Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Over the winter, i started growing two avocados (sticking the pits halfway in a cup of water), and both grew very nicely. One grew to over two feet tall! So at the end of March, Larry decided to plant it: he got a pot, he got some potting soil, and he planted the tall avocado. And then he decided to put it outside. Well: since January, New York City has had one of the worst winters on record. January almost set some sort of record: there wasn't a single day when the temperature went above freezing. And February continued the cold. And then it went into March! Well, the avocado spent a few days outside when one night the temperature went below freezing (again) and the plant immediately died.

Well, i'm like that avocado. The last month, my body has revolted against the cold and... i haven't been able to go out. All sorts of problems. It's just horrible. Finally, the last few days have been seasonable (not freezing) and today i actually started feeling much better.

Be that as it may, i did see a bunch of movies, i've also watched TV. Over the weekend, a friend asked me about art criticism on the web, and i mentioned Walter Robinson (ArtNet) and John Perrault and Jeff Weinstein (the ArtsJournal weblog). And it was funny because it made me look at the stuff on ArtNet and on Artopia (Perreault) and Out There (Weinstein). I was glad to see that Jeff Weinstein has been enjoying "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" as much as i have.

But it's like usually i follow various film blogs, such as Flickgrrl (Carrie Rickey), Thompson on Hollywood (Anne Thompson), Film Journey (Doug Cummings), The Passionate Moviegoer (Joe Baltake), Cine-Journal (George Robinson), Popsurfing (Michael Giltz), and Dave Kehr. And (of course) there's Facebook, which is like a world unto itself!

When i was watching the HBO movie "Grey Gardens", i was struck by the problem of tone: so much of the social scene that was depicted in the 1950s just seemed off. (The film was better when it concentrated on the pair alone in the house; the airlessness, the lack of social perspective and the enclosed timelessness seemed appropriate, but when other people were around, it was hard to tell exactly what they were supposed to be. That is: they didn't seem to be New Yorkers of the 1950s. In fact, it wrecked havoc on my memory, because it didn't resemble anything like New York in the 1950s, and i grew up there.) And it reminded me of the problems i had when i was watching Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence": it was the kind of movie where every superficial detail was just-about-perfect, yet every nuance, every social/cultural/political context just seemed ever-so-slightly off. Just as an example: Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder just sounded wrong. Their accents were not upper-class New York. Yet no one seems to notice these things. And Joanne Woodward was exactly the wrong person to get as the narrator: though she has a trained actor's voice, she's Southern, and that keeps slipping through.

And i've been reading so much online film criticism (or what passes for film criticism) and i'm just appalled. These people seem to have no knowledge of... anything! Except movies. And somehow, movies aren't enough.

But i'm hoping i start feeling better and i really want to start going out again!

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Avocados are the most difficult plants to try to maintain. We had three that we put in our room for the winter: two of them are fine, one of them suddenly started to shrivel up. And there's no difference in temperature, we water them all the same. And there are two new ones which we had in water... we planted one and put it outside last week. Well, the minute the weather went below 40 degrees, that plant's leaves turned all brown and it seems to be dying.

Today there was the second press screening of "Leon Morin, Pretre" and i planned to go, but when i woke up i had... it almost felt like a cramp in my stomach. However, i shall proceed.

From my memory: the reason i wanted to see "Leon Morin, Pretre" again was that it seemed to me that in his early films (from "Le Silence de la Mer" to "Leon Morin, Pretre", and that includes the two "thrillers" "Bob le Flambeur" and "Deux Hommes dans Manhattan"), Jean-Pierre Melville is always dealing with displacement, and that displacement has to do with the overwhelming emotion of something "forbidden" contrasted with the surface of activity. In "Le Silence de la Mer", the girl and her grandfather refuse to change their routines, as a way of silently protesting the presence of the Nazi officer. And the commentary reveals those emotions which cannot be stated.

And in "Leon Morin, Pretre", the ambivalence which is at the center of Melville's work runs riot: there is Barny's attraction to the priest, but also Barny's interest in other women which is enforced because of the absence of a lot of the men in the town. The Occupation creates an enclosed, claustrophobic atmosphere (rather like the various underworlds in Melville's thrillers, with their codes of honor and their rigid rules). Another thing in Melville: his enclosed worlds have their own rules (like the games that the twins play in their room in "Les Enfants Terribles"), and these rules are often a subversion of the traditional rules that exist outside (thus, the gangsters and thieves have their own protocols, just as the police do, and these rules often mimic each other, as in "Le Cercle Rouge").

But i've been thinking about Melville... and also about Harry Smith because i went to the screening of "Film #23" which turned out to be an incredible work. And what was so fascinating about "Film #23" was that the information about how the film came to be (it was supposed to be a singular work, one copy only which was then to be sold as a "unique" art object, but Harry didn't then destroy the materials he used... he just didn't label them, but left them among his effects). And what Harry used was: footage of couples which he shot (some of which was used in "Mahagonny"), what seems to be discarded footage from the period of "Early Abstractions", discarded footage from the period of "Late Superimpositions", etc. You'd think, from the way this sounds, this would have been a mish-mash, but it wasn't! The absolute care with which the various layers are played off against each other, the rhythms of the editing which match the rhythms of the music Harry chose to accompany the film (the late 1930s Kurt Weill score "Little Johnny Johnston" which began as a New Federal Theater project: very a propos in this economic climate), all of these are just so perfectly combined.

