Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Two films of their times

Two movies, both very much of their times, one of which is still ongoing. Loving (Irvin Kershner, 1970) stars George Segal (left)  and Eva Marie Saint as husband and wife. They’re living the suburban commuting life in Westport, Conn. He’s a struggling commercial artist. She’s on the home front with two small children. Segal (Brooks Wilson) is a philanderer, having an affair with a gallery owner, Grace (Janice Young) in Manhattan, and is the sexual interest of Nelly (Nancie Phillips) the wife of his commuter buddy Will (David Doyle – John Bosley of Charlie’s Angels fame). The film, shot by Gordon Willis – well known as photographer on Woody Allen flics – has a remarkable sense of realism, with an outstanding performance by Segal whose character is frustrated by his marriage and work and who cannot relinquish his appetites for alcohol and women. This storyline is almost an update of that of the characters in TV’s Mad Men, only the story takes place at the end of the Swinging Sixties, culturally long after the conformist era captured by the television show though chronologically only several years apart. The film’s next-to-final scene is an extraordinary voyeuristic moment - one of the most embarrassing to which characters are subjected in any film I’ve seen - leading to the final resolution, which may be no resolution at all.....The other movie is Henry Jaglom’s 1992 Venice/Venice. I’ve long been a fan of Jaglom (above right), as quintessential a “modern” director as Robert Altman, and whose films with ensemble casts have the same documentary feel. They deal with the post-1960s Me Generation zeitgeist, marked by affluent characters’ introspection and neuroses. Both directors’ films are more complex than that of course. And in Jaglom’s case it’s his focus on women that really defines what they are all about. Jaglom is fascinated by women. Yes, he is physically attracted to them but he’s also absorbed by their psychologies. He finds them more interesting than one-dimensional men because they’re more open, honest and straightforward about what they’re thinking, their attitudes towards men and to the world at large.  Films like Someone to Love, Babyfever, Eating, and Last Summer in the Hamptons are good examples of this viewpoint. But so is Venice/Venice – half shot in the Italian city, half in the Los Angles seaside neighbourhood. The film opens at the Venice (Italy) film festival and seems like a documentary as Jaglom plays a director fielding press interviews. But he is not really Jaglom but a director named Dean, though he is for all intents and purposes Jaglom, right down to Jaglom’s trademark hat. Nelly Alard is the French journalist Jeanne with whom he has an affair in this most romantic of cities. She is a modern Mona Lisa, an inscrutable woman who is at turns intrigued and disillusioned by the director. Alard's acting has been mainly confined to French films though she was in Jaglom’s Eating (1990). Too bad we have not been able to see more of her because she is indeed a real find. (photos: Segal - librarising.com; Jaglom - informedinvestor.ic24.net)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Sympathy for Jean-Luc Godard

Watching Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (1970) on the weekend was like being hurtled back in time to the late 1960s when protest was all the rage and revolution definitely was in the air. Godard, the most famous of the French New Wave directors - and who became increasingly political (read Marxist or even Maoist) in his leanings as a kind of agent provocateur of the arts – made this movie about the Rolling Stones and combined it with some sort of treatise about Black Liberation, the Vietnam War and American imperialism, all the radical touchstones of the day.....The centerpiece, though, is shots of the Stones rehearsing and then recording Sympathy for the Devil, one of their most famous songs. Interspersed are cuts to scenes mainly of a junkyard along the Thames River with a group of Black nationalists spouting revolutionary slogans and eventually kidnapping three white women and murdering them. Meanwhile a trendy Carnaby Street belle is running around London spraying graffiti on walls and cars.....I’m not much into supporting graffiti (see my July 3 post about Banksy and Exit Through the Gift Shop) so of course I took disfavour to these images. But I must admit one in particular was funny, that of spray painting the letters S-O in front of V-I-E-T-C-O-N-G. Get it? The Soviets were supporting the Viet Cong. Of course the anti war Left (of which Godard was a member) would never have deliberately made this connection because the war was always portrayed as a civil war with the Viet Cong being the good guys, so it seemed Godard was unintentionally (or maybe not) undermining the Communist world’s own form of imperialism.....In any case, these images of revolutionaries along the streets of London were rather boring, though I’m sure at the time they must have provided a certain frisson to the audience. The best parts of the film were of the Stones actually recording. You felt almost like you were in the studio as they slowly revved-up the tempo of Sympathy, took smoke breaks, and yakked casually among one another, oblivious to Godard’s camera.....Having just read Keith Richards’s autobiography Life, it’s quite amusing to watch the film. Richards describes Godard as an “odd personage,” ”Nobody, I think has ever quite honestly been able to figure out what the hell he was aiming at,”  “I couldn’t believe it; he looked like a French bank clerk,” “The film was a total load of crap,” “I think somebody slipped him some acid and he went into that phony year of ideological overdrive”..... To top it all it appears Godard wasn’t much of a rock and roll fan. The movie’s ending credits spell Richards’s name incorrectly, as “Richard” not “Richards.”

