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  • January 21, 2016

    Staff Picks: Barton Fink at Film Forum; Cats! selected by the Criterion Collection

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    Film Forum – Barton Fink – January 29

    I suppose there could be no better self-proclaimed champion of the proletariat and vehicle of Hollywood satire than a New York playwright. You will find exactly that sentiment in Barton Fink the man. In Barton Fink the movie, that man’s piety and pedantry characterize his so-called writing process as he claims to serve an age-old pretension of art: that it be created for and about the Common Man… as long as that man is plainly uncommon.

    Set in 1941 and loosely based on American playwright Clifford Odets, Barton Fink illustrates how a left-wing hero of the working class fresh off his first Broadway hit might not smoothly transition into the role of Hollywood screenplay manufacturer. Indeed Fink (John Turturro) possesses the creativity, intellect, and antisocial personality disorder required to be a respectable writer. But can he write a wrestling film? Such are his marching orders from Capitol Pictures executive Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner).

    Fink dutifully sets out to create a first draft and checks into Hotel Earle, a vast Art Deco building with drab walls and long corridors that give the place a surreal emptiness. Under the hapless guidance of a flippant producer (Tony Shalhoub) and an esteemed writer-turned-drunkard (John Mahoney), Fink finds no peace of mind while making big money within the studio system. Finally, the presence of Charlie (John Goodman) as the next-door neighbor, traveling insurance salesman, and possibly Satan himself creates a sense of foreboding throughout and ultimately shows how Fink’s exploration of the mind comes at a steep price.

    In typical Coen Brothers fashion, the film rears its head at genre classification and moves to the rhythm of an offbeat drum. The Coens achieve a sustained feeling of unease and unpredictability through sound, tempo, and visual style. Murmurs, hums, cries, buzzes, and rings all permeate Fink’s world within the hotel. A sex scene transitions into a snakelike journey down a bathroom drain. Hotel bedrooms and hallways become apocalyptic spectacles of blood and fire. As he tries to write, Fink’s enthusiasm transforms into desperation, and his inner artistic reverie has become a nightmarish landscape.

    What seems like a grandiose exploration of the nature of creativity and the purpose of art really just manifests as the story of a writer whose artistic purity reveals itself as merely self-obsession. Fink claims to work for the Common Man, but only reaches out to others when it would serve his own desires. Instead of listening to Charlie tell stories of his travels, Fink obliviously blabbers on about his own fantasies. What looked like a Hollywood satire story on the surface actually resembles a darkly comedic portrait of a hack.

    Sure, Hollywood might be a place where creativity is stifled, art is commoditized, and morals are compromised. And maybe the path from a New York theatre to an LA backlot exists for sellouts and phonies. But perhaps a writer doesn’t need to travel that far to witness men putting a price on the formerly intrinsic value of art. Fink says he understands the Common Man, but he misses the fact that for many common men, the influence of money holds the most built-in appeal.

    Film Forum will screen Barton Fink on January 29 as part of a lineup of Coen Brothers films from January 22 to February 4.

    By Aaron Linskens

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    Criterion Collection – Cats! – Streaming on Hulu

    If you’d rather not wash your hands, your face and hair with snow, then cuddle up and let your laptop purr with the Criterion Collection’s free feline-themed festival, Cats!, streaming on Hulu this week.

    In honor of their release of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), the Criterion Collection has selected a set of films that feature memorable, albeit not all that friendly, cats. From the supernatural bakenekos in Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977) and Kaneto Shindo’s Kuroneko (1968) to the beloved pet in Shiro Toyoda’s Shozo, a Cat, and Two Women (1956), the Criterion’s small but varied selection takes a wide-mouthed bite into the dense catalogue of cats on film.

    By far, my favorite cat cameo is the black cat that attacks little Ana in Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive (1973). Set in a Castilian village in 1940 during the aftermath of a civil war that resulted in a Francoist victory, Erice’s honey-tinged film operates within a world of symbolism, subtly slipping political commentary past Franco regime censors. In the cat attack scene, six-year-old Ana, whose obsession with a fateful Frankenstein screening drives much of the film, pulls the cat from under the bed onto her lap. Ana’s sweet head rubbing and massaging eventually gives way to rough handling as she asks the cat, “What is wrong with you?” The cat’s green eyes narrow until it twists from Ana’s tightened grasp with a yowl and strikes her. Ana then wipes her bloody finger on her lips and admires the stain in a hand-held mirror.

