Articles by

<Cullen Gallagher>

06/08/11 4:00am

Directed by Mia Trachinger

Some mornings you wake up and think about all the bad things that could happen, but Eva (Leslie Silva) actually knows what will happen—and today is looking to be a particularly bad day. As Reversion begins, Eva wakes up and looks in the mirror. We hear her thoughts in a voice-over: “I am not a mutant. I am not a victim. I will see time happening single file. Not the past, present, future all mashed up together. I will put my life in order. I will not know what’s happening next.” What she sees is herself killing her boyfriend, Marcus (Jason Olive). Her goal today: avoid killing Marcus. Should be simple enough, just don’t pull the trigger. But, as Eva finds out, fate is harder to avoid than it seems.

Despite the seeming clarity of its premise, though, Reversion actually feels rather unfocused and half-baked. Directed and written by Mia Trachinger, whose previous feature Bunny garnered a couple Independent Spirit Award-nominations (including Best Feature), Reversion suffers from being inarticulate and overly sparing with the details. The setting is an LA that looks and feels like the present day, but crime is rampant, no one blinks an eye when Eva makes a PB&J in the grocery store without paying, and mobs of civilizations tackle an armed mugger like pros. But what of Eva’s “mutant” status (hinted at in the opening monologue) and her ability to see into the future? Her condition is presented matter-of-factly, but other than a gimmicky, epileptic editing pattern (red-tinted shots and fast, jerky cuts) the film never really explores the concept to its full potential.

Reversion’s script manages to be both vague and cryptic yet still obvious at the same time. Characters constantly talk around their subject matter without addressing it directly. The result is dialogue such as, “How do you know you’re gonna find it?” “You know I’m gonna find it,” and “Yeah, ok, but how do you know that’s a good thing?” The film tries to be mysterious by not giving audiences definitive answers, a risky choice that can backfire by alienating viewers.

The saving graces of the film are its two leads, Leslie Silva and Jason Olive. The duo have an understated charisma as they crisscross Los Angeles, jacking cars, talking to surfer beach mystics and trying to outrun fate. They’re undeniably cool and tough, but it never seems too showy. And though the film’s dialogue is at times loopy and convoluted, Silva and Olvie play it straight, and their strong performances bring both credibility and life to Reversion.

Opens June 10 at the rerun Gastropub Theater

05/26/11 1:55pm


Back in the days before the Tomato Meter reduced movie reviews to mere percentages, Cashiers du Cinemart was giving new life to film criticism with its DIY spirit and edgy views. What began in 1994 as a cut-and-paste-andXerox zine is now assembled into a handsome anthology: Impossibly Funky: A Cashiers du Cinemart Collection, edited by founder Mike White. Criss-crossing between cult, mainstream, indie, and arthouse cinemas, no movie was safe from CdC, no filmmaker too sacred to be spared from the critical scalpel or the sarcastic lip. The critics at had attitude, style, and incendiary opinions. They were as likely as to provoke fanboys as to gain loyal followers, evinced by White’s two video essays on Tarantino, “Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?” (1994) and “You’re Still Not Fooling Anybody” (1997), two prescient examples of the mixed-media critical form that has been gaining momentum in recent years. In short, CdC’s opinions were fun as hell to read and continue to shed light on under-recognized areas of film culture.

To further spread the Impossibly Funky gospel, Mike White is taking to the road this summer and bringing with him some of his favorite movies, beginning this Friday at 92YTribeca, where he’ll be screening George Armitage’s 1990 PI flick Miami Blues and Jim Sherman’s 1981 Rocky Horror sequel Shock Treatment. And next Wednesday, he’ll be invading the reRun with Greydon Clark’s 1976 cult classic Black Shampoo. For more information about the book tour, visit Impossibly Funky online. White spoke with us over email earlier this month.

Today, anyone and their cousin can go online and find any number of alternative film websites or even start their own—but back in 1994 you were forging new territory. Was there much of an indie film zine culture when CdC started? Any other mags that you could look to for inspiration?
When I started CdC, it felt like the heyday of film zines. There were some great ones out there: Mike Accomando’s Dreadful Pleasures, Mike Plante’s Cinemad… So why not join the other Mikes with my own brand of mayhem? I got my greatest jolts of inspiration from Colin Geddes’s Asian Eye, Rich Osmond’s Teenage Rampage, and Steve Puchalski’s Shock Cinema. Those were the zines to which I aspired.

How the heck did you even distribute the magazine in the pre-Internet age?
Like pimping, it ain’t easy. These were the days of little distro houses. It was all very punk rock—and I mean that literally. Punk had set the stage for homegrown music distribution and doing the same with zines was a ‘natch. I dealt a little bit with that but lucked out by finding a few distribution centers that would accept the rough-hewn version of Cashiers du Cinemart. I got my big break, however, when Tower Records picked me up. They got me into stores around the globe and in front of people that never would have found me just by checking out Factsheet Five.

What was the selection process for the book like? You had 15 issues to choose from, right?
Fifteen issues as well as a few odds and ends. I met with two of my friends, Lori Higgins and Mike Thompson, along with a list of everything that had been in the issues along with stuff that had ended up just living on the web. Mike had been with me from the beginning while Lori was a newfound fan. Between the three of us we picked out pieces that gave a history of the zine as well as some of our favorite pieces. The original list ran twice as long as what ended up in the book but I had to kill a lot of my favorites. Maybe I’ll bring them back for the sequel.

Impossibly Funky looks great, and the cover is fittingly funky! Who designed it?
The guts of the book were proofed and designed by Lori Higgins. The cover was drawn by Jim Rugg of Afrodisiac fame. Jasen Lex did the coloring. I love what they did.

What are the qualities that you like to see in a film critic or review?
I always enjoy criticism by folks who know their film history and can look beyond just the superficial binary criticism (or, as my friend Mike Thompson calls it, “the thumbs”). Don’t just tell me that the movie is good or bad while recounting the events on screen. Tell me where it fits within the larger context of cinema. Of course, not all movies merit that kind of discourse. I’m also all about simple popcorn turn-off-your-brain movies as well. When it comes to those, however, I tend to read reviews afterward, if ever.

