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  • August 12, 2016

    Screening Notes: An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell at Film Forum

    Rosamond Purcell in her studio. Photo by Dennis Purcell. Courtesy of BOND/360

    Rosamond Purcell in her studio. Photo by Dennis Purcell. Courtesy of BOND/360

    In Molly Bernstein’s new documentary, An Art That Nature Makes: The Work of Rosamond Purcell, a portrait of human curiosity emerges. Finding beauty in the abject object, Rosamond Purcell’s photography, which often features natural oddities and found objects in various stages of deterioration, harkens to a time when philosophy, science, and aesthetic contemplation were intimately entwined, if not vital to each other. The film captures the unique, interdisciplinary energy of Purcell’s decades-long career and transforms it into a cohesive narrative of perseverance, dedication, and care.

    Through a delicate interweaving of interviews with scholars and luminaries, such as filmmaker Errol Morris; archival footage of Owls Head, Me., once a 13-acre repository of “junk” that is now bare; and Purcell’s own photography, the documentary reaches beyond the purely biographical. “I have to say it’s a huge relief to me to know this film is and is not about me,” said Purcell in an interview with REEL 13 earlier this week, continuing, “It’s the subject matter. It’s about ideas. It’s about having ideas.” In this way, the film, much like Purcell’s photographs, is an act of preservation. “Rosamond and Dennis [Purcell’s husband] had so much archival material, aside from all the photographs,” Bernstein told REEL 13. Included in the archival material was footage of Owls Head, which became a binding thread of the film. “We thought, wow, there is actual footage of this place that is now gone that was so significant to her work.”

    The footage, which shows Purcell sifting through scraps and climbing on piles of detritus, acts as a foil to excursions into collections, where gloved scholars carefully handle the specimens for Purcell. “I am treated kind of like a crazy person. Because I come in, and I have other reasons for wanting to look at things,” said Purcell of going into special collections. Subtly portrayed in the film, Bernstein captures the tension between Purcell and the scholars in a pointed conversation about the artistic significance (or lack thereof, as Paul Callomon argues: “…there is no such thing as looking at something scientifically, and then looking at it aesthetically”) of wood drilled through by mollusks. “I learned pretty quickly that I better develop some sort of vocabulary and some sort of strategy,” explained Purcell. “I wasn’t just coming in and saying, got another one? I knew what I was talking about.”

    Beyond gaining access to collections, Purcell’s ability to speak and collaborate with experts outside of her field, such as Stephen Jay Gould (who Purcell described as a “real historian of past scientists and attitudes, as well as a paleontologist, a geologist, biologist…”), creates a bridge between scientific thought and aesthetic interest. “One of the things I love in the film is when Rosamond talks about ‘hybrid vigor’—about how much she loves working with people who do things different from what she does instead of collaborating with other artists,” said Bernstein. “I think that’s one of the fundamental ideas behind all of the work, this bringing together of art and science.”

    By recasting the scientific or discarded object as worthy of artistic elevation, Purcell exposes its potential to bear new symbolic interpretation, to carry the weight of its experiences into new shades of meaning. “Most material things and animals have had a lot of experience. And something that is just pristine,” said Purcell, “doesn’t have any incident, hasn’t been through a lot, doesn’t have much to record.” In this way, Purcell fills the present with the past in a way that urges the viewer to take note of what they may not be looking at, to notice how objects shift and morph to emote their history.

    As for Purcell, she too is shifting. Ending on a shot of an emptied and snow-covered Owls Head, the film suggests a blank canvas, a new beginning. “Every day you’re sort of like a pilgrim,” said Purcell about continuing her work. “Every day, you get up, and you put on your boots, and you go forward.”

    An Art That Nature Makes is currently showing at Film Forum until August 16. Rosamond Purcell and Molly Bernstein will be in attendance tonight for a Q&A following the 7:50 PM screening.

    Purcell’s work is also currently on exhibit at Penumbra Foundation until August 23.

