Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Once again, it's been a week since i've last blogged. It seems like everyone is slowing down; George Robinson remarks about this on his blog (where there are links to his very enjoyable interview with Ken Jacobs - the occasion was the week-long run of Ken's "Razzle Dazzle" at Anthology Film Archives last month, which i caught last year at the Tribeca Film Festival), and Anne Thompson is on vacation, so her blog (which can be found on the Variety website) is using stringers. But before that, Anne and various other staffers on Variety covered Comic Con pretty extensively. As usual, Anne brought up some valid points (which, ironically, were echoed last week on Dave Kehr's blog). It has to do with the lack of a female perspective in terms of criticism. (It's funny: this week, in The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann writes an endnote to his column, where he praises Manohla Dargis for enlivening film criticism at The New York Times.) Is film criticism too much of a boy's-club? Does that condition how movies are reviewed? Not only that, but what movies get made.

Online, there was the transcript of a speech that Rose Troche gave at some event (it was a women's conference), where she talked about the difficulties of getting lesbian material produced. "The L Word" is currently in production on its final season, yet Showtime is not showing interest in trying to put on another gay ("Queer as Folk") or lesbian ("The L Word") show, even though those have proven to be so successful.

But in the last week, have been looking at a lot of stuff. Just to list some of the things i've watched: "Patti Smith: Dream of Life", the Albert Maysles-Kristin Nutilde documentary "Sally Gross: The Pleasure of Stillness", "Definitely, Maybe", the old Mervyn LeRoy "Moment to Moment", "I Dreamt Under Water" (a French film, a screener from TLA), went to a reading by Edgardo Vega and Liza Monroy at The Medicine Show (now located in the Ensemble Studio Theater building), "Bangkok Love Story" (a Thai film, and another screener from TLA), the 1949 French thriller "Une Si Jolie Petite Plage" (a real revelation, because this is one film, along with the Autant-Lara "Devil in the Flesh", which reveals why Gerard Philipe was a star, the way that "Four Daughters" reveals John Garfield), and "Les Tontons Flingueurs" (another French crime story, and one of those insanely arch comedies, the American equivalent would be something like "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight"). Last night, i did something really stupid, i stayed up and watched "The Trouble With Angels" and "Where Angels Go... Trouble Follows", two movies in the last gasp of Rosalind Russell's stardom. She's actually not bad in those movies, not nearly as artificial as she is in something like "Five Finger Exercise" (which wasn't part of the TCM Star of the Month tribute) but she's a far cry from the fiercely all-out comedienne of "His Girl Friday" and "My Sister Eileen". Of course, i saw those films years ago (why?) and time hasn't really improved them. One horror: on IMDB, so many people have written in about how "The Trouble With Angels" is one of the best films about Catholicism that they know of... obviously, idiots who are too stupid to see a genuinely religious film such as Rossellini's "The Flowers of St. Francis" or Bresson's "Diary of a Country Priest" or De Sica's "Gates of Heaven" or Melville's "Leon Morin, Pretre"; if "The Trouble With Angels" is a genuine religious film, what about Leo McCarey's "Going My Way" and "The Bells of St. Mary's" or such malarkey as "Come to the Stable" (with Loretta Young and Celeste Holm as nuns).

But "Une Si Jolie Petite Plage" really is... it's not a masterpiece, but it is an exceptionally well-crafted thriller, and the screenplay is one of thsoe very carefully wrought numbers where everything turns out to reflect on the central theme, and all the stories wrap up in the end. In this, the screenplay is very much like Demy's screenplay for "Lola", where he has all these different stories, which may be the same story at different stages. But that turned out to be the real find of the French crime series at Film Forum.

Just finished watching that documentary from 1994, "Martha Graham: The Dancer Revealed".

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Has it really been a week since i've written anything on this blog? What have i been doing?

