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.




Saturday, March 29, 2014

It's been more than a month since i posted a blog, and it's been a busy month: there were screenings for the annual Rendez-vous With French Cinema series, there were the press screenings for New Directors/New Films, and then there were press screenings for "The Art of the Real", a series curated by Dennis Lim for the Film Society of Lincoln Center. In addition, there were several events, such as the press preview of the Whitney Biennial (the last to be held at the Marcel Breuer building on Madison Avenue).

During the last month, there were the announcements of a number of deaths; in terms of film, three of the great filmmakers to emerge during the 1960s, Miklos Jancso (from Hungary), Alain Resnais (from France) and Vera Chytilova (from Czechoslovakia), died within the last month. All three had helped to define the modernist aspirations of their national cinemas. Chytilova, of course, was not just one of the major Czechoslovakian filmmakers, but also a notable feminist artist; while some of her colleagues, such as Milos Forman and Ivan Passer, chose to emigrate, she chose to remain in Czechoslovakia, in spite of the frustrations of political censorship. Her most famous film was the anarchic comedy "Daisies"; i've seen three other feature films, her first feature, "Something Else" (which i remember for the beautiful black-and-white cinematography, which rendered some of the scenes, such as the gymnastic exercises, remarkably abstract), "The Fruits of Paradise" and "The Apple Game". Jancso's "The Round Up" and "The Red and the White" announced a startling talent, a visionary filmmaker who used a constantly moving camera to reveal historical pageantry. For me, his most galvanizing films were those which also used music and stylized movement to convey emotional epiphanies; my favorites would include "Cantata", "The Confrontation" and "Red Psalm". Jancso was the most prominent of the Hungarian filmmakers from the 1960s, but others would include Pal Gabor, Karoly Makk, and Marta Meszaros (at one time, Jancso and Meszaros were married).

From 1959 through 1965, all "new" French films were classified under the rubric of the "New Wave", but we soon learned that there were different groups. Chiefly, there was the group which was classified as the critics from the Cahiers du Cinema (Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rivette, Rohmer, Doniol-Valcroze) and those filmmakers who were part of "the Left Bank" (Resnais, Chris Marker, Agnes Varda, Henri Colpi, aligned with prominent writers such as Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Cayrol, Marguerite Duras). Although there was a tendency to concentrate on the thematic continuity of Resnais's early career (specifically, the power of memory), his early films showed a great stylistic variety in abstracting dramatic construction. Throughout his career, Resnais's interest in formalism was a defining characteristic. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s, Resnais's early features ("Hiroshima Mon Amour", "Last Year at Marienbad" and "Muriel") seemed to define one of the most radical approaches to film form.

The Nouvelle Vague seemed to proclaim the French film industry as one of the most exciting places for the development of cinematic aspiration: there were filmmakers who were making films which attempted to redefine, extend and subvert normative formal and narrative structures, and those filmmakers were also connecting to audiences. This was the promise of the cinema: that there could be an art which could be of the utmost intellectual and formal rigor, as well as an art which would prove to be popular. Resnais had achieved this with his first two features, "Hiroshima Mon Amour" and "Last Year at Marienbad"; French cinema had become synonymous with adventurous filmmaking, and that continues to be the expectation which fuels the interest in the annual Rendez-vous With French Cinema. And so any comments on the films i saw during this year's edition of Rendez-vous With French Cinema must be tempered with the kinds of expectations which one brings to the films.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The weather continues to be atrocious: it has been one of the coldest winters on record, with below freezing temperatures going on for a month, and every week a major snowstorm. But this is happening throughout the US, not just in New York City. But we're really suffering through a particularly bad winter.

The last week has brought a number of events, but i'll concentrate on movies.

First: Turner Classic Movies does have an agenda, a hierarchy as to what is important and what is not. As anyone who watches TCM knows, February has always been "31 Days of Oscar", showcasing Oscar-winning and/or Oscar-nominated movies (with an overlap into March, since February doesn't have 31 days). Now, in the last week, two more major film people died: one was the Danish director Gabriel Axel (whose "Babette's Feast" won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1987) and the other was Shirley Temple (who was awarded a special "juvenile" Oscar in 1934). This, in addition to the previous week's loss of Maximillian Schell and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Well, Shirley Temple is the only one who rates at TCM: immediately upon the announcement of her death, TCM prepared one of those "TCM Remembers" spots, and a tribute to Shirley Temple on the TCM website, and an announcement that there will be a day devoted to her films in March (as soon as 31 Days of Oscar is over).

Now, yesterday, "The Young Lions" was shown (it was nominated for several technical awards in 1958); this was a TCM premiere (it was a 20th Century Fox film) and there was a little intro by Robert Osborne (it was shown at noon) to announce the fact. Now, this would have been a perfect opportunity to acknowledge Maximillian Schell (who was making his debut in American films with "The Young Lions"; the importance was that the occasion of being brought to the US to be in this film allowed Schell to work in NYC, where he appeared on Broadway and also did several live television broadcasts, one of which was "Judgment at Nuremberg"; when it came time to make the movie, Schell repeated his performance as the defense attorney and won an Oscar). No; no acknowledgement of Schell, nothing.

