Sunday, October 26, 2014

The New York Film Festival ended on Sunday, October 12th, and i must say that it proved to be an exceptionally good festival. Not only that, but i have to say that it might be considered a defining festival, because this is the second festival under the directorship of Kent Jones, and it definitely established itself as distinct from the festivals under the fist director, Richard Roud, and the second director, Richard Pena; most specifically, it ended on a high note, one which (i think) proved to be historically significant.

During the first week of press screenings, there were indications that there might be special events which were not being revealed at the time. Last year, the "sneak preview" screening which had been introduced three years ago (the film was Martin Scorsese's "Hugo") was not included. The problem has been the brouhaha over the sneak preview of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln"; the critical acclaim for that film (and for Daniel Day-Lewis' performance) drowned out whatever critical reaction attended such films as Robert Zemeckis's "Flight" (with its performance by Denzel Washington) which had been the closing night selection. So the distributors and studios which had their films booked as part of the Main Slate of the festival felt duped, and there were complaints. This year, the sneak preview turned out to be Noah Baumbach's "While We're Young" which, though it got a solid critical response, did not swamp the hype around David Fincher's "Gone Girl" (opening night) or Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" (centerpiece) or Alejandro G. Inarritu's "Birdman" (closing night).

But the film which trumped every film in the festival was the surprise film that had its press screening and its public screening on Friday, October 10th: Laura Poitras's "Citizenfour"! By this point, the film has opened in several major cities, including New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. There's a lot to say about this film, but i should like to say that the screenings on October 10th were galvanizing: it felt historic! The New York Film Festival was taking a bold stand, and the focus on documentaries which is becoming a defining characteristic of the current artistic direction of the Film Society of Lincoln Center had premiered a documentary which was truly a part of history. And in this, Kent Jones was making a bold statement about his stewardship of the New York Film Festival. I can only say that this documentary about Edward Snowden was extraordinary, truly thought-provoking and brilliantly structured so that it was informative and politically volatile. What a coup!


Thursday, October 09, 2014

Spent the past three weeks at the press screenings of the New York Film Festival, and was all set for this week's final lap when i wound up waking up all achy with a stuffy nose and sore throat. I usually wind up getting one cold a year, but each time, it's a real knockout.

I'm hoping to get to the last of the screenings, but i'll see how i feel in the morning.

The screenings were very pleasant, but i was rather disturbed by the fact that there weren't many people at most of them. Of course, for Mike Leigh's "Mr. Turner", the place was packed (and that's where i'm pretty sure i got my cold, since there were people hacking all over the place). In fact, that was the last screening i attended, before waking up after the weekend and feeling like i'd been hit with a ton of bricks. But for Eugene Green's "La Sapienza" or Abderrahmane Sissako's "Timbuktu" (two of the best movies at this year's festival), you couldn't give seats away. And there weren't many people for the Dardenne Brothers' "Two Days, One Night" or Pedro Costa's "Horse Money" or even Godard's "Goodbye to Language". (Aside from the full house for "Mr. Turner", the only other screening that was filled was for Mathieu Amalric's "The Blue Room".) And i thought i was being very careful, and avoiding the big ticket items on the program (Fincher's "Gone Girl", Damien Chazelle's "Whiplash", Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice").

But this has been a very strong year. There were only a few films which i thought were egregious. Even those films had some merits.

Last year, the festival introduced a sidebar about the work of emerging filmmakers. Last year, there were two: the Mexican Fernando Eimbcke (who had made three features: "Duck Season", "Lake Tahoe" and "Club Sandwich") and the British Joanna Hogg (also three features: "Unrelated", "Archipelago" and "Exhibition"). This year, there isn't an emerging filmmaker sidebar; instead, there is a "filmmaker-in-residence", the Argentine Lisandro Alonso (represented by his latest film, "Jauja"). Now, i've seen three of his previous features ("La Libertad", "Los Muertos" and "Liverpool"), and found him to be a genuinely accomplished filmmaker. "Liverpool" was an extraordinary movie: a film of long takes, often in longshot, of a sailor returning home to a remote village in Argentina, and the snowy wintery landscapes which seemed to express his alienation from his home, as he sought to reconnect, only to find nothing there.

