The House


NYU Strikes Again!

Bette Davis

According to the New York Times, New York University, the alma mater of Slant Magazine's publishers, is proposing to demolish the Provincetown Playhouse, which is adjacent to Washington Square Park, the heart of NYU's "campus." A stable and bottling plant before being turned into a theater in 1918 by the Provincetown Players (among them, Eugene O'Neill), the playhouse was where Bette Davis made her New York stage debut at the start of the Great Depression. NYU has a long tradition of swallowing up real estate and putting profit before culture and community: Some of the school's most recent acquisitions include the decades-old concert hall and nightclub Palladium, which was torn down and then courteously christened "Palladium Hall Dormitory," and the Bottom Line, one of the very first concert venues I went to when I moved to New York 10 years ago, which was put out of business after NYU refused to agree to a reasonable payment plan for the back rent that was owed to them (which amounted to little more than one student's tuition over the course of four years). Then, of course, there's that monstrosity of a student center that was erected shortly after I graduated, which didn't result in the destruction of any landmark building but, with its gigantic staircase and looming shadow, sticks out amidst the tasteful turn-of-the-century Greenwich Village architecture like the obscene monument of bureaucracy that it is. It's almost as bad as that glass-shaft eyesore on Astor Place that, according to its advertisements, promised to be "provocative!" and "undulating!" and which now houses a Chase Manhattan bank (the "Mercedes-Benz of banks," I was told by a customer service agent when I closed my account there several years ago) on its ground floor. But I digress. In the Times article, the architect for the new building claims that his design "looks more similar to what was there [originally] than when it was renovated in the 1940s." Oh, well in that case, bring me a bulldozer!

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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TAGS: bette davis, eugene o'neill, new york university, nyu, provincetown players, provincetown playhouse


Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin's latest film, My Winnipeg, is a self-described "docu-fantasia," a wandering, romantic, sympathetic, empathetic look at the inhabitants of his hometown—both human and metal. Indeed, the buildings that line the Winnipeg landscape receive as much attention as the people do in this history of the Canadian city. It's appropriate, as Maddin's documentary understands the complex and poignant relationship between space and time, and explores it in a manner that is employed rarely, and done well even less.

The other essay film ("docu-fantasia" as a category notwithstanding) that deals with this paradigm is Chris Marker's masterpiece Sans Soleil. The debt that Maddin owes to that film, as well as Marker's (and Maddin's) greatest influence, Vertigo, is considerable; but because Maddin's style is so specific, he's able to absorb incredibly powerful influences without being dominated by them. To see such powerful, cinematic works integrated into a film that is so aesthetically different, and yet so thematically comparable, is a feat that indicates how impressive Maddin's skill as an artist is.

Maddin was recently in New York for My Winnipeg's premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. I was fortunate enough to engage him on these topics, and more, in a discussion—at Manhattan's IFC Center—that proved to be as stimulating as the film itself.

To listen to the podcast, click here. The conversation is transcribed below, with minor edits for style and clarification.

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TAGS: guy maddin, isabella rossellini, My Dad Is 100 Years Old, my winnipeg, tribeca film festival


My Winnipeg

Guy Maddin's thrilling, ingenious My Winnipeg is a love letter to the Canadian director's hometown disguised as a Buñuel "escape from the bourgeoisie" comedy. Like a guest at a never-ending dinner party, Maddin (who narrates the B&W, MOS film) is plotting to finally leave the comfort of "snowy, sleepwalking Winnipeg," the city of his birth—the city he's spent his entire life in—but must fight the unseen magnetic forces that are keeping him there. Fortunately, unlike Buñuel's clueless characters, Maddin has a secret weapon—he's a filmmaker. "What if I film my way out of here?" he proposes.

And thus begins one man's incredible odyssey through a looking glass past. Using a combination of archival footage, scenes of narcoleptic train passengers, words flashing onto the screen as in an old train robbery silent, the sounds of chugging railroad cars and jangling keys, of hair clippers mixed with a symphony, repeating images of "forks, lap and fur" (the ingredients of the "magnetic pull"), not to mention hilarious narration (wherein Maddin dispenses "facts" like Winnipeg having ten times the sleepwalking rate of anywhere in the world), all mingled with descriptions of his "mother" (as strong as the railroad), Maddin creates a "docu-fantasia" that is more truthful than most nonfiction films. He deals not just in physical reality, but psychic as well. Maddin's small childhood memories, just as momentous as the city's grand history, are entwined as one.

