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

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.


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