Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Two weeks since i've blogged; have been thinking about what it means to blog, but also have been getting sucked into Facebook. One thing i've done in the last few days: setting up "photo albums" using stills i've downloaded. On Friday night, Larry and i finally used the scanner: i took my Antonioni stills, and i made a file on the computer, and then i took those downloads and uploaded the stills to a Facebook album. (Upload, download: am i using these terms correctly?) On Facebook now, i've set up albums of Frank Borzage, Jacques Demy, Antonioni, and Godard. In the case of Borzage and Demy: i've just started these albums, and i've used stills available online. But in the case of Borzage, what's funny is that some of those stills are actually mine: when the Film Society of Lincoln Center had its Borzage/Margaret Sullavan retrospective years ago (when was that?), Larry made slides of my Borzage stills, and we gave them to Joanna Ney. And now some of those stills (the one of Margaret Sullavan on the floor, dying in "Three Comrades", or the one of Sullavan holding onto James Stewart from "The Mortal Storm") are making the rounds.

But i still have the Borzage stills, which i have to scan. But all this activity was fun, because it reminded me of my childhood, when collecting movie stills was one of my major hobbies. (That's how i met David Noh, because he was working for Paula Klaw's Movie Star News.) Of course, i'd be the one trying to find stills from (say) Bresson or Mizoguchi....

But in the last two weeks, i did see some movies. Went to the press screening of Isaac Julien's "Derek", his and Tilda Swinton's protrait of Derek Jarman. (She's the producer and writer.) It's a very elegant film, and quite smooth. A lot of the film consists of the different filmed interviews that Jarman gave over the years: he certainly enjoyed his status as gay spokesman. But in a way Isaac's sensibility is at odds with Derek's: there's never any grunge in Isaac's work, it's always very elegantly crafted. But certainly enjoyable.

Also saw Marco Bellocchio's "The Wedding Director", also enjoyable. Not quite a peak in his career, but not disgraceful. His sensibility remains so quirky.

Also saw Jiri Menzel's "I Served the King of England", and also intriguing to see another director from the 1960s who sontinues to work in his own style. The faux-naif fable quality which was also present in "Closely Watched Trains" is even more pronounced.

The big event of that week was the AICA annual meeting on Friday, May 16. It was held at the Bronx Museum, which meant a real trek: more than 90 minutes on the subway to get there. If film critics think there is a crisis, art critics have already been in crisis mode for more than a decade: ever since i've been a member of AICA (Association International des Critiques d'Arte, or the International Art Critics Association), there's always a discussion about the decline in art publications, the loss of jobs on newspapers and magazines, etc. But we also were given a tour of the exhibitions, and then (after lunch) a tour of the Mott Haven area, where a number of artists have studios and there are a few art spaces. It was instructive to see how people are trying to make an art scene, and how one person (in this case: Tony Feher) can serve as an anchor.

Will McCord's short film "Henry" was selected for the Reel 13 series, and was broadcast on Saturday, May 17; congratulations to Will, looked at his website and see that this short is supposed to be the anchor of a feature film which will consist of other sections, which involve how relationships are being transformed by the internet, cellphones, etc.

Last week: press screenings for Open Roads, the annual series of new Italian films. Well, "new" may be a misnomer. Went to see two films by Franco Piavoli at Anthology Film Archives: "Blue Planet" (from 1982) and "At the First Breath of Wind" (2002). As part of Open Roads, Anthology will be hosting a retrospective of Piavoli's films (which, surprisingly, have never been seen here before). The films i saw were imagistic, the narratives proceeded through the succession of images. But after seeing two of his movies, he has a talent for single images, but not really for making those images flow together. His films are a little static, it's not like he holds the images so that they'll sink in, he holds them because he can't quite time how long they should be, so the films seem arbitrary. Yet they are very beautiful.

Also saw "Days and Clouds" by Silvio Soldini. A very good film, particularly relevant now. It's about a middle-aged couple, the wife has just gotten her doctorate in art history (she is restoring a mural in an old church) and the husband's company has been sold, and he is now out of a job. I thought it was a very well-done movie.

Then the first two press screenings for the annual Human Rights Watch Film Festival. The opening night film is Peter Raymont's portrait of Ariel Dorfman, "A Promise to the Dead". And the centerpiece film is Julie Bridgham's "The Sari Sisters". One thing about the Human Rights Watch Film Festival is that the films are often excellently done, but the subjects can be so depressing. This wasn't the case with "A Promise to the Dead", but that film had another problem, a certain sentimentality. (The contrast would be "Calle Santa Fe", Carmen Castillo's documentary which was at the last NY Film Festival, and is also in the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Both are films about how the Chilean revolution and repression affected people's lives, and the recent coming-to-terms with Chile today.)

