Daily Postings
film : interview

Brian Oakes

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

“If you can’t go to church, and the only way you can pray, or connect to your god, is through another process, then that becomes the thing you do.”

The image of journalist James Foley, the first American to be murdered by ISIS in 2014, is now infamous. Wearing an orange jumpsuit, he was crudely executed in a video made public by the militant religious group. With the documentary Jim: The James Foley Story, Foley’s childhood friend Brian Oakes makes his feature directorial debut. The result is an intimate portrait of the man behind the sensationalized image. Oakes takes the political and renders it personal. The doc tracks Foley’s life through stirring footage shot in Syria and Libya (much of it taken by Foley himself) and interviews with his family, friends, and colleagues. Most harrowing are the director’s conversations with Foley’s fellow hostages—the men who were imprisoned with him in Syria before his death. These reporters reveal details of their joint captivity that are both frightening and beautiful. Their connections with Jim are strong and lasting.  

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film : interview

Ross Partridge

by Gary M. Kramer

“She’ll be like an apple tree among all the ash-colored buildings of that granite city.”

Ross Partridge wrote, directed, and stars in Lamb, an adaptation of Bonnie Nadzam’s celebrated first novel of the same name. The film chronicles an abnormal relationship that develops between David (Partridge), a forty-seven-year-old man, and Tommie (Oona Laurence), an eleven-year-old girl. An ostensible love story, Lamb describes a peculiar platonic bond. Both David—whose father has recently passed away, and Tommie, whose parents may as well have—are depicted as lost, lonely souls, looking for any sort of human connection possible. They find it, of course, in each other. When David takes Tommie to his family’s cabin in Wyoming, the trip reveals psycho-emotional volumes. Their seemingly inappropriate pairing generates a strange power—one cast over the film’s audience.

Partridge, a character actor best known for his collaborations with the Duplass Brothers (Baghead, Do-Deca-Pentathlon) and in the underseen comedy, Treatment, takes a sincere yet distanced approach to this material. He never exploits or sensationalizes.

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film : interview

Bob Mankoff

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

“Humor teaches us that you can be a good person but also have bad thoughts.”

Very Semi-Serious, a documentary by first-time director Leah Wolchok, follows a gaggle of cartoonists and one colorful editor who produce work for The New Yorker—a magazine that, perhaps, boasts the most intellectual cartoon consortium in the world. Bob Mankoff, the department’s grizzled and energetic editor, acts as this doc’s narrator. From his perspective, we peer behind the scenes of the iconic publication: he meets with editor-in-chief David Remnick to show him the latest laughs, reads hundreds of cartoon submissions, listens to pitches from young hopefuls and old hats, and draws his own funnies, always stippled with his signature tiny dots. Though Mankoff claims he can’t draw very well, he concedes that “the marks you make on paper outlast you—and they have the spontaneity that life has.”

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film : interview

Jason Harvey & Josh Safdie

“I draw bad guys for a living.”

Thanks to the undercover work of Josh Safdie—one of our most trusted civilian independent filmmakers—and Jason Harvey—a stalwart of the NYPD’s Forensic Investigation Division—so-called criminal minds can seriously collide. Josh, with his brother Ben, co-directed the must-be-seen Heaven Knows What (2014), a deliriously existential vision of lost NYC youth. And Jason Harvey is, of course, a police officer. He’s also a visionary of a different stripe. His first solo gallery show, co-curated by Safdie and Adam Shopkorn, is up through January 10, 2016 at Fort Gansevoort. Shopkorn, as it happens, collaborated on the Safdie’s 2013 film, Lenny Cooke. So it’s either all in the family—or just circumstantial evidence.

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film : interview

Radu Muntean

by Gary M. Kramer

“Everyone operates in their own world.”

Radu Muntean is part of the New Wave of Romanian directors whose work was recently showcased at Lincoln Center’s compact yet insightful Romanian Film Festival. Unlike his compatriots who make politically charged allegories—such as Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (2009), Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), or Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005)Muntean’s focus has been more on ordinary citizens in the domestic sphere. For example, his 2008 film, Boogie, concerns a man trying to reconnect both with his lost youth and his present-day family; he runs into old friends on holiday and spends an evening carousing, which causes a fight with his wife. Muntean is also probably best known for Tuesday, After Christmas (2011), about an ill-timed love affair. (Aren’t they all.)

