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  • April 21, 2016

    Screening Notes: Recovering Life in Writing about Death: Obit at the Tribeca Film Festival

    Image Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

    Image Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival

    Crafting an obituary is not a somber process at The New York Times. An entire editorial department makes daily attempts to give proper sendoffs to individuals who have left a lasting impression at a point in history. With only a line or two regarding the cause or the family’s confirmation of death, the Times obituaries use the majority of column inches to report on the life of the deceased. Filmmaker Vanessa Gould, with her rare behind-the-scenes access to the Times obituary department, explores this craft in her documentary Obit, which received its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival.

    While the section has posthumously highlighted the lives of cultural icons such as Michael Jackson and David Foster Wallace, it more frequently features pieces on lesser-known people who nonetheless had an effect on the period in which they lived. Two such cases frame Obit’s narrative as writers Bruce Weber and Paul Vitello cull together the stories of William P. Wilson, who was the first television consultant hired for a political campaign and proved instrumental in the Nixon-Kennedy debate, and Dick Rich, who “helped redefine TV advertising” through memorable commercials and ad campaigns.

    In addition to archival footage of featured obituary subjects, including Joseph Stalin’s daughter, a man who rowed solo across an ocean, and the bombardier who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Gould peppers Obit with one-on-one interviews with members of the Times staff. None of the obituary writers are the type of cub reporters fresh out of j-school, hired as a cost-cutting measure to replace seasoned veteran reporters. Instead, most of them could probably talk about what it was like growing up in the 60s and each seems to have been raised on a diet of print journalism.

    Gould, who received a Peabody Award for Between the Folds, a documentary exploring the art of origami, brings a type of Errol Morris intimacy to the film as her interviewees stare down the barrel of the camera while extemporizing, seemingly without need of a directorial nudge. Gould also paces the film through her use of the staff members’ longer and meandering anecdotes and thoughts describing the legwork required to write about the recently deceased and to prepare advanced obits for those in their autumn years.

    Margalit Fox, senior writer for the Times and holder of more than 1,200 obituary bylines, explains how her department works in “a retrospective genre.” While obituary writers look back through the 20th century to spotlight individuals who had opportunities to make cultural marks, the Times coverage also has a deficiency of stories on women and minorities. When asked to explain that lack, Fox maintains, “Ask me again after another generation.”

    While following the sometimes lengthy trails of evidence and research, the obituary staff still operates in a daily newspaper with deadlines at the end of the workday. Through a combination of history, research, news, and conversations with a subject’s friends and family, a Times obituary attempts to demonstrate a single person’s historical impact and relevance in today’s society. An example of an individual’s influence on 20th century history, whether it’s in the form of a presidential debate or a commercial, a photo or a television show, provides a callback to the reader’s own time and place when he or she first heard of that event.

    By remembering where one was, how they became who they are, and how society changes over time, a person can find the past in the present and the present in the past. In that sense, looking at human existence through the lens of an obituary is not about what was lost but how life can flourish.

    By Aaron Linskens

  • April 21, 2016

    Screening Notes: Tribeca Film Festival 2016

    Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival

    Image courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival

    With an impressive amount of virtual reality simulation stations and immersive screenings, the Tribeca Film Festival, which opened April 13 and runs through April 24, got a lot of toys for its 15th birthday. Inside of the festival’s hub at 50 Varick Street, participants were encouraged to don goggles and take part in the interactive technology featured in the Storyscapes and Virtual Reality programs.

    As a special treat, Guy Maddin’s “Seances” project premiered as an installation. Behind a black curtain, small groups of viewers were invited to curate a set of images that, when put together, combined to show a one-time-only film. The footage, created through a collaboration with Evan and Galen Johnson, featured Maddin’s interpretation of lost films—or films that had, for some reason or another, disappeared as if they had never existed. For those not lucky enough to make it to the installation, “Seances” is now live online as an interactive website.

    This year, the festival opened with Andrew Rossi’s glossy documentary First Monday in May, which delivers an inside look into the preparation of The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “China: Through the Looking Glass” exhibition and gala. Though the main question of the film—whether or not the exhibition was offensive—is never really answered, the film succeeds in providing what feels like privileged access into one of the city’s most exclusive parties.

    Some standouts in the documentary field are Alma Har’el’s experimental LoveTrue, Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai’s Reset (Relève), and Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s The Return. While LoveTrue finds its tenderness in its fluid exploration of love and loss, The Return (premiering on PBS’s POV on May 23) shows its heart through the pointed attention it pays its subjects: prisoners trying to reintegrate into society following Proposition 36, which reduced the life sentences of those imprisoned under the controversial “Three Strikes” law. In their best moments, these documentaries challenge the audience’s perceptions and call into question how we form our own judgements.

