Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The weather continues to be atrocious: it has been one of the coldest winters on record, with below freezing temperatures going on for a month, and every week a major snowstorm. But this is happening throughout the US, not just in New York City. But we're really suffering through a particularly bad winter.

The last week has brought a number of events, but i'll concentrate on movies.

First: Turner Classic Movies does have an agenda, a hierarchy as to what is important and what is not. As anyone who watches TCM knows, February has always been "31 Days of Oscar", showcasing Oscar-winning and/or Oscar-nominated movies (with an overlap into March, since February doesn't have 31 days). Now, in the last week, two more major film people died: one was the Danish director Gabriel Axel (whose "Babette's Feast" won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1987) and the other was Shirley Temple (who was awarded a special "juvenile" Oscar in 1934). This, in addition to the previous week's loss of Maximillian Schell and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Well, Shirley Temple is the only one who rates at TCM: immediately upon the announcement of her death, TCM prepared one of those "TCM Remembers" spots, and a tribute to Shirley Temple on the TCM website, and an announcement that there will be a day devoted to her films in March (as soon as 31 Days of Oscar is over).

Now, yesterday, "The Young Lions" was shown (it was nominated for several technical awards in 1958); this was a TCM premiere (it was a 20th Century Fox film) and there was a little intro by Robert Osborne (it was shown at noon) to announce the fact. Now, this would have been a perfect opportunity to acknowledge Maximillian Schell (who was making his debut in American films with "The Young Lions"; the importance was that the occasion of being brought to the US to be in this film allowed Schell to work in NYC, where he appeared on Broadway and also did several live television broadcasts, one of which was "Judgment at Nuremberg"; when it came time to make the movie, Schell repeated his performance as the defense attorney and won an Oscar). No; no acknowledgement of Schell, nothing.

Second: the BAFTA (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) awards were this weekend. Because of distribution patterns, several movies which have been award favorites here in the US were excluded (most notably "Dallas Buyers Club"), but this whole award season has been one of extremes, but also one of great variety. I hate watching award shows, and i didn't bother watching the BAFTAs, but Cate Blanchett's speech was much discussed: she sidestepped the whole "issue" of Woody Allen by dedicating her award to the memory of her friend, Philip Seymour Hoffman. (Blanchett, of course, is nominated for her part in Allen's "Blue Jasmine".)

One death which really affected the art world was the sudden death of Hudson, the proprietor of Feature Gallery. Roberta Smith wrote a highly appreciative obituary in The New York Times yesterday.

Today, there was a discerning obituary about Stuart Hall in The New York Times (written by William Yardley), who died last week. Hall's importance in the development of "cultural studies" was duly noted, but also his assessment of the decline of cultural studies: "If I have to read another cultural studies analysis of 'The sopranos,' I give up," Mr. Hall said. "There's an awful lot of rubbish around masquerading a cultural studies."

In January, there was a lot written about the Sundance Film Festival; the Berlin Film Festival just finished its annual run. I hope i'll be able to get to more screenings, but this weather has been tough! It's supposed to warm up this week, but next week there's another plunge into freezing! I just want this winter to be over!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

On Facebook, i often post on deaths of artists, writers, actors, directors, dancers, especially if i knew them. It's getting to the point where so many people that i've met over the years have died, and it's always sad. Another factor in terms of Facebook is that many friends post links to obits, often as soon as the news of someone's death is announced, and that's one way of finding out about these passings.

That's how i learned of the death of Nancy Holt. Mira Schor posted a link to an obituary that was published on the Artforum website. She was a brilliant and articulate exponent of Earth Art; of course, her early work was overshadowed by her status as the widow of Robert Smithson, but she developed her own distinctive vision. In many cases, i only knew her work from photographs, because those works were installed at remote locations. However, on occasion she did work in film and video, initially in collaboration with her husband. But my memories of Nancy had to do with the period when i had moved from Morningside Heights to Soho (which happened in 1980); there were friends that i had, and we'd meet up at art openings and talk about art, and Nancy was one of those people. We already knew Nancy because, when we working for Eva Wisbar's VRI (a film and video distribution company that often worked in conjunction with Castelli-Sonnabend Films), we were involved in the distribution of the films and videos that Nancy and/or Robert Smithson had made. But Nancy was one of those people i'd hang out with; i hadn't seen her in a while (i think the last time might have been during the Robert Smithson retrospective at The Whitney Museum of almost a decade ago), but i remember those days.