With One Floor Below, Muntean continues to explore the fragility of everyday life with a story that hinges on a crucial moment outside of his protagonist’s control. Patrascu (Teodor Corban) eavesdrops on his next-door neighbors Laura (Maria Popistasu) and Vali (Iulian Postelnicu) while they argue. When Vali discovers Patrascu listening it leads to an awkward encounter. But things become even more uncomfortable when Laura dies—possibly murdered. A policeman investigates, but Patrascu does not reveal everything that he knows. The subtle suspense builds as Patrascu and Vali test each other to see who will crack first. One Floor Below is a slow-burn character study that benefits greatly from Muntean’s naturalist style.

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film : interview

Miguel Gomes

by Tânia Cypriano

“What I believe is that you just keep filming.”

Inspired by the original tales—mainly to borrow the help of Scheherazade’s beauty and storytelling abilities—Arabian Nights, the new work by Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes, is a body of three films that combine different cinematic styles and moods to address the state of things in present-day Portugal. The country has suffered great socio-economic hardships due to a financial crisis that began in 2008. Setting out to give a voice to his countrymen, Gomes embarked on a year of filming a series of both fictional and real stories—the latter scouted by journalists, as they were happening across the country. With tales of the absurd and fantastical mixed with the harsh realities of unemployment, suicide, police incompetence, and even an exploding whale, Arabian Nights is about narratives and the many ways of expressing them.

Thirty minutes is certainly not enough time to speak about six-plus hours of film, and definitely not for Arabian Nights. But here we’ve started to chip away at it.

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film : interview

Mathieu Amalric

by Nicholas Elliott

“As soon as you film someone it accelerates the deterioration of love.”

On the late October morning that I interviewed French actor-director Mathieu Amalric his IMDB profile cited 106 movies. I expect by the time this interview is published the number will rise. Amalric is everywhere—and everywhere expands to make more room for him. Over the last twenty years, viewers have seen his nervous but alluring energy in six films by Arnaud Desplechin—one of the leading French auteurs of our era—and in movies by a literal who’s who of contemporary French directors, including his regular collaborators the Larrieu brothers, and the late, great Alain Resnais. He has turned up as James Bond’s nemesis in Quantum of Solace, a lunatic in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, and an insufferable theater director in Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur. He is possibly the only man alive to have worked with both Raul Ruiz and Steven Spielberg. Not to mention Julian Schnabel and Eugène Green.

Amalric, to borrow his own word, was “invented” as an actor by Arnaud Desplechin—whom he met in the early ’90s. Desplechin cast him in a small part in his first feature, The Sentinel, and then cast him again as the lead of the cinematic milestone, My Sex Life…or How I Got Into an Argument.

It is difficult to make generalizations about Amalric’s films as a director. Of his five features, he has only acted in the last two, which seem like polar opposites. On Tour follows a troupe of American burlesque dancers, and their washed-up manager (played by Amalric), across France. The movie feels sprawling, open to distractions and digressions, messy, and generous like the dancers who are at its center. The Blue Room is as concise as concise gets: this 76-minute adaptation of a George Simenon novel moves back and forth in time, but takes no detours in dealing with its cold facts of adultery and murder. Perhaps the difference between the two films comes down to their protagonists: the manager in On Tour has nowhere to go but up—while the adulterous husband in The Blue Room has everything to lose. Many of Amalric’s defining roles have featured men staring into the abyss of failure. That he has managed to capture the frustrations and fears of his generation while remaining utterly charming makes him a great movie star.

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film : interview

David Shapiro & Alix Lambert

“What is this? The Sophie’s Choice of creativity?”

