Friday, January 23, 2009

Today was a busy day: went to the press screening of Oscar Micheaux's "Underworld" from 1937. Somehow, sound seems to have totally unhinged Micheaux, because his silent movies such as "Within Our Gates" and "Body and Soul" showed some craft, but "Underworld" is hopeless. But i need to think about Micheaux more...

Went to the post office near Lincoln Center, because there is a passport "office". I got the form to fill out to renew my passport, the woman on duty there was quite nice and helpful, but you can't do passport renewals at branches, you're supposed to mail all the stuff. So when i got home, that's what i did: got an envelope and put everything in it, and mailed it off.

I also had to stop by the bank, to get some new bills for Chinese New Year. In November, when i went to the bank, each time, there was some sort of scene. I think i had to go four times, and each time, there would be a line (which is unusual) and there would always be someone on line who, by the time they reached the teller's window, had worked up to a fit, and would just fall apart. And then there would be a sob story, about having to break into their savings, because they had lost their job, and they weren't sure what they were going to do.

But in December, things had calmed down. There was still a line, but no hysteria. And now, in January, no real lines at all at the bank.

In November, there was such naked desperation and hysteria. There seems to be some calm now, or is it that the worst is happening?

Missed Louis Menand's article at the beginning of the month about The Village Voice. but have been hearing about it. Shall have to see if it's online.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Well, even Charlie Rose is getting into the act: there's a new feature on his program, called "Obama Watch". Now, when George W. Bush was elected, nobody thought to subject him to this kind of daily scrutiny. And look what Bush got away with! Everything from war crimes to constitutional misconduct to total environmental/economic destruction.

Well: Bush left office with a 22% approval rating. But happily, Dick Cheney's approval rating is even lower! Cheney's chain of television interviews last week was amazing: he admits to torture, to spying on American citizens, to breaking the law. And his attitude is: no one will ever bother to prosecute him. But one great note (supplied by Jonathan Turley on Rachel Maddow's show) is that by admitting these things publicly, Cheney has made sure that he can never travel to any country that has signed the Geneva Convention, because he is now an admitted war criminal, and can (and should) be arrested should he ever go to: France, Italy, Germany, Great Britain, et al.

Obviously, Tuesday was an historic day for the United States: the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama. It was an all-day telethon, with all the networks devoting hours to the inauguration, the swearing-in, the balls, etc. Obama's speech actually was very judicious: no real rhetoric, and an attempt to keep expectations realistic about the future.

On Tuesday, i went to the press screening of "Panic in Needle Park"; turns out i'd never seen that film (though i caught bits and pieces of it on the Fox Movie Channel); with the recent screening of "Puzzle of a Downfall Child", i'm catching up with Jerry Schatzberg's early work. What can i say? Trying-to-be-gritty, down-and-dirty junkie movies aren't exactly my thing. There's no narrative arch: once the heroine (Kitty Winn) gets hooked, it's a constant regurgitation of getting high, not getting dope, getting strung out. Yet it's well-done for its type. Schatzberg (a photographer prior to becoming a movie director) does like to find avisual style that suits each movie: the gritty, semidocumentary look of "Panic", the glossy, fashion-mag sheen of "Puzzle", the dusty, Southern feel of "Honeysuckle Rose". And today, went to the press screening of Chiara Clemente's "Our City Dreams", a documentary portrait of five women artists: Swoon, Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramovic, and Nancy Spero. The "city" is New York City, and the movie was well-done. However, i had a problem: two artists that i'm practically allergic to are Kiki Smith and Marina Abramovic. And sure enough, when Kiki came on the screen and started yapping, i fell asleep... and didn't wake up until near the end of Marina Abramovic's section, when she goes to the Philippines to do a performance that was supposed to be some sort of... what? comment? elegy? stupid imperialist bullcrap? about the tsunami. Just because she's a woman, when she makes piggy statements about Asian people, i'm not supposed to notice? But the Nancy Spero section was a delight, though much abbreviated: it was the one section that really felt like it should have been longer. Nancy Spero is one of those people whose life has been full of intriguing turns, and she talks about some of them, such as her marriage to Leon Golub, and their decision to move to Paris in the 1950s because the type of art they were doing (figurative) at a time when abstraction was the rage in New York City, but their decision to move back to the U.S. in the early 1960s and the way their art became "political" as the Vietnam War escalated and they both were involved in antiwar activities and their art became emblematic of the antiwar movement.

