Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Have been so busy of late, including a lot of family stuff (Uncle Suey's wake and funeral) and haven't had a chance to blog. (Has blog become a verb?) Yesterday went to see the documentary "Steal a Pencil For Me", which was one of those surprisingly dramatic documentaries. Surprisingly in that though the subject matter was inherently dramatic (a story of Holocaust survivors), it was handled in a very sensitive way, and it was structured so that the dramatic potential in the material was fully brought out.

I'm still in the midst of writing, and i had to miss Ernie Gehr. Two weeks ago, there was a reception for "Modern Mondays"; Larry and i went. This was to announce a "new" program at MoMA, a collaboration between the Department of Film and the newly-formed Department of Media (at one time, the Department of Film was the Department of Media, and it was called the Department of Film and Media). Anyway, what they're doing is taking up the old Cineprobes (which started out on Mondays) and then the Video Viewpoints, and now they're simply calling the program Modern Mondays. "A chance for the avantgarde and independent filmmaker to meet with the audience" or whatever they used to say.

When we went to the reception, Larry Kardish and i started reminiscing. It's just about 40 years since the first Cineprobe ("David Holzman's Diary" by Jim McBride) and i remember going to almost everything for the first three years or so. It was a real education in (alternative) film.

But is it possible? 40 years?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A lot happened. On Friday, went to see the Roundabout production of Shaw's "Pygmalion"; David Noh invited me to accompany him (of course, he'll include it in his column in Gay City News) and though i jokingly said that i wouldn't prejudice the production by watching the Howard-Asquith film, i was bombarded with the reviews that morning. And all were negative, and Claire Danes was slaughtered. So i had no idea what to expect... and i thought the production was lovely. Technically, it was superb: the sets and lighting were stunning, the costumes were lovely. The cast was quite good, some better than others (Jefferson Mays and Boyd Gaines were terrific, Claire Danes was excellent, Jay O. Sanders never quite seemed to be a Cockney), but all in all a fine production.

Why the bad reviews? Well, on "On Stage", Roma Torre gave the production a positive review, and she said something that was so intriguing: she said that this production restores "Pygmalion" to Shaw's intention, that is, to its status as a social satire, rather than as a "romantic comedy". The romantic comedy connotations came about because of the intent of the musical (and even the original film version), and was especially emphasized because of the casting. So many of the reviewers complained about the lack of "chemistry" between Jefferson Mays as Higgins and Claire Danes's Eliza, but "Pygmalion" isn't a romantic comedy. The ending is not purposely ambiguous, it simply means that Eliza is able to begin her life... but how she decides is up to her, and not to Higgins.

The actual text of "Pygmalion" is so different from what people know (and "My Fair Lady" is based, not on the play, but on the film script: the changes that Shaw authorized for the film, such as the inclusion of the actual elocution lessons, with such lines as "the rain in spain stays mainly on the plains", are not to be found in the original play) and i think that most critics (now) have no idea of what the original was or what it meant.

But the Roundabout production is quite good, and the direction by David Grindley was smooth. The ensemble feeling was very strong: a number of the actors had earlier appeared in Grindley's production of "Journey's End" from last season (Mays, Gaines, Kieran Campion) and their work together was very smooth.

But what was depressing was realizing how an inadequate film (and in its time "My Fair Lady" received almost scathing bad reviews from the serious critics, cf. Stanley Kauffmann, Andrew Sarris, Dwight MacDonald) has now colored the perception about Shaw's play. And it also explains something: to so many fans, you cannot explain that Audrey Hepburn was utterly miscast. Yes, Audrey Hepburn was lovely (hell, she was one of the most beautiful women of the 20th century), but no way is she a Cockney (she was BORN an aristocrat; no amount of "acting" can scrap off what has been "bred" since birth) and her romantic aura (which had been carefully cultivated in the decade since she became a star) pushes the material into an area which is totally at odds with Shaw's pragmatism. Claire Danes is lovely, and she has a sturdy quality which compares well with Wendy Hiller's formidable stature.

But people (now) want to see "Pygmalion" as a romantic comedy, and it's not. And this production of "Pygmalion" is not, but it is a good rendition of Shaw.

Then David invited me to the Sunday matinee, "Broadway Originals", at Town Hall. What an event! I was nervous about the subway (on a Sunday, you never know what's happening, if the D isn't running or the N is running local, etc.) so i left really early. And i got to Town Hall by 2:30 (the performance was at 3) ... David had (jokingly) warned me to prepare myself for the audience ("The Night of the Living Dead") and he was right. I've NEVER been to a performance where there were so many people with walkers and canes and wheelchairs (all arriving early so that they could be properly seated).

