Monday, August 25, 2008

Monday, August 25, and the NY Times had an obit on the art critic John Russell. Last week's announcement on Manny Farber was a sure sign of the passing of time. When i think of Manny Farber, i think of NYC in the 1950s, the post-Abstract Expressionist generation, when people were struggling to figure out where painting was going next. Some people (including Robert De Niro - the painter, not the actor) figured on a return to figuration, which De Niro tried in a heavily Fauve-inspired style. But then Larry Rivers, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns came up with another approach, one which was proto-Pop. I think of Farber as someone drinking with James Agee (on the one hand) and Jackson Pollock (on the other).

William E. Jones (the filmmaker) is in town, tomorrow he's presenting Fred Halsted's "L.A. Plays Itself" at Light Industry. We've been talking about: gay porn, the current state of the artworld, the shift into "installation" for a lot of experimental media artists, etc.

What are the options for filmmakers now?

Last week, i went to screenings every day, starting with "Puzzle of a Downfall Child" on Monday (watching it, my immediate thoughts were of Joan Didion and her books like "Play It As It Lays" and "Book of Common Prayer"; looking up Pauline's original review, i was amused to see her response was exactly the same, but she saw it as a minus, the walking-wounded-fashionplate sensibility, and i see it as a plus), then Claude Miller's "A Secret" on Tuesday (it's one of the films i missed at this year's Rendezvous With French Cinema; i remember the next day when i got to that day's screenings, i said, don't tell me i missed a good one yesterday... and George Robinson and Ira Hozinsky said that the Claude Miller was really worth seeing), then the Chilean film "The Sky, the Earth and the Rain" (one of the very best movies i've seen from Latin America in a long time, and one of the most formally rigorous movies from Latin America that i've seen since "The Paraguayan Hammock", a real beauty) on Wednesday, then Chris Smith's "The Pool" and Robert Downey's "Babo 73" on Thursday, and finally "The Pope's Toilet" from Uraguay on Friday, which was more like what i expect from Latin America cinema, i.e., a neo-realist "take" on a small-scale story (in this case, what happens to a small Uraguay village on the border near Brazil when Pope John Paul II visited in 1983; the focus not on the trip, but on the peasants hoping for this visit as a signal of something miraculous).

I've also been watching a lot of the TCM Summer Under the Stars. The Barbara Stanwyck day brought some of her early films ("Ten Cents a Dance", "Shopworn") which were amusing t0 see. Those early sound films were so creaky, and in terms of directorial style, they were abysmal, but Stanwyck has an amazing directness in spite of the circumstances, and when the filmmaking circumstances are good (as in the case of her early Frank Capra films, such as "the Miracle Woman" or "The Bitter Tea of General Yen"), the results are great. The next day was Edward G. Robinson day, and i watched "Mr. Winkle Goes to War" as well as part of "Destroyer", two of the patriotic movies Robinson made during World War II, rather sweet films about the situation of middleaged men who found themselves called up (or called back) into active service.

There are many movies opening or playing now that i've seen. Some of these movies: Azazel Jacobs's "Momma's Man", the French thriller "Tell No One", Chabrol's "A Girl Cut in Two", Courtney Hunt's "Frozen River", the documentaries "Trouble the Water" and "Man on Wire". Certainly all films of interest. "August Evening" will be opening soon.

The day is turning out to be rather humid, it was supposed to rain but so far nothing. We'll see.... i do feel that i'm really removed from so much that's happening in film, because i haven't seen the so-called tentpole movies. I did catch up with "Iron Man", but i haven't yet seen "The Dark Knight" or "Tropic Thunder".

But there it is: the movies i've seen are the small independent or foreign ones, or the oddball revivals. (Am i interested in seeing the restored prints of "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II"? No....)

Michael Giltz had a good point: he asked why i felt it was so difficult to write about films if i knew the filmmaker. But my point is that some movie like "Momma's Man" is dificult for me to judge, because i've known Ken and Flo Jacobs since 1970 and so my feelings about the film are mixed up with my feelings about them.

Last week, at the screening of "A Secret", the people sitting behind me got into a discussion of upcoming press screenings, and they mentioned "Moving Midway" and one of the women said she knew it was a documentary about World War II, and i heard myself explaining that it was Godfrey Chesire's documentary about his family plantation (which is called Midway) and the plans to (literally) move the building. And then they asked if i would recommend the film, and i said, yes, i would.