Second: the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) awards were this weekend. Because of distribution patterns, several movies which have been award favorites here in the US were excluded (most notably "Dallas Buyers Club"), but this whole award season has been one of extremes, but also one of great variety. I hate watching award shows, and i didn't bother watching the BAFTAs, but Cate Blanchett's speech was much discussed: she sidestepped the whole "issue" of Woody Allen by dedicating her award to the memory of her friend, Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Blanchett, of course, is nominated for her part in Allen's "Blue Jasmine".)

One death which really affected the art world was the sudden death of Hudson, the proprietor of Feature Gallery. Roberta Smith wrote a highly appreciative obituary in The New York Times yesterday.

Today, there was a discerning obituary about Stuart Hall in The New York Times (written by William Yardley), who died last week. Hall's importance in the development of "cultural studies" was duly noted, but also his assessment of the decline of cultural studies: "If I have to read another cultural studies analysis of 'The sopranos,' I give up," Mr. Hall said. "There's an awful lot of rubbish around masquerading a cultural studies."

In January, there was a lot written about the Sundance Film Festival; the Berlin Film Festival just finished its annual run. I hope i'll be able to get to more screenings, but this weather has been tough! It's supposed to warm up this week, but next week there's another plunge into freezing! I just want this winter to be over!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

On Facebook, i often post on deaths of artists, writers, actors, directors, dancers, especially if i knew them. It's getting to the point where so many people that i've met over the years have died, and it's always sad. Another factor in terms of Facebook is that many friends post links to obits, often as soon as the news of someone's death is announced, and that's one way of finding out about these passings.

That's how i learned of the death of Nancy Holt. Mira Schor posted a link to an obituary that was published on the Artforum website. She was a brilliant and articulate exponent of Earth Art; of course, her early work was overshadowed by her status as the widow of Robert Smithson, but she developed her own distinctive vision. In many cases, i only knew her work from photographs, because those works were installed at remote locations. However, on occasion she did work in film and video, initially in collaboration with her husband. But my memories of Nancy had to do with the period when i had moved from Morningside Heights to Soho (which happened in 1980); there were friends that i had, and we'd meet up at art openings and talk about art, and Nancy was one of those people. We already knew Nancy because, when we working for Eva Wisbar's VRI (a film and video distribution company that often worked in conjunction with Castelli-Sonnabend Films), we were involved in the distribution of the films and videos that Nancy and/or Robert Smithson had made. But Nancy was one of those people i'd hang out with; i hadn't seen her in a while (i think the last time might have been during the Robert Smithson retrospective at The Whitney Museum of almost a decade ago), but i remember those days.

Today, woke up to two passings of note. The first was from Denmark: Gabriel Axel, award-winning producer-director of "Babette's Feast" (which i watched again last week), died at the age of 95. And this morning, news of the death of Shirley Temple Black, the most famous child star in history. Remember watching her movies on TV when i was a child; until the mid-1960s, her films were ubiquitous. She died at the age of 85. Of course, she was the first to receive the juvenile Academy Award (an honor which would be given to such others as Deanna Durbin, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Peggy Ann Garner, Claude Jarman Jr., and Ivan Jandl; the last would be Hayley Mills, after that, the award was discontinued).

Well: two more people to be ignored by Turner Classic Movies during 31 Days of Oscar!


Saturday, February 08, 2014

Just for the record, this year, i was asked to participate in the annual CriticWire poll on IndieWire, and in the annual Film Comment end-of-the-year poll, but i was not asked to participate in the Village Voice/LA Weekly poll (the first time since the poll started, but then, the entire editorial team at those papers went through such convolutions). And since the Film Comment poll consisted of listing a "top twenty" (ranked), here is my list, which was compiled as of December 11, 2013. There were several films which were in release before the end of 2013 which did not screen in time, but those are the breaks, so here's my list of the Top Twenty of 2013, as usual, my inclination is more on foreign films and independent films than studio releases.

My Top Twenty of 2013: 1) "Caesar Must Die"; 2) "A Touch of Sin"; 3) "The Last Time I Saw Macao"; 4) "Upstream Color"; 5) "Leviathan"; 6) "First Cousin Once Removed"; 7) "The Square"; 8) "Old Dog"; 9) "Something In the Air"; 10) "Hannah Arendt"; 11) "Stories We Tell"; 12) "Night Across the Street"; 13) "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet"; 14) "I Killed My Mother"; 15) "Gravity"; 16) "Her"; 17) "Much Ado About Nothing"; 18) "Museum Hours"; 19) "Blue Is the Warmest Color"; 20) "After Tiller".

A few notes. Of these films, five were directed (or co-directed) by women ("Leviathan", "The Square", "Hannah Arendt", "Stories We Tell" and "After Tiller"); six were directed by "old masters" (directors whose careers started prior to 1980, i.e., "Caesar Must Die", "First Cousin Once Removed", "Something In the Air", "Hannah Arendt", "Night Across the Street", "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet"); five were documentaries (though there was also one which started out as a documentary but was edited into a fictional narrative; the documentaries: "Leviathan", "First Cousin Once Removed", "The Square", "Stories We Tell" and "After Tiller"; the one-off: "The Last Time I Saw Macao").

