Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tuesday, February 28.

Today was fascinating but (again) can't comment on it. But missed the Whitney Biennial preview. It was (evidently) a huge event! As expected.

However, came home and watched "American Idol"! Finally! Got to see the ten female finalists. From what i saw (and heard) there were at least two that should be go, but we'll see what happens. Fox is wiping the floor with the competition, and with these 90 minute shows (tomorrow is another 90 minute show, showcasing the ten male finalists), nothing stands a chance. Larry went to openings, but came back in time to see the show. We agreed that Brenna Gethers and Heather Cox just couldn't sing the songs they chose to sing. (So did Paula, Simon and Randy.) But we were impressed with Mandisa... i forgot where it was (it might have been in Entertainment Weekly) where she was picked out as an early favorite, but was told that with that first name, she doesn't need another. And she's since dropped her last name.

The Village Voice has a fascinating article about a controversy in dance. Deborha Jowitt talks with Tere O'Connor about his "reply" to a review by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker. What freaked people out was that it was a favorable review, but he still felt that she didn't really "understand" his work. I don't know why people are freaked out: most artists i know are like that! When i wrote for The Soho Weekly News, since my "beat" was avantgarde films, i was always getting letters from the filmmakers, and i never wrote a "negative" review. Well, not about an avantgarde film, because i always felt that, since i was one of the only ones who would even notice those films, why pick on them? If i made a joke, it was always about some Hollywood blockbuster. But no! Every single filmmaker expected me to become an acolyte, to write from their point of view. Since most of them were about as talented as a flea circus, what were they, nuts? And now, it turns out that choreographers are just as nutty. Well, i always knew that. Most of the choreographers i know (and i've known a lot) just want someone to follow them around and write about them. But i feel so out of it: i had no idea this controversy had erupted. Shows you how removed from dance i've become (and thank god for that).

Well, that's it. Have to prepare for another day in the dungeon!

Monday, February 27, 2006

Showbiz deaths supposedly come in threes: yesterday was proof positive, with the deaths of Don Knotts, Dennis Weaver and Darren McGavin. Interesting that all three attained their greatest fame on television.

Exhausted after the first day of panel, but sworn to secrecy so no comments. Can't imagine how it's going to be by Friday!

Larry and i indulging in our favorite Monday night pasttime: watching the old detective series "77 Sunset Strip" and "Bourbon Street Beat". On the episode of "Bourbon Street Beat", the guest star was Shirley Knight. This was in 1960, after her first Academy Award nomination for "Dark at the Top of the Stairs". Shirley Knight did a lot of TV in those days: we caught her on an episode of "Johnny Staccato" and we saw her on an episode of "Hawaiian Eye". Strange to think she won a Tony Award for being in a Robert Patrick play.

Shirley Knight was notorious for driving people crazy who work with her. Poor Francis Ford Coppola! He had planned to do "The Rain People" with his favorite actress, Elizabeth Hartman, who had just found out she was pregnant. So that's where the idea of a (semi-improvised) movie about a pregnant woman came in. But Hartman lost the baby (miscarriage) which actually spiralled her into depression and (ultimately) suicide. But Shirley Knight became the fast replacement... and Knight turned out to be pregnant at the time.

But she terrorized people on the set, especially James Caan. She did everything to upstage him, as she would do on the set of "The Group". I remember running into a friend, a famous playwright-director, who had just done a play with her. He hated the experience so much, he refuses to allow that play to be done in New York City (even though his career has since undergone a revival), because, under the Equity contract, Knight has the right of first refusal, and he'd rather that play never see a New York City staging. I told him about Francis Ford Coppola's experience on "The Rain People" and my friend said, someone should have warned me!

Sunday, February 26, 2006

The art season.

Usually, at this time, i split my time between art events (The Art Show at the Armory, the Whtiney Biennial, the Armory Show - which is distinctly different from the Art Show at the Armory; a little confusing there) and screenings. But this year, for various reason (namely, screenings), i decided to forego the art events. Do i miss it? I don't know. What's out there? Are there new artists? It's always interesting to see the "hot" names of the season.

Looking in the Sunday Styles section of the NY Times, there were photos from the gala that Asia Society had, with its new exhibition celebrating the Rockefeller Family collection of Asian Art. The other day, Larry went to the press preview, which turned out to be a luncheon, and he wound up being seated with Charles Rockefeller. And in the photos of the gala, there's Charles Rockefeller! Larry loves these situations, because he loves to talk to people, etc. I hate it. I've become worse with the years, almost surly and noncommunicative. Whatever bubbly, friendly vibe i seem to have has flattened out, almost totally. When i go to an event, i'll talk to the people i know, and that's about it.

But the panel meetings this week means i definitely lose out on the Whitney Biennial. I'll definitely have to see it at another time. (I'm already behind with the Without Boundary show at MoMA.) I hope it's fun, but i'm getting the distinct impression that there's a lot of nostalgia going on.

Today, Mark Streeter is showing "Rockaway" and William E. Jones is showing "Is It Really So Strange?" at Anthology. Got an e.mail from Roddy Bogawa; his "I Was Born But..." was shown at the Forum in Berlin. I wish there was a way for these films to get better distribution; i wish there was a way for these films to get any distribution. Yesterday, "No Down Payment" was on TV, and it was one of those sad movies... not because of the story per se, but because it was one of those movies (like "The Best of Everything" or "The Group") where the cast consisted of people "on their way up or on their way down" (to quote "A Letter to Three Wives") and it's sad to see that for every person who "made it" (Joanne Woodward, Tony Randall), there were people whose careers never really took off (Barbara Rush, Patricia Owens, Sheree North). Most people never think of that, but i do. Just as this past year, Gregg Araki finally got out of his development hell deal with MTV and just did a movie, and Ang and James Schamus rebounded after the crushing failure of "The Hulk", so there are always going to be people like William E. Jones, for whom the "exhibition" possibilities for his films are going to be sharply limited. With Bill and Roddy, the idea of focussing a work on pop culture obsessions should have made their work more viewer friendly, but how can that be tested if the works aren't given the chance to be seen?

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Tried to blog but a computer malfunction knocked out two previous attempts to post.

Some notes. "Palais Royal" at the Rendezvous With French Cinema screenings was a star-studded (Catherine Deneuve, Lambert Wilson, Mathilde Seigner, et al) "comedy"; left me of two minds. One: could see why it's "popular" and why it's considered a crowd-pleaser; two: it's the kind of "cute" French comedy that makes you know why people no longer bother with French movies. Then onto Anthology for two films by Alexander Kluge: "Yesterday Girl" and "The Patriot". Aside from the merits of the films, some immediate impressions. 1) When "Yesterday Girl" was shown at the NY Film Festival, it was one of those ubiquitous movies that one saw and instantly thought, "Godard"! 2) Kluge has struggled to define a truly personal style, but, though he's highly intelligent, often his movies seem like a thesis rather than a work of art. 3) The 16mm prints were really in such poor condition, and it made me wonder about the times i would see some really shoddy prints at places like the Thalia, Theater 80 St. Mark's, the Elgin, etc.

Finally (on Friday, Feb. 23) saw a really strong entry in the Rendezvous series: Laurent Cantet's "Vers le sud". Cantet has done some of the stronger movies from France in the last decade, such as "Time Out"; usually his focus is on labor. This one is different: it's not set in Europe, it's centered on women, it's about sex. But it's a very tough movie with good performances.

Was going to catch two more Kluge screenings, but got hysterical messages on my cellphone from Larry: the boiler went out. Instead of trying to take care things, Larry's first response is always hysteria. We have a Keyspan serviec contract; all he has to do is call Keyspan. He did, but i decided i'd better get back. Such are the joys of home ownership.

But Keypsan wasn't able to come until after 6; i had to leave, but Larry was willing to forego one evening of art openings. I had to get to the Cave Canem poetry reading at the Studio Museum in Harlem. It was my first audit for the New York State Council on the Arts in about three months! Audits have become few and far between, and i'd already committed to this one two weeks ago, and i couldn't back out at the very last minute. But i was glad i went: turned out to be quite enjoyable. And (for a poetry reading) a huge audience: over 100 people.

Today watched "Mrs. Harris" on HBO. Haven't really made up my mind about it, because it was so over-the-top in many scenes, and that seemed deliberate, but was it successfully stylized or just too much?

