Friday, June 18, 2021

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 exception but the delayed dates -- the festival usually launches in April but was held off until June -- the coincidence of Pride Month and the festival schedule creates an unmistakable synergy, enough so that the TFF marketing staff have drawn attention to it in their publicity. And between this year's selections and the holdovers from 2020, there is a particularly rich vein of LGBTQ+ form. 

One of my favorite films from last year's event was P.S. Burn This Letter Please, a smart, low-key look back at the very underground drag community of New York in the 1950s. The product of an enormous personal archive maintained by an active member of that world, Burn This Letter documents an all-but-forgotten segment of the city's gay subculture in the words, images and artifacts of those for whom it was a haven, and their recollections some six-plus decades later. This is oral history honed to a fine, often funny edge, carried for all of us by some smart, spiky, and deeply proud survivors of the wars that triggered the Stonewall riots, among other things. Directed by Michael Seligman and Jennifer Tiexeira, the film deserves a place of honor alongside such classics as Word Is Out and Before Stonewall.

Henry Arango, aka “Adrian,” 92, at home 
with his vintage doll collection, Astoria, 2019.  Photographer: Zachary Shields

Last year's award for best documentary feature was won by the gay-themed Socks on Fire, in which filmmaker Bo McGuire used an innovative blend of family footage old and new, blended with recreations to tell the story of his divided family in Alabama, a raucous mix of vehement homophobes and an out gay uncle as they battled over a family inheritance. This year's award for Best U.S. Narrative Feature went to The Novice, a debut feature by writer-director Lauren Hadaway, a tense study of a young, striving student who aims for a place on her college rowing team at any cost. I'll talk about the latter, along with the other feature prize winners, over the weekend.

Why does it matter if there are openly gay, lesbian, bi or trans people depicted on-screen? Or Latinx or African-American or Asian-American or Native American people or people with disabilities. It would be easy to dismiss the question as ignorant or deliberately obtuse, and in the current atmosphere of anti-anti-racist McCarthyism rampant in state legislatures and school boards across the country, it is a temptation. But there is a moment in the sprightly documentary No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics that puts a smiling human face on the answer to that question. Trans comic book artist Dylan Edwards recalls the first time he saw a comic that featured a trans character, adding, "Look, I exist!"

The importance of visibility for the too-often marginalized is so self-evident that we tend to forget about it. Well, as Dylan Thomas famously said, "Just because it goes without saying doesn't mean I'm not going to say it." That issue is really at the heart of No Straight Lines

I grew up in a world in which comic books didn't acknowledge the existence of anyone who wasn't a whitebread middle-class heterosexual, superpowers not withstanding. By the time I was old enough to have lost interest in superheroes, that had begun to change. For the dozens of LGBTQ+ comic artists who speak in this film that change was what they had wrought, sometimes with rage, more often with a dry wit, sometimes with a gentleness that combines anger, humor and compassion.

"...with a dry wit" -- Allison Bechdel

At the heart of the film, adeptly directed by Vivian Kleiman, are five founders, the godfathers and godmothers of queer comic book art: Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), Jennifer Camper (Rude Girls and Dangerous Women), Howard Cruse (Gay Comix and Wendel), Rupert Kinnard (B.B. And The Diva) and Mary Wings (Come Out Comix). Alternating their career trajectories with incisive observations by numerous others, Kleiman gives us a smart, joyous and entertaining precis of the rise of the underground comix, a phenomena that was frequently spearheaded by their queer practitioners, the gradual shift by many of the creators into the multi-leveled territory of the graphic novel,  the rise and fall of key markets like the alternative press and other print vehicles and the survival of queer comix in the cyber-wonderland of the Internet.

Kleiman collaborated earlier in her career with the late, great Marlon Riggs, and like him she has a wonderfully nuanced understanding of the delicate crossroads where the libido intersects (and occasionally crashes into) the politics of solidarity, identity and art. The film that results is both a joy ride and a pride parade (as well as a Pride Parade). Highly recommended.



Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Tribeca 2: Love in the Time of COVID-19

It was inevitable, I suppose, that the pandemic would become a prime setting for fiction films. Reality is what it is, and filmmakers like any other artists react to their reality. (This means that sometime in the not-too-distant future we can expect a cycle of movies set during the Spanish flu crisis, historical films being a good way to comment obliquely on our own period.) Of course, given the global shutdowns in film production that resulted from quarantine, etc., the field was open for low-budget indie film companies to explore the topic. 

None of this is particularly surprising. What I didn't foresee is the considerable focus on romantic comedy and domestic drama in these films. Undoubtedly my surprise is ill-founded. Under the necessary restrictions of the pandemic it would be hard to do otherwise; I suppose I'm a little disappointed that we aren't seeing a lot of politically based dramas reflecting on the larger implications of the Coronavirus catastrophe. 

Two of the entries in this year's Tribeca Film Festival immediately leap to mind, 7 Days (Dir: Roshan Sethi, US) and Roaring 20s (Dir: Elisabeth Vogler, France). The former is a two-hander, a chirpy and pleasant comedy about two Indian-American twenty-somethings forced to "shelter in place" when an arranged first date intersects with the pandemic. The latter is an arch experimental video-film that tracks a variegated group of couples through a single evening in Paris, offering a frequently funny and generally graceful 91-minute take, culminating in a surprisingly charming ensemble musical number that re-unites the cast of 24 in a Parisian park. 