    —By Brittany Stigler

  • July 29, 2016

    Screening Notes: James Ivory of Merchant Ivory Productions Discusses Howards End at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

    Scene from Howards End

    Scene from Howards End

    On Monday, July 25, a day drenched by a smattering of summer downpours, the Film Society of Lincoln Center presented a new restoration of Merchant Ivory’s Howards End, with director James Ivory in attendance for a post-screening Q&A with Michael Koresky. Clad in a light, pinstripe suit, Ivory tapped his furled umbrella (conjuring up the film’s very own fateful parasol) behind the podium as he introduced the film, taking a moment to explain the significance of the restoration process. “When it came out originally, it came out in 70 mm. And in those days when you had a 70 mm print, you didn’t work directly from the original negative; you had to work from the dub. And now, of course, when they do a restoration they are working from the original negative, so the colors are more beautiful in the restoration, really, than it was in the 70 mm print all those years ago.” Already lauded for its rich details and textures (the film won the Academy Award for Best Art Direction in 1993), the restoration screened “glimmeringly,” with the hue of the bluebells and the glint of the afternoon silver intensified in 4K.

    Adapted from E. M. Forster’s novel of the same name, Howards End follows three families of differing classes—the Wilcoxes (Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Hopkins), the Schlegels (Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham Carter), and the Basts (Samuel West, Nicola Duffett)— as they negotiate love, society, and property in a transitioning Edwardian England. The third screen adaptation of a Forster novel by Merchant Ivory, the Academy Award-winning script was written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who collaborated with Merchant and Ivory from their conception in the early ‘60s. As Ivory recalled during the discussion following the screening, “Ruth thought, it was her idea, ‘Well you know, really, the Forster book that needs to be made is Howards End.’”

    “I didn’t set out to specialize in E. M. Forster,” said Ivory. “I got interested in him because I read Passage to India.” After Forster’s death, King’s College in Cambridge, which held the Forster archive, asked if Merchant and Ivory would like to make Passage to India into a movie, to which the filmmakers responded, Ivory recalled, “Well, what we’d like to make is A Room with a View,” adding blithely, “I couldn’t say the real reason I wanted to make A Room with a View was because I wanted to go to Italy.”

    At two hours and twenty-two minutes, Howards End is the longest Merchant Ivory film. After whittling it down from 3 hours to its final running time, Ivory recalled stepping outside with Jhabvala, who turned and said, “Well, it is what it is.” The editing, measured and even paced for most of the film, finds comic and rhythmic release in two scenes scattered with fades-to-black, which act as cleverly-placed ellipses. As deliberate as the cuts seem, however, the stylistic choice was not preconceived. “Both scenes were very, very, very long . . . you couldn’t have a scene like that, really. People would have gotten bored. . . . So we had to chop it about.”

    Still, there was one scene that Ivory wishes he could have made work in the film. “Charles Wilcox (James Wilby) is driving Margaret (Thompson), and they are going very fast, and they go through a little village, and they hit a cat, who they were afraid was a dog. And he wouldn’t stop the car, and she stands up and jumps out of the car,” said Ivory. “This would be the most terrific scene to direct, but we couldn’t do it.” He continued to explain, “Nowadays you could show a car running over a cat or a dog—there are ways of doing that—but in those days there weren’t any . . . you couldn’t do it.”

    Integral to the team, Howards End composer Richard Robbins, who created nearly every Merchant Ivory score (the first being for The Europeans), insisted on the iconic swell of music that opens the film, much to the dismay of Ivory. “That swell of music puts off projectionists, or it did in the past. . . . That was one of the things I complained about.” To accommodate, Ivory would warn the projectionists himself, saying, “You’re going to have this blast at the beginning, and you just have to live with it.” Of course, this would prove worth the trouble, as Robbins’s score for Howards End and the subsequent film, The Remains of the Day, would go on to earn Robbins back-to-back Academy Award nominations.

    Speaking to this act of compromise, the phrase that underscored the evening, whether Ivory was talking about Robbins or the many luminous actors of the Merchant Ivory troupe, was “You have to let them demonstrate what it is they want to do.” As a result, Merchant Ivory’s dedication to craft and freedom of expression imprints the film with a glow that only grows more luminous with time, highlighting that the film is far more than a starched period drama.

    If you were unable to make it to the Film Society’s screening of Howards End, the restoration will open at The Paris Theater and at Film Forum on August 26.

