Archive for the ‘history’ Category

Apollo’s Girl

September 13, 2017

Film/Theatre

Film: Mid-life Makeovers
Nobody’s Watching; Red Trees; Year by the Sea; The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis

Nobody’s Watching (Dir.: Julia Solomonoff)
Film Forum
With a dozen features and shorts to her credit, as a magnet for scores of awards, prizes and grants, and with solid relationships with the best and brightest of Europe and Latin America as collaborators and supporters, Solomonoff has made a movie which everyone should watch. It’s confident, as smooth and addictive as her talent can spin it out, with a well-meaning but feckless hero (Guillermo Pfening, Jury Prize for Best Actor at Tribeca, 2017) who grabs your heart and doesn’t let go. When he finally becomes his own man, you’ll want – you’ll need – to cheer.

The story of this actor, a soap opera star in Argentina, and an undocumented gay immigrant/babysitter in New York waiting for a big part in a big international film that never materializes, touches on every hot button issue in the book without ever slowing down or going stale. Pfening is surrounded by an ensemble cast that works all the time, yet the work seems effortless, the actors always at ease. As it moves between New York and Buenos Aires, Nobody’s Watching transports you right to its deeply satisfying conclusion, Solomonoff’s gift to those who will be grateful to share her talents and the shine of her cast and crew. You will miss them all when the last frame turns to black.

Red Trees (Dir./Writer: Maria Willer) Quad Cinema
This is one gorgeous film, pulsing with the life of the mind, the heart and the eye; Marina Willer’s tribute to her father, Alfred Willer, who became a survivor and a man of the world. That world, in all its complexity and angst is revealed through his memories (poignant, rich—a repository of cultures with many origins and great depth) of Central Europe and, later, Brazil, where he eventually found residence and raised his 
family after World War II. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1781157492/red-trees-a-short-film-by-marina-willer

What sets it apart from many memoirs is its access to Willer’s visual skills (she’s a partner of the design firm, Pentagram), equaled by the work of DP César Charlone’s (City of God; The Constant Gardener) cinematography; it’s a match made in heaven. Because Alfred Willer (a chemist by trade) was also an artist, a musician, and a writer whose journals provide his eyewitness to history, the director had an embarrassment of riches from which to create her work. She chose wisely and well, visiting many of the locations in Czechoslovakia in which her father had grown up, and in Brazil, where she lived most of her own life after the family arrived there in 1947.

If you have ever wondered what the period between the wars was like in a Europe that nurtured and respected high culture before it was smashed beyond repair, see Red Trees. You will find its music, its art and its literature. But before you weep for what was lost, you will be transported to what was found afterwards: a tribute to resilience, to acceptance, and the hope of diversity as the promise of the future. Let’s say that the film, for all its searing images and words, begins with Bach and ends with Leonard Cohen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wOlGJFkqic;
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NU5FPAR7ass

Year by the Sea (Dir./Writer: Alexander Janko) Landmark Sunshine;
Lincoln Plaza
The press conference following the press screening of Year by the Sea was an astonishing love-fest as cast and crew described the long journey from Joan Anderson’s Times’ best-seller to the final cut that has just opened. While the production seems to have benefited from the kumbaya atmosphere that prevailed on location and set, the most astonishing aspect of its journey was the story of how Janko (a prolific musician, composer and arranger) found Anderson’s novel, persuaded her to come on board, to mentor him as he adapted her book into a script, and support him to direct it as his debut feature. But, without question, the revelation that she, as the novel’s author, was present on-set during the entire production and that she and Janko are still friends was nothing short of amazing. While many directors will not permit an author of source material, or even the script writer, anywhere near their shooting schedule, Year by the Sea was definitely its own movie; a communal effort from a community that has remained together. Add to that the fact that Anderson’s book is not a novel, but a personal memoir of her transformation from hausfrau to the fully realized woman she has clearly become, and it is even more exceptional.

Karen Allen plays Anderson with real conviction, aided and abetted by her two best friends: Celia Imrie as psychoanalyst Eric Ericson’s free-spirited wife and caregiver, and S. Epatha Merkelson as the long-suffering and empathetic agent who shepherded Anderson through the process of turning her life into her best-selling book. Together, they spend a year in a remote New England fishing village while Anderson (and the husband she has been living apart from who works through a transformation of his own) learns how to balance self-realization with loving support. The preview audience was deeply enthusiastic, and the film will resonate with many viewers, just as the book did with its readers.

The Long Night of Francisco Sanctis (Dirs./Writers: Francisco Marquez, Andrea Testa) VOD
Also an adaptation (this time from a novel by Humberto Constantini), The Long Night, for all its modest resources, is an absolute gem! The hero, once a low-key revolutionary poet, has settled into a life of middle-class comfort with his wife and friends. Until he’s contacted by an old friend and fellow-traveler who asks him for a favor that can put him at serious risk in Argentina’s new post-revolutionary society.

It’s not the story itself, but the way it’s told and especially the way its reluctant hero (the outstanding Diego Velazquez), allows us to feel the pain of his struggle and its resolution. Very much worth keeping an eye out for its VOD release later this fall.

Theater

Caught Van Gogh’s Ear at the Signature Theater and was intrigued by its synesthesia, with music of the period (played live by a fluid group of strings and piano)used to enhance and amplify Van Gogh’s paintings and distress. Together, the music (including songs performed by Chad Johnson as Vincent’s brother, Theo, and Renee Tatum in dual roles of sister-in-law and lover) and scripted lines (based primarily on Vincent’s letters) spoken by Carter Hudson as the brilliant artist captured the ecstasy of Impressionism when it ignited a fin-de-siècle revolution. David Bengali’s projections and the set and costumes by Vanessa James (especially those worn by the musicians) kept the fires burning up to the inevitable finale.

The Ensemble for the Romantic Century, which created Van Gogh’s Ear, has two more productions waiting in the wings: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (Dec 21 – Jan 7) and Tchaikovsky: None but the Lonely Heart (May 17 – June 17). While co-existing in the same century, the three subjects could not be more different; it will be fascinating to see how – and where — they take us. http://romanticcentury.org/

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Apollo’s Girl

August 7, 2017

Art/Film

Playing around with your influences…
Ettore Sottsass: Design Radical
(Met Breuer til October 8, 2017)

A few years ago, while browsing the wares of a local street vendor of old books and, occasionally, old things, I discovered that that day’s thing was a battered plastic portable typewriter case. Inside it was a machine in surprisingly good conditionpale beige, sleek, a minimalist ode to form and function. It could be mine for $15. Took a chance, took it home, replaced the ribbon, discovered it worked and that the case would clean up nicely. Later discovered it had been designed by Ettore Sottsass for Olivetti.

That very model, and many other things are yours to enjoy at the Met Breuer this summer, affording an intimate glimpse of Sottsass’ process and works; the portfolio of an artist/designer with eyes wide open and a lifelong distaste for pigeonholes. Curator Christian Larsen has laid out this feast to include many original sources for Sottsass’ inspiration; they are legion! The man had curiosity and few restrictions on what sparked his enthusiasm for artistic potential in his designs. This is immediately apparent when the source materials (many dating to antiquity) are placed next to what Sottsass made of them.

