younger Isolde (Ella Edward), whose sister is a budding tennis star who was scandalously involved in a sexual relationship with her married coach. the pair meet by chance and Stanley learns of the brouhaha, which becomes the basis for a performance project he is doing with four classmates. One of those classmates is his putative landlord, the witty but dissipated Theo (Marlon Williams in a flashy, scene-stealing performance), and his disastrous fate will send the entire school into a chaotic downward spiral.
Kerry Fox works her will on Michelle Ny in The Rehearsal
Adapted from Eleanor Catton's novel the screenplay is a sputtering, stuttering mess, with plot lines and themes left dangling and a final resolution that is deeply unsatisfying and profoundly unconvincing. What makes the film worth watching at all is a mesmerizing turn by Kerry Fox as the head of the theater school, a Lee Strasberg-type guru who is not adverse to torturing performances out of her young charges. Her energies ultimately turn out to be devoted to a major capital project involving a new building on waterfront property, and she seems all too willing to turn everyone's attentions to that goal. It's one of the few elements in the film that rings harshly true.
 Finally, there is one excellent documentary that has graced local screens all spring about which I( have been rather circumspect, for reasons that will become apparent momentarily. the film, Obit, is a handsomely crafted and witty examination obituary department of the New York Times, directed by Vanessa Gould. As regular readers will know, my better half, Margalit Fox, is one of the key members of that staff and, as a result, is one of the key figures in the film. I hasten to say that this is an exemplary piece of non-fiction filmmaking, a warm portrait of a bunch of people many of whom I know well, and Vanessa has become a family friend, but even were that not the case, I would still recommend Obit because it's that good.*
Times archivist Jeff Roth plumbing the depths in Obit

At any rate, I want to draw your attention to an opportunity for you to see the film on a big screen. It will be playing at the Thalia at Symphony Space as part of -- surprise -- a documentary series, with showdates on July 16, 23 and 29. More information here.  And for those of you who are concerned that I never step outside the New York city limits, the film is also playing at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley (August 11-20) and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (September 1-4).
*Hey, we don't have a fiduciary relationship with the filmmakers, although I did score a terrific free razor and a very handsome baseball cap advertising a lunch-meat manufacturer for attending the film's Philadelphia Film Festival screening a few months ago. But I'm warning any filmmakers who may be reading this, you'll have to top that haul if you want to get into this blog. I'm thinking maybe a case of sausages to go with the hat?

Saturday, July 01, 2017

Time Passes

Towards the end of Errol Morris's new film The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography there is a shot that for me encapsulates one of the film's central themes.

Dorfman, a spritely 80-something, is the great pioneer of large format Polaroid photography, specializing in portraits of both the famous and the ordinary, solo, in groups, en famille. The prints are huge, 20 inches wide and 24 inches high, about the size of a one-sheet, I think. To store them, Dorfman has them laid out flat in suitably large file drawers, sorted chronologically. In the shot in question, Morris's camera slowly rises up one of these file cabinets, the dates on the drawers moving forward in time and his inexorable camera movement reminds us that the passage of time is inescapable. All we can do is watch.  Suddenly, a drawer opens and we see framed in it the dancing eyes of Dorfman.

Towards the end of the film, the photographer smiles sweetly at Morris and says, "Maybe that's when these photos have their ultimate meaning, when the person [in the photo] dies." The observation is offered casually but it underlines the meaning of that earlier shot. Time passes slowly, ineluctably. We can document that passage and while it doesn't alter the approach of death, it provides some kind of comfort. As Dorfman says of a portrait of her parents, "Now they look young."

The passage of time and the deteriorations that accompany it are at the heart of The B-Side, which is surely one of Morris's most effective, deeply felt and moving films to date. Not only are many of the subjects of Dorfman's photography dead -- Allen Ginsburg, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, her parents -- but the very medium in which she excelled, the large-format Polaroid, has almost ceased to exist as well. Morris -- and Dorfman herself -- document these passages adroitly. She is a charmer, a self-described "lucky little Jewish girl who got out [of the suburbs and entombment in a conventional marriage] by the skin of my teeth." Her artistry is on full parade in the film and she and Morris make a lively collaborative team. (In New York City, the film is playing at the Angelika Film Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.)


