In the blog advisors, crew, and guests write down their thoughts on the lay of the land of film per se and on issues regarding Ciné.
ISN'T THE WHOLE POINT TO BE FOOLED?
Wednesday, March 9, 2011
"Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion." -- from The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
As the film industry's awards season comes to a close and we endure once more the world's sexiest form of cultural triage, it's tempting to accept the prism of "best this" and "best that" as the proper method for remembering the previous year's movies. No doubt it's easier and perhaps a lot more fun, but I'd like to take a moment to revisit just two American films from 2010, neither of which are likely to garner any superlatives this year but both of which could be a contender for most controversial. The two films are interesting not only for this reason but because they also share a common battleground in the debate over what of their making was real, what was not, and what in this do we find acceptable from the standpoint of both ethics and taste. The faux-documentary "I'm Still Here", directed by Casey Affleck, captures the spectacle of Joaquin Phoenix's downward spiral after "retiring" from acting to become a rapper. "Catfish", although its categorization is scarcely agreed upon, is a documentary about a young photographer who begins an online relationship with a young artist and her family; but as the relationship grows and deepens, he slowly begins to realize that nothing is quite what it seems.
Upon release, both films received a significant amount of scrutiny and sometimes outright disdain, more notably "I'm Still Here", which premiered at the Venice Festival, an event that ultimately became the curtain call for Phoenix's eighteenth month real-time performance as an alternate version of himself. All speculation was thus put to rest regarding his now doubly infamous appearance on Letterman, his failed attempt to become a rapper, and his oft-mocked unkempt appearance. All of it was performance, all of it for the sake of the film. The revelation, with the help of the internet, sparked a vitriolic backlash long before most people had even seen the film, and immediately, the words "stunt" and "hoax" became the most popular terms used to describe the whole endeavor. It's as if a large part of the movie-going public, those who were at least somewhat aware of the events leading up to the film's release, felt insulted and wanted immediate retribution.
"Catfish", though it has never purported to be anything but a documentary, has similarly inspired varying levels of incredulity, some calling it entirely fake, some merely questioning the authenticity and sequence of events as they are presented, some just doubting the naiveté of the protagonists as they stumble towards the final revelation. The directors, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, along with Nev Schulman, the director's brother and central subject, have been cross-examined so much at this point that should a guilty verdict be reached, "Catfish" would become the felony to Joaquin's mere misdemeanor.
We Americans don't like to be taken. Anyone who's ever been cheated by a salesman, duped by spam mail, burglarized or even pick-pocketed, knows the awful, empty feeling of having been violated. We as a culture believe in property, in privacy, in personal space. So when we feel we've been taken on an intellectual level, it's the same as coming home to find the front door ajar and our personal sanctuary in disarray. But when we've been tricked rather than robbed, our own minds smudged with fingerprints, it can feel like an even graver transgression. Most tormenting is the feeling of failure, the personal humiliation of being lumped in with a group we might previously have ridiculed -- the gullible, the naive, the slow, the weak, the first to go when evolution turns down its thumb.
So we're cautious. Perhaps this is why we're so suspicious now anytime something is presented to us as a documentary. Many of us think it far better to err on the side of caution than be thought the fool. We scan the screen frame-by-frame looking desperately for the smoking gun. "They're not going to get me," becomes our mantra and by the time the movie is over, we feel more like we've defeated it than watched it. But I've never been sure why anyone would go to a movie unless they were completely willing to submit to it. Isn't the whole point to be fooled? (Let us set aside political and agenda-based documentaries for this discussion).
My hat is off to Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck for "I'm Still Here". While I cannot suggest that the fruits of their labor will or should be heralded through the ages, I think that their effort should be applauded and I find it regrettable that so many have completely dismissed the whole endeavor. The end result may have its flaws, but I'm still by and large impressed, excited, and inspired by the boldness, the grandeur, and the artistry of what they set out to do. If any part of this saga is insult, I think it's that so many have dubbed their project a "hoax" and a "stunt". The film represents neither. What they executed is what you might call a grand-scale "happening". And what is a "happening"? It's a kind of performance art where actors play out scenes on the street, anywhere and everywhere, improvising, provoking, and eliciting the participation of the audience as best they can. Yes, most people find such a thing off-putting, but I can't help but appreciate the ephemeral beauty of such a presumptuous, unpredictable art form, and let's not forget the level of commitment such a feat requires. I'm thus very supportive of Joaquin Phoenix for having the wherewithal to commit to such an endeavor and on such a grand scale. Cynics may still cry publicity stunt, but you can't deny the risk involved. And if it was merely stunt, as far as I can tell, it has not paid off. But, for me, it was neither a stunt nor a hoax, but the culmination of an actor at the height of his powers choosing not to advance his career with safe, well-paying, blockbuster roles, but choosing to experiment boldly in his craft and with all the youthful temerity to which I think he's entitled.
Yet, just as most people feel a sense of dread when a "happening" creeps up around them, the backlash was brewing for Phoenix long before he took his bow. Perhaps we resent being participants in the grand experiment represented in "I'm Still Here". Maybe we just don't like having our own flaws as a culture pointed out to us. We are a celebrity-obsessed society of gawkers. Britney Spears, Mel Gibson, Lindsay Lohan: We worship the train wreck at the altar of Siva the destroyer. The only thing that could qualify the whole thing as a stunt is our own reaction. It is our culture that made such a big deal out of Joaquin Phoenix's behavior, something that by and large, should have been ignored. He tested us, prodded us, all for the creation of this film and we were willing participants whether we like it or not.
To add ballast to this praise, I would like to also offer my biggest criticism of the film, which may at first seem self-contradictory, but my feeling after exiting the theater was that Joaquin Phoenix was perhaps not the person to play this role. Don't get me wrong; he performed it as well as anyone could. But in a film built around an existing public persona, perhaps his public persona (prior to the feigned downfall that is) was not appropriate exposition for the story he and Affleck ultimately wanted to tell. The grande ligne here was to be a kind of Icarian downfall set against the celebrity-obsessed culture in which we live, hence the Shakespearean monologue by Edward James Olmos, which was riveting in the trailer and less so in the film itself.
Phoenix is a celebrity for sure, a movie star even, but he was someone who had the respect of the public and his peers alike, not a billboard idol, not an upstart, and not a fading glory -- certainly not someone who would suddenly suffer the megalomaniacal breakdown his performance portrays. For an actor whose last role was in an obscure indie-film ("Two Lovers"), based on a Dostoevsky short story no less, his public persona more fit the profile of an actor interested in artistic experimentation than that of the spring-loaded basket case poised for an embarrassing downward spiral. His effort to mix reality and fiction was flawed in its mechanics and his public descent into madness happened all too quickly, instantly really, so it's no wonder people were suspicious from the start.
