Thursday, March 09, 2006

"Life's not fair!"

Decades ago, when we were standing in the lobby of BAM, waiting to go into the latest Robert Wilson extravaganza (i forget which one), Twyla Tharp was also waiting her turn. And the week before, she had just premiered her new piece "As Time Goes By" at the Joffrey Ballet. And somebody on the staff of BAM ran up to her, and gushed, "Oh, Twyla, I just saw your new ballet, and, oh, Twyla, it was so brilliant." And Twyla (of course) shoots her one of those baleful looks. And then the woman continued, "But, Twyla, it was so short! It wasn't fair!" And Twyla just barks, "I'm not fair? Honey, life's not fair!"

So much for that. Third day of ND/NF. Three screenings. This whole question of digital filmmaking is really starting to make people crazy. It IS different. I've compared it to the changeover to sound. If you look at most of the early sound films, they're static and visually undistinguished. And the silent films from that period (1927-1931), even the ones with soundtracks, are so magnificent: movies such as Sjostrom's "The Wind", Murnau's "Sunrise" and "Tabu", Vidor's "The Crowd", von Sternberg's "The Last Command", Borzage's "Seventh Heaven" and "Street Angel", von Stroheim's "The Wedding March"…. Even a part-talkie like Paul Fejos's "Lonesome" has wonderfully fluid sequences, but the dialogue sequences stop the movie dead. (Even directors like Borzage and Vidor were not immune: "They Had to See Paris", Borzage's first talkie, is just so static, and Vidor's "Not So Dumb" is pretty lethal.)

One of the problems is that aesthetic judgement depends on one's vantage point. Case in point: Cam Archer's "Wild Tigers I Have Known". Before it started, Amy Taubin mentioned that, stylistically, it was "aggressive". (She had seen it at Sundance.) And in a way, it was. But this story of an alienated pubescent boy who has a crush on an older boy is one of those studies of gay angst and abjection which are usually done on digital with incredibly loud soundtracks. The thing is: most of these studies are short. In fact, gay film festivals are cluttered with these shorts, and if you've ever gone to a shorts program at a gay festival (or if you've had to help program a gay festival), you've been seeing these contraptions for at least a decade (or more). Jeff Lunger will know what i mean, because when he was programming the New Festival, he had a weakness for those shorts! "Abjection": do people still use that word? God knows, i hope it's gone out of fashion now that the JT Leroy debacle has surfaced. But "Wild Tigers I Have Known" was just a feature-length version of one of those shorts. It's the post-"Tarnation" aesthetic of digital pseudo-confessional. "Wild Tigers I Have Known" is more professional than most, but it's the same old story.

More on ND/NF at another time. Robin Pogrebin's article in today's Arts section of the Times announces federal grants to "downtown" arts groups, including The New Museum. It's one of those things where i thought this had happened years ago, but everything in terms of "downtown" has been so slow, it's a wonder this has happened at all. (And I know most of the arts groups are thinking, they'll believe it when they actually see the check.)

Here's a dilemma: in writing, especially in this era of the ready-made confessional, how much of your life do you tell? With people living their lives recorded on the web, with people blogging everything, when is it too much? But also: nobody is an island, so your life may connect with other people's lives….

It's like, at the end of his autobiography, Peter Fonda mentions that he has not written about his other two sisters, Frances "Pan" Brokaw, and Amy Fonda. Jane is in the public eye, and so he has written about her (with her consent). But Pan and Amy, after spending their childhoods being trotted out for photos in Life and Look and so on, decided (as adults) that they wanted to live their lives in private. And he wants to respect that, because he remains close to all of his sisters (unlike Jane, who hasn't spoken to Pan or Amy in decades). It's like in the last month, there's been a family crisis, and you know it's been serious, because i've gotten hives. I haven't had hives since i was in junior high school. (When something traumatic happens, i rarely get hysterical; instead, something happens… like hives or an ulcer or gout.) But that's my sister's business, that's all i'll say. For me, it's very important how people are as parents. I thought my father was a wonderful father. But my mother….

