Sirk + Lang = Noir

Douglas Sirk and Fritz Lang share the common experience of having left Germany just in the nick of time though Lang’s story is shadowed by some questions. They both came to Hollywood after making films in their native country. And both rose to the top of their game. Lang died in 1976 while Sirk lived until 1987.

Lang

In the last 24 hours I’ve watched one film from each of the two directors. Second (first) was Lang’s Human Desire. An apt title since it’s really about little more than basic human need for sensual connection. Gloria Grahame, just a tad offbeat for a leading lady runs this show. This kind of part might have gone to Barbara Stanwyck but Gloria Grahame was terrific.  She might not have been as commanding as Stanwyck, but Grahame was definitely one of the great noir actresses of her day. I also loved her in It’s A Wonderful Life and In a Lonely Place but last night I finally got around to Human Desire (1954) with her and Glenn Ford.  She was steaming.  What a great actress. Every bit as good as Bette Davis, as far as I’m concerned. She gave such a complex performance as Vickie, married to the volatile Carl Buckley (Broderick Crawford). She sleeps with a muckety muck from the transit company that Carl works for and is fired from. He figures out that she must have done something unsavory to get his job back and ends up killing the dude on a train.  It’s the same train that Glenn Ford is riding on.

Anyway, Grahame now joins the circle of great screen actresses from that period between the silent screen era and before I was born. Also included in that small group is Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard and Judy Holiday.
The other classicI finally got to watch was Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows. Having already watched Magnificent Obsession, Imitation of Life and Written on the Wind (oh, yeah, and Shockproof, written by Samuel Fuller) this leaves perhaps only There’s Always Tomorrow left to be seen. Starring Rock Hudson, Jane Wyman, Agnes Moorehead and Conrad Negal, this is another typically melodramatic work but this great director. Thank goodness that Todd Haynes made Far From Heaven back in 2002. It was an unabashed homage to Sirk. More to the point, it’s the kind of film Sirk might have made. Well, if Sirk was still making movies now, they wouldn’t be ersatz melodramas. But it’s beside the point.  The thing is that Sirk is finally considered among the pantheon of great film makers. It’s impossible to ignore his politics though. One must give him his due for leaving Germany as it was being taken over by the scum of the Earth. As he has expressed in interviews, he was taken back by how many “decent” people he knew had become Nazis.  He was so disillusioned, that he left Germany during the height of the Expressionist period for America.  Oh, did I mention that he had a Jewish wife?
Anyway, Wyman is a widow who falls for a man beneath her class, landscaper Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson). She has two grown children who end up disapproving of the marriage as well as outside pressure from the community. She walks away and regrets her decision. Her ungrateful daughter ends up getting engaged and her son takes a job overseas, circumstances that lead her to realize that she is alone and doesn’t even have her children for companionship. This drives her back to the bucolic home of the man she rejected. He is arriving home at just the moment she drives over. Only he’s on the precipice looking down. He slips on the snowy edge and falls thirty or so feet to the ground below. In a coma, she sits by his side, now completely dedicated to him. He opens his eyes and forgives her. Fade to black.

TOTAL BADASS at reRun Gastropub in DUMBO

Aaron Hillis, Bob Ray & Chad Holt; Photo credit: Adam Schartoff

Chad Holt
grab off official site

Bob Ray (center), director of Total Badass and Hell on Wheels, is touring parts of the country screening the two docs. He was in Brooklyn last weekend showing the former film which is about an Austin, Texas dude named Chad Holt (above right) who is something of a local character. He’s perhaps best known for pulling stunts at local rock shows involving jumping off stages and into industrial strength rubber garbage cans. He’s a professed (former) coke and sex addict. Recently  reformed and  now on the straight & narrow, Bob was cajoled into performing his old stunt after the DUMBO screening. reRun GastroPub promoter/publicist Aaron Hills had advertised that stunts would occur and he held Holt to it. Holt did a sort of an insta-poll with the audience explaining that it wouldn’t be genuine since his heart wasn’t really in it; but he would let majority rule. After a stand-off tie vote, the next thing we knew Holt took the less-than-industrial garbage can and headed towards the club’s metal stairwell, dove in head first and rolled down the stairs.  [See video!] He lay unmoving for what seemed like an eternity until all were alarmed and convinced that he was actually harmed. Fire department and EMT called, the Texas gadabout, popped up and explained that he was fine to all.  It was, in the end, performance art.  It was him kind of getting back at those who egged him on in the first place. Where did I stand?  As a “journalist” (arguable), I stood neutral and did not vote for him to pull off the stunt.  But I was only too eager to film the entire thing. Bob and Chad are probably grateful.  My friend Michael Galinsky voted “no”. I thought at the moment as he lifted his arm, that should’ve been me too. While Holt was seemingly fine, he had admitted to the audience before taking the poll that he carried no health insurance and that he was responsible for two children.  I felt sheepish as I headed to the subway passing the fire truck on the way out.



video credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2010

film review: TINY FURNITURE

Written & directed by Lena Dunham
Produced by Kyle Martin, Alicia Van Couvering & Alice Wang
Edited by Lance Edmands
Cinemtography by Jody Lee Lipes
Starring Lena Dunham, Laurie Simmons, Grace Dunham, Jemima Kirke, Alex Karpovsky, David Call, Merrit Wever & Amy Seimetz

With “Tiny Furniture”, Lena Dunham makes a most memorable directorial and acting debut. It’s one of those quirky personal independent films that seem to come out on a near monthly basis (“Douchebag”, “The Freebie”, “Daddy Long Legs”, to name a few). But “Tiny Furniture”, with its deeply nuanced performance by Dunham playing a variation of herself, is a true stand out.

There are no false notes. Perhaps as an unintentional nod to John Cassavettes, she chose to cast her real life friends and families in some of the film’s central roles, and unlike many other films, it is a brilliant touch. The mix of professional and non-professional actors can sometimes spell disaster for a low-budget film but that’s not the case with “Tiny Furniture”. It’s raw and artful, funny and shocking, and always fresh.

Just having graduated from an Ohio college that sounds vaguely like Oberlin, Aura returns home to her Mom’s Tribeca loft with much trepidation. Mom, Siri (artist Laurie Simmons), is a highly successful photographic artist whose niche is shooting miniature furniture. Also still living at home is Aura’s over-achieving younger sister, Nadine (Grace Dunham), still in high school. Read more

film review: WHITE MATERAL

Directed by Claire Denis
Written by Claire Denis & Marie N’Diaye
Produced by Pascal Caucheteux
Cinematography by Yves Cape
Edited by Guy Lecorne
With Isabelle Huppert, Christopher Lambert, Nicolas Duvauchelle, & Isaach de Bankolé
100 minutes. French with English subtitles. IFC Films.

With “White Material”, Claire Denis has made a brilliant follow-up to her acclaimed 35 Shots of Rum (2008).  In fact, it may be her best film yet.  This is, in great part, due to her casting Isabelle Huppert in the role of Madame Vial.  The director and star have never worked together before, though they have been friends for years.  “White Material” is the result of their looking for the right project and finding one.  Luckily for us.

Madame Vial runs her former father-in-law’s coffee plantation in an unnamed West African country on the verge of civil bloodshed.  While all the French expatriates flee for European shores, Vial is determined to finish harvesting the season’s coffee.  With fury and single-mindedness, she refuses to see things as they truly are.  First, her formerly friendly neighbors—a number of whom she must wrangle into helping her replace abandoned labor—are now the same people that want her out.  And at any cost.  She is now considered lowly “white material,” a term we first hear from a formidable DJ’s broadcasting over the reggae station that plays throughout.  This voice is used the same way Wolfman Jack’s voice was used in the film, American Graffiti back in 1973.  Only instead of encouraging young people to neck in the back of parked cars (as did the Wolfman), this DJ inspires young people to kill with machetes. Read more

INTERVIEW with Doug Block

Filmmaker Doug Block; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2011

Doug Block is a distinct type of documentary filmmaker—the subjects in his last few films have been those closest in his life: his family. From “Home Page” to “51 Birch Street” and now with his recently released “The Kids Grow Up”, he’s tackled the complex issues of being both a son and a father, and of growing up and letting go.

We sat with Doug over BLTs at a sandwich shop around the corner from his office in DUMBO, a Brooklyn neighborhood home to many filmmakers, musicians and new technology types. Much like the subjects in his films, Doug was extremely open about his experiences making The Kids Grow Up and the unique relationship he has with his daughter, Lucy.