The passing of time has a somewhat different meaning in Jacques Becker's last film, Le Trou ("The Hole," 1960), currently playing at Film Forum in a starkly beautiful 4K restoration that captures perfectly the detail and nuance of Ghislain Cloquet's black-and-white cinematography. Le Trou is one of the best prison-break films ever made, a taut work in which long takes and  a careful manipulation of diegetic sound combine to fray the viewers' nerves while riveting their attention.

This is how the time goes by: Raymond Meunier, Marc Michel, Jean Keraudy, and Philippe Leroy in Jacques Becker’s Le Trou. Courtesy Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal.

The plot is simple enough. Five men facing long sentences decide to tunnel out of the high-security prison in which they are held. The film's action consists of the methodical planning and execution of this plan, counterposed with the growing intimacy of their relationship as experienced by the new guy in the cell, Gaspard (Mark Michel, a sort of Gerard Phillipe manque). As the plan comes closer to fruition, the tensions among the men are ratcheted up and Becker's deadpan, detached mise-en-scene makes those fractures resonate ever more loudly (albeit in strained whispers). One might jokingly say that the result is the best Jean-Pierre Melville film that Melville never made, but in truth, as great as Melville is, he couldn't match the ferocious unsentimentality of Le Trou. This film is like a handful of dry ice, so cold it burns you. Absolutely essential viewing, people!

Thursday, June 29, 2017

On a More Upbeat Note . . .

As you probably know, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is rapidly adding new voters in an admirable effort to address the insane gender, racial and ethnic bias of its membership rolls. I haven't heard or seen any blowback from the blowhards (I don't actively seek out the opinions of the likes of Fox News or others of their, uh, ilk) but this strikes me as an entirely positive change.

Welcome to the Academy: A Jonas Mekas selfie from Pinterest

And it has had a nice little side-effect in that the Academy has invited several seemingly unlikely filmmakers to join. From a posting on the Frameworks list (for experimental film), here are some of the proposed new members: Jonas Mekas, Penny Lane, Pedro Costa, Arturo Ripstein, Lav Diaz, Alejandro Jodorowsky and
Idrissa Ouedraogo. I was particularly pleased to see Mekas's name for obvious reasons, his championing of independent filmmakers and his own pivotal work. (Of course, it also boosts the representation of the all-important Lithuanian nonagenarian demographic!)



A couple of recent deaths came to my attention yesterday and I wanted to briefly pay tribute to the folks in question.

I first met Roger Greenspun when I was a graduate student in the film program at Columbia, By that point he had been removed as the second-chair film critic at the New York Times, allegedly a victim of Abe Rosenthal's contempt for cinema. His primary crime, apparently, was taking the likes of Robert Bresson and Clint Eastwood seriously. (That was hardly the most significant of Rosenthal's loathesome activities as the newspaper's managing editor but the one that had the most direct impact on my circle of friends and colleagues.) Roger was an occasional contributor the The Thousand Eyes, if memory serves, of which I was managing editor, and we spoke from time to time. He was immensely generous and helpful to a struggling newcomer. Indeed, he gave me the single best piece of career advice I ever received, one which I have passed along frequently: "Write as often as your editors will let you, as long as they'll let you." In the days before the Internet, that was doubly true. He was candid and quietly wittyin our conversations; it has been several years since I saw him sitting on the aisle halfway up the incline at the Walter Reade Theatre and I missed him. Needless to say, I will miss him even more now.