The Joys of Lockdown: Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Ravi (Karan Soni) 
at an impasse in 7 Days

Formally, the two films are almost inversions of one another. Sethi, a physician and screenwriter, uses fairly conventional mise-en-scene, long takes and expressive two-shots to give us a slightly giddy fly-on-the-wall experience of his mismatched couple, as prolonged and unsought-after intimacy slowly leads to romantic feelings. Essentially, 7 Days is more '30s-style screwball comedy in lockdown than fluffy contemporary rom-com with the usual trappings of conspicuous consumption and alternating self-love and -loathing. Sethi is blessed with deft performances from screenwriter Karan Soni as a somewhat uptight researcher seeking a "traditional" Indian wife, and Geraldine Viswanathan as a rebellious 2020s wild child who is exactly the opposite of what he has been led to expect. For Sethi, as it is for such masters as Lubitsch, LaCava and McCarey, spatial separation is merely a minor obstacle to be overcome by emotional revelation. 

Roaring 20s: A Wedding dress but no nuptials?

By contrast, Roaring 20s uses its constantly roving camera both to link and separate its discrete collections of couples, uniting its cast at the finale in a delicately integrated community, albeit a makeshift one. Vogler's constantly shifting point of view initially alienates the audience -- such constant motion punctuated by talky two-shots is irritating at first. But as the writing shifts into a more colloquial, less existential gear and her parade of eccentrics solidifies into a series of vignettes of coping mechanisms seemingly adapted to the array of Paris neighborhood backdrops, the film's quirky humor begins to take hold. Think of it as Russian Ark reset in contemporary France, orchestrated by Preston Sturges. 

Both films are refreshingly hopeful and dependably graceful, energized by the charms of their performers and the elegance of their ideas.


Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Return of the Tribeca Film Festival

 Yes, Tribeca is back, has been back for six days already. The festival is now in its 20th year, which is as good a yardstick of perpetuity in NYC terms as any. I suspect that the film industry has forgotten that the festival had its roots in the calamity of 9/11 and for once, I heartily approve of this little piece of amnesia. While much of the nation was sheltering in the vast wave of jingoistic self-praise coming out of the Bush White House ("They hate us because of our freedom"), Robert De Niro and the other prime movers behind TFF were putting together an event that has become a model of a diverse film program, representing a global selection of films and filmmakers. In short, an entirely admirable reply to the events of September 11, 2001, a reply emphasized the tenacity of New Yorkers and the need for pluralism.

Two decades later, the Tribeca Film Festival is a fixture on the NYC film scene, a sort of perky kid brother to the New Directors/New Films series presented by Film at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. At 50, ND/NF is small but highly ambitious in its ambit, with a focus on spiky, often difficult films and a "fewer but better" aim. By contrast, TFF has become a sprawling media event, with just about every conceivable type of feature film and short, supplemented by new media programs, VR, TV and every conceivable other acronym that the moving image world can throw. It is inclusive to a fault, with New York-centered films and sports films as major sidebar focuses. 

Last year the best-laid plans were smothered by face masks. (You may recall that, vaguely.) I saw several of the entered films, although the combination of lockdown, health problems and sheer exhaustion limited my viewing. What looked then to be a promising collection, based on a limited sample, turned into a source of frustration as my body simply refused to cooperate with my almost unslakeable thirst for cinema. Happily, the powers-that-be-Tribeca recognized that many of us were short-changed by circumstance, not least the filmmakers who had movies entered in the 2020 festival, and numerous titles have been reintroduced from last year's selection. And they have made it easier than ever to partake of the cinematic bounty on-line and at home. 

Indeed, one of the first films I chose to look at was an 2020 title, Banksy Most Wanted, directed by Aurelia Rouvier and Seamus Haley. Banksy, of course, is the mysterious street artist and provocateur who has parlayed his witty creations and invisibility into a global reputation that has made his work extraordinarily successful. At the outset of the film, we are taken inside one of Banksy's most famous efforts, a version of his "Girl With Balloon" that sells for $860,000 at Sotheby's; as soon as the auctioneer's hammer drops, the painting slides halfway through the frame, which shreds it. 

Restorers at work on a damaged Banksy work

It is a typically clever and outrageous stunt, designed to call into question the idea of the singularity of the artwork, the "aura," as Walter Benjamin famously called it, that cements a visual work's uniqueness and, consequently, its value. 

Had the filmmakers focused on the issues frequently raised by Banksy's manuevers, this could have been an incisive and intelligent essay on such issues. had they chosen to focus on the interplay of kitsch and creativity that his art comments on, comparing him to, say, Jeff Koons, their time would also be well-spent. Instead, the film dismayingly turns into a veritable whodunit, with private detectives, self-appointed journalistic watchdogs and the like trying to find the artist's "real" identity. 

Banksy Most Wanted could have just as easily pondered the central question of our era, the rapid decline of the idea of the commons. In fact, that is one of the several topics of discussion, centering the film's narrative on Jeff Barton, an "art dealer" whose apparent wealth is the result of his willingness to seize art pieces from public places by finding the owners of the buildings on which Banksy has placed them and securing their permission to remove and sell them. Barton is no respecter of the idea of public property, a sneering silent-movie libertarian who is briefly one-upped when the title of a building in Folkstone, UK, turns out to be in dispute;. as a result of his slip, he is forced to return the damaged Banksy work. As you can see from the still above, restorers set to work to restore the piece, a reminder that Banksy's creations are highly  site-specific and are intended to the property of anyone passing by a public space. 

When all is said and done, the film is entertaining to watch and a decent introduction to an artist whose former agent calls "the Picasso, the Andy Warhol of the 21st Century." Drawing on interviews with journalists, art critics, profiteers like Barton and collectors, the film paints an amusing portrait of the enigma at its center, but someone else will have to make a more complex film to approach the issues his art foregrounds.

