Liv Ullmann (The Bat Segundo Show)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the 50th New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

Liv Ullmann is the subject of Liv and Ingmar, which is now playing the New York Film Festival. She has also appeared in many legendary movies.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering whether his persona is predicated upon cries and whispers.

Guest: Liv Ullmann

Subjects Discussed: Maintaining patience while living with an eccentric genius, living in other people’s dreams, how women’s expectations have changed over the last fifty years, the spate of op-ed pieces about film culture being dead, the distinctions between storytelling and lies, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, pride in belonging to the storytellers, Scenes from a Marriage, telling your story in a documentary vs. drawing upon deep emotions as an actor, pretense vs. reality, what it really means to be a filmmaker, finding meaning in people who are difficult, getting negativity out through performance, not giving up, old people who grow bitter (and avoiding this), when the life in people’s eyes fades around forty, staying alive, Søren Kierkegaard’s idea of coming to the world with sealed orders, when shaking hands can be the most important gesture in your life, why Ingmar Bergman got such emotional performances from Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s bitterness over Liv not participating in Fanny and Alexander, Bergman’s efforts to restrict cast members from partying, efforts to control other people, what Liv and Ingmar did to relax, being an introvert, Changing, keeping the quest alive for the “lost kingdom of childhood,” and being disturbed by people who lie.


Correspondent: Tolstoy once suggested that time and patience were the greatest of all warriors. And in watching this film [Liv and Ingmar], the great astonishment I had was how you maintained such grace and such patience with Ingmar throughout this entire run. I mean, here was a guy who locked the doors, who locked you and other cast members up, who built the wall around his house, who did all sorts of things. Didn’t let you see family and friends. Basically boarded you up. And I have to ask just from a basic standpoint, how do you maintain such patience with a figure like that? Is his genius enough to forgive his eccentricities? Were you just in a state where at that young age you were in awe of this man who was so intense and romantic? Just to start off here. I was really curious. I mean, that takes a lot of fortitude.

Ullmann: Well, you know, when you describe it, it sounds more dramatic than it really was. Because he built this house for us. And I think he had a dream that we would be there, painfully connected and really by ourselves. And that is a dream you can have when you are middle-aged, which he was. Because the world had been tiring for him. And I was so much in love that I didn’t question it. And it’s many, many, many years ago when women more easily took to that role. And I don’t think I questioned it so much as I sometimes felt, “I don’t think I could consider living like this for always.” Because I longed for things which were outside of this island. And it’s more when I look back at it, I think, “So that was the Liv I was then. And the Liv that I’m now wouldn’t let that happen.” But mostly it was an incredible time. It was five years of my life living on that island that I would never, never be without.

Correspondent: But you do say in the film, “I was trapped in another person’s fantasy.”

Ullmann: No, I didn’t say I was trapped. I said, “I think I’m living someone else’s dream.”

Correspondent: Living. Got it.

Ullmann: And why I corrected you on that is — one thing is to be trapped. Because that can hurt if you have your tale in there.

Correspondent: Sorry for the paraphrase.

Ullmann: But to live in someone else’s dream, that can be beautiful. And for long time, a dream can seem beautiful. But it’s not your dream. And if you are to live, you have to be in your own reality and/or in your own dream.

Correspondent: But surely even before all this, you had your own dreams. You had perhaps some kind of autonomy that was in bloom. When did you know that you had this independent imagination?

Ullmann: Well, maybe my dream was to live in someone else’s dream. For many women, that is a dream. At that time.

Correspondent: At that time.

Ullmann: Absolutely. But even today, I know women still are dreaming about man coming riding on the white horse. But we are talking now about fifty years ago. Or forty-five years ago. Women at that time, we had different expectations — or we thought we had — than women today. And sometimes I feel that women at that time maybe had a more realistic look at life than women today. I’m very happy.

Correspondent: More realistic? How so?

Ullmann: I think we said yes to moral life. We weren’t into Facebook and Twitters and computers. We didn’t look down at our hand all the time. We looked more at other people’s faces and things that were happening around us.

Correspondent: That actually leads me to ask you. If you have an age defined by smartphones and social media, the very intimate cinema that you made with Ingmar and that you have made on your own — I mean, what chance is there today for that to grow? To have an audience? There’s been a lot of op-ed columns in light of the New York Film Festival, in which people are arguing “Well, why aren’t there more films for adults?” or “Is film culture dead?” What are your thoughts on this? I mean, is it still very much alive? Or is this becoming a more exclusive audience? And what do you do as a filmmaker and as an actor to counter the limiting short attention spans?

Ullmann: I hope it is not dead. Because still, to sit in a dark movie house is one of the few places now that people can be and share laughter and dreams and incredible talent. Like you go and watch a ballet or opera or concert. But it’s less and less of that. Which is very sad. And we are more looking at TV and looking at lies from politicians and so. Or the computers and so. Life is more and more distorted from really who we are as human beings. And we’re living in a world of violence, of strong violence and terror. And so we really need culture. And we really need the art, the creation of people’s thoughts and who they are to remind us about who we are and why we are. And it’s harder and harder to find that out with the help of other people. And if we do it alone right now, we do it through machines, not through other people.

Correspondent: How do the lies of a narrative — because, of course, all narratives are essentially wonderful houses of lies that we open the door to — how does that differ from the lies that we have to endure in our culture? How can that offer us…

Ullmann: A storyteller is never a liar. Because, you know, it’s storytelling. And horrible storytelling — you know, it’s storytelling. And you take out from that the experience you really need, the shock you really need. You know, I’m in the middle now of reading a book. Very strange title. I cannot wait till…

Correspondent: What’s the name of the book?

Ullmann: The Pee…?

Correspondent: No worries if you cant.

Ullmann: It’s on my bed.

[At this point, the very kind publicist sprinted to the other room to grab the book.]

Ullmann: And I cannot wait til this afternoon when it is over and I will go back to that. Because it’s a lie. Because it’s a novel. But I’m getting so many thoughts about the time there was and time that is coming. And it has this strange title of….The [Guernsey] Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Correspondent: Oh yeah, yeah! I’ve heard about this. I haven’t read it.

Ullmann: It’s giving me so much joy and I have so few pages left! Now storytelling is lie. But that is real lies. But to stand on TV and say, “This is the truth.” Because that’s what they do! They don’t say, “No. Here comes a story.”

Correspondent: They say, “This is true.”

Ullmann: This is the truth.

Correspondent: If you are lying and you say that it’s the truth, it’s worse than if you’re lying, but it’s a story. So you accept it. It’s about believing.

Ullmann: And you don’t say it’s a lie!

Correspondent: Yes.

Ullmann: You say it’s a story. And I belong to the storytellers. And I’m proud to belong to the storytellers. And I feel we are losing them. Because it’s looked upon as some luxury and people want them to be quick and different and cartoonish. We’ll be lost world when it comes to who we are with our soul. What the soul is all about.

Correspondent: So you see some of the more cartoonish advancements in cinema, some of the more stylistic advancements, as very harmful for it? Is that what you would say?

Ullmann: I think, well, so many of it is harmful. And we have seen it. Because it doesn’t aspire to peace and connection and humanity.

Correspondent: Empathy.

Ullmann: It aspires to violence and to how many people can I kill within a minute. And it looks brave and strangely adventurous.

Correspondent: Yeah. I have to ask. I mean, you have put yourself emotionally on the line as an actor for all of these films. What’s it like to bare your soul for a documentary like this? Speaking of the difference between reality vs. narrative. And it’s also interesting. Because you’ve also been fortunate. In, for example, movies like Scenes from a Marriage, there is a middle ground where it actually takes on a documentary-like feel for a chunk of it. So what’s the difference as an actor? And how does this make you feel to tell your story on camera? Is that harder than inhabiting a character? What are the emotional differences here?

Ullmann: I don’t find it hard to talk about feelings and what I care about in life. And when I did this movie, I said yes only to do two days of interviews. And I don’t find that hard. It’s easier for me to be truthful than to make myself interesting. And it’s not hard at all. I find to pretend is harder. To lie is harder. Because then I’ll forget what I said in the other minute. I like to be truthful. I like to meet people who are truthful. I like when we connect that way, also because that’s the way where I find myself. I’m not different from other people. Other people have the same feelings that I have. And I think we miss that. That we are true to each other.

Correspondent: So when you pretend, it’s not rooted in anything solid for you. It’s not a memory that lasts more than, say, remembering what it was like to walk around with Ingmar and talk with each other. That that’s more of a meaningful memory and therefore that’s easier. Whereas if you’re tapping into the deep visceral guts of something, that’s something that you inhabit but that you don’t remember because that’s just the way it works for you? I’m just curious about this distinction.

Ullmann: Well, there’s a lot of things that I don’t remember. Oh maybe it was like this? And I will tell it. And that’s more storytelling. But there’s nothing wrong with that. But when I see, for example, this movie, there are things that had to do with me that I had forgotten and suddenly I see it. And I know that is the truth. And even stories that I have told about us. When I see it in a movie, a film that has been taken from other movies, I’ll say, “Oh, the reality was different.” And I welcome that. I think that is great. That my memories have now given color to things But when I see the real truth, I found it much more interesting. And for me to see this movie and to see certain things in this movie that I had forgotten, I like it. And thus the movie is a kind of gift to me.

The Bat Segundo Show #489: Liv Ullmann (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Charlie is My Darling

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the 50th New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

They wrote new songs while holed up in motel rooms and flirted with women behind glass as they tried to eat dinner. When young girls were asked why they were drawn to the thin devilish man with the big lips, they could only reply, “I just like him.”

The Altamont Free Concert, with its rough Hells Angels security detail and the grim fate of Meredith Hunter, was only four years away, but Charlie is My Darling, which follows the Rolling Stones on a three day rush through Ireland in crisp and freshly restored black and white, proves that the raw sexual power the band held before a crowd was already well established. In one of the film’s genuinely thrilling moments, we see young people jump on stage, instantly transforming guitar cables into umbilical cords through a simple act of adolescent mischief. Drummer Charlie Watts tries to keep a steady beat as a kid leans very close to his right, eluding capture.

Charlie is My Darling might almost serve as an instructional film on how to be a screaming teenage girl in 1965, but the dark underbelly is revealed when we see girls with fractured legs carried away on stretchers.

Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night poked fun at a blockbuster band’s nonstop sprint from the fans, but this doc has a grittier feel. Part of this is human attitude. The band is well aware that it is responding to a long tradition of pop songs where romantic lyrics describe idealistic moments that have no real bearing to what people are actually doing. The band shows no reticence in remarking on this. Yet the film establishes its own humor, such as the Stones offering commentary over a clip of Mick Jagger schmoozing with important people and band members sneaking up behind kids on light afternoons.

It also features the Stones becoming increasingly drunker, singing Fats Domino and Elvis Presley tunes during a long night around a piano with the alcoholic accoutrements slid across the top. In more sober off-stage moments, we see them play the Beatles’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Always keep track of the competition.

“You have to be very egotistical,” says Jagger when he is asked by a reporter about what it’s like to hold a crowd in such awe. Charlie is My Darling is a vibrant ride inside the Stones’s touring world, but it’s not as brave as Robert Frank’s infamous Cocksucker Blues, with its heroin-injecting groupies and its coke-snorting tips from Keith Richards. The shaggy and vivacious and cocky Brian Jones offers an early glimpse of the more explicit dissolution to come with some revealing statements about marriage. Godard would depict him on the outs in Sympathy for the Devil. He would be dead in a swimming pool not long after that.

NYFF: The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 50th New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

His name came from a tough tumble down Baltimore stairs. They called him “Chicken” because that was the way he walked: wobbly and hunchbacked and sometimes a little alone around the schoolyard. They shortened the name to “Chick” because the single syllable rolled faster off the tongue. But Chick Webb had the grit to hawk newspapers and saved up enough dough for a drum kit. They figured he might build up his upper body strength if they kept him hammering young and long and hard on the drums.

They could not know he would become a big draw at a very big venue: the legendary Savoy Ballroom, immortalized in music with an indelible stomp, the rare place where blacks and whites hopped together on the same hard floor. They could not know how he would woo and shape Ella Fitzgerald’s talent shortly after her fateful appearance at the Apollo. They could not know how Chick would rehearse new arrangements from new composers, the band fueled by mescal and Mary Jane, into the sunrise. They could not know that if you hung around the Savoy long enough, you would have Chick’s respect. Because sticking around was how Chick had made it this far and this good. They could not know he would lead the first black band to host a national radio show. They could not know he would be dead only four months after his 34th birthday. Or maybe it was his 30th? Why not print the legend?

The biggest surprise about Jeff Kaufman’s documentary, The Savoy King: Chick Webb & The Music That Changed America, is how Chick Webb’s mesmerizing life is diminished by the clumsy collection of stray biographical tidbits (Chick liked motorcycles, Chick was a snappy dresser, Chick had a German Shepherd), which don’t quite coalesce into a true narrative trajectory until the film stretches itself across a more expansive canvas. The film serves up many prominent voices (Bill Cosby as Webb, Janet Jackson as Fitzgerald, Jeff Goldbum as Artie Shaw, Andy Garcia as Mario Bauzá, and so forth) as profound movers and shakers in the 1920s and 1930s swing scene. But when we know Chick argued with Jelly Roll Morton, why do we need the former Jello pitchman? This minor dissonance also hinders the film from fully portraying or explicating Chick’s innovative drumming (“He sounded very different from any of the other drummers,” says one subject, to which one must ask, “Care to elaborate?”).

Chick Webb was so legendary that the Harlem streets were congested with more than 10,000 people on the day he died. Gene Krupa said that Webb was the only other drummer who “cut” him. In light of these vital details, it’s surprising that Kaufman races too fast over such details as Chick’s loyalty to his longtime guitarist John Truehart, the only member of Chick’s band who kept with him all the way through, and is sometimes too willing to buy into the Webb myth. (For example, Charles Linton told biographer Stuart Nicholson that Webb only said that he adopted Ella Fitzgerald “for the press people,” yet Kaufman is quite willing to go on with the mythos of Webb as Fitzgerald’s legal guardian.)

When many of the charming survivors (especially the ebullient choreographer Frankie Manning, captured here in his final years and in remarkable shape) are happy to spill Kaufman the story, why have other people get in the way? The Savoy King has greater success with dodgy-looking visual aids (such as the Indiana Jones-like map depicting Chick’s relentless touring schedule across the States in 1937) than the high-profile vocal cast.

But when the film shows the Savoy’s impact on American culture, displaying its contours with a computer simulation of the Savoy’s interior, it becomes a more meaningful exploration of the swing scene. The film obviously worked on some level with me, because I am playing Ella Fitzgerald as I write these words and I have a great desire right now to time travel back to the fateful evening of May 11, 1937, when Chick Webb and Benny Goodman duked it out in a battle of the bands at the Savoy. When the film reminds us that there were clubs in which a racist rope separated the dance floor down the middle and when it tells us that, in other clubs, blacks had to pay the same admission as whites to watch an act from the balcony (and weren’t allowed to dance) and when we recall that even the much vaunted Cotton Club would not admit African Americans, the Savoy’s pioneering efforts, taken with what others remember of Chick’s great generosity and energy, feel like a forgotten historical chapter that can’t be reread often enough.

NYFF: Le Havre

[This is the sixth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

The one modest issue I’ve had with Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s more recent films (specifically, the ones he didn’t make with his former partner Marc Caro) is his revisionist aesthetic. Amélie is a well-crafted and moving portrayal of the world’s joys, but it comes at the expense of Jeunet’s team of eager geeks digitally erasing the Métro graffiti and anything remotely insalubrious. Micmacs is a great-looking celebration of misfits, but Jeunet required additional digital cleanup of Paris to meet the film’s ideological promise. Consider Elastic Girl, who performed much of her contortions without trickery, but required computers for her more physics-defying acts. You could argue that Jeunet was making a formalist argument that idealistic hopes come at a cost. If you want to maintain your sunny view of the human race, you’re going to have stop looking at the ugliness, perhaps erasing it from your life. Whether Jeunet will step up this moral argument for truly devastating effect in a future film is anyone’s guess.

But Aki Kaurismäki’s very charming Le Havre approaches this idea in the reverse, tinkering with the idea that our fantasies are more rooted in our heart, existing before we can sculpt them into visual submission. The film uses 20th century aesthetics and values to get at the 21st century French problem of immigration. It is populated by several graying humanists (many working-class), whose collective efforts to help a boy named Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) make it to London before the immigration authorities deport him, cause them to put aside their grievances with a shoeshiner for the greater good. Is this not a fantasy? Kaurismäki certainly suggests that it may be. His style, unlike Jeunet’s, feels more like an analog reconstruction from the guts of reality and other films, rather than one whitewashed by digital effects. When a couple talks out their past problems for a “trendy charity concert,” Kaurismäki raises a Sirkian spotlight as they reunite. The lush orchestral cue that follows sounds like something that might have accompanied Rock Hudson’s gentle gardener looking with longing towards Jane Wyman. Yet somehow this moment doesn’t feel kitschy, because Kaurismäki is careful to measure out his stylistic influences (Bresson, Melville, and more) without stifling the evolving life of his characters.

