Better than Hugo from the same author, which was also a Christmas-release historical city-roaming kids’ adventure by a sometimes-favorite filmmaker. Ben, a 1970’s boy suffering recent hearing loss, runs away to New York, meeting a friend named Jamie and hiding out in museums. This is cut with scenes of 1920’s Rose (the magnificent Millicent Simmonds) in a similar situation, visiting some of the same spots. As soon as Ben meets up with grown Rose (Julianne Moore) the fun back-and-forth editing games end, and we’re caught up on the fifty intervening years through long exposition scenes, a shame. I also thought Personal Shopper did a better job dramatizing onscreen text (Ben and Grown Rose have to speak via notepad), but overall this was charming.
Tag: New York
Griffin Dunne (An American Werewolf in London) is a hopeless single dude working a boring job with Bronson Pinchot. After work he meets diner patron Marcy (Rosanna Arquette of Desperately Seeking Susan the same year), bonding over their shared love for Henry Miller, and she refers him to her artist roommate Kiki (Linda Fiorentino of Jade). After an undercranked cab ride to their loft, his night spins out of control in tragicomic fashion. Not to get all auteurist on a 1980’s wild-crazy-night picture, but it’s better-looking and more intricately designed than this genre generally gets.
O’Hara and Bloom:
Buncha people with tendencies to panic and lose their cool about small things, not excepting our main man – in Marcy’s bed smoking a bad joint he suddenly sneaks out ranting about needing paperweights. He gets into a barter situation with bartender Tom (the late John Heard), gets shamed by Kiki’s dom boyfriend, wanders over to waitress Teri Garr’s place, then to Catherine O’Hara’s place, then a beardy guy’s place, then Verna Bloom’s place – what is it about Griffin Dunne that makes everyone want to take him home? Verna paper-maches Griffin to hide him from an angry mob who believe he’s responsible for a string of break-ins, then the actual thieves Cheech & Chong steal him, believing he’s art. It’s a very good ending, pulling Griffin abruptly out of the situation and back to his office, which could make the whole thing seem like a harmless dream if not for Marcy’s suicide.
Teri Garr is skeptical:
John Heard is skeptical:
Made by Scorsese between King of Comedy and The Color of Money, after a first attempt to make The Last Temptation of Christ fell apart. Reportedly the flashy camera moves were designed as a Hitchcock parody. Joseph Minion wrote (with some help from Kafka), also wrote Vampire’s Kiss and Scorsese’s episode of Amazing Stories. Tied with Blood Simple at the first Independent Spirit Awards, but it was better-loved in France, where it got a César nomination and won best director at Cannes.
I watched a couple of Henry Hills shorts in 2011 and loved them to death, have seen them a few more times since. Checked out his DVD last year, which was less exciting, but I’ve gone back to it now and found some great stuff.
Bali Mécanique (1992)
Bali music and dance intercut with other festival scenes, daily life and architecture. The central performance is great – I love that eye movements are part of the dance – and editing is on point. Think this is my favorite of his non-New York films.
Rhythmic rattle and clank, as streetcar rails slide past ancient building, interrupted by a dystopian white tower broadcasting numbers stations. Shot in Prague.
Kino Da! (1980)
Poet/activist Jack Hirschman sits reading in the grass, Hills creating new poetry by editing the hell out of his words.
Little Lieutenant (1994)
Dance and movement, mostly before greenscreen or projected sets, edited to a wackadoo music montage (Zorn, of course). Clips of war footage towards the end. This is one of the good ones, codirected with dancer/choreographer Sally Silvers.
Porter Springs 4 (1999)
Whew, more playful and less rigidly structuralist than the previous Porter Springs. More scenes from the country house on the lake, this time injecting sound clips, songs (I recognized “Cigareets, Whusky and Wild Wild Women”), photographs, home movies, single-frame montages, exposure tricks, silent scenes of shadow and water (callback to the first film?), a whole segment focused on the filmmaker’s feet
Failed States (2008)
1. Amusement park lights and motion, silently contrasting an upsetting-looking spinning and twirling ride at daytime vs. night.
2. Adding a ticking clock, and someone reciting letters and syllables, the rides edited against twiring camera on city streets and people spinning on their own feet.
Finally the sound drops away and the camera keeps endlessly spinning.
3. Spinning and twirling at an India street festival and the carnival rides, each with its own music.
“If you love someone, you love them forever.”
