Daily Postings
film : interview

Les Blank’s A Poem Is a Naked Person

by Alex Zafiris

Thanks to his son, Harrod Blank, the filmmaker’s forty-year-old documentary on musician Leon Russell is finally released.

In May of 1972, Les Blank and his assistant, Maureen Gosling, traveled to Tulsa to begin shooting a documentary on Leon Russell. Blank had just left Louisiana, where he had filmed the footage for Dry Wood, an in-depth look at Creole people, their life, food, and music, and Hot Pepper, about local legend Clifton Chenier, who was also known as the “King of Zydeco.” Blank had already made Dizzy Gillespie (1965), Christopher Tree (1967), and The Blues According to Lightnin’ Hopkins (1969-70), captured images of the Los Angeles “Love-In” of 1967 with God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance, and filmed the LSD scene in Easy Rider (1969) alongside cinematographer Baird Bryant. His interest in traditional music and counterculture was so immersive and all-consuming that when Russell and his producer, Denny Cordell, commissioned him to make a film about Russell, Blank didn’t know who he was.

That year, Russell was enjoying enormous success as a writer, performer, and recording artist with his third solo album, Carney. He was on a nationwide tour. His label, Shelter Records, which he co-founded with Cordell, was putting out music by J.J. Cale, Don Nix, and Freddie King, and was responsible for releasing Bob Marley’s first American single. The past two years had seen Russell release his first eponymous record, which included his biggest hit, “A Song For You,” and he was just coming off of collaborations with Bob Dylan, George Harrison, and B.B. King. By ’72, he decided to relocate to Tulsa, his hometown, and set up Paradise Studios, located a few hours drive northeast in Grand Lake o’ the Cherokees. When Blank and Gosling arrived, they were housed nearby on the water in an old floating fisherman’s motel, where they lived for the next two years.

Russell returned to Tulsa and Grand Lake as a huge presence with an entourage. Many of his friends—among them Willie Nelson, George Jones, and Charlie McCoy—appear in unguarded, intimate performances. Blank’s camera focuses on the locals with equal reverence, layering it all with lingering shots of the moon, ripples in the lake, or a wriggling catfish caught on a line. He films artist Jim Franklin scooping up scorpions from an empty swimming pool; he’s onstage with Russell, who samples from a plate of gumbo on his piano as he performs to a blissed-out crowd; he attends the demolition of a city building and a pie-eating contest. Toward the middle, he introduces a segment where Franklin feeds a baby chick to a snake while the artist sounds off about the corporatization of America, an unsettling and cynical metaphor that anchors some of the anxieties expressed throughout. Early on, a young Bill Mullins laments his generation’s lack of spiritual leadership. When Blank questions Russell about money, Russell responds that he can’t think about it too much or he’ll get blocked. “I won’t know what I’m doing,” he says. “If I feel I know what I’m doing, then I know what I am doing.”

After viewing the completed work, Russell prevented it from being released. The two men never spoke again. Blank was only permitted to screen the film at nonprofit institutions, and kept working on it. A few years ago, when his health began to wane, his son Harrod—aware of how much the film meant to his father—reached out to Russell. Blank died soon afterwards, but Harrod kept pushing for the release, which Russell finally granted. A Poem Is a Naked Person is about these two complex, visionary men whose deep connections to sound and image could not quite meet, despite both of them communicating their own interests vividly and masterfully. After forty years, the film’s allure deepens as it resurfaces in a new era, reigniting old mysteries and creating new ones. Gosling went on to become a prolific documentarian, and Harrod is an artist, writer, and filmmaker. I spoke to them at the end of June at the Criterion Collection offices in New York.

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Jennifer Phang

by Steve Macfarlane

The director of Advantageous on technology, childhood, and the market forces that shape family relations. 

In the paranoid and heartbroken contours of Jennifer Phang’s Advantageous, one can see today’s concerns refracted with crystalline clarity: whiz-kid precocity emboldened, understandably, in a generation reared as much by LCD screens as parents; a never-ending litany of brand-name products and procedures; a mysterious ongoing war that bursts the story’s neon New York bubble only intermittently; and all this with an alarming casualness. As in the heyday of paperback science, or “speculative,” fiction, Advantageous questions where society is heading by nudging these present-tense anxieties slightly into the future. Heroine Gwen Koh (Jacqueline Kim) has to cope with her dismissal from her job as spokeswoman for a medical conglomerate. A single mother raising a hyperintelligent tween named Jules (Samantha Kim, no relation), Gwen finds that, even in a future liberated by technology, her options aren’t much different from any other woman’s in history. With increasing despair, she begins to explore life as an unemployed single parent, which culminates in an identity-switch that turns Advantageous into something closer to a horror movie.

The film is an expansion from the twenty-minute version featured in the Independent Television Service’s Futurestates project, an ongoing compendium of short, speculative sci-fi works by filmmakers such as J. P. Chan, Barry Jenkins, A. Sayeeda Clarke, and Alex Rivera. And, like Rivera’s Sleep Dealer, the film’s ideas-per-minute allow it to transcend its confining production value. This is not a work of cinema bound by overblown genre prerogatives: Phang gives Advantageous a nimble touch and a devastating conclusion, more a chamber drama of its milieu than anything remotely close to satire. It will be measured in coming years not for whiz-bang visuals or hoary monologues, but for its prescience.

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Pedro Costa

by Michael Guarneri

Documentary, realism, and life on the margins.

