Articles by

<Ricky D'Ambrose>

01/26/12 4:00am

Crazy Horse, the most recent film by documentary godhead Frederick Wiseman, observes life and work at Le Crazy Horse, the Paris cabaret. It’s now in theaters.

What lead you to the Crazy Horse in Paris?

A friend of mine asked me whether I was interested in doing a movie about a nightclub, and I said, “Sure,” but I had never done anything about it. Eventually, we went around to some of the Parisian nightclubs. We went to the Moulin Rouge, and I fell asleep. And then we went to the Crazy Horse and I was intrigued by the show. I’d been there one time in 1957 with my father-in-law, and I remember it vividly. The next night, we went to the Crazy Horse and I discovered that Philippe Decouflé was choreographing a new show. Since it was a completely different style of dance, I thought, as a follow-up or a parallel to La Danse, it might be fun to follow the rehearsals of the new show at the Crazy Horse. I met Decouflé and the people who ran the Crazy Horse the next day and they agreed to let me make the film. I started shooting a couple of weeks later.

How long was the shoot?

Ten weeks.

And during this time was there much dialogue between you and your subjects? Does camaraderie ever develop during filming?
Camaraderie is not the word that I would use. As attractive as the girls are at the Crazy Horse, I’m not making these movies to make new friends. There was a lot of conversation because they were curious about the film and interested in knowing about some of the other films.

And they’ve seen the other films?
Yes. I always make my previous films available. When the Crazy Horse gave me permission, I gave the owners six of the films. I also distributed eight films among the dancers. I like everything to be transparent. If they like what they see in the earlier films, they will feel more comfortable about the shooting of the film they are in. There was not a lot of conversation because, at the Crazy Horse, the dancers were very busy. They were particularly busy at that time because they were rehearsing and performing. They would come in around eleven in the morning and rehearse until five and then those who were in the show at night would prepare for the evening performance. There were short conversations with the dancers. I always direct the talk toward trying to understand what’s going on, or to find about events that characteristically take place and when they occur, so that I can incorporate what I learn in to the shooting schedule. The shooting at the Crazy Horse was a bit easier than many other institutions because it was so small. At the Paris Opera Ballet, for example, at any given moment, there may have been six rehearsals going on and a couple of meetings. Each day there was a much wider variety of choice. At the Crazy Horse the rehearsals were in the theater and there was only one conference room. It was pretty easy to keep track of what was going on.

You’ve said in the past that you’re limited to the facts, although I’m curious about whether you have any particular preconceived ideas or opinions about the venues you decide to shoot.

Not really, no. For most of the places, I don’t know anything about them in advance of the shoot. Basically the assumption I make is that, if I go into an institution and stay there six to ten weeks, there is going to be enough material for a film. I do not know the point of view of the film before I start since I do not know what I’m going to find. I never start with a thesis. If I set out to prove a thesis, it would be boring and I would not learn anything. The fun is to discover something about the institution and then the movie is a report on what I’ve learned.

Do you feel obliged in any way to the people you’re filming?

I do feel an obligation to be fair but I recognize that is a very subjective term. It’s easy to twist anything in the service of some social or political agenda, but if you try to do that you end up making a fool of yourself.

05/26/10 4:00am

Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies
Directed by Arne Glimcher

The early cubist experiments of Picasso and Braque are on display in art dealer Arne Glimcher’s Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies, a one-hour assortment of talking heads and actualités that places the French fathers of modern painting into a fruitful, informed dialogue with the burgeoning cinema. These talking heads—Martin Scorsese, film scholar Tom Gunning, Julian Schnabel and Chuck Close among them—describe the early motion pictures’ formative influence on the fine arts of the period, presenting Braque and Picasso as figures conversant with—and indeed inspired by—the rhythms, speeds and mechanical possibilities of the new medium.

At one end of Glimcher’s film is an earnest, well-intentioned effort to clarify important aesthetic intersections between cinema and painting, between a new technology and older visual forms. We are asked to consider links between Edison’s 1894 short of the Great Sandow, stretching and flexing his arms and torso, and the five elongated, pointedly postured bodies of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from 1907. Similarly, Braque’s highly segmented, pale-toned cubist formations, fragmented by eclipsing figures and shapes, give the newfound optical tricks of the motion-picture camera their static incarnation on the canvas. An ongoing exchange between the two mediums allowed for the development of a newer, more provocative aesthetic vocabulary, one that encouraged Braque and Picasso to pursue radical alternatives to the previous century’s ideas about pictorial representation, and to fashion images unabashedly mediated by the motion picture camera’s insistence on speed and multiple perspectives.