"Jauja" is his attempt at a "big" film: a cast of professional actors (including Viggo Mortensen and Ghita Norby) and a period setting. Something was off from the very beginning: the movie never seemed to find its center, and it dragged fearfully. For a filmmaker whose work is predicated on the precision of his visuals (since his work often features long sequences without dialogue), the attempt at a visual conceit (to create within a square frame, like the old apertures) seemed rather paltry. In a way, this was an example of the Film Society of Lincoln Center playing catch-up: Alonso's films had been shown at Anthology Film Archives, and i actually caught up with his films when they were shown at the Arsenal in Berlin four years ago. So "Jauja" should have been a work which pointed to a major filmmaker, but it was the wrong film. In this, it reminded me of the situation of Edward Yang: his work was ignored by every "major" film festival in North America, so his early films ("That Day, on the Beach", "Taipei Story", "The Terrorizers") were all shown at the Asian-American International Film Festival. When the New York Film Festival finally caught up with Yang, it was with a lesser film, "A Confucian Confusion." But those are the breaks, and so it is with Lisandro Alonso.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

What began to happen by the end of the 1970s (and which precipitated the ouster of Richard Roud) was the sense that the boutique status of the New York Film Festival had to change. There were changes in the film industry, and the rise of independent films in the United States. Actually, there had been a sidebar at the New York Film Festival, which was held at the Paramount Theater (which was the funny semi-underground space at Columbus Circle, which is now where one of the Trump buildings stands); this was the precursor of the Independent Feature Film Project. I remember seeing a few of the films in the series. If i'm not mistaken, one of the films was Victor Nunez's "Gal Young Un"; i remember Richard Roud saying that he felt this was an important change in American film, and that this independent and regional filmmaking would prove to be where the art of cinema would develop.

The trajectory of the New York Film Festival was, initially, as a two-week event held at Philharmonic Hall (which was, of course, one of the grand concert halls in New York City, though there were always problems with acoustics); then, it became an event where the Opening Night and Closing Night were held at Philharmonic Hall, but the rest of the screenings were held at Alice Tully Hall (a smaller venue, slightly over 1,000 seats, as opposed to the 3,000 of Philharmonic Hall). The shift meant that, in most cases, the films were scheduled for two screenings.

This still left the problem with those films which were defiantly non-commercial, even anti-commercial. How can you fill 2,000 seats for a film like "Othon" (by Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet)? Well, the answer is: you really can't. So there would always be those films where there'd only be one screening, because practical considerations had to come into play. I think there started to be some tension, because you couldn't keep programming films which you knew wouldn't attract an audience. Of course, for Richard Roud, this wasn't an issue: he felt that the education of sensibility was crucial, and that an audience would develop if information was provided. That's why he started the Cinema One book series with Penelope Houston and Tom Milne through the BFI (in the US, it went through several different publishers), and two of the books were his monographs on Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Marie Straub.

Yet in the earliest days of the New York Film Festival, there was the disparity between the Philharmonic Hall space and the films. I remember that Renata Adler mentioned this when she reviewed Jean Renoir's "Toni" when it was shown: the delicacy of this black-and-white film made in 1935, swallowed up by the cavernous space of Philharmonic Hall. The incongruity of showing a film like the Straub-Huillet "Not Reconciled" at Philharmonic Hall wasn't lost on anyone.