What contemporary critics/publications do you read regularly (whether film or otherwise)?
I still read Shock Cinema and the occasional blog but I feel like an old man, preferring print to screen. Luckily, there’s still a wealth of film books that I have yet to read with new ones still coming out. The latest that I’ve devoured, Destroy All Movies, is informative and funny.


How big is your video collection, how do you keep track of what you have, and what is your most prized movie?
Until spring of 2010 I had a huge video collection. After seeing the first season of Hoarders, I decided that I had to purge. Now I’m down to maybe a couple hundred DVDs and a few thousand DVDrs (backups of my VHS collection). This year I hope to alphabetize everything rather than just keeping them in order in my head. My most prized movie is my original VHS tape of Black Shampoo. The sentimental value makes it priceless to me.

Favorite movie snack?
Milk Duds, just like Simon Dunkle.

As part of your book tour, you’re screening Miami Blues, Shock Treatment, and Black Shampoo—why these particular movies?
A lot of Impossibly Funky deals with overlooked movies and that’s where Shock Treatment comes in. Also, there’s a piece in the book all about Charles Willeford, the author of Miami Blues. I love the adaptation George Armitage did and wish that he had made the other Hoke Mosely books into movies.

Black Shampoo ties in very well with Impossibly Funky since I have a whole section of the book dedicated to that film. I’ve been a fan of that movie since I was 17 and it was something of a dream come true to interview the cast and director, Greydon Clark. Since then Greydon and I have become friends and he gave me carte blanche to show any of his movies while I’m on tour. Thus, I’m also screening Angel’s Brigade in Montreal as well as Satan’s Cheerleaders and Without Warning in Schenectady.

Your thoughts on the demise of independent video stores? Can the Internet possibly make up for it?
I’m bummed that video stores are closing—even the corporate ones—as I love browsing movies, seeing the cover art, and getting my fingers dirty on the dusty shelves. Indy video stores were always a great place for knowledge-sharing and finding some off-the-wall flicks. As it is now, it feels like there’s a collection of just a few films that get written about online. Or, people write about obscure stuff that it’s a chore to find. There needs to be a happy medium. The other problem is the overreliance on scoring systems versus good criticism. It goes back to that binary system I mentioned before. It’s good, bad, or a Rotten Tomatoes score. Can’t there be more?

Lastly, is CdC16 really the final issue?
I’m going to see how this whole “print on demand” thing goes. If I don’t lose my shirt maybe it’ll be a new avenue, though people will still say that I’m crazy for just not blogging more and sticking by print.

You can access Cashiers du Cinemart archives on the web at Mike White is also co-host of the podcast The Projection Booth.

02/07/11 8:58am


Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night (1952), which plays tonight at Film Forum‘s Lang in Hollywood series, proves that some of the darkest impulses in film noir play out in the comfort of your own home. Raymond Chandler famously remarked of Dashiell Hammett that he “gave murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Those words ring even truer for films like Lang’s Clash By Night and Human Desire (1948), or even Max Ophüls’ Caught (1949) and The Reckless Moment (1949), films that could be labeled as domestic noir. These are movies that give up the gangsters and the rain slicked alleys and embrace middle-class domesticity. These characters don’t wear fedoras and carry Photostats of their PI license—they work day jobs. And that makes their violent outpourings all the more brutal, their corruption all the more devastating, their amorality all the more empathetic. It’s one thing for a gangster to plug a dame; it’s another for an average joe to wrap his hands around an average jane’s neck. The former is entertainment; the latter is tragedy.

In Clash by Night, Paul Douglas stars as Jerry, a lonely fisherman who lives with his elderly, alcoholic father. Things start to look up when Mae Doyle (Barbara Stanwyck) comes home. She’s beautiful, sophisticated, worldly—everything Jerry’s not. One date leads to two, and soon enough they’re even seeing wedding bells on the horizon. So Jerry introduces her to his best friend, local movie projectionist Earl Pfeiffer (Robert Ryan).

Bad move, Jerry.

To quote James Ellroy, it’s that age-old noir story of “a man meets a woman and flushes his life down the toilet.” Less patient movies would skip right away to murder, lust, and betrayal, but not Clash by Night. Instead, it spends the first half of the movie building up hope in the characters with such sincerity that the audience thinks that maybe, just this once, things might work out. Any such hope is dashed in film’s second half, when all the characters screw up everything good they had going for themselves. The more promising Jerry and Mae’s relationship seems, the more twisting Lang’s direction becomes: the once-cozy home is fractured by camera movement, shadows are more pronounced, and latticed windows cut up bodies while summer sweat flows like blood. Modern noir author and scholar Megan Abbott perfectly captured that sense of slaughter that pervades Clash by Night in an essay she wrote for Noir of the Week: “the fever that pulses through the movie is the same one that burns through most classic film noir: that constant, brooding fear of sexual betrayal and loss of power. In fact, few movies better capture the post-war mood of gender anxiety and rage.”


There’s a number of surprising things about Clash by Night, especially when you consider it was directed by Fritz Lang. Foremost, this doesn’t look like the typical Lang picture. Here, the director eschews visual flourishes in favor of a subtler tonal palette. Instead of an expressionistic thriller, Lang turned out a starkly realistic drama with documentary overtones (particularly in the amazing opening sequence, filled with seals, gulls, and fishing minutiae that recalls Howard Hawks’ Tiger Shark). Lang and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca (a lord of the shadows if there ever was one, evinced by his work on Cat People and Out of the Past) manifest the rising tension of the story visually. The long, continuous shots and theatrical framing in the first half of the film gives way to more dynamic camera movement in the second half, foreshadowing the emotional explosion that is inevitable.