As a teenager in Lisbon, Pedro Costa lived through the Carnation Revolution—the coup d'état initiated by young, low-ranking, Left-wing army officers on April 25, 1974. The military putsch awoke Portugal from a forty-eight-year period of fascist dictatorship and contributed to the end of centuries of Portuguese colonial rule in Africa. As seen in documentaries like Thomas Harlan’s Torre Bela (1975) and Robert Kramer’s Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal (1977), the aim of the Marxist-Leninist “captains of April” was to empower Portuguese factory workers and farmers to wipe out “the exploitation of man by man” and build a just society. Soon enough, however, military threats and sanctions from NATO, and the multinational economic interests it represented, managed to disarm the “Reds” and return the country to the open arms of Western capitalism.

Costa’s latest feature, Horse Money (2014), shows how his friend Ventura—the Cape Verdean bricklayer whose nightmarish past and bleak future were depicted so poetically in Costa’s Colossal Youth (2006)—lived through Portugal’s revolutionary period. While teenage Costa joined parades in the streets of Lisbon shouting that “the people united will never be defeated,” twenty-year-old Ventura, and hundreds of African immigrants like him, hid in the dark corners of the capital, scared to death by the rallies and afraid of being tortured or murdered by the soldiers.

If Costa and Ventura could translate their memories and worldview into words, they wouldn’t have made this film. Costa finds it difficult to articulate the feelings that fed Horse Money, let alone make any kind of definitive statement about the meaning of the film. In some ways, it is a poem to the people and world of Fontainhas, the now-demolished, multiethnic Lisbon slum where Costa's Ossos (1997) and In Vanda's Room (2000) were shot, and where Ventura spent most of his life. The laconic, somewhat hermetic, official synopsis for the movie states: “While the young captains lead the revolution in the streets, the people of Fontainhas search for Ventura, lost in the woods.” But in other words—Costa’s own—his cinema is “a door that closes and leaves us guessing.”

However mysterious the film, the origin of Horse Money is something very tangible and concrete—a series of photographs. First of all, there is the photo of Gil Scott-Heron, the American poet-musician that Costa saw years ago, immediately noting an extraordinary physical resemblance between the singer and Ventura. Costa reached out to Scott-Heron and the two started to work on a cinematic “rap-lament.” Unfortunately, Scott-Heron‘s death in 2011 halted that collaboration, and the filmmaker resorted to using the song “Alto Cutelo,” by Cape Verdean band Os Tubarões, on the soundtrack of Horse Money.

Then there are photographs from 1970s newspapers reporting on the Carnation Revolution and its aftermath: “In all those photographs of street demonstrations ... there were hundreds of thousands of white faces and not a single black face,” remarks Costa in the appendix of his book Casa de Lava: Scrapbook. Thus, when I met him at the Munich Film Museum, it seemed a good idea to start plumbing the rich darkness of Horse Money by discussing its preoccupation with photography.

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Chaitanya Tamhane

by Liza Béar

“It’s a different kind of terror when you’re constantly being arrested. Your mind starts exercising self-censorship on its own.”

Writer-director Chaitanya Tamhane, at age twenty-eight, delivers a scathing indictment of the Indian justice system in his first feature, Court, which deservedly won top prizes in the 2014 Venice Biennale’s Orizzonti section and has since racked up more than twenty festival awards.

On trial in Court is sixty-five-year-old folk singer and social activist Narayan Kamble (Vira Sathidar), who’s been arrested for allegedly inciting a sewage worker to commit suicide on the job by the lyrics in his protest songs—a ridiculous and patently trumped up charge.

The film is outstanding in its acute observation of courtroom protocols and procedures, arcane colonial-era laws and judicial peccadilloes that serve to create a theater of the absurd. But the story’s originality surges when it steps outside the courtroom between the sessions, which are constantly adjourned on inane pretexts, to follow the daily lives of the principal players—defense attorney Vinay Vora (Vivek Gomber, who’s also the film’s producer), public prosecutor Nutan (Geetanjali Kulkarni), and Judge Sadavarte (Pradeep Joshi), adding texture and layers of unpredictability to their characters. Their domestic and social routines challenge the conventional affiliations between class and professional role—the cold-hearted public prosecutor, for instance, is from a working class background, while the defense attorney is from the upper echelons of social privilege.

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Debra Granik

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

“I never could’ve predicted that these burly men clad in leather and chains, riding these metal ponies, could be that wracked by stuff and live with actual ghosts.”

Stray Dog is the third feature and first documentary film from Debra Granik, director of the acclaimed Winter’s Bone. Her new film, an episodic character study, follows Ron “Stray Dog” Hall, a tough and leathery Vietnam vet who runs a trailer park in rural Missouri. Granik follows Hall as he and his loving wife Alicia, a recent emigrant from Mexico, embark on their annual motorcycle pilgrimage to the Vietnam memorial in Washington, DC. Plagued by guilt and PTSD, Ron bravely seeks counseling, talks with friends and fellow veterans, and gives tender advice to his young and pregnant granddaughter—encouraging her to go back to school in lieu of an endless cycle of dead-end jobs. When Alicia’s teenage sons arrive from Mexico, they highlight yet another theme of contemporary American life: the discomfort of immigrants who arrive in the USA expecting wealth and abundance, only to find a very different set of circumstances.

Stray Dog is dense with the details that form vivid, small-town American textures: brown leaves on the ground of a trailer park, men in camo sweatshirts and bandanas, and cluttered living rooms filled with American flag paraphernalia. I spoke with Granik about the uncontrollable nature of documentary filmmaking, the treatment of war veterans in America and their deep connection to biker culture, and how she provided a non-exploitative and empathetic window into the lives of low-income, rural Missourians.

