Archive for July 2009

Now on sale — KEEP MOVING: Michael Jackson’s Video Art

July 30, 2009

On Sunday, August 30, 2009 at 6pm, we welcome critic Armond White to the Film Society to discuss the cinematic innovations of Michael Jackson. Need to brush up on your Armond White beforehand? Be sure to check out contributing editor Nicholas Feitel’s interview.

KEEP MOVING: Michael Jackson’s Video Art

Check it out and get your tickets early!

Ang Lee’s career in grid form

July 29, 2009

Everything about the career of the director who made both Hulk and The Ice Storm screams: “DON’T PIN ME DOWN.” But on the eve of our complete Ang Lee retrospective, we just couldn’t resist. So without further ado, our handy, hi-tech grid of the eclectic selections playing at The Film Society August 1-11.

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Check out the whole selection and watch trailers.

Bigger Than Cinema: Nicholas Ray

July 28, 2009

Was Nicholas Ray the perfect Hollywood genre director?

This was what came into my mind as I headed out from the screening of Johnny Guitar, a film playing in the Nicholas Ray retrospective at Film Forum. That movie, which is not in fact about “Johnny Guitar” is difficult to categorize because of the avalanche of contradictions it embodies. It is a western, with requisite elements of the frontier, the railroad and the returning, retired gunslinger. It is a deconstruction of the western presenting outlaws as posers and scapegoats, non-violence as admirable and a woman gunslinger, Vienna (the enthralling Joan Crawford) as more of a hardy character than any man in the film. It is also, by turns, a satire, a gaudily-colored “B-movie” and one of the most potent and articulate films about McCarthyism.

Sound impossible?

The “me” who was waiting in line to see it would have agreed with you. As for the “me” who came out, well, he was compelled to write this.

But it’s not just Johnny that defines Nick Ray’s career: he is in Scorsese’s massive compliment to him, the best of the “smugglers”, filmmakers like Sam Fuller and Fritz Lang who snuck messages and interesting aesthetic ideas into their films unbeknownst to the studio heads that employed them. A great example of this in Ray’s career was Bigger Than Life, a film independently produced by its star, the great James Mason, but later sold to a studio. In that movie, a schoolteacher and all-around virtuous man (Mason) enjoys a good son and a beautiful wife, but can’t make ends meet. He works odd-jobs in his off hours for more money for the family. But despite his apparent virtue and all-American work ethic, he is struck by a rare heart disease and, given a death sentence by his doctor, embarks on an experimental treatment. The treatment works and he survives, but strange things begin to happen. He starts noticing injustices in his life, he starts harkening back to the bible. He sees corruption and wrongness everywhere and complacency and idiocy in his schoolchildren, as well as his own son. At one point, his wife, who becomes the protagonist of the film as he degenerates, tries to avert him from his plans to sacrifice his son ala Isaac and Abraham, pointing out that God stopped Abraham, Mason utters the epic words of the movie: “God was wrong.”

There’s obviously something going on here beyond the wild mood-swings of experimental treatment. Bigger Than Life, made in 1956, is in many ways a scathing indictment of the false pretenses and complacency of 1950s America, an attack on the idea of the American Dream. But what is so brilliant is that unlike contemporary examiners of American malaise, like Lars Von Trier or Sam Mendes, Nick Ray makes his message oblique, giving his film a “happy” ending where the aforementioned filmmakers’ Dogville and Revolutionary Road respectively, make their criticisms all too obvious. By the end of Bigger Than Life, Mason’s character is “cured” and can go back to his wife, son and life. But while some viewers may see this as happy, for Nick Ray it is the ultimate subversion: suggesting that the return to complacent 50’s lifestyle is really a tragic defeat.

