Sunday, January 24, 2010

The last few days have been a blur: i've had a cold and it's just wrecked me. I've slept through most of the weekend, and haven't really had the energy to do much. However, i should say that the weather here in Berlin has not exactly been conducive to going out. The cold is brutal: minus degrees celcius (-10, -14, -16) for days. Insane.

And then i get tired very easily, and have been taking naps.

But a few quick notes. Howard Dean was on BBC this morning, and what he said was (i think) exceptionally lucid and on-the-mark. The "lesson" of the Massachusetts special election is not that the country (per se) is swinging right: "right" and "left" are becoming increasingly meaningless in US political discourse. Instead, there is a demand for change. ANY change. There is a sense of betrayal: Obama has not brought about any significant change, and people are fed up with the constant equivocation. People want a clear health-care bill, they want a public option, they do NOT want a bill obviously designed to placate the special interests of insurance companies. But Obama keeps trying to "compromise": people don't want compromise, they want change.

The Screen Actors Guild Awards were last night; couldn't watch it from here in Berlin (not that i ever watch it; i don't watch award shows as a rule), but followed the results. Mo'nique seems unstoppable, as does Christoph Waltz. The surprise was Sandra Bullock's win for "The Blind Side". Was glad that "Glee" won the award for Best Ensemble Cast for a television comedy.

Watching the news (what else is there in English?); tried to watch the Paris Hilton show on MTV (that's how desperate i am for English-language programming), but enough was enough!

The death of Jean Simmons was very poignant: she was one of the big stars of the 1950s, yet she never quite fulfilled the promise of her early career, because she was rarely given the proper roels or the proper vehicles. But, still, she was one of the finest actresses of her generation, and she will be immortal because of such movies as "Great Expectations". "Hamlet", "Angel Face", "The Actress", "Guys and Dolls", "Elmer Gantry", "Spartacus". And she gave so many wonderful performances, in a wide variety of films, including "The Robe", "Desiree", "Home Before Dark", "Until They Sail", "The Big Country", "All the Way Home", "The Happy Ending".

But starting to fade. I hope i get over this cold fast!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Agh! This cold is terrible. I am speaking both of the weather here in Berlin (-10 degrees C? and expected to reach -14 degrees C or -16 degrees C this weekend?) and of my health.

Yesterday woke up with my nose absolutely stuffed; you know how you're fighting off a cold (the little scratchiness in your throat?) and you don't want to admit it's coming on. And then it hits. So right now, i'm totally knocked out.

But i have been thinking about the experience of seeing "Avatar". Brian Singleton and i went to see it at the Cinestar IMAX Theater in Potsdamer Platz, so we could see it in 3D; we went on Sunday, and (of course) it was a sold-out house. From the start, there was a feeling of excitement; as soon as we got the 3D glasses, we were thrilled. Instead of those cardboard wraparounds that they used to give out at 3D screenings, we received those plastic-frame glasses (which fit rather comfortably over our regular glasses).

It was a spectacular experience, certainly the most sophisticated use of 3D i've ever seen. Does that change my views on what i saw in 2009? No. But it points to other aspects of performance and art: the need for spectacle, the desire for novelty, the appetite for grandeur and glamour. Having a good time at "Avatar" isn't that different from liking a Robert Wilson production.

Of course, the news is dominated by the problems in Haiti. At this time, the most reliable agencies in terms of the ability to mobilize and the ability to actually provide essential services seem to be the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.

George Robinson just posted his review of Andre Techine's "The Girl on the Train"; in this case, George starts from an interview which he did with Techine, and i think George is able to say some very piercing comments about the film (which is one i admire a great deal). George's website:

Joe Baltake has some funny comments on Meryl Streep; since Streep has tackled Anna Wintour ("The Devil Wears Prada") and Julia Child ("Julie & Julia"), isn't it about time Streep tackled Pauline Kael? Of course, when "Prime" came out, someone (was it Carrie Rickey? Was it Molly Haskell?) mentioned that the mimic-mad Streep seemed to have modelled the character of the mother-psychologist after Pauline Kael. But Joe also has a great post about Richard Quine, one of those underrated Hollywood directors from the 1950s. Joe's website:

Question: do i try to go out this afternoon, even if only to the supermarket? Hmmm....

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Anger never gets anything accomplished. Unfortunately, some situations just get the better (or worse) of you. So it is with me and Berlin. I haven't been able to find anything here of real interest, and leaving all the people at home (family and friends) is not conducive to good feelings.

And trying to watch television, when the only English language channels are CNN and BBC, and what is carried is the news, makes it particularly depressing. Arte and Bloomberg alternate on the same channel, with Arte coming on at 2 o'clock in the afternoon; but that leaves the morning with Bloomberg, with all this financial news crap which is even more depressing. How can one sit and listen to the fatuities of someone who is now head of Bank of America, when his previous jobs included being head of Morgan Stanley and, before that, Lehman Brothers? Why is it that certain people can fail upwards? Isn't there a limit to incompetence?