Barbara and Scott Siegel have really been working hard on these events at Town Hall. And they've gotten a brilliant idea. "Broadway Originals", for example. To ask a number of Brodaway veterans to do the number they made famous in the original Broadway productions, so you had Alan Campbell singing "Sunset Boulevard" from the musical of the same name; Ken Jennings singing "Not While I'm Around" from "Sweeney Todd"; Taina Elg singing the mother's song from "Nine"; Joan Copeland singing a song from "Two By Two", that musical she co-starred with Danny Kaye... the first performer was Andre De Shields, singing the Wizard's song from
"The Wiz" (which he introduced on Broadway almost 40 years ago!). He came out in a white suit, with this huge white cape, which he swirled and twirled around in, while also dancing across the stage (at one point, he got tangled up in the cape, and there was a scary moment when it looked as if he might trip, but he managed to get himself untangled), and he was just so vivacious and exuberant. And the final performer was George S. Irving! I mean, i can't even imagine how old the man is... he made his Broadway debut in 1943, and then was drafted. (This according to Scott's little introduction.) And then he went right into his big number from the original Broadway production of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (which he starred in on Broadway in 1948). He performed with such effortless aplomb, and such command... this is what is meant by stage presence! It was just amazing.

Well, i've got to write up my audit reports for NYSCA about the Housing Works reading and the Lark Theater.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The storm which swept through the Midwest is now upon us, and the last two hours there was a deluge. Have to say: what a week!

I had anticipated a slow week with a few press screenings. (But - i'm sorry - but i'm getting tired of documentaries! Please!) Instead, i wound up with two audits and a play....

The first audit was for the evening of translated Portuguese literature at Housing Works on Wednesday. Now, just in case you think this sounds rather specialized and you begin to wonder what kind of audience there might be, i must say that the event was packed! For a reading, they had about 70 people! There weren't enough seats for all the people. And the evening was very smooth, with three translators reading works.... one caveat: i wish they had handed out some sort of program or list of works, because i'm very unfamiliar with Portuguese literature and would have liked to have known the names of some of the poets and writers. (I'm not at all familiar with Portuguese, so when they said the name, i had no idea how the name would be spelled.) But it was fascinating.

I didn't think i'd find the Lark Theater Company so enjoyable, but i did. This is a group that mostly does readings of new plays, allowing a workshop atmosphere for playwrights to experiment with their work. The play was called "City Of" by a writer named Anton Dudley. The reading was done very inventively. No real "staging", but effective in placing the actors around the room, rather than just letting them sit together.

But (again) the place was packed! There was an audience of over 100, and it was a very variegated crowd. I sat next to a middle-aged African-American couple, who had been coming to see these readings. There were a lot of young people (of course), and not all of them were simply other theater professionals. There were two young women who work together in an office and they lived nearby, and they became aware of these readings and have now become regular patrons. So it was a wide-ranging audience, and the play might be described as "experimental" (though, of course, not by me, since i'm the avantgarde maven around here), but it had distinct echoes of Gertrude Stein and various poets like William Carlos Williams... but the audience stayed for the whole thing (i didn't see any walkouts) and most of them stayed for the discussion period after. And i listened to the people on the way out, and the audience members were just so excited at the prospect of a "new" work!

And i have to say that the Lark Theater must be credited: they didn't just sit around, they have a real staff that has tried to market their theater to the neighborhood, and they have gotten people like those two girls (one Indian, the other Chinese) and that black couple. And if you multiply that... and suddenly, on a Thursday evening, you have people who are willing to come out and take a chance to hear a new play.

And it makes me think that there really is hope in this city, that the woes of Broadway and even the commercial off-Broadway theaters are just so much piffle, because there really is a venturesome audience out there, if you can take the time to develop it. And i saw that audience for a reading of Portuguese-language literature, and at a semi-staged reading of a new "experimental" play.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Well, a big day. Announcement of Deborah Kerr's death slowly making its way publicly. Through the IMDB Classic Film Board, the English announcement was posted, so that was before AP got the news. So i shall simply repeat what i said, that she was one of the essential stars of the 1950s. Many great performances to remember her by.

Joey Bishop also died. Was he the last of the Rat Pack?

My sister called to tell me that Uncle Suey died. Well, he certainly lived a full, long life. How sad: he got sick this summer, and was diagnosed with colon cancer. But his wife, my Auntie Ann, hasn't been well since she fell in the spring, and has been paralyzed.