However, at the other end of Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies is an ill-fitted, somewhat fashionable interest in the collapsibility of cinema into genres of all shapes and sizes. Glimcher’s film is most convincing when it avoids such comparisons between twentieth-century painting and early cinema, and when it instead develops a relatively useful aesthetic history of fin de siècle Europe at the tail end of the Industrial Revolution. This newly mechanized age—its technological advancements, its novelties and amusements—was itself a living, working manifestation of the sprockets and motors of the motion-picture camera; just as one may not be able to think of Picasso without the movies, so we cannot think of the movies without considering the radical processes of reorientation underway during the turn of the century. It is precisely during those few moments when Gilmicher’s documentary acknowledges the pervasive effects of modern experience on the arts at large that the film feels most honest, most useful. Without these moments, Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies is an instance of Art History 101 for the film school, headed by Professor Scorsese, naïve in its dictum that “everything is cinema,” and irresponsible in its desire to convert art forms with long and rich histories into objects ready for conversion by the film camera. 

Opens May 28

04/27/10 9:26am


A young woman (Gunnel Lindblom) travels by train with her son (Jorgen Lindstrom) and older sister (Ingrid Thulin) to a country best by civil war; the eldest sister, Ester, struck by illness and sequestered in a hotel room, is the intellectually and erotically impoverished counterpoint to the younger, sexually curious Anna. The young boy, Johan, is intrigued by the stately hotel, a wanderer of its hallways and rooms, an explorer of sorts, whose curiosities find their more troubling, sometimes grotesque and abrasive corollary in the shrunken emotional netherworld of aunt and mother.

Unlike his Winter Light, released a year earlier, Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence (1963), which plays this afternoon and tonight at the Walter Reade‘s Swedish series, is interested less in the fact of accepting an inconsolably secular world than in imagining what that world might look like, in taking a walking tour of the house long after the master left his keys behind.

The hotel itself is big, its windows draped, its corridors carpeted and its walls thick—it allows for noise and ruckus without the risk of being identified. But lots of noise and ruckus appears in Bergman’s film, even when the tensions and contradictions of his characters—their personal needs, wants, desires—sometimes make this ruckus unsustainable.

The Silence, then, is a bird’s-eye view of three people trying to acquaint themselves with newfound possibilities. Cinematographer Sven Nykvist’s images are remarkably sturdy, bold and clean, giving us a remarkable visual corroboration of Thulin and Lindblom’s distinctive psychic austerity. Bergman’s close-ups of his two leading ladies rehearse Persona by three years, although The Silence has its most organic relationship with Winter Light and Through a Glass Darkly before it, playing like a solution or reconciliation of the theological problems posed by those two earlier films. For the silence of Bergman’s film is not only a consequence of living in a world without the Word of God, but also a flexible aesthetic resource, manifest by hushed rhythms and tones, deceptive in its stylistic calm; one always has the impression that those quiet moments are the surface features of a very complicated, intemperate mix of unresolved feelings below. Under Bergman’s watch, those quiet moments and unoccupied rooms become surface features that translate very complicated feelings in ways that are pointed and palpable. Memorably, the film’s closing image turns this dilemma into a sobering visual metaphor; far from feeling dispiriting, it gives the film its sense of grandeur and mystery, its depth and humanity both within Bergman’s career and the Swedish cinema at large.  

08/12/09 4:00am

My Führer
Directed by Dani Levy

Think of it: the 20th Century’s mustached exemplar of human suffering, kneeling and barking before a bespectacled Jew, asked to imagine his head reaching into the heavens, his body filling with tension, his voice resounding with affection. The man with the mustache, of course, is Adolf Hitler (Helge Schneider); the Jew (Ulrich Mühe), a celebrated actor, recruited from Sachsenhausen by the Nazis to coach the Führer in his last attempt to publicly galvanize the German people.

But as director Dani Levy’s sluggish and hoarse-throated leader of the German fatherland prepares for what is intended to be a speech of consolation, Berlin’s streets lay in ruins, the Allies are rounding Europe, and Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and company are growing increasingly paranoid. The setting — carnivorous, window-lit, panoptic — is Hitler’s study, a space that the pallid and shaven Jewish actor enters each morning, reluctantly training the Führer to stand straight, enunciate and gesticulate, while hoping to save his family from extermination.

