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It’s Alive!: The Top Film Criticism Sites: An Annotated Blog Roll, Part One

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It’s Alive!: The Top Film Criticism Sites: An Annotated Blog Roll, Part One

There’s one word that sums up the World Wide Web: huge. Faced with the Internet’s exponentially expansive growth and sprawling heterogeneity, every other generalization comes up short. Though the all-too-familiar “death of film criticism” polemics prefer to frame the current era in terms of (degraded) quality, the truly epochal shift in digital-age criticism is a function of quantity: total media saturation and head-spinning content overload.

Mid-century cinephilia offered its transatlantic disciples something that, for the other fine arts, had reached its breaking point in the Modernist period: a canon that could be mastered in its entirety by an individual consciousness. If you subscribed to a dozen or so of the “right” periodicals and faithfully patronized the art-house premieres and repertory revivals of London, Paris, or New York (or, later, San Francisco and Los Angeles), you could quite literally see everything that was considered worth seeing and read all the critics thought to be worth reading. This culture, of course, was built on a kind of artificial scarcity: the back catalogues of film history were just starting to be excavated and archived, much of world cinema was off the Western radar, and most of the accomplished criticism published in student newspapers, mid-sized metropolitan dailies, and underground film journals went largely unnoticed. The last two decades have yielded so much to cinephilia—from digital archives and movie-review clearinghouses to TCM and Netflix—but the surfeit has taken at least one thing away: the illusion of all-encompassing critical authority. The spirit of encyclopedic completism embodied in, say, Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema seems more anachronistic by the day. There are just too many films to see and (more to the point) too many smart writers to compete with.

So where do we get off appointing ourselves the selection committee for the top film criticism sites? If that strikes you as a little presumptuous, you’re totally right. Though not “meaningless,” the selections below are meaningful only in a contingent, puzzle-piece sort of way. There are plenty of sites that could just as easily have made the cut: Arbogast on Film, Buzz Buzz, Chronicle of a Passion, Cinema Style, Confessions of an Aca-Fan, The Crop Duster, DVD Savant, Elusive Lucidity, The Independent Eye, Movie Morlocks, New Deal Sally, Rightwing Film Geek, Shooting Down Pictures, Theo’s Century of Movies, Zero for Conduct, plus a dozen others we could name off the top of our heads—and who knows how many more that we’re not even aware of. But here’s the thing: while we could have billed the selections as “43 Semi-Randomly Selected but Genuinely Distinguished Film Criticism Sites,” that meme just doesn’t trend as well (#awkward). To tantalizingly mislabel the headline above and then clarify the stakes here in the introduction seemed like the best compromise, in a lie-that-tells-the-truth sort of way.

The blog roll has become the defining trope of critical exchange in the early Internet era: its network of laterally enmeshed connections quite literally defines “the Web.” But the long, scrolling lists of hyperlinked sites are easily overwhelming. Jumping into a random blog midstream is often disorienting. And if you’re already the kind of person who actively seeks out intelligent film criticism, your reading queue is no doubt pretty full. But maybe you’d like to refine your short-list of go-to sites, match your favorite venues against a few others in a Darwinian death-match—because how else are your tastes going to expand and evolve?

Our goal here is to make that process as easy and efficient as possible. For every URL included, one of our crack contributors has come up with an elegantly pithy synopsis of the critical style and obsessively revisited subjects that define the spirit of the site. When you’ve found a couple of capsules that pique your interest, bookmark them at the top of your browser and click over when you have some downtime. Try to have patience if the writer’s personality doesn’t immediately hook you. Just as in real life, the person who at first strikes you as slightly boring may later become your best friend forever. So give it a week or two of casual browsing; peruse the backlog of posts by subject tags; linger in the comments sections. Every writer has his own rhythms, her own hidden wellsprings of ideas and emotions, and sometimes it takes some up-front effort to tune in to that. The more you put in, the more you get out.

The projects included here span a wide range of genres: digital film journals, multi-writer theme sites, side projects of film studies academics, digital outreach by professional print reviewers, and, above all, the personal blogs of unpaid enthusiasts. Our only criteria for inclusion were that (a) posts must be written primarily in the English language and (b) the content must be specifically produced for online consumption. The selections are unranked and in randomly generated order (our highly sophisticated algorithm is modeled loosely on the perennial schoolyard favorite MASH).

For years now, Internet film critics have been relentlessly dumped on by many (but by no means all) in the legacy media. Though they’ve gotten little in the way of social recognition or financial compensation, cinephile bloggers have filled in the gaps of mainstream review coverage, corralled hard-to-find source materials, enriched cinema’s theoretical vocabularies and historical narratives, and shared their personal obsessions in often fascinating, hilarious, and deeply affecting ways. I feel personally privileged and just really fucking happy to shine a light on their work—all of them life-affirming examples of democratic participation and humanizing cultural exchange. —Paul Brunick

The Self-Styled Siren

Self-Styled SirenClassical Hollywood fetishism has found a most enchanting ambassador. Farran Smith Nehme of The Self-Styled Siren turns the articulation of cliché and convention into a sport—no surprise she’s chosen melodrama as her champion underdog and counts Max Ophüls and Douglas Sirk among her favorite directors. A witty, working mother of three (the blog originated during afternoon naptime), the Siren is a unique and refreshing voice in a field often prone to nostalgic vacuity or esoteric one-upmanship. An “Anecdote of the Week” feature showcases her extensive bibliographic endeavors. Her obituaries are the most dependably poetic on the scene. Whether dusting off forgotten gems and industry players or providing fresh analysis on the already canonical, the Siren speaks with the grit, gumption, and savvy of the pre-Code ladies she so admires. Her extensive research is a valuable corollary to the Hollywood Babylon school of salacious folklore; not that the blog is without juice (delicious bon mots care of her beloved George Sanders) or mysticism (a reverential moment of silence for Charles Boyer’s “incomparable way with a hat”). The Siren abandoned anonymity upon co-programming a series for TCM, but lifting the veil, in true Merry Widow style, has only furthered the blossoming of her appeal: a recent blogathon hosted in association with the National Film Preservation Foundation has raised $13,500 and counting. Not only is the Siren the best film geek friend you ever had but an increasingly powerful force. —Brynn White

Strictly Film School

Strictly Film School

No one embodies cinephilia in the Internet age better than the pseudonymous Acquarello (aka Pascual Espiritu), a self-described “NASA flight systems design engineer” who single-handedly creates all the content for Strictly Film School. Unapologetically auteurist in design, Strictly Film School’s biggest draw is its jaw-droppingly extensive Director’s Database that boasts over 500 names, from canonical faves like Chantal Akerman and Pedro Almodóvar to the less known (but no less worthy) Joaquim Pedro de Andrade and Lisandro Alonso—and that’s just scratching the surface of the As. The directory doesn’t offer bios but instead concise capsules whose brevity is belied by their insights. While online platforms offer practically limitless writing space, Acquarello’s economical and precise prose is something to treasure. And for those looking to venture beyond auteurism, Strictly Film School offers the option to browse reviews by genres (of the academic sort: “Neo-Expressionism,” “Cinema Verité”), themes (“Generational Conflict,” “Aging/Obsolescence/Death”), and images (“Chromatic Shifts—State of Consciousness, Existential Realm” being my personal favorite). “Film-Related Reading Notes” on recently browsed print matter and a “Film Fest Journal” tops off this exhaustively (and exhaustingly) comprehensive site. If only real film schools were as informative and passionate as Strictly Film School. —Cullen Gallagher

