Friday, December 09, 2016

In the last few days, have had a cold and spent the time trying to fill out my ballot for Indiewire's Best of 2016 poll (which was due by Thursday, December 8); actually finished my ballot by December 7. This was a diversion, as part of the rituals of "award season" that consume so much of the attention of those of us who write about film.

The national election has been a shock; a few days before the election, i was saying to a friend that, in my lifetime, each time there was the election of a Republican (each more repugnant than the last), i felt that fascism was coming to America. That was certainly my feeling with Ronald Reagan, and it was my feeling with George W. Bush. But Trump was such an obvious fascist. The fact is that, now that the dust has cleared, it's obvious Trump did not win the popular vote. There can be no denying that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. But Trump won the Electoral College, because he appealed to the racism of the middle of the country. And that brought fascism to the United States. I don't want to hear anything about the aggrieved white working class in the middle of America: they're not aggrieved, they're racists who wanted to feel superior to the West Coast and the Northeast, which were places which have become (by necessity) the places where the economies are in flux as information technologies have become dominant and everything (including the media) is now in development. And that anger became the motor for them to ignore everything except Trump's appeal to their white superiority.

So there are petitions and marches and any actions which can stem the tide of fascism in our country. But make no mistake: it is here, and every day brings new revelations as to the extent to which Trump despises the American democratic system, preferring to think that his election means he is a dictator who can impose anything at his will.

If i think about it too long, i'll just get more depressed.

So i take out my frustrations by thinking about something like the films of the year (which, by the way, happened to be a particularly strong year).

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

On August 29, 2016, the Film Society of Lincoln Center sent out a press release, announcing a new section of the New York Film Festival. This section was going to be called "Explorations," and the release stated, "Explorations is devoted to work from around the world, from filmmakers across the spectrum of experience and artistic sensibility. Some films are delicate, others more forceful; some are contemplative and some dive directly into the heart of their material. The one quality that they share is that they are adventurous and exploratory, in the very best sense of the word." There were six films announced for the section, Albert Serra's "La Mort de Louis XIV," Natalia Almada's "Todo lo demas," Douglas Gordon's "I Had Nowhere to Go," Gaston Solnicki's "Kekszakallu," Oliver Laxe's "Mimosas," and Joao Pedro Rodrigues' "The Ornithologist."

Douglas Gordon, of course, is an artist whose media works have often commented on film history, as in his "24 Hour Psycho" in which Alfred Hitchcock's film is scrutinized in super-slow-motion and blown up as an immersive environment; in "I Had Nowhere to Go," Gordon creates a portrait of Jonas Mekas, the singular spokesman for avantgarde cinema in the US, but focusing on his diaries from 1943 to 1949, in the period when he began his displacement from his Lithuanian home to his adjustment to living in Brooklyn. The soundtrack has Mekas reading from his diaries; for much of the film, the screen is dark, though there are flashes of images at certain moments, such as the beginning with a brief glimpse of Mekas in close-up. But the power of Mekas's words, and the vivid descriptions of his ordeals are compelling enough; the continuity of hearing this testimonial creates a theatrical experience which animates the darkness of the theatrical setting. And the poignancy of hearing a first-hand account of the refugee experience is particularly appropriate at this historical moment.