If humor is the true wisdom which unravels how we interact with each other, then it’s contained amply in Kaurismäki’s protagonist Marcel Marx (André Wilms), a one-time Bohemian who gave up his artistic ambitions to become a shoeshiner. Our early moments with Marcel -– accompanied by his fellow scrubber Chang (Quoc Dung Nguyen) –- see his gaze hitting the ground seeking fresh feet, acerbically remarking on an unexpected death, and contending with the cries of shoe store managers who tell him to get lost when he sets up shop outside, hoping to bag some foot traffic. It becomes clear that Marcel dearly loves his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen), who is suffering from some unknown ailment. Most of his hard-won money is confiscated not long after he walks through the front door. You might almost say that the Marx house is also a fantasy. Even accounting for French social programs, what struggling shoeshiner could afford this marvelous place? The house contains plentiful 20th century appliances, smooth hunter green walls, a welcoming picket fence, and a friendly dog.

But if this is a homespun fantasy, the fantasy also includes the tradeoffs of life. Arletty has to stay in the hospital, begging the doctor not to fess the affliction to her husband (the doctor asks if this means he’s a politician), and Marcel devotes his attentions to helping Idrissa. This becomes a purely altruistic concern: Marcel mines from his hard-earned savings and even visits one of Idrissa’s relatives in Calais. Yet the hysteria surrounding the missing boy is almost phantasmagorical (a newspaper headline shouts that the immigrants may be part of al-Qaeda), leading one to wonder where the reality ends and the fantasy begins. We see the boy always wearing a sweater featuring red diamonds, mimicking the recently adopted Red Crystal adopted by the Red Cross, and we begin to wonder the extent to which this story represents wish fulfillment. Caring for others is certainly part of being a humanist, a duty that any good soul cannot escape. Why then does Kaurismäki portray so many unseen Frenchmen (a prefect, a man who rats out Marcel by phone) so committed to doing the opposite? Are there darker wishes competing with the more noble ones? Undoubtedly.

Many of the colorful side characters suggest that it’s not so much the distinction between reality and fantasy that matters so much as paying attention to others. This is a film where we get to overhear two burly regulars at the cafe discuss the proper way to make scallops. There’s Inspector Monet – a beak-nosed man with a minatory moustache and the kind of sideburns and hat that don’t belong on a man with such a fleshy head – talking about the downside of being a cop, namely that people are likely to hate you for doing your job even when they need you. (I can’t possibly give away what Monet eventually does, but Kaurismäki is a sharp enough director to play against my distinctions.)

Initiative may also be the secret ingredient. There’s one great moment where Marcel shows up at a refugee center and boldly announces that he is the only albino in the clan. He claims to be a journalist and a lawyer, and further remarks that he has recorded the entire conversation.

Yet if Le Havre suggests that pretense may cause one to overlook the scummier qualities of other human beings, it manages to transcend these sprightly concerns and the cinematic homages because of its happy ending, which imputes that the occasional need for a blinkered fantasy carries possible dangers. But Kaurismäki isn’t condescending about this dilemma. In not pursuing the vivacious caricatures favored by Jeunet, Kaurismäki may have discovered greater wisdom in sticking with the more subtle, the more noble, the more human: the very real reasons why good souls stay alive.

NYFF: You Are Not I (1981)

[This is the fifth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

In a 1965 interview with Ira Cohen, Bowles revealed that his short story “You Are Not I” came from a dream state: “a second between waking and sleeping, or sleeping and waking.” Sara Driver’s You Are Not I is a spellbinding example of how a scrappy filmmaker can transform words into something that is different from the source yet equally distinct. Unlike Julia Loktev’s weak attempt to play coy (and ultimately hollow and obvious) with Tom Bissell, Driver fully engages with the dream and makes it her own. A commonplace Jesus portrait hanging above a chair isn’t so much a kitsch signifier as it is a marker of one possible faith that might fill in the traumatic gaps. The “She’s dead” uttered within Bowles’s story becomes a hypnotic mantra. The indelible imagery of stones being dropped into the open mouths of the dead transmutes into a surreal effort to express grief.

There are several pleasant and unexpected ties to a Lower East Side culture from decades before. Jim Jarmusch serves as co-writer and cinematographer. Luc Sante, wearing watch cap and glasses, acts as a man who drives the car. Phil Kline offers a synth-sculpted soundtrack. There’s Tom DiCillo on assistant camera. And given the film’s commitment to slow trancelike walking (understandable, given the main character’s recent escape from a mental hospital and her confrontation with the dead), one gets the sense that the young Driver (and Jarmusch) was feeding on a steady diet of German Expressionism. I was quite fond of the especially still manner in which Fletcher sits in a chair, speculating on what others might be saying about her, and the long and lumbering manner in which the actors walk across the room. Because of these qualities, the film, in Driver’s hands, feels more like something from Jane Bowles rather than Paul. When the young woman enters the house (one of those boxy, square-screened hulks in New Jersey), she claims that the layout has been switched around and that this construction must have been committed at great expense. That we have not seen the “original” house is quite helpful. Because we’re then left second-guessing whether what we are seeing is real. I must confess that I found myself suspicious of the cigarette smoke pervading the living room near film’s end for arty effect.

Equally interesting is the way that this 48 minute black-and-white film was rescued from the dead. Driver had unknowingly shipped a print of her film to Bowles in Tangier. The negative was destroyed, courtesy of a leak in a New Jersey warehouse. And as Driver’s remaining digital copy was eaten away by the ravages of degradable tape, with the signal reduced to nothing, Driver had concluded that the film was dead. Until librarian Francis Poole traveled to Tangier to collect Bowles’s papers for the University of Delaware, not knowing that the film he carried in his hands was indeed an adaptation of Bowles’s story. Poole got in touch with Driver. And the film is now thankfully enjoying a second life at the New York Film Festival. (A more elaborate version of this story can be heard on the press conference audio below, which includes both Driver and Poole discussing the film.)

NYFF 2011: You Are Not I Press Conference (Download MP3)

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NYFF: The Loneliest Planet

[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

Narratives which involve affluent English-speaking types venturing into foreign terrain in order to find themseleves are only as good as Paul Bowles’s inevitable yardstick. The Sheltering Sky is, despite my qualms, arguably the definitive novel on the subject. One senses that writer-director Julia Loktev, in naming her film The Loneliest Planet, is aware of this inevitable comparative point. It is worth observing that her cinematographer Inti Briones is fond of pointing the camera down — that is, when he has actual light to work with. Loktev has also given her couple two pairs of green pants — the better to camouflage their spindly legs into the surrounding territory.

Loktev does have the benefit of a Tom Bissell story (“Expensive Trips Nowhere,” contained in God Lives in St. Petersburg) as her source material. But in seeking her own spin, Loktev demonstrates a diffidence when it comes to character motivation. This is somewhat troubling, given the way finances and togetherness (or the lack thereof) are vital parts of Bissell’s story. The film is, however, concerned superficially with the Georgian terrain. And that’s just as it should be for a film trying to mine deep into, well, whatever happens to exist before the camera, which serves as the primary creative motivation here.

Other reviewers — including one from Variety — have called these characters “hipsters.” But I suspect these writers, looking for any noun in the air in their desperate efforts to summarize a lightweight, largely unconsidered, and fairly unrevealing film, haven’t experienced the tangible terrors that I have. Nica (Hani Furstenberg) may be quite thin and Alex (Gael Garcia Bernal) may be bearded (Alex even promises to shave the beard off later: this is not a pledge you get very often in Williamsburg). But these two aren’t any more or less obnoxious than most Americans. Nor are they especially vegan or passive. As someone who has a great deal of hostility for a certain type of extreme layabout, I can report that I did not want to kill Nica or Alex at any point during this movie. On the other hand, I didn’t especially care about what happened to them.

But Dato (Bidzina Gujabidze), the guide who proves to have more than Georgia on his mind, did interest me — even as Loktev was more concerned with capturing her characters as specks traversing vast vistas (complete with the music cues turning on and off with the cuts to these long takes). He seems to put up with more than he should, including having to sing “Meow meow meow” in response to an especially superficial song.

I should probably point out that the film’s early moments (along with many other night scenes involving a flashlight) demonstrate a partial commitment to the hidden and the cluelessly jaunty: a flapping blanket hiding domestic tranquility, the happy couple hanging off a bus’s rail like monkeys, Nica licking Alex’s cheek as they take a snapshot against a mountain. But that’s about as close as the film gets to Bowles’s tourist vs. traveler distinction.* The film isn’t especially interested in explanations, but it is ballsy enough to elide subtitles. Which means that the audience is as much of a tourist as this couple. This serves as a great advantage when three locals show up and point a rifle at Alex’s head, especially since his first impulse is to hide behind Nica (only to try rescinding this gaffe by squeezing in front of Nica and standing before the rifle). You’d think that such a lousy move would cause strife. Or at least some wilderness equivalent to sleeping in the couch. But it’s never mentioned again.

This incident, along with several minor moments that follow (mostly involving this trio trudging through terrain, all as lonely as their backpacks), suggests that this union has trouble in paradise. When Nica offers Dato a kiss on the cheek, shortly after he has confessed that he has not been with a woman in five years, Dato takes swift advantage, his tongue speaking a gestural language associated with that country presently banning street prayer and his finger clambering inside a joyful jackpot. Be careful what you wish for.

Like the man with the gun, this near adulterous episode isn’t brought up again. And I suspect this has something to do with Loktev’s misunderstanding of Bissell’s story. During the press conference (audio of which can be listened to below), it was revealed that an early version of the script was only 45 pages and that Loktov loathed writing. To add insult to injury, none of the assembled trio on stage –- Loktev, Furstenberg, and the somewhat smug Richard Peña -– were especially interested in mentioning Bissell’s name. Furstenburg referred to the film as “Julia’s story.”

I was forced to ask Loktev a question (which you can hear around the 17 minute mark). Notice how Peña undermines the issue by not mentioning Bissell’s name.

Correspondent: There was mention earlier of a 45 minute script. And you mentioned earlier, Julia, that you detest writing. I’m wondering why you didn’t reach out to any other writer — like, say, Tom Bissell? Did you make any efforts to work with him?

Peña: The question is whether or not, since you say you don’t like writing, whether you ever thought about working with a writer, perhaps the author of the short story or someone else.

Loktev: No. I mean, for me, it was a matter of taking what I was interested in from the short story and writing from there. I said a little bit in jest that I don’t like writing in the sense that I don’t aspire to be a novelist. But, for me, the script — actually, I think it was about 30 pages. But, you know, the lines were all in there. The funny thing is that the lines were all in the script more or less. They just weren’t indented. This is the thing that people kind of — I find it very strange. People always say, “You don’t have a script that was the same with Day Night Day Night.” And I’m like, “It’s only because the lines are in the middle of the paragraph. And they’re not indented like they are in the normal scripts.” And when so much of the film takes place in silence, some of those things are very precisely described in what I write. Like I will describe the movement of a hand. And it’s that precisely outlined, you know. I didn’t want more dialogue than that.

In considering this transformation from “Tom Bissell” to “the author of the short story” to “taking what I was interested in,” I was led by chance into a pleasant email volley with Tom Bissell. Bissell assured me that Loktev was very up front about modifying much of the story. He reported that his interactions with Loktev were friendly and professional, very much in the “go ahead and run with it” mode. But the question that’s still nagging at me is whether or not Loktev’s film transforms the material sufficiently enough to warrant the praise. Because what I saw on Monday morning was a fairly ho-hum narrative devoid of the human context that’s there in Bissell’s story. And if I have to play favorites, then I’d rather go with the artist who knows what he’s writing rather than the one who’s about as committed to the human condition as, well, a ditzy hipster who doesn’t have the guts to put herself on the line.

* “[A]nother important difference between tourist and traveler is that the former accepts his own civilization without question; not so the traveler, who compares it with the others, and rejects those elements he finds not to his liking.” — The Sheltering Sky

NYFF 2011: The Loneliest Planet Press Conference (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Mud and Soldiers (1939)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

After a shell from a grenade launcher lands squarely on the roof of an enemy-held farmhouse, two close-ups show soldiers grinning in satisfaction. In general, however, the emotions of the soldiers are repressed. They seem struck dumb by the incomprehensible grandeur of the war and the machinelike organization of which they are a part. — Peter B. High, The Imperial Screen

This is the statement of a reaching critic. There were many critics reaching (the honest ones were yawning) during a Friday afternoon screening of Mud and Soldiers — a 1939 film depicting the Second Sino-Japanese War that is playing the New York Film Festival as part of a Nikkatsu celebration. I saw many trying to cogitate in the vestibule, waiting to “form” their opinions shortly after others opened their mouths. Many were exhausted. They had just gone through vicarious war.

So let me be the first to fire a forthright salvo: Mud and Soldiers, despite Mr. High’s interpretation, isn’t as good as Paths of Glory or All Quiet on the Western Front or The Hurt Locker or Saving Private Whitey. It does indeed feature soldiers doing their duty, not reacting much to all the billowing smoke that they have caused through rampant bursts of artillery. One curious quality about Mud and Soldiers is the way that it avoids explicit bloodshed. A soldier gets shot in the thigh, but we do not see the actual act. As someone who lusts for this type of cinematic act, I was a little disappointed. Soldiers fire upon enemies, but we see very few of them. Presumably, because this was made in 1939, there was a shortage on extras and squibs. There was surely no shortage on propaganda. The film does, after all, rely on newsreel footage.

There is a banal and repetitive quality to the soldiers’s banter. And this pabulum stretches into the soldiers’s actions. Director Tomotaka Tasaka is certainly committed to showing how mind-numbingly dull war can be. And yet this 21st century viewer longed for something more. Why exactly?

Well, it could have something to do with the fact that approximately 72% of this film involves marching. There is marching through mud. There is marching through dirt. There is marching across bridges and battlefields. There are overhead shots in which we see legs marching. There are shots of soldiers marching from very far away. There are some moments in which we see ten men march and other moments in which we see a hundred men march, leaving one to await the possibility of a thousand men marching. (Sadly, this does not occur. But so desperate were my fantasies that I held out my hopes.) There are shots as long as one minute that feature men marching. Three are shots as quick as five seconds that might be identified as a marching cutaway.

The film even contains compelling dialogue in which two soldiers discuss their marching progress:

— I fell in the creek again.
— How far will we march?
— I don’t know. Until we get there.

While there’s a good argument somewhere about how much soldiers march in war, and art’s duty to reflect this reality, marching alone does not necessarily make for a compelling narrative — especially when the sound effects guy is using the same CLOMP CLOMP CLOMP for all filmed marching and director Tomotaka Tasaka hasn’t thought to actually synch up his men’s feet to the CLOMPing.

Now I am a fairly devoted long distance walker (I walked the eight miles back to Brooklyn after seeing this movie, although I should report that I decided upon this in advance of the screening), but Mud and Soldiers bored the hell out of me. In fact, Mud and Soldiers is probably one of the most tedious war movies I have had the misfortune to sit through. It is difficult to fathom a defense of this film, but I am informed that the film — based on Hino Ashihei’s bestseller — made a great impact on the Japanese public, as films devoted to marching and a mechanical lack of emotion made under a state governed by belligerent admirals are known to do. I am also informed that Tasaka was a victim of the Hiroshima bombing and continued to direct many features over the next two decades. I certainly hope that these post-Hiroshima films do not contain nearly as much marching.

NYFF: Intimidation (1960)

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

Many film buffs rightly point to Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (based on Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom -– an 87th Precinct police procedure novel) as proof positive that 20th century Japanese cinema had the nuts and bolts to make the mystery genre its own. If High and Low can be likened to Double Indemnity, then Koreyoshi Kurahara’s Intimidation -– a brisk and highly enjoyable 65 minute film about botched blackmail playing as part of a Nikkatsu celebration at the New York Film Festival -– suggests a scrappy film noir bankrolled by RKO.

Despite their differences in budget and running time (which could very well be directly proportional), both films carry striking similarities. They both involve upwardly mobile executives, on the cusp of influencing corporate direction through somewhat idiosyncratic cunning, who are forced to contend with a criminal scheme introduced by an apparent outsider. Yet in their own distinct ways, both High and Low and Intimidation have interesting points to make about reputation. Kurosawa offered a timid chauffeur staring at the big man’s shoes, suggesting that all inside the circle are at the behest of outside forces. For Kurahara, corruption and deceit are contained within the system, with the police entering into the narrative after all the pros have failed: not unlike the diffident manner that the United States has responded to avaricious bankers in recent years. Kurahara introduces a seemingly meek clerk named Nakaike (Akira Nishimura, who, with his sad look and timorous eyes, may be Japan’s answer to the great character actor Elisha Cook, Jr.) who has been under a bank manager’s (Takita, played by Nobuo Kaneko) spell for years thanks to a few ruthless setbacks. Nakaike long-hoped for something close to an equal footing, especially since he had a shot at being where Takita is now. But, of course, it isn’t just bitter memories. In one heartbreaking scene, Takita humiliates Nakaike over “security training” that has gone awry. That this self-serving moment comes after Kurahara has asked us to sympathize with Takita is something of a surprise. But the unanticipated ace up Nakaike’s sleeve is so viscerally rewarding that I cannot possibly reveal it!

