Friday, February 19, 2016

It turns out that DCP (Digital Cinema Package) is not such a stable medium, after all. Today, one of the three movies press screened as part of this year's "Rendez-vous With French Cinema" turned out to be defective - it came without subtitles. So it was screened with a warning about the lack of subtitles. The film was "Bang Gang" directed by Eva Husson (which i really liked; i know there are similarities with Larry Clark's work, but it had a softer edge, the fact that it was written and directed by a woman made a big difference - it wasn't trying to shock you and drag you down). Turned out it wasn't too difficult to understand: my rusty French was just enough to keep me informed as to what was being said, and the film was pretty straightforward in terms of its narrative development. In fact, there's one scene where the kids are taking a Spanish class... and i understood that scene even better than i did the French, and i don't even know Spanish!

"Rendez-vous With French Cinema" is always one of the most popular series for the Film Society of Lincoln Center; when the Walter Reade Theater opened, and there was the first year's worth of screenings, it turned out that any French movie seemed guaranteed to garner an audience (especially an audience in the Upper West Side in the 1980s - it was the holdover of the movie audiences that had been used to seeing French films at the New Yorker Theater). But this year, there's also a sadness: one of the regulars that i would always talk to was Ronnie Scheib, the critic for Variety who died in October, 2015.

But that reminds me that in September, Ruth Emerson Wortis died. And when news of her death came, it turned out that, though her name is legendary in terms of the history of the Judson Dance Theater (Robert Ellis Dunn always credited Ruth for bringing up the idea of consensus as a means to discuss work, rather than immediate critique; Ruth was also the third person who went to the Judson Church, to meet with Howard Moody, the minister of the Church at the time - the other two were Steve Paxton and Yvonne Rainer), very few of the people who have researched the Judson Dance Theater ever met her. (She got married and moved to Canada by the end of the 1960s.) But it turned out, i knew Ruth Emerson: i met her in 1974! That was the summer when i graduated from Columbia University, and i was looking for a job; while i was sending out resumes, one thing i did that summer was volunteer at Elaine Summers' Experimental Intermedia Foundation. And during that summer, Ruth Emerson (who had hurt her back) came to Elaine's studio, for Kinetic Awareness work, to help her keep her back limber. One thing i remember was that she had been very close friends with Trisha Brown, which dated back to the time they spent with Anna Halprin. (I recently learned that she had been a close friend of Elizabeth Keen - they had gone to college together.)

When Wendy Perron, Cynthia Hedstrom and i did the Judson Dance Theater Reconstructions in 1982, i know i contacted Ruth Emerson, but she was hesitant about trying to recreate her work. Mostly it was because a lot of her own work had been solos (though she performed in a lot of people's work - Carolee Schneemann, Elaine Summers, Trisha Brown's group pieces, etc.) and there was a lot of improvisation in those pieces, and she had a hard time thinking of how she would teach someone else to do those dances.

There were so many people that i would meet then, but i'm glad i got to know her, even if it was only in passing.

The recent "Picasso Sculpture" exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art reminded me of the huge, museum-wide Picasso retrospective MoMA had in 1980 (when i was working there). One thing that happened during the exhibition was that the Department of Film got requests from film people to attend the exhibition. Quite frankly: what would happen was that the people would call to ask if they could get in, and we would make arrangements: they would be directed to come up to the Film Department offices, and one of the staff would then escort the visitor (with a visitor pass) through the exhibition. Usually it was to take them to the beginning of the exhibition, and then they could go off on their own. I remember that we all took turns, though there were exceptions: Steve Harvey made sure that he was the one to meet Audrey Hepburn. I remember that Steve Soba had to come in on a Saturday for Barbra Streisand. I got a lot of the younger actresses who had recently been nominated for Oscars, such as Jill Clayburgh and Talia Shire. Margareta Akermark, who was retired from the Film Department, somehow liked me, and so she had a number of people get in touch with me in order to see the exhibit. Those people turned out to be the women who were known for starring in Ingmar Bergman's movies. So that was how i met Ingrid Thulin, Bibi Andersson, Harriet Andersoon, Liv Ullmann, and Gunnel Lindblom. I remember, after i met them, i was puzzled by the gloom in Bergman's movies. If i'd slept with "all those women" (as Bergman titled his bizarre attempt at a farce), i would have been one of the happiest men on earth!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

It's been months since i've posted. Blame it on lassitude, or ennui, or writer's block. In the last few months, there were a number of major events which forestalled any comment.

The New York Film Festival came and went, this was the first year since it started that i did not attend in any capacity. Since then, i've been playing catch-up on the films that were in the festival that have gone into release. I have been told that this was a singularly depressing festival, the culmination of which was the news of Chantal Akerman's death just before the screening of her last film, "No Home Movie". She wasn't just a filmmaker of genius, but a friend and an occasional neighbor (during the 1980s, when she was in NYC, she often stayed with Annette Michelson or at the Dia Art Foundation's Earth Room).