****************

Buddy Guy, one of the last of the classic avatars of Chicago Blues, isn't a man of mystery. He is a brilliant, mercurial master of electric guitar, a talented songwriter and singer, and a surprisingly introspective and genial man who finds the best music is made by the birds and "all the creatures created by God." The film portrait of Guy, Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away, directed by Devin Amar, Charles Todd and Matt Mitchener, manages to balance Guy's tougher-than-leather reputation and music against his contemplative nature-loving side, inserting highly effective images of landscape, lakescape and birds in their natural habitats, alongside wonderful archival footage of Guy in full throttle. 

Buddy Guy: Star with a Guitar

Guy, 84, is a strikingly humble man, soft-spoken and modest in his recollection of the career as a late-bloomer that he has enjoyed. He didn't even arrive in Chicago until late in 1957. He repeatedly talks about his slow growth as a guitarist, several times saying "I wasn't sure I was good enough" to become a major voice in blues. He is also a genuinely funny raconteur who has always hung with the most dominating and colorful proponents of Chicago blues, which means we get to see abundant footage of his work with Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters and his long-standing friendship with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers feel compelled to elicit "explanations" of the blues from everyone in the film, from Guy himself to Carlos Santana, John Mayer, Kingfish and Gary Clark, Jr.. There is nothing wrong with this material -- Mayer and Clark are particularly incisive expositors -- but it shifts the focus away from the ostensible topic of the film. 

Needless to say, there is a lot more come, and I'll back at this lemonade stand tomorrow with a peek at some Covid-related films. 

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

So Long, Norman Lloyd

Norman Lloyd died yesterday at the age of 106 and, strange as it may seem given his advanced age, I feel quite sad. Lloyd, an excellent character actor whose work spanned many decades and whose film work includes efforts by Alfred Hitchcock, Jean Renoir, Charles Chaplin, Joseph Losey, Martin Scorsese and Lewis Milestone, was quite simply one of the nicest film people I've ever interviewed. We spoke for few hours about thirteen years ago, when Lloyd was the subject of a then-new documentary, "Who Is Norman Lloyd?"



This is Norman Lloyd

Here is the interview as it appeared in The Jewish Week when Lloyd was a stripling of 93.

He has been a rabble-rousing Roman poet and a choreographer struggling with a recalcitrant young ballerina, a doctor battling encroaching age and hospital bureaucracy and a Nazi saboteur hanging from the Statue of Liberty by his fingernails. If you know who he is, you are a serious student of film history. If not, then you may ask – as the title of the [the documentary profiling him] bluntly puts it – “Who Is Norman Lloyd?”

The answer, which this delightful documentary offers vividly, is that Norman Lloyd is “a living history of American entertainment in the 20th Century.” A list of the men and women he worked with would include Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Chaplin, Joseph Losey, Bertolt Brecht, Eva Le Gallienne, Elia Kazan, Lewis Milestone, Martin Scorsese and Ray Bradbury, and that’s just the short list. He has been actor, director and producer and, at 93, he is one of the great institutional memories of the performing arts in this country.

Not a bad life for a nice Jewish boy from Jersey City.


G.I. Norman fights the Good War in A Walk in the Sun

“Oh, gee, when I think back on it, it’s amazing what happens to us as we move out into the world,” Lloyd said in a telephone interview earlier this month, coincidentally on his 93rd birthday. “My family were Conservative Jews. My parents were both born in this country, but my father grew up on the Lower East Side and my mother was born and raised in Harlem when there was a large Jewish ‘colony’ there. Eventually they moved to Jersey City to get away from New York.”

But for a theater-mad kid, New York was heaven in the 1920s, and it was inevitable that Lloyd would gravitate back to the city. Inevitable and, he believes, ethnically ordained.

“The Jews are an artistic people,” he says. “It’s clear from the music, the actors, the writers. They are just artists. In the early part of the 20th century when they first came over they had no money, but they still went to theater. The theater and education were the two biggest things in their lives. More important than clothes. I think it’s always been inherent in the race.”

Lloyd has worked in every medium available to him, from live theater to radio to film to television. Although he began his career as a boy song-and-dance man – “the worst song-and-dance man in history,” he says in the film, with a puckish grin – he went legit by joining Eva Le Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theater where he worked with the charismatic Le Gallienne and such other young and promising actors as John Garfield, Howard ds Silva and Alexander Scourby.

From there he joined the Mercury Theater, working with Orson Welles and John Houseman, who would become a lifelong friend, most prominently in the role of Cinna the poet in Welles’s legendary anti-Fascist “Julius Caesar.” It was a small but pivotal role and it made Lloyd’s reputation. He would go to Hollywood with Welles and Co. but their initial project fell through and he didn’t want to hang around Los Angeles with no specific work. “That’s how I turned down a part in ‘Citisen Kane,’ he says with great merriment.

No matter. He would be back the following year, 1942, working for Alfred Hitchcock in the title role of “Saboteur” and kindling a friendship that would last until Hitch’s death. It was a friendship that would save Lloyd’s career when he became a victim of the blacklist in the ‘50s. Hitchcock wanted Lloyd, who by that time was working both in front of and behind the camera, as a producer on his new television series, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” When the network demurred, Hitchcock merely said, “I want him,” and Lloyd was hired. He would rise to the position of executive producer and worked on the show for the entire length of its run.

Friends Don't Let Friends Hang By a Thread: Lloyd in Hitchock's Saboteur

Given the length and richness of his career, which medium gave Lloyd the most pleasure?

