Archive for the ‘Film Comment’ category

Muse of the “Metropolitan:” A (Short) Conversation with Whit Stillman

August 28, 2009

last days of disco

It wasn’t hard to track down Whit Stillman. Though it was hard to get a word in.

Before the screening of Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, I hoped to find the director, introduce myself and ask for a couple minutes after the screening for a “brief” interview.

But finding the chronicler of the so-called “urban haute-bougeoise” (his term), proved fairly easy: all I had to do was look for the man in the impeccable suit.

“Mr. Stillman,” I asked. “If I could grab a moment of your time, I’m Nicholas, I’m  a reporter for the filmlinc blog–”

“Ah, great.” He told me graciously. “So nice to meet you, Nicholas. This is Tara, she’s in the film.”

A blond woman curtsied. I shook her hand too.

“Ah yes, very nice to meet you, but Mr. Stillman–”

“And this is Mark, the composer.” Mr. Stillman put his hand on the shoulder of a shy gentleman who gave a wave.

I tried to interrupt again.

“And this is…”

And so it went.

This social etiquette is not just a function of Mr. Stillman’s personality, but also eminently of his films. In his Academy Award-nominated film Metropolitan and in the later Last Days of Disco (recently released on Criterion), Mr. Stillman produces portraits of sheltered WASP-y New Yorkers in their mid-twenties growing up on the Upper East Side (Indeed, in Metropolitan, the banishment of one of the characters to Manhattan’s Upper West Side is a source of great shame in the film). These characters, sometimes characterized as “debutantes”, sometimes as “yuppies,” all show impeccable good manners even when savaging each other verbally, as they often do throughout the films. Mr. Stillman’s style is extremely distinct, his films are truly unmistakable, and his characters qualities have more often been compared to the protagonists of Jane Austen novels than other filmic protagonists. His style incorporates both humor and compassion for the hapless/helpless Manhattan socialites he portrays.

And as I waited to speak to him, introduced to his filming companions, I realized that this was more of his style: that he introduces the characters and then let’s them speak for themselves.

When I got to him after a long line of adoring fans had approached for DVD signing, I managed to sneak in a few questions.

“You were popular in there,” I told him, as I snuck him out to the Walter Reade balcony.

“I wish I were that way in Hollywood,” he said modestly, drink in hand.

“I’ve heard you compared to Woody Allen, in terms of your style and intimacy with your well-to-do characters,” I informed him. “But then again, sir, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Jew in any of your movies.”

“Guilty as charged,” he replied. “I love Woody Allen and he’s certainly an influence. But he’s like a savant and I’m like a dyslexic; he keeps up the pace constantly creating, a movie a year, while I seem to come out with them on occasion. But Allen often seems to break reality in his films and I try to stay there”

He continued: “I’ve been accused of naturalism,” he said, as if naturalism were a crime. “But, I’d like to think that people who are “naturalistic” are often on the wrong side of things. When I was making one of my films, we had to have a scene through a car windshield and my director of photography asked me if I wanted to fake the glare that might be in the windshield to make it seem more ‘natural’. I told him no, I didn’t care about that, I wanted to see the actor’s faces. I feel that the stronger part of reality is the emotional truth of how we connect to people, to characters. The expressions on the actor’s faces, that’s reality to me, much more important than a glare on a car windshield.”

“But what about fiction, sir?” I asked. “You got your start there, much like some of the characters in The Last Days of Disco. What’s the difference between a story told in fiction and one in film?”

“Well I got to meet Tom Wolfe,” He said. “And he told me what he thought the difference was. That in fiction you cant talk about someone’s shoes. You can talk about someone’s mannerisms, while if you did that in a film, there’s no room for it, if you lingered on a pair of shoes, people would think you were weird.”

At this point, I was interrupted by more of Mr. Stillman’s guests who came to greet him and say good night, as I realized that he is very much a part of the social community still that he writes about, shoots about, and gently mocks.

“Before you’re swept away,” I asked. “Any advice for the writers and filmmakers of today?”

“Don’t watch too many movies.” He said. “After all, there’s life out there to live.”

At which he was taken away back into the crowd.

-Nicholas Feitel

Photos from Young Friends of Film Presents: It Might Get Loud

August 3, 2009
Director Davis Guggenheim with Film Comment Senior Editor Chris Chang

Elisabeth Shue with director Davis Guggenheim
Elisabeth Shue with director Davis Guggenheim

All photos by Godlis

Our most recent Young Friends of Film event–It Might Get Loud–was a smash success, with a packed house, director Q&A and afterparty. Don’t miss out next time! Join YFF now and you’ll be on the A-list for a year’s worth of events designed especially for younger film-lovers.

Thanks again to our friends at KEXP for taking part in the event. New Yorkers, you don’t have to stop rocking–tune into 91.5 FM for great music, local events and much more from KEXP Radio New York.