Tried to cram in as much screenings as possible; next week shall be out of commission, on a grant panel for five days. That's all i can say, am sworn to secrecy otherwise. But should mention that reading Michael Giltz's blog makes me feel like so out of it. This season, haven't been watching "American Idol" or "Dancing With the Stars" or "Skating With Celebrities". I have no idea which four got eliminated this week from "American Idol": i don't know if i'll ever catch up.

But have taken the opportunity afforded by TCM's 31 Days of Oscar to catch up on some truly hideous movies. Last night, watched "A Song to Remember". Truly terrible! 31 Days of Oscar is always the worst programming event on TCM's schedule, and a sure way to prove that the Academy Awards are useless, because if most of the films shown during 31 Days of Oscar are any indication, "quality" has nothing to do with it.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Vertical integration and "boards"

According to Eugene Hernandez at indieWire, The Weinstein Company has just amde its announcement about what it will be doing with Wellspring (two months ago, there was an announcement, which only indieWire seemed to carry, about The Weinstein Company's business maneuvrings, in which the Weinsteins bought out or bought into several companies, includuing IFC, The Sundance Channel, and Wellspring. The question seemed to be whether or not The Weinstein Company was trying to create a monopoly in the field of "independent media" (film, television, DVD, cable), but, of course, the answer is that there remains "the majors" (MGM, Fox, MCA-Universal, etc.) and as long as that is true, then a monopoly in the area of "independent" film is not seen as a monopoly at all. But (effectively) it shuts out distribution, exhibition and home video possibilities for a great number of filmmakers. Quite frankly, Wellspring (as an example) has been vital to the Taiwanese cinema: Tsai Ming-liang, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang would not have ANY films in any sort of distribution (theatrical or DVD) without Wellspring. The Weinsteins have shown NO interest in Taiwanese cinema, so look for the work of those directors to become even more difficult to see in this country.

(And besides, in this era of Bush-onomics, if you can create an monopoly, more power to you! Just to prove his arrogance, Bush has announced his plan to turn over the ports in six major American cities to a company from the United Arab Emirates. And it was just revealed over the wires that the traditional vetting and the security checks that are standard were circumvented, because Bush was given assurances that this company did no business with terrorists. As if Bush can be trusted! The man who allowed all of Osama Ben Laden's family members who were in the US to be given special passage out of the US after 9/11, even when every other flight was suspended! This is scary.)

For whatever reason, i was just checking the Criterion Forum, and the "board" on Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan" is just so vicious! I'm not a big fan of the movie, but that's for personal reasons (which Whit Stillman's wife knows very well), but, really, these people are so rude! And it's not that they're being critical, they're just being vicious.

But on one of those reality shows ("Celebrity Fit Club" maybe?), there was a comment that from one of the contestants (to another contestant) that you shouldn't read the message boards.

A (guilty) admission: i almost always say i won't watch the Academy Awards, but i usually do. However, with the exception of the closing ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival (which they've had on various cable stations in the past decade: Bravo, IFC) and the Independent Spirit Awards (it used to be filled with people i knew, and now, as an IFP member, i've actually voted), those are the three award ceremonies that i watch. But the point is: while you're watching these award shows, it's almost always so that you can make some sort of comment. But the viciousness of people on these message boards is (i guess) just another sign of the incivility that seems to be manifest nowadays.

I've seen four films in the Rendezvous With French Cinema series since i last posted: "Housewarming", "Grey Souls", "Russian Dolls" and "Good Girl". When i made the comment about Emmanuelle Devos in "La Moustache", i hadn't seen "Good Girl" yet, because there she is again! She had a great year in 2005 in terms of the films released here: "Gilles's Wife" and "Kings and Queen" and "The Beat That My Heart Skipped". And 2006 looks like another big year for her! But more movies in the next two days, and then i'll try to write about them....

Senior moments!

I kept trying to remember the name of the woman who worked at Anthology, who was Anne Thompson's friend... and it kept bothering me for hours.... and then... somehow i think it was Arlene Zeichner....

But Anne's statement (this is sometime in 1980-82) that she didn't think Hollywood would ever change enough for nonwhites to direct in Hollywood... well, times do change....

Re: "Brokeback Mountain", two statements that i remember. One is from Gregg Araki, circa 1992 or so, it was made at a panel on "New Queer Cinema" and Gregg said that gay audiences really don't want "radical" movies ("New Queer Cinema"), they tolerate it because there's not much else out there, what gay audiences really want is "Gone With the Wind" only instead of Scarlett and Rhett, they want Rhett and Brett.

And James Schamus (after a year of saying that "gay movies" had only limited potential in terms of box office, but then seeing the interest in "Poison" which he initially did NOT want to produce) said, "You know, if you could figure out how to make a family gay film, you could clean up!"

(In 1989, who could have imagined a "family gay film"?)

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Whitewash and short-term memory

VH-1 had one of its compilation-quip shows, "TV's Illest Minority Moments", where they show clips from various episodes of TV shows, and then get people (usually comics, but not always) to comment. (Jeff Yang was one of their "Asian" commentators, that's what i mean by "not always" unless Jeff's gone into a new line of work; maybe he has, after all, "publisher/editor" isn't really so lucrative. But the last time i saw Jeff, he was trying to branch out into something else, but i don't think stand-up was it.)

It's one of those situations of (perhaps) trying to have it both ways: am i reading "race" into things? (In other words, is Lee Siegel right in stating, unequivocally, that the "race" has nothing to do with the situation of Shani Davis in the Olympics? Or is Harvey Araton correct?) In the latest issue of Premiere, Anne Thompson and Glenn Kenny go into one of those "handicapping the Oscars" dialogues, and when it comes to "Best Director", they both agree that Ang Lee is the obvious choice. I don't understand. In what alternative universe are all these people living in? When has a nonwhite person ever won in that category? In fact, when have nonwhite people ever been nominated as director? (I happen to know the answer to that.) Not only that, by in Hollywood, if you're not white, you get hounded out. (The notorious incident of Akira Kurosawa getting fired as director of "Tora! Tora! Tora!"; after the first week, the crew went to the producers and expressed their "discomfort" at being yelled at - which was Kurosawa's style, very dictatorial - by ... shall we say a person of Japanese descent? What did they expect? And when Kurosawa was just being Kurosawa, well, he was supposed to modulate his behavior and be more of a studio wimp, and when he wasn't, get his yellow ass out of there!)

Statistically, there have only been five directors of color ever nominated: Hiroshi Teshigahara for "Woman in the Dunes" in 1965 (the 60s were a great period, even Pontecorvo and Antonioni were nominated!), Akira Kurosawa for "Ran" in 1984, John Singleton for "Boyz N the Hood" (so far, the only African-American) in 1991, M. Night Shyamalan for "The Sixth Sense" in 1999, and Ang Lee for "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" in 2000. Since Ang Lee has won so many awards this season, including the DGA Award, people are acting like it's a foregone conclusion. But Ang won the DGA Award in 2000, and still lost the Academy Award. The Motion Picture Academy's 5,800 voters haven't changed THAT much since 2000, and the same people who couldn't see the award going to a Chinaman then are still the same people voting. The only thing that Ang has going for him is if there really is "liberal guilt" that affects Hollywood. (Which might be true, which would explain the nominations for Paul Haggis's "Crash".) Also: statistically, when a movie star is nominated as Best Director, said "director" wins. The only times this hasn't worked are: 1) when the movie star shares credit for directing (Warren Beatty and Buck Henry for "Heaven Can Wait"); 2) when the movie star has already won in this category (Clint Eastwood for "Mystic River"; but then the Academy made up for it with "Million Dollar Baby").

Statistically, i'd give the category of Best Director a 50-50: Ang Lee on the one hand, George Clooney on the other. If the liberal guilt factor weren't working (the Academy might be embarrassed to do it AGAIN to the same guy, i.e., not give him the award), there'd be no contest: it would be a clear victory for George Clooney.

But people are acting as if the fact that Ang isn't white is no longer an issue. (The other thing Ang has going for him is that he rarely raises his voice while directing; he can be infuriating in that William Wyler way of insisting on multiple takes, but he never yells, he's always calm and tries to stay very tempered; he epitomizes one side of Hollywood's view of the Asian man, the passive "zen" side.)

