Archive for February 2009

An appreciation for a titan of the documentary form, George Stoney

February 26, 2009

It was serendipity, though at the time I took it as a an annoying scheduling snafu. I was a student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and wanted nothing more than to throw myself in total production immersion zone: directing, screenwriting, lighting, editing, and putting actual sprockets of film on real cameras. But my first semester in the program, I hit a snag: the only class that would complete my schedule was a lecture series called “The Documentary Tradition.” I was no great fan of documentaries, and my main exposure to them had been through public television. There was lots of reading and viewing of old scratchy black and white laser discs at Bobst Library outside of class. Worst of all, the class focused on documentaries made before 1970. Weren’t all the best docs made in the modern era? But I dutifully showed up the first day of class. I had no choice after all.

There I met George Stoney, one of the best teachers of film I’ve ever encountered and someone many contemporary documentary filmmakers consider the godfather of their craft. The first class broke out 1931’s Man of Aran, and Stoney’s own companion piece How the Myth was Made. From there, the tone was set for a provocative, illuminating, always challenging year. We watched Buñuel’s Land Without Bread to talk about documenting “the other.” The development of faster film stocks, hand-held cameras and sync sound was marked with examples from the early verite tradition, including Chronicle of a Summer and Happy Mother’s Day. And it was in Stoney’s class that I first encountered Anu Kuivalainen‘s Christmas in the Distance, a completely subjective exploration of the frailty of memory, and a film that perfectly anticipated the kind of brilliant experiementation more recently seen in Ari Folman’s Waltz with Bashir.

I stuck around for the second semester of Stoney’s class, which turned into an amazing laboratory that hosted some of the leading contemporary lights of the craft to talk about their films, including D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, Danny Schechter, and Susanne Rostock. As great as that semester was, my sense of discovery was the greatest in the deeply historical first semester, via those pre-1970’s films that I formerly eschewed.

In short, Stoney’s class transformed me into a completely different person and spectactor, someone with a sophisticated understanding of the ethics of documentary representation. Someone with an appreciation for the multitude of different forms documentary can take. Someone who’s watched “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” three times. That’s why I was thrilled to see the Museum of Modern Art hosting a tribute to the man this weekend. George Stoney will be on hand to talk about his films and the documentary tradition, and I’m sure dispense some of his decades worth of wisdom garnered at the craft’s front lines. And while it’s definitely not the year-long immersion in the documentary form that I found so inspriring, it just might be the next best thing. If you care at all for documentary, don’t miss this singular opportunity to be schooled by the master.

George Stoney Tribute at MoMA: Feburary 27-28, 2009

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Film fans rocked out during last night’s party

February 26, 2009

A photo series by Susan Sermoneta for last night’s Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains party:

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Thanks everyone for making the night such a success and special thanks to the event’s sponsors, Stella Artois, 42Below Vodka and Viva Radio.

Film Comment Selects: Guy Debord Retrospective

February 25, 2009
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Tired of following the crowd?

Film Comment Selects is presenting a complete retrospective of Guy Debord’s rarely shown and hard-to-find films. Debord, born 1931 in Paris was a writer, filmmaker, and founder of Situationist International, an experimental group functioning in art and politics to revolutionize the everyday. Theoretically founded in Marxism, the Situationists played a large role in the political movements of the sixties, notably in May ’68. Their primary goal was to critique the capitalist system and make apparent the detrimental influence it exerts over society as a whole. Mostly renown for his book, The Society of the Spectacle (1967), and later the film (1973), Debord opens the famous text, “In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into representation”. Debord holds capitalism responsible for an illusion of freedom and fulfillment caused by a culture dominated and mediated by images. He observed that social relations have been replaced by reverence to the spectacle, leading to the isolating condition of modern life. His films function to critique this appropriation of everyday life by altering found footage (including film historical heavyweights, Potemkin and Johnny Guitar) to exaggerate and subvert his subject of critique, a method he called détournement. All six of his films will be shown on Sunday March 1st: In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978), The Society of the Spectacle (1973), Réfutation de tous les jugements (1975), Hurlements en faveur de Sade, (1952), On the Passage of a Few Persons Through a Rather Brief Unity of Time (1959), Critique de la separation (1961).

-Aily Nash

Tickets here

Film Society Week Ahead Feb 25-Mar 4: Rock on, Guy Debord retro and brand new films!

February 25, 2009

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TONIGHT ONLY! A special Film Society screening and party! Retrieve your angst, throw on your fishnets and doc martens and get ready to rock! Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains screens tonight, with a post-punk afterparty and raffle of memorabilia associated with the movie! We all know what happened last time. You don’t want to miss out.

A special Guy Debord retrospective this weekend! You’ll be thinking to yourself: the more things change, the more they stay the say the same while partaking in Debord’s incisive, visionary take on culture in films such as Society of the Spectacle and In girum.

Brand new films you won’t see anywhere else! No-holds-barred Korean thriller The Chaser and the whimsically wayward Mexican comedy Lake Tahoe later this week.

Check the filmlinc blog each day for exclusive dispatches from the series!

Film critic Melissa Anderson talks about her cinematic “brides” in a new video series, Personal Views

February 24, 2009

We’re thrilled to unveil this new video series, Personal Views, courtesy of filmmakers Drew DeNicola and Miriam Bale (also a Film Comment contributor). This series will visit people in the film community to take a look at their personal relationships to film.

