Monday, April 21, 2008

It's been about a week since i've blogged; has it been a busy week? Well, judging from my screening calendar, it has.

Monday (April 14), i missed the screening of Godard's "Weekend"; not that i haven't seen that film. I saw it upon its first screening at the New York Film Festival, i saw it several times in the next decade... i have the DVD from New Yorker Films. How many times can i see that film? Actually, a lot. But what happened was my brother stopped by and we did my taxes. So that's why i missed "Weekend", because after we did the taxes i copied everything and then mailed my taxes off. Suffice it to say that "Weekend" is Godard's masterwork, possibly his most galvanizing film. Perhaps i love some of his other films more (certainly, i love "Band of Outsiders", "Masculine Feminine" and "La Chinoise" more, films which are so close to me that they seem like pictures from my own childhood... or adolescence), but i think "Weekend" is... if i remember correctly, Renata Adler (in the New York Times) ended her review by saying that "Weekend" was like nothing else, it was hard to take. (And she meant that as a compliment.)

But i went to the evening screening of "Then She Found Me", about which i wrote about. I also watched "Becoming Jane" (a Netflix choice; ok, sue me, i figured i'd see it because i watched a number of the new BBC productions of Jane Austen that were on PBS). I don't want to be mean, but wow was it slow, sloggy, sodden. Where were the wit, irony and razor-sharp perception which are hallmarks of Jane Austen's style? The acting was ok, Anne Hathaway does have some sort of star presence, and James McAvoy is dashing (even he has admitted that he's amazed at his career, considering that he's such a short - 5' 7" - fellow, but he does pull it off, as he does in "Atonement"), Julie Walters was so in-character as the nagging mother i wanted to smack her, but this really was a letdown.

Tuesday, the Argentinean "XXY"; it was surprising, certainly, there was little sensationalism in this story of a transgendered teenager. A good film, certainly, and well deserving of its prizes at various festivals. However, one problem: the tone of the film wavered, and the perspective was at times confusing. That is: was the film supposed to be objective or subjective? By that i mean: the parents, at times, they seemed to be reasonably presented, then at other times, almost caricatures, with suddenly exaggerated emotions, which would be logical if you're trying to present the point of view of the teenager. In a way, it showed that it was the work of a young filmmaker, and there was that uncertainty from a novice.

Wednesday, the press screening of "Mickey One" which is being revived for a week as the introductory film in the "Jazz Score" series at MoMA. I remember seeing it on its first release. It seemed unnecessarily obscure, very flashy and arty; not much has changed, though the print was great. After the screening, i talked about the film with Ira Hozinsky. It reminds me that the entire generation of television-derived directors (Lumet, Frankenheimer, Penn, Mulligan, Ritt) remains problematic in terms of the politique des auteurs. Yet most of these directors have themes that are pretty recognizable, and were often very much involving in setting up and producing their own films. "Mickey One", though, is a classic example of what a director shouldn't do: Arthur Penn seems not to know what he can do and what he can't do. And one thing: he should stay out of symbolic junkyards! The climax of "Mickey One", just like the climax of "The Chase", is one big mess. But it's made with great craft (it looks terrific, and the soundtrack is fantastic), and it's certainly indicative of the mid-1960s.

On TV, watched the new TV version of "A Room With a View"; not bad, the Spalls (Timothy and Rafe) were amusing, Elaine Cassidy continues to be odd (she doesn't quite seem to be a period character, but she doesn't quite seem to be modern either), and the insistence on making the homoerotic subtext in E.M. Forster overt is rather trying. Merchant-Ivory may not be the most exciting filmmakers imaginable, but if you're going to like them, then their E.M. Forster trilogy ("A Room With a View", "Maurice" and "Howards End") represents their work at its peak, and this version of "A Room With a View" didn't come close.

Thursday was (inadvertently) my all-Asian day. First i started with the press screening of the new Kim Ki-Duk film, "Breath". MoMA will be having a retrospective. Now; Kim Ki-Duk is a director who seems to excite a great deal of passion (actually, it's often great animosity, great disdain). A lot of critics, specifically those who devote a lot of their time to Asian cinema (Tony Rayns, as an example), really hate Kim Ki-Duk, declaring him someone who is spurious, duplicitous, inauthentic. I'm not a partisan, but i'm not an antagonist, either. "The Isle" was the first film of his i saw, i remember going to a screening where no one knew what to expect, and initially it was very beautiful (i remember the color of the sky, and the textures of that houseboat), and then it was jolting. Everyone at the screening seemed to have the same visceral response. I've liked some of his film ("3-Iron"), but too often, his films don't quite work. It was funny seeing "Breath" a day after "Mickey One", because "Breath" is another film that's an "art" film: an utterly improbable premise, and then it goes on from there. Things like the four men in the bare prison cell: it started to turn ridiculous. One of his last films, "Time", had this whole plot involving plastic surgery, people trying to turn into other people, etc. It's like the ideas of his films aren't touching anything resembling reality... and "Breath" (unfortunately) was no exception.