Design Radical, with its angles, surprises, giddy balances and palette (Sottsass never met a color he didn’t love, nor was ever timid about combining them), is the perfect antidote to the current state of the world, and a joyful reminder of Memphis, that 1980s Milanese vortex of post-Modernism. You will marvel at how many corporations took advantage of his unruly talents, how he used them to define an era, and how well they hold up. Meantime, keep a sharp lookout for old typewriter cases, and be sure to open them before you move on without taking them with you. Mine remains at the ready on the floor under my desk, waiting for the power grid’s next outage. Safe to say it is sure to come.

P.S. The Met Breuer has, at last, a wonderful performance spacea little industrial, very modern, and full of promise for repurposing for every occasion. Currently, it’s been housing Theatre of the Resist (“…a snapshot and celebration of performances and films by artists in reaction toand sometimes in refutation ofthe current political climate”). The program I saw was The Lifers Group, founded at Rahway Prison decades ago to sing R & R and, later, rap. Improbably (but deservedly) they won a contract from Disney to record an album and opened a 501(c)3 with its profits to mentor young people at risk of incarceration. It was powerful stuff, real life in person, brilliantly moderated by Nicole Fleetwood. Only two programs remain;

Strong Island and DJ MOJO: Music is Life. Both are free with museum admission: http://www.metmuseum.org/events/programs/met-live-arts/theater-of-the-resist-15?eid=A001_%7b0716250D-27C0-484F-982F-AA3F97D397EF%7d_20170517122153. The series was generated by Met Live Arts; stay on top of their upcoming exhibitions and shows for some out-of-the-box experiences.

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Machines (Dir.: Rahul Jain) NYC: Film Forum

Anyone who has sought customer service at a very big bank comes away with an image of a generically named (Ashley, Kevin, Tiffany), relentlessly cheery Brit wearing office attire and a headset at a call center somewhere in India. You are assured that even if you can’t always get what you want, all is well with the world. But India is a very big country, whose population is approaching 1.5 billion souls; it will soon overtake China’s. And the world, for most of its workers, does not go well at all.

Rahul Jain’s first feature, shot almost entirely inside a textile plant that churns out ravishing printed fabrics for saris, shows us the images and sounds of the men and boys who make this beauty. There is no narration, and none is needed for total immersion in their life. It’s all flames, racket, speed, and back-breaking labor, almost entirely manual, dangerous and stupefying. There are 12-, 24- and 36-hour shifts for those who are able to work until their bodies give out.

Jain knows this world well: he’s a textile designer, art historian, and author of RaptureThe Art of Indian Textiles, skilled in drawing attention to the end products of hand-made traditions that made India famous for centuries. But he is honest enough to look behind their modern incarnations and bring them to us raw. The sequences are Dickensian, a 21st-century replica of 19th-century England’s industrial age, alive in the grim outskirts of Gujurat, far from the call centers. Jain is credited as director, and for editing and sound, allowing for the intimate access that makes Machines the achievement it is, and permitting us to draw our own conclusions from what we see and hear.  It’s Rotten Tomatoes score of 100% makes it likely we’ll get the message.   trailer

 

Cooper’s London

July 27, 2017

Theater/Broadcast

A Tight Andronicus  

I cannot understand why Titus Andronicus has such a terrible reputation. Perhaps it’s because so far I have only seen good and interesting productions? Which suggests to me that there is something stageworthy about it even if it doesn’t read all that brilliantly on the page.

At one level, of course, it’s like watching those contemporary action thrillers or horror films with lots of blood and events. This new production at the RSC in Stratford, updated to a contemporary world on the edge of street riots, embraces (to a degree) that kind of Summer Blockbuster approach. It opens with a prologue of alarums and excursions by a contemporary mob and police, swiftly underscoring the theme that the violence and emotional savagery of humanity are still being played out in the contemporary worldEgypt or China or Venezuela or Syria, for instance?

Director Blanche McIntyre deploys a battery of shock effects and line readings that at times, and rightly, provoke uneasy, spontaneous laughter from the audience. Not that the Grand Guignol is played for laughs. The actors present characters that are believable, if grotesque or evil, and are all the more convincing because of the updating of the visuals to a contemporary world that resonates with echoes of everyone from Erdogan to Asad. Further, the play ties in neatly with the RSC’s “Roman Season “ in which they are doing productions of Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus as well as Titus Andronicus to show how the plays work when given a thematic context.  The good news is that the four plays are being broadcast to cinemas all over the world; you’ll also be able to catch up with them on DVD in the near future and see what I’m talking about.t So you won’t have to go to Stratford-upon-Avon or, later, to London’s Barbican Theatre, to see these shows and decide for yourself, because the RSC now brings its season to you, wherever you are. 

Of course it isn’t quite the same as being in the theatre. But these live broadcasts do capture the sense of occasion. While you are not in a fixed seat with a fixed viewpoint, the broadcast director and cameramen are choosing varied viewpoints for you, and they have become increasingly skilled at this. The compensations of being able to experience the actual new production in real time and see the actors in close-ups definitely balances the disadvantage of not actually being there. So let us hear three cheers for this new dispensation! The RSC Roman Season has already broadcast its exemplary Julius Caesar and extremely fine Antony and CleopatraCoriolanus is to be broadcast on 11 October 2017. And if you miss any of these plays, they will appear on DVD; you can catch up with them later. Another good thing about our era is simply that these productions are being preserved.

The RSC, with this kind of integrated approach to the four plays, and its commitment to widening its audience through new technological means, is enjoying a very good period at the moment under the directorship of Gregory Doran. When you see this season’s plays, each one stands on its own but there are echoes across them of a shared central vision, a core, that makes a point about our world today and what we are seeing on the the news. The news cameras are right there on stage for the big public moments of Titus Andronicus throughout. And the world of a mythical Ancient Rome is just as much a paradigm for our current displaced but suppressed violence, anger, and our populist denial of reason and compassion as are the clips we witness every day from, say, the Middle East.

I recommend this Titus Andronicus very highly (in whatever medium you can access), as you have probably guessed by now. For a start, it’s an extremely intelligent interpretation that’s very sensitive to subtext, and the text is presented with utmost clarity.There’s not a weak performance in the cast. David Troughton  (King Lear at Stratford not long ago) brings out a quality in Titus that is a kind of early, simpler draft of Lear. He begins with immense self-assurance and lack of pity for the plight of Tamora’s son, whom he puts to death. And there’s the rub! He’s tired, he’s old, he’s vengeful, he cannot see beyond the rituals of Rome and appeasement of his gods.  At the start, Andronicus only slenderly knows himself and doesn’t seem to see that his actions might have uncontrollable consequences. Nor will he allow himself to become Emperor, though the people want it. It’s his voice that tips the balance into rousing the crowd to appoint Saturninus as Emperor; it’s therefore his shirking of responsibility that causes so much chaos and damage to ensue. At the beginning, like Lear, he cannot see beyond his entitlements, his power and his beliefs. Does it make you think of anyone in the world of contemporary politics, by any chance? Clearly Shakespeare was already contemplating that the fault was not in our stars but in ourselves. McIntyre’s production suggests this strongly. 

