Tuesday, February 28, 2012

This Is Not a Film: Defying a Ban by Questioning an Art Form

This Is Not A Film
An Experiment by Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb

            When the 2009 protests across Tehran failed to overthrow the political dictatorship that has dominated Iran for over 40 years, many were fearful of the consequences that would reverberate for those who fought, especially those in the arts. Despite what many general Americans might think, Iran’s filmmaking has flourished for decades. When taking a class with Richard Pena, he told an anecdotal story that when Abbas Kiarostami would bring scripts to the governmental approval board, they tried to make stylistic suggestions more than changes for content.

But not everyone has felt as open in today’s Iran since the protests. Abbas Kiarostami has left his native country to make films outside the state. Mohsen Makhmalbaf abandoned filmmaking to become a full time revolutionary. Asghar Farhadi may have won countless awards for his masterful film A Separation, but the government has used its Oscar win to stir up furthertensions with Israel. And Jafar Panahi, perhaps the most political filmmaker of the country, was banned from being a filmmaker for 20 years.

            Panahi, however, has attempted to protest the ban by asking what filmmaking is. Along with a conspirator, the documentarian Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, he has made a fascinating experiment in what might be called anti-cinema. Or is it actual cinema? That’s the point of This Is Not A Film, a direct allegory of cinema as political statement. Its mere existence might lead to Panahi’s immediate arrest, and while the fallout of the failed protests remains highly central to the work, the whole thing seems more theoretical in nature. What is film, anyways? Especially when it’s being shot with handheld camera and iPhones. 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Screening Log: Before #TeamMargaret Edition

         Another good week at the movies, cut short by a couple of issues. I must discuss one disappointment, however. On Thursday, I was excited to head down to Anthology Film Archives to see The Candidate, a classic 1970s political film with Robert Redford that has eluded me so far. That was until critic and film programmer C. Mason Welles posted to Twitter that Anthology had scraped the 35mm for a projected DVD. Not caring to pay to watch a projection of bad quality, I skipped out (the same thing happened to Kenji Fujishima in seeing Face to Face at Film Society this week). Next week, I’ll be discussing Film Forum’s “This is DCP” series, which is far different than just a projected DVD, but the increasing scarcity of 35mm is no longer an impending threat for the future. It’s here folks. 

Also worth reading: Andrew Welch, a fellow critic down in Dallas, wrote a small piece on why he doesn't like No Country for Old Men and thinks it's one where Oscar got it "wrong." I responded in the comments; both are worth a read.

If you wondering where any of my Oscar coverage is, I'll be tweeting throughout the night while drowning myself in wine. My one hope is that the dinosaurs from Tree of Life decide to go by the way of nature and smash Uggie's poor head in.

Anyways, onto the log, which includes one theatrical performance as well.

-You Can Count On Me, 2000: Directed By Kenneth Lonergan. Online Streaming Via Netflix Instant.
-Life is Sweet, 1990: Directed By Mike Leigh. 35mm Screening at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-Track of the Cat, 1954: Directed By William Wellman. 35mm Screening at Film Forum.
-Westward the Women, 1951: Directed By William Wellman. 35mm Screening at Film Forum.
-Richard III, 2012: Directed By Sam Mendes and the Bridge Theater Project. Performed at the Harvey Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-The Tree of Life, 2011. Directed By Terrence Malick. Blu-Ray on HDTV.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Undefeated: Lessons Learned On the Field For the Time Off It

Directed By: Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin
Featuring: Bill Courtney, O.C. Brown, Montrail ‘Money’ Brown, and Chavis Daneils
Cinematography By: Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Edited By: Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Original Music: Michael Brook, Daniel McMahon, and Miles Neilsen
Rated: PG-13 for the naughty language often heard on football fields.

            The great debate on documentaries is often whether the filmmaker is responsible for the quality of the film, or if it is simply the power of what is being filmed. It is somewhat of a moronic debate to say the least (content and style go hand in hand), however, something must be said for documentaries that simply have the camera in the right place at the right time. We can think of the chaos in Gimme Shelter, the insanity of Francis Ford Coppola in Hearts of Darkness, or the stirring funeral speech Ameena Matthews gives in The Interrupters.