It should be apparent: i have never been alone in my life. I started out as a twin, so even from birth, i was not alone. And i met Larry in my sophomore year (when i was 18) and we've been together since then. I always have a support system of people.

And i've never been away from home (that is: New York City) for more than three months tops. And to be in this strange city: i keep waiting to find the true center of the city, the place where there are all the art galleries and the interesting art people and the fascinating conversations. I guess what i'm waiting for is for Berlin to turn into the city of my youth.

Did i know New York City was wonderful when i was experiencing it? I think i did. Christine and Debby tell me that i always knew things to go to (walking up those stairs to get to the loft to hear Phil Glass's early concerts; going to all those different places for Charlotte Moorman's Annual Avant-Garde Festivals; seeing dances by Trisha Brown or Simone Forti at art galleries).

Obviously, Berlin isn't that, but i'm looking for some sense of camaraderie. I never realized it, but so many of those events we went to had small audiences. 50 to 100 people packed into a space to listen to Charlemagne Palestine: that's actually not a lot.

Yet it seemed enough for us. Of course, i was always skeptical, and so many of those people just seemed so fatuous, and i often couldn't resist the wisecrack.

But the isolation is killing. Actually Shigeko Kubota (years ago) warned me about it: when she had her DAAD grant, she felt like she was being punished, by being sent to Berlin. I know what she means.

The death of Eric Rohmer brought poignant memories of just how thrilling his movies seemed the first time they played here: "My Night at Maud's" just seemed so radical, because it seemed conventional, but only seemed, the continual shifting of perspectives and the piercing conversations were crystalline and so fine-tuned. And how refreshing it seemed! To have a movie in which adults acted like adults, and talked like adults! And how intelligent and how witty were that talk.

In a way, Rohmer was very much like Ozu, in that he was a filmmaker who continually crafted his little bit of ivory until it was gleaming. I believe that Richard Corliss said, in his obit in Time Magazine, that Rohmer was not someone who made masterpieces. But that's assuming that masterpieces are huge, sprawling, overreaching works. But there is also the classical tradition, in which the goal is a perfection of form and content, in which whatever aims and themes of the work are prefectly achieved and expressed, in which everything coheres in absolute formal perfection. And in that case, there are several works of Rohmer's which qualify. Certainly, Rohmer was a master of his domain, and why shouldn't that be enough?

January 12, 2010. The year we made contact: wasn't that the tagline for the movie "2010"? But in this case, contact has been the horrendous news of the earthquake in Haiti. Haiti has been a country of such contrasts, and now there has been this catastrophe. Watching the news now and feeling a sense of helplessness.

George Robinson has filed his reviews on this year's Jewish Film Festival, of which i went to some of the press screenings. His reviews can be found from links on his blog: though the reviews can be found directly at Jewish Week.

Joe Baltake takes on some more "lost" films: the pair of films made from Peter Schaffer's pair of one-act plays, "The Public Eye/The Private Ear", which became two feature films, "The Private Ear" becoming Brian Hutton's "The Pad, and How To Use It" (one of the few films to star that redoubtable actor Brian Bedford, along with James Farentino and Julie Sommars) and "The Public Eye" becoming the Carol Reed film (retitled "Follow Me" in Great Britain) starring Mia Farrow and Topol. And he also writes about John Frankenheimer's adaptation of Bernard Malamud's "The Fixer", a prestige number with a high-profile cast including Alan Bates, Dirk Bogarde, Georgia Brown, Elizabeth Hartman, and Hugh Griffith. That movie really is among the missing: it hasn't surfaced in decades (as far as i know). But Joe Baltake always finds the time to talk about these lost treasures (or not-so-treasures, as the case may be):

The talk in the art world right now (and the talk has become the shout) is the appointment of Jeffrey Deitch to the position of Director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. There's a lot of debate about the incursion of "commerce" into the sacrosant environs of the musem world. Oh, please! But this seems to have destabilized the class structure of the art world, and it will be interesting to see how this all plays out.

And i'm interested in how this plays out. Or how anything plays out.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

It's now January 11; have been back in Berlin since Dec. 30, and enough already! Feel like it's time to go home. The weather here is dreadul, but i understand that it is dreadful everywhere else. But what really gets me is the isolation: i don't really know anyone here in Berlin, and i feel trapped.

Anyway, some notes. My friend Michael O'Sullivan has started a blog ( which is quite charming and witty, rather like Mike himself. And another new blog is from Arthur S. in India ( which offers some of the best film writing around: his close reading of Leo McCarey's "Good Sam" is exceptional.

Of course, Kevin Lee has been a real pioneer in terms of internet film criticism. His writing is simply and utterly amazing, as he parses films, and then adds all sorts of other information, such as samples of reviews, stills and film clips. Kevin is so singular: if i were younger, i hope that i would be as inventive and resourceful as Kevin.

So those are three people who have helped me maintain some sort of sanity here. The temperature has been -2 degrees C, -3 degrees C. Well, why don't they just say, hell froze over, and it's Berlin!