The only solution would have been to stretch the whole performance that much longer over time, beginning much more subtly so that a progression could happen much more gradually. Instead of one self-destructive talk show appearance, he would have needed several increasingly awkward appearances, documenting a gradual descent that we at first might not even detect. Again, not to diminish Phoenix's 18-month commitment to the role -- like I say, I much prefer to celebrate the achievement -- but to have told the tale properly and with the mind-blowing results he probably hoped for, the commitment would have needed several more years. Such an epic undertaking, if successful, would have us by day's end doubting the curtain call rather than questioning the events as they happened, perhaps even inclining us to believe that the documentary is a mere last-minute attempt to salvage a ruined career. But could we ever really expect someone to make that kind of commitment, that kind of risk? The comparison has already been made, but let's not forget that Andy Kaufman carried his voluntary public embarrassments to his grave. Perhaps genuine insanity is the secret ingredient of feigned insanity, and Phoenix was simply too sane to pull this off.
As for "Catfish", the film's detractors are right to be skeptical; their observations are generally very astute. But if "Catfish" is a fabrication, I'm just not sure what pulling back the curtain once and for all would necessarily prove. What I find so regrettable is that so much of the discussion of Catfish was monopolized by debate over whether it's "real" or not. Morgan Spurlock ("Supersize Me") famously complimented the film at its Sundance premiere as the best fake documentary he'd ever scene. Zach Galifianakis (Yes, "Hangover" Galifianakis?) has been cited numerous times for calling the film a complete fabrication. It's no secret that the film was at some point turned over to Andrew Jarecki ("Capturing The Friedmans") to help edit it, which, if nothing else, reminds us that storytelling is a craft regardless of the facts, and that some people are simply better at it than others. But, I feel that "Catfish" is far more interesting than whether it is real or not. If it turned out the film was 100% staged, I might be less inclined to ever see it again, but I certainly wouldn't denounce the experience of my first viewing. Just as if I were to learn a magician's trick, I may lose interest in watching him cut the pretty lady in half, but I'm still nonetheless grateful that he suckered me the first time.
The most damning and valid charge against "Catfish", assuming that the people in the story are real, is that it is exploitative. At the center of the film's great mystery is a flawed but sympathetic and deeply tragic figure whose wounds are exposed to us in a rather unflattering manner. We can be rightfully suspicious that the filmmakers probably knew more than they let on at each stage of the story's development, predicting, provoking, and even delaying certain revelations for the sake of drama, playing along when unnecessary, contriving key scenes, and ultimately taking advantage of a vulnerable individual in a fragile situation. One could argue that the filmmakers' decision to structure this story in the form of a suspense thriller was insensitive, that their methods were deceptive and manipulative, that they, for all intents and purposes, crossed a line. Perhaps these are all true. On the other hand, the film's resolution is one of redemption, of understanding, and of unexpected connection. One could view the end result as a kind of catharsis for everyone in the film, guilty or innocent.
"Catfish" is a powerful story about communication in the age of the internet, not so much about the technology itself or even its transformative influence on human behavior, but more so the way it highlights what's been true of human beings all along: our basic need for connection, for acceptance, and for love, especially in the context of the ubiquitous struggle to find these things. The driving force of the internet, particularly sites like Facebook, is a basic compulsion for humans to put themselves out there. Our desire to be loved and our fear of rejection are in constant battle. We would very much like to be loved for who we really are, yet we fear that who we really are is not worthy of love, so, whether realizing it or not, we deceive the outside world as best we can -- by the clothes we wear, the way we speak, the jobs we choose, the friends we claim, the decisions we make. The internet is simply an extension, an exaggeration perhaps, of this basic human folly. It grants us a platform for putting ourselves out there with more of a command center for affecting how we are perceived. And some people simply take this as far as it will go. The woman to whom I vaguely allude in "Catfish" could be called a guilty victim of this temptation, but by the end of the film, when the shell is cracked, the deception crumbled, and the wounds exposed, my own heart breaks for her -- and isn't that ultimately a kind of love. Whether she is a real person or a fabricated character, I accept her flaws and her mistakes, admire here strength, and see a little bit of all of us in her struggle to find happiness.
As far as I know, no one depicted in "Catfish" has come forward to cry foul, which means that they are all either well-hidden, well-paid unknown actors or they are indeed real people and none of them feel offended by their depiction. Does this mean that the film is entirely truthful? No, but it might mean that for the people in the film, it simply doesn't matter. And for me it simply doesn't matter. If a curtain call should ever come for "Catfish", we can applaud or throw tomatoes, but I'm not sure what either gesture would satisfy.
Does categorization carry a code of ethics? What percentage of a documentary must be real to be classified as such? Is there such a thing as a one hundred percent accurate documentary? In the controversy over "Catfish", I'm not disturbed by the notion that its filmmakers are somehow guilty of a crime so much as the notion that most other documentary filmmakers are not? The ethos of documentary filmmaking, as far as I can tell, has never been one of telling the whole story or even the real story; it's always been about telling the best story. Real or not, I'm not sure that "Catfish" is a story that would ever be told in a fictional film (or an admittedly fictional film) or be told quite as well, so for me personally, all controversy becomes irrelevant. Does this open up a can of worms in debate over ends justifying means? Of course it does. Where does one draw the boundaries of creative license? It seems to me that quite often the element of truth only matters when the material is bad or sensationalistic. We can accept any combination of prosaic and hyperbolic only when we know that it "really" happened. I once had the reaction to the film "The Life of David Gale" that had it been a true story I might have liked it, but because it was purely fiction, all of its audacity and bathos was simply unpalatable. What a strange thought to have -- that if somewhere there had been a newspaper clipping to corroborate this absurd tale that I could somehow appreciate it. Why does this infrathin difference make all the difference in the world? I suppose we can forgive the drama of real life for lacking poetry, but when drama lacks both poetry and real life, this we find unforgivable.
"Catfish", regardless of its veracity, I believe has enough real life and real poetry to make it a tale worth telling. That is to say, if the events of the film are real, then the film is well done and poignant. If the events of the film are entirely fake, then it is still well done and poignant -- just perhaps more impressive. And if the film is merely a clever restructuring of otherwise insignificant moments in time, held together by sinews of fabrication, then the film is still yet well done, very poignant, and perhaps, most of all, impressive.
Friday, June 4, 2010
ASIAN FILM POWER IN CANNES: Mija, a lovely older lady, who likes to dress up with hats and flower patterns, enrolls in a poetry class. She takes care of her insufferable grand son, who – as it turns out – has raped a classmate, and she is also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. While plunged into great misery, she also sees the beauty around her with an intensity that is new to her. How she lives all of this and what decisions she makes is depicted in the Korean film POETRY by director Lee Chang-Dong, who also wrote the screenplay, which got the prize for best screenplay. Yun Junghee, who played Mija, was clearly a contender for the best actress prize, but was overlooked by the jury. POETRY was one of many powerful entries by Asian countries this year.