This year, Andrew Sarris has announced that he won't be predicting the Academy Awards. (It used to be a joke: decades ago, Andrew Sarris was the only member of the National Society of Film Critics who took the Academy Awards seriously.) Just as the weekend box office numbers have become a general topic of interest, so too the speculations about the Academy Awards have become a cottage industry. But in all of this, i wonder: all the pundits who talk about the Academy Awards - do you actually know people who are members of the Academy? If so, do you actually respect those people's opinions? Having sat through innumerable post-performance discussions with actors, most actors don't view things "critically". They usually react "emotionally" and it's difficult to try to discuss things rationally. And actors make up the biggest block of the Academy. (Why would anyone in their right mind vote for Mel Gibson as Best Director for "Braveheart"? Or Kevin Costner as Best Director for "Dances With Wolves"?) I refuse to take the Academy Awards seriously, because i'm not in Hollywood, and i don't think there's a chance that i'll ever be in Hollywood.

(I can't remember the name of the woman who was working at Anthology Film Archives, who was Anne Thompson's friend; they rented a house on Fire Island for the summer, and i visited them when i was on Fire Island, staying with my friend Elizabeth Streb. Elizabeth was staying on a houseboat that was docked in Cherry Grove, and i remember walking about a mile on the beach to where Anne and that person from Anthology were. I remember that my friend and i went shopping for groceries, because we decided to cook dinner... it was supposed to rain that evening, and Anne spent a lot of time on the phone with her then-boyfriend, who was in LA. Anne was working at Film Comment, and she was angling for a job in LA so she could be in the same city with her boyfriend.)

But it was also Anne who once told me (in all seriousness) that there was no way that anyone "Asian" would ever be given the chance to direct a big-budget (or even a small-budget) Hollywood film.

Yet there she is, stating that Ang Lee will be the winner, as if she never made such a statement (in 1980).

How quickly they forget.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Brief notes on Monday, Feb. 20

In The New Republic online, Lee Siegel explains that the "drama" of the Olympics is that there is no real drama. For example: Siegel dismisses the obvious racial tensions (the fact that Chad Hedrick seemed to think that Shani Davis, the only black speed skater, "owed" him something) as nothing. Obviously, Lee Siegel isn't black, and doesn't know what it feels like to have white people assume their superiority and their prerogative. In The New York Times SportsSunday section, Harvey Araton has an editorial piece in which he tries to "place" the recent problems with the American men's speed skating "team". Basically, Araton's analysis is that Hedrick is a white guy who wanted to win five gold medals, so that he could match other white Americans who've also won five gold medals. But in the Winter Olympics, how many black Americans have ever won a gold medal? So what Shani Davis did was historic, and he didn't lose his focus, and he won his gold medal. And if that meant that he had to concentrate on his particular race, the 1,000 meter speedskating. Davis wasn't going to risk anything by doing the relay the day before.

Because of his dedication to his sport, to the particular race he was going to run, and his need to maintain his focus, he was seen as a "traitor" because he didn't bend to the whim of Chad Hedrick. (Shani Davis has admitted that he was inundated with hate e.mails, most of which used the "n" word, because he dared to defy his "betters".)

This fact, that the Winter Olympics are so fraught with racism and classism, is the true story of these games. It truly is the George W. Bush Olympics: on the one hand, you have a number of dedicated (poor or nonwhite) athletes (such as: Joey Cheek, Shani Davis, Apolo Ohno, Toby Dawson) who have won medals. And then you have the frat-boy white guys, who seem to think that they're owed something, simply because they showed up. Even after they've lost, their arrogance is breathtaking!

(One of the most touching things i read was the blog on the NBC Olympic site by Yuki Ohno, Apolo Ohno's father. Just before Shani Davis's Speedskating 1,000 meter run, Yuki Ohno writes to Cherie Davis, Shani's mother, that they are both there with their sons, they are single parents who have struggled to see their sons win, and yet people still say rude things. And after Shani's victory, Yuki Ohno congratulates Shani, but also Cherie, for all the sacrifices, and for understanding what her son needed to do. Of course, that same say, Apolo Ohno won the bronze medal in the short-track 1,000 meter speedskate.)

Of course, times change: when Kristi Yamaguchi was coming through the ranks, the commentary was often so rude! Peggy Fleming, in particular, at one point (my father remarked on it while we were watching) made a point about the fact that Yamaguchi just didn't have the clean "line" that American skaters should have. Now, Michelle Kwan is an obvious "star", but that's because Kristi Yamaguchi had to put up with so much crap! (After she won her medals, Kristi Yamaguchi got nada endorsements. Nobody wanted to be associated with a "Japanese" medalist.) Bode Miller gets endorsements, and Chad Hedrick gets endorsements....

But some black guy from Chicago? No way.

Since Joey Cheek is from Greensboro, i asked my friend Diane who is there now what the scuttlebutt, and Diane said that there's been a lot of stories about him locally. He's from a working class family that was too poor to send him to a private or "charter" school, so he had to go to the local public schools, which are mostly black. (That's why he's the only skater aside from Apolo Ohno who is friends with Shani Davis.) In the Times today, there was an article by Karen Crouse about Joey Cheek, how he applied to Harvard law school, but was rejected. Though his test scores are good, his grades are erratic, because he has been homeschooled for much of the time, so that he could concentrate on his training. And (of course) he has donated the "bonus" he got from the US Olympic Committee to the Toronto-based Right to Play, a charity run by Johann Olav Koss (described as "the four-time speedskating gold medalist from Norway").

So the point isn't to just accept the (biased) coverage from NBC and its affiliates, there should be some investigative reporting, because the story of these Winter Olympics centers on the distinctions that have been made, and the virtual blackout on press coverage for those Olympians who don't conform. It's like Fox News, even the NBC affiliates: "unbiased" if you happen to be a rightwing fanatic like Bill O'Reilly or Tucker Carlson.

I was sorry that Johnny Weir wasn't able to win a medal, but he didn't whine about it, he knew he didn't skate as well as he could have, and hopefully he'll do better in the future. Of course, there's all this pressure being put on him to come out, but he seems to be ok with doing things at his own speed. But his costumes! That boy is the kind who gives figure skating the name it has.

But what i really thought is that the problem is that NBC has set out its own agenda, and expected the results to match its predictions. They didn't count on what actually happened, and the "machine" of NBC was too bloated to change at the last minute, to go with the flow. For example: there was all this build-up about Chad Hedrick, and when the speedskating team relay didn't go off the way he planned, he got to sound off, because he was already being given air time. But nobody spoke to Shani Davis, no one asked him anything, and even after he won his gold medal, NBC didn't bother with him!

It reminds me of the experience of doing James Toback's film, "The Big Bang": a group of us (i forget how many of us) were taken to a large house in New Jersey, where we were supposed to answer questions about our ideas of the universe, fate, the origins of the universe. Quite frankly, a lot of phoney "big" questions. But while we were there.... well, there was this German woman who had decided that she wanted a baby, and she wanted Toback to be the father. There were no strings, if Toback didn't want to be involved, that was fine. But Toback did keep in touch, and he did see his daughter on occasion. But this German woman had decided that Toback was the man she wanted as her child's father. And she was there, and the little girl, who was (then) six. A very lively, smart girl, though her mother complained that she was lazy, she just liked to sit around, the mother kept trying to get her to be more active. And James Toback's mother was also there! And she had never seen her granddaughter, in fact, she had only heard rumors, but James Toback had never actually confirmed anything. And this was the first time that James Toback's mother was seeing her grandchild!

At one point, Toback's mother came over and sat with us (there were five of us sitting on the couch) and she tried to... well, she was very upset, and she kept saying, why is it so wrong for me to want to be part of my granddaughter's life? But "that woman" doesn't want me to be part of her life! Why?

Now, if i were Toback, i would have realized that, right here, there was this intense human drama going on, and i would have junked the phoney philosophical "discourse" and grabbed the crew, and started following his own mother and his daughter and the German woman who was the mother of the child.

But Toback had his gameplan, and that was it.