Diagonal Thoughts

Diagonal ThoughtsIn the distant future—when we are nothing more than incorporeal abstractions coded into the algorithmic consciousness of a virtual singularity, or blue-skinned, loin-clothed power-forwards cybersexing flora and fauna with our FireWire pony tails, or whatever!—I sincerely hope that our post-organic nervous systems will occasionally light up to the archived index of Diagonal Thoughts. Media and culture aficionado Stoffel Debuysere, a member of Belgium’s Courtisane collective and co-programmer of its film and video festival, maintains a dense and diligently curated collection of “notes on seeing and being, sound and image, media and memory.” The site presents fresh, often mind-bending findings drawn from the worlds of neuroscience, philosophy, sociology, computer science, cultural studies, and (of course) the cinema. Collating quotations from innumerable sources, Debuysere is much more than a mere cut-and-paster—the rhetorical patchwork of interviews, articles, and program note snippets have a synthetic brilliance all their own, further gilded with Debuysere’s original observations and erudite commentary. Alongside his interest in new media’s ontological collision with human cognition and perceptual reality is a stalwart passion for old-school avant-garde celluloid (lovingly categorized as “Indeterminate Cinema”); recent “Artists in Focus” have included Guy Sherwin, David Gatten, and Morgan Fisher. Tracking the intersecting vectors of technological and aesthetic evolution, Diagonal Thoughts is nothing less than the cinephile’s survival guide for the 21st century. —Jesse P. Finnegan

Not Coming to a Theater Near You

Not Coming to a Theater Near YouRumsey Taylor was reared in the hinterlands of rural Kentucky, nurtured by VHS rentals and late-night cable TV. It’s fitting that he would go on to found Not Coming to a Theater Near You, an ambitious online resource for reevaluations of forgotten and fringe cinema. Taylor’s prowess as an editor lies in an innate ability to skirt both irreverent fan-boy pitfalls and highfalutin postgrad navel-gazing; the writing remains doggedly non-academic while retaining a sharp populism and simple elegance often lacking in similar niche sites. Not Coming increased its profile in 2009 by partnering with the NYC revival venue at 92YTribeca, where editors and contributors present public screenings of rare and controversial classics. The site sets itself apart through its assemblage of talented contributors, many of whom are able up-and-comers in New York’s criticism and repertory programming scenes. In addition to reviews, Not Coming offers independent festival coverage, interviews with significant figures in alternative cinema and criticism (filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, animator Don Hertzfeldt, and New Yorker film editor Richard Brody were all recent respondents), as well as comprehensive essays on intriguingly obscure subjects. A recent piece analyzed the rogue cinephilia of underground video mixtapes, most of which are of questionable legal status. It’s rare to find such subjects spotlighted with so much eloquence, and it’s with essays like this that the site really scores. —Benjamin Shapiro

Acidemic

AcidemicAcidemic is to be experienced more than summarized. While founder Erich Kuersten will write on oft-discussed blogosphere subjects—down-and-dirty horror pics, Seventies cinema of both mainstream and marginal varieties—these often serve as launching pads for loose-limbed meditations on cultural mores, youth nostalgia or, well, whatever else he wants to talk about. Kuersten’s runaway-train sentence structure and off-the-cuff humor result in some singular insights. (From an appreciation of 1982’s Conan the Barbarian: “The Thulsa Doom serpent cult in the film was a perfect analogy for the hippie movement, with its focus on converting young people to blood orgies and training them to kill their parents…For kids wondering why they weren’t growing up drowned in orgies like their older brothers in the 1970s, [it] was the perfect demonization tool.”) But following the snaking paths of his musings proves quite rewarding, not least for the way he intertwines the analytical with the personal. In a defense of Lindsay Lohan, for instance, Kuersten (who has written about his struggles with alcohol) both calls out the public’s gender bias and then offers the oft-soused starlet some AA-inspired solidarity. Full of freewheeling insights, Acidemic gives seemingly familiar material an idiosyncratic spin. —Matthew Connolly

The Academic Hack

The Academic HackAt first glance, there’s something intimidating about Michael Sicinski’s website, with its spare design and unadorned capsules of small-print Times New Roman. But as Sicinski’s ever-increasing fan base will attest, appearances can be deceiving. While he may indeed be an academic (he has a background in visual art and teaches university film courses), there’s nothing dry about his writing. Sicinski specializes in avant-garde film—there’s no other critic I know of who can make some of cinema’s most challenging works sound downright inviting—but he writes about Hollywood and art cinema with equal passion, humor, and clarity. His short-form reviews waste not a word; as the father of a young child, he doesn’t have the time to spare. Whether he’s unpacking complicated films with astonishing insight, defending a misunderstood triumph, or tearing down a seemingly unassailable critical favorite, Sicinski’s voice is one of almost scary intelligence—but it’s never haughty or condescending. His writing challenges accepted opinions and inspires reflection and investigation. You can’t ask for much more from a critic. —Matt Noller

Undercurrent

Undercurrent

Spartan and straightforward, the online magazine Undercurrent gets by without the hard sell—and that’s no small matter. A labor of love founded by Chris Fujiwara in 2006, Undercurrent is a quintessential small magazine, posting only one or two issues a year yet greatly enriching the world of film criticism. The site has done especially sharp and enjoyable work in the single-theme tribute format: a special section on John Ford, an homage to Danièle Huillet. Fujiwara, an occasional Film Comment contributor and author of several perceptive critical studies (on Tourneur, Preminger, and Jerry Lewis), says that he sees the project partly as “a magazine about film criticism.” Under the aegis of FIPRESCI (The International Federation of Film Critics), the journal’s focus and cosmopolitan character seem fitting, but it’s a real credit to Fujiwara’s editorial hand that Undercurrent transcends professional insiderism. Fujiwara, who grew up in Brooklyn and has lived in Tokyo for the past three years, says he seeks to steer the journal toward examination of the critical scenes in countries outside North America and Europe, and spur more thinking on “the theory and practice of criticism, the ways it gets written and read, in practical terms, and what critics’ goals and ideals are.” —Paul Fileri