Intimidation begins with a suitably mysterious image: a man with a gun, a fedora, and a cigarette in his mouth opening the service entrance door of a bank and asking for the sub-manager. Takita, the sub-manager in question, is too busy partying it up with the branch manager, geisha girls, and asking subordinates such as Nakaike to dance on command. He’s about to land a promotion. But Takita does get the message when he meets with the blackmailer, who has evidence that he authorized several illegal loans. Takita is asked to cough up three million yen the day after tomorrow. The blackmailer suggests that he rob his own bank. Because nobody would expect “the lighthouse to shine on itself” and this is the kind of move that you wouldn’t expect in a detective story (okay, not really; but give the filmmakers some credit for momentum!), Takita agrees to the deal.

What makes Intimidation engaging is the way that it uses class trappings to buttress the robbery. Why indeed would a sub-manager rob his own bank? We get the sense that it isn’t necessarily the blackmailer’s pressure, but the sub-manager’s quiet arrogance that gets him to rob the bank, wearing a sketchy disguise and donning a cigarette lighter in the form of a gun. But, of course, he screws up the robbery from the outset, cracking his sunglasses not long before putting on his feeble costume. Takita is so flagrant in his plans (getting the clerk on night duty drunk the night before) that we begin to wonder why nobody else can see his moves. (Hilariously, the branch manager even confesses, “I don’t understand much about this business.” In light of Reed Hastings’s recent disastrous moves with Netflix, I couldn’t help but ponder contemporary parallels days after seeing this movie.) But Intimidation also proves surprisingly smart in this capacity, knowing very well that there are climbers embedded within the bank and that those who are spurned hardly depart with ease.

While Intimidation appears to have been made somewhat on the cheap (the bank’s brick walls look quite fake), this flimsy décor somehow works to the film’s advantage, almost as if Takita’s position is just as tenuous. This may have something to do with the crackerjack story, the film’s fixation on camera dollies over zooms, and Kurahara’s understated direction, which is especially good on the acting front. After all, if we can’t believe in a bank manager’s integrity, we wouldn’t be so drawn into the story. Perhaps there are some common verisimilitudinous qualities about art and business that help sustain the illusion.

NYFF: Woman with Red Hair (1979)

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 2011 New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

In considering the trashy pink film Woman with Red Hair, I must first ruminate upon the film’s commitment to verisimilitude, as well as its intricate moral framework. A young woman casually loses her virginity during a gang rape, becomes pregnant, and uses this as leverage to snag one of the two strapping young attackers – an unnamed jerk who often wears a blue headband – as her husband. This magnificent pillar to manhood has an equally upstanding companion with Kozo (Renji Ishibasi), who enjoys smiling smugly for the camera when not sexually humiliating the titular woman with red hair (Junko Miyashita), whose ass is often deliberately positioned to undulate before the audience. It is a tribute to this film’s hypnotic hypocrisy that, as Kozo forces the woman with the red hair to take his cock into her mouth, an oppressive black rectangle appears on the right side of the frame, with Miyashita’s legs flailing behind it. Despite this film’s firm commitment to debasing women (one charming ditty that the two men croon contains the lyric “She’ll say no when she means yes”), in 1979, it lacks the authority to show pussy.

We are informed that the young married couple living downstairs are junkies, but our only indication of their drug use is through their screechy wails (compared later in the film to a pig), leaving one to wonder if they are in a permanent state of withdrawal or if they represent some more enlightened viewer having to contend with this plodding movie, selected as part of a Nikkatsu celebration for the 49th New York Film Festival. In the middle of wanton carnality, our ruddy-maned heroine casually asks, “Ever try heroin?” While the two strapping young creeps talk to their boss about their special driving skills and discuss whether or not they need licenses, a young woman stands outside in the rain, a testament to their chivalry. She enters the room not long after, only to be slapped repeatedly. The woman with red hair alludes to having two young children, yet like the track marks and heroin supply downstairs, they remain unseen. In another episode, a somewhat older woman remembers a “foam dance,” which involves lathering yourself up with soap and gyrating upon a inflatable mattress next to a tub. Just wait for your husband (or really, given this film’s outlook, any man) to arrive and he’ll start schtupping you.

My favorite part of Woman with Red Hair was when Kozo, letting his pummeled paramour fuck another man, walks out into the pouring rain and starts jerking off in an alley. Why? Well, you see, he’s so turned on by the prospect of another man banging the woman he’s with that he just can’t wait to shoot his load. Alas, Kozo is interrupted in his perfervid pumping by a man (presumably, the pink film’s idea of comic relief) who asks him for some spare yen so that he can fuel his alcoholism. And because his request is understandably denied under the circumstances, he somehow accompanies Kozo to another apartment, where Kozo drinks and fucks another woman and the alcoholic remains plastered beneath him.

Welcome to the wacky worldview of filmmaker Tatsumi Kumashiro, who also gave us 1988’s Love Bites Back (but do the “victims” deserve it?), 1986’s Women Who Do Not Divorce (does that mean the women who do divorce shouldn’t be bothered with?), and two films in 1973 with “wet” in the title. Woman with Red Hair was one of the more acclaimed films of the Roman Porno line commissioned by Nikkatsu. In 1971, the revered Japanese studio faced bankruptcy and had switched from action movies and blockbusters to softcore films in a desperate effort to remain financially viable. (To give you a sense of how drastic this decision was, imagine if Paramount or Warner Brothers decided to start making softcore movies instead of Hollywood blockbusters.)

But Woman with Red Hair, despite ample justification by Japanese film buffs, is hardly In the Realm of the Senses. Most of its long stretches are dreadfully banal. Conversation about getting a new gas heater and the price of eggs at the local supermarket sounds like blue-collar authenticity, until you realize that it doesn’t actually articulate anything about the characters or their culture. So you’re left to rue upon why so many people are interested in red penises (and why one man in this film is fond of muddying his member with red lipstick). When the closing credits rolled, I was stunned to learn that Woman with Red Hair was based on a novel by Japanese intellectual Kenji Nakagami. And while there’s a definite working-class thrust to the film (workers become violent and sexual when they are not permitted work), I didn’t feel that the film presented any sexual subversiveness on the level with Lina Wurtmuller or early Almodovar. Once you confront the atavistic imagery, you’re left with a fairly pedestrian and toothless flick that no amount of metaphorical rain can flush into a meaningful realm.

The Bat Segundo Show: Joe Dante

Joe Dante appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #359. He is most recently the director of The Hole.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Doing his best not to feed Mr. Dante after midnight or before 10:10 AM on October 10, 2010.

Guest: Joe Dante

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]


Correspondent: I want to talk about the inside jokes. There are a few in The Hole. I noticed the yellow smiley face from The Howling in the background at one point. But it seemed to me that you were almost dialing down the inside jokes within the shots with this movie.

Dante: I did. Because, at heart, it’s kind of a sad movie, if you think about it. When you find out what’s in the hole, it’s much more melodramatic and personal than you would expect. It’s not little monsters coming out. And so the tone of the movie, it’s a little tricky to do a lot of those nudge nudge wink wink things, which I learned early on in my career. That you can’t do things at the expense of people who don’t know what you’re talking about. In The Howling, I had a scene in which Roger Corman looks for a dime in a phone booth. And it was funny to people who knew Roger. But when people didn’t know Roger, it was like, “Well, the scene is over. Why are you lingering on this extra piece? Because it didn’t mean anything to me.” And I realized that you can’t do that. You have to play within the rules. And if you do something that’s off the point, it should be done as an aside or in the background or as a tail — so that people maybe notice the second time when they see the picture.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. You’re talking about a lingering moment. And this leads me to wonder if it’s more difficult these days — not just from a financial standpoint, but also from an aesthetic standpoint — for you to convince a producer to give you work. Because your movies do, in fact, linger on that beat. Like that Corman moment in The Howling you were just mentioning. I even watched your episode of CSI out of morbid curiosity, and I’m seeing all these really great Dante master shots that unfortunately are being butchered by the crazy editing that goes on with that show. So the question is: How can a guy like you, who is extremely skillful with these Panavision-like shots, the 70mm that you did in Explorers and the like — I mean, is this more of a tougher sell?

Dante: It’s not a tough sell. People hire me for various reasons. But when you sign on to do a TV series, you must adopt the style of the TV series. Now I can shoot the stuff any way I want. But I know that in TV, you do your cutting. You hand it in. And then you see it on TV. And it’s always different. Because the show runners come in. And they change it to the style that they prefer. So you shoot a lot of long takes. But you just have to give them enough material for them to turn it into what they want. It’s never an expressive job. You don’t really feel you’re putting yourself into it. Although as much as I could, I stuck myself into it. And I stuck people who were familiar to working with me in the show. And it was, I think, a little bit different. A little bit offbeat from the usual episodes of the show. But the problem with doing a show like that, there’s an overarching storyline that happened before you came and that’s going to continue after you’re gone. So there’s really not a lot of space for you to insert yourself. Because you’re doing a job of work. And you’re not the auteur of the show. The auteur of the show is the writers. Because they’re the ones who are mapping out this entire scenario. The great thing is if you can get in on the ground floor and get in on the pilot.

Correspondent: Yes.

Dante: If you do the pilot for the show, which I did for Eerie, Indiana, then you get to not only choose the cast.

Correspondent: You set the aesthetics.

Dante: You set the aesthetic and you get to influence the way the stories go and which direction they go. And even sometimes who’s hired to direct them. So that’s very creative and interesting and fulfilling. Doing one-offs is financially rewarding and a chance to work with a lot of talented people that you probably wouldn’t get to see otherwise. But it’s never like making a feature. It’s never like saying, “Okay, this is my movie.” And that’s why I prefer on TV to do anthology shows. Because it’s much more like doing a short film than it is to coming in and doing it. Illustrating an episode of somebody’s series.

Correspondent: Is it also a way of staying in shape so you don’t atrophy?

Dante: Well, it’s also a way of paying the mortgage.

Correspondent: (laughs) That’s true. That’s really the reason you did the CSI: New York episode.

Dante: Uh, I did it because it would be fun. But also, yeah, I did it because I wasn’t working. The great thing about Eerie, Indiana was that if I was going a feature, I could do that. I could go away and then do more Eerie, Indianas. But then it went off the air. And then I couldn’t do that anymore. So the trick is to try and find a way to keep yourself employed that doesn’t turn you into a hack. Basically. I mean, I always try and do things that — for movies, my yardstick is I don’t make movies that I wouldn’t go see. And I think if more people did that, we’d have better movies.

The Bat Segundo Show #359: Joe Dante (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Another Year

[This is the tenth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

“I’m concerned in making films that talk to people. Like anybody, I only want to talk to anybody who wants to listen, who wants to know, who wants to share, or have a conversation with me, as it were. I can’t deal with the kind of media-obsessed, decadent position that can’t decode the film for what it actually is. Which is to say an open, honest look at real people and how real people are, with their needs and all their vulnerabilities. Warts and all. If you can’t embrace that, then go away basically. You’re quoting people at Cannes. Journalists, no doubt, who say that these are people I wouldn’t want to meet at a cocktail party. Well, you know, you’re not going to meet these people at a cocktail party. Clear off to the cocktail party and don’t worry about this sort of film. Because you’re not interested basically. And if people are not interested, I can’t do anything about it.” — Mike Leigh, in a soon-to-be-aired Bat Segundo interview conducted on October 4, 2010

It is a ubiquitous truth that distinctive art often polarizes. But Mike Leigh’s films often cause some of the more catholic critics to reveal their unadventurous sensibilities. (One of Leigh’s masterpieces, Naked, was, by way of depicting particularly nasty behavior, declared misogynist.) While there’s nothing wrong with responding to a movie like one of Harry Harlow’s monkeys from time to time, a cinema intake composed of nothing more than genetically modified bananas will inevitably cause an otherwise sound mind to bray for his cloth mother.

Yes, I’m a Mike Leigh fan, but not slavishly so. Topsy-Turvy is overlong, but quite admirable in its historical ambition. (And it was absolutely the film Leigh needed to make to get to his next “historical” film, Vera Drake, which is one of his masterpieces.) Secrets & Lies, for all of its brilliance, resolves too tidily. I’ll take Abigail’s Party over Life is Sweet, even though I revere both flicks (and enjoy Alison Steadman in both). But aside from these very minor complaints, Leigh’s characters — whether you like them or not — may be more realized than those of nearly any other living filmmaker.

As Leigh’s films have defiantly chronicled the human in an age more concerned with calculating clinging, certain critics have revealed their not so closeted misanthropy — in other words, an innate disposition towards an unchallenging and predictable type of film.

Yes, Mike Leigh’s latest film, Another Year, features a very sad and troubling character clinquant in dimension played by Lesley Manville. The cookie-cutter protagonists and antagonists you asked for are available at the multiplex, thank you very much.

But I’m convinced that Another Year‘s mixed reception at Cannes (alas, a few rumblings were overheard in the Walter Reade Theater) can be squarely divided between those who are interested in life and those who are not. For Another Year dares to show several sides to kindness, a topic that has been very much at the forefront of Leigh’s films since Vera Drake. Leigh seems to share the sentiment behind Kurt Vonnegut’s famous declaration from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” But he’s also smart enough to understand that societal forces threaten to crush this human spirit. Thus, housekeeper Vera Drake sees her illegal abortions as an act of kindness (and receives no pay for this) and is almost incapable of perceiving her actions as wrong, even as her family and others attempt to explain why she’s in such trouble. Merciless government permanently transforms her. Happy-Go-Lucky, by contrast, sees a very happy character, Poppy, finding her natural temperament tested — particularly, by a humorless driving instructor — and is, even at film’s end, asked not to be so nice (or kind) to everyone. She defies this. And in Another Year — the first of Leigh’s films to be squeezed into a yearlong sectional narrative (although certainly not the first to concern itself with cyclical behavior) — the human spirit’s effort to flourish is very much determined by vocational expectations. (And, as my moviegoing companion and I agreed, one minute of Another Year contains more understanding of people than the whole of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom.)

But let’s first consider the naysayers (with much gratitude to David Hudson for rounding them all up). The Hollywood Reporter‘s Ray Bennett complained that most of the film’s characters would be the type “whom you would go out of your way to avoid at a party.” Time‘s Mary Corliss offered similar sentiments: “All the actors make the most of their time before the camera; eventually a plot emerges and a narrative crescendo is reached. It’s real life, processed for the cinema in Leigh’s practiced style. But the real life it simulates is too often that of an evening that turns into an endless night with friends one wishes might just get their coats and get out.” Never mind that Bennett and Corliss fail to see certain advantages to “meeting” such apparently unpleasant people on film. Yes, they rightly compare Leigh’s film to a cocktail party, but they don’t seem to understand that a forty foot screen protects them from social immersion. The audience is not chatting up these characters, but Leigh presents them so vividly (the final look on one character at the end of a long dolly shot, Manville’s masterful head and shoulder bobbing as Mary, a widower’s laconic vernacular and the look in his eyes as he observes the madness around him; to cite just three) that it is nearly impossible not to lose yourself (as my moviegoing companion and I did, sitting still and mesmerized for 129 minutes) and feel that You Are There. And the idea of going to a movie, whether for entertainment and enlightenment, to have your worldview confirmed strikes me as antithetical to existence — diametrically opposed to why any enthusiast soaks up culture. In other words, why did these critics bother to go to Cannes anyway?

And then there’s Todd McCarthy’s schematic assessment via blog: “For me the film is obvious, schematic and lacking in interesting undercurrents or subtext.” Never mind that McCarthy is unwilling to describe what precisely that “obvious” and “schematic” perception is. But thankfully, his tepid criticism can be easily rejoined by what is contained within the movie.

You cannot call Another Year‘s Tom and Gerri “obvious” and “schematic,” because, despite the fact that this couple is somewhat privileged (an apparently stable marriage, reliable middle-class income from geologist Tom and counselor Gerri, a garden allotment, and so forth) and permits maladjusted people into their home with a kind of liberal guilt and empathy that may not be entirely reconciled, they do not offer any defense when friends ridicule Mary (over the fact that she doesn’t know the precise engine type in the used car she has just purchased). Gerri, despite being trained to recognize a narcissist, nevertheless permits Mary to crash into her family home with the same shaky skill she has behind the steering wheel. And when there is the inevitable skirmish during the autumn, Gerri still waits until the winter to state, “You have to take responsibility for your own actions.” Which is something she has been meaning to say all along. There’s also something slightly predatory about the way Tom and Gerri invite friends who are less successful than they are into their house, such as their old portly friend Ken, who appears in the summer, but is a few beers short of a cardiac arrest. Yet Ken, despite being lonely and unhappy, has refused retirement. He is content to “eat, drink, and be merry,” but, from the vantage point of Tom and Gerri, he is “better” than Mary by way of remaining employed in a more lucrative job. (Mary toils as a secretary; interestingly enough, at the same workplace as Gerri. When Gerri invites her for a drink, Mary says that she has only an hour to spare — the exact amount of time that she would devote to a patient) One is left wondering whether Ken would be in worse mental shape, were he to be toiling in a similar position as Mary. (In an ironic bit of casting, no doubt entirely unintentional, Leigh has cast Peter Wight as Ken. Wight played the security guard in Naked, who urged Johnny not to waste his life.)