    Ana’s goading captures a certain unthinking malice that I associate strongly with childhood. In a scene not so dissimilar, I lounged on my bed blowing air into my schnauzer’s face until the usually mild-mannered Lacey snapped and bit my cheek. Like Ana I didn’t cry but instead sat fascinated with my ability to create a monster out of something so familiar. Symbolically, Ana’s actions represent a desire for autonomy, which after all is the plight of childhood—or of anyone who is controlled by, say, a fascist regime.

    Albert and David Maysles’s Grey Gardens (1976), Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), and Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962) round out the list.

    By Brittany Stigler

  • January 8, 2016

    Bulletin Board: From Shakespeare and Tragedy to Cowboys and Soviets

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    Chimes at Midnight (1965)
    Film Forum
    Ongoing through January 12
    This compilation of five Shakespearean plays serves as the culmination of a lifetime’s creative work for Orson Welles. Directing and starring as the less than chivalrous Sir Falstaff, who spends his days reveling, warring, and philosophizing in his own fashion, Welles situates himself as the weightiest side of the love triangle with Keith Baxter’s Prince Hal and John Gielgud’s King Henry IV. Decades of rights issues denied legal public access to this film, but Film Forum has a new restoration by Janus Films and The Criterion Collection with a handful of screenings remaining.

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    Mother (1926)
    Jewish Museum The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film Series
    January 15 at 11:15 am

    Before the rise of the Soviet Union, early 20th century Russia experienced mass political and social unrest directed against Tsarist autocracy. Rather than cover that chapter of history in a general sense, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s first feature Mother enters that time through a particular person: a working class woman with a husband and son on opposing sides of the revolution. Based on Maxim Gorky’s influential novel The Mother, Pudovkin’s film illustrates a humanly accessible narrative from an individual perspective during a time when many other films highlighted movements of the masses. The Jewish Museum’s current series The Power of Pictures underlines a period in Russia’s art history when filmmakers and films such as Mother harnessed the melodrama of a story by making it political and militant.

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    Evidentiary Bodies
    Microscope Gallery – Never Twice exhibit
    January 10 at 7 pm

    In a branch of art usually referred to as “expanded cinema,” the filmmaker captures and projects moving images live for an audience as a performance that could be done again but never achieved in the same way. In taking this performative approach, Barbara Hammer and Lary 7 designed a performance with projectors, cameras, and film stock called Evidentiary Bodies. This performance will be the final of Microscope Gallery’s Never Twice exhibit, which addresses the transience of art with reference to the Heraclitus quote “One cannot step into the same river twice.”

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    Shark Monroe (1918)
    Museum of Modern Art – Modern Matinees: A Pioneer Cowboy series
    January 15 at 1:30 pm

    Known unofficially as “the first Western superstar,” William S. Hart donned the unsentimental, no-nonsense cowboy persona before the likes of John Wayne, Roy Rogers, and Clint Eastwood. While those mid-20th century stars benefited from iconic costumes and well-placed one-liners, Hart pioneered early silent Western cinema through his portrayal of conflicted and world-weary cowboys with a combination of sincerity and brutality. MoMA will screen a lineup of Hart’s films as part of the Modern Matinees: A Pioneer Cowboy series. Shark Monroe may warrant particular attention due to MoMA’s recent restoration of the print, the vistas of the Great Northwest therein, and the fact that it was one of the last of ten films directed by and starring Hart that year alone.

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    The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)
    Film Society of Lincoln Center
    Ongoing through January 14

    Despite working for years in Japan’s mainstream movie industry, director Kenji Mizoguchi infused his work with markedly more political than commercial ambitions. In The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, Mizoguchi depicts the oppressive effects of social norms and gender roles of Japanese history within the context of a tragic love story. The combination of late 19th-century Kabuki theatre and long takes that have the actors choreographed in a dance with the mobile camera give the film an intensity and energy that build to a climactic finish. The Film Society of Lincoln Center will screen a new digital restoration courtesy of Janus Films.

    Reporting by Aaron Linskens

  • December 10, 2015

    Staff Pick: PURPLE NOON at Film Forum

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    Film Forum – Purple Noon – December 13, 7:10 PM

    If you want to escape the December doldrums to a far-off place near the Mediterranean, where everything outdoors finds a place in the sun and everything indoors seems caressed by a sea breeze, then perhaps a viewing of Purple Noon should be on the horizon.

    Based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel The Talented Mr. Ripley, Rene Clement’s 1960 screen adaptation of the thriller follows characters that are as attractive as they are opaque, particularly the film’s lead, Tom Ripley. Played with dangerous vulnerability by Alain Delon, Ripley seems altogether amoral while never quite coming across as a monster though he has selfish, exploitative, and ultimately murderous rationalizations.