Today, woke up to two passings of note. The first was from Denmark: Gabriel Axel, award-winning producer-director of "Babette's Feast" (which i watched again last week), died at the age of 95. And this morning, news of the death of Shirley Temple Black, the most famous child star in history. Remember watching her movies on TV when i was a child; until the mid-1960s, her films were ubiquitous. She died at the age of 85. Of course, she was the first to receive the juvenile Academy Award (an honor which would be given to such others as Deanna Durbin, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Margaret O'Brien, Peggy Ann Garner, Claude Jarman Jr., and Ivan Jandl; the last would be Hayley Mills, after that, the award was discontinued).

Well: two more people to be ignored by Turner Classic Movies during 31 Days of Oscar!

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Just for the record, this year, i was asked to participate in the annual CriticWire poll on IndieWire, and in the annual Film Comment end-of-the-year poll, but i was not asked to participate in the Village Voice/LA Weekly poll (the first time since the poll started, but then, the entire editorial team at those papers went through such convolutions). And since the Film Comment poll consisted of listing a "top twenty" (ranked), here is my list, which was compiled as of December 11, 2013. There were several films which were in release before the end of 2013 which did not screen in time, but those are the breaks, so here's my list of the Top Twenty of 2013, as usual, my inclination is more on foreign films and independent films than studio releases.

My Top Twenty of 2013: 1) "Caesar Must Die"; 2) "A Touch of Sin"; 3) "The Last Time I Saw Macao"; 4) "Upstream Color"; 5) "Leviathan"; 6) "First Cousin Once Removed"; 7) "The Square"; 8) "Old Dog"; 9) "Something In the Air"; 10) "Hannah Arendt"; 11) "Stories We Tell"; 12) "Night Across the Street"; 13) "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet"; 14) "I Killed My Mother"; 15) "Gravity"; 16) "Her"; 17) "Much Ado About Nothing"; 18) "Museum Hours"; 19) "Blue Is the Warmest Color"; 20) "After Tiller".

A few notes. Of these films, five were directed (or co-directed) by women ("Leviathan", "The Square", "Hannah Arendt", "Stories We Tell" and "After Tiller"); six were directed by "old masters" (directors whose careers started prior to 1980, i.e., "Caesar Must Die", "First Cousin Once Removed", "Something In the Air", "Hannah Arendt", "Night Across the Street", "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet"); five were documentaries (though there was also one which started out as a documentary but was edited into a fictional narrative; the documentaries: "Leviathan", "First Cousin Once Removed", "The Square", "Stories We Tell" and "After Tiller"; the one-off: "The Last Time I Saw Macao").

At the end of the year, there were several articles about the film industry which were sobering. The film industry has done a terrible job in terms of diversity. The number of women who were able to direct and produce projects within the industry has actually been on the decline! And the numbers weren't that great to begin with. One reason for this is that, since a woman was acknowledged with an Oscar as Best Director (Kathyrn Bigelow for "The Hurt Locker"), the studio executives started to feel that the job was done, and they went back to their b.s. reasoning about how limited the audience is for "women's films" (which is untrue, since films starring women, such as "The Heat" and "Gravity", did spectacularly at the box office) and so many female-initiated projects stalled. This was also a banner year for black films, with Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" (if Film Comment had asked for Best Director, he would have been my choice), "Lee Daniels' The Butler", Ryan Coogler's "Fruitvale Station" and Alexandre Moors' "Blue Caprice" among the films which not only wound up getting made, but also found some measure of box office success. But none of these films was done at the major studios: the biggest studio release was "Lee Daniels' The Butler" which was a production of The Weinstein Company. But in terms of diversity: the motion picture industry is doing an absolutely horrendous job, they couldn't do worse if they simply signed up for the Ku Klux Klan!