DVD Beaver

DVDBeaverWith its wealth of screen grabs direct from their DVD or Blu-Ray sources, Gary Tooze’s DVD Beaver is the go-to site for home-cinema perfectionists. From bit-rate analyses and run-time certifications to examinations of aspect ratios and image formatting, Beaver’s orgy of tech specs is a cinephilic wet dream. As the next-generation heir to Tim Lucas of Video Watchdog (see separate entry), Tooze has maintained pressure on home-video distributors to keep raising the bar of image and audio quality. Particularly revealing are side-by-side comparisons of a single title’s competing regional releases, in which the often staggering differences in transfer quality have to be seen to be believed. For such reasons, Beaver is both a major advocate of owning a multi-region player and a consumer-reports resource for sorting through the various models. Though reviews can get lost in the sea of advertising necessary to support the independently owned and operated site, once a user gains a little familiarity with the layout, staying updated is easy (and addictive): from the “What’s New” and “Release Calendar” sections to the conversely complementary “Criterions Going Out of Print” alerts. While the site currently focuses on technical evaluations, Tooze applies his unique analytical voice to auteurist critiques in the “Director’s Chair” section and shows off his genre smarts in the “Definitive Film Noir on DVD” resource page. —Ben Simington

Kino Slang

Kino SlangAt once a secret history of radical cinema and a secret history of radicals in the cinema, Kino Slang is as much about politics as film. Andy Rector’s selections of text and image capture the moments when history seeps through moving pictures in spite of themselves, revealing for a trembling instant the politics underlying their representation. There’s no preferred “genre” here other than authenticity; posts might combine images and texts from Pedro Costa with Kenji Mizoguchi or from Jean-Marie Straub with Charles Burnett. As an attempt to excavate the 20th-century political projects that have structured the history of cinema, Kino Slang is often oblique but no less essential for that. Like the flickering images of Chris Marker’s Grin Without a Cat or the tombstones of John Gianvito’s Profit motive and the whispering wind, Rector isolates the outliers, those critical voices in the wilderness, and assembles them into a unified trajectory of what might have been—and could be still. Rector’s compilation of discrete cultural moments does more than unearth forgotten episodes of (film) history. More than the sum of its parts, Kino Slang’s posts cumulatively comprise their very own histoire(s)—of cinema, of politics, and of personal artistic commitment. —Dave McDougall

Ludic Despair

Ludic DespairNorthwestern University professor Jeffery Sconce has devoted his career to the scholarly probing of seedy cinematic underbellies: exploitation flicks, televised trash, and various cult phenomena. Sconce’s blog, billed as “An Index of Co-Morbid Symptoms,” skims lurid treasures off the cesspool of mass media with a timeliness that a critical anthology or symposium could never provide. Ludic’s robust, readable, and topical-to-the-week epistles are distinguished by Sconce’s spry intellectual vigor and playfully acerbic (or acerbically playful) curiosity, not to mention his laser-guided insights and pitch-perfect wit. Speculating as to why the incubators of Avatar seemed so compelled to weigh down a would-be romp with the cement shoes of a “message movie,” Sconce hypothesizes: “Perhaps this stems from a sense of guilt—if someone is going to spend this much money on a film, it should do more than simply grind Cool Ranch Doritos into the spectator’s eyes for two hours.” Dusting off all manner off sub-pop pap and B-grade tawdriness from decades past, Ludic also offers analytical treatises on contemporary concerns: a memorandum on our growing fascination with mall cops; a fiery deflation of the “Balloon Boy” media circus; a dialectical account of the death of “the teenager,” prompted by England’s adoption of the anti-loitering gizmo “the mosquito.” No matter the moving-image netherworlds Sconce navigates, the self-evident absurdity (which would be enough for most cultural commentators) is only the starting point—Sconce’s explications may be funny, but they’re far from a joke. And if you’re still waiting for the definitive appraisal of oddball icon Clint Howard, your day has arrived. —Jesse P. Finnegan

Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule

Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly RuleIn a media environment that rewards snark, however joyless, Dennis Cozzalio is an affable and refreshing voice. A father of two who came of age in the heyday of New Hollywood, Cozzalio’s cinematic reference points run as broad and deep as any salaried movie reviewer; but unlike the professionals, who are often required to waste spleen on films toward which they feel indifferent or hostile, Cozzalio has the luxury of focusing on the movies he actually enjoys. In practice this means that the content is delightfully varied: reviews of new releases, coverage of repertory events in the Los Angeles area, nostalgic looks back at trashy gems that won’t even play on cable. As someone who doesn’t believe in the concept of the guilty pleasure, Cozzalio doesn’t approach the “lowbrow” with caustic irony or overcompensating veneration; the oeuvre of Joe Dante is treated on its own terms. Since Cozzalio has a day job, updates can be sporadic, but uninhibited by space limitations or word count, his posts are lengthy and well-illustrated with images. Most impressive, as any dedicated digi-critic will tell you, is the community of commenters and fellow bloggers that have responded to Cozzalio’s work: their robust and insightful engagement lives up to Wired magazine’s Web utopianism. —Violet Lucca

Some Came Running

Some Came RunningGlenn Kenny was once a respected critic and editor for Premiere until he became a casualty of capitalism’s war on journalism. Now he finds himself online doing exactly what he wants, no longer beholden to deadlines and column inches. Not that he’s totally happy about that. Kenny has always been ambivalent about the position online criticism holds in the cultural discourse. When he’s at his best, though, he navigates the cyber landscape with the ease of any “digital native” youngster. A regular highlight of his site are the entries on DVD and Blu-Ray releases wherein he scopes out oft-obscure corners of the market for beautiful transfers of forgotten classics. And serious lovers of film criticism can appreciate Kenny’s regular lambasting of his two favorite punching bags, Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeff Wells and the New York Press’s Armond White. —Evan Davis

Wright On Film

Wright on FilmWriting with a Bordwellian clarity and analytical rigor that’s perfect for unpacking the components of cinematic form, Benjamin Wright’s site is a fount of smart discourse on modern film aesthetics. Topics range from the character of Michael Mann’s close-ups to speculation on the almost-projects of great directors, but Wright (a graduate student at Carleton University in Ottawa) perhaps shines brightest when discussing his dissertation topic: sound in modern movies. His essays delve into the ways in which technology and industrial economics shape our experience of the oft-ignored aural aspects of the films we see (and hear), always taking care to initiate sonic laypeople with generous explanations of technical terms. It may sound a little (gasp!) academic, but Wright’s thoughtful enthusiasm guides you gracefully through the intricacies of, say, the narrative functions of Jerry Goldsmith’s scores or inside-baseball debates on 5.1 versus 10.2 surround sound systems. Wright has recently been considering the implications of 3-D, particularly with regard to how it might alter the soundscape of feature films. The intelligence and equanimity with which Wright treats this much-discussed topic alone makes Wright on Film a valuable resource. Best of luck with the dissertation, Benjamin, but make sure to keep the posts coming! —Matthew Connolly

