Sunday, April 25, 2010

Friday and Saturday, it finally hit me: i'm not going anywhere! I'm stuck in Berlin! Unfortunately, this was not good news, and i got hugely depressed about the whole thing. It's not just that there were all the screenings i wanted to get to, it was also just seeing my family and friends. It's been four months since Christmas: i've never been out of New York City for longer than three months at a time before. And now that i've cancelled my trip back (i would have had to rebook my flight for this week, which would leave me less than a week), it looks like i won't get home before the end of this particular sojourn (which ends in July). Who would have thought that a volcano in Iceland could cause such disruption?

But today (Sunday), i decided to try to shake this. I cleaned (vacuumed and dusted), i went to the exercise room, i went to a movie ("The Young Victoria"; i enjoyed it, but i'm a sucker for Emily Blunt), i did my laundry.

One thing i did to try to get me in a writing mood was to go to IMDB and look at the Classic Film Board; unfortunately, i think i offended some people. In fact, i know i offended some people. The reason? One thing i hate is this whole so-and-so should have won an Academy Award/so-and-so shouldn't have won an Academy Award. Does it matter? What's done is done, and how people voted is how people voted. It's actually more interesting to look at who won, and try to figure out why. But it started with a thread on George Chakiris. The question was: are there any fans out there? And instead of people talking about George Chakiris, there were all these comments about how he shouldn't have won an Academy Award for his supporting performance in "West Side Story". But he did win, and i remember at the time, it seemed to be a pretty popular choice, it was part of the juggernaut that was "West Side Story".

But people get bent out of shape about the Academy Awards, and i can't understand why. If you're not a member, what does it matter what the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences decides? There are over 6,000 members (i don't remember the exact number), and the MPAAS is topheavy with veteran show biz types. Once you're a member, you're a member for life (just as long as you pay your yearly dues). So the only way i can take the Academy Awards is as a joke.

But i think i got some people angry, because they take the Academy Awards very seriously.

But it doesn't matter, because i'm stuck in Berlin.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

What a mess! I was supposed to leave Berlin on Friday, April 16, to get back to New York City. Well, who knew that a volcano eruption in Iceland was going to throw all air travel in a tailspin? So here i am in Berlin (Tuesday, April 20) and i'm not sure what's happening. I keep watching CNN or BBC and listening to the reports about this crisis (and it is a crisis!) and wondering what to do. I've been rebooked for a flight tomorrow morning but how many transatlantic flights are leaving from Berlin? I'm thinking about cancelling and just waiting until things calm down. And i'm hoping that the situation will calm down.

Everything seemed to be on track to restart air travel, but then, last night, the volcano erupted again and sent another plume of volcanic ash in the direction of London. So English airspace is once again in peril and that's causing all sorts of problems. Test flights are now underway but London has kept its airports closed.

That's it right now. But i'm not trapped and i'm not stuck: i have a place here in Berlin and i have things to do (there are talks, etc. at the Center) and i can wait it out. But this better not last through the summer, because by July, i've got to get home, and home is not Berlin!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

On Monday, April 12, 2010, Werner Shroeter died. Of all the filmmakers of Das Neue Kino, he was just about my favorite. Not that he had the most consistent career. But at his best, he was responsible for some of the most ecstatic images in the German cinema. Two of my favorite films of his were "The Death of Maria Malibran" and "The Rose King". But he's another filmmaker whose work remains now in the limbo of the obscure, because his films are not available on DVD.

Speaking of ecstatic images, two recent viewings: Tom Ford's "A Single Man" and the Rene Pollesch stage production of "Maedchen in Uniform". Since i've seen these two works, i've been thinking about the whole issue of gay representation, because these two works take "canonical" works of gay culture (Christopher Isherwood's novel, published in 1964, and Christa Winsloe's play, first produced in 1930) and present them in a context of post-Stonewall sensibilities. It is not that the works are "updated"; in fact, in both cases, they are not, they are kept in period. But the changes brought to the original texts point to a different approach to questions of openness and visibility vis-a-vis being gay.

I really want to think more about this, and write about this in greater detail. But one great start is Michael O'Sullivan's consideration of Ford's film "A Single Man" which can be found on his blog (; it is an excellent examination of the changes that Ford made to the original novel, and also an appreciation for what Ford has done with the film. I should also add that Colin Firth's performance is just one of the most subtle and moving performances i've seen. Plus Tom Ford has made Matthew Goode and Nicholas Hoult and Jon Kortajarena so beautiful it hurts!

Monday, April 12, 2010

The past few days have been probably the best (so far) of my sojourn in Berlin.