Another Asian film won the coveted Palm d’Or: UNCLE BUNMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES by Apitchatpong Weerasethakul from Thailand. Uncle Bunmee, who is dying of kidney failure, retires with his family to his bee farm in the country. His deceased wife joins him to take care of him and his lost son returns in the form of a monkey being. Bunmee travels into the jungle to a cave in which – as he remembers – he was born into an earlier life, to contemplate the reasons for his illness and to die. The film addresses questions of reincarnation and of tradition and myth versus modernity. Much of it is filmed in a mysterious haze - most notably a scene in which a princess copulates in a pond with a talking catfish as her face turns dark and scaly – which is contrasted with a neon light glare when we see Bunmee’s family back in the city after his death.
Weerasethakul is not only a filmmaker, he is also an installation artist and uses the medium of film in unexpected ways. He conveys images, atmospheres, hints of things he does not show, and shows things at times that can only be understood intuitively. In that sense it was the most original and multi-layered film I’ve seen at the festival. It was - for me - not Weerasethakul’s most captivating film. SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY, his previous film, was also divided into different times (when his parents were young and today) and different aesthetics and conveyed its message/feeling more strongly.
We have been showing the winner of the Cannes Festival each year ever since Ciné opened. This time I was reminded of a little vignette: A Ciné phile had written a letter to the editor of the Athens Banner Herald in which she described how grateful she was for our first year of very original programming. She said that she had enjoyed or learned from each film she had come to see (I believe it was about one a week) with the one exception of SYNDROMES AND A CENTURY. And although the critics at Cannes almost unanimously loved UNCLE BUNMEE, it too will be a tough film for Athens. There were other films (I will get to them later) that could have gotten the Palm d’Or this year in a field that was not very strong altogether with pretty straight forward fare and without the drama and scandal of previous years.
Another surprising Asian (also Korean) film was THE HOUSE MAID by Im Sang Soo, with the biggest set in Korean history and a score that is reminiscent of IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE: Euny
is hired as a nanny by an upper class family and seduced by the master of the house. When her affair goes sour, she takes spectacular revenge. It’s a sexy, delightful satire on high society with some daring changes to the 1960’s original.
HAHAHA by Hong Sangsoon is another Asian (and again Korean!) film that won the Un Certain Regard competition category. It’s the story of two buddies who share romantic tales of their recent vacation in a small sea town (over countless drinks) not realizing that they were involved with the same people. The folks in the flashbacks talk incessantly about pretty irrelevant stuff. Some of the quarrels are about the quality of people’s poetry, and we learned that everybody does poetry in Korea, which almost spoiled the film POETRY for me. Films that were more deserving in this category in my mind were:
CARANCHO by Pablo Trapero from Argentina: about an ambulance chasing lawyer who hooks up with a young addicted emergency room doctor (played by the lovely Martina Gusman who was the lead in THE LION’S DEN) in a film noir with complex, flawed characters and plenty of violence.
OCTUBRE by Daniel and Diego Vega from Peru: about a quiet pawnbroker and his woman neighbor who takes care of the baby that has been left with him while he is looking for the (prostitute) mother. It’s a delicious relationship satire of very few words and sparse images that won the Jury Prize of Un Certain Regard.
And then there were two more films in this category worth mentioning here not as contenders but for other reasons. THE STRANGE CASE OF ANGELICA by Manuel de Oliveira from Portugal: about a young photographer who takes pictures of the beautiful, dead Angelica, who winks at him as he is doing that. She proceeds to visit him as a ghost, and they begin to fly around together stiffly (Chagall – like) in the evening sky. This is all utterly annoying, and I would not mention this film if it was not for the fact that the filmmaker, who created this formal exercise, is 101 years old. May we all still do such original works at 101!
FILM SOCIALISME by Jean-Luc Godard from Switzerland (although he lives in France), who is also 80 by now. Since he has played such an important role in the independent film world, his film was much anticipated. It’s about topics as broad as civilization and democracy shot in a kaleidoscope of styles in various digital formats (that at times pixilated by accident – I would say). The few moments that were touching and intelligible were enhanced by all the stuff in between them comparable to a hypnotherapy session. Most intriguing was his use of English sub-titles, which were not translations but only key words of the text that formed their own lyric. That too was rather condescending to all the folks who did not speak the main languages used in the film. Since he is my fellow country man, I don’t have to be in awe.
But now to the films in the main competition I had high hopes for: The new film by the Iranian film maker, Abbas Kiarostami, CERTIFIED COPY, his first film outside of Iran with Juliette Binoche in the lead role. This one is also a language merger: The story of a French woman who lives in Tuscany and meets a British guy, who wrote a book about the virtues of copies versus originals. The intellectual part of the dialogue circles around this washed out topic without adding any brilliant insights. What’s between the lines is their relationship or the lack thereof and that rings more true. Juliette Binoche got the Best Actress Award for this role, which is fine. She was good, but I don’t think she had to go out of her way to do this. Not the Kiarostami I was hoping for.
Mike Leigh’s ANOTHER YEAR: about a couple, their grown child and their friends, is terrifically observed over the four seasons of one year. The things that happen are hilarious and touching and simple. Lesley Manville stands out as Mary, a weepy, bewildered, constantly talking, middle aged woman, who is trying feverishly to connect to the people around her (comparable to Sally Hawkins as Poppy in Leigh’s previous film HAPPY GO LUCKY), but the whole ensemble is smashing. Well done - a contender for the Palm d’Or.
OF GODS AND MEN by Xavier Beauvois from France: about the true story of eight French Cistercian monks, who live and practice in the high mountains of the Maghreb in Algiers in the 90s. They live in harmony with the muslims around them, but the country is in the grip of fundamentalist violence, and the brothers have to decide whether they want to stay or leave. In very individual ways of soul searching and in sharing in the group they decide to stay and six of them are kidnapped and later killed (which happens off screen). The themes are very timely, and the film ponders religious, philosophical, and political questions with authority and calmness. One gets a strong feeling for the daily lives of these monks and the landscape/place they live in. It’s a very convincing, original, and strong film, which was another candidate for the Palm d’Or and was awarded the Grand Prize.
A different take on violence in Algiers was depicted in OUTSIDE OF THE LAW by Rachid Bouchareb from France (although the film is an Algerian entry). Bouchareb’s previous film, DAYS OF GLORY, which we screened at Ciné two years back, had changed history; after it came out a law was passed allotting due payment to North African soldiers who had fought for France in WWII. OUTSIDE OF THE LAW sparked controversy before the festival already because it shows the Algerian uprising at the end of WWII with the French response that led to the massacre of several thousands. The French Deputy remarked that Bouchareb had made numerous and obvious errors in his account:”His truth is not France’s truth”. A right wing website called for a protest with the motto: “Crusade on the Croisette”. The mayor of Cannes organized a memorial event for the French fallen in the Algier wars to counter balance the premiere of OUTSIDE OF THE LAW, and the streets were blocked by heavily armored riot police (resembling Ninja turtles) and their vans, and about 1200 demonstrators. Security collected hundreds of water bottles (which they had conveniently overlooked before) of miserable people lining up for the screening in the Palais. The premiere filled up very quickly, though, everybody was well behaved, and people clapped politely at the end. OUTSIDE OF THE LAW is the story of three brothers who lose their home in Algiers to French settlers and get scattered across the globe. One joins the French army in Indochina, one works for the Algerian independence movement, and the third makes a fortune in the night clubs in Paris. They finally all come back together in Paris to fight for Algerian independence. All this is filmed in a Sergio Leone western style and shows much violence from the French but also from the Algerian hard core fighters as well as the personal costs involved in their pursuits. I found it very well done and captivating, but the French press ripped it to shreds.