Some other things i've seen recently: the premiere episode (a 2-hour movie) of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" (the last work directed by Anthony Minghella, and very charming; it's one of Minghella's better works, and it's good that it's based on material which isn't so fancy and pretentious, because Minghella was able to use his visual skills - the film was shot in Botswana, and it's a beautiful country - and his skill with actors on "light" material, and the results show what a fine crafstman he could be when he wasn't trying for poetic profundity, which weighed down and ultimately sank "Cold Mountain"); the Basil Dearden thriller "All Night Long" (especially noteworthy because of the appearance of so many wonderful jazz musicians, including Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus and John Dankworth); the Jamie Kennedy documenatry "Heckler" (which turned into a screed, not about heckling, but about critics).

Wouter Barendrecht died on Sunday: a real shock! Since we haven't been going to any international festivals in at least four years (at least since we've moved), we haven't really had a chance to run into Wouter. But during those crazy days of the IFP Market (especially the late 1980s), Wouter was working for the Berlin Film Festival, and he was also trying to get Fortissimo off the ground. The idea of Fortissimo Films was very ambitious (certainly, at that time): he would help to finance, produce and distribute films by artists from around the world. The model was sort of the Hubert Bals Fund, but Wouter really felt that there had to be a way to get the films (once completed) to festivals, and into distribution around the world.

But his death was very sudden. When he was starting Fortissimo, he worked very closely with Norman Wang and Sophie Gluck, because Norman and Sophie were the people who handled a lot of the cinema coming out of Asia (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan), and Wouter felt that this was an area where exciting cinema was developing. But Wouter's sudden death was very shocking, and very sad. He was only 45. But he did make Fortissimo into a real force in world cinema. And there's a staff, and the work he started will continue, but it's still sad, because he was the person who had the vision. And that's something that's hard to replace.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Frustrations of the MTA. Today i was on my way to the press screening of Jean-Pierre Melville's "Leon Morin, Pretre". I've seen the film before, many years ago, but one reason i wanted to see it again is that since i saw "Leon Morin", i've seen "Le Silence de la Mer" and "L'Armee des Ombres". These three films form a triptych about France during the Occupation, and i had wanted to compare them.

But when i got to the subway station, it was very crowded, which was not a good sign: 9:30 AM during a weekday, there should still be a regular schedule, with trains every five monutes or so. By 9:40, i knew i was in trouble. And, in fact, by the time i got to the 36th Street stop, there was another huge crowd waiting at the station. An N train came, but today i needed the D; another long wait... by the time we were going across the bridge, it was already 10:25! And the screening started at 10:30! There was no way i was going to make it in time, so i got off at the first stop in Manhattan, Grand Street, and went over to see my mother.

Turns out there were massive subway delays on the N and R lines, which i wish someone had told those of us waiting on the damned 77th Street subway stop. Had something to do with signal problems. On the way home, i decided to take the R train from City Hall; i got to the station just as a W train was pulling out. I thought, good, that means the next train will be an R. But no: three W trains later, and there was an announcement (repeated several times) that passengers going downtown should simply take the W because the N and R lines were delayed because of signal problems. Finally, an R train arrived, and what should have been a 45-minute ride took more than an hour. Made me feel like i should never go to Manhattan.

However, i do want to say something about Jean-Pierre Melville. I remember that, years ago, Richard Roud was talking about Melville. Adrienne Mancia was really enthusiastic about his work (and Adrienne would, in fact, program a retrospective at MoMA) and Richard's point was that he felt that Melville's thrillers ("Le Doulos", "Le Deuxieme Souffle", "Le Samourai") were "exercises de style" but that the early films ("Le Silence de la Mer", "Les Enfants Terribles", even, Richard said, "Quand Tu Liras Cette Lettre") had "subjects", that the stylistic experimentation (so apparent in "Le Silence de la Mer" and "Les Enfants Terribles") was used to explore the narratives to maximal effect, but the thrillers were simply a gloss on thriller themes (though Roud did express his admiration for the formal "perfection" of "Le Samourai"). And i remember that Roud felt "Leon Morin, Pretre" was the last "worthwhile" film in Melville's career (but that was before "L'Armee des Ombres"; i never knew what he thought about that film).

Anyway, i missed the screening of "Leon Morin, Pretre" but i still thought about the film.

Yesterday, i watched some of the Jane Powell movies on TCM (on the occasion of her 80th birthday!) and i think my supposition was correct. That is: i do think that Louis B. Mayer wanted to sign Deanne Durbin, and regretted the fact that she already had an option with Universal. Mayer didn't really appreciate Judy Garland (he used to call her the "little dwarf") and forever after kept chasing that kind of juvenile coloratura (that's where Kathryn Grayson and Jane Powell came in). And Mayer wanted so much to emulate the kind of wholesome family entertainments that Joe Pasternak was masterminding at Universal that Mayer eventually hired Pasternak away from Universal, which actually put a crimp in Deanna Durbin's career, because once Pasternak left, no one at Universal knew what to do with Durbin, and she soon retired (permanently).

But watching "Two Weeks With Love" and "Small Town Girl", i was struck by the almost infuriating neatness of the whole enterprise, the engineered wholesomeness, with its moments of poignance and its little shafts of chucklesome humor, its manufactured warmth. It's infuriating because it works! And this pair (along with that chef d'oeuvre "A Date With Judy") show Jane Powell at her height (and the producer was none other than Joe Pasternak!), twinkling and toothy.

Getting back to the MTA: i don't understand why we can't just fire the whole damn board of the MTA, and then put them in jail for malfeasance, mismanagement and misappropriation of public funds. Sometimes i wish we had the Chinese style of justice. When there was the problem of tainted food traced to a Chinese factory, the government simply executed the factory owners. New York City should execute the MTA.