Another atypical feature of Clash by Night is how little physical action there is (despite the occasional domestic violence between co-star Marilyn Monroe and her jealous boyfriend). With most of Clash by Night taking place indoors, with characters seated at tables or at bars, the theatrical origins of the film are plain to see (it’s based on a play by Clifford Odets, adapted to the screen by Alfred Hayes). It’s a very talky movie, but who’s gonna complain with such great dialogue? Surely one of Barbara Stanwyck’s zingiest lines is Mae’s four-word autobiography: “What do you want, Joe, my life history? Here it is in four words: big ideas, small results.” Is there anything more twisted than Robert Ryan saying, “Didn’t you ever want to cut up a beautiful dame? Jeremiah, you’re a simple man.” And how could that same man say, only minutes later, “My ex, I wish she was run down. All the way down. Divorce is like the other person died. I keep saying she’s dead. She’s dead. Jeremiah, guard your castle. Your beautiful wife. Your wonderful baby. I’m tired.” As hardboiled as it is poetic, Clash by Night is one of the best scripts Lang ever worked with.

Despite the claustrophobia of the sets, or the inescapability of the town (heck, even the ever-independent Stanny couldn’t escape it forever—and if she couldn’t, no one could), Clash by Night is a lonely movie. It’s about characters compelled to make human connections they know they can’t sustain. There’s nothing romantic about Jerry, Mae’s got hot feet, and Earl’s a self-loathing, semi-psychotic movie projectionist who hates women but is emotionally dependent on them. These are some of the sorriest characters you’ll ever come across in a Fritz Lang movie. They’re also some of the most realistic, and recognizably human.

12/03/10 1:00pm

December 3-16 at Film Forum

Cinema has its own rich history of great composers—Ennio Morricone, Bernard Herrmann, Georges Delerue, and John Williams, to name just a few—but none can hold a candle to Toru Takemitsu. To celebrate his sonorous achievements, Film Forum is hosting “Takemitsu,” a two-week, nineteen-film retrospective covering the composer’s most famous work, as well as a few new discoveries for US audiences.

Fourteen years have elapsed since his passing in 1996 at the age of 65, and still Takemitsu’s legacy as a composer of chamber and solo works as well as film scores remains unsurpassed. Krzysztof Penderecki and Philip Glass (who similarly work in both the concert hall and the movie theater) come close—but Penderecki’s 25 and Glass’ 39 original film scores are only a fraction of the nearly 100 scores that Takemitsu completed in his lifetime.

Takemitsu’s distinct style is as ancient as it is modern. He was not only one of the first to bring traditional Japanese instrumentation to movie scores, but also to blend it with the avant-garde techniques being developed by John Cage, with whom Takemitsu briefly studied. The ethereal sounds of nature are as integral to his work as the metallic whine of machinery and the clamorous roar of fast-moving urban spaces. Somehow, magically, Takemitsu is able to mimic these sounds through orchestral arrangement. His skilled manipulation of aural space is such that you’re never quire sure if you’re listening to the war cry of hawks or the shrill of violins—either way, your senses can’t escape the commanding presence of Takemitsu’s soundscapes.

Takemitsu’s scores are as famous as the films they were written for. In the climactic battle scene in Akira Kurosawa’s late masterpiece Ran (1985), as the King Lear figure (Tatsuya Nakadai) stumbles out of his burning castle, Kurosawa cuts the diegetic sound and lets Takemitsu’s musical pulse take center stage, honing in on the psychological torment weighing down on Nakadai. The entire dramatic arc of the narrative is captured in that single piece of music: the majestic rise and devastating fall of one’s own empire, and the tragedy of watching it all burn to ashes in front of you. The bassoon melody, reminiscent of Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring, lends a mystical quality to the scene, while the unsettling harmony of the string section carries ominous portents. On its own, Nakadai’s performance is great; but with Takemitsu’s score behind him, it becomes legendary.

But Takemitsu could do more than just soul-shattering drama. Is there anything more triumphant than the “MacArthur Park”-esque fanfare composed for Kurosawa’s Dodes’Ka-Den (1970)? Kurosawa’s direction of this ensemble story, about the struggles of a group of people living in a garbage dump, is as lyrical as Takemitsu’s score, and the two hit all the right notes. And is there anything more chilling than Takemitsu’s contributions to Masaki Kobayashi’s ghost story omnibus Kwaidan (1964)? The storyline, filled with phantom ladies and the spirits of fallen soldiers, is perfectly matched by the ethereal presence of wind instruments and pizzicato strings—Takemitsu hallmarks. If the surface kitsch of recent art-house revival House left you dissatisfied, try immersing yourself in the total creepiness of Kwaidan. Perfectly paced, it’s a beautifully frightening film that sustains suspense for its entirety. This one is a justifiable classic.

06/30/10 1:05pm


Today through July 8th, BAMcinematek is hosting “Contraband Cinema,” one of the most original and unique offerings of political cinema in some time. The eclectic and controversial lineup eschews many of the more obvious choices; instead, it brings together rare classics like Jean Rouch’s 1955 short Les Maitres Fous (The Mad Masters, one of the earliest and most famous ethnographic films, a study of West African Hauka that explores the dynamic between ritual and colonialism), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) (in which the Marquis de Sade’s legendary, controversial text is updated into a sadomasochistic tale of Fascism during World War II), and Emile de Antonio and Mary Lampson’s Weather Underground doc Underground (1976); unheard-of rarities like The Animals Film (1981), about man’s inhumanity towards animals; mind-boggling conversation starters like Black Panthers (In Israel) Speak (2002); and even Sylvester Stallone’s late-Cold War snowy classic Rocky IV (1985).

The range, depth, and diversity of the program—to say nothing of its intelligence and excellence—can be attributed to its collectivist mentality (itself a political statement on the art and bureaucracy of curating). Bringing together several organizations and individuals, the series is being presented by Red Channels and the Brecht Forum, and was collectively curated by Jake Perlin, Matt Peterson, Kazembe Balagun, Valeria Mogilevich, Rebecca Cleman, and James Spooner. Together, they pose the question, “What makes a political film?” To help answer this question, and to discuss the process of collaborative curating as well as some of the gems from the program, I recently sat down with two of the series’ presenters: Matt Peterson from Red Channels and Kazembe Balagun from The Brecht Forum.