Anyway, a sad day.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

It must be like withdrawal: it's hard to think about the experience of this year's NYFF. For one thing (as i've mentioned) it just seemed to be unconscionably long. There were a lot of movies of interest, and there were certain trends that seemed to emerge. What was also fun was talking to people after the movies. Even disagreeing with people proved to be fun.

But i'll start with the Romanian film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days". well, Romania is the new Czechoslavakia. Of course, there is no more Czechoslavakia. But i mean that Romania is the country which, at the moment, has a primacy of what might be called humanist filmmaking. These are unadorned movies about the lives of people affected by extreme circumstances. Two other recent movies: "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" and "12:08 East of Bucharest". There's a minute concentration on the activities of people under stress: the nurse and the dying man in "Mr. Lazarescu", the radio talkshow host in "12:08", the two college girls in "4 Months". "4 Months" is rather harrowing; in these Romanian movies, there's been a directness, and this also signifies an acknowledgement of pain and death presented in stark terms.

Though these films have not been without irony. However, talking about irony, and there is the rather twee preciosity of Wes Anderson and his "Darjeeling Limited". However, i should add that the short "Hotel Chevalier" is rather more directly charming; i think it's a mistake not to show it before the feature, the way it has been done at the festival. (The short was available online; i presume it will be one of the highlights of the DVD edition of the movie.)

If Wes Anderson was twee, then Abel Ferrara was trying for vulgarity. But he's become too much of an aesthete: "Go Go Tales" also smacked of preciosity. Preciousness and vulgarity are an odd mix, and the film was like a drunk wallowing in the mud who still tries to be dainty. For all the copious displays of female nudity, it was surprisingly lacking in true sensuality, and for a movie about a strip joint, it wasn't really sleazy enough. Raucous, maybe (how could it not be, with Sylvia Miles as insurance? that voice of hers has become a weapon, and it's one of the last things in the movie), but not sleazy and grungy.

A lot of filmmakers this year seemed to be trying on styles. In the case of Julian Schnabel: it's nice to know that he must have seen some Brakhage and some Sidney Peterson, because the distorted lenses and the camera-eye viewpoint which were used in the first part to simulate the viewpoint of a visually impaired person were straight-out-of-Brakhage (and Peterson). Certainly, "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" was an exceptional piece of film craftsmanship, and the acting was superb. Julian Schnabel is aggravating, because he remains one of the most arrogant people around, the kind of person who is such a blowhard you want him to disgrace himself, but he doesn't.

Carlos Reygadas's "Stellet Licht" makes like a Terrence Malick movie, heavy on the doting-seasonal cinematography, and then slowly turns into a Dreyer movie, making a quiet show of its (received) grace. The movie was very well-done, but there semed to be something almost impersonal about it. And the ending wasn't quite as exalting as it should have been, because it didn't seem to come from passion. (With Dreyer, you always knew how intensely passionate he was and how much he believed in the ending of "Ordet".)

A lot more, but (as Audrey Hepburn says in "Love in the Afternoon") "more later".

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Well, it's finally over, the New York Film Festival press screenings. Yesterday was quite a day. It started with "Calle Santa Fe", Carmen Castillo's long but engrossing memoir of the Left in Chile (due to problems on the subway, i missed the short that played with it); the afternoon screening was Koji Yamamura's animated "Franz Kafka's A Country Doctor" and then Jia Zhangke's "Useless". Then there was a reception for Sidney Lumet at the Armstrong Room of Rose Hall.

Then Larry and i went to the opening of "Here Is New York" at the New York Historical Society. Then i went to the screening of Irene Sosa's documentary "Shopping to Belong". Quite interesting how these films all worked together. Irene's documentary is about immigrants from Latin America and how they adjust by becoming consumers. In "Calle Santa Fe", Carmen Castillo was one of the many Chileans who became political exiles. And "Useless" begins with a section on the fashion designer Ma Ke. In the little press kit handed out, Jia Zhangke says: "Following the lead of clothes, we shot in three areas and discovered the real lives of people along different economic chains. The clothes can cover us, convey feelings and also carry the ultimate way of life. Clothes, a layer of substance in close contact with our skins, also have memories."

So Carmen Castillo's documentary was about the dislocation caused by the seismic political changes (and the violent, drastic measures used to achieve those changes) in Chile, and how many of those forced in exile have tried to return home; Irene's documentary is about how consumerism reconciles some people in exile to an idea of belonging to a consumer society; Jia Zhangke's documentary shows how the rapidly changing economy in China is creating huge discrepancies in social classes, often obliterating artisanal professions (such as tailors).

Also seen this week: Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi's "Actresses"; the short "The Vulnerable Ones"; Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's "Persepolis".

