Friday, February 27, 2009

It has been a busy week. Spent three days at press screenings for the annual Rendezvous With French Cinema, saw "The Joy of Singing", "Seraphine", Costa-Gavras's "Eden Is West", Chabrol's "Bellamy", Benoit Jacquot's "Villa Amalia", Techine's "The Girl on the Train" and Daniel Thompson's "Change of Plans". For better or worse, it wasn't a bad group. Then on Thursday, saw restored films by the Kuchar Brothers at Anthology: "Lovers of Eternity", "The Thief and the Stripper", "A Woman Distressed", "Night of the Bomb" and "I Was a Teenage Rumpot". Nothing like grungy, no-budget underground films to make you feel good.

But the important thing is that there has been a cultural meltdown in the northeast. The Bernard Madoff affair hasn't even begun to have its effect, because so much of NYC cultural life is dependent on Jewish philanthropy. If there was ever a plot to destroy the art of this city, this would be perfect.

But it's not only that. There are so many shakeups and upheavals that it's dizzying. Right off the bat: the stasis about the New York State tax credit program for film and television production, which has already started to claim some productions (the Fox show "Fringe" is leaving NYC for Vancouver; it would, of course, be a Fox production, another reason to take away Rupert Murdoch's waiver from the FCC, if he can take away production, we can take away his damn licenses). California has pushed through a tax credit program: they're trying to take production back.

The Filmmakers Coop has had its offices in the Clocktower building since 2000; Alanna Heiss signed on with MoMA in 1998. Alanna was forced to retire at the end of 2008 (there is a mandatory retirement age) but in order to sweeten the deal, MoMA allowed her to retain the lease from the city on the Clocktower building. And when that happened, she looked at the Clocktower and found that she had left in space for the Coop. So (in a fit) she decided to spite MoMA by evicting the Coop (the Coop had come into the Clocktower through a deal with MoMA's Department of Film). DCA can force Alanna to keep to her original plan for the Clocktower; DCA can, in fact, take away the Clocktower from Alanna (which would be the best thing, really, just make her go away). But who knows?

The Rose Art Museum is being dismantled by Brandeis University. It's been written about by many people (including Roberta Smith in The New York Times) and i don't want to rehash it. But Brandeis, where most of the people on the board are Jewish, lost a huge amount of its endowment (rumored to have been almost 3/4 of a billion dollars) because of Bernie Madoff, and so the response was: what can we sell (fast)? And the collection at the Rose Art Museum was valued at over half a billion dollars, so....

Except that the Rose Art Museum has its own board, and it actually runs itself, basically Brandeis houses the collection and pays for utilities, all other expenses are handled by the Rose Art Museum itself. Again, who knows?

New Yorker Films closed up shop this week. Another long, complicated story. Dan Talbot actually sold New Yorker Films a number of years ago, and the new parent company has defaulted and is bankrupt and its assets are going on the auction block, and that means New Yorker Films.

What's frightening about all of this is that the fallout is happening to "innocent bystanders". In short: The Filmmakers Coop had nothing to do (really) with the bad feelings between Alanna Heiss and The Museum of Modern Art, but the Coop is getting the fallout. New Yorker Films has been operating very carefully, there really weren't many debts, but it was the company that bought out New Yorker Films that went belly-up, and New Yorker Films (and all the people that work there, like Jose Lopez) has to bear the brunt.

In term of the Rose Art Museum: Michael Rush (who has been the director for about four years) has been incredibly responsible, there have been no deficits. But he's being punished for the problems of others: he did not invest in Bernie Madoff, the Brandeis board of directors did, but their solution is just incredibly destructive.

And talking about incredibly destructive: you've got the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which last week announced that the new Executive Director, Mara Manus, has summarily fired a large part of the staff of the Film Society. Like that. And the firings included people like Sayre Maxfield, Joanna Ney, Will McCord... some of these people (like Sayre and Joanna) have been with the Film Society for decades: the Film Society was their life!

