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.
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.
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.