Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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Art of the Real; Jim Jarmusch retrospective at Lincoln Center

A Film Society of Lincoln Center series that interprets documentary in the widest possible sense. I expect to provide screening notes on the following films of the series. I'll also attend one film from the complete retrospective of Jim Jarmusch, Dead Man.


Raya Martin and Mark Peranson: La Última Pellícula (2013)

An egocentric filmmaker talks about himself, and the apocalypse, and the end of film, in Mexico

"In this documentary within a narrative—and vice versa—a grandiose filmmaker (Alex Ross Perry) arrives in the Yucatán to scout locations for his new movie, a production that will involve exposing the last extant celluloid film stock on the eve of the Mayan Apocalypse. Instead, he finds himself waylaid by the formal schizophrenia of the film in which he himself is a character. Simultaneously a tribute to and a critique of The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper’s seminal obliteration of the boundary separating life and cinema), La última película engages with the impending death of celluloid through a veritable cyclone of film and video formats, genres, modes, and methods. Martin and Peranson have created an unclassifiable work that mirrors the contortions and leaps of the medium’s history and present." -- Art of the Real FSLC blurb.

In the event, this Shandean ramble does contain some lovely imagery, but it's more impressive in the concept than the execution, which of course fits very well with the nature of Lawrence Sterne's eccentric masterpiece itself. Of course there was no quetion of using "the last celluloid stock." Some directors (like James Gray) still insist on using film, and some of the very best use film in whole or in part, including Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan, Rian Johnson, and Stephen Spielberg, besides Alex Ross Perry, though oddly, in some scenes where Perry is supposed to be scouting for a location in Mexico, he's holding a small digital video camera. And ironically, this film was screened for the press in digital form, though a 35mm. print was to be shown to the public. My favorite part of this rambling, not always interesting film is the sequence when Perry walks around ranting against the wealthy looking American hippies in odd looking clothes right in front of him who have assembled at the Mayan temple to adopt ridiculous odd "meditative" poses on the eve of the apocalypse. But the weakness of the film is that it's better in Perry's monologues, grandiose and repetitious as they are, than in anything "cinematic" that's included. Of course the many film formats introduced and the distressed effects on some of the imagers, as well as the highly saturated landscapes at dusk add interest and beauty, but such things can't take the place of structure and interesting content. La Última Pellícula often seems like a film class effort, carried to an extreme and done by an adult.

La Última Pellícula, 88 mins., was screened for this review as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Art of the Real series, and this film does fulfill the series' interest in work that pushes the boundaries between documentary and fiction in new ways. This film is shown in the Art of the Real series at Lincoln Center Friday, April 11, 2014 at 6:30pm.


Paulo Rocha: Change of Life/Mudar de vida (1966) - remastered

A classic Portuguese film combines neorealism with elements of fairy tale

"A soldier [a disenchanted veteran of the Angola war] returns home to a Portuguese fishing village that has changed during his absence in Paulo Rocha's masterpiece of “sculpted reality,” a direct response to his mentor Manoel de Oliveira's Rite of Spring.
Paulo Rocha's second feature, conceived as a direct response to his mentor Manoel de Oliveira’s Rite of Spring (which Rocha worked on as well), is a masterpiece of 'sculpted reality,' using fictional conceits and non-actors cast as themselves to create an ethnographic portrait of Furadouro, a remote Portuguese fishing village. The dramatic premise, about a soldier returning home to a place that has changed in both subtle and obvious ways during his absence, serves as a pretext for Rocha to respectfully examine the specificities of Furadouro's people, their daily routines and rituals, and their evolving relationships with the village’s history" --Art of the Real FSLC blurb.

Certainly one of the finest, most seamless examples of docudrama ever seen. This beautiful and haunting film by Rocha, the central figure of Novo Cinema, requires far more study and explanation; a single viewing is inadequate. The first point that must be made is that it's confusing to watch it because the "digital projection" for it's now cast in makes it look as fresh as a daisy, as if it were made last year and the filmmaker had miraculously found a group of Portuguese fisherman and their families who looked and dressed as if they were living, not in 1966 really, but the 1940's or 1950's, because except for briefly glimpsed cars and trucks that can be spotted as of the 1960's, the clothes are so drab and traditional they could be from any of three decades. But the reformatted film now looks too pristine to come from anything but the last decade. So the feeling is very strange but compelling, sometimes magical, certainly timeless.