“There are three answers to that one,” he says. “As an actor, it’s the theater and the reason for that is your communication with the audience. If you’re in the groove you get something back from the audience that is so exciting and rewarding that no film or television work can possibly compete. As a director it’s movies, because there you are telling the story, you may not have written it, but you are telling it. As a producer, it’s television, because of the continuity. I spent eight years with ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’ and “Hollywood Television Theater.’ When you’re doing those shows it’s like being part of an extended family.”


Truth be told, though, Lloyd would probably prefer to be on a tennis court (which is how he met and became friends with Chaplin, who cast him as the choreographer in :”Limelight”). Even now, at 93, Lloyd still plays three sets of tennis twice a week.

“It used to be four times a week, so I guess I’m slowing down a bit,” he says. “Two years ago I won the Directors Guild doubles tournament,” a memory that gives him as much nakhes as any of his achievements in film, theater or television.

And he still works.

In the documentary, we see Lloyd on the set of a short film being made by a first-time director, and he is as involved and as gracious as if he were still working with Hitchcock, Chaplin or Renoir, his three favorite directors, or playing Dr. Auschlander on “St. Elsewhere,” one of his favorite roles.

What is his secret?

“I always kept physically active,” he explains. “I played tennis all the time, I used to play 3 or 4 times a week. In those days we played singles, now I play doubles. I used to ride a bike every morning before going to work. If I couldn’t do those things I’d walk. I eat everything except shellfish, but to moderation. I drink wine, I have a slug of whiskey every night like my grandfather did. That’s all I’ve ever done. You have to be lucky.”

He certainly has done that. And fans of the performing arts have been lucky to have him.


Wednesday, May 05, 2021

Is This the Most Important Film Festival in the World?

Hyperbole? Perhaps a little, but for 13 years the RealAbilities Film Festival has been  showcasing a global array of films about the lives of people with disabilities, almost always as told by those people themselves. They are not just the subjects of the films but the creators. Obviously there are other film festivals that have a powerful impact on the world around us, such as the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival and countless festivals celebrating and giving voice to previously marginalized communities. Like those other festivals, ReelAbilities is about empowering people who have been ignored, but what sets ReelAbilities a little apart, I think, is the range of extra-cinematic events that surround the festival and the fact that over time the programs have expanded to numerous other cities besides New York. The NY edition just completed its run -- my bad and I apologize profusely -- but just before it opened I had a chat with Isaac Zablocki, one of the founders and the head of film programming at the festivals home, the Marlene Meyerson JCC in Manhattan, and we reviewed the history that has gone into the event.

If you want to find out more about ReelAbilities with the people who make if possible, you should check out the website. There are three more editions of the festival opening in May: Denver (Wednesday May 5), Boston (Thursday May 6), and Toronto (Wednesday May 26). 



Monday, March 22, 2021

Fifty Years in the Dark

It’s a milestone of little importance to anyone but me. I suppose that raises the question, if a milestone tips over in the forest and I’m the only one that hears it, does it matter? At any rate, this month marks the completion for me of 50 years of writing about film. Sometime in March 1971 I published the first of several film reviews for the South Shore Record, a weekly newspaper in my (then) hometown in Long Island. I received the price of my movie ticket and five dollars for each of my efforts. It seemed like a good deal in 1971.

Typically, I chose a western for my first venture, a long-forgotten Burt Kennedy effort that was released here as The Deserter, although it has also been shown as The Devil’s Backbone. (God only knows where or why.) It was not my first published piece – I had been writing some political commentary for a short-lived underground paper published in my high school – but it was the first time I had written on film, and I wanted it to be a good opener.

I might have chosen a better film.  Although Kennedy wrote several excellent screenplays for Budd Boetticher and graduated to some workmanlike directorial efforts in the ‘60s, this was barely a five-finger exercise. Assembled from a spare-parts box that included borrowings from Peckinpah and various Italian western directors, The Deserter was distinguished primarily by the presence of some aging character players from the genre’s better days – Slim Pickens and Ricardo Montalban as bantering scouts, John Huston, Chuck Conners and Patrick Wayne as variegated US Cavalry officers – and an unlikely male lead, the Albanian-Yugoslav actor Behim Fehmiu.

Bekim Fehmiu in search of the writer of The Deserter?

Bekim Fehmiu: the first Eastern European star to work in Hollywood, an effective lead in I Even Met Happy Gypsies (Alexander Petrovic) and an attractive set of muscles in the hilariously misbegotten Harold Robbins epic, The Adventurers. I have not revisited the Kennedy film. I cannot conceive of a reason I would, unless it is to put on a metaphorical hair-shirt for having mistaken Fehmiu’s stolidity for a taciturn ruggedness fifty years ago. I’m sure it’s not the last time I’ve made that category error. (My God, what have I said about Schwarzenegger, Keanu Reeves, and a few others since then?)

In my defense, allow me to point out that this was in the salad days of film study. I was a high school senior and my opportunity for exposure a film like the Petrovic was minimal, even with my proximity to New York City. (It was a 45-minute train ride and I commuted for four years of college.) No VCRs, DVDs, DVRs, very few repertory theaters, although that changed not long after and I began to spend my weekends alternating between various now defunct rep houses and the Fillmore East. On the other hand, given that Fehmiu was better than passable in Happy Gypsies, I probably would have made the same mistake anyway.