The most i can say is that my mother is some character! Here's one of the classic stories. This happened in the 1980s. At that time, the New York Times would let their critics write these "critic's notebook" columns. So one day, the late Mel Gussow writes a column about how "diversified" the American theater has become, and he lists a number of Asian-Americans who are prominent in the theater. So that evening, the phone rings. "Daryl?" It's my mother. "I'm reading the New York Times…" "Yeah…" "Is there another Daryl Chin working in the theater?" "I don't know, Ma, you gave me this name, maybe you wanted me to be part of a crowd." "What does this mean: conceptual director?" "I don't know, Ma, you'd have to ask Mel Gussow, he came up with that phrase." Then there's a pause, then my mother says (with great disdain), "You mean it's come to THIS… YOU'RE making a significant contribution to the American theater?" What can i say?

Speaking of critic's columns, i always read Dave Kehr's DVD column in the New York Times, and i thought his analysis of the three new "Fox Noir" titles was terrific. It's interesting, because Preminger's series of "noirs" can be looked at in very structural/formalist terms. When Larry was working on this PhD, he was writing his dissertation on melodrama, and he wanted to do a structural analysis (this was in 1972, when structuralism was relatively new to American academia). And one chapter was going to be about Otto Preminger's films, because the series of melodramas (now called "noirs") were so incredibly intertwined. (I always include "Daisy Kenyon" in that group, because it's so much a part of the series… same Fox NYC backlot set, same David Raksin as composer, same Joseph LaShelle as cinematographer, same Dana Andrews as one of the leads; there's no murder or crime, but there are legal entanglements, and the same encroaching corruption; in the case of "Daisy Kenyon", the corrupt milieu of ruling class insularity is such that the one time when the Dana Andrews character tries to do something "noble", i.e., defend the rights of a Japanese-American war vet, he is defeated.) I remember Larry and i went again and again to see "Laura", "Fallen Angel", "Daisy Kenyon", "Whirlpool", "Where the Sidewalk Ends", "The Thirteenth Letter" and "Angel Face". (A few months ago, when the BAMCinemathek had a screening of "The Thirteenth Letter", i was very excited; somehow, i had the idea that i hadn't seen it, but once it started, i realized, i had seen it, and more than once. But it was a great print, and i always like hearing Elliot Stein giving a spiel, especially when he's enthusiastic, as he always is about Preminger.) Though Dave Kehr writes discerningly about "No Way Out", the question i have about that title is: since when did it become a "noir"? "No Way Out" was always cited as one of the late 1940s-early 1950s "race" movies (cf. "Pinky", "Lost Boundaries", "Intruder in the Dust", "Home of the Brave"); in fact, it was the most volatile, what with the race riot at the end, and the tensions which were exposed in the film were considered so incendiary (the movie was the only box office flop for Joseph L. Mankiewicz during that period) that "No Way Out" effectively ended the cycle. (When the major studios did "race" movies over the next few years, they were usually "all-black" productions, such as "Bright Road" or "Carmen Jones". Preminger himself said that movies like "Carmen Jones" and "Porgy and Bess" were set in a fantasyland where racism wasn't a problem because there were only blacks.) But "No Way Out" was a "problem" picture, the way that "The Lost Weekend" was a "problem" picture (in that case, alcoholism) or "The Man With the Golden Arm" was a "problem" picture (in that case, drug addiction). It was supposed to be a prestige number for Fox (and for Mankiewicz): it came between "A Letter to Three Wives", "House of Strangers", "All About Eve" and "People Will Talk", but it flopped, and Hollywood tried to forget it (though it did receive some Academy Award nominations, though "All About Eve" cleaned up, both at the box office and as an award magnet). Mankiewicz himself was actually very proud of "No Way Out": when MoMA did its big 20th Century-Fox retro (curated by the late Stephen Harvey), Mankiewicz came to introduce the screening of "No Way Out" and he mentioned how he felt it was vastly underrated and overlooked. I think it's one of his most interesting movies (actually, far more interesting than his other 1950 movie, "All About Eve").

But in the papers, there are the reports about Andrew Fastow's testimony in the Enron case. It's the type of thing where it seems inevitable that there will be guilty verdicts for the Enron execs… but this is America, so you never know. The idea that Jeffrey Skilling and Kenneth Lay will probably never face jail time (let alone pay back anything) is unbearable, but that's not so farfetched. While i was at the gym, i was watching MSNBC, The Abrams Report, and there was a segment about Imette St. Guillen, the grad student who was raped and murdered. And it's like the information that she was out late (past midnight) and had a few drinks…. Suddenly, it's her fault, and she's being painted as some sort of a slut who got what she deserved. (All these callers from the mid-West are incensed that this girl was allowed to be "wild"!) It's insane.

We really are in another country!


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