Well: last week, on Wednesday, July 16, i did go to the Drawing Center where there was a panel discussion on "direct cinema" with panelists including Tony Conrad, Jennifer Reeves, Andrew Lampert (archivist at Anthology Film Archives) and Joao Ribas, the curator of The Drawing centre who organized the show. Also Andrew Lampert screened (they set up a 16mm projector) some films, including the first section of Storm De Hirsch's "The Color of Ritual, The Color of Thought", Robert Breer's "Eyewash" and parts of Harry Smith's "Early Abstractions". The panel itself was hilarious, because Tony Conrad couldn't help it, he kept pontificating in that early-1970s conceptual-minimal-structural mindset that he exemplifies, and i thought it was so funny, it was just like one of my theater pieces. Anyway, it was so crowded that people were standing outside, but among the people there i talked to: Richard Kostelanetz, Marjorie Gamso, Grahame Weinbren, Thomas Beard and Ed Halter, Stephanie Grey, Bill Brand and Katy Martin. It was one of those events.

Thursday, July 17, and i went to the screenintg of Ed Radtke's "The Speed of Life" at the Asian-American Film Festival. I thought the film was fine. He really has a talent for registering the inchoate feelings of adolescent and post-adolescent boys. He showed this in his previous film, "The Dream Catcher" (not to be confused with the horror film of the same name). Ed has been evolving a particular way of working: he uses mostly nonprofessionals and works with them over a period of time, and there's some sort of outline which provides the story. There seems to be improvisation and a collaborative process. I know that Ed started working on "The Speed of Life" almost immediately following "The Dream Catcher" (which had a run at the Walter Reade Theater when Genevieve Villaflor was trying to do that series of week-long runs of selected indie films; another film was Katherine Dieckmann's movie which starred Henry Thomas; the Film Society of Lincoln Center stopped that program, but now MoMA is doing the same thing, giving week-long runs to selected films, like Isaac Julien's "Derek").

On Friday, i got the screeners from TLA; Larry and i immediately watched "Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon" (of course), and we found it rather scrappily put together, but irresistibly entertaining. How could it not be? John Stillman was always a child of show business, and his aim in life (even when he invented the persona of Jack Wrangler) has always been to entertain.

On Channel 13's "Reel New York" film series, there were four shorts, the first of which was Jeff Scher's "L'Eau Life", which was another very bright, colorful animation, and lovely; then there was a dramatic short "Meet Me In Berlin" which was a little protracted (it was 20 minutes, and the story was such that there was an obvious punchline, and you started to count the minutes until it got there), then a short documentary "William Klein: Out of Necessity", an interesting interview with Klein getting to speak about a number of issues (including his political beliefs and how that got him into trouble), and Michael Blackwood's "Broadway Express", a delightful black-and-white short showing the A subway line during what seems to be a day and a night in the late 1950s. With "The Exiles", it was a reminder of the eloquence of black-and-white imagery, the city-symphony, in-the-street beauty of 16mm location shooting.

The weekend was rather uneventful. I did watch "Operation Madball", a 1957 service comedy starring Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, Mickey Rooney, and Dick York. It's part of the deal that TCM has made: they're now showing a lot of stuff on lease from Columbia. This one was directed by Richard Quine. Later that evening, TCM showed "You Can't Run Away From It", a musical remake of "It Happened One Night" with Jack Lemmon and June Allyson, directed by Dick Powell. Unfortunately, the movie was shown in a pan-and-scan print.

On Monday, i got a package from England, my friend Mike sent me a number of DVDs... and i watched "Home Before Dark" (the 1958 Warners melo starring Jean Simmons, which i'd NEVER seen; Mervyn LeRoy not the nimblest of directors, as was proven by "A Majority of One", but Jean Simmons really is phenomenal in the movie, which is otherwise very unevenly acted, with some people, who are usually reliable, such as Rhonda Fleming and Mabel Albertson, being hideously one-dimensional and flat, but Jean Simmons does amazing work, and she stays on target), "The Sailor From Gibraltar" (which i've seen before, it wasn't as bad as i remembered, but it still wasn't good, but there are wonderful things in it, such as Jeanne Moreau, Vanessa Redgrave, and the cinematography of Raoul Coutard and the music of Antoine Duhamel), and the Harold Prince "Something for Everyone" (he only wishes). Still i didn't remember that the son in "Something for Everyone" was played by Anthony Higgins, and he certainly was beautiful as a young man. (I'd seen this once at the Thalia, and remember that it seemed to be trying so hard to be sophisticated; watching it at home, the effort really showed.)