            Undefeated, a documentary about a small town football team that is part sports drama, part coming-of-age tale, certainly falls into the category of the later. I’m not sure what directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin expected when they turned their cameras toward the fields of Manassas High School, a place of no hope among a poor, predominantly black neighborhood of Memphis. However, after whittling hours upon hours of footage from the school’s unbelievable season, Undefeated has turned into a stirring portrait of discipline and character, and more rousing than most fictional sports movies.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds: Cruise Is Our Savior, Jesus is a Zombie

Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds
An Arrangement by J. Hoberman

            What do Tom Cruise, the beating of Jesus, and the zombie apocalypse have to do with each other? Apparently a lot, or enough to justify a screening by the famous film critic J. Hoberman. Part of Film Comment Selects as Film Society at Lincoln Center was a special late screening of the curiously titled Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds.

            If that title sounds a little insane, pulling it apart actually gives you a sense of what you’re actually watching: Land of the Dead, Passion of the Christ, and War of the Worlds. The idea for the screening is something Hoberman, who covered experimental cinema for over forty years at the Village Voice before being laid off earlier this year, has done in classes at Cooper Union and New York University for years. Instead of forcing students to sit through “bad” movies (his pejorative, not mine), why not choose similarly linked films and project them at the same time?

            And thus, Land Passion War of the Dead Christ Worlds is a bizarre experiment in examining three unique works of post 9/11 cinema. The film isn’t so to say a film—Hoberman called himself more of an arranger than a director, as his work was done less on the screen than signaling the cues up in the projection booth at Walter Reade. The film began even before we entered the cinema, as classic country and Bernard Hermann scores filled the airwaves, and the screen filled with an ominous blue picture of a house and a title card reading “Today” (actually an early still from George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead). It remains on screen as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ began to play (silently, though the subtitles for the film’s Aramaic dialogue) meant we could still follow it. Eventually, another projector began playing the first tripod sequence from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, which some may remember as an intense thrill ride filled with 9/11 imagery. And then the sequence played again. And two more times.

Screening Log: Noir Along the Western Wasteland Edition

For those who follow me on Twitter, you probably know I spend much more time at repertory theaters than any multiplexes (or even many art houses) these days. It is a shame, however, that I rarely write on these films, because they are often more fascinating than anything new, and more than likely available on DVD or Netflix or HuluPlus for your own viewing. Inspired by friend and fellow film critic Kenji Fujishima, I’ll be listing my screening log every Sunday. I’ll also choose one film out of the bunch to write some thoughts on, which will be underlined.

Screening Log — Monday, February 13th to Sunday, February 19th

This week was mainly spent at Film Forum at the William A. Wellman retrospective. The director was a mainstay in Hollywood for over three decades, directing films like Wings (the first film to win an Oscar for best picture), The Public Enemy, and The Ox-Bow Incident.

-A Trip to the Moon, 1902 (Colorized Restoration, 2011): Directed by Georges Méliès. HD Screening at Film Society of Lincoln Center.
-The Purchase Price, 1932: Directed By William Wellman, 35mm Screening at Film Forum.
-The Man I Love, 1929: Directed By William Wellman, 35mm Screening at Film Forum.
-Night Nurse, 1931: Directed By William Wellman, 35mm Screening at Film Forum.
-Yellow Sky, 1947: Directed By William Wellman, 35mm Screening at Film Forum.
-The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943: Directed By William Wellman, 35mm Screening at Film Forum.
-L’Enfant, 2006: Directed By Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 35mm Screening at IFC Center.

            There’s something about the pleasure of knowing nothing about a film before seeing it. That’s the pleasure I got with discovering William Wellman’s Yellow Sky, a film full of numerous dark and wondrous pleasures, and a post-war atmosphere to boot. Like many great films from that era, Yellow Sky falls more under the category of “psychological western,” a term used to describe westerns that showed the influence of film noir (see Pursued, River of No Return, and Winchester ’73).