This inaugural edition also introduces the newest member of the New York Film Festival selection committee, film critic Melissa Anderson. In the piece, hear Melissa talk about her “brides,” the women in film who inspire her, including Susannah York, star of The Killing of Sister George (screening as part of the Film Comment Selects series), plus the double feature she would travel thousands of miles to see.

See the Killing of Sister George with an introduction by Melissa Anderson: Sat Feb 28: 4

Film Comment sneak peak: the 2008 Readers’ Poll results

February 24, 2009

FILM COMMENT READERS’ POLL:
THE TOP 20 FILMS OF 2008

1.    WALL·E Andrew Stanton, U.S. (5)
2.    The Dark Knight Christopher Nolan, U.S. (21)
3.    Milk Gus Van Sant, U.S. (10)
4.    The Wrestler Darren Aronofsky, U.S. (23)
5.    Slumdog Millionaire Danny Boyle, U.S./U.K. (38)
6.    Let the Right One In Tomas Alfredson, Sweden (11)
7.    Happy-Go-Lucky Mike Leigh, U.K. (4)
8.    Wendy and Lucy Kelly Reichardt, U.S. (1)
9.    A Christmas Tale Arnaud Desplechin, France (3)
10.    The Curious Case of Benjamin Button David Fincher, U.S. (34)
11.    Man on Wire James Marsh, U.K. (18)
12.    Synecdoche, New York Charlie Kaufman, U.S. (14)
13.    Vicky Cristina Barcelona Woody Allen, Spain (39)
14.    Rachel Getting Married Jonathan Demme, U.S. (25)
15.    Gran Torino Clint Eastwood, U.S. (32)
16.    Paranoid Park Gus Van Sant, France/U.S. (7)
17.    Waltz with Bashir Ari Folman, Israel/France/Germany (8)
18.    In Bruges Martin McDonagh, U.S./U.K. (—)
19.    The Edge of Heaven Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey/Italy (37)
20.    Frost/Nixon Ron Howard, U.S. (41)

(Numbers in parentheses refer to rankings from our 2008 poll of critics.)

See the listings in depth in the next issue of Film Comment magazine.

Film Comment Selects: A Woman in Berlin Wednesday at 6PM

February 24, 2009

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Director Max Färberböck returns to 1940s Germany (after Aimée and Jaguar, 1999) to examine a wartime tragedy that up until the last few years had been treated as fiercely off-limits: the rape of millions of German women during and after the Battle for Berlin, many of them multiple times, by the occupying/”liberating” Soviet military force.

A Woman in Berlin (2008) adapts a diary published back in the 1950s anonymously by a German journalist. The eponymous “Anon” (or “Anonyma”) recorded her experiences during this period with painful objectivity, rendering observations of daily life and horrors befalling herself and her neighbors, with even, unflinching eyes.

At the heart of my fascination with this film are two scenes of (relatively speaking) normal life towards the middle of the movie. The eponymous heroine Anon, reunites with a dear friend in the rubble of the street where they are both make daily rounds to salvage for food. They come together gleefully, old friends. Anon asks her: “How often?” Her friend scarcely hesitates: “Four times. You?” Anonyma can’t answer her, just laughs. They are referring, as established by the first half of the movie, to the numbers of times that they have been raped by the Soviet soldiers.

Anonyma brings her friend home to tea at along with her other neighbors. Given the wartime conditions of famine, this tea is a feast — one provided for and under the armed military protection of a Soviet Major to whom Anon has given herself to gain limited protection for the household. The conversation and spirit in the room are on the surface upbeat, gossip and current events, giggling and laughter, but the content of the conversation is deeply disturbing. Anon asks her friend about her husband. She answers, offhand: “He was with me the first time and is still a bit disturbed.” The conversation revolves around their partners, their sex-lives, typical ladies gathering stuff, only the target of their jibes shifts between their husbands and their rapists. One neighbor points out: “Our men aren’t what they used to be, either. They’re so weak it’s hard just to look at them.” “The weaker sex,” the oldest member of the gathering agrees.

And over the second half of the film, Fäberböck builds a strong case for this observation. Men have had their war, the defeat of Germany inevitable from the beginning of the diary. But it is the women, treated as spoils of war, who continue to suffer and who demonstrate the courage and strength to survive and carry Germany forward. These women are unwilling to accept the solution recommended by their country’s former leader: suicide. Instead of “death to prevent dishonor,” these women seek to survive, even while their once-proud men, deflated physically as well as idealistically, collapse around them.

Anon in a painful self-realization argues they might even deserve their suffering, as an act of balance — but Fäberböck refuses to make martyrs of his characters, favoring specific, lived experiences. Everyone in this film has suffered, is suffering, from civilians to German soldiers to Soviet soldiers. Rather than simply reversing the traditional cinematic subject of the  World War II Germany-as-aggressor-villain to tell a story of German victims, Fäberböck keeps the division between German and Soviet crimes of atrocity and unfathomable suffering a grey, feathered line.

Anon is asked to translate from Russian into German the story told by a young Soviet soldier about the German soldiers capturing his town and taking all of the children and bashing them against walls until they were all dead. And even Anon’s relationship of convenience with the Soviet Major, the centerpoint of the second half of the film, deepens from one of carnal ownership into a sophisticated, romantic relationship. Fäberboöck’s takes his duty to the original diary too seriously to give us easy sentimental resolutions; his characters are too human to merely stand for ideas.

-Matt Griffin

Buy tickets to A Woman in Berlin: Wed Feb 25: 6:00