Tuesdays, TCM's Star of the Month is Rosalind Russell, and i watched (in succession) "Night Must Fall" (very effective), "The Velvet Touch" (which i had never seen from the beginning; now that i've seen the whole thing... it's still arch and Russell is not really good, she's trying too hard for a grand-dame style that's phoney on her... but she produced the film, so obviously the director had no way of toning her down), "Tell It to the Judge" (strained screwball zaniness and by 1949 Russell and Robert Cummings were getting too old for this type of nonsense) and "A Woman of Distinction" (in 1950, Russell was nearing the end of her career-woman comedies, but this one still had some dash to it).

Today, went to the screening of Clouzot's "La Verite": i saw this decades ago, but in some dubbed version that played all over (a lot of Bardot's movies were big successes in the US in dubbed versions). So i wanted to see the real thing. Well.... i have to say that Clouzot remains a real craftsman, and the construction of the movie is solid, and the courtroom scenes are excellent. The opening in the women's prison is marvellous: the shadows of the bars, the claustrophobia... all excellent.

But Bardot...! As with Louis Malle's "Vie Privee" (made the year after "La Verite"), Bardot is playing (essentially) herself, and she's such an inept actress she can't do it! I had to stop laughing, because whenever she went into one of the serious dramatic moments, her tinny affectlessness made it all seem so ridiculous that she kept turning the damned movie into a satire. (I also had to stop laughing because i was the only person laughing at the screening!) Certainly, i've seen her in "Contempt" (where Godard did make her beautiful), in "Vie Privee", in "Viva Maria"... she has a small part in Rene Clair's "Les Grandes Maneouvres" and i've seen several of the Vadim films ("And God Created Woman", "Warrior's Rest"). She's hopeless as a dramatic actress, but she can be fun as a comedienne.

Also watched (on the Sundance Channel) the Canadian film "Everything's Going Green", which was written by Douglas Coupland. It's strange when a writer is famous for inventing a phrase ("Generation X"), but the movie was one of those cozy-quaint Canadian jobs. (I missed the one press screening i had been invited to last year, but these films do have a tendency to turn up on various cable stations.)

Also saw: "Quiet City". Very charming, very slight, a nice little indie film that is one of the more effective of the mumblecore movies i've seen. However, have to say that i still think "4-Eyed Monsters" is the best of the mumblecore bunch, at least, it remains the most inventive. But "Quiet City" has a quiet and observant charm.

Plus two more of the TLA screeners: "3 Day Weekend" and "Dog Tags". Both were sincere, but showed talent, but will write more when i see the rest of the TLA program.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Went to the Asian-American Film Festival screening of Risa Morimoto's "Wings of Defeat", found it to be quite engrossing and actually illuminating. Then rushed home to watch "A Majority of One", which i hadn't seen since... well, i know i saw it when i was a child and we went to see it at Radio City Music Hall (yes). Rosalind Russell as a Jewish matron from Eastern Parkway, and Alec Guinness as a Japanese businessman... had to look up the original Broadway cast, and (of course) Gertrude Berg played the Jewish matron on Broadway, but the casting of the Japanese businessman... on Broadway, it was Cedric Hardwicke, so Alec Guinness was a close approximation.

Got a press release from TLA, they're going to try to showcase six new releases in August, a potpourri of gay feature films from around the world. One of the films, though, is the documentary "Wrangler" about Jack Wrangler.

Been thinking about the differences between blogging and more "extended" forms of writing. Of course, a few months ago, there was the hysteria over the decline in print criticism: a lot of film critics were fired/retired/took buy-outs across the country. So there was the sudden spotlight on the blogosphere as the replacement. Only it isn't.

In the Columbia Magazine article about the digitizing of the libraries at Columbia University, there were repeated comments on how scholarship is changing because of the internet. But standards have been changing since the 1960s; the idea of "the canon" has been questioned so often that there is no canon left.