THIS MONDAY! Film Comment Selects Director Park Chan-wook’s THIRST

July 17, 2009


Model Catholic priest Sang-hyun (Song Kong-ho, The Host (2006)) has a calling to serve those teetering on the edge: dying hospital patients, the suicidal. Restless, powerless to strike back against death, Sang-hyun signs up for a high-risk vaccine trial meant to combat a deadly virus. As the doctor who receives him at the clinic explains, to exhibit symptoms is to die. The doctor asks the priest why he has come: Sang-hyun answers, “I want to save people.”

And yet despite his faith, the disease takes Sang-hyun. While performing a Bach cantata — Cantata BWV 82, one ending with the aria “Ich freue mich auf meinen Tod” (“I look forward to death”)) — a firehose of blood flutes from the wooden recorder. Drained of blood, at the edge of death, Sang-hyun receives a transfusion shortly before coding in the clinic’s ICU. But then comes the miracle: from beneath the sheet issues Sang-hyun’s voice with a bizarre inversion of the Leper’s Prayer translating as something like “Make everyone avoid me as a leper whose skin rots;/ Make me immobile like a person whose limbs have been amputated.” Out of 500 volunteer test subjects, only Sang-hyun survives.

But back in Korea, abnormalities to his startling recovery begin to surface for Sang-hyun. There are those who embraces him as a saint and beg him to pray for them. But what can explain his sudden sensitivity to sunlight, and his gnawing craving for human blood?

Director Park Chan-wook‘s Thirst speculates: what if the priest doesn’t survive the disease because of faith, or because of the vaccine trial? What if instead of a cure, he receives another, far stranger disease? What if the transfusion of blood in the clinic carries within it … vampire blood?


Park Chan-wook is a highly-regarded, mid-career film director in Korea who in the past decade has gained a massive international reputation due to his stylish “Vengeance Trilogy”, particularly festival/cult film favorite Oldboy (2003). (My pick of trilogy: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002).) It is significant that Oldboy, though an adaptation of a popular Japanese manga title, gains a great deal of its icky, disturbing power directly from Park’s own preoccupations as a re-interpreter of the work — for example: the (in)famous twist at the end of the film. (Expect that the upcoming Will Smith adaptation will chicken out and source the less provocative manga instead.) While there exist fans who enjoy Oldboy solely for the extremity of its style and violence, I believe  situating it within the context of Park’s work as a whole, the film is much more critical of the impotence of violence/revenge than a celebration of it. (Provocative article here!)

From powerful political thriller J.S.A. (2000) to unfairly neglected I’m A Cyborg, But That’s OK (2006), Park leverages his high-concept-crossbred-with-adaptation plots to examine human behavior and the effect of man’s actions on others, tracing a line from characters’ well-meaning initial intentions all the way to (often horrifying) unintended consequences. As with I’m a Cyborg, Thirst doesn’t exist solely to resolve its conceptual premise, but continues to deepen and complicate all the way into the final minutes of the film. Thirst both is and isn’t a vampire film; while Park draws metaphoric strength from the vampire tale, the power of the film lies with the human personalities trapped within it.


Thirst is also an adaptation of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin, the novel/play that through grim, gritty, “scientifically detached” portraiture of its haunted, murderer protagonists, introduced the style of “Naturalism” to the Western world. While vampirism is something that “happened” to Sang-hyun, how he chooses to respond to the new conditions of his life takes shape after he encounters his childhood acquaintance, Kang-woo (Park regular Shin Ha-kyun) and his once-adopted-sister-now-wife, Tae-ju (the lovely Kim Ok-vin). Tae-ju comes to Sang-hyun for help, seeking an escape from her mother-in-law and sickly, needy husband. And she offers Sang-hyun help in return. (“I wish to help the needy,” she tells him. “And you are a single, needy man.”) And as anyone familiar with Thérèse Raquin expects, their plans to save each other at the cost of those “deserving” revenge will not proceed smoothly, trapping them more tightening clutches of their predicament.

Matthew Griffin

Monday, July 20, 2009 at 7:30pm Buy tickets

Bloodsucking mania takes a bite out of the Film Society this Monday with Thirst

July 16, 2009

In case you aren’t getting out much, vampire mania is everywhere:

trueblood_postertwilight-movie-posterBut on Monday, June 20th, Film Comment Selects a vampire movie of a very different stripe with Thirst. Directed by Park Chan-wook of Old Boy fame (rent it now if you haven’t seen it!), Thirst is a “gory but goofy grand guignol take on the vampire film—a genre hybrid that takes its horror-romance premise and shifts gears into black comedy and screwball farce with an adultery-and-murder intrigue plot lifted from Zola’s Thérèse Raquin,” in the words of Film Comment editor Gavin Smith.

