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A Brief Encounter with Elia Kazan–A Look Back on the Director’s Files

In cleaning out the K files, I opened Elia Kazan’s folder. For those who are unfamiliar with Kazan, he was a film and theater director known especially for his works On the Waterfront, and  A Streetcar Named Desire. Kazan was nearly blacklisted as a Communist by the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) but instead […]

In cleaning out the K files, I opened Elia Kazan’s folder. For those who are unfamiliar with Kazan, he was a film and theater director known especially for his works On the Waterfront, and  A Streetcar Named Desire. Kazan was nearly blacklisted as a Communist by the HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) but instead turned in eight friends to save his name. In 1999 he was granted an Honorary Academy Award, the Life Time Achievement Award, in 1999 which caused a stir among actors and directors–both current and  those once-blacklisted.

I assumed that either nothing would be in the file or that what did remain would be newspaper clippings and photocopied articles. Don’t get me wrong, these things were in here, too. But what I found was a short correspondence between the Walker and Kazan. The request was to have him in attendance for a potential Regis Dialogue. His response, although not rude, was short and to the point. Something to the effect of, “No, ask me again when I am eighty. And too, flattery is bad for the soul.” I could not help but smile at the pointed rejection, at his dry touch of humor.

Needless to say, Kazan did not take part in a dialogue and passed away in 2003 at the age of 94. In the file, no later correspondence exists nor did he ever come for a dialogue–perhaps nobody contacted him when he was eighty, as he suggested.

Newspapers and the Movies

Last Friday evening, I found myself enjoying a beverage at a cafe on the river on possibly the nicest day of the year thus far, surrounded by some of the Twin Cities’ illustrious film folk — journalists, bloggers, and fanatics alike. With print media, and especially the film criticism within, struggling to stay afloat, it’s […]

Sam Fuller's <i>Park Row</i>

Sam Fuller's Park Row

Last Friday evening, I found myself enjoying a beverage at a cafe on the river on possibly the nicest day of the year thus far, surrounded by some of the Twin Cities’ illustrious film folk — journalists, bloggers, and fanatics alike. With print media, and especially the film criticism within, struggling to stay afloat, it’s not surprising that the discussion turned a bit to newspapers, and — with the films State of Play (featuring Russell Crowe as an investigative newspaper journalist) and The Soloist (with Robert Downey Jr. taking a turn as a L.A. Times columnist) hitting multiplexes — the newspaper movie. There certainly have been some great ones — His Girl Friday, The Paper, and Sam Fuller’s Park Row are among my personal favorites. It’s no coincidence that Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times published an interesting piece on this very topic in yesterday’s paper. (Thanks to David Bordwell for the link.) Mr. Goldstein seems to postulate that the gravity once found in the greatest newspaper films, perhaps like the printed papers themselves, may not find a strong footing with the younger audiences that studios seem to depend on at the box office. It’s an interesting concept to ponder. The mainstream film industry, much like the newspaper business, has an incredible history and deep connections to the American psyche. Both have done so much to shape our culture. In many ways it’s difficult to see both of these industries — though perhaps newspapers more so — struggle to adapt and maintain their ability to define our times, and see the badges of honor that their histories and working methods have earned them become a boat anchor of sorts holding them back.

An Extraordinary World That Has Become Ordinary

Steve McQueen is no newcomer to awards and acclaim. Hunger, his latest success and first feature won the Camera d’Or (the award for best first feature) at the Cannes Film Festival last May. In 1999, he was awarded the Turner Prize and will be representing Britain this year at the Venice Biennale. But the acclaim […]

Steve McQueen is no newcomer to awards and acclaim. Hunger, his latest success and first feature won the Camera d’Or (the award for best first feature) at the Cannes Film Festival last May. In 1999, he was awarded the Turner Prize and will be representing Britain this year at the Venice Biennale. But the acclaim is well justified. Hunger, which screens in the Walker Cinema April 10-26, was made because McQueen wanted to create a film about “an extraordinary world that has become ordinary.” And so he has, in three distinct parts, created a different realm for viewers to enter in and experience the hunger strike of 1981.