If Bode Miller is washing out, then it's time for the coverage to focus on (say) Apolo Ohno and Shani Davis. But NO.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Sunday, Feb. 19, the day after the IRA Awards (reported online by Michael Giltz on his blog http://popsurfing.blogspot.com with a great running commentary). This marked the 30th Anniversary of the IRAs, but i haven't attended the annual meetings for THAT long! The results can be found on Michael's blog, but suffice it to say that this year's Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay were a mini-sweep by "Mysterious Skin"/Gregg Araki/Joseph Gordon-Levitt/Gregg Araki (based on a novel by Scott Heim). In all of these "polls", if i get one "right" (if one of my selections turns out to mirror the majority rule), that's about par for the course. (This year, in The Village Voice Film Critics poll, my choice as Best Screenplay was Noah Baumbach's "The Squid and the Whale", and that's what came in first.) Actually, in talking with Tony Pipolo (one of the editors of The Millennium Film Journal), we both acknowledged that we enjoyed including more "obscure" choices in our lists, just to make sure that we broadened the scope of these lists and polls. In terms of the IRAs, my choice for Best Supporting Actress was Catherine Keener for her astonishing year; after a two year hiatus, she came back in no less than four films, of which i saw three, and she was superb in each film: "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and "Capote." (I didn't see "The Interpreter"; i'd forgotten all about it.) And Catherine Keener was the clear winner at the IRAs. (The IRAs were started by George Robinson as an annual gathering of, initially, people who had studied at Columbia University and taken Andrew Sarris's film history classes; the name is in honor of Ira Hozinsky, who continues as an active part of the IRAs.)

But over the last week, in starting this blog, i've been thinking (a lot) about "critical standards" and what people like. The IRAs proved a perfect opportunity to reflect on some of these issues.

When i started writing about film while in my teens, it was my way of thinking about a metier which i hoped would be mine: since i had been so enamoured of the French New Wave, my decision to write about film was occasioned by my (intense) desire to make films. When i look at any work of art, my immediate response often has to do with what i find "generative" about the work, that is, what i think i can use. (I remember Max Kozloff reviewing Manny Farber's collection of film criticism, "Movies," in Artforum, and Kozloff stated that - pardon me if this is a paraphrase from long ago - Farber approached movies as a painter with a painter's grasp of usable form. You look at a work in terms of what you can crib.) Another response has to do with my recognition that the work in question achieves what i can only hope to achieve. (In her introduction to the published screenplay of her film "Brother Carl", Susan Sontag talks about this; it was actually a cagey way to get out of the direct comparison with Ingmar Bergman's work, because Rune Ericson's cinematography was so similar to the style of Gunnar Fisher - Bergman's cinematographer throughout the 1950s - and Gunnel Lindblom, one of her stars, had starred in many of Bergman's movies, most especially "The Silence," a film Sontag regarded as one of his best. So Sontag listed Carl Dreyer's "Ordet" and "Gertrud" as the two films she had wished to emulate!) In my life, i've had that experience a few times. The second play that i wrote in my life was called "Realism in Our Time" (years ago, the Manhattan Punchline would have a play series called - i think - "You Can't Copyright a Title", which happens to be true, or at least it used to be, who knows now with the new "trademark" legislation being proposed, anyway, they would put on an annual series, and have playwrights come up with a new play with titles such as "Gone With the Wind" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", with the only proviso that the play actually have NOTHING to do with the original, except having the same title, i remember that John Guare and Christopher Durang were among those who contributed skits to the series; anyway, i cribbed the title "Realism in Our Time" from the book by Georg Lukacs): it was a play about two friends who are at a diner after seeing a movie (the movie in question was Fassbinder's "Effi Briest") and they proceed to argue for two hours. He is a "formalist" and she is "political" and the film becomes a pretext for a discussion on differing views on what art means, on aesthetics and ethics, and on the nature of "commitment" in art. (See why i chose my title from Lukacs?) I wrote that play in 1973 (while i was still at Columbia University; i have to admit i never took Andrew Sarris's course, in fact, i never took ANY film courses in my life, i was studying anthropology, and it was very exciting at Columibia when i was there, because i declared my major in my sophomore year, and during the three years i was there as an anthropology undergraduate, the guest lecturers were Claude Levi-Strauss, Mary Douglas and Clifford Geertz. Because i was an honor student, i was allowed to attend the graduate lectures, and so i got to hear Levi-Strauss, Douglas and Geertz)... actually, it was part of a "trilogy". I wrote three plays. The first play was short, but it had... i can't even remember how many characters, and it consisted of little vignettes that i experienced when i was 16... one scene was a dinner with P. Adams Sitney, Ken and Flo Jacobs, Bob and his then-wife Frances Breer, Annette Michelson, Jonas Mekas and Richard Foreman. Another scene was a chartered plane trip to Syracuse, for Yoko Ono's exhibit, and i wound up sitting with Allen Ginsberg, Shirley Clarke and Candy Darling. I can't even remember the name of that play, and i can't find a copy! The second play was "Realism in Our Time" and the third play was "Art Follows Reality" (THAT title came from one of Brecht's essays in "Brecht on Theater"). Anyway, the idea of an uninterrupted "real-time" conversation (that was ONLY a two hour conversation) was something i was fascinated with. No cutaways, no drama, just intense conversation. And (if the conversation were intelligent and lively enough) that should be enough! Oh, my point is that, in 1977, i would see Marguerite Duras's "Le Camion", and that was it! I saw (realized) what i had tried to do!

(Actually, it's a long story, but Bruce Benderson was working at CAPS at the time, that was the New York agency that gave out individual artists grants. It was dismantled and now that function has been taken by the New York Foundation for the Arts. Anyway, i came in as a semi-finalist, but i was asked to submit my work to the Playwrights Bank, a repository where people from nonprofit theaters could look at scripts. But Bruce really liked my work, and he was very aggressive in getting people to read it, but a lot of people were very turned off by my work. A two-hour play about two people arguing about Fassbinder's "Effi Briest"? What kind of insanity is this? But Crystal Field and George Bartenieff read my plays, and asked me to put it on at their Theater for the New City. And i did in 1976, though it was one of the worst experiences of my life. Not because of George and Crystal, but because this was the first time i'd ever worked with actors, and the actress began, in the second rehearsal, asking for changes to make the play "easier" for her to memorize... and the result was that i did a complete rewrite, and the play was severely compromised. From that point on, i got tougher, and i made Larry come in as co-director, so that i would NEVER be questioned again. Of course, seeing "Le Camion" was exhilarating, but also frustrating, because i knew that two people talking together about art could be utterly fascinating, could be more than enough "drama", and in "Le Camion" it was! But that was an example of a work that achieved what i had hoped to achieve.)

So there are those works which represent "perfection" ("if i could do something like that, i'd die happy!"), and writing about those works, you want to express the most enthusiasm and love (i guess) that you can. The point of a good critic is to be able to make you see, or to make you want to see something. You know a critic is "bad" if, even when they're enthusiastic, they don't make you want to rush out and see that work. Making quips and being disdainful seems to be what a lot of people think criticism is. But if you're enthusiastic and you can't get people to want to see the work, then you've failed. Because it's so easy to make a smart crack and get people to avoid something.

But i was never a "critic": i was always an artist, and my work was (in fact) "critical". But i took my cue from the fact that the era in which i was growing up was one in which art was "about" art. In the essay "One Culture and the New Sensibility", Susan Sontag write: "For instance, in our time, art is becoming incraesingly the terrain of specialists. The most interesting and creative art of our time is nto open to the generally eduated; it demands special effort; it speaks a specialized language. The music of Milton Babbitt and Morton Feldman, the painting of Mark Rothko and Frank Stella, the dance of Merce Cunningham and James Waring demand an education of sensibility whose difficulties and length of apprenticeship are at least comparable to the difficulties of mastering physics or engineering.... The most interesting works of contemporary art are full of references to the history of the medium; so far as they comment on past art, they demand a knowledge of at least the recent past. As Harold Rosenberg has pointed out, contemporary paintings are themselves acts of criticism as much as of creation." And my works became "acts of criticism" as creative acts.

But what i didn't expect was that... it's like the end of "The Shop Around the Corner," when Margaret Sullavan explains to James Stewart that she had been reading a book about this glamorous actress at the "Comedie Francaise" ("that's a theater in France"), and when she wanted to attract a man she treated him like a dog. Then Sullavan explains that she treated Stewart that way because she wanted him to like her, but instead of licking her hand, he barked. When i was at Nam June's funeral, i was reminded of the fact (in fact, a lot of people there told me) that i was the youngest part of that avant-garde generation. (Most of the people my age were usually "students"; thus, by the mid-1970s, Artists Space was founded on precisely this notion, so that a selected artist would nominate his or her student for a show. If i'm not mistaken, it was one of the "minimal" artists, either Carl Andre or Sol Le Witt, who nominated Laurie Anderson for her show, and so on.) But i came without that kind of pedigree. (In his never-completed chart of avant-garde performance, George Macuinas listed some people as "independents": i can't find my copy of that chart, i helped George with some of it, and he gave me two copies, but in the move they've disappeared. But if i'm not mistaken two of his "independents" were Yoko Ono and Simone Forti.) George started making the chart in 1974, i started doing my performances the next year. But i never studied with ANYBODY. I simply observed their work, and then went to work!