    For the first time in the festival’s history, the narrative films are divided into two categories: American and foreign. In the American competition, comedian and illustrator Demetri Martin’s Dean mixes grief and whimsy to create an enjoyable film that will slide in easily next to a copy of Garden State, while Ingrid Jungermann’s morbid Women Who Kill provides subtle and witty commentary on Park Slope’s lesbian community. As for the foreign competition, Christian Tafdrup’s Parents is a disturbingly beautiful and funny tale that casts a side-eye gaze on the idea of resurrecting a past self.

    Also new to the festival is Tribeca Tune In, an expansion of TFF’s television-centric programming. Tune In features special sneak peaks and conversations with directors, producers, writers, and stars.

    The festival continues this weekend and tickets can be purchased online. For more TFF coverage, read our in-depth look at Vanessa Gould’s documentary Obit, which takes a peek inside the famed obituary department of The New York Times.

    By Brittany Stigler

  • March 24, 2016

    For the Love of Chantal Akerman: NYC’s Cinematic Tribute at BAM, Film Forum, Anthology Film Archives, and Museum of the Moving Image

    Still from No Home Movie, courtesy of Icarus Films

    Still from No Home Movie, courtesy of Icarus Films

    The films of Chantal Akerman sculpt time. Her signature static frame, which often lingers without any corporeal presence in the shot, emphasizes time’s disregard for mortality. Faced with stillness, we feel the tick of the watch as the camera observes with an uninterrupted gaze—frequently lasting several minutes, an eternity on film. Unable to outrun time by a series of quick cuts, Akerman’s subjects instead move steadily towards an aestheticized disappearance. In this, Akerman makes the viewer physically aware of time; an aspect that renders her oeuvre difficult to digest for some.

    The importance of Akerman’s defiant cinema has not completely revealed itself, but this spring’s city-wide celebration of her work brings us closer to understanding her impact. BAMcinématek will present a comprehensive retrospective April 1—May 1, opening with the New York theatrical premiere of her final film, No Home Movie. Film Forum will offer a free-to-the-public run of Marianne Lambert’s documentary I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, accompanied by the short film But Elsewhere Is Always Better, for one week, March 30—April 5. They will also screen a new restoration of Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles April 1—7. Anthology Film Archives, which Akerman credited as a major source of inspiration, will run No Home Movie and Là-bas in mid-April. In Queens, Museum of the Moving Image will screen D’Est April 2—3. For purchase, Icarus Films is set to release a boxed set of rare titles, Chantal Akerman: Four Films on March 29.

    It’s hard to watch No Home Movie and I Don’t Belong Anywhere without feeling the chill of Akerman’s recent death. In No Home Movie, shot by Akerman on a handheld camera, we get a sense of Akerman’s intimate connection with her mother, who was at the heart of Akerman’s work. Echoes of her most famous film, Jeanne Dielman, reverberate through the dialogue and architecture of the film—particularly in the first conversation between Akerman and her mother about potatoes, which is a Proustian morsel for audience members familiar with Jeanne Dielman. Though she is no longer with us, there are instances throughout the film that attest to Akerman’s existence—a reflection in the window, breathing caught by the in-camera audio, and, of course, shots with Akerman actually in the frame. But as much as these glimpses confirm her presence, they also call upon the lack.

    A self-described nomad, it would seem that for Akerman home is not so much a physical place as it is a feeling. With the death of her mother came the loss of a central home, an anxiety that Akerman touches on in I Don’t Belong Anywhere. “Now that my mother is no longer there, there is nobody left,” said Akerman to the camera. “That’s why now I’m afraid. I think that now that my mother is no longer there, will I have something to say?” Intermixed with interviews (including musings about her commercial attempt, A Couch in New York) and footage from her films, I Don’t Belong Anywhere is an invaluable document of Akerman’s insights into her own work and a fitting closing word on her final film. My only complaint: we don’t—and never will—get enough time with her.

    In advance of the screenings, NYC-Arts will feature brief news coverage of the BAM retrospective on tonight’s episode. The full episode will be available here.

    By Brittany Stigler

  • March 17, 2016

    SCREENING NOTES: Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days at the Film Society of Lincoln Center


    The last time we saw Paul Dedalus and Esther, Arnaud Desplechin’s long-term lovers, was twenty years ago in My Sex Life…or How I Got into an Argument, and if Mathieu Amalric has his wish, the next time will be in another 30 years. “We’d be old and so mean. And we’d really hate each other…and it would be good, but just we’d be eighty, not before that,” said Amalric in a story that Desplechin shared after a screening of his newest film, My Golden Days, at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

    Honey-tinged with nostalgia that an adult Paul claims not to have, My Golden Days is essentially a three part coming-of-age story held together by what Desplechin described as his “Russian song.” “It’s a period film. The main one, with Esther, is happening during the fall of the wall,” he explained. “I knew on a musical level, it would make sense to me to have this Russian song going all the way through the whole film, driving my character.”