In those films and in his others, like the spectacular In A Lonely Place, Nicholas Ray proves himself the American version of acclaimed Japanese filmmaker and contemporary Kenji Mizoguchi. Like Mizoguchi, who also made genre films for studios, Nick Ray was an auteur before auteurs, a filmmaker that put his brand, his indelible mark of a quality on each of his films. Like Mizoguchi, he also gave women their due, as women are the strong-willed and independent protagonists of both Johnny Guitar and Bigger Than Life, as well as In a Lonely Place, showing a sensibility transcending the times. But even to compare Nicholas Ray to Kenji Mizoguchi, a master of cinema, is misleading: he is his own beast, an auteur in his own right and style.

Was Nicholas Ray the perfect director of Hollywood genre films? Perhaps that’s not even a question anyone can answer.

A simpler question might be: should you see his movies?

The answer: a resounding yes.

The Nicholas Ray Retrospective at the Film Forum continues through August 6th.

Nicholas Feitel also writes for his own blog, Feitelogram.

A month of duels: Gomorrah vs. The Sopranos

July 24, 2009

The mafia ain’t what Coppola made it out to be.

In Gomorrah, a NYFF 2008 selection that is playing July 28 and 29 at the Film Society, you can take a hard look at the poisonous influence of the Camorra mob in a section of contemporary Naples. This is a grittier and more shocking exploration of well-worn territory. The film features Toni Servillo, himself the focus of a series that runs July 27-29.

The well-known Sopranos tweaks mafia legacy in a different way, but over six seasons, revealed the human complexities beyond the Godfather’s high drama.

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Mafia movie/TV fans, what do you think? Incidentally, I came across a great exploration of the history of  mob romaticization in the movies and TV in light of Gomorrah’s nuanced rendering via a blog called Kirby Dots. Check it out, and don’t miss the chance to see Toni Servillo in Gomorrah!

[Kirby Dots: Divorcing the Mob: Gomorrah and de-glamorisation of Organised Crime]

Hamlet, After the Fall

July 22, 2009

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When Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet came out in 2000, it seemed a vision of the excess of America and New York City in particular (its locale). The film updates the tale of that woefully split Prince of Denmark to the young woefully split, hipster/indie-filmmaker son of the “King and CEO” of the “Denmark Corporation”. From the get-go, one can tell that this is not a Kenneth Branagh film. First of all, there’s the presence of such non-Shakespeareans as Steve Zahn and Bill Murray, idling around in suits and punked-out leather jackets making jibes from the Bard’s lines. Second of all are all the backdrops, constantly moving tableaux of the New York elite ranging from the billboards on Times Square to the interior of the Guggenheim museum. Instead of a proscenium or a replica of mid-1500s Denmark, we are given the interiors of lofty skyscrapers, looking down on the rest of New York City.

Obviously, there is a parallel to be made here and Almereyda tries explicitly to make it: While back in Shakespeare’s time the kings and princes might have been the elite, in the year 2000 it is the heads of corporations, the ultra-rich. It is a world where Hamlet does not engage in self-reflection via mirror or a soliloquy, but instead by recording his own monologues via a DV camera, attempting to piece together the disparate feelings in his life. The movie feels somewhat stuck between the world it attempts to create and its faithfulness to the text–leather jackets or no, they’re the same lines they’ve been saying since Shakespeare’s time–but at least, for the time, it was admirable in its attempt.

However, looking back on the film in 2009, it seems in someways dated and someways prescient. While it might be strange to talk of a film from the same decade as “dated”, it is notable that the CEOs of ambiguous corporations such as the fictional “Denmark Corporation”, or say Enron, are no longer regarded as kings or unreachable figures. Every week in the New Yorker or the New York Times is another tale of high-paid CEOs as extremely fallible humans, in lesser or greater parts responsible for the current recession. When we hear about people like Countrywide or Bear Stearns, companies going under, we find out that their CEOs were car salesmen or bridge players, drafted in a competive game of chance and hucksterdom into higher and higher ranks of the organization, leading to their own personal downfalls. In a world where we’ve lost both significant portions of the automobile and financial industries, not only are the rich inclined to keep a low profile, but many of them have been deposed. In other words, it is unsure that Hamlet would even have his Denmark to worry about.