Second, these people are remarkable actors. The story seems artificial, of the period (the 1960's), but with a little of the quality of a fairy tale or legend. It is implausible as realism, despite the extremely naturalistic settings and people. The protagonist isn't a non-pro. Adelino is played by Geraldo Del Rey, the handsome "Brazilian Alain Delon," and feels like a storybook hero. His undying love of Júlia, who has married his brother Raimundo, has the quality of myth. His behavior is unrealistic. He has a mysterious back ailment that cause him to take to bed and sweat copiously, but he does challenging physical work and when in bed with the injured back, tosses and turns, a thing back sufferers wouldn't do.

There is an odd contrast between this doomed love story and the realistic elements, such as the search for work, the clear picture that the Portuguese fishing village of Furadouro to which Adelino has returned is terribly poor. The residents live in houses that are little more than huts; Adelino lives in a structure that's almost like a Native American teepee, made of sticks and straw. Obviously to call this kind of film "an ethnographic portrait" is a misleading simplification. It uses its "ethnographic" elements in a complex and rather mysterious way. In particular, it is hard to tell man times where the story is going, though it always seems sure of itself, and the pacing is sure.

Change of LIfe/Mudar de vida, 90 mins., was shown by Harvard Film Archive and later at Filmforum in Los Angeles in 2012 and also in this new restored digital print at Locarno Sept. 2013. Filmforum provides more complete information, which explains that this was "an important precursor to the radical documentary-shaped fiction of Trás-os-Montes and, much later, the work of Pedro Costa and Miguel Gomes." Screened as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Art of the Real series 2014, showing Thursday, April 24 at 9:00pm and
Friday, April 25 at 5:00pm at Lincoln Center. Highly recommended.

This film may be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, but without subtitles. The image quality is poor (and not the digital restoration with its subtle gray tones) but you can at least appreciate the beautiful mandolin music soundtrack with its fados-like flavor.


Robert Greene: Actress (2014)

An former actress dramatizes her own life as a housewife

"This thoroughly compelling and at times thoroughly unnerving new film by Robert Greene (Fake It So Real) is a documentary that feels like intimate melodrama. Brandy Burre had a recurring role on HBO’s The Wire when she gave up her career to start a family. After a few years of life in the country, she decides to return to acting, and sets the denouement of her relationship in motion. As she comes apart on camera in varying shades of drama, it's never clear at what level this film may simply be the next role." So reads the Art of the Real FSLC blurb. But this film is more suitable for a PBS series than a festival, and it is hardly new in any way technically. It very much resembles the famous and pioneering pre-reality show 12-hour 1973 PBS series "An American Family," in which also the parents in question of the Loud family, whose eldest son Lance is openly gay, find their marriage falling apart. Here, Burre's husband, who is poorly depicted in the film, a restauranteur, apparently distant as a husband, if a diligent father to the two small children rarely utters a line on camera. While he and the kids are on a trip visiting his parents, Brandy enjoys her freedom by having a date with an unidentified man in New York City, away from her and her husband's Beacon, New York residence. It is when Brandy's husband discovers this relationship that he decides the marriage is on the rocks and it's time to move out to his own apartment, and there are hints in Brandy's earlier monologues to the camera that love had gone out of the marriage well before this. Descriptions of the film that imply it's Brandy's decision to go back into acting that causes the marriage to disintegrate go against the facts as shown in the film itself.

There is too much pointless use of slow motion in this film, which moves too slowly as it is. The 88 minutes feel like much more. Filming of Brandy's expressed thoughts about getting acting roles and preparations for auditions is needlessly drawn out, and when we expect something to happen, instead, everything stops because Brandy has fallen out of her car and suffered contusions to her eye. Fake It So Real being the director's previous film, about pro wrestlers, the obvious high concept of the film is that Brandy will be self-dramatizing in her "playing" of herself even when engaged in mundane tasks like feeding the children. But it's hard to see anything new in this. Whether or not Brandy's tears are exaggerated or not when she recounts moments when her partner first showed he cared more about his restaurant than about her, the sentiments are such as any disappointed woman would express. Obviously the Loud family in "An American Family" in 1973 became "actors" too because cameras were always being trained upon them and their interactions.

Actress plays in the Art of the Real 2014 series at Lincoln Center Saturday, April 26 at 8:00pm. It is the closing night film.