The evening, went to the screening of "Up the Yangtze". Went with my friend Christine, i figured it was about China's ecological changes (the Three Gorges Dam) and Christine works at E.P.A. We enjoyed the film, it's a very entertaining, if rather low-key, documentary... low-key in that the people who were in the film have a certain guarded relation to being filmed. But as it ended, Christine turned to me and whispered that it should be on PBS... and as the end credits rolled, the P.O.V. logo came up! So this is going to make it on PBS, where it should do well.

In the mail, i got the screener for Arthur Dong's "Hollywood Chinese", his new doc. This one on how Chinese have been portrayed in Hollywood... there were some very surprising things, such as the discovery of "The Curse of Quon Gwon", which was made in 1916 by Marion Wong in Oakland, California, and information on James Leong, who set up a production company and produced a feature film, "Lotus Blossom", in 1921. Only fragments of these films remain, but it's still interesting that there was "Chinese-American" filmmaking in the silent period (just as Sessue Hayakawa would set up his production company, and would spearhead Japanese-American filmmaking in that period). Then it becomes a highly entertaining interview/clipshow, with some really amusing interviews (such as Luise Rainer talking about "The Good Earth")... but, though Stephen Gong is there to provide some sort of perspective, a lot of the interviews start to get contradictory, i.e., Nancy Kwan getting all defensive about playing Suzie Wong, but then getting highhanded about Keye Luke playing Charlie Chan's Number One Son.

But what was really funny was that right after i watched "Hollywood Chinese", i turned on the Tonight Show... and there were Kal Penn and John Cho out promoting "Harold and Kumar Escape From Quantanamo Bay"! When Dave Kehr reviewed the new DVD set that Milestone has put out of Sessue Hayakawa's silent films ("The Dragon Painter" and "The Wrath of the Gods"), he noted that, for all the historical importance of "The Dragon Painter" in terms of Hayakawa's position as producer, "The Wrath of the Gods" was the better film, because Thomas Ince (director of "Gods") happens to be a better director than William Worthington, who directed "Painter". Worthington's work tends to be pictorial and static, Ince is a real filmmaker who finds movement and a real sense of flow. But then, Thomas Ince is one of the most important American directors of the early silent period (after Griffith). (I have to put in a plug for the Milestone set: it's really amazing to see these works in excellent restorations, and Sessue Hayakawa is an amazing actor, so the films should be seen just to see his star power.)

One day i'm going to have to have a long talk with Stephen Gong about these issues of "political correctness" and talent. By the way, if i hear another damn Asian-American actress complain about the Suzie Wong stereotype of the Asian woman as prostitute, i'm going to knock her teeth out. Really: if actresses (in general) didn't play prostitutes, what would they play? Melina Mercouri in "Never on Sunday", Elizabeth Shue in "Leaving Las Vegas", Jane Fonda in "Klute", Shirley MacLaine in "Irma La Douce", Bette Davis in "Marked Woman", Jeanne Moreau in "Eve", Julie Christie in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller", Stella Stevens in "The Ballad of Cable Hogue", Susan Hayward in "I Want to Live!", Barbara Stanwyck in "Ladies of Leisure", Loretta Young in "Midnight Mary"... the list goes on and on. It's not the role per se, but the quality of the role, the writing and the acting and the directing. Lisa Lu complains about playing bar maids... well: has she ever seen Naruse's "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs"? Hideko Takamine's performance (as a bar maid) is one of the great performances, not because she sees the role as a cliche, but because she sees the role as a person!

So that was my Asian day.

Friday: on TV, two movies. "Folies Bergere", the Fox musical from 1934 starring Maurice Chevalier, Merle Oberon and Ann Southern. As was Fox's wont, this was the first version of a plot used again and again (in this case, remade in 1941 as "That Night in Rio" with Don Ameche, Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda, and in 1951 as "On the Riviera" with Danny Kaye, Gene Tierney and Corinne Calvet), and it's the shortest, the snappiest, and has some terrific numbers in the elaborate 1930s style (including one set in the rain that's so obviously an inspiration for Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" number; the Valentina number that opens the movie is well-nigh infectious). Then "Lilly Turner" on TCM, a fast and very tawdry melodrama directed by William Wellman, starring Ruth Chatterton.