    On the surface it’s perplexing how a thriller arises out of a story with young people lounging in chairs on Italian city squares, vacationing in seaside villages, and relaxing on a yacht in the Adriatic. Instead, the story roots itself in the antihero leading man’s psychological state, illustrated not in voiceover or his dialogue, but through his unfathomable actions.

    While trying to convince his pleasure-seeking friend Philippe Greenleaf to return to his father in San Francisco, Ripley samples an Amalfi Coast life of luxury he is not inclined to give up after his mission fizzles. Initially, Philippe welcomes Ripley’s fawning of the extravagant lifestyle he provides. But he then starts using the desperate man for his own twisted amusement, eventually stranding Ripley on the yacht’s dinghy for hours. Tensions mount between the two, especially in the presence of Philippe’s girlfriend Marge, and it seems inevitable that only one man will get off the boat alive.

    As Clement and cinematographer Henri Decae use Delon in nearly every scene, we go where he goes, we see what he sees, but we are not told what he thinks. His outward actions hint at his inner dark side while his innate charm plays with our expectations of what he is capable of. Set against picturesque scenes of Italy and the Mediterranean that make it look like a crime novel within a travelogue, the movie captivates our eyes as well as our minds.

    Film Forum will screen Purple Noon as part of their “Women Crime Writers” series, which coincides with the release of a Library of America set of crime novels by pioneers such as Vera Caspary, Dolores Hitchens, in addition to Patricia Highsmith and other foremothers of the domestic suspense genre that dominates today’s best seller lists.

    By Aaron Linskens

  • December 8, 2015

    Screening Notes: Susan Howe presents THE MIRROR at Film Society of Lincoln Center

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    “It’s just in us all, this film,” said poet and essayist Susan Howe at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s recent Print Screen event. The film Howe was referring to was Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece of memory, The Mirror, which screened after Howe read a passage based on the film from her newly released book, The Quarry.

    For some who arrived early, it was already too late; the screening sold out quickly. Outside of the Walter Reade Theater, my friend gave his extra ticket to a man who was looking for Gertrude Stein, though it is unknown if the gentleman ever made it into the screening. Inside, the line snaked around as those lucky enough to have tickets waited for the doors to open.

    During her introduction, Howe gave context to her relationship with the film. She first encountered The Mirror in 1993 when she was asked to contribute an essay to Stanley Cavell and Charles Warren’s anthology of broadly defined nonfiction films, Beyond Document: Essays on Nonfiction Film.

    “It opened a new world,” said Howe on Tarkovsky’s use of documentary footage. The resulting essay, “Sorting Facts; or Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker,” took two years to write and included a section dedicated to The Mirror, which Howe described as the heart.

    “Somehow I was just in an emotional state where Mirror just overwhelmed me,” recalled Howe. The year before Howe was approached to write her essay, her husband, sculptor David von Schlegell, passed away. During WWII, David was a bomber pilot. “He didn’t talk much about it, but it affected everything,” said Howe. Additionally, her own father left to fight in the war from the time she was five until she was nine. Even today, however, the film resonates with Howe on an intimate, albeit different, level: “Something now about this moment with refugees and the family clinging together and fleeing, I simply couldn’t have imagined history repeating itself the way it was when I saw it as a child unfolding on newsreels in theaters.”

    Centered on the newsreel sequences intercut into The Mirror, Howe ran imagery of her late husband through “Sorting Facts,” blending, as Tarkovsky does, the personal, fictional, and historical. Towards the end of the essay, Howe evokes the voice of Tarkovsky’s father by including a line of his poetry from the film. In this way, Howe’s essay becomes, like The Mirror, polyphonic, elevating the essay to a discourse within itself.

    Rather than focusing on the evolution of narrative or plot, The Mirror presents a multi-leveled world that suggests coexistence not in linear time, but in space. For example, an unknown woman appears and disappears after giving orders, leaving nothing but an evaporating ring of condensation on the table. She is indeed real, as evidenced by the ring, but she only exists in that space to the young boy who saw her, dividing the boy’s world into two presents. Similarly, as is noted in Howe’s essay, flamenco music plays over a newsreel, highlighting the unsettling, contradictory fact that while great distress occurs, there is simultaneously entertainment. In this way, time does not stop for suffering, but rather suffering coexists with daily life.