And now, The New York Film Festival's press screenings are over. Much to reflect on, but have to admit that, for all its flaws (which are readily apparent), the most exciting movie of the festival (for me) was Todd's "I'm Not There".

Monday, October 08, 2007

Today is Columbus Day, and there's only one press screening at the New York Film Festival: Masayuki Suo's "I Just Didn't Do It", which i saw during the first week of press screenings. So today is a day to relax, and possibly start to get some perspective on this year's festival.

Right off the bat, i think that the festival shows so many people "in transition". Filmmakers are trying on new styles, going to new locations, working on a new scale. There's also a sense of a kind of retrogression: some people seem to be stuck, trying to recreate the excitement of their youth. Sometimes it proved charming (at least to me: i was one of the ones who found Rohmer's "The Romance of Astree and Celadon" to be lulling in a sweet, faux-naif way), sometimes exasperating (Sidney Lumet's "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" was like another installment of his NYC crime dramas, cf. "Serpico", "Dog Day Afternoon", "Prince of the City", "Q & A", only with an attempt at a fractured structure and some sexual frankness that wouldn't have been possible in the 1970s).

Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" certainly showed that Schnabel has become a technically proficient filmmaker, with an ability to work very well with an expert crew and a talented group of actors. Plus he has nerve: this time, he's working in France, with French actors.

But Schnabel divides people, simply because his bombastic personality has been such a fixture in the downtown art scene here in New York for over two decades.

Masayuki Suo's "I Just Didn't Do It" is a very precise, seemingly minutely detailed procedural. It takes a case (a young man accused of groping a young girl on the Tokyo subway) and slowly unfolds until it encompasses an entire view of the constrictions of Japanese society.

Wes Anderson's "Hotel Chevalier" and "The Darjeeling Limited" continue his odd, eccentric, petit-point deadpan. Yes, his movies show a greater visual control, and visually it's a very lovely movie. But are his films simply twee conceits, or are there deeper meanings (specifically, deeper emotions) behind the deadpan? It's like Anderson still won't commit (one way or another) because he wants (nonchalantly) to maintain his cool. Certainly, "Hotel Chevalier" (the short) is a cool little movie.

Chabrol's "A Girl Cut in Two" shows the "Gallic Hitchcock" (or should it be Fritz Lang?) up to his old tricks. This one seems to run smoother than some of his other recent vehicles.

Both Robert Beavers's "Pitcher of Colored Light" and Peter Hutton's "At Sea" deserve extended commentary. Both were quite lovely.

I got to Ira Sachs's "Married Life" late: delay on the subway. But it grabbed me from the moment i came in, which was about 5 minutes late. It's a meticulous film, with very careful camerwork, deliberate compositions, and exceptional set and costume design, all geared to mimic big studio melodramas of the late 1940s-early 1950s. It seems like a genre film, but with a difference: gradually, the perspective grows and the movie encompasses both a highly wrought noir melodrama and a satirical slant which allows for a more reflective approach to this story of marriage and (attempted) murder. I know that Lisa Schwarzbaum was very enthusiastic about this film when she filed her Toronto Film Festival report for Entertainment Weekly. (She's on the NYFF selection committee.) Ok, so i agree: i really thought "Married Life" was exceptional, and i'm very pleased with Ira's progress from film to film. I thought "The Delta" was insightful and evocative, but it didn't really flow; "40 Shades of Blue" was more powerful, but also had some problems of pacing. This time, Ira has really concentrated on the technical aspects of narrative filmmaking, and the result is a precisely tuned genre piece, with great subtlety and terrific irony.

Well, that was the first week....

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Another week at the NY Film Festival. In addition to the screenings during the week, there was the Miramax arranged press screening on Saturday, making it a six-day week of screenings. Seen this week: "Mambo Girl" (part of the Cathay Studio retrospective); Farocki's "Respite", Pedro Costa's "The Rabbit Hunters" and Eugene Green's "Correspondences"; the short "No Part of the Pig is Wasted"; Gus Van Sant's "Paranoid Park"; Todd Haynes's "I'm Not There"; Guerin's "In the City of Sylvia"; Sokhurov's "Alexandra", Breillat's "The Old Mistress"; Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding"; the Coen Brothers's "No Country for Old Men".

Just before the screening of "I'm Not There", i was talking to Dave Kehr when Stephen Kent Jusick came up and gave me a kiss; after the screening, i was leaving when Todd was going in for his press conference, when he saw me and said "Hey, you!" and came over and gave me a hug. I don't know: i didn't realize that "I'm Not There" was going to be such a touchy-feely experience!