Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Assorted Screenings in NYC: Late March 2009

A few notes on end-of-the-month screenings that might fly under some people's radar.

1. I haven't yet seen anything in this year's New Directors/New Films program, but an unusual number of the films look interesting, judging from reviews and trailers. The screening I'm most excited about is Alexey German Jr.'s Bumaznyj soldat (Paper Soldier), playing at MOMA on Saturday, March 28 at 6 pm and the Walter Reade on Tuesday, March 31 at 9 pm. On the basis of German Jr.'s somber, atmospheric 2003 Posledniy poezd (The Last Train), I'm hopeful that he will emerge as an important director. Bumaznyj soldat took the Silver Lion at Venice 2008, which has helped get its director out of the shadow of his famous father (My Friend Ivan Lapshin; Khrustalyov, My Car!). I'm also looking forward to Barking Water, the new film by Sundance regular Sterlin Harjo, whose Three Sheets to the Wind was a thoughtful, nicely scaled depiction of American Indian culture. It plays the Walter Reade on Thursday, March 26 at 9 pm and MOMA on Saturday, March 28 at 3 pm.

2. Joe Swanberg's new feature Alexander the Last, which just premiered at South by Southwest, was acquired by IFC for its Films on Demand cable outlet. But a few NYC screenings cropped up post-SxSW, including one this Saturday, March 28 at 92YTribeca. Given the weird, distracting reactions to Swanberg's work, it's amazing that the guy manages to stay focused on the cinematic subtleties that interest him. Swanberg typically pursues the abstract by means of the concrete in Alexander: he puts a lot of energy into observing the reactions of his characters and the way that light falls in rooms, then again into editing blocks of film into a rhythmic structure. The story emerges from the intersection of these two activities, like a musical overtone - and sometimes Alexander seems the dream of its confused, yearning protagonist (Jess Weixler), whose subconscious desires and fears ebb and flow with the sequencing of scenes. Still striking me as something like the American Pialat, Swanberg here moves into Rivette territory, alternating between life and theater à la L'Amour fou or Out 1 - and Rivette couldn't have improved on Alexander's deliciously artificial final shot, an unexpected detour into the House of Fiction.

3. Dreyer's Gertrud, at BAM on Thursday, March 26 at 4:30 pm, 6:50 pm, and 9:30 pm, no longer flies under film buffs' radar, but it just seems right to mention it anyway. Here's Andrew Sarris from a more polemical time: "'But this isn't cinema!' snort the registered academicians with their kindergarten notions of kinetics. How can you have cinema when two people sit and talk on a couch as their life drifts imperceptibly out of their grasp? The academicians are right, of course. Dreyer simply isn't cinema. Cinema is Dreyer."


Anonymous said...

Count me as another who is completely perplexed by the confused, sometimes even angry resistance towards Swanberg's work. The guys films (at least the ones I've seen: ALEXANDER, NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS, HANNAH) have always been very easy for me to like. That balance between the abstract and the concrete that you mention is a key reason I find him constantly intriguing. Scenes start strange and find a pleasing normality, or start normal and become strange, but they are rarely either too normal or too strange. The comparison to Pialat seems apt. His storytelling methods could be accused of being lackadaisical, until he hits you with a carefully orchestrated movement that sheds light and insight on multiple threads that have been ongoing.

I like him. I like him a lot. Having only seen ALEXANDER once while sleepy, I'm not prepared to make any grand statements about it, but it seems to fall nicely into his filmography at this moment. I eagerly await his next.

Dan Sallitt said...

Stephen - another common tendency in Pialat and Swanberg - and I think it's a double-edged sword - is to hit thematic ideas fairly directly. Both directors use improvisation to generate a good portion of their dialogue, and both seem to have a taste for selecting material that is thematically explicit. I once wrote about Pialat's Police, "This preference for unshaded dialogue is an odd directorial trait; in some circumstances it strikes me as awkward, and I'm not sure that it's a conscious artistic strategy. But there is an interesting synergy between the abrupt rhythms of Pialat's pacing and the verbalization of subtext. Not only is the romantic story a sudden contrast to the police story, but the colliding elements also feel bigger and more explicit because of this overt dialogue. If the power of the love scenes in Police is connected to their abruptness, then the outsized quality of the dialogue can be seen as an upping of the stakes." Both directors omit narrative connective tissue, so a bit of thematic directness serves as a guide to the viewer.

Craig Keller just posted an appreciation of Swanberg's Kissing on the Mouth (a film I haven't seen).

Dan Sallitt said...

I really liked Barking Water, which screens again Saturday afternoon. It's not a film where I can see a lot going on in terms of visual orientation, but Harjo is really skilled at slipping into that gray area between fiction and documentary. The performances are uniformly wonderful, neither actorly nor awkward; a sign of directorial achievement is that the lead performers are even more effective when they blend with the ensemble in semi-improvised depictions of everyday life among the American Indians of Oklahoma. The most vivid image the film leaves behind is of a community scattered across the vast spaces of the Midwest, in small towns and in desolate rural areas, retaining a history and a closeness despite the attenuation of time and distance.