Feminists (of course) have always complained about the preponderance of male-dominated classics, yet this is another stupidity, because in the English literary tradition, Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Bronte sisters have always been regarded as great writers. If George Eliot (one of the greatest writers ever) doesn't define the great tradition, what is the great tradition? But that doesn't mean that all women writers are great.

I was shocked a while ago when there was the off-Broadway production of "The Sound and the Fury" and almost al the reviewers mentioned that the novel was an indecipherable morass (but that's only the first section of the novel...) and that they never bothered to read the novel, anyway. (Hilton Als was one of the only reviewers that i read who actually read the novel, but i would expect as much from Hilton.) It's gotten to the point where people are so proud to show off their ignorance! And that's also part of the blogosphere....

Which is already changing, because many people who were blogging also decided to curtail their writing activities.

And that brings me to the question i had during New Directors/New Films: what standards am i bringing to a film when i see it? The reason this question came up is that two movies i was very impressed by were "Momma's Man" by Azazel Jacobs and "Moving Midway" by Godfrey Chesire. But... in the case of Aza, i remember him as a baby, and i've been friends with his parents Ken and Flo Jacobs for decades. So when i see Flo in "Momma's Man", i have a very personal reaction, because (as an example) in the scene where she's cradling her grown-up son... i remember Flo when she was younger, and when Aza was a baby and she would carry him around. And "Moving Midway" exhibits Godfrey's sensibility with great precision: it shows you his intelligence, and his curiosity, and his humor. (What i loved was how unfazed Godfrey was about all the revelations of the various branches of his family tree.) And the hilarious moment when Godfrey is introduced at a family reunion of the black side of his family... i couldn't help it, my immediate thought was, it looks like the Pillsbury Doughboy in a vat of chocolate chips.

But now, so many films that i'm seeing are being made by people i know. Like "Wings of Defeat". And tonight i'm going to that talk at The Drawing Center with Tony Conrad and Jennifer Reeves. More people i know....

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Sometimes, movies are messes for a number of reasons, including the fact that oddball casting decisions can create impressions which are prehaps unwarranted, or the director thinks he knows what he's doing (but really doesn't). And it doesn't matter who the director is. Sokhurov is a great one for this: didn't he realize what "Father and Son" looked like? But if you brought up the fact that the movie seemed to be softcore gay porn, he took offense.

Yesterday, just to unwind, Larry and i watched "The Happening", which i saw (once) on TV, where it had been heavily edited. Faye Dunaway sure was lucky that Tuesday Weld backed out of "Bonnie and Clyde": enough performances like this one which "introduced" her, and she'd have been lucky to get TV jobs (not that there's anything wrong with that). And Michael Parks, George Maharis and (especially) Robert Walker Jr.: if their pants were any tighter, they'd be walking around naked. And Faye Dunaway seems to be thrown in just so you don't get the idea that the boys are gay (but you get that idea anyway).

Then i watched Bresson's "The Devil, Probably" (the Region 2 DVD). Even in 1977, it was a riot of unintended meanings, because Bresson's ostensible purpose... well, what was his ostensible purpose? Bresson was never one for didacticism (Brecht, he wasn't), but here, he's trying so hard to hit this message of the pollution of the planet that he throws in whole sections of illustrated lecturing (did Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim see this movie?) to clobber the viewer into submission. Yet there's a formal... it's not even formal rigor, more like formal rigidity, which seems to indicate precision, but really doesn't.

And then i watched Preminger's "Skidoo" on TCM. Once again, it's the hideous pan-and-scan print. But then, what isn't hideous about this movie?

Friday, July 11, 2008

In the last few years, haven't done much "art" seeing. In the last month or so, i did go to the Louise Bourgeois retrospective at the Guggenheim, the Buckminister Fuller retrospective at the Whitney along with Paul McCarthy installations at the Whitney. This year, i went to the Affordable Art Fair, and i have to say it was a revelation. Not because it revealed some great unknown artist (it didn't), but it revealed that there are other "art worlds" out there, and an audience for that art, and it didn't have to conform to the standards (or lack thereof) which prevail in the artworld as it is now constituted.