Check out the trailer below–it’s in Korean, but does give you some idea of the visual gloss you can get out of a Park Chan-wook film.

The director will join us in person at the event!

THIRST Monday, July 20, 2009 at 7:30opm

Don’t Call It “Quirky”: Jim Jarmusch hashes out The Limits of Control with YFF

May 4, 2009


Both devotees and the merely curious gathered last Thursday, April 30 for the Young Friends of Film special event “An Evening with Jim Jarmusch.” The event boasted a chat & reception with Jarmusch following the screening of his new film The Limits of ControlFilm Comment editor Gavin Smith issued an ominous yet invigorating disclaimer that the film was zealously dividing the critical legions, but proudly forecasted it to be a personal Top Ten of 2009 entry.

Jarmusch is an indie icon due to his highly-regarded oeuvre, as well as his distinctive white-maned guise and a uniquely droll, delicately precise mode of articulation that has made him a go-to talking head for profiles and documentaries. Suffice to say, he’s a prized raconteur with much to share. Things got to a befitting start as Jarmusch declared, “This is the first real audience for the film,” before quipping, “that is, if you are real.”

Jarmusch unconventionally opened with a confessional of the semi-cosmic deliberations haunting him as of late. Like the film itself—laden with  endless variations of cryptic passages, exchanges, and codes—he returned time and again to the power of the “imagination” and its transcendent ability to decontextualize information, all the while mischievously noting, “this doesn’t necessarily relate to the film.” The discussion conformed with his continual quest to find new ways of conveying meaning outside of conventional narrative tropes. The film, ultimately,  “was an exercise in celebrating a love of cinema and what it is capable of.”

When Smith insistently questioned the political critique inherent in his recent films, highlighted by Murray’s Dick Cheney evocations in Control, Jarmusch semi-jokingly replied “I’d rather talk about Pythagoras.” While he conceded, “It was a real drag in the last ten years telling foreign cab drivers I was Canadian,” and reinforced the Dead Man-reminiscent stance that “America was founded on genocide,” Jarmusch remained weary of didactic messages, insisting his films are grounded in metaphor.

The audience was refreshingly uninclined to ask for cut-and-dry explanations, instead throwing out suggestions for extrapolation. Jarmusch expressed extreme admiration for his DP Christopher Doyle (“For every two ideas, he has a hundred.”), regular performers Bill Murray (“He’s just so human. I am moved by how observant and empathetic he is.”) & Tilda Swinton (“I just want to layer more and more preposterous wigs and disguises on her… One day I asked her to marry me.”), and film scorers Boris (“Their music is very cinematic, atmospheric. Music nurtures my creativity process.”). He discussed the intuitive rhythm he and longtime collaborator/editor Jay Rabinowitz worked to create, and displayed a surprisingly optimistic attitude towards the You Tube age, celebrating the beauty of “free information.”

Jarmusch’s frantic request for three more questions after Smith announced “We’ve got time for one more,” revealed a charmingly superstitious nature, a formalist sensibility much like his filmmaking, and an eagerness to engage his audience. He proved receptive to the inevitable non-questions, welcoming interpretations of the film, insisting, like the mantras of its characters, that subjectivity is the name of the game. His only expressed hostilities were towards the descriptor feared by all serious-minded independent directors: “quirky.”

Attendees were invited to a reception in the Walter Reade lobby; the clamoring throngs accumulated not around the free alcohol but the special guest, who went beyond gentlemanly courtesy, genuinely engaging each inquiring mind. “Elvis has left the building, time to go home,” chaperone Smith chuckled, but a lobby exit revealed that Jarmusch had merely retreated outside for his trademark nicotine indulgence, continuing to hold court with enthusiasts waiting in the wings.  Walter Reade’s newly designated smoking area rules were left graciously unenforced.

-Brynn White

Stranger Than Spycraft: Jim Jarmusch’s Limits of Control

April 29, 2009


“No guns, no mobiles, no sex. How can you stand it?”

This is the question asked by a very naked, very attractive Paz De La Huerta as she lies in bed pointing a gun at “Lone Man” (Isaach De Bankole).

(For context, the previous question she asked him was, “Do you like my ass?”, his reply: “Yes.”)

His reply to this question is given in a cut to him lying awake, fully clothed, while the fully naked Ms. De La Huerta lies next.

And thus the bed is made, literally or figuratively, for Jim Jarmusch’s “The Limits of Control,” a crafty satire so on edge you might just miss the comedy of it all.

The story–if there is much of one–follows Lone Man as he weaves his way through provincial Spain, discovering various characters (i.e: an umbrella-toting Tilda Swinton) and also includes a lot of match-boxes and something about diamonds somewhere and a conspiracy.

Knowing Mr. Jarmusch, you might also suspect the presence of both coffee and cigarettes, and be sated, for they are in the film in profusion.