The L Magazine: What was the impetus for this series?

Kazembe Balagun: A lot of us were already working together over the years. For example, Red Channels did a series at The Brecht Forum last summer called “The Visual Liberation Film Festival.” One interesting thing about cinema is the way it reforms matter. In terms of “Contraband Cinema,” we are not only looking at film history in terms of what makes a political film, but also into the issue of how do these films meld? How can Eldridge Cleaver be in conversation with Pasolini? And how is Pasolini in conversation with Rocky IV? This is more controversial, I think, than a traditional film festival where we know the catalog already—Newsreel, Godard, ’68—whereas this series looks at how we can create an international language of cinema.

Matt Peterson: Not just cinema, but also an international language of opposition and subversion. One of the things behind this idea of “Contraband” is a transhistorical idea of what has been “radical.” A more literal answer to your question is that Kazembe and Jake Perlin have known each other for twenty years and went to summer camp together. They had wanted to do something together, and Red Channels tried to facilitate that. Kazembe, can you talk a little more about the idea of “contraband” and how it relates to cinema?

KB: “Contraband” is a term that is often used in the prison system. Things outside the law, or that are not allowed in. When we were kicking around names for the series, “contraband” kept coming up because the films are so explosive and so controversial. In a way, I kind of feel like we’re smuggling this film series into BAM.

The L: I was struck by the absence of certain “pop” political films that have been prominent in theaters as of late. No Michael Moore, no Inconvenient Truth… Not even more independent documentaries like Iraq in Fragments.

KB: All those films you listed are fine films, very powerful and very necessary. We are focusing on films that have not necessarily been shown as much, but are powerful and need to be seen.

MP: As far as the historical leaning as opposed to a contemporary focus, from a curatorial sense, and as political researchers and historians of opposition, it is more exciting for us (and we hope the audience) to deal with these films and videos that you can’t see in a multiplex, on a traditional festival circuit, on PBS, or even on DVD. To show those films you mention would be redundant. As curators, it is our job to dig a little deeper.

KB: We also live in an opportune time when the actual subjects of the films are still living, which brings another level of dialogue to the screenings. Kathleen Cleaver will be at the second showing of Eldridge Cleaver (1970) (July 4, 6:50PM). We can engage these people from the 1960s in a dialogue today.

MP: William Klein’s Eldridge Cleaver film is one of the films we are most excited to have landed. Red Channels and The Brecht Forum were interested in it, but we didn’t have the network or resources to book it, whereas Jake and BAM did. Aside from that, the program I am most excited about is our Newsreel program (July 7, 6:50PM), which focuses on the early years of the women’s movement. Many of the women who were members of the Newsreel collective, and who made these films, will be coming to the screening, which includes four films: Jeanette Rankin Brigade (1968), Up Against the Wall Miss America (1968), Janie’s Janie (1971), and The Woman’s Film (1971).


The L: One of the films that caught my eye was Chris Marker and Mario Marret’s A bientot, j’espere (1968) (July 6, 6:50PM and July 7, 4:30PM). It’s about a workers’ strike, but the workers didn’t actually like the film. How do you think the form of a political film relates to its subject?

MP: It’s the relationship between ourselves as intellectuals and artists, and the workers, the people, and how do we bridge that gap. I don’t want to speak for Chris Marker, but it seems he was interested in a particular moment of worker strikes in 1967 in France that led, a year later, to May ’68. Whether or not the workers like the film, it is a historical document that is worth looking at and considering—not only in terms of labor history, but also as a way of using cinema to interact with the workers. Even if it is a failure on his part to successfully produce a work that the subjects like, failures are interesting, too—potentially more interesting. In this case, we are juxtaposing it with Harun Farocki’s film Workers Leaving the Factory (1995), which is a media analysis about this question of how workers have been treated as subjects in cinema.

The L: The BAM calendar asks the question, “What makes a political film?” How have your answers to this changed throughout the curatorial process?

MP: The instinctual response is to think in terms of form or genre. I am thinking more about cinema—in a broader sense, the moving image—and how can we politicize the context and use of it. The space of the theater, the space of the series, how do we make that political.

KB: Ultimately, it is a question of democracy. We’re not living in a time where the resources, in terms of the development of film, are controlled by the people. For example, we have a situation where Dreamgirls (2006) cost like, what, $150 million dollars? And that is probably twice the GNP of Botswana. Just the amount of resources that go into the making of a film is deeply political. Also in terms of shaping and defining the values of a community. Those are questions that we have to ask ourselves. When you’re looking at films within the series, you’re seeing this question of, “We don’t have a lot of resources, we don’t have a lot of money, but we have this political vision of what we want to see the world become.” How does that political vision—or the presentation of that political vision—motivate, or inspire, folks to action? Part of the responsibility of curators and filmmakers is asking, “How do we release these films that acknowledge and record the level of people’s struggles, but also how do we create the space in which people feel motivated to act and feel their own sense of agency?”

The L: Lastly, are there any particular screenings you want to draw attention to?


MP: We challenged ourselves to produce some of what we call “wtf” programs. Films that just turn people’s heads a little bit. For us, that is the Black Panthers in Israel program. It includes Jerusalem Tapes: [Israeli] Black Panther on the Street (Videofreex/David Cort, 1973) and The Black Panthers (in Israel) Speak (Eli Hamo & Sami Shalom Chetrit, 2002). This connection of what we think we know about the Black Panthers and how that might be applicable in Israel in the early 1970s is something that…I can’t believe they booked this film in the series, and they’re showing it twice! (July 1, 4:30PM and July 2, 2:00PM). Connecting it to Israel/Palestine, the apartheid policies of Israel, the issues around the Flotilla from a few weeks ago. How can we bring that into the screening space? The films are already controversial enough, but how can we push it to an even further level of engagement, challenging ourselves, challenging BAM, and challenging the audience to confront this?