Meanwhile, I also watched Rabbit Hole (John Mitchell Cameron, 2010) starring Aaron Eckart and Nicole Kidman. I don’t think I’ve seen Kidman in a less glamorous role. She played a wan, angst-ridden suburban housewife recovering from the death of her child. Sure, her bleached-out look might have just been designed for the role. Perhaps it’s just me but, at 44, is she starting to lose her looks?

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Boo hoo. No Montreal this year

Normally at this time of year I get excited because it would only be just over a week or so before the Montreal World Film Festival begins. It has been my go-to festival every year since it started - way, way back in 1977 (when Talkies, I know, were in their infancy). I’ve only missed about four editions of the festival. But this year I’m not going. There are several reasons. One is because I spent a considerable part of last year in Montreal for family reasons – going back and forth - and feel a bit exhausted. But the main reason is because the festival has changed its dates. For decades the festival has always run from the second last Thursday in August through to the night of Labour Day. But for some reason those dates were changed this year. The festival has been moved forward a week, starting August 18 through 28th. Unfortunately the altered dates interfere with my freelance work assignments; the middle two weeks of the month is a time I’m extremely busy……But it’s puzzling why the dates were changed. So I wrote the festival and received this reply: “The dates of the Festival changed this year in memory of the first Montreal World Film Festival which took place 35 years ago. As this year is the 35th anniversary of the Festival, we just wanted to remember that. So nothing will be sure for next year. Dates can change again, we don`t know yet if it can be permanent or not. We are sorry for the inconvenience it can cause.”…..This reason seems a little puzzling if not entirely credible. As a Montreal friend who closely follows the Quebec film scene said, if the festival really wanted to commemorate its 35th anniversary why not hold a retrospective of selected films from all the years of the fest or a section showing award winners. Moving the dates back seems a little odd and certainly could throw a loop into plans of regular festival-goers who have become used to the later summer time slot punctuated by the long weekend. Also notice that the reply indicated the dates might change permanently…..It has also been suggested to me that the festival may have changed its dates because its schedule conflicted too closely with the Toronto International Film Festival in early September and the Venice  Intl Film festival Aug 31–Sept 10. Other reasons could be that the festival simply can’t afford to hold a longer schedule. The fest has also been cut by one day. By eliminating films on Labour Day weekend it might not have to pay higher rent for commercial cinema space. Or the commercial cinema might have upped the rent on what otherwise would be a big box office weekend for the non-festival going public. The Montreal Gazette on Saturday, in a feature on this year’s event, quoted festival general director  Danièle Cauchard  saying “we’re still underfinanced” despite obtaining more government funding after it was withdrawn several years ago.....I wish the festival luck and will miss not being at it. Although barely known in this part of the world it is significant. With more than 380 films from 70 countries it’s on the scale of Toronto though not with the prestige, generated partly by Toronto’s star-studded and Hollywood focus……