Not that it matters in the grand scheme of things. I’m not talking about the really grand scheme of things – the safety of Western Civilization has never depended on my aesthetic judgment or Fehmiu’s acting chops. What I mean is, at least I recognized that Kennedy was, sadly, a spent bullet, a filmmaker who had run out of things to say. A few months later, when I reviewed Rio Lobo, Howard Hawks’s valedictory film, I was clear-headed enough to see it for what I still believe it is, a re-embellishment of Hawksian themes intended for those of us who still cared, not nearly as good as either Rio Bravo or El Dorado, its predecessors. 

So I can honestly say, on reflection, that some learning was going on.

And still is. When I step back and look at the six-plus years I’ve been teaching at Borough of Manhattan Community College, I’m surprised at how my approach to the basic syllabus has evolved. Given that almost all the films on the viewing list for “Introduction to the Moving Image” are ones I knew by heart before I came to BMCC, and the reality that I’ve now seen and taught them about twenty times each, that seems to me a small tribute to my flexibility. On the other hand, it could also be read as a chameleonic capacity for changing sides in any argument.

Temperamentally, I have almost always been a syncretist. I distrust writers who offer a single explanation for everything. In the half-century I’ve been working through cinema I have read many theoretical formulations that I found to have merit. My own focus has always been eclectic, a more refined version of what cricket commentators mordantly call “buffet bowling.” (“Here, try this ball. No? How about this delivery? Just hit whatever you like.”)

It isn’t that I can’t and won’t make up my mind or that I’m prone to adopt the last argument I’ve heard. On the contrary, the filmmaking process is so protean, so multi-faceted and so overdetermined that one explanation doesn’t fit all. I was trained in the Sarris-planted vineyards of auteurism;  when I was a student of his, he used to needle me about being “more royalist than the king,” although I’d like to think that my grasp of genre theory was already pretty good even before the ink on my was dry.  

Today I offer my students a range of analyses that draw on everything I’ve read since the ‘70s heyday of Althusser and Lacan, the rise of feminist theory in the ‘80s and ‘90s, some version of the New Historicism, socio-criticism, semiology and even good old-fashioned Marxism. I suppose in the end it is still undergirded by auteurist biases, but at least I have a better understanding of the limitations of that cognitive grid. If my reading outside the course leads me, increasingly, to examine the development of film as a product of the late Industrial Revolution, Taylorism and modern marketing practices, at least I can still tell the difference between Clint Eastwood and Bekim Fehmiu, even if took a while to see it.

 



One of these actors is not like the other. . . 

 

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Cinema of Absence

Film is, perhaps above all, a visual medium and, consequently, relies on the idea of "real presence" as George Steiner put it. In general, the old saw "Show, don't tell" applies here. But what can a filmmaker do when there is nothing to show? Or nothing but ashes. 

The still life painting at the center of Slawomir Grünberg's new film, Still Life in Lodz, is something of an oddity. At first glance it seems rather larger than your average still life. Its shape (or aspect ratio for you film people) is strangely reminiscent of the Cinemascope frame, about twice as wide as it is high. The sheer oddness of the painting would make it stand out in most circumstances. And Lilka Elbaum's fascination, almost obsession, with it would be almost as odd were it not for the personal stories wrapped around the painting. Those stories are the substance of the film.


Lilka Elbaum and the eponymous painting

As Grünberg readily agrees in the interview that is posted here, the tragic dilemma facing anyone trying to make a non-fiction film about the Shoah, the murder of six million Jews by the Nazis and their helpers, is that you care trying to recreate a world that is utterly lost, obliterated. Hence my use of the phrase "cinema of absence." 

Many filmmakers have approached the subject from many angles. By and large, how well the resulting films resonate depends on how well they have coped with that gaping hole in the center of the story. Those who have relied on archival footage exclusively are, I believe, trapped in the need to eschew mere nostalgia, or are forced to skirt the edges of "torture porn." More than that, they are to some extent prisoners of the sheer familiarity and overuse of many of the most potent images, or the inadvertent glorification of the perpetrators at the hands of Leni Riefenstahl and her ilk.

Claude Lanzmann, in his monumental Shoah (1985), devised a singular, unrepeatable solution. He eschewed any footage from the period, relying entirely on interviews with the survivors, a handful of the murderers and bystanders. He built a massive cinematic machine -- almost ten hours in length -- and the result was a sense of a world too much like our own, in which lush green meadows are underpinned by human remains and the only stories we hear are a reminder of the mortality of the tellers. There are monuments scattered throughout the film, but they are merely empty signifiers that underline the absence of the pre-war Jewish civilizations that once existed in the vicinity. The only other reminder is the railroad, still running on the tracks that transported so many to death.


Shoah: The trains are still running . . . 

Shoah was, obviously, a one-off. Nobody was going to commit the time, energy and resources that Lanzmann poured into what was clearly for him a labor of duty. But other filmmakers with other stories of the destruction of European Jewry, not to mention millions of Poles, Roma and Sinti, gay men, union organizers and political dissidents, needed (and still need) to find their own way to show what is no longer there.

Grünberg, a veteran non-fiction film and television director with some forty titles to his credit, created a couple of solutions to the problem that show both ingenuity and an understanding of the dilemma. As you will see from our conversation, he puts the painting at the center of the narrative, as does Elbaum for whom the painting is a vivid reminder of her childhood in post-war Poland. More than that, working with local Polish animators, he is able to create a context for Elbaum and her family that both underlines the tragedies of the war years and the obstinate ordinariness of life even for Jews in the afermath.