When the Explorations section was announced, and Douglas Gordon's cinematic portrait of Jonas Mekas was included, i was reminded of the very early days of the New York Film Festival. By chance, when i received the press release, i happened to find a book, "The New American Cinema: A Critical Anthology edited by Gregory Battcock," published by Dutton in 1967. Actually, what happened was that my nephew called, to tell me that he and his wife were cleaning out their apartment, and he was getting rid of some of the books which i had given him starting in high school, when he expressed an interest in movies. And "The New American Cinema" was one of those books. (My own copy of that book is hidden away somewhere.) So i went and picked up some of the books. In "The New American Cinema," i found that several essays address the situation of the avantgarde cinema in relation to the New York Film Festival. The reason for this goes back to the founding of the festival: Amos and Marcia Vogel had been the directors of Cinema 16, which had been a film-club in New York City which showed "independent" films, avantgarde films as well as documentaries, and foreign films which had not found commercial distribution in the United States. Additionally, Cinema 16 served as a distributor for these films to film clubs and university film societies across the country. So when Amos Vogel decided to close Cinema 16, there was a hole left in the exhibition and distribution possibilities for avantgarde films; what Vogel did (in collaboration with Richard Roud) was to start the New York Film Festival, and so many of the filmmakers who had previously been served by Cinema 16 felt abandoned. Was there a place for avantgarde film within the structure of the New York Film Festival, with its screenings held in the grand precepts of  Lincoln Center's Philharmonic Hall? This is a question which has remained unanswered, though there was the inclusion of the section "Views From the Avant-Garde" (now retitled "Projections"), and now, there is "Explorations" as another section to further the presentation of more experimental approaches to cinema.

But this year, i made the effort to see as many films as possible; attending the press screenings, i was able to see 45 films in all, with at least three films seen in every section. (The sections of the New York Film Festival are: Main Slate; Special Events; Film Comment Presents; Revivals; Spotlight on Documentary; Retrospective; Explorations; Projections; Convergence.) This was, in fact, one of the best festivals in a long time. And i'll be writing more in the next few days.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Though it's been more than six months since my last posting, it isn't as if i hadn't been busy. There were various festivals, including New Directors/New Films, BAM CinemaFest, NYCDocs, the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, the Art of the Real. Plus i've tried to keep up with films at places like Film Forum, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Anthology Film Archives, the Museum of Modern Art, and the new Metrograph.

But right now, all focus has been on the political arena. Last week, it was the Republican Convention, where (as expected) Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for President. Right now, the delegate count at the Democratic Convention is making Hillary Clinton the Democratic nominee for President. This has been one of the most contentious presidential primary seasons in memory. Each time a regressive Republican was nominated (Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush the second), i kept saying this is what American fascism will look like. But i was wrong, i had no idea that it would come in the form of a reality show host whose brand is garish and deficient luxury real estate.

The process of the Democratic nomination was actually quite exciting. Hillary Clinton was the presumptive nominee, but she faced a challenger in Bernie Sanders, who has been an independent politician. What was amazing was the amount of support Sanders was able to engender: his campaign made no concession to fundraising from corporate donors; instead, he was able to mobilize millions of people to contribute, mostly in small amounts. The passion he was able to generate was astounding.

Of course, there was no way that Sanders was going to go all the way to the nomination: he simply didn't have the apparatus of the Democratic establishment behind him. (By contrast, though Barack Obama started out as a similar outlier, he was a Democratic politician, and had roots in the party. Sanders doesn't have such roots, so that his challenge, though impressive, couldn't be sustained within the Democratic Party establishment. Quite frankly: he had the numbers in terms of the sheer amount of registered Democrats and independents who voted for him in various primaries, but there was no way he could get the superdelegates which were needed.) And now with the revelations of the ways that the Democratic Party establishment actively undermined and purposely tried to negate and ignore Sanders and his constituents, there's no wonder that emotions are running high at the convention.

People are making an analogy to 1968, but that's erroneous. In 1968, there were political protests everywhere: against the escalating Vietnam War, for black power, for women's rights. But these protests happened outside the conventions: at the Republican Convention, there was an active suppression, with the police making sure that the protests were kept away. At the Democratic Convention, the protests erupted into confrontations which, however, were still kept out of the convention proper.

What has happened in the five decades since is that, this time, the parties have hardened. For the Republicans, the coded interests (against blacks, against women, and a flagrant disregard for veterans) have simply become absolutely overt. For Democrats, the possibility of genuine reform has taken hold of the party, and cannot be ignored.

Yet the political situation is the United States remains volatile, and nothing in these two conventions has done anything to alleviate the problems.