Bruce Conner died on Monday; so far (unless i've missed it) the NY Times hasn't done an obit, but there have been a lot of online notices. It seems that Conner was trying to limit/restrict/take back a lot of his work before he died.

I'm glad that i saw his movies long ago, i hope that his movies will remain in circulation, but i know this is where things get tricky. Bruce Conner reminds me that there really was a vibrant art scene in California, and it was a very specifically American art scene, which is one reason it was different from New York City.

And this brings it back to "The Exiles", a very particular example of independent film production in California. The films of Bruce Conner, along with the films of Broughton, Peterson, Stauffacher, are also strands of independent film from California.

Well, almost a week, and a lot of movies seen. Missed Nicholas Phillibert's "Back to Normandy", because i went to see Dominique Delouche's films instead on Wednesday. Have to say that "24 Hours in the Life of a Woman" was dreadful, and i felt as if i'd made the biggest mistake in my life. "24 Hours" also proves that there is something called talent, and Max Ophuls had it, and Delouche (trying desperately to make a film in the Ophuls manner) was just hopeless. How must that film have seemed in 1968? Antiquated, certainly, and defiantly dated, and stolid and achingly slow. I missed it when it played at the NY Film Festival (in those days, i bought my tickets, and i made my selections very carefully), and it looks like a good choice. "24 Hours" is the kind of movie where a gay director makes a beautiful woman (Danielle Darrieux) look like a dishrag, the better to feast on the young male lovelies that he has cast. I thought, oh, maybe this was a mistake, and i should have gone to Anthology to see "Back to Normandy", but then i saw Delouche's documentary "Violette et Mr. B" and it was enchanting. Violette Verdy's personality is just so infectious, and the film is tactful and does not intrude but allows her to her to flourish in her teaching and coaching, as she talks about Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, and she teaches some of the roles she made famous.

Quite frankly: i was glad that Douglas wasn't there (he would have been interested in how the dancing was shot, but would have been driven crazy by the Balanchine-worship) but it made me think that i wish i were in touch with Claudia, since i know she would have loved the film.

The great revelation of the week was the screening of Kent Mackenzie's "The Exiles". The print is so gorgeous: it reminds you how terrific documentary films made on 16mm often looked in the 1950s. Another thing "The Exiles" reminds you of is the difficulty of sound recording in the 1950s: the post-synched sound is initially alienating, given how expressive the images are. The hollowness of the sound is ok when there are voice-overs, but trying to synch up dialogue scenes proved very difficult. Nonprofessionals can never quite match their readings to their lip movements, so there's always that dubbed-in lag. But the black-and-white imagery is just so beautiful, desolate and mournful.

"The Exiles" is a great film, and it's another example of how Dennis Doros and Amy Heller are really trying to bring to light areas of filmmaking which have been overlooked or neglected. "The Exiles" is one of those movies that i'd heard about since the 1960s, but it was one of those films that never got a theatrical release and wasn't in distribution. "The Little Fugitive" is another example of an independent film from the 1950s which has a documentary feel... and it also has the same problems in terms of the sound recording. But the images of "The Exiles" are much richer, rather like the images in the Loeb-Levitt-Agee "In the Street". "The Exiles" captures the poetry of what used to be called the symphony of the city, only in a kind of low-down, down-and-out manner.

The Native Americans (in the 1950s, it was still common to say "American Indians") in the cast have a different relationship to the camera than actors do; this also reminds one that there was a time before technology made living under surveillance such a commonplace.

Other documentaries seen this week: "A Man Named Pearl" which is a delightful portrait of Pearl Fryar, a black man in South Cariolina who has become celebrated for his topiary sculptures. "The Art of Failure: Chuck Connelly Not For Sale" on HBO. A lot of documentaries in the last few weeks: "Trumbo", "All in This Tea", "Louise Bouregois: The Spider, The Mistress, and the Tangerine", "Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired".

