Monday, April 27, 2020

Of the Making of Books, There Is No End

So said Koheleth (also known as Solomon, the putative author of Ecclesiastes).

The selling of books is another story, almost as endless, although if you watch a couple of recent movies that touch on the subject, you might think the end is nigh. 

D.W. Young's The Booksellers is an affectionate, sprawling look at the rare book business as seen through the eyes of many of its stalwart participants. Books, as someone says early in the film, are "a way of being fully human." (What does it say if we note that the current occupant of the White House is a man who never reads books? Or the warnings on bottles of bleach?) Jumping off from the annual New York Book Fair, Young offers a slightly unguided tour of the history of U.S. antiquarian bookselling, depicted by Hollywood in "a wonderful romanticized vision," as one bookseller puts it, a quick profile of a few of the more famous participants (Rosenbach, Rosenberg and Stern), then quickly leaps to profiles of several contemporary denizens.

If that sounds a bit scattered, well, it is. Young's film is cluttered with delightful vignettes, powerful witnesses and historical tidbits of singular charm. What is lacks is any basic structure. The important issues are all here: the effect of the Internet, the rise of the e-book, the overwhelmingly male, white and middle-aged population of the selling community. And each receives a solemn and thoughtful glimpse, but there seems to be no reason for where they are discussed, speakers often aren't identified, and little effort is made to connect the issues into an overview of the business. There are isolated gestures towards using the book fair as an organizing principle for the film, but these come to naught. The result is a brain-dump of some charm and one that will provide 90 minutes of pleasure to those of us who have haunted the used bookstores of America for most of our lives. 

The Booksellers is currently streamable on the Film Forum virtual theater website.

Circus of Books is a vivid contrast with Young's film. The director, Rachel Mason, was an indirect participant in the events she recounts and the structure of the film is pretty much ready-made, a more or less chronological telling of the rise and eventual fall of one of the best-known gay bookstores in Los Angeles, owned and run by her parents, Karen and Barry Mason.

Circus of Books: Karen and Barry Mason

The Masons were unlikely purveyors of porn and sex toys, but Circus of Books was as valued for its extensive offerings of non-erotica and even mainstream periodicals as for its plethora of more elemental goodies. (A close friend says that he would drop in regularly just to check out their excellent magazine selection. That, of course, was found in the front of the store.). 

The Masons are transplanted Midwesterners, married Conservative Jews whose careers began in journalism and cinema, respectively. They stumbled into their unlikely fame and for many years resisted the spotlight, and one has the uneasy feeling that when their daughter Rachel decided to make a film about them, Karen, for one, was less than thrilled. Barry, on the other hand, takes everything in stride, responding as naturally to the camera as he did to the odd career moves that led him from special effects work (he contributed to 2001: A Space Odyssey) to inventing monitoring devices for dialysis machines. Neither of Rachel’s parents sought a career as purveyors of gay sex films, magazines and toys, but they brought a dedication to their work that is refreshing.

Ironically, when one of Rachel’s two brothers, Josh, came out to his parents, it was a transformative experience for them, and one that finally led them to activism as founding members of the Los Angeles branch of P-FLAG, the parents’ support group for gay and lesbian children and adults. That turn of events provides some of the most emotionally powerful moments in Circus of Books, but along the way this otherwise very funny film is also shadowed by the impact of the AIDS epidemic and the witch-hunting of the Meese Commission on Pornography, which led to serious felony charges against Barry for distributing “obscene” materials.

Circus of Books: Uh, not the front of the store

Rachel Mason handles these moments, and the wild mood swings they provoke, with aplomb and rather more grace than she does her mother’s constant “advice,” which extends to suggestions about the filming. Circus of Books is a family project by both design and happenstance,  purely delightful, funny and gentle and deeply committed to an increasingly unfashionable platform of tolerance and acceptance.

Tomorrow I'll start to haul my tired carcass through the cornucopia that is the Tribeca Film Festival.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Symphony in Acid Green

Beanpole, currently streamable on Film Forum's Virtual Cinema, was on many film people's radar before it was selected for "Un Certain Regard" at the 2019 Cannes festival, where the film won the not for best direction. The film's director, Kantemir Balagov, was the product of a directing workshop headed by Alexander Sokurov, and his first feature, Closeness, had also played the sidebar at Cannes in 2017. I'm not sure, however, if anyone was prepared for how strikingly individual and unusual Balagov's vision turned out to be.