Well, today is the first day of the Democratic Convention, and Barack Obama has got to learn to fight, because the McCain campaign has started to pull all sorts of negative ads and dirty tricks (which is par for the course for Republicans) and Obama's attempt to rise above the mud is starting to seem like wuzziness. And Obama's poll numbers are starting to dip. We'll see what happens after the convention.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Well, the big "news" this week has been the death of Manny Farber. In all the obits people are now writing, it's common (certainly, it is if you read Jonathan Rosenbaum) to call Manny Farber "America's greatest film critic". Certainly, Manny Farber was one of the most idiosyncratic and original of film critics. It's common to say that he prefigured the politique des auteurs, but that's ridiculous: Manny Farber never thought of those directors he championed in the 1950s (Raoul Walsh, Samuel Fuller, Howard Hawks) as "auteurs". He thought of them as craftsmen without the pretenses of "art" that directors like Elia Kazan or John Huston had attached to them.

I have more to say, but i'll begin by saying that he was one of those people who seemed to find themselves as teachers. He thrived on it: i think his tenure at the University of California/San Diego was a happy one. But i'll write more later.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Last night, spent an evening with family: a reception for a cousin's recent marriage. William (cousin) and Jessica got married over the summer in Mexico, but they had a banquet in NYC for relatives. One thing: everyone was talking about the opening night ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics, but since i have decided to boycott the Olympics, i couldn't make any comments. Though everyone said that Zhang Yimou certainly did a spectacular job.

I miss the Olympics. I have watched ever since i was a child; my father was a big fan, and we would especially like the more "obscure" sports. Kenny loved all sporting events, and he always knew a lot, he memorized all sorts of statistics.

The political situation right now is so horrendous: Russia is attempting to reassert its dominance in Eastern Europe, and Russian troops have launched attacks on Georgia. On one of those Sunday morning news shows on ABC (which i usually don't watch, but i can't watch NBC because all they're having is Olympic coverage), there was a lot of discussion about the significance. But one thing is clear: Georgia had been an ally to the US, especially in Iraq, where Georgian troops were deployed. Now: does the US simply ignore its responsibilities to its allies? Well: George W. Bush and his administration has shown zero loyalty to any allies. They have already allowed thousands of Iraqis who have helped the US by serving as interpreters, liaisons, etc. to be killed by refusing to give them any protection against reprisals.

The US is now a country that has no honor. And there's Bush, at the Olympics, smiling and joking with Putin, while Putin's government and armies have moved in to recolonize Georgia.

China and the IOC have also disgraced themselves. I know there are so many Chinese-Americans who feel some sort of pride about China's hosting the Olympics. I understand that, but i can't feel that way. When the communists took over China, my grandfather basically said, there is no longer a China, we're not Chinese, we're Americans. And so that was that. We never even went to Chinese school: my grandfather felt it was useless, since we would never get to China. Ever. So i feel no loyalty to a country that doesn't exist for me.

Anyway, TLA has released six films in a sort of repertory festival, and i've seen the movies on screeners. "Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon" was a hit when it showed at NewFest, and i don't see why it shouldn't be a hit in this theatrical release. The (real-life) story is just preposterous enough to be amusing. And the story is just so... cheerful! Whatever demons drove John Stillman to turn himself into Jack Wrangler are simply elided. But "Wrangler" certainly is a lot of fun (perhaps it's significant that the men who had sex with Jack Wrangler in his porn movies are not represented in any way, nor any of the men John Stillman may have had relationships with; so it's as if being gay was some sort of phase for Wrangler, something he grew out of, as he matured into his relationship with Margaret Whiting).

"Bangkok Love Story" is perhaps the most unusual of the films, a Thai action-romance. A hired killer falls in love with the man he's hired to kill... after a while, the story's twists and turns become really convoluted, and the plot-points get very murky. But the love/sex scenes heat up as the plot falls apart, which i guess is all that matters.

The American films ("Dog Tags", "3-Day Weekend") were reasonably well-done, and very sincere. The kind of camp hmor which seems to permeate so many gay movies nowadays ("Another Gay Movie", "Adam and Steve") have no place here: both these movies (especially "Dog Tags") are so earnest. One problem with "3-Day Weekend": i wish there hadn't been the scene where the characters talk about other movies where a bunch of gay friends get together ("The Boys in the Band", "Love Valour Compassion"). It pointed out the fact that "3-Day Weekend" was a low-budget variant. "Dog Tags" had a rather complex plot, and the ending was unresolved, but it tried to tell two different stories, one about a working-class boy who enlists in the Marines, even though he knows he'll be sent to Iraq, but he wants some way out of his dead-end life; the other story is about a boy who has become a father, but he knows he's gay, and he's left with the baby. Of course, their paths cross, but there are still some surprises.

