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November 17 2017

Zu hoch

„Du trägst den Kopf zu hoch”, hat mir einmal, da war ich vielleicht fünfzehn, meine Tante vom Fenster aus zugerufen. Aus dem ersten Stock! Meine Mutter sprach manches Gebet, um meine „Arroganz“ zu lindern. Auch später habe ich oft erlebt, dass Autoritäten versucht waren, meinen Stolz zu brechen. Aber mit der Zeit entwickelt man Abwehrreflexe. Und wird milder. Vielleicht haben die Gebete gewirkt. Oder war es der Bauch, der meine Bedrohlichkeit gerundet hat?  So oder so, ich empfehle Schokolade.

Unter dem Tisch

Bevor ich Film zu studieren begann, heuerte ich als Praktikant an bei einer großen Münchener Filmfirma. Vom ersten Tag an wurde ich an der Rezeption eingesetzt und hatte mich bald damit abgefunden, dass die Versprechungen, was ich alles würde lernen können an diesem „Knotenpunkt der deutschen Filmindustrie”, leer waren. 

Eines Tages rief der Chef an und orderte mich in sein Büro. Es war nicht der kleinliche Abteilungsleiter, mit dem ich sonst zu tun hatte, sondern der großspurige, mindestens so unbeliebte Chef der Gruppe, der einen Sportwagen fuhr und den man ab und an schreien hörte, obwohl sein Büro im gegenüberliegenden Flügel lag. 

Er lehnte am Fensterbrett (krebsrote Haut, leger geöffnetes Hemd) und eröffnete mir, dass er wünsche, dass ich sein Büro saubermache. Ich sagte ihm, dass das nicht zu meinen Aufgaben gehöre. Statt einen plausiblen Grund zu präsentieren eskalierte er unverzüglich: wenn ich mich weigere könne ich das Praktikum gleich in diesem Moment beenden, brüllte er. 

Widerstrebend holte ich den Staubsauger aus der Kammer und begann zu saugen. Und dann wurde es seltsam. Er setzte sich auf den Schreibtisch und dirigierte mich. Dort sei noch ein Fusselchen, und hier... ob ich zu blöd sei, das zu sehen. „Hier, unter dem Schreibtisch…” Ich wusste nicht recht, wie ich die Sache aufzufassen hätte – und kroch unter den Tisch. Und er – machte weiter. 

Sah er mir auf den Hintern? Möglich. Da ich aber nun schon einmal die Dummheit begangen hatte, auf Knien vor ihm herzurutschen, suchte ich meine Ehrenrettung darin, mir die Wut über die Erniedrigung nicht anmerken zu lassen – und tat also, als sei das alles nichts, fragte sogar, ob er noch andere Staubkörner für mich ausgemacht hätte. Diese gespielte Nonchalance schien ihn zu ärgern, denn er intensivierte die Gemeinheiten. Einem Assistenten gegenüber, der Unterlagen brachte, machte er sich lustig über mein Ungeschick, meine Dummheit. Die beiden Herren versuchten sich mit blöden „Anweisungen” zu unterbieten. 

Vielleicht nicht untypisch für Erfahrungen dieser Art ist die Tatsache, dass ich mich an kein Ende erinnere. Kein mutiges „Es reicht jetzt” von meiner Seite. Ich war in erster Linie überrumpelt, beschämt auch von meinem Mangel an Widerstand. Und nein, es kam zu keinen Berührungen. Vielleicht war das Ganze nichts als die Rache* des cholerischen Alkoholikers, der er war, ganz sicher aber erregte ihn die Grenzüberschreitung, das Ausagieren seiner Macht.

Ich musste oft an diese kleine Misshandlung denken in den letzten Wochen. Wäre der Mann sexuell handgreiflich geworden, hätte ich mich zur Wehr gesetzt? Ich hoffe es. An körperlicher Kraft fehlte es mir nicht. Aber was mich diese Erfahrung vor allem gelehrt hat ist, dass Situationen des Missbrauchs so „gut” funktionieren, weil sich viele Opfer selbst neutralisieren. Die Scham wendet sich gegen dich. Ich jedenfalls habe mich – und mit wachsender Dauer der Überschreitung umso mehr – selbst beschuldigt, falsch auf die Situation reagiert zu haben. Was wäre geschehen, wenn ich nach der Brüllattacke einfach gegangen wäre? Oder, mindestens, nicht unter den Tisch gekrochen wäre? Nichts, höchstwahrscheinlich. Warum habe ich es dann doch getan? Genau: Das ist die falsche Frage. 

*
(als er mich Tage zuvor beauftragt hatte, eine gigantische Monatsration Gin zu kaufen, waren meine Rückfragen eindeutig missbilligend gewesen)

Movie Poster of the Week: The American Film Theatre

In the newest issue of Film Comment magazine I write about the designer Alan Peckolick, a master of lettering who was responsible for one of the great American movie posters of the ’70s, for Short Eyes. Peckolick was a student of—and eventually a business partner of—the great Herb Lubalin, and the poster above comes from a book Peckolick wrote about his mentor in 1985.
Both Lubalin and Peckolick worked together on the branding for the films of the American Film Theatre, a project initiated in 1973 by producer Ely Landau to bring great theatre to movie-going audiences with low-budget, star-studded, text-faithful adaptations of a number of contemporary classics. The Quad Cinema in New York is currently playing 12 of these films through November 21.
To promote the first series of films Lubalin and Peckolick gave each play its own very distinctive title treatment while also commissioning equally striking illustrations for each film.
In addition to these designs, the American Film Theatre produced beautiful individual “Cinebill” programs for each film. I’m not sure if Lubalin-Peckolick designed the Cinebills too, but their style could not be more different from the poster above. Where the poster’s illustrations and title treatments are vibrantly colorful, the Cinebills each have a single, different wash of color. And where the Lubalin-Peckolick title treatments are expressive and ornate, the lettering on the Cinebills is impressively restrained: just small, all caps, sans serif white type in each corner.
Screenplay: The American Film Theatre runs from November 15–21 at the Quad Cinema.

November 16 2017

Sweet Virginia

sweet va.jpg

Jamie M. Dagg - 2017
IFC Films

The bar is closed with three friends playing an after hours card game. A man comes in requesting a drink or maybe even some food. The man is told in no uncertain terms to leave. The widescreen framing keeps the face of one of the card players on the right side of the screen. The viewer is fairly certain that the late night visitor is going to burst through the door seen on the left side of the same shot. The film switches over to roughly the point of view of the angry man who shoots the three men. It turns out this was a hit for hire with only one of the men as the intended victim. And the woman who did the hiring discovers that the money she assumed would be hers has been swallowed up in her husband's debts.

Sweet Virginia made me think of some of the stories of James Cain, best known for The Postman Always Rings Twice. The similarities are with the small town setting with characters just getting by, with characters whose misguided ambitions lead to unforeseen catastrophes. Much of the film takes place in and near a motel managed by Sam Russo, a former minor celebrity on the rodeo circuit. The motel is more a long term home for people down and out than for travelers. Much of the film takes place at night with the sense that some kind of violence will occur.

Sweet Virginia is so low key that in spirit it is close to the low budget films of the Forties and early Fifties, when nobody thought that the films made would be considered art, or even be viewed by future generations. The only moments of pretension are a couple of brief montages of Russo riding a bull in a Roanoke, Virginia rodeo. What mostly stays in mind are the shots of empty streets and parking lots, and a diner with more vacant tables than customers. The music by Brooke Blair and Will Blair is mournful, fitting as the small town is something of a dead end for people who seem to have no other place to go.

With British Columbia standing in for Alaska, there are a few scenic moments, such as when Lila, the woman who initiates the chain of events, meets with Elwood, the hitman, on a bridge overlooking a river. Unlike Dagg's previous film, River which took place in a rough and tumble Laos, Sweet Virginia is quieter and claustrophobic. Unlike too many films where the filmmakers feel the need to over-explain or underline their story, Jamie Dagg has the sense to stand back far enough to let the audience put the pieces together.

November 15 2017

The Fabulous Forties once more: REINVENTING HOLLYWOOD spreads out on the Net

Daisy Kenyon (1947).

DB here:

A couple of weeks ago, when I was in New York for the Museum of the Moving Image series based on Reinventing Hollywood, I also met with Violet Lucca, who runs the admirable Film Comment podcast. She and Imogen Sara Smith talked with me about the book. Our conversation is here.

Our session helped me to develop, somewhat babblingly, points I only touched on in the book. For example, there’s the idea that 1940s films aimed at a certain “novelistic” density (or heaviness, if you’re not sympathetic to them). That’s opposed to the fast-paced “theatricality” of many 1930s films. Of course there are exceptions, and complete outliers like The Sin of Nora Moran, a favorite of mine that Imogen mentioned.

Likewise, I got to reemphasize how filmmakers transformed conventions from fiction, theatre, and radio. And Violet and Imogen were right to draw me out on the role of the screenwriter, which I emphasized more than in my previous research.

It was not only fun but illuminating. Violet and Imogen are very knowledgeable and offered me many good ideas that expanded or nuanced things I tried to say. For example, Violet asked whether the  “competitive cooperation” of the 1940s has an echo today. That seems right. Imogen suggested that the emergence of voice-over allowed actors to develop an impassive, internalized acting style characteristic of the 1940s. I wish I’d thought of that. In fact, I wish I’d talked with this pair before I wrote the book.

And yes, Daisy Kenyon is involved.

Also a click away from you is an extract from the book put up on Lapham’s Quarterly. It pulls a section from the first chapter about how amnesia works in popular storytelling. Maybe you’ll find it interesting.

Finally, Daniel Hodges kindly spotlighted Reinventing Hollywood in his very serious, in-depth website devoted to problems of film noir. While my book doesn’t say much about noir, since that wasn’t an operative category for creators of the period, my discussion of the woman-in-peril plot chimes with his very detailed study of many films in this vein. In addition, Daniel offers subtle suggestions about less-discussed sources of noir visual style, and he makes a strong case for spy films as being as important to the trend as hardboiled detective stories.


Thanks to Violet and Imogen for a very enjoyable hour, to Daniel for the link, to Lapham’s Quarterly, and to Rodney Powell and Melinda Kennedy of the University of Chicago Press.

The Sin of Nora Moran (1933).

