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Sergei Eisenstein (#110 of 11)

True/False Film Fest 2014: The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, Manakamana, & Concerning Violence

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True/False Film Fest 2014: <em>The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga</em>, <em>Manakamana</em>, & <em>Concerning Violence</em>
True/False Film Fest 2014: <em>The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga</em>, <em>Manakamana</em>, & <em>Concerning Violence</em>

Jessica Oreck’s The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga is a staggeringly polymorphous documentary that often suggests a collaboration between Carlos Reygadas, Godfrey Reggio, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Part meditative nature film, part urban observational, part fairy tale, these seemingly disparate parts consistently juxtapose throughout to form not just an evocative mood piece, but a larger, discursive work that achieves something resembling Sergei Eisenstein’s concept of dialectical montage.

To call Oreck’s film “hypnotic” would be too easy, as it would neglect the content of her ravishing images, which cohere into a rather precise essay film. The film begins in an undisclosed forest with men using scythes to cut tall grass, and voiceover discloses an important clue to the film’s themes: “culture imagines an advantage over nature and builds high walls to keep it out.” From there, the film turns to “Eastern Europe, sometime after the 20th century.” The imprecise temporal markers could suggest sci-fi, but Oreck’s subsequent images of high-rise apartment buildings and expansive urban development (and decay) are unmistakably of our neoliberal realm, the dregs of modernist architecture on full display. Finally, an animated retelling of a fairy tale is introduced, as a pair of children must contend with the wilderness and, ultimately, a witch named Baba Yaga.

New York Jewish Film Festival 2013: The Films of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson

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New York Jewish Film Festival 2013: The Films of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson
New York Jewish Film Festival 2013: The Films of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson

When American film director and curator Bruce Checefsky decided to teach Pharmacy, an early 1930s film by Polish avant-garde artists Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, he faced a dilemma: The film didn’t exist, as it hadn’t survived World War II. It’s the story of more than a few early Polish films, at times documented only by critics. As Checefsky told the audience at the New York Jewish Film Festival, he’d seen the Themersons’ other work in Poland, along with a few stills from the black-and-white Pharmacy, a work whose demise he didn’t guess at the time.

The Themersons have been compared to artists László Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray. They were visual artists more than filmmakers: Franciszka Themerson was a painter, illustrator, and set designer, and both published artist books. Like Ray’s, their work at times evoked the glamorous world of fashion, or even served it directly, as in the playful Moment Musical. The 1933 short was a commercial commissioned to advertise jewelry, but the Themersons’ approach is typical of their late-modernist exuberance. In the film, pearls and beads prance against a dark background as abstracted forms. They have little affinity to pearls as commodity that adorn a woman’s neck and signal social status. Bracelets look like gyrating orbits, or like bouncing neurons, or streaming blood cells. The general sense is of an activated space, far from static beauty or harmony, a whimsical abstraction rather than an idealization.

Toronto International Film Festival 2012: The Last Time I Saw Macao

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Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>The Last Time I Saw Macao</em>
Toronto International Film Festival 2012: <em>The Last Time I Saw Macao</em>

Between Miguel Gomes’s dialectically structured Tabu and, even more radically, João Pedro Rodrigues’s thoroughly elliptical docudrama, The Last Time I Saw Macao, it would seem that hardlined formal rigor is alive and well in Portugal. Rodrigues, like his universally well-regarded national compatriot Pedro Costa before him, is rapidly establishing himself as one of the country’s most progressive, challenging filmmakers and cultural critics, and his latest effort should further his repute in a manner befitting its obliqueness; it follows its own clearly defined rules so closely that its theoretical appeal is precisely what will turn most audiences off. What one might described as an “observational drama” vaguely reminiscent of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, The Last Time I Saw Macoa distinguishes itself stylistically in two key regards. The first, inspired at least distantly by late-period Bresson, is to isolate both benign and propulsive action—from a conversation on the phone to a murder by the docks—and place it just outside the screen, so that what we see at any given moment is permanently removed from what’s actually happening, if only by a few degrees. And the second is that the protagonist of the story, and our direct surrogate in the environment, is never actually shown; because the camera alternates between explicit point-of-view shots and what are essentially travelogue-style snapshots of Macao, we see what he sees and what surrounds him, but never the man himself (his voiceover narration provides the film’s through line and very often serves an important explanatory as well as expository function).

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

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

To choose only 10 films for this list was a task at once simple and impossible. Had I been given enough time to watch every film ever made, then allowed several decades to narrow down my choices, I would have still bemoaned this challenge. By the time this is published, I’ll have changed my mind. Held at gunpoint, however, the results would probably look something like this, and for my purposes here, know that the difference between “best” and “favorite” is immaterial. Every one of these represents not only a peak of the art form, but an experience I wonder whether I could truly live without. With apologies to Jean Renoir, Alfred Hitchcock, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Steven Spielberg, F.W. Murnau, Nicholas Ray, Fritz Lang, Abel Gance, Werner Herzog, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Roman Polanski, Terrence Malick, Chuck Jones, Ridley Scott, George A. Romero, and the 1930s, among others.

Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2012: Two by Mark Cousins, Boy Eating the Bird’s Food, House with a Turret, & More

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Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2012: Two by Mark Cousins, <em>Boy Eating the Bird’s Food</em>, <em>House with a Turret</em>, & More
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival 2012: Two by Mark Cousins, <em>Boy Eating the Bird’s Food</em>, <em>House with a Turret</em>, & More

Every year, the lovely spa town of Karlovy Vary—formerly known as Karlsbad—awakens from its long sleep to welcome hundreds of mostly young, backpack-toting film enthusiasts. For me, who’s been coming to the 47-year-old Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for about eight years, the place offers a comforting sense of annual déjà vu. There’s the solid Soviet-style Thermal Hotel where most of the action takes place: terrace meetings, the press room, the video library, and screenings in the five small, rather uncomfortable cinemas. There are also the delicious spreads at the Grandhotel Pupp (pronounced “poop,” a source of hilarity for most newcomers) and plenty of free wine and beer. Once you step out after a two-hour drive from Prague, the vibrant atmosphere hits you. And what you hear is the constant clamorous babble of cinephilic conversations between filmmakers, critics and the public.

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).

Eisenstein and Prokofiev’s Sounds of War

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Eisenstein and Prokofiev’s Sounds of War
Eisenstein and Prokofiev’s Sounds of War

What happened when the Soviet Union’s greatest composer and its greatest filmmaker came together to produce two screen masterpieces? Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible remain among the greatest examples in cinema of the synthesis of visual imagery and music. To have managed to make such extraordinary films under the watchful eye of Stalin the Terrible was an achievement in itself. The fact is that the collaboration between the loftily intellectual, highly articulate, homosexual Eisenstein and Prokofiev, the down-to-earth, outspoken, rather naïve, married father of two, was astonishing in its synchronicity.

When they first joined forces in 1937, both Eisenstein and Prokofiev had been accused of “formalist tendencies.” While they had been gallivanting over Europe and the U.S., Stalin’s grip on the state had hardened and the Soviet Union was experiencing forcible collectivisation in agriculture and forcible proletarianism in the arts. By the end of 1932, the slogan “Socialist realism,” a phrase attributed to Stalin himself, was de rigueur in the arts. Socialist realism had a dialectical antithesis: formalism—in other words experimental or modern art.

Kaneto Shindō‘s Children of Hiroshima at BAM

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Kaneto Shindō’s Children of Hiroshima at BAM
Kaneto Shindō’s Children of Hiroshima at BAM

Early on in Children of Hiroshima, a rapid series of snapshots of the titular city flicker on screen. It’s eight in the morning on August 6, 1945, and the most recent air-raid alert has passed and, all around, residents are busily finishing their morning routines: children hustle off to school, dutiful housewives prepare lunch packs, and the workday commute buzzes into action. The scene is strangely placid considering we’re in late wartime Japan, and this unnerving sense of calm only serves to heighten the cruel dramatic irony unfolding for a viewer primed for a nuclear disaster. For a moment, director Kaneto Shindō plays into our mounting sense of dread; a clock ticks loudly, its doomsday metronome hurriedly ushering in another round of sunny imagery (a glistening river, a crawling baby) framed by off-kilter cinematography foreshadowing a reality soon to be knocked off its steady footing. A simple flash blots out the screen, and as its haze recedes a bewildering parade of bare chests, streaked with blood, mingles with a macabre theater of bent limbs, frozen howls, and empty stares.

Film Comment Selects 2011: Sodankyla Forever

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Film Comment Selects 2011: <em>Sodankyla Forever</em>
Film Comment Selects 2011: <em>Sodankyla Forever</em>

Each year, Finland’s Midnight Sun Film Festival draws crowds with a unique program: 24 hours of movies, played uninterrupted while the sun keeps shining. Drawing at least some inspiration from its namesake, Sodankyla Forever, which takes its title from the festival’s Finnish name, is passionate and overstuffed, a dense cinematic treatise as told by the directors themselves.

The film’s biggest asset is its unusual stable of auteurs, which delves beyond the usual voices for speeches from Jean Rouch, Joseph H. Lewis, and Ettore Scola. The relative obscurity of these figures ties into Sodankyla Forever’s prevailing interests, which eventually come through in patchwork form. Using footage from a minor festival taking place in an isolated corner of the world, it presents moviemaking as a battle of underdogs against unbeatable forces, scrabbling to keep their work untouched.