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Thomas Lilti

by Liza Béar

As both physician and filmmaker, Lilti discusses his recent hospital drama and the challenges of medical and artistic practice.

Last year, in 2014, Hippocrates played in Critics’ Week at the Festival de Cannes. This year, Thomas Lilti, the film’s director and co-writer, is back on the Croisette, having just finished shooting his third feature and taking a break from editing. That’s no mean feat for a filmmaker who’s also a primary care physician in Paris and has maintained a dual-career track since his salad days. Hippocrates, of course, refers to the Hippocratic oath and the challenges it faces in contemporary medical practice; in French, as Hippocrate (no “s”), the title is dangerously close to the word hypocrite.

Lilti has exploited to the full his own life experiences in this nuanced coming-of-age drama with strong political undertones. It is told from the point of view of twenty-three-year-old Benjamin (the emotionally supple Vincent Lacoste) as he starts a six-month internship at a large Paris hospital under the dubious tutelage of his father as head of the department. The public hospital, now run by corporate-style managers, is fraught with budgetary problems and ensuing staff and equipment shortages that strain priorities and patient care. The introduction of a second lead character, Abdel (Reda Kateb), an older, already qualified Algerian doctor who’s treated as an intern because of his immigrant status, greatly enriches the script’s dramatic potential as a solid collegial bond and friendship gradually develops between Abdel and Benjamin. Abdel offsets Benjamin’s inexperience and becomes the moral fulcrum of the film.

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Michael Winterbottom

by Gary M. Kramer

Crime, gossip, and feeding the media machine.

Michael Winterbottom is one of those prolific, always interesting filmmakers who seems to tackle every cinematic genre he can. He is equally adept at making comedies (The Trip), thrillers (The Killer Inside Me), science-fiction films (Code 46), documentaries (The Road to Guantanamo), docudramas (A Mighty Heart, In this World, Welcome to Sarajevo), social-issue dramas (Go Now), and even that peculiar subgenre of period pieces starring Steve Coogan (24 Hour Party People, The Look of Love, Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story). He has made lovely, realist family dramas (Wonderland, Everyday) and a romance with explicit sex and music (9 Songs). In his copious spare time, Winterbottom adapts the work of Victorian-era poet and novelist Thomas Hardy, having made Jude, The Claim, and Trishna within a fifteen-year period—even taking the pains, or risks, to set Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge and Tess of the d'Urbervilles in the American West and India, respectively. This filmmaker seems to enjoy raising the degree of difficulty for himself with each new project, and that may be what makes his work so exciting. Every film takes a seed and turns it into something different and special.

Winterbottom’s latest offering, The Face of an Angel,is his semi-fictional take on the infamous Amanda Knox story. Based on the book by Barbie Latza Nadeau and with a screenplay by Paul Viragh, this fictional drama has a documentary filmmaker named Thomas (Daniel Brühl) meet journalist Simone Ford (Kate Beckinsale) in Sienna to prepare a project on a murder case. The truth, for Thomas, becomes blurry while his drug use and vivid dreams suggest he is losing his grip on reality altogether.

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Masha Tupitsyn

by Charity Coleman

Radical intimacy, technological estrangement, and hyphen as psychic portal.

I once knew a projectionist who carried a notebook with him to every single screening he attended. In that notebook, he would document the film’s format, running time, the quality of the print (including sloppy splices—he refused to watch digital projection), and he always sat in the same area of the theatre. He filled his notebooks with thousands of films. It was a lesson in devotion, a gesture of love: even if he hated the film, he still archived its anatomy. The passivity of “moviegoing” is turned on its head by such active listening, active viewing. Similarly, Masha Tupitsyn’s Love Sounds is a visual-aural dissection that draws the viewer into a more discerning, engaged perceptual experience.

As a meticulous and unflinching archive, its numbers are impressive. The final part of Tupitsyn’s immaterial trilogy, Love Sounds is 24 hours long and comprised of more than 1,500 love-related audio clips from films spanning 85 years (1930s– present). The only images are of a black screen with white titles denoting subject matter. The other two parts of the trilogy are LACONIA: 1,200 Tweets on Film (Zero Books, 2011) and Love Dog (Penny-Ante Editions, 2013).

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John Pirozzi

by Steve Macfarlane

Recovering the history of Cambodia’s sound.

“We were like a blank piece of paper. When they tell you to sing, you just sing.” So says chanteuse/genocide survivor Chhom Charvin of life under the Khmer Rouge in John Pirozzi's Don't Think I've Forgotten, a spellbinding survey of Cambodia’s lost era of psychedelia-infused lounge rock and roll. Pirozzi’s film is enamored of a music that never got a chance to take off internationally, but it’s also sober and methodical in its analysis of the circumstances that led to its demise—collecting firsthand accounts from dozens of survivors and artists with dashes of colorful concert footage, album covers, and Technicolor studio performances.

What initially seems standard-issue about the film soon betrays a high watermark of investigative journalism, with individual relationships between artists mapped across a sequence of agonizingly tense years as a Nixon Administration-backed coup (led by prime minister Lon Nol) deposes Cambodia’s heretofore god-king Sihanouk. A former French colony still young in its era of independence, the staunchly neutral Cambodia would soon open itself up for American intervention, and it's here—following the coup, and Nixon's illegal bombings just over the Vietnamese-Cambodian border—that the Khmer Rouge found an opportunity to topple Lon Nol’s government.

