Festivals & Awards
A dispatch from the New York Film Festival on the latest from Diao Yinan, Pedro Costa, Albert Serra and more.
A dispatch from the New York Film Festival on the latest from Diao Yinan, Pedro Costa, Albert Serra and more.
A Cannes dispatch on new films from Laszlo Nemes, Naomi Kawase, and Radu Muntean.
The big loser in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll is... funny. OK, we know there are no losers, only winners! But, still, with the obvious exceptions of "Citizen Kane" and "Rules of the Game," this decade's consensus choices for the Greatest Films of All Time are not a whole lotta laughs, even though they're terrific motion pictures. There's not much in the way of chuckles or joie de vivre to be found in "Vertigo," "Tokyo Story," "Man with a Movie Camera," "The Searchers," "The Passion of Joan of Arc"... At least "Sunrise," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "8 1/2" have healthy senses of humor, but "Kane" and "Rules of the Game" are the only movies in the top 10 with the propulsive vitality of (screwball) comedy. They are flat-out fun (even if they are regarded as "classics"). And with "Kane" bumped to #2 this time, The List has become, to paraphrase a great comedy from the 1980s, one less funny.
I say this as someone who believes that comedy is everything, and that drama is lifeless (or at least emotionally stunted) without it. Some might argue that comedy without drama is also limited and superficial, but I think comedy is more profound and complex -- and more difficult to pull off successfully. I can name plenty of comedies that capture a mature vision of human existence (if you're into that kind of thing -- like all of Buster Keaton), but a drama that (artificially) excludes humor is feels false and inert to me. [No, I'm not saying the other movies in the Top Ten are humorless or lack cinematic exuberance; just that their energy is not primarily comedic, as i feel Welles' and Renoir's are. To some extent, I'm talking about the overall tendency to value "seriousness" above "humor" in these sorts of exercises.] As for the 2012 Sight & Sound Top Ten, compare it with 1982 ("Singin' in the Rain," "The General"), 1992 ("L'Atlante") and 2002 ("Singin' in the Rain"). The lack of comedy on the new list hearkens back to the Somber Ol' Days of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. As somebody once said: Why so serious?
Britain is overrun with film festivals. I wouldn't be shocked to learn we have more per hundred miles per year than any nation on Earth. But there is room for more, provided they are carefully conceived, intelligently programmed and don't overreach themselves in their early years. ID Fest, which ran this year between May 24 and 27, is a fine example.
Beginning in 2010, with a year off in 2011, ID Fest is "a boutique festival", with each instalment programmed around a specific theme branching from the larger theme of identity - hence "ID" Fest. As such, it separates itself from Britain's large international festivals; small, un-themed local festivals; and genre fests, of which there seem to be more each month. The first ID Fest investigated what it means to be English (as opposed to British) but the second had a far broader focus, befitting its ambitions to become a truly international festival. In 2012, its theme was heroism.
This will be the year that revenue from streaming passes revenue from DVD sales, according to a recent article in the Hollywood Reporter.
How do we feel about this? I ask as a movie-watcher who subscribes to Netflix, Hulu and Fandor, and also rents online from Amazon and Vudu. iTunes gets none of my business because the iTunes Store has been misbehaving on my computer. I average three streaming movies a week and three or four on DVD. I'm not an average consumer, because a lot of my viewing is for work. But often of an evening I'll stream for pleasure. All of my streaming happens through a Roku Player on HDTV.
Ever since David Thomson's "A Biographical Dictionary of Film" was published in 1975, browsers have said that they love to hate Thomson's contrarian arguments -- against John Ford or Frank Capra, Coppola or Kubrick, for example.¹ Fans and critics can cite favorite passages of resonant beauty, mystifyingly vague and dismissive summary judgements, and entire entries in which the man appears to have gone off his rocker. And that's the fun of it.
To be fair, Thomson broke faith with (or has been suffering a crisis of faith in) American movies at least far back as "Overexposures: The Crisis in American Filmmaking" (1981), and he's been writing about his crisis ever since. To put it in a sentence that could serve as the ending of one of his entries: I am willing to believe that he loves (or once loved) movies even if he doesn't like them very much. (Wait -- how does he conclude the Katharine Hepburn piece? "She loved movies, while disapproving of them.")