Friday, February 07, 2014

Of course, a lot has been happening. I finally made it to a press screening yesterday, which meant going on the subway and going into Manhattan. No major mishaps, but i was nervous. The film i saw was "Child's Pose", a Romanian film directed by Calin Peter Netzer. Romania is one of the countries that's been in the midst of a cinematic flowering, ever since Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" was shown at the Cannes Film Festival. In many ways, the current Romanian cinema is reminiscent of the Polish cinema of the 1950s and the Czechoslovakian cinema of the 1960s, in that the filmmaking is often plain, but the writing is layered and complex.

It's hard to explain one's aesthetic choices. The reason i say that is i have enjoyed almost all of the Romanian films i've seen, but it's not like i rush to them. I'm not resistant to these films, but there are other films that excite me more. But i don't like to simply make a blanket statement about any category of film, but one has one's preferences. It was like the 1980s, when Chinese language films were making their way to the arthouse network in the West. I found most of the films from China to be rather formal, pageant-like, and remote dramatically. The films coming out of Taiwan, on the other hand, i found to be so enthralling; i was just excited by them, because they seemed to very contemporaneous and vital. Far more vital than anything coming out of the People's Republic of China. But that was my opinion, or my taste, or my preference, whatever you want to call it.

With that caveat, i'll leave critical thoughts about Romanian films for another date.

I mentioned award season, so i would like to discuss something i found very troubling this week. Turner Classic Movies is having its annual 31 Days of Oscar, which is a round-up of the usual suspects. Every year, there's usually one anomaly. This year, on Tuesday, the scheduling during the day involved some nominees and winners for the category Best Foreign Film, and i watched "The Burmese Harp", "Z" and "Babette's Feast". I have all those films on DVD, but i felt like my friend Michael O'Sullivan, who has the blog "Mike's Movie Projector" (www.osullivan60.blogspot.com): even if he has the DVD, if the movie comes on TV, he feels compelled to watch. I hadn't seen "The Burmese Harp" in quite a while, and i was astounded at the luminosity of the black-and-white cinematography. It reminded me that Kon Ichikawa is one of my favorite Japanese directors.

But what i found troubling: when a movie star dies, the TCM staff usually whips up a little "TCM Remembers" spot. In December, there was a period when they really had to work overtime, because there were a number of deaths that came one right after the other, including Eleanor Parker, Joan Fontaine, and Peter O'Toole. Well, this past weekend, two major Academy Award-winning actors died: Maximillian Schell and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And so far: nothing. Nada. Rien. Not even a "news item" on the TCM website! And certainly not a "TCM Remembers" spot. And the point is: it would NOT be inappropriate to create such spots for both of these men, because both were nominated four times (the kicker for Schell is that his fourth nomination was for his documentary "Marlene", which he produced and directed) and both won in the category Best Actor. Today, for example, was supposed to be a day filled with nominees and winners in the Best Actor category (the spotlight this evening was the nominees and winner from 1953: Montgomery Clift and Burt Lancaster for "From Here to Eternity", William Holden - the winner - for "Stalag 17", Richard Burton for "The Robe" and Marlon Brando for "Julius Caesar"), and it would have been a perfect time for some sort of tribute to Maximillian Schell (Best Actor for "Judgement at Nuremberg") and Philip Seymour Hoffman (Best Actor for "Capote"). If two Academy Award winning actors don't rate some sort of memorial during 31 Days of Oscar, when are they supposed to be remembered?

TCM, however, is making a lot of these (dubious) value judgements. This happened in December, when Paul Walker ("The Fast and the Furious") and Tom Laughlin ("Billy Jack") died, and they were not considered worthy of any sort of notice from TCM. Why? Isn't TCM supposed to be a television station devoted to movies? (I was alerted to this oversight by Joe Baltake, on his excellent blog The Passionate Moviegoer, i.e., www.thepassionatemoviegoer.blogspot.com.) And weren't they movie stars of some renown? But the cavalier ignoring of Maximillian Schell and Philip Seymour Hoffman, during 31 Days of Oscar, is really shocking. It's a disgrace, and there's no excuse.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Once again, it's been a while (four months!) since i've blogged anything. My excuse? Incredibly bad health. In fact, right after Thanksgiving, i wound up in the hospital, for a week! The cause? Kidney stones. Actually only one, but of sufficient impact to cause a rupture in my system once it passed. The problem was there was a lot of bleeding, which wouldn't stop, so i had to be hospitalized.