But what i didn't expect was that people were going to bark. And snarl. In one of her dance pieces, Yvonne Rainer had a section which was a "parody" of Merce Cunningham. (If i'm remembering correctly, i think it was Trisha Brown who performed that section.) There's a photo of that piece in Yvonne's book "Work 1961-1973" and in the audience you can see Merce at the back of the crowd, smiling.

I guess i took that photo to mean, hey, it's ok to "critique" the "recent past". But instead of smiling, some of the audience (feeling so threatened) started throwing things. (This is recorded in the review of one of my performances that appeared in Dance Magazine: a riot broke out, led by Deborah Hay and Jill Johnston.)

Never trust people who claim to be "criticial" because they can't stand it when it's turned on them. Of course, not all of them reacted that way.

But my point is that i never really regarded myself as a "critic": i was always writing about what i was seeing in relation to what i wanted to see and wanted to do.

But maybe because of this, i never cared whether or not a work was one "thing". Of course, every sensibility has its limits. You can't like everything. I don't try to. But (in one scene from my very first - now lost - play) i was talking with Linda Patton and Callie Angell one afternoon; at that time, Linda was Jonas Mekas's assistant, and Callie was P. Adams Sitney's assistant at Anthology Film Archives (when it was part of The Public Theater). And we were talking about different filmmakers in the "Essential Cinema": Harry Smith, Robert Breer, Bruce Baillie. And about some of the filmmakers not in the collection: Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes, Ed Emshwiller. And i was trying to explain what i liked about the work of some of the people that weren't represented in the "Essential Cinema", and Linda and Callie looked at me, and finally Linda said, "Oh, Daryl, you're just so generous!" in this exasperated way.

But that was over 30 years ago. I haven't changed, but sometimes it gets harder and harder to get excited about things.

I still haven't read the Arts and Leisure section of today's Times. Am i glad that Larry got back from his brief trip to Orange County! He was such a wreck leaving, because the thought of travelling was horrifying, but once he got there, he was fine. Anyway, Larry said there's an article on the new HBO series "Big Love" which is written and produced by Billy Scheffer. Of course, now it's "Will" Scheffer, but to us he'll always be "Billy". But "Big Love" was created by Billy and Mark Olsen.

I can't remember why, but maybe three years ago, i tried to call Billy, but the phone number was disconnected, and i hoped it didn't mean what i thought it meant. But a year ago, i tried looking up his name and came up with information about "Big Love" (then in production).

But this year, i was excited by a lot of movies. Even movies i didn't like, had things that were good in them. The important thing is to develop an aesthetic, a way of looking at art, film, literature. Last night, during one of the calmer moments, people were looking at Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue. In that issue, there's a page in which Mark Summers does the "critics were wrong" number, where he quotes critics who disparaged a film now regarded as "classic" (by whom?), so you get Richard Griffith (in 1941) writing about "Citizen Kane": "Though the attempt is praiseworthy, the results are shockingly unsatisfying." I hate this. In some cases, if the critics weren't really that astute, what's the point? But i hate it when someone like Otis Ferguson is lambasted because he didn't like "Citizen Kane"; neither did James Agee, and for the same reason. Ferguson and Agee were attempting to define an aesthetic, and their belief was that the cinema was the art of "the real" and if ever there was a film that was stylized, it's "Citizen Kane", and the theatricality of "Citizen Kane" was offensive to them. The point is not to say, oh, "Citizen Kane" is a great movie, and everyone who doesn't like "Citizen Kane" is an idiot. It's to say, did they have a point of view? If so, what was it? Was it an interesting/coherent/valid point of view? And from that defined aesthetic, why is it that "Citizen Kane" doesn't fit? You don't have to agree, but you can see that it's another point of view. And art is not politics, it's not science, it's not morality.

To try to make out that there is a "right" and "wrong" way in art is to get caught up in a rigidity that might make you miss out. But maybe it's gotten to the point where there's nothing to miss out on....

But i hate people pulling the "moral" card. Ugh. Because most people are really pigs. I can't help it. I'm thinking of Clint Eastwood. When he did "Paint Your Wagon", something happened to him that had never happened before: he fell in love with his co-star. He (of course) had been married to his wife Maggie since the 1950s; Jean Seberg was married to RomainGary. They left their respective spouses, and started living together, and stayed together after the end of shooting. (That was one of those protracted shoots that lasted about a year!) He eventually went back to his wife. He left Jean Seberg stranded. Now, i've heard different versions of this story. In one version, Seberg's political activities (she supported the Black Panthers, etc.) alienated him, and when Eastwood discovered that Seberg was under surveillance from the FBI, he left her. In the other version, Seberg's emergent political activities enraged Eastwood (who claims to be a conservative Republican) and he denounced her to the FBI after he left her. Either way, he's the one that left. And years later, when he was interviewed about his career, he was asked about Jean Seberg, and his response was, "You meet so many people in this business, I don't remember her at all." HUH? A woman that you lived with for about two years? Has he lived with that many women that he can't remember Jean Seberg? Bad enough he left her bereft while she was being hounded by the FBI, then to bitchslap her memory like that! The man is a pig! And so, years later, when the debacle with Sondra Locke came to light, it was just a messier (and less political) version of what happened with Jean Seberg.

But he's a real movie star, and he's made some very worthwhile movies as a producer and director. Yet the people who are raving about Clint Eastwood as an artist: regardless of what your thoughts about Sondra Locke are, is there any way to justify what Eastwood did to Jean Seberg? Maybe there is. Or maybe Hollywood has a different morality, where women are just so much trash to be thrown out. No matter what, i wouldn't count on Hollywood (past or present) to be cognizant of "morality".

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Olympic thrills.

What's becoming hilarious about the Winter Olympics is the collision of the Olympics with the snowboarding culture. Taking the cue from surfing and skateboarding, snowboarders have this whole laid-back-dude mindset, often fueled (or clouded over) by drugs and alcohol. Perhaps the poster boy for this is Jonny Mosely: after winning a gold medal in moguls, within a year the guy's arrested for DUI, and the "I" is not mere alcohol (he was found in possession of marijuana and other substances), which got him permanently barred from competing. (Justin Hueish, the American gold medalist in archery, is another; it's not just Winter Olympics, it's also prominent in other sports, but the various daredevil skiing and snowboarding events seem to bring it out of people.) But last night, Mosely and Tom Green did a hilarious bit on The Tonight Show, where they attempted to simulate a team luge event by scrambling on top of a skateboard. Tom Green started saying how wonderful it was to feel a man on top of him... and they kept joking in this manner, and finished by having Tom Green put his arm around Mosely and say, "Let's go see 'Brokeback Mountain'!" But what was also hilarious was, at the end of the primetime Olymic telecast, Bob Costas sat down with Lindey Jacobellis, who had been the clear leader in women's snowboardcross, when it came to her last jump. As everyone now knows, she decided to try for a big finish (a simple, clear jump would have secured her the gold medal, because she had such a good lead on the competition) and didn't land her jump, instead, she fell on her ass. But she made her finish, and wound up with a silver medal. So Bob Costas is trying to get her to say that she did something stupid, and she wasn't having any! She just kept saying she was excited, she was really pumped, and, hey, she got a medal! She had fun, she got a medal. To her, case closed. To all these people who see it as part of this American-pride, patriotic duty crap, Lindsey Jacobellis's attitude is: if you think you can do better than a silver medal, go ahead. Otherwise, this is what she got and it's good enough for her.

Poor Bode Miller: you're supposed to party hard and screw up AFTER you get a medal! (See Jonny Mosely.) That way, you become marketable (Mosely doing crap on MTV, like hosting "The Real World/Road Rules Challenge"). You gotta feel for the guy. (So much of the American ski and snow team are so... Aryan! They're all so blond and blue-eyed, like Jacobellis and Miller. It's like Mel Brooks's revenge: these big, strapping, Aryan athletes are... retarded! Even when they win, like Hannah Tetter, she can, like, barely get a sentence out, duh.)

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Thursady, Feb. 16, and two press screenings in the Rendezvous With French Cinema series: "La Moustache" and "L'Enfer". How many movies are there named "L'Enfer"? As usual, the Rendezvous screenings are more crowded than other series at the Walter Reade; the francophilic tendencies of New York City cineastes aren't going to go away easily.