When I encountered the first edition of this book, the year I entered college, I immediately fell in love with it because it was not a standard reference. It was personal, cranky, eloquent, pretentious, pithy, petty, ambitious... It was, as I think Thomson himself suggested in the foreword to the first or second edition (this is the fifth), more accurately titled "An Autobiographical Dictionary of Film." Many times over the years I have implored my employers or partners to license digital rights to Thomson's book so that it could augment and be integrated with other movie databases and references (at Cinemania, FilmPix, Reel.com, RogerEbert.com)... but we've never done it. What, they would ask, is the "value-add"? (Really. Some people used to talk that way.) As a reference, its coverage is too spotty (Ephraim Katz's Film Encyclopedia is much more comprehensive but also has loads of incomplete filmographies), as criticism it's wildly idiosyncratic (nothing wrong with that) and as biography it's whimsically selective and uneven, leaving as many holes as it fills.
We tend to remember long takes that call attention to themselves as such: the opening shots of "Touch of Evil" or "The Player"; the entrance to the Copacabana in "GoodFellas"; all those shots in Romanian movies, and pictures directed by Bela Tarr and Jia Zhangke... And then there are the ones you barely notice because your eyes have been guided so effortlessly around the frame, or you've been given the freedom to explore it on your own, or you've simply gotten so involved in the rhythms of the scene, the interplay between the characters, that you didn't notice how long the shot had been going on.
For this compilation, "Deep Focus," I've chosen eight shots I treasure (the last two I regard as among the finest in all of cinema). They're not all strictly "deep focus" shots, but they do emphasize three-dimensionality in their compositions. I've presented them with only minimal identifications so you can simply watch them and see what happens without distraction or interruption. Instead, I've decided to write about them below. Feel free to watch the clips and then re-watch (freeze-frame, rewind, replay) the clips to see what you can see. To say they repay re-viewing is an understatement.
Arthur Penn's "Night Moves" (1975) is one of the great movies of the '70s. As a detective picture about a private eye with flawed vision -- in this case, a small-time independent dick and former football player named Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), who'd like to think he's Sam Spade -- it would make a great double bill with "Chinatown," released the previous year. Yesterday, when the news came of French director Eric Rohmer's death, a lot of people who apparently hadn't even seen "Night Moves" (or, perhaps, a Rohmer movie) were freely quoting Moseby's famous wisecrack in pieces about Rohmer without providing any context for it:
"I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry."
It wasn't long before it even became a Twitter meme: #nightmoves. (See examples below, after jump.)
What some (not all) of the quoters didn't seem to realize or remember is that Harry's remark, as scripted by Alan Sharp, is a brittle homophobic jab at a gay friend of his wife's. (Watch the clip above.) Ellen (Susan Clark) invites Harry to join her and Charles (Ben Archibek -- that's him at the end of the clip) for a movie: Eric Rohmer's classic "My Night at Maud's" (1970), about an engaged man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who spends a long, memorable night in conversation with a divorcee (Françoise Fabian). Moseby is asserting his macho credentials, and ends the scene by teasing Charles about going bowling again sometime. "You seem to get some weird kind of satisfaction from this sort of thing, don't you?" Charles replies. Later that night, Harry drives by the theater as the movie is letting out and sees something indicating that his wife may be having an affair.
View image Me with post-festival headcold, after just getting back home and sinking into the comfort of my den-like Man Chair. (all photos by Jim Emerson, except as noted)
My taxi driver to the airport yesterday (he was Ethiopian, but had lived in Toronto for 18 years) asked me if I'd seen any "movie stars" at the film festival. I had to admit I hadn't -- although I've encountered people I consider to be movie stars on the street in past years: Luis Guzman, Liev Schreiber, Brian De Palma, Sara Polley, Stephen Rea, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne...
View image The ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Girish. A man with cinecurean tastes. (That's a neologism of my own invention that is related to "epicure" and has nothing to do with "sinecure," I don't think.)