On the way back home, i stopped by the NonImperialist Bookstore, and bought a copy of Marcia B. Siegel's "Howling Towards Heaven", her study of Twyla Tharp. I read it on the subway home. A good, solid book, but there's something missing. That something is very simply this: of all the people i've met in my life, Twyla Tharp is probably among the top ten most miserable, nasty, vicious people i've ever met. Yet i love her work, i think she's a great choreographer, and "The Bix Pieces" ranks among the top dozen or so theatrical experiences of my life. Why is she such a bitch? What's her problem? No one i've ever met has ever been able to explain her problem to me. As an artist, she is totally defensible; as a human being, there is no excuse for Twyla Tharp.

Today was the announcement of the Academy Award nominations. For the last month, the various guilds (Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild, Producers Guild, Directors Guild) had nominated this year's choices, and it looked like it was going to be: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", "The Dark Knight", "Frost/Nixon", "Milk" and "Slumdog Millionaire". Well, today's big surprise was that "The Dark Knight" was shafted in favor of "The Reader" which wound up with all the big nominations: Film, Director, Screenplay, Actress.

The nominations are what they are, but i'm tired of people saying this was not a good year at the movies: i thought there were many wonderful films released in 2008. I don't go to tentpole movies (is that what they're called?), and i haven't bothered with any of the franchise movies. So: i've never seen a Harry Potter movie, i saw the first Bourne movie but none of the sequels, i only seen the Spiderman series in sections on TV. And what i've seen hasn't made me want to rush out to see the rest. But i do know that "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man" (that one, i saw) were both popular and well-done enough to get good reviews. But the Academy Awards are not about what's "popular", nor are they really about critical values: they're an exercise in what a relatively small "community" thinks of itself.

In the 1960s, Stanley Kauffmann noted that a new generation of directors had been in power in Hollywood; in his review of "Bonnie and Clyde", he discussed this situation: "Changes in America have, inevitably, changed the tone of the film industry; a college-bred generation of producers and directors (and screenwriters and publicity men) has come into being - quite different in self-estimate and status hunger from the first few generations of American film workers.... This latest film-making generation that has come to power (to power - as opposed to small independent or "underground" film makers) operates comfortably within a cosmos of intense commercial pressure in which these men have nicely adjusted their ambitions for intellectual prestige. But this reconciliation prevents them from making the sheer entertainments, comic or serious, of the palmy Hollywood days - the "sincere" days, as Jean-Luc Godard once described them with peculiar accuracy; and of course it also prevents fidelity to art and intellect." It's been some 40 years since Stanley Kauffmann wrote that, and the situation of Hollywood has, if anything, gotten more schizoid.

And people in Hollywood are split, but the Academy Awards always reflect this. However, some very nice nominations: Richard Jenkins for "The Visitor" and Melissa Leo for "Frozen River" among the Best Actor/Actress nominees. However, it should be noted that Leo took the "indie" slot, and that left Sally Hawkins ("Happy-Go-Lucky") and Michelle Williams ("Wendy and Lucy") out of the running. I think Melissa Leo is a brilliant actress (unless i'm mistaken, she was my choice for Best Actress in the Village Voice/LA Weekly and the IndieWire polls), but i wish that Michelle Williams and Sally Hawkins had been recognized with nominations.

Of course, the minute that the nominations are announced, and posted on various blogs, such as Anne Thompson's Variety blog (, or Carrie Rickey's Philadelphia Inquirer blog (, there are always people who have to express an opinion. (It's like yesterday, Carrie posted an item on her blog about Oscar snubs, and, as usual, the "Saving Private Ryan" should have won over "Shakespeare in Love" debate comes up again. Well, i remember talking to Pauline when that happened, and she laughed, and said, thank God, i'm glad that people voted for something they actually enjoyed. Pauline felt that "Saving Private Ryan" was the kind of bucking-for-glory snoozefest that talented filmmakers go for when they think they're ripe for prestige, hence the quote from Stanley Kauffmann. And she also felt that, spectacular as the battles scenes may have been, the script was an atrocity of half-baked notions culled from movies like "Battleground" and "A Walk in the Sun" and "The Story of G.I. Joe" and "Air Force". And the cliches extended to the characters: it was the old bomber-crew cast again, with different ethnicities, etc.)