Another, much anticipated film about the costs of war, ROUTE IRISH by Ken Loach, tells the story of Fergus, a man full of rage, who worked for a private security firm in Iraq and now – back in Liverpool - goes to the funeral of Frankie, his best friend, whom he had persuaded to come to Iraq with him. In his search for the guilty in Frankie’s death, Fergus deteriorates into violence beyond redemption himself. Fergus yells and swears most of the time (was there a sentence without “fucking” in it?), which was criticized as heavy handed by some, but the film is quite complex with a very strong message on the human costs of stirring up war and financial opportunism and shows with unwavering clarity how somebody who has fought and killed cannot come back as the same person anymore.
BIUTIFUL by Alejandro Inarritu from Mexico: about Uxbal a single father of two, underground businessman, contact to ghosts, diagnosed with prostate cancer, who is trying to get his affairs in order before he dies. One can hardly think of more misery that could befall this man, and Uxbal/Bardem struggles with all his unfinished business and guilt, but at the same time fills the screen with passion and strength and a sense of insight and freedom given to him through his last days that is remarkable. Some critics described BIUTIFUL as melodramatic. In my mind it is a tragedy in the Greek sense - the story of a flawed hero, who has the same short comings we all have but in a heightened form - that leads in a specific period of time to an unavoidable outcome. It is gorgeous and melancholy. Bardem deserved and got the Best Actor Award , which he shared with Elio Germano, the lead actor in LA NOSTRA VITA, who was very good as well.
LA NOSTRA VITA by Daniele Luchetti from Italy, was another of several films that dealt with fathers who were trying to understand parenthood. Claudio (Germano) loses his beloved wife as she gives birth to their third child. As he mourns and spends all his time with illegal business deals to give his children a “good life”, his family members are quietly there for him, and he can eventually reconnect to them and his children. In A SCREAMING MAN by Mahamad-Saleh Haroun from Chad, which won the Jury Prize in the main competition, a former swimming champion loses his job as pool guard to his son. Resentful he signs him up for the war effort against the rebels. By the time he regrets what he has done, his son has been wounded and dies on the way home with him. The final scene of the father watching the body of his son floating down the river was probably the saddest I saw during the festival – and there was a lot of gut wrenching stuff. CHONGQUING BLUES by Wang Xiaoshuai from China is about a sea captain who learns – as he returns after a long absence – that his son has been involved in a hostage situation and was gunned down by the police. He travels to the town where he had abandoned his family long time ago, to understand who his son was and what his father’s absence had meant for him.
Where were the US films? Nowhere. The two official entries were FAIR GAME and BLUE VALENTINE. The former (by Doug Liman) was an utterly traditional piece on the disclosure of Valerie Plame’s status of covert officer and its aftermath. The fact that Valerie Plame was actually in Cannes as well and looked better on the red carpet than Naomi Watts, who played her in the film, is probably the most interesting thing to report. BLUE VALENTINE by Derek Cianfrance had a promising start at Sundance this year. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling are the handsome young couple that is drifting apart. They decide to give it another night (in the astronaut room of a motel) to try to save their marriage. This seemed to me like Americans trying to make a European film: with less of a beginning and end and more of booze, sex, and almost the depiction of an abortion. That’s European right? I was never pulled into their predicament and did not learn why they were attracted to each other in the first place. So they split up, that’s OK. It seems as though the organizers of the Cannes festival don’t really like to have US films in their competitions (Woody Allen is always welcome out of competition) and tend to ask US film makers to be the president of the jury to make up for that. To be fair, I need to say that several, much anticipated US films were not ready on time for Cannes. Among them Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE, Sofia Coppola’s SOMEWHERE, and Clint Eastwood’s HEREAFTER. Films to look out for at Venice or Toronto.
I don’t have any good examples in the “the French at their proverbial unfriendly best moment” this year but I have some misgivings about the cascades of laughter I called forth each time in the wait person when I (being a good vegetarian) ordered my Salad Nicoise without tuna and anchovies (Ce n’est pas une salade nicoise, alors!”)
But I do have a piece of delicious French patronizing: We were lucky enough to get into the Un Certain Regard award ceremony. The president of the jury, the impressive French film maker, Claire Denis – who was the topic of a recent Director’s Spotlight at Ciné (and whose 35 SHOTS OF RUM we just screened) was asked by Thierry Frémaux, the General Delegate of the Cannes Film Festival, to say a few words at the beginning. Claire described why she felt individual films had been special and why she had liked working with the other members of the jury. Thierry translated all of this into English by saying:” She thinks that all the films were great and all the jurors were wonderful and so forth.” After that, Claire said - still in French - that what she had said was actually a lot more interesting than that and proceeded to translate what she had actually said into English.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Is It WENDEKINO or KINOWENDE?
In preparation for our film festival, WENDEKINO, Martin Kagel had come up with a bleak photograph of the Berlin wall - seen from the east - for our poster. Although, I liked the image, I did not think that it would draw any crowds to see our films, so I wrote to Richard, who is spending his fall in Costa Rica as artist in residence at the UGA Ecolodge, for input. I sent him a still shot from the film SILENT COUNTRY saying: "I would like this image better. It's also grim, but says more 'film' to me." Richard's response was: "Ah!! Dueling aesthetics!!!! Is it die Wende or die Kino?"
This still brings a huge grin to my face. It is hilarious for several reasons. Bear with me. Richard is a lover of the German theory of aesthetics, which has all to do with political awareness and little with beauty. Thus he would relish this debate on which image needed to stand for our project. Not less funny - for you German native speakers and linguists out there - it is das
Kino not die
Kino. How can I be so lucky to have a husband who writes such endearing stuff?
Dave Marr made fun of our festival title in his Flagpole column, saying that you needed to take a deep breath to read it. Little did he know that we had actually been very merciful with WENDEKINO. We could have integrated the whole subtitle on all the revolutions in eastern Europe into the title in one noun had we set our minds to it. German let's you do that! WENDEKINO was actually a name I had created for the occasion. WENDE means turn around, and when Germans speak about "die Wende" they refer to the political transformations around the fall of the Berlin wall. KINO in German stands for the actual movie theater but also for "the movies" in general. As much as you can say WENDEKINO you can also say KINOWENDE, which has very different meanings, and I find it poignant that we had a festival of that name at this point in time.