As far as Pasolini’s Salò, this series spans July 4, so we were stuck with the question of what film do you show at 9:15PM during the fireworks? What can we project during that time to compete with it? Salò was the only response. One of the most controversial films of all time was the only appropriate choice.

06/30/10 12:35pm

The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector

Directed by Vikram Jayanti

There are few things as irresistible as the reverberating counterpoint of the bass drum and castanets in The Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby.” Arguably the epitome of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” one of the most distinctive production styles that gave rock ‘n’ roll the strength and force of a symphony orchestra. In recent years, however, Spector’s fame as a producer has been threatened by his infamy as a convicted murderer. Much like with Roman Polanski, it is difficult to discuss Spector’s art without either apologizing or criticizing his personal life.

Vikram Jayanti’s The Agony and The Ecstasy of Phil Spector smartly navigates Spector’s labyrinthine celebrity, reminding us why we love his music and why we are fascinated by his personality (regardless of whether we like him or not). From the film’s opening juxtaposition of Spector’s trial with one of his early hits, The Crystals’ “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss),” it is clear that Jayanti has an eye and ear for irony. More importantly, Jayanti has an open mind and allows Spector to speak for him. Constructing his own subjective (and at times fictional) biography, Spector casts himself as the brilliant mind persecuted for his innovations while glossing over certain personal details (like flubbing the details of his father’s suicide). More than just an unreliable narrator, he’s arrogant, and has an unreasonable ire towards Tony Bennett. However, when he’s talking about music as an artistic and social event, Spector’s genius is unmistakable. Alternating (thankfully) muted trial footage with live performances from Spector’s long roster and one-on-one interviews with the man himself, it is never quite so simple as “to know know know him is to love love love him” (to quote Spector’s first hit with The Teddy Bears). But even Jayanti’s film reminds us that there is a wealth of darkness lurking below the surface naivety of the song (the title was taken from Spector’s father’s grave). It is this tension that makes Spector’s life so compelling a story to follow, and Jayanti’s documentary does justice to the complexities and contradictions of his subject’s life and art.

Opens June 30 at Film Forum

04/13/10 10:19am


Tonight at the Brecht Forum, Red Channels will be screening one of the neglected classics of political cinema, Kuhle Wampe, or Who Owns the World (1932). Described by the Village Voice’s J. Hoberman as “the most fascinatingly Brechtian of the playwright’s several film projects,” the film makes G.W. Pabst’s rendition of The Threepenny Opera (1931)—which, by the way, Brecht hated and brought a lawsuit against—look like avant-garde child’s play. With aesthetics as radical as its politics, Kuhle Wampe is an unwieldy film to wrap one’s mind around. Film Scholar Noah Isenberg will be on hand for tonight’s screening to discuss the film and explain not only the political dynamics of coffee burning and motorcycle racing, but also the awesome dialectic of Mata Hari and the cost of bread (oh, the many joys of Brecht).

Slatan Dudow (a Bulgarian director for both theater and stage who also worked as an assistant to Fritz Lang on Metropolis) directed Kuhle Wampe’s script, co-written by Brecht and Ernst Ottwald. Their topic was nothing less than the then-current economic depression and the alienation of the youth who were unable to find work. At dawn, packs of the unemployed on bicycles fill the streets of Berlin in a futile race against one another for jobs that do not exist; young men remember to take off their watches before throwing themselves from windows; and boyfriends prefer to pay the “bachelor tax” instead of marrying their pregnant (and employed) girlfriends. Dudow ironically films on such boyfriend working underneath a car, underscoring the physical, class, and economic constraints that define the “freedom” he so desires.

In contrast to the city that offers economic strife and class competition, Kuhle Wampe—a communal campground just outside of Berlin—offers the characters an ideological haven. In this retreat to nature, solidarity of the masses is expressed through group sports (Rowing! Motorcycles! Swimming!) and arts, including a performance by the Red Megaphone—“the megaphone of the masses”—an actual radical performance art troupe which was quite well known at the time.

Complete with catchy Communist anthems by Hanns Eisler and direct-address shots (Brecht breaking that fourth wall, up to his old tricks as usual), Kuhle Wampe wears its political beliefs on its sleeve. Not surprisingly, the Nazis would ban the film the following year. Dudow was subsequently kicked out of Germany (after much traveling, he ended up in Switzerland), while Brecht and Eisler took temporary residence in America—until the House on Un-American Activities Committee took notice of them, that is. Brecht fled after his testimony, while Eisler was officially deported.

While it should be hailed alongside M (1931) and Maidens in Uniform (1931) as one of the great early sound films to come out of Germany, it has never gotten the proper release—anywhere in the world—that it deserved. With only a limited-release DVD intended for the educational market currently in distribution (released last year by UMass Amherst’s DEFA Film Library) and a shoddy digital copy online at, tonight’s screening is one of the rare opportunities that shouldn’t be passed up.

04/07/10 11:26am


The Seventh Orphan Film Symposium runs from today through Saturday at the SVA Theatre; the Symposium, a presentation of NYU’s Department of Cinema Studies, is a “gathering of archivists, scholars, preservationists, curators, collectors, and media artists devoted to saving, studying, and screening neglected moving images.” We’ve asked Cinema Studies students to tell us a little about the orphan films they’ve taken in, and will present as part of the program

Who Are You, and What Are You Showing?

Walter Forsberg. I’m showing select portions of some home Super 8 movies, which were shot in Iraq in the fall of 2003. (Principally because they include images of a destructed Iraqi Film & Television Ministry—complete with flapping story-high videotape streamers!)

How Did You Discover, and then Prepare, Your Film(s)?

I shot them. Also, the generous John Gledhill (of Toronto’s BIT WORKs) was nice enough to do individual frame scans of them, for Orphans.