Moving Image Source

Moving Image Source

Under the stewardship of editor-in-chief Dennis Lim, Moving Image Source has quickly become one of the most consistently engaging critical voices on the Web, offering a versatile platform for its home institution (Astoria’s Museum of the Moving Image) to explore classic and contemporary cinema in all its international variety. Bridging the gap between serious criticism and scholarship, the journal is noteworthy not only for its consistently insightful prose and wide-ranging subjects—often pegged to important film exhibitions—but for its regular inclusion of video essays, an exciting emergent format that has been pioneered by frequent contributors Kevin B. Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz. In its two years online, the publication has thrived on a cinephilic passion open to many different tastes and approaches, with subjects ranging from the art of cinematography to the aesthetics of early video games, from established filmmakers like Wes Anderson to more obscure figures such as Yasmin Ahmad. In addition to top-notch criticism, the sleekly designed website features an exhaustive but easily navigable list of online resources for cinema-related research, a calendar highlighting the most significant film events around the world, and an audio treasure trove of MOMI’s Pinewood Dialogues with film and TV luminaries. —Andrew Chan

Artforum.com

ArtforumContinuing Artforum’s tradition of film writing begun in the late Sixties by such luminaries as Annette Michelson and Manny Farber, the film blog at Artforum.com also gives space to a wider range of subjects than the print publication and more reflections from a welcome roster of critical voices including James Quandt, Amy Taubin, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Ed Halter, Nicolas Rapold, Melissa Anderson, Andrew Hultkrans, Michael Joshua Rowin, and more. Artforum’s pristinely designed outpost places the cinema beat alongside a news digest and links to both its “critics’ picks” section and the Scene & Herd diary, which offers a plethora of photos from exhibition openings and parties. New York remains a persistent locus of attention, but current online editor David Velasco says he aims to keep “multiple venues and topics in the mix.” Recent reports have been filed on screenings of Pancho Villa-centered documentaries by Gregorio Rocha and Félix and Edmundo Padilla at L.A.’s REDCAT experimental film theater, and an exhibition of works by Ryan Trecartin, Peter Campus, Sharon Lockhart, and Joachim Koester at The Power Plant contemporary art gallery in Toronto. At its best, Artforum.com reports and reflects the ways in which the world of cinema and the contemporary art scene increasingly commingle and cross-fertilize. —Paul Fileri

Film-Philosophy

Film-PhilosophyIn the world of online film publications, Film-Philosophy qualifies as a firmly entrenched fixture. Begun as an e-mail list in 1996, this first-generation, U.K.-based enterprise has cultivated a small but focused international readership, helping to renew interest in thinkers who yoke together philosophy and film, from Gilles Deleuze and Stanley Cavell to Henri Bergson and Hugo Münsterberg. Founder and academic Daniel Frampton has since collected his long-gestating reflections in an ambitious 2006 book Filmosophy (a work whose cumbersome title has perhaps unsurprisingly failed to catch on), turning over stewardship of the site to current managing editor David Sorfa. “We have special issues coming up on disgust and on animation,” Sorfa said [in the fall of 2009]. “One theme that runs through many of the recently published articles is the question of what it might mean for films to ’do’ philosophy themselves (rather than merely act as examples of prior philosophical theses).” That’s a major challenge, and it’s been most recently met by an issue devoted to Claire Denis and her sometime collaborator Jean-Luc Nancy; articles on the Dardenne Brothers’ cinema in relation to thinker Emmanuel Levinas; and a compelling reconsideration by Gal Kirn of the collectively made 1932 German film Kuhle Wampe. —Paul Fileri

Film Journey

Film JourneyFilm Journey’s extemporized thoughts on long-percolating interests read like the best conversations you ever overheard at the cinematheque. Edited and written (with semi-regular guest contributors) by Doug Cummings, the Los Angeles-based co-founder of Masters of Cinema (see separate entry), Film Journey is less a modest triumph than a triumph of modesty: unaffectedly functional in style, wonkish but never willfully obscure, updated on a schedule that’s leisurely but sustained (Journey has averaged a handful of entries per month for over six years now). Though Cummings’s prosaic, analytical voice has little in common with the freewheeling wordsmithery and bumper-car collisions of ideas that were the signature of his critical idol Manny Farber, it shares with the latter an ability to burrow deep into fine-grained detail and a restless dissatisfaction with intellectual shorthand and orthodox wisdom. Whether re-evaluating old masters like Ozu and Bresson, championing contemporary favorites like Andrew Bujalski and the Dardenne Brothers, highlighting under-praised work in niche periodicals, or getting into the weeds of film festival politics, Cummings continually breaks new ground. That he once had the uncanny experience of discovering his own writing repurposed (without citation) in a sheet of CSUN screening notes is not that surprising—next to his small-scale but refreshingly original insights, the majority of film criticism looks like a rhetorically polished thesaurus-job. —Paul Brunick

The Front Row

The Front RowHark the overdue emergence of New Yorker film editor Richard Brody, previously only available in capsule-sized bites; his physical-emotional breakdowns of American auteurists’ neglected works and sophisticated, subversive celebrations of Norbit and Jared Hess certainly stood out from the “Goings On About Town” fray. Brody published his landmark opus on Jean-Luc Godard (Everything Is Cinema) in the summer of 2008 and his investment in the Nouvelle Vague legacy peppers his daily blog. This bilingual Francophilia is to everyone’s benefit: translations of news items and interviews otherwise unavailable in English and illuminating comparisons of European and American responses appear regularly. The most engaging and sincere species of highbrow intellectual, Brody makes thoughtful, mainstream applications of his interests in cinema symbology and poetics. He offers his readers a philosophical, macrocosmic grasp of film today: its marketers, its creators, and its audiences—including his two teenaged daughters and their responses to films both contemporary and classic. Championship of indie underdogs, weekly video essays on DVD releases, and notifications of must-see TCM broadcasts keep readers abreast of what’s worth seeing now, as filtered through the perspective of a modernist with an infectiously ecstatic faith in the potential of the medium. And for those still worshipping at the altar of Woody Allen, Brody’s got your back. —Brynn White

indieWIRE

indieWIREFlaunting the “independent” banner with business-minded acumen, indieWIRE stands as a prime example of the ways in which commercial online outposts serve up news, information and interactive commentary. The site, which began in 1996 as an e-newsletter co-founded by current editor-in-chief Eugene Hernandez, has grown exponentially. Back in January of 2009, it launched a “re-imagining” of its website to coincide with the Sundance Film Festival’s kickoff, and announced its increasing integration with its new owner, SnagFilms, an online documentary-focused video distribution platform. Now arrayed with the characteristic accoutrements of fashionable journalistic ventures—feeds for news and blog links, rankings of articles, prominent advertising—indieWIRE has further consolidated its status as an alternative to the industry trade paper Variety. In its current incarnation, the site draws together industry players in their own niches, dispersed and networked throughout North America—largely beyond the purview of Hollywood, although Anne Thompson’s blog hardly ventures outside that frame—and also, more centrally, a whole audience that tracks the marketing and commerce of indie cinema. Though Variety no longer reigns supreme as the inside players’ bible of Hollywood dealing, the trade-magazine ethos thrives in more corners than ever, for readerships more general than a studio town ever defined. —Paul Fileri