Among the 1.7 million people killed by the regime, iconic musicians like Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea didn’t merely vanish into the death camps; their albums, films, and personal effects were destroyed in an attempt to rub out the country’s postcolonial heritage. The scene was crushed, their friends and colleagues sentenced to labor in agrarian camps, disguising themselves as farmers and laborers. More than a few of those veterans live to tell the tale in this film, while the music—already plenty ethereal in its own right—takes on a tragic, retroactive poetry. These are the songs of a generation allocated exactly one brief moment on the world stage, rendered both haunting and quotidian in Pirozzi's film—which is equal parts heartbreaking elegy and long-overdue restoration. Plus, the tunes are catchy as hell.

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Frédéric Tcheng

by Paul Dallas

Haute couture, vérité documentary, and the ghost of Christian Dior.

The histories of fashion, art, and film often intersect in unexpected ways. I was reminded of this recently while watching Les enfants terribles, Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1952 film adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s classic novel about devious siblings immersed in a private world of games, role-playing, and self-destruction. It’s a strange, dark parable of creativity and alienation wrapped in Melville’s stylish production. And notably, the film’s opulent costumes were created by Christian Dior, the preeminent romantic post-war designer.

Admittedly, his name might have slipped by unnoticed in the credits had I not also recently seen Frédéric Tcheng’s new documentary Dior and I. Tcheng’s film, which details the creation of Raf Simons’s first couture collection for the House in 2012, is as much an absorbing ticking-clock vérité as it is a moody meditation on time and transference. Throughout, Tcheng artfully deploys archival footage of Dior, often slowed down and paired with an intimate voice-over narration taken from the designer’s 1952 memoir. The effect is haunting and emotional—which is appropriate, given that Dior and I is essentially a ghost story.

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Samba Gadjigo and Jason Silverman

by Pamela Cohn

A new documentary celebrates the great filmmaker Ousmane Sembène.

“It is good to be at Cannes, but I wish Africa would create something of its own. We should not be eternal guests. It is up to us to create our own values, to recognize them and to carry them throughout the world. We are not alone in the world, but we are our own sun. I do not define myself relative to Europe. In the darkest of darkness if the other does not see me, I do see myself. And surely do I shine!” – Ousmane Sembène

As a seventeen-year-old in Senegal, Samba Gadjigo didn’t really know what it was to be African. He only knew that he wanted to be as French as possible, to emulate everything French that was around him so accurately that he would, eventually, be able to bury everything about himself that was African.

Then he discovered a book called God’s Bits of Wood by a fellow Senegalese writer called Ousmane Sembène. Sembène would go on to become one of the most important film directors to come out of the African continent. And with the help of the young and star-struck Gadjigo—who was then a professor in the French department at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts where he still teaches today—Sembène’s legacy continues to live on.

Sembène was born in 1923 in Casamance in southern Senegal and worked as a laborer since the age of fourteen. In 1944, he was drafted into the French army, an experience that deepened his understanding of colonization. It served as the basis for his feature films, Emitai and Camp de Thiaroye. After World War II, Sembène moved to Marseilles where he worked on the docks, taught himself to read and write, and dove into studying the writings and teachings of Karl Marx, Pablo Neruda, Jack London, Birago Diop, Richard Wright, and Ernest Hemingway. He became a writer as well, in French but also in his native dialect of Wolof. But the majority of the people he wanted to reach through his writing were illiterate in any language, so he turned to cinema and proceeded to tell magnificent stories over the course of the next fifty years of his life. First-time filmmakers Jason Silverman and Samba Gadjigo have spent the last seven years ensconced in a very delicate, and ultimately, finely balanced co-directing partnership to make the documentary film, SEMBÈNE!

Sembène completed his last film, Moolaadé, in 2004, working against every adversity, just like all his other films. Moolaadé is about female genital mutilation practices, and it made a star of its lead actress, Fatoumata Coulibaly, a woman who was herself circumcised as a little girl. Sembène made the film when he was eighty-two years old, almost entirely blind, and very frail. He died in 2007, just a few years later. The film was shot on 35mm in the middle of tropical Africa, and Samba Gadjigo was there to document it all.

Premiering as an official selection at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the film is told through Gadjigo’s experiences and memories of his hero, mentor, and “uncle.” Gadjigo became colleague, biographer, and the fiery-tempered director’s most trusted confidant. The film offers an epic story of the master told through the very particular and intimate lens of his protégé.

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Nick Broomfield

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

“When you make these films you need to work very closely with people from the community. You’re only as good as your relationship with them.”

Over the course of twenty-five years, Lonnie Franklin may have murdered upward of one hundred women. Named as a suspect in the “Grim Sleeper” murders of South Central Los Angeles, he wasn't arrested until 2010. Further, this arrest happened almost by accident, and only when a computer's DNA match linked him to a possible twenty victims. Police put no effort into the case because the women being killed were poor, black, and mostly prostitutes. Had this happened in Beverly Hills, it would have probably made national news.

An official selection of the 2014 Telluride, Toronto, and New York film festivals, Nick Broomfield’s documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper explores the impoverished neighborhood where these murders took place. Broomfield—director of Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2013)—is accompanied by his son and director of photography—Barney Broomfield—as he befriends men and women living in this community and attempts to reveal how these killings went unsolved for so long. Along the way, Broomfield exposes the prejudice and injustice that led police to flat-out ignore the cases (the LAPD refused to comment for the film). Police were even alleged to have used a slang term, NHI (no human involved), when a victim was a prostitute, drug addict, or gang member.