Jay Rosenblatt at DOK Leipzig: Your Dreams Have Already Been Filmed

MUBI is continuing its partnership with DOK Leipzig to showcase highlights from their tribute Visual Electrics. The Cinema of Jay Rosenblatt in this year’s 60th festival edition. MUBI's retrospective is showing November 3, 2017 - March 4, 2018 in most countries around the world.
Jay Rosenblatt
It is a common and justified rhetorical device to begin an article on the retrospective of a filmmaker with an impression, a little observation or the description of a scene. However, being confronted with the work of San Francisco-based found footage worker Jay Rosenblatt the idea of a single, autonomous moment vanishes behind multicolored layers of streaming emotions. Just a few days after the International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film I find it enormously hard to remember a single scene. As the filmmaker said himself during one of the Q&A sessions in Leipzig, “They [the films] all kind of blend together.” Well, they do and in this one might find the personal, surreal and volatile strength of his work. One may also find some rather weak combinations of sound and image leading to such a forgetting. The latter occur when Rosenblatt tries to blend things that either feel too obvious or don’t relate at all. But one step after the other. Most of the time, though, his films have the peculiar and fascinating quality of finding the right emotions in the seemingly wrong images.
Blending is a good word to describe what Rosenblatt is doing. He not only blends sound and image but also found footage and personal narration, home movies and big narrations, dreams and memories, as well as subjective poetry and generalizations. He has a unique approach to found footage. Mostly he uses material from educational or ephemeral films. Using this footage, he works on narrative and emotional structures. As he repeatedly tries to teach his daughter Ella in the extraordinary document of misguided (or at least troublesome) education called Beginning Filmmaking (2008): “You have to have an idea.” Filming Ella is one of Rosenblatt’s weaker ideas, which doesn’t mean that it isn’t a heartwarming thing to watch. Rosenblatt calls those films documentary comedies, though the only gag is mostly the sweetness of childhood and its relation to the camera. I Used to Be a Filmmaker (2003) is the best film of the four films shown starring Ella. In it Rosenblatt blends terms related to filmmaking like “handheld” with images of his own fatherhood, in this case the baby holding his hand. It is about new connotations—and this brings me back to his more complex found footage work.
Much beauty and truth in Rosenblatt’s films derive from putting unrelated images into context. He owns an archive consisting of educational films and sometimes does additional research when he searches for specific images, like for example the imploding buildings. Here, I come back to the importance of the “idea” in Rosenblatt’s work. It is a difficult concept as it denies cinemas ability to “just be.” When Ella wants to just film her cat it is not enough for her father Rosenblatt. He searches for a purpose in each image. In his most touching films, such as The D Train (2011) or Afraid So (2006), there is an uncanny sense to each image and the way it is moved. It seems like the most personal fears and memories do already exist before they are lived. Rosenblatt shows cinema’s ability not only to be a dream machine but even to have already produced all the memories and dreams before a life is lived. In other words: Your dreams have already been filmed. In The D Train Rosenblatt follows an old man on a train who sees his life passing by. As such, it is not a special story but the fact that it entirely consists of found footage which adds up to a life is marvelous and deeply touching. In this case each image has a particular function, it is the function of a personal memory. Within those subjective meanderings Rosenblatt’s films work best. Subjectivity for the filmmaker is also a rare openness towards personal issues which he confronts in his filmmaking, like the death of his brother in Phantom Limb (2005).
Afraid So is a different case as it blends surrealistic tendencies and fears with irony. Here the purpose of each image is a fear and its hypocrisy, not a memory. What unites both films is a density arising from a crystal clear meaning each image has in relation to the bigger narrative idea. Of course, with terms like dreams, fears and memory, Doctor Freud is not far away and indeed a while back Rosenblatt worked as a psychiatric counsellor. There is a psychological subtext in almost all his films. Even if psychological undertones can be a bit vague and often lie in the eye of the beholder, it became very clear during the retrospective that Rosenblatt is a convinced representative of what could be called confrontational cinema. Many of his films were done in order to challenge a certain topic, like the work of mourning, suicides or even a public person like former beauty queen and American anti-gay movement activist Anita Bryant. I Just Wanted to Be Somebody (2007) is the title of the work on Bryant. The film is done in a manner that feels at the same time like an appreciation and a condemnation of the person. One cannot help to feel a bit for her, yet it is very easy to hate her to the core. Like in one of Rosenblatt’s most famous films, Human Remains (1998), the banality of evil is presented in a way that makes even the most terrible dictators in human history appear as something we know from deep inside ourselves. Human Remains tells little anecdotes about the private life of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Mao Zedong and Franco. The film gives voice to the dictators themselves by having actors speak in their respective language. There is a strong sense of curiosity and a need to understand what goes on behind the surface of human beings.    
In all those films the images found respond to the voice-over narration and to what Rosenblatt calls “the idea.” In Phantom Limb, for example, his system does not work in such an effective and emotionally evasive manner. The film is one of the most confrontational in the director’s whole oeuvre, as it tackles the death of his brother. After a very personal account of his brother’s short life the film cuts to a montage sequence of houses being blasted. With this, the different stages of grief begin. This sequence comes as a surprise while watching (the same is true for an interview later in the film) because there is no concrete connection between image and emotion. It feels as if everything that was available suddenly had to be a stage of grief. Such a remark might be a little bit unfair, as Rosenblatt stated that in this case he intentionally searched for images of imploding buildings. The problem, I think, is that Rosenblatt so easily switches from the subjective to the universal. It is very hard to follow him if he applies those switches within one film. After a very concrete emotion related to a first person, almost diary-like account and personal images we suddenly have to endure a huge, universal metaphor on grief. A similar kind of inability to follow the sheer scale of emotions Rosenblatt asks for occurred to me while paying attention to his soundtracks. Mostly he uses classical music and the director definitely is not shy to implement the big names like Arvo Pärt and use his most famous work. In general, there is nothing to say against it but it never feels as if the images of Rosenblatt could exist without those pieces. Unlike, for example, Visconti’s famous use of Mahler, here the music is untouched by the images, it solely relates on an emotional level which it tries to underscore and enhance the story. This might also be the case because everything, and also the music, has to serve an “idea.” 
Rosenblatt is clearly at his best when he works on simpler topics. The beautiful film Worm, in which the childhood story of raining worms comes to live through the power of imagination, is an example for this. Childhood was a constant companion during the retrospective in Leipzig. Here Rosenblatt finds something he might have lost. It is connected to all those dreams, memories, fears and imaginings that have already been filmed. As a child, maybe, one could still film them or at least discover how they were filmed. It is also the moment in our life when the concept of “idea” changes depending on what we see and not the other way around. Then everything blends together.

November 13 2017

Filmwoche Duisburg Nachtrag

Filmfestivals sind immer beides: Exzesse des Sinnlichen und Diskursmaschinen. Einerseits schöpfen sie ihren Reiz daraus, dass man in einem engen Zeitraum sehr unterschiedliche Bilder und Töne entdecken kann, andererseits kann man kaum anders, als diesen Überschuss doch wieder begrifflich einzuhegen. Ein Beispiel: Bei den Filmen, die ich in Duisburg gesehen habe, sind mir zwei unterschiedliche Formen von Formatierung aufgefallen. Die eine arbeitet mit dramaturgischer Struktur und kontextuell-diskursiven Rahmungen, die andere mit fiktionalem, fantasmatischem Überschuss und immersiven, erfahrungsästhetischen Entrahmungen. Die eine verweist aufs Fernsehen, die andere aufs Kunstsystem (und das schlägt auch auf Filme durch, die nicht direkt an den einen der beiden Verwertungszusammenhänge gebunden sind).

Daraus ergeben sich eine Reihe von Fragen. Zum Beispiel die, ob es eine Essenz des Dokumentarischen hinter solchen Formatierungen überhaupt gibt. Oder ob das nicht nur eine idealistische Projektion ist, die übersieht, dass auch der “klassische Kinodokumentarfilm”, der in der Tat nicht allzu oft auftaucht im Duisburger Programm, immer schon formatiert war. Auf einer streng begrifflichen Ebene ist eh klar, dass selbst zB Wiseman-Filme formatiert sind. Vielleicht sogar gerade die; die Differenz ist eher, dass das dann in erster Linie eine auktoriale Formatierung ist, die sich direkt aus der Arbeitsmethode ergibt. Aber auch Wiseman ist umstellt von technologischen und filminstitutionellen Voraussetzungen, zu denen er sich nicht komplett autonom verhalten kann.

Ich frage mich außerdem, warum mich Formatierung bei Dokumentarfilmen mehr beschäftigt und auch mehr ärgert als bei Spielfilmen. Im fiktionalen Kino stören mich funktionale Bilder und erzählerische Allgemeinplätze für gewöhnlich nicht allzu sehr, und wenn andere Kritiker sich an solchen Rhetoriken stören, kommt mir das oft kleinlich vor (fast wie eine Form der absichtsvollen Blindheit; nicht, weil eine solche Kritik formalistisch wäre, sondern weil sie Form nur da erkennt, wo sie zum Klischee geronnen ist). Im Dokumentarischen ist das anders. Ich habe mich zum Beispiel in CHoisir à vingt ans (Regie: Villi Hermann), einem schweizerischen Film über franzöische Deserteure während des Algerienkriegs, regelrecht geärgert über einen wiederkehrenden Einstellungstyp: Die Kamera filmt, wieder und wieder,  aus einem fahrenden Auto heraus, erst richtet sie den Blick nach vorne, auf die Straße, dann folgt ein Schwenk, auf die daneben ausgebreitete Landschaft. Die mechanistische Gleichheit dieser Einstellungen zeigt mir, dass es nicht um ein Interesse an der Welt außerhalb des Autos geht, sondern um das bloße Behaupten eines solchen Interesses.

Das kann auch einzelne Momente von Filmen betreffen, die mir ansonsten gefallen. Zum Beispiel habe ich mich gefragt, warum Flavio Marchettis Tiere und andere Menschen , eine rührende, klug gefilmte Studie über den zwischen-geschöpflichen Alltag in einem wiener Tierheim, es nötig hat, seine geduldig beobachteten Miniaturen in eine konventionell-dramaturgische Klammer einzufassen: Es beginnt mit der Ankunft eines Tieres im Käfig, es endet mit einer Auswilderung, oder zumindest mit dem Versuch einer Auswilderung - der Abspann beginnt, bevor zu sehen ist, ob dem Vogel den Abflug in die Freiheit auch tatsächlich gelingt. Das ist ein enttäuschend berechnender, manipulativer Abschluss für einen Film, dessen Struktur sonst eher von der Abfolge klug getimeter tierischer Attraktionen bestimmt wird (ein beständiger Strom an Hunden und Katzen als Grundtextur, die Einzelfallstudie zweier Affen als Leitmotiv, dazwischen als Stargäste: ein Schwan, ein Biber und so weiter).

Die Formatierung fürs Kunstsystem funktioniert anders, nicht über dramaturgische Formeln und Bildklischees, sondern über strategisch platzierte Diskurspartikel, wie etwa im ersten und letzten Drittel von Helena Wittmanns Drift . Wenn ich darauf nicht ganz so allergisch reagiere, dann vielleicht, weil Drift , oder auch Nicolaas Schmidts Final Stage ohnehin stärker fiktionalisiert sind. Dennoch verliert auch da der dokumentarische Kern durch seine Rahmungen an Evidenz. Möglcherweise hat mein Problem in allen Fällen damit zu tun, dass das Dokumnetarische auf jeweils unterschiedliche Weise funktionalisiert wird; und dass diese Funktionalisierung nicht mitreflektiert, nicht wieder ans Material zurückgebunden wird.

November 12 2017

Denver Film Festival - I, Tonya

i tonya.png

Craig Gillespie - 2017
Neon

The last few minutes of I, Tonya are jarring when footage of the real Tonya Harding is seen just after Margot Robbie's impersonation. Someone like Kate Mara or Ellen Page may have been physically closer to Harding. And Robbie doesn't quite convince as a teen Tanya Harding, going on chaperoned dates under the severely watchful eye of her mother. As one who watched the Winter Olympics in the Nineties, and casually followed Harding's career prior to "the incident" as it is referred to in the film, Robbie's casting may be the only questionable part of I, Tonya more for her physical presence than for the performance itself, which is quite watchable.

While the film follows Harding's life from an extremely able four year old pushed into competitive skating by her cold, and frequently abusive mother, to her life after being banned from the sport, Gillespie's film also takes a look at media and celebrity, as well as the politics of figure skating. An adjective about her background I recall from reading about Harding when she was making the news was hardscrabble. Athletic ability was never enough. Harding was not cute like Kristi Yamaguchi, nor had the refined WASP looks of Nancy Kerrigan. The film situates Tonya Harding as someone trying to validate herself through her ability on the ice, only to be undermined on all sides.

The screenplay claims to be based on the interviews with the actual people in the the story. What is certain is that most of these people were not very bright, and growing up in a dysfunctional household (to say the least) did Tonya Harding no favors. The humor, and there is lots of it, is caustic. The fourth wall is broken with several asides by the characters, while not overdoing the gimmick. The film is clearly on Harding's side, even if cautions the audience that they are watching her version of the truth.