Toronto, at least at festival time, is a celebrity-mad city like no place I've ever seen. Celebrities make the front pages of the newspapers just because they're celebrities and they're in Toronto. Rogers cable used to have a non-stop TIFF schedule of celebrity gossip, celebrity interviews, off-the-cuff "reviews," and celebrity press conferences. I don't know if they did that this year, because I never turned on the television in my hotel room. (Meanwhile, TiVo was covering other necessities for me at home.)
View image Andy Horbal plays Mephisto at the foot of the Stairway to Heaven (the escalator to the Varsity Cinemas).
View image The House Next Door's Keith Uhlich took this shot of himself with his MacBook, outside the press office at the Delta Chelsea.
Some journalists and critics were doing celebrity interviews in addition to going to movies, with stars like George A. Romero (whose girlfriend was the bartender at my hotel!) or Jodie Foster or Brian De Palma or Bela Tarr -- in gang-bang roundtables or 15-30-minute individual sessions. The people I was most excited about getting to meet were my fellow movie bloggers. I had lunch with Girish Shambu between screenings in Toronto last year, and it was a pleasure to see him again, particularly since he enjoyed the oblique, androgynous eroticism of the luminous Eric Rohmer movie as much as I did. His highest recommendation was for Barcelona-born director Jose Luis Guerin's "Dans la ville de Sylvia" -- which, unfortunately, I missed. We also thought Lee Chang-dong's "Secret Sunshine" was among the very best things we'd seen.
View image Frames within frames within frames -- and film-festival bedhead. Me at work in my Toronto hotel room.
Keith Uhlich, editor of "The House Next Door," organized a mid-fest critics' roundtable podcast, 'round a tiny round table in Nathan Lee's hotel room with Nathan (whose byline should be familiar from the Village Voice, Film Comment, The New York Times), Torontonian eyeWeekly critic Adam Nayman, Keith, and me. It was too much fun -- we ran out of time long before we ran out of stuff we wanted to talk about. Of course, that was the morning I forgot to bring my camera. Too bad, because if you saw Nathan's new-mown haircut, you'd want to rub his head. It's that cool. (I'll post a link to the podcast when it's available, if you want to hear us go on about the trials of film critics filing reports and interviews from festivals, our indelible images from TIFF, Brian De Palma, Bob Dylan, Todd Haynes, semiotics [not much!], and I forget what else.)
View image Christopher Long, in Philly Eagles t-shirt, who has a woman on his right shoulder saying: "Come, have another cup of coffee!" and a man on his other shoulder saying: "No, there's a huge schedule of films to see -- what's next?"
I also got to meet up with Christopher Long, a frequent and valued contributor to Scanners comments, and reviewer for DVDTown and other sites. Chris claims to loathe Paul Haggis's "Crash" (and Sam Mendes's "American Beauty" -- two peas in a pod) even more than me. I don't know if that's possible, but I found him convincing. They both do the same morally corrupt thing, anyway: taking grotesque clichés and then flipping them around so that that they are... even more insulting clichés. All in the name of "enlightenment." We had a nice talk about our mutual admiration for Divine, too. Don't recall how that one came up.
I'm delighted to have more faces to put with the words I've appreciated from these folks for so long.
View image There are movies being shown in six or eight theaters in the building on the left. That's all I know. (photo by Jim Emerson)
Film festivals allow you the opportunity to see movies without knowing much of anything about them in advance. If you don't want to, that is. The problem with this is that, unless you have a festival catolog (the hefty TIFF 2007 one is 480 pages and sells for $37), you also have no idea of what you don't know about. Today, I arrived more than a half-hour early for a screening of Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There," only to discover that the previous film (something about "Cassandra") was running about 45 minutes late. The Toronto festival is quite punctual, so this was a most unusual occurrence. The staff person allowed some of us into the theater to sit through the end of the previous movie, in which case we would be able to retain our seats for the one we'd actually come to see.