As Broomfield charges through the neglected LA neighborhood, he interviews those who knew Lonnie Franklin personally, including both his close friends and victims. In the tight-knit community, many are loathe to believe the well-liked Lonnie could have perpetrated such violence without their knowledge. But, as evidence mounts against him, everyone is forced to reconsider his involvement in dark deeds. The film reaches an emotional climax when Broomfield confronts Lonnie's son Chris, then speaks with individual women who were actually assaulted by Lonnie, but escaped.

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Elisabeth Subrin

by Gary M. Kramer

“All evidence is wrong. It’s distressed—just like memory.”

The Art of the Real series at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, in collaboration with the Video Data Bank, is presenting a program of shorts by filmmaker/artist Elisabeth Subrin on April 11, 2015. A panel featuring Subrin, Thomas Beard of Light Industry, and writer/musician Johanna Fateman will follow screenings of Lost Tribes and Promised Lands (2010), Sweet Ruin (2008), and Shulie (1997).

Subrin’s work is all about appropriation, reenactment, and recreation; in these three works, the director takes extant elements—images, a script, and a film—and transforms them, layering of texture and meaning while raising provocative questions about gender, identity, memory, and representation.

Lost Tribes and Promised Lands features a series of side-by-side comparisons of houses and stores displaying American flags in her Williamsburg neighborhood in 2001, just after 9/11, and then those same locations in 2008 to show how things have changed over time.

Sweet Ruin also involves side-by-side juxtaposition. Actress Gaby Hoffmann plays two roles, “T.” and “The Girl,” from the script of an unmade Antonioni film entitled Technically Sweet. Subrin films the characters—originally intended to be played by Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider—both in the jungle and in a domestic setting, addressing issues of gender and femininity.

Shulie is a recreation of a student documentary film about feminist activist and artist Shulamith Firestone, the author of The Dialetic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution.

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Tsai Ming-liang

by Gary M. Kramer

Creation, bathrooms, and Buddhism.

Tsai Ming-liang is one of the masters of contemporary world cinema. His films are distinguished by long takes, minimal dialogue, and the presence of actor Lee Kang-sheng—the director’s muse—in a key role. The filmmaker, who was born in Malaysia but works mostly in Taiwan (and occasionally France), emphasizes voyeurism, alienation, and isolation. He returns again and again to a handful of resonant metaphors and motifs; the dripping and pooling of rain and water is nearly a constant presence in his work, and it frequently represents love or despair, sometimes both at once. Like these images of flowing water, the characters in Tsai’s films throb with repressed sexual desire. They are seen cruising public toilets, or in his 1997 feature The River, a gay bathhouse, and both masturbation and isolated sexual encounters feature heavily in his work.

Though erotically charged and austere, Tsai’s films can also be very funny. In his second feature Vive L’Amour (1994) a woman’s effort to kill an insect in an apartment provides an amusing bit of silent comedy, and in his most audacious film, The Wayward Cloud (2005), Lee is dressed up (or more accurately, mostly undressed) as a dancing penis for one vivid musical number.

What is most palpable about the director’s work though is his ability to communicate tremendous emotion through meditative, static shots—either fixed on a character’s face, or on a landscape or room. Following a screening of Goodbye, Dragon Inn at the Toronto Film Festival, a viewer asked Tsai about the lengthy shot of an empty theater in the film. “Did you feel nothing?” he responded, receiving a round of applause. Not everyone will experience his singular cinematic magic, but those spellbound by his work are converts for life.

In addition to the recurring images of water, melons, and bathrooms, there is the near constant presence of the actor Lee Kang-sheng. Lee’s characters are almost always named Hsiao-kang, a name that seems to be a merging of the filmmaker's and actor’s in the fictional world of the cinema. Unlike Truffaut and Jean-Pierre Léaud’s Antoine Doinel, it's not clear that Hsiao-kang is the same person across multiple films, though he does overlap in the features What Time Is It There? and in The Wayward Cloud, which are linked by the short film, The Skywalk Is Gone (2002). What is most consistent about Lee’s work in these films, apart from his character’s name, is the astonishing variety of his performances. In dual roles as a homeless man and a paralyzed man in I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006), Lee is remarkably expressive and inexpressive, respectively. In Stray Dogs (2013) his unnamed character stoically stands outside in downpour, conveying the incredible efforts of will required of him to protect his children.

Tsai’s first film Rebels of the Neon God, from 1992, will receive a belated theatrical release in New York at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Quad Cinema on April 10, 2015. The opportunity to see Rebels, an auspicious feature debut and one of Tsai’s most conventional films, on the big screen is well worth the wait. On the same day, the Museum of the Moving Image begins its comprehensive Tsai Ming-liang retrospective, another remarkable opportunity to survey the incredible breadth of the this unique artist.

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Olivier Assayas

by Alex Zafiris

Time, sharing pain, and theater versus cinema.

The Clouds of Sils Maria is French filmmaker Olivier Assayas’ fifteenth full-length feature. It stars the unlikely pairing of Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart—an immediate clue that the external realities of the film matter just as much as their fictional counterparts. Binoche is Maria Enders, a famous actress in her late forties, who is going through a divorce, and selling her apartment. Stewart is Valentine, a twenty-something, smart, and jaded personal assistant. Their co-dependency is revealed within the first five minutes. On their way to Switzerland by train to honor Wilhelm Melchior, the lauded playwright, and Maria’s mentor, Valentine learns that he has died. When she breaks the news, Maria looks at her with shock and fear, eyes searching for support.