Don't be surprised if Allison Janney gets an Oscar nomination as the mother from Hell. I'm usually not one to get into the prediction business, but Janney grabs attention with her sarcasm, insults and just plain nastiness towards everyone within spitting distance. The always reliable Bobby Cannavale is also quite funny as the unnamed producer of the tabloid news show, Hard Copy. Visually, Gillespie likes to make use of some very long traveling shots, the most spectacular being of Harding leaving the home she shared with ex-husband Jeff Gillooly. CGI is also used to seamlessly make it appear that it is Robbie performing the triple axel when not speeding and spinning across the ice.

November 11 2017

Su Friedrich Introduces Her Film "I Cannot Tell You How I Feel"

Su Friedrich's I Cannot Tell You How I Feel (2016)  is playing November 11 - December 11, 2017 on MUBI in the United States.
I Cannot Tell You How I Feel
All of us are wending out way towards the inevitable, but it isn't something we want to think about when we're in our thirties or forties. Usually we don't ever choose to, but instead are forced to when a parent or grandparent starts getting towards the scary end of things.
When my brother, sister and I found ourselves in that place with our mother about three years ago, our response was to totally freak out, realize we had no idea what needed to be done, and then scramble desperately to figure out which steps to take when.
I definitely didn't think, "Oh, I should make a film about this." There was too much to do and it was too chaotic.
But since I was diving headlong into a new and totally bewildering experience, I decided to pick up my camera. I told myself it was to record information for our work, that it was a way to keep track of things like which living facilities we were visiting, what furniture we needed to move, et cetera. But I soon realized that I was doing it so that I could bear witness to the entire experience...for whatever reason, but mainly because my brain was lagging way behind my experience. It was just too much to understand, think about, process.
Only a few months after we had moved her did I start to wonder whether I had any material that could be built into a film. It was a difficult editing process because the footage hadn't been collected with any forethought, but that also made it a very lively and interesting process, and I found some real pleasure and relief in trying to figure out how to not make it maudlin or depressing, as films about the elderly risk becoming. I wanted to show the comedy as well as the fear, the frustration as well as the love.
Making this film was also an opportunity to push the boundaries of what I'd started doing in my last two films, in which I played around with different voices, or different registers of my own voice. I have often worked with text on screen in combination with written/performed voiceovers and "live sound"—people who I interviewed, conversation caught on camera, et cetera. For a long time, I've sensed the multiplicity of my own voices. I have conscious thoughts that can be written down and performed, but I also have internal dialogues and monologues, while also wanting to include facts that I've found while researching a film. More and more, I want to bring all of those into play. I want to say things, and then comment on what I've said, or make comments about what someone else has said, or just drop in phrases or thoughts which might be disarming or amusing. With the ease of editing on the computer (compared to how laborious it was when working in 16mm) I find that I can do more and more of this with each film.
And then there's music, which I love (as we all do) and which I treat not only as a fantastic rhythmic and melodic element, but also as another form of text, since the lyrics so often give an additional meaning to what one is seeing.

November 10 2017

The Celestial Arthouse: FilmStruck and Criterion Channel with an offer hard to refuse

DB here:

Here’s the big news. FilmStruck has instituted a student rate for subscriptions: 35% off the monthly rate, which means $39.99 for six months, or less than $7 a month. The Criterion Channel is included in this deal. You can get more information here.

In the current context, this seems to me a real bargain. Cord-cutting and cord-shaving are making streaming more and more common. But at least your cable subscription bundled a lot of channels offering movies from a wide range of sources. Now we face the prospect of each “content owner” setting up a dedicated streaming service.

Netflix and Amazon and Apple and YouTube are funding and buying exclusive rights to films and TV shows. Hulu remains as a source of Disney, Fox, and Warners properties, but that bundle is coming untied. Disney is planning to claw back most of its films for its proprietary streaming service. How soon before other studios mount their own streaming services?

The total cost of subscribing to your favorite services may rival a cable bill. Recognizing this, the studios have banded together to merge access to several of these sources in an app called Movies Anywhere. But that’s for convenience; you’re still paying out to many providers.

Ten years ago, Kristin and two major archivists expressed skepticism about the arrival of the Celestial Multiplex. Never would everything–really, everything–be available. In fact, as licenses expire and Peak TV drives streaming, Netflix and other services have trimmed their foreign and classic libraries.

This makes film FilmStruck an even more stupendous opportunity for film lovers. It remains a big, fat aggregator. Where else can you see, on a single night, a cache of 80s indies, eight movies by Phil Karlson, seven by Herzog, seven from Tunisia, Toshiro Mifune slicing and dicing his adversaries, a rare trove of French films made under Nazi Occupation, and several debut films by major filmmakers? And that’s before you get to the Criterion Channel, which currently offers Belle de Jour, Kore-eda’s Still Walking, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (with a unique le Carré interview), The Color Wheel, and hundreds of other titles. Not the Celestial Multiplex, but close to a Celestial Arthouse. It’s what the prophets of cable TV told us to expect, but never arrived: access to world culture, at the time and place of your choosing.

 

I get it, dude. Movies.

Criterion’s new deal comes at the one-year anniversary of our series, “Observations on Film Art.” Kristin, Jeff Smith, and I have posted twelve installments, with more in the works. You can access them here, if you’re a FilmStruck subscriber. Several of these are developed further in blog entries; just go to our FilmStruck tag.

The anniversary set me thinking about streaming as a way of accessing movies. For home viewing I prefer discs, but more and more I watch streaming, usually to help my research. Several obscure 40s films I studied for my new book were available only on Amazon Prime, so those got my attention. Likewise, while revising our film history text, we checked on foreign-language titles not available on disc. But now I realize that to keep up with independent films I need to stream. The quite good I Don’t Feel at Home in This World Anymore didn’t get a theatrical release and doesn’t seem to be on DVD.

What startles and sort of dismays me most is the way Netflix and other services let recent releases swamp the classics and imports they still have. I’m also a bit put off by the vastness of the choice, the grid of thumbnails like stamps in a huge album. A friend told me of her husband browsing titles for so long that they give up deciding on a movie and opt for the latest episode of a TV show.

Video stores were also vast, but they came with benefits. Rereading Tom Roston’s enjoyable I Lost It at the Video Store: A Filmmakers’ Oral History of a Vanished Era, I was reminded how important gatekeepers and tastemakers are. The best rental shops had knowledgeable clerks, wild categories, and displays that highlighted choices by staff. What we now call “curation” was in place, sometimes in a gonzo way, to guide people through the mass of VHS boxes. Kevin Smith:

I’d try to tell people what to rent even if it was the same stupid shit over and over. I was like, “I get it, dude. Movies. Who gives a fuck what they are.” I loved talking with people. There was no Internet, so you couldn’t jump on a message board or Twitter. “This is what I loved about Guardians of the Galaxy. I am Groot! #fuckin’thismovierocks.” You didn’t get to do that. You gotta do that in person with people.

FilmStruck, while offering hundreds of titles, has regained some of that curatorial function. You can still wander freely through the catalogue, but there are also interviews, talking-head introductions, categories both obvious and imaginative, and video essays of the sort you’d find in DVD supplements. For our series, we try to hold onto a personal touch. The installments are monologues, but we think we’re steering you toward what to appreciate in the movies we talk about. At least there’s a little more sense of human contact that way. And we hope our enthusiasm shows that analyzing film aesthetics doesn’t have to be dry and bloodless.


Thanks as ever to our collaborators at Criterion: Kim Hendrickson, Grant Delin, Peter Becker, and their colleagues.

 

Review: Ruben Östlund's "The Square"

The Square
Art about art is often tricky to engage with, much less write about. Part of it is an awareness that arises at each moment, which then gets reflected in an endless hall of mirrors. There's a multivalence that can either be invigorating or tiresome, the boundaries of intention and response endlessly intertwined. That certainly describes Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which from its title alone suggests an empty space to be filled in with whatever the viewer desires.
The title actually refers to a piece of art, commissioned by the film's main subject, Christian (Claes Bang), the chief curator of Sweden's X-Royal Museum. It's a literal 4x4 square that per the artist's manifesto is: “a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” For a while, however, it's unclear precisely how the Golden Rule-esque sentiment will factor into what starts to look like an acerbic character study of Christian, with his classically handsome features, masculine arrogance and influential position. There isn't so much an overall flow to the film as there is a precise orchestration of discrete blocks. Mixing the formal control of Östlund's Play (particularly that film's use of offscreen space) with the razor-sharp black humor of Force Majeure (also rooted in picking apart a strain of male privilege), The Square gripping from frame one, confident and audacious and thoroughly engrossing. Part of the interest is that it's hard to predict precisely where Östlund will take the film. This is only his fifth feature, and it wasn't until 2011 that he vaulted into the spotlight with Play, so unlike more established directors, there hasn't been enough time for his methods to calcify into schtick.
Even after Christian is robbed by a pickpocket scheme and the main threads and themes begin to emerge—art and performance, the bystander effect, the socioeconomic contexts in which these occur, among others—there’s still a thrilling sense of the unknown. Off-kilter details, casually deployed push the film into quasi-surrealist territory. (A, shall we say, visitor during a casual hookup is a highlight.) How far, exactly, is he going to push the conceit? That's a question that Östlund clearly enjoys playing with—fitting enough for a film that so explicitly deals with performance. The film's most intense scene occurs during the gala dinner for the new exhibit, where a performance artist takes his act to unexpectedly ugly territory. But where exactly does the performance end? Is the audience also complicit? By the end, there is perhaps only one definable certainty: the artist is in complete control.
With an artist as forceful and accomplished as Östlund, though, that's hardly a bad thing. When Christian decides to distribute threatening letters to the entire apartment building that his stolen phone is tracked to, Östlund adopts the language of horror: claustrophobic hallways and vertiginous stairwells, motion-activated lights rhythmically alternating along with geometric vertical and horizontal compositions. Striking shots abound (Christian standing atop an escalator in a crowded shopping mall), as do a host of memorable character interactions, the highlights of which are probably the post-coital and post-post-coital scenes with Anne (Elisabeth Moss, superb), an American reporter living in Sweden. Östlund’s penchant for provocation, too—which has drawn comparisons to Haneke—is fully evident.
Admittedly, there's a relentless cynicism to the film that can be off-putting. But if the film is too eager to spell out its various themes, even fashioning an labored redemptive coda that counteracts the acerbic humor, it's often too flat-out hilarious to dismiss. A late scene that basically lays out the entire thematic thrust in a video “apology” is didactic, to be sure, but is offset by the sheer entertainment value of watching sincerity—or what looks to be genuine sincerity—morph into a long-winded lecture on personal and societal responsibility in real time.
It's a film sure to divide viewers, in part because the film is never unaware of itself, so everything that could be lobbed at it as criticism could conceivably be twisted into praise and vice versa. (A top-down shot of Christian wading through a sea of garbage could hardly be more pointed.) The metaphor of “The Square” lends itself to so many possible interpretations, so much so that from the first scene, the film floats the question of what is and isn't art. What is an image, after all, but what is and isn't in the frame? But whether The Square is a masterpiece or complete garbage (or both?), at the very least, it's a pleasure to see a talented, confident filmmaker so committed to thinking outside the box.

Denver Film Festival - Revolution of Sound: Tangerine Dream

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Margarete Kreuzer - 2017
RealFiction

Even for someone like myself, with only casual interest in Tangerine Dream, will find Revolution of Sound to be of interest. While most of the film centers on founder Edgar Froese and his search for new sounds, the film also follows the evolution of Tangerine Dream from psychedelic rock band to an entity that changed personnel and sound every few years, to its present incarnation without the late Froese, as a trio exploring Froese's musical ideas.