Tribeca: It appears that you had to deal with a fair amount of resentment from your daughter Lucy. How did you deal with the dual roles of both filmmaker and father throughout that period?

Doug Block: It didn’t come up that much during the year, because I didn’t shoot a lot; it was really that last week. Lucy was really stressed out about leaving [for her freshman year of college]. My own theory is that if we hadn’t argued over my filming, it would’ve been something else. She would’ve accused me of not being there for her in another way.

Tribeca: So the camera wasn’t constantly in her face then. Clearly she was comfortable most of the time, but there were moments when she appears clearly upset.

Doug Block: There were moments when she would say, “Oh, Dad, turn the camera off, you don’t want me all pissed off at you.” Those times, it was kind of half bantering. But when she broke down in tears (towards the end), that scene was hard. That was the first time I realized, oh my God, she is deeply upset with me now.

Tribeca: Moments like that must have created conflict between your role as father and as filmmaker.

Doug Block: Absolutely. At that moment I described I was thinking this could just be a thing today that she is feeling and will blow over like so many of our upsets do. What do I do? Do I keep filming? Do I stop? We have all these important shots still to do. I have to shoot her packing for college, leaving the apartment; we have to say goodbye to her on campus—I can’t stop now! But I have to stop now. All this stuff is going through my mind.

But if they don’t press me on turning off the camera, then I generally keep rolling, knowing we can always handle it in the editing room. If I went too far, then I won’t use it. And the camera always had the red light on, so Lucy always knew when I was filming.

Tribeca: Is there any difference between filming your family and other subjects?

Doug Block: It’s not like I treat my family all that differently than any other subjects that I film. There’s a certain etiquette. I try not to people make look bad. I let them know when I’m filming. I don’t try and surprise or ambush them. Obviously this is somewhat different because Lucy is my daughter and I’m protective. And I’m putting her in a vulnerable position, and I feel a bit guilty about that. On the other hand, I know she’s going to come off really well in the film. I always knew. There’s no way I can even make her look bad. In fact, if anything, I might have gone too far in making myself look bad as a way of protecting Lucy. And generally, most people understand that, though there are some people who think I come off as a bit of a jerk. That’s fine, too, because I am. Admittedly.

Tribeca: Even though you’re behind the camera, you are very much part of the story. You’re not worried about how you’re perceived as a father?

Doug Block: I’m trying to bring you into the world of someone in conflict, someone who is trying to figure things out and [who is] not quite on top of the situation. At times comically; other times, absolutely not. That’s always the trick, navigating the tone—when to go from humor to serious and back again.

Tribeca: That’s the job of the storyteller. Frederick Wiseman, the legendary documentary filmmaker, has spoken about how he goes out of his way to demystify the film making process for his subjects, so they get to that unselfconscious place that much sooner.

Doug Block: He’s absolutely right. When I was working as a cameraman, I would say that at least 50% of my job was trying to get people to act naturally and comfortably with this stranger who had this big machine recording their every move. Making them feel it’s no big deal, engaging them in conversation, letting them see through the lens, whatever it takes. When it comes to shooting my family, usually they’d give me one dirty look at the beginning and then forget I’m there.

The Kids Grow Up is now playing in LA at the Laemmle Sunset 5. Check out the official site for details on other cities. You can also check out “The Kids Grow Up” on Facebook, or save it to your Netflix queue.

DOC NYC

Film Festival Makes its Home in the West Village

Does New York City, specifically speaking, Lower Manhattan — or even more microscopically speaking, the West Village — really need another film festival? If it’s DOC NYC we’re talking about, then the answer is irrefutably and emphatically yes!

From November 3 to 9, IFC Center played host to what Katherine Oliver, Commissioner for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment (who will be interviewed in these pages next month), promised to be the first annual DOC NYC. Okay, perhaps the term “annual” should be applied starting with a festival’s second season, but DOC NYC turned out to be a critical and financial success. Pillared by two master documentary makers, Errol Morris and Werner Herzog with their newest works, “Tabloid” and “Cave of Forgotten Dreams”, respectively, the fest’s overall program is even-keeled, satisfying and quite digestible. It’s likely that it will be back next fall.