Melchior’s death throws many things into perspective, not least the public’s perception of celebrity, time, and nostalgia. Maria is asked by an up-and-coming director, Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), to perform in a revival of Melchior’s Maloja Snake––the play that made her famous at age eighteen––but in the role of the older woman. She accepts hesitantly, and begins to rehearse her lines with Valentine, whose understanding of the text has a hard reality that Maria finds frustrating and upsetting. Their friendship begins to mirror the tension and sexual ambiguity of the characters, and they start to fall out of sync. Before they meet the Hollywood starlet Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), who is to play the younger woman, Maria Googles her. Valentine doesn’t need to: she’s aware of the petulant public appearances, unstable relationships, and silly Tinseltown movies, but interprets Jo-Ann’s persona as complex and subversive. Maria is amusingly unconvinced, but her patronizing rejection of Valentine’s reverence masks pride, and an awareness that she is disconnected from the contemporary world.

Assayas’ own presence as writer-director filters through the fictional Melchior. He co-wrote 1985’s Rendez-Vous with filmmaker André Téchiné, which launched Binoche’s career. (The story followed a young woman pursuing her dream to become an actress in Paris.) They worked together again in his 2008 film Summer Hours, when she reportedly encouraged him to write a script based on their shared history. His response was to make a film based on the passing of time, self-perception, and acceptance. He chose Switzerland, he says, because there is “a unique sense of a landscape that is inhabited by ghosts. You feel the presence of the artists and writers who have spent time there at the end of the 19th century—Nietzsche, Anne Marie Schwarzenbach, Segantini, Rilke. It is so untouched, it is very preserved. You sense the presence of the past.”

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Kornél Mundruczó

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Wild dogs, revolution, and humanism.

Kornél Mundruczó’s White God, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year, and played at this year’s New Directors/New Films festival, is a Hungarian fairy tale about a rag-tag gang of dogs who rise up and start a revolution. In the film, thirteen-year-old Lili (Zsofia Psotta) lives in a society that taxes owners of mixed breed dogs. Because of the extra hassle, she is forced by her father to abandon Hagen, her loyal mutt. Hagen, initially desperate to find Lili again, fights his way through the brutal city streets, in a journey of metamorphosis and self-discovery.

Hagen, and the hearty mutts with which he teams up, are hunted by dogcatchers. These canines represent the downtrodden, and any group who faces racial or class oppression. Both Lili and Hagen are wide-eyed innocents, while the authority figures surrounding them are one-dimensional and sadistic. Hagen’s story demonstrates how easily a gentle soul can be corrupted by repeated abuse, turning it violent and angry in protest.

Two dogs were chosen to play Hagen, and many more were trained, and used in the film’s epic pack scenes, during which hundreds of canines rip through the city, terrorizing pedestrians and reaping their revenge on their tormentors. Nothing comparable to these dog army scenes has ever been seen before on film. The production used only mixed breeds from Hungarian shelters, and no animals were harmed in the making of the movie. In fact, the production’s talented team of dog trainers obeyed guidelines required by animal welfare organizations. White God is certified by Hungary’s White Cross Animal Protection Society.

I spoke with Mundruczó about how he got Oscar-worthy performances from his mongrel cast, what he learned working with the animals, and the poignant political symbolism at the heart of his film.

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Oscar Ruiz Navia

by Gary M. Kramer

Graffiti, politics, and tracking shots.

Oscar Ruiz Navia is a cinephile who never attended a proper film school. Part of a new generation of Colombian filmmakers, he developed his interest in film on his own, and in 2006 founded Contravía (“Another Way,” in English), a production company to develop art house films in his country, where there is not a huge film industry. His first feature, Crab Trap (2010), won several awards, including the FIPRESCI prize at the Berlin Film Festival that year.

The director, who spends his time teaching and in movie clubs in Colombia, took four years to make Los Hongos, which will play at the New Directors/New Films series at MoMA/Lincoln Center on March 28 and 29.

The film is a scrappy comedy-drama about graffiti taggers in Santiago de Cali, Colombia. Ruiz Navia affectionately portrays the lives of its two leads, Ras (Jovan Alexis Marquinez), who lives with his religious mother, and Calvin (Calvin Buenaventura), who cares for his ailing grandmother. Mostly plotless, Los Hongos unfolds like a series of encounters for its characters and the audience. The film depicts the teens biking and skateboarding through the city, meeting up with a tagging crew to create a mural on a popular bridge, and becoming activists rebelling against authority and social injustice.

Inspired by Arab Spring videos, and the collective power of street art, Ras and Calvin soon realize the ramifications of their art and their actions as they have a series of run-ins with the police.

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Charlie Victor Romeo

by Gary M. Kramer

Transcripts, technical language, and airline disasters.

Robert Berger and Patrick Daniels are the writers (with Irving Gregory) and directors (with Karlyn Michelson) of the film and play, Charlie Victor Romeo. The show originated in 1999 at the Collective:Unconscious theater space in the Lower East Side. It has since been performed around the world and, in 2013, released as a film. It is currently available on most streaming platforms.

Charlie Victor Romeo—the title is the NATO code for cockpit voice recording—features six episodes of real-life airline disasters as experienced from the point of view of the crew in the cockpit. It is a remarkable, white-knuckle experience. Six actors, including Daniels, play various roles of pilots, copilots, and navigators, and these same cast members appear in multiple vignettes. The film version was shot as a live theater production over three days in August 2012, and it was filmed in stereoscopic 3-D to heighten events taking place on stage/screen.