Usually i try to remember the description from the press release, so i have some idea what to expect. For some reason, i didn't really bother, and i had no idea what i would be seeing. And i found this worked to my advantage: with no preconceptions, i found both movies to be enjoyable. "La Moustache" (directed by Emmanuel Carrere) initially seemed like a gloss on Kafka, but then it takes a turn and i was reminded of Claire Denis's "L'Intrus", as the protagonist seems to lose himself in a foreign environment ("orientalism" certainly retains its fascination for the French intelligentsia). Vincent Lindon had a great deal of charm, and Emmanuelle Devos seems to be in every other French movie during the last year. This time, i was struck by her voice, which sounded considerably harsher, almost grating. She's becoming the "go-to" girl for many French directors when they want a "star" but not someone who is too glamorous (rather as Sandrine Bonnaire was a few years ago).

"L'Enfer" was "disconcerting"; actually, i found it enjoyable, because i wasn't expecting anything. It seemed like one of those thrillers, usually based on Ruth Rendel or even Patricia Highsmith, in which all these clever little stories all come together at the end and their connection reveals something clammy and distasteful. But i had forgotten that the film was based on a screenplay that had been part of the "final trilogy" of Krzysztof Kieslowski and Kraysatof Piesiewicz. Whatever philosophical or theological pretensions the film might have had seemed totally erased. I don't know if that's what the director, Danis Tanovic, intended, but the result was a glossy thriller that was only a glossy thriller.

But on that level, the film was fascinating, because it showed you why you use a star. Emmannuelle Beart, for example. At this point, her swollen (probably collagen-enhanced) lips seem to be bursting apart, and her face (with its odd wrinkles fragmenting her porcelain features) seems on the verge of collapse: she's become practically a billboard of anxiety. She's come to incarnate sensual dissatisfaction. Even someone like Karin Viard, with her crisp, precise features, and her efficient manner, has become emblematic: she's the "responsible" person, the one who's always the designated driver. This movie doesn't do anything to test these actresses, it simply lets them go into their (usual) dance. Even if some of the actors weren't "familiar" (even if you hadn't seen them before), watching this movie, you feel like you already knew them. (The part of Julie, the woman the Beart character's husband is having an affair with, seemed so familar, but i couldn't place her... turned out to be Maryan D'Abo! In a very Maryan D'Abo part.) For this reason, the movie reminded me (mostly) of an old Claude Sautet movie, like "Cesar and Rosalie" or "Vincent, Thomas, Paul, and the Others".

French cinema has always been notorious for this type of star casting. And most of the great French stars (Jean Gabin, Michele Morgan, Danielle Darrieux, Pierre Fresnay, Michel Simon) seemed to be content to play within very sharply defined parameters. But that was one of the pleasures of the classic French cinema: in that sense, French cinema isn't that different from an old MGM movie.

But maybe we should be looking for something else, and maybe that's why some of the critics who came to see "L'Enfer" went away very disappointed.

I haven't even had time to look through all the magazines of the last week or so. Vanity Fair came, with its "notorious" cover. I read a few of the articles. Charlotte Chandler does another of her "conversations with" pieces on old Hollywood celebrities (Groucho Marx, Billy Wilder); in this case, it's Bette Davis. Nothing startling, though it is interesting to see Davis's take on her relationship with William Wyler. And Peter Biskind's article on the making of Warren Beatty's "Reds" was revealing: it was certainly unexpected to read about how committed Warren Beatty was to the idea of getting the story of an American communist (and the fact that he didn't want to whitewash this central theme) to the screen. Of course, one of the problems with these articles is the problem with all such Hollywood articles: you either take these people at their word, or it's hopeless. Peter Biskind needed the input of Diane Keaton on this article, so what's never mentioned is that when Beatty started work on "Reds" he was still living with Julie Christie. Just as when William Wyler started working on "Jezebel," the script was constantly being reworked by his friend John Huston (who did receive credit). But the "model" for the character of Julie, the capricious, beguilingly bitchy, domineering Southern belle, was Wyler's first wife (from whom he had recently gotten divorced), Margaret Sullavan. Incidents from Wyler's life with Sullavan were transposed into the script. (When Julie storms into the bank and interrupts Pres during a meeting... Sullavan would storm onto the set of "These Three" because she suspected Wyler of having an affair with either Merle Oberon or Miriam Hopkins.)

The writing of "history" is so difficult: there's always going to be people who are overlooked. And values change. In his review of the recent biographies of Laurence Olivier and Elia Kazan, Robert Brustein (in The New Republic) mentions that Richard Schickel, in writing about "theater" in his book on Kazan, constantly condescends to and patronizes the theater (and doesn't even get his facts straight, especially about classical theater). That idea, that the movies had superceded the theater, and why would Kazan (in the 1950s, at the height of his Hollywood career) go back to it, has become such a... well, it's the mindset of so many people now.

A few years ago, Michael Korda wrote an article (in Vanity Fair) that was so amusing, because it was about how all educated English-speaking people in the 1950s and 1960s were always debating who the greatest English actor was (the three candidates were Olivier, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson). That classical tradition continues, but it's now on the defensive.

But in the case of Kazan, there's one very unfortunate tendency that Kazan has (and it can be found all throughout his autobiography). If he doesn't like someone (or if it's a woman and he hasn't slept with her), he'll suddenly complain that so-and-so is "limited" or "untalented" (words Kazan uses to describe Vivien Leigh, Katharine Hepburn, and Dorothy McGuire).

But in all this, i've been thinking about how we judge things, how we decide something is good or bad. Movies seem to me to be so treacherous, because people take them so personally. One tendency now that has become alarming is the invocation of morality in terms of judgement. Every year, someone i know will decide to get on a high horse about how so-and-so is somehow immoral for being ambitious or angling for awards or whatever. But who in Hollywood history hasn't been ambitious or power-hungry or ruthless? If they haven't been, chances are, you haven't heard of them. And the behavior of most of those people was appalling! You couldn't even print most of the (true) stories about Howard Hawks, John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Joseph Losey, Otto Preminger. But this is certainly true in terms of the 20th Century, in all the arts. And when you add politics to the mix, it's very dicey. If being a Nazi or a Nazi-sympathizer disqualifies someone as an artist, well, you've just let out Ezra Pound, Knut Hamsun, Luigi Pirandello... and just because your politics are ok (leftist, "egalitarian," humanitarian) doesn't mean you're a "good" person. In fact, you can be a horrible person (Brecht is the classic example).

Anyway, yesterday, while running my errands, i watched "Black Widow" on Fox Movie Channel. This is the 1954 murder mystery directed by Nunnally Johnson. When i saw it as a child, i thought it was just the most sophisticated thing ever; seeing it now, it seems one of the most preposterous movies ever made, because just abotu everyone in it is miscast. Reginald Gardner isn't allowed one bitchy quip, and he plays the male sex object fought over by Ginger Rogers and Peggy Ann Garner! Rogers, a "natural" (basically untrained) actress if ever there was one, is cast as a "grande dame" of the theater! Gene Tierney (one of the least "theatrical" of all actresses) is also supposed to be some sort of stage star. Peggy Ann Garner is supposed to be one of those grasping, eager, ambitious artistic bitches... the strain of the performance in her case is all too visible, and she comes across as too hard. (Anne Baxter pulled off this soft-on-the-outside, hard-on-the-inside number in "All About Eve," but just barely.) But "Black Widow" is set in the kind of fantasy New York City where people always have swanky cocktail parties, and people live in fabulous apartments with terraces and views.

But it's also interesting because it's an example of a movie where everyone seems to be cast so totally against type that it gradually creates a total fantasyland with no basis in any sort of reality at all. If "L'Enfer" seemed like an example of perfect typecasting, "Black Widow" is an example of anti-typecasting, and both are just as preposterous (and entertaining because of it).

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Today (Wednesday, Feb. 15) was spent trying to get things done: sending in my ballot for the Independent Spirit Awards, sending in my "affiliation statement" for the New York State Council on the Arts, etc. So i spent the day in Brooklyn, reflecting on the situation of being in this new home.

