Friday, June 14, 2019

On a New Note, a Blue Note

Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes played the Tribeca FF in 2018, and I reviewed enthusiastically back then. The review is immediately below. The reason for bringing back this posting is simple: the film is opening on June 14 at theMetrograph (7 Ludlow St.), and you really ought to see it. You can check out the film’s trailer on YouTube:
That said, here’s what I wrote about the film last year.
Full disclosure: the second LP I ever bought was Lee Morgan's Search for the New Land, a Blue Note recording that I still own and listen to frequently. During my brief time singing jazz with a small combo, we drew heavily on the bop repertoire, but leavened with a lot of Blue Note hard-bop material. My ideal record label setup would be the Blue Note of the '50s and '60s with its large roster of great instrumentalists who were encouraged to record new material frequently, paid for rehearsal time and urged to break new ground.

One of the nicest surprises about Sophie Huber's splendid new documentary film for me was finding out that the reality matched my dream pretty closely. Although all the older musicians interviewed have anecdotes about the occasional difficulties of working with label co-founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, two Jewish refugees from the Nazis, the overwhelming sentiment that emerges from them is affection for the men and great respect for them as business associates. The history of white-owned record labels ripping off black artists in America is depressingly long, but this is one of the standout examples of men who loved the music but also the musicians, and treated them accordingly.

My first expectation for this film was that given the vast number of Blue Note alumni who are deceased, Huber would be forced to fall back on file footage, interviews with jazz critics and a preponderance of material about the reborn label and its current roster. Happily, she focuses a lot of her attention on Lou Donaldson, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, three of the survivors, and the bulk of contemporary studio footage takes in a session with the current version of the Blue Note All-Stars, with Robert Glasper proving a particularly witty and articulate interview subject.

Art Blakey at full throttle, as seen by Francis Wolff

The film covers all the high spots of the label's history, from its opening salvos in the boogie-woogie craze in the early 1940s to the arrival of bop and its glorious permutations, most of them midwived by Lion and photographed by Wolff. Of course, we get plenty of Mon, Bud, Blakey et al. And the footage Huber and her crew have found is exemplary and mostly unfamiliar (to me, at any rate).

And, for once, this story has a happy ending, with Bruce Lundvall, Michael Cuscuna and Don Was among those who brought the label back to life as a healthy independent, and musicians like Glasper, Lionel Loueke and many others inventively blending the classic Blue Note sound with hip-hop.

The result is a pure delight both cinematically and sonically.

Friday, June 07, 2019

Speaking of Jewish Film . . . .

Yes, I hate to be type-cast as that guy who writes about Jews and movies. I started out as a film critic almost 50 years ago (March 1971, to be exact) and my first reviews were of The Deserter (Burt Kennedy), Rio Lobo (Howard Hawks) and Stolen Kisses (Francois Truffaut). Not a single Member of the Tribe. But, as I have frequently observed, being a freelance writer is like being a migrant farm worker; you go where the crops are. For the past 25 years I've been the film critic for Jewish Week in NYC, and it's been a very satisfying ride so far. I've been a critic-in-residence at several Jewish film festivals and written on Jewish and Israeli film for Hadassah Magazine and many Jewish newspaper.

So Tuesday and Wednesday next week I'll be happily in attendance at the biennial conference of the Jewish Film Presenters Network. It's a gathering of most of the top names in the Jewish film world, programmers of major Jewish film festivals, JCC film events and the like, and numerous filmmakers will be present. For information, go here.

Maybe I'll see you there. If so, say hello.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019

A Quick Head's-Up

The new Palestinian film opening at Film Forum next Wednesday is worth a look. The Reports on Sarah and Saleem is a generally deft and compelling mix of family melodrama (a Romeo-and-Juliet adultery in contemporary Jerusalem) and bleakly cynical thriller (when the story suddenly becomes about the Conflict as much as the conflict). Muayad Alayan, the director, works with his screenwriter brother Rami like the Tavianis, and between them they have provided an nicely designed work of shifting perspectives. The film could probably be shortened by about ten minutes -- at 127 minutes it definitely feels a bit attenuated -- but for a second feature made under severely straitened circumstances and political pressures, this is quite nice. You can read my interview with the director here.

Monday, June 03, 2019

Remembering Camille Billops, Predicting the Future of Israeli Film

Jazz is more than just Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman -- the artists who changed the direction of the music in immutalbe, ineradicable ways. It's the talented ones who embroidered on those changes who truly carry a tradition forward. The same goes for any other art.

Consider the case of documentarian Camille Billops. (You can read an excellent summation of her life and career in Art News.) Billops, who died recently at 85, is a filmmaker whose name may be unfamiliar to most of you. Her best-known film, Finding Christina, recounts her decision to abandon her four-year-old daughter and how the two were reunited decades later. It is nakedly emotional and yet reflective, a model of the non-fiction film as self-examination.