    By Brittany Stigler

  • July 22, 2016

    Screening Notes: A Woman Under the Influence Q&A with Gena Rowlands at the Metrograph

    Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence

    Peter Falk and Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence

    For John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands was always more than a muse: “When I saw her, that was it! The first time I saw her, I was with an actor, John Ericson, and I said, ‘That’s the girl I’m going to marry.’” But Rowlands, focused on her acting career, dismissed his advances. “Once in a while, we would meet and get coffee, and he’d ask if I’d like to go out, and I said, ‘No, I’m not interested in going out with anyone. I’m going to be an actress.’ And it just went along that way until I graduated,” Rowlands told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015.

    That all changed in 1954 when Rowlands and Cassavetes entered into one of cinema’s most iconic marriages. Together until Cassavetes’ death in 1989, the director and actress duo collaborated on ten films, many of which are featured in Metrograph’s Cassavetes/Rowlands series, running through July 24.

    This past Saturday, Rowlands entered Metrograph’s sold-out screening of Cassavetes’ groundbreaking A Woman Under the Influence to a standing ovation. “I would say this is my favorite,” said Rowlands to the two-tiered theater during the discussion that followed the film. “I really thought that it was an awfully, awfully deep script, and the family had so many problems that they had to overcome or overlook or overdo.” The film, a two-act observation of Mabel (Rowlands) and Nick Longhetti’s (Peter Falk) marriage, shifts between tempestuous and tender as Mabel slips further into her mental illness. “I thought considering all of the problems I had—when I say ‘I’, I mean my character—he [Nick] showed a strange kind of beautiful patience, even though he popped me around a couple of times.”

    During the screening, Nick’s domestic violence shocked the audience into an audible gasp when, in a staccato end to a circular chase around the house, Nick hit Mabel off the sofa. “That was not my position on taking care of problems. Not at all,” responded Rowlands when asked about the scene. “However, I was playing a very complicated character.” When Mabel returns from being institutionalized, the outcome of a frenzied request by her mother-in-law (played by Cassavetes’ actual mother) for being “cra-zy” (or as Mabel’s son more kindly describes, “Nervous”), she begins to demonstrate old tics, despite trying to quell any behavior that may seem erratic. “I think his love was such that he knew I was slipping back. And somehow, he felt he had to do something startling . . . something that could place me someplace else than where I was going.” While Cassavetes was famously provocative as a director, Rowlands emphasized the line between her personal life and the actions portrayed in the film. “I accepted it in the movie. I wouldn’t accept it at home. It was a movie.”

    “A lot of our friends, we could see certain troubles,” said Rowlands about Cassavetes’ ability to realistically portray mental illness. “And you know, who isn’t a little mentally whacko? Obviously it caught John’s interest because practically every movie he made that I was in, I was whacko.” To this end, the film infuses moments of heightened unease with humor and sensitivity toward Mabel, even when she acts out. “That’s what I liked about the whole movie, the generosity of people, with everybody. They were just a great bunch of people, except my mother-in-law,” she quipped. “But even that, she came around in the end because I think that she recognized that the family and friends were being kind about me and understanding.”

    Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, Rowlands’ performance in the film is expansive and physically demanding. When asked how she accessed the range of emotion and nuance needed to play Mabel, Rowlands responded modestly and with understated love: “I think the credit has to go to the writer. If he writes good things for me to say, I’ll probably say them pretty well. I think the writer is the secret to it.”

    By Brittany Stigler

  • July 15, 2016

    BULLETIN BOARD: Voyeurism, Watergate, Norman Lear, and more

    A scene from Rear Window

    A scene from Rear Window

    Rear Window
    Anthology Film Archives
    July 16, 2016 at 9:00 PM

    Before Facebook stalking became the norm, James Stewart’s L.B. Jeffries was actually doing something quite peculiar. As an injured and wheelchair-bound photographer, Jeffries has nothing to do all day but watch his neighbors from his New York apartment windows. Through Jeffries’ lens, we watch the joyful and tragic lives of the people from across the ally unfold. However, when Jeffries spots a suspicious person disposing of “something,” his detective work begins. A touching and chilling tale of obsessive observation, Rear Window will screen as part of Anthology’s VOYEURISM, SURVEILLANCE, AND IDENTITY IN THE CINEMA series.