When I'm teaching screenwriting I always tell my students not to worry about that elusive goal, "originality." There are only 36 or 7 or 6 stories in the world and you are not likely to increase that number, but you can paralyze yourself with too much knowledge of what came before you. I hesitate to say that I've never seen anything like Beanpole; its story is certainly a brilliant example of how one can re-mix story elements from the past artfully, like recombinant DNA. But when you combine the film's unusual storyline with Balagov's striking visual command, particularly his manipulation of the film's highly stylized color palette, the film looks pretty unprecedented to me.

Masha (Vasilisa Perelygna) in the sickly
 yellow light of night in Beanpole's Leningrad
The title belongs to the film's protagonist, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko, in a stunning debut). She is a nurse, a veteran of an anti-aircraft unit in Leningrad during the just-completed war. As her name suggests, she is very tall, very thin and very neurasthenic. The first time we see her, she is catatonic, frozen in a fugue state in the middle of a room filled with activity. Gently kidded by another nurse, she groggily comes out of her trance.

Whatever trauma she experienced in the siege of Leningrad, it has left its mark on her. She cares deeply, or so it appears, for a small boy, perhaps her son, leaving him with neighbors or taking him to work, where the patients on a unit for the severely war wounded find the little guy a source of amusement and warmth. And then one night, apparently in one of her trances, she smothers him under her body.

In the midst of this bleak scenario, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygna, another superb debut) her best friend from the anti-aircraft unit turns up, sharing a secret that disrupts our understanding of the backstory violently. And suddenly Balegov and co-writer Alexander Terekhov up-end the seemingly careful framework of the story. Taking us into some fairly dark waters, Beanpole goes in an unforeseen direction, a sudden slip-slide into a series of descents into hell reminiscent of Dante.

What makes the film seem particularly infernal is its color scheme, a stark opposition of varying shades of red -- from a subdued brick to a corrosive vermillion -- and green veering from a faded earthiness to an almost psychedelic vertigo-inducing acid green. Aided immeasurably by his cinematographer Ksenia Sereda, production designer Sergey Ivanov and costume designer Olga Smirnova, Balegov works these variations in all their possible complexity as we realize gradually that their unraveling is a precise and harrowing visualization of the intimate war between these two women. The result is a series of confrontations that reduce the film's male characters to pawns in a singularly destructive chess match, fools who believe they are in control when they are being manipulated all the time.

I must admit that the film's structure, although linear, feels a bit convoluted at times, although not damagingly so. I suspect that it will require additional viewings on a big screen for it to make sense.

But the film has a visual distinction and is brilliantly acted, compulsively watchable, so I'm eager to go back and see it again.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Polarization as an Excuse for Assassination?

Making a fact-based historical film might look easy. The facts are there, the events are often common knowledge, all the filmmakers have to do is provide a dramatic structure.

Yaron Zilberman, director of Incitement, the new film about Yigal Amir and the 1995 assassination of Israel’s prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, begs to differ. You will be able to be able to stream the film at  Film Forum's virtual theater later today, April 10.

“It’s a minefield, and you don’t have a map,” he said in a phone interview in January. “When we made Incitement’ I realized that it’s much harder to do than to make something up from your own imagination.”

The problem, he said, is that “life doesn’t follow screenplays.”

Zilberman, whose two previous directorial efforts were the chamber-music drama A Late Quartet (2012) and the documentary Watermarks (2004), had never undertaken such a complex project before. He found the metaphorical minefield seeded with questions that kept nagging at him throughout the filmmaking process.

“When can you change the order of history?” he asked. “Do you have to follow the chronology completely? Does it matter when Yigal acquired his gun?”

Given the subject matter, the answers to such questions carry a weight that few directors ever face.
Yaron Zilberman

Zilberman said, “This is such a sensitive topic, arguably the most traumatic event in Israeli history. What we show on screen could have an effect on the discourse in Israeli society. One step in the wrong direction and you land on a mine and it explodes.”

That ominous realization has an impact on the dramatic choices available as well.

