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.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

It's been months since i've last posted anything; though i've seen quite a lot since my last post, i've felt so dispirited that writing was all but impossible.

First off: tonight there's the Academy Awards. We have not watched an Oscar telecast in maybe two decades (if that). There's no interest in it. And over the years, people i've known have gotten nominated (imagine my surprise), but i have no interest in watching.

Thinking back, i have to say the moment that killed my interest in the Oscars was the year that "Platoon" was in the running. Willem Dafoe was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. And that was when he was still with Elizabeth LeCompte. Now, regardless of what i think of her as an artist (and i concede she is one of the premiere American experimental theater artists since the 1970s), as a person, she is the most insufferably snide, intolerably superior, hoity-toity bitches i've ever met in my life. So there she is at the Oscars, and the camera catches her at various moments (because she's next to Willem, and they're surrounded by other nominees), and she's putting on a brave, glazed face, with this sickening smile, trying to laugh at the lame jokes. Now: the Elizabeth LeCompte that i knew should have sat out the ceremony with a sneer on her face, making snide remarks about the stupidity of the whole thing. Instead, there she was, trying to turn herself into a supplicating Hollywood spouse (or spousal equivalent), and the spectacle was so grotesque that i swore i'd never watch the Oscars again. The term "grincing" comes to mind: watching Elizabeth LeCompte turn into a grincingly robotic Hollywood minion was just too much for me.

So i've given it a pass ever since. There was a period when the Oscar telecast was always opposite "The L Word", and every year, the episode of "The L Word" that was on Showtime was always one with a lot of hot lesbian sex! Watching Jennifer Beals or Katherine Moenning in the nude, or watching the Oscars: i'm sorry, is there even a contest?

That doesn't mean i don't understand the significance of the Oscars in terms of the motion picture industry. It's a signifier of respectability (at least, for the moment). And i always find out who won (now, it's instantaneous with the internet), but that's it.

So it's the Academy Awards, and people are getting bent out of shape over whether "Birdman" or "Boyhood" should win. All i can say is: good for the New York Film Festival (where "Birdman" had its North American premiere - it has previously played at the Venice Film Festival, where it won a prize - and was the Closing Night selection) and Sundance (where "Boyhood" premiered) and BAM Cinemafest (where "Boyhood" was the Opening Night film).

I've seen a lot of movies recently, but i've also been battling a cold. Yes, i know, it's going around, but this one was a humdinger! Wiped me out for at least two weeks, and i've got the remnants of sniffles. What that means is that there were several screenings which i missed, including the Dance on Camera screenings (one of my very favorite festivals, and this year, there were several films i wanted to see, such as a biography on Mia Slavenska - this film i actually saw in-progress about five years ago, so i wanted to see how they finished it - and Meredith Monk's "Girlhood Diary" and a film about the residency that Sally Gross did at the University of Wisconsin-Madison three years ago) and the press screenings for the Film Comment Selects series. While the Film Comment Selects screenings were being held, i could barely move! I've never before had such body aches accompanying my cold: it made me feel so old!

But already this year, there have been phenomenal movies in release. "Timbuktu". "Costa da Morte". "Hard to Be a God". "Queen and Country".  There was a series of Black Independent Films from the 1960s and 1970s at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which included a run of Kathleen Collins' "Losing Ground", and that was a major find.

The Rendez-vous With French Cinema series is now having its press screenings. I went to two days. The first day i saw "Mon Amie Victoria" (directed by Jean-Paul Civeyrac), "La Vie Sauvage" (directed by Cedric Kahn) and "La French" (directed by Cedric Jiminez). Actually, these films were quite good. The second day i saw "Metamorphoses" (directed by Christophe Honore) and "Le Dos Rouge" (directed by Antoine Barraud), and those films were so bad that it made me think i never wanted to see a French movie again. (I should qualify this: "Metamorphoses" is a modern-dress and undress of Ovid; it's terminally whimsical but it's easy to sit through. "Le Dos Rouge", on the other hand, begins very charmingly: a man is living with a woman who is cast in a play. Since she can't spend as much time with him, she has him call a friend of hers to go with him on his art jaunts. So the man and the woman, played by Bertrand Bonello and Jeanne Balibar, go to museums and galleries, looking at art, and they invent a game, where they have to find the monster in each picture. This part of the film lasts about half an hour, and it's charming, beautifully done with lovely camerawork and wonderful music, mostly classical. And the actors have a conspiratorial ease which is delightful. But then the movie takes a turn, and becomes intolerably pretentious, and it's more than two hours.  That first half hour made me think of Joanna Hogg's art narratives - "Unrelated", "Archipelago", "Exhibition" - which had been featured at the 2013 New York Film Festival, and were given at run this past summer at the Film Society of Lincoln Center - as well as some of the films of Eugene Green, such as his recent "La Sapienza". But Hogg and Green were able to sustain their narratives, and those films are just wonderful, but "Le Dos Rouge" shows how difficult it is to sustain this kind of artiness with any real conviction.)

Well, watched "Girls" (this has not been such a good season) and now watching "Grantchester". (I wish people who claim to have no interest in the Oscars would actually just stop watching: i hate reading people's stupid updates about the Oscars. Really: if you aren't in the Academy and don't vote, your opinion is useless, so shut up!)

Monday, January 12, 2015

I've found it difficult to focus on trying to articulate my thoughts. Too often, current events have been overwhelming my consciousness. And i start to feel inadequate in terms of understanding what's happening.

During the month of December, a lot of time and energy was spent on the various polls. This year, i was invited to three: Film Comment; the Village Voice/LA Weekly; IndieWire. And it proved to be tricky, because all the polls were different: it wasn't as if you could just plug in the same choices. The Film Comment poll was the easiest: it simply asked for a list of twenty films (ranked) and then a list of best undistributed films. For that poll, i couldn't think of a list of undistributed films: actually, one of my choices was Paul Harrill's "Something, Anything" (which i saw at BAM Cinemafest), but just before the deadline for the Film Comment poll, i got a notice that "Something, Anything" would get a one-week run at the IFP's Media Center. And then i got notices about one other film which was on my list, and i was so flustered that i couldn't go back and try to figure out other films seen at festivals which hadn't yet been given any sort of release. But i was able to list my Top Twenty.

I know that a lot of people were complaining about 2014 as a bad year for film, but i have no idea what they're talking about, because it seemed an extraordinarily rich and varied year in terms of the films which were released.  But i'll have to go into all that on my next post.

Just to say: the Sony hacking proved the vulnerability of communication in this electronic media age; the assassinations in Paris of the Charlie Hebdo staff was a chilling reminder of fundamentalism as a sociopolitical force. It seems as if every day, there are more reports of horrors around the world.

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!