Video Watchblog

Video WatchblogSelf-proclaimed “Perfectionist of Fantastic Video” Tim Lucas is the creator of Video Watchblog, an outgrowth of his cult magazine Video Watchdog (1990-present; 157 issues to date), which itself originated in a series of columns Lucas published across multiple magazines throughout the Eighties. Recognizing that home media would be the dominant mode of movie-viewing in the future, Lucas’s quietly revolutionary writing is in part responsible for setting the high standards home media must meet today, as well as the emergence of boutique labels, whether they aim to release the definitive edition of a world-cinema classic or reintroduce the public to a forgotten cult gem. Lucas’s approach exhibits an archival commitment to preservation before evaluation: no matter how far outside the canon a title may reside, it first and foremost deserves the highest-possible handling to replicate the director’s original theatrical intentions… then criticism can follow. To these ends, Lucas trained an entire generation of film readers and video renters to manually measure aspect ratios onscreen, hunt down multiple and multi-region releases of the same title, compare alternate run-times and conflicting versions of the same film, and in the process, appreciate the ever-blurring line between exploitation and art house. —Ben Simington

Girish Shambu

Girish ShambuA professor of management at Buffalo’s Canisius College who had originally trained as an engineer, Shambu is an unlikely candidate for Best Online Critic—but he’s certainly in the running. Shambu’s blog is less a formal collection of essays than a locus of fresh and energetic debate about seriously cinephilic matters. He posts recent observations, thoughts, or concerns, and then prompts his commenters to respond with a related query. The results are some of the most enlightening discussions on film style, theory, and history this side of davekehr.com (Shambu counts among his frequent contributors such heavy-hitters as Adrian Martin and Jonathan Rosenbaum). After all, isn’t the pinnacle of intellectual exchange a fluid, continuous opening-up of ideas rather than a rigid, parochial closing-down? —Evan Davis

CineMetrics

CineMetrics

Film academics too rarely get involved in the online game (with the obvious exception of David Bordwell) but University of Chicago professor Yuri Tsivian has entered the Internet exchange with a wonderfully unique contribution. CineMetrics is a database that allows everyone from scholars to Joe Cinephiles to generate empirical data about shot lengths and scales in films using user-friendly (and free!) downloadable software. The well-known metric ASL (Average Shot Length) was popularized thanks to Tsivian’s efforts, who built upon Barry Salt and Bordwell’s pioneering work to generate historical and aesthetic conclusions about film style based on hard numerical data. If you ever wanted to let people know how many medium close-ups were used in Patton, or what Anchorman’s median shot length is, now’s your chance to scratch the statistical itch that’s been driving you crazy! —Evan Davis

Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader

Paul Schrader, well appointed in tailored vest, glares at you through round wire frames on the home page of his new website. With a no-nonsense formality, the visitor is offered three resources: his films, his writings, and his photos. While the filmography and collection of images are predictable fare, the real action goes down in the archives containing his film criticism. Here you’ll find the whole gamut of his hard-to-find film writing, including his recent contributions to Film Comment. By his own account, he owes everything to Pauline Kael, whom he met in New York while taking summer courses at Columbia. He sent her his college-paper movie reviews (written 1965-67 and also included on the site), and she helped him get a gig with the Los Angeles Free Press. During his time there, he wrote such notable reviews as a two-part exploration of Pickpocket, a favorable take on De Palma’s Greetings, a marvelous pan of Easy Rider, and an ode to Boudu Saved from Drowning. Later, for the short-lived Cinema Magazine, he wrote at length about Boetticher and Rossellini, two filmmakers who almost made the grade (alongside the holy trinity of Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer) in Schrader’s 1972 book Transcendental Style in Film. —Paul Fileri

© 2010 The Film Society of Lincoln Center

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Review: The White Crow Sees Art As Being Above and Beyond Politics

Ralph Fiennes’s film too conspicuously avoids an overt political perspective.

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White Crow
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Director Ralph Fiennes’s The White Crow, which tells the true story of ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s 1961 defection to France, opens in a small office in Leningrad, where ballet instructor Aleksander Ivanovich Pushkin (Fiennes, speaking lightly accented Russian) is assuring a security-apparatus bureaucrat that Nureyev’s defection isn’t political. “It’s about dance,” the soft-spoken Pushkin says. “He knows nothing about politics.”

We might consider that a manifesto for The White Crow itself, because throughout the film, the West, as embodied by thriving, early-‘60s Paris, is identified “apolitically” with individual freedom and artistic expression. Pushkin’s interview with the nameless bureaucrat serves as a framing device, within which the film cuts between three different timelines in Nureyev’s (Oleg Ivenko) life, culminating in his decision, under duress from the KGB, to defect to France.

The first of these timelines concerns Nureyev’s bleak childhood in Siberia. Famously, the dancer was born on a train, a scene that the film articulates in shorthand, with color-drained, blue-gray footage it will use for all its scenes set in war-torn Russia. Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare construct a correlation between Nureyev’s natal mobility and his adult need to go places, cutting from the train to the Mariinsky Ballet Company’s flight to Paris in 1961. In Paris, the arrogant Nureyev carelessly pushes the boundaries set by the company’s KGB chaperones, leaving the hotel before dawn to spend the morning in the Louvre, and staying out all night at gay clubs and cabarets with Westerners.

On the Paris social scene, he befriends Clara Saint (Adéle Exarchopoulos), a beautiful socialite whose main attraction for Nureyev appears to be that she’s recently bereaved (her fiancé recently died in a car accident). It’s here the film articulates one of its major themes, and one of Nureyev’s fascinations: the creation of beauty from ugliness. In the Louvre every morning, Nureyev contemplates Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa, a Romantic depiction of death and suffering. So too, does Nureyev’s expressive dancing—traditionally feminine in its naked passion, according to him—turn the ugliness of his childhood into something beautiful.

Ultimately, the film suggests, the fiercely individualist Nureyev will defect because the West makes this transmutation of pain into beauty—that is, the expressive freedom of the individual artist—possible. It’s an historical argument that has basis in fact but which is troublesome here in its thoroughgoing de-politicization of art in the West. Unlike Paweł Pawlikowski’s masterful Cold War, which problematizes cultural authenticity in both communist Poland and ‘50s Paris, The White Crow presents Paris as the gateway to a realm of pure, unmediated self-expression. In reproducing the romantic cliché of the artist as tortured genius, this biopic is certainly not alone nor even the worst sinner, but its representation of art as a realm above and beyond politics is too idealized. It functions to make the West seem an aesthete’s utopia, even as the film appears to avoid an overt political perspective.

The film’s third timeline begins six years prior to the trip to Paris, with Nureyev’s arrival at the Mariinsky school in Leningrad. There, Nureyev insists on taking classes from Pushkin rather than from his assigned teacher, and he and Pushkin develop a personal friendship. The friendship is complicated by Nureyev’s barely concealed affair with Pushkin’s wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova), and made all the more awkward by the young man’s clear sexual preference for men (it’s also implied that Pushkin himself is a closeted gay man).

Fiennes’s Pushkin ends up feeling one-note, always wearing the same tender expression, with affected gestures one suspects are meant to denote the grace of a former ballet dancer but seem all the time like the strategic choices of an actor acting. Ivenko, by contrast, disappears into his role, lending a depth to his ambitious and irascible character that makes the man sympathetic even as he thoughtlessly insults Clara and betrays Pushkin.