Artist and filmmaker, David Shapiro, is a keeper and teller of stories. Through attention to detail, patience, and a methodically intuitive approach, he has produced work in numerous forms. He was inspired to make his award-winning film, Keep The River on Your Right, by a book he found in the garbage. In his new film, Missing People, Shapiro continues his exploration of people’s idiosyncrasies and obsessions through the intersection of art and memory. Missing People is a nonfiction mystery about Martina Batan, the former director of the prominent New York gallery, Ronald Feldman Fine Arts. Off duty, Martina obsessively collects the violent work (and life) of Roy Ferdinand, a little-known self-taught artist from New Orleans. As Martina begins to research Fedinand’s life, she also opens a private investigation into her younger brother’s long unsolved murder (from 1978) and her own demons. As Martina struggles to process the information she has dug up, the inevitable collision of these parallel narratives leads to a chain of dramatic events. Through multiple story lines, art, murder, and a constant searching, Missing People shows us how similar we are in our differences.

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film : interview

Rick Alverson

by Gary M. Kramer

“A cat and mouse game between attraction and repulsion.”

Entertainment may be the most disturbing movie about a stand-up comedian since Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy. It’s certainly another fascinating film by writer/director Rick Alverson, whose blistering last effort, The Comedy (2012), was equally unsettling.

In Entertainment Gregg Turkington plays “The Comedian,” a sweaty stand-up comic (his Neil Hamburger alter ego) on a tour of prisons and bars in the Mojave desert. His act, which includes off-color humor—often involving celebrities—is met more with heckles than laughs. Offstage, things are equally bleak. The Comedian tries to reconnect with his daughter, but only leaves voice messages. He has encounters with various people, ranging from his cousin (John C. Reilly), to a bathroom hustler (Michael Cera), and a pregnant woman (Ashley Atwood). Each magnifies each other’s despair. On occasion, he takes tours of airplane graveyards, oil fields, and western towns, but generally he sits in his hotel room watching Mexican TV.

Alverson’s style of filmmaking uses a deadpan approach that forces audiences to react to the characters and events being presented.The awkwardness will get under the viewers’ skin—if it doesn’t get on their nerves.

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film : interview

Lisa Immordino Vreeland

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

“She wasn’t loved, so she didn’t know how to give love.”

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict is a documentary portrait of one of the world’s most legendary female art collectors and patrons. Director Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s last film, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, was a similar retrospective on the life and career of the fabled fashion icon. This time, Vreeland (the director—not the style maven) explores the vivid, art-filled life of Peggy, a champion of creative talent. The film is a mixture of vast archival footage, still photographs, and interviews with some of the art world’s prominent movers and shakers—mostly men—such as Hans-Ulrich Obrist, Larry Gagosian, Marina Abramović, and Arne Glimcher. Vreeland also unearthed the last interview Guggenheim ever gave and wove those sound bites into the narrative; featuring Peggy’s long conversation with biographer Jacqueline Bograd Weld, these audiotapes reveal her particular brand of bawdy humor.

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film : interview

Frederick Wiseman

by Nicholas Elliott

“The best comedy is sad comedy.”

As its title indicates, Frederick Wiseman’s documentary In Jackson Heights is a plunge into the Queens neighborhood unofficially known as the most diverse in the world. From the mosque to the Jewish community center, from a poultry slaughterhouse to the strobing lights of a gay bar with go-go dancers, and from the taxi school instructor who missed his calling as a standup comedian to the receptionists stoically taking angry calls for a city council member, Wiseman has scoured the streets to bring us not only a portrait of a neighborhood but a reflection on the very idea of our nation. The Jackson Heights of Wiseman’s film functions as a powerful microcosm. It’s a place where civil liberties flourish, but safe havens are threatened by free markets, with recent arrivals exploited for cheap labor and small shopkeepers driven out by a Business Improvement District designed to usher in big-box stores. Viewers will be delighted by a film as dizzyingly varied in its colors and moods as the area it focuses on, heartened by the commitment of the grass-roots organizations and activists that are at its center, but also chilled by the processes endangering the neighborhood and its population. As such, the film is most valuable as a primer on the American experiment today.

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film : portfolio

Portfolio

by Abounaddara

“The enemy is indifference.”

Working anonymously, Abounaddara is a filmmaking collective that produces videos about individual Syrians on all sides of the current conflict. The work depicts daily life in a society wracked by atrocities. As self-styled “emergency cinema,” the group seeks to transcend mainstream war reporting by making use of both the wide reach and anonymity afforded by online video platforms. Each week, videos are posted as missives in the fight for freedom and dignity of all Syrians—implying that the Syrian crisis is far from “local” or “isolated,” but rather a matter of global concern and global doing.