Martin Hutson is a riveting, neurotic, lustful and dangerously self-inflated Saturninus, a modern-day City banker or trader, a Stalin whose fear of losing power makes him paranoid; Nia Gwynne is terrifyingly manipulative, fearsome and predatory as Tamora, as well as bruisingly moving and self-justifying in her anguish. There is a convincing, effective Aaron played by Stefan Adegbola, whose credo is that if he ever did a good deed he regrets it. And yet, when it comes to it, he loves the baby son that he fathers on Tamora and strives to save it. But is this unexpected paternal love or simply projection of his own ego onto the child? The strength of this reading is that we are left with several ambiguities. Aaron comes across as a very early draft of Iago, of course: unfathomable, seemingly motivated only by his own evil.

The production is as bloody as it needs to be (given the text), and visually impressive as it moves about the design outside a contemporary bank of glass and steel created by Robert Innes Hopkins. The set enables a fluid, direct staging, and Tim Sutton’s music is used to great effect;  I was frequently moved by Hannah Morrish as Lavinia and thought the pacing of the play was always superb. Will Bliss plays a clown who must have been one of Shakespeare’s earliest creations as a stark, gasp-making contrast to the unfolding tragedy and mayhem; and Patrick Drury was particularly fine as Marcus Andronicus. The younger generationespecially David Burnett as Quintus, Tom Lorcan as Martius, Dharmesh Oatel as Bassanius, Jon Tarcy as Alarbus, Sean Hart as Demetrius and Luke MacGregor as Chironwere all praiseworthy, as was Marcello Walton in more than one part. 

The great strength and pleasure of the RSC is its ensemble work, the rehearsing until everyone is completely part of a strong unit with one purpose, to find and communicate the soul of the play. In this case, the achievement is all the more impressive because it’s not one of Shakespeare’s best plays and he probably did not contribute more than a few speeches in the first act; yet one is suitably disturbed to see its portrayal of this dark and sometimes uncontrollably brutal side of the human psyche.

Titus Andronicus is playing in repertoire at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 2 September and at the Barbican Theatre in London from 7 December 2017 until 19 January 2018. It will be broadcast live from the stage on 9 August 2017.

To experience a first-rate production of this early Shakespeare play and discover its often-disputed and underrated merits, check the web for the broadcast schedule: https://www.rsc.org.uk/titus-andronicus/in-cinemas

Apollo’s Girl

July 24, 2017

Theatre/Film

Measure for Measure
(Dir.: Simon Godwin)
Theatre for a New Audience/Polonsky
Shakespeare Center
Since TFANA’s move to Brooklyn to inaugurate its new theater with Julie Taymor’s magical production of Midsummer Night’s Dream https://apollosgirl.wordpress.com/2014/11/14/apollos-girl-54/, it has been emphasizing the director’s art, seeking new takes on the classics for its new audiences. Simon Godwin’s recent view of Measure for Measure was no exception. Godwin arrived from London with a formidable portfolio of reviews and awards, keen to reveal his solutions to this “problem play” and how to update an Elizabethan plot and setting so its relevance was underscored, yet its original context respected. 
Solutions: keep the city (Vienna) and its period styles, but modernize the costumes of some of the characters; here, the less-humane wear post-WW II business attire to indicate their administrative functions. Also, think of the subtext (which would have been familiar to London audiences in 1604): the conflict between the Catholic Church and the Church of England; it had driven Henry VIII to close the monasteries and convents, and fears of STDs and plague had also caused closings of the theaters and brothels as well, banishing them to the outskirts of town.

Vienna, a Catholic city, was known for its strict morality. Leave it to Shakespeare to marry the two geographies to make his points. And leave it to Shakespeare to focus on the elasticity of his characters’ interpretation and behavior as they confront that morality. They are marvelous at arguing their positions (you can always count on a good argument, and Measure for Measure doesn’t stint on chastity vs. promiscuity, or justice vs. corruption), and marvelously flexible at justifying their frequent changes of heart and mind. You will spot some thought-provoking parallels to 21st-century dilemmas. And of course there will be marriages in the end, following many reversals and equal measures of comedy and bloodshed. What would Shakespeare be without them?

A particularly confident and appealing cast included outstanding work from Jonathan Cake, Thomas Jay Ryan and the wondrous Cara Ricketts, who took no prisoners and gave the language and ideas their due in every scene. As a special treat, Godwin created a labyrinthine brothel to lead us into the theater; its dim lighting, erotic paraphernalia and actors energetically miming some of its featured activities were a way to get us in the mood for the play that followed. Expanding on that theme, Act Two opened in a nightclub run by Mariana (Merritt Janson) who sang a modern version of “Take, oh take, those lips away…” It was not altogether logical, but Ms. Janson was definitely one terrific singer!

Speaking of new audiences, one of TFANA’s recent coups was their double bill of Strindberg’s The Father and Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, brilliantly directed by Arin Arbus and brilliantly double cast with Maggie Lacey and John Douglas Thompson, who played to the rapt and discerning crowds filling the house for the marathon. In general, TFANA’s audiences are enthusiastic, but this time there were a lot of New York actors who came to learn from the fun, and ticket-holders from London, Berlin and California who had flown in to experience a theatrical summit. http://www.tfana.org/about/production-history/dolls-house-father/overview#Media

The 2017-2018 season will bring new productions and outreach programs for those who truly relish theatre and are smart enough to plan in advance. Stay tuned for details and tickets: www.tfana.org.

The Fencer (Dir.: Klaus Häro. Writer: Anna Heinämaa)
NYC Angelika; Lincoln Plaza
National: http://www.cafilm.org/thefencer/

The reasons for The Fencer’s presence on the 2016 Oscar shortlist for Best Foreign Film will be immediately apparent from its cinematography (Tuomo Hutri); design (Jaagup Roomet) and flawless editing (Ueli Christen/Tambet Tasuji). Director Klaus Häro has made an excellently paced film that flows effortlessly; its cast (especially Märt Avandi in the title role), from supporting to bit players, is alive in every moment of the story. And if elements of the story seem familiar, the beauty of the production and the truth of its emotions and settings will keep you engaged.

What is not familiar to Americans is the reality of the complex politics that prevailed throughout most of the 20th century elsewhere, especially the impact of successive occupations by Nazis and Soviets in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states (The Fencer is based on a true story that takes place in Estonia). It imposed an explosive climate that ruined many lives and twisted the natural civic order for decades, laying waste cultures and traditions that recovered only slowly after the double blows of World War II and the Cold War. Millions were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and had to reinvent themselves in order to survive.

The Fencer makes this landscape clear in the swift progression of its tale, yet enriches every chapter and location with the tiny details that add a real sense of place and character and what it was like to be there; so you feel part of the story, rather than a bystander watching it unfold. The film’s perfect balance between issues and textures is extraordinary, like the positions, the moves and the concentration required to excel at the sport that gives the film its title. In the end, the sheer grace of the production and level of art and craft it exhibits make it a standout.