So much has been happening! This year, the award season for films has been full of excitement. Last minute additions (films which were screened quite late in the season) suddenly crowded the field, especially David O. Russell's "American Hustle" and Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street"; these films also brought a real charge to American movies this year, in that there was critical controversy (these were the kinds of movies that people were fighting over) as well as box office success.

Though there has been a consensus in terms of the awards (Cate Blanchett as Best Actress for "Blue Jasmine", Jared Leto as Best Supporting Actor for "Dallas Buyers Club"), there proved to be a lot of interest in terms of independent films and foreign films. Another late-breaking entry was the Italian film "The Great Beauty", directed by Paolo Sorrentino. It used to be that the critics' awards were intended as a corrective to the usual Hollywood hype, but now it seems to be that the critics's awards are supposed to form a corollary to the Hollywood hype.

The New York Film Critics Circle was started by the film critics of the major newspapers (including the Herald Tribune, the World Telegraph and Sun, and The New York Times) because of what they regarded as the inanity of the Academy Awards: in 1934, there was the scandal of the omission of Bette Davis for consideration as Best Actress for "Of Human Bondage". Because Davis was a contract player at Warner Brothers, but she had done "Of Human Bondage" on loan-out to RKO, she fell between the cracks, though at the Academy meeting, there were protests and a write-in vote was allowed. The official nominees for Best Actress that year were Grace Moore for "One Night of Love", Norma Shearer for "The Barretts of Wimpole Street" and Claudette Colbert for "It Happened One Night". Colbert would be the winner, but there were sufficient write-in votes that Bette Davis came in second. (Ironically, though Davis was the ostensible cause of the formation of the New York Film Critics Circle, she would have to wait to be cited as Best Actress by the organization until 1950, for "All About Eve"; her Academy Award wins for "Dangerous" in 1935 and "Jezebel" in 1938 were not duplicated by the New York Film Critics Circle, which cited Greta Garbo for "Anna Karenina" in 1935 and Margaret Sullavan for "Three Comrades" in 1938. In fact, Davis's win for "Dangerous" is usually cited as an example of compensation, i.e., the Academy giving the award because they failed to recognize the same performer previously. That's often cited as the reason James Stewart won in 1940 for "The Philadelphia Story" because he didn't win in 1939 for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington", though the politics of the Academy Awards are rather more complicated than that. )

Over the weekend, Turner Classic Movies showed their new documentary, "And the Oscar Goes to..." (directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman), which was a rather standard issue promo, but it did go into the fact that the Motion Picture Academy was started as a union-busting organization.

It didn't go into the changes over the years, how it had been an organization of studio executives, but it became a membership organization for film professionals, which then were given the right to vote on the awards. But initially, the awards were given out by committee, a committee which consisted of studio executives.

But i've already given my take on the Academy Awards. I have to say: it's obvious that, though there have been attempts to broaden the membership base in the last decade, it's still an organization dominated by aging white men, and this was shown (again) this year, when so many of the notable black productions, which even had successful commercial profiles, were ignored ("Fruitvale Station", "Lee Daniels' The Butler", "Blue Caprice"). It's as if one film was acknowledged ("12 Years a Slave") and that's enough.

Yet there was a surfeit of really fine films this year. Every year, there are several film events and festivals: "Dance On Camera", "Rendez-vous With French Cinema", "BAM Cinemafest", "New Directors/New Films", culminating in the fall with The New York Film Festival. And there are year-round programs at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Film Forum, Anthology Film Archives, BAM, and other venues.

It's been very exciting, and i want to keep going to see more movies. But i've slowed down in the last four months, but i'm hoping to get back in action. One thing: this past year was so jammed packed during the last two months that many movies from earlier in the year were ignored. But there's a lot to write about, at least i'm back and going to try to post on a regular basis.