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film : interview

Jenni Olson

by Steve Macfarlane

“I’m not thinking about the market. I’m thinking about what I want to say.”

Would that we could all be as eloquent as Jenni Olson. Built entirely of static, real-time 16mm panoramas, the San Francisco-based archivist and filmmaker’s new sixty-four-minute essay film, The Royal Road, investigates California history alongside Olson’s own projections of romantic happiness (and its opposite). It lulls the viewer down State Route 1—the Camino Real, or “Royal Road”—to the tune of a meandering voice-over. The Road was so named by the Franciscan monks colonizing the then-Mexican state under the guidance of the recently canonized Junipero Serra, monuments to whom Olson finds dotting the landscape during her sojourn, wherein “the painful truths of conquest are successfully buried under tales of heroic missionary priests, and grandly picturesque Spanish California ranches.”

At the end of Route 1 lies a woman with whom Olson is, according to her narration, infatuated—but the film obscures what will happen when she arrives in Los Angeles, preferring to ruminate on classic Hollywood movies like Vertigo and Sunset Boulevard. If the filmmaker has one eye crooked in the rear-view direction of history and its countless nullifications (resettlement of the indigenous population, forced annexation, and so forth), the other eye stares unnervingly forward.

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film : interview

Laurie Anderson

by Gary M. Kramer

“I watched language falling apart.”

Laurie Anderson’s wistful, elegiac film, Heart of a Dog, uses animation, video, home movie clips, and dream sequences to chronicle not just her life with Lolabelle, her rat terrier, but more generally how humans and animals communicate, their shared sense of companionship, and our processes of death, grief, and coping with trauma. That said, Anderson’s film is essentially about storytelling—a theme the artist/filmmaker/musician has been exploring since the start of her long and storied career. Here, her voice carries us into a kaleidoscope of images, textures, and music that evoke both human and canine experiences of the world.

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film : interview

Guy Maddin & Evan Johnson

by Steve Macfarlane

"I’m always dipping myself into our stuff and seeing what color I turn."

In the films of Guy Maddin, fabulist par excellence, memories don’t just emerge or recede per usual—they gallivant, threatening to take whole works hostage, punctuating and/or mutating the frame with phantasmal surreptitiousness. Co-directed with Evan Johnson, his spellbinding new The Forbidden Room is disguisable for Maddin at his most Maddin-esque: the film is a whirligig cross-indexing of recreations of long-forgotten films (based entirely on their titles), bookended—to the extent such a term applies—by scenes from something called How To Take A Bath, written by the poet John Ashbery, as played by Maddin regular Louis Negin. Shrinking, blotching, and clarifying on a dime, the protoplasmic nature of Johnson and Maddin’s digitally mediated imagery is of a piece with The Forbidden Room’s amnesiac framing device, allowing for the abrogated mini-narratives to crumble and dissolve into one another like novellas with pages ripped out.

Lest I’m making The Forbidden Room sound like some kind of anti-structural exercise: the film is also really fun. Maddin and Johnson’s scenelets were performed and shot live at the Pomidou Centre in Paris, and the picture throbs with the excitement of on-the-spot creativity, thumbing its nose at earthly notions of verisimilitude and revealing new ingenuities in the construction of its every last scene and backdrop. Like many of Maddin’s works, Room is both a paean to a certain bygone cinema and a dissection of its vernacular, drawing sustenance (and a not-insubstantial number of belly laughs) from the limits and liberations of playing dress-up in front of a rear projection.

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film : interview

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

by Paul Dallas

“I have been thinking specifically about the cave of humankind.”

One of the most striking works unveiled at this year’s edition of Wavelengths, the experimental program at the Toronto International Film Festival, was not a “film,” but a seven-minute installation work by Thai auteur Apitchatpong Weerasethakul. Fireworks (Archives), a one-channel video originally commissioned by Kurimanzutto Gallery in Mexico City and beautifully installed in the Art Gallery of Ontario, envelops the viewer in a sensory experience unlike any other. It is a nocturnal stroll through a surreal sculpture garden lit by pyrotechnics, strobes, and digital camera flashes. Accompanied by a percussive soundtrack of crackles and explosions that merge with the sound of gunfire, Fireworks (Archives) is immersive, unsettling, and deeply hypnotic.