But i've been talking to people, thinking about the situation of criticism (both art and film) and trying to decide what to do. Blogging doesn't seem to be the answer: after the purge of film critics from so many print publications, there have been defections in the blogosphere as well.

What are the options? Just got a notice about the launch of a new online art journal called "The Art Section" edited by Deanna Sirlin and Phil Auslander.

The other day, after the press screening of "At the First Breath of Wind", decided to go to the Strand; walking up from Anthology, i saw Jenneth Webster but didn't get to say hello... and then ran into Dan Cameron (and i did say hello). And at the Strand, ran into Dave Kehr. At the Strand, found a copy of the revised edition of Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's Visconti book (it adds a chapter on "The Stranger", "The Damned" and "Death in Venice"): i had no idea that the book had been revised. Also picked up another book in the old Cinema One series, Peter Graham's "The New Wave". I have a copy, but when i was a child (and before i started collecting stills) i would take my old movie books and cut out the pictures, so my copy has several pages cut out. So now i have a complete copy. Also got Claude Simon's "The Trolley" (short and sweet) and Victor Serge's "Unforgiving Years".

With books and playing around with the computer and playing games on Facebook... well, that was my weekend.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Today, did wake up and made it to the press screening of Isaac Julien's "Derek" (10 AM at MoMA; what are they trying to do, kill me? for me to get there on time i have to wake up at the crack of dawn); was fascinated by the film, but then, i'm always fascinated by these attempts at artist's biopics (especially if i knew the artist(s), in this case, Derek Jarman but also Isaac Julien), but more on that later. I get home and the phone rings. It's Charles. He is going through such a traumatic time in his life, and i have NOT written a word about it because it's his business. Besides, i don't want to be bitchy.

But he calls and starts blubbering that Bob died. Of course, i know immediately to whom he is referring: Bob Rauschenberg. I'm a little confused, and Charles starts yelling, didn't i read the NY Times? Well, i did, and i always look at the obits first! And it must have been announced too late for the Times, because i do rush and look through today's paper, and no mention of Rauschenberg. Yes, it's true, Rauschenberg is one of the major figures in American art since 1950, and (i think) one of the greatest artists of the 20th Century, but the NY Times can't print something that they don't know. Ok, i know Charles was (at one time, anyway) very close to Rauschenberg (Charles came to NY to be Rauschenberg's assistant, to help him with silkscreening), but at least i knew enough to know exactly what he was talking about.

Rauschenberg was one of those people that i'd met on several occasions, but i was never a friend. One reason was that i was a friend of a lot of Rauschenberg's friends... as with Claes Oldenburg or Robert Morris, i met them, but i knew a lot of people who really knew them, and that was sufficient. (For some reason, don't ask me why, i never had much interest in getting to be friends with the bigname white male artists; maybe it was because i was always friends with all the women artists: Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, et al; also, i just realized, if i was going to be friends with white male artists, they had better be filmmakers, since that was my primary interest, so of course i was friends with Ken Jacobs, Jonas Mekas, Ernie Gehr, Robert Breer, Warren Sonbert, Jack Smith, et al.) But i do feel sad, because for all the health problems of the last decade, there was just something that seemed indestructible about Rauschenberg, and he always had an enthusiasm that seemed forever young. Even when he had to go around in a wheelchair (as he did when MoMA had its reopening, and he showed up).

I have to say that i think his influence is just so enormous... i don't think that we'll ever get the measure of the magnitude of his achievement. That retrospective at the Guggenheim (in several parts; that was when the Guggenheim had its branch museum in Soho) was astounding.

Of course, so much of his recent work was really just treading water: it didn't have the zest and the incisiveness and the driving force of his works from the 1950s and 1960s.

But one of the real giants of American art has died. It's a cliche to say that we won't see his like again, but somehow that's true.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Missouri, Oklahoma and Georgia have just been hit by storms, causing at least 22 known deaths; the devastation in the country that used to be known as Burma continues, as aid remains difficult, because the military government can't understand why the people who need help (food, clothing, medical supplies) should get it, when it would be so much easier for those in charge to take these supplies and make themselves even richer.