We are in a transition in the film world. Film, especially 35mm prints, are more and more replaced by digital media. Many multi-plexes have abandoned prints altogether. They are cumbersome, they could arrive too late or not at all, they cost a lot to ship (in their quaint but heavy tin cans), and since hardly anybody chooses projectionist as his/her career path anymore training is not available (at least in the US) and prints often arrive scratched up-because they were mishandled- by the time they come to a small (film) town like Athens. There is also a finite number of prints and it can happen that there is just no print available when you have the promo out already. Why show prints at all then? Because they look great and making them and projecting them is an art form. The images have a depth and clarity that is unequaled thus far. Making the actual photographs flow into life like movement, working on them in your mind to understand them as 3D is part of the romance with analog materials. We projected a 16mm film for the festival from within the screening room (rather than the projection booth) and when the audience learned that they would hear the projector noise, a wistful gasping went through the ranks. Some distributors are specialized in re-mastering old, classic prints to bring them to the audience in new glory. Do many people understand what a treat this is? This much to the KINOWENDE in general these days.
KINOWENDE can also refer to a transition in an actual movie theater. An acquaintance stopped me in the street a few weeks ago to ask: "Is it true that you are closing Ciné and moving away?" I was a little puzzled, wondering which part of the sentence I should tackle first. I guess the moving away part was easier, so I said: "It would be nice to spend some time in New York eventually. It's a great film city." On closing Ciné? "Not if I can help it." But we are in a KINOWENDE in that a group of smart and dedicated film lovers and I are working on forming a non-profit entity (Athens Film Arts Institute, AFAI), which will continue to run Ciné with the educational mission it had from the get go. Ciné has been shaped as much by the Athens community as by my original vision of it and by the space itself. I think Athens is ready to take it on. So it is WENDEKINO and KINOWENDE all at the same time.
EPILOGUE: We used the dreary wall image and a lot of people came out to the festival. And now because I can't resist and especially for Dave Marr: This was a blog on:
Monday, June 01, 2009
YES, WE CANNES.
We were thunder struck, my sister Mo and I, as we left the screening room of the Palais in Cannes making our way into the bright night lights of the famous Croisette. We had just witnessed how a young woman, who had been locked up in her spacious parents' home since she was not ready to leave "until her dog teeth will fall out", had hit her corner teeth with a hand weight until they fell into a blood splattered bathroom sink. After that she staggered through the night to hide in the trunk of her father's car to finally leave her parents' compound the following morning. When her father leaves his car in front of his office, the camera rests on the car and the trunk does not open. She apparently does not make it out. These were the last scenes of DOGTOOTH, by the Greek director, Yorgos Lanthimos, who won the Un Certain Regard
category. It is an outstanding film resembling a modern stage piece that shows what adults can do to their children by forming them along their own ideals and misrepresenting the world without ever truly engaging with them. The results of this adult behavior are catastrophic; the children brutalize themselves and each other.
THE WHITE RIBBON, by the Austrian director Michael Haneke, who won the much coveted Palm d'Or
this year, deals with the same topic. The story takes place in stark grey tones in Protestant Northern Germany on the eve of WW1. Mysterious accidents happen that summer - children are abducted and mistreated. Patriarchal hypocrisy suffuses everything. The doctor, tired of his midwife helper/lover moves on to his teenage daughter, the pastor who brutally whips his two oldest children, puts white ribbons on them afterwards to remind them of "innocence and purity". At the end one is left to assume that the children had abused the other children following rules that the adults had instilled in them. It's a somber and beautiful film with a captivating story that sheds some light on the atmosphere that led to the world wars.
The British director, Andrea Arnold, also depicts in her film FISH TANK, the life of a teenager, the 15 year old Mia, who is angry and aggressive in response to her loveless and stark environment. However, Mia is able to leave her abusive relationships and the fish tank at the end. FISH TANK received one of the two Prix du Jury
Overall there was a lot of violence in the films, which seems to be an accurate mirroring of our time, but the films that won awards had also gotten more difficult and abstract. It seems that the Film Arts are moving closer to the contemporary Visual Arts in that they don't want to please you with beauty but shake you up. The festival in Cannes is a place where this development can be celebrated, but it will make it harder for these films to find a broad audience in other places.
The film that should have won the Palm d'Or- in my opinion - but received the Grand Prix
instead, is UN PROPHETE, by the French director Jaques Audiard. My guess is that the jury felt they could not give the Palm to a French film two years in a row (after THE CLASS last year). Audiard paints a terrific portrait of a 19 year old of Arab origin, who cannot read or write and works his way up during 6 years in prison, from murdering a fellow inmate to get the Corsican mafia protection (advisory: blood fireworks) to organizing his own deals and having followers from various under world groups once he is released.
Another outstanding French film was IN THE BEGINNING, by Xavier Giannoli, with Francois Cluzet (who played the leed role in TELL NO ONE) as a small time crook who ends up building a piece of highway in an industrial town in northern France, pretending to be a high up employee of a building company and hiring job hungry locals. It's based on a true story and utterly original, suspenseful, and insightful. Cluzet did it again.
There were also a few but worthwhile comedies. Let's begin with Quentin Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (he refused to explain the spelling) that was much liked at Cannes for its gutsy ness. It is a lot of fun and scandalous. Tarantino is re-writing the history of the Third Reich into a Western format with the help of Lt. Aldo Paine (Brad Pitt) who gets together a group of Jewish American soldiers "to treat the Nazis the way they treat the Jews". Aldo has some Apache blood in him and requires his men to collect at least 100 Nazi scalps each. In the meantime, the young Shosanna, who escaped the execution of her entire family at the hand of Colonel Hans Landa (the superb, Austrian, Christoph Waltz, who got the best male actor award) runs a movie theater in Paris (which she manages together with just her projectionist lover - where have the times gone!) plots to lock the doors of her theater during a Nazi propaganda screening (with Hitler in attendance) and burn it down by lighting the films in her archive. I laughed and cringed at various times in the film. When the theater went up in flames and one of the basterds roared: "This is the Jewish revenge on the Nazis", it was cringe time. At least when Donny Donowitz, who played one of the basterds, said in the press conference: "I am a Jew and have to say that I have been dreaming of such a revenge from when I was a little boy.", I was relieved. Maybe I could quote him if we were lucky enough to get this film rather than the multi plexes.
Ang Lee's TAKING WOODSTOCK is a hilarious, loving, and meticulous coming of age piece, in which a young man brings the Woodstock festival to his town and his parents' motel. Needless to say he gets totally overrun and changed by it. LOOKING FOR ERIC by Ken Loach tells the story of Eric, the postman, who is stuck raising his sons while he cannot face the woman he has been in love with for 30 years. His soccer fan friends and the famous soccer player Eric Catana (played by Catana himself) come to the rescue. All fine British humor with a social critic's eye.
There were also some very good period pieces that illuminate unusual relationships between famous men and their women lovers. BRIGHT STAR, by Jane Campion, (the only female director to ever get a Palm d'Or for THE PIANO) is a modern, very detailed, and beautifully filmed take on an unlikely love affair between the poet John Keats and the girl next door, Fanny Browne. Marco Bellocchio's VINCERE is a strong portrait of the life of Ida Dalser, who was the secret wife of Mussolini, who acknowledged their son but then denied him. Pedro Almadovar's LOS ABRAZOS ROTOS is another show piece for Penelope Cruz, the story of a film maker who loses the love of his life (Penelope) and his eye sight in a car accident, but manages to finish the film -in which she had played the leading role- 14 years later. A shining Almadovar, with many levels, twists and turns.
