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Ernst Lubitsch (#110 of 13)

Review: Gerd Gemünden’s Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema 1933-1951

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Review: Gerd Gemünden’s Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema 1933-1951
Review: Gerd Gemünden’s Continental Strangers: German Exile Cinema 1933-1951

In spite of a subtitle that suggests a survey of German exile cinema over an 18-year period, Gerd Gemünden’s new book cunningly circumnavigates the typical pitfalls of cinema historicism by turning his focus to a variety of themes, influences, and industrial forces, rather than singling out only one. While canonical films such as 1942’s To Be or Not to Be and 1943’s Hangmen Also Die receive chapter-length studies, so too do less exhausted works like 1934’s The Black Cat, 1939’s The Life of Emile Zola, and 1949’s Act of Violence, each with precise and comprehensive results.

Gemünden is an excellent writer; his introduction clearly sets the terms of analysis without losing the rigor one expects from an academic text. In particular, his extensive definition of “exile” draws on the likes of theorists Theodor Adorno, Edward Said, and Salman Rushdie to explain how complex self-expression can become when displaced from one’s homeland—what Adorno would call the “damaged life.” Nevertheless, Said and Rushdie are more optimistic, emphasizing that while many things are lost in translation, something may also be gained. Gemünden defines this gain for German exile cinema during this period as an “in-between” state that engages the traditions of Weimar cinema, but also forms a “dark mirror of Nazi cinema.” Ultimately, this leads to one of Gemünden’s larger questions: What does authorship mean in relationship to exile?

Summer of ‘88 Fathers and Sons: The Last Temptation of Christ

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Summer of ‘88: Fathers and Sons—The Last Temptation of Christ
Summer of ‘88: Fathers and Sons—The Last Temptation of Christ

I. Spreading the Word

I say this with love: My father is a master of rhetoric. He is a master of rhetoric without, by his own admission, ever having mastered anything to do with rhetoric. I think he’s too hard on himself. His style of argumentation is blunt, yet nimble, as straightforward as a battering ram, yet maddeningly hard to pin down (as another subversive, Ernst Lubitsch, was summed up by the Production Code, “We know what he’s saying, but we can’t figure out how he’s saying it”). He’ll keep hammering the same point over and over again, until you think you’ve got him, whereby he’ll swerve with surprising dexterity. Approaching 80, my father is typically right-of-center on most political and social issues, except when it comes to religion. Stephanie Zacharek’s description of Pauline Kael suits him on one point only: He has no truck with God. Even the renowned theologians of history would have had their hands full with his Columbo-like oratory (“Oh, yeah, just one more question…”). Augustine would have retaken to drink. Pascal would have lost his wager. Erasmus would have turned agnostic.

If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot Matthew Connolly’s Top 10 Films of All Time

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If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Matthew Connolly’s Top 10 Films of All Time
If I Had a Sight & Sound Film Ballot: Matthew Connolly’s Top 10 Films of All Time

Editor’s Note: In light of Sight & Sound’s film poll, which, every decade, queries critics and directors the world over before arriving at a communal Top 10 list, we polled our own writers, who didn’t partake in the project, but have bold, discerning, and provocative lists to share.

Among the many critics who simultaneously partake in, and rise skeptical eyebrows toward, “best of” polls, the notion of the “list as snapshot” becomes a helpful negotiating metaphor. Viewing any top 10 ballot as a historically contingent event—as opposed an authoritative act of canon formation—allows critics to both enthusiastically make the case for our favorite films, while acknowledging that any act of “objectively” ranking works of art quickly bumps up against the limits of one’s own knowledge, biases, and experience.

It’s a useful image, but perhaps an incomplete one. If a photograph captures a given instant, it cannot account for all the previous moments that collectively created what was placed before the lens. Whittling down this list, for me, became as much about contending with my relationship to different periods in my life as it did with clarifying my feelings on the films themselves—as if the two could ever be wholly disentangled. Should I go with more classical Hollywood titles, whose early presence in my life profoundly shaped both my cinephilic tastes and childhood memories? Is it better to take a gamble on those movies that I’ve had less time to sit with, but whose initial seismic impact most likely ensures their permanent place in my head and heart?

