Friday, November 30, 2007

Romanian Film Festival: Tribeca Cinemas, through December 2, 2007

This is the second year that the Romanian Cultural Institute has sponsored a Romanian film festival at the Tribeca Cinemas, and both times I didn't find out about it until it was right on top of me. So maybe you don't know about it either.

There's a very juicy item in this program: Lucian Pintilie's first feature Reconstruction (or Reenactment) (1968), screening Sunday at 7:30 pm. I've never had an opportunity to see any of Pintilie's work before The Oak (1992) - and actually there wasn't that much work from him before that, as he sat out most of the Ceaucescu regime in Paris. I consider Pintilie a major dude - I'm an especially big fan of his An Unforgettable Summer (1994) - and I'll be there Sunday night with bells on.

If you're feeling adventurous, you might also check out Mircea Daneliuc's Jacob (1988) on Saturday at 12:30 pm. Daneliuc has talent, but I'm not sure yet how much: I rather liked his Mike Test (1980), was less excited about The Conjugal Bed (1993).

We've already missed the festival screening of Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but IFC has picked that up for American theatrical distribution. However, the program includes Mungiu's previous feature Occident (2002), screening on Sunday at 1 pm, and a collection of his short films, screening on Friday at 6 pm and Saturday at 8 pm. I had both good and bad feelings about 4 Months, but I'm curious to learn more about the guy.

The festival is also an opportunity to catch the late Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin', which won the Un Certain Regard award at Cannes this year, on Friday at 8 pm and Saturday at 3 pm. The festival is screening the "Endless" (a mistranslation of "unfinished") 155-minute version, with Nemescu did not live to finish editing; word on the street is that the film will eventually circulate in a version shortened by Nemescu's collaborators, but purists may want to grab this opportunity. Here's what I wrote about the film in my Toronto wrapup at Senses of Cinema:

"Twenty nine-year-old Romanian director Cristian Nemescu was killed in a car accident during the editing of his feature debut California Dreamin'. His post-production team finished his rough cut, titled California Dreamin' (Nesfarsit), and screened it at Cannes, where it won the Un Certain Regard award. An ambitious farce about an American captain (Armand Assante) and his troops stranded in a small Romanian town by a stubborn, corrupt railway chief (Razvan Vasilescu) during the Kosovo conflict, Dreamin’ is practically an homage to Billy Wilder’s sprawling comedies, with the bewildered Americans at the mercy of the Romanians’ criss-crossing objectives, including the political maneuvering of the mayor (Ion Sapdaru) and the romantic schemes of the railway chief’s daughter (Maria Dinulescu). Nemescu and his co-writers Catherine Linstrum and Tudor Voican successfully mimic Wilder’s flair for topical reference and his vision of a world driven by self-interest. And, truth be told, Nemescu’s filmmaking skills are considerably more supple than Wilder’s: he’s a confident action director, has a great eye, handles erotic scenes with enthusiasm and, above all, has an instinct for how to use naturalism as a counterbalance to farce. Dreamin’ should have been, and probably would have been, much shorter than 155 minutes: as it stands, it assembles so much digressive material that the story’s momentum is weakened. While less than a complete success, the existing cut is an amazing calling card for a director who might have been more than a footnote to film history had he lived a few more months."

Monday, November 26, 2007

No Country for Old Men

The Coen brothers' admirable new film is oddly transparent: the filmmakers do not wish to obscure the audience's view of the subject matter. Previously, I would have said that a certain reflectivity identified their style. But here we see the same abstraction as always, the same Lang-like transformation of images into ideas, the same quantization of effects - and yet no sense, or almost none, of the filmmakers using abstraction to open a humorous gap between themselves and the drama. (I don't mean to denigrate that humorous distance, which the Coens have exploited well on occasion.)

The film's daring is out in the open: it starts as a Charley Varrick-like, suspenseful conflict between powerful opposing forces, undermines and then destroys the force that most represents the audience, and empties out into a dark plain of irresolution.