There are enough tracking shots along corridors, enough images of sparse rooms and side-lit faces, enough moments of sexual humor and provocation that this film plays like a shelved Buñuel-Chaplin script, rediscovered and directed by Kubrick acolyte, and scored by a composer decommissioned from The Hours. The final speech, a reference to The Great Dictator without the earnestness or conviction of its message, is one last show for the road, an abrupt, bombastic ending to a film that has spent its first ninety minutes just getting started.

By all accounts, My Führer is a tasteless film, a grotesque model of a deadened, contemporary sensibility, grounded in irony and steeped in a sense of pastlessness that turns history into theatre. That’s not to say that all films should be transparent representations of historical reality, unfettered by playfulness or exaggeration. But it is to say that My Führer doesn’t have the awareness of a larger historical situation, that its myopic humor often feels incongruous and transportable to other eras, other wars, other dictators and their prisoners. By not finding larger connections between the situations of its characters and the milieu of the Third Reich, the film suffers from an irredeemable lack of imagination and purpose, stumbling its way toward gratuitousness.

Opens August 14

06/24/09 4:00am

Quiet Chaos
Directed by Antonio Luigi Grimaldi

Waves are the first thing we see in Quiet Chaos, director Antonio Luigi Grimaldi’s adaptation of Sandro Veronesi’s novel of the same name. But the waves — for all their suggestiveness of High Seriousness — appear in a film that prefers the warmth and charm of lakeside sentimentality to the moral gusto of Oceanic Feeling. And this is precisely how Grimaldi’s film often feels: playful, but not too much; earnest, but not too often.

Schmaltz and swollen soulfulness is, however, the operating tone here. On the same afternoon he rescues two women from drowning, Pietro (Nanni Moretti) learns of his wife’s death, leaving him a widowed father to a ten year-old girl (Blu Di Martino) whose implied emotional vulnerability he tries to temper by stationing himself outside her school each morning. In the process, father Moretti spends nearly a year watching the same locals, dining at the same restaurant and sitting at the same bench while the seasons change and Paolo Buonvino’s score twinkles and drones. A subplot involving the merging of his company with a large American outfit gives the film its sense of ethical finesse (Pietro must decide whether or not to replace his recently ousted best friend), but the scenario plays like a diminutive narrative parenthesis stuck inside a potentially larger human story.

The story, from a script by Laura Paoulucci, Francesco Piccolo and Moretti, becomes less redeemable as a touching chronicle of one man’s spiritual healing and more convincing as an arc that runs the course of middle-aged sexual anxieties, beginning once Pietro’s willing sister-in-law (Valeria Golino) strips down to her bra in a concerted reminder of their short-lived love affair, and ending with rough living room sex and breast-licking between Moretti and the blonde whose life he saved (Isabella Ferrari). Perhaps the most startling feature of Grimaldi’s film is the confidence and ease it has in turning Frank Capra into Adrian Lyne.

Opens June 26

05/29/09 4:00am

Directed by Diane Cheklich

The global economy shrinks to the size of a Detroit call center in Offshore, director Diane Cheklich’s tepid, altogether lackluster indictment of corporate outsourcing. A trio of young Mumbai employees arrives in the U.S. for training by the same beleaguered, middle-aged Americans whose jobs they will soon be eclipsing. Carol (Deb Tunis), however, wants to keep her job. Her co-workers, a group of hapless and dowdy aspiring professionals (read: Americans), join her in putting their equally hapless conspiratorial energies to use, struggling to keep their precocious Indian replacements off their phones and out of their cubicles.

Cheklich’s film, completed in 2006 but only now released theatrically in New York, wants desperately to have the relevance of a more successful post-9/11 globalization vehicle. And yet the script is too reluctant to back away from the once-prescient, now-belabored claims about the consequences of moving jobs overseas for it to feel like anything more than a bout of retrograde fist waving. What attempts are made to enlarge the scope of the film’s relevance, however, feel unconvincing, as when Carol refers to the visitors from Mumbai as “evil-doers” in Cheklich’s threadbare effort to make George W. Bush’s America an important foundation for her film’s thematic preoccupations.

But Bush’s America isn’t the foundation of this film, nor can it be. Perhaps Offshore is too aesthetically lopsided to touch the surface of the zeitgeist: cinematographer Gregg McNeil keeps the images clumsy, avoiding any earnest aesthetic decision-making. Cheklich’s film suffers precisely because it too often confuses surfaces with depth, touching with exploration, politics with cinema.

Opens May 29