A movie about different kinds of love across the country. I picked this for Katy’s sake, figuring some love stories would be a nice break from films about rats, family murder, refugees and more family murder. It turned out to be a really beautifully constructed film. On the surface, we’ve got three stories: Alaskan Blake falls for spindly nerdy guy, Hawaiian surfer Will’s relationship has broken up but he loves his young son, and New York girl Victory lives and works with her musical family. But then the filmmaker casts actors and coworkers to play the younger (and future) selves of the first two and the missing mom of Victory, filming poetic flashbacks and reenactments, and the actors start interacting with the real-life subjects and changing their present-day stories. Pretty much custom made for a festival called True/False.
Alaska (in a Swiss Army Man-reminiscent school bus):
Things don’t really work out. Blake’s boyfriend Joel leaves her (and the film) right after she has decided to quit her stripping job, throwing her already precarious life out of balance. Victory’s real mom opens up to her stand-in, and ugly history is revealed. Her dad has at least one girlfriend, is a charismatic family man and band leader who may also be an abuser. Will has violent disagreements with his ex and her new man, but would still do anything for the little boy, even after discovering he’s not the father. I don’t know if the filmmaker set out to find love stories that would become so twisted and complicated (because we ditched the Q&A to find food before our next screening) but she sure found ’em.
Ha’rel’s playful formalism never settles down. Recurring segments follow various subjects reflecting on their lives, as onscreen text highlights their words; often, the text continues while the voiceover fades away. It’s a striking device that effectively poeticizes their rambling declarations. The filmmaker is just as capable of landing on intriguing images, from the sight of a high-heeled woman crossing a creek to a spellbinding shot of Will holding flowers to an unseen target just outside the frame. These elegant moments are paired with frank discussions about sex, abandonment, and heartbreak, which don’t always arrive at poignant conclusions but certainly speak to the movie’s larger themes … Ha’rel’s unique vision holds tremendous value for the craft of non-fiction filmmaking, which so often suffers from formulaic approaches.
“You do not know your killer will make you out to be a monster. You do not realize that there will be no trial. You don’t know that 23 white people will decide no crime has even been committed.”
A mirror image to Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun? This time it’s the family member of the murdered man telling the story, again speaking directly to the audience filled with regret and shame and rage, again with a black victim whose white killer doesn’t even go to trial. The tone of this one is pure anguish, told by the brother* of someone who was killed for no reason and will receive no justice, the family left behind in ruins.
*I’ve found Yance called both “he” and “she” online, and Katy and I found evidence of both within the film, but Yance’s self-written 2017 IMDB bio uses “he”.
Ford worked at PBS’s documentary showcase POV for a decade, viewing documentaries day in and out, while deciding how to tell his own family’s story. He ultimately came up with a visually distinct approach of direct address into the camera (sometimes speaking to the brother, sometimes to the audience), filmed photographs and lingering shots of the locations where events took place, in addition to the necessary usual elements (interviews and investigations).
Complications… mom is in a coma at the movie’s end. Yance feels guilty about the death, because he kept a secret about older brother William’s prior outburst at the garage where he would later be killed. There’s a section that was confusingly stuck at the end of the movie about William’s activity before his death, losing weight to apply for work and testifying about a crime he’d helped bring to justice. Yance doesn’t know what the killer looks like, saying he looks like all white people, that he sees the killer everywhere, a statement that bounced hauntingly around the church full of white faces where we sat. It had been chilly for the first couple days of the True/False fest, and during the closing credits we walked out into the warm late morning sun and it felt like another world.
It’s actually on the level of style that Ford tinkers most provocatively with the first-person template. While there’s a rawness of feeling to much of what’s expressed in the film, it’s complicated by the overtly cinematic visual approach taken by Ford and DP Alan Jacobsen. Even that opening phone call—exceedingly common and banal as documentary actions go—is aggressively lit and framed. The strategy doesn’t convey fictionalization so much as intense reflection. Footage here isn’t happened upon, it isn’t automatic or diaristic, but rather deeply, perhaps obsessively deliberated—sincerely captured after decades of traumatized anticipation. Ford’s verbal address also toggles between seemingly rehearsed and spontaneous, complexly underscoring his sincerity. Do you really think someone who’s had a quarter-century to think and feel through such a life-altering trauma could ever be either fully in the emotional moment or, conversely, fully in control of these emotions? Somewhere between first-person and third-person, showing and telling, recording and expressing, is where these personal truths reside.
Catching up on recent true-falsey docs in prep for True/False. To be fair, nothing here can be proven false, but with all the identity-hiding, illegal activity, perspective-switching and popular suspicion that the whole thing might be a put-on, it totally counts.
First half follows obsessive videographer Thierry who becomes fascinated with street artists (including Shepard Fairey, who I just saw in The Color of Noise) and starts following them around, recording their work, claiming to be assembling a documentary about the scene. Thierry finally meets his legendary hero Banksy, gains his confidence and documents some of his projects. Then after Thierry’s idea of a street art documentary is revealed to be very different from everyone else’s, Banksy takes over the footage and turns the camera back on Thierry, who rebrands himself Mr. Brainwash, launching his own art career with an overly ambitious solo exhibit.