Watched the movie "Center Stage" last night on TV; had seen it before, but amazed that with all the cliches there was still a lot that was enjoyable. But ballet movies are tough nuts to crack.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Well, the Tribeca Film Festival was over on Sunday, May 4; whatever else, the festival provided a focus, and there was always something to see. I was glad that i was able to see some movies with an audience, because it gave me a sense of how the festival is doing in terms of an audience, etc. But i have to admit that the last few days have proven to be a bit hazy... it's almost as if i'm detox-ing from the festival, not just from the films, but from the constant rush of people. As with other years, most of the press screenings took place in one or two locations, and there was always the chance of running into people. And sometimes, there were real surprises. For example: Larry and i went to a party given by Sandy Mandelbaum, which was supposed to announce the latest edition of the International Film Guide (the annuals that used to be edited by Peter Cowie in the 1960s, and which were invaluable as a source of information on international cinema). Well, imagine our surprise when we run into Bruce Walsh, whom we haven't seen in at least five or six years. He was in town with Margaret Atwood, because they are involved with a company called Long Pen (http://www.longpen.com/), but it was just so astounding to run into him.

Anyway, this week i went to screenings. On Tuesday, i saw the German film "Yella", directed by Christian Petzold; Wednesday... for some reason, there were subway delays, and i missed a screening of Marcel L'Herbier's "Le Bonheur" but wound up going to see a bargain matinee (in my neighborhood) of "Iron Man"; Thursday, saw Fatih Akin's "The Edge of Heaven" (which was an impressive movie... admittedly, there was a stretch where the movie seemed to plod, it happened after the half hour point, but the last hour grew progressively more intense and taut, and it became quite a powerful film); Friday, finally got to see L'Herbier's "Le Bonheur" and it was worth it, a marvellous movie from 1935.

So a slow return to normal.

Have to admit that i am not really interested in seeing anything at MoMA; for the first time in years, i've been dumped from the press/comp rolls, so i have to figure since i am not wanted, i should avoid the place. MoMA is also a real problem: whenever i've donated anything (like the complete run of the Japanese film journal Image Forum, or prints of Robert Smithson's film "Spiral Jetty"), i never get any acknowledgement. You know: you're supposed to get some sort of letter or form so that you can use that for your taxes.

American Idol continues apace, and i haven't been watching this season; i keep up with Idol by reading Michael Giltz's blog. (http://www.popsurfing.blogspot.com/)

I have to put in a plug for George Robinson's critique of Amos Poe's "Empire II" (which was at the Tribeca Film Festival): his reaction (in which George discusses how Poe's tricked-up film is a misunderstanding/oversimplification of the Warhol aesthetic) really was similar to mine. (http://www.cine-journal.blogspot.com/)

In Anne Thompson's blog in Variety, she has noted that there are problems in the blogosphere: just as a few months ago, a (large) number of print critics have lost their positions, so a number of prominent film bloggers have decided to pack it in. This is all very curious. And her blog is filled with continually fascinating items about the changing industry. (http://weblogs.variety.com/thompsononhollywood)

But is "Speed Racer" really as bad as some people say? Maybe i'll have to check it out.

But aside from that: the political situation is intense. The Democratic nomination is still contentious. Entertainment Weekly had an article about Oliver Stone's movie-in-production on George W. Bush. And the stories about Vito Fossella, Jr. who just happens to be the congressman from this district... hilarious! Getting pulled over for drunk driving, but then blurting out his reason (he was rushing to visit his sick daughter), only the daughter happened to be the result of an extramarital affair. Boy, the Republicans are just amazing. It's like the party is toxic!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Although i saw "Theater of War" and "Life in Flight", the last press screening i attended at Tribeca was for Bill Plympton's "Idiots and Angels"... one thing i missed this year was the screenings of restored/rediscovered films, because this year there were no press screenings of those films; last year, there had been press screenings for "The Letter That Was Never Sent", "The Forty-Firts" and Gerard Blain's "The Pelican".

The end of the week brought more tornados to the south: Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, North Carolina... it's very frightening to see this wreckage. Of course, there can be little doubt that this is being caused by the changes in climate, etc. which have come about because of pollution, global warming, and so on.

This week, George Bush's approval ratings hit an all-time low. Over 70% of this country now disapproves of everything that Bush has done. And it doesn't matter: this is one man who could care less about anything but himself.

All this week, the news programs have had a lot of discussions about the housing crisis, that is, the mortgage fiasco which is causing a great deal of people to lose their homes. Listening to all these people analyzing the situation, the prognosis is so bleak that it's really frightening.

Back to the movies. Just wanted to say that one of the highlights of the restored/rediscovered films was Rene Clair's "Les Deux Timides", which is a movie i love. I remember the opening so well: the two people waking up, starting their day. Unless i'm remembering it totally wrong, "Les Deux Timides" had a very strong neo-realist feel, in the same way that King Vidor's "The Crowd" did. In the late silent period, there were a number of films in which the idea was to create a drama from elements of everyday life.