During the period when i was actually involved in moving (which went pretty swiftly), i was also going to some press screenings at the Tribeca Film Festival, and a lot of the documentaries (such as "Bowery Dish" and "Excavating Taylor Mead" and "The Lady in Question Charles Busch") had a certain nostalgia about Lower Manhattan (the East Village, the Bowery) and how all this has changed. Gentrification, the "commercialization" of the arts, and so on. But, of course, going to the opening of "The Downtown Show" at the Grey Art Gallery a few weeks ago, it was the same feeling, that nostalgia for an era which has passed. And in that passing, i've been forced to move, to leave Manhattan; maybe, for a lot of people, this is no big deal, since they've been on the move all the time, but for me, it was a huge deal, because i'm the fourth generation to live in the same neighborhood; my great-grandparents lived on Mott Street, my grandmother was born there, and my father and mother grew up and lived in that neighborhood. Sociologically, before World War II, it was not unusual for a person to be born, live and die within a two-mile radius. I'm one of the people who found Manhattan getting too expensive, and so i had to move, to find a place that was more affordable. Of course, my sister and brother had already moved out of Manhattan (one reason i moved to the Brooklyn neighborhood that i did was that i am now less than a mile away from my brother), but i was continuing the family presence in Manhattan. (My mother still lives there, of course.) When i was moving, i felt that apprehension, that feeling of being driven out by the spiraling costs. I suppose i thought of this because one of the other chores today was sending in my accreditation for the Tribeca Film Festival.

The whole issue of gentrification and the flight of the middle-class from so much of the parts of the city that i knew while i was growing up: is this inevitable? And so many of those places seem foreign to me, alien and strange. When i was growing up, The Museum of Modern Art was like a playground, and i knew it inside out. I knew where many of my favorite paintings were, and i could always be assured of the intense joy of seeing certain works of art. But now, with the expansion, so many of the paintings have been stranded. It was like the effect of the "Cezanne/Pissarro" show: those paintings, hung in that cavernous space on the top floor, looked shrivelled and shrunken and downright puny. (Whatever else i thought about the show, and i did think it was considerable, i thought the Elizabeth Murray retrospective really worked in the space, because the scale of her work - the largesse of her post-Abstract Expressionist canvases - was appropriate for the huge walls. It's funny: at a time when movie screens, once so voluminous, are shrinking in size, museum walls are growing bigger and bigger.) Most paintings were designed to the scale of the living spaces of the painters. (The expansion of the Abstract Expressionist canvas came about because of the cheap housing in lofts which had been factory spaces, and people could paint in these large spaces.) Cezanne and Pissarro did not live in factory buildings, and their paintings (and the paintings of Vuillard and Bonnard) reflect the dimensions of their domiciles.

Blogging is seductive, i must admit; right now, i've gotten back from the post office, and this is the first time i've been alone in this house since i've moved in: my partner, Larry, is on a junket to look at the new Performing Art Center in Orange County. Of course, it's only for two days, but still, it's a strange experience to feel so isolated. One thing i've found is that it's hard to proof when you blog: transposed letters, dropped letters (in my first entry, i dropped an "s" so that what should have been "years" reads "year"), and misspellings (the title of the Israeli movie is "Ushpizin" and i misspelled it) abound. I'm not that bad an editor, but when you're writing fast, a lot can happen!

Well, i got hooked on watching the Olympics from my father: he would love to watch the Olympics, especially the more arcane events. My father was always so concerned about sportsmanship. There was that runner, i can't remember her name, Mary Jo or Mary Ann or something.... anyway, she was a long distance runner, and she was involved in the stumble with Zola Budd, the girl from South Africa. (Was her name Mary Jo Slater?) I remember when that happened, and she gave all these press conferences, protesting and complaining and whining. And my father finally said, i used to respect her, but now i hate her, because if you don't get a medal you don't get a medal, you don't keep whining and blaming other people.

Sure, it's like Bode Miller: the guy is some jerk. Does he want to be an athlete, or does he want to be a party animal? He got disqualified, and he lost out on a medal in his first event. But his attitude is, hey, shit happens. So that's ok. He doesn't blame anyone else. (It was also cute that Ligety got the gold medal - that kind of sudden twist of fate is what makes the Olympics so much fun.)

In The New Republic, Ryan Lizza cuts to the chase and states that the issue in the recent Cheney debacle shouldn't be whether or not Cheney notified the press in time, but the fact that he shot Whittington! It's also obvious that George W. Bush is totally disengaged from anything that happens around him. But what can you say from a man whose mother could say (a propos the devastation of Hurricane Katrina) that why would those people want to live in such hovels, and now that they've been destroyed, this is a good excuse for those people to move.

After four days, Cheney has been forced to make a comment... four days. That seems to be the response time for the Bush White House. Heaven knows how long it would take for them to respond to another attack....

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Well, much as my contention that my interest in the Olympics has waned, at 7 PM i was getting ready to go to the gym, when i turned to CNBC and caught one of my favorite Winter Olympic sports: curling! It was the American women's team versus the Japanese women's team. (The Japanese team won.) When i first saw curling (as a child), i thought it was magic, because i couldn't understand how sweeping in front of the what seemed like a rounded iron could actually make that thing move. Curling is one of those wonderful events that you only get to see during the Olympics, and that's one reason that the Olympics used to be fun. But now curling is regulated to the "bush leagues" of CNBC and not network primetime.

In the recent (odd) brouhaha over Dick Cheney's shooting of a friend, the point seems to be that Cheney has been allowed to go around without any sort of press interest. That's what's frightening: this man, one of the most powerful men in the current administration, is allowed to conduct his business without ANY scrutiny from the press. I mean, the man had to shoot somebody before the press realized that Cheney has been going along without any press attention! (If George W. Bush has always seemed like a petulant Dauphin, this latest incident of Cheney's brings to mind Mel Brooks's French king in "The History of the World, Part I" where he invents the game of shooting peasants.) If this is how Cheney treats friends, i shudder to think what he has planned for his enemies....

Tomorrow, the documentary screening at the Walter Reade Theater is Robert Kramer's "Starting Place." Kramer is one of those very fascinating filmmakers from the 1960s; in his documentaries, such as "Starting Place," the long, often uninflected scenes (which tend to go on) seem to reveal something (an essence, an emotional truth), but when Kramer would do this in his fiction films ("The Edge," "Ice," "Milestones"), the rambling structure seemed to stall, often depleting interest. This semi-documentary approach (which is similar to Shirley Clarke's and John Cassavetes's) has gone from a curiosity to a status of classicism.

(George Robinson, who has a blog http://cine-journal.blogspot.com on this board, has some intriguing comments on Cassavetes, finding a link between Cassavetes's style and television. But there was a whole generation of television directors who moved to the cinema, and this "TV style" defined a lot of American movies of the late 1950s and 1960s: directors like Delbert Mann, Martin Ritt, John Frankenheimer, George Roy Hill, Sidney Lumet, Norman Jewison, Ralph Nelson, Arthur Penn. Whatever qualities these men brought to the movies, there was also something that was missing, a spatial and compositional sense, a visual splendor. And it's symptomatic of how people get used to the loss of this visual quality, that John Ford, who had long been the most honored American film director of all time, has had his reputation eroded. Yet i can't imagine three more beautiful and visually eloquent and genuinely poetic movies than the three movies Ford made in 1939: "Drums Along the Mohawk," "Stagecoach," and "Young Mr. Lincoln," the last of which just came out on DVD from The Criterion Collection. These movies are like reveries of the American past, and perhaps that sense of wonder at what had been assumed as the American heritage is no longer fashionable in this post-modern era of multiculturalism. Still, there are qualities to Ford's best movies which i hope continue to find adherents. I remember when Andrew Sarris wrote, "The last champions of John Ford have now gathered around 'Seven Women' as a beacon of personal cinema." In the 1960s, it didn't seem as if John Ford needed any "last champions"; now, it seems as if it may be too late.)

Just came back from the first press screenings for the Documentary sidebar to the annual Rendezvous With French Cinema series that has become an annual event at the Walter Reade Theater. The two docs screened today were: "Le Filmeur" by Alain Cavalier, and "La Moindre des choses" by Nicolas Philibert. They proved to be fascinating, especially in conjunction with each other, because they showed how "documentary" can be such an elastic term. "Le Filmeur" was more a diary film, a very intimate look at the filmmaker's life, especially as he battles with skin cancer. And Cavalier uses a digital camera for its immediacy and intimacy. With "La Moindre des choses," Philibert's approach is more "traditional," in that he uses 16mm equipment (with a small crew) to film a specific "event" (in this case, the staging of a play by the inmates of La Borde, one of the most famous psychiatric institutes in France).