Considering the under ninety minute running time, and that documentarian Margarete Kreuzer had access to documentary footage of Froese from as early as 1966, I have to wonder how much was left out with the 8mm home movies, home videos, and televised performances, covering a period of sixty years. That early, black and white footage, is from Froese's first band, The Ones. The band's minor European hit, "Lady Greengrass" can be heard on Youtube. The lyrics include a reference to the sky as tangerine in color. A fortuitous encounter between the former art student and Salvador Dali in Spain encouraged Froese to change musical directions.

There are also the standard talking heads - musical collaborators such as Queen's Brian May and Jean-Michel Jarre, several former members of Tangerine Dream including Froese's son, Jerome. Directors Michael Mann and Paul Brickhill discuss why they chose to have their films, Thief and Risky Business respectively, scored by Tangerine Dream.

The music of Tangerine Dream has sometimes been described as "space music". While that description might be simplistic and misleading, it could well be that Froese's musical inclinations may have been in part a reaction to growing up in West Berlin, at that time an enclosed city surrounded by the then Communist East Germany. It wasn't only the line-up that changed over the years, but the combination of different instruments including the human voice in a later version of the band, as well as the inclusion of female musicians. With the current trio active, the Dream isn't over.

Movie Poster of the Week: Carl Th. Dreyer’s “The Passion of Joan of Arc”

I am excited to be premiering Janus Films’ brand new poster for their re-release of The Passion of Joan of Arc, one of my all-time favorite films and one of the most beautiful films ever made. Designed by Eric Skillman, the new poster is simplicity itself, relying on a single still of Maria Falconetti as Joan in her most iconic pose, and although the beauty of Dreyer’s masterpiece is that almost any still from the film would be poster-worthy, this one is perfect. It’s the clarity of the image that carries the poster, and which whets the appetite for the digital restoration it heralds, but the type block below is suitably elegant and restrained.
I did a previous feature on the film a few years ago, concentrating on the artwork of the great René Péron, but there are a number of other wonderful designs for the film which I thought I would collect here.
First there are Péron’s enormous double-grande and four-panel designs (for a size comparison, see my original article) which deserve to be seen in close-up.
And then there is the original double-grande by Jean-Adrien Mercier which uses the same image as the Janus poster, sans crown.
And which was re-purposed 50 years later for the 1978 French re-release:
There is another stunning French poster, in which Joan is relegated to the background, kneeling before her interrogators, which looks as if it was designed by the great Boris Bilinsky, who founded a film advertising company under the name Alboris (which seems to be the signature) in May 1928.
The original U.S. one-sheet was strikingly different from the French designs. Unsigned by the artist, it boasts the film as “An Immortal Screen Classic that will live Forever”, which was proved to be true despite the film’s beleaguered history (its original negatives were twice lost in fires). I am intrigued by the credit “Joan of Arc Pictures Inc. presents” and wonder if an American company was set up with the whole purpose of releasing this film. Also of note is the credit “English dialogue by David Ross of radio fame.” Ross, who died in 1975, was described in his New York Times obituary as “the former poet-radio announcer, whose well-modulated voice entertained millions of listeners with fervent reading on his own and other poems.” I love the 3D title treatment on this poster, but what I assume to be a halo behind Saint Joan’s head always looks to me like a little pillbox hat.
The beautiful Italian 1959 re-release due-fogli (twice the size of a US one sheet) by Carlantonio Longi, takes a similar scene as the U.S. poster, with Joan at the stake clutching the crucifix.
I also like this fotobusta which has another striking drawing by Longi on the left side.
There is also one other French design, by Albert Briol, that uses the same climactic scene.
I’m not sure what era the German poster by Bender comes from, but I love the simplicity of its stylized rendering of the same image that Janus uses on their poster.
My favorite find of all, however, (courtesy of EMoviePoster.com) is this program and invitation for the gala premiere of the film on May 17, 1929 in Brooklyn. It was screened at the Momart, a.k.a. “Brooklyn’s Little Art Theatre,” which turns out to have been a 595 seat theater on Fulton Street, right opposite where BAM’s Harvey Theater now sits. Opened in 1927 as the Montmartre, it was renamed the Momart a year later, and by December of 1929 (six months after the Passion premiere) it was exclusively showing newsreels and short subjects. According to the invaluable website Cinema Treasures, it ran until 1954, by which time it was screening Italian films. The building has since been demolished and was a parking lot until quite recently, but what I wouldn’t give to pay my 75 cents and attend that screening of Passion of Joan of Arc in 1929 downtown Brooklyn.
One more aside: I love the note on the program that says that Joan had been selected by the National Board of Review as “one of the four greatest films of all time” along with The Birth of a Nation, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and “The Armoured Cruiser Potemkin” (sic).
Many thanks to Ben Crossley-Mara and Janus Films. The restored Passion of Joan of Arc paired with Richard Einhorn’s choral and orchestral soundtrack Voices of Light, opens on November 24 at New York’s Film Forum.

November 09 2017

Slow Cinema of the Apocalypse: Close-Up on Aleksei German, Jr.'s "Under Electric Clouds"

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Aleksei German, Jr.'s Under Electric Clouds (2015), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from November 10 - December 10, 2017 as a Special Discovery.
Under Electric Clouds
All throughout Blade Runner 2049 I kept wondering why more of the film wasn't impressing me, despite so much of it being quite clearly so impressive. The lack came into sharper focus in hindsight. Where are the rest of the people? Where's an actual sense of life in 2049 L.A.? What happens here? What does it mean to live in this smog-ridden hellhole? The more the questions came to me, the more they started to feel like answers handed down by a complimentary and superior work of art. Under Electric Clouds is the film Blade Runner 2049 was attempting to be, give or take a couple of fist fights and explosions. This was the glacially paced dystopian rumination I'd wanted all along, it just took a film with its ambition without its humanity for me to realize it. Blade Runner is very clearly a study of who is and isn't human. Aleksei German, Jr.'s Under Electric Clouds wonders what humanity means, and what it looks like, when progress has stranded us in a desert of our own ambition.
The opening narration, paraphrased: One era replaced another, sending off sparks…snowy winters, brief thaws, heatwaves, melting snow. We entered each new era confused. It's 2017. 100 years after the Russian Revolution. We first follow a man traveling through a snowy expanse with little but the coat on his back and a vintage stereo. He happens across a man midway through the murder of a woman. He backs away, evidently taking stock of what kind of person he is now that he has this life or death choice to make. Is he the sort of person who could kill a stranger for the sake of another person's help and risk dying in the process? The decision happens while the man is just to the left of the camera's gaze, which bounces around the environment in a way that ought to be familiar to fans of Miklós Jancsó. The man, the first character to which we are introduced, in the already dense opening 15 minutes of this movie, wins his fight with the murderer and then crouches by the bleeding woman and holds her hand, laying with her as the life leaves her body. We may be in the future, or some degrees-dimmer parallel universe, but life is still a mammoth, mysterious and precious force. German knows that the second he cuts away from the poor dying woman that her life is over. But it means something. She has no name, no words, only her face, her whimpering and her blood-soaked sweater.
The next vignette finds a woman planning for an uncertain financial future. Her nose bleeds a few hours after the symbolic death of her pet horse. "The blood is ridiculous," she says, "it must be from grief." She’s breathlessly charging even further into the future, dislocating her emotional life from her social and financial ones. The screen is a near constant blur of incongruous gatherings of people, machinery and animals. You're meant to feel as lost as our momentary heroes (the film is split into chapters and there's a new set of characters in each one, though some reappear), drifting between empty streets, lonely homes and crowded fields. Art and advertising mingle freely, both abstract and emotional, full of dead direction that now escapes the sad humans lingering in their shadows. Much is discussed, little understood or kept. "The past is gone. We can build a new world," offers a beautiful stranger to a sad architect.
German, Jr. would have just finished overseeing the completion of his father's masterpiece Hard to be a God when he went into production on Under Electric Clouds. It's like an earth-bound answer to Hard To Be A God's hideous medieval future. German went into the dark ages to show our future, knowing only too well to what depths we'd happily sink if allowed. German, Jr. wanted to know what the intermediate future would look like. The one we're gently, if unstoppably, approaching. He stages a fully costumed Arthurian LARPing duel as a reminder of his father’s final film. The scene is the embodiment of cock-eyed hope, hope that we'll remember the past even when entrenched in a future/present completely unmoored from a recognizable landscape. German, Jr. peers at his lost gaggle of protagonists through a thick grey green haze, both a demonstration of the deathless industrialism that has supplanted the ideals of the revolution and a way to distance the real 2017 from the one on-screen. He keeps the annoying traps of modernity to remind us that nothing really changes, even if it surfaces do. The rich and the poor still exist in opposition to one another, and neither seem able to make sense of their emotions. Apartment roofs still leak and even pet robots can break if untended. Every ailing, distant father could be the absent German, Sr. Or they could just be the architects of a future they won't live long enough to shepherd after they've ensured its direction. Phantom buildings made from expertly hidden CGI hover over the cold lands as reminders of those fathers, the titans who own the land because they planted structures there like flags.
Violence means more in this film's world of overwhelming defeat, where every building is a few hours away from ruin, every millionaire a hair’s breadth from the gutter. We could just wait for death, so every body blow and knife wound feels that much more superfluous and cruel. Existence is scrambled here, which makes the sacrificing of lives all the more strangely sadistic. No one can communicate clearly. Seemingly huge life decisions are made by bone-tired refugees from stories we're only just joining. The diffuse, rambling narrative means to give you a handful of impressionistic landscapes, then drift away, lingering as if half-dream, half-surreal short story collection, like Joyce's The Dead set after an apocalypse no one seems to remember. Ultimately what difference does it make? It's coming. It will be shockingly violent. It may already be here. 

November 08 2017

Jill C. Nelson's TAPES FROM CALIFORNIA: TEENAGE ROAD TRIPPING, 1976 is Now Available







Jill C. Nelson's long awaited memoir, Tapes From California: Teenage Road Tripping, 1976, is now available to order in hardcover and soft cover editions from Bear Manor Media and Amazon. Nelson, whose previous works include John Holmes: A Life Measured In Inches and Golden Goddesses, has been working on Tapes From California for years and I am thrilled that it is now out for us to all enjoy. Copies can be obtained from the links above and my own interviews with Nelson, where she discusses this book and her others, can be found here and here.

November 07 2017

The Forgotten: Jan Lenica's "Labyrinth" (1963)

Labyrinth, by Polish graphic designer and animator Jan Lenica, is one of numerous disparate works of its period which looks like a direct inspiration for Terry Gilliam's Monty Python cut-out animations. There was a lot of this sort of thing around at the time. And, as is clear from this short, the collage form of surrealism can be dated back to Max Ernst's prints: crazy, absurd, deadpan, delirious and disturbing.
The opening scene, which uses fuller animation to show a bowler-hatted Victorian gent flying through the clouds in a kind of winged harness, does seem like a clear precursor to Brazil's flying knight fantasy sequences. But what follows is more peculiar still.
While following our dapper aviator as he ditches the wings and goes for a stroll in a city constructed from tinted and smudgy old photos, we start to linger on stray images and bits of weird action from other inhabitants of the metropolis: at a window, an old man's face collapses in on itself in a looped gurn, the toothless maw ingesting the nose and central face like a sinkhole; an ambulatory dinosaur skeleton roams the boulevards; a walrus steals the gossamer wings from a flying human head, and attempts to fly, hurling itself suicidally from a rooftop.
What this resembles, to me, is a nature documentary. It's the only place one might see this structure: following a few figures about, shaping their random encounters into story, picking up stray details in which the environment is more significant, momentarily, than the constructed plot. (If you take a BBC nature documentary and turn the color down, then turn the sound down, and play some Janacek or something, it becomes a lot like a scary Eastern European art animation.)
The only difference is that Lenica hasn't gone out and filmed reality and then shaped it in the edit, he's created the whole thing, an image at a time, a frame at a time. This whole thing has been poured out from his head onto the celluloid, fearlessly exposing his phobias and anxieties while turning them into funny paper monsters. But the dreamstuff is arranged as an urban ecosystem of incomprehensible mating rituals, lurking predators and the eternal fight for survival.
***
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay. 