Stay tuned to find many of these films at Ciné within a year.
EPILOGUE: The second time around in Cannes was much easier. We had a nice little place on the hill in the old downtown, with a sliver of sea view (from on top of a bed). The Internet connection worked - so we were able to play the ticket roulette successfully. We even got into the closing award ceremony, which is a different, actual lottery and had managed to have seen the films that won prizes!
But to everyone's delight, here is this year's "the French at their proverbial unfriendly best moment": Mo and I had come out of a late show and wanted to have dinner in one of the countless restaurants on the way home. We picked a pasta place and chose a table for two outdoors. Arrived we noticed that our neighbors had put their bags on the chairs. When we asked whether the table was available, we were told: "Of all the tables in this establishment, do you REALLY have to pick this one?" Mo and I glanced at each other and decided to yield to the table next to this one, which was empty as well, only to hear from our new neighbor to the right: "You can't sit here, my dog needs this space."
Monday, July 28, 2008
Creating the World
: Yesterday somebody wrote in to request that we show STEALING AMERICA VOTE BY VOTE and Richard and I looked at the trailer snippets on the website. We saw a series of men and women describing how their votes had been stolen in the 2000 and 2004 elections and how sad it was that their voices had been excluded from shaping the world they live in. I asked Richard: "What do you think?" and he gave back: "Voter fraud has been practiced in the US since 1776." "Yes?" I said, and just looked at him, which is a good way of prompting a history lesson. So he went: "Aaron Burr nearly got himself elected as the third president of the United States through voter fraud. This film seems to suggest that this phenomenon began in 2000 and was limited to republican politics. This is naive. A documentary that would look into the issue of how this has been going on since the beginning of our Republic (not Democracy as often cited in the film) what in the make-up of our system and our psyches allows for that - now that would be a film that should be made."
Soon we did some research into the voting numbers in different states of JFK's election year, and were reminded that many observers believe that vote fraud contributed to his victory, especially in Illinois, where the campaign had enlisted the help of the powerful Mayor of Chicago. I agreed that including the historic angle of the vote fraud story would make for a richer film, but I am more forgiving than Richard in that regard and can also see benefits in trying to get folks out of their "my-vote-will-be-stolen-slump". Plus, I still have to see a screener to get a better picture of the film as a whole.
Talking about naiveté made me think of what the New York Times columnist, David Brooks, had said that evening about Obama's speech in Berlin: "Yes, Obama said some nice things, like Christians, Muslims, and Jews should all get together and like each other - We all want that, but it is naive." And it does sound naive when Brooks summarizes it like that, but coming from Obama it is something else.
Jon Stewart had a piece in his "Obama's Quest" on the Daily Show the night before in which he reported: "After a quick meet and greet with King Abdullah of Jordan, Obama was off to Israel - Bethlehem -, where he made a quick stop at the manger where he was born." Stewart is as funny as he is because he has his finger very much on the pulse of the Zeitgeist; in this case the feeling that many have that Obama is coming from a different place. In Berlin he described himself as "a fellow citizen of the world" and called on all countries to listen to each other and learn from each other to shape this moment in our history, and I relate to that because that's the same business Ciné is in. Our programming wants to help us all be fellow citizens of the world by experiencing things that might not be in our repertoire already; seeing images from Mongolia and Turkey, hearing people speak Norwegian or Portuguese and listening to the varied music of gypsies might make us realize that all of these folks and lands are in some measure part of us as well. And once this understanding seeps in, it will make our lives much more colorful and will contribute to living in peace with our neighbors.
The film FLIGHT OF THE RED BALLOON that Ciné will screen this week (beginning August 1st) is in itself a marvelous example for this. The Taiwanese film maker, Hsiao-Hsien Hou, gives us his understanding of a different culture through his lens. He brings together Simon, a little boy, his mother Suzanne-a puppeteer (Juliette Binoche in a very unusual role), and Song, a Chinese film student, in a small, bohemian flat in an utterly enchanted Paris. The images are poetically light, yet emotionally charged and full of the past. I realized that when Simon begins to play a French chanson from the sixties on the juke box ("Emmenez Moi" Take Me along to the End of the World, by Charles Aznavour) and my whole life seemed to come back to me in a moment. Something else might happen to you when you see the film, when you are invited into this world of profound humanity that Hou creates.
Epilogue: I pray that we will get an immaculate print of the film to show the full impact of this visual poem. We will SEE.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
Fahrvergnügen: The Ride to the German Film Festival
It was after the premiere of GRBAVICA last May, when a good looking man in a leather jacket (think: Sebastian Koch) came up to me at the BarCafe and said: "Hallo, ich bin Martin Kagel." When a guy approaches me in my mother tongue he has somewhat of an advantage from the get-go. It turned out that Martin was professor at the Germanic Languages Department at UGA and was working on putting together a conference in spring with the-as I learned later-sweeping title: The Meaning of Culture. His idea was to bring in the German film maker Andreas Dresen and to run his films during the conference. The conference would also be in film format; an intriguing concept.
I had heard of Dresen but not seen any of his films-they are hard to come by in the US. Martin began to feed me some of Dresen's films in DVD and VHS format. I found my VHS player in the storage room and watched these things on my crummy TV screen, late at night with head-phones on-to not keep anybody from sleeping-and was stealing my way back into an environment that I knew and had lived in. The breakfasts in SUMMER IN BERLIN, the kind of bread, the taste of the butter and the decapitated 4 minute egg, and the inevitable cold cuts, and the light that falls onto the table from the balcony almost brought me to tears. It was all stuff that I could still taste and smell and that I was allowed to revisit. But then there were things I did not know. I had left Munich before the Berlin wall came down. There was something new in these films, a Germany described by someone who had grown up in the East, by someone who looks at everything very carefully, who shows it as it is without flinching but with great warmth running underneath.
Martin kept trading me the ones I had seen for new ones and said things like: "Nice, hmm?" and I said: "Yes, we should show this." We came up with the idea that the festival should not just be about Dresen's films, but still an in-depth look at his work (an idea that is more common in Europe, as e.g. in Nice, where you can find a Picasso, a Matisse, and a Chagall museum). So we asked him to name us some films that had influenced him or had been in other ways important for him. With his response in hand and our original list of his films, we began to look into which of all these films we could possibly get with English subtitles, and the time of e-mail loops and international phone calls began.