Aside from this intriguing relationship between happiness and class, there is also Janet (played by Vera Drake lead Imelda Staunton), who appears at film’s beginning (in spring). She is a cautionary character and, if we are to look at Another Year as a cycle, she represents what Mary may very well transform into. Janet is depressed. She cannot sleep. She rates herself 1 on a scale of 1 to 10 on how she feels. And when we are first introduced to her, the camera initially concentrates on little else but Janet’s face. We gradually see more of the doctor who is treating her, and the first detail we notice is that the doctor is pregnant. Thus, Janet (like Mary) is very much consumed by her own internal world. Does society then have a duty to treat people like Janet and Mary? Is it “kinder” to retreat from miserable people (as the above mentioned critics clearly have) or to let them into your home with the hope that your kindness will help them figure life out?

Since this is a Mike Leigh film, there aren’t any easy answers. But the film’s commitment to such concerns is a much needed reminder for any humanist, whether lapsed or well-practiced. Another Year, like the best of Leigh’s films, is very much a Rorschach test. It will be appreciated and understood and felt by anyone who understands that even the unpleasant and the marginalized have souls. I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of this considerably embedded masterpiece, but it’s definitely one of the year’s best films. And I’ll probably have another go at it just before release date. Anyone who compares Another Year to “an endless night” probably doesn’t have the guts to leave her cloistered comfort zone.

NYFF: Hereafter

[This is the ninth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

It seems inconceivable that Clint Eastwood would direct a film that uses the facile falsehood of psychic ability to drive its story, and that Peter Morgan (Peter Morgan! The man behind Frost/Nixon!) would write the screenplay. Eastwood, who told the tale of a bigoted Korean War vet adjusting to multicultural reality in Gran Torino, explored moral complexities with The Unforgiven, and expressed a willingness to invert 20th century historical expectations with his 2006 pair of World War II pictures, is hardly a fool. And he’s certainly not the type who would suddenly show up on late night TV with a psychic hotline – even when one accounts for such late-career misfires as Space Cowboys and Blood Work. But I’m pained to report that Eastwood’s latest film, Hereafter, is so utterly preposterous and condescending that I actually longed to revisit The Eiger Sanction. At least that disastrous film had some soul in the unlikely George Kennedy.

Psychic ability is not only unscientific. It is one of the most egregious and overused plot devices used to advance a story, particularly those which are outside genre. Indeed, even the Star Trek: The Next Generation series bible – a document for a franchise that proved too complacent to steer out of its utopian comfort zone – was careful to forbid its writers from including such omnipotent character types. Psychic ability is the reason why the fourth Indiana Jones movie was such a dud. It is often the reason why some cheesy movies are best enjoyed with friends over beer. And when Spielberg’s regrettable name emerged as executive producer during Hereafter‘s end credits, I immediately wondered if Morgan and Eastwood had been pressured, much as George Lucas and Spielberg had muscled out Frank Darabont during Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, to insert such nonsense into a later draft. After all, consider one side character at a resort who offers the line, “As a scientist and atheist, my mind was closed to this,” and who then states that the evidence is “irrefutable.” It’s almost as if this script was designed to recruit wild-eyed naifs.

What the fuck, Clint?

Whatever the film’s production history, I doubt that any of us will be privy to it anytime soon. There’s just too much money and too much power at stake to get an accurate glimpse through the dust motes. Maybe it’s possible that age has finally caught up with the old gunslinger and he’s now firing blanks. But what we have in the meantime is a colossal dud that is easily the worst film of Eastwood’s career. It’s as if Eastwood has traded in his class for the cash. Sure, Eastwood directs a pleasant scene with Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard (who appears as a fresh San Francisco transplant escaping a bad breakup in Pittsburgh – or possibly Pittsburg, over by Antioch; whatever the case, she’s just about the only character in this movie with personality) flirting with each other in a cooking class. One wears a blindfold. The other spoons in mouthfuls of sauce. It’s hardly 9 ½ Weeks (or even Hot Shots), but the two confess their real reasons for attending night school. Alas, just as this promising relationship develops, Matt Damon’s George confesses his secret talent – which is the ability to find psychic connections within people, a “talent” that filled up the coffers in halcyon days. (That George asks each recipient to only reply to these sessions with yes and no answers, and that he wins them over with such painfully leading inquiries – “You’ve lost someone recently” and so forth – leads one to believe that he’s a con. Unfortunately, the film lacks the courage to view George’s ability as even vaguely illegit, and his internal conflict is narrowed as a result. This is too bad for Damon, who offers a quietly commendable performance here. Indeed, his graying hair and sad mug reminded me of a young Gary Cooper.)

In Hereafter, Eastwood is sometimes competent at conveying the visual isolation of his characters by having them depart into dark corners of a room, where their faces blend into the dark murk. Such old school panache would be welcome if Eastwood wasn’t operating off of a script that’s stacked with unacceptable and unpersuasive anti-human twaddle.

Hereafter is a three-plot story that takes place in three countries, and that ties up through several highly contrived circumstances at the London Book Fair. It is a movie so fundamentally stupid that it believes that some kid can call up a publisher and find out which hotel a famous Frenchwoman is staying. It is naïve enough to presume that someone who toils at a sugar factory can pay rent and live alone in what appears to be a spacious North Beach apartment. (The press information sheet I have laughably refers to this character as “a blue-collar American.”) It believes that book publishers will actually have the time and the decency to set up a failed manuscript (written by a troublesome author who can’t even turn in the Mitterrand book she promised) with another house.

What else can one expect of a flick that offers psychic ability as its great instigator? But nobody goes to a Clint Eastwood film to get frequent flashes into a shadowy white realm occupied by dead souls. That’s M. Night Shyamalan territory. And it’s extremely disheartening to see a living legend adept with human nuance debase himself like this.

I didn’t so much mind the surprise tsunami at the film’s opening or the unanticipated explosion close to the film’s end. Such melodramatic interventions are not only the stuff of crass Hollywood, but recent headlines. But I couldn’t abide Morgan’s veneer-thin stereotypes. Aside from the one-dimensional George, you have Marie, the celebrity journalist (so famous that she’s appearing in BlackBerry ads; how’s that for journalistic integrity?) suddenly incapable of asking the tough questions after surviving death and who doesn’t understand why her tale of phony psychic victimhood won’t sell. You have Marcus, the angry kid who pickpockets 200 pounds and won’t talk to an adult about his grief. (Hey, Peter Morgan, ever heard of a little thing called counseling? Social workers don’t just knock on doors.) Morgan doesn’t even nudge us towards how these three vapid and disparate stories will merge together. I mean, even Paul Haggis had the decency to do that. And he doesn’t give us much reason to care.

Amidst such anemic archetypes, Morgan makes a foolish move and references Charles Dickens, informing his audience of a novelist who created quirky and unforgettable characters and telegraphing that, with this script, he’s nowhere near the same league. And if that isn’t enough self-sabotage for you, believe it or not, Morgan actually has George visit Dickens’s house!

And consider these lines:

“I don’t want to be here without you!” (during a moment of angst-ridden confession)

“I promise you I’m not going to let you down.” (during a moment of overwrought crisis)

“It’s what you are! You can’t run from that forever!” (during a moment of confidence building)

“I didn’t know you were going to be here.” (during a “surprise” run-in)

If Peter Morgan is not nominated for a Razzie for these unpardonable cliches, and for such an unfathomable surrender of his faculties, I will be stunned.

But Morgan isn’t the only one here who should be thrown to the wolves. It was Clint Eastwood, a man of advancing years, who signed on for this nonsense. It was Eastwood who knew damn well that he has perhaps a handful of films left in him and who believed that this shoddy material was the place to deposit his talents. This film is beyond embarrassing. It’s indefensible.

NYFF: Old Cats

[This is the eighth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

I am pleased to report that, in addition to the promised titular felines, the film Old Cats features a few dogs and numerous actors in bee costumes. And I don’t think it’s possible to convey in words just how much it tickles my heart to find a film going well beyond the anticipated tally!

The literal old cats here, living with metaphorical old cats (that is, a couple in their eighties), serve the story well. Their flapping tails reflect the octogenarian couple’s inevitable last sighs. It helps immensely that we’re introduced to Isadora (Belgica Castro) and Enrique (Alejandro Sievking) as they are being lazy in bed. And, indeed, this Chilean flick is most interesting when it sticks resolutely to the interior (in this case, an eighth floor apartment with a malfunctioning elevator) and when it evades narrative demands. It is clear to me that filmmakers Pedro Peirano and Sebastian Silva have a great desire to portray consequential life (more on that rickety lift in just a mite), but they have a distressing distrust towards realism. This is odd, because Peirano and Silva have such a knack for it. When Isadora experiences senility, her declining mental state is telegraphed by a rumbling tone and what sounds like sequenced strings in the background. Considering the film’s China Syndrome-like commitment to drama sans music, and considering the film’s willingness to depict (almost in toto) the failed boot of a dying desktop computer*, these belabored attempts at surreality detract rather than grab.

This may be part of the point. After all, if you’re making a film featuring an older woman with a middle-aged narcissistic daughter who enjoys snorting up coke in her mother’s bathroom (not that Isadora notices this, but at least her writer husband is on the case), then a little perspective is in order. And I wouldn’t ding the directors so much over this lunge towards the phantasmagorical if they hadn’t delivered so many scenes in which the absurdity of a domestic situation hadn’t been sufficiently established already! I’m thinking of such moments as Rosario (the above-mentioned druggie daughter, played by Claudia Celedon) trying to unload some “healing tablets” (bars of soap that, like any phony New Age narcotic, profess to deliver great cures to their users) while visiting her mother. And if this “surprise” isn’t bad enough, sadly timed after Rosario’s nostril tangos with a spoon, Rosario deigns to reads out the instructions to all assembled. Later, when Rosario doesn’t get her way, she’s calling mom “an evil witch” (actually, something worse in Spanish) when she isn’t trying to get her to sign a power of attorney. Oh, and did I mention that Rosario has a lover named Hugo, whose original name is Beatrice, and that Isadora’s failure to comprehend a woman named Hugo forms one of the running gags? (Later in the film, a few stray family members show up to put this troubling Isi-Rosario dynamic in perspective.)

So the film’s first hour has the twisted dynamic you’d expect from an early Mike Leigh movie (Abigail’s Party comes to mind), where the character actions naturally escalate into chaos and lead us to wonder just how much boorish behavior Isi and Enrique will tolerate before they throw Rosario and Hugo out. I mean, they’ve had a wonderfully lazy morning, complicated by the elevator going out (meaning that Isi, who has hip problems, is trapped upstairs). There are cats who are starving and need food. Isi has just had an unanticipated episode in which she has kept the faucets on and overturned a drawer of knick-knacks upon her bed. And then the irksome Rosario shows up, tyrannically demanding that the cats be shuttled away into another room because she’s allergic to them. Anyway you slice it, this is a great setup for a farce or a melodrama. Hell, you don’t even need a plot. Just let the characters wander about and do what they do.

But unfortunately the filmmakers feel some strange need to tie it all together. The strange need to provide an answer to everything is what ultimately simplifies an initially charming domestic mystery. Earlier, I mentioned the dudes in bee costumes. Well, that’s all part of some television commercial that’s shooting across the street from the apartment building. That metaphor, in and of itself, is all that is needed here to illustrate the point that certain atavistic qualities are buzzing about on the outside the building: the insects that will sting, searching for their honey. (That wouldn’t be Rosario and Hugo, would it? Preposterous figures who will sting you in an instant.) And yet the filmmakers opt to return to these bees late in the film that just isn’t necessary when there’s the more fascinating aspect of Rosario being incapable of parsing her mother’s state of mind (“She’s playing the victim!”) or remembering long-term memories.

Thus, I feel compelled to conclude this review with an Emily Dickinson poem:

Like trains of cars on tracks of plush
I hear the level bee:
A jar across the flower goes,
Their velvet masonry

Withstands until the sweet assault
Their chivalry consumes,
While he, victorious, tilts away
To vanquish other blooms.

His feet are shod with gauze,
His helmet is of gold;
His breast, a single onyx
With chrysoprase, inlaid.

His labor is a chant,
His idleness a tune;
Oh, for a bee’s experience
Of clovers and of noon!

* If there are any hard-core geeks or Wired contributors reading this (he posited ever so humbly), are there any other movies that have lingered on a computer booting up? I’m honestly drawing a blank. But Periano and Silva are to be commended for replacing kitchen sink realism with heat sink realism!

NYFF: Foreign Parts

[This is the seventh in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

The Willets Point area is a haven for Mets fans, its rich spectrum reduced to a superficial stop on the 7 train or a distant speck from an ignored window just before the touchdown at LaGuardia. But for those who toil in the salvaging yards, and who continue to fight for the right to maintain a livelihood, the Iron Triangle is a vital community where a sexagenarian native lives with a blunt enthusiast who is overly familiar with the hoosegow. The native takes the time to observe the sparrows that return every May, defying the waste, the uncharted museums of car parts, and the steadfast flooding that comes with the rain’s brutal pounding into the pocks. The blunt enthusiast lacks money, but cannot offer a reliable explanation as to where his drugs from. Meanwhile, seemingly wiser and truly unsympathetic city forces rush to “redevelop” and “renew,” without bothering to communicate their half-made plans to those trying to subsist at the other end of the bulldozers.

Such is the perfectly sensible worldview promulgated by Foreign Parts, a mostly engaging picture that invites comparisons to Ramin Bahrani’s Chop Shop. This documentary was shot by a pair of Harvard anthropologists named Verena Paravel and JP Sniadecki, and it deserves both a distributor (for how else will the film’s subjects find an audience?) and a few criticisms. For while Foreign Parts does a fair job at portraying life without commentary, it doesn’t give an outside observer the full picture of Bloomberg’s avaricious intent until the very end – a rather strange choice, considering its obvious though admittedly mild subjective position.

The first twenty minutes are something of a visual essay, with subway trains and planes reflected in mucky puddles, cars gutted and thrown onto their sides like corpses, and ripped off rear view mirrors dangling as surrogate vanities. But when the people photographed start to speak at roughly the twenty minute mark, the two anthropologists-turned-filmmakers — despite their efforts to capture bistec barbeques (with the striking juxtaposition of a spare steak accidentally thrown atop a wrench), gritty locals dancing without apology in diners and around gutted engines, and a good deal of hustling – reveal their conspicuously Anglo-Saxon approach. Which is to say that Paravel and Sniadecki prefer to talk to people who speak English – “the only white girl in the junkyard” and so forth – instead of those who speak Spanish. While these subjects are certainly interesting (one late middle-aged man shouting in the streets, directing approaching cars to those who have the parts, could almost be confused with Bruce Willis), this seems a glaring and elitist omission for a community in which 80% of the people don’t speak a word of English. This divide is perhaps best epitomized by one lengthy take of a Hispanic parts-gutter rattling off the names of automobile brands. I kept wishing that the filmmakers possessed the humility to learn some Spanish, hire an interpreter, or figure out a more effective way to flesh out this man’s story. Surely he is more than the sum of his parts.

But the filmmakers are somewhat recused by their good intentions. It’s very clear that the final result comes from a place of passion. Yes, the duo isn’t particularly street smart. They are easily fooled by the performances of two men engaged in some male swagger over drug habits. (A discussion relating to this “performance” point was brought up during the press conference, which you can listen to below in audio form. It starts around the 19:18 mark, with Paravel talking about the difficulties of “penetrating the space” and “giving equal parts to the human being.”) But they do talk to those who shiver in vans during the winter. And they are good enough to not invade the space of a smiling and diminutive woman with a slur, who is a quiet but friendly presence among the neighborhood and who proudly declares why these are “her people,” but who doesn’t entirely impart her life history. And there is one very pleasant shot where the camera almost dances with this woman. It’s a nice invitational nod to the audience to pay attention.

Yet a documentary that concerns itself with the outskirts of life has the obligation to make more concrete connections to its privileged audience. The film snobs who tend to flock to movies like this often fail to understand that twelve George Washingtons represents a good deal of green. And I greatly wished that Foreign Parts had been strong enough to force some of these contemptuous assholes to understand that the Willets Point scenario sees callous greed paving over the working poor, that lives are now being crushed, and that souls are being left behind in the Almighty Dollar’s cold shadow. In the end, the people who will see Foreign Parts will walk out of the theater and spend the next hour talking over wine and cheese and confirming how “enlightened” they are. And eventually they’ll forget about the people who live in Willets Point. I’d curse the filmmakers for keeping a vital story so tepid, but then people who have rarely known a day without a hot meal and who rarely speak outside of theoretical vernacular often don’t know any better.