Why Should I, the Theoretical Discerning Viewer, Be Excited to Watch It?

Because I smuggled the film out of the country in my underwear.


Who Are You, and What Are You Showing?

Filmmaker and archivist Sandra Gibson, introducing the film Another Pilgrim (1968; pictured) by Rev. Al Carmine and Elaine Summers.

How Did You Discover, and then Prepare, Your Film(s)?

The film was discovered a few years ago at Elaine Summers’ Studio. Orphan Film Symposium director Dan Streible worked with Elaine, the NYU Moving Image Archiving Preservation Program, Bill Brand, the New York Public Library and the National Film Preservation Foundation to realize this project.

Why Should I, the Theoretical Discerning Viewer, Be Excited to Watch It?

To discern if the following review from the time of the film’s release still holds:

“…an underground flick replete with scenes of pot-smoking derelicts, shaggy folk singers and a minister who—in anguish at the chaos and cacophony of life in the cities—strips to the buff atop his pulpit.”

Elaine Summers, who will be present at the screening, lives and works in New York City where she teaches Kinetic Awareness and continues to develop new dance pieces, including an internet-based project called Skytime. She is currently establishing her Archives and will be publishing her Improvisational Dance Score Book. She is the founder of Experimental Intermedia Foundation, which is active in the field of experimental music.


Who Are You, and What Are You Showing?

Jonah Volk. Along with two of my classmates, Stefan Elnabli and Walter Forsberg, I produced a DVD that will be distributed at this year’s Orphan Film Symposium.

How Did You Discover, and then Prepare, Your Film(s)?

We wanted to include content from each of the three special collections at NYU’s Bobst Library and from the University of South Carolina, the previous Orphans host. We contacted the curators at each collection for suggestion, and then selected those titles that seemed the most interesting to us, ending up with a list of eleven works. We sought out the best possible video copies (including brand new film-to-video transfers done pro bono by Colorlab for nine of them), then digitized the videos and authored the DVD.

Why Should I, the Theoretical Discerning Viewer, Be Excited to Watch It?

Included on this DVD are a number of titles that should be exciting to any fan of orphan films: With the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in Spain, the recently rediscovered first film of Henri Cartier-Bresson; footage of Patti Smith, Richard Hell, and Talking Heads performing in 1978; home movies shot at the 1936 Berlin Olympics; the cult classic Ro-Revus Talks About Worms, and more. The DVD also has extensive contextual materials about each film, including essays, commentary tracks, and preservation notes.


Who Are You, and What Are You Showing?

Stefan Elnabli. I’ll be showing an excerpt of footage produced by Portable Channel Inc., a community video center formed in 1972 that offered equipment access and video training workshops, and also produced a series of videos that were broadcast on television, most notably Homemade TV.

How Did You Discover, and then Prepare, Your Film(s)?

In the Fall of 2009, my MIAP colleagues and I journeyed to Rochester’s Visual Studies Workshop, which houses archival collections of film, video, photography, and other arts media. We collaborated with students of the Selznick School of Film Preservation to assess open reel videotapes from the Portable Channel collection. We arranged for the preservation of six of the reels by the Standby Program, resulting in 10-bit uncompressed video files, as well as access copies.

Why Should I, the Theoretical Discerning Viewer, Be Excited to Watch It?

The excerpt that I will be screening features in-studio dialogue at Portable Channel about community video, and coverage of the Rochester community in the mid-70s, including a senior citizen’s birthday bash and a candid view of events at a Haiti Afro-American cultural center. Portable Channel proved that video could empower a community to forge its own identity through independent media.


Who Are You, and What Are You Showing?

Jenn Blaylock. I will be giving a paper based on my master’s thesis entitled, “Reproducing History: Colonial Discourses and Digital Silences in African Audiovisual Archives” as a part of the Audiovisual Preservation Exchange (APEX) in Africa panel.

How Did You Become Involved in Your Project?

APEX began as an NYU MIAP program in 2008. We traveled to Ghana to provide audiovisual training to archivists and librarians. The project was successful and continued into 2009. I became involved last summer when I spent two months in Ghana working to preserve Ghana’s film and video collections.

Why Should I, the Theoretical Discerning Audience Member, Be Excited for It?

I’ll be discussing the ethical and political issues involved in digitizing African audiovisual cultural heritage through internationally funded preservation projects, which often prioritize international over local access and extract audiovisual artifacts from their cultural-historical contexts. As a result, significant data within the archive is excluded from historical research, impacting the way African history is written and understood. In some instances, current audiovisual digitization projects are analogous to the colonial development projects promoted in the very films that are in need of preservation. I will make this comparison through an analysis of British colonial agricultural films.


Who Are You, and What Are You Showing?

Joseph Gallucci. I’m showing clips from the Nicaraguan Television & Latin American Video Archives. (Fellow classmates Jenn Blaylock, Siobhan Hagan, and Jonah Volk also worked on this project.)

How Did You Discover, and then Prepare, Your Film(s)?

The tapes came to us from Xchange TV, a NYC-based group of independent producers that facilitated the exchange of media between the U.S. and Central America during forced American military intervention in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Working with The MediaPreserve, we transferred the original recordings, which are on now-obsolete 3/4″ U-matic tapes, onto more stable digital file formats.

Why Should I, the Theoretical Discerning Viewer, Be Excited to Watch It?

The videos were produced by and for Nicaraguans, and present a rare glimpse of life under Sandinista rule in the 1980s. Media producers in Nicaragua, facing blockades on trade with the United States, were often forced to recycle tape stock, meaning that the tapes in Xchange TV’s possession (many of which were subtitled or overdubbed in English for American distribution) may well be the only extant copies of these programs. While many serious issues are directly addressed, such as women’s rights and agrarian reform, there are some humorous moments as well, including a traveling revolutionary game show that featured arm wrestling matches, dance contests for kids and musical entertainment.


Who Are You, and What Are You Showing?