Now, normally I'm like Woody Allen in "Annie Hall" and I don't go into movies late. I rarely leave early, either, even if I think the movie's terrible. In this case, I thought I'd just go in and rest my eyes, since I knew nothing about the film I was about walk into the middle of. It soon became apparent that it had Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell in it, as two brothers who were involved in some kind of murder scheme. It was thoroughly mediocre, and I wondered how some first-time commercial filmmaker had lured such a cast, especially with this lackluster script. (Tom Wilkinson showed up, too.) But, I was also seeing it from the middle, sometimes with eyes wide shut, because I was only there to have a seat for the next movie.
When it ended (badly), the credits appeared and I immediately recognized the typeface. It was Woody Allen's latest movie. Surprise.
I write this not to report on a movie I only saw the last half of, but because as I was sitting there I was thinking about how little I have known -- quite deliberately -- about the films I have seen before I have gone to see them. (Of course, I hadn't intended to see even part of this one. That was just an accident.) For the most part I'm trying to maintain blissful ignorance, going into these films with no preconceptions except that I may know who the director is, or who one or two of the cast members are. Or somebody I trust has recommended it. That's as much as I want to know.
Some people at the press and industry screenings seem to know everything about them before the lights go down, but I don't listen to them. So here, in the interest of full disclosure, is how much I knew about some of this year's TIFF movies going in (including a few I haven't yet seen):
"Eastern Promises": David Cronenberg movie with Viggo Mortensen. Not a clue as to what it was about, who else was in it, what it was based on (if anything), or what the title meant.
"Michael Clayton": George Clooney wearing a suit and tie. Nothing else.
"4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days": Romanian film about an abortion that won at Cannes.
"Chop Shop": Second film by Ramin Bahrani ("Man Push Cart"). Unaware of where it was set or what it was about, except I thought there was a kid in it.
"Redacted": Brian De Palma. Something about Iraq.
"Secret Sunshine": Asian film (I don't even know what country) that won an award for something somewhere (I think it was Cannes). A friend said I should see it.
"The Orphanage": Mexican. Produced by Guillermo Del Toro. Appeared to be kinda creepy, and somebody had compared it to "Pan's Labyrinth."
"Margot at the Wedding": Written and directed by Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale"). Nicole Kidman, Jack Black, and Jennifer Jason-Leigh. That's all.
"Persepolis": Black and white. Animated. No idea of language or subject.
"Atonement": Based on Ian McEwan novel I haven't finished (but have at home). Don't know who directed it or who's in the cast.
"The Man From London": Directed by Bela Tarr.
"I'm Not There": Todd Haynes' movie in which several people play Bob Dylan. I knew Cate Blanchett was one of them.
"No Country for Old Men": A Coen brothers movie, based on Cormac McCarthy's book (which I'd read). Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem were in it. Roger really liked it.
"Into the Wild": Sean Penn-directed adaptation of Jon Krakauer's biography of Christopher McCandless, which I read about ten years ago and really liked. I knew Emile Hirsch was the main character, but I couldn't recall any movies I'd seen Emile Hirsch in before.
(Once again, my brain is so full of movies I want to write about that I can't concentrate on any one long enough to finish writing about it. I've got about four posts partly written. Hope I'll get a chance to within the next 24 hours. In the meantime, there are more movies to see...)
View image F&A: A theatrical scene.
David Bordwell weighs in on the Great Debate of August with a substantial post called "Bergman, Antonioni, and the stubborn stylists," in response to Jonathan Rosenbaum -- who gives his verdict on a recent viewing of "Fanny and Alexander."
First, Bordwell offers his perspective: Timing aside, there wasn’t much in the piece that hasn’t been said by certain cadres of cinephiles for decades. Back in the 1960s, people called Bergman “theatrical,” “uncinematic,” pretentious, and intellectually shallow. He was even accused of hypocrisy. His spiritual, philosophical films always seemed to depend on a surprising number of couplings, killings, rapes, and gorgeous ladies, often naked. Rosenbaum contrasts Bergman with Bresson and Dreyer, more austere religious filmmakers as well as great formal innovators, and this gambit too is familiar from late-night film-society disputes. Jonathan’s case is news in the good, grey Times, but it’s an old story among his (my) generation.