Charlie Victor Romeo is remarkable not just because of its content, but because the cast is able to recite long, complicated dialogue—much of it technical, featuring terms unfamiliar to most audiences. But the actors’ vocal inflections, expressions, and body language urgently convey the horror they are facing. That the film (like the play) frames each episode with slides indicating the number of passengers, crew members, and survivors is quietly devastating.

The conceit of the project—and what makes it so chilling—is that the world outside the cockpit exists, but is never seen. Viewers must imagine the passengers and flight attendants behind the door, or envision the mountains, runway, or water where the plane will hopefully (but not always) land safely.

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Lisandro Alonso

by Nicholas Elliott

Where the horse opera meets a fairy tale.

Nothing looks or feels quite like Jauja, Argentine writer-director Lisandro Alonso’s sixth feature, and a departure both from his previous work and most contemporary filmmaking. Shot in glorious color-saturated 35mm film and framed in the classic academy ratio, Jauja takes a basic Western scenario—a man rides off into the desert looking for his kidnapped daughter—and follows it to a point that defies elucidation, where what felt archaic proves to be timeless and the horse opera becomes a fairy tale. By taking the role of Captain Dinesen, the 19th century Danish military engineer searching for his daughter Ingeborg in the Argentine wilderness, Viggo Mortensen has enabled one of the weirdest star vehicles in recent memory.

Alonso came to international attention in 2001 with the release of his first film La Libertad, which heralded a current of observational cinema featuring non-professionals, often living in humble circumstances and remote areas, going about their business in narratively minimal but formally rigorous films. While the viewer was always rewarded for sticking with Alonso’s leisurely shots, deliberate pace, and lack of dialogue, his imitators have been the curse of 21st century festival-goers, as will happen when an artist’s startling new contribution is mistaken for a universally applicable recipe. All the more reason to rejoice that Jauja finds the director persevering in the quest for an idiosyncratic, inimitable cinema.

I spoke to Lisandro Alonso by Skype on March 13, a week before Jauja opened in New York.

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Nicholas Elliott

by David Louis Zuckerman

Austerity, allegory, and the interpretability of film.

I count Nicholas Elliott as a friend and a colleague, but sometimes his insight and incisiveness frightens me. He’s a fierce Apollonian and I don’t think I’ve ever seen him in an unfocused state, or without control of his faculties. Working simultaneously as a critic, translator, and writer/director, he represents a sui generis breed of film aesthete. Icarus, which is premiering at MOMA and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s New Directors/New Films Festival on March 22, stars Jim Fletcher, Rosie Goldensohn, Alex Delinois, and Greg Zuccolo. It’s a rare gem of a film, which I had the pleasure to help edit. I was excited to sit down with Nicholas in an isolated corner of Avery Fisher Hall and record this conversation.

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Olivia Wyatt

by Will Oldham

Sea-gypsies, Vodou, and ethnographic documentary.

Olivia Wyatt and I met not too long ago when we were cast as husband and wife in a film directed by Rick Alverson. The working title of the film was Rabbit, and as of this writing the film has not been finished. Olivia and I bonded and remained in touch. I will try to illustrate Olivia's charisma with this anecdote: Once when Olivia was visiting Louisville, Kentucky, I told her to go to our grand old historic cemetery as a way to pass the time. She walked the few miles there, then befriended the guard at the gate. He lent her his car to tour the cemetery. Then he said he'd come to her screening that night.

Olivia’s experiential, experimental feature documentaries, distributed by Sublime Frequencies, include Staring at the Sun, about Ethiopian music, and The Pierced Heart & The Machete, an incredible document of Haitian Vodou ceremonies. She had told me of her plans for this new project about the Moken… and then Hurricane Sandy happened. Olivia lost a significant portion of her equipment to Sandy. She was going to indefinitely postpone the trip that would yield Sailing a Sinking Sea. I helped facilitate getting her gear replaced, thus getting the project back on track.

Below is a conversation we had recently, in which I got to pick her brain about the new film, which is an abstract exploration of a community of people who live in the waters along the Thai-Burmese border, about her collaboration with Bitchin’ Bajas’ Cooper Crain on the film’s music, and about her plans for projects to come.

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Armel Hostiou

by Gary M. Kramer

Love, obsession, and comedy in the big city.

Armel Hostiou is an experimental film and video artist who grew up in Brittany and moved to Paris when he was twenty to study cinema at La Fémis. As he began directing short films, he described the experience as a “laboratory to improve, discover, and find new ways to tell stories.” His first feature film, Day (Rive, or "bank," in French), was a project about Paris as seen through the eyes of three characters—a man, a woman, and a child. The film was shot in 2010, had its premiere at Cannes in 2011, and was released in France in 2012, playing New York at BAM later that same year.

Hostiou’s second feature, Stubborn, had its North American premiere at the Rendezvous with French Cinema program March 10 at the Walter Reade Theater. The film will have encore presentations on March 11 at 7 PM at the IFC Center, and again that same night at 8:30 PM at BAMcinématek, as well as on March 12 at 2:00 PM back at Walter Reade. Hostiou, along with actor Murray Bartlett (Looking) co-writer Lea Cohen and several producers will be in attendance at each screening.