As much as I appreciate this bold storytelling gesture, I wonder if it doesn't expose a contradiction in the film's means. Certainly a great deal of the pleasure that the film gives the audience is the joy of being vicariously threatened by an almost omnipotent villain, upon whose predations the film lingers lovingly. It seems clear to me that only part of us feels assaulted by such monsters, that another part of us thrills to their strength, their freedom to destroy. (If the Javier Bardem character were purely a source of suffering for audiences, then No Country's ratio of pain to pleasure would be too steep for most to endure.)

I don't object to this kind of appeal to our atavism: good films can do interesting things with our dark responses, and the Coens do not have an entirely simple attitude toward this psychopath/philosopher. But when No Country obsoleted its action story and left the audience to meditate on the untenability of civilization in the face of pervasive evil, I couldn't help feeling that it was failing to acknowledge how much it had divided our energies.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Toronto 2007

My coverage of the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival is now online at the Senses of Cinema site.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Humphrey Jennings: Anthology Film Archives, November 23-25

For those who are spending a lonely Thanksgiving in New York (I don't mean to presume that all of us film buffs are socially damaged; perhaps you are simply getting away from your extremely close-knit families for a few hours), think about seeing some of the Humphrey Jennings documentaries that Anthology Film Archives has programmed this Friday through Sunday. Jennings's best films - which I take to be the short Listen to Britain (1942) and the feature Fires Were Started (1943) - are records of the home front in World War II England. (He died in an accidental fall in 1950, at age 43, before fully coming to grips with peacetime.) Following the principle of counterpoint, Jennings used the intrinsic import of his subject matter to justify his concentration on delicate formal issues, and his films are a series of quiet collisions of self-sufficient audiovisual environments. (Listen to Britain is explicitly introduced as a film about sounds, in case the viewer needs help in identifying Jennings' hyperaware pursuit of the poetry of reality.) It sometimes seems to me that pre-Bazinian critics lacked the language to get at what Jennings was up to, so that the literature on him is heavy on slightly misleading references to montage and surrealism.

Fires Were Started screens on Friday, November 23 at 9 pm and Saturday, November 24 at 8 pm; Listen to Britain is part of "The Films of Humphrey Jennings: Program 1," which screens on Friday, November 23 at 7 pm and Sunday, November 25 at 5:30 pm; and also screens with Kevin Macdonald's biographical Humphrey Jennings: The Man Who Listened to Britain on Saturday and Sunday, November 24 and 25, at 3:30 pm.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Croatia Rules

I don't know whether Croatia makes high-quality films, or whether the Croatian series at the Walter Reade is unusually well curated, or whether I'm just having good luck. But my nearly random sallies into Croatian film culture keep coming up roses.

The high point so far is Rajko Grlic's terrific 1981 film Samo jednom se ljubi, bearing the English title The Melody Haunts My Reverie, even though the Serbo-Croatian title, taken from a popular postwar song, translates as You Love Only Once. Like the Sternberg of Dishonored or the Renoir of La Chienne, Grlic is such a powerful director that he can tell the story of a man ruined by love and yet create a competing, more alluring and exuberant narrative purely through the manipulation of tone. As original in its mysterious, bemused performance style as in its mastery of light and color, Samo jednom se ljubi will screen no more in this series, but subtitled VHS tapes can be had online for $4 or $5 plus shipping.

Much more casually executed, Tomislav Radic's 2005 Sto je Iva snimila 21. listopada 2003. (What Iva Recorded on October 21, 2003) is ostensibly the video experimentation of a 15-year-old girl playing with her first camcorder. What she documents is the fracturing of her bourgeois family on the occasion of an ill-fated dinner for a prospective business partner. Radic's sharp, undemonstrative observations and the effortless performances are complemented by the organizing idea that filming is an act of revenge upon one's family. It looks as if Iva is available on subtitled DVD.

Very few people are attending this series, which must be endangering Lincoln Center's plan to stage equivalent retrospectives for the other former Yugoslav republics. If you want to get a piece of my lucky streak, the upcoming Croatian films I'm most hoping to catch are Lordan Zafranovic's Occupation in 26 Pictures (1978) on November 6 and 11, Zvonimir Berkovic's Rondo (1966) on November 9 and 10, and Branko Bauer's Face to Face (1963) on November 11 and 13. To whet your appetite, here's a quote from Stojan Pelko's piece on Bauer in Ginette Vincendeau's Encyclopedia of European Cinema: "What Hitchcock and Hawks were for the French politique des auteurs, Bauer was for the young film critics in 1970s Yugoslavia. By discovering him, they rediscovered the notion of auteur and genre."