 

Kékszakállú (Dir.: Gastón Solnicki)
NYC Elinor Bunin Munro Center
Argentina seems to produce some of the most interesting (and puzzling) films around, and Kékszakállú is both. Gastón Solnicki claims it was inspired by Béla Bartók’s 1918 opera, Bluebeard’s Castle; a haunting work whose origins lie in Perrault’s French fairytales, or earlier (in real life) in Brittany. In every version there is darkness and mystery. Yet Kékszakállú is more often full of light and always full of water.

The wealthy young women whose repose and aimlessness Solnicki captures are on the verge of adulthood. They find themselves on diving boards in public pools, paddling in hidden gardens, swimming in the ocean, and resting in front of pipes billowing steam in a sausage plant. There is little dialogue; from time to time, excerpts from Bartok accompany their action. It’s something of a social commentary (though an elliptical one), with the foreshadowing of socioeconomic difficulties to come. Yet Solnicki’s saturated images and the music create a sense of dread that gradually and subtly intensifies. The last frames reveal one of the women standing on a ferry with her suitcase, relocating, perhaps to a better life. But has she (or any of the other women) grown up? That’s for you to decide. If you like very elegantly filmed mysteries, this one’s for you to solve.

 

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There’s good news and bad news…

The good news: Damian Woetzel has been appointed the new President of Juilliard.

 

The bad news: our Commander-in-Chief is draining the swamp and creating a tar pit.

 

 

Apollo’s Girl

July 4, 2017

Film

Road Trips…


My Journey Through French Cinema;
Pop Aye; Dawson City Frozen Time;
Paulina

My Journey Through French Cinema (Part One)
(Dir./Writer Bertrand Tavernier)
06/23/17 New York NY Lincoln Plaza
06/23/17 New York NY Quad Cinema
06/23/17 Los Angeles CA Laemmle Royal
07/07/17 Chicago IL Gene Siskel Film Center
07/14/17 Portland OR NW Film Center
07/15/17 Nashville TN The Belcourt 
07/21/17 Minneapolis MN St. Anthony Main Theatre 
07/28/17 Miami Beach FL Miami Beach Cinematheque 
08/04/17 Santa Fe NM The Screen

To grow up in New York when the New Wave was cresting was to dive off a cliff into the ocean that is French culture. Life-altering total immersion. As luck would have it, the films were not dubbed, but sub-titled, so every tic and nuance of the actor’s craft was right there in the dark in front of you. Who could not yearn for those characters, those crooked old medieval streets pulsing with post-war social revolution? The birth of story after story played out by Bardot, Belmondo, Signoret, Montand, Moreau? And what about the writers, the directors, the auteurs?

If you missed all that, never mind: Bertrand Tavernier has captured the Wave, along with much earlier and much later French films and poured the whole catch out for us with all the passion and authority conferred by more than thirty films of his own. Tavernier admits to wearing many hats (citizen, spy, explorer and painter, chronicler and adventurer) for his road trip through French cinema, and switches them frequently. We are the lucky ones, who can lean back and share the journey with him as faces, sites, words and music unspool for his pleasure and ours. No need to swim: just sit back and watch this cosmic show-and-tell. While Tavernier is a warm and generous host, one of the great achievements of My Journey is the  way in which it clasps to its very generous bosom viewers thrilled to revisit and expand what they remember, yet bestows equal pleasure by solving the problem that weighs on all who champion a pre-digital agenda: how to mold a context that will lure the Gen X’s, Y’s and Z’s for whom the New Wave is a surfboard, rather than a dive off a cliff. Even compressed into three-plus hours (they whiz by) instead of decades, My Journey is still exhilarating.

Of course, like all filmmakers, Tavernier mourns the favorite bits that languish on his cutting room floor; there are rumors that a sequel will include them. Meantime, he makes loving (if fleeting) references to them with titles, and we feel his pain. “I would like this film to be an expression of gratitude to all those filmmakers, screenwriters, actors, and musicians who have erupted into my life. Memory keeps us warm: this film is a piece of glowing charcoal for a winter night.”

It’s also, in its delicious and ultimate Frenchness, a really cool way to enjoy a summer evening.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K22hX_9BUnU


Pop Aye: (Dir./Writer: Kirsten Tan) NYC Film Forum and national
This elephant (the title character) is out of the room and on the road in Thailand with his new owner
an architect who has, like the elephant, seen better times. They are trekking back to the architect’s hometown for a visit, moving slowly but steadily toward their distant goal until a passing truck is flagged and they climb in. “You don’t look like the type who’d be traveling with an elephant,” observes the driver. “I just bought him,” says the architect. Thus begins this quirky and appealing take on civilization and its discontents, a debut feature from a filmmaker who plies the Singapore/New York nexus with her own 
singular vision and notice from Rotterdam, Sundance and Sydney.

Part of what makes Pop Aye go is the sheer improbability of the ingredients that Kirsten Tan has mixed into a delectable and slightly dry brew. Taken one at a time they would seem to defy blending. When was the last time you found an architect and an elephant in amiable partnership? Or discovered a dysfunctional family with its own take on relationships. Or a truck driver who appears and disappears from time to time (this takes place in Thailand) with an inner GPS of his own. Then there’s a holy man in flip flops who says he will soon join his brother in heaven (he read it in the stars). There are bureaucrats and farmers, ex-wives and partners with little patience for the hero and his faithful traveling companion—and always that marvelously amiable elephant.

Don’t imagine for one minute that Pop Aye can be defined as a linear story; it threatens more than once to disperse, and occasionally makes unexpected (and not always logical) leaps in continuity but, as constructed by Ms. Tan’s whimsical imagination, it’s hard to let go of its sneaky and oddly compelling logic. Surrender to its charms and you will find yourself glad you hitched a ride in the slow lane with some excellent company.

 

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Dir.: Bill Morrison)
(NYC IFC Center; LA Landmark Regent;
Laemmle Monica Film Center; Vintage Los Feliz Theatre)

There are many threads in the tapestry that is Dawson City Frozen Time, and Bill Morrison is its God at the Loom. Not for nothing does Morrison call his company Hypnotic Pictures: this profound meditation on life and death of men, movies and mores, crafted from a trove of old footage unearthed by a backhoe in Dawson City, Yukon, is mesmerizing. Prepare to be transported as it travels backwards and forwards in time, carrying you with it like some spellbound caboose on a rich and improbable road trip in black and white.

Dawson City’s population was a thermometer that measured the heat of the gold rush of 1898, and the ups-and-downs of the fever were mirrored in the photographs by Eric A. Hegg, whose images of hopefuls struggling up the glaciers remain iconic. As native Canadians whose fishing and hunting shacks were wrenched upriver to make room for the town that erased them, Dawson City waxed and waned several times. At its heart was a succession of hotels, provision stores, civic monuments, saloons and brothels catering to itinerant prospectors and, soon after, public halls to screen the movies sent out from early producers to lull and excite the population. The movies—newsreels, shorts, and long-forgotten features—mirrored the world outside, but always after the fact; Dawson City was the end of the distribution line. Since the cost of returning the films to their home base was prohibitive, the orphaned reels simply stayed put, moving in and out of basements and backyards as time passed by, wars began and ended and tastes changed. 