But people don't care about the script (not really): if they did, why would anybody think "Lawrence of Arabia" (which has one of the most obscurist scripts of all time) was a great movie? Robert Bolt's script can't clarify the conflicts of Turkey and Greece during World War I, and it doesn't make clear Lawrence's views or his beliefs or his convictions. (Yet T.E. Lawrence was very clear: all that's needed is to read what the man himself wrote, and then you wonder why the movie couldn't be as clear.) But that's just me.

And by the way, a movie which is a brilliantly witty gloss on the man who is supposed to be the pillar of Anglo-American culture, the man who had been acknowledged as the greatest playwright in the English language (it used to be said the greatest playwright ever), co-written by one of the acknowledged "great" English-language playwrights of the 20th Century (Stoppard is up there with Shaw, Beckett, Harold Pinter): this movie is nothing? But an impressively done, pasted-together rehash of those damned World War II movies that most of us should have seen already: this is better?

The other day, i watched part of "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm" (it was showing on TCM) and... it was virtually incomprehensible! Because the entire Cinerama experience, where the screen(s) literally overwhelmed you, can't be duplicated on TV. No matter how big the screen. The action seemed... you couldn't really see the performers, because there were no real close-ups in most of the movie. And the reason was the Cinerama screen was so big that what seems like a long shot looks like a close-up when it's all around you!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Of course, so much of the news today focussed on the upcoming inauguration. But it's even seeped into the entertainment programs, like Entertainment Tonight, Access Hollywood, etc. Obama really is the biggest celebrity out there.

Back to some movies. "Just Another Love Story" is one of those tricky thrillers which has a very clever plot, but the plot doesn't seem to be grounded... and, in a way, it isn't, because, as with other Ole Bornedal movies, it's a movie geared to the idea of an American remake. (I watched part of "Nightwatch" the other day, which was a previous movie which had been redone. Bornedal seems to be making this a career, to make thrillers in his native country which can translate to the American context.) The ideas of "Just Another Love Story" actually are clever, but (of course) they're very contrived. And eventually, the contrivances start to seem almost airless, because you're so aware that things are being shifted around for the "shocking" ending. Yet until the last half hour, "Just Another Love Story" actually was quite gripping.

But of course all art is a contrivance. But great art makes the contrivances seem inevitable. It's like in Dickens or Hardy...

Anyway, just got my new glasses today, and now i'm trying to get used to them.

Last week, got an Agreement addendum from the International Research Center of the Free University of Berlin. I had to e.mail them for some clarifications: in the fall, i was informed that the "term" would start in October, but now the addendum states September. Right now, i'm thinking that the frigid weather is my preparation for a winter in Berlin.

It's funny how people seem to forget things now. It's like the way that movies are often looked at in isolation. A great example is "His Girl Friday": it's actually not that original. The idea of the girl reporter-male editor dynamic was actually pretty well established by that point. In fact, you can go all the way back to "Platinum Blonde", where Loretta Young is the girl reporter in the newsroom, where everyone treats her as "one of the guys". And Joan Bennett played the girl reporter to Cary Grant in both "Big Brown Eyes" and "Wedding Present", and those movies were made in 1936. So by the time Cary Grant got to make "His Girl Friday" in 1940, he'd already played guys sparring with girl reporters. But by the 1960s, when "His Girl Friday" was being rediscovered by critics, it seemed so unusual, and it wasn't seen as part of a continuum. (For example, if Joan Bennett played a girl reporter in two movies with Cary Grant, her sister Constance played a girl reporter to Clark Gable's editor in "After Office Hours", an MGM comedy that was written by Herman J. Mankiewicz.) So when i realized that the famous sequence with Guy Madison from "Since You Went Away" was a copy of the sequence with Barry Nelson, Don DeFore, and Robert Mitchum from "The Human Comedy", that wasn't just a silly little thing, it was an example of the dynamic of popular culture.

And when i say that people seem to forget things... i can't believe that, in all the things that i've read about "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", there's been no mention of something that struck me (immediately): Cate Blanchett's daughter is played by Julia Ormond, so (unless the filmmakers are oblivious) that's the clue that there is a connection between the daughter and Benjamin Button... because, after his brief role in "Thelma and Louise", the movie that really made Brad Pitt a movie star was "Legends of the Fall", where Pitt played one of three brothers (the other two were Aidan Quinn and Henry Thomas) in love with Julia Ormond.