Bill Morrison’s lyrical tale of loss, destruction, and (sometimes) recovery

Kristin here:

Many readers of this blog have heard of the Dawson City Film Find (hereafter DCFF), as it is called in Bill Morrison’s extraordinary documentary, Dawson City: Frozen Time. How in 1978 work on a construction site in Dawson City, Canada, led to the discovery of hundreds of reels of nitrate films packed into a swimming pool in 1929, covered over, and forgotten. How these reels turned out to be from silent films, mostly from the 1910s, many of them previously thought entirely lost.

Few will know the story in the detail with Morrison provides, nor will they know the rich historical context that he provides for the discovery and recovery of the reels. His film is not, however, simply a presentation of the DCFF. It’s about growth, loss, recovery, and destruction in several areas, all circling around Dawson City as their hub. The subtitle “Frozen Time” is a bit misleading. The reels of nitrate sealed away in the permafrost were no doubt frozen, and the temporal fictional and newsreel images they contained were lost for decades.

Morrison, however, weaves information about a variety of other subjects together in a way that makes the passage of time palpable for us. We see its effects on people and places and discover the odd, fortuitous connections among them in a dizzying fashion.

A complex film like this deserves an extended commentary, which I offer below. There are spoilers galore in it, and I would suggest seeing the film before reading this. It should appeal to anyone interested in early cinema, in North American history, and in documentaries in general. Kino Lorber has recently released Dawson City: Frozen Time on Blu-ray, with extras including eight films from the DCFF.

 

Easing into the past

The films-in-a-swimming-pool hook is what Morrison uses to lure us into his larger historical weave. He begins with a hint of the recovered footage, showing a baseball game which will later be revealed as the scandalous 1919 World Series where White Sox players were bribed to throw the deciding game. Then we see briefly see Morrison himself being interviewed by a talk-show host, followed by a lady in 1890s costume enthusiastically introducing a premiere screening of some of the restored films for an audience in the Palace Grand. That theatere is a modern reconstruction of the first theater built in Dawson City, used for live drama, opera, eventually films, and other forms of entertainment.

We move by stages back into history. Fifteen months before the premiere the discovery was made: a man running a back hoe turned up reels and coils of film. We meet the protagonists of the film-discovery portion of Morrison’s tale: Michael Gates, curator of Collections at Parks Canada from 1977 to 1996, and Kathy Jones-Gates, Director of the Dawson Museum from 1974 to 1986. She was Kathy Jones at the time of the discovery; this tale even has a romance, since the pair married after working together on the recovery of the buried reels. The couple describe the initial find, over still photos of mud-covered reels taken with Jones’s camera (above).

Morrison now takes us further back, to demonstrations of how nitrate film was made (with extracts from a 1937 film optimistically titled Romance of Celluloid) and how it is prone to catch fire and burn fiercely. The well-known 1897 Charity Bazaar disaster in Paris is cited, while film of a burning tent and fleeing spectators is shown. No visual record survives of the Charity Bazaar disaster, not even photographs. News accounts used engravings as illustrations. The burning tent footage is from a film released twenty years later, Polly of the Circus (1917), one of the main lost films recovered in the DCFF.

Morrison does not hide this source but superimposes a caption giving the film’s title, date, and source. This is the first time he draws upon DCFF images to evocatively represent real historical events. Later in Dawson City, the mention of an actual person, such as Gates, sending a letter will be accompanied by a montage of letter-reading moments culled from DCFF films. It’s a clever way to add a little humor and to show off a wide variety of the titles without dwelling on long clips from any one film.

Having established the destructibility and danger of nitrate, Morrison flashes back to the earliest period portrayed in the film. Epic photographs show forested landscape. The narration, done with captions rather than voiceover, informs us that for millennia the area where the Klondike River flows into the Yukon has been the hunting grounds for one of the First Nations, the “native Hän-speaking people.” (The footage is from City of Gold, the famous 1957 Canadian documentary about Dawson City, which will become more important later in Morrison’s film.) A photo introduces Chief Isaac, leader of one subgroup of the Hän.

Nothing is said at this point, but the fate of these hunting grounds initiates one of the major threads recurring through the film, that of ecological destruction.

The third major thread is the history of Dawson City itself, which is as fascinating as the story of the buried films. In late 1896 or early 1897 one Joseph Ladue claimed 160 acres as a town site, where he sold lumber and lots to prospectors. By the summer of 1897 there were 3500 residents, and Morrison uses population figures to trace the wide swings in the town’s fortunes over the decades.

At this point the Northwest Mounted Police relocated the Häns’ village five miles downriver, and their fishing and hunting grounds were destroyed by mining.

During the descriptions and facts about the huge amounts of gold coming out of the area, Morrison introduces other motifs and threads. He mentions that Jack London was among the prospectors. He was the first of several writers and theater figures who were in the Yukon, often during these early years. Most of them resurface late in the film later on, turning out to have surprising connections with the history of the cinema and each other.

Famous entrepreneurs of later years got their starts here. Sid Grauman was a newspaper boy who eventually went on to build a theater chain, including the Egyptian and Grauman’s Chinese in Los Angeles. Ted Richard, who staged boxing matches in the Monte Carlo theater, later founded the New York Rangers and rebuilt Madison Square Garden. Alex Pantages started as a bartender, rebuilt Dawson City’s Orpheum theater after it burned to the ground in 1899 and showed traveling programs of early movies. He became one of the first major film tycoons, building a string of 70 theaters in North America.

 

The Gold Rush frozen in time

One of the revelations of Dawson City is the work of photographer Eric Hegg, who traveled to the Yukon alongside with the hordes of hopeful prospectors. He, however, worked as a photographer, and shot thousands of images that became, as Morrison’s caption says, “the iconic images of the Gold Rush.” The one above shows the arduous and crowded journey up over the notorious Chilkoot Pass. Chaplin later staged a remarkably similar scene for The Gold Rush (1925), though whether he could have seen Hegg’s images is unclear.

By the summer of 1898, the population of Dawson City was around 40,000, and the richest claims were all taken. Businesses were set up to cater to the prospectors, including Hegg’s photographic studio. Saloons, casinos, theaters, as well as more practical boat-builders and banks sprang up. Of the two initial banks that opened branches, the Canadian Bank of Commerce is the more important to Morrison’s story, since it eventually acted as the Dawson City agent for distributors sending films to town.

The first boom ended in the spring of 1900, after the announcement of a gold strike in Nome. Three-quarters of Dawson City’s population left, including Hegg, who left his collection of glass negatives with his partner, Ed Larss. He opened a new studio in Skagway and continued to document the Gold Rush.

After his departure, Hegg disappears from Dawson City for quite some time. His work there, however, was also fortuitously rescued from oblivion. Twenty minutes from the end, we are introduced to Irene Caley and Will Crayford, who married in 1947 and decided to move a cabin from Dawson City to Rock Creek. Inside the walls they found hundreds of Hegg’s glass negatives. How they got there is unknown. Coincidentally, Hegg died in 1947, presumably unaware of the recovery of his early negatives.

The newlyweds proposed to strip the emulsion off the plates and use them to build a greenhouse. Luckily a local shopkeeper recognized their nature and gave the couple plain plates in exchange for the 93 glass ones, as well as 96 nitrate negatives. He donated the collection to the National Museum of Man in Ottawa. Arguably this rescue is as significant as the DCFF, especially given that Hegg’s photographs mostly survived in beautiful condition and constitute the best record of the Gold Rush’s first stage.

In 1949 a book of Hegg’s photographs, edited by Edith Anderson Bccker, was published as Klondike ’98.

Subsequently documentary film director and producer Colin Low saw the plates in Ottawa and was inspired to make City of Gold (1957), co-directed by Wolf Koenig. City of Gold, which drew extensively on Hegg’s images, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Film. The awards ceremony took place at the Pantages Theater in Los Angeles, built and owned by the same Alexander Pantages who launched his theatrical career in Dawson City. It would be nice to think that whoever attended that ceremony representing City of Gold saw the connection.

In 1900, Hegg moved to Skagway and continued to document the Gold Rush. His post-Dawson City photographs also survive. The University of Washington’s collection contains over 2100. Its library offers a short biography and a generous sampling of those photographs here.

 

Weaving the threads together

Dawson City’s second boom was less spectacular but more ominous. The White Pass Railroad made Dawson City more accessible, and heavier equipment was brought in: giant hoses to break up the ground, sluices to convey the ore to a central locale, and so. Miners brought their families to live in Dawson City, with the population steadying at 9000. Various institutions, including banks, the Carnegie Library (above), and, in 1902, the huge Dawson Amateur Athletic Assocation (DAAA) building was built, with an auditorium, billiards room, bowling alley, skating rink, and swimming pool (top). I can’t summarize the whole film, but by this point Morrison has introduced enough people and places to start connecting them up in unexpected ways.

One such thread meanders like this. The celebrity motif returns at about this point, with Marjorie Rambeau (later to have a career as a character actress in movies from 1917 to 1957) performing in Dawson City with a traveling theatrical trouple. Rambeau is not significant here, but Fatty Arbuckle was also in the cast. This information is accompanied by a frame from Fatty’s Day Off (1913), a film discovered in the DCFF.

Shortly after this, we hear of two further celebrities-to-be who were in Dawson City. In 1908, poet Robert Service arrives to work at the Canadian Bank of Commerce, and the following year he writes his first and best-known novel, The Trail of ’98 (1909), about the Gold Rush. From 1908 to 1912, William Desmond Taylor works as a timekeeper on a large gold-mining dredge belonging to the Yukon Gold Company, founded by Daniel and Soloman Guggenheim in 1907. These dredges handled most of the mining, throwing many out of work and causing Dawson City’s population to shrink to 3000. Huge dredges would continue to grind down the land for decades.

In 1912, Taylor left for Hollywood, where he enjoyed a short but prolific career as an actor and director, before, as Morrison foreshadows, his untimely death.

These people disappear for a time, and we learn that in 1911 the auditorium of the DAAA was turned into a movie house, the DAAA Family Theater. Other theaters in town went over to showing films. Morrison conveys this via an amusing montage of shots of people in cinema and theatrical audiences, all from DCFF films. He also provides a quick summary of disastrous nitrate fires during the early 1910s.

There follows a long interlude of coverage of the suppression of laborers and leftists during this period, in part to show off some of the newsreel footage preserved in the DAAA swimming pool. These include the Ludlow Massacre of 1914, the “Silent Parade” protesting violence against African-Americans in 1917, and the World Series scandal of 1919.This somewhat tangential though interesting foray into politics also serves to bring us forward nearly a decade.

The Solax studio fire, which also happened in 1919, provides a rather wobbly transition back to film and Dawson City as the end point of a film distribution line. The population has sunk to 1000 by this point. Since the films shown in the town during this decade were not shipped back to the distributor, many of them were stored in the basement of the Carnegie Library and continued to be through the 1920s.

A long, effective montage of shots from various DCFF films follows, beginning with people listening through doors and going through them, so that we get the impression of a giant house with dozens of people sneaking around. This is followed by shots of men attempting to embrace women and being repulsed.