    Scene from All the President’s Men

    Scene from All the President’s Men

    All the President’s Men
    July 16, 2016 at 4:40 PM

    In All the President’s Men, Washington Post reporters Bernstein and Woodward are a couple of “trouble makers,” whose investigation into the activities at the Watergate Hotel revealed the infamous Watergate Scandal. Action-filled and highly relevant in an election year, All the President’s Men will screen as part of BAMcinématek’s series Four More Years: An Election Special.

    Scene from Inside Out

    Scene from Inside Out

    Movies Under the Stars: Inside Out
    CPL. Thompson Park, Staten Island
    July 16, 2016 at 8:30 PM–Free!

    Inside Out is a colorful therapy session for children and adults alike. There are really two plots to this tale: The first follows the young protagonist, Riley, as she deals with her family move from Minnesota to California. In the second, Riley’s inner emotions, animated as individual characters, are struggling with how to deal with these transitions. Voiced infectiously by Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling, Lewis Black, and Phyllis Smith, the emotions embrace the joys and hardships of change in a way that’s sure to induce a feel good cry.

    Scene from Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

    Scene from Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You

    Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You
    IFC Center
    Various Times

    Today’s perceived Golden age of TV can be traced back to the visionary work of Norman Lear. As the brain behind All in the Family, Good Times, and The Jeffersons, Norman Lear is just as honest as his programs were. A celebration of his life, Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You offers an intimate view into his inner world, his childhood, his political work, and his complicated relationships with his actors. What results is an endearing portrait that is as every bit as dynamic as Lear himself. If you can’t make it out to the theaters, be sure to catch Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You on American Masters this fall (check local listings).

    —By Rachel Olshin

  • July 8, 2016

    STAFF PICK: West Side Story at Highbridge Park

    A scene from Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story

    A scene from Jerome Robbins’s West Side Story

    West Side Story
    Movies Under the Stars
    Raoul Wallenberg Playground in Highbridge Park
    Saturday, July 9, 2016: 8:30 PM

    Perhaps the most famous adaption of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story continues to be an energetic and tragic story as it traces the forbidden love between Tony and Maria.  The Montagues and the Capulets are transformed into rival teenage gangs: The American-born Caucasians, Jets, and the Puerto-Rican immigrants, Sharks. The film presents a dark view of the brutality of gang violence and the tolls that racism and classism claim on urban society.

    This is especially apparent in Jerome Robbins’ choreography. Unlike the frilly musicals of the 1930s, the choreography of West Side Story is never flashy. Instead, the characters’ moves represent their individuality. When the Jets dance it has all the looks of roughhousing suffused with the elegance of ballet. The dancing pairs beautifully with the music and lyrics from the dream team, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim.

    With all its progressivism, it is truly a film of its time, as the majority of the actors playing Puerto Ricans were white, sporting thick layers of brown makeup. According to Rita Moreno (the Academy Award-winning Anita and one of the few Puerto-Rican actors on set), “there simply weren’t enough Hispanic—forget Puerto Rican—Hispanic male and female dancers at the time who could do the kind of professional job that was needed for Jerome Robbins’ choreography. . . . a lot of Latin kids, Latino kids, in those days didn’t have the money to take those kind of classes” (Fresh Air, NPR). This is not easy on the eyes of the 2016 viewer, especially during a year when the Tony Award-winning Best Musical has a multi-racial cast with the tagline, “This is the story of America then, told by America now.”

    Still, the story prevails, as it gives voices to those not often heard on the silver screen. In the song “Gee, Officer Krupke,” the Jets satirize the ever-changing 1950s sentiment regarding the problems of youth today, and more poignantly, the Sharks struggle with their identity in the song “America.” As Anita and Bernardo quip, “Life is alright in America/ If you’re all white in America.” This is precisely what keeps the film relevant. The message of social justice is urgently and wonderfully told in a way that can still resonate with the modern viewer, even if those telling it onscreen cannot.

    By Rachel Olshin

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