Despite Ivenko’s convincing performance, The White Crow is weighed down by its multifold flashback structure, particularly the monochromatic vignettes from the dancer’s childhood. While these flashbacks provide a psychological rationale for Nureyev’s incorrigible individualism and barely suppressed inner conflict, the digital color draining of these scenes increasingly feels like a cheap way of connoting the dire conditions of postwar Russia. Rather than merely oppressive, these flashbacks start to feel redundant, a quality one might attribute to the film’s overly elaborate narrative structure as a whole.

Cast: Oleg Ivenko, Adèle Exarchopoulos, Ralph Fiennes, Raphaël Personnaz, Chulpan Khamatova, Sergei Polunin, Calypso Valois, Louis Hoffman, Olivier Rabourdin Director: Ralph Fiennes Screenwriter: David Hare Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 127 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: J.T. LeRoy Is a Scarcely Subjective Telling of Great Literary Hoax

It’s disappointing that so much of the film feels like mere tilling of the soil.

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J.T. Leroy
Photo: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Content Group

J.T. LeRoy was known as the author of three books across the late 1990s and early aughts. A reclusive, HIV-positive trans man, LeRoy was hailed as a wunderkind upon the publication of Sarah, which the San Francisco Chronicle boldly called “comically Dickensian.” In actuality, LeRoy never existed, as he was a persona, or avatar, willed to vivid life by writer Laura Albert as a means of saying what she felt she couldn’t say as herself.

As co-writer and director Justin Kelly’s film J.T. LeRoy begins, demand for LeRoy is at a fever pitch, perhaps even at a breaking point, as Albert (Laura Dern) is seen desperately recruiting her younger sister-in-law, Savannah Knoop (Kristen Stewart), to play the part of this persona in public, with Albert assuming the role of LeRoy’s overbearing handler, “Speedie.” It’s a spectacular ruse that the pair managed to sustain for six years.

It’s hard to not look at such a weird set of circumstances and see its resultant mold-breaking controversy as foreshadowing, perhaps even enabling our present-day social-media moment and obsession with identity politics. As an examination of the power of celebrity and the easily muddled nature of truth, the film seems to implicitly understand that the creation and eventual exposure of the LeRoy hoax speaks to something deep in the heart of a culture in the midst of an identity crisis, but based on what’s on screen, it’s hard to say exactly what that is.

Highly aware of its own meta-textual richness, the film, adapted by Kelly and Knoop herself from her memoir Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, is at its most interesting when it feels like its inhabiting rather than telling LeRoy’s story. When Speedy and LeRoy engage with fans and press in a haphazard fashion, there’s suspense in the spectacle of every question and answer that’s exchanged—that a grand ruse will be exposed at any moment.

Dern and Stewart convince us that such a stunt could be pulled off not so much in spite of but thanks to its utter absurdity, and among many standout details in the film is a moment when Speedy and LeRoy greet a collaborator (Courtney Love, one of many real-life celebrities who were enmeshed in the real-life saga) with a gift bag consisting of mini-onions, baked beans, and a neck pillow. Such details feel too strange to not be true, and they lend a sublime authenticity to the climactic images of Stewart, as LeRoy by way of Knoop, at the Cannes Film Festival—a cinematic black hole of sorts, with the spectators at the event horizon.

It’s disappointing, then, that so much of J.T. LeRoy feels like mere tilling of the soil. Cursive on-screen text and a ponderous, recurring voiceover lend the film the quality of a notebook doodle. Worse, though, are Kelly’s flat compositions and the script’s impersonal adherence to the beats of biopic storytelling. Aesthetically and narratively, the film lacks the fire—the slippery subjectivity—that we associate with the explosiveness of the J.T. LeRoy saga.

Though successful in presenting how something so outlandish could happen with such apparent ease, J.T. LeRoy fails to sufficiently probe the deeply personal needs of both authors and consumers that drive creation. Dern and Stewart do such a fine job of telling us how it feels to be someone else that you wish for the filmmaking to meet them at their level.

Cast: Kristen Stewart, Laura Dern, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jim Sturgess, Courtney Love, Diane Kruger Director: Justin Kelly Screenwriter: Justin Kelly, Savannah Knoop Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment Content Group Running Time: 108 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, Starring Will Smith, Gets Official Trailer

Ang Lee’s three-year marriage to the 120fps format appears to be in strong shape.

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Gemini Man
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Ang Lee’s last film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, was praised on these pages for astoundingly animating the mind of its young soldier. The film, shot in 3D at a resolution of 4K, was supposed to be some kind of game-changer. But its 120fps format, which is almost three times the 48fps that Peter Jackson used for The Hobbit, annoyed just about everyone for resembling a soap opera or football game.

Nonetheless, Lee’s has remained committed to the format. His latest film, Gemini Man, tells the story of an aging assassin (played by Will Smith) who’s being chased by a younger clone of himself. Admittedly, the hyper-real textures of the film look more convincing than those of either Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk or The Hobbit. But you can make your own assessment from the two-minute trailer that Paramount Pictures released today:

Paramount Pictures will release Gemini Man on October 11.

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Review: Avengers: Endgame Is, Above All Else, a Triumph of Corporate Synergy

Every serious narrative beat in the film is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling, or by faux-improvised humor.

1.5

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Avengers: Endgame
Photo: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

“Let’s get that son of a bitch,” says Captain America (Chris Evans) near the beginning of Anthony and Joe Russo’s Avengers: Endgame, the supposed big-screen finale to the Marvel Cinematic Universe as we now know it. Cap, that sacred symbol of American might, is of course profaning Thanos (Josh Brolin), the purple colossus whose hand of fate, bedecked with the six Infinity Stones, erased half the world’s population during the cliffhanger climax of last year’s Avengers: Infinity War. The victims included many among the superheroic, several of whom have movies on the docket. So there’s no way the remaining commodities—I mean, Avengers—are going to go down without a fight.

It’ll take a while to get to the final showdown, of course. About two hours and 45 minutes of the three-hour running time, to be exact, all of it filled to bursting with goofy one-liners, aching stares into the middle distance, and lots and lots of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey digressions. Almost all of the Avengers’s founding team members are on hand, with a considerably more grizzled and cynical Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Jeremy Renner) providing most of the pathos. Also in attendance are Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) and Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers (Brie Larson), the latter of whose won’t-take-no-guff brashness is especially endearing to a certain gruff, hammer-wielding Asgardian.

I’d tell you more about the film, but then I’d have to kill myself at the spoiler-averse Marvel Studios’s behest. Even noting certain elements out of context—like, say, “Nerd Hulk” or “Lebowski Thor”—might be considered too revealing by the powers that be. So, let’s dance around the narrative architecture and instead ruminate on whether this 22nd entry in the MCU serves as a satisfying culmination of all that’s preceded it.

