Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A new year (already in its second week) and already there has been so much happening. The weather continues to wreck havoc, not just throughout the United States but in most of the world. Europe continues to be gripped by another horrendous winter, there is intense flooding in parts of Australia, every few days there are reports of flooding and mudslides in China or South America. And in the last two weeks, New York City has been hit with two massive snow storms. When i left for Berlin, the subway system at least worked well. Now, it's haphazard, with frequent disruptions. There's a notice that the R trains will not run on the weekends, which effectively kills any attempt to go anywhere. And this is going on for a month!

But there have been a lot of movies. It's hard to know where to begin.

The first thing i want to say is that there is a fatigue factor setting in with all the documentaries that are proliferating. It's too much. Also, i often feel very incompetent: i don't know what i'm supposed to judge. If a film is effective, it's effective, but what does that mean? I'm not an expert on education ("Waiting for Superman"), i'm not an expert on finance ("Inside Job"), i'm not an expert on politics ("Client 9"). Two quick examples from the recent Jewish Film Festival at the Walter Reade Theater: "Stalin Thought of You" (directed by Kevin McNeer) and "As Lilith" (directed by Eytan Harris). In the first film, the whole context of censorship and repression during the Stalinist period was assumed, but the specifics were often obscured. In the second film, it's established that there are very strict religious laws in Israel regarding funerals and the deposition of bodies, and cremation seems to be outlawed. But the funerary laws are never adequately explained for the audience outside of Israel to get a real sense of the problems facing this particular family. This happens too often, and one finds oneself responding to a documentary according to one's own preconceptions.

Another problem with a lot of documentaries is that they are show business chronicles; many of them are simply documents of performances. "And Everything Is Going Fine" (Soderberg's pastiche of Spalding Gray), "Public Speaking" (Scorsese's portrait of Fran Liebowitz), "Wishful Drinking" (a World of Wonder distillation of Carrie Fisher), "Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work", "Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On".

Both Luise Rainer and Manoel de Oliviera have reached their centennaries. Tonight, TCM had a tribute to Luise Rainer, with a half-hour interview she did with Robert Osborne last year, and "The Good Earth" and "The Great Ziegfeld". Luise Rainer is one of those actresses who always is pointed to as an example of the vagaries of awards: this woman was a two-time Academy Award winner (and one time New York Film Critics Award winner) over such actresses as Barbara Stanwyck in "Stella Dallas", Carole Lombard in "My Man Godfrey", Irene Dunne in "Theodora Goes Wild" and "The Awful Truth", and Greta Garbo in "Camille". Yet seeing these films again, there's no denying that, in some ineffable way, Luise Rainer was certainly a star. (And being a star has nothing to do with the amount of time on the screen, it has everything to do with the particular intensity of the performance. Luise Rainer is billed third in "The Great Ziegfeld", and she occupies about an hour of its nearly three hour running time, but once she comes on, she just about pelts you with her manic flutteriness. Myrna Loy is lovely, but almost pallid compared to Rainer.)

And who has ever gone into their 100s with their creativity intact? 2010 brought the release of two movies directed by Manoel de Oliviera: "Eccentricities of a Blond-Haired Girl" and "The Strange Case of Angelica", remarkable films in any case, but especially so coming from a man now 102! It's amazing to me to remember when his "Doomed Love" was shown at New Directors/New Films: we assumed that, since he was in his 70s, "Doomed Love" would be one of his last movies. Who could have foreseen that it would be the first in a continuing series of films? Who would have imagined Manoel de Oliviera was only getting started? Dustin Hoffman was asked who he admired, and his answer was Manoel de Oliviera, because de Oliviera is still working and has lived to be 102. And if that's not something to admire, i don't know what is.


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