Friday, February 19, 2016

It turns out that DCP (Digital Cinema Package) is not such a stable medium, after all. Today, one of the three movies press screened as part of this year's "Rendez-vous With French Cinema" turned out to be defective - it came without subtitles. So it was screened with a warning about the lack of subtitles. The film was "Bang Gang" directed by Eva Husson (which i really liked; i know there are similarities with Larry Clark's work, but it had a softer edge, the fact that it was written and directed by a woman made a big difference - it wasn't trying to shock you and drag you down). Turned out it wasn't too difficult to understand: my rusty French was just enough to keep me informed as to what was being said, and the film was pretty straightforward in terms of its narrative development. In fact, there's one scene where the kids are taking a Spanish class... and i understood that scene even better than i did the French, and i don't even know Spanish!

"Rendez-vous With French Cinema" is always one of the most popular series for the Film Society of Lincoln Center; when the Walter Reade Theater opened, and there was the first year's worth of screenings, it turned out that any French movie seemed guaranteed to garner an audience (especially an audience in the Upper West Side in the 1980s - it was the holdover of the movie audiences that had been used to seeing French films at the New Yorker Theater). But this year, there's also a sadness: one of the regulars that i would always talk to was Ronnie Scheib, the critic for Variety who died in October, 2015.

But that reminds me that in September, Ruth Emerson Wortis died. And when news of her death came, it turned out that, though her name is legendary in terms of the history of the Judson Dance Theater (Robert Ellis Dunn always credited Ruth for bringing up the idea of consensus as a means to discuss work, rather than immediate critique; Ruth was also the third person who went to the Judson Church, to meet with Howard Moody, the minister of the Church at the time - the other two were Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer), very few of the people who have researched the Judson Dance Theater ever met her. (She got married and moved to Canada by the end of the 1960s.) But it turned out, i knew Ruth Emerson: i met her in 1974! That was the summer when i graduated from Columbia University, and i was looking for a job; while i was sending out resumes, one thing i did that summer was volunteer at Elaine Summers' Experimental Intermedia Foundation. And during that summer, Ruth Emerson (who had hurt her back) came to Elaine's studio, for Kinetic Awareness work, to help her keep her back limber. One thing i remember was that she had been very close friends with Trisha Brown, which dated back to the time they spent with Anna Halprin. (I recently learned that she had been a close friend of Elizabeth Keen - they had gone to college together.)

When Wendy Perron, Cynthia Hedstrom and i did the Judson Dance Theater Reconstructions in 1982, i know i contacted Ruth Emerson, but she was hesitant about trying to recreate her work. Mostly it was because a lot of her own work had been solos (though she performed in a lot of people's work - Carolee Schneemann, Elaine Summers, Trisha Brown's group pieces, etc.) and there was a lot of improvisation in those pieces, and she had a hard time thinking of how she would teach someone else to do those dances.

There were so many people that i would meet then, but i'm glad i got to know her, even if it was only in passing.

The recent "Picasso Sculpture" exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art reminded me of the huge, museum-wide Picasso retrospective MoMA had in 1980 (when i was working there). One thing that happened during the exhibition was that the Department of Film got requests from film people to attend the exhibition. Quite frankly: what would happen was that the people would call to ask if they could get in, and we would make arrangements: they would be directed to come up to the Film Department offices, and one of the staff would then escort the visitor (with a visitor pass) through the exhibition. Usually it was to take them to the beginning of the exhibition, and then they could go off on their own. I remember that we all took turns, though there were exceptions: Steve Harvey made sure that he was the one to meet Audrey Hepburn. I remember that Steve Soba had to come in on a Saturday for Barbra Streisand. I got a lot of the younger actresses who had recently been nominated for Oscars, such as Jill Clayburgh and Talia Shire. Margareta Akermark, who was retired from the Film Department, somehow liked me, and so she had a number of people get in touch with me in order to see the exhibit. Those people turned out to be the women who were known for starring in Ingmar Bergman's movies. So that was how i met Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersoon, Liv Ullmann, and Gunnel Lindblom. I remember, after i met them, i was puzzled by the gloom in Bergman's movies. If i'd slept with "all those women" (as Bergman titled his bizarre attempt at a farce), i would have been one of the happiest men on earth!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

It's been months since i've posted. Blame it on lassitude, or ennui, or writer's block. In the last few months, there were a number of major events which forestalled any comment.