Too bad Inside Job won the oscar, because I would’ve liked to see Banksy’s acceptance speech.
Low-key, heartfelt story of Brooklyn gentrification ruining family and friendships. This appeared in theaters the same week Neil’s The Brooklyn Wars shipped. Ira Sachs and/or Magnolia Pictures are clearly trying to capitalize on Neil’s movement.
Jake moves into the neighborhood, Tony shows him around, and they become close friends. Jake’s parents are professionals: actor Greg Kinnear and doctor Jennifer Ehle, and have inherited the building where Tony’s mom (Paulina García, Chilean star of Gloria) runs a dress shop. Kinnear’s sister’s part of the inheritance depends on him raising the rent to market levels and forcing the shop out, and the kids are caught in the family crossfire.
B. Ebiri in Vulture:
Jake’s family isn’t exactly rolling in money; dad’s experimental, off-Broadway productions of The Seagull and whatnot don’t pay the bills. This isn’t an entitled family. They are, in their own way, victims of the same forces transforming Leonor’s neighborhood, just a little further up the chain. And for her part, Leonor isn’t above playing a little dirty. “I was more his family than you were,” she tells Jake’s dad, a little too bluntly suggesting that grandpa cared for her more than he did for his own family. Is it the truth, or is that her desperation speaking? Does it matter?
Ehle was my favorite part of Contagion but she’s not given enough room to be delightful here. Fortunately, García is just terrific. Found out from a Brooklyn magazine article: that’s the young actor who played Tony’s real accent – may he never lose it.
I always thought one of them as my Robert Bresson actor, and the other as my Martin Scorsese actor, and I really worked with those ideas in mind. With Theo the job was to let what emerges from the inside appear, to keep him very still. And with Michael it was to let him go free, the improvisational elements are much more within his character in a kind of Joe Pesci kind of way.
A single cut towards the end shows us that something critical has happened, and that a moment has passed. In an obvious way, the film is about friendship and those certain intense spells in childhood that never quite last; the final scenes, unglossed by any unnecessary narrative commentary, make a poignantly eloquent coda … There’s a certain no-big-deal quality to Little Men and to Sachs’s intentions which is immensely appealing.
Watching shorts from the Flicker Alley blu-ray, part three.
Abstronic (1952 Bute & Nemeth)
Animation based around electronic imagery from oscilloscopes, set to two catchy tunes. What the future looks like.
Bells of Atlantis (1952 Ian Hugo)
Very abstract imagery. You can often tell he’s filming real objects (woman in hammock) but it’s been blue-filtered and overlaid with patterns to appear underwater. Pulsing and whooping electronic sounds by the Barron couple, visual effects by Len Lye and narration by Anaïs Nin – it’s a pretty cool movie, not a favorite, but made by remarkable collaborators.
Eaux d’artifice (1953 Kenneth Anger)
Seen this before. The imagery is supposed to be erotic but I always end up pondering fountain design and mechanics.
Evolution (1954 Jim Davis)
Wild, almost organic light patterns
Cellophane reflections give an electric glow.
Shifting light blobs that look like colored liquid being pressed under glass.
Gyromorphosis (1954 Hy Hirsh)
Hirsh filmed segments of a sculpture with colored lights and overlaid them spiraling around and inside each other. The result is spindly bits, lines and grids and spokes, all spinning in air like the visual representation of an Autechre song (it’s actually accompanied by some light chiming jazz).
Hurry, Hurry! (1957 Marie Menken)
Wriggling sperms behind a sheet of flames, set to battlefield sound effects covered in horrific scratching. Not nearly as much fun as her similarly-titled Go! Go! Go!. The liners say Menken was “physically imposing” and her relationship with her poet husband inspired Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, which sounds just awful. Don’t I have a documentary about her somewhere?
NY, NY (1957 Francis Thompson)
Kaleidoscope-refracted fly-eyed process shots of NYC, with synched Disneyish orchestral music by Gene Forrell. An absolute stunner – maybe the best find of this collection. Film Quarterly reveals that Thompson worked on perfecting it for a decade, screening it at MOMA to “a thunderous ovation” in 1952, but still reworking it for five more years.
Castro Street (1966 Bruce Baillie)
Similar to the last film in a way: abstract-ish view of a city that ends up involving construction workers and transportation. Great sound layering on this one. I guess from watching Baillie’s Here I Am and Valentin de las Sierras I assumed he was less avant-garde and more a documentarian of the underclass.