It's very upsetting to me, because so many of these people i've known for so long (let's not even get into how long i've known Jonas Mekas) and things seemed to be settling down, then there was this economic downturn, and now, so many friends and associates are being threatened.

It's not even the same as the mass firings of critics (not just film critics, but dance, theater, book critics) which started over the summer. This is just a mass detonation of so many cultural institutions, there's a scorched earth mentality going on, and so many people are just getting mowed down. It's like the Saint Valentine's Day massacre, only on an unimaginable scale. And it's not over yet!

I grew up in New York City when it was a city that was becoming the center of the art world: painting and sculpture, "happenings", dance and music, all these were just bursting. And in terms of film: there wasn't Hollywood, but there were small-scale independent films, underground films, experimental films. Though i grew up watching Hollywood movies (who didn't?) by the time i was about 10, i was aware that i had no interest in working in Hollywood, but i wanted to work in my hometown, in NYC.

And the artists! It was the end of the Abstract Expressionist era, the beginning of Pop and Minimal Art, and going to galleries, you could see new work by Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko or Agnes Martin along with new work by Donald Judd or Robert Morris or Claes Oldenburg or Red Grooms.

And now, this period is becoming historical, and people are writing histories of this period, and the kicker is, most of those people weren't even around! But nobody seems to want to ask those of us who actually were around what it was like.

And now it's all going, and fast! This is a new Depression, and this time, there might not be an Orson Welles to rise up from the WPA Federal Theater project.

I wish i could write about the movies i saw this week, but i'm too bewildered by what's happening to so many of my friends.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

February 18, and it's been a week since i've posted anything. I have to say that i saw what i think is a great movie yesterday: Agnes Varda's "Les Plages d'Agnes". In many ways, it's like the sequel to her "Jacquot de Nantes" only she's the subject this time. It's a film which reminds you that there are few people who can make movies with the ease and skill and finesse of Agnes Varda. She has been a master filmmaker from her earliest days, with "La Pointe Courte", and she has gotten (if anything) more fluid in her off-hand mastery. From the earliest times in her career, she has made film essays, such as "L'Opera Mouffe" and "Documenteur", and here, she ruminates on her life and her career, giving glimpses into her work, going back to places from her childhood, from various films (including time spent in L.A. during the late 1960s and 1970s).

Of course, personally, Agnes Varda can be one of the most demanding people ever, but there's a warmth and charm to this film. She and her old friend Chris Marker have reached the point where they can just pick up a camera and make a movie.

After the movie, i was talking with some friends, and they were surprised that in "Les Plages d'Agnes", Varda admits that Jacques Demy died of AIDS, and how, when they were making "Jacquot de Nantes", his illness was never discussed because of the stigma at the time.

There's been a lot that's been happening in the film world. Two weeks ago, an urgent message was sent out by the Filmmakers Coop: it seems that Alanna Heiss had given the Coop an eviction notice (the Coop moved its office and archives into the Clocktower Building in 2000). It seems that when Alanna Heiss turned over P.S. 1 to MoMA, she did not give up the lease to the Clocktower Building. Now that MoMA forced her to retire as the Director of P.S. 1, she's taking her revenge on the Coop (which was brought in by MoMA's Department of Film). It's not resolved, but the city (specifically, the Department of Cultural Affairs) is working to ensure that the Coop has a place.

At the end of last week, it was announced that Mara Manus, the new Executive Director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, had just fired about a quarter of the staff. Since it was never a big staff to begin with, that's a very big deal, and many people (like Sayre Maxfield and Joanna Ney) have been with the Film Society almost from the beginning. This is a terrible situation. Mara Manus is like a nonprofit corporate raider: she goes in to a place (like the Public Theater) and gets rid of the staff, and trims the budget, and then gets out.

Well, the last big piece of film news isn't so terrible, but it signals big changes: Geoff Gilmore has left the Sundance Film Festival to join the Tribeca Film Institute. It's expected that John Cooper will take over as the director of the Sundance Film Festival (at least, i hope so, John's been there for decades at this point) and Peter Scarlett will still be running the Tribeca Film Festival per se, but Geoff Gilmore's role is to build the Tribeca "brand" as it were.