Filmmaker Josef Astor with one of his film's subjects, Editta Sherman, aka “the Duchess of Carnegie Hall"; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2010

Read more

Jonas & Jim

My friend, filmmaker Mike Cerda, invited me to join him to a screening of Jarmusch’s latest film, “The Limits of Control”. There was a special screening at the Anthology Film Archives celebrating their 40th Anniversary. Watching founder Jonas Mekas, naturally I was wondering how to wrangle him into an interview for WestView.

Jonas came out first and made funny and charming introduction. He talked about just coming back from a trip to Europe where 40 years is not even a blip in time. He seemed genuinely surprised to see the packed house.  Not really a shock for someone like me who expected the sold-out crowd that did show up. What did surprise me —though I’ve known that the East Village has been Jarmusch’s home for ages— was that the opening sequence (or vignette) from his 2003 omnibus, “Coffee & Cigarettes”, was filmed right in the very theater. At the time it wasn’t a theater but a shell, a ramshackle space with debris and whatnot. They made one less hazardous corner of the room look like a haphazard cafe. This is where Roberto Benigni and Steve Wright filmed their scene. Read more

film review: CLIENT 9 — THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER

Written & directed by Alex Gibney
Edited by Alison Amron & Plummy Tucker
Produced by Maikin Baird, Pete Elkind, Todd Wider, Jed Wide & Alex Gibney
Cinematography by Maryse Alberti
A Magnolia Pictures release presented with A&E Indiefilms in association with Wider Film Projects and Jigsaw Productions.
117 minute. USA. Rated R.

The main lesson to be learned from Alex Gibney’s slick new documentary, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, is that all too often, temptation plus opportunity equals downfall.

Whether your poison is sex, money, power, or screen-time, it’s beside the point. Spitzer fell victim to the same compulsions his enemies did Spitzer, the former governor of New York, gives Gibney extensive access. He doesn’t seem to edit himself much, and when he does it is done in a thoughtful manner, seemingly wanting to, protect what’s intact of his family and reputation.

To his credit, Gibney, director of the Oscar-winning Taxi To The Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, never crosses the line into tabloid-style prurience. The bluntest questions asked — “Weren’t you afraid of getting caught?”, “When did you know you were sunk?” — were crucial to figuring out just what the former governor was thinking at the time.

Unlike so many of Spitzer’s disgraced counterparts — none of whom participated in the movie — he is forthcoming and reasonable when describing what led him to seek out the comfort of strangers.

The film is a terrific window into the heart — or better yet, the soul — of darkness, and Gibney handles the whole thing soberly but never boringly. The documentary flashes back and forth in time, going between the upward course of Spitzer’s career and the eventual fallout, as suggested by the title.

His course was singular in both its velocity as well as in its perceived invulnerability. Eliot Spitzer was brought up to be a winner. His father, Bernard, who was a real estate mogul, pushed the young Eliot hard and thrust ambition upon him. After graduating from Princeton and Harvard Law, he went on to work at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office under Robert Morgenthau.

Spitzer picked up his brash personality from his father and from his own unique passion for choosing fights where he usually took high moral ground. And it put off a lot of people.

While those people respected his tenacity, many did not welcome his style. He started collecting enemies early on. No one denied his uncanny ability to swiftly and effectively bring his subjects to justice and change bad policy. Read more

Daniel Lanois & the NIGHT CATCHES US red carpet

NIGHT CATCHES US director Tanya Hamilton; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2010

I wrote a piece about a new dramatic film called “Night Catches Us” for Britt Bensen’s VOD website ondemandweekly.com. I wrote a luke warm review and I was supposed to attend a press day. The press day turned into my going to the offices of Magnolia Pictures and interviewing the film’s director, Tanya Hamilton. Kerry Washington –whom I recently interviewed via phone for her other recent film “For Colored Girls”— was now unavailable for press day as was her co-star Anthony Mackie. The film is about a guy who was cast out of the Black Panthers (back story) for supposedly turning in one of his own. The movie begins where he returns home to Philadelphia and falls back in touch with the wife of the other Panther. She has a daughter, who sort of like Gem in To Kill a Mockingbird is on the cusp of growing up. It’s a nice movie but misses any level of greatness by not leaving its safe zone. There is one character who ends up shooting a cop which, in turn, sets off a man hunt but there’s little tension in general. I almost got the feeling that the story, written by Ms. Hamilton, was tagged on to some recent historical period in our country as a short cut to the drama.  Everyone is fine but no one is great.