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TAGS: ann savage, guy maddin, my winnipeg, tribeca film festival


Tribeca Film Festival 2008: Boy A

The past is a terrible secret that can't be suppressed in Boy A. The means by which Intermission director John Crowley and writer Mark O'Rowe (working from Jonathan Trigell's novel) dramatize one man's efforts to conceal a skeleton in the closet, however, too often takes the form of convenient coincidences and tidy echoes. In England, a man is released from juvenile prison after an adolescence of incarceration with a new name, Jack (Andrew Garfield), a new flat and job at a delivery company, and the support of devoted guidance counselor Terry (Peter Mullan). Jack was confined years earlier for killing—along with a delinquent friend—a young girl, and as Crowley's understated, evocative use of constricting doorways, hallways, and bridges indicate, he remains emotionally and psychologically imprisoned by this heinous crime. Upon reentering society, Jack finds himself a best mate in Chris (Shaun Evans) and a feisty girlfriend in Michelle (Katie Lyons), a hopeful turn of events that the crushingly grim tone makes clear will be fleeting. It is, but not before the filmmakers have indulged in flashbacks to Jack's youth that tidily mirror the present-day action, an example of artificial structural neatness that extends to the calamitous tension that arises out of Terry's dueling devotion to both surrogate son Jack and his own wayward biological boy. By shrouding first the what, and then the how and why, of Jack's misdeed (which is never fully shown or explicated), the film dishonestly courts our empathy through sheer denial of key facts, a situation that eventually breeds inescapable suspicion regarding the sympathy granted Jack by the story. Garfield embodies his protagonist with a tremulousness that evokes guilt, shame, fear, and alienation from the culture into which he's now been thrust, his reticent mannerisms bestowing Jack with a fragility that's most endearing during intimate moments with Michelle. For all its sensitivity, thoughtful sobriety, and sound performances, though, Boy A finally permits itself an excessive number of contrived and/or clichéd gestures, so that the sneakers Jack receives from Terry upon entry into the world are "Nike Escapes," his euphoria is expressed via ecstasy-fueled nightclub dancing, and— clunkiest of all—his climactic destination on a train is "the end of the line."

Boy A @ the Tribeca Film Festival

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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TAGS: andrew garfield, boy a, john crowley, jonathan trigell, Katie Lyons, mark o'rowe, tribeca film festival


It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives

It Is Not the Homosexual Who Is Perverse, But the Society in Which He Lives is the earnest title of Rosa von Praunheim's 1971 PG-chaste first feature, which has aged like good cheese from a scandalous sensation (a political wakeup call to gays) into a textbook example of classic camp—and a delightful time warp trip through queer cliché. The very colorful color film (shot MOS) opens with von Praunheim's camera trailing two fags—one blonde, one brunette—walking down a sunny Berlin street. Daniel, the shy brunette, is new to the big city and blonde Clemens is generously offering him a place to stay. (We know this by the heavily German-accented English, dubbed and spoken in a "Sprockets" cadence.)

"It's so hard to find someone who's sincere," Clemens' voice says as they cuddle on his bed back at the apartment. "I really dig you." Then, from out of nowhere, a grave, German-accented, Moses-like voiceover explains that "faggots long for loving relationships", but "live in a dream world of glossy magazines and Hollywood movies." Now naked in bed with Daniel, Clemens proclaims, "I'd like to throw the window open and show the whole world how wonderful it is when two men are in love!" And so it goes. Daniel fusses over his hair in the mirror while Clemens' heartsick Teutonic voice narrates their newfound domestic bliss. "Every hour and minute I spent alone was torture for me." Luckily, the lovebirds spend plenty of time doing things like "watching television to further our education" and housecleaning together. They also read or write letters. "Dear Mother," Daniel's voice begins.