At the end of the year, there were several articles about the film industry which were sobering. The film industry has done a terrible job in terms of diversity. The number of women who were able to direct and produce projects within the industry has actually been on the decline! And the numbers weren't that great to begin with. One reason for this is that, since a woman was acknowledged with an Oscar as Best Director (Kathyrn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker"), the studio executives started to feel that the job was done, and they went back to their b.s. reasoning about how limited the audience is for "women's films" (which is untrue, since films starring women, such as "The Heat" and "Gravity", did spectacularly at the box office) and so many female-initiated projects stalled. This was also a banner year for black films, with Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" (if Film Comment had asked for Best Director, he would have been my choice), "Lee Daniels' The Butler", Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" and Alexandre Moors' "Blue Caprice" among the films which not only wound up getting made, but also found some measure of box office success. But none of these films was done at the major studios: the biggest studio release was "Lee Daniels' The Butler" which was a production of The Weinstein Company. But in terms of diversity: the motion picture industry is doing an absolutely horrendous job, they couldn't do worse if they simply signed up for the Ku Klux Klan!

Friday, February 07, 2014

Of course, a lot has been happening. I finally made it to a press screening yesterday, which meant going on the subway and going into Manhattan. No major mishaps, but i was nervous. The film i saw was "Child's Pose", a Romanian film directed by Calin Peter Netzer. Romania is one of the countries that's been in the midst of a cinematic flowering, ever since Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. In many ways, the current Romanian cinema is reminiscent of the Polish cinema of the 1950s and the Czechoslovakian cinema of the 1960s, in that the filmmaking is often plain, but the writing is layered and complex.

It's hard to explain one's aesthetic choices. The reason i say that is i have enjoyed almost all of the Romanian films i've seen, but it's not like i rush to them. I'm not resistant to these films, but there are other films that excite me more. But i don't like to simply make a blanket statement about any category of film, but one has one's preferences. It was like the 1980s, when Chinese language films were making their way to the arthouse network in the West. I found most of the films from China to be rather formal, pageant-like, and remote dramatically. The films coming out of Taiwan, on the other hand, i found to be so enthralling; i was just excited by them, because they seemed to very contemporaneous and vital. Far more vital than anything coming out of the People's Republic of China. But that was my opinion, or my taste, or my preference, whatever you want to call it.

With that caveat, i'll leave critical thoughts about Romanian films for another date.

I mentioned award season, so i would like to discuss something i found very troubling this week. Turner Classic Movies is having its annual 31 Days of Oscar, which is a round-up of the usual suspects. Every year, there's usually one anomaly. This year, on Tuesday, the scheduling during the day involved some nominees and winners for the category Best Foreign Film, and i watched "The Burmese Harp", "Z" and "Babette's Feast". I have all those films on DVD, but i felt like my friend Michael O'Sullivan, who has the blog "Mike's Movie Projector" (www.osullivan60.blogspot.com): even if he has the DVD, if the movie comes on TV, he feels compelled to watch. I hadn't seen "The Burmese Harp" in quite a while, and i was astounded at the luminosity of the black-and-white cinematography. It reminded me that Kon Ichikawa is one of my favorite Japanese directors.

But what i found troubling: when a movie star dies, the TCM staff usually whips up a little "TCM Remembers" spot. In December, there was a period when they really had to work overtime, because there were a number of deaths that came one right after the other, including Eleanor Parker, Joan Fontaine, and Peter O'Toole. Well, this past weekend, two major Academy Award-winning actors died: Maximillian Schell and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And so far: nothing. Nada. Rien. Not even a "news item" on the TCM website! And certainly not a "TCM Remembers" spot. And the point is: it would NOT be inappropriate to create such spots for both of these men, because both were nominated four times (the kicker for Schell is that his fourth nomination was for his documentary "Marlene", which he produced and directed) and both won in the category Best Actor. Today, for example, was supposed to be a day filled with nominees and winners in the Best Actor category (the spotlight this evening was the nominees and winner from 1953: Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster for "From Here to Eternity", William Holden - the winner - for "Stalag 17", Richard Burton for "The Robe" and Marlon Brando for "Julius Caesar"), and it would have been a perfect time for some sort of tribute to Maximillian Schell (Best Actor for "Judgement at Nuremberg") and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Best Actor for "Capote"). If two Academy Award winning actors don't rate some sort of memorial during 31 Days of Oscar, when are they supposed to be remembered?

TCM, however, is making a lot of these (dubious) value judgements. This happened in December, when Paul Walker ("The Fast and the Furious") and Tom Laughlin ("Billy Jack") died, and they were not considered worthy of any sort of notice from TCM. Why? Isn't TCM supposed to be a television station devoted to movies? (I was alerted to this oversight by Joe Baltake, on his excellent blog The Passionate Moviegoer, i.e., www.thepassionatemoviegoer.blogspot.com.) And weren't they movie stars of some renown? But the cavalier ignoring of Maximillian Schell and Philip Seymour Hoffman, during 31 Days of Oscar, is really shocking. It's a disgrace, and there's no excuse.