Outer and Inner Space

There are a lot of ways to look at Warhol's Outer and Inner Space: as time spent with Edie Sedgwick, as a commentary on or exercise of star power, as play with technology, as technology playing with our viewing experience and Edie's performing experience. But, underlying it all, giving excitement to whatever angle we choose to consider, Outer and Inner Space is a vision of paradise. Paradise here is characterized by:

  • an audience with a beautiful woman;
  • strange and beautiful light - gleaming, silvery foreground elements against the pervasive blackness of unexposed emulsion;
  • multiples of everything!

For this reason, I think the Museum of the Moving Image made a mistake when they projected the film on Saturday with only the sound track from the right projector. Agreed, it was possible to hear Edie's words more clearly than when two inferior sound tracks compete for attention. If the screening had been advertised as a special event for scholarly purposes, no one could object. But, in paradise, everything should be capable of everything. Giving unequal weights to the left and right projections just felt so wrong.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Madonnen: MOMA, November 9, 2007

Maria Speth's second feature, Madonnen, premiered at this year's Berlin Film Festival in the Forum section, and will screen on Friday, November 9 at 6 pm in MOMA's valuable annual Kino! series of new German films. Madonnen is less visually striking than Speth's first feature The Days Between (which won a Tiger at Rotterdam 2001, and also played MOMA): the stunning, contained widescreen compositions of the earlier film have become more relaxed and naturalistic, in keeping with Madonnen's more spontaneous ambiance and time jumps. But both films share an interest in the kind of rebellious nature that threatens a character's membership in society. One senses that Speth identifies with this quasi-criminal posture; and yet Madonnen maintains an analytic perspective that transcends issues of sympathy. Try to catch it: I haven't heard anything about a distribution deal for the film, and I don't believe The Days Between returned to NYC after its Kino! screening.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Train Without a Timetable

The Croatian series at the Walter Reade is turning up a lot of interesting work that isn't well known here in the U.S. Most of the films are scheduled for only a few screenings, and by the time you hear about them, they will probably have returned to the vaults for the rest of your lifetimes.

My favorite so far is Veljko Bulajic's Train Without a Timetable, from 1959. I went in expecting a "Tradition of Quality" work: it was Bulajic's first film, was very popular, and gave the director a favored position in the Yugoslav film system. (He went on to a number of big projects, including international productions like The Battle of the River Neretva.) Off the bat, I made the film for a by-the-book socialist inspirational, with its archetypal/stereotypical characters and its subject of a Tito-planned relocation of a poor peasant village to more arable land. But it was hard to resist the film's widescreen visual style for long. Bulajic relied heavily on his crane, but used it with great intelligence; he shot mostly long takes, often from a slightly elevated camera angle that let him keep two or more levels of activity in the same visual field. The look of the film wasn't so much about neat compositions as it was about the drama inherent in the space, about keeping different groups and planes of action in visual opposition to each other. Mizoguchi is probably the closest visual reference, though Bulajic is more immersed in storytelling.

I came around to Bulajic's side entirely when I realized that his sense of visual drama was in harmony with his subject matter, which centered on a long train ride. While he created attractive shots that reinforced our sense of the characters moving through a changing landscape, Bulajic simultaneously did a fine job handling the dramatic needs of a complicated multicharacter story. The beauty of his style is that his image plan is all about drama, and that he was solving his dramatic problems in front of our eyes as he managed his visual planes.

Though the characterizations were simple and the conflicts were elementary, Bulajic and his screenwriters (one of whom was the Italian Elio Petri, who began a fine directorial career two years after this film) maintained a sense of discretion and distance, and even threw in a few arty, off-balance resolutions along the way. In the final reckoning, there was nothing about the film that I wanted to change: it was all of a piece.