SUMMER IN BERLIN is probably Dresen's best known film and one we definitely wanted to show. When I called the US distributor, I learned that their phone line was not active anymore. In calling people who apparently had worked for the company, I heard things like: "I don't want to be reminded of this time.", or "It was a very hard time for all of us." The boss had basically taken off with the money and had left them in a lurch. Nobody knew what had happened to the film and whether there was still a copy floating around in the US. When I told Claus-our man in Berlin-the whole story, he was dumbstruck. His company, the German distributor of the film, was not aware of any of this. He was going to look into the legal situation of the rights to the film. Given the situation, he was confident that they had the rights for the US again and would be able to find a copy for us in the States.
Martin has a good connection with the German Cultural Center (the former Goethe Institute) that much helped us with the rental of the other three Dresen films. The catch there was that they had to be shown for free, which was going to reduce our ticket price drastically. Well; too late to think about not losing money with this whole idea. The next step was to contact the DEFA Film Library, an archive and study center for East German filmmaking from 1946 to now, with a branch in Amherst, to ask about some of the films Dresen had suggested that had been made in East Germany. Evan (our man in Amherst) had some of them available, but for an unusually high rental fee. He mentioned that there was only one print of ANTON THE MAGICIAN still existing and only two of SOLO SUNNY, each reel needed to be insured for $ 1000 for the transport and we would be responsible for each linear foot of film lost, stolen, or destroyed between delivery to us and return to them. He estimated that one film was worth $10'000, and I had not been able to find insurance that would cover this kind of loss. Upon hearing all of this, I told him what we wanted to do and what we had in our budget for the films, and he said he would get back to me. A few days later he called and suggested a contract which was much to my liking. Noticing my surprise, Evan laughed and said: "I guess, I'm not a good negotiator, you got all your conditions." He was also very enthusiastic about the Dresen Film Festival Idea (he knew him personally) and was well aware of the US distribution fiasco of SUMMER IN BERLIN, but was convinced that there was still a 35 mm copy that had been on the festival circuit around in the States-one only had to find it. He was going to look into it.
Meanwhile I researched shipping costs in case we had to bring in a 35 mm print from Berlin and the numbers were mind boggling. However, we were stead fast that we wanted a print not a digital format, and these film reels in their cans are heavy. At some point Evan from DEFA wrote that he had located a copy for us with subtitles, but when I called it turned out to be a DVD. Finally, Claus (in Berlin), who had not been able to make any head way in his legal question, had found that organizing the shipping from Germany (rather than Athens) was a little cheaper and offered in addition to not charge us a rental fee if we wanted to actually ship the print, and that is what we decided to do. The thing with this scenario was that there was only one copy, and we would have to show what we got; asking for another-let's say 3rd reel after the first screening-was out of the question.
It was very elegant of us to go with all 35 mm prints, but it also poses some other logistical problems. Ciné has two projection booths and a 3 platter system in each. On a 3 platter system you can have two films (one platter each) since you need an empty platter for the film you are screening to be rolled onto. Thus, if you want to show 8 films 3 times each over 4 days, you have to show them in a certain sequence. Also: Films come on reels (up to seven) and need to be built, which means spliced together. Once this has happened, they are wheels of impressive diameter and need to be on a big, flat surface. This big, flat surface will have to be our upstairs office floor for a couple of weeks. We will have a film-reel-sculpture for Kamala and me to tip-toe around.
Martin and his department did a thoughtful and eye-catching job with all the PR materials, and we will even have a festival pass, that piece of equipment that makes you feel special during a film festival. People will have these things (depicting a burning car) around their necks that make it legitimate not only to see all
the films but also to walk away, have a coffee somewhere in the heart of downtown, delve into profound discussions with fellow festival goers, and still belong. Epilogue
: The cans are coming in now. DEFA sent its 3 films in beautiful, bright, hexagonal, green ones. They sit like little soldiers on the bottom of the staircase, reminding us-as we stumble over them-of things to come. SUMMER IN BERLIN, arrived in a rather shabby, square, fortified card board box, but the print is fine and has English subtitles; it's the only one we have built and prescreened yet. The other Dresen films are coiled up patiently (we hope) in unassuming grey boxes in projection booth 2. No word yet from THE MARRIAGE OF MARIA BRAUN, the only film we should get through regular channels via our booker. But we still have 9 days until the beginning of the festival, and as Jennifer Nettles so aptly sings: "It's the ri-ide…"
Saturday, January 19, 2008
SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY
. After I was done fretting about the lighting situation for the speakers and mangling the names of the people I wanted to thank, I somewhat settled into my remarks for the Honors Students last Sunday. I conjured up two women I like, Maxine Green, the philosopher, and Ruby Rich, the journalist. Rich coined the phrase cinematic illiteracy
to describe the refusal to read subtitles that she finds so prevalent in the US, a term that makes me smile whenever I think of it. Green says that in order to change ones situation one needs to be able to see beyond ones own experience, which I think good films can help us do. I suggested that-short of doing study abroad-they could come to Ciné to get this new experience; either come alone and disappear in the inviting screening room or come out with friends and discuss the film afterwards.
I did not mention that I actually belong to the former category, folks who slip anonymously into the dark and just walk away after wards with a thoughtful look on their face, since it might seem a little odd that I created this place where people are encouraged to talk with each other about film. I also suggested to the students to form a film club, and Dr. Neupert picked this up as a great idea before he introduced the two films of the evening: CONTROL and INTO THE WILD. He thought I was talking about meeting every Sunday after the 7pm show and discussing one of the films we show at Ciné. That was-originally-not what I had had in mind. Neupert went on to introduce the films in one of his Houdini tricks of tossing them up in the air, having them mingle and wrapping them up separately again in a fast tempo-the films were very similar in some ways but also totally distinct from each other.
I had not seen the first hour of CONTROL and decided to see some more of it. The moment that had been the beginning for me the first time around (the delivery scene) came and went and I just stayed and watched the rest again-surprised by how much more I could see (and how much more of the British English I was able to catch). I was much attracted to the beautiful black and white faces on the screen, fascinated by the shallow depth of field that Corbijn used so often, that put Ian, the main character, more in focus but also separated him from his environment. When he tells his wife, Debbie, that he thinks he does not love her anymore, the two of them are in focus quite a bit away from us in the middle of the street in a working class, treeless, row house neighborhood, which is in a haze for us. She turns around, stumbles some, and walks towards us and in doing so is more and more out of focus, is dissolved into just shapes on a grey scale when she reaches the front of the screen. Ian is still standing there in perfect focus. What a way of describing what's going on without a further word.
After the movies we went back to the Lab and talked. People who had come out of either screening room said that the film had been depressing, which to some degree surprised me. The stories were depressing in some ways (both films happen to describe a young man's quest that ends in suicide/death), but the films? I find it depressing when I see a film that is stupid or badly made, when I feel I wasted my time. A very good film with a sad story to it can be quite uplifting to me. Then again, depression is my favorite neurosis. I promised to screen a story of a young woman who commits suicide the next time around to balance things out.