NYFF: Foreign Parts Press Conference (Download MP3)

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NYFF: The Social Network Press Conference

[This is the sixth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

“It’s fundamentally the same application for myself. It became clear to me after my first reading of the script that, uh, there was going to be, uh, the version of this person, my character in the film, that he wasn’t sort of the hero, so to speak. And, but, no one sits behind a – you know, I obviously, I’m not, you never play anything sitting behind a laptop, you know, twirling your moustache. I think that, like Jesse said, it doesn’t matter – that’s the beauty of this film to me. Uh, just that you really get to pick, uh, sort of who you side with. And I had a friend who recently screened the film and said to me, I thought it was really telling things, as soon as he walked out, he said, ‘You know, I don’t agree with anyone in this movie. But I don’t disagree with this movie.’ Speaking about all the characters, I think that’s what, what kind of makes the dynamic of these three characters tick. But, uh, I feel like you defend your character. No one believes what they’re doing is wrong in life and, and, and so I feel like….”

The above incoherence, which demands a sentence diagramming army led by a Patton-like grammarian, did not come from Sarah Palin. These words were uttered by Justin Timberlake on Friday morning, who appeared at the Social Network press conference in dorky eyeglasses (prescription or ironic aesthetic?) and didn’t seem to understand that, for once, the event didn’t center around him.

“I feel like you’re looking at me,” said Timberlake after Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield had offered thoughtful remarks on how they felt empathy for the real-life figures they were playing, “and you want me to add what they said as well. I also have empathy for other human beings, thank you.”

It is safe to say that a man who is set to turn thirty in a few months — indeed, one who has been at the receiving end of several hundred interviews — should have a better ability to speak. But as both the film and the press conference demonstrated, Timberlake is at his best when he is given lines to recite or rudimentary causes to champion.

“I don’t have a personal Facebook page,” said Timberlake later, when a reporter asked all on stage (save moderator Todd McCarthy) about their Facebook presence. “But it is nice to know that, through the world of philanthropy, for instance, that you can send out a message and, for instance, raise money for free health care for kids. I mean, it’s a fantastic thing.”

“I’ve heard of Facebook the way I’ve heard of the carburetor,” answered screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, “but I can’t pop the hood of my car, point to it, and tell you what it does.”

Indeed, the presence of Sorkin at one end of the stage and Timberlake at the other suggested a deliberately arranged spectrum of intellect. Perhaps an inside joke from the fine folks at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. But that speculation wouldn’t be fair to the three men sitting in the middle (much less Todd McCarthy, sitting to Sorkin’s right): respectively, Fincher, Eisenberg, and Garfield.

On playing Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Garfield noted that Saverin seemed “warm, yet kind of reserved.” There was very little documentation to go on, which granted Garfield some wiggle room to invent.

“I had minimal to go from,” said Garfield, “which was actually quite liberating. Even though I did try to find him in a very obtuse and uncommitted way. But it would have been really interesting. Because, of course, if you’re playing someone who really exists, and who is living and breathing somewhere, you kind of feel a massive sense of responsibility to not ruin them on screen. Because we’re all human.”

Eisenberg confessed that he had developed a greater affection for Facebook honcho Mark Zuckerberg while doing press for The Social Network.

“You have no choice,” he explained. “It’s impossible to disagree with a character that you’re portraying. We shot the movie for about five and a half months. And they were very long days. And you’re spending a lot of time working to defend your character’s behavior. So even if the character is acting in a way that hurts other characters, you still have to understand and ultimately sympathize with that character. It’s impossible to play it any other way.”

Sorkin stated that he didn’t think his script was about Facebook, pointing out that he “thought it was a movie that has themes as old as storytelling itself.” He then compared his work to Chayefsky, Shakespeare, and Aeschylus, pointing out that he hoped the deal with friendship, loyalty, and class – the same themes that these masters did. “Luckily for me, none of these people were available. So I got to write about it.”

Fincher viewed The Social Network as an opportunity to dial his pyrotechnic style down.

“There’s no problem in sublimating your desire to show off if what you’re presenting is something that you think is going to take,” said Fincher. “I mean, originally, the script began. It was in black. And you hear the voices over the black. And I kind of wondered, well, why don’t we just see the Columbia logo and start hearing them then? And hear the jukebox and hear all the people talking and let people know, ‘Pin your ears back, man. You got to pay attention.’ Because if we can start over the trailers of other movies, that’s what I want. And at one point, we talked about the notion of putting the credits over that opening scene. So it was like jukebox, cacophony, people, burger plates, two people talking over each other, and unit production manager. Information overload.”

Technology, for Fincher, represented the double-edged sword of “more options” for today’s filmmakers. He noted that a regatta sequence that appears midway through the film, containing approximately 100 CGI environmental shots, was shot on July 4th. This was less than two months before Fincher needed to have the movie locked for prints.

“The way we make movies has changed radically in the last ten years,” said Fincher. “I mean, I’m able to be in two or three different places at once. I have video tests of rehearsals that are happening in Uupsala right now that are being downloaded so that I can look at them when I go back to the hotel room. So that I can say, ‘This is how I want my parade float to appear on Sunday morning.’ I mean, obviously, that’s a great thing.”

Sorkin stated that he and producer Scott Rudin aggressively courted Facebook in an attempt to secure Zuckerberg’s cooperation on the film.

“Mark ended up doing exactly what I would have done,” said Sorkin, “which was decline. We also told him at the time that, whether they participated or not, we would show them the script when the script was done. And we would welcome any notes that they had. So we did give them the script. And their notes largely had to do with hacking. That there was a little bit of hacking terminology that I’d gotten wrong unsurprisingly. I know that there was a rumor a day or two ago that Mark had been spotted at a screening. I doubt it.”

Fincher was later asked about whether anything was sensationalized or sexed up for the movie. He gave the floor to Sorkin, who replied, “None.”

“I’m not going to sell any tickets by making this statement,” said Sorkin, “but I have to tell you that there is less sex in this movie than there is any two minutes of Gossip Girl. Nothing in the movie was invented for the sake of Hollywoodizing it or sensationalizing it. There are, as I explained, because of the three different versions of the story that were given not just in the deposition rooms, but there was a lot of first-person research that I did with people who are characters in the movie and people who were close to the event – most of whom were speaking to me on a condition of anonymity. And there were a lot of conflicting takes. So there are going to be a lot of people saying, ‘That’s not true. That didn’t happen.’ Just as they’ve been saying that since 2003. The work that I did was exactly the same as the work that any screenwriter does on any nonfiction film. When Peter Morgan writes The Queen, he’s going from fact to fact to fact. But Peter Morgan wasn’t in Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom when they were talking about their daughter-in-law. Moreover, and more important, people don’t speak in dialogue. Life doesn’t play out in scenes. There’s work that the dramatist does. But nothing was invented. Certainly nothing was sexualized in order to amp up the temperature on the movie.

The conference concluded with a chunky, pipsqueaked hack journalist — in desperate need of a haircut and elocution lessons — asking a question about whether The Social Network represented a “departure” for Fincher.

“Because it doesn’t involve somebody aging backwards or because it doesn’t involve serial killers?” replied Fincher, who offered a look as if he had just learned of a last minute dental appointment set for the next morning.

The hack journalist foolishly continued with his inane inquiry.

Fincher sighed. Then he said, “You know, I’d like to give it a lot of really deep thought, but I probably won’t.” He politely presented the hack journalist with the boilerplate answer he so desperately coveted. Then the conference came to a close.

NYFF: The Social Network

[This is the fifth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

A biopic which deals with a dead VIP is one thing, but the unceasing celerity of our present age demands art that skewers the self-important monsters enforcing their limited and autocratic viewpoints on the way we live (and, in the worst of cases, profiting from this egotism). The Social Network, which is one of David Fincher’s best movies and is among the sharpest material that Aaron Sorkin has ever written for film or television, is a highly entertaining movie possessed of such stones, with one endlessly intriguing, Asperger’s-like, socially clueless, self-made Napoleon (that is, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg) as its central character. It is so quietly yet deliciously brutal in its depiction of the world’s youngest (and loneliest) billionaire that the real-life Zuckerberg may have a tough time finding new bona-fide friends who don’t happen to share his continued entomological view of the human race. (Curiously enough, earlier this week, it was discovered that Zuckerberg donated $100 million to the Newark public school system, complete with the apparent allegation that Zuckeberg had intended to do so anonymously. The philanthropy’s suspicious timing, coming a week before The Social Network‘s release, carries the telltale whiff of a convenient distraction. The movie couldn’t come at a better time.)

Yet one is tempted to pity both the real-life Zuckerberg (and his cinematic representation) for this behemoth’s sheer failure to comprehend the totality of his possibly assholic nature. (In the film’s opening scene, Zuckerberg is literally declared an asshole at the aptly named Thirsty Scholar Pub. Later, he is told, “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying so hard to be.” Perhaps due to legal reasons, the film chooses to dance around the question of whether Mark Zuckerberg really is an asshole. Or maybe Fincher and Sorkin wish the audience to determine its own answer. Unlike Facebook, “asshole” does not have to be a variable.) Whether Zuckerberg is an asshole or not, at film’s end, this Little Lord Fauntleroy is very much alone, despite the 400 million users on Facebook. He faces (if you’ll pardon the pun) a woman who can size him up without a computer and who can deactivate his likability (a variable just as applicable the courtroom, but one that doesn’t require a logarithm) with a single question. And not even the laptop or the considerable fortune that Zuckerberg clings to can save him from the pitiful truth of his solitary and outmoded existence.

I mention this plot development, while trying to be coy about this conclusive exchange, simply because I fear that Fincher and Sorkin will face some criticism for the way that women are treated in this film. They may be intending to remark upon the throwback “gentlemen from Harvard” virus that managed to seize the tech industry in the last decade (still seen in such overblown conferences as Tools of Change that feature more dicks, both literally and temperamentally, than a stag club or a fraternity in an elitist Ivy League school). Yes, there are women who practice law in the two trials framing the flashback narrative. But the film does make the choice to portray women as groupies who blow Zuckerberg and co-founder Eduardo Saverin in bathroom stalls. When two of these women ask what they can do during the early days of Facebook (then known as TheFacebook), it is implied that there is no role for them. And the men behind these dot coms (including Napster’s Sean Parker, also depicted in the film, of which more anon) have difficulty remembering the names of the women they sleep with – an interesting irony, in light of Facebook being built upon hard objective data and its later efforts to seize control of the words and images generated or shared by its users.

Thus, there can be no doubt that this misogyny originates from Zuckerberg, and that it was this very atavistic attitude that fueled Facebook’s massive development. With Sorkin wisely quoting Zuckerberg’s real-life LiveJournal entries (in which Zuckerberg called his ex-girlfriend a “bitch” and compared her to an animal), this is one of many brilliant instances in which Sorkin uses airtight facts (gleaned from Ben Mezrich’s The Accidental Billionaires and, as Sorkin intimated in the post-screening press conference I attended, independent research from anonymous sources) to not only reveal an asshole without naming him as one, but to damn a world that, as Joanne McNeil has recently observed of the Apple Store’s glass staircases, prefers clean and functional aesthetics to sound moral judgment.

There are some very minor moments in which Fincher and Sorkin telegraph some of these points a bit too much, particularly with the needlessly ironic casting of Justin Timberlake as Napster founder Sean Parker. Timberlake is a charming enough screen presence, but he simply doesn’t have the sheer moth-attracting neo-blueblood light that the fast-talking Jesse Eisenberg has as Zuckerberg, much less the Harvard boy-next-door aw-shucks naivete of Andrew Garfield as Saverin. (Saverin, a business major, is so intoxicated by Facebook – even after Zuckerberg cuts loose to California without him – that he doesn’t even read the legal papers he has to sign, little realizing that he has been screwed over by Zuckerberg, his only real friend and co-founder.) But I think Fincher is smart enough to be cognizant of this imbalance. During the first meeting between Parker, Zuckerberg, and Saverin, Fincher stages a good portion of the scene with the dialogue remaining silent. Appletinis and enticing sushi are brought to the table, as yet another jagged yet rocking music cue from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross plays, leaving Timberlake to bounce war stories off the wild-eyed admirer Zuckerberg. It is Parker who serves as an encouraging older brother figure to Zuckerberg (curiously, the film doesn’t mention anything about Zuckerberg’s family), who offers perfectly sound advice (“Lose the ‘The,’” he says during the days), and who sees entrepreneur Roy Raymund’s suicide not as a parable, but as a tale to inspire empowerment.

But I’m being needlessly pedantic. Really, this is an excellent movie that no self-respecting filmgoer of any type should miss. The Social Network breezes by at such a breaknecking speed that I truly believed a mere thirty minutes had transpired when The Beatles’s “Baby You’re a Rich Man” played during the closing credits.

Some might see The Social Network as “a departure” for Fincher (as one extremely idiotic journalist suggested at the post-screening press conference, leaving a visibly flustered Fincher to point out politely that he doesn’t work this way), because the film limits its technical tomfoolery to actor Armie Hammer playing a pair of identical twins (Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss – the “Winklevii,” as Zuckerberg condescendingly calls them – who saw the conceptual framework for their Harvard Connection stolen by Zuckerberg). These same people have forgotten that Fincher has managed to get great performances out of his actors (Robert Downey, Jr. in Zodiac, the cast of Seven, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton in Fight Club) and remains quirky enough to cast at least one musician in a supporting role (here, Timberlake; in previous films, Dwight Yoakam in Panic Room, Meat Loaf in Fight Club, and so forth).

Fincher has shot The Social Network on RED, an imperfect but evolving digital camera system that feels right for Facebook’s inevitably ephemeral legacy. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenwerth keeps the first hour’s palette confined to Bostonian browns and reds. A chicken ensnared within a cage recalls the incarcerated bird within Erich von Stoheim’s Greed. There’s a rapid-fire rowing race montage midway through the film that recalls Fincher’s early music videos, but it also signifies a slight narrowing of perspective for any of the audience members who haven’t yet caught onto one of the film’s visual motifs. For as the Facebook story unfolds, Fincher includes many shots in which the backgrounds are deliberately out-of-focus, a vicarious signal to the audience that Zuckerberg and his enemies can’t see much beyond their own hollow bubbles. (This includes one of Sean Parker’s conquests, in our first introduction to him, removing her clothes in the fuzzy background. And it’s also used quite well in another scene in which a silk scarf burns in a background blur.)

I haven’t yet commended Aaron Sorkin’s language. Sorkin, as usual, writes in a way that is, well, undeniably Aaron Sorkin. Like Mamet’s dialogue, Sorkin writes more with parallel precision than absolute verisimilitude. But it works incredibly well here. Sorkin finds a remarkably adept balance between his usual pursuits of heady-sounding but ultimately pedantic subject matter (the film starts off with a consideration that the United States has more people with genius IQs than China) and Matt Zuckerberg’s arrogant technobabble. This results in some great zingers that go well beyond the “I believe I deserve some recognition” now made famous by the trailer.* “Did I adequately answer your condescending question?” replies Zuckerberg in condescension to an attorney during a deposition. Larry Summers is depicted in one scene, when the Winklevii desperately petition him to seek early redress for Zuckerberg’s theft. “Punch me in the face,” he says to his secretary upon hearing the Winklevii’s feeble request. “You want to buy a Tower Records?” says Parker to Saverin, when attempting to demonstrate consequential change that the failed Napster was able to make.

So The Social Network isn’t just that rare film where popular and critical audiences will likely leave the theater happy. It’s very much a film of our times, for our times. It’s a near-perfect synthesis of pitch-perfect direction, great writing, and incredible characters. It’s a gripping two hour experience depicting the pleasures and pitfalls of living in a digital world, but, unlike its subject, The Social Network lets its audience question the authority, and, in so doing, respects them.

* – As an aside, considering the recent YouTube and Twitter parodies, I’m wondering if any movie trailer has generated nearly as many homages in recent memory.

NYFF: Le Quattro Volte

[This is the fourth in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte is probably my favorite NYFF film so far. Its commitment to capturing animals on film (and the men who herd them) is reminiscent of last year’s excellent documentary, Sweet Grass. But its scope, which involves a church, an understated examination of the relationship between man and nature, and some intriguing glimpses into a local wood coal industry, is slightly broader and richer. With its soundtrack denuded of intrusive incidental music (the thwacks of manual labor replace the accustomed callow explosions in the rear speakers!), the film is compelling, philosophical, and often quite beautiful in its bucolic splendor. The film shares that Italian cinematographic devotion to capturing slivers of life within a vitrine mise-en-scene – a sort of artsy Where’s Waldo? recalling mid-career Antonioni, but, more importantly, it offers a respectful nudge for audiences to observe the world more closely. Do you notice that artificial bird tied atop a tree? Or the insect crawling across the canvas of an animal’s face (mimicking an earlier shot in which an ant crawls about a dying shepherd’s face)? And what exactly is that smouldering mound at film’s beginning? (No worries! For those bothered by “plotless” movies, there’s a payoff.) Why is dust swept off a church floor later blessed by its caretakers after it is wrapped within ripped magazine sheets? (And is this disposal method altogether sacrosanct?)