Right now, Rene Clair's silent work is woefully underrepresented. "The Italian Straw Hat" is just about the most elegant slapstick comedy ever made, and "Paris Qui Dort" is an amazing science fiction fantasy, rather a precursor of Godard's "Alphaville" in being a sci-fi film shot on location.

It's always hard to discuss work when so much is no longer available: in the days of revival houses, there were actually possibilities. One big example: a lot of the work from the late silent and early sound period. It's so depressing to read people online going on and on about (say) Fredric March, when they haven't seen movies like "The Royal Family of Broadway", "The Wild Party", "Merrily We Go to Hell"... they have no idea of his range, or why he was a star. And then, by the mid-30s, March is already pushing 40 (he's older than most of his "contemporaries", such as Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable), and he knows that his days as a matinee idol are over. Most people seem to have seen "Anthony Adverse", where he is miscast (and knows it) and judge him from that.

It's an unfortunate situation. But so much is like that now. Anne Thompson, on her Variety blog, had an item about "Real Guys", which A.J. Benza and Neal Gumpel talk about movies. She contrasts that with "Reel Geezers", the web program in which Marcia Nasatir and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. talk about movies. I've seen other episodes of "Reel Geezers" and it's hilarious. (I remember seeing their pre-Oscar episode... they're both members of the Academy, so it's interesting to hear people actually explaining what they think.) The point is that Marcia and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. aren't just "people", they're not even critics, they're industry insiders (Marcia's been a producer for decades, and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. is a screenwriter... he's written for TV and movies since the 1960s) and their views (and they are highly articulate people) reflect their years in the business.

I just checked IMDB, and Marcia's last producing credit is on a film titled "Death Defying Acts" which stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Guy Pearce, and is directed by Gillian Armstrong. The date on the film is 2007, but there seems to be no release plans for the U.S. Marcia was a good friend of Pauline's, and i remember meeting her several times, going to the movies with her and Pauline and then going to dinner after, and listening to them discussing the movie, so Marcia's opinions aren't that surprising to me. (For example, she was very excited by Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly", which i expected; for the last few months before her death, Pauline's favorite movie of 2000 was "Before Night Falls".)

Which reminds me of James Wolcott's article in Vanity Fair a while ago, where he talks about how, now that he's a married man, he's learned to appreciate what are called "chick flicks"; he mentions that he had to learn to appreciate "Sex and the City". This was hilarious to me. I remember seeing "Sex and the City" when HBO had its "free" weekends (we didn't subscribe to HBO or Showtime until we moved to Brooklyn; while you're in Manhattan, there didn't seem to be a need) during the introductory episodes, and Larry and i thought it was hilarious. It was a fantasy, of course, but one in which women were able to talk about sex as freely as men (especially gay men) and the effect was somehow liberating. And the cast was great: Sarah Jessica Parker had been on the verge of stardom for years, starting with the TV show "Square Pegs", but she never quite fit the mold. Here, she broke the mold. So when Pauline asked me what i saw, i told her, and recommended "Sex and the City" and i was surprised when, the next time i talked to her, she had seen the first episodes, and she loved it. And James Wolcott was always so... well, condescending and snarky about "Sex and the City", saying that it wasn't "real", it was like the fantasy that gay men had of "liberated" women. But that was the point: Pauline and her friends (Virginia Admiral, for example, or Marcia Nasatir) had tried to be "liberated" women in the 1940s (they were the generation after Mary McCarthy and Elizabeth Hardwick), and they often had gay men as close friends, and they were hyperarticulate and wanted to talk about sex in this "new" way. And here, finally, was a TV show that took this to an extreme, and Pauline and her friends reacted with delight. (Marcia Nasatir holds up "Sex and the City" as an example of more enlightened views of sex in comedy, as opposed to what she sees as the regressive sexual standards in the Judd Apatow films, and Lorenzo Semple, Jr. can't help reacting the way that James Wolcott used to react, with intense hostility.)

So that's funny.

Well, it's the end of the Tribeca Film Festival, and after all is said and done, the festival remains a constant work-in-progress, yet there are always good films to be found, and there are always some real disappointments. Must-to-avoid: most of the American independent films, no matter who's in it. Must-sees: most of the foreign films, which are usually surprisingly strong. Documentaries are also very strong.

On IndieWire, it was fun to read Howard Feinstein, wanting to blast the festival, but then admitting to liking some films. The Tribeca Film Festival isn't a highly selected event, like the New York Film Festival or New Directors/New Films; it's more sprawling, with a lot more slots to be filled. Because of that, you're necessarily going to have a hit-and-miss festival.

