Monday, February 20, 2017

Films on Youtube: Hester Street

Thanks to widespread, unchecked criminality, there are currently several truly great films available on Youtube. Some of these films are worthwhile only to the kind of cineaste whose favorite films are a Yugoslavian Black Wave film, a propaganda film by Angolan communist party, and a Paul Shartis film where he tries to feed a comb through a 16mm projector, but there are also a few films that have been excluded from the standard repertory film cycle, the bi-monthly TCM schedule, the Criterion Collection, and every Cool Dad's DVD library for no good reason.

Take for example Hester Street (1975), a female directed film (by Joan Milkin Silver) starring Carol Kane (who was nominated for an Oscar for her performance) and Steven Keats. They play Russian Jewish immigrants in New York navigating the process of assimilation at the end of the 19th Century. Keats will dive into whiteness head first, while Kane clings to her identity with the tenacity of the hasidic communities that have thrived in New York down to present day.

Hester Street is a quintessential 70's American film. If films like Paper Moon, Days of Heaven, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and Chinatown feel revolutionary, it was because make a quintessential modernist gesture of establishing a vision for the future by revising a shared idea of the past. New Hollywood dominate mode was a period film meant to interrogate the histories of the filmmaker's parents and grandparents generation, to remind them of their own youthful idealism and messy sex lives and to suggest a redemption of the old in the sexuality and socialism of the young. This circuit of hope and memory is what makes New Hollywood films so vibrant, it's only the period films that look into the past and find nothing they want to project on a better future take on a dusty, academic, pedantic air that afflicts the rest of the genre - and it's the particular affliction of present American art cinema, of the A24 variety, that the new is always forged at the expense of forgetting what came before.

Joan Milkin Silver has plenty to teach contemporary indie filmmakers, unlike some of her male contemporaries, Silver's artistic achievement was not the result of Michael Cimino-sized budget excess. This is a very lean film about fin-de-siecle New York Jews. Silver knows that one of the secrets of low budget filmmaking is building as much of the world as you can in an actor's face, and Carol Kane and Steven Keats carry that burden with aplomb. The former sews the world down to grey realism, the latter tears it out again for both tragi-comic artifice. Kane carefully embodies a thousand period details that come from the source novel, her performance shows all the pain of dislocation, forced assimilation, and patriarchal dominance women like her had to endure. Keats cartoonish mugging gives all the cruelty, all the drama, all the rough edges of the production a sort of dreamy unreality, which allows them to be viewed distantly, like a Brechtian alienation technique. Every element of the film manages this balance between responsible representation and loose suggestion. The final effect is like a Kathe Kollwitz drawing: sketched, but in no way incomplete.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Spectacle Trailers: Three by Sokurov

I've been cutting trailers for The Spectacle in Brooklyn for the past few months. I wanted to write a little bit about the films too, because it's been such a good critical exercise. It's taught me to look for the little glimmer of goodness in bad films, and given me a master class in sound, editing, cinematography, performance on the great ones.

I'll post these reviews after the month the films are shown, so I can take some of these films apart when they're broken, get deep into the mechanical failures of their style, suggest some replacement parts, without any fear of trashing the screenings I'm supposed to be promoting.

First though, I want to write about a film series I loved, which was a Alexander Sokurov's Great Men of the 20th Century series. One film is missing, Faust, the film programmer couldn't secure the rights to show it, but he was able to get Moloch (on Hitler), Taurus (for Lenin), and The Sun (for Emperor Hitohito). Here's the trailer:

Sokurov's project could be called "a history of mood." All the films are full of details particular to their subject's cultures and their personal eccentricities. They don't chronicle important events as much as an atmosphere around these men at critical moments in history. 

Sokurov often draws our attention to a character in these scenes who is keeping a record of what's being said, suggesting that when we're listening to Hitler's awkward jokes and casual apocalyptic rants to his friends, or watching Hirohito examine a hermit crab with a marine biologist while the Allies are fire bombing Tokyo, we're examining an oddity from the historical record.

Tethering the films to The Record in this way allows them to fly into the fantastic when a history of mood needs a scene of Lenin barking like a dog at his minders, Eva Braun dancing and flipping like a Reifenstahlian superwoman through an Expressionist landscape shot through distorted mirrors, or Hirohito continuing to move his lips even when he isn't talking, like a man possessed by language he can't control, or a dying fish, or a poorly dubbed samurai. When the record keepers are present, we consider the curiosity or obscenity of these little details along with Sokurov, when the fantasy begins, he expands his own opinions at length.

The only thing I disliked about these films was their sense of humor. The dialogue clips I included I thought were much funnier than the actual jokes, like the Chaplin-esque dance of manners between Hirohito and a scientist who doesn't know where to sit or how to bow in the presence of a god. This is Sukorov taking pains to make sure his painterly compositions, the complex blocking, the architectural ideas in the sets, and the poetic and historical concerns of the dialogue don't weigh the films down. In cinema, a shot that's good enough to stand on its own as a photograph often gunks up the movement of a film. Shots need to be a little incomplete, like jig saw pieces. This is true of sound, of text, etc.. Sokurov's humor helps break up the these perfect instances of style, but sadly, it doesn't really make these films funny.

It's when these films bear down on the despair the whole edifice is built around that one laughs. A prohibition has been lifted, one the audience experiences with the all the soldiers and servants who watch these men throughout the films: a prohibition on despair. We lose our hope that any one man could stand on top of the world and direct its forces, a good theme for a director whose made a universe where every movement, every word, every look has meaning. We laugh when the spell is broken, when we’re free of Hitler, Hirohito, Lenin and Sokurov. But there's no future in these films, it's a freedom to go nowhere. It's just a freedom to despair. We laugh so life can go on anyway.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Friday, June 20, 2014

Freeze Frame Cinema or The Decline of Cinematic Politics: Exhibition

   Joanna Hogg should be forgiven her cinematic sins. Coming from the TV world of themes and cinematic syntax written in bold crayon, of rushed productions schedules and helicopter-Mom executive producers, it must have been a liberating exercise to make a film whose diaphanous through lines end their lives as quickly as cinematic mayflies, to make a film about boredom and all its pins and needles almost-excitements, about a middle aged woman contemplating herself and her sexuality in front of several sets of venetian blinds on several floor to ceiling windows.

    But before we forgive the indulgences of what, in the end, is a criminally boring film, we owe the filmmaker and ourselves some exploration of why it sucks.

Monday, May 19, 2014

You Missed It At Film Forum: The Retrieval

First, The Retrieval has to be admired for what it achieved with its budget. It belongs to a long if largely under-appreciated tradition of low budget war films like Come And See, Generation Kill, Overlord, Kanal, and Full Metal Jacket. Sophomore director, Chris Eska, told Indiewire that he considered several different locations and time periods for this story before settling on the Civil War South. The flexibility to set the same story on the contemporary US/Mexican border, in India in the 1970's, or between Union and Confederate lines in the 1860's could be seen as a sign of overweening acquiescence to one's producers: if there's money to make it in 1970's India with period cars, crowded exteriors with extras in period clothing, let's do it. If not let's ride on this slavery film wave and make a film with Civil War reenactors who already own the uniforms, tents, and rifles. We should consider here, however, that every element of filmmaking is creative, including the management of finances. The producer is herself a vital and intelligent artist - or at least, she better be. What The Retrival did with the money it had is an artistic achievement.