Narimane Mari: Bloody Beans (2013)

Algerian kids filmed in a poetic reconsideration of poverty and the Algerian war

"A group of Algerian children frolic on the beach, but their roughhousing soon turns into a kind of reenactment of the Algerian War of Independence that plays out as equal parts Lord of the Flies and Les Carabiniers." This is the Lincoln Center Art of the Real series blurb in brief, but if Jay Weissberg's detailed description in Variety is correct, the film has a "performance piece feel" throughout, but is not conceived as a "reenactment" that develops out of "roughhousing." Instead, the bunch of skinny boys (and a few plumper girls) swim in the Mediterranean all day, but when they talk, it vaguely emerges that this is taking place during the time of the Algerian war and is not just a reenactment of it, however symbolic and performance-piece-ish the following action is. This includes a trip to the pig-faced colonial man's house, then a night when the boys paint their bodies and don makes and go through a Christian cemetery to the caserne where they "kidnap" a French guard (played by an actor with an Arab name, though, Samy Bouhouche), dance around with balloons in nice light with nice music, and take him back to the beach, where they make friends with him and dawn breaks. The final sequence shows the boys and girls floating in the calm water and reciting the lines of an Antonin Artaud poem that ends with the question, "Is being better than obeying?" To which the answer is yes.

This is a little film where you have to go with the flow, and the nighttime sequence is a lot more beautiful than anything else, particularly the dancing around with balloons and mock stabbings with paper knives, in which the boys show great spirit and invention and move with balletic grace.

Comparisons with The Lord of the Flies have been made in references to this film, and the boys have been referred to as "feral," but these are misleading exaggerations. Mari doesn't develop a narrative situation complex enough to suggest any alteration in the boys or their having a "society" other than their being pals from poor families who swim at the same beach. Though their families aren't seen, when they complain all the time about eating a diet consisting mainly of beans and sleeping all in one room "like hens," they're saying they have (poor) families they live with normally.

Importantly, the boys are very lively, and their interactions in the water and on the beach and thereafter are very playful, affectionate, and free, and this is the heart of the film's energy and life. Each "child" (as they're called in the credits) has a real complete name but also a nickname, like "Bone Marrow." One of them sings songs, at first an Egyptian love song, later Algerian songs. One is exceptionally tall and scrawny. But they are nearly all skinny, and they are unfortunately not well differentiated either as characters or as physical types as are the characters in William Golding's The Lord of the Rings, and this is a weakness: see them howeer simply as a homogenous group of kids who become an impromptu performance troupe.

I can't improve on Weissberg's concluding lines ending a fine detailed description of Bloody Beans, in which he notes that "intense workshoppping" was importanat in bringing out the best "in the non-pro tyke actors." Indeed as he writes, their "simmering, almost balletic energy drives the rhythms of the film as much as the accomplished editing"; also as he writes, dp Nasser Madjkane's "acive camera practically dances alongside the children" in long takes that hold onto the mood. The music and "curious soundscapes" are extremely important in what becomes an "overall dreamlike picture." Special credit goes to the memorable and original music by Zombie Zombie, Cosmic Neman, and Etienne Jeman; it takes over during the final credits and even after the final credits for a good length of time, and anyone watching the film would be a fool to leave before the last note his sounded. The music is a huge element here but also a thoroughly integral one.

Weissberg notes with disapproval that this film has been "mislabeled a documentary by certain festivals" -- particularly Copenhagen's CPH:DOX, where it won the Best Doc prize. Festivals indeed may need to review their categories, and keep the hybrid categories separate from more informational "documentary" programs in giving out awards. As thisdescription should show, Bloody Beans is an imaginative romp with strong political-historical overtomes using non-actors, and has nothing of he observational recoding documentary about it -- unlike, for example, Paulo Rocha's 1966 Change of LIfe,, also in the Art of the Real series, which makes extensive use of actual milieux of the non-actors incorporated into its story, though it also is not a pure documentary but a fanciful narrative using non-actors, somewhat as in Italian Neorealist films. But the definition of Art of the Real makes clear that it's interested in artful, imaginative boundary-crossers, and Bloody Beans is a perfect example.

Bloody Beans/Loubia hamra ("Red Beans"), 77 mins., was first shown at Marseille, then CPH: DOX and Turin. It was screened for this review as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's 2014 Art of the Real series, in which it shows Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 9:30pm and Sunday, April 13 at 4:30pm at Lincoln Center. Filmmaker Narimane Mari in person for Q&A at both screenings.