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film : interview

John Magary

by Paul Dallas

“My dream of a movie is to end on a note of 100% ambivalence.”

Few American indies open with the raucous energy and visual wit of John Magary’s debut The Mend. Starting with an old-school iris shot and a snippet of cartoon music, the viewer is hurdled through twenty-four hours in the life of Mat (Josh Lucas), a thirty-something deadbeat drifter. In a series of propulsive cuts and blasts of LiLiPUT’s punk anthem “Split,” we watch him tossed out by his girlfriend Andrea (Lucy Owen), ejected from stores, insult and abandon friends at a bar, and drag himself along an empty subway platform like some primordial creature.

Magary’s darkly comic drama starts with the familiar premise—a Tom & Jerry-like pair of mismatched brothers—and spins it into strange brew. The film’s jagged rhythms, stylistic flourishes, and unexpected tonal shifts keep you guessing as to who or what will collide next and where it’s all headed. Filmed largely in the Sugar Hill apartment Magary shares with co-writer and producer Myna Joseph, The Mend is both a master class in staging in confined spaces and a sharp portrait of the weird energy of New York in the ’oughts. At times unflinching in its portrayal, Magary captures the inherent messiness of intimacy and the dangers of being alone. In The Mend, relationships exist in a perpetual state of repair—fissures followed by patches, often minute-by-minute.

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film : interview

Wim Wenders

by Hillary Weston

An iconic filmmaker’s remarks on his most memorable soundtracks.

“I must have been obsessed,” said Wim Wenders during a Q&A at IFC Center in New York when asked about the many jukebox shots in his sophomore feature The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick (1971). Throughout the film Wenders allows the camera to linger on and explore the graceful mechanics of the various machines, pointing to his own obsession more than any character’s. The seventy-year-old filmmaker, who came of age during the height of New German Cinema, has made a career out of projecting his fetishes onto the screen, creating a cinematic world adorned to perfectly suit his taste. And when it comes to music, the scores and soundtracks have always been the most important ingredient. “It’s difficult to pinpoint where it started; I remember the first album I ever bought was the Kinks,” said Wenders when I sat down with him at the Criterion offices in late August 2015. “Music has been one of the most constant and most important things in my life ever since I can remember, ever since I bought my first singles,” though in the early days he didn’t even own a record player and had to go to a friend’s house to play them.

Possessing a razor sharp eye for detail and composition, Wenders had early ambitions to become a painter before attending the University of Television and Film Munich, where he made a discovery that would shape the entirety of his work to come. He explained to me that after spending a night in film school playing around on the editing table, cutting one of his short films to different songs, he realized that each time he changed the music, the movie changed with it. “When I realized I didn’t have to dissociate between my love for music and my love for filmmaking, that was the happiest moment of my life, and that hasn’t changed,” said Wenders. And thus began a forty-plus-year love affair with the amalgamation of image and sound, using his films at platforms to feature the music that brought his world to life.

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film : interview

Maíra Bühler & Matias Mariani

by Gary M. Kramer

“He needed to know everything about her, and we went beyond his narrative—into his hard drive—to know everything about him.”

I Touched All Your Stuff is an astonishing documentary centered on Chris “Goose” Kirk, a restless young man from Olympia, Washington, who sought out adventure by heading to Colombia to see hippos that the infamous narcotraficante Pablo Escobar smuggled out of Africa. While in Latin America, he meets a Japanese-Colombian girl known as “V,” and falls in love. They are soon involved in a long-distance relationship that breeds suspicion about various shady behaviors involving sums of money and questionable friends. Chris then investigates—thoroughly.

Curiously, Chris narrates almost the entirety of I Touched All Your Stuff from a prison in Brazil. Directors Maíra Bühler and Matias Mariani let their imprisoned subject recount his story directly to the camera, illustrating it with images and files sourced from his computer’s hard drive. But what exactly is true here? The film posits that it may not matter. What makes the film so riveting is the filmmakers’ deliberate narrative construction of Chris’s storytelling. This portrait of a man is fascinating precisely because it will frustrate viewers who want the truth.