But what makes Billops important, beyond that work, is her role as a catalyst and enabler of young black women artists. She was part of that vibrant mid-'60s group that included Faith Ringgold and Emma Moses, women who fought for inclusion in art shows and, when that was denied them, said a simple, polite "Fuck you," and started their own shows and spaces. With her husband and frequent collaborator James Hatch, she created an exhibition space on E. 11th St. in Manhattan that displayed the work of her friends and cohort. The materials they assembled, including an extensive library with thousands of oral histories of artists, has been donated to Emory University. She also mothered a significant journal covering artists of color, Artist and Influence: The Journal of Black American Cultural History,which lasted from 1981 to 1999, a good run for any academic journal.

If you follow my work at Jewish Week (and yes, you should -- we need the money), then you know that the state of the Israeli film industry is always precarious. Like every other major film-making nation outside of the U.S. and China, Israeli film requires a patchwork of funding from all over the globe (mostly Europe in Israel's case), with a core of the monies raised domestically through an equally ad hoc set of funders, one of the Israeli government. 

The results, until now, have been pretty salubrious. But with the elevation of the already controversial Miri Regev from minister of culture to some more elevated portfolio a near-certainty -- assuming the second round of elections in September produce another big majority for Bibi Netanyahu -- things can only get worse. When the Israel Film Center Film Festival kicked off its annual showcase this past weekend, I took its coincidence with the election results as a opportunity to ask some participants what we can expect. Needless to say, their answers were at best guardedly neutral. One couldn't really called it guarded optimism -- nobody is that happy. At any rate, you can read the article here.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Revisiting Yiddish Film

Would the history of cinema be substantially changed if Edgar G. Ulmer had directed The Dybbuk instead of MichalWaszynski? One suspects not. Perhaps the history of Yiddish cinema might have been altered, but even then the change would have been minimal.

That thought occurred to me when I was looking over the list of a half-dozen films that will be playing at Film Forum as the series "The Jewish Soul: Classics of Yiddish Cinema" from May 26-July 3. The series opens with Waszynski’s The Dybbuk, arguably the best Yiddish-language film ever made.

Waszynski was, despite his name, a Ukrainian Jew (originally named Wachs), a journeyman director who worked steadily in the Polish film industry in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Whether it was the multi-layered S. Ansky text or some dybbuk of his own that possessed him during the shooting of the film, this is his one utterly unforgettable work, a strange, hypnotic conglomeration of German expressionism, Jewish tragedy and a fog compounded of graveyard dust, mysticism and a little old-fashioned hokum.

The plot is probably familiar. Sender and Nisn are friends from their yeshiva days and now that they are both rising young men in their communities, with their first children on the way, they pledge that if they are a boy and a girl the pair will be betrothed. But Nisn dies the night his son is born, just as Sender’s wife dies giving birth to Leah, their daughter. Nisn’s son, Khanan, fetches up in Sender’s town, an indigent but brilliant yeshiva student who has begun dabbling in the darker mysteries of Kabbalah. When the prosperous Sender makes a profitable match for his daughter, the infatuated Khanan dies. But his spirit comes back to claim his promised bride by inhabiting her body. Overseeing all of this is a solemn mendicant with a lantern, clearly the prophet Elijah. 

Leah (Lili Liliana) dances with Death

Waszynski approaches this material with a straight face. Although the acting styles range widely from the early-silent-movie hysterics of Leah’s aunt (Dina Halpern) to the eerie sleepwalker drones of Lili Liliana’s Leah and Leon Leibgold’s Khanan, Waszynski subsumes all the disparities into a weirdly satisfying funeral rhythm, using a nervously prowling camera to emphasize the self-involvement of  the members of this supposed community. The film rises to an early climax with the genuinely unsettling dance of the bride with a harbinger of death, but peaks once more with a deeply disturbing exorcism by rabbinical court and a deeply pessimistic ending. The result reminds one of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr or Jacques Tourneur’s luminous I Walked with a Zombie, films that seem truly haunted. 

Or Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 masterpiece, The Black Cat. Perhaps Ulmer might have made more of this material, but Waszynski does pretty well by Ansky, and The Dybbuk would be hard to better.

A transplanted German Jew, Ulmer might have been better suited to the material with its clammy atmosphere of superheated sexual attraction beyond the grave. His echt-expressionist The Light Ahead, one of the great Yiddish films, turns the shtetl into an eerie ghost town.

The Ulmer offering in the series, American Matchmaker, is an uncharacteristically light farce that turns very dark and Ulmeresque as the implications of its ornate comic plot begin to dawn on the participants. Nat Silver (Leo Fuchs) is a highly successful young industrialist with notoriously bad luck in romance. At the film’s outset he is concluding a bachelor party for what will be his eighth unsuccessful attempt at marriage. Understandably he is skeptical about this latest effort’s potential for success, a skepticism that will be rewarded later when the childhood sweetheart of his latest fiancĂ©e turns up with a pistol.