The New York Film Festival came and went, this was the first year since it started that i did not attend in any capacity. Since then, i've been playing catch-up on the films that were in the festival that have gone into release. I have been told that this was a singularly depressing festival, the culmination of which was the news of Chantal Akerman's death just before the screening of her last film, "No Home Movie". She wasn't just a filmmaker of genius, but a friend and an occasional neighbor (during the 1980s, when she was in NYC, she often stayed with Annette Michelson or at the Dia Art Foundation's Earth Room).

There have been many deaths to report, often the occasion of reminiscences with friends. At the end of 1969, when i was introduced to the staff of the Department of Film at The Museum of Modern Art, Charles Silver had just started working there, in charge of the Film Study Center. He retired in December of 2015, but he didn't have a chance to enjoy his retirement, as he died in January of 2016. And his death really shook me, because he was someone who was a friend for over 45 years! He devoted his life to MoMA's Department of Film, and that devotion manifested itself in the multitude of scholars and film enthusiasts (many of whom would become filmmakers) he helped over the decades.

Last week, i went to the press screenings of three out of the four films in Manoel De Oliveira's "frustrated love" tetraology: "Benilde, or The Virgin Mother" (1974), "Past and Present" (1972) and "Doomed Love" (1979); the final screening, which was on Friday, February 12, was of "Francisca" (1984); my attendance was thwarted by the MTA, once again there were substantial delays on the subways, making what should have been an hour long ride (i gave myself an additional half an hour, to be on the safe side) into one which would have taken more than two hours. (I'll try to catch "Francisca" when it's showing during its public screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.)

What surprised me about "Benilde" and "Past and Present" is that i didn't remember the films per se, but individual shots have been embedded in my memory. The opening and closing of "Benilde" in which the camera moves from or to a stage set to the scene; the final shot of "Past and Present", a slightly angled overhead shot in which the (unhappily) married couple arrives at the end of the wedding ceremony, only to wander aimlessly in the aisle: the minute these scenes came on, i knew i'd seen them before!

When Manoel De Oliveiera's death was announced, it was another occasion for sadness. "Doomed Love" was shown as part of New Directors/New Films in 1980; that was when i got to meet Manoel De Oliveira and his wife. They came in for the screenings, and were put up in the Warwick Hotel (on Avenue of the Americas, a block away from The Museum of Modern Art). As low man on the totem poll of the Department of Film staff, it was my task to meet the De Oliveiras every morning (around 10:30 AM) to give them their daily stipend, and whatever information they had requested. That included maps, tickets, etc. They didn't speak English, and i didn't speak Portuguese, but we communicated in French (fluent on their part, rusty and fractured on mine). What impressed me was their enthusiasm; he was 72 or 73 years old, she was in her mid-60s, but they were so excited. They'd never been to New York City before, and it was part of the adventure that began with the filming of "Doomed Love".

The public screening of "Doomed Love" took place on Saturday evening; the screening stareted at 6 PM, and Adrienne Mancia made the introduction. Then we all went to dinner. I don't remember which restaurant, but it was some place near MoMA; the dinner party consisted of Adrienne, Stephen Soba, the De Oliveiras, and me. Since "Doomed Love" is a movie of over four hours long, we were able to have a leisurely dinner of some three hours. I mentioned their enthusiasm; the conversation during the dinner (again, in variations of French) touched on many subjects. I remember the discussion of the making of "Doomed Love", how Manoel De Oliveira had retired and decided to make "Doomed Love", but since he couldn't find financing, he decided to shoot it in 16 millimeter, with the sets and costumes all done with the help of his family (Madame De Oliveira described how their sons had built and painted the sets). It was a labor of love, not just for Monsieur De Oliveira, but the whole family - they were doing it because he was retired and in his 70s, and they wanted him to realize his lifelong ambition to make this movie. (He had long been a fan of the novel, and envisioned a film of it in the 1930s.)