The last of these is from The Kiss (1914), starring William Desmond Taylor. A caption announces his murder in 1922.

     

A Dawson City newspaper page announcing the murder and calling Taylor a “Klondiker” and a “Yukoner” is superimposed over another image from The Kiss. Coincidentally, just below this story is one about Arbuckle’s second murder trial ending in a hung jury. The second Taylor headline points out: “Noted Stars Involved.” One of these was Mary Miles Minter, and Morrison shows her in a film, The Little Clown (1921), from the DCFF. Minter had acted in films directed by Taylor, though this is, alas, not one of them. It was however, discovered among the DCFF films. Not one to quit there, Morrison cuts to a shot from another DCFF film, The Strange Case of Mary Page (1916), which has a plot that resembles Taylor’s case.

     

That two Hollywood directors should have been linked to murder cases, one as victim, one as alleged perpetrator (Arbuckle was never convicted), was certainly a gift to a director keen to stitch as many elements of his film together as possible through associations rather than straightforward historical causes.

Other connections are less elaborate. At the point where the story of Dawson City has reached the late 1920s, The Trail of ’98 (1928), an adaptation of the Robert Service novel mentioned above, is shown via a superimposed poster to be screening at Grauman’s Chinese, another chance confluence of two people who could not have crossed paths in the Yukon, since Grauman left there in 1900.

 

The burial

All this material has brought us to the point when the accumulating films in the library basement were transferred to the DAAA swimming pool. By 1928 Dawson City had developed a “modest season tourist industry.” Chief Isaac, whom we met early on, had become mayor of Moosehide (above). And Clifford Thomas, the man responsible for putting the film reels in the swimming pool, moved to Dawson City to work at the Canadian Bank of Commerce. He also became the treasurer of the Dawson Amateur Hockey League, which played on the ice rink installed annually over the swimming pool.

In 1929 the library storage had reached capacity, and when Thomson inquired of the studios what he should do with the films, he was instructed to destroy them. At about the time, it was decided to fill in the pool so as to allow for a the skating rink to get rid of a broad bulge caused by the pool’s cover. Thomson made the decision to use the reels as fill in this conversion. Numerous other reels were burned or thrown into the Yukon River–a standard way of disposing of trash.

Morrison could have skipped back to the recovery of the films roughly fifty years later, but instead he continues the Dawson City story. First, he poetically indicates the long decades the reels spent sealed underground with a montage of women asleep, all drawn from DCFF films. The talkies finally reach Dawson City, and more silent reels are dumped or burnt. Chief Isaac dies in  1932.

Parades continue to celebrate the Gold Rush heritage, as recorded by George Black, an avid local amateur cinematographer who recorded several events shown in Dawson City. The one below took place in 1941.

By 1950, the population of Dawson City dropped under 900 people. The last theater was torn down in 1961, though the replica of the Palace Grand went up as a multi-purpose facility in 1962.

On November 15, 1966, the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corporation closed down its last dredge. A lengthy drone shot flies high over the tortuous, unnatural landscape that resulted from many decades of grinding down and spewing out the land (bottom). The ecological thread has not been emphasized through most of the film, but it comes to a devastating conclusion.

Morrison reaches the discovery of the reels in 1978, and Gates and Jones-Gates resume their story. They contact Sam Kula, Director of Audiovisual Archives, 1973-1989 at the National Archives of Canada. Kula comes to Dawson City, and he (left) and Gates (right) investigate the sodden reels of film.

Kula initially suggested donating the films to the local museum and contacted Kathy Jones. She helped dig up the films, which turned out to be far more numerous and buried far more deeply than they imagined. A newspaper item about the find led to a letter from Clifford Thomson. His explanation of how he had arranged for the films to be put in the swimming pool solved that mystery and provides us with our basic knowledge of the origins of the reels.

The rest of the film’s tale of the reels’ discovery follows how the three rescuers tried to ship the thems to the National Archives of Canada, with several truck, bus, and air services refusing to deal with nitrate film. In November of 1978 a Canadian Air Force plane delivered 506 reels to the Archives.

Morrison ends with a series of shots from various DCFF films with heavy deterioration. The thread of nitrate’s flammability and the recounting of numerous nitrate fires finds its quiet ending in the film’s lengthy final shot. A female dancer performs a modern dance that apparently expresses anguish. Blank white flashes flicker across the frame, suggesting that the dancer is being enveloped by the flames generated by nitrate film.

It is a fitting ending to a film that blends fascinating information and poetic associations in equal measures.

 

Some caveats

Despite my considerable admiration for Dawson City: Frozen Time, I have to take issue with some of the descriptions in this last part of the film. The narration does not point out that most of the films recovered were incomplete–not surprisingly, given how many reels were burned or otherwise destroyed. A film historian would assume that. A casual viewer would not. Similarly, there is an explicit statement that “every other copy” of these films had been lost to fire and decay. Some of these films, however, survived elsewhere, and sometimes in better copies.

The reception of the film has, through no fault of Morrison, distorted the significance of the DCFF considerably further. This evidently started with a extensive article in Vanity Fair that dubbed the DCFF “The King Tut’s Tomb of Silent-Era Cinema.” Numerous reviewers picked up this idea and repeated it, as when Kenneth Turan began his review, “It’s been called the King Tut’s Tomb of silent cinema, a celluloid find at one of the world’s far corners that dazzled the film universe.”

I cannot think of a more inapt comparison. Tutankhamun’s tomb is one of only two largely undisturbed royal tombs from the entire three-thousand-year history of ancient Egypt, and it is far and away the more important of the two. Despite the tomb’s small size in comparison with others in the Valley of the Kings, an extraordinary number of intact royal grave goods came from it–about 5000 of them (a small sample shown above). Indeed, most of what we know about ancient Egyptian royal grave goods is derived from those pieces. Tutankhamun’s tomb is, as far as we now know, unique.

In contrast, there have been many hundreds of discoveries of original silent films. One of the most notable is the Desmet collection in the Netherlands, which contained over 900 films, most of them complete and in excellent condition. Other such discoveries have ranged from single prints to large collections. Those who have discovered and restored these films are still building the international archival holdings of silent cinema. The Dawson City find is simply one important contribution to this extensive and ongoing effort.

Sam Kula himself wrote, “No-one familiar with the considerable resources now accessible through the work of film archives throughout the world would seriously argue that the Dawson Collection, or any one cache of early film, will lead to a wholesale re-write of the histories.”

 

The story continued

Morrison essentially ends his account when the films leave Dawson City, which is quite understandable. But the viewer might ask what happened next. There is little attention paid to the lengthy, complex procedures necessary to rescue the films from the effects of their long burial and to transfer their images onto modern negatives.

The Blu-ray release contains a nine-minute supplement, Dawson City: Postscript, which does trace some of the subsequent history of the rescued reels. We see the washing of the films in the Canadian facility, as well as the storage facilities in which the original films were stored once they had been duplicated. In the US, the Library of Congress’ 388 reels are now kept at the Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia, which David visited and blogged about earlier this year. Morrison maintains his history of Dawson City as well, noting that in the summer of 1979 the town suffered a disastrous flood and that the premiere of some of the restored films took place shortly after that, on September 1.

At first glance, the Dawson find seems to have been handled in a casual way, with local administrators who were not film archivists digging up reels with shovels and handling them in a way that today would seem reckless. Some have assumed that considerable unnecessary damage was done to the films after their discovery. Yet no written account of the whole affair has yet been published.

I asked our friend Paolo Cherchi Usai, Senior Curator of the Moving Image Department of the George Eastman Museum, for his opinion. He kindly gave me his account of the rescue process, which suggests that the original participants in Dawson City did the best they could under extremely challenging circumstances.

As Paolo wrote in introducing his description, “Please note that what I know is just a matter of oral history — things I heard from the protagonists and witnesses of the events, several years ago. Also, I have not yet seen Bill Morrison’s film.” Others may be able to correct or expand upon some of what Paolo has written. Still, it provides a very informative and useful summary of the rescue process. (I have identified the people mentioned below in brackets. The undated image of a silent-era drying drum is the only image in this entry that is not from Dawson City: Frozen Time.)

In my opinion, the rescue of the Dawson City was a miracle of improvisation and initiative achieved under extremely difficult and often adverse circumstances (see below). In all fairness, I can’t call it a disaster (I can think of other occurrences in my field where that term could rightfully apply). In hindsight, it is all too easy to point out the mistakes made in the process; back in 1978, archival practices were less sophisticated than they are now.

The comparison with Tutankhamen’s tomb is indeed excessive in regard to the aesthetic importance of the films; there is no exaggeration, however, in pointing out the extraordinary circumstances surrounding the discovery, and the steps taken in a very short period of time. You don’t find silent films in a frozen swimming pool that often. When you do, the historical value of the artifacts is not an issue. You want to save all the objects, and then find out their worth. That’s the main reason for the mystique surrounding the discovery; that’s also why I heard about it as soon as I started studying silent film history and film preservation.

It must be pointed out at the outset that the film reels found in the layer right under the permafrost that covered the swimming pool were already decomposed. Nothing could be done to save those prints. It is my understanding that preliminary identification work was undertaken at Dawson City, and that such work was implemented in a cold area. It may be argued that there was no particular reason why this work had to be done there instead than later in Ottawa, but that’s what happened. The late Sam Kula, one of the protagonists (together with Bill O’Farrell [Head of Film Preservation, 1975-2002, National Archives of Canada] and Paul Spehr [former Secretary for the Motion Picture Section of the Library of Congress and Assistant Chief of the Motion Picture Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress], among others) of this story, may have been able to explain this.

The reels gradually thawed in at least three stages, during their transfer to a) an air-force base near Dawson City; b) the National Archives in Ottawa; c) the Library of Congress. The thawing could perhaps have been minimized (if not avoided altogether) if the material had been processed in a refrigerated area from beginning to end. This didn’t happen. The nitrate unit at the National Archives of Canada had been shut down to make room for operations on safety materials, and no special precaution could apparently be taken while dividing the collection in two main groups: the Canadian newsreels to be kept at the National Archives, and the American films to be sent to the Library of Congress.

Bureaucracy was the nemesis of the Dawson City rescue project. The only way Bill O’Farrell could bypass it was for him to personally transport the reels of American films from Canada to the US by car, in a large station wagon, from Ottawa to Suitland, Maryland. His heroic feat — perhaps the most important of his career — would have hardly been possible today. He had no choice; following the usual protocol would have taken months, and the emulsion on the prints would have melted completely. Paul Spehr did his part by having the films accepted into the collection in record time, without following the standard acquisition procedures at the LoC. O’Farrell had alerted Spehr that “there is water in the cans” — this is what Spehr heard on the phone, and he expected this to be the case when the material arrived. It’s not that the reels were drenched in a pool of water in each can; but there was water. The prints had thawed.

In that situation, it was deemed necessary to do something about that water. The technical staff at LoC designed and built a drying drum, similar to those used in film laboratories during the silent era. Because of their size, each reel had to be unwound and cut into sections of approximately 300 feet each. The reels were dried that way. They were unwound while very wet on the edges of the reels, and the emulsion inevitably peeled off from the left and right margins of the frame; hence the distinctive look of the Dawson City films we can see today in reproduced form. I think the very same method for drying the films was applied in Ottawa to the Canadian newsreels.

To reiterate the point, the whole story has always been described to me as an emergency rescue performed at breakneck speed, a chain of events where careful advance planning could not be part of the picture. The only way to avoid the partial loss of the emulsion would have been to undertake the entire process in a much colder working area. By the time the reels reached Dayton, however, it would have already been too late to apply such a solution, even if a low-temperature processing area had been available. All that could be done at LoC was to “stabilize” the material long enough for it to go through the printers for duplication.