“If you show [Amir] as a monster, there’s little to be learned from that,” Zilberman explained. “If you go to far in the opposite direction you make him too likeable. The more you suggest that he was incited to his act the more you alleviate his responsibility, but you have to show the forces that acted upon him.”

As the film’s title suggests, this last tightrope walk is at the center of the film.

Zilberman devised several ingenious responses to these conundrums, but in the end the answers were fundamental.

“We have to be responsible,” he said. “We did lots of research, four years of research, talking to everyone, reading all the material, the court files and transcripts, the investigations by the police and the security services.”

His chief researcher even spoke to Amir in prison by telephone.

Of course, it’s not enough to “let the facts speak for themselves,” as the cliché goes.

Inevitably, Zilberman and co-screenwriter Ron Leshem (author of the novel Beaufort) had to deal with how they would depict Yigal Amir.

The film begins as the initial Oslo agreement is announced on the White House lawn and follows the events as Amir experiences them. Amir, played by Yehuda Nahari Halevi, is almost never off-camera. Yet we watch him, both metaphorically and sometimes literally from a distance. That effect was the product of careful planning by Zilberman and his excellent cinematographer Amit Yasour.

“We decided that in every scene [Amir] will be there, we will not cut into security or surveillance or television footage, we are always following him [directly],” the filmmaker said. “[Audiences] are accustomed to the [central character] being someone we like to identify with. That’s not the case here. [Yasour and I] decided to film events from Amir’s point of view, but never to allow for identification.”

Think about the master of cinematic identification, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitch is constantly cutting between his protagonist and what the hero sees and, through that cross-cutting, we are brought into the mind of that hero and we identify with him. But Zilberman cleverly eschews the reverse-angle shot of the object of Amir’s gaze. Audiences watching Incitement will feel that they are watching Amir at an emotional remove; they see what he is doing and what he is seeing but won’t necessarily feel a kinship with him.

Zilberman explained, “The decision was to use two main shots for Amir. We see him in an over-the-shoulder tracking shot, so we see his point of view but without seeing him [react]. Or we see him in a close-up but always from the side, in an awkward camera set-up, so we see him not as a hero but as someone whose brain we’re trying to get inside of. We see his point of view but not in a comfortable way.”
Over the shoulder, but hardly off the cuff:
Yehuda Nahari Halevi as Yigal Amir

The effectiveness of such directorial choices is largely carried by Halevi’s performance. He was, Zilberman says candidly, cast because audiences were unfamiliar with him.

“He acted in some TV shows, but he’s relatively unknown,” the director said. “That worked to our advantage because the audience could see him but wouldn’t remember him from other projects. He could immerse himself in the role completely,” with no prior associations to cloud viewers’ responses.

Halevi really did immerse himself in Yigal Amir. He and Zilberman worked together for a year in preparation. The actor enveloped himself in Amir’s world, as if it were a mikvah, wearing tzitzit and a kippah, going to shul and praying three times a day. He watched hours of footage of the real Amir and read hundreds of pages of the killer’s words.

 Father and Son (Amitai Yaish ben Ousilio and Yehuda Nahari Halevi)

The result rewards all that work. It would be worse than flippant to say that Halevi “becomes” Amir, but his stunning performance carries the film, from the opening images of the young man cleaning a family grave to the final image of him fading into the darkest recesses of history.

As for the impact on Amir of the various authorities who spurred him on, that is a difficult issue that the film handles deftly. A lot of screen time is spent in the debates among the ultra-right nationalist rabbinate as to whether Rabin is “an informant” or “a pursuer,” an active conspirator against Israel or just a dupe, and the discussions are presented with admirable clarity. Zilberman and Leshem depict the rabbis behind Amir as a spectrum running from fervent, even irrational true believers to cynics who will wink at the assassin’s plans without overtly endorsing them. The screenplay is also careful to note that there were authorities like Rabbi Soloveitchik who categorically and emphatically rejected any justification for murdering Rabin. As Amir’s father says, “a Jew doesn’t kill another Jew, whatever the reason.” To its credit, Incitement also insists on the multi-faceted nature of the anti-Oslo community; Zilberman shows the fractures and divisions – Ashkenazim vs. Mizrahim, class divisions, racism against Yemenite Jews like the Amirs, and basic differences of opinion and ideology.

But why this film now?