Their enthusiasm extended to travel: because of "Doomed Love", they had been invited to many international festivals, and they were excited at the opportunity to see parts of the world they'd never been to before: Asia (they were invited to the Tokyo Film Festival), South America, New York City. And then Monsieur De Oliveira mentioned that, when  they returned home, he wanted to film his "testament", because he didn't know how much longer he would have, but he felt it was time. (That film would be "Memories and Confessions", another film which played at this year's New York Film Festival.) Who knew that Manoel De Oliveira would have 35 more productive years?

One thing about the De Oliveiras was their generosity towards other filmmakers. They had been excited to meet the younger filmmakers represented in New Directors/New Films, and they had seen some of the films recommended by Larry Kardish and Adrienne Mancia. And they were great fans of Luis Bunuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini; i remember how they discussed "Salo" and Madame De Oliveira talked about the mixture of elegance and shock, and Monsieur De Oliveira talked about the artist's responsibility to be transgressive, that the artist had to have the strength to go beyond the usual restraints. (I know this impressed Stephen Soba and me: we were in our 20s, and here were these seniors extolling the virtues of transgression!)

The Belgian performance artist Jan Fabre once did a performance called (i think) "This Is The Theater That You Have Always Dreamed About"; in "Masculin Feminin", Jean-Luc Godard has the line about "the movie we secretly wanted to make, and, more secretly, wanted to live." "Doomed Love" was one of those movies which, when i saw it, i felt that this represented what i envisioned cinema to be. (In fact, in 1980, i saw the movie three times: the first time, a print was sent to MoMA so that Larry Kardish and Adrienne Mancia could watch it, and i watched it with them; then, the film was screened again in the little screening room of the Film Study Center, this time for Joanne Koch and Wendy Keys from the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and i watched it again; then i watched it again during the second public screening.)

So i have the fondest memories of the De Oliveiras, and i was delighted that he defied all odds, and embarked on the most productive part of his artistic career after the age of 70. I hoped he would go on forever.

Sunday, November 01, 2015

It's now the first of November in 2015: it's the day of the New York City Marathon, which is a big deal in my neighborhood, since the Marathon goes right through 4th Avenue in Brooklyn.

Once i had gotten out of the habit of blogging, it's been ten months since my last post. Since then, there have been screenings, festivals, even performances. Unfortunately, there have also been many deaths. Too often, it's been commonplace to say, "it's the end of an era," but in many cases, it really felt that way.

I had been trying to write an article about the deaths of Beverly Schmidt Blossom and Elaine Summers, when other people died, including Sally Gross, Shigeko Kubota, and Ruth Emerson. And that threw me, and i found it very hard to deal with the various emotions.

When i started the article on Beverly Schmidt Blossom and Elaine Summers, it was because what i had predicted years ago (by the mid-1980s, actually) had come true: the contributions of these women would not be acknowledged. This was especially the case with Beverly Schmidt Blossom. In the New York Times, Jennifer Dunning had written an extensive obituary on Beverly Schmidt Blossom, but Dunning concentrated on the work Schmidt Blossom had done as a solo dancer starting in the 1980s. And certainly, her solo dance career was distinguished and important.