Monday, August 8, 2011

My Traverse City faves

One of the most enjoyable films at the Traverse City Film Festival wasn’t a major commercial film at all. It was an eight-minute promotional film for the festival. It’s called Lip Dub. The film by FishSoup Films is one continuous shot with a cast of hundreds of local residents who took part in what seems a spontaneous undertaking. Of course it wasn’t. But the film is great and everybody in it seemed to play their part well. The film starts at the downtown State Theatre and moves outside along Front Street, the main drag. It winds through the downtown with individuals and groups – some dressed in costumes – entering and exiting the frame, singing, dancing or re-enacting segments of the two songs in the soundtrack – Paul Simon’s If You Be My Bodyguard, followed by Van Halen’s Jump. Watch it at http://www.facebook.com/pages/FishSoup-Films/113298592435 .....Meanwhile, in terms of the scheduled feature films I saw over the mere three days I was there, Richard Press’s 2010 Bill Cunningham New York impressed the most. The documentary follow octogenarian New York Times Style photographer Bill Cunningham on his daily bicycle rides around Manhattan. For decades Cunningham has made a living photographing what ordinary people wear. But this being New York street fashions can often dictate what the next designer trends (ripped jeans?) will be. The eccentric Cunningham – who lives in a hovel of an apartment in Carnegie Hall – is as an enthusiastic reporter of fashion at his advanced age as he always was.....Next up was Young Goethe in Love (Philipp Stölzl, 2010) about the early life of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of Germany’s historical literary titans and the writer of Faust. It shows how Goethe’s first and perhaps most famous book The Sorrows of Young Werther came to be. An historical film it’s anything but stereotypically solemn. Rather, it’s enriched by a vein of humour that captures a kind of everyday reality of what Goethe’s young life, when he was an unknown and had prematurely given up being a writer, could have been like.....Another film set in Germany was One, Two, Three. But this by classic Hollywood director Billy Wilder was a hilarious screwball comedy.  I’m surprised I never heard of it before. It stars James Cagney as manager of the Coca Cola West Berlin bottling plant at the height of the Cold War. Not only does the film have constant one-liners but politics are the underlying theme, presented in a hilarious light with Capitalism versus Communism centre stage. Also remarkable is what was filmed. The movie was made just before the Berlin Wall went up when there was still easy access to East Berlin. One, Two, Three shows the two Berlins which, especially in the East, still looked as if World War II had ended the day before. For screwball comedy enthusiasts and  Cold War historians this film is a must. It’s much better than The Spy Who Came in from the Cold!.....Queen to Play from first time director Caroline Bottaro (2009 France-Belgium) was an impressive first directorial outing though it was a bit derivative in its story line of a wallflower finding her passion, in this case through the game of chess. The acclaimed French actress Sandrine Bonnaire was in the starring role. Kevin Kline, in his first French-speaking role, played her mentor as the reclusive intellectual Dr. Kroger. What was great about this presentation was that both Bottaro and Bonnaire were present and answered questions on stage after the film.....And finally, the best of a midnight program of short films was Yuri Lennon’s Landing on Alpha 46 (Anthony Vouardoux), which captures a certain reality of an astronaut in his cramped cockpit landing on a distant planet. One doesn’t know whether to take the film seriously, which seems the intent of the director of this 2010 German-Swiss co-production. But upon Yuri’s emerging on terra Alpha we’re treated to some very black German humour.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A few quibbles with Michael Moore

Following to my post about the Mike’s Surprise event at the Traverse City Film Festival (below) and Michael Moore’s revelation of his new book Here Comes Trouble, I found much to relate to in his ensuing read from the book and related comments. We are both the same age (57), grew up with a Catholic education, listened to the same music, and were influenced by the politics of the time (i.e., the Vietnam War protests). We even were taken to the New York World’s Fair by family members in the mid-1960s!.....But I have some bones to pick with some of the things he said.....M. M. remarked that he came from a family where his mother was Republican and a grandparent quite influential in local Republican circles. He seemed to hold out some respect for the Republican Party of that era as opposed to the current edition of Republicans, suggesting they had more integrity in terms of their appeal to “conserve” things including presumably wanting smaller responsible government. But how does that differ, say, from the Tea Party wing of Republicanism, whose entire raison d’être is smaller and more accountable government mainly with respect to affordable public spending?.....Then, when speaking about some buddies and him wanting to avoid the Vietnam draft, he reads about how they attempted to use one of their parents’ boats to escape across the St. Clair River to Canada. He joked that they were “boat people.” But this was ironic, given that the outcome of the Vietnam War was the Communist domination of that Southeast Asian country and the creation of thousands of boat people who fled in fear for their lives. Much of the anti-war movement at the time – and presumably or perhaps Moore – were sympathetic to the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, which took over the United States’ ally South Vietnam.....From the same chapter Moore mentioned that one of his friends was Mexican, with a knowing emphasis to the fact that expatriate Mexicans living in the United States (“undocumented aliens” or “illegal immigrants”) is a huge political issue today. He just left this thought hanging while the audience laughed. Nothing wrong with that. But it would be interesting to see him in a debate on the subject presumably defending these “undocumented” aliens. ...And finally, he talked about his role as a filmmaker and political activist in removing a couple of Republican politicians and the wider liberal/Left’s victory in electing Barack Obama in 2008. Yet what has Obama really done that has been different from the despised George W. Bush before him? The only major policy item that I can see that Obama initiated was a greater role for public health. Yet even on this issue his political base thinks it was half a loaf. Moreover Obama has been denounced by many of his supporters for continuing the previous president’s policies - from keeping open Guantanamo to continuing the “War on Terror.” I’d like to have known how M. M. really felt about this.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Canada figures in "Mike's Surprise"

