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Russian Ark (#110 of 5)

São Paulo International Film Festival 2011: Innocent Saturday, The Waves, Look at Me Again, This Is Not a Film, & Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

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São Paulo International Film Festival 2011: Innocent Saturday, The Waves, Look at Me Again, This Is Not a Film, & Once Upon a Time in Anatolia
São Paulo International Film Festival 2011: Innocent Saturday, The Waves, Look at Me Again, This Is Not a Film, & Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Many wonderful photographers that work with a moving camera use it to make movement seem light and graceful, as though the characters are dancing (Agnès Godard comes immediately to mind); the great Romanian cinematographer Oleg Mutu, by contrast, makes movement seem bulky and blocky. In films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and My Joy, his herks and jerks call attention to the weight of the camera as his subjects stumble, doubly emphasizing the difficulty of moving forward. He’s a good satirist of post-Communist societies, in other words; he’s also very gifted at working with 35mm, whose texture often makes the objects register with more detail than digital video does. This is especially true for Mutu’s preferred color palette, a mix of nighttime blacks and muddy browns that wrestle each other for light.

Photographed by Mutu, Aleksandr Mindadze’s Innocent Saturday, set in 1986, shows a young man running, then playing music and drinking, in order to avoid looking at the Chernobyl nuclear explosion. Many shots show him racing across the city; others show him fighting other men, the camera focusing on flailing hands and arms. Yet it ultimately adds up to a lot of nasty hysteria; it sprinkles the Chernobyl disaster in around the young man’s encounters with his friends and girlfriend as if to try to thrill the viewer with the spectacle of real-life disaster.

Dense and Masterful Visions Seth’s The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists and Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray

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Dense and Masterful Visions: Seth’s The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists and Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray
Dense and Masterful Visions: Seth’s The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists and Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray

Two short graphic novels are coming soon from Montreal publisher Drawn and Quarterly. One, Seth’s The Great Northern Brotherhood of Canadian Cartoonists (hereafter The G.N.B. Double C) is in black and white, and a second, Daniel Clowes’s The Death-Ray, is in color, and though each one reads more like a chapter from a longer work, they’re nevertheless complete and dense and masterful.

These days, any comic by Clowes or Seth unmistakably belongs to each man—in the style of their lines, the speech of their characters, and the mood of their fictional worlds. They are two of the best cartoonists around these days, often doing work for The New Yorker and The New York Times. But despite such success, there’s still uneasiness in many underground comics about the status of the medium—about whether comics can grow away from its childish superhero stereotypes, about whether comics can be taken seriously as literature, about whether comics have a future. Both graphic novels deal with these ideas.

Seth’s book is a fictional reminiscence about the history of cartooning in Canada. It’s a counterpart to his 2005 book Wimbledon Green, which was a light-hearted tale about obsessive comics collectors. The G.N.B. Double C is one long, digressive monologue, given by a cartoonist wandering through an empty and quiet branch of the Brotherhood in the city of Dominion, Seth’s fictional Canadian metropolis. The man tours the building and reminisces about Canadian comics and the lives of some of the men who wrote them. The mood and structure reminded me of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark, or even St. Augustine’s Confessions—which is to say it takes memories and builds them into an elaborate physical space, and nostalgia and wonder are the shoes you have to wear to walk through its corridors.

White Nights at the Saint Petersburg International Kinoforum 2011

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White Nights at the Saint Petersburg International Kinoforum 2011
White Nights at the Saint Petersburg International Kinoforum 2011

When asked by Russians whether this was my first visit to St. Petersburg, I replied enigmatically, “Yes and no.” The answer was that I had been to Saint Petersburg, Florida and Leningrad, neither of which has much in common with the spectacular present-day Russian city, the ideal setting for a film festival. The Kinoforum in its first bona fide year (there was a small experimental version in 2010) is one of the only festivals that gives equal importance to tourism, debates, and movies. Held during the celebrated White Nights in July, the superbly organized touristic side gave guests the chance to attend a ballet (Don Quichotte) at the Marinsky Theatre; a huge open-air show put on especially for us at the Summer Palace, with a banquet thrown in; a symphony concert beside a lake, including Tchiakovsky’s “1812 Overture,” which concluded with a fireworks display instead of a cannon; a magical boat trip up the Neva by night; and a visit to the Hermitage, one of the world’s greatest collection of paintings (the festival enabled us to jump the long, long line to get in).

New York Film Festival 2010: Silent Souls

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Silent Souls</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Silent Souls</em>

When a national cinema produces a great director, it isn’t always a good thing. The country’s film industry can get typecast in the minds of American audiences, who have few reference points. Foreign film distribution in the United States is such that countries end up relying on one filmmaker (Andrzej Wajda for Poland) or on one film (City of God for Brazil) to represent them. While watching the Chinese film Perfect Life earlier this year, I found myself thinking repeatedly about the work of the great filmmaker Jia Zhang-ke; and though the film has many similarities to Jia’s work, and though Jia indeed served as an executive producer, I also kept mentally referring to him because he’s the only current Chinese filmmaker with whom I’m especially familiar.

The problem’s at least 30 years old for Russian filmmakers, many of whom struggle to escape Andrei Tarkovsky’s shadow (ironic, considering that Tarkovsky made his last two films in exile). The director’s films like Andrei Rublev, Solaris, and Stalker cast a meditative spell over the theater by pulling you into quiet moments of astounding beauty. They remain so ingrained for Western cinephiles that even the best subsequent Soviet directors, like Aleksandr Sokurov (The Sun), can’t avoid the comparison.

Steadi’s Daddy: An Interview with Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown

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Steadi’s Daddy: An Interview with Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown
Steadi’s Daddy: An Interview with Steadicam Inventor Garrett Brown

Author’s Note: Since the Steadicam discussion seems to be flowering into something more than an argument about a piece of equipment, rather than change the subject with a totally different post, I’ll stay the course. What follows is reprint of an article I wrote about the history and aesthetics of the Steadicam, built around an interview with the device’s creator, Garrett Brown. It was originally published in the Winter 2005 issue of Film Festival Reporter magazine, which is edited by my friend Scott Bayer, a journalist and filmmaker.

Garrett Brown might be the most influential filmmaker that the moviegoing public hasn’t heard of. Throughout his long career, the 62-year old Philadelphian has been a mostly behind-the-scenes presence in the industry, working as cinematographer, cameraman, inventor and teacher. Yet his impact has been as profound as that of any auteur, star or studio executive, thanks to his greatest invention: the Steadicam, a combination camera and body harness that merged the improvisational freedom of the handheld shot with the elegance of the dolly, and expanded the frontiers of cinema.

In the 30 years since the camera made its debut in director Hal Ashby’s Woody Guthrie biography Bound for Glory—in a still-dazzling shot that began atop a high crane, drifted to earth and then wove through a camp full of migrant workers—the Steadicam has become a star player in some of the most visually and dramatically memorable sequences of the past three decades, sequences that advance the narrative while subtly commenting on the meaning and uses of movie language.