And even though, as I said, there’s something of a conspiracy afoot (involving diamonds, remember?) and maybe some existential philosophy, what we really do for most of the movie is see what Lone Man is seeing and then stare, shot after shot, into his face.

This would be a more onerous task if Mr. De Bankole did not have such an interesting face. Indeed, Mr. Jarmusch (after pronouncing me a “lowlife”) claimed that the movie was written for him and that it would not exist without him. And Mr. De Bankole is indeed an actor of some great talent, as can be seen clearly in Lars Von Trier’s “Manderlay”, though American audiences may know him better from “24.” We hold on Lone Man in many shots of doing Tai Chi, of staring at a matchbox, of memorizing directions on small pieces of paper and then eating them (I was glad I had popcorn). It holds together because Mr. De Bankole is facinating in his motions, in the interesting lop-sidedness and angularity of his body (something mirrored somewhat by Ms. De La Huerta).

But didn’t I mention in the beginning that this was a satire? Indeed it is, though it might take you a while to catch on. What we are seeing here, is the inverse of Bond movie, round in all the places those films are sharp and vice-versa. Rather the frenetic pacing of a film like Casino Royale (which Mr. De Bankole was also in), we are given a lot of time with nothing at all. Rather than a bunch of high-tech gadgetry, we are given a spy who hates mobile phones. Rather than a polished, British-ized, anesthetized hero, we are given the distinct-looking Lone Man. Our arch-villain–none other than Bill Murray–tries to spout a bunch of nonsense about changing the world, where previously he was calling for a latte. Our hero’s greeting phrase for god-sakes is an acknowledgment that he can’t speak Spanish. What kind of International Man of Mystery is this?

Perhaps the most sublime moment of comedy comes from Ms. De La Huerta who greets Lone Man wearing nothing through a see-through plastic vest.

“Do you like my new raincoat?” she asks.

I guess that’s no more blunt than naming someone “Pussy Galore.”

Mr. Jarmusch has experimented with genre before, with the hip-hop/samurai-tale “Ghost Dog” and the concert film “Year of the Horse”, but here he tries a spin at comedy with sleek syle and gets somewhere, I think.

I discussed it with friends later.

“Well, it’s kind of like, you know Scary Movie and Epic Movie and all that stuff? Well, it’s kind of like if someone hired Jim Jarmusch to make Spy Movie.”

“But in a good way.”

“Yeah, in a good way.”


-Nicholas Feitel, Contributing Editor

“The Limits of Control” plays on Thursday April 30th at the Walter Reade with a Conversation with Jim Jarmusch to follow, part of FSLC’s Young Friends of Film Program.

Satyajit Ray’s Tender Twisters and Trysts

April 28, 2009


While one tendency is to describe Satyajit Ray – one of India’s foremost auteurs – as a deeply lyrical, characteristically humanist filmmaker, another, perhaps altogether similar tendency is to place him alongside the ranks of cinema’s most tender observers of the world. The twenty-one features included in the Film Society’s ongoing retrospective are encounters with what Film Comment’s Nicolas Rapold has called Ray’s incomparable cinema of impasses and reinventions. However, like the Italian Neorealists before him – who were early, venerable influences – Ray drops his characters into conditions that are ultimately too hostile and too unnameable for reinventions to take place. What remain are the impasses, and it’s with these that Ray’s characters most memorably come alive.

Aranyer Din Ratri (Days and Nights in the Forest) (1970), coming alive means taking a trip to the country and awkwardly putting big-city attitudes aside; it means sex with local women and doing the twist in the middle of the night. It means, for Ray’s four Calcutta natives (Soumitra Chatterjee, Samit Bhanja, Subhendu Chatterjee and Rabi Ghosh), a road trip that never really ends, a shove to their bourgeois mental baggage (Japanese radios, Hollywood Westerns, sunglasses and Scotch whiskey) and contact with a different kind of reality.

The contact becomes too much for the four men, however. Ray’s images alternate between different speeds and rhythms, keeping these characters out of syncopation with their new surroundings and ultimately disturbing their momentum. Late in the film, a set of conversations between the men and their newfound romantic interests (Sharmila Tagore and Kaveri Bose) are quickly interrupted by vertiginous, almost depersonalized images of dancers and musicians, linking carnival to confession in ways that accommodate the push-pull, stop-go presentation of Ray’s narrative.

As the characters’ relationships become more complicated, so do our feelings about their intentions, whether these intentions are disguised or made public. But the warmth and humor behind Ray’s images – the mindfulness his images have for gestures of different scales and intensities – give them a tenderness that sticks. It’s precisely this rejection of contemptuousness that ennobles Aranyer Din Ratri (and Ray’s cinema at large) with a sense richness and luminosity. Impasses are turned into possibilities.

– Ricky D’Ambrose