To start: on Thursday, went to the morning session of the Dahlem Humanities Center (another institute here at the Freie Universitat) for the opening of Think Tank: Identity and Identity Politics. Ok, a lot of it was a snooze, but there were amusing moments. The panelists for the opening session included Akeel Bilgrami (who is a professor of philosophy at Columbia University), Gulsen Celebi (who is a lawyer dealing with immigration issues in Germany), Luis Costa Lima (comp-lit professor at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro), Dan Diner (director of the Simon-Dubnow-Instituts in Leipzig), Ufuk Topkara (historian with The Jewish Museum Berlin), Eun-Jeung Lee (East Asian scholar, specializing in Korean studies), Homi Bhabha (now at Harvard), Esiaba Irobi (Ohio University) with Joachim Kupper of the Dahlem Humanities Center as the moderator. A lot of the rhetoric about identity was (shall we say) dated, but when Homi Bhabha came in and basically said that these kinds of forums have been going on for years and it's time to move on, you thought that a real spark was going to ignite. It didn't quite, but Homi Bhabha and Esiaba Irobi were really funny: it was like a high-brow (maybe not that high) version of Martin and Lewis. But they never really broke loose and went all out crazy (like Jerry Lewis at his most frenzied). But still, they gave an indication that there was a way to have fun with the topic.

Friday, went to the Kino Arsenal to see Marguerite Duras's "India Song". The print was in good shape, and it was (again) a mesmerizing and entrancing experience. But i liked the fact that, since i've been here in Berlin and so much of the discussion has been about the post-colonial experience of culture, this film was such a striking example of a colonial mindset, even as it interrogates that mindset.

Saturday was the "Long Night of Opera and Theater". The thing was: you bought a ticket (for 15 Euros) and that allowed you to go to as many performances at as many venues as you could cram in. There was a book that gave you a schedule: most places had performances every two hours, or every hour, and you could try to go from one place to another. Of course, it's all spread out, so you had to pick and choose... i went with Ramona Mosse, who is another Fellow here at the Center, and we tried to start at 7 (when most theaters began their evening). We started at the HAU, because the company performing was Forced Entertainment, a troupe from Sheffield, England. Ramona decided (rightly) since i'm not fluent in German, we should start with an English-language entertainment. From there, we went to the Maxim Gorki Theater, which was an imposing building; Ramona mentioned that the company has become one which seems to adapt classic movies into stage plays. For this evening, they were showing scenes from their version of John Cassavetes's "Opening Night", a film with which i am very familiar. Then we went to the Staatsoper, where we saw students doing excerpts from classic operas. One problem: the students seemed to be stuck in the 1930s, giving florid gestures and overemoting to their every utterance. Then we saw Vocalconsort Berlin, a baroque choral group. They performed at the Konzerthaus Berlin, which is kind of like Berlin's Carnegie Hall. The acoustics were spectacular; this was a very pleasing event. Then we decided to try the Admiralspalast, which is a concert venue. The attraction on this night was Mark Scheibes Berlin Revue; Scheibe is one of those performers who sits at a piano and makes jokes between songs. We caught the Comedy Block; there was a couple doing improv (part of their schtik was that they would start a story, and then ask the audience for the next word or line...; at one point, you could tell that the woman was getting fed up, as if to say, enough with the fart jokes!) and a comedian who billed himself as "the Jew". I'm not kidding. We ended the evening by going to Ballhaus Ost, which was a performance center where different choreographers were supposed to be doing "ritual performances". By the time we got there, one of the performances was just getting out, but the other one that was still going on seemed reminiscent of so much of the East Village dance scene of the 1970s.

But it was also fascinating to see the different crowds. Initially, things seemed sparse in terms of the audience, but by 9 o'clock, every venue we went to was packed, and the differences in the audiences proved to be very amusing. Places like the HAU and Ballhaus Ost had crowds that skewed younger: people in their 20s, the hip crowd, slightly grungy. At places like the Staatsoper and the Konzerthaus, a lot of families, but also a lot of older people, people coming for their high culture.

I'm still processing the whole evening, but it was wonderful, a real Berlin experience.

I got home after 1 AM and so i tried to sleep in on Sunday morning, but when i turned on the TV, one of the stations was showing "Grand Hotel". Ok, dubbed in German, but i think i know that movie. But it was wonderful to see John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery, and (of course) Garbo. In terms of the dubbing: i'm pretty sure that Garbo did her own dubbing, since she did her own German dialogue in the German version of "Anna Christie" which Jacques Feyder directed. I posted the fact that i watched this on Facebook, and Scott Marks (who has the website Emulsion Compulsion) made a comment that "Grand Hotel" may not have been such a great movie after all. As if it ever was? Nobody in their right mind would think "Grand Hotel" was even a good movie. But it's a deluxe piece of engineered entertainment, it's smoothly directed, and it has movie stars. That's it. Sometimes you don't want great art, sometimes you just want (almost) mindless entertainment, but you get to look at Greta Garbo (and Joan Crawford) in their prime, when they were two of the most glamorous women in the world.

