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  • 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

  • June 24, 2016

    Staff Pick: Amy Heckerling’s Clueless at Cinema Arts Centre

     Scene from Amy Heckerling’s Clueless.

    Scene from Amy Heckerling’s Clueless.

    Cinema Arts Centre
    June 25 at 10:00 PM — Part of the “Cult Café” Series

    A modern interpretation of Jane Austen’s Emma for an age group that had probably never heard of the novel, Clueless was the epitome of 90s slang, fashion, and rhythm. Cher and her best friend Dionne, named for “great singers of the past that now do infomercials,” are Beverly Hills rug-rats and popularity magnets. Feeling a responsibility to spread her grandness, Cher decides to set up her teachers by helping them court one another, in addition to taking pity on burnout Tia (breakout role for Brittany Murphy) by making her over.

    In the category of strong, female characters, valley girl Cher Horowitz is an unlikely addition.  Unlike Elle Woods and Buffy Summers, Cher is not particularly brainy or superhumanly strong—she bribes her teachers into giving her higher grades and has her step-brother (an adorable young Paul Rudd) does most of the heavy lifting for her.  However, Alicia Silverstone breathes life into the character; her LA twang is the only knowing wink that the role is a farce.  Silverstone, aided by the excellent coaching of Heckerling, reinvented the ditsy, spoiled blonde girl as somebody who is multifaceted (though to be honest, maybe Cher is only semi-multifaceted). She knows Hamlet from top to bottom—being introduced to the Bard by Mel Gibson—and she is not mean, no matter how cool she thinks she is, she never gets nasty. Her spunk, her ambition, and her love of scheming (even when it comes undone) displays a sense of power and self that sets a trend for women in future teen films.  John Hughes, for all of his strength, never truly captured the psyche of the female adolescent, (not every girl pouts all day like Molly Ringwald), and without the likes of Clueless (and of course, the queen of all angsty girl films, Heathers) teenage movies may still have female redheaded dorks exclusively pouting about prom.

    This film is being shown as part of the “Cult Café” in Huntington’s Cinema Arts Centre and promises to be a fun night with beer, snacks, and prizes. While there does not seem to be an age restriction on the event, and the film is rated PG-13, Clueless is not recommended to youngsters who do not know what Polaroid cameras are, as that will only be the beginning of many pre-Facebook references going over their heads.

    By Rachel Olshin

  • June 24, 2016

    Reel Questions: Elisabeth Subrin discusses A Woman, A Part, filmmaking, and constructing identity

     A scene from Elisabeth Subrin’s A Woman, A Part

    A scene from Elisabeth Subrin’s A Woman, A Part

    While Elisabeth Subrin’s debut feature, A Woman, A Part, charts familiar territory, she does so with an emotional depth not frequently found in the aging-female-artist genre. Known for her installations and radical short films (such as Shulie, a shot-by-shot reconstruction of an unreleased documentary about Shulamith Firestone), Subrin packs nuanced notions about what constitutes female identity into what could otherwise be called a straight-forward narrative about a lost 40-something actress.

    The film tells the story of Anna (Maggie Siff), an actress fatigued by the vapid TV role she plays in Los Angeles, and her attempt to rediscover herself by returning to her old New York City theater scene. But as Anna drops back into the lives of the theater friends she left behind—Kate (Cara Seymour, who also appeared in Subrin’s The Caretaker) and Isaac (John Ortiz)—old wounds reopen and new wrongs surface. What results is a film for those who have left and those who have stayed: a tender meditation on unresolved pasts and half-constructed presents that comes alive thanks to Subrin’s generous eye and the stand-out performances by Siff and Seymour.

    We spoke with director Elisabeth Subrin about A Woman, A Part, filmmaking, and constructing identity. The film will screen as part of BAMcinemaFest 2016 this Sunday, June 26, at 6 PM. A Q&A with Elisabeth Subrin and Cara Seymour will follow the screening.

    REEL 13: You’re celebrated and known as an experimental filmmaker and visual artist. How did the switch to linear feature-length drama come about?

    Elisabeth Subrin: Well, it was a long process. It came about because, as an artist, pretty much everything I’ve made is dictated by the ideas or what I want to communicate as much as the form I want to use. And for me, the relationship between formal decisions—like is it going to be experimental, is it non-fiction, is it a locked-down camera, what’s the performance like—is really dictated by what I’m trying to communicate in the content. And at a certain point in exploring representation of women and the evolution of my own interest in cinema, narrative just became the necessary form for my ideas.

    R13: What advantages or disadvantages have you found working with longer narrative form?

    ES: I think the advantage is that you just get to go deeper into something and develop ideas, emotions, and characters across more time. It pushes you as an artist to really get to know a character and immerse yourself. And it allows you to address a lot more ideas. What’s satisfying about short films is that you can do them faster, and you have the satisfaction of having a new film that you’ve completed.

    R13: Your film is emotional, raw, and intense, but still very warm. How did you go about creating that intimate atmosphere with the actors?

    ES: One of the things that I’ve told my students is that in my observations of directors on set, there are two main ways that people work. One is a kind of demagoguery way, where you are the master genius, and everybody is running around serving you. And there’s a very clear pecking order, as opposed to the way a lot of the directors I really admire work. I’ve spent time on set watching them, and the idea there is that we’re in a love situation with a bunch of people who have come together to create something which we normally wouldn’t have the opportunity to do, and we’re all being paid very little, and we’re there because we believe that films like this should exist in the world, and we believe in the ideas and emotions in the world.