Therein lies the other strength of Still Life in Lodz. Elbaum was born after the war. Her two companions in the excavation of memory, Paul Celler, an American Jew whose parents survived the Shoah, and Roni Ben Ari, an Israeli artist whose family escaped to Palestine, are second/third-generation bearers of the memories of the whirlwind that engulfed their forebears and, not coincidentally, their families lived in the same apartment complex as Elbaum's in the once very Jewish city of Lodz.

As a result, Elbaum is very specifically a source of memory, and Celler and Ben Ari fill in a lot of the blanks. 

And yet, the images of decay and destruction are never far away. Lodz, like most of urban Poland, has had hard times aplenty. The neighborhood in which much of the film takes place is rundown, the apartment complex in question awaiting renovations that it badly needs. The courtyard is virtually waste ground and the film's palette is dark and more than a little grim. 

Despite that, Still Life in Lodz feels affirmative, but not in a Pollyanna-ish way. Some scars don't heal, despite generations passing. The film feels a little baggy in structure, in part because Elbaum is the only link between the other two participants, so Grünberg is unable to give the film more unity. That, as any non-fiction filmmaker can tell you, is the risk in making a film without a script, one in which no one knows the ending. Still it's a small inconvenience compared to making a film about a world that no longer is there.

N.B. My conversation with Slawomir Grünberg, which took place last week while he as in Mexico, suffered a little bit from the distance between us. Early in the interview there are a few hiccups in transmission but I think the meaning of his comments is clear.


For information on screenings of Still Life in Lodz go here; you will also find listings of special events including Q&As with the filmmaker and subjects, go here. There are some exciting events coming up, so you should go there right now!

As for Shoah, the main news is that the film, which has long been hard to see, in part I suspect because of its extreme length, is now availableto purchase and rent in the United States and Canada, and will become available for streaming on IFC Films Unlimited in June. It will be available for purchase and rental on the Apple TV app, iTunes, Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu in the U.S. and on the Apple TV app and iTunes in Canada.

Sunday, March 07, 2021

I'm teaching an on-line mini-class on recent Israeli film

The Edlavitch DCJCC, which is also responsible for the Washington DC Jewish Film Festival every year, has been offering a variety of film classes over the past year and I have had the pleasure of teaching several. The latest, Masterworks of Israeli Cinema 2, begins on Monday evening March 15, and there are still openings available. The focus this time around is on recent films, ranging from Alma Har'el's Bombay Beach (2011) to Michal Aviad's Working Woman (2017). (My undergrads are going to have a fit; they're always asking why we don't do more recent films in class.)

If you are interested in seeing me pixilated in a one-inch box, talking about film, here's your best chance.



Ecocide: The Gift That Keeps Taking

 The Oregon hill country is lush with forests. Given the importance to the state's economy of the logging industry, it is one of the last places in the United States that you would expect to find a fight over the wholesale spraying of defoliants. However, as the  new documentary The People vs. Agent Orange  vividly shows, an all-too-common combination of corporate cupidity, married to the vast powers of capital and driven by the thoughtless fecklessness of bureaucrats can lead to the unimaginable. 

Unsurprisingly, the unimaginable had already happened fifty years and four generations ago when a very similar set of lethal chemicals were unleashed on the people of Vietnam. Operation Ranch Hand was a devastating program of massive use of defoliants primarily the eponymous Agent Orange, in quantities that passed 20 million gallons in a brief period of time. As U.S. spokespersons and their corporate counterparts repeatedly told us, this was war, with the unstated concomitant that we barely acknowledged the existence of international treaties banning such chemical assaults. 

Alan Adelson and Kate Taverna, the film's co-directors, co-writers and co-producers, spent over a decade tracing the global settings of this story, following lawsuits, demonstrations and international tribunals as individual activists have tried desperately to secure something like justice for the victims of the use of these chemical assaults. 

Tran To Nga outside a Paris courtroom

Carol Van Strum with rescue animals in Oregon 

The resulting motion picture is not merely an infuriating reminder of the endless price in human suffering and ecological mayhem inflicted by the heedless, profligate use of these herbicides, balanced against a powerfully motivating portrait of two strong women advocates, Tran To Nga in Vietnam, and Carol Van Strum in Oregon, and the communities of support they have mustered. One would hope for nothing less given the story The People vs. Agent Orange tells. Almost as important, the film is an elegantly structured tapestry that travels through fifty years of political and personal stories scattered globally with a large but compelling cast of characters. It is also a handsomely nuanced work formally that utilizes the palettes available in an array of footage to underline the cost of defoliation in visual terms.

The film opened Friday, March 5, and is available on over three dozen streaming platforms around the country. For a listing of available sites, go to the film's website

I spoke with Adelson and Taverna last week and the interview is below.



Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Return of a Filmmaker Who. . .

 If you missed Lynne Sachs last month (check out my interview here), you have another chance to see a selection of her films, chat with her via Zoom and hear from and about the composer who has scored five of her films, Stephen Vitiello, courtesy of Los Angeles Filmforum

Lynne Sachs 

In addition to Film About a Father Who. . . . which is running through February 22, LAFF will be screening several of her earlier works. Sachs will be on hand virtually for a Q&A on February 19 and Vitiello will follow on the 21st. Needless to say, highly recommended!



Monday, February 15, 2021

Getting Inside 'A Cantor's Head'

About fifteen years ago I reviewed a lovely film about one of the unique characters in Jewish music, Cantor Jack Mendelson. Mendelson is a New Yorker by birth, upbringing and temperament, one of the last advocates for the dying art of hazanut, the beautifully filigreed, intensively expressive cantorial recitative that was once the lingua franca of Jewish liturgical music. Mendelson is a powerful proponent of this music, teaching at both Conservative and Reform cantorial schools and, as was clear from the 2005 film, A Cantor's Tale, an engaging, larger-than-life character who takes pure delight in imparting his tradition enthusiastically to anyone who will listen. 