Morrison has a field day with this treasure, marked as it is by decades spent in the permafrost, scratched and flaring, the ghost of movies past (some believed lost entirely until the backhoe dredged them up). But there’s another text that holds it all together: the repeated rise and fall of Dawson City as it fights to stay alive; the transformation of gold mining from manually panned nuggets to digs run by shadowy figures from the world beyond—in fact, the Guggenheims, who bring in big machines to do the job until all the veins are stripped. Newsreels faithfully record strikes and Sacco and Vanzetti, the Black Sox scandal, inventions and progress, always behind the times. And, with his hands deep in movie gold, Morrison sprinkles the film with nuggets of factoids like spices: the founding of Donald Trump’s family fortune by his grandfather, who ran an inn (cum bordello) in nearby White Horse, or what happened to some of Hollywood’s forgotten stars.

Respectability came to Dawson after a while, along with civic structure and society. Not since Edgar Reitz’s Heimat has communal evolution been put under a microscope so cleverly or, in this case, so imaginatively. But, in the end, it remains dreamlike, a leisurely (but rigorously edited) road trip through history in black and white, embraced by Alex Somers’ music and John Somers’ sound. Definitely to be savored. 


https://vimeo.com/180648695

Paulina (Dir: Santiago Mitre) Spectacle Theatre
The question should be how did a film whose many awards include the Grand Prize and FIPRESCI at Cannes find its way to the Spectacle Theatre in Brooklyn? Spectacle is “a volunteer-run microcinema, screening rare and under-appreciated films seven days a week. It is also a spot for radical polemics, in-house edits, live scores, original posters, and filmmaker appearances. We are an ex-bodega of enchantment, a semi-social society, an anti-commercial Atlantis. All screenings are $5 unless otherwise listed.“

Although Paulina is based on an earlier film (La Patota – The Gang) it is Dolores Fonzi’s performance
in the title role that dominates a very complicated story and keeps you thinking about its chronology and narrative reversals. The script tackles enormous issues of political and social justice even as it focuses on the moral positions of its principal and supporting players and their changes of heart and mind. One of the lines that connect the dots shows that random events can change lives forever, and that simple misunderstandings can trigger dominoes that will continue to collapse. Without Fonzi’s power to anchor the story, it might scatter, despite Santiago Mitre’s skill and the cast’s agility with shorthand. And many of its theories are revealed in arguments between Fonzi, (a talented judge-in-training), and her father (a respected and influential jurist), who are equally matched and equally stubborn.

The ideas and characters remain in memory, however, after Fonzi is seen resolutely marching down the road toward her destiny, chosen by her own design.

 

 

Cooper’s London

May 29, 2017

 

Books/Music

Stop, Read, Listen:

Glenn Frankel, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic, 379 pp, Bloomsbury.

This book is a fascinating companion to Victor Navasky’s Naming Names, which was a fairly comprehensive general history of that era of scoundrels and evil opportunists thought of as McCarthyism. But, at its centre, there remained the appallingly blinkered and self-righteous House Un-American Activities Committee (affectionately known as HUAC)a Senate tribunal that rode roughshod over the US Constitution much longer than McCarthy managed to. Glenn Frankel’s compelling book, nicely produced and published by Bloomsbury, focuses mesmerizingly on the relationship of HUAC to Hollywood, and also on the impact this had on the making of the classic Western movie High Noon and its gripping subtexts. Frankel sees the script of High Noon as a clear reflection of the climate of the Red Scare in Hollywood at the time. The hero of the book is Carl Foreman, who conceived the story and then adapted it as he came under increasing pressure from HUAC to testify and to name names. Indeed, in the end Foreman had to flee to England to work.

Featured players include Gary Cooper, the ailing star of the film, who took on the project at a time when he felt a strong need to resurrect his reputation as an actor; director Fred Zinnemann, whose commitment to the project was in itself bold; and the producer, Stanley Kramer. You get the full background story of each of these men, and many more involved in High Noon and in the persecution of Hollywood’s left wing.

Frankel’s work is well-written and a real page-turner, probing the background of the Hollywood film industry itself to show why Hollywood was so vulnerable to the pressures of HUAC in the late 1940s. This book is also a superb companion piece to the recently filmed Trumbo; certainly all the people who figure in that tale turn up as major or minor characters in this one, too, So you get to revisit the self-serving bigotry or narrow-minded pusillanimity of people like Hedda Hopper, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, Adolph Menjou, Richard Nixon, and all the senators who contributed to the insanity that was the Blacklist. High Noon clearly delineates how the Blacklist happened and its fallout—yet some people still insist it wasn’t as bad as all that, or even that it never really existed at all. And High Noon mounts an attack on the Blacklist Deniers and takes a significant stand based on the actual facts, not the alternative ones. You also get sound and thought-provoking insights into how much people thought they were acting for the good of the country, fighting to save America from being overthrown by the Red Menace. The paranoia, at times, seems almost to leap off the page but so does some strong sympathy for the gulled and a great deal of understanding for both sides.

By the end of the book, you have the complete story of the making of High Noon, seen very much through the prism of the HUAC investigations of Hollywood. The book serves its double interest fully and convincingly throughout. There isn’t a dull or unnecessary page; the tale is told tautly, like a thriller.

Informative, well-written and still relevant, this is an excellent study of the impact on Hollywood and the arts of the mentality that drove HUAC and overcame the protests of people who could see through it, but had little hope of doing anything substantial about it. Those who tried to combat HUAC and the Blacklist include some pretty bold-face and surprising names: Lucille Ball, Humphrey Bogart, and Gregory Peck, among others. And then there are the tragedies of people like John Garfield. You are made both to understand and to feel their frustration.

I learned a lot from High Noon. I ended up, to my surprise, developing more comprehension of and of and even sympathy for Gary Cooper, who is usually labelled as an arch-Conservative; even greater admiration for Fred Zinnemann and Carl Foreman in particular than I had had before; and some disappointment about Stanley Kramer and how he behaved during the worst years of the crisis.

This is a book that manages to be informative, infuriating, educational, dramatic and entertaining all at the same time. It also gives you a wonderful journey through the background of Hollywood from the silent era onward. I recommend it highly to anyone who relishes being surprised by how much richer the subjects at hand were than they might have suspected.

Fearless Prediction:
MAKI SEKIYA, Future Perfect

What can you do to promote a completely unknown musician who, you think, is world class and ready for a world-conquering career? At the insistent invitation of a friend, I went to a piano recital in Oxford in an out-of-the way church, to hear some of the most astonishingly wonderful playing in every way that I’ve ever heard in my life. It was like hearing Emil Gilels or Sviatislav Richter or Artur Rubinstein for the first time; an artistry that went beyond the instrument and its limitations. Maki Sekiya is surely the Clara Schumann of our era! Yet this artist is a tiny woman, very self-effacing, able to charm the audience with little spoken introductions. And absolutely a giant at the piano.