Baillie occasionally uses slightly distorted images of the trains and the railroad yard with prismatic colors around the border of distinct shapes. He also uses images which were recorded by an improperly threaded camera so that they appear to jump or waver up and down on the screen.
Lucy Fischer, from an astounding 9-page analysis in Film Quarterly:
Castro Street is, above all else, a film of hyperbolic superimposition; from beginning to end it creates a uniform texture of densely enmeshed imagery … Rather than create a sense of superimposed images in dialectical conflict, Baillie works against this to create a sense of coherent union … As Baillie has phrased it in relation to Quick Billy, his matting strategy is one of overlaying imagery so that it “looks like it was all invented or occurring at the same moment.”
9 Variations on a Dance Theme (1966 Hilary Harris)
Dancer in a bare room does a short routine, then again from a different angle. When he starts with the extreme closeups, editing between angles and camera movements to match the dancer’s motions it gets really great. The liners: “informed by his notions of kinesthetics, in which images are structured around movement with the camera in constant motion.”
E. Callenbach in Film Quarterly:
The dancing is cool and straight, by a girl who wears long woolies and never bats an eye; she is not being Modern and not trying to express her soul, but doing a curious ritual action with its own internal logic and rhythm. Watching her is like watching a musician play; it has an immense technical interest as well as the delights of motion.
Watching shorts from the Flicker Alley blu-ray, part two.
Tarantella (1940 Bute & Nemeth)
Abstract designs move in time to music, a la An Optical Poem and some of the Len Lye films. Bold and colorful.
Lewis Jacobs in Film Quarterly:
At first glance, the Bute-Nemeth pictures seemed like an echo of the former German pioneer, Oscar Fischinger, one of the first to experiment with the problems of abstract motion and sound. Actually, they were variations on Fischinger’s method, but less rigid in their patterns and choice of objects, tactile in their forms; more sensuous in their use of light and color rhythms, more concerned with the problems of depth, more concerned with music complimenting rather than corresponding to the visuals … Fischinger worked with two-dimensional animated drawings; Bute and Nemeth used any three-dimensional substance at hand: ping-pong balls, paper cutouts, sculptured models, cellophane, rhinestones, buttons, all the odds and ends picked up at the five and ten cent store. Fischinger used flat lighting on flat surfaces; Bute and Nemeth employed ingenious lighting and camera effects by shooting through long-focus lenses, prisms, distorting mirrors, ice cubes, etc.
Pursuit of Happiness (1940 Rudy Burckhardt)
These NYC mini-docs keep getting better. This one is mostly focused on people and advertisements. Towards the end, Rudy goes nuts in the editing, rotating and slowing and superimposing and splitting images. “Intentionally silent,” which I cannot abide, so I played some Cyro Baptista.
1941 (1941 Francis Lee)
Flowing paint and broken glass, an abstract visual response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor made just before the filmmaker went to war.
Meshes of the Afternoon (1943 Maya Deren)
This is the best. Cocteau-like death-dream narrative from every perspective, with doubling, mirror-faces, slo-mo – all the effects used to great poetic purpose. Wrote (a bit) more here.
This film is concerned with the interior experiences of an individual. It does not record an event which could be witnessed by other persons. Rather, it reproduces the way in which the subconscious of an individual will develop, interpret and elaborate an apparently simple and casual incident into a critical emotional experience.
Meditation on Violence (1948 Maya Deren)
A man practicing wutang and shaolin moves to flute music. Drums are added, and completely take over the soundtrack as the man warps to an outdoor setting with a sword and costume. A few token slo-mo and freeze shots then he’s back indoors. Apparently it’s much more complex than it looks and Deren had theories and charts to explain what she was doing, but Sitney calls it “a film overloaded by its philosophical burden.”
In the Street (1948 James Agee, et al)
Documentary of kids of all ages hanging out and playing in the street. Builds to a climax with a war of boys fighting with stockings filled with gravel, then chills out again, then a montage of close-ups. Costumes are involved, and rambly piano music accompanies.
Four in the Afternoon (1951 James Broughton)
Four vignettes set to Broughton poems. 1. Jump-roping woman imagines possible suitors. 2. Gardening man imagines finding a date. 3. Prancing woman in garden is pursued by even prancier man. 4. Sad man in rocking chair dreams of ballerinas past. This one has some nice reverse-action.
For each of the four film poems there is a distinctive cinematic trope; with Game Little Gladys it is stop-motion manifestation and disappearance of possible lovers; in the case of The Gardener’s Son it is a composition-in-depth with the boy in the foreground and the woman he desires in the background … The final section, The Aging Balletomane, may be the finest … Reverse motion is the trope of this episode.