The film tells the hilarious—or is it horrifying?—story of Vincent (Vincent Macaigne) who follows his ex, Barbara (Kate Moran), to New York City to win her back. While she wants him to go back home to Paris, Vincent hopes to work things out between them. He willfully disregards the fact that she is currently dating another man (Murray Bartlett). He tries repeatedly, and quite unsuccessfully, to reintegrate himself in Barbara’s life.

Stubborn tracks Vincent’s efforts which are alternately amusing—as when he insists on having Kate’s boyfriend make him fresh squeezed orange juice—to downright irritating, as when he attempts a marriage proposal to Kate with her boyfriend by her side at the time. But this comedy, while possibly cringe-inducing at times, is often very affecting, particularly for anyone who has won the battle but lost the war when it comes to love.

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Lawrence Michael Levine

by Gary M. Kramer

The fine art of the romantic-comedy-thriller-mystery.

Lawrence Michael Levine’s funny and charming Wild Canaries is a slapstick, screwball, romantic-comedy mystery set in contemporary Brooklyn. Levine plays Noah, a neurotic thirty-something guy whose live-in girlfriend Barri (Sophia Takal, Levine’s wife, who also produced) suspects their neighbor Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) of murdering his own mother Sylvia (Marylouise Burke). Barri opts to investigate the crime along with her best friend and roommate Jean (Alia Shawkat), much to Noah’s chagrin. As the amateur sleuths break into apartments and chase suspects, various suspenseful and romantic complications ensue.

Levine, whose previous feature was Gabi on the Roof in July, may be familiar to indie film fans from his appearances in such work as Jeff Lipsky’s Molly’s Theory of Relativity, or Joe Swanberg’s All the Lights in the Sky. He also co-starred in Takal’s feature, Green. But he distinguishes himself behind the camera with Wild Canaries, building tension and laughs in equal measure. The mystery here is as engaging as the banter between the characters. Levine displays his flair for both physical comedy and verbal sparring, as well as a talent for quirky visuals.

Levine spoke, via Skype, about pulling off this nimble comedic mystery.

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Céline Sciamma

by Steve Macfarlane

"When we think about choreography, we think about dancing, or sports. I try to apply the same logic when I'm filming sports and when I'm just filming somebody in a room."

There’s a moment roughly halfway into Céline Sciamma’s new film Bande des filles (retitled, for reasons explained below, as Girlhood in its U.S. release) that's both majestic and bemusing. The main character, a French teenager named Marieme (Karidja Touré) attends a knock-down, drag-out ring fight, wherein her shit-talking friend Lady (Assa Sylla) gets utterly trounced by a member of a rival bande. Days turn into weeks and, with the help of Marieme (who goes by “Vic”—short for Victory) and others, the hot-tempered Lady eventually nurses her wounds of both body and ego. But in concluding this chapter of Marieme’s story, Sciamma makes the curious decision to loop back around to the ring fight—only this time, Lady’s ass-whooping is shown through the blotchy digital eye of a teenage onlooker’s cellphone. Para One’s music swells with a curiously breathless anticipation, and the entire frame pulsates with an energy that’s unmistakably adolescent: the thrill of spilt blood, the unwillingness to look away, the anxious potential for payback on the horizon.

In this vein, Girlhood’s most important scenes are never quite what they appear to be, including the celebrated, neon-lit sequence wherein Vic and her friends lip-synch the entirety of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in a cheap motel room, a scene that reviews would have you believe comprises at least half of the film’s runtime. Sciamma’s process is one of constant, uneasy dramatic reorientation, zeroing in on the synaptic connection between experience and memory, which announces itself explicitly in raw, spontaneous outbursts of emotion. What is Vic really thinking? Who is the “real” Marieme? As in her previous coming-of-age investigations Tomboy and Water Lillies, Sciamma refuses to provide easy answers to these kinds of questions, making Girlhood both universal (see: title) as well as slyly political. The film confounds superficial expectations of its hood culture milieu throughout its heroine’s transition from a meek, braided girl hiding within the banlieues to an itinerant criminal and then something else entirely. Yet despite its sociopolitical particulars, the key to Sciamma’s radiant film is always Touré, whose wide-eyed performance carries Girlhood’s considerable mystery and its undeniable compassion in fixed stride.

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Johanna Hamilton

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

Surveillance, J. Edgar Hoover, and effective activism.

Forty years before WikiLeaks or Edward Snowden and the NSA scandal, there was Media, Pennsylvania, the subject of a new documentary 1971 directed by Johanna Hamilton. The FBI was untouchable until that year, when a group of ordinary citizens dubbing themselves the Citizens’ Commission broke into a small FBI office in Pennsylvania, stole their files, and shared them with the American public. These files revealed the FBI’s domestic spying programs, and specifically exposed COINTELPRO, the FBI’s illegal surveillance program which involved the intimidation of law-abiding Americans. COINTELPRO was overseen by lifelong Bureau director J. Edgar Hoover. The unmasking of this program led to the country’s first Congressional investigation of US intelligence agencies. The brave Americans who stole these documents, a ragtag bunch of activists, parents, and professors, were never caught. Forty-three years later, they have revealed themselves for the first time and shared their story.

Hamilton collaborated with Betty Medsger, author of The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI, which first disclosed these 1971 events. The text unveiled the identities of those involved who had been previously anonymous. Given the recent disclosures of NSA spying, this thrilling tale could not be more relevant. It goes to show how little things have changed since 1971—in fact, we’re probably watched now more than ever. I spoke with the film’s director, Johanna Hamilton, about whether there is any lingering legal danger for the activists, broader issues of security leaks and activism today, and how ordinary people can make an impact on their government.

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