Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Two Norwegian greats - on film

One of the things about being close to New York City, as I am currently, is the proximity to special events including film premieres. And so it was last night at the Walter Reade Theatre, part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, when the documentary The Other Munch, had its North American premiere. But this wasn’t just any premiere It featured an on-stage discussion by the film makers Joachim and Emil Trier with the celebrated Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard. That’s because the 55-minute movie depicts Knausgaard, who has long had an obsession with Norway’s greatest painter, Edvard Munch, being invited to curate an art exhibition of Munch’s work. For the vast majority of us, including Munch’s Norwegian compatriots, the artist’s oeuvre is stereotyped by about a dozen paintings, such as The Scream, which depict angst and alienation. But Knausgaard, author of the six-volume epic My Struggle, a contemporary literary phenomenon, wanted to present a more well-rounded, indeed decidedly different or flip side of Munch. So, he chose none of “the masterpieces” that depict those primal outpourings but numerous others – after all, the artist painted almost 2000 works - that show a variety of subjects, from starkly vivid landscapes to telling portraits. Indeed, as Knausgaard smilingly tells the directors in the film, many of these paintings are “light and airy.” During the film the writer (on right in above photo) is in conversation with Joachim Trier as they visit the places where Munch painted those 100-or-so years ago. There are scenes where Knausgaard goes into the museum’s vaults and chooses paintings that, while favorites to him, were considered not very good by art experts, which forces Knausgaard to shake his head over his critical acumen. Or perhaps he’s on to something. This doesn’t mean Munch’s portraits of emotional abyss are ignored; at least in the dialogue between author and director, they are discussed at some length. And, during the discussion, the hypothesis is put forward that Munch, much like the film director Ingmar Bergman, are artists whose work best exemplifies the emotional cry of the inner life, exactly because of the “post-Protestant” Scandinavian culture of emotional repression. Joachim also compares Munch, who constantly painted day in and out, to “the process” of creating art, just like the voluminous Knausgaard. But, the writer pointed out during the discussion, Knausgaard has never considered himself a writerly version of the painter. “I never thought about it at all.”

Monday, September 24, 2018

Up and down the northeast coast

This has been a busy month for watching films, partly because, being on vacation on the US east coast, I have greater access to Turner Classic Movies as well as the independent art houses in New York City. Herewith are capsule reviews, in reverse chronological order.

Far from the Madding Crowd (John Schlesinger 1967), TCM, a three-hour period piece showcasing the lovely Julie Christie, with suitors played by Alan Bates, Peter Finch and Terence Stamp. Christie is wonderful and there are some good 1860s period scenes, especially the circus carnival and village life.

A Simple Favor (Paul Feig, released Sept. 14). CinemaSalem, Salem Mass.  (Photo above left)
Everything about this comedy-thriller is terrific, from performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively to the score of French pop (I want to own it), and the mysterious twists among the Connecticut suburban set.

The Land of Steady Habits (Nicole Holofcener Sept. 12) Netflix. This was sold out at the only theatre in New York where playing; a week later it wasn’t in any theatres but on Netflix. A disappointment from one of my fave contemporary directors, also set in well to do Connecticut, near where I’m based. A tale of divorced ennui and torpor that falls in on itself.

Le Samourai (Jean-Pierre Melville 1967) FilmStruck. It’s always fun to watch Alain Delon but for all the accolades for this classic I found his performance as a hit man rather affective if bordering on the giggly.

The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (José Quintero 1961) TCM. Quintero’s only film (he otherwise was a theatre director and interpreter of playwrights like Tennessee Williams) is a stunner, with an amazing nuanced performance by Vivien Leigh. You don’t want to take your eyes off the screen.

Made in Paris (Boris Sagal 1966) TCM. a star vehicle for actress-singer-dancer Ann-Margret who, in the plot, faces two less than desirable sexist suitors (Chad Everett and Louis Jourdan) – it was 1966! But unlike any Hollywood film today her character opts in the end for life in the suburbs - ho hum.

The Big Lift (George Seaton 1950) TCM. A fascinating portrayal of post-war Germany during the Belin Airlift, a quasi-comedy with some good insights into democracy vs. communism, and great scenes of the rebuilding of a decimated Berlin.

Carmen Jones (Otto Preminger 1954) TCM. This take on Bizet’s Carmen has Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in the romantic leads of an all-black cast, including all the background characters and in street scenes, a riveting rarity for 1954. The singing is great of course; the story affecting and tragic.

Split Second (Dick Powell 1953) TCM. This noir is intriguing, set in Nevada during a nuclear test, with the bad guys kidnapping the good ones, holed up in the desert facing imminent annihilation.