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TAGS: it is not the homosexual who is perverse but the society in which he lives, Jean-Marie Straub, rosa von praunhiem, the bridegroom the comedienne and the pimp


Silent OzuMost dedicated film lovers are familiar with the elegiac '50s family dramas of Yasujirô Ozu, classics like Late Spring (1949) and Tokyo Story (1953). Much as they are cherished and respected, even his most fervent admirers have admitted the sameness of these films, in which a constantly smiling Setsuko Hara beams from her tatami mat and says, "Life is certainly disappointing!" After her pronouncement, Ozu cuts to a boat chugging along a river; he then cuts back to Hara, who has a measured shot/reverse shot conversation with one of her parents. Mom or Dad smiles finally, then reflects, "My dreams of youth are gone!" Then Ozu cuts to laundry flapping in the breeze against a mackerel sky, etc. To paraphrase Virginia Woolf, Ozu prefers to suffer and understand rather than to fight and enjoy. His Zen resignation is like a drug to some, but it must be said that Ozu's basic attitude can seem complacent, even maddening, especially to American viewers whose birthright has always been the urge to tell someone off, make a change, start again. Of course, this "anything is possible" point of view has led to a lot of pain for most of our ambitious American strivers, so a pinch or more of Ozu's philosophy can be beneficial to us.

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TAGS: eclipse series, i was born but..., passing fancy, the criterion collection, tokyo chorus, yasujirô ozu


Tribeca Film Festival 2008: Before the Rains

Mechanical through and through, Before the Rains commences with English spice trader Henry Moores (Linus Roache) gifting a gun to right-hand man T.K. (Rahul Bose), thereby immediately turning the story into a listless waiting game to see how said firearm will change the lives of these two men. That wait isn't as long as one might expect, but such minor timing surprises aren't nearly enough to prop up Santosh Sivan's been-there-done-that colonial drama. In 1937 Kerala, India, the entrepreneurial Moores endeavors—thanks to a bank loan, and in part to prove his doubting father-in-law wrong—to build a mountainside road to facilitate the transportation of tea and spices. This professional goal is complicated by his clandestine affair with married Indian housemaid Sajani (Nandita Das), especially once two children spot the couple, whose cross-cultural relationship would cause unrest in the local village, during their tastefully shot sexual rendezvous at a jungle waterfall. Moores's dainty wife and child soon arrive from England, and shortly thereafter Moores and Sajani's romance is uncovered, leading to that fateful gun-related incident, an unpleasant cover-up, and stolid moral dilemmas involving Moores and the loyal yet increasingly discontent T.K. Minor references to India's accelerating resistance to British rule provide a dash of historical flavor. More relevant context for Before the Rains, however, is its myriad cinematic period piece predecessors—many from Merchant Ivory (which "presents" Sivan's latest)—whose straightforward structure and prestigious tone are here dutifully replicated. Close-ups of frogs jumping off rocks into ponds and bees crawling over honeycomb are the director's means of conveying the atmosphere of his locale, though aesthetic adequacy and fine performances by the cast (in roles that are all thoroughly without interest) don't alter the fact that this film about illicit love and spice trading is almost completely devoid of heat or flavor.

Before the Rains @ the Tribeca Film Festival

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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TAGS: before the rains, Linus Roache, Nandita Das, Rahul Bose, Santosh Sivan, tribeca film festival


Air Wolf

Introduction

A new day dawns and, from this side of the web, it seems business as usual. Perhaps that's because I've been aware for a while now that my co-editor and friend Matt Zoller Seitz is leaving behind the world of print journalism.

It's long been a point of conversation, one of those topics posited in off-the-cuff "what-if?" asides, always leading to deeper discussion, though no definitively stated absolutes. That is until a month ago when I received a nighttime phone call from Matt, his voice unwavering and decisive. "I'm out," he said in regards to his seventeen years plus profession, going on to state his reasons, though, in that moment, he needn't have justified his choice to me. It was unmistakably prepared for, and though I felt a twinge of wistful sadness (impossible not to), I was more happy for him and the potential futures he was now laying out before me, his tone crystal clear and infectious. There was a part of me that wondered if this wasn't an extended prank, that we'd get to zero hour and he'd say—with a mischievous, Cheshire Cat grin—"Just kidding." But the point of no return has passed. The clock has struck midnight. The DeLorean's hit 88 mph. And, where Matt's going, he don't need roads.