Then i did go to a "work of art": Lisandro Alonso's first feature, "La Libertad". Stylistically, it was a rather rigid example of a minimalist aesthetic. But it proved to be a haunting movie. I'm still trying to think about the movie, but it did give me something to think about, and i do think that Alonso (on the strength of "Los Muertos", "Liverpool" and this movie) is one of the finest young directors now at work.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Some recent entries on other people's blogs have made me feel as if there really is the possibility of intelligent discourse. Michael O'Sullivan continues to inform us of his delight in English and American and European cinema of the 1940s through the 1960s. Ed Howard (on his blog Only the Cinema, i.e., has written with great relish about Franju's "Nuits Rouges" and it made that film's (seemingly obvious) flaws into crazy virtues. Plus a while ago, he wrote a great piece about Ron Rice's "Chumlum".

I just came back from a conference on Identity Politics held at the Dahlem Humanities Center here at the Freie Universitat Berlin. It was sometimes lively, but mostly dreary. Why does academia tend to dry up the lifeblood of even the most impassioned topics?

The news has been startling: landslides in Brazil, an earthquake in Peru, mining disasters in China and the US, and the dissolution of Parliament in Great Britain. I'm sure there's more. But it makes you realize that BBC News does cover the world in a way that news in the US no longer does. What does that insularity mean for the US?

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter Sunday. 2010 will stand as a very dissociated year for me. It has been hard to concentrate, let alone write. Yet i have seen a number of things since the last time i blogged. At least two art openings: the group exhibit "Woodman, Woodman, Spare That Tree" at Galerie Micky Schubert, and the opening night of the "Squatting" show at the Temporare Kunsthalle. Ok, what was my take on the art scene? Well: it's an art scene, a lot of younger people, the Temporare Kunsthalle was packed, but what about the art? My impression so far: there is a feeling that a lot of the work is warmed over, it's very much like the art found in the Chelsea galleries a decade ago: there was a sense of deja vu, the artists are proficient and they have done their homework in terms of the post-modern, conceptual basis for their work, but it's not really that exciting. Maybe i'm just jaded. But i did like the fact that there were all these people milling around at these openings.

Saw the program of shorts by Carl Theodor Dreyer at the Kino Arsenal. Impeccable craftsmanship! Still, most of the films were jobs: for the Ministry of Health, for the Ministry of Culture, for the Safety Council, etc. The one short in the program that transcended this was "They Chased the Ferry"; i'd seen that film before (many times) but it's still marvellous.

But seeing a few of Dreyer's films really excited me. It was fascinating to witness the development of a true style in film. But it's also instructive. One film which was shown in the series was Gustaf Molander's 1943 version of "Ordet"; it was startling because, though Molander adhered closer to the text, you realized how radically Dreyer transformed his source material. In the Molander, there are whole subplots and characters which Dreyer simply eliminates. Dreyer concentrates his narrative, as his style creates a visual concentration (which became apparent in "La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc"), and his final two films ("Ordet" and "Gertrud") show how he wanted to work in an almost bare visual field.

I'm also reading Tony Pipolo's "Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film", which i think is excellent. It reminds me of a discussion i had with someone once, now i'm forgetting who the otehr person was, but we were discussing filmmakers like Dreyer, Bresson, Mizoguchi, Ozu, i.e., filmmakers whose cultures were "foreign" to us (for example, i remember that neither of us was Catholic) and how the way to deal with those films was on a formal level, that form would reveal the content to us critically.

And that's what i was thinking of with Dreyer, although what's become intriguing in terms of Dreyer scholarship is the continual unfolding of Dreyer's biography. And to think that, in the 196os, when i first started seeing Dreyer's movies, there seemed to be virtually nothing known about the man. The whole story of his mother giving him up for adoption, his mother's suicide a little while after, and the rigidly devout couple that raised him... these were facts that nobody really knew. So our understanding of his work could not be considered in terms of his biography.

The recent fracas between Armond White and J. Hoberman (with "Greenberg" as the bone of contention) was dismaying, for so many reasons. Ok, so i should say that i know both of them, and they're people who have strong opinions, but there was something very distressing because it pointed to a breakdown of communication. On a fundamental level, we're not talking about the same things.

We claim that we're talking about movies, but our definitions are different. Armond retains a belief in the cinema as a mass medium, that at its best movies represent an art which unites the broadest possible audience. And to give weight to his argument, he points to Spielberg as an example. Hoberman has long championed the alternative cinema; it's not for nothing that he was initially seen as the Village Voice's successor to Jonas Mekas. "Greenberg", if you will, is an example of shall we say niche cinema. And Armond has a violent antipathy to what he views as elitist cinema, and Hoberman is a defender of the small-market film, just as he champions small-guage cinema.

But i think i should see "Greenberg".