Detroit has produced many great jazz musicians -- the Joneses, Elvin, Hank and Thad, come to mind immediately -- but in recent years few have shone more brightly than the mercurial pianist Geri Allen, who died Tuesday at 60. Besides being a brilliant improviser and composer, she was also an important educator, director of jazz studies at the University of Pittsburgh. For a small sample of her work, check out this YouTube clip from a recital at the Guggenheim Museum.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Don't Let This Slip Through the Cracks

One hesitates to talk about any film being Albert Maysles's last. The protean non-fiction filmmaker left behind a team of collaborators and many projects in various states of completion. But if the New York Times can call the marvelous 2015 film In Transit his final completed work, I won't argue. My only real concern is that at a modest 76 minutes this gentle, thoughtful film won't find an audience competing against the likes of Sofia Coppola and Michael Bay. Add to that the fact that it is only playing once a day at the Maysles Harlem-based documentary theater and there is a real danger of it disappearing without finding the audience it deserves.

In Transit, directed by Maysles along with Nelson Walker, Lynn True, David Usui and Ben Wu, is brisk yet expansive.  Maysles and his co-directors follow the Empire Builder, American’s busiest long-distance train route as it goes between Chicago, Portland, OR, and Seattle and vice versa. 
This part of the Northern Plains States is being transformed by the oil boom in the Dakotas and the impact of that economic upturn is one of the central realities of the film. A pleasant 21-year-old says “I figure seven years in the oilfield I’ll be set for life.” The oil workers seem, on the whole, a likable if bibulous bunch and they blend in nicely with the train’s fascinating mix of working-class commuters, kids on college break and people seeking something more. There is a perky young woman, very pregnant and causing some worry for the train crew, who is heading home to Minneapolis, with the baby four days overdue, an older woman who has just been reunited with the daughter she gave up for adoption nearly a half-century earlier, a church elder who knew Martin Luther King, who has a wonderfully calm and earnest talk with a troubled younger man, telling him, “You’re having this conversation on a train with somebody . . . so that you can have a conversation, perhaps on a train, with someone else who needs to talk.”

"Someone who needs to talk. . . . " A quiet moment from In Transit

Superficially, with its intercutting of the bleak but beautiful winterscape of the Great Plains and the gentle procession of day-into-night-into-day, the film looks like a cousin of one of Frederick Wiseman’s epic examinations of democratic institutions. But Wiseman takes a long view, placing his subjects in an expansive chronological framework even in his films that are set over a single day, giving his attention to the big-picture interaction of these people in a larger sociopolitical context. By contrast, Maysles and his collaborators are actually distilling the essence of the passing of time, focusing on intimate moments between strangers in a celebration of our mutual humanity. Wiseman and the Maysles brothers have always been two sides of the cinema-verité coin, complementing one another in their presentation of the richness of contemporary human experience. 

At a time when the people with their hands on the tools of power in America are apparently deadset on besmirching the nation's history and humanity in ways one would have thought impossible, In Transit performs a task whose value is incalculable. It reminds us of the basic decency of people, their hopes and dreams. Needless to say, that is something that all the Trumps and Ryans and McConnells can't squelch, despite their determination to do so.

Monday, June 19, 2017

New Filmmakers NY program at Anthology This Wednesday

Just wanted to pull your coat to a promising evening of new films that run an interesting spectrum from documentary on the failure of NY's Off-Track Betting Corp. to some X-rated erotica. (Okay, maybe that isn't as wide a spectrum as I thought). New Filmmakers New York has been offering evenings of such work at AFA for many years now, and they are always rewarding as a showcase for the next-gen creators of moving-image art, if you'll pardon the jargon.

At any rate, here's the details, courtesy of the organization's website/newsletter:


Wednesday / June 21st 

Passes for Whole Evening only $7


Finish Line: The Rise and Demise of Off-Track Betting' is the only documentary film to tell the story of the defunct OTB system in New York, and show why it closed, who benefited politically, and how the taxpayer ultimately paid the price for its demise.