So that’s that. I hasten to add that my recollections raise a number of questions to which I have no answer.

Our thanks to Paolo for filling in so much of the rest of the story of the Dawson City Film Find.


Thanks to Jonathan Hertzberg of Kino Lorber for his assistance.

The Sam Kula quotation comes from his account of the DCFF rescue, “Rescued from the Permafrost: The Dawson Collection of Motion Pictures,” which can be found on Archivaria: The Journal of the Association of Canadian Archvists #8 (Summer 1979), reprinted from American Film (July 1979).

A brief description of the “Public Archives of Canada/Dawson City Collection” is on the Library of Congress “Motion Pictures in the Library of Congress” page.

Stephen Cone, Unexpected Humanist

Princess Cyd
Stephen Cone has been making movies at a steady clip for over a decade and yet remains largely unknown. It is a momentous and wholly deserved occasion then for him to receive a retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. Despite mixed receptions and even more erratic distribution patterns, his collection of films isn’t as motley as one might think.  While each might tiptoe in a different direction, they maintain a hand in the Stephen Cone universe, imprinted by the same particular humanistic insight. In one of his earliest films, In Memoriam (2011), a young man so subsumed with the sudden death of a couple, fallen from a roof during the throes of pleasure, conducts his own investigation into their ill-fated demise. Innocuous curiosity masks what is essentially an existential inquiry and takes a self-referential pivot when he decides to recreate and film the events, an apt summary of what Cone himself does: broach larger questions under the guise of something lighthearted.  The Wise Kids (2011) captures three church-going high school seniors at a moment of transition when their world starts to evince cracks. A disquiet seeps in amid the bright angelic lighting as the story radiates outward to include the acquaintances and adults around them, also wrestling with doubts and questions of their own. This construction, intimate and far-reaching, also takes shape in Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party (2015), which confines its action to the celebratory day, a poolside fete, for a 17-year-old preacher’s son who might be gay. Replacing the French countryside with the American suburbs, this Rules of the Game-like endeavor is by turns ebullient and serious, punctured with tumultuous emotions that rumble beneath the surface. Cone’s latest film, Princess Cyd, now playing in New York, centers on the clash between Cyd (Jessie Pinnick), a teenage girl exploring her sexuality, and her bookish aunt Miranda (Rebecca Spence). It steps into an idyllic Chicago summer where intellectualism, spirituality, and sexuality, none of which is mutually exclusive, collide.  Earlier this year, I described it as the movie equivalent of finally receiving that long-awaited embrace from a family member; a good thing. After talking at length with Cone, I realize now that the comment may have been at best a mild puzzlement; the tenderness implied in my observation is to him a casual quality, an off-hand byproduct not as immediately recognized or perhaps not with as much zeal as the peers, fans, and critics who refer to his work. I spoke to Cone about this dissonance between the reception and creation of his films, his influences, and much more.

NOTEBOOK: Cyd isn’t as enmeshed in religion as many of the characters in your previous films who grew up in the church. In fact, religion has gone from the foreground to the background here. Could you talk about that shift?
STEPHEN CONE: This particular film doesn’t take place in the south, and that doesn’t mean there aren’t liberal meccas all over the south, but certainly being able to tell this story in Chicago about an open minded, academic, literary novelist and having Cyd integrate into this world was a kind of vacation for me to get away from those philosophically restricted communities. It’s a vacation for Cyd, and it’s sort of a vacation for me. Let’s go to this part of the United States and see what we can uncover over here.
But that doesn’t mean this narrative, or even these cities, are without their own repressive qualities. Miranda is a freethinker, open and firm in her interests, but who knows why she’s resisting romance in her life at that moment. She has embraced a more liberal, open form of Christianity that I wish I’d had more of a chance to articulate; that’s one of my regrets.
NOTEBOOK: You’ve directed a lot of ensemble work. How did you come to this story, a more tightly focused narrative of Cyd and Miranda?
CONE: It started with my love for the author Marilynne Robinson. I had the story of a teenage niece with the polar opposite sensibility and I wondered what that dynamic would be like. In an earlier mental picture, it had a totally different tone: darker, moodier, and less verbal. Maybe in the dark mountains of Tennessee.
Up until mid-June of last year I was prepping this other much larger budgeted movie until I came to my senses. I was rushing this project that’s supposedly my first non-micro-budget film, but the script didn’t seem ready, and I pushed that into the future, and pulled this idea out, what became Princess Cyd, instead. I was inspired by this beautiful summer we were having in Chicago, and kept the premise, but changed the tone, making it a love letter to the city. This idea of two women in a house was transformed into an open-air summer’s tale. The tonal shift happened in a matter of weeks, coming together really fast.
There are two central leads, but much like in [The] Wise Kids [2011] or Henry Gamble, I start by thinking about a few of people, and look for every opportunity I can to shove in as many more people as possible. In that sense, ensemble film became a specialty for me in a backwards route. I stumbled into it. I wasn’t sure if I would be as interested in making Princess Cyd if I wasn’t interested in Miranda, the people around her, and in Chicago—its open, humane society. It’s not a utopia by any means, but this sense of friends and social circles outside the realm of American evangelicalism. I used to think that wasn’t a word but now I hear journalists say it.
NOTEBOOK: Evangelicalism seems like a catchall that some people use for all types of Christians. Do you ever have qualms of it describing your work?
CONE: It’s a catchall term yet one I hardly ever use. No, I’m aware that my films that have risen to the top or are more known are the ones that are about that. But, one thing I’ve discovered is that is I consistently make films that when I see the synopsis written by someone else, I would not be interested in seeing it. I have no deep abiding interest in coming-of-age films, and yet, it seems like I’ve made a series of those films. It’s interesting how what you’re passionate about making is not what you’re passionate about watching. I’ll watch and love movies in that category of coming-of-age indie, of course, but in general, if you had told pre-moviemaking Stephen that he would be known in the early part of his career for films about teenagers finding themselves, I would be surprised to know that’s where I went. I guess I’m more interested in teens subconsciously than I’m aware of.  
NOTEBOOK: One of the reasons perhaps that your films excel is precisely because you’re not watching them and you’re not aware of the tropes.
CONE: Yes! If you gave me a pop quiz on the coming-of-age clichés, I’m not sure that I’d know them.
NOTEBOOK: Your film avoids the clichés enough so that I think they don’t necessarily have to be categorized as a coming-of-age film. They don’t fit so neatly into a category.
CONE: I think if more people knew that, then more people would watch them. There are people on Twitter and in real life social circles, no one specifically, with whom there’s a lot of mutual respect, who are interested in what I’m doing, but haven’t caught up with the actual films yet, and I think it’s because they see how many times I’ve retweeted someone categorizing it as a sweet coming-of-age movie. That’s the other thing: the words used to describe my film, are not words I ever expected to be connected with it. “Warm, lovely humanism.” “Sweet.” Again, if I heard this about other films, I’d say that sounds nice, but I’ll get to this much, much later, after my priorities. It just seems that you are what you are, and it’s so surprising to get an outsider’s point of view. I can only hope there’s something there beyond nice. The Village Voice review came out that was very much mixed and essentially said this movie is, for better and for worse, as light as a feather. That was the headline.
NOTEBOOK: Sweet doesn’t have to be synonymous with slight.
CONE: People loved Princess Cyd and for different reasons, but this person found it slight and forgettable and it makes me wonder about career context. How important it should be. Like, if the reviewer had seen Henry Gamble, would they felt the same way?  It’s like a musician who plays folk music or electronica for ten years and then they try their hand at classical or something else. Context isn’t the ultimate thing, but it is important. Now I want to contradict myself. Maybe the movie should just be the thing. I’m just curious if people who find this slight would find that in the context of my other films.
NOTEBOOK: I do think there’s an importance to be placed on knowing a director’s whole body of work. Also, no one wants to be called nice. So how would you describe your films?
CONE: There’s an earnestness that people find distinct, but I can’t see it, because I wrote it. I discern it to a small extent. There was another review that called it aggressively sweet. This way in which my movies are described as going out of their way to be compassionate, kind, loving. I feel like people see that as an overarching quality, but I’m not consciously putting it in. It’s almost like making a dish, and you’re really proud of this one spice you added, but people keep commenting on the cinnamon or something. But they still like it, so you can’t complain. “But what I think is unique is so and so.”
A lot of what we’re getting at, too, is really the problem of being a cinephile and filmmaker. It’s been problematic for me, not in a way that I regret, but being aware of influences, and how perception is formed. It’s a challenge to keep blinders on, make what you make without thinking about A: who’s influencing you; B: how’s it going to be received; C: being compared to other directors.  To my credit, when I’m making the movie, I’m good at ignoring it, but when it’s out there, it’s hard not to get paranoid about the film’s context in film culture and critical culture.  I’m starting to understand why directors are leaving social media because it can get complicated.
NOTEBOOK: That tender humanist approach that you mention is also used to describe the work of Marilynne Robinson, who also portrays Christian characters in her books. I think that this depiction is even more rare on screen, excepting Biblical epics and niche Christian films, or explicitly spiritual films about men of the cloak. Was it always your intent to incorporate Christianity as a backdrop?
CONE: I want this answer to be more interesting than it is. It really did start from an autobiographical impulse and, I’m guessing, a void in the culture where Christians weren’t portrayed as thinking, feeling, yearning people. That’s where it started. And having a tremendous amount of sympathy for 16-18 year olds in that world, which is where The Wise Kids came from. Just thinking about smart girls questioning. That’s where that movie started. It didn’t even start with the gay stuff. It started with the idea of a preacher’s daughter losing her faith and her friend who stayed firm, and opening out into a community, sort of out of indecision on my part.  It’s a combination of concern for the issues of being trapped in that world, but specifically being young, thinking, and trapped. I wanted to humanize the world I grew up in, but not on any big, tall, platform, but just like if I’d grown up in a family of Buddhist monks, or firefighters, I would be making movies about those things.
NOTEBOOK:  Write what you know, as they say. Most depictions of church often seem written by people who seem to have never stepped inside of one.
CONE: That’s another thing I can’t really be conscious of. It’s just there. For me to do it any other way would feel forced. And that’s the dilemma I run into. Occasionally people will claim that I should go deeper, that I seem to be shying away from more violent emotions. I do think that’s a valid criticism. But when is it a valid criticism and when should a moment just be filled with grace? How to decide when to be graceful and when to be violent is a question I hope to be better at answering in the future. When I’ve attempted to integrate violence and intensity, for instance the self-mutilation in Henry Gamble or even the scene of potential sexual assault in PrincessCyd, I don’t know that I’ve succeeded at integrating these sorts of confrontations. I hope I can get better at that and that my own education will unfold in an organic way.
NOTEBOOK: You consistently get great performances out of your cast. Could you talk a little about how you work with actors?
CONE: For me it’s just casting really skilled actors, whether they’re new or not. You haven’t seen a performance in one of my films that I really had to fight to get. These actors know they’re being cast in a movie that’s being put together in a relatively short amount of time and they have to show up and just do it. I’ll have maybe one phone conversation with them where I’m going to give them two or three general thoughts, and say, “I’m going to trust you to carry this.” There’s not a ton of on-set conversation. There’s respect, kindness. I’ll nudge them one way or another, but for the most part they feel like someone’s trusting them to do the job, and they don’t feel like they can fail, and then they really nail it.
NOTEBOOK: You act and have appeared in your own films as well. Is that your background?
CONE: Background in the sense of that’s what you did in undergrad. I was an actor and did performing arts in high school and theater and a film minor in college. A lot of acting in college. I was the undergrad who got the roles and got to play with the graduate students. I was that guy.  Afterwards, I quickly lost interest in the life of an actor, and was reaching back into my years of being a nerdy cinephile kid. After college, I didn’t know what to do because I lost my motivation to be an actor very fast. Dabbled a little bit in playwriting and in 2005 I made my first short film without any formal film instruction. I teach a couple classes at Northwestern [University] in the film department, but I’ve never taken a filmmaking class. I just started educating myself. I act every now and then, but mostly I’ve just been trying to get better as a filmmaker.
You’re one of the few people on planet earth who have seen all those movies. Really, there’s very few people who have seen all of my movies. And that’s because starting in 2005, I made one movie per year without knowing anything about what I was doing, feeling overwhelmed by influences, feeling like I was failing, and maybe getting one review that encouraged me to be better, so by the time I hit Wise Kids, I had like 3-4 years of relatively unsuccessful shorts and features. Why did it take me five years to learn to tell a story? I think that’s because I was a little too ambitious and trying to put everything into everything. I was resistant to modesty and small goals and as a result I piled all of these narrative threads into these projects that I had no business doing. With Wise Kids, I finally said, “Will you just stop and tell a simple story and not be scared of it?” I think I was scared that if I told a simple autobiographical story, it wouldn’t be special. I was running from it those first few years.
I kept going, but it’s taken me a long time. I feel like I’ve learned very slowly. There are duds in there, from my point of view. If you drew a diagram of how my movies have played, how often and where, it would look like the wildest mountain range in the world. There has not been any discernible slope in my career.
NOTEBOOK: From what you have produced, there is something that speaks to who you are as a director in your body of work, and who you’re turning out to be as you progress.It’s not slow in the long run—that is, if you keep making movies.
CONE: A lot of it is seeing a lot of filmmakers making their first time films. You know, we live in a culture that celebrates the discovery, and the first time filmmaker. I’ve seen these polished projects come out of people, and I didn’t have that. And I don’t regret it. In fact, I see the last twelve years as that instead of a single film it’s just a long unwieldy first chapter. In many ways, I see this little collection of films as that dazzling first time film. But it’s been lonely. Over the last few years I’ve come to truly love how things have gone for my recent films, but it’s been lonely. I don’t have many filmmakers I can look to and say it also took them a decade to get kicked into gear. The only filmmaker I ever reference in any way, even though he’s not that similar, is Sean Baker. And that’s because he had a few features before Starlet and they premiered at oddball regional festivals. He’s someone who for whom it took a few films before it clicked. And he’s older than people think. There have been very few people like that that I’ve been able to look to for inspiration. It’s been hard to sustain the emotional strength to keep going.
NOTEBOOK: The LGBTQ community has had a positive reaction to your films. Do you find that your films are better known there?
CONE: I think that was true for Wise Kids and Henry Gamble, but Henry Gamble was the crossover into New Yorky mainstream film culture circles. There was a period of time where I feel like most of the New York cultural scene thought HenryGamble was my first film because it played BAMcinemaFest, and I came up out of nowhere, and no one had seen Wise Kids because it had been branded a gay film. But the films before that weren’t gay, and since then they were only partially of gay. I didn’t know what it would be like to be branded by premiering at a gay festival and that taught me a lot, but thankfully the person who ran Outfest at the time, Kim Yutani, a senior programmer at Sundance now, was able to nudge it outside the gay scene. So I’ve walked the tightrope. There is a downside of being branded an LGBT film, but at the same time the same distributor has put out all three of my higher profile films, and they’re a strictly LGBT distributor and I don’t know if these movies would be seen without them. I don’t want to be branded a queer filmmaker. I love including queerness in the narratives, but I sort of yearn for it to blend in, like with a lot of European filmmakers. André Téchiné has, like, three bisexual characters in every movie he’s made, and yet he’s not branded a gay filmmaker. It’s only in America where you get lumped into this category.
NOTEBOOK: Your characters are teenagers in that stage where they’re starting to think about what they want to do, who they want to be. You mentioned being a nerdy cinephile. What were your earliest influences that shaped you?
CONE: My obsession hearkens back to film scores. Being eight years old and obsessed with John Williams and James Horner and that whole gang. There are, like, seven phases to my cinephila and I don’t want to burden you with all of them. That’s a random number, by the way. You go through the action movie phase. I was really interested in movies in the mid-90s when the indie was prominent. I was just eating them up as a 16-year-old preacher’s kid: it was FargoThe Sweet Hereafter, BreakingtheWaves. BlueVelvet and even TheDoom Generation with friends. All the while I’m still leading Bible studies. College was discovering the 70s American. I had a friend who invited me to his screenings for his 70s film class and I saw Carrie and DogDayAfternoon and Deer Hunter. The latter portion of college was falling in love with the canon foreign filmmakers like Bergman and Dreyer. I spent a year in New York after college, and I wasn’t very happy there and I escaped into Tower Records’s DVD section where I discovered Kiarostami, Claire Denis, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang. That’s when things started to open up.
The next phase the big influence was seeing Opening Night and Woman Under the Influence. That’s when there’s that annoyingly generic thing of saying the great humanists came in. I still love Denis, Tsai, Kiarostami, but what really has stuck with me are people like Renoir, Cassavetes, and Demy—even Malick and Davies. Relatively optimistic poets of cinema. Those are the people that I carry with me daily. Did that trajectory make sense at all?
NOTEBOOK: Yes!
CONE: One more: a formative group that influenced me profoundly. I only noticed a few years ago I was being affected by that group of Arnaud Desplechin, Olivier Assayas, André Téchiné, Patrice Giroux—that group of French filmmakers in their 50s and 60s that created these uncategorizable, often ensemble, dramas that felt wild and spontaneous like they could go in any direction at any time. I would count them alongside the humanists as influences.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of composers, I’ve noticed that music plays an important role in your films. The soundtrack, of course, but also as part of the narrative, even in small ways, like a character cueing up a playlist on an iPod, for example.
CONE:  I can’t afford a music supervisor nor would I want one. Returning to things that I didn’t really expect to be a part of my filmmaking is the amount of pop songs in them. Predicting what I was going to make, I would’ve thought something largely instrumental. But that also comes with the genre of coming of age. I love mixing, though. That’s directly from Desplechin. He gives filmmakers permission to not have consistent music styles. I like to sprinkle in classical—I’m a sucker for choral music. It’s funny that my original passions were these lush orchestral scores, because my films aren’t heavy with that.
The score that I’m proudest of is what Heather McIntosh did on Black Box [2013], which was very much a score-driven film. My entire pitch for that movie was I want this to feel like a John Hughes movie with a horror music score.Literally the origin was my love of film music. That could also account for some of the narrative lapses or fumbles.It’s a total tonal exercise and I love what Heather did with that. We both feel she did the score of a lifetime for that movie, which didn’t get any play, really.
NOTEBOOK: I love how the play the students put on seems a bit like The Exorcist.
CONE: The thing that I love about this movie, I’m just touched by the relationship of [actress] Josephine [Decker]’s character to that book. These pop culture items that we find in adolescence that are forbidden, but sometimes save our lives. They’re not even well written, but they save our lives. I’m so intrigued and moved by that. I don’t know if you can make a successful movie about it, but that movie was an attempt to celebrate trash. The redemptive power of trash. I hope I can tackle that subject matter again one day and have people actually see the film.