With its dark and barren landscapes, Yellow Sky has much more in common with something like John Huston’s The Treasure of Sierra Madre. It follows a band of thieves in the Reconstruction period who find themselves chased to a 70-mile stretch of salt flats they are forced to crossed. Led by their stern leader (Gregory Peck, channeling the intensity of Atticus Finch without any of the kindness), the group begins a Meek’s Cutoff-like trek across a barren territory before coming across a ghost town, only populated by an aging grandfather and his very masculine daughter, played by Anne Baxter (and setting a precedent for Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar).

As the plot continues, there’s a hidden stash of gold to be found, and a series of double crosses and triple crosses to be had, as Peck dukes it out with the fine suit wearing second in command, played by Richard Widmark. Like many great noirs, this film deals with greed, anti-heroes, and masculine anxiety (the best shot in the film is certainly Baxter; she grazes Peck’s head with a bullet after she comes on to her). Late in the film, the grandfather exclaims, “guess the war's upset a lot of those boys, and set them off on the wrong foot." An observation about the Civil War, or World War II?

I wish Yellow Sky could have gone with a darker ending than the one we’re given, which kills off its villains while redeeming its lost souls. It’s the type of film that often feels smarter about these issues, and perhaps if Peck was played by someone like Robert Mitchum, we’d expect such an ending. But the core of Yellow Sky is so delightfully seething, and much richer in its details than many of the obvious textures on Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (which played as a double feature), that I’d gladly return to the ghost town any time. 

Michael: Pedophelia and Its Discontents

Written and Directed By: Markus Schleinzer
Starring: Michael Fuith and David Rauchenberger
Director of Photography: Gerard Kerkletz, Editor: Wolfgang Widerhofer, Production Designer: Katrin Huber, Original Music: Lorenz Dangel
Rated: Unrated, but the subject matter should be a clear warning.

            Meet Michael. He’s in his mid-30s. He sports a pair of glasses and is starting to bald. He works at an insurance company and he’s in line for a promotion. He visits his sisters, calls his mother. He a substantial though modest home and a car to match it. He also has a young child locked in his basement, and occasionally rapes him.

            And that’s the conceit of Michael, an early starter for the most pointless film of the year in the art house spectrum. The film comes from the mind of Austrian director Markus Schleinzer, who worked as a casting director for Michael Haneke. It’s easy to see the influence, but the limitations of someone who is not Michael Haneke. The camera is stiff and unflinching, though letting the imagination often creating the horrors that we truly fear. But it’s not as rigorous, and the subject matter of pedophilia is presented without anything of note, besides the point, “Evil is banal.”

Thursday, February 09, 2012

"What More Can I Say?" Béla Tarr Discusses The Turn Horse

Over the last thirty years, writer and director Béla Tarr has remained one of truly great masters of cinema. And as much as it is a shame that he will retire from filmmaking, his swan song, The Turin Horse, is an uncompromising and wondrous work that may be his greatest achievement (read my review here). Tarr prefers not to discuss his films, but he made his first appearance in the United States in 17 years for the premiere of the film at the New York Film Festival. Read the Q&A below:

Encountering the piece of writing by longtime collaborator László Krasznahorkai

In 1985 was when I heard first time this text. [Laszlo] had been lecturing in Budapest. We know what has happened to Nietzsche but we don’t know what happened to the horse. That is the question that moved me. And since 1985, we tried to find the right answer for this question. And time to time, we had discussions. And then when we finished The Man From London, we said, “Okay. Let’s make it my last. Because we have to answer this question.” So we started work with Laszlo, and this is our answer.

Collaboration with DP Fred Kelemen and the use of movement

He was my student in Berlin in 1990. I was working with some other cinematographers, but I’m a very autocratic old guy. I know the whole movie from the first screen to the end, and I knew his sensibility. I can tell him camera movements, I can tell him compositions, I can tell him a lot of things but when the camera is rolling, he is watching the scene. You read his sensibility; when you go a little bit closer or a little bit further, it’s totally different. We know each other well…we are not talking during the shoot, just doing. There’s no reason to talk. He knows what I like. Sometimes they can say something, sometimes they don’t. That simple.