But Beverly Schmidt Blossom (along with her partner Roberts Blossom) was significant in the history of "performance art" for a whole other reason. It is now open to question whether they were the first, or whether Robert Whitman was the first, but the Schmidt Blossom Dance Company (which was also known as Filmstage) did theater pieces in which film was used in the early 1960s. They were so unusual in creating these mixed media pieces that a number of artists decided that they wanted to work with them: Meredith Monk was one of these artists, and so was Yvonne Rainer. In fact, when i ran into Yvonne at the opening of the exhibition on Minimalism in dance and sculpture that was at the Loretta Howard Gallery (the show was curated by Julie Martin and Wendy Perron), i was telling her about how most of the obituaries on Beverly Schmidt Blossom omitted any mention of the Blossom Schmidt Dance Company, and Yvonne said, "I was in the Blossom Schmidt Dance Company," and i said, "I know!" When i wrote about the Schmidt Blossom Dance Company, i said that they would be ignored because they were not the "right" people: Beverly Schmidt Blossom had been one of the principal dancers with the Alwin Nikolai Dance Company in the 1950s (along with Murray Louis and Phyllis Lamhut), and Roberts Blossom had been an actor and director. Since the history of "performance art" was already being institutionalized in terms of the visual arts (an approach exemplified by Roselee Goldberg, and currently highlighted by initiatives such as the Department of Media and Performance at MoMA), they were the wrong people: Beverly Schmidt Blossom didn't come from Merce Cunningham, Anna Halprin or even James Waring, and Roberts Blossom didn't start out as a visual artist like Allan Kaprow, Robert Whitman, or Robert Rauschenberg. Yet their contribution to this field of "performance art" was at least as great as any of the other people mentioned, and the neglect they faced (by the 1980s) is symptomatic of the distortions that have become part of the historical record of the arts.

And so many other people have died. Jytte Jensen's death really was a great loss, because she was so committed to international exchanges in film, and her perspective was vital for MoMA's Department of Film. I've been going to the press screenings for Doc NYC, and i miss Ronnie Scheib, who died three weeks ago. She was someone i loved running into at screenings, because she always had such lively and wide-ranging insights into films.

What i loved about Jytte and Ronnie was that i felt there were other people who shared my particular perspective on film, a perspective which did not center on comic book aesthetics. Jytte's international approach to film led her to create several programs, such as the ContemporAsian series at MoMA, and the Global Film Initiative, and when i'd run into her, she was always telling me about a new discovery from another part of the world. She was really sick this year when New Directors/New Films was going on, and i kept hearing reports of her hospice care, and it made going to the screenings very melancholy, because i missed her. She was very passionate about New Directors/New Films: she'd been on the selection committee for so long, and she was always passionate about the films, and she couldn't wait to tell you about the films she felt were the true discoveries of this year's edition!

And Ronnie was always so astute about what was going on with films. During the screenings of various festivals, such as Rendez-vous With French Cinema or Open Roads: New Italian Cinema, we'd try to decipher what this year's selection actually meant in terms of film production in those countries, and also what image these festivals were trying to present. Last year, Rendez-vous With French Cinema had several films which were about "minority" communities in France, just as the year before, there had been a number of films which were directed by women. When you think about the controversies that have swirled around the American film industry (especially in terms of the Academy Awards), you could see how the French Film Office was trying to show how "progressive" the French film industry is in comparison to the US. But Ronnie and i would be puzzled at how other people didn't seem to be picking up on these things; instead, there was always coverage about Catherine Deneuve (who was in two films last year), rather than critics seeing the films and then trying to find the common themes of the films.

There are many other people, sometimes, it's hard to express just how much seems to be lost.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

In the last few years, each edition of Rendez-vous With French Cinema has had a point to make. Last year, it was that women directors and women writers were being given opportunities in France (more than half the films last year had women among the creative personnel); this year, it's that French cinema is open to the ethnic communities that are now part of France. This was also proven by the results of this year's Cesar Awards. But some of the films which have ethnic characters in this year's Rendez-vous selections include: "Mon Amie Victoria", "Hippocrate", "Qu'Allah Benisse la France", "Bebe Tigre". Certainly, there's more to say, but one can say the French film industry is trying to show diversity.