Denver Film Festival - Jasper Jones

jasper-jones-001-hero.jpg

Rachel Perkins - 2017
Film Movement

This quote from Australian novelist Craig Silvey pretty much sums up Jasper Jones - "I've always been attracted to Southern Gothic fiction. There's something very warm and generous about those regional American writers like Twain and Lee and Capote, and it seemed to be a literary ilk that would lend itself well to the Australian condition."

Silvey's novel provided the basis for the film, and Silvey also co-wrote the screenplay. As much as I am usually resistant to coming of age stories, this one is worth looking into because of a less familiar location, western Australia. Taking place in 1969, the film appears to be period accurate without bogging the narrative down with nostalgia for the past. The quote is especially appropriate with a shot of teenage Charlie reading Mark Twain, and glancing through a copy of In Cold Blood, while tentative girlfriend Eliza has a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany's after seeing the film several times. Harper Lee isn't directly referenced, but there is a sense of connection to To Kill a Mockingbird with the youth of the main characters, the small town scandal, the racism, and the acknowledgment by the kids that adults can be lacking in wisdom.

Even though he's the title character, Jasper Jones is not the center of the narrative. A teen, a few years older than Charlie, Jones is the mixed race kid, half Aborigine, half white, that is pegged as the town troublemaker. When a young girl is found hanged outside of town, Jones is certain that he will be accused of murder, and enlists Charlie to help him hide the body, at least until it can be determined who murdered the girl. Most of the film follows Charlie as he deals with this secret, his friendship with Eliza, the sister of the hanged girl, his parents and their uneasy relationship, and a town that seems stuck in a past era. The events take place during the week between Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

The story would have personal meaning for Rachel Perkins, with her own racial background, and growing up with a father, Charles Perkins, who was a noted activist for the rights of the Aboriginal people. Much of the political aspects from the novel have been eliminated to emphasize the murder-mystery. Toni Collette plays Charlie's often exasperated mother, while Hugo Weaving is seen briefly as the town recluse, something like Silvey's version of Boo Radley.

November 06 2017

Denver Film Festival - Radiance

Radiance-560x280.jpg

Hikari
Naomi Kawase - 2017
MK2

Radiance is about the prickly relationship between Misako, a young woman who writes the audio descriptions for blind people to listen to while they "watch" a movie, and Masaya, a middle-aged photographer who is rapidly losing his ability to see. The two are at the beach. Masaya, knowing he can no longer continue as a photographer, tosses his Rolleiflex camera into the ocean. Misako shouts at him, "Why? Why". She grabs his head in her hands and the two press their lips against each other, to which I thought, "Why? Why?".

The history of cinema is of couples who fall in love at the drop of a hat or less. The kiss here came across as unmotivated and unconvincing, more so as neither character is particularly interesting. I can understand that after being known for films that have been both praised and dismissed for being their artistic concerns, that Naomi Kawase would want to make films that are more accessible and have commercial appeal. Kawase's previous film, Sweet Bean was both charming and endearing, making good use of Kirin Kiki and her patented dotty old lady act. Maybe the reason why Sweet Bean succeeded was due to Kawase making a film from someone else's novel as her source.

Kawase's heavy hand as a writer gets in the way of Kawase's abilities to let the images speak for themselves. Misako is writing the descriptions for a movie about an older man who's wife presumably has Alzheimer's disease. Misako's own mother also has Alzheimer's, depicted by her constantly waiting for her late husband to return home. Masaya is one of a small group of blind or vision-impaired people who offer Misako feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of her descriptions. Masaya also tries to live as independently as possible, sometimes resulting in his stumbling around the streets of Tokyo. The film within the film is mawkish. The company Misako works for is called White Light. There are several scenes with people staring at the sun, and even a magazine called "Radiance".

There are some interesting ideas in search of a better movie. In an attempt to improve her description of the film within the film, Misako interviews the director. This might seem like a good idea, but I would think Kawase should know better, that what how a viewer interprets a film might not be what the filmmaker had intended or assumed was being expressed. What this scene suggests is that the description writer's job is to convey the director's intentions rather than allowing the audience to form its own conclusions. At no time does the film seriously question whether providing an audio description for what is essentially thought of as a visual art an act of reinterpretation of someone else's work.

Radiance stars Masatoshi Nagase. Even if you don't recognize the name, Nagase has appeared recently as the Japanese poet in Paterson as well as an earlier Jim Jarmusch film, Mystery Train. Among the better known Japanese titles are Suicide Club and The Hidden Blade. Nagase also starred in Sweet Bean as the owner of the failing one-man restaurant whose fortunes change when an eccentric old woman volunteers to help him cook. See any of those films instead.

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