It was called “Mike’s Surprise” and it’s an event for which tickets are quickly sold out at the Traverse City Film Festival. Mike being Michael Moore, the fest’s founder. Usually in "Mike’s Surprise" Moore reveals a set of films or information about a documentary he’s working on. But this past Saturday, at the fest’s seventh edition, he told another rapt audience that for “those expecting to see the next movie I’ll give you a few seconds to leave.” Instead what we were treated to was his new book, Here Comes Trouble. We were the first members of the public to hear about it and indeed, for the next two hours, hear him read excerpts from it.....The giveaway about his book might have been the big picture on the screen behind an easy chair and lamp where he was to read. The screen showed a picture of a very young Mike on his tricycle circa 1955 riding down the sidewalk of the main street of Davison, a suburb of his home town Flint, Michigan. When Moore came on to the stage the picture was overlaid with the book’s title, showing that in fact this is the new book’s cover. The book went to press last week.....This is Moore’s eighth book but the first to be one of short stories about incidents in his life going back to childhood. He read from four chapters......One of them had a lot about Canada in it. It was an hilarious recounting of an attempt by a few of his friends and himself to avoid the US military draft during the waning days of the Vietnam War by escaping to Canada as conscientious objectors. The foursome took a parent’s boat to the St. Clair River near Port Huron in an attempt to sail as “boat people” across it. But they discovered the boat didn’t have a motor. So Mike suggested they row across – “it’s only 200 feet of river!” The only problem: no oars. So the foursome retreated to White Castle for sliders, smoked a “king size” doobie, and decided to drive across the Blue Water Bridge. There they encountered a Canadian border official, “who looked like a Mountie but was not.” The official suggested they looked high on drugs. They replied, “We are not high sir we are just happy to be here in Canada.” The official suggested a cavity search, sardonically adding that that would be just what US Customs would do. The boys, alarmed, caught on to the joke, and realized they were just the butt of that Canadian “warped sense of humour.” Moore said he knew this humour well from watching Channel 9 in Windsor. “They needed that warped sense of humour to counter all those awful beaver and moose documentaries”.....In another story Moore read of being taken to Washington DC by his mom, a Republican, in the mid-1960s. He got lost in the Capitol building and ended up in an elevator with Senator Robert Kennedy. Kennedy took him in hand and waited with him, despite important senate business, until his mother found him. Moore and his mom then went on to watch the Senate pass the Medicare bill. “It was so cool to be a witness to that,” he said.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Traverse City's organization impressive

The Traverse City Film Festival was great. I was able to catch the last three days of it. What was amazing was the degree of community participation. There were upwards of 1500 volunteers for a city with a metropolitan population of just over 140,000. All the volunteers I saw were eminently helpful and friendly. In fact they went out of their way. For example, when I arrived to collect media credentials and a volunteer did not have them at her disposal she quickly phoned the festival office. Five minutes later two smiling interns arrived having walked (it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had run) from two or three blocks away with my media kit and tickets.....This is not just the friendliest festival I’ve attended but it’s also one that seems the most well thought out. For example, screens in auditoriums are placed high so that even in traditional theatres with relatively flat floors few audience members had obstructed views because someone tall was sitting in front of them. There was also on-screen notices informing ticket holders to be quiet when leaving theatres at night in residential neighbourhoods so as not to disturb area residents. Volunteers also passed out blue festival umbrellas for temporary use for ticket holders as they were waited in line under a blistering summer sun. Staff even made it easy to clean up after yourself when movies were over. You didn’t have to put your plastic bottles in a recycling bin though there were plenty of them. You just had to place garbage on a table outside the theatre and staff would collect and dispose of it. The bus shuttle system also seemed efficient though we didn’t make use of it. All the theatres are clustered in the relatively small downtown - and therefore easily walkable from one to the other - with the exception of Milliken Auditorium at Northwestern Michigan College on the city's eastern outskirts.....In fact the festival was so good naturedly friendly it made you feel it would be rude to not respond in kind. Now that’s what human relations should be all about!.....More on the TCFF tomorrow including festival founder and movie director Michael Moore’s “surprise.”