Le Quattro Volte is a humble yet moving 88 minute visual poem capturing the cycles of small town life – one that, at times, nearly had me in delightful tears. Frammartino keeps his audience slightly removed from what his human subjects are saying; their Italian words are often just outside earshot – as if to suggest that, because we are mere cinematic observers, these largely unseen toilers have the right to their privacy. Rather interestingly, he has photographed and edited his film as if we’re seeing these striking images from the vantage point of surveillance cameras, and yet the film doesn’t feel invasive of its “subjects.” Certainly, what’s captured could not be confused with scratchy footage. A door opens diagonally, directing us to a table, with its edge mirroring the door’s slant. And on this table, we see a man arranging objects into a bucket. What is he doing? An aging herder climbs a hill with several thin trees shooting up from the ground. With one simple pan to the right, we see not only what a physical burden it is for the man to climb this hill, but how the trees near the top of the hill grow at a less horizontal angle. With one elementary camera move, Frammartino establishes the relationship between man and nature in a matter of seconds. And he implicates the viewer by throwing us under a dark philosophical hood through the black leader edited into the film at strategic intervals.

And there’s one especially amazing long take in which goats sit safely behind a fence lined next to a road, with a protective dog on the other side. A small Catholic parade approaches from the distance, led by men dressed as Centurions. The dog barks at them. The Centurions chase him down the street. The camera pans with the dog. The dog hides in the forest. The parade passes, diminishing in the distance. The dog retreats from his hiding spot and returns to his original position, the camera panning with him. The dog encounters a stray figure from the parade, possibly a boy (we’re not sure, because it’s in the distance), and the boy tries to move past the dog. But the dog barks back, defending his territory. What follows is an amusing interplay, before the boy psychs the dog out with an illusory throw and passes onward. The dog searches about for the stone, and unrustles a vehicle, which proceeds to roll down the adjacent street and into the fence containing the goats. But instead of permitting us to see this collision, the camera moves away.

This moment was – well, for me, at any rate – dazzling cinema. The simple manner in which every behavioral moment led to yet another fascinated me. And keep in mind too that this was merely one poetic piece of the puzzle. And I was further pondering how Frammartino had tracked down such a well-trained dog to make this happen, along with the number of takes it must have required to get this single shot so right.

And yet, for a notable contingent of snobs chattering after the screening, Le Quattro Volte was considered a dud. “I don’t want to see animals falling out of animals,” muttered one such myopic specimen, who then proceeded to describe how she found another film containing a very conventional narrative quite gripping. Well, I certainly don’t want to listen to whiny critics who are interested in having their narrow viewpoints confirmed. But I respect the right of anyone who wishes to live so unadventurously, even if I don’t quite understand why they would be covering a film festival devoted to world voices. Shouldn’t these isolationists be picketing mosques?

For my own part, I was spellbound by the aforementioned animal birth, followed as it was by a mother licking the sticky dew from her fresh baby’s head. How could anyone interested in life not be moved by that? How could anyone not find joy with a goat bleating incongruously atop a table or rowdy men surfing atop a recently felled tree being trawled down a steep slope? Le Quattro Volte offers a wondrous floodgate of such moments. As some guy in Brooklyn seeking fresh perspectives outside his own, Le Quattro Volte was a totally unexpected surprise. This is a movie that reminds us of how inconsequential our actions may be, yet how magical our lives are when seen from afar.

NYFF: Oki’s Movie

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

It’s often a wise move to distrust any movie featuring a moviemaker as the protagonist, even the ones offered by interesting directors – just as one avoids reading novels involving novelists. It’s the easiest and most cannibalistic creative decision imaginable, akin to a fresh father barraging you with buckets of baby photos. You smile politely, but after the sixth hour flicking through photo albums, you courteously explain that there’s a little more to the world. In the case of the creative artist offering the creative artist narrative dilemma, either the story has to be truly remarkable or it must offer a fresh spin. (Even Stephen King understood this with Misery.) So one approaches Hong Sang-Soo’s lackluster medley of four short films – all featuring the same three characters – with tremendous frustration, baffled as to why such a one-note offering would be selected for a world-renowned film festival. Was there a shortage in South Korean submissions? Was it Hong Sang-Soo’s brand name? (Hong has had many of his films play previous festivals.) Is there an inherent selection bias towards movies about moviemakers?

Whatever the reason (and lest this essay be misconstrued as a takedown, please note that I am not anti-Hong), it is worth pointing out that the fourth of the four films, the titular “Oki’s Movie,” does demonstrate that Hong has a gift for Eric Rohmer-like meditations and is really the only short that should have been considered. It makes no explicit mention of moviemaking, aside from the narrative suggestion that what we are witnessing is a desperate reconstruction or perhaps a young adult’s early stab at pegging the world. Told from the viewpoint of Oki (Jung Yumi), a woman who loves both an older man (Professor Song, played by Moon Sung-kuen) and a younger man (Jingu, the filmmaker character played by Jung Yumi), it offers a storyline in which Oki takes both men to Mt. Acha on differing winter days, with Oki’s voiceover indicating the difference between the two men. The older man stops to admire a wooden deer and a pavilion. The younger man whooshes right by. The older man takes Oki inside for a lunch of wine and seafood pancakes, while the younger man uncouthly slurps noodles outside. This comparative basis offers a striking perch to perceive human differences. But on the basis of the three shorts preceding this, you wouldn’t know that Hong had this kind of rumination in him.

“A Day for Incantation” (the first short) follows Jingu after he has become something of a success, with a few films under his belt. Jingu is the most annoying of creative character stereotypes: the struggling artist who feels entitled to create art, but who doesn’t want to work and acts like an asshole. He lives his life drinking and smoking too much, trying desperately to get into the pants of any unmarried woman (such as one woman who takes a photo of him on the bench, who he runs away from upon learning that she is married). There is a scene in which Jingu attends a screening Q&A and an audience member accuses him of philandering and breaking a woman’s heart. But these pedestrian comedy situations, combined with the film’s visual inertia (Hong often shoots very long takes with two characters where they don’t even move), as static and as unfunny as a comic strip, makes one wonder if Hong has momentarily transformed into a Korean Jim Davis.

One doesn’t expect a student film narrative situation from a film festival selection. But that’s just what we get with the second short, “King of Kisses,” which follows Jingu’s college days, where he desperately tries to fall in love with a woman. Here, Jingu is more humble, if more spastic. His friends call him “Psycho” and it’s largely because he has a stalker’s tendency to pester Oki, claiming that he has never dated before. I saw this type of film too many times back in film school. It’s amusing enough if you happen to know the people behind the movie, but, beyond this, there’s a very good reason why this formulaic storyline stays in film school. Lonely guys with a film camera who aren’t far from twenty are hardly the best assessors of relationships. The student film feel is further bolstered by the tendency for a crisp off-camera voice reproducing the other party in a telephone conversation. Perhaps the point that Hong is making is that his characters are so ensnared with recreating life that they cannot live it – even if what we’re watching may very well be some recreation of their life experience (as suggested by the fourth short). But he offers us very little material here to care.

The third film, “After the Snowstorm,” is a little better than the first two. Professor Song awaits his two students, Jingu and Oki, after a snowstorm has hit. His students bombard him with questions about life (“Are we human beings or animals?”), for which Song, claiming himself to not be particularly wise, doesn’t have many good answers. It’s an interesting concept that doesn’t really go anywhere, even if it does set up the more thoughtful perspective of the fourth film. But at least there’s a fun moment when Song pukes up a live octopus. (Come to think of it, Hong’s tendency to zoom in on his characters is reminiscent of John Waters’s early films. But Waters had genuine wit and iconoclasm within his dialogue and the mighty Divine to deliver it. It is safe to say that not one of the three leads here has Divine’s gravitas.)

While I haven’t exactly written off Hong, these four shorts are a poor introduction for anyone unfamiliar with the man who included a behind-the-scenes hentai moment in The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well. (“Once more with feeling!” ordered the director to the actress moaning into the mike.) These Hong films don’t feel particularly subversive or, for that matter, particularly interesting. They are as shallow as the filmmaker character contained within the narrative. Let’s hope that Hong himself has avoided the same fate.

NYFF: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceauşescu

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

“The film we just saw,” muttered a nameless tastemaker just after the screening. “Who is it for? Romanians? Political junkies?”

“Humorless film geeks? Cultural masochists? Those who view watching paint dry as too adventurous?” I was tempted to rejoin. Some random canvassing revealed I wasn’t alone in my assessment. Even so, who was I to judge this film when my own grasp of Eastern European history was so tenuous? My knowledge of Ceauşescu was as dependable as a quadriplegic being asked to prepare a Caesar salad. (Indeed, one could stab both shaky offerings with a plastic fork. I apolgize to Romania.) But it seems to me that a movie collecting the life of a possibly clueless, possibly calculating leader prone to genocide, basking in his private personality cult, and a view of his subjects out of step from the reality of their privations (I believe Ceauşescu’s eventual assassination by Romanian revolutionaries should have been the telltale sign that something was awry on this last point) shouldn’t be so lackluster. I certainly hadn’t felt blasé about Shoah or any of the countless political documentaries with protracted running times that I had wolfed down in my twenties.

I suppose that the dry intellectuals — the so-called film dweeb crowd that certain online lunatics complain about, but who aren’t nearly as bad as paranoia elsewhere would suggest — are likely to appreciate this formalistic exercise. At three hours, this film is so oppressively long, with few pleasures laced within its Bucharest Death March, that the viewer feels very much without options, much like a citizen of Communist Romania. If this is the emotion that director Andre Ujica intended to convey, I can safely report that he has succeeded. It was only my commitment to judging the entire film that prevented me from stomping out of this snoozefest and carrying out my own private revolution with a bottle of scotch.

Let me dwell first on a few aspects I enjoyed: (1) a volleyball game, taken from what appears to be home movies, in which Ceauşescu is physically awkward and hilariously girly, recalling George Herbert Walker Bush’s wimpy image (Remember that pathetic baseball throw? Infinitely worse than Obama and the man was captain of his Yale baseball team!), (2) a ridiculous parade for some Communist triumph featuring surreal floats depicting sporting matches pushing slowly down the streets (two boxers going at it as the individuals holding the ring move forward, a volleyball game in which one team constantly paces backwards, et al.), (3) up to a certain tedious point, the repeat imagery of world leaders jetting away from airport runways, thus demonstrating how ephemeral their alliances with Ceauşescu are, (4) the occasional jarring cuts to Romanians dancing to pop music (I wish there had been more of this, but this film prefers to drag), and (5) Ceauşescu’s failed attempts at aristocratic flourishes (his awkward efforts with a sled, his unpersuasive claim that he is an intellectual, et al.).

In other words, the film is, at times, an amusing counterfactual. Apparently, it truly takes Communist oppression to get filmmakers to take the piss out of their leaders, particularly when Ceauşescu – with his unbrushable childish curls protruding atop his head, his puffed up cheeks, the suit that doesn’t quite fit his chubby form, and that lower lip resembling, at times, a half-inflated condom accident – strongly resembles an assclown. (I wish some enterprising underground filmmaker would make a similar film about Bush the 43rd or Tony Blair. If the Autobiography succeeds at one thing, it demonstrates the elastic nature of contextualized found footage.) Even so, three hours of world leaders shaking hands, Ceauşescu engaging in photo ops, and Ceauşescu supervising projects that we know will fail (inter alia) does get more than a bit tedious. And the moments I’ve mentioned can only be mined after some tedious ten minute setpiece. Andre Ujica does demonstrate a certain flair for visual association (the clean and orderly buildings of Communist China compared against Communist Romania’s industrial chaos, leading one to ponder whether it’s the man, the system, or the people which causes this kind of disparity), but his film is centered more around Ceauşescu as Buffoon. Does a buffoon kill 70,000 people? I suppose that moral question depends upon how swift you are with reductionist assertions and your worldview. But this Autobiography, while not explicitly referencing Ceauşescu’s early days as a peasant, chooses to gloss over the suffering and the death. Yes, I get that Ceauşescu very much did the same thing and that the film is meant to be a vicarious expression of this. But this seems an incomplete and needlessly limiting portrait of a man who, despite his frippery, was as calculating as he was flip.

NYFF: Nuremberg / Holocaust Survivor Ernest Michel

[This is the first in a series of dispatches relating to the 2010 New York Film Festival.]

During Thursday’s press conference for Nuremberg — the only film of the Nuremberg trials commissioned by the United States Army (and subsequently banned from being shown in theaters by the U.S. government) — Holocaust survivor Ernest Michel began the proceedings with a short statement. Michel was the first Holocaust survivor to turn journalist and cover the war trials. What follows is a transcript and an audio file.

Richard Pena: Is there a statement that you wanted to start out with, Michel? I see that you have something there on your left.

Ernest Michel: Yes. But before looking at my notes – because I didn’t trust myself to speak without any notes – this is the second time I’ve seen this film. And I still do not believe that I survived what you saw on the screen. I can’t believe it.

I arrived in Nuremberg on November 20, 1945 to cover the Nuremberg War Crime Plan. I was not just a newsman. I was also a survivor. I went through all of that that you saw on the screen. And I cannot for the life of me understand what saved me and what made it possible for me to come back to life. Seven month before I arrived in Nuremberg. Seven month before I escaped from the last concentration camp. I spent all together five an a half years in the camps. First, forced labor camps. And later on, extermination camps.

I was twenty-two years old when I arrived in Nuremberg. I was kicked out of school at sixth grade because I was Jewish. Never been back to school again. I came to the United States five month before the open of the Nuremberg trial. How I got to the trial is another story and I won’t bore you with that.

I had no job. I had no training. I had no money. I had no family. I was all by myself. And here I was, in Nuremberg, as a special correspondent for the German news agency DANA. Not for American papers. Not for any other papers. For the – for German newspapers. And I sat there in the gallery. The press gallery. There was Edward R. Murrow. Walter Cronkite. Who I got to know. They interviewed me. They couldn’t understand how a survivor was sitting here as a reporter at the Nuremberg trials. I had to pinch myself. This was really me. And if I get a little nervous, a little shaky, I…I saw this for the second time. I don’t know whether I can take it to sit…to sit…to see it again.

The crimes committed during World War II were the height of anything drastic and horrible that could have ever imagined in…in mankind. This is what makes the Nuremberg trials such a unique event. It was the first time that leaders of an elected country — a Western country, Germany – were committed for the greatest crimes ever committed in history. Six million of us were killed. We were eighteen million Jews around the world before the war began. And we were twelve million afterwards. I don’t know if we will ever catch up and make up for what happened.

I insisted that my byline, which I wrote for all the German newspapers, insist that it be called Ernest Michel, Auschwitz Special Correspondent, Former Inmate of Auschwitz 104995. That’s a number I wear. And I wear it with pride.

When I come to the trial, twenty-five feet away from me, second or third row, sits Hermann Goering. I never met him with the exception of one time I may have time not to tell you about. But there I was reporting from the trial. And I was told to be objective. As I said, I had no education whatsoever. I had a brief training process by DANA in order to be able to know what to say, how not to say it. “Please be honest. Straight. Directly. You are not here as a survivor. You are here as a correspondent. To tell what is happening in front of you.” And this is what I did.

My articles appeared in all German newspapers. The defendants were not allowed to read any other newspaper. So everyday, in Nuremberg, they read Ernst Michel, Auschwitz Survivor 104995. I want them to know who was in Nuremberg reporting for the German newspapers.

I was the only survivor to cover while I started in November 1945 – on the 20th November. When [Robert H.] Jackson opened the sessions. And I left the trial in June 194[6]. I couldn’t take it anymore. And then I emigrated to the United States.

The only other film that was shown in Auschwitz was a Russian film.

Sandra Schulberg: You mean in Nuremberg. Shown in Nuremberg.

Michel: In Nuremberg. In Nuremberg. I’m glad you added that.

The only other film that was shown and made by the Russians when the Russian Armies – forgive me, you know, I’m getting a little shaky, but I can’t help it. This is – my family’s there. Was there. My friends, my future, my life, anything. And yet I’m here and I’m coming. Despite my hesitation in talking about it.

This film is the only film made by the United States. And as you probably know, I don’t know if it was explained to you, the American government did not permit this film to be shown. And it is a credit to you that you took your time, your many years, to make this film available. It must be shown so that what happened to me and my generation will never happen again at any time, at any place to anybody.

It was the first time in history that a country, a government, was taken to task. You saw it on the screen. For me, the only thing I can tell you, it was the great experience of my life. There has never been anything like it. There will have been never anything like it. And it is a credit to you that the world will now see what we filmed – our American Army filmed – in Nuremberg. It’s a sight that will never, hopefully never happen again.

NYFF 2010: Ernest Michel (Download MP3)

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NYFF: An Impromptu Interview with Ed Lachman

[This is the third in a series of posts relating to the 2009 New York Film Festival.]

lachmanAt the Life During Wartime press conference, I noticed that director of photography Ed Lachman was a bit grumpy about differences between shooting on film and shooting digital. Life During Wartime had been shot, like Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant!, on the RED digital system. Now Soderbergh’s film looked a bit soft and strained to my eye. Lachman, on the other hand, had managed to beef up much of Life During Wartime using color correction. But I was really curious about how Lachman got these results. Plus, Lachman was wearing a pretty snazzy and stylin’ hat.