Daniel Lanois & I at B&N; photo credit: Sam Frank (c) 2010

Anyway, I interviewed Ms. Hamilton and she was very nice. Later in the day I came back in to Manhattan to go to the red carpet.  I was meeting friends in Chelsea for a few drinks, so I didn’t mind stopping by the Loews 19th Street Cinema on Broadway, just north of Union Square for a bit. And there I would get a chance to grab a few moments with Kerry, Anthony and some of the other talent involved in “Night Catches Us”. Some photos and audio were taken. I had some time to kill since I got there early. I sauntered over to Barnes & Noble and saw a sign at the bottom of the escalator that my all-time favorite musician/producer, Daniel Lanois, was going to be upstairs doing a broadcast of Katherine Lanpher’s show Upstairs at the Square which she records at B&N. But when I got to the top floor, there he was quietly signing copies of a new memoir. I approached him and he could not have been nicer. He posed for a photo with me and signed a copy of the book. It was an amazing moment for a guy who sings his song The Maker at almost every Songsmithing show we do in Park Slope.

Then off to the red carpet which audio I will upload as soon as I figure out how to do that.  Here are the photos from that event:

film review: NIGHT CATCHES US

Written & directed by Tanya Hamilton
Cinematography by David Tumblety
Edited by John Chimples & Affonso Gonçalves
With Kerry Washington, Anthony Mackie, Jamie Hector, Wendell Pierce, Novella Nelson, Tariq Trotter & Ron Simons
USA. Rated R.

“Night Catches Us” is one of those nostalgic set pieces that ride piggy back to a significant political event or era in the U.S. (the poster’s tag-line says it all: United by Revolution, Divided by The Past). In this case, the era is the post-radical mid-70’s.

Anthony Mackie plays Marcus Washington, a former Black Panther who returns home to Philadelphia after a prolonged absence. Years earlier he had been ousted by the Panthers when they believed that he was responsible for turning in one of their own to the police. Of course, the truth is more complicated than that and unravels during the course of Tanya Hamilton’s debut film, “Night Catches Us”.

Jimmy Carter, a southern democrat, is in the White House and things have normalized in the country, to some degree anyway. People of color have something roughly resembling a foot hold in the American middle-class.

Kerry Washington in NIGHT CATCHES US


One of those people who have found a foot hold is Patricia Wilson (Kerry Washington), an attorney and the widow of the man Marcus is supposedly to have betrayed. Patricia, or Patty as Marcus knows her, is bringing up her daughter Iris, a quiet thoughtful teenager who has reached the point in her young life where she wants answers about her Dad. Patricia is reluctant to reveal that story though Marcus’ return, and her obvious attraction to him, opens up unresolved emotional issues for both mother and daughter. Never for a moment are we too concerned that things won’t work out the way they should. Read more

INTERVIEW with Kerry Washington

Kerry Washington; photo credit: Adam Schartoff (c) 2010

Kerry Washington has never been busier. The young actress is best known for her work in such diverse films as Ray, Lift and “The Last King of Scotland”. Reviews were terrific for her work in Mother and Child earlier this year, and she recently wrapped on the Broadway production of David Mamet’s Race while already shooting Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls”, opening on November 5. Also coming out in the next month is the Black Panther drama, “Night Catches Us”.

Washington sat down with us to discuss her work in “For Colored Girls” and her gratitude to Perry for casting her in what she regards as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She also spoke with great emotion about being able to work alongside the film’s amazing ensemble of talented African-American actresses, all of whom seemed to recognize they were working on a very special project.

Tribeca: You’ve been busy doing some weighty films recently, some very dramatic stuff.

Kerry Washington: It’s interesting, I’m in rehearsals right now for my next film, a comedy, and I’m just so grateful. I did Mother and Child, then I did “Night Catches Us”, then I did the Mamet play—which is not light at all; it was very intense—and then I did “For Colored Girls”. I am way overdue for a comedy!

Tribeca: When did you first become familiar with Ntozake Shange’s seminal 1975 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf?

Kerry Washington: Towards the end of high school I came across the play. I was preparing monologues to audition for colleges. That’s when I first came across the material.

Tribeca: When you read the play back then, did it speak to you in an immediate way, or was it perhaps a way of connecting back to past generations of women in the community? Read more