That’s a firm no, though the Russo brothers and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely certainly lean hard into the dewy-eyed, apocalyptic sturm und drang. You’d think they were putting the finishing touches on the Bible. There are allusions to The Leftovers, J.G. Ballard’s The Terminal Beach, and Picasso’s Guernica, though there’s never a sense, as in those works, that society is truly in irrevocable decay. It’s all good, even when it isn’t: Death is a mostly reversible ploy, and sacrifice is a self-centered concept, a burnish to the ego above all else. It’s telling that, in one scene, Captain America stops to admire his own ass.

There’s some fleeting fun to be had when Endgame turns into a sort of heist film, occasioning what effectively amounts to an in-motion recap of prior entries in the MCU. Yet every serious narrative beat is ultimately undercut by pro-forma storytelling (the emotional beats never linger, as the characters are always race-race-racing to the next big plot point), or by faux-improvised humor, with ringmaster Tony “Iron Man” Stark (Robert Downey Jr., so clearly ready to be done with this universe) leading the sardonic-tongued charge. Elsewhere, bona fide celebs like Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Natalie Portman are reduced to glorified extras. Even the glow of movie stardom is dimmed by the supernova that is the Marvel machine’s at best competently produced weightlessness.

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Karen Gillan, Danai Gurira, Benedict Wong, Jon Favreau, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin, Evangeline Lilly, Tessa Thompson, Frank Grillo, Winston Duke Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo Screenwriter: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Running Time: 181 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Cannes Directors’ Fortnight Lineup Includes The Lighthouse, Zombi Child, and More

In addition to Directors’ Fortnight, the festival announced the films that would screen as part of the ACID lineup.

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The Lighthouse
Photo: A24

Five days after Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux revealed the films that would be competing for the Palm d’Or this year on the Croisette, the Cannes Film Festival has announced the films that will screen as part of the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight. Among those are Robert Eggers’s The Lighthouse, a dark fantasy horror film starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson shot on 35mm black-and-white film stock, and Bertrand Bonello’s Zombi Child, which recounts the destiny of Clairvius Narcisse, a Haitian man who was famously said to have been turned him into a zombie.

See below for the full lineup, followed by the ACID slate.

Directors’ Fortnight Lineup:

Opening Film

Deerskin (Quentin Dupieux)

Official Selection

Alice and the Mayor (Nicolas Pariser)
And Then We Danced (Levan Akin)
The Halt (Lav Diaz)
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää)
Song Without a Name (Melina León)
Ghost Tropic (Bas Devos)
Give Me Liberty (Kirill Mikhanvovsky)
First Love (Takashi Miike)
The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers)
Lillian (Andreas Horwath)
Oleg (Juris Kursietis)
Blow It to Bits (Lech Kowalski)
The Orphanage (Shahrbanoo Sadat)
Les Particules (Blaise Harrison)
Perdrix (Erwan Le Duc)
For the Money (Alejo Moguillansky)
Sick Sick Sick (Alice Furtado)
Tlamess (Ala Eddine Slim)
To Live to Sing (Johnny Ma)
An Easy Girl (Rebecca Zlotowski)
Wounds (Babak Anvari)
Zombi Child (Bertrand Bonello)

Closing Film

Yves (Benoît Forgeard)

Special Screenings

Red 11 (Roberto Rodriguez)
The Staggering Girl (Luca Guadagnino)

Shorts

Two Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (Beatrice Gibson)
The Marvelous Misadventures of the Stone Lady (Gabriel Abrantes)
Grand Bouquet (Nao Yoshigai)
Je Te Tiens (Sergio Caballero)
Movements (Dahee Jeong)
Olla (Ariane Labed)
Piece of Meat (Jerrold Chong and Huang Junxiang)
Ghost Pleasure (Morgan Simon)
Stay Awake, Be Ready (An Pham Thien)

ACID Lineup:

Features

Blind Spot (Pierre Trividic, Patrick-Mario Bernard)
Des Hommes (Jean-Robert Viallet, Alice Odiot)
Indianara (Aude Chevalier-Beaumel, Marcello Barbosa)
Kongo (Hadrien La Vapeur, Corto Vaclav)
Mickey and the Bear (Annabelle Attanasio)
Solo (Artemio Benki)
As Happy as Possible (Alain Raoust)
Take Me Somewhere Nice (Ena Sendijarevic)
Vif-Argent (Stéphane Batut)

Third Annual ACID Trip

Las Vegas (Juan Villegas)
Brief Story from the Green Planet (Santiago Loza)
Sangre Blanca (Barbara Sarasola-Day)

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Review: Carmine Street Guitars Is a Beautiful Portrait of an Everyday Paradise

The film celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge.

3.5

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Carmine Street Guitars
Photo: Sphinx Productions

The concept of Carmine Street Guitars is simplicity itself. Director Ron Mann documents the legendary Greenwich Village guitar store of the film’s title over a period of five days, watching as mostly famous customers stroll in to peruse and play instruments and shoot the breeze with guitar maker Rick Kelly. There’s no voiceover, no overt narrative, and little orienting text—and none of the encounters in this film are structured or presented as info-bite-style interviews. Mann artfully sustains the illusion of someone who’s just hanging out, capturing whatever draws his attention. Consequentially, the documentary communicates the magic of this place even to someone who’s never been to New York City.

Mann has a knack for telling you more than he appears to be. Fashioning intimate compositions, he surveys Kelly and his apprentice, Cindy Hulej, as they build guitars together in companionable silence. Kelly and Hulej are a poignant study in contrasts: Kelly is a graying sixtysomething man with a bit of a belly, while Cindy is a lean twentysomething woman who, with her bright blond hair and multiple tattoos, suggests a rock star. Occasionally, Hulej will solicit Kelly’s approval for one of her designs or for the artwork or poetry she’s burning into the back of a guitar, which he grants with a humble hesitation that subtly says, “You don’t need my approval.” Meanwhile, up front in the store, Kelly’s mother answers the phone. At one point, she says she’s happy to be here, though, at her age, she’s happy to be anywhere.

Shots of Kelly and Hulej working also allow one to savor the tactility of Carmine Street Guitars itself. Hulej works to the left of the back of the store, while Kelly stays to the right of it. Above Kelly is a storage of wooden planks taken from various landmarks of New York, such as Chumley’s and McSorley’s. Kelly poetically says that he likes to build guitars from the “bones of New York.” The resin dries out in older wood, allowing for more openings in the material which in turn yields greater resonation. Such fascinating details arise naturally in the film’s images and conversations. Over the course of Carmine Street Guitars, Kelly fashions a McSorley’s plank into an incredibly evocative guitar, as the gnarled wood gives it the appearance of possessing scar tissue. Near the end of the documentary, musician Charlie Sexton walks in and plays this guitar, and the idea of scar tissue takes on a different meaning. Sexton, Kelly, and the store itself are textured survivors of another era.