Interesting to see how documentary is changing because of technology. ("Le Filmeur" was made in 2005; "La Moindre des choses" was made in 1996.) This sidebar series, "To Reality and Back: Classic and Contemporary French Documentaries," in addition to The Museum of Modern Art's annual "Documentary Fortnight," should prove to be a really enlightening look at how "reality" is being seen in today's media (rather than exploited by the commercial media). So that's what's on the agenda for the next few weeks.

Monday, February 13, 2006

The Death of Nam June Paik

When Roberta Smith's obituary on Nam June Paik appeared on Tuesday, January 31, 2005, in The New York Times, it certainly was a shock. Of course, his health had not been the best since his stroke more than a decade ago, but he maintained his vitality and his incredible enthusiasm through it all.

That evening, still reeling from the news, I received a phone call from his widow, Shigeko Kubota, inviting Larry and me to the funeral on Friday. Getting to Campbell's Funeral Home at 3:00 PM that Friday afternoon, we were amazed to see such a crowd. There was to be a memorial at The Mark Hotel immediately after the funeral service; the crowd at the funeral was filled with so many people who had been part of the artworld from the 1960s on. Nam June was an artist who transcended many barriers and many genres, as well as a true innovator who pioneered in creating something that had previously been unknown and unimagined: "video art." Nam June's nephew, Ken Paik Hakuta, ended the eulogies to his uncle with an attempt to revive the old Fluxus spirit by having people cut off their neckties (in homage to Nam June's infamous 60s performance when he cut off John Cage's necktie) ; of course, the majority of Nam June's friends weren't wearing neckties! But Ken didn't need to do that, because the spirit of Nam June was apparent in the reception afterwards, in which people were just so enthusiastic. The exuberance wasn't because we were happy that Nam June was no longer with us, but because we all felt we had been so fortunate to have known him. At one point, I overheard a young woman on her cellphone say, "Oh, I'm at this fabulous artworld party! It happens to be the memorial for Nam June Paik, but it's just so friendly!"

There's a moment in The Magnificent Ambersons when Joseph Cotten explains how Dolores Costello has made a factory tour into a warm and gracious visit, and that was what Nam June's funeral was like: what would have been a sad occasion became a celebration of this singular man, a true visionary artist. Now that the digital revolution is upon us, transforming telecommunications and media, it's incredible to think that, in the early 1960s, Nam June was the person who had the foresight to imagine a world in which video could be an artform. We're all indebted to him, and that was why the reception turned into a real celebration.

The period of January and February in terms of the movies is always a curious one: it's the period when the round of "major" film festivals begins (starting with Sundance and Rotterdam) and it's the period when the final gasp of award-mania hits (leading up to the Independent Spirit Awards and the "academy Awards"). In this "lull" for major studio releases, it's also the period when a lot of smaller films get released or previewed.

At this point, release dates are getting hazy: I've realized that most of the films which I regarded as "the best" of 2005 were films which I might have seen in 2004, or even 2003, so retardataire are the distribution patterns for foreign and independent films. One such example is the German film "Head-On", which I saw in 2004; Fatih Akin's jagged and mesmerizing study of a relationship between two highly volatile young Turkish immigrants living in Berlin had seemed like a revelation when I originally saw it, but by the time it opened, even more urgent films had been released. 2005 turned out to be a huge year for Middle Eastern cinema, with such impresive films as "Paradise Now," "Walk On Water," "The Syrian Bride," "Nina's Tragedies," "Upizhin," "Turtles Can Fly," and others. What was surprising was that these films really created a dramatic context for the social and political dilemmas of the region; for many years, we've been seeing a lot of documentaries about the Middle East, but we're finally seeing this material used for dynamic narratives. (One of the offshoots of this dynamism is that so many of these films have been lightning rods for controversy; today, it was reported that a number of Jewish organizations have continued to protest the inclusion of "Paradise Now" among the Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Film, claiming that its designation as a Palestinean film makes it ineligible, since Palestine is not a "legitimate" country.)

Asian films, of course, were just astounding; as I've mentioned to many friends, when it came time to make my Ten Best list for The Village Voice Take 7 Film Critics Poll, I could have just listed ten Asian films, and I would have been satisfied: "2046," "The World," "Travellers and Magicians," "Nobody Knows," "Tropical Malady," "Pulse," "Tony Tanitaki," "Cafe Lumiere," "3-Iron," "Old Boy" were just a few of the numerous Asian films which had brief releases in the US in 2005. The situation for foreign films has gotten quite precarious: for thsoe of us who grew up in the 1960s (when going to foreign films was simply an accepted part of the general American culture: who didn't go to Fellini movies? Or Kurosawa movies? Or Truffaut movies? of course, there were always those of us who preferred Antonioni or Ozu or Godard, but it was a matter of taste, but the matter of choice was that there was no reason not to go to see a movie with subtitles), it's inconceivable that audiences would not want to follow the latest developments in international cinema. And the current Asian cinema has so much to offer audiences: genre movies, ethnographic studies, incredible spectacle, intimate human dramas, and some of the most glamorous movie stars now at work.

In December, before people began to tally up their lists for the various polls (The Village Voice, Film Comment, the Ten Best lists of various reviewers for NYC dailies and weeklies), it became common to hear that 2005 was turning out to be a surprisingly good year for the movies. And for the finale of the award season, the double-header of the Independent Spirit Awards and the Academy awards, this year's nominees for Best Film aren't negligible. Of course, there have been a lot of jokes because none of the films have been blockbusters, but awards aren't supposed to go simply for popularity, but for that elusive element, "quality," and, for better or worse, films such as "Capote" and "Good Night and Good Luck" and "Brokeback Mountain" (nominated for both Independent Spirit Awards and Academy Awards) certainly exhibit "quality."

What's also important is that these films (and films such as "Syriana," "Munich," and "Crash") have caused people to open up discussions about politics and media and civil rights. It seems to me an exciting time for the movies: this was J. Hoberman's conclusion in his introductory essay for The Village Voice's Film Critics Poll this year. It's especially odd, considering the challenges to traditional (theatrical) filmgoing posed by the revolution of digital technology.

Cinema has always posed a threat to traditional aesthetics: the classic definitions of acting, of dramatic construction, of narrative coherence can be circumvented with great conviction. Neo-realism posited that simply getting the right person was more important than getting an actor to play the part. Sergei Eisenstein theorized that there was a propensity in the cinema for what he termed type-casting, and that the key was to search for the right type. There are so many examples of people with little or no training who gave superb performances because of careful and conscientious direction. One of the problems, now, is that there are so many people in the movies with spotty training, who seem to be amazingly talented on the basis of their first few performances, but who soon reveal their lack of technical acting skills, and gradually wear out their welcome. Perhaps that's what people mean when they say that there are no "stars" in today's movies. But it should be remembered that the "stars" of yesteryear were (mostly) people of very limited abilities, but with the enormous resources of the major motion picture studios behind them. It's easy to build an image if you have an army of technicians behind you, doing it for you.

Movies have always been the art of the future. Jean-Luc Godard once wrote, "Literary critics often praise works like 'Ulysses' or 'Endgame' because they exhaust a certain genre, they close the doors on it. But in the cinema we are always praising works which open doors." Cinema has always been the artform which is (in Andre Breton's formulation) "aquiver with a sense of the future." To consider the cinema, one must be responsive to the possibilities which remain uncharted, to the new potentialities which can only be guessed at, to the continual future.

As I write this, I'm evading the remnants of the blizzard which hit New York City last night. In past year, I'm usually a real Olympics-junkie, but this year, I've read the reports in the newspapers, but watching an event has become torturous: an event is rarely shown from start to finish, and the constant interruptions and the sudden switching from one event to another (in the hopes of catching an American in the throes of victory) become wearying. The hyping of the winning of gold medals has become as inflated as the innumerable film awards which now abound. It is a demeaning way to look at an event which should be the epitome of sportsmanship. To do your best, and to be one of the finest in your field: that should be the essence of the Olympics. But now, with so much riding on winning a medal (in terms of endorsements and fame), it becomes a moot point. It was sad to see the press conference of Michelle Kwan, but it was an event which shouldn't have happened in the first place: if Kwan had been unable to compete in the Olympic trials, she shouldn't have been given a berth in the Olympics. But she was given special dispensation because she is a famed athlete in her field who had not (yet) won a gold medal. It didn't seem fair then, and it still doesn't seem fair, and playing fair should have been paramount to the Olympic committee.