And now, with the many different spaces available to the Film Society, the festival has changed and grown. Within the last decade, there was a capital campaign which Richard Pena had undertaken; one of the results was the building of the Elinor Bunim Murray Film Center, a three-theater complex. This was in addition to the Walter Reade Theater; of course, a number of the Main Slate screenings are still held at Alice Tully Hall, but the variety of theaters has allowed. Last year, for example, in addition to the Main Slate, there were different sections: Emerging Artists (a focus on two filmmakers, the English Joanna Hogg and the Mexican Fernando Eimbcke), a Spotlight on Documentaries; two specific documentary foci, "How Democracy Works" and "Applied Science", as well as Revivals and Restored Film, a Retrospective, and Views from the Avant-Garde.

Is this expansion of the New York Film Festival really necessary? That i can't answer, but i'll say two things: as a curated event, even in the many sidebars, the quality of the films has been quite extraordinary. For example: among the documentaries shown last year were "Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq", "The Dog", "Fifi Howls from Happiness", "Manakamana", "What Now? Remind Me" and "Who Is Dayani Cristal?" All of those films were released or broadcast to great acclaim. The second point i'd like to make is that i understand all these film organizations are trying to change with the times, but i can't help but feel nostalgic for the days of the exclusivity of the old New York Film Festival. Even if you didn't like some of the films, you knew that there was a selection committee and that someone had fought for that film.

I mentioned that Richard Roud had ignored a number of significant filmmakers and film movements. By the end of the 1980s, this actually worked to my advantage. The reason was that the Asian-American International Film Festival picked up the slack. If Roud had no interest in films from Iran, well, that was ok, we showed Abbas Kiarostami's "Close-Up"; if Roud had no interest in films from Taiwan, that was ok, since we showed the early films of Edward Yang (all his films up to and including "A Brighter Summer Day") and Tsai Ming-liang. But Richard Pena's reign at the New York Film Festival was marked by a more flexible aesthetic. Richard Pena really did try to include films which marked significant advances, or films from areas of the world which had not been explored. He tried to make sure that the Film Festival was representative of the best of the current cinema, rather than representative of his particular perspective on the cinema. Now we're in the second year of Kent Jones's directorship of the Film Festival, and the retrospectives that have come under his supervision (Jean-Luc Godard last year, Joseph L. Mankiewicz this year) certainly are indicative of his previous work as a film programmer and curator. But one of the emphases seems to be having some Main Slate selections which are part of the award season package: last year, these films included "Captain Phillips", "Her", "Nebraska" and "12 Years a Slave". Perhaps notably there were also those films which caused considerable consternation; seeing the languid tableaux of Tsai Ming-liang's "Stray Dogs", it reminded me of the rapture i felt watching Marguerite Duras's "The Truck" while most of the audience were ready to riot. In this sense, the New York Film Festival remains true to itself, a test of the audience's endurance. It's nice to know some things never change.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

This year, the New York Film Festival will show the latest film by Jean-Luc Godard (his 3D "Goodbye to Language") and the last film by Alain Resnais ("The Life of Riley"); during the first New York Film Festival, Godard was represented by the omnibus film "RoGoPaG" and Resnais was represented by "Muriel"; what was so striking about "Muriel" was that it was greeted with what seemed to be universal derision. Of course, there were a few exceptions (Andrew Sarris and Susan Sontag wrote essays about the film which were salutary if not laudatory), but "Muriel" brought out the beast in a lot of people covering that first festival, including John Simon, Dwight MacDonald, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, and Judith Crist.

In her classic essay "Film and the Radical Aspiration" (originally presented as a lecture at the third New York Film Festival), Annette Michelson gave one of the most articulated analyses of "Muriel"; here is her conclusion:

"The two explicitly political passages in these films are both distanced, bracketed as spectacles or diversions. In 'Hiroshima (Mon Amour)', the anti-war demonstration is inserted as a film sequence enacted within the film, while, in 'Muriel', the Algerian war is evoked, not shown, in an amateur movie, by an agonized verbal commentary (the account of a young girl's torture by French soldiers) in counterpoint to the series of innocuous amateur shots that parody the myth of barracks life hilarity.