In other ways, in the realms of excesses, Almereyda’s Hamlet seems prescient. Kyle MacLachlan’s Claudius rises to the top of the Denmark Corporation through fairly literally back-stabbing that seems only slightly more figurative in the business world today. Bill Murray’s Polonius seems to be a brainless yes-man, dressed up in a suit, attempting politics in what seems like a pre-Bush-era sendup. Even Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet seems to be a blogger, involved in web-video before the trend came on.

Still, other parts, like the replacement of Hamlet‘s famous “play-within-a-play” (“The play’s the thing by which I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” Hamlet says), with an experimental video seems a bit much, if maybe only to show the whineyness and degradation of Shakespeare’s archetype in our current times.

Still, looking back on Almereyda’s Hamlet of the 2000s proves and interesting time capsule of what life once was, both far and not-so-long ago.

-Nicholas Feitel

The Bard Goes Global continues this week at The Walter Reade Theater. Tickets on sale now.

Nicholas Feitel also writes for his blog, Feitelogram

Can The Film Society rock? You bet — on Thursday, July 30th, It Might Get Loud!

July 21, 2009

What do Jack White, The Edge and Jimmy Page have in common? A borderline psychotic obsession with their guitars, naturally. On Thursday, July 30, Young Friends of Film presents a preview screening of It Might Get Loud, a documentary examination of these legendary axemen from Inconvenient Truth director David Guggenheim.

Over in the current issue of Film Comment, Chris Chang (who’s been rumored to rock himself) has a great Hegelian analysis of the inherent drama of bringing together three such charismatic personalities:

Page nicely fits the bill of rock ‘n’ roll progenitor, at the very least nominally, having, among other things, co-authored the 1971 Zeppelin staple “Rock and Roll.” Contra Page’s blistering finger virtuosity, we have The Edge’s militantly reductive technique, a method that favors open-stringed, ringing chords over aggressive solo noodling—albeit after said chords have passed through towering racks of effect processors. Jack White is a bit too young, and has come late to the “roots” variety of rock he emulates, so he must necessarily be categorized, at least for now, as postmodern anomaly. But his generation will always gleefully admit to the vampiric joys of pastiche. On the way to the film’s on-screen summit, he lets slip an ulterior motive: “stealing” the chops of his guitar elders. Given the same opportunity, who wouldn’t?”

Come for the potential chop-stealing opportunities, but stay for the director Q&A and afterparty. These Young Friends of Film events are always packed with great conversation, free drinks, and interesting people. And if you want to feel like a VIP all year, you might consider joining Young Friends of Film. For just $250, you’re on the A-List for parties and events designed especially for younger film enthusiasts at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. You can let your Netflix queue languish while you sit in on engaging conversation with top actors about their craft, meet influential directors, and hob-nob with other discriminating film lovers all year long. What are you waiting for? Join now.

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We’d also like to give a shout-out to our media partner KEXP. Maybe you’re like me, a long-time listener to KEXP’s excellent internet radio stream via iTunes. Turns out the pioneering Seattle station was so popular in New York via the internet that in 2008, the KEXP folks joined with Radio New York to launch a Gotham-centric offshoot called Radio Liberation, 91.5 FM on your radio dial. Same adventurous musical mix, but with 75% less rain. Seriously, tune in, they rock.

Don’t forget to join us on Thursday July 30th for a rocking screening and party!

A month of duels: DiCaprio vs. Danes

July 20, 2009

Shakespeare performance aficionados, this is the one to watch. In Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, in one corner you’ve got the riveting screen presence of Leonardo DiCaprio vs. Claire Danes’s superior command of Shakespearean language. DiCaprio captures your gaze, while Danes really makes you listen.

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In my mind, this contest is a draw, but this is one of those  duels of clashing performance styles that ranks up there with James Dean and Raymond Massey in East of Eden.

See it for yourself: Wed Jul 22: 1:30 & 6:15
Sat Jul 25: 3:45