hunger

Hunger is tactilely-visual, which at times makes the film hard to watch. In an article from the New York Times, McQueen said, “If you see a drop of rain on someone’s knuckle, you feel it because you know that physical sensation. That sensory experience brings you closer to an emotional one.” McQueen has mastered this experience he speaks of. In the opening of Hunger, a guard dips his hands-whose knuckle are covered in freshly opened-sores-in scalding hot water, as the camera pans up to his sullen eyes reflected in the mirror. There is nothing numb about this scene or the movie, for that matter.

Similar to the visuals, the component of sound in the film is absolutely remarkable. McQueen talked about the sound in Hunger in Issue 23 of Reverse Shot:

Reverse Shot: The aesthetic of the film overall is so striking, but perhaps most striking is the care put into the sound design.

Steve McQueen: I spoke to the sound recordist and told him that I wanted him to capture everything. If someone’s finger is tapping on the table, I wanted it. I wanted all the details. Sound, for me, was the most important part of the film because it fills the spaces where the camera just can’t go. A sound can give you the dimensions of a room. It can give you smell, it can give you tension. In some ways sound can travel itself into other areas of our senses, other areas of our psyche that unfortunately cannot be just viewed. Imagine you’re in a room with the lights switched off and you have to feel your way around a room. This is a chair, this is a table, this is a light switch. You have to use your other senses to figure out what you’re looking at. As you’re watching the piece, that’s what I wanted.

The sound design is certainly atmospheric, but it also becomes a bit unbearable at times, though in a paradoxically pleasurable way.

One can talk about the sounds of the baton banging on the plastic shields as being unbearable as such, but that’s what actually happened. It’s raised the tension of the prisoners, but the noise also was a way of rallying the guards. The sound passes on that tension to the audience. Your heartbeat races, your anxiety increases. It’s the perfect soundtrack.

Immediately after I viewed the film, there was nothing I could say, nothing I wanted to say. At that moment, it seemed that any movement, word, description, or analysis would in some way taint what I just experienced.

And so I walked back to my desk speechless and proceeded to lunch-an irony that was not lost upon me. Over the course of my break, I found myself unable to take my mind off of Hunger, an entrancement that extended into the weekend.

I spoke very little about Hunger besides a mere mention that I saw it. A friend asked over the weekend what I thought of the movie, since he had recently read a write-up. All I could say was “You simply need to see it.” For a moment I contemplated extrapolating, but refrained. “McQueen’s praise isn’t for nothing-he is doing something very right,” I said.

There exists a tremendously thin and seemingly tight line in making any remark about the movie. Because of the breathtaking pacing, composition, and camera movement (or lack thereof), it seems instinctual to say the movie is beautiful. But when you step back from your experience (I say experience because Hunger extends much farther than simply a film), you are appalled by the actions and plights of human kind.

Recently in an interview with McQueen, he mentioned how people are shocked when they see the brutality in Hunger, of reliving and remembering what happened in 1981. Not an attempt to justify the happenings both in 1981 and the replication in Hunger, McQueen reminds that events and brutality such portrayed in the film are still happening to this day. He brings up Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay.

After looking into the history of the Troubles and the 1981 hunger strike, I realized that background information is not necessary before watching Hunger. Because of the film’s structure and attention to every detail, every perspective, part of me thinks each viewer should go in empty handed. To have no prior knowledge of Hunger, of McQueen, of the 1981 hunger strike, the audience is able to then be completely immersed; let it be said, however, that in this day and age, it is impossible to have a completely primary experience. Regardless of how much or little you know, Hunger will be an experience that will be mulled over for some time after.