Sekiya deserves to be heard by everyone, everywhere. She played music from William Byrd through Beethoven, contemporary Japanese music, Debussy, and Guido Agosti’s transcriptions of Stravinsky’s Firebird, and in every case she seemed to be channelling the composernot in any way getting between the audience and the music—while creating unique interpretations that were totally fresh and gripping. In every case she had a sure sense of the style, of the idiom of the individual creator. She has her own voice as a musician that is recognizable and remarkable without, somehow, in any way imposing herself on the music. She simply is the music when she is playing it.

Technically, it was an outstanding performance in every way. In Beethoven’s Piano Sonata 21 in C Major, Op 53 (the Waldstein), Sekiya started at speeds that were faster than I’ve ever heard but still with a and energy that demanded attention. Though the Adagio was a spiritual dream, in the Prestissimo she somehow tied the whole thing together, referred back to the beginning, and put the final polish on a flawless jewel. Her touch is defined by the complexity or simplicity of what she is playing, and she deploys both the sustaining and loud pedals to burnish her interpretation; she is a mistress of nuance. This artist has a rare sense of the architecture of every piece she plays and enables you to hear it as a coherent, complex whole. In the quiet passages she can take the huge risk of playing so delicately that you almost fear the notes will not sound; yet she is able to play louder and more forcefully than seems possible when the music requires it. Also, I have rarely been in an audience that was seduced into paying such rapt attention to every note, every pause, throughout the evening. Without flamboyance, without showing off for a moment, this was absorbing and completely compelling music-making. We were in the presence of someone very special, and we all knew it.

Sekiya has studied at the Purcell School in the UK and also in Russia, and she has managed to blend perfectly Japanese delicacy and attention to detail, Western urgency and Russian energy. The playing was both emotionally affective and brilliantly intellectual all at once. The lapidary sheen of her pianism is astonishing; the wit and intelligence breathtaking.

The concert was at the Church of St. John the Evangelist, which was turned into an arts centre not long ago, with fine acoustics,worthy of the evening’s program. But Sekiya’s talent demands a world stage – Carnegie Hall, the Wigmore Hall in London, the Bunkamura in Tokyo. For the moment she is living the life of a wife and mother in Oxford and teaching piano there, and we are very fortunate to be able to share such astonishing and inspiring musicianship. She is developing a local reputation. The church was packed out; and of course, she got a standing ovation at the end of her recital and again after playing a breathtaking, magical Debussy Claire de Lune for an encore. Again, it sounded totally fresh, almost as if I was hearing it for the first time, familiar yet original.

So make note of the name Maki Sekiya, pianist extraordinaire. I am going to see if I can find a few samples of her playing to put up on this web site from the concert I heard (because it was recorded), and possibly also do an interview to discover Maki’s plans for the future. Keep watching this space! Meantime, here’s a preview of things to come:

Apollo’s Girl

May 24, 2017

Film/Theatre

 

Dead or Alive:
Afterimage; Obit; A Doll’s House Part 2

Afterimage (Dir.: Andrej Wajda)
(Opens May 19 in NYC at Lincoln Plaza;
May 26 in LA at Laemmle Playhouse 7;
May 26 in Chicago at Gene Siskel Film Center)

The Polish film schools were always spoken of in hushed terms when I really began looking at foreign films. Their graduates seemed to have absorbed technical virtuosity in order to express a profound understanding of human nature; the films were as rich as they were beautiful, the scripts dimensional, the characters endlessly fascinating. And, no matter what kind of story they were telling, their was an element of realismus that made immersion a foregone conclusion. The very first Polish film I saw was Landscape After Battle, Andrej Wajda’s Palme d’Or Cannes nominee in 1970; I was permanently hooked.

No filmmaker’s art has imitated life as often as Wajda’s, but his 56 works reflect his long and complicated life rather than imitate it, and Afterimage (his final film) premiered at TIFF in 2016, a month before Wajda died at 90. It is one artist’s uncompromising look at another uncompromising artist, Władysław Strzemiński, Poland’s giant of the avant-garde, founder of the country’s museum of modern art, revered teacher and thinker, and author of Theory of Vision. But a listing of his achievements in no way represents the power of Wajda’s portrait, or of Boguslav Linda’s turn in the role. You can’t stop watching him, or listening to his ideas. The Communist officials detest him as much as his students love him, taking great risks in order to help him finish his book before the apparatchniks shut him down, one increasingly cruel step at a time. But the artist refuses to give way.

Wajda has created a fitting valedictory for his own life, and for Strzemińskis, the sadness of which is always outweighed by the power of the film and the magnitude of the portrayal. Don’t let this one get away!

Obit (Dir.: Vanessa Gould)
(In NYC at Cinema Village; Music Box Theatre, Chicago;
Laemmle Fine Arts, LA; wide release a/o 5/19/17)

No matter what you may think, Obit has nothing to do with death and absolutely everything to do with life. Spend some quality time with its quirky crew of New York Times obituary writers; share their MO and deepest thoughts on the mortality they confront every day and often (when there’s late-breaking news) far into the night. It’s spellbinding!

Once a Siberia for writers, the department has been revitalized by a deep sea change: some of the Times’ best and brightest are at the machines and in the morgue there (I still treasure my fading copies of William Grimes’ forever fabulous chicken pieces*), doing battle with deadlines, word counts, reluctant sources and perfectionism with every tribute. In this passing parade, everyone—everyone— plays their part, from Poppa Neutrino to the man who dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima; from Pete Seeger to JFK. And don’t forget the guy who dedicated his life to repairing manual typewriters, as Margalit Fox recalls their sound, “It’s this music that this man who knows the old songs was helping to keep alive.” Or Jon Pareles paying tribute to a jazz great: “It’s a definition of why art and artists make us remember…..the stilled voice, the fingers that don’t move any more. They’re talking to us, changing the way we think. You don’t want to think of them as perishable.”

The sheer mass of the resources is clear in the morgue…..aisles, shelves, cabinets bursting with the print and image fallout of lives going back to the 19th century (“If,” as archivist Jeff Roth observes, “you can find them.”) Roth is the fierce keeper of these many flames, the sole survivor of a department that once had 30 colleagues. The keys to the kingdom are in Roth’s head; wish him a long and healthy life…

You will find rue and joy in Obit—a little sorrow and a lot of hilarity— among the scribes who have a way­ with words and the ever-growing horde of characters they immortalize (without ever being able to meet them) as they struggle to make each one unique. The quotes are seductive as they speed by. How many treasures had to be abandoned on the cutting room floor? One can only imagine the pain that director Vanessa Gould and editor Kristen Bye must have known as they had to compress and delete one essential after another.

Seeing Obit made me think of George Stevens’ Jr.’s biopic about his father. It ends with a shot of Brandon De Wilde calling out after Alan Ladd, “Shane, Shane–come back!” The subjects of Obit won’t come back but, as one biographer explains, “We try to weave a historical spell—to enchant the reader– to do justice to a life. It’s a once-only chance to make the dead live again.” You will meet them in Obit, a dazzling bunch, and soar in their company. That’s the takeaway.