"This sequence constitutes the most brilliant, the definitive articulation of the disintegration of a cinematic arena for political discourse. The despair over that disintegration is the film's central political 'statement.' The 'statement's' intensity, however, is further amplified through the further distancing of bracketed statement from itself (the distance between image and commentary). Its isolation within the texture of the total work, its particular, stylistic disjunctiveness, its own colorless color, are slightly at odds with the disjunctiveness and invented color of the whole. Through a speculative and stylistic refraction, Resnais proposes an image of the shameful scandal that generated the Fifth Republic. His trope is that of the caesura. The crack, the flaw, the rhythmic visual gap or caesura created by this interlude or 'diversion' is the form of Resnais's declaration of aphony. It declares his nostalgia for the film that could not be made; it incarnates the artist's struggle with the dissociative principle and the politics of dissociation."

Through her analysis of the usage of disjunction and dissonance as the structuring device of "Muriel", Michelson articulated the disapprobation which greeted the film at its New York Film Festival premiere, as the symbol of the extreme formal experimentation which was at the heart of Resnais's practice at that time. And it crystallized the negativity which surrounded most of the coverage of the New York Film Festival in its early years, as a site where the simple pleasures of movie-going were being elided in favor of works which demanded special attention.

By the fifth New York Film Festival, a lot of the initial animosity towards the New York Film Festival started to abate; in 1968, Pauline Kael wrote:

"In recent years, the movie audience has split into the audience for popular films - the mass audience - and the art-house audience, and movies, once heralded as the great new democratic art, have followed the route of the other arts. The advances are now made by 'difficult' artist who reach a minority audience, and soon afterwards, the difficult artists, or their bowdlerizers, are consumed by the mass audience. Yesterday's interesting, difficult new directors become commercial, and their work becomes part of the film industry's anonymous product, which will never be compared to Chartres. Infrequent moviegoers are likely to be irritated when they go to a highly recommended art-house picture and find it bewildering and obscure. What they may not be aware is that in this new, divided world of film the commercial movies have become so omnivorous and so grossly corrupt that frequent moviegoers may, for the first time in movie history, be looking for traces of talent and for evidence of thought, and may care more for an 'interesting' failure than for a superficially entertaining 'hit.' During the last New York Film Festival, I, for example, was impressed by a film called 'Signs of Life,' written and directed by a young German, Werner Herzog, even though the film was maddeningly dull and lacked flair and facility, because Herzog was clearly highly intelligent and was struggling toward a distinctive new approach. As a casual moviegoer, I might have thought: What a bore! As a constant one, I thought: This young man, I hope, will invent the techniques he needs, and the movie itself is a sign of life."

The New York Film Festival became, for many of us, a de facto "academy" in which our cinematic sensibilities were educated, as "difficult" works were absorbed and investigated. In a sense, one of the delights of the festival was sitting in the audience for a particularly difficult film, and watching as a large part of the audience decamped during the course of the screening. Part of the comedy of the festival was the fact that, year after year, Richard Roud would insist on programming these filmmakers (Bresson, Jancso, Straub-Huillet, Marguerite Duras, Jacques Rivette) who were sure to try the patience of the movie audience. However, it should be stated that there were cracks that started to develop by the mid-1970s; although there were always films which had been programmed as a concession to popular taste, there was also a resistance by Richard Roud to some of the more innovative cinema, particularly in regards to formal radicalism as related to feminist and gay sensibilities (i'm thinking in particular of Chantal Akerman and Werner Shroeter; in both cases, their films were not screened at the New York Film Festival, but at The Museum of Modern Art due to the programming efforts of Larry Kardish and Adrienne Mancia). By the 1980s, when Roud willfully ignored the currents of international cinema coming from the Middle East and Asia (in particular, the films from Iran and the films from Taiwan), there was the beginnings of the disaffection which would cause his ouster. But for a quarter of a century, Richard Roud established the New York Film Festival as the site of a genuine education in cinematic sensibility. I can certainly say that i benefited from having my knowledge of cinema tested through screenings at the New York Film Festival from its earliest incarnation to the present.


