Posted tagged ‘filmcatcher’

Required Reading: FilmCatcher’s Damon Smith on Manny Farber

November 17, 2008

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to pick a favorite moment in Negative Space, the collected writings on film by the late painter-critic Manny Farber (co-written from 1975 onward with his partner Patricia Patterson). Brash arguments, heavily allusive turns of phrase, and coruscating insights await a first-time (or repeat) reader almost anywhere you drop into the text, often within the same sentence. Farber’s collected criticism, to me, represents the very best of film writing: idiosyncratic, passionate, impetuous, defiantly anti-elitist and at times, frustratingly ambiguous or contradictory. He didn’t so much communicate an opinion of whatever film was under his lens (far from it), but with his metaphorically rich prose style, immersed you in, as he once said of his favorite 1940s film artists, “the tension of an individual intelligence posing itself against the possibilities of monotony, bathos, or sheer cliché.” Sometimes, it is hard to tell whether he liked a film or not, but you always get the sense that he parsed the images he experienced with a scrutinous and unforgiving eye, paying as much attention to the arrangement of materials in a frame as to the mannerisms of actors and technical style of the film in question.

Space and design elements were, of course, vital to Farber, but the point of fascination for me in revisiting his work over the past week was his attention to the behavioral tics and psychological peculiarities (and excesses) of individual actors. He was no fan of the “New York films” in which Kazan, Lumet, and Strasberg-influenced thesps like Paul Newman strutted their talent in the mid ’50s. For him, the histrionic, tormented, propulsively quick-paced style of portraiture to be found in films like The Sweet Smell of Success or A Face in the Crowd “sweats too much around the edges.” Simple naturalism had given way to hysterical realism; showboating conceit had overtaken the anonymity of finely etched characterization. “The actors,” Farber wrote in 1957, “don’t chew their roles so much as storm past them.” Nearly ten years later, in his essay “The Decline of the Actor,” he had identified a new mode of inauthenticity imported mainly from foreign films (Kurosawa, Antonioni): the arrest of movement, in which the actor “is hardly more than a spot,” “a body on display,” or landscape features “stuck like thumbtacks into a maplike event” (Lawrence of Arabia). On one hand, acting had become too heightened, too self-aware and exhibitionistic (Angela Lansbury’s “helicopterlike performance in The Manchurian Candidate, in which every line begins and ends with a vertical drop”); on the other, films had become so suffused with inertia that actors were increasingly enveloped by mood and milieu (Monica Vitti in Eclipse), or made to carry the weight of the film’s entire stylistic construction at the expense of character exposition. All of this leads him to conclude, in “Pish-Tush,” that “Something died in the movies when TV, wide screen, and the New Wave film made the bit player expendable.”

Whether or not one agrees with Farber’s assertion, there is something irrefutable in the idea that an actor’s personality is too often a distraction to the task at hand, that brief moments with a bit player or a skilled “sideliner” (John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Mickey Rooney in Requiem for a Heavyweight) make a deeper, more lasting impression than a well-known entity’s star turn. If it was true then, it’s even truer now, when Us Weekly, TMZ.com, and anything-goes celebrity (and sublebrity) news coverage drive an ever-intensifying public interest in the minutest details of Hollywood actors’ private lives, from baby making to bust-ups to run-ins with the law or a fellow cast member. Regardless, Farber focused on what was onscreen, and developed an iconoclastic, uproariously funny shorthand for describing the traits and personas of particular actors, sometimes in as few as two words. Jimmy Stewart had “a harassed Adam’s apple approach to gutty acting.” Orson Welles, with his “flabby body and love of the overpolished effect make any flow in his performance seem a product of the bloodiest rehearsing.” Brigid Berlin, in Warhol’s Tub Girls, is “a hippopotamus of sin,” while Edgar Kennedy is fondly remembered for his “mad wounded-bull heavings.”

The point was not to anoint new heroes or drub unfocused, underwhelming players (though he did crabbily scorn Jeanne Moreau, “always a resentful wailing wall”) or even evaluate a specific role, but to isolate those “magical, intimate” moments when actors revealed something unusual and uniquely true about themselves: “quirks of physiognomy, private thoughts of the actor about himself, misalliances where the body isn’t delineating the role, but is running on a tangent to it.” Farber judged movie performances on their own terms, apportioning praise and disdain scene to scene, moment to moment. It is a standard that, while wholly personal and inimitably subjective, is sensible and instructive, and one that applies equally well to his own writing.

-Damon Smith, FilmCatcher

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Laurent Cantet on “choosing the moments” that make up his realist drama “The Class”

October 14, 2008

From the gang at FilmCatcher, an interview with The Class director Laurent Cantet in which he discusses imagining the characters that populate his “school of democracy,” The Class.

See all our video coverage.

Olivier Assayas talks about creating a “parallel reality” in his latest film, Summer Hours

October 11, 2008

In an interview from our friends at FilmCatcher, Olivier Assayas talks about how Summer Hours started as a short film, a commisioned piece, and ultimately became a feature film.

Darren Aronofsky on his love of wrestling, Mickey Rourke…and Axl Rose?