This said, what is interesting to note is that Hunger is McQueen’s first feature film (previously he was a gallery artist): You should also know that he is about the visceral rather than the technique (he attended the Tisch School for film but left because “It was full of all these rich kids who could afford the fees. It was nothing to do with talent.”) Lastly, you should know that Steve McQueen captures the essence of life and the essence of filmmaking that is lost upon so many and in watching Hunger, McQueen’s vision of history, of art, and of human kind is extended and leaves an imprint in the viewer.

Because of the immensely diverse responses I assume Hunger will create, I would like to offer up this place as a forum to discuss/share your reaction and thoughts on the film.

Hunger screens Friday and Saturday April 10, 11, 17, 18, and 25 at 7:30 pm and Saturday and Sunday April 11 and 26 at 2 pm in the Walker Cinema.

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)

Welcome Emily Hanson

It’s always a pleasure to welcome someone new to the blogfold. Emily Hanson just joined the team as an intern in Film/Video, and has kindly offered her time and expertise in our humble little blogosphere. A few things about Emily: She is in her last semester at Augsburg College with a major in English with […]

It’s always a pleasure to welcome someone new to the blogfold. Emily Hanson just joined the team as an intern in Film/Video, and has kindly offered her time and expertise in our humble little blogosphere.

A few things about Emily:

  • She is in her last semester at Augsburg College with a major in English with a concentration in creative writing and a minor in Film.
  • She has a notebook full of strange quotes from David Lynch heard at a weekend-long seminar in Iowa.
  • Her love of film stems from a film analysis class in High School and 16mm filmmaking.”
  • She makes a mean cup of coffee.
  • Her favorite film is Annie Hall, but has been fluctuating between that and Breathless, Amelie, and Goodbye, Lenin for a while.
  • She has a keen ear for good music.
  • Oh, and she loves the Gilmore Girls.

Errol Morris: The Devil is in the Details

Errol Morris is a “documentary filmmaker” only in that no other succinct label describes his work — most often artful renderings, reenactments, re-visitations, and character studies of true events. Now Morris brings us Standard Operating Procedure, a collaborative film/book project with the writer Philip Gourevitch revealing the stories of the American soldiers who were on […]

Errol Morris is a “documentary filmmaker” only in that no other succinct label describes his work — most often artful renderings, reenactments, re-visitations, and character studies of true events. Now Morris brings us Standard Operating Procedure, a collaborative film/book project with the writer Philip Gourevitch revealing the stories of the American soldiers who were on both sides of the lens of the haunting, iconic photographs from Abu Ghraib prison. Sorry to report, no tickets remain to hear Morris introduce and discuss the film in an April 15 screening at the Walker.

Even without a ticket, you’re only a click away from seeing how Morris’ mind works. In long, captivating blogs for the New York Times, Morris has taken to disseminating and dissecting the topic of photographic truth like a forensic scientist — he’s essentially asking “What is and isn’t documentary?” His latest, published today, digs into his own landmark film, The Thin Blue Line.

In the essay, Morris explains one seemingly small but important creative choice he made in that film — to reenact the spilling of a milkshake at the scene of a police officer’s shooting: “We assemble our picture of reality from details. We don’t take in reality whole. Our ideas about reality come from bits and pieces of experience. We try to assemble them into something that has a consistent narrative.”

Women with Vision film nominated for Best European Film

The 2005 Women with Vision film festival at Walker opened last May with Susanne Bier’s film Brothers. This past Sunday the nominations for the 2005 European Film Awards were announced Sunday at the Seville Film Festival. The prizes will be presented on December 3rd in Berlin. Leading the list with seven nominations is Michael Haneke’s […]

The 2005 Women with Vision film festival at Walker opened last May with Susanne Bier’s film Brothers. This past Sunday the nominations for the 2005 European Film Awards were announced Sunday at the Seville Film Festival. The prizes will be presented on December 3rd in Berlin. Leading the list with seven nominations is Michael Haneke’s Cache, followed closely by Susanne Bier’s Brothers . Both movies are nominated for best European Film this year, along with Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking, Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne’s L’Enfant, Pawel Pawlikowski’s My Summer of Love, and Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl – The Final Days.