(Meantime, read these. You will thank me…)
*http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/21/dining/it-came-it-clucked-it-conquered.html

*http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/04/dining/lost-one-black-chicken-owners-bereft.html

A Doll’s House Part 2 (Dir.: Sam Gold; Author: Lucas Hnath)

If you’ve been lucky enough to follow Lucas Hnath’s work, you will know that he just can’t resist a good argument and that most of his plays are built around at least one. Hnath is also a prodigious learner. Having ingested competitive athletics for Red Speedo; physics for Isaac’s Eye; religion for The Christians, he has now turned his gaze on gender issues by arguing up a sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House—that original battle of the sexes discourse—that simply raises the ante. This time, Hnath talked to some leading feminists to get it right read it here and this time everybody wins, especially the audience, who can see a spectacular cast (Laurie Metcalf, Chris Cooper, Jane Houdyshell and Condola Rashad) acting up a storm.

Despite the play’s darker, still-unresolved issues Hnath is serious about, his sly humor erupts at intervals; you’ve got to watch him like a hawk because just as you become embroiled in the follies of each character, Hnath (and/or director Sam Gold) will snatch you up with a giggle or a belly laugh. It’s always intriguing, and has been nominated for eight Tony Awards. The bad news: it’s a limited run, set to close on July 23. You’ve got two months to do something about it.


Apollo’s Girl

May 14, 2017

Film

Exiles: Away From Home…

Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe
(Opens May 12 in NYC at Lincoln Plaza;
June 16 in LA at Laemmle Royal)

For a rich and deeply satisfying look back at Germany between the wars (this time through the eyes of one of its most celebrated exiles), see Maria Schrader’s Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe. This is a big, beautifully made film, powerful and affective. The screenplay (by Schrader and Jan Schomburg) gives all of Zweig’s complexities their due; his refusal to condemn Germany, his ambivalence about his fame, his need for both solitude and for friends and family in exile. Schrader has chosen a cool, objective approach to her subject, which frames the white heat of politics and culture threatening to burst into flame in every sequence, and hooks you from Scene One.

The cast is an Olympian match for the material: Josef Hader (as Zweig); Barbara Sukowa and Aenne Schwarz (as Zweig’s first and second wives, both of whom accompanied him abroad en famille), and a host of others (playing the many artists and politicians who were integral to Zweig’s circle) create an entirely believable moment when the world was turned upside down and changed forever. Schrader, famous for her role in Aimėe & Jaguar, applies all her acting smarts to her cast’s talents and draws a gorgeous film from DP Wolfgang Thaler and editor Hanzjőrg Weißrich.

Because the technical, aesthetic and dramatic elements are always in perfect balance, and the tensions between Zweig’s inner life and his public persona heighten the intensity of the portrait, it’s as close to total immersion as you can get without actually having been there. Surely you will be inspired to move on to Zweig’s novels and essays, which made him the most successful writer of his time and have continued to remain the basis of dozens of films right up to Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel of 2014. (P.S.: Pay attention to the way the end of Zweig is shot. Fascinating choices!) Deservedly Austria’s nominee for Best Foreign Film.

ELIÁN
(Opens May 12 in NYC at Cinema Village;
June 2 at O Cinema Miami Beach)

Full of turbulence and moving at warp speed, Elián will keep you breathless and on the edge of your seat right up to the end of the narrative: Elián Gonzalez was only a little boy when he was found alone, clinging to an inner tube, in the ocean between Havana and Miami. The boat on which he had traveled with his mother, her boyfriend and dozens of Cuban refugees had sunk, and his mother had drowned. Overnight, the beautiful child became a sensation—television crews and reporters swarmed the house where he lived with the Miami aunts, great-uncles and cousins who had claimed him. The media circus exploded into a cause célèbre for Miami’s Cuban exiles, always at the boiling point, and for the many public officials who joined the efforts (pro and con) to grant American citizenship to Elián and to prevent his return to Cuba, where his father (who had learned he was gone only after the boy and his mother had fled under cover of darkness) had immediately sought to reclaim his son.

Photo by Shaun Best REUTERS

Eventually, members of Congress and Janet Reno (then Attorney General) determined Elián should live in Cuba with his father. The fire and brimstone that accompanied every twist in the story were shocking in their ferocity. There were daily confrontations on the streets of Miami and Havana; instead of cooling with the passing of time, the violence escalated, with demonstrators, police, Federal agencies, religious institutions and—always—hordes of media pouring accelerant on the flames. The ugliness lasted six months, until Elian’s father flew to Andrews Air Force Base to join his son after Federal agents stormed the home in Miami where Elian, hiding in a closet, was literally snatched from the arms of the fisherman who had originally found him. The entire affair could not be forgotten; its after-effects impacted the presidential election of 2000, and US foreign policy for over a decade.

Benefitting from a wealth of footage (which spares us none of the competing opinions and shameful frenzy of the many participants), Elián is still remarkably even-handed. Not only in exposing the disturbing zealotry of the exiles in Miami (which caused the INS the Border Patrol to stage the armed rescue raid that terrified the little boy), but in Cuba as well. Through no fault of his own, Elián had became a pawn in the United States as a symbol of “democracy”, and then again in Cuba where, after his return, he was “adopted” by Castro as a symbol of Cuban ideals.

Despite the heat of its subject, this film is told and made by experts who really know their stuff: Ross McDonnell and Tim Golden have, between them, filmed and written prize-winning material that is both intensely emotional and impeccably researched. As I discovered while digging through the internet, Golden published a piece in 1994 (it haunts me still) read article here about how the US destroyed the then-state-of-the-art Cuban health care system, several others about Elián Gonzalez, and a series on the abuses of Guantanamo.

There is no question that Elián will roil your heart and your mind as you are horrified by the brutality of the forces pulling at the traumatized six-year-old. The film also spends quality time with the grownup Elian, who seems to have weathered the storms of politics, just as he once weathered the shipwreck that left him without a mother and at the mercy of forces far beyond his control. Whatever your feelings about the issues, you will be shaken by this chapter of very recent history whose ending still remains to be written. Don’t miss it.



Apollo’s Girl

April 28, 2017

More Film

First, the Good News…

As we continue to up the truth-or-dare ante with North Korea, there is respite available downtown: the Quad Cinema has awakened from its long slumber and emerged, gleaming, as the star of a successful makeover by Pentagram, sponsored by the Cohen Media Group, and guided by programmers Christopher Wells (director of repertory programming) and Gavin Smith (senior programmer). With CEO Charles Cohen’s muscle, millions and determination, the Quad has big plans for indie, foreign and revival fare for those eager to receive the bounty. 

The makeover? It hits all the sweet spots—clean lines, stylish visuals, comfortable seats and sight lines, a lobby bar (with banquette) serving coffee, popcorn and treats, and a cafe/bar next door with alcohol and food. Did I mention the marble ladies room? Worth the trip! So, before you go back to worrying about Armageddon, bookmark the Quad to stay on top of its schedule (https://quadcinema.com/) and be thankful for its offerings.