    Formally, Howe’s concrete poetry and poetic essays reflect Tarkovsky’s use of space. Howe began her career as a painter, which informs much of how she uses the actual shape of text on a page to emote or suggest meaning — long breaks of blank space to imply breathing, lines of jagged text to imitate violence, reversed words to indicate erasure. Here, the way that Howe arranges words matters more than any meaning that the word may signify. Howe’s use of quotation also finds its mirror in Tarkovsky as a way of mixing mediums. Specifically in relation to The Mirror and “Sorting Facts,” both Tarkovsky and Howe use the newsreels and poetry of Tarkovsky’s father to add texture to their work.

    “In the end, it’s a kind of benediction. There is something sacred about this film, made in the Soviet Union, and it’s like a psalm,” said Howe before reading her essay. Perhaps because the film cannot be reduced to a singular meaning or maybe because it uses dream-logic, the viewer has the space to map on their own perspective while remaining fastened to history through the archival footage. After the screening, a few patrons chatted about the difficulty of reading the subtitles on the screen, but I couldn’t help but think that the inability to read some words only added to the film’s demand to read the image instead.

    The Film Society’s next Print Screen event will be held December 10th at 7 PM. Garth Risk Hallberg, whose new novel, City on Fire, debuted recently to critical acclaim, will introduce John Cassavetes’ Gloria, followed by a discussion and book signing.

    By Brittany Stigler

  • December 3, 2015

    Bulletin Board: Desk Set at the New York Historical Society; Illeana Douglas at Film Forum; Nathaniel Dorsky at Peter Blum Gallery; and more

    Bulletin Board: A roundup of screenings, discussions, and other film-related events

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    Desk Set (1957)
    New-York Historical Society Justice in Film Series
    December 4 at 7:00 pm

    Screened as part of the Bernard and Irene Schwartz Classic Film Series, Desk Set, with its legendary duo of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, provides a point of departure for discussing themes like social conflict and chauvinism in professional and personal lives. The New-York Historical Society’s Justice in Film series explores how filmmakers have used the medium to address such themes throughout history with remarks by present-day media professionals. Ron Simon, Senior Curator of Television and Radio at the Paley Center for Media, and Susan Lacy, creator and former executive of Thirteen/WNET’s award-winning series American Masters, will provide analysis of Desk Set at this screening.

    Unknown-1I Blame Dennis Hopper: An Afternoon With Illeana Douglas
    Film Forum
    December 6 at 2:30 pm

    Illeana Douglas, actor, director, producer, and author, will discuss her new memoir I Blame Dennis Hopper and the influence of her parents, who were impacted by Easy Rider and the hippie culture of the 1970s. Douglas, whose work ranges from acting in Cape Fear and Six Feet Under to creating the web series Easy to Assemble and hosting Turner Classic Movies, has experience in many corners of filmmaking, with stories involving icons Dennis Hopper, Martin Scorsese, and her grandfather Melvyn Douglas. Film clips will punctuate the onstage interview.

    Unknown-2Environment for Contemplation
    Museum of Art and Design
    December 11 at 7:00 pm

    Presented as a series of movies related to Wendell Castle’s 1969 art installation of the same name, these short films explore themes of environmental change and the appreciation of nature. This series includes three Encyclopedia Britannica shorts by Bert Van Bork, whose work illustrates how pollution and environmental desecration cause critical ecological changes. Also included is Frederic Back’s Oscar-winning animated short, The Man Who Planted Trees, which tells the story of young traveler who becomes fascinated with a widowed shepherd, who spends his days steadily reforesting a barren tract of land. The Museum of Art and Design will present this program in conjunction with their current exhibit, Wendell Castle Remastered.

    Unknown-3From an Island Summer (1983-84)
    MoMA PS1
    December 13-19

    While pioneering the videodance genre, video artist Charles Atlas directed From an Island Summer, which he dubs a “docu-narrative” that blends choreography, hand-held camerawork, and samba and punk music. With movement as the primary language, Atlas’s film creates a thrilling ambiance as it follows choreographer Karole Armitage and her dancers from a dance studio to the Coney Island boardwalk to Times Square. Screened as part of MoMA PS1’s Greater New York’s film series, From an Island Summer provides a historical snapshot of the art and architecture of the city in the summer of 1983.

    Unknown-4Nathaniel Dorsky: Film Stills
    Peter Blum Gallery
    Through January 9

    Following the first retrospective of his movies at this year’s New York Film Festival, filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky recently opened the first exhibition of his photographic works at the Peter Blum Gallery. In an installation of 36 prints from his 16mm silent films, Dorsky unearths the potential of each frame in layering color, light, objects, and lifeforms. While Dorsky seems less concerned with plots in his films, his painterly composition of each still image reveals a story through the beauty of an everyday observation that normally would go unnoticed.

    Reporting by Aaron Linskens

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