Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Youth of Chopin: Walter Reade, Sunday, January 10, 2009

Polish director Aleksander Ford is one of those names who pop up in film history books, but rarely appear on American screens to take the test of time. His 1952 The Youth of Chopin, which screens once more on Sunday, January 10 at 3 pm in the Walter Reade's brief celebration of Chopin's bicentenary, has everything going against it: not only the unrewarding conventions of the biopic, but also an apparent governmental mandate to cast Chopin as a people's revolutionary. And it's a knockout anyway, a film that only gradually reveals how unorthodox and experimental it is. The project's central problems are confronted by writer-director Ford with unusual intelligence and formal transparency. The historical narrative is not so much blended with great-man mythology as juxtaposed with it, with self-aware cuts and tracking shots shifting Chopin and the class struggle from foreground to background and back again. Even more strikingly, Ford embraces the episodic aspect of biography, and the film often takes the form of a series of dazzling, disconnected set-pieces, with supporting characters bearing much emotional weight, then vanishing like comets. In some ways, Ford calls to mind the great French director Jacques Becker, in that his visual skill and sensitivity to ambiance is in the service of sharp but unbiased social observation. I could easily have been persuaded that Becker was responsible for the beautiful scene where Chopin attends a Paganini concert, or for an orgiastic party scene in which a political assassination is counterpointed with frenzied dancers ripping off their shoes. Still, Ford is somewhat more inclined to symbolism than Becker, more likely to turn the flow of reality into coolly observed friezes. I've never seen anything else by Ford, but it's hard to believe that a director who is at once so analytical and so instinctive could not have made many other worthwhile films.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

2009 Manhattan One-Week Theatrical Premieres

Here are my favorite films that received their first one-week theatrical run in Manhattan during 2009. (I exclude films that were made too long ago to feel contemporary.)

1. Night and Day (Hong Sang-soo)
2. Sita Sings the Blues (Nina Paley)
3. C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean-Marc Vallée)
4. Desert Dream (Zhang Lu)
5. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone)
6. Broken Embraces (Pedro Almodovar)
7. Me and Orson Welles (Richard Linklater)
8. Chelsea on the Rocks (Abel Ferrara)
9. Paradise (Michael Almereyda)
10. Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins)

More than half of these films received no national distribution, barely squeaking out one-week runs at NYC specialty venues. Which underlines the arbitrariness of a Manhattan premiere list...but whatever. (I keep a running list of my favorite films by date of international release.)

Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): Beeswax (Andrew Bujalski); I'm Gonna Explode (Gerardo Naranjo); Liverpool (Lisandro Alonso); Lorna's Silence (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne); Tokyo: "Merde" (Leos Carax); Two Lovers (James Gray); The Vanished Empire (Karen Shakhnazarov).

Films with a lot going for them: California Dreamin' (Cristian Nemescu); Extract (Mike Judge); Frontier of Dawn (Philippe Garrel); The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow); Il Divo (Paolo Sorrentino); Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino); The International (Tom Tykwer); The Merry Gentleman (Michael Keaton); Perestroika (Slava Tsukerman); Pontypool (Bruce McDonald); Revanche (Gotz Spielmann); A Single Man (Tom Ford); Tokyo Sonata (Kiyoshi Kurosawa); Treeless Mountain (So Yong Kim); Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy); The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke); You, the Living (Roy Andersson).

Films with something going for them: Adoration (Atom Egoyan); The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson); Cargo 200 (Alexei Balabanov); Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson); Flower in the Pocket (Liew Seng Tat); Goodbye Solo (Ramin Bahrani); The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel); Serbis (Brilliante Mendoza); A Serious Man (Joel Coen & Ethan Coen); Somers Town (Shane Meadows); Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas); The Sun (Alexander Sokurov); 24 City (Jia Zhang-ke); Up in the Air (Jason Reitman); Ward No. 6 (Karen Shakhnazarov & Aleksandr Gornovsky).

Among the films I couldn't get into: Adventureland (Greg Mottola); Afterschool (Antonio Campos); Avatar (James Cameron); Birdsong (Albert Serra); The Box (Richard Kelly); Cheri (Stephen Frears); Duplicity (Tony Gilroy); The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh); Home (Ursula Meier); Hunger (Steve McQueen); Import Export (Ulrich Seidl); Jerichow (Christian Petzold); Lake Tahoe (Fernando Eimbcke); The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch); Loren Cass (Chris Fuller); Megane (Naoko Ogigami); Moon (Duncan Jones); Munyurangabo (Lee Isaac Chung); My Dear Enemy (Lee Yoon-ki); My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done (Werner Herzog); Paris (Cedric Klapisch); The Pope's Toilet (Cesar Charlone & Enrique Fernandez); Public Enemies (Michael Mann); Shall We Kiss? (Emmanuel Mouret); Taxidermia (Gyorgy Palfi); 35 Shots of Rum (Claire Denis); Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain); Tyson (James Toback); Unmade Beds (Alexis Dos Santos); The Young Victoria (Jean-Marc Vallée).

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Sita Sings the Blues: IFC Center, through January 5, 2010

The distribution of Nina Paley's 2008 animated feature Sita Sings the Blues has famously been obstructed by music publishing copyright protection. WNET-TV broadcast the film via a loophole in the copyright laws for public television: I'm not sure whether its screening at the IFC Center (through this Tuesday, January 5) is a defiance of copyright law, or a side-effect of the WNET alliance. The film is freely available on the Internet, but it's actually a terrific film to watch with an audience: many of us in the theater interacted vocally with the screen, but at different moments and in different ways, as befits the complexity of the work. And, for a film that Paley presumably hand-crafted, it's a surprisingly spectacular big-screen experience.

Not to mention a great movie. From the first few moments, where a campy but oddly droll and restrained tableau of Indian goddess with phonograph player suddenly explodes into the dynamic credit sequence, we are in the presence of an artistic personality with so many dimensions - purely formal play, cerebral comedy, parody of popular storytelling modes, balance among personal and cultural perspectives - that we reduce it by considering any one of them at a time. Paley's Rube Goldberg postmodern conception/contraption is ultimately a demonstration of her ability to integrate an uncontrollable variety of effects into a complex but whole sensibility.