One of them, A Quiet Passion (directed by Terence Davies, based on the life of Emily Dickinson) is a fascinating mixture of biography and between-the-lines interpretation of the inner life of this most private poet. The dialogue is drawn from her work and her letters to and from her publishers, her friends, and her family. Initially, this imposes a formality on the conversations, which offer an accurate account of how differently people thought and expressed themselves in the mid-19th century, when letting it all hang out would have been entirely unacceptable. Yet, as we become used to the dialogue and the distance it creates from emotion, we are drawn into the enormous conflicts between Dickinson’s strict religion and morality, and what appears to be a deeply sensual nature that tore at her most of her life. She remained with her family, increasingly reclusive, until she died. They were supportive of her quirks and her talents, (she was a formidable baker), but the obstacles to publication of her woman’s work and how they affected her are given their due. Because of the distance created by formal language, the emotional impact of Dickinson’s final years and death are all the more powerful, and Cynthia Nixon is Dickinson. For a deeper dive into some of her original prose and poetry, go to the Morgan Library and Museum for I’m Nobody! Who Are You? www.themorgan.org/exhibitions/emily-dickinson. On view til May 28.

A Quiet Passion will be joined at the Quad by Harold & Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story (Dir.: Daniel Raim) a not-so-quiet backstage romp through the long and adventurous marriage and careers of Harold and Lillian Michelson, the go-to story couple behind Hollywood’s most successful movies and movie-makers. Think that the blockbusters you’ve relished over the years appeared full-blown on the screen? Think again. Even those based on well-known novels and biographies (or earlier film versions) were the products of armies of creatives and craftsmen. And, from the very beginning, once the directors were in place, Harold and Lillian joined the party as indispensables.

If you’ve ever become obsessed with a subject and wallowed in the joy of finding out every single thing about it known to mankind, you will “get” what happened to Lillian while she was a stay-at-home mom with time on her hands. She didn’t type, but had a ravenous curiosity, and found her way as a volunteer to plunge into the black hole that was Goldwyn’s research library. Research became her life, and the books and files (she bought them when Goldwyn decided to sell) moved with her over time from studio to studio, but she never looked back. Harold (who had always been able to sketch) developed a talent for storyboards; they were much more than stop-motion shorthand versions of the scripts they compressed, including camera angles, edits and approach. For years, even though he often worked in secret, his drawings were used by Hollywood’s biggest names on films ranging from The Ten Commandments to West Side Story, from Hitchcock’s thrillers to Rain Man and The Graduate. Ultimately, he and Lillian often worked as a team, surviving whatever life threw at them (a lot of surprises) and becoming legendary where it counted, with Harold at last winning the title of Art Director on 14 films. The feature clips in Harold and Lillian alone are a trip; what makes the film tick are the drawings, the home movies, the backstories, and the testimonials from the linchpins of the business who love and admire the subjects of this endearing Hollywood Story. 

Apollo’s Girl

April 4, 2017

Film

 

 

 

The Persistence of Memory…

I Am Not Your Negro (Dir.: Raoul Peck) (National release)
There are films that are very good, and there are films that grab you by the throat and simply refuse to release their grip. I Am Not Your Negro is all of that and more. I saw it weeks ago and admit it remains stubbornly in memory.

It has newly raised the profile of James Baldwin (whose unfinished proposal for a book about Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Medger Evers the film is based on) and made a grand slam for Raoul Peck, whose string of narrative features and documentaries can be described as past is prologue. Timed to open at the beginning of Black History Month, it is still going strong in national release and is, no matter what’s coming down the pike, an absolute must.

 

Much of its still-riveting archival footage has been seen before, but never has it been so blazingly defined as by Baldwin’s steely nouns and verbs—either in his clips or in voiceovers by Samuel Jackson. Baldwin’s fury still penetrates as he are reminded of our recent history; the assassinations, the National Guard protecting young black students whose only crime was pursuing an education, while white protesters scream and wave signs with swastikas. The ugliness that is part of our heritage drove Baldwin to France, where he never missed American culture, his family, his society. But it was the perfect writer’s room for him to think up and think through his projects.

Peck’s skill and dedication have made I Am Not Your Negro feel like the film that Baldwin himself might have made. It is white hot and searing and cuts deep; not only as a notable addition to the best examples of race-centered cinema, but as an axis on which that cinema will continue to spin for a very long time. And judging from the tenacity of racial bias in the United States (read: current Voter Registration laws), it demands and deserves immortality. (Currently at Film Forum, Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, and Drafthouse Cinema.)

Kedi (Dir.: Ceyda Torun) (National release)

This lovely essay on the cats of Istanbul is another keeper, but for entirely different reasons. An overflowing oasis of calm and kindness, it pays tribute to the survival of an ancient race (cats) and their effect on the people they thrive among. These are street cats, most of whom live near the city’s waterfront, where fishmongers, grocers, and cafe owners are grateful for both their vermin-snuffing skills and the affection they offer most of the time. And, of course, the cats know a good thing when they have it; the handouts are generous, providing a rich and varied diet bursting with animal protein. Whatever their names and colors, these cats have made relationships with their benefactors, who relish the cuddling, scratching, and playful ways of their charges as they make their daily rounds throughout the market quarter like so many furry therapists, without prejudice.

 

Two strands run throughout Kedi: surprisingly, most of the cat enthusiasts are men. And it becomes clear that the market quarter is part of Old Istanbul. Changes are coming that will soon gentrify the area into yet another neighborhood of high-rises (a bulldozer resting in the background is visible at lunchtime)–there will be no space for the men, the cats, or the therapy.

Kedi makes a strong case for reflection and the kind of low-key filmmaking that is as endangered as the urban history it caresses. Whether or not you love cats, you will love the pulsing life of the market and the glory of the Bosphorus that DPs Alp Korfali and Charlie Wuppermann make shine. And—trust me on this—you are likely to really fall for the cuddly cast once you realize how very special they are and what you’ve been missing. 

Closet Monster (Dir.: Stephen Dunn) (Amazon Video)

Dunn’s first feature (after nine shorts and toiling at every production role known to indie film) is a strikingly original gay coming-of-age film that just won’t go away. You’ve viewed many of its elements before (except perhaps the hero’s pet hamster, voiced by Isabella Rosselini, and a tree house that you’d love to live in). But you haven’t seen them as Stephen Dunn puts them together in his very own order, nor in his native locations. Nor as acted out by Connor Jessup, Dunn’s fictional alter ego.

Unlike most Canadian films, Closet Monster breaks the Vancouver/Toronto/Montreal nexus and celebrates the rocky glories of Newfoundland. The ways in which they have shaped Dunn’s own character can only be guessed at, but they were his choice for the film’s setting and they pique your interest from the first scene. What remains after you’ve seen it (for me, six months ago, and I find myself still pondering its amazing package) is the wit, the sorrow, the jumping-off-a-cliff flirtations with disaster, and yet the abiding sweetness and emotional generosity that color Dunn’s work.  He’s someone you’d like to know, whose work you want to follow. Can anybody tell me what he’s got up his sleeve next time around? I’d like to be there when it opens.

 



 


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