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!

Tribeca 3: Pride in the City

Tribeca has always been a film festival that focused on diversity and inclusion, from its beginning in 2002.  This year has been no exceptio...