Born to be Bad (Nicholas Ray 1950) TCM. Joan Fontaine isn’t just caught between two lovers she wants her cake and eat it – big time – as she wreaks havoc among three people in a tale of personal selfishness bordering on sociopathic.

Stranger on the Third Floor (Boris Ingster 1940) TCM. John McGuire’s performance as a soul-searching reporter who has the tables turned on him as a witness in a murder case is the standout role. Peter Lorre as the real murderer (of course) has an unexpectedly - and unplanned? - minor presence.

The Loved One (Tony Richardson 1965) TCM. The stellar cast is wasted in this terribly silly film based on the Evelyn Waugh novel but Robert Morse as the central character shows he indeed is a great actor.

Antonio Lopez: 1970 Sex Fashion & Disco (James Crump) IFC Center, NYC. I bought a ticket for this after being unable to get into the sold-out screening of The Land of Steady Habits (above). Lopez, whom I’d never heard of, must have been a fascinating character in the world of 1970s New York fashion. But for me the 1970s was about as bad a time for style as there ever was.

Un Flic (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1972) FilmStruck. Alain Delon is better in this role than in Le Samourai (above) and the plot is riveting enough despite a certain artificial look.

The Wife (Björn Runge, released Aug. 17) Avon Theatre, Providence RI. Based on the book by Meg Wolitzer, this is a stylish husband-wife drama with good performances by Jonathan Pryce and especially Glenn Close, who is nuanced to a fault and likely will be up for a Best Actress Oscar.

A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood 1935) TCM. More merriment from the brothers three (Zeppo isn’t in it), especially with ocean liner hijinks.

Petulia (Richard Lester 1968) FilmStruck. Julie Christie (I have a crush) is caught between her abusive husband (Richard Chamberlain) and would be paramour (George C. Scott) in a late 60s San Francisco setting very much of its time.

Seven Days in May (John Frankenheimer 1964) TCM. A Frankenheimer political thriller about a planned military coup of the US government with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, dramatic enough but no doubt even more so upon its release right after the Kennedy assassination.

Dead on Arrival (Rudolph Maté 1947) TCM. Also set in San Francisco, Edmund O’Brien, who has only days to live, tracks down his killer after being mysteriously poisoned in this heart-pumping noir.

A Cry in the Dark (Frank Tuttle 1956) TCM. Also starring Edmund O’Brien as an over-the-top protective father and detective in this shortish kidnapping drama, with Natalie Wood as his daughter. Hard to tell if Obrien’s character is supposed to be that way or if O’Brien is over acting.

Monday, September 10, 2018

A genius all the same

Ethan Hawke’s new film Blaze is about a great deceased country and western musician Blaze Foley, a love story, and most of all about not selling out. This last point might be evident to an average viewer of the film. But I learned of its seminal quality during a talk I attended by Hawke last week at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York. The central character, Blaze Foley, is one of those legendary musicians few if anyone has ever head of. Sort of like Detroit’s Rodriguez, best known for the hit Sugar Man, and who had a renaissance a half decade ago including the film, Searching for Sugar Man (Malik Bendjelloul, 2012). Hawke told the audience that his film Blaze (he directed it), as have recent others he has starred in, including First Reformed (Paul Schrader 2017) and Juliet, Naked (Jesse Peretz 2018), is about the idea of artistic or intellectual integrity that manifests in any number of people, though they never had commercial success and the wider world may never have heard of them. In some cases, like Blaze’s, the artist deliberately decided he would be his own man, or as Hawke put it “I won’t participate in society.” The musician, played by Ben Dickey, is a good old southern boy who really has no ambition beyond playing his guitar day and night and writing the most beautiful songs, like Clay Pigeons and Election Day. When he occasionally plays a club the audience is so distracted by their own conversations they don’t recognize the greatness in front of them. How many times have you walked by a street musician and not paid the time of day yet he could be as great as Lennon or Dylan? According to Hawke if success is just measured by commercialization, as admittedly it also has been for truly great artists like Lennon and Dylan, “we don’t know what success and failure are.” Or, in the film, as friend and fellow musician (played by Charlie Sexton) tells a radio interviewer (played by Hawke himself), “he took a vow of poverty and saw everything through that lens.” As for the film as a film Blaze has a dreamy intimate quality, depicting Blaze’s genius, faults and humor, and the love story between he and his wife Sybil Rosen, who co-wrote the movie with Hawke (Rosen is played by Alia Shawkat)). In the final scene, after his death Rosen visits his grave, festooned with paraphernalia like beer bottles, and half jokes that he must really be a legend now. A legend in obscurity but an artistic legend nonetheless.