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film : interview

Alex Ross Perry

by Anya Jaremko-Greenwold

“This is not a movie that invites you to really empathize with these characters, nor is that the point.”

Director Alex Ross Perry’s psychological drama Queen of Earth is about Catherine (Elisabeth Moss), a lapsed artist who leaves New York City in favor of the country’s tranquility, only to find her demons have followed her there. Catherine stays with her childhood best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston), and the many complexities of female friendship are elucidated; the two women are by turns competitive, resentful, judgmental, and possessive of one another. But they are still close—at least for the time being.

The time period is ambiguous. The film has a sun-kissed, nostalgic glow reminiscent of the ’70s (Catherine uses a cordless landline), but there are no solid indicators of decade or year, a touch that placed the already-isolated characters even more outside of reality. Although barely anything overtly dangerous transpires, the atmosphere crackles with eerie tension, and an air of psychological torment pervades the country home. Catherine’s father has recently committed suicide, and her boyfriend has dumped her. Neither woman seems emotionally stable, but Elisabeth grows especially delusional. The film is punctuated by flashbacks to last year’s vacation, when Catherine visited Virginia and brought her then-boyfriend, to a time when she was still holding it all together. Shows how much difference a year can make.

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film : interview

William Fowler

by Pamela Cohn

Restoring, archiving, and exhibiting artists‘ films from the post-punk era.

In April 2014 in London, the British Film Institute (BFI) Southbank presented a program called “This Is Now: Film and Video After Punk.” The films were part of a significant restoration project overseen by William Fowler. As a young lad in the early 2000s, the Cornwall born-and-bred Fowler was working at the information desk at the British Museum and occasionally putting on film screenings at an underground venue called The Horse Hospital. He then pursued a film studies and archiving degree at the University of East Anglia and, in 2004, took a temporary job at the top film organization for artist films, LUX. Shortly thereafter, he was hired as the first-ever Curator of Artists’ Moving Image at the BFI National Archive. His restoration projects at the BFI have included “GAZWRX: The films of Jeff Keen”; “Queer Pagan Punk: Derek Jarman”; as well as “This Is Now,” which is currently touring internationally through LUX and will hit the US with all seven programs playing at MoMA in late 2016.

The period of 1979-1985 saw an explosion in artist filmmaking. Since that time, the majority of these personal, frequently very intimate, works have gone unseen—until now. Pieces by Grayson Perry, John Maybury, Tina Keane, Christine Binnie, Isaac Julien, Jill Westwood, Cerith Wyn Evans, and Sophie Muller were part of a massive restoration endeavor. Fowler spent three full years of research and development on the project, archiving and restoring twenty Super-8 and 16mm films. Almost all of these works have been taken into the national collection and digitally remastered. Some of the recognizable key figures captured in these beautiful and lushly romantic films include Leigh Bowery, Michael Clarke, Siouxsie Sioux, Public Image Ltd., and many other underground denizens of London’s art and music scene during that time. Many video works from the period are also included.

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film : interview

Whit Stillman and Chris Eigeman

by Gary M. Kramer

“The reviews, even the positive ones, said, ‘You won’t like these people, and nothing happens,’ and yet we benefit from those expectations.”

Set to the beat of the cha-cha, writer/director Whit Stillman’s 1990 debut, Metropolitan, still fizzes like uncorked champagne, even twenty-five years later. The film, which is getting a silver-anniversary run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center starting August 7, 2015, shows the not-so-discrete charm of the bourgeoisie—renamed the UHB, or Urban Haute Bourgeoisie.

This sharply-observed comedy of manners, set over Christmas break, concerns a group of debutantes and their escorts known as the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, or SFRP. The members include: Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), a young woman who finds herself falling in love with Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), a modest outsider who unexpectedly joins the SFRP; Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman), a smart, sarcastic guy, who gives Tom life lessons; and Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) who frequently monologues about the plight of WASP life. As the young upper-class men and women drink, gossip, play games, and have dates, rumors are spread, truths are told, and some members possibly fall in love.

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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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film : interview

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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film : interview

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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