I think that this generational antipathy has many sources. While Bergman had considerable academic cachet, this may have hurt him with smart-alecks like us. Cinephile priests and professors told us that Bergman was a great mind, but we suspected them of snobbery, for they often disdained even foreign filmmakers who dabbled in popular genres. Kurosawa was admired for "Rashomon" and "I Live in Fear" rather than for "Seven Samurai" and "Yojimbo." And many of Bergman’s intellectual fans despised the classic tradition of American studio film. Hitchcock had not yet convinced literature profs of his excellence, and Ford was a gnarled geezer who made Westerns. Bergman and his acolytes seemed just too square. Our money was on Godard, especially after Susan Sontag’s magisterial essay on him. [...]
Speaking just for myself, I didn’t have a deep love for Bergman, and I still don’t. I was drawn to his early idylls ("Monika," "Summer Interlude") and impressed but chilled by the official classics ("Smiles of a Summer Night," "The Seventh Seal," "The Virgin Spring"). "Persona," I admit, was a punch in the face. Seeing it in its New York opening, I felt that all of modern cinema was condensed into a mere eighty minutes. But no Bergman film afterward measured up to that for me, and after "The Serpent’s Egg" I just lost interest, catching up with "Cries and Whispers," "Scenes from a Marriage," "Fanny and Alexander," and a very few others over the later decades.
View image "Zabriskie Point" -- an Antonioni movie on the cover of LOOK magazine in 1969: "Had he violated the Mann Act when he staged a nude love-in in a national park? Does the film show an "anti-American" bias? As a member of the movie Establishment, is he distorting the aims of the young people's 'revolution'?"
Watching Ingmar Bergman's "Shame" (1968) over the weekend (which I was pleased to find that I had not seen before -- after 20 or 30 years, I sometimes forget), I recalled something that happened around 1982. Through the University of Washington Cinema Studies program, we brought the now-famous (then not-so-) story structure guru Robert McKee to campus to conduct a weekend screenwriting seminar. McKee, played by Brian Cox in Spike Jonze's and Charlie Kaufman's "Adapation." as the ultimate authority on how to write a salable screenplay, has probably been the single-most dominant influence in American screenwriting -- "Hollywood" and "independent" -- over the last two decades. Many would say "pernicious influence." (Syd Field is another.)
It's not necessarily McKee's fault that so many aspiring screenwriters and studio development executives have chosen to emphasize a cogent, three-act structure over all other aspects of the script, including things like character, ideas, and even coherent narrative. Structure, after all, is supposed to be merely the backbone of storytelling, not the be-all, end-all of screenwriting. But people focus on the things that are easiest to fix, that make something feel like a movie, moving from beat to beat, even if the finished product is just a waste of time.
The film McKee chose to illustrate the principles of a well-structured story that time was Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring."
"Shame" is another reminder that Bergman's movies weren't solely aimed at "art" -- they were made to appeal to an audience. Right up to its bleak ending, "Shame" is a rip-roaring story, with plenty of action, plot-twists, big emotional scenes for actors to play, gorgeously meticulous cinematography, explosive special effects and flat-out absurdist comedy. I don't know how "arty" it seemed in 1968, but it plays almost like classical mainstream moviemaking today. (And remember: Downbeat, nihilistic or inconclusive finales were very fashionable and popular in mainstream cinema in the late 1960's: "Bonnie and Clyde," "Blow-Up," "Easy Rider," "Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry"...),
It's important to remember that Bergman and his fellow Euro-titan Michelangelo Antonioni, who both died on the same day last week, were big-name commercial directors -- who also helped moviegoers worldwide see the relatively young, originally low-brow, populist medium in a new light: as a (potential) art form. (The Beatles, who in 1964-'65 were the most popular youth phenomenon on the planet, even wanted Antonioni to direct their second feature, after "A Hard Day's Night"!) And if they hadn't been so popular and famous, they would not have been so influential. These guys won plenty of high-falutin' awards at film festivals, but they were also nominated for Oscars in glitzy Hollywood.