Blogs Crosscuts Julie Caniglia

Julie Caniglia edits and writes for Walker, the bimonthly magazine for the Walker Art Center, and writes on all manner of cultural topics for other publications as well.

An uncanny Coen brothers coincidence: notes from a film extra

While it was not part of the Joel and Ethan Coen: Raising Cain retrospective, the brothers’ newest film, A Serious Man, did screen at the Walker last weekend — as part of a cast-and-crew-only party, an event made it onto the front page of the Star Tribune (along with a rare interview of the directors, […]

While it was not part of the Joel and Ethan Coen: Raising Cain retrospective, the brothers’ newest film, A Serious Man, did screen at the Walker last weekend — as part of a cast-and-crew-only party, an event made it onto the front page of the Star Tribune (along with a rare interview of the directors, by Colin Covert).

Among the cast in attendance was Mike Krug, who also happens to be the brother of Ilene Krug-Mojsilov, the Walker’s Artlab coordinator. He wrote in with this account of an uncanny coincidence he experienced during the audition for extras:

“Authenticity — that’s what the StarTrib suggested the Coen Brothers were seeking for their new movie, A Serious Man. So on a midsummer Sunday afternoon I hurried to a warehouse in Northeast Minneapolis with my three brunette children near the end of the mass ‘open audition.’ We were seeking roles as late 1960′s, atmosphere-authenticating, Twin Cities Jews.

‘Great, you’re an entire brunette family!,’ one of the extras casting staff greeted my brood. The white walls of the warehouse interior were hung with a gallery of actors and actresses, some clearly casted, some in the consideration stage. After completing biographical paperwork, the staffer suggested we look at the wall of 1960′s period photographs across from the wardrobe area, where hung thousands of suits, tight shirts, skinny pants, bullet bras, and women’s jumpers and dresses, circa 1968.

I looked at the first 1960′s photograph and my heart quickened. I recognized members of my Temple of Aaron Synagogue from the ’60s. To my amazement, there, in a group photo of six Temple of Aaron Board Members, was my recently deceased father Murry, with his Brylcreemed, pompadour hairstyle, generous smile and black suit. ‘Oh my goodness,’ I said, not trying to hide my pride, ‘that’s my father.’

And there was my Rabbi, Bernard Raskas, standing proudly next to the Temple of Aaron Confirmation Class of 1968 — among whom was the Walker Art Center’s Art Lab Coordinator Ilene Krug. “You won’t believe it, but that’s my sister!” I said to no one in particular.

The Coen brothers and their staff had clearly done their due diligence, contacting synagogues, obtaining photographs from the Minneapolis/St. Paul Jewish Community, replicating St. Louis Park homes, and locating haute couture.

Each of the four of us was ultimately selected as extras for A Serious Man. For me, unknown to Ethan and Joel Coen, this film is an ode to my father. While standing in the synagogue scene, reciting Kaddish repeatedly during the many takes from a variety of camera angles, it was only natural to feel the loss that the scene aimed to capture.

Whether any of my family ends up in the movie or on the cutting room floor will not be known to me until full movie release this October. Regardless, for me, A Serious Man, captures a personal era.”

A Serious Man opens at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis on October 2. Hey Mike — write in and tell us if you made the cut!

Waking up to reality

Neo-neo-realism: a true movement or one critic’s construct? In a meaty, 5,000-word feature in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, critic A.O. Scott brought together a number of recent American independent films under the rubric “neo-neo realism,” proposing that they might serve as an answer to the question that “seems to arise almost automatically in […]

Neo-neo-realism: a true movement or one critic’s construct?

In a meaty, 5,000-word feature in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, critic A.O. Scott brought together a number of recent American independent films under the rubric “neo-neo realism,” proposing that they might serve as an answer to the question that “seems to arise almost automatically in times of crisis” – that is, “What kind of movies do we need now?”

Besides provoking an immediate and rather, uh, spirited counter-critique from The New Yorker‘s Richard Brody – a critical clash covered on Indiewire here – it turns out that you may have recently seen – or soon will see – many of the films Scott thinks we need now, right here at the Walker. Lance Hammer’s Ballast premiered here last fall; and the “luminous, poignant” Treeless Mountain by So Yong Kim, just a few weeks ago. Coming up are Tulpan May 8-10 and a mini-retrospective Under the Radar: The Films of Ramin Bahrani; Bahrani’s films Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, and the new Goodbye Solo are a focus of Scott’s feature.

The gist of Brody’s problem with Scott’s analysis – and with cinematic realism in general, be it the neo-realism of post WWII Italy or the neo-neo genre coined by Scott, is that “the willful rejection of complexity and ambiguity; a sympathy for ciphers based on their social position and reinforced by the downbeat warmth of the performers.”

Seems like a pretty harsh assessment, but you can read his full argument yourself – and then (wait for it!) turn to Scott’s own response to Brody on the New York Times’ Carpetbagger blog, observing, among other things, that he was not attempting to define “a style or a school or a movement, but rather a cinematic ethic that has surfaced in different forms in different nations at different moments and that now seems to be flowering in some precincts of American independent cinema.”

Of course, each critic’s argument is much more complicated than what is conveyed here. But no matter which side you might take, we’re just pleased to be screening so many films that have become a part of this kind of debate, which takes place all too seldom these days.

On a related note: As part of his retrospective here, Bahrani is teaching a master class on next Friday, April 3. Whether you’re attending it or not (or for that matter, whether you’re a filmmaker or not) his just-posted Indiewire article dissecting the opening scene from his new film Goodbye Solo is invaluable-an insightful and detailed look into the art of filmmaking.