“In every election in Israel they talk about the assassination,” Zilberman said. “It’s a conversation that’s alive every year, everywhere in the world. People will see the film as a cautionary tale, perhaps they will take more responsibility for their words and actions and inciting people against others. It’s a responsibility we all have.”

Some of this material previously appeared in the Jewish Week.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

More Goodies on the Way

If I were a real shut-in (God forbid), the COVID-19 pandemic would seem like manna from heaven. Those of us who are used to indulging a passion for cinema under normal circumstances probably have never thought about the homebound for whom keeping up with contemporary film matters used to be a hit-or-miss phenomenon. Of course the advent of VOD and streaming channels has changed that quite a bit, but the current state of affairs, with theaters shuttered across the globe, has now upt us all on an even footing.

Homebound or self-quarantining or "safe at home," whatever your status, there's a lot of new and new-ish cinema at your fingertips. Here's a quick run-through of stuff that's crossed my virtual desk n the past couple of days.

Bela Tarr's gigantic, ironic, iconic tome on the rather dubious joys of post-Communist, mud-soaked rural Hungary, Satantango, is coming out in a new 4K restored print. This wry seven-and-a-half hour masterpiece epitomizes the genuine joys and obvious challenges of the "slow cinema" movement at its finest. I've seen it twice and am thrilled at the opportunity to see it again, and that opportunity will come on April 17, courtesy of Film at Lincoln Center and Vimeo TV on Demand, with Kanopy, Amazon and iTunes joining in later.

As regular readers know, Film Forum is one of my favorite NYC-based venues, an splendid and innovative blend of new and old. Like so many other film palaces, Forum is dark right now, unless you go to their new streaming site and it's well worth the "trip." Among the titles currently available are The Wild Goose Lake, which I have reviewed in this space already, and new films from Ken Loach and Cornel Porumboiu. The repertory side of their business isn't neglected either, with a restored print of Visconti's final film, The Innocent on offer. You can find out more here. And Friday, they will be adding Incitement and Beanpole, both of which I'll be discussing then.

I must admit that, with a few exceptions, the recent spate of Scandinavian cinema leaves me cold. (No pun inte -- aw, hell, really obvious pun completely intended -- you got a problem with that, Mac?) It's exciting and historically entirely appropriate that a new millennium brought about the rebirth of one of the great seedbeds of silent film, but for the most part I'm not won over. (Aki Kaurismaki being a major exception.) However, I'm always up for something new and if you haven't
seen any of the recent output from places Nordic or are more enthusiastic than I am, you'll be delighted to find that the Nordic International Film Festival, which takes place in October, is claiming an on-line screening place to be filled by works by their filmmaking alumni. There are many short films available for free and a batch of rentals available as well.

One of my favorite festival offerings last year was the charming documentary Circus of Books, which played Tribeca. It's a profile of the married couple, Karen and Barry Mason, who ran the very long-lived eponymous gay bookstore and porn shop in Los Angeles. A pair of middle-class, middle-aged Conservative Jews from the Midwest, they were unlikely purveyors of sexually explicit material, but as their daughter Rachel shows in the film, it turned out to be a felicitous match-up. The film will be coming, on-line and streaming, from Netflix on April 22, and I'll have more to say then.

Meet the Masons, a Nice Jewish Family of Porn Purveyors

Sunday, April 05, 2020

My Dream Job (or Answered Prayers)

I know for a fact that there are people who dream of having my job. I'll resist the basic urge to offer it to them, dirt cheap. I know there are many harder jobs than watching movies and then writing or teaching about them. And I really do enjoy what I do most of the time. This is never more true than when I'm interviewing documentarians. For the most part they are grateful for some attention and, despite the hype that non-fiction film is the "new" rock-and-roll or stand-up comedy or whatever your idea of cool hipness (or hip coolness?) is these days, the vast majority of non-fiction filmmakers don't make much money, don't get much attention and, with the exception of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, don't get recognized on the street.

Talking to documentary filmmakers is usually a pleasure. If you want to sample some of that particular pleasure, you should definitely check out Westdoc On Line. The current featured interview, with the estimable Alex Gibney, is the latest in what is now a collection of fifty such conversations, and the respondents include such major talents as Steve James, RaMel Ross, Ondi Timoner and Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, the directors of the exquisite Honeyland.