Creating this fantasy Sight & Sound ballot, then, felt as much like excavation as photography, sifting through the layers of past experience, arranging the found artifacts in an attempt to convey my range of cinematic passions up to this point. It’s been an inevitably frustrating, completely rewarding task—and, if it means you add a couple of these titles to your Netflix queue as a result, all the better.

SXSW 2012: Gimme the Loot and The Oyster Princess

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SXSW 2012: <em>Gimme the Loot</em> and <em>The Oyster Princess</em>
SXSW 2012: <em>Gimme the Loot</em> and <em>The Oyster Princess</em>

Loose, shaggy, and more than a little rough, Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot hearkens back to NYC indies like Kids, invoking a feeling of summer without making a big deal of season or setting. While a little slight-seeming for the jury prize it earned here, the film is still a pleasing effort, a comedy of errors about two aspiring artists set in the world of street graffiti.

Malcolm (Tysheeb Hickson) and Sofia (Tashiana R. Washington) have a dream that’s both impossibly big and weirdly specific at the same time: to tag Shea Stadium (which they refuse to call Citi Field), specifically the Home Run Apple, a NYC relic that no one has successfully hit, despite many attempts. There’s an added element here because the two are Yankees fans, a quality that has less to do with baseball than the fact that they’re from the Bronx. This all starts when they get into a turf war with a crew from Woodside, Queens, which makes the Mets scheme a battle over both personal and borough-related pride.

My Favorite Film Festival of 2011: Alive and Well, In Love and War, at the TCM Classic Film Festival

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My Favorite Film Festival of 2011: Alive and Well, In Love and War, at the TCM Classic Film Festival
My Favorite Film Festival of 2011: Alive and Well, In Love and War, at the TCM Classic Film Festival

I suppose it’s inevitable that some of the bloom would have come off the rose that was last year’s first annual TCM Classic Film Festival. I am, after all, a year older, and the time spent in between the first festival and this year’s model has found life getting more complicated, with less room for the study of cinema, classic or not, than my selfish patterns would prefer. But just because I may be mired in a sophomore slump of sorts doesn’t mean that in 2011 the TCM Festival was equally bogged down. Familiarity hardly bred contempt this time around, or complacency. If anything, there was a certain comfort factor built into the festival for me this year, a feeling that, while not radiating the kind of freshman excitement generated by last year’s fun (and my own initiation into the rites of festival film-going), certainly resonated with the buzz of discovery, of learning, about films unfamiliar, and blessedly, seemingly genetically remembered, and even of the value of an adrenaline rush of straight-up nostalgia. Without a doubt, this 2011 edition was the film festival experience of the year for me.

Images of NYC and the Inscription of Louis C.K.

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Images of NYC and the Inscription of Louis C.K.
Images of NYC and the Inscription of Louis C.K.

It can be tricky to describe what distinguishes Louis C.K. from other stand-ups, even from those who specialize in observational, storytelling, confessional comedy. I first heard about him from a friend in the mid-2000s, who related to me the “suck a bag of dicks” routine, where C.K. relates his forensic analysis of a drive-by shouting. The way C.K. spins the recollection (I caught up with the routine on YouTube) into a close reading, drawing concentric circles around the moment of shock in order to reframe it and give it perspective, is a trademark for his work as a comic, and an indication of the way he thinks and dialogues with others. This practice—reframing, always examining, interrogating—occurs again and again both in his routines and on his TV show for FX, Louie. A close relative of the “suck a bag of dicks” bit is a conversation in the “Poker/Divorce” episode when he explains to a poker buddy just what another player meant when he made a crack about the first player’s mother. The crack is dissected and given context, like a Wikipedia article, and the genius of it is, he enhances, rather than mitigates, the absurdity of the original remark.