Maybe it's just me, and you're not supposed to have that connection.

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; tomorrow is the inauguration of Barack Obama as president. Sometimes the national symbolism gets a bit thick. But the networks are going beserk with Obama-mania. But after this inauguration hype, what? The nation is in a crisis, and what can a new administration do?

A lot of the people i know are at the Sundance Film Festival; it's interesting to get conflicting reports. When is the Berlin Film Festival? I thought it was always in February.

I've been thinking of the movies i've seen since December, and trying to figure out what values i bring when i judge a movie. I was particularly aware of this when i was watching Doris Dorrie's "Cherry Blossoms" and Ole Bornedal's "Just Another Love Story".

Over the last few days, i've been checking out movies on HBO or Showtime; usually, i just stick to TCM. I just finished watching an Autralian movie, "December Boys", which stars Daniel Radcliffe. Over the weekend, i finally got to see Mira Nair's "The Namesake", plus another movie with Kal Penn, "Dancing in Twilight".

Right now, i'm watching "The Human Comedy"; i've seen it countless times, but it's interesting to realize how popular culture feeds on itself. The scenes playing now are the ones where the sister (Donna Reed) and her best friend are walking in the rain and come across three soldiers (played by Barry Nelson, Don DeFore, and Robert Mitchum) and they spend the evening together: stopping by the telegraph office, going to the movies. Obviously, this was the prototype for the scenes in "Since You Went Away" (made a year later) where Jennifer Jones and Robert Walker wind up hanging out with a sailor on leave (Guy Madison).

This is actually relevant to "Cherry Blossoms", because Doris Dorrie uses Ozu's "Tokyo Story" as her template, and there are times when certain scenes seem arbitrary, because they seem to have been inserted so that there will be a direct correspondence to Ozu's film.

"Cherry Blossoms" is a very good film, surprisingly affecting at times, yet there remains the spectre of another work, where the development (plot, themes, etc.) was organic, and in "Cherry Blossoms", much of the development seems jerryrigged to fit the outlines of "Tokyo Story".

But (as in the case of "The Human Comedy" and "Since You Went Away") hasn't that always been the case, the inclusion of a sequence which worked before into another work?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ok, it's been a week since i've been near this blog. I have checked out George Robinson's blog ( which is filled with links to his reviews on a lot of films - one reason is that the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum had the annual Jewish Film Festival. I went to two of the press screenings, which turned out to be documentaries. But the Jewish Film Festival has some unusual films this year: it's always instructive to see some of the early films which are shown. This year, there's a 1930 French film directed by Julien Duvivier starring Harry Baer. Michael Giltz's blog ( is now mostly links to various columns he's writing for the Huffington Post such as his weekly roundup of DVD releases.

Joe Baltake's blog ( has been very lively, because TCM's Star of the Month is Jack Lemmon, and Joe Baltake has written a book about Jack Lemmon, so he's able to give some amusing facts as well as his opinions on Lemmon's output. (TCM opened the series with the George Axelrod-Mark Robson "Phffft", which i think is wonderful, it's got one of Judy Holliday's most nuanced performances, and i was glad to see that Joe shared my enthusiasm for the film.)

On her blog in Variety, Anne Thompson has been compiling the nominees for the various guilds (Screen Actors Guild, Writers Guild, Producers Guild, Directors Guild) and it's coming up with the same five films: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", "The Dark Knight", "Frost/Nixon", "Milk", and "Slumdog Millionaire".

On her blog, Carrie Rickey asked her readers their opinion on the Golden Globes, and i realized that i've never watched the Golden Globes. I don't really like watching award shows now. In fact, when the Academy Awards are on, the last few years, it's been opposite a new episode of "The L Word", and, i'm sorry... i think it was two years ago, but the episode of "The L Word" just seemed to be one sex scene after another. Since "The L Word" has some of the most gorgeous women on TV, what's not to like? There was no contest.

But in the past few weeks, i've seen a few movies. Some of them include: "Just Another Love Story", "The Secret of the Grain", "Tokyo Sonata", "Cargo 200", "Mock Up on Mu", "Cherry Blossoms", "The Photograph", "Of Time and the City", "California Dreamin'". Plus there were movies which were either never released or had a really limited release, which played on TV: "Chaos Theory", "Smother", "My Mom's New Boyfriend". Plus the new print of Godard's "Made in U.S.A." and the restored print of Ken Jacobs and Bob Fleishner's "Blonde Cobra" as well as Ken Jacobs's "The Whirled".