Foiled in love again, he hits on the bizarre notion that he will go into hiding in the Bronx and operate as a modern, sophisticated shadkhen, “Nat Gold, Counselor in Human Relations,” or as his butler-best friend puts it “human relishes.” Of course, he is a huge success until he falls in love with a client (Judith Abarbanel), with predictable results.

What sets the film apart and skews it more towards the obsessive realms of Bluebeard and Detour, two of Ulmer’s best films, are multiple layers of deception, sexual ambiguities in Nat’s relationships and Ulmer’s chiaroscuro grace notes. The lunacy reaches a climax in the scene in which Nat and his meddling sister confront one another in near-total darkness. The result is a seemingly minor screwball comedy infected by a dybbuk all its own.

For some notes on the remaining titles in the program and a bit of background on how this project started, take a look at my piece in the Jewish Week

Saturday, May 04, 2019

Tribeca: Another Jewish-Themed Short

As regular readers of this blog know, my main writing bread-and-butter comes from Jewish Week, so much of my attention is occupied, inevitably, by movies with Jewish interest. In an artform that is often dominated by Jews, it is a beat that keeps me busy enough and, frequently, provides some artful cinematic stimulation. The Tribeca Film Festival, for example, can always be counted on fur a nice selection of Israeli and New York films about the "members of the tribe."

Consider "Black Hat," a deftly constructed 14-minute film directed by Sarah Smith from a shrewd script by Phillip Guttmann. Shmuel (Adam Silver) is a distracted young Hasid living in LA. His wife and children are away in NY but he is reluctant to join his rebbe for the Sabbath dinner. He is one of those absent-minded young men who is forever misplacing his black fedora, but there is something deeper troubling him.
Adam Silver dons the eponymous chapeau in "Black Hat"

Late that night he climbs out of bed and hesitantly re-designs himself as an "ordinary" guy, then sneaks off to a gay bar. Of course, forbidden pleasure ensues, followed by predictable problems and a cunningly ambiguous ending.

Smith and Guttmann cleverly exploit the semiotics of desire and the semiotics of tribal identity, and the result is a film that respects all its characters without condescending to any of them. 

Tribeca Once Again

When you aren't enjoying writing for a living -- not a reflection on my editors, etc., just a fact of life after more than 48 years as a film critic -- then writing for nothing seems almost overwhelming difficult. Strangely, I'm more drawn to cinema than ever, with my teaching gig at Borough of Manhattan Community College the most rewarding and satisfying work I've ever done in film. But writing, at the moment, seems like an arduous and not very satisfying chore.

But the bills must be paid, press credentials must be maintained (and earned), and it's hard to break the habits of a lifetime.

So here I am, back at the old lemonade stand. The Tribeca Film Festival ends its 2019 run tomorrow and I must say it has been a good one for the most part. If you want to read my two pieces for Jewish Week, you can find them here and here.

Needless to say, there were many other films in the event that were worthy of notice.  

Flawless is the latest Israeli film co-directed by Sharon Maymon (Magic Men, A Matter of Size and The Farewell Party) and Tal Granit (The Farewell Party). Like their previous work together and apart, Flawless is a sober, occasionally funny drama driven by the realities of the limitations of the human body, its limited lifespan and inherent imperfectability. The focus, this time, is on a trio of teenage girls picking their way through the minefields of social competition, rampant hormones and violent cliques in a Jerusalem high school.

Maymon and Granit deftly paint a picture of the school as a battlefield metaphorically filled with knifefights over shekels, as prom night approaches with all the hideous ramifications of ostracism and shaming. Stav Srashko is particularly impressive as Eden, who seems to have the most to hide and falls into an easy friendship with Mika (Netsanet Mekonnen) and Keshet (Noam Lugasy), two of the less “fashionable” girl in the school. The trio are inveigled into a scheme in which they will sell a kidney each in exchange for free plastic surgery and cash, driven by the alternately motherly and Godfatherly Keren (Assi Levy, in an astonishingly mercurial performance, veering from sympathy to menace). 

Stav Srashko in a star-making turn in Flawless

If you picture Flawless as a cross between Carrie and Mean Girls with issues of gender ambiguity, racism and body dysphoria added to the usual tortures of high school, you wouldn’t be far off. Maymon and Granit display surprising sympathy for some of their most unlikeable characters and underplay the nastier implications of some of the humor, and the result is a highly successful take on material that in other hands would be either overly familiar or too slender to support its own weight.

Regrettably, the same cannot be said of Standing Up, Falling Down, a Long Island-based comedy-drama about a failed comedian (Ben Schwartz) who has moved back in with his parents. He strikes up an unlikely friendship with a dermatologist (Billy Crystal) who carries his own secret failures around like a backpack full of bricks. Peter Hoare’s screenplay and first-time director Matt Ratner’s mise-en-scene are disorganized and only fitfully funny. Ironically, the last movement of the film, which turns into full-blown tragedy, is most effective, in no small part because of Crystal’s deeply felt sense of regret.

Standing Up, Falling Down: Calling Dr. Crystal. It's your break. 

But wait, there's more to come shortly.

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...