So I tracked him down, figuring that two guys sharing the same first name might just get along, and recorded an impromptu interview, which you can listen to at the end of the post. Many thanks to Mr. Lachman for being very gracious in talking with me just as he was heading out the door. My apologies to any cinematography die-hards for being a tad rusty.

Here’s the transcript.

Correspondent: I wanted to ask you about the use of the RED digital system for this versus what you’ve done in terms of film. You alluded during the press conference to having some struggle trying to get the color right. Presumably, a lot of color correction in post. I’m curious to what degree you relied on preexisting locations, whether planning has completely shifted thanks to the RED digital system, and whether you have any possible regrets over this possibly inevitability of where film is headed.

Lachman: Well, I think there’s a place for the digital world and a place for film, and also the merge between the film and digital world. It’s just that my eye and feeling is toward film. Because that’s what I grew up with. It’s not to negate that certain stories can’t be told digitally. But I think it’s an erroneous argument to worry that the digital world should be film. Because the color space is different and the exposure latitude is greatly lessened. Now with a lot of time and money, you can get the digital world closer to film. But for me, it’s still not there yet. And the question they always bring up is that it’s a cost factor. Because it’s like $1,000 a roll for processing of 35mm. But I’ve seen the trend back towards film. Even if you shoot in Super 16 or three-perf 35mm or two-perf 35mm, and then go through a digital intermediate, to me, that’s like the best of both worlds. Where you’re originating on film because of the exposure and the color latitude of the film and also because, in the digital world, at least with the RED, you’re not actually seeing what you’re getting on the set. And the cameraman has to rely on what his eye and, when we use film, our light meter and our lenses. And with the RED, you have to estimate what it’s going to look like. Because you’re not actually seeing at what they say 4K, but is actually 3.2K at the output. Because monitors aren’t at 4K or 3K.

Correspondent: I’m curious. Where do you think digital filmmaking needs to go in order to be acceptable for you? Is it a matter of anticipating how you second-guess how it’s going to look? Once you factor in the potential color correction, the potential fixing in post, and the like? I mean, how does the eye adjust with such developments?

Lachman: Once the digital world can equate the exposure latitude with film, which I would say is close to ten or twelve stops. And for me, in the digital world, it’s about half of that. And then also, you know, there’s something to say about why an image looks the way it does. Being analog versus digital. And there’s a random access to the analog image on film in which actually it’s like an etching. The film is being created by light because of the action — not to get too technical, but the silver in the film is being etched away by the film. And then you’re projecting with light through a piece of film when you see a film. And digital, you’re on one plane. So your shadows and your highlights are on this one plane. And it has a different feeling. And I’m saying there are certain stories that I think can be told very well digitally. And I used the digital world as best I could in Life During Wartime, and I’m happy with the results. But I had to do a lot of post work to bring out things I wanted to feel and see in the digital format that in film I would have had.

Correspondent: What was the worst case scenario in terms of color correction? Did you have a situation in which you lit the heck out of a scene and you got it absolutely how your eye wanted it and it didn’t turn out that way when you looked at it?

Lachman: It’s not so much in lit situations. I can control that. It’s more in unlit situations when you’re outdoors and when you have a strong contrast of over ten or twelve stops. Between shadow, detail, and highlights. And there’s a scene — it’s a fantasy sequence — when you pan around a lake and you see the boy standing there. And you cut back and forth. I had to do that in a number of different passes to bring out the shadow detail, to bring out the highlight. And then I did it for the color space. And that’s not something I would have had to do in film.

Correspondent: How many passes did you do for that shot?

Lachman: Well, each take, I probably did about six passes.

Correspondent: Did you have to record a certain amount of information per pass and mix it all together?

Lachman: You do a matte actually. So you matte out. Let’s say you go for the shadow detail. Matte out the other part. Then I went for the highlights. So I just did different passes. And they can put it together. But that’s very time-consuming.

Correspondent: Well, I’m curious. For a practical situation. For example, the night time parking lot scene. There you have a situation in which you have very little light. And you have to get this image of a woman walking in her nightgown across a parking lot. And so with a situation like that, was that pretty much all color correction? What did you do in terms of lighting the scene to ensure that there was some kind of information there to work with?

Lachman: Well, I’m glad you thought there wasn’t much light. And there wasn’t a lot. But I had to light it on a crane. A 12K on a crane. An 18K. And then a bounce. So I lit it the way I would have done it on film. Another aspect of the digital world that nobody tells you about is: Film right now, you can shoot at ASA 500, push it a stop, 1000, and get incredible results. The digital format, it’s about 200 to get an image that’s acceptable, that isn’t noisy and you have problems later with. So you’re losing a stop to a stop and a half to almost two stops. So then you’re in a position that you have to use more light. So then why are you gaining something by shooting in the digital world over film? Now the digital format loves low light. And I think that shooting at night scenes digitally is wonderful. Because you have lower contrast ratio. But in high contrast situations, where there’s a lot of light, the digital world, you get artifacts. You get highlights burning out. You don’t get as much information as you do with film.

Correspondent: What’s the ideal lighting for a digital situation? Presumably, how would Kino Flos work in relation to film versus digital?

Lachman: Well, you have to keep it within a certain range. Let’s say a 3:1 ratio. Where in film, you might go with a 6:1 ratio. So you just have to be a lot more careful. It’s almost for me like shooting with reversal film. Positive film, what we used to shoot. Now we shoot primarily negative. Well, we do shoot negative film. But when we used to shoot in positive film. Let’s say with documentaries or whatever. You had to be much more careful about the exposure latitude you shot with.

Correspondent: Since you’re dealing with such a limited spectrum, how have you adjusted, say, getting a spot meter reading or a light meter reading?

Lachman: Even though it’s a digital world and people laugh at me, I use my spot meter once I’ve evaluated what the ASA of the digital medium is. And I like to rate it around 200. I then just balance it with my spot meter the way I do with film.

Correspondent: Have you managed to get it so that you pretty much get an ASA 200 reading that more or less reflects the final results without artifacts? Or are you still having problems?

Lachman: No, I rate it at 200 and then do an exposure latitude of a stop and a half on the highlights and the shadow detail. That’s what you’re looking at in the film. When you see just the detail in Michael Kenneth Williams’s face, he’s African-American. And it’s so wonderful. You just read the detail. That’s because I made sure about what my ratio was between the highlight and the shadow. You know, I think part of the mystique of the whole digital world is the idea that for directors, it’s a liberating thing. If they see an image, they can shoot. But it’s a lot more than seeing the image that you have. It’s also about balance in the scene and it’s about creating the continuity of the image, so to speak. So it’s not enough to say, “Oh, I have an image we can shoot.” What happens when you go into the close-up? What happens when you start at one point of the day and you have sunlight and at the end of the day you’re in shadow or clouds? So it’s about balancing to make a scene look like it’s a continuation of the same time period, which many times you’re not allowed to do.

Correspondent: This leads me to actually ask you about depth of field and focus lengths. Obviously, if you don’t have as much of a spectrum, you’re going to have limits in terms of how far you can use the Z-axis. And I’m curious about how your photography has changed in light of the focus problem.

Lachman: I don’t worry about that. People say you have more depth of focus digitally than you do with film. That doesn’t worry me. If I use a longer lens. If I want to knock the background out.

Interview with Ed Lachman (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Broken Embraces (2009)

[This is the second in a series of posts relating to the 2009 New York Film Festival.]


There once was a time in which I flocked to a new Pedro Almodovar film with a mad and unstoppable gusto, wondering just what iconoclastic ideas Almodovar would unleash upon the screen. You never knew if you were going to get an extended rape scene brazenly challenging gender assumptions (the notorious sequence in Kika) or Antonio Banderas confronting some dormant and out-of-left-field sexual feelings (well, just about every Banderas-Almodovar road show). But then came All About My Mother, a perfectly respectable film that softened Almodovar and revealed that there was a pedestrian melodramatic filmmaker underneath the madness. Almodovar, like many filmmakers in their fifties, lost his bite. And all he had left was the lachrymose material.

And it is my sad duty to report that Broken Embraces represents more of the same. Broken Embraces may offer a film within a film (Girls with Suitcases) that bears suspicious similarity to Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Girls with Suitcases is intended to be Mateo’s masterpiece, maligned by other hands. But when we actually see the footage, even the good takes that Mateo approves of aren’t particularly funny. And Almodovar falls into the all-too-common artistic trap of having other characters comment upon how brilliant and side-splitting an alleged comic masterpiece is, without injecting hilarity into the material itself. “Films have to be finished,” remarks a character at Broken Embraces‘s close. And it’s something you do blindly. But is Almodovar really all that blind?

Here’s a filmmaker fond of staging dialogue scenes by dollying the camera from character to character, instead of panning. Here’s a filmmaker fond of split diopters. Here’s a filmmaker who gets winning performances from his two leads. Here’s a filmmaker who can make a half-decent film in his sleep. So why does Broken Embraces feel like Almodovar settling for something less? Even a moment featuring a DJ doing drugs, with the obligatory MDMA reference, feels as if it’s been directed by a guy who hasn’t set foot in a club in at least a decade.

Almodovar certainly tries to inject his contrived story with a few interesting elements. He gives us filmmaker Mateo Blanco (winningly played by Lluís Homar), blinded by an automobile accident and denied his visual strengths. He also gives us a lip reader hired by a wealthy businessman named Ernesto Martel to make sense of secretly videotaped video. There’s the hint here of a broader moral dilemma concerning the relationship between sensory limitation and media saturation. Is Mateo really blind? When a mysterious stranger knocks on Mateo’s door, Mateo looks through the door’s eyehole. And we’re left to wonder whether Mateo is playing a role, just as the actors he once cast in his films played a role. (In the case of Penelope Cruz’s Lena, it’s an Audrey Hepburn wig.) We believe initially that the film itself may be using melodramatic elements to uproot our expectations. Unfortunately, Almodovar doesn’t quite follow through. It turns out that Mateo really is blind. And the roots of his blindness, both literally and metaphorically, are pounded home with all the subtlety of a jackhammer filling in for a clock radio at an early morning hour. Secret lovers? Check. Cliched fuck bunnies? Check. Animalistic sex scenes? Check, but the feral nature of these scenes just doesn’t ring true. Almodovar’s promising subtext subsides for an easy-to-guess storyline that is all about his father figure.

Almodovar’s strengths have worked best when there’s a natural edge and energy laced within his narrative. It’s not so much the story elements that have mattered, but the way in which Almodovar’s characters disclose wholly unexpected personality qualities at moments we can’t possibly predict. For Broken Embraces‘s first 30 minutes, Almodovar comes close to these instincts. He has Mateo (now in the self-made role of Harry Caine, a screenwriter who pretends to be a former adventurer) bed an attractive woman who has helped him cross the street. The camera dollies along the edge of a couch, eventually focusing on this woman’s raised foot and painted toenails, which fall beneath this line of demarcation upon seismic satisfaction. It’s a typical Almodovar moment: fun, perverted, and wildly improbable. One detects the indelible fingerprint of a younger and hungrier Almodovar. But this regrettably subsides to a pre-Internet flashback to the early 1990s, where Mateo falls in love with Lena, who is Ernesto’s mistress and the father of Ernesto, Jr., known in the present day as Ray X. Get it?

I was complaining on Twitter this morning about the needlessly bleak programming in this year’s New York Film Festival. I’m certainly not against depressing films, but the human spectrum also includes hope and felicity. But Broken Embraces‘s “comedy” feels stale and septuagenarian. And if Broken Embraces is the “comedy” to balance out all the heavy and esoteric dramas, then I suspect that this year’s programmers are probably humorless and terrified of letting anyone know that they enjoy ice cream. I don’t think it’s Hoberman’s fault. And for all I know, the insufferably smug Scott Foundas might even have a few decent jokes in him. But Broken Embraces isn’t comedy in the way that great films are comedy. It feels more like a Golden Girls rerun, which is strange given Penelope Cruz’s presence. It’s something you tolerate because nothing else is on. But you know deep down that Almodovar can deliver more. Let us hope he doesn’t calcify like Woody Allen.

* * *

On October 7, 2009, the New York Film Festival held a press conference with writer/director Pedro Almodovar and star Penelope Cruz. To listen to the press conference, as recorded and mastered by Edward Champion, click on the podcast below. Almodovar answered questions in both English and Spanish, with English translation provided by Richard Peña.

Press Conference: Pedro Almodovar & Pedro Cruz — October 7, 2009 (Download MP3)

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NYFF: The White Ribbon (2009)

[This is the first in a series of posts relating to the 2009 New York Film Festival.]


(This post will be updated. Review of The White Ribbon TK.)

On October 7, 2009, the New York Film Festival held a press conference with writer/director Michael Haneke. To listen to the press conference, as recorded and mastered by Edward Champion, click on the podcast below. Haneke answered questions in German, with English translation by Robert Gray.

Press Conference; Michael Haneke — October 7, 2009 (Download MP3)

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Wrapping Things Up

Okay, folks, after about seventeen or so films (and manifold shorts) in two weeks, I’m officially finished with the New York Film Festival. I have seen two films devoid of dialogue (save a handful of lines). I have seen a ten-minute long take of a sheep giving birth. I have watched actors lose considerable weight for the sake of their art. I have witnessed Jonathan Rosenbaum’s eloquence stand out on an overcrowded panel. And I’ve written close to 15,000 words on all this.

So I think it’s safe to say that I’ve fulfilled my obligations to world cinema, that I’ve been a “good” cultural reporter. But I am now in need of a messy grindhouse flick and some bourbon to stabilize the artsy images and subtitles I have taken in during the last two weeks. The situation has become so severe that I am now having strange dreams with subtitles. I think that’s a sign that I’ve had enough world cinema for now. Which is not to say that I won’t be crawling back to the artsy IV drip in a few weeks.

There are a few more interviews and a few more reviews forthcoming pertaining to the New York Film Festival. But I should be shifting back to literary matters, as well as delving into a few other subjects. Thanks to all for participating in this crazed journalistic experiment! We march ever onwards!

NYFF: Waltz with Bashir (2008)

[This is the thirteenth part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

About a week ago, fearing that all of the films were turning my mass into flabby mush, I walked two brisk miles in twenty minutes to take in Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir, my fourth film of the day. The movie had been described to me by one critic, who purportedly writes for a newspaper, as “a little fiesta” — a qualification that I certainly quibbled with at the time. I’m not sure that a movie depicting the trauma of war and memory can be accurately identified as a “little fiesta.” Certainly, the real-life figures drawn from the Israeli Army do interpret a break between battles as a “little fiesta,” even if they do not precisely use these two specific words. It is true that these soldiers toil in homemade banana leaf huts on the beach and frolic about just before their comrades get shot in their head. But to suggest that these activities represent a “little fiesta” is, I suspect, missing the point just a mite. I’d like to think that the critic in question was having me on, but when I questioned him about specific points in Israel’s history, he had no knowledge of events that went down in 1967.

A professional animator informed me that he had disliked the film because of its gimmick and what he characterized as “amateurish” animation, but this same gentleman had gone bananas over Shuga, a film that I did not care for very much. But it should be observed that the device of a journalist-like protagonist (here, Folman) who questions various people about the meaning of some hazy memory has its roots in Citizen Kane and numerous personal documentaries. I don’t think that Waltz with Bashir is a documentary exactly. It’s more of a recreated narrative with the appearance of an objective pursuit. Something akin to a memoir played out for the camera. Certainly the animation technique, of which more anon, lives up to this notion of reconstruction. If it is not technically successful, then it is certainly viscerally successful.

But I was determined to make up my own mind. My initial reaction after the screening was somewhat ecstatic. But now that it has been a week since I’ve seen Waltz with Bashir, I see the film with slightly different eyes. This is a film that stacks its deck just a bit too heavily. War is bad, and it doesn’t matter what side you’re on. But this predictable rush to condemn war leaves little for the audience to make up their own minds. Paths of Glory is one of the best antiwar films in cinema, but it was Kubrick’s visual genius and his insistence on wiggle room for the audience that made the film work. Waltz with Bashir offers no comparative anthill. It offers more of a sideways glance for a topic that requires thinking in twenty dimensions and more time than you have for rumination. (As Tom Bissell noted in his underrated memoir, The Father of All Things, Vietnam is a subject that one can easily devote a lifetime to.) Waltz is, however, very good about clarifying something just as troubling: more than two decades later, it cannot be stated with any certainty that war memories match up to the reality. (Come to think of it, this is likewise a subject broached by Bissell, and Waltz with Bashir and The Father of All Things might make an intriguing book/movie double bill, or perhaps “two little fiestas” for critics who cloak their ignorance in uninformed mirth.)

The reality itself is the 1982 Lebanon War, and Folman was directly involved. He fought in the Isreali Army and, now in middle age, he retains a memory of naked young men emerging out of the water before a ruined city. Some key friends figure into this fugue: the long-haired Carmi Cna’an, the teenager who everybody figured would succeed in any science, now living in Amsterdam and fiercely protective of his privacy; Shmuel Frenkel, who has taken up vigorous physical exercise and maintains a bald pate; and Israeli war correspondent Ron Ben-Yeshai, who telephoned then-Minister of Defense Ariel Sharon about the massacres at Sabra and Shatila and was given a peremptory answer to back off.