Thursday, the press screenings were over, but the press was allowed to order tickets for the public screenings for the remaining three days of the festival. The proviso was that there was no guarantee: if the show was sold out, that was it. But i did get to see two additional films that way: "Theater of War" and "Life in Flight". The former was a documentary that used the Public Theater's 2006 production of "Mother Courage and Her Children" as the starting off point (i forgot who recommended this to me, but it was worthwhile, even if it got a little unfocussed after the midway point), the latter was an American indie starring Patrick Wilson as an architect going through a midlife crisis. Too low-keyed, and using an architect is tricky, because the architect-and-angst bit was (of course) used in Antonioni's "L'Avventura", and you've got to really have your game on if you think you can compete with Antonioni's masterpiece. Well, this film wasn't it. But it was an indie shot in New York City, and it was amazing to see the talent that's around, because the movie was very well-acted. (Patrick Wilson is one of those people who really needs to find the right role, because he's got everything to be the kind of leading-man-star that Paul Newman was, or that George Segal was at one point in his career: Patrick Wilson seems like a decent person, and he can play a normal person, i.e., someone who can go to work, function, take care of his kids, etc. He's not like Ryan Gosling, who can go to extremes, but then, i don't know if Ryan Gosling can just play a normal person.)

Then got home and watched some stuff on TV: Hallmark Channel's "The Shell Seekers" (i was confused, because i remembered that there had been a TV movie with that name with Angela Lansbury; i was right, this was a remake, with Vanessa Redgrave filling in for Angela Lansbury; i watched it for Vanessa Redgrave and i wasn't disappointed, she's still one of the great beauties, and her untouched aging is now part of her beauty, she makes the wrinkles and sags amazingly expressive), "The Scapegoat" and "Hungry Hill" on TCM. It's fascinating what a difference a decade can make! In the late 1940s, Robert Hamer worked with Alec Guinness in a context where he played multiple roles, the justly famed "Kind Hearts and Coronets" (one of the greatest English comedies ever), and then, in 1959, when Hamer was drowning in alcoholism and his career was just about over, Hamer reteams with Guinness on a movie where Guinness is once again playing multiple roles. But "The Scapegoat" is smooth (considering the difficulties with the production, including Hamer getting so wasted that there were days when he couldn't work, so Guinness himself directed some of the movie, though Guinness isn't credited) and fitfully entertaining. But TCM's "theme" for the night was movies based on Daphne Du Maurier, so of course Hitchcock's "Rebecca" and "The Birds" were included.

Have a lot more to say about Tribeca and about movies. Should note that "Iron Man" opened at over $100 million! And it's playing here in my neighborhood, so i might catch it since here in Brooklyn we still get discount matinees!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Have been seeing some of the films at the Tribeca Film Festival; must admit that at times it seems like a game of hide-and-seek, in that i'll go to a screening, feel a bit of a let-down, then run into someone who will say, oh, but did you see (fill-in-the-blank)? And then you feel like you've missed the elusive great film of the festival.

Since the festival officially started, have seen: "Savage Grace", "Boy A", "Lou Reed's Berlin", "The Aquarium", "The Universe of Keith Haring", "The 27 Club", "Somers Town", "Guest of Cindy Sherman", "Everywhere at Once", "Lake City", "Tennessee", "Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind", "Hidden in Plain Sight", "The Chicken, the Fish, and the King Crab". But i've had a wonderful time, one reason being that Tribeca is the kind of festival where you wind up running into friends, and having animated conversations about film. Example: yesterday, George Robinson and i wound up at the screening of "The Chicken, the Fish, and the King Crab", then later we decided to go to the reception for documentary filmmakers... where George and i had a great discussion about Preminger and the definition of film noir, because we were discussing "Daisy Kenyon" (just out from Fox on DVD as part of its Fox Noir series) and whether it belongs in the context of noir. (We did enjoy "The Chicken, the Fish, and the King Crab", which is a documentary done for Spanish television about the Bocuse d'Or, one of the most famous cooking contests in the world, and Jesus Almagro, the Spanish chef who was the country's representative. Ok, it's no great shakes as a work of art, but it's fun. It would be perfect for The Food Network, if The Food Network would show things with subtitles.)

But there's a lot to write about... the movie everyone is talking about that i missed (but hope to catch it before the festival ends) is Isild Le Besco's "Charly". That's what i mean: by the time everyone told me about it, i missed the screenings. But there's always something of interest.