In the time since that film, directed by Erik Greenberg Anjou, premiered, Mendelson's life has had its share of chaos, most notably a painful negotiation with the Westchester synagogue at which he served as cantor for many years that resulted, essentially, in his being forced out of the post. As f the film makes abundantly clear, the Temple Israel Center wanted somebody younger and more "user-friendly" than Jackie; the position has been filled at least twice since his contract ended and the congregation is still seeking a permanent replacement.

Inevitably, Anjou had chosen to revisit Mendelson to catch up on his multifaceted career. The result, A Cantor's Head, was completed in 2019, then got caught up in the pandemic, but it is beginning to make its way through the Jewish film festival circuit. Happily, the film has a distributor, ODFD (Oded Horowitz), which released the excellent Israeli doc, Picture of His Life, which I reviewed here last June

Cantor Jack Mendelson does his thing

Tale was a neat, self-contained story with the focus on Mendelson's warm personal style, his quirky sense of humor and his advocacy for hazanut. By contrast, Head is less formally perfect but in almost all ways a more intense, deeply felt film, one that goes behind the seemingly placid, lively facade that Mendelson maintains as protective coloration. Anjou smuggles out from behind that curtain a lot of painful, difficult material, from the difficulties of Mendelson's relationship with his doting mother to the dreadful after-effects of the departure from Temple Israel Center. The result is a more powerful work than the first film. It exacts a certain emotional price on both its central figure and the audience, albeit one worth paying.

A Cantor's Head is surprisingly melancholy, for all Jackie's effervescence. Although he is in the best vocal condition of his life as he nears 70, and is eager to continue to spread his own unique blend of spiritual intensity and knockabout wit, he is beginning to adjust to the reality that the music to which he has dedicated himself for a lifetime is not sufficiently appreciated in congregations chasing after an elusive (and possibly non-existent) "younger membership." (I'm a synagogue president; I know something about this situation.) To his credit, Mendelson taps into a deep wellsping of anger and frustration and brings out of it passion and humor. We see excerpts from a one-man show he has been touring with, performances with a huge range of Jewish musical stand-outs, ranging from the Klezmatics' Frank London (who also worked on the film's score) to opera star Neil Shicoff, Jackie's teacher for operatic material. We are even, startlingly, allowed to sit in briefly on a session with his therapist. You can see the trailer for the film on Vimeo. 

Anjou has directed numerous other Jewish-themed films in addition to the Mendelson diptych, including The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground and Deli Man. We spoke via Zoom a week or so ago, focusing on Erik's relationship with Cantor Mendelson and the immense frustrations falling on indie filmmakers in the age of COVID-19. 


Keep an eye out for the film. It should be available sometime this year, I hope.



Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Interview with a Filmmaker Who . . .

One of the pleasures of doing this job for an extended period of time is that you get to watch filmmakers develop longitudinally. I've been writing about and chatting with Lynne Sachs for something like twenty years. She is a savvy filmmaker whose work straddles the boundaries of experimental, non-fiction and essay films quite adroitly. Her new film, Film About a Father Who, marks the first time in her career that she has had the benefit of a distributor and theatrical engagements, a breakthrough that, understandably, thrills her.

What makes it particularly enjoyable for Sachs is that the film is a jagged-edged amalgam of footage shot over nearly forty years, ranging widely in visual quality, aspect ratio and texture, with no concessions to the mainstream concept of a neat and orderly film. In other words, it's an uncompromising personal documentary, very much a Lynne Sachs film, but one that most audiences will definitely get. Film About focuses on her singularly unusual family constellation, which revolves around the supernova that is her dad, Ira Sachs, Sr. Over the course of 75 minutes and three generations she gives us a series of slow reveals that at first amuse, then shock the viewer. To put it mildly, Dad is not your ordinary family man. (As usual I will eschew spoilers, but suffice it to say, he has more than one big secret.)

Ira Sachs, Sr. recumbent -- the eponymous "father who"

Every bit as important as the premiere of the new film, Sachs is also the subject of a mid-career retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image, which runs from January 13-31. Among the highlights are new HD presentations of early films -- Drawn and Quartered (1987), The House of Science: a museum of false facts (1991) and Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Viet Nam (1994) -- and the premiere of the latest in her ongoing series of portraits of her children, Maya at 24. For a full listing of the program go to movingimage.us/LynneSachs/.

The interview with Lynne Sachs which is posted here took place last Sunday afternoon via Zoom.


There's a famous exchange between John Ford and a French critic. The interviewer asked Ford why the theme of family was so important in his films. His reply was brusque: "You had a mother, didn't you?" 

Sachs had, indeed has a mother. She does make a fleeting appearance in the film, but the title tells you who the central figure is. He's a charmer, a seducer and probably a monster, but Sachs withholds final judgment with the cool detachment of a Jean Renoir. Film About a Father Who shows offer her strengths admirably and is a heck of a good way to begin 2021.







Saturday, January 09, 2021

Not exactly on Film, but . . .

 Taking a quick look at the rather meager output on this page during 2020, I was struck by the inadvertent prescience of some of the headlines I'd written. Specifically, ""How Weird is the World Right Now?"  "Polarization as an Excuse for Assassination" and "Can Somebody Please Clean Up This Mess?"

Dylan Thomas once said, "Just because it 'goes without saying' doesn't mean I'm not going to say it." In this case, the House of Representatives is saying it more succinctly than I ever could. 