There have been many deaths to report, often the occasion of reminiscences with friends. At the end of 1969, when i was introduced to the staff of the Department of Film at The Museum of Modern Art, Charles Silver had just started working there, in charge of the Film Study Center. He retired in December of 2015, but he didn't have a chance to enjoy his retirement, as he died in January of 2016. And his death really shook me, because he was someone who was a friend for over 45 years! He devoted his life to MoMA's Department of Film, and that devotion manifested itself in the multitude of scholars and film enthusiasts (many of whom would become filmmakers) he helped over the decades.

Last week, i went to the press screenings of three out of the four films in Manoel De Oliveira's "frustrated love" tetraology: "Benilde, or The Virgin Mother" (1974), "Past and Present" (1972) and "Doomed Love" (1979); the final screening, which was on Friday, February 12, was of "Francisca" (1984); my attendance was thwarted by the MTA, once again there were substantial delays on the subways, making what should have been an hour long ride (i gave myself an additional half an hour, to be on the safe side) into one which would have taken more than two hours. (I'll try to catch "Francisca" when it's showing during its public screening at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.)

What surprised me about "Benilde" and "Past and Present" is that i didn't remember the films per se, but individual shots have been embedded in my memory. The opening and closing of "Benilde" in which the camera moves from or to a stage set to the scene; the final shot of "Past and Present", a slightly angled overhead shot in which the (unhappily) married couple arrives at the end of the wedding ceremony, only to wander aimlessly in the aisle: the minute these scenes came on, i knew i'd seen them before!

When Manoel De Oliveiera's death was announced, it was another occasion for sadness. "Doomed Love" was shown as part of New Directors/New Films in 1980; that was when i got to meet Manoel De Oliveira and his wife. They came in for the screenings, and were put up in the Warwick Hotel (on Avenue of the Americas, a block away from The Museum of Modern Art). As low man on the totem poll of the Department of Film staff, it was my task to meet the De Oliveiras every morning (around 10:30 AM) to give them their daily stipend, and whatever information they had requested. That included maps, tickets, etc. They didn't speak English, and i didn't speak Portuguese, but we communicated in French (fluent on their part, rusty and fractured on mine). What impressed me was their enthusiasm; he was 72 or 73 years old, she was in her mid-60s, but they were so excited. They'd never been to New York City before, and it was part of the adventure that began with the filming of "Doomed Love".

The public screening of "Doomed Love" took place on Saturday evening; the screening stareted at 6 PM, and Adrienne Mancia made the introduction. Then we all went to dinner. I don't remember which restaurant, but it was some place near MoMA; the dinner party consisted of Adrienne, Stephen Soba, the De Oliveiras, and me. Since "Doomed Love" is a movie of over four hours long, we were able to have a leisurely dinner of some three hours. I mentioned their enthusiasm; the conversation during the dinner (again, in variations of French) touched on many subjects. I remember the discussion of the making of "Doomed Love", how Manoel De Oliveira had retired and decided to make "Doomed Love", but since he couldn't find financing, he decided to shoot it in 16 millimeter, with the sets and costumes all done with the help of his family (Madame De Oliveira described how their sons had built and painted the sets). It was a labor of love, not just for Monsieur De Oliveira, but the whole family - they were doing it because he was retired and in his 70s, and they wanted him to realize his lifelong ambition to make this movie. (He had long been a fan of the novel, and envisioned a film of it in the 1930s.)

Their enthusiasm extended to travel: because of "Doomed Love", they had been invited to many international festivals, and they were excited at the opportunity to see parts of the world they'd never been to before: Asia (they were invited to the Tokyo Film Festival), South America, New York City. And then Monsieur De Oliveira mentioned that, when  they returned home, he wanted to film his "testament", because he didn't know how much longer he would have, but he felt it was time. (That film would be "Memories and Confessions", another film which played at this year's New York Film Festival.) Who knew that Manoel De Oliveira would have 35 more productive years?

One thing about the De Oliveiras was their generosity towards other filmmakers. They had been excited to meet the younger filmmakers represented in New Directors/New Films, and they had seen some of the films recommended by Larry Kardish and Adrienne Mancia. And they were great fans of Luis Bunuel and Pier Paolo Pasolini; i remember how they discussed "Salo" and Madame De Oliveira talked about the mixture of elegance and shock, and Monsieur De Oliveira talked about the artist's responsibility to be transgressive, that the artist had to have the strength to go beyond the usual restraints. (I know this impressed Stephen Soba and me: we were in our 20s, and here were these seniors extolling the virtues of transgression!)

The Belgian performance artist Jan Fabre once did a performance called (i think) "This Is The Theater That You Have Always Dreamed About"; in "Masculin Feminin", Jean-Luc Godard has the line about "the movie we secretly wanted to make, and, more secretly, wanted to live." "Doomed Love" was one of those movies which, when i saw it, i felt that this represented what i envisioned cinema to be. (In fact, in 1980, i saw the movie three times: the first time, a print was sent to MoMA so that Larry Kardish and Adrienne Mancia could watch it, and i watched it with them; then, the film was screened again in the little screening room of the Film Study Center, this time for Joanne Koch and Wendy Keys from the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and i watched it again; then i watched it again during the second public screening.)

So i have the fondest memories of the De Oliveiras, and i was delighted that he defied all odds, and embarked on the most productive part of his artistic career after the age of 70. I hoped he would go on forever.