Thom Andersen, Noël Burch: Red Hollywood (1996; reformatted 2013)

Reissuing a reassessment of communists in Hollywood

In his original review. film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum described Red Hollywood as "A highly illuminating, groundbreaking, and entertaining video documentary that defies a major taboo in most mainstream writing about current movies." This film in its remastered and reedited form was shown at the Disney Theater in Los Angeles in January 2014. Thom Anderson is the CalArts film professor known for Los Angeles Plays Itself. He can be counted on for deep knowledge of period Hollywood and an independent point of view. What he and Rosenbaum have in mind is that our perspective on the Hollywood "Red" (Communist) artists blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee is inaccurate, because while the blacklisted artists are regarded as martyrs, many of the films they made from the Thirties to the Fifties are denigrated or just forgotten. Film scholars and writers Andersen and Burch, whose documentary is narrated by Billy Woodberry, seek to counter the glib view that of the Hollywood Ten only two had talent and the rest were just unlikeable. To know the forgotten films revisited here is to rethink Hollywood films and perhaps America. These films in a variety of genres raise leading questions about social issues, labor, race, and the Hollywood studio system itself. For students of film and Hollywood an the Forties and Fifties, Red Hollywood is a must-see and contains some invaluable, thought-provoking material. That's not to say it's perfect. It's organization is sometimes puzzling. Sometimes it's hard to see what point is being made.

Red Hollywood is a combination of voiceover narration, talking heads, and film clips from 53 mostly little known films. The speakers included blacklisted writer-filmwriters -- Paul Jarrico, Ring Lardner Jr., Alfred Levitt, and Abraham Polonsky (Polonsky has the last word). The film begins by explaining the historical background, the post-war period, pro-American and pro-Russian propaganda like Paul Jarrico's Song of Russia, the function of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the Hollywood establishment's cooperation with HUAAC, to ban the Hollywood Ten and others who stood up to the committee's witch hunting. Those who refused to name names or testify to HUAAC were blacklisted; some where able to work again in the Sixties. A lot of clips of Thirties and Forties movies written by communists follow, showing that they didn't mind doing pro-war propaganda, and that Hollywood usually opposed workers' strikes no matter who was writing. It's hard to see what some of these clips add up to, except to a reflection of the times with an American touch, like the family learning about Pearl Harbor and the US delcaring war on Japan while the wife urges her men to come to table "or the roast will get cold." There is typical sentimentalism in the little boy who tells his uncle who's newly out of work that he can "feed" him like his out of work father by asking the butcher for a bone for his dog, then turning it over to him mom to make soup.

The review of films through clips is organized not chronologically but by topics, "myths," "war," "class," "sexes," "hate," "crime," and "death." This doesn't seem the best system. With each new topic there is a return to the Thirties and then the Forties, and some directors and writers are revisited, but no one figure is focused on at length or in depth. Sometimes the point is how communists in film were able to present their own ideas. At other times it seems they did not, or embraced a mainstream view, like opposition to workers' strikes during the War, or pursuit of the War itself. Many of the clips are moments that are very preachy, because they're chosen because they express ideas -- explicitly. Such moments are often the ones that seem the most dated in Hollywood films. It's not so clear that these clips show the Hollywood communist writers had "talent" in a cinematic sense. What is clear is that they may have injected "ideas" into their writing a lot. Perhaps these are intellectual films. But sometimes the "ideas" seem simplistic and crude. And of course, that goes for Hollywood as a whole. In the light of these clips, it seems pushing it on Rosenbaum's part to suggest the films referenced in Red Hollywood may be grounds for constructing "new canons" of cinema, but they do add to our sense of what Thirties and Forties Hollywood movies were like.

Things look up a bit when the documentary switches to the topic of "Sex," showing a teasing scene between a glamorous woman and what seems to be an advertising writer who's turned on by her in John Howard Lawson's Success at Any Price, which the narration says is a writer who was to become a communist willing to indicate the role of class and money in sexual transactions. It's clear the man doesn't think he can afford the woman and she says "I could use you." Whether she actually has a financial advantage over him, however, isn't so clear, from this excerpt anyway.

The film ends with Polansky's reading a climactic scene from Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), which he co-wrote and directed. It was one of only three films he made, and the first he made after being blacklisted in the late Forties. "Indians don't last in prison. They weren't born for it like the whites..." It's fascinating to see the aging Polansky read the scene, than watch Robert Blake perform it in a clip (one of the few in color). The dialogue may sound artificial, Forties. But how Blake brings it to life! At the end, Polansky declares that the only causes worth fighting for are the lost ones.

Red Hollywood, 120 mins., remastered and reedited, has been shown at a number of venues since its rerelease in 2013. It was screened for this review as part of the Art of the Real series of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. It will be shown in the series Saturday, April 12 at 6:30pm and Sunday, April 13 at 2pm at Lincoln Center. Filmmaker Thom Andersen in person for Q&A on April 12.

In its earlier form this film was available in it entirety on YouTube, but has been removed due to copyright. You can watch another documentary, David Helpern's 1976 Hollywood on Trial, narratied by John Huston on YouTube currently.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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