All this to say that I think I've personally had enough time to deal with any resultant aftershocks of Editor Emeritus Seitz's announcement, of his entrustment of The House Next Door to me, of the great responsibility that comes with that, and of my desire, determination, and commitment to maintain the continually high level of collaborative quality that Matt has instilled in this venture. It's the least I can do, and I hope you'll all (contributors, constant readers, and newcomers alike) come along for the ride—it's far from over. Yet any passing of the torch requires more than just an announcement. As I say in the accompanying podcast conversation, I think we're presented with markers in our life, signposts directing us down a certain path or away from it. Sometimes we heed said marker's advice, other times we ignore it, but it always makes an impression, and we more often, whether regretfully or not, remember the road not taken. I thought it important that Matt and I create our own signpost, to mark a moment that shouldn't come off as an end of things or a farewell, but as a present-tense point in time that has its own complicated history, ripe for retrospective exploration, and which portends a future filled with endless and abundant possibilities.

So we have done below: Laughed much. Explained and enlightened. Spoken from the heart and bared the soul—now to an audience. It remains only for me to thank Matt for his friendship and guidance, his trust and love, and to wish him well on his each and every future endeavor. You're a brother to me, my friend. And an inspiration to many besides. Keith Uhlich

To download the podcast, click here. The conversation is transcribed in full below, with minor edits for style and clarification.

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TAGS: home, house maintenance, keith uhlich, matt zoller seitz


Tribeca Film Festival 2008: The Wackness

The lyrically nostalgic romanticism that characterized Jonathan Levine's All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is reconfigured for the '90s—specifically, 1994—for his sophomore feature The Wackness. Levine's distinguishing aesthetic hallmark is a washed-out visual palette dappled with blinding sunflares and slow-mo sequences set to enveloping pop and hip-hop tracks. The latter, courtesy of A Tribe Called Quest and the Notorious B.I.G. (among others), dominate this story about the unlikely friendship struck between weed-dealing Manhattan teen Luke (Josh Peck) and the wacko psychiatrist, doctor Jeff Squires (Ben Kingsley), whom he sells drugs to in exchange for therapy sessions during the blisteringly hot Manhattan summer after high school graduation. Luke and Dr. Squires share an affinity for getting high, a lust for sex, and substandard home lives, and through their relationship both learn the very lessons Squires preaches: to experience each moment to the fullest, and to not sweep pain and heartache under the rug with pills and pot—superficial methods of coping that the script equates with new mayor Giuliani's efforts to clean up Times Square—but to accept them as natural, vital parts of life.

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TAGS: Jonathan Levine, josh peck, the wackness, tribeca film festival


Tribeca Film Festival 2008: Mister Lonely

It's been years since Harmony Korine burst upon the scene with Gummo and Julien Donkey-Boy, two expressionistic collages that straddled the line between prankster cinema and poetry. What was refreshing about those films was that there was almost nothing else like them out there, and Mister Lonely starts out in a similarly bold, almost vaudevillian style, announcing itself as a Korine film the moment you see a Michael Jackson impersonator (Diego Luna) strutting his stuff on the streets of Paris. At a retirement home, entertaining the elderly as they croak along to his enthusiastic singing, he meets his match in a fetching Marilyn Monroe imitator (Samantha Morton). Their dialogue scenes seem like it was written using a child's crayon, which perhaps accounts for why the romance feels so pure. The unrelated subplot about skydiving nuns and a padre (Werner Herzog) trying to fly them to Rome to have a drink with the Pope contains vivid images (how can you go wrong with skydiving nuns?), but the main narrative of Monroe and Jackson traveling to a Scottish isle to join a talent show featuring other impersonators feels like a parade of skits. The pleasure of Korine's films is in their free-form narrative style, but once we're on the island, Mister Lonely gets stuck and begins to feel repetitive. While the film falls short in comparison to his other films, Korine remains one of the most innovative and surprising new voices in American cinema. As a champion for the beautiful and the strange, I'll take bottom-shelf Korine over just about anything else currently playing in theaters.

Mister Lonely @ the Tribeca Film Festival

This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.

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TAGS: Diego Luna, harmony korine, mister lonely, samantha morton, tribeca film festival







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