The French movie, "I Dreamt Under Water", and the Spanish movie, "Boystown"... it's strange, but it's as if, if you've seen some of the recent gay films from France or Spain... i was almost going to say if you've seen one, you've seen them all, which isn't really fair, but both of these films were reminiscent of other films, and without the spark which would make either seem original.

Other than that: on Wednesday, woke up with a twisted ankle, and somehow this week, i just wanted to stay home. Which i did. I watched TCM a lot. And have a lot of thoughts about that....

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Recently, on various blogs, i've seen such happy ignorance: people declaring proudly how they have not read this-or-that book, and making the claim that therefore they can approach the movie version with an open mind. I can't help it: my immediate thought is, more like an empty mind.

The whole question of adaptation is very tricky. Right now, i can't find my copy of Jill Johnston's "Marmalade Me", because i wanted to quote something she wrote when she was reviewing Deborah Hay. Something about the fact that the more history that you know, the better, that recent art had become so involved in a dialogue with the past that knowledge can only enhance your understanding. During that period, Susan Sontag (in her essay "One Culture and the New Sensibility") wrote: "The most interesting works of contemporary art are full of references to the history of the medium; so far as they comment on past art, they demand a knowledge of at least the recent past."

But it seems now that ignorance is bliss. And to me, that's sad.

(How can anyone so blithely declare that, in reviewing "Elegy", they've never read anything by Philip Roth? As if that's some sort of virtue!)

I feel like some relic, a beached whale... especially since there's the extra weight i've been packing on because of those damned pills i had been taking for triglycerites.

Anyway, today is the first day in a while that i'm going to press screenings. But watched a lot of the stuff on TCM over the last few days. Today is Garbo, and unlike other times when TCM has highlighted Garbo, this time they're actually showing a lot of her silent films: "Flesh and the Devil", "The Temptress", "The Mysterious Lady", "A Woman of Affairs".

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Yesterday, saw "Never Apologize", Malcolm McDowell's one-man show about Lindsay Anderson. A lot of the information was already known, because so much of it was covered in Gavin Lambert's book "Mainly About Lindsay Anderson", and a lot of the information on the filming of the Mick Travis trilogy ("If...", "O Lucky Man" and "Britannia Hospital") was covered in the press notes that were handed out when Anthology Film Archives screened new prints of the trilogy last year. So there were no real surprises, and the "film" was actually simply a recording of the stage presentation. Nothing really tricky attempted by Mike Kaplan as director.

Today, saw Jacques Becker's "Goupi Mains Rouges"; saw it years ago... this time, the rural satire got a bit heavy-handed, but it was still amusing. One thing, though: we often see movies in isolation, and we don't realize that some people may have actual careers. In Dreyer's "Vampyr", the father of the two girls, the man who dies trying to protect his daughters, is played by Maurice Schutz. I never gave it much thought, but Maurice Schutz was a professional actor, and he was in a number of other movies, including "Goupi Mains Rouges", where he plays the patriarch of the family, Goupi L'Empereur.

Larry and i watched "Monk" and "Psych" tonight; "Monk" seems to have undergone a revival, the last two episodes have been very clever, and "Psych" remains consistently amusing, though Maggie Lawson has been underused this season. Sorry that i didn't see "Swingtown"; have seen two episodes, and found it intriguing, and there are a number of people in the cast (Molly Parker, Jack Davenport) who have proven themselves in other films or shows.

"The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" is opening soon, and it's symptomatic of the vagaries of show business. Three years ago, when the first film was released, Blake Lively was almost totally overlooked, America Ferrara had been in the indie film "Real Women Have Curves", but Amber Tamblyn was in the midst of a big p.r. hype for the (short-lived) TV series "Joan of Arcadia" and Alexis Bledel was in the midst of the run of "The Gilmore Girls", so Bledel and Tamblyn were the ones attracting the publicity. Well: "Joan of Arcadia" went the way of all critically-acclaimed TV shows that attract a small audience, and "The Gilmore Girls" ended its run... but America Ferrara has been "Ugly Betty" for two seasons, and Blake Lively is now "Gossip Girl". It's not as if their talents have changed that drastically, it's just that the circumstances surrounding each young woman has changed. It's like "Project Runway", one day you're in, the next, you're out. During the first film, Amber Tamblyn and Alexis Bledel were in, and America Ferrara and Blake Lively were out, and with the sequel, it's reversed.