    Desplechin’s Russian song also makes a material appearance in the form of a Stravinsky recording, Two Sacred Songs. “It’s a piece that I love of Stravinsky, and it’s influenced by Hugo Wolf,” he said, “and I love to think in the audience there was Herrmann and Stravinsky in Los Angeles, both of them listening to Hugo Wolf, and one of them composed the score of Vertigo and the other one composed The Two Sacred Songs.” In this way, Desplechin’s nod to Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo score in My Golden Days becomes obliquely tied to Stravinsky as well, though Desplechin’s love of Herrmann goes far beyond Stravinsky.

    “It’s a complaint that I have from the composer [Gregoire Hetzel],” Desplechin said of his affection for Bernard Herrmann. “We did a few films together, and on each new film he says, ‘will you go on harassing me with Bernard Herrmann?,” said Desplechin before continuing, “And I think…I won’t stop.”

    As in Vertigo, the score for My Golden Days utilizes the concept of the leitmotif to signal Esther’s presence. “When Esther appears the during the party they have at home, you have the slow motion picture on her crossing the corridor,” he explained, “and you have this motif, you know, coming from Vertigo, and it’s as if she was appearing as a ghost or spirit.” Even without the motif, however, Esther’s presence would make itself known—through letters, through direct addresses to the camera, through force of adolescent will.

    Esther’s declaration of self, her toughness, and even her arrogance are what draw Paul to her in the first place. “I love the first appearance of Esther, sitting on this rock. And she’s like a statue, and she’s impenetrable,” said Desplechin. “Nothing can hurt her. She’s the woman with three husbands. She’s the queen.” But it’s Esther’s emotional development that sustains the narrative. She becomes vulnerable: “She was like a statue, and she’s becoming human. She’s becoming a woman at the end of the film.” This is a foil to Paul, whose maturity and rationality at the beginning of the film clash with the enraged, childish man that we find at the end. “It’s as if he was waiting for his late 40s to become an adolescent at last.”

    While we watch Paul and Esther change, their constant pull toward each other remains the same. Throughout the film, in homage to Truffaut, Esther and Paul read and write to each other. The letters allow for the characters to be present despite physical separation. Similarly, the books that the couple share traverse space to bind them to each other. In one of the final scenes, the pages of a book that they once read together fly through the air and surround Paul, bringing Esther and her memory to him once again. The reason, as Desplechin succinctly put it before the screening: “It’s a romance…It’s a romance.”

    My Golden Days opens this Friday (3/18). The Film Society of Lincoln Center will host a Q&A with the director on Friday (3/18) at 6:30 PM and on Saturday (3/19) at 1:30 PM.

    By Brittany Stigler

  • March 17, 2016

    ALTERNATIVE PROGRAMMING: Veritgo, City of Gold, Isabella Morra

    REEL 13 is still on hiatus for March pledge, but we haven’t taken our eyes off the great films playing around the city. While you’re waiting for us to return to your home theater on March 26th, here are some films to help you avert movie malaise. Sticking to the typical REEL 13 lineup, we present you with our favorite classic, indie, and short films playing in a theater near you.


    Metrograph – 3 PM, 9 PM

    Sometimes films of the bygone studio era exist today with a nostalgia that makes them look like mere novelties when rewatched. This is not one of those films. Named the best movie of all time by Sight and Sound in their most recent decennial poll, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo persists as a piece of cinematic mastery. Never before or since has there been a film experience quite like this narrative of crime, desire, and mental illness within the Hitchcockian trademarks of allegory, illusion, and mystery.


    City of Gold
    IFC Center – 10:50 AM, 12:20 PM, 3:35 PM, 5:20 PM, 7:30 PM, 9:35 PM

    In following Los Angeles Times writer Jonathan Gold, the first ever food critic to win a Pulitzer Prize, City of Gold explores the enclaves of Los Angeles culture and cuisine found not in high-end restaurants or Hollywood film set craft service tables, but in mini-mall dives, neighborhood delis, and food trucks. Through the simple acts of meals and conversations, Gold frames food as a celebration of the diversity of stories from migrants, natives, and transplants who can come together, if for a moment, to share a tasty experience. Scenes of Gold’s own family and career history add flavor to the documentary, but cuisine remains at the center of it all as the critic, with his endless curiosity and enthusiasm, shows how the real beauty of the city might be found in a mom-and-pop restaurant.


    Isabella Morra
    Museum of Modern Art – 1:30 PM

    In the event you cannot find a short film in the REEL 13 library* to sate your moving image desires, MoMA plans to screen a lineup this Saturday of shorts from all corners of the globe. The last in the lineup, Isabella Morra, illustrates a slice of French suburban life about a group of children left to their own devices in the outdoor confines of a housing project. With a story loosely based on an account of the daughter of an early-16th-century Italian baron, director Isabel Pagliai documents the children’s interactions within an ambience of shouts, silences, and ice-cream van chimes. With the vulgarity of youthful expression and the loneliness of children’s surroundings, the film gives a brief glance at the innocence, futility, and power struggles on the journey to adulthood.

    By Aaron Linskens

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