This is never explicitly stated in Carmine Street Guitars, but the film offers an analogue daydream in a 21st century that’s been nearly gentrified to death by corporations. The building next to Carmine Street Guitars was once used by Jackson Pollack and is now being sold by a yuppie real estate agent for six million dollars. The yuppie walks into the guitar shop, drooling over the potential sales opportunity, and his entrance feels like an obscenity—a return to the reality that we frequent stores like Carmine Street Guitars, and films like Carmine Street Guitars, in order to evade. It’s only at this point that Kelly’s democratic bonhomie hardens into defensive contempt, as he virtually refuses to speak to the agent. This episode haunts the film, suggesting a fate that can only be bidden off for so much longer.

Carmine Street Guitars celebrates the thingness of things, as well as the assuring clarity and lucidity that can arise from devotion to knowledge. Kelly’s guitar shop is a cocoon, a place of contemplation, and so it feels inevitable when Jim Jarmusch walks into the store. After all, Jarmusch’s recent films, like Only Lovers Left Alive and Paterson, also celebrate creation and erudition while ruing the arrival of a new culture that’s hostile to such desires. Kelly and Jarmusch talk about the filmmaker’s new guitar, which is partially made from Catalpa wood, leading to a riff on the trees that have been formative in each man’s life. In another moving interlude, Wilco guitarist Nels Cline searches for a guitar for frontman Jeff Tweedy, settling on an instrument that reflects Kelly’s own characteristic design: a telecaster with a dropped horn. Such moments reveal artisanship to be a form of communion, as a personal object for Kelly has been refashioned into a symbol of another artistic partnership.

These themes and associations bob under Carmine Street Guitars’s surface, as musicians noodle around with Kelly. This pregnant sense of implication is Mann’s supreme achievement, and as such the film risks being taken for granted as a charming little diversion, when it should be celebrated as a beautiful portrait of an everyday paradise. When Hulej weeps in gratitude, on her fifth anniversary of working for Carmine Street Guitars, you want to weep with her.

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Review: Hyènas Brilliantly Chips Away at a City’s Colonialist Architecture

Djibril Diop Mambéty’s 1992 film resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing.

4

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Hyènas
Photo: Metrograph Pictures

Djibril Diop Mambéty spared no one when mercilessly depicting populations who were simultaneously eating themselves from within and being exploited by the economic interests of outside forces. Mambéty’s great Touki Bouki from 1973 viewed this dual process through the prism of the postcolonial relationship between Senegal and France. And in Mambéty’s second feature, 1992’s Hyènas, Senegal is pitted against larger global institutions, such as the World Bank, that prey on small nations whose financial instability makes them more likely to embrace warped logic and false promises at their own expense.

Mambéty confines the proceedings to Colobane, a small commune in Dakar, where its population and governmental order are turned upside down by the return of former resident Linguere Ramatou (Ami Diakhate), whose newfound wealth has become a subject of much dispute and angst within the community. The woman, who’s said by locals to be “richer than the World Bank,” becomes Mambéty’s stand-in for how an institutional form of thinking, with its financial rather than human emphasis, corrupts local interests by vacuously promising short-term riches to citizens that, in turn, produce long-term financial crises.

One of Mambéty’s primary strengths is how his sense of detail instantly brings the locations of his films to life. Hyènas opens within the market owned by Dramaan (Mansour Diouf), a beloved local merchant whose generosity with patrons is almost immediately apparent, as he allows several customers to purchase expensive goods on credit rather than having them pay up front. Mambéty establishes each nook and cranny of the market’s space through a series of static shots that gradually reveal the amount of people—none of which offer payment for their acquisitions—toiling around the premises. When Dramaan’s wife (Faly Gueye) appears, and Dramaan says, out of her earshot, that she disapproves of his business practices, it’s the first suggestion in Mambéty’s carefully plotted script that mutual trust is the first casualty in the exchange of money between people linked to differing motivations. As the Colobane community takes even greater advantage of Dramaan later in the film, Hyènas further turns the man’s plight into an absurdist tale of capitalism’s follies.

Linguere’s return to Colobane provides the film with its driving plot device, as she announces to the population that she will pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the community in exchange for Dramaan’s murder. Linguere was abandoned by Dramaan years prior after giving birth to their daughter and has come back with the sole intention of wreaking havoc on the man’s life. At least, it initially seems that way; in a later scene, Linguere explains, “The world has made me a whore,” and so she plans to “turn the world into a whorehouse.”

Mambéty imagines how Linguere’s wealth co-signs her agenda of revenge; her dangling of expensive goods over the heads of locals hungry for their piece of the pie is akin to the lie of global monetary cooperation promised by organizations like the International Monetary Fund. Senegal, once again, becomes dependent on global rather than local sources of income and exchange. Mambéty, though, follows the thematic example set by Ousmane Sembène’s Xala, in which a Senegalese politician’s sexual impotence is a symbol of his corruption, by refusing to exonerate local officials within Senegal for their complicity in embracing Westernization. When Dramaan meets with Colobane’s mayor (Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye) to discuss the bounty that’s been placed on his head, the latter says, “[Leopold] Senghor himself went for a walk with the Queen of England…if we were savages, they would not come here.” By implicating the mayor’s deference to Western forms of knowledge and self-definition, Mambéty deftly wrestles with the complexity of corruption’s reach.

Despite its rather serious and finally tragic appraisal of Senegal’s quagmire within the world system, Hyènas resonates primarily for its lacerating comedic writing and pacing. As Dramaan comes to mistakenly believe that he will be elected Colobane’s next mayor, only to learn that, in fact, he’s more likely to be killed before an election takes place, Mambéty ratchets up the film’s ludicrousness to simultaneously critique the Senegalese government and widespread consumerism, and with equal ferocity. This is best encapsulated by the moment where Dramaan realizes that everyone who isn’t paying him seems to own the same, new pair of yellow boots made in Burkina Faso. Dramaan’s market, filled with foreign goods ranging from European tobacco to Coca-Cola, is itself exploiting its owner; the man has paid a high price for quality only for the local marketplace to abuse his ambitions.

These ideas also propelled Touki Bouki, in which a pair of college-aged youths from Dakar, a city adored with so many Pepsi logos and Mobil oil towers, (dream of migrating to France. In a memorable scene from that film, a pair of French professors dismiss Senegal’s local culture by articulating the distinctly colonialist logic of France’s superiority. While Hyènas forgoes such an explicit drag of French supremacy, the film’s lucid indignation and satirical take on Senegal’s raw deal proves just as convincing.

Cast: Ami Diakhate, Mansour Diouf, Calgou Fall, Faly Gueye, Mamadou Mahourédia Gueye, Issa Ramagelissa Samb, Dijbril Diop Mambéty Director: Djibril Diop Mambéty Screenwriter: Djibril Diop Mambéty Distributor: Metrograph Pictures Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 1992

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Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow

Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

2.5

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Chasing Portraits
Photo: First Run Features

Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.

In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.

Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.

Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.

Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.

In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.

Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography

The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.

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If the Dancer Dances
Photo: Monument Releasing

More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.

Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.

If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.

Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.

At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.

Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018

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Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us

Netflix will release the series on May 31.

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When They See Us
Photo: Netflix

In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.

Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.

Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.

According to the official description of the series:

Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.

See the trailer below:

Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.

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