Ana Mendieta: Restoring films, re-viewing a career

Question: Which of the following 70s artists was the most prolific filmmaker? Robert Smithson Walter de Maria Joan Jonas Nancy Holt Richard Serra Ana Mendieta Mary Kelly Vito Acconci Bruce Nauman Richard Long Dennis Oppenheim OK, the answer is easy, if only owing to the title of this post. But the question is worth asking, […]

Question: Which of the following 70s artists was the most prolific filmmaker?

Robert Smithson

Walter de Maria

Joan Jonas

Nancy Holt

Richard Serra

Ana Mendieta

Mary Kelly

Vito Acconci

Bruce Nauman

Richard Long

Dennis Oppenheim

OK, the answer is easy, if only owing to the title of this post. But the question is worth asking, because:

1) The fact that Ana Mendieta made nearly 80 films has never been very widely known. These films, shot between 1973 and 1981, most using a Super-8 camera, not only bring an intriguing new dimension to Mendieta’s overall body of work, but also raise new questions about it in relation to that of the above artists. And,

2) Fourteeen of her films are on view for free in the Walker’s lecture room through the end of March, some for the first time publicly.

mendieta_sweating_blood_b_w

The Walker has an in-house Mendieta expert in director Olga Viso, who included 10 of the artist’s films in the 2005-2006 retrospective Ana Mendieta: Earth Body, Sculpture and Performance 1972­ – 1985, which she organized while she was at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.

After the films went on view here last week, I got a chance to talk with Viso, who is speaking on Mendieta and showing some of the films at MCAD this Wednesday in a free lunchtime lecture. She noted that for well over a decade after Mendieta’s death in 1985, a compilation of her films was circulating, but it was a videotape of the films as they were projected on a wall: “You couldn’t even really read most of them,” she said. While organizing the retrospective, Viso met with Mendieta’s sister. “She showed me a bag of Super 8 film reels. She was trying to start work on digitizing them; a handful had been done at that point. I really urged her to conserve the reels themselves for posterity, and agreed that it was important to digitize them.”

Ultimately, Viso contributed some funds for the films’ restoration, and 10 of the Mendieta films were screened as part of her retrospective. “Because of technology, we were able to present the films side-by-side with drawings or performance residue,” Viso said. “It was really revelatory to people, to see them as Ana intended, at a large scale and on wall in relation to her photographs. (A review in Frieze magazine noted that “the Super-8 films with which [Mendieta] carefully documented her actions form the show’s radiant heart.”)

mendieta-corazon-de-roca-con-sangre-b_w

Mendieta had always been looked at as a photographer who did that work in relation to performance, Viso says, if only because her photos more readily accessible. Now, with more exposure and consideration of her films, a different art-historical take on Mendieta has emerged.

“The films have been critical in the re-evaluation of her work and being seen in a broad national and international context. Before her work was either seen as Latin American art or feminist art. Those constructs are relevant, but there’s more to her work and these films allow that to manifest itself.”

Finally, the films have a special resonance based around the absence of the artist herself, who, like several of her colleagues whose careers flowered in the 1970s, died too soon.

(Images © The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection / Courtesy Galerie Lelong, New York)

Coming soon: Ballast

Ballast, which screens here on October 29, opens in New York City today. This is a critical juncture for any filmmaker, but the pressure is extreme for those distributing films themselves, as director Lance Hammer is. Easing the pressure somewhat is the virtual consensus that Ballast is a true work of art – you can […]

Ballast, which screens here on October 29, opens in New York City today. This is a critical juncture for any filmmaker, but the pressure is extreme for those distributing films themselves, as director Lance Hammer is.

Easing the pressure somewhat is the virtual consensus that Ballast is a true work of art – you can read the critical hosannas in Variety , the New York Post (!), and the New York Times (be sure to check out the beautiful audio slide show that accompanies that review) – but Hammer is also getting considerable press coverage related to his distribution decision. Going the DIY route means signing on for a huge amount of work that normally would have been done by others (for a price, of course – not just in terms of dollars, but also creative control).

As Manohla Dargis wrote recently, also in the New York Times, “With the support of some publicists, Mr. Hammer and Mr. Raphael will attempt to do what usually takes an army of handlers and entire studio departments to pull off. Mr. Hammer is creating the poster artwork and making the trailer, and together they are booking mainstream theaters and also taking “ Ballast” around the country to universities, film clubs and art centers, just the way many independents have sought and found audiences for decades.”

In that same article, Dargis offers an excellent and concise history on the rise and decline of independent filmmaking since the 1980s; for her part, she doesn’t believe that the recent closings of a number of small film companies is necessarily a bad thing – not, at any rate, for “those who think films have worth beyond their box office returns” or for filmmakers whose “aesthetic sensibility and worldview are of no economic use and interest to the studios or to most audiences either.” Ballast seems to fit on both those counts.

Incidentally, the Times really seems to love this film, not just for itself, but for the larger story it tells about independent, highly personal filmmaking. It figures into this Times story from last summer about DIY distribution, which is geared more to the layperson, and this story from critic Dennis Lim, which traces the story of how Ballast came about – a long, circuitous process that involved an extensive road trip through the Mississippi Delta. Lim also notes that when it comes to techniques, the filmmaker took inspiration from Robert Bresson and Wong Kar-wai, as well as Mike Leigh, the subject of a Walker film retrospective, Mike Leigh: Moments, screening October 3 – 25, as well as a Regis dialogue on October 15.

In the article, Hammer also makes another connection, one worth considering while walking through galleries of Eero Saarinen’s work here and at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Having graduated from USC’s architecture school, he believes what he learned there prepared him for filmmaking – perhaps even better than film school would have. “ Architecture’s about having faith in something unformed,” he points out, “which you then have to manifest materially.”

(By the way, here’s a more in-depth, industry-oriented story about Hammer’s decision to self-distribute Ballast, from indiewire.)