Alex Gibney, the Hardest-Working Man in Doc Biz?
(Paul Bruinooge—Patrick McMullan via Getty Image)

So, something to think about if you find yourself going back to a job that suddenly no longer exists a few months from now.

There's a new(ish) documentary about another poisoned chalice of a supposed dream job that I can recommend heartily. (The film, not the job.) Anthony Desiato grew up in Westchester in the '80s and '90s, a comic-book obsessed kid who hadn't an inkling that he would someday make a sprightly, often charming film, currently available on iTunes and from Amazon, about his most enduring employment experience, working in a comic book shop in Scarsdale, NY.

His new film, My Comic Shop Country, combines his personal story, tracing the rise and fall of Alternate Realities, the store at which he worked, alongside a surprisingly engrossing profile of the industry itself, which like so many other brick-and-mortar/mom-and-pop small businesses, is more or less on life support. As one of the store owners wryly says to him, "You know how to make a million dollars in the comic shop business? Start with two million."

Like it says on the tin

I'd say that's an old joke but as the film makes clear, it's not funny for the shop owners who are feeling the pressure of rising rent, fuel costs and the sheer difficulty of dealing with the unique challenges that the comic book publishers impose on these outlets. Central among these, as the film makes abundantly clear, is the absence of a return policy on unsold books. As a book author and former grievance officer for the National Writers Union, I can tell you that the return policy on books from mainstream, independent and academic publishers is painful for people who see their royalties whittled away by the reserve against return, but it's probably the only reason that indie booksellers can stay alive, returning the unsold and undamaged copies for some percentage of their outlay.

Comic books don't come with that policy -- I suspect that their comparative fragility may be one of the reasons -- so comic shops have to eat their unsold stock. As several of the store owners remind us, that leaves them with reduced margins and a long road to profitability.

I've never worked in retail. That is partly a choice and partly pure chance, but another theme that runs through Comic Shop is occasional thanklessness of the job. If you're seeking glamor, you've come to the wrong place. You will get to meet hundreds of like-minded customers, emotionally and intellectually committed to the comics art, and you very likely may have a chance to speak with your artistic heroes from the creative end of the industry.

But you will also spend countless hours arranging displays, shelving new titles, poring over balance sheets and arguing with the corporate types who populate the biggest operations, DC and Marvel.

In fact, one of the most eloquent interviewees in the film is Peter Levitz, former publisher of DC Comics and a defender of the comic stores who readily admits that the publishers could and should do more in support. Although he soft-pedals the culpability of the big companies, he seems almost sheepish when doing so.

As well he might be. One of the undercurrents running through Comic Shop is the immense importance of hand-selling, the one-to-one conversation of an enthusiastic and knowledgeable store owner or staffer with a customer. Over and over, the film shows us how that works in the real retail world. There is no substitute for it and when these stores disappear, there will be no one else doing it. (Sorry, Jeff Bezos, you don't own the entire world yet.)

Hand-selling or hand selling?
Comic Shop director Anthony Desiato with former colleagues from
Alternate Realities, (l. to r.) Nick Robison, Steve Oto and Bill Maio

At the heart of the film are a large cast of store owners and staff, whip-smart, funny people who are a walking tribute to their customers and the art that inspires them. I'm an old guy, as regular readers know, although my constant exposure to my undergrad students certainly has kept me from building up the obvious generationally fueled genre prejudices (and I was an avid comic book fan as a teen), but I must admit that I was simply dazzled by the participants in Desiato's film.

It is no small tribute to the filmmaker that every time he cuts away from the contemporary business to walk us through the personal stories of his friends and colleagues from Alternate Realities, my first impulse was mild annoyance. Gradually, however, as their story unfolds, I realized that Desiato's slaying of more personal demons was not just the film's starting point and structuring device. It is the spine that holds the entire movie together, a more intimate look at how some of the issues threatening this relatively tiny industry play out on a daily basis.

My Comic Shop Country ends with a mildly surprising 'reveal' that doesn't alter the film's message in any significant way, but which puts Desiato's personal agenda in a different light, underlining the very human impulse both to remember the experiences and people who shaped us when we were young and to try to preserve the human petri dishes that bred such memories. The result is not only an incisive look at a small, threatened slice of Americana, but a warm and funny portrait of the people who make it worth caring about, regardless of your reading tastes.

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...