Sunday, January 03, 2010

New Year's Eve in Berlin proved to be quite an experience. Of course, it had snowed during the day, and that meant the third day of snow in a row. But the experience was the fireworks. During the afternoon, little smatterings of explosions could be heard, but by five in the afternoon, the explosions became more regular. You could hear them; when i walked to the supermarket, i could see the remnants (red marks in the snow). By the time night set in, the sky would suddenly flare up as more fireworks were set off. But that was always at a bit of a distance.

However, by 10:30 at night, the kids in the neighborhood were gathered in the street below, just outside my window, and they started setting off fireworks: sky rockets and pinwheels and all manner of firecrackers. And so, from my window, i could see fireworks blazing for the New Year. That continued well past midnight: they finally stopped around 1:30 AM. So there was about three hours of fireworks right outside my window.

So that was my New Year's Eve here in Berlin.

Today, i was reading Scott Macauley's thoughts on the Filmmaker Magazine e.mail. It concerned the Best of the Decade poll which Filmmaker ran amongst its editors and staff. The point was to come up with the best "independent" films of the decade. Macauley notes this because he was a little disturbed by the results. The top three films in the poll were: "Mulholland Drive", "There Will Be Blood" and "No Country For Old Men". Macauley notes that the decade was one which made it difficult to define "independent" film in the US, as mini-majors such as Miramax and Focus Features (which were often specialty divisions of larger corporations) were able to finance projects, but because these were not "studio" films proper, those productions would be considered independent.

I'll have to think about this, but in terms of how i viewed the decade: my priorities were with those cinemas which i had some sort of personal involvement, such as the American experimental cinema (Ken Jacobs, Ernie Gehr, Jonas Mekas, Pat O'Neill, Jennifer Todd Reeves, et al) or Asian cinema, particularly Chinese-language cinema. So that defined how i set up my Best of the Decade list for IndieWire. I also threw in two veterans of the Nouvelle Vague, which had been the defining cinema of my youth. But if i had decided to expand, i probably would have included "Mulholland Drive", because i did love that film when i saw it... for me, going to the "Mulholland Drive" screening was very poignant, because it happened after 9/11, but it also happened after the death of Pauline Kael. Pauline had been such a supporter of David Lynch, and watching "Mulholland Drive", i keep thinking how much she might have enjoyed the movie.

There are so many people that i miss, but Berlin is an alienating experience so far. I haven't yet been able to find a support system that really allows me to feel free. I've never been a person who was a social butterfly: i'm the type of person with a few friends, and that's it. Claudia had been one of the friends that i made, but she's now back in the US, having finished her initial foray at the International Research Center. So i wonder what's next. Whatever it is, i hope that Berlin doesn't turn out to be an isolation ward....

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Well, here i am, back in Berlin. Made the trip to New York City and made the trip back. Have to say that the holidays went far too swiftly, it seemed as if i barely had time to see people when i had to leave.

I left Berlin on Friday, Dec. 18, 2009; boy, was i glad i did! Because the next day, the US was hit with a massive snowstorm; in Brooklyn, there was over a foot of snow! This caused enormous delays and cancellations for the flights over that weekend. Claudia, who was travelling from Berlin to her home in Connecticut, was on the Delta nonstop from Berlin to JFK on Sunday: her plane wound up being diverted, and what should have been an eight hour flight wound up... well, the plane was diverted because it couldn't land at JFK, then Claudia had to wait in Minneapolis(which is where the flight landed) to get a flight that would get her into the New York metropolitan area. All together, she wound up travelling for three days! But she's finally home.

Though it snowed that first weekend, making me virtually homebound, by Monday, the snow had abated and things were running smoothly. And i went to the Walter Reade Theater for press screenings for the Jewish Film Festival: "Leap of Faith", a documentary about adults who decide to convert to Judaism, and "Mary and Max", an animated feature from Australia. I bring this up, because Australia seems to have a thriving animation community. At the last New Directors/New Films series, there was $9.99, another animated feature. This raises the question: what is appropriate subject matter for animation? "Leap of Faith" was intriguing, because it showed a number of people, from very different walks of life, who made the decision to convert to Judaism. Raised all sorts of questions about what is faith?

Then the next day, went to Film Forum to catch the screening olf the South Korean documentary "Old Partner". It's "the clean old peasant" again! In many ways, "Old Partner" reminded me of Rouquier's "Farrebique", in that it seemed to be about people living in a pre-technological state, away from most of what we consider modern conveniences.

During that week, there was much discussion of the year in film: people were coming out with the various Top Ten lists. I participated in the IndieWire and the Village Voice/L.A. Weekly polls. I must admit that there is a dsicrepancy: the lists are not the same. Turned out that there were several films which got released after the deadlines, or it turned out that a film which i saw in another context in 2008 finally got some sort of theatrical run in 2009.

But that's for another time. And i do want to think about the films of the decade.