Andy Uhrich. I’m showing the film portion of A Pictorial Story of Hiawatha, a 1904 illustrated lecture by Katherine Ertz-Bowden and Charles Leonard Bowden. I am co-presenting with Nancy Watrous, director of Chicago Film Archives, and Judith Miller, special collections librarian at Valparaiso University.

How Did You Discover, and then Prepare, Your Film(s)?

The films have been stored at Valparaiso University in Indiana for decades. The preservation of the films is a collaboration between Valparaiso, Chicago Film Archives and Colorlab, who agreed to restore the films—no mean technical feat as half the films were severely damaged. The rest of us performed the historical research and the reconstruction of the order of the slides and films.

Why Should I, the Theoretical Discerning Viewer, Be Excited to Watch It?

This hasn’t been seen in 100 years. The film was shot in Ontario on the shores of Lake Huron and show a performance of a live version of Longfellow’s Hiawatha story acted by local Ojibwe. The rest of the lecture included hand-colored stereopticon slides.

04/01/10 9:37am

Janey Gaynor in Sunrise.

  • Janey Gaynor in Sunrise.

For a decade she was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors, but in the seventy years since she retired from the limelight, Janet Gaynor’s legacy has been overshadowed by the work of her collaborators, her contemporaries, and especially her two best directors: F.W. Murnau and Frank Borzage, both of them visual stylists of the highest caliber. The very characteristics that endeared her to audiences—her delicate charm, and an innocence seemingly out of place with the Jazz Age that created her—may also provide clues as to why she has gone overlooked and underappreciated in the annals of film history. Her wholesome image doesn’t fit the loose girdles and looser morals of Pre-Code Hollywood that modern audiences are eating up these days. However, two current screenings—a three-day matinee run of Borzage’s Street Angel (1928) at the Museum of Modern Art (3/31-4/2) as part of their Auteurist History of Film series, and a weeklong residency of Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) in a new 35mm print at Film Forum (4/2-4/8)—remind us of Gaynor’s reticent grace, in twoand how integral her performance was to both of these masterpieces of the silent screen.

The Hollywood of the Roaring Twenties was the capital of elegance, extravagance, and excess. Olive Thomas’ mysterious death in Paris in 1920 left behind suggestions of suicide, STDs, and debauchery; 1921 saw the arrest of beloved comedian Fatty Arbuckle, accused rape and murder; 1922 opened with the still-unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor; and it was only 18 days into January of 1923 when Wallace Reid died, exposing a history of morphine addiction and alcoholism. Theda Bara was vamping up the screen, Clara Bow wiggled about with her bobbed hair and a host of other glamour girls paraded about, draped in jewels and furs, and sipping martinis with their pinkies extended.

Into this gaudy zoo walked Janet Gaynor, whose deceptively simple and natural acting and down-to-earth style put her at odds with the cultural zeitgeist. Born Laura Gainor in 1906, she and her sister began working as extras in short films soon after graduating high school. A watchful producer pulled the renamed “Janet Gaynor” out from the background in 1926. One year and several forgotten (and presumably “lost”) films later, she found herself in the hands of Hollywood’s greatest import: legendary German director F.W. Murnau, whose Nosferatu (1922) and The Last Laugh (1924) were already world-famous for their striking and evocative visual innovations.

Murnau was lured across the Atlantic with the promise of an unprecedented carte blanche from studio head William Fox, and he took full advantage of this opportunity. Sunrise is one of those rare miracles in which the near-limitless technical capabilities of the Hollywood studios converged perfectly with the ambitious, personal, and unrelenting vision of a director. Deliberately artifical sets and expressionistic lighting transform pastoral landscapes into paranoid, nightmarish dreamscapes through which Murnau’s mobile camera lurks like a phantom. Murnau’s direction is anticipatory: at times he uses long shots to shadow characters’ movements through alleys and swamps, while at others the camera remains immobile, awaiting with anxiety and dread the action it knows will come. Though it was only a minor hit when first released, the ensuing eight decades have seen mountains of praise piled upon it—and Sunrise continues to more than live up to everything that has been said about it. (Plus, who doesn’t love the drunk pig sequence?)

Its fable-like story concerns nameless characters in highly symbolic settings: the Country and the City. Janet Gaynor plays The Wife, who husband (The Man, played by George O’Brien) has recently taken up with The Woman From the City (Margaret Livingston). Though Sunrise is based on a story by Hermann Sudermann, it’s hard not to notice the shades of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, published just two years prior in 1925. While George O’Brien—with his lumbering walk, his body literally weighted down with surmounting guilt (he also wore leaden shoes to emphasize this)—is more showy, Gaynor’s performance, both reserved and nuanced, isn’t given the respect it deserves. Her disquieting demeanor is introverted where O’Brien is extroverted, and though she is the casualty of her husband’s wayward attractions, she never plays the victim. It’s easy to forget that such a demanding role was placed on a 21-year-old actress who had never faced a starring role this challenging before. Playing against type, Gaynor wears a garish (but wonderful) artificial wig—replacing her natural brunette curls with homely, pulled-back blonde hair—that makes her seem more like a grandmother than a young bride. She looks old beyond her years, with a weariness and vulnerability that Gaynor manages to pull off.