But it's also a time to do the annual: last week, i went to the doctor's, and i have an appointment for tomorrow to check on the results of blood tests. (Is my cholesterol still high?) And i went to the eye doctor today: my eyes are actually getting better, but that sometimes happens with age, because if you're nearsighted, it's because your eyeball is oval when it should be round, but as you age, your eyeball shrinks a little, and becomes rounder. So i need new glasses, and i pick them up next week. These are the new "progressive" lenses, and i hope i'll get used to them.

But i actually have been thinking a lot about movies....

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Haven't blogged since just before Christmas. A lot has happened, and yet today i took it easy. I had to. I finally made the appointment and saw the doctor. But last night, after about 8 o'clock, i had the most severe case of hives. I don't know why, but i've had hives since childhood. But i wasn't eating anything after 6, because i knew i'd have bloodwork done, and they always tell you not to eat for at least twelve hours prior. But about midnight, i finally had to take an antihistamine, to calm myself down. I still have one swollen eye and my lips are puffed out... so i didn't feel like going to the screening i had planned for tonight.

However, i'm watching PHFFFT, which is fine, because Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon, and Kim Novak make for great company.

Over the last few weeks, i've been looking at various sites and links, about the various Top Ten lists. I was part of the Village Voice/L.A. Weekly and the IndieWire polls. The consensus: the Village Voice/L.A. Weekly top choice was "Wall-E"; the IndieWire top choice was "The Flight of the Red Balloon". The attempt (now) to cover the entire country has its problems. One is the issue of release date. A movie may have played in New York City but not in Los Angeles, or (in many cases) vice versa. In fact, a lot of movies now open in L.A. way before they show in NYC. (The reason for this is the loosening of Hollywood standards to include independent and foreign films for Academy Award consideration. So a lot of movies are rushed to open before the end of December, which is the deadline for Academy consideration. The classic example: "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" played a qualifying run in L.A. at the end of 2007, but opened theatrically in NYC three months later in 2008.) But it also wrecks havoc, and you can lose track of what you've seen when. (I didn't include "The Flight of the Red Balloon" in my Top Ten, not because i didn't like it, i did, but i had seen it in 2007, and i forgot that it had its theatrical release in 2008.)

Of course, one of the things that has taken some of my time was Facebook. A while ago, there was a notice on Facebook that Aaron Sorkin was looking for Facebook stories. How people reconnected after years through Facebook. There are people who think social networking sites are insidious, i know quite a few, and i also know people who find it an annoyance.

But i have several Facebook stories. If he will permit me, there is one which crystallizes the usefulness of Facebook.

In the fall, i received a "Friend Request" from Michael. Now, it had been a while since we heard from him. For reasons that (right now) shall remain private, Michael was a teenager who needed a home, and Larry provided it in 1983. That was in San Diego. Larry moved back to New York City in 1986. It's not like we intentionally lost touch, but Michael started moving around, and sometimes he wouldn't let us know where he was. Again, not intentionally, but Michael's concerns were always very immediate. Out of sight, out of mind, in many cases.

We knew he had been in San Diego. But then, we were told that he wasn't in San Diego anymore. And we had no idea where he was. Turns out he is now in Hawaii. He just had his 40th birthday. 40. I can't believe it. He's been in Hawaii now for almost three years.

There are people (now) who post all sorts of things on Facebook: some people use it as a diary, and you know their lives more than your own! And there are amusing things, and sometimes some sad things.

But to be back in touch with Michael is a pretty amazing situation.

In terms of Facebook: you also find out some troubling news. My friend Ellen happens to be in the Middle East right now, in Ramallah. She's making another documentary there, and you suddenly realize how close some people are to the crisis.

There's so much wrong right now, and yet, as Andrea Mitchell says (she's on Charlie Rose right now), there's also a sense of optimism because people are expecting that change (some sort of change) can happen, and so there is an expectancy. But how much can Obama do, when he is being left the country in such a state of shambles? Bush is making sure that he destroys as much of the country as possible. He had ruined the economy, he is trying to destroy the environment, he started a war which is endless and impossible, he is the most evil president in my lifetime. But what do i know?