Monday, August 18, 2014

The last month has been traumatizing: it's gotten so that it's hard to look at the news. Ferguson, Missouri; Gaza; Syria; the Ebola crisis in Liberia; the Ukraine... it's too much!

An artist i know on Facebook posted a statement to the effect that he's had to tune out some of the news, because if he dwelled on it, he would be too depressed. But it's not like he's insensitive; rather, he'd be almost paralyzed if he really concentrated on current events. And i know exactly how he feels.

But i'd like to try to focus on matters that i feel competent to write about, but even that's getting to be dicey. I didn't realize i was so depressed until about a month ago. So i shall explain.

In the last few days, there have been some discussions on Facebook among my friends. One was a thread started by the filmmaker Saul Levine; it began with a discussion about efforts to restore some films by Marjorie Keller. And it became a discussion about many filmmakers whose works are too little known or remembered. Of course, this is such a big issue now, when this whole history of the avantgarde cinema is muddled by conflicting perspectives. At one point, i mentioned a screening i attended (probably around 1970) of films by Jerry Joffen, and there was some comment about the fact that he was one of those filmmakers that was mentioned by a number of people (including P. Adams Sitney) as an influential artist. At one point, Bill Brand wondered when i was going to write about my memories of these filmmakers and artists, and i really didn't have a reply.

And the other day, Sturgis Warner posted a video interview with Jeff Weiss, with whom he'd worked. One thing that Sturgis mentioned was that Jeff believed in the theatrical experience, and he didn't want his work filmed or videotaped. And so Jeff Weiss's work exists in the memories of those who had the very good luck to be able to see it.

In a way, that's how it used to be with performance events. In the past, there was a reliance on eye-witness accounts: reviews, written testimony. Reputations were created through the critical literature of the time. It is through that critical literature that we have the records of great performances.

What's happened with the traditional valuations of art is that the notion of the avantgarde has called into question traditional values. As Susan Sontag noted, "For instance, there is the kind of seriousness whose trademark is anguish, cruelty, derangement. Here we do accept a disparity between intention and result. I am speaking, obviously, of a style of personal existence as well as of a style in art; but the examples had best come from art. Think of Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Jarry, Kafka, Artaud, think of most of the important works of art of the 20th century, that is, art whose goal is not that of creating harmonies but of overstraining the medium and introducing more and more violent, and unresolvable, subject-matter.... Clearly, different standards apply here than to traditional high culture. Something is good not because it is achieved, but because another kind of truth about the human situation, another experience of what it is to be human - in short, another valid sensibility - is being revealed."

The problem hasn't been the acceptance of other valid sensibilities, it has been the devaluation and the lack of comprehension of the traditions of high seriousness, high culture. It is a situation of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as well as throwing out the bathtub.

But i've been observing a lot of the evolution (or devolution) of the arts in New York City since the 1960s; i've written about it, i've edited and published other people's writings about it, i've curated and produced and presented exhibitions and works about it.

None of that seems to matter any more. In the last few years, i've found out that whatever i have to say, no one wants to listen.

A few years ago, i was asked to write about the Judson Dance Theater on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary. I did; the article was never published. I never even heard back; i sent it in, as requested, and nothing. And that's happened to me so often. Or take this as an example of how much my opinion matters. Last summer, i suddenly got e.mails from someone i know, asking me about some performance artists of the 1970s. So i answered. How was i supposed to know that this person i know was involved in curating an exhibition about Performance Art of the 1970s? Except he hadn't seen a lot of the performance artists involved, so he had to ask someone who had seen them. My opinion was so important that i wasn't invited to the party; i wasn't even invited to the opening.

So when Bill Brand asked when i would get to writing about the art/film/performance since the 1960s, i wanted to answer, no one wants it. And i already know that. If that's not enough to make me depressed, i don't know what is enough.