Other movies seen over the last two weeks: Wajda's "Katyn", Jan Troell's "Everlasting Moments", Ferreri's "Dillinger Is Dead". And on TV, watched some things i'd never seen before; right now, i'm watching "Bonneville" with Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates and Joan Allen. A few days ago, i finally saw "Last Summer in the Hamptons". I can't say i thought it was good, but there were fascinations, especially when someone like Viveca Lindfors was going all theatrical (which was all the time). But i still haven't been able to find a way into the Henry Jaglom aesthetic.

Today, watched the 1929 "Madame X" with Ruth Chatterton. Interesting to see.

Anyway, yesterday, on the way home, i started feeling sick, and i felt like i had twisted my ankle. Well, turned out to be gout, only this time in my right ankle. I couldn't get to Claire Denis's movie this morning. I'll go to the doctor's tomorrow (he doesn't have office hours on Wednesdays). But it's feeling better.

Now i'm watching the last part of the American Masters piece on Jerome Robbins. And there's Deborah Jowitt! And Jennifer Tipton!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Blogging is one of those activities which started out as a real boon for many of us, but it's recently become a chore. This is the end of award season in the movies, and some of us have become overwhelmed with going to screenings, looking at screeners, etc. and it's hard to find a through-line to all of this cinematic viewing.

And if, like me, there's a tendency to try to think about what's on view, it makes it extremely difficult, because there's the constant shifting of focus. In the last week: John Boorman's "The Tiger's Tail", the Argentine film "The Mugger", Michael Almereyda's notebook "Paradise", Guy Debord's "The Society of the Spectacle" (was glad i went to that screening, because the only time i saw that film was when it was screened without subtitles; subtitles helped, since it's a narrated film over a miscellany of images; the beginning, with the preponderance of soft-core footage of topless young women, reminded me of the inherent sexism of so much French theory), then screeners of Chris Eigeman's "Turn the River" (i persist in thinking Famke Janssen is potentially a major actress who hasn't found the right vehicle yet), Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona", Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou's "Take Out", and Alex Holdridge's "In Search of a Midnight Kiss". Also: finally saw Chabrol's "La Ceremonie" as well as his "La Route de Corinth" (Netflix). Then went to a screening of Wadja's "Katyn" which i missed at the Tribeca Film Festival, but it's opening at Film Forum.

I invited Carey Lovelace to the screening of the Guy Debord, and was glad i did, because it's the kind of intellectualized work that needs to be talked about and discussed with friends afterwards. It's the talking afterwards that completes "The Society of the Spectacle" as a theatrical experience. It's also a little more rhythmically organized and (because of the inclusion of certain film clips, etc.) more dramatic than other Debord films that i've seen.

Well, now onto today's screenings: Ferreri's "Dillinger Is Dead", which i saw in 1970, but not since, and wonder how it will seem....

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

A busy week. Today saw John Boorman's "The Tiger's Tail" starring Brendan Gleeson, Kim Cattrall, Ciarin Hinds and Sinead Cusack. Actually quite a solid movie, very well-done, but it's strange when you begin to realize that a movie like this is now considered unmarketable, and it's being shown as part of the Film Comment Selects series.

Also seen: the 1925 version of "Stella Dallas" (which i'd never seen, and found it to be good, with a little more backstory than the 1937 version, and it moved along briskly), two documentaries that are part of the Documentary Fortnight series at MoMA, "My Daughter the Terrorist" and "Neither Memory Nor Magic", and then a documentary that will have a run at Anthology, "Great Speeches From a Dying World". All three were shot on digital, and they raised the question of the difference between film as a theatrical experience and television. All three turned out to have fascinating subjects, but eventually grew repetitive (and none were very long).

Also saw "Gomorrah", the Italian film about organized crime.

Shall be trying to organize my thoughts more clearly, but just wanted to start the blogging process about these movies.