In response to a banal question about “human behavior and nature.”

If I was able to say some words, I wouldn’t have made this movie. This movie cost a lot of money. If I can tell you really by words, I wouldn’t have told my friends to be there at 4 o’clock in the morning in cold weather to show what we feel and how we feel. That’s the reason why I really don’t like to speak about the movies. The movie is picture, sound, written, humanized, and a lot of emotions, and the presence of the personalities. I could say something about our responsibility to nature but what we put on the table is a little bit more; it’s what you can see. 

The Turin Horse: Life, and Nothing More

The Turin Horse
Directed By: Béla Tarr (co-directed by Agnes Hranitzky)
Written By: László Krasznahorkai and Béla Tarr
Starring: János Derzsi and Erika Bók
Director of Photography: Fred Kelemen, Editor: Agnes Hranitzky, Original Music: Mihaly Vig
Rated: Fun for the whole family!

                Last week, I had the pleasure to attend a number of the films by the Hungarian master Béla Tarr, including his 450 minute epic Sátántangó. When friends asked me what I’d be doing that day, I explained to them I’d be at a seven and a half hour film. When that shot their ears up in horror, I went on: It’s all in Hungarian, and it’s in black and white, also not much happens in terms of plot, and it’s most likely about people suffering. When I told my friends after seeing it that I was truly inspired by the film, including the opening shot of cows wandering through an empty village, they questioned my authenticity.

And certainly they are right to—who would sit through the work of Tarr? His aesthetic is uncompromising to say the least, and while most audiences have trouble approaching “art films” like The Descendants or even Malick’s The Tree of Life, Tarr belongs on a whole different playing field.

            But there is a brutal truth in Tarr (working once again with novelist László Krasznahorkai), coming at you in 24 frames per second (no digital here!), and one most apparent in his now final film, The Turin Horse. This deeply disturbing work borderlines on parody of art cinema, mainly because Tarr is a relentless filmmaker who never compromises in his portraiture of a life void of hope. Clocking in at just over two and a half hours, The Turin Horse is the most polished of Tarr’s films in terms of reaching a new height of minimalism, where everything to know about life comes in the small details the filmmaker slowly reveals. A mutual friend of mine, who is a close friend of Tarr, suggested to let the film “wash over me.” And bathe in despair I did.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Amadeus Blogathon - Seeing Music and Haunting Themes: Diegetic and Non-Diegetic Strategies

This is my entry for this week’s critics blogathon on Milos Forman’s Amadeus.You can read about the project by the blogathon's leader, Vulture critic Bilge Ebiri. As the Oscars approach, it was decided by us that Amadeus is one of the great films that deserved the critical praise the film received, as well as its eight Academy Awards. At the end of this blog, you’ll find links to the other pieces in the series.

            There is certainly something sublime about the music of Mozart, even if we can’t understand why it arouses such feelings. Even those of us who have taken a music class at college perhaps don’t truly understand the genius that has made Mozart better known than any other composer in the world. But what if we could understand it from the mind of a great composer? And what if that understanding could be translated cinematically?

            That’s part of the conceit that makes Amadeus, the 1984 Oscar winner from playwright Peter Shaffer and director Milos Forman, a fascinating film, and perhaps one of the best examples in how directors can use music in film. It would have certainly been easy enough for Forman to simply populate the soundtrack of Amadeus­—a quasi-biopic of Mozart as told through the eyes of a jealous rival named Salieri—with the music of Mozart without much thought in why they chose any particularly piece except the emotions felt. However, Shaffer and Forman use the music as specifically a subjective experience and commentary by Salieri. The music cues, both diegetic music (where the spectator can see where the source of the music is originating) and non-diegetic (music that overlay the soundtrack), offer insight both into how the spectator can understand the genius of Mozart and how the film uses Salieri’s knowledge of Mozart to comment and create a narrative of a man haunted by another.