That's not the entire indictment, of course, but you get the idea. 

And there is a splendid cinematic context for this. The documentary Boys State, which is attracting a lot of justified praise for its recounting of the model congress staged in Texas annually for interested teens, introduces viewers to, among others, a completely ruthless young man for whom politics is a game devoid of any ethical content. Winning is everything, finishing second nothing, and the only measure of a tactic is whether it works. Needless to say, this has a familiar ring. The film is entirely worthy of your time and can be streamed on Apple+. But before you've seen it, you should read a piece by Roger Berkowitz of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, which you can access here

I grew up in Democratic Party politics. My father (of blessed memory) was a county chairman and state vice-treasurer of the Party when I was a boy and I did my first electioneering from a stroller in the nascent shopping malls of Dutchess County. One of the lessons I've carried through life having watched Dad successfully negotiate the shoals of party politics is to distrust people for whom politics is a parlor game, a test of wills in which the outcome of events can be reduced to who wins and who loses.

If I can pass along a little piece of advice to Donald Trump's allies on Capitol Hill courtesy of film and theater, specifically Clifford Odets's The Big Knife, "When you first you scheme, you marry that scheme and all its children." The character, Smiley Coy, who says that is an utterly amoral fixer for a corrupt oligarch. Sound counsel from an unlikely source perhaps, but who knows the smell of offal  better than the butcher?


Wednesday, January 06, 2021

Cine-Journal 3.0? Something like that . . .

What a long, strange trip it has been. As I’m writing this, lunatics spurred on by a criminal maniac are storming the U.S. Capitol, many of them waving American flags and chanting “U-S-A,” and American history is turning into a John Carpenter movie.  Reminds me of a prediction from Huey Long, “When fascism comes to America it will call itself Americanism.”

But if you are reading this, you are probably more interested in my thoughts on film than the train wreck that is our political life. If you are a regular reader of this blog and have followed it from the beginning – August 2006 believe it or not – then you know that over the past 13-plus years, I have followed the film world in a variety of ways, often with an emphasis on Jewish-themed cinema, since I was the film critic for a Jewish newspaper for over 26 years. I thought, foolishly, that when I left that position I would be free to cover the wider range of cinema and would be posting more frequently.

You need only look at the archives of the blog to see how that worked out. A few weeks ago I realized that I have been writing frequently and at length almost without surcease for more than thirty years and teaching almost non-stop for the past six. I guess I needed a break.

In a rather bleakly ironic way, the pandemic gave me one. I’ve been teaching on-line since mid-March but other than comments on student papers I have done very little writing since April, the last substantial series of posts here. It’s not as if I’ve used the time to revise and re-evaluate my thinking on film. That is an ongoing, day-to-day process, fueled by my teaching and by the Heraclitean experience of watching film itself evolve.

Simply put, that is the job.



Yes, this is part of the job, too.

The experience of remote teaching has been a mixed blessing, a subject for another time. However, it did give me an idea for re-inventing Cine-Journal, which is what happens in this space next.

One of the beauties of on-line teaching is the ability to record a class more or less in its entirety. I’ve always prided myself on my interviewing and I realized that this technology would allow me to record interviews and provide the videos on the blog. (Yeah, I know, everybody in America knew this before me.) This is truly the Lazy Man’s Road to Enlightenment – journalism without the messy, time-consuming problem of writing and editing. In short, Heaven.

Mind you, I will certainly continue writing, here and elsewhere. In fact, for the first time in several years I am starting work on a couple of book projects. Amusingly, despite my first commitment professionally being to film, I have yet to write a film book. Two books on Judaism, a baseball book, contributions to numerous reference books, but never a book on film. Hopefully that will change soon.

My late friend and colleague Damien Bona in the last couple of years of his life had become convinced that Andre de Toth was a filmmaker who had been seriously underrated by Andrew Sarris and others. At his urging I started looking back at de Toth’s work and have come to agree with him. His filmography includes some incredibly creative noirs and westerns and a genuinely unique film about the Holocaust. As far as I knoew, there aren’t any English-language books on de Toth, except for his own memoir and a book-length interview by Anthony Slide. That is a gap in the literature that I hope to remedy with a monograph in the next year or two. It’s not commercial, it won’t make me any money and it will necessitate watching The Mongols with Jack Palance and Morgan the Pirate with Steve Reeves, but it needs to be done.


No, really, it needs to be done. 

The other projects will remain a state secret for the time being; they are more commercially viable and I’m hoping for a major publisher, so right now it’s very hush-hush.

In the meantime, the work of ordinary film criticism goes on, new movies are dribbling out on-line, on streaming channels and even – dare we hope? – in theaters. The New York Independent Film Critics Circle will be holding the Iras in March and there are plenty of things to see. I haven’t been as assiduous as I ought but 2020 looks to have been a genuinely satisfying year, ground-breaking even, particularly in the realm of non-fiction film. I will have plenty to say on the subject, as you may imagine.

And a  newsworthy item for your edification.

After years of planning and work, the Jerusalem Cinematheque has developed a significant on-line archive at which you can stream a wide range of Israeli films from the past. They are offering a featured film for the week and I’m tickled that the first one of these I’ve encountered is But Where Is Daniel Wax? a 1972 film by Avraham Heffner. I have fond memories of this one, which I saw when I was covering one of the very first iterations of New Directors/New Films. As Ray Collins says in The Magnificent Ambersons, “Time and money are like quicksilver in a nest of cracks. When they’re gone you don’t know what you did with them.”

It seems I spent a lot of both in the movies.

 


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...