Friday evening, went to two press screenings for the Tribeca Film Festival. The first was a Danish film, "Worlds Apart", a studied and scrupulous movie about a teenage girl raised as a Jehovah's Witness who eventually leaves the faith (which means cutting herself off from her family, friends, community). Then the French film "57,000 Kilometers Between Us", which was a first feature by a French video artist, Delphine Kreuter... in some ways, it reminded me of "Me and You and Everyone We Know" (maybe the female video artist connection?), but i quite liked it.

Saturday, went to three more Tribeca press screenings: a new print of Fellini's "Toby Dammit", Guy Maddin's "My Winnipeg" and Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues". Well: i loved it, it was a great day at the movies, what more can i say? Ok, well... Fellini's theatrical-baroque-surreal style that he developed in "8 1/2" is often hard to take in long stretches, but in "Toby Dammit" it's at its most pointed and succinct. In terms of "My Winnipeg"... Guy Maddin is a curiosity. Larry and i went to the very first screening in NYC of his first film, "Tales from the Gimli Hospital", and we couldn't believe it: it was like someone had found some old, moldy film, and decided to show it. His next few features were of the sort where it was hard to decide what was intentional and what was unintentional: he seemed like an amateur who didn't want to develop his skills as a professional filmmaker. But around the time of his "Ice Nymphs" movie, something started happening... he had a style, but he was becoming professional about it. And he has developed in movies like "The Saddest Music in the World", "Brand Upon the Brain" and this one. He's still obsessed with the look of old, moldy films, but it's harnessed to some sort of "real" story. Regarding Nina Paley's "Sita Sings the Blues": this is a film which i've seen in progress, because in the last five years, almost every time i've been on a grant panel, this movie's come in. (Unless i'm mistaken, each time, it was a grantee.) It's bright, incredibly well-designed, exceedingly clever (the usage of Annette Hanshaw's recording from the 1920s, with songs like "Moaning Low"), and quite touching, as Nina Paley mixes autobiography with an interpretation of the myth of Sita and Rama.

On Sunday, Larry and i went to pick up our press kits from the Tribeca Film Festival, then we came home. I spent the rest of the day on the computer, using Facebook and trolling the web for various items to put on my Funwall. Quite frankly: i feel quite pleased that i've learned how to upload/download (whatever you call it) photos and videos. Some of the videos i found on the web: 2/3 of the Alain Resnais-Chris Marker-Ghislain Cloquet documentary on African art, "Les Statues Meurent Aussi"; that wonderful short directed by Jean-Marie Straub and Danielle Huillet, based on a Margeurite Duras story, "En Rachachant"; a section of Chantal Akerman's documentary "D'Est"; Antonioni's first short, "Gente Del Po" (unfortunately with glitches); the dance-of-the-shadows sequence from Dreyer's "Vampyr"; the original Japanese trailer for Ozu's "Early Summer"; a trailer for Godard's "Band of Outsiders"; Godard's amazing one-minute trailer for "Alphaville". And i've been sending them out to friends who are on Facebook, like Trond Trondsen, Anne Thompson, Robert Withers, Robin Winters, B. Ruby Rich, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Gary Tooze, Derek Yip... it's a lot of fun, but it's also fun because it's instantaneous: you can find something, and you can share it immediately. But also seen on Sunday: "My Boy Jack" on PBS (very Masterpiece Theater, but not bad) and then Dreyer's "Michael" on TCM (a lot of cable interference, with the image often decomposing.... of course, i've seen the movie many times before, but it's still disconcerting to see the digital equivalent of burning celluloid).

That takes us to today, and the one thing i did was watch "Dan in Real Life"... the reviews were mostly bad, but i liked it more than Peter Hedges's first film, "Pieces of April", and i was interested in seeing Emily Blunt. There are (at any given time) always a lot of people who have loads of talent, but whether or not they find the right roles to really make it as stars is another matter altogether. Not only that, but there are people with little or no talent who (through careful choice of parts, incredible calculation, or sheer luck) become stars. But Emily Blunt showed her talent in "My Summer of Love" and whether or not she'll ever get another part as good is the question. Up next on Netflix (Larry and i decided on the one-at-a-time plan, because when we started with the three-at-a-time plan, it would take weeks before we actually watched and sent the DVDs back; this way, it still takes time, but we don't feel overwhelmed): "Enchanted".

But one of the strange things about Facebook: it's reconnected me with a lot of people who no longer live in NYC. Once i added Bill Brand as a friend, Joe Gibbons's name came up (he's now in Massachusetts) and because Joe's name came up, Diane Torr's name came up (she's now in Scotland!)... my question is: does anyone still live in lower Manhattan? I thought of that today while i was at the gym, because i used to run into Joe and Emily Breer at the gym on Broadway and Houston... but that was when i was living on Wooster Street!


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