The premiere of Sunrise was delayed to accommodate the shooting and release of Borzage’s Seventh Heaven (1927), a love-conquers-all story about a transcendent romance between Gaynor, alone and abandoned in the gutter, and Charles Farrell, the street cleaner who rescues her and brings her up to his seventh floor home. While the influence of Murnau could definitely be felt in Seventh Heaven, it was even more prevalent in Borzage’s follow-up, Street Angel, the second and best partnering between the director and Hollywood’s newest love-team of Gaynor and Farrell (who would go to on to pair -up in a total of 12 feature films). Borzage’s camera stalks the alleys of Naples (recreated on the Fox studio’s backlot), at first following Gaynor’s panic-stricken flight as she escapes from the police after being arrested for stealing and “solicitation” (it was to help her sick mother, forgive the girl!); later it would follows itinerant artist Farrell after he discovers Gaynor’s hidden past, giving up his career and descending into the crowded gutter from which they originally fled. Gaynor’s youthful enthusiasm and endurance, that was missing absent from in Sunrise, reappears in Street Angel—her attempts to woo men like in the style of so many other prostitutes is a perceptive bit of physical comedy, while her escape through the streets is thick with anxiety, and it’s hard not to be won over by her cherub cheeks and optimistic smile. Visually, Borzage—along with cinematographer Ernest Palmer and set designer Harry Oliver—seem to push the limits of cinema past their boundaries. The frequent tracking shots and long- takes scream for a use of deep focus that wouldn’t be technologically possible for several years to come—so, the film has to suffice with the occasional cross-fade in order to keep the shot in proper focus. Still, those looking to see the heights of backlot artistry under the decided influence of German Expressionism need look no further than Street Angel: it’s a dizzying, shadowy world of desperation, betrayal, and—in true Borzage fashion—a romance that can purify even the dingiest gutter.

At the first Academy Awards in 1928, Gaynor was awarded the Best Actress Oscar, for all three of her performances in all three of Sunrise, Seventh Heaven, and Street Angel. (That’s something that has never happened ever since.) Her career would continue to rise with Borzage’s Lucky Star (1929), much of which is a two-person chamber drama with crippled veteran Farrell, and which is only marred by a magical, redemptive ending that goes too far in search of a happy ending. (A 1928 reunion with Murnau, 4 Devils, is sadly lost—the possibilities of its greatness are damn tempting, however.) Though her paycheck increased, Gaynor wasn’t happy with her choice of roles, many of which were restricted to naive ingenues in musicals, much to her dismay. Fed up with her career, she left Fox until the studio agreed to meet her demands. When she returned, the studios didn’t meet their end of the bargain, and her career continued as usual, with Gaynor being treated like a rehash of Mary Pickford’s forever-young, spunky juveniles. When Shirley Temple effectively took that spot in the mid 1930s, studios lost faith in Gaynor, until she was cast in William A. Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937), which garnered her another Oscar nomination. While she still plays the good girl, an aspiring actress to Fredric March’s drunken actor in the midst of a fatal fall-from-grace, she brings an unadorned dignity to the role. Her ability to hold back the drama in a story that seemingly aches for emotion is what makes the film hold up so well today (and the same can be said for March’s performance, as well).

After The Young in Heart in 1939 (in which she plays a con-artist with a heart of gold, another role in which she gets to exercise her knack for sophisticated comedy), she Gaynor retired from the screen to be with her fashion designer hubby Adrian. For a while the couple moved to Brazil and, according to a Films in Review profile by John Nangle, ran a coffee plantation. She made aA few TV appearances happened in the 1950s, as well as a return to the big screen to play Pat Boone’s mother, and even a stage appearance in a theatrical version of Harold and Maude in the early 1980s—but these were just kicks for Janet. Her acting career had ended decades ago. Regrettably, the studios had decided her career was over long before either she or her fans thought it was. The three movies she made with Frank Borzage, and the one existing film with F.W. Murnau, however, are reminders of not only Janet Gaynor’s potential, but also the heights she reached.

02/22/10 2:00pm

2010 is already off to a busy start for Luc Besson. District 13: Ultimatum and From Paris With Love, both of which he helped to write and produce, were released on the same day earlier this month. I Love You Phillip Morris, which he executive produced, is slated for a March release, and several other films have release dates in his native France but are still awaiting international distribution. Initially known as a director of visually stylish films, Besson has recast his image since breaking onto the scene with Le Dernier Combat (1983) and reaching international fame with Nikita (1990), Léon (1994) and The Fifth Element (1997). The controversial, genre-bending auteur has eased off of directing and become increasingly active working behind-the-scenes for other directors. Besson formed EuropaCorp in 2000, and has since been involved with over seventy films as a producer, more than twenty of which he contributed to as a writer. This career shift challenges a traditional auteurist approach to understanding Besson’s prolific body of work, as his directorial output is now quantitatively minor in comparison to his other projects. However, perhaps it speaks to the ongoing relevance of auteurist criticism that one can always find traces of his presence, in spite of Besson not always being the only proverbial cook in the kitchen.

The struggle of individuals to maintain their autonomy, in worlds (however realistic and/or fantastic) that discourage individualism, are at the heart of Besson’s films. “The rules of society can hurt you but not cannot destroy you,” he said in an interview in The Observer Review, “because you know that’s not what life is about.” His characters are outcasts, dreamers, and loners—hitmen, punks, cabbies, down on their luck con men, thieves, and even the occasional extreme free diver (an autobiographical nod to Besson’s childhood dream)—but, in their own way, they are all artists, and he identifies with them as such. Such sympathies are fitting, considering Besson’s own self-made entry into the motion picture industry while still a teenager. After a diving accident deprived him of the possibility of ever going pro, he made a list of things he found pleasurable, all of which had to do with the visual and narrative arts. The obvious convergence of these interests, in Besson’s mind, was cinema. Having dropped out of high school, he forced his way onto movie sets and learned everything from the bottom up, eventually convincing family and friends to invest in several short films that were his first efforts as a director.

In this same way, Besson was able to fund his first feature, the dystopic Le Dernier Combat (1983). An audacious, uncompromising debut—its opening shot is of a sex doll deflating beneath a desperate man—it’s an experimental sci-fi narrative shot in black-and-white CinemaScope, without dialogue. Set in a wasteland of abandoned factories and lifeless deserts, a world in which water is scarce and the sky rains dead fish, Le Dernier Combat‘s tapestry-like narrative concerns scavengers doing whatever is necessary to survive. The film still remains among Besson’s most impressive works to date, exemplifying his epic imagination, impeccable ‘Scope compositions, inventive genre reconstructions, and flair for visual storytelling that emphasizes action over dialogue.