    You utterly have to have this safe, supportive space. And that doesn’t mean it’s not a powerful space. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not in charge as the director, but that we all are important, and we all have our roles that are critical to the film. So, making everybody feel that way really helps the actors feel safe in the environment and supported.

    R13: Much has been said about the cast being largely female and the crew being 50/50 female and male. Do you think this played a part in creating that safe environment that you speak of?

    ES: Oh, absolutely. At the premiere Maggie talked about that a lot, which was very lovely. She said this beautiful thing about how it dramatically affected the environment—Cara talked about this too—and that you don’t really notice how different it is until you’re in it. I think it had an absolute enormous impact on the crew. It was also very diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, orientation. There was no kind of pecking order or traditional white-bro culture, bro-bonding going on. And I think it created a really exciting and interesting dynamic that everyone talked about on set.

    R13: Were there any challenges in filling the female crew? I know that you mentioned in one interview that post-production was particularly tricky.

    ES: Yes, it was challenging because basically when people reach out for recommendations, usually you’re asking the people you know. My producers would ask the people they know who make film—who are mostly men—for recommendations. And they would say we want women, we want diversity, but they got all these male recommendations. But what we did—and this is much to the credit of my producer Scott Macaulay—is we hired a young woman line producer named Taylor Shung, and we told her what we wanted, and she just went for it. She hired an African American woman UPM [unit production manager], and the two of them set up all of the interviews for me, and it just blew my mind how able they were to find these people.  So, initially it was hard, but once we found people really committed to it, they just worked miracles.

    R13: There’s an amazing line where Anna retorts that her character “isn’t a real person, she’s a profession.” To this point, female identity and the portrayal thereof is a popular theme of your previous work and your blog, Who Cares About Actresses. How did your work with female identity feed into the decision to center your film on an actress who is going through an identity crisis?

    ES: I love that you pull out that quote. That quote is in the trailer too because I feel, like most people, I am a little obsessed with episodic TV, and the series that I am addicted to, for better or worse, involve women in power. And it kind of plays into the whole glass ceiling thing and the leaning in thing and even Hillary Clinton: the way when women are in power, their identities are so reduced.

    The way I ended up with an actress is kind of a long, organic story. I had never thought that I would tell a story about an actress. As I tried to understand why this story ended up being about an actress, I thought about exactly what you just read, that I made films about female representation forever, and I also, in a more kind of political way, waged against the limitations of what we see actresses getting to do and show the world in terms of what a woman is. And I realized that actresses really are the vehicle by which we understand what a woman is in this culture.

    Ranging from television commercials to billboards, to TV shows to movies, which we know from all these endless studies, the roles are extremely limited, extremely few. It’s pretty much the most sexist industry that I can think of. And it seemed like focusing on an actress and the consequences of her being reduced by this role and by her work would be an interesting way to broach her crisis. Crisis of faith, crisis of sense of self, and how one loses one’s self when you reduce yourself to the expectations of our culture.

    R13: Anna’s return to New York and her past is painful for almost everyone involved. Why did you feel it was necessary for her to go back?

    ES: With screenplay, so much of it is technical and trying to create the illusion of narrative time and space and engaging an audience to move through a story with you—and also a lot of plotting and a lot of character background. I would have huge diagrams and charts integrating the three characters’ past and present. But then there is also instinct. I feel like in your 40s you almost biologically find yourself reflecting on your life, and I think it’s really hard to ask yourself where you’re going without looking back at where you’ve gone. And it seemed to me that unresolved relationships and unresolved actions in your past really hang on you and linger inside you.

    And [New York] is also where [Anna] found herself as an artist. She talks about being a neurotic Jewish girl from Connecticut. That’s probably not where she found herself. And she came to New York and became, as her friend said, a poet up on stage. And she looks so alive in that archival footage [of her 90s theater days]. And I think she was coming back for two reasons. One to find that spirit again and understand it, which, really, it seems like the Kate character had given her. And also to figure out some stuff about love and intimacy, which seems to be played out with both of them [Kate and Isaac], in ways: What happened with us? and Isaac calling her out and saying, “if I got close to you, you would have been out the door,” and you see, literally, Anna walking out of doors all of the time. And it seems like she has walked away from things and ran away from things, including herself.

    R13: While we’re on the topic of New York, the film is set against the backdrop of gentrifying Brooklyn. What drove you to include this changing landscape?

    ES:  Even saying those words “changing landscape”—that’s really what all three of them are going through, these transformations of their lives from their past to their present and the struggles they’re going through. But literally it’s because I’m living in it myself. And I feel like it’s a really salient metaphor, not just in terms of economic and cultural consequences of gentrification on real people’s lives, but also the idea of taking down buildings, smashing down the histories of lives and building new ones for very different economic purposes that are manufacturing different fantasies of what home is. Walking around Brooklyn and living within construction sites with wheat-pasted images of this other fantasy, of this much more glamourous and very expensive and prohibitive life, kind of plays out with Anna, Isaac, and Kate too. And Anna is kind of plastered on top of her more gentrified lifestyle. And I feel like she’s trying to break through when she returns home, which is almost impossible.

    —By Brittany Stigler

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