October 9, 2008

From the folks from Filmcatcher, an interview in which Darren Aronofsky holds forth on the powerful collaborations that made The Wrestler possible, including working with Mickey Rouke and the Boss.

The Wrestler closes the 46th annual New York Film Festival on Sunday.

Hunger director McQueen on “how an extraordinary situation becomes ordinary”

October 8, 2008

From our friends at Filmcatcher, a video interview in which Turner Prize-winning visual artist Steve McQueen talks about developing the true story of IRA member Bobby Sands into a film, shooting in “real time” and immersing himself in the prison setting of his film.

Guest review: FilmCatcher’s Damon Smith on NYFF’s Tulpan and Chouga

October 7, 2008

Is Kazakhstan the new Romania? Two new films at NYFF illustrate the flourishing of film culture in an oil-rich former Soviet republic most people associate with the antics of comedian Sasha Baron Coen (a/k/a Borat).

The first, Chouga, is a loose adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina updated to modern-day Central Asia by Kazakh master Darezhan Omirbaev. In the film, Ainur Turgambaeva plays a regal beauty who abandons her son and husband (an aging, indifferent MP) to take up with an equally affluent but feckless young lover in Paris. While her choice is born of passion (“When real love comes knocking, people do incredible things,” someone opines), the outcome is anything but happy. Leisurely paced and visually lean, Omirbaev’s film is a complex, subtle drama about romantic disillusionment in which shadings of dry humor and delicate emotion are conveyed with glances, gestures, and other nonverbal cues. At times, Chouga reminded me of Aki Kaurismaki’s own deadpan adaptation of a great Russian novel, Crime and Punishment, both for its minimal aesthetic and flat affect. But there is a gentle poetry to Omirbaev’s personal vision that creeps into the bleak, color-bleached public spaces and modestly well-appointed homes that house his gallery of lovelorn and sexually dissatisfied characters. The director has a peculiar fascination with light fixtures—several times he lingers on non-POV shots of lamps and chandelier medallions—as well as audiovisual screens (TVs, GameBoy, videotape). But he has a particular feel for capturing moments of solitude and inner reflection, too, such as an odd sequence where each of his primary characters is framed through a doorway, alone, until the hinge on their private world swings shut, closing them off from us—and each other—for good.

Set on the barren, wind-blasted Hunger Steppe of southern Kazakhstan, Sergei Dvortsevoy’s Tulpan concerns the efforts of Asa, a nomadic sheep herder, to court the painfully shy, ostensibly beautiful teen daughter of the nearest living family. (Though we never see Tulpan’s face or figure, we do know her opinion: Asa has “big ears.”) Meanwhile, there is tension at home between Asa and his brother-in-law Ondas, who struggles to eke out a subsistence amid harsh weather and a mysterious plague that is killing newborn lambs. But don’t go thinking this is a bleak exercise in ethnographic docudrama: Dvortsevoy’s portrait of life on the steppe is poignant, bittersweet, and almost riotously funny. Asa’s best friend is a goofy head case who drives a converted tractor plastered in girlie-mag porn and never tires of hearing Boney M’s “Rivers of Babylon” blasted at top volume. Ondas’s constantly revved-up toddler is a maniacal, wind-up screech machine with some of the best lines (mostly unscripted) in the film. (“I’m a monster!” he bellows, ripping into the frame via yurt flap at a tense moment.) Yet it’s the nonhuman element that makes this hinterland Kazakh drama such a unique and diverting delight. Ever-present are wind squalls, ferocious dust storms, and a deafening symphony of bleats, honks, grunts, howls, and other unidentifiable outbursts courtesy of the camels and sheep with whom the family, played by a game cast of nonprofessionals, cohabitates. These beasts aren’t cute and preternaturally inquisitive, as they would be in a Disney film; they’re animals, and act like it.

Dvortsevoy has a documentarian’s eye for unreproducible moments (e.g. in one sequence, a dust devil thrashes the landscape, tens of meters from the actors), as well as a naturalist’s sense of the sublime (an ominous band of storm clouds gathering above an oblivious snow-white mutt). He captures it all with whip pans and elaborate camera movements, tracking his actors through their paces in a way that suggests the chaotic urgency of their existence. Though Tulpan deals with unfulfilled longing, family tension, and the yawning abyss between city lifestyles and the hardships of surviving the steppe, perhaps the film’s true subject is the antithesis of man and nature, resolved in the symbiosis between human and animal needs. When Asa assists a helplessly pregnant ewe at the emotional climax of the film, this on-camera live birth feels at once like an intoxicating revelation, and a paean to a vanished time we’ve lost all meaningful connection to, at least in the developed world, perhaps forever.

-Damon Smith

Damon Smith is the editor-in-chief of FilmCatcher.

Buy tickets to Chouga: [Sat Oct 11: 3]

Buy tickets to Tulpan: [Thu Oct 9: 9] [Sat Oct 11: 6]

Mike Leigh on “the journey of discovering what the film is”

October 3, 2008

Fresh from the Filmcatcher video vaults, Mike Leigh chats up working without a script, creating an “anti-miserablist film,” and working collaboratively with Sally Hawkins to create the unsinkable central character of his buoyant new film, Happy-Go-Lucky.

See all posts on Mike Leigh