What is quite interesting about Waltz with Bashir is its production method. Folman tracked down the people who haunted his memories, interviewed them, and then styled an animated narrative around these efforts. He even managed to persuade these people to reproduce their voices for the film. (Only a handful of Folman’s subjects declined.)

Each figure appears flat, representing a clear demarcation along a particular focal point. At times, it’s akin to watching a Flash animation or something involving cardboard cutouts from a pre-digital time. Folman’s team has added layers of smoke and reflections atop this basic approach.

Folman also has respect for his subjects’ wishes. When Carmi Cna’an declares that Folman can draw him as he is talking about war, he requests that Folman not include his son. Sure enough, the camera drifts away from the house as Carmi Cna’an engages in this paternal pastime.

But while the testimony that Folman unravels from his subjects certainly inhabits a feel of a bygone time — an atmosphere enhanced by a decent soundtrack and dutiful pop cultural juxtaposition — Folman fumbles a bit on memory’s false starts. Folman’s best friend and shrink, Ori Sivan, brings up a psychological experiment. When subjects were given photographs containing one false element, they believed that the false element was part of the memory. While Folman has exonerated himself somewhat by presenting this caveat to those seeking truth, he nevertheless remains very determined to align his memories to the film’s final moment: a live-action video clip depicting Sabra and Shatila’s aftermath. And while this footage is heartbreaking, with injustices that made me quite angry, I’m not sure if it is entirely fair to corral the film’s theme of ever-shifting memory to this harder reality. If anything, this piecemeal clip presents additional questions about the relationship between documentation and memory that were better pursued in Standard Operating Procedure. This conclusive curveball not only undermines Folman’s thesis and stubs out the strengths of his early emphases, but I suspect that this eleventh-hour departure was why the critic offered me a diabolical conclusion about war being “a little fiesta.”

NYFF: The Headless Woman (2008)

[This is the twelfth part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel — sadly one of the few women represented among the predominantly male auteurs in the New York Film Festival — doesn’t wish to spell out her entire scheme to the audience. She does have a crackling knack for presenting her muzzled puzzle from a subjective viewpoint. In The Headless Woman, Martel’s characters are often photographed from the passenger seat or the back of a car, suggesting that the audience is sitting right next to protagonist Vero, but helpless to intercede as this wealthy woman slips further down the drainage of her ethical predicament. Cinematographer Barbara Alverez confines the vista to medium shots, often static, with subjects in the background often fuzzing out in soft focus. From car windows, smiling motorcyclists pass and point to turn left while the air conditioning leaves those inside perspiring with a comfy gloom. When the camera opts for a long shot, Martel places her characters at extreme edges of the frame. One of Vero’s house workers discovers the remnants of a swimming pool or an old fountain paved over for Vero’s endlessly renovated garden. But there are no visible apples in this garden, presumably because privileged exoneration has made temptation unnecessary. Vero, you see, has driven over what may be a boy or a calf, reaching for her cell phone as the engine purrs on and rendered catatonic by this bump in the ontological road. Instead of stopping and living up to her moral responsibilities, she drives off, refusing to look back and suffering a severe emotional crisis that has her questioning her own powers of recall. We’re left to believe at film’s end that the incident may not have happened, but, by then, the dye in Vero’s hair has shifted from flaxen to black. Martel’s film represents the transformation; the accident is, quite literally, the calm before the storm.

Martel surrounds Vero with endless children who remind her of the crime. Martel makes Vero a dentist, and there is the suggestion here that Vero’s dutiful drilling upon these children’s teeth represents a full-bore assault on wisdom. After the accident, the tougher cavity jobs have been delegated to others. The mise en scene likewise deracinates the top physical features of characters. Vero is visually headless, framed by her own insularity. Vero is not heartless, for she breaks down in tears while attempting to wash her hands of the affair. The faucet malfunctions. She accepts the kindness of a concerned worker. Her head moves out of frame, revealing nothing more than her craned neck behind the partition separating Vero from the audience. We hear the baptismal rush of bottled water pouring down the top of her head. That the crime takes place on a road near a dry canal, filled by the weekend rainstorm precipitating the crime, suggests a theme of liquid replenishment. Vero is doted upon by help at the house, colleagues at work, and cannot even admire her husband in too-tight trunks. The crime, whether real or illusory, has revealed her true empty nature. “I killed someone on the road,” she states to anyone who will listen. But there is no proof, and this insinuates a deeper question of faith: an ethical stretch that is not quite religious spanning along a sinuous road leading to the annual “Smile Day,” where dentists investigate the porous ivory inside young mouths in the name of public service.

But the journey here is not entirely satisfying. Martel remains so determined to juxtapose Vero in a series of tapestries that match her internal despair that the audience does not have a choice but to go along. There is nobody here who truly scolds Vero for being so callous or unfeeling. There is nobody here who does not dote on her. We are left to witness a woman who, like Bartleby, would prefer not to. When police begin investigating details of the boy/calf’s death, we see Vero and those close to Vero craning their necks near the scene of the accident.

And while Martel injects some interesting subtext into her film, the story of a wealthy person who gets away with a crime has been done too many times before. One thinks quite naturally of The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, and it becomes apparent that Maria Onetto (who plays Vero) lacks Barbara Stanwyck’s eclat. This film could have used a Liz Scott-like side character to shake things up. But we do have an intriguing mother representing Vero’s logical development. This woman watches wedding videos from the past, barks at people to rewind moments because her memories are shot, and rattles off such unthinking “You were so beautiful. Why did you let yourself go?” to the snowy VHS bride, who is standing before her decades later.

Martel showed greater flair for depicting unexpected human behavior with The Holy Girl, which followed a religious teenage girl obsessed with a man who groped her on the street. But I suspect the absence of religion in The Headless Woman is one of the reasons why this film doesn’t quite work. Martel is a filmmaker who, like Pedro Almodovar, cannot make a secular film that packs the same punch. Religion is clearly in her blood. Had it likewise been in Vero’s blood, Martel would have had a hell of a movie.

A Brief Interlude

Some brief housekeeping between these longass NYFF reports: I had intended to write a report on Saturday afternoon’s panel, which I believe was called “Holy Shit! The End of Film Criticism is Nigh! It’s the End of the World!” But it appears my work has already been done for me. Details of what went down, not as hysterical as the title implied, can be found over at Mr. Hudson’s place. There are links to reports and even an MP3. Last I checked the thread at Mr. Hudson’s, there was some modest shit-talking of Cahiers du cinema editor Emmanuel Burdeau. But Burdeau, despite being French, is okay in my book. Burdeau and Jonathan Rosenbaum, sitting on the left wing of the panel, offered thoughtful and progressive answers that made up for the out-of-touch blathering from Kent “I don’t watch TV but The Wire is okay” Jones on the right wing of the panel. (I am assured by a third party that Kent Jones is an okay bloke. But from what I observed of him on Saturday, Jones has the finest worldview that 1989 had to offer.)

Due to deadlines, I had to miss this morning’s screening of Changeling. But why bother with it? It’s coming out later down the pipeline. Well, Clint Eastwood was holding a press conference. Well, with all due respect to Mr. Eastwood’s talent, big whoop. Yesterday, I left midway through the press conference for The Wrestler because I was hopelessly bored. The questions dealt predominantly with the cliched “how difficult it must have been” line of inquiry that one sees too often in these silly affairs.

I bring this up not to impugn those who were questioned, but only to remark upon the media’s relentless concern with superficiality. Many media outlets, including Reuters, have only now begun offering some coverage of the New York Film Festival. But most of these bloated entities have concerned themselves only with Steven Soderbergh and Mickey Rourke. And isn’t the whole point about the NYFF to celebrate filmmaking talent from around the world?

I made a personal promise to myself that I wanted to give as many of the films that didn’t have distributors a chance, and, rest assured, more reports are coming. (Still to be reviewed here are Waltz with Bashir, Hunger, and The Wrestler. But these big-ticket items can wait a bit. Because they all have distributors.) Unfortunately, it appears that not even The New York Times is willing to devote its considerable resources to in-depth reviews of such unusual films as Tokyo Sonata. Don’t they have a whole team of reporters over there for this? I’ve conducted a New York Times search for “New York Film Festival” and all we’ve had since A.O. Scott’s jejune list of film summaries is Manohla Dargis on Che, which, again, has distribution.

Well, this cannot continue if film journalism is expected to survive in any decent form. As I have discovered in the past two weeks, it doesn’t take that much effort to turn out a few thoughtful paragraphs for every film. You can stay on top of the situation if you constantly keep on top of the films you watch, meaning sitting down at the end of the day and writing reviews for all the films you’ve seen that day. You can even set up radio interviews. And you can also work on other professional obligations at the same time.

That the New York Times is incapable of doing this, even through the Web, makes me conclude that the newspaper isn’t really that serious about film. Not even the major film festival that operates within its own metropolitan area. If this is the kind of cultural journalism the print mavens are championing, then I believe the time has come to replace it with something else.

The Bat Segundo Show: Jerzy Skolimowski

Jerzy Skolimowski appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #239. Skolimowski is a filmmaker, and is most recently the director of Four Nights with Anna, which is currently playing at the New York Film Festival.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Waiting for the fifth night.

Guest: Jerzy Skolimowski

Subjects Discussed: Moonlighting (1982), starting from a home to get the lay of the land, the importance of place, how location dictates character motivations, Bruce Hodsdon’s observations about Skolimowski’s objective-subjective dialectic, the importance of story, Leon’s movement in Four Nights with Anna, using sparse dialogue, sticking with the script vs. accidental improvisation, how one of Anna’s reactions originated from an unexpected problem with noisy boots, inserting moments of sympathy for Leon and cleaning Leon’s image, the film’s flashbacks/flash forwards, dead cows floating in the river, decorating Anna’s room, artificial waterfalls, explaining the seventeen-year gap between Ferdyduke and Four Nights with Anna, Skolimowski’s problems with Ferdyduke, the pursuit for artistic satisfaction, Skolimowski’s career as a painter, acting as “easy money,” observing KGB agents and White Nights, collaborating with Polanski on the Knife in the Water script, Skolimowski’s early efforts at poetry, dialogue getting in the way of the visuals, the relationship between political tension in Poland and Skolimowski’s art, and the problems of thinking about money when pursuing art.


Skolimowski: For me, the most important thing is the story. I’m telling the story. And I’m not speculating on what it means more than it is. It’s a story. And of course, one can always find some additional interpretation and some theoretical sightseeing into it.

Correspondent: But I’m wondering if you’re perhaps being a little disingenuous here with your answer. After all, there is this chronicle with the ring. Which, of course, made me think logically of the old Jewish tale of putting the ring on the corpse and the like. And here you have it in reverse. And here Leon actually uses this as a kind of code with which to act and use his severance pay on purchasing a new particular ring. And so I’m wondering, when you think about a situation involving a ring, I mean, clearly that is a symbol. So it’s not entirely just basic storytelling, I would think.

Skolimowski: But to me, it is a basic story. And I don’t treat it as a symbol at all. Because logically this ring belongs into the story. He buys this ring for a specific purpose. He executes that purpose. And again, if that means something more, fine. It’s the benefit of it.

Correspondent: This is where audiences come in. You essentially exculpate yourself from responsibility for symbolism and critical analysis and things like this.

Skolimowski: I rather do. Because I think, once again, I have to say the story is the most important. Everything else is just, you know, how would I describe it? It’s….

Correspondent: The additional icing on the cake, I suppose.

Skolimowski: Exactly! Those are the words.

Correspondent: Okay. Fair enough. Well, let’s talk about Leon’s movement. I was really fascinated by it. Because he constantly circles around people. He’s clumsy. He slips in the mud. And again, I was rather taken with a larger allegorical meaning of what this particular movement might mean. Because it’s definitely misfit-like movement from him. And I’m wondering how this came about and how this emerged.

Skolimowski: When I was writing this story, I thought that the character should have a specific complex. That he should be extremely withdrawn and shy. And to manifest it, the best way — as you probably noticed, there’s very little dialogue in the movie. So he is practically not saying anything. He’s got maybe three dozen words through the whole film. But physically, he has to present that character which I wanted to create. So I thought that his walk should be kind of specific. And therefore when I choose the actor, I put some heavy stuff into his boots. I put some lead so each of his boots were like five kilograms heavy. Therefore, he had to walk like this natural.

Correspondent: That explains it. Did he slip because of this? Or was that planned? I’m sure.

Skolimowski: No, the slips were done for purpose. Because I need some light moments. You know, it’s a very gloomy story, and I didn’t want to have the audience be sad all the time. So I purposely planted those moments where one can laugh or at least smile, and have a little bit of relaxation from that tragedy. Because this is a tragic story. Tragic love.

(For related information about the film, here’s our review of Four Nights with Anna.)

BSS #239: Jerzy Skolimowski (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Summer Hours (2008)

[This is the eleventh part in an open series of reports from the New York Film Festival.]

Olivier Assayas is a prolific auteur. Summer Hours is Assayas’s third feature in two years, following Boarding Gate, a muddled dimebag noir depicting an implausible relationship between the gravel-voiced Michael Madsen and the melodramatically languorous Asia Argento, and Eldorado, a television documentary chronicling Angelin Preljocaj’s efforts to choreograph Karlheinz Stockhausen’s imposing Sonntags-Abschied. Summer Hours, with a premise nowhere nearly as Chekhovian as the situation suggests, is a considerable improvement from Boarding Gate, involving three middle-aged scions in an artistic family attempting to corral a family legacy against their own financial needs.

It doesn’t quite live up to its full potential, but it certainly comes close. Mother, a cheerfully depressed and easily tired woman who we get to know in the film’s first half hour, dies. Father — a renowned artist named Paul Berthier — has been dead for some time. The Berthier home, built over the years into a summer retreat for the family and populated with expensive furniture and art, is ready for the auction block.

Assayas is on point here thematically. Charles Berling, who is looking more and more like Aidan Quinn with each movie, plays Frédéric, the most interesting character of the three. He’s an economist courting controversy with his books, but remains very much in doubt about who he is. He cannot connect with his teenage daughter, but attempts to reach out to her with liberalism, only to see these slippy efforts resisted. He lives very much in his father’s shadow, but Assayas is wise enough to keep this detail under the surface. (Indeed, Paul Berthier survives in this film largely as a memory.) We do see Frédéric break down in a car hours after he has learned that his mother has died: the suggestion here being that the responsibilities of being “adult” have led Frédéric to defer his emotions. This breakdown comes shortly after a radio appearance in which he has calmly duked it out with cultural pundits. (Later, when a major decision has been reached, he sits in a dark room staring out the window. He cannot confess to his understanding wife that he is crying.) The bookstores want him for readings and appearances. But Frédéric says in response to this success, “Writing this book has just brought me trouble.” But he insists on overseeing the family legacy. He wants the family to hold onto the home, but it’s largely because he’s incapable of seeing the developments in the present.

Frédéric’s other two siblings are Adrienne (a blonde Juliette Binoche who is given top billing here, but whose contributions are supporting at best), a fashion designer in New York now trying for Husband No. 2 in the dubious form of an “artistic director of an Internet magazine” (played, with a nod to Assayas’s next generation theme, by Clint Eastwood’s son) and whose feelings are often given the short end of the stick (even her engagement announcement is trumped by family news), and Jérémie (played by the striking Jérémie Renier), an industrialist looking for lucre with a shoe company in the Far East who has no problem rattling off such pronouncements as “The future is making cheap sneakers by exploiting cheap labor” in front of the family. So if Frédéric can’t pave his own way, then it’s either hard art or hard business for the next generation of Berthiers. But these respective overseas circumstances will certainly keep the other two from visiting the summer home.

Aside from these two siblings, Assayas suggests quite adeptly with his editing that time will march on despite Frédéric’s emotions. Months often pass by during the course of the film, but Assayas keeps his transitions quite muted, sometimes cutting directly to the next scene, which is set weeks later, and sometimes finishing up a scene with an unobtrusive fadeout. For example, at one point, we see that Frédéric has grown a beard. Fifteen minutes later in film time, the beard is gone. Cinematographer Eric Gautier, who also shot A Christmas Tale, likewise keeps his camera whipping and panning at the fleeting pace of the present. The camera frequently dollies up to a door, slightly ajar or open, but very rarely moves through it, as if to suggest the inability of these characters to make an active decision.

This intriguing visual psychology anchors the film thematically, but Assayas’s ending, which involves something of a handover of the home to free market forces and the next generation, suggests a stylistic imbalance between characters and theme. The cherry picking is intended to connote Chekhov, but it’s far more literal-minded in its execution. These characters are left sitting in museums, no more different from the caged objects that once presided in the family home. But Assayas’s inability to focus on how these people will move forward comes off as considerably disingenuous in light of the complexities he embeds beneath the surface. But if Charles Berling is Assayas’s DeNiro, perhaps he might find a more satisfying balance in a future offering.