"All in This Tea" was Les Blank's digit documentary, and it showed the new ease and accessibility that this technology allows.

Another documentary which proved to be really thought-provoking was "The Loss of Nameless Things", which was on Channel 13 (Independent Lens, i think, but can't swear to it; i know it wasn't P.O.V.). It was about Oakland "Tad" Hall, who was a theater director in the early 1970s who started a theater company upstate New York (Lexington, to be exact) and did some experimental productions (listening to the descriptions and seeing the photos proved very nostalgic) when he had an accident one night. Exactly what happened, nobody knows (he has lost all memory), but he was not found for almost a day, at which point he had been unconscious for more than 12 hours, and the brain damage was severe (and remains). It's the most insanely poignant example of lost opportunity/artistic promise imaginable (it makes Chuck Connelly seemed to be a narcissistic whiner by comparison... oh, wait, that's what Chuck Connelly is).

Some other movies seen: "Kabluey" (a strange movie, certainly, it was almost gratingly unpleasant, yet it had a nagging quality, and it did capture the mood of social anomie that seems to have overtaken most of this country, as the economy tanks and people are left stranded), "La France" (a disquieting fable set during World War I, with the soldiers bursting into song), "Estomago" (a new Brazilian film, part of the series "Premiere Brazil" which will be at MoMA; entertainingly done, but somehow filled with cliches so that even if you haven't seen a lot of Brazilian movies, you feel like you've already seen it); "Dance in the Rain" (part of a series on Slovenian cinema that will be at the Walter Reade Theater; if Roumanian cinema, as evidence from the Roumanian cinema series that the Walter Reade Theater had is any indication, reminded one of the Czechoslovakian cinema of the 1960s, then Slovenian cinema - ex-Yugoslavia - is highly reminiscent of the Polish cinema of the 1950s and early 1960s).

In terms of blogging: in the last month or so, there were articles about the net, such as the article by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic Monthly, "Is Google Making Us Stoopid?" Also an article in the Columbia University magazine about the digitizing of the colledctions, and what this will mean to scholarship.

One of the points of education is learning to exercise judgement, so that there is the knowledge of what is worthwhile and what standards are being used and why these standards are being used. But the whole idea of standards has been undermined.

But there's a lot more to discuss, but one thing is that old-fashioned scholarship really is one the endangered list.

Monday, July 07, 2008

It has been more than two weeks since i've written anything on this blog. Well... a lot of deadlines, and rushing to try to complete them.

However: since i was on the computer so long, i started to get burnout from all this typing. And so to relax i went beserk. When i was a kid, one of my hobbies was collecting movie stills. As a (then) dedicated auterurist, my collection (most of which i still have) is by directors: Borzage, Preminger, von Sternberg, et al. (The only producer i have is Val Lewton.) Well: i trolled online... and then i made up albums on my Facebook page. And i now have 24, starting with Godard in the 60s, Agnes Varda, Jacques Demy, Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, Chris Marker, Jean Renoir, Robert Bresson, Luis Bunuel, Michelangelo Antonioni, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Edward Yang, Jia Zhangke, Tsai Ming-liang, Wong Kar-Wai, Frank Borzage, Ernst Lubitsch, Nicholas Ray, Joseph Losey, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Max Ophuls, Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. On occasion, i update them (for example: i found color stills from Demy's "The Pied Piper" so i replaced the old black-and-white one i had; i went to a French government archive website, where i found much nicer stills from Bresson's "Le Journal d'un Cure de Campagne", so i replaced the old ones i had). It's one of my compulsions....

Anyway, i have been going to movies, there has been a lot i've seen, and i'm rushing now to a screening of the documentary "The Exiles" and shall report on that (and all the other films i've seen since the middle of June) later. I shall also try to explain my frustrations about seeing all those documentaries ("The Slanted Screen", "Hollywood Chinese") and how it impacted what i wrote for ACV this year.

The Asian-American Film Festival is coming up, and it feels a little like old-home-week, in that opening night is a film by Wayne Wang, and the centerpiece is the film that Ed Radtke has been working on.