Terrific performance: on the narrative of suicide bombing

“If terrorists have seized control of the world narrative, if they have captured the historical imagination, have they become, in effect, the world’s new novelists?” The New York Times‘ Lorrie Moore wrote this in 1991, but, with suicide bombings happening with alarming frequency–nearly daily in Iraq or the Middle East–and, in the cases of Egypt […]

“If terrorists have seized control of the world narrative, if they have captured the historical imagination, have they become, in effect, the world’s new novelists?” The New York Times‘ Lorrie Moore wrote this in 1991, but, with suicide bombings happening with alarming frequency–nearly daily in Iraq or the Middle East–and, in the cases of Egypt and London, in places rarely rocked by such explosions, her question is timely. It’s a notion culled from the Don DeLillo novel she was reviewing, Mao II, which has its protagonist musing:

There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence…. Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.

While many people now are pondering what makes suicide bombers tick, from Time reporter Aparisim Ghosh’s rare glimpse into the mind of a bomber-to-be in Iraq (his pseudonym, Abu Ubeida al-Jarrah, uses the name of a 7th-century general who overthrew Syria for Islam) to Hany Abu-Assad‘s film Paradise Now, which will screen at the Walker in October (details to come)–others are wondering how these tactics are rewriting our narratives. Douglas Rushkoff, author of Coercion and Media Virus, blogs:

Suicide bombing is a media virus with very real effects. The sticky outer shell is the event itself – a suicide bombing gets covered on the news. It’s huge news, especially if it occurs in a white western nation. Currently, it’s the fastest spreading kind of news story there is.

The code, like that of any successful media virus, challenges the unarticulated confusion over the relationship of the west to oil, Arabs, Islam, and post-colonialism. Actually, the virus fuels itself on rage going back as far as the Crusades, or certainly since the imposition of CIA-sponsored dictatorships.”

And Harper’s editor and author of the new book Mediated, Thomas de Zengotita, wonders aloud:

I’ve been thinking and writing about performative self-consciousness in a mediated age for the last five years or so, and I have this question which I’ve scarcely dared to formulate so unlikely does it seem. I’m wondering if “playing a starring role” could be part of the motive for suicide bombers, not the whole motive, obviously, but part? At first I recoil from the thought–nobody needs attention that much! But then I remember Columbine and I remember the video record of themselves that the shooters compiled–I saw some of those tapes, and this is my native culture, and I’ve taught High School, and I know those kids were starring in their own show. So I’m asking…is there anything like a culture of performance at work in the worlds of suicide bombers?

Discuss.

Beware the blurb.

“Spectacular!” I’m always wary of the one-word blurb on film ads, suspecting that the real context presents a different reality: “It’s a spectacular mystery how this abysmal attempt at filmmaking ever got made.” Gelf Magazine confirms the suspicion, comparing film blurbs with the original reviews they came from. A few examples: Los Angeles Times review […]

“Spectacular!” I’m always wary of the one-word blurb on film ads, suspecting that the real context presents a different reality: “It’s a spectacular mystery how this abysmal attempt at filmmaking ever got made.” Gelf Magazine confirms the suspicion, comparing film blurbs with the original reviews they came from. A few examples:

Los Angeles Times review of Be Cool:

…Travolta is as smooth as ever…

Actual line:

[Travolta’s character Chili] Palmer is back in Be Cool, and although Travolta is as smooth as ever, the picture is a bust, a grimly unfunny comedy with no connection to reality, and worst of all, running on and on for two dismal hours.

Daily Star review of 16 Years of Alcohol:

Trainspotting meets A Clockwork Orange!

Actual line:

This glum, violent drama about a Scottish thug ruined by drink is written and pretentiously directed by Richard Jobson whose approach–Trainspotting meets A Clockwork Orange–is bad enough to drive you to drink in no time.

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