Ok: i'll give another example. Two years ago, when the New York Film Festival was celebrating its 50th Anniversary, i wanted to write about the fact that so much of the actual history of the festival was being elided and ignored. The reason was simple: Richard Pena, who had been the director of the New York Film Festival for the last 25 years, had just announced his retirement. So the celebrations for the anniversary of the film festival were tied to events in honor of Richard Pena. Which is fine. Except that, during the spring of 2012, Amos Vogel had died. In 1962, when the New York Film Festival was started, the founders of the festival were Richard Roud and Amos Vogel. Richard Roud died about a year after his retirement from running the festival, but Amos Vogel was always at events at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and it wasn't unusual for Amos and his wife Marcia (who had served as the administrator of the festival in its earliest days)  to attend screenings for the New York Film Festival. So it would have been fitting for some sort of memorial event to have occurred during the anniversary celebration, to honor one of the actual founders. But it never happened. In fact, the Film Society of Lincoln Center totally ignored Amos Vogel. (Anthology Film Archives wound up having a series of screenings in his honor.) But no one seemed to care about the hideous slight that the Film Society of Lincoln Center was doing to Amos Vogel. Certainly, no one involved with the New York Film Festival.

I would like to write about these things, but i'd like to know that they won't just be ignored. But since that's been the case, it's left me in a quandry.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Can't even remember when the last time i blogged; it's been awhile, and yet i've been very busy. I have been seeing movies, going to screenings, everything from Rendez-vous With French Cinema to Open Roads: New Italian Cinema to Human Rights Watch Film Festival to BAM CinemaFest to LatinBeat. This year, there were many fine films, both in these festivals (as well as New Directors/New Films, the Art of the Real series, etc.) and in release. And there are still movies in release which i haven't had time to see, but at this half-way point in the year, it's a very strong year.

But before i get into the movies i've seen, i'd like to discuss something that happened in the last two weeks.

I can't even remember when i joined Facebook, but i know that i joined because Norman Wang (who has been living in Hong Kong for the last two decades) sent me an invitation. Since i had no idea of i'd ever visit Hong Kong again, i figured that this would be a way to stay in touch. And Norman is one of those people who always posts photos of what he's doing, people he's with, his activities at film festivals, et al. And soon, i was in touch with a lot more people through Facebook, in some cases, people i hadn't seen in years.

Anyway, about a year ago, i got a "friend" request from someone i haven't seen in maybe 15 years (at least). When i knew him, he had dropped out of the Rhode Island School of Design, and he was stripping at gay clubs. We were trying to get him to go back to school, we were trying to convince him to start doing art. (His particular interest was multimedia installations.) But there were problems, he got sucked into that whole club scene.

I had no idea what had happened to him. And then i got the "friend" request. On his page, it seems he did graduate from college (though not from an art school), and for a while he was working in a hospital. But he started working for a "house music" company. He was also engaged, and there were a lot of photos of his fiancee on his FB page. One thing that was so noticeable was her enormous breast implants. The "selfies" that he posted on his page showed that he'd been bulking up; i hate to say it, but there was obvious steroid usage.

Then, two weeks ago, on his page, someone posted "RIP"; then more of his friends posted. There was a posting from an aunt, asking what had happened. And then a posting from his mother. The police had been in contact with her, and she had been asked to come and identify the body, as well as make arrangements.

There was a distinct dichotomy: there was his family, there was some anger, and there were his friends, who all expressed their sorrow and the "fun" they shared. In fact, there was a thread in which his aunt expressed her anger over his friends and his lifestyle, explaining that the family had become concerned and was about to intervene but he had died before that could happen. After a day, it was deleted. Friends are just posting their condolences, and a few memorials. One thing that did come out was that he had died, and his fiancee was in the hospital. I have no idea what happened, and i don't feel that there's any way i can find out.

It was a shock: he hadn't reached 40 years of age.