Aymeric Nicolet WILD
Michael Thomas KYLE
Brandon Salerno HALF EMPTY


A story of love and survival in New York City's notorious Hell's Kitchen as declining West side Irish and Italian gangs compete for their bloody share of the action.


Jesse James and Lilith Luxe BIRTH

Saturday, June 17, 2017

News Roundup

A couple of totally unrelated news items worth sharing on this rainy (in NYC, anyway) Saturday afternoon. (I could have been watching Boston Blackie Goes Hollywood, but instead I'm taking the time to pass along these tidbits.)

Sub-Saharan Africa may be the most neglected group of film industries on the planet. That is why I take great pleasure in passing along this release from the Film Foundation and others:


NEW YORK, NY (June 12, 2017) – Martin Scorsese, founder and chair of The Film Foundation, Irina Bokova, the Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and Aboubakar Sanogo, the North American Regional Secretary of the Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (FEPACI) joined together Wednesday, June 7 to sign a letter of agreement formalizing their partnership on the African Film Heritage Project, a new initiative to preserve African cinema.

“I’m proud to be partnering with FEPACI and UNESCO on this critically important project,” said Martin Scorsese, “and I’m excited to have already restored the first film of the program. I believe that cinema is the perfect way to open up one’s mind and curiosity and share different cultures with people around the world. Working together, we can help ensure that Africa’s richly diverse cinematic heritage will be preserved, restored, and made available.”

In the context of UNESCO’s International Coalition of Artists for the General History of Africa, and working in association with their partner and FIAF member archive Cineteca di Bologna, the project will locate and restore an initial selection of 50 African films, identified by FEPACI’s advisory board of African archivists, scholars and filmmakers. Initially launched in February at the Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou (FESPACO), the alliance has completed its first restoration: SOLEIL O (1969), directed by Med Hondo, considered to be one of the founding fathers of African cinema. The restoration premiered recently at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.

L-R: Mahen Bonetti (Founder and Executive Director, African Film Festival Inc.), Aboubakar Sanogo (North America Regional Secretary, FEPACI), Martin Scorsese (Founder and Chair of The Film Foundation), Irina Bokova (Director-General, UNESCO), Yemane Demissie (Associate Professor, New York University)
Photo credit: Dave Alloca/ Starpix
Courtesy of The Film Foundation

An extensive survey to locate the best existing film elements for each of the 50 films will be conducted in African Cinémathèques and archives around the world. Following restoration, these films will be distributed worldwide at festivals, museums, universities and other venues and made available via digital platforms and other formats. 


Much closer to home, the excellent avant-garde documentarian Lynne Sachs has an interesting program in collaboration/conjunction with fellow filmmaker Mark Street on view on Saturday, June 26 at the Microscope Gallery (1329 Willoughby Avenue, #2B, Brooklyn). She can explain it better than I can:

Link to Microscope Gallery:
Link to Advance Tickets:

Both of us have been making experimental films for more than three decades.  We've been together as a couple for almost that long.  So it is with curiosity and a tremor of fear that we embark on an unusual filmmaking project that involves each of us remaking a few selected short films from the other's body of work.   The remake production process will start with picking up the camera and reacting to the other person's selected films with a combination of humor, insight, irony, pathos and perhaps critique.

We will screen some of our older short films along with new remakes of those films (not shot-by-shot, but using the original film as inspiration).  Lynne may pick up on an element of Mark's film that he didn't even know was there! Mark may choose to ignore the content of one of Lynne's films in favor of a formal excavation. This will be an evening of doppelgangers, updates and sly renovations. The films will be shown in tag team fashion: a clip from Lynne's completed 2001 film leads into Mark's 2017 remake; Mark's completed 2015 film is followed by Lynne's 2017 remake and so on.

We will close out the program with a short film we made together as the XY Chromosome Project, the collaborative project we created in 2001.  After the screening, we will invite a conversation about form, context, time, gender and more --  contemplating the frisson that emerges between an older work and its newer progeny.

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