We had coffee and seductive Donderos' raspberry cheese cake squares, and settled in again around the big tables. I listened to the issues that were raised and to the questions asked and did what I had encouraged the students to do some hours ago. I pondered other points of view and was quite content to talk about my own observations and thoughts that were just beginning to form as I was putting them into words. The discussion was very animated, continued in my mind as I came home, and stayed with me in my dreams. By the time I woke up the next morning, many things about both of the films had become more clear to me. What I had only been able to hint at the night before, had taken the shape of a clear thought that was likely different from what each of my fellow cinephiles around the table had came up with, but they had certainly all helped me get there. I felt that talking about a film was actually a very stimulating and a good thing. I felt light-footed and-dare I say it-happy and decided that Ciné should have a Film Club on Sunday nights after the 7pm show to discuss one of the films we are showing. Different people with film knowledge would lead the discussion and folks could just drop in to participate. Sunday seems like the right day. It's usually not over crowded at Ciné and it's a nice way to end the week. We'll try the first and third Sunday every month.
The first Ciné Club will be this Sunday, January 20th, on the film THE SAVAGES after the 7:15pm show. I already talked Dr. Richard Siegesmund, who teaches Art Education at UGA and taught a seminar on International and Independent Art House Cinéma at Ciné (and is also my hubby-it was short notice), into leading the discussion. Come out we'll have fun with THE SAVAGES and will help each other think.
Epilogue: We won't be able to have wine, though, because we don't have a Sunday beer and wine license anymore. Our license was not renewed because we don't make at least half of our income through food. How could a movie theater make half of its income with food? Beats me. Why did we have a Sunday license in the first year? They give you the benefit of the doubt until the first numbers are in. So we'll just have an elegant espresso or mint tea and some sweet treats for our Sunday Ciné Club. It'll be really hard core.
Thursday, July 26, 2007
Ciné: Art in the Public Sphere
Movies began as a part of downtowns. Thomas Edison's first film studios were located in downtown Manhattan near Greenwich Village. From there, the movie palace became an essential part of downtowns in every large, medium, and small city across the United States. Growing up in the stifling heat and humidity of southern Indiana and southern Michigan, the movie theater was a place of refuge and relaxation-if only to escape the outside elements. To be sure, you could avoid the heat by slipping into a local diner, or shop. But only at the movie theater could you nestle down into a chair, disappear into the darkness and be transported to another place for up to two hours, or more.
From my grandparents' home in rural Indiana, narrow back alleys were the swiftest route to downtown and the movie palace-a walk of about 3 blocks. I still remember the posters announcing the pending arrival of the re-release of Walt Disney's PINOCCHIO (circa 1962) along the route. Thirteen years later, when I returned for the funeral of my grandfather, I walked these same alleys one last time. I was saddened to see that movie posters no longer lined the brick walls. The downtown was closing down. Suburban sprawl reached out like tendrils toward Indianapolis. With the rise of the shopping mall, located on beltways designed to divert traffic away from downtowns, the movie palace began to wither and with that demise a sense of community, of neighborhood, and of place perished as well. Yes, new multi-screen cinemas anchored the new fortress malls encircled with gigantic moats of blacktop, but they were not the same. These surrogates did not command the quiet majesty or the human scale of the downtown theaters. There was no sense of being somewhere special when entering.
Back in the early 18th century, in what we now know as Germany, community leaders and philosophers noted the importance of this phenomenon. It was the dawn of the Enlightenment: the age of Reason. No longer would kings or the church tell us what to do. For the first time, citizens claimed (as a young intellectual, Thomas Jefferson, from the colony of Virginia, on the other side of the Atlantic put it in his most enduring piece of writing) to be "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." However, the good burgers of the Germanic principalities were not quite so revolutionary minded as their cousins in North America. They saw a more pressing problem. If we granted universal liberty, what would prevent the kind of sectarian bloodbath that we, here in the twenty-first century, see every day in Baghdad? What was to keep Catholics and Protestants from murdering each other in the streets in the pursuit of happiness? This was a very real political problem circa 1720.
The Germans arrived at a new and unexpected solution. They called it aesthetics: the science of how things are known through the senses. Rather than enjoying blood sport with protagonists like Ann Coulter and Michael Moore attacking each other in public fora quaintly titled "Firing Line" or "Hardball", the Germans suggested that we create public places-a public sphere-for aesthetic imagination. In these places, people faced beauty in a calm, reflective atmosphere. These places would be theaters, public parks, and bandstands. The presence of beauty would compel us to talk to each other. We would share our ideas about what we saw. In the process, without someone telling us what to do, we would learn how to engage in public conversation. Through this dialogue, we would discover a public self that bound us together despite our private differences. In this way, we could teach ourselves what it meant to be responsible citizens in a self-governing democratic society.
This is part of what Ciné affords Athens. An example of Ciné creating a public sphere is the community night at Ciné, featuring the Hollywood classic BRINGING UP BABY sponsored by the Boulevard and Cobbham Neighborhood Associations. It could be in the sold-out celebrations of DARIUS GOES WEST or the languid discussion of Jim White pondering SEARCHING FOR THE WRONG-EYED JESUS. These events are not just about entertainment, although they are that. These evenings are about a way of coming together in a public forum to learn to see, listen, and talk with each other again.
Sunday, June 03, 2007
The Unbearable Lightness of Cinéma.
We have not had many complaints yet. Just the occasional "Where is my parking space" or "I really hate your pop-up menu" (on the website) accompanied by a thoughtful "but that might not be on the top of your list", and the touching "What happened to Brigitta's blog?".
I saw AVENUE MONTAIGNE (which really should have kept its original title ORCHESTRA SEAT in English) together with my son Danny yesterday. It is a gem of a light-footed film with humor and substance and a wonderful soundtrack of a wide spectrum of music that made our sound system shine. I commented to Danny that judging from this film and the previews (MAFIOSO, PARIS JE T'AIME, and OFFSIDE) one could easily get the impression that Ciné only shows foreign comedies. No hint of all the war, death, and slaughter that had come over its screens already. Somebody came out of THE WIND THAT SHAKES THE BARLEY after about 30 minutes and asked for her money back since she was not prepared to watch that much violence. We gave her a pass (a free ticket) for any other film but wondered if she would have done the same thing at a multi-plex and decided not to give in to another complaint like that. Our website and write-ups in the papers give ample insight into what our films are about. Would you return a book after reading it half-way because you did not like it? However, when one of our own crew members reported that she had to leave the screening of this film after 45 minutes, we came up with what we called a Film Advisory (which can be read before you purchase a ticket at the box office) about the violence depicted.
BLACK BOOK is the first major film that we got from Sony Pictures Classics. It is a fascinating mix of genres that utterly resists categorization. It even stars Sebastian Koch in a stronger performance than in THE LIVES OF OTHERS if that's possible. It's about war, death, and betrayal, but also about resilience, fun, creativity, and sensuality in kick-ass action tempo--certainly a grand film. Come out if you haven't seen it. It's two-and-a-half hours very well spent, and we could impress Sony Classics with huge box office numbers. Next week we will begin to show AWAY FROM HER, which appears to be Julie Christie's finest achievement to date; probably also not an easy film, but one that makes your emotional life much richer. See you soon.