Last week, in The New York Times, there was one of those paid obits, and i was in shock: Claude Simard had died. He was an artist and gallerist (he was the co-owner of the Jack Shaiman Gallery). The photo that was published in the Times showed a very heavyset man: i didn't recognize him.

This pointed out that i hadn't seen Claude in about five years. But there was a time, about 25 years ago, when i saw Claude every week. We'd been part of a group that would take an aerobics class on Thursdays; the class was this marathon, which would last for about two hours. Claude and i were among the group that always stayed through until the end. And that was also the period when Chelsea was becoming the neighborhood for art, after the gentrification of Soho. At that time, Claude was very thin. He'd also been doing some performances, often in galleries or museums in Canada (Claude was originally from Quebec). We published a piece that Claude wrote about his performances in PAJ.

We went to the memorial service for Claude last Wednesday.

I can't get over the fact that these people, one a contemporary, the other much younger, have died.

Time must have a stop, and sometimes it does.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

April 29, 2014 and it's been a month, not bad actually but rather trying in terms of (once again) health issues. The beginning of April saw a spate of medical appointments, and everything's checked out: the problems resulting from my kidney stone have all abated. But then, i got this cold which seems to be going around, and it seems to linger, three weeks now!

However, back to the movies. In the last month, there haven't been as many screenings as in the past two months. For one reason, most of the screenings were connected to the Tribeca Film Festival, but it's been three years since i've attended the Tribeca Film Festival, so i have no idea how the festival has been developing. During the times when i got to go to the Tribeca Film Festival, there were always a few notable foreign films which somehow had fallen through the cracks, films from China or Thailand or Iran, but that doesn't seem to be the case now. There were always a lot of documentaries, and evidently the documentary section remains quite strong. 

One subgenre in the documentary field that seems to be flourishing is the art documentary. Some that i've seen recently include "Breaking the Frame" (about Carolee Schneemann), "Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton", "20,000 Days on Earth" (about Nick Cave), Tacita Dean's "JG", "Visions of Mary Frank", "Sol LeWitt", and "Llyn Foulkes One Man Band". One documentary which played at Tribeca that garnered attention was "Regarding Susan Sontag". (Evidently, Robert De Niro Jr. has finished the documentary he's been working on about his father, and it's supposed to air soon on HBO.) The question with these films is whether or not they make the creative impulse comprehensible, if they find a way to create a cinematic equivalent for the creative act.

One film which i finally got to see was Pawel Pawlikowski's "Ida"; it's rather a surprising film, since i'm familiar with Pawlikowski's previous feature films, "Last Resort", "My Summer of Love" and "Woman In the Fifth". Pawlikowski's family emigrated from Poland to England when he was fourteen; he attended university in England, where he studied film, and then worked in documentary before making his first feature film, "The Stringer", in 1999 (it's the only one of his feature films i haven't seen). But "Ida" is a taut, highly concentrated study of a young novice who is required to spend time with her family before she takes her final vows: her family turns out to be an aunt she doesn't know. The film is in black-and-white, it's set in Poland in the 1960s, and it deals with the repercussions of the Polish treatment of the Jews during World War II. It's quite a resonant and haunting film, bracingly unsentimental, and with flashes of humor. 

Seeing "Ida" after seeing films from Rendez-vous With French Cinema, New Directors/New Films, and The Art of the Real, it reminded me of two things: 1) films have always been quite seductive in terms of bringing specific cultures to us, and the strength of "Ida" is in the details of Polish society which are presented; 2) many films are made in a post-nationalist context, in which filmmakers find stories in other cultures. Pawlikowski had been developing a career in Great Britain, but "Woman In the Fifth" (which is the least successful of his films) indicated that he was looking beyond Britain (it's set in Paris), and now he's made a film in Poland (where he was born) which has proven to be his most impressive film to date.

But the question of nuance, of the specific details which provide the impetus for a film, is as important in documentary as in fiction, and too often, these are being eroded. "Ida" shows how engrossing a film so enveloped in nuance can be.