Posted by keelsetter on January 16, 2011
In my last post I explained the reasoning behind my programming choices for the first half of my Spring arthouse film calendar, today I finish the job. I accept the fact that anyone looking at my program will inevitably point to one (or more, perhaps even many) titles here and, in essence, ask the following question: “What the heck is THAT doing there?!” What follows below will hopefully dispel all head-scratching.
The Agony and the Ecstasy of Phil Spector (dir. by Vikram Jayanti, 2009)
This documentary weaves together BBC interviews conducted by Jayanti with Spector in 2007. Spector, at that time, was being charged with the murder of Lana Clarkson, an actress he’d picked up at a nightclub. It’s a fascinating look at the eccentric record producer and songwriter, one that juxtaposes the interview with scenes from inside the courtroom and archival footage from the past. His fingerprints aren’t just on a bloody gun, they’re also on the Beatles’ Let It Be album and a string of monster hits that had a huge influence on the music industry. Highlights, for me, included incredible concert footage of Ike and Tina Turner burning the stage with incredible vigor. Although this film is far from comprehensive, readers of Keith Richards’ current autobiographical best seller, Life, will be able to fill in a lot of the holes for themselves.
Marwencol (dir. by Jeff Malmberg, 2010)
A bit risky to follow one documentary about an eccentric artist with another doc that one might say is also about an eccentric artist, but it’s still apples and oranges – even though both are anchored by a crime. Marwencol won the SXSW Competition Award for Documentary Feature and gets its name from the doll-populated and 1/6th scale World War II-era town called Marwencol that was built by Mark Hogancamp. Marwencol started out as a form of homemade art-therapy to help Hogancamp rebuild hand-eye coordination after five men beat him into a brain-damaging coma, but the project takes on a life of its own. I think this film makes an interesting companion piece to the Spector doc because one film shows how art can sometimes lead into madness, while this one shows how art can lead you out.
Sweetgrass (dir. by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, 2009)
Yup, it’s doc week at my series – but the choice here is one that overlaps with another event: the 7th Annual Brakhage Center Symposium (March 11 – 13). Both Barbash and Castaing-Taylor used to teach here at the Film Studies program where my office is located, so I know them both and was happy to see their latest documentary garner critical acclaim. I wanted to program this earlier, but was unable to beat the DVD release. Happily, it has been selected by the B.C.S. to launch “a weekend dedicated to the exploration of new ideas in cinema art.” The other selling point for this film about Montana shepherds herding their sheep one last time through the Beartooth Mountains is that, although it’s been out on DVD for several months now, the word of mouth is spreading about its panoramic beauty. Our audiences will more fully enjoy its lush exteriors on 35mm and the big screen. Plus: it’s a free event with both Barbash and Castaing-Taylor there to introduce the film and follow-up with a Q&A.
Alert readers will now notice that my program skips the second and third week of March altogether. The reason for this is simple: my staff is composed of university students who take off during Spring Break. Technically, Spring Break is only one week long during the third week of March, but students have a tendency to leave early around Thursday of the second week. It’s a fortuitous break that also allows me to attend the SXSW Film Festival (March 11 – 15), and this year I may even check out the Ann Arbor Film Festival (March 22 – 27). Then, upon my return, I’m ready to dive into even more films…
127 Hours (dir. by Danny Boyle, 2010).
I always need to make sure there are at least a couple “big” titles on my calendar, but these can be tricky for reasons associated with my status as a non-profit calendar program located on campus. In most cases I can deal directly with with the main distributor for a specific film. But for some wide-release films, that’s not the case. Without going into too many details, suffice to say that Fox Searchlight Pictures won’t give me the time of day and, instead, shuffles me off to a non-theatrical distributor; essentially a middle-person who charges three times more for the privilege of letting me show the film only long after it’s exhausted its theatrical run. 127 Hours is currently slated to come out on DVD in March, and if that’s the case it’ll cut my audience numbers by over half. So I originally tried to program it at an earlier date, but I was told by the distributor that, nope, I’d have to push it back. So here it is, programmed at the very end of March because that’s the earliest I could get it. I’m having to pay an absurd amount of money for a film that might already be widely available via various rental markets, but I went ahead and did it anyway. Why? Because if it gets enough Oscar buzz maybe the DVD release will get pushed into February, and also because this film is based on the true story of Aron Ralston, a resident here in my neck of the woods. With a little luck, I’m hoping he’ll come to the screenings to talk with my audience.
The Room (dir. by Tommy Wiseau, 2003).
This notoriously bad film was selected specifically for April Fool’s Day. Its cult-status as “the worst movie ever made” has slowly been growing over the years, with fans giving it a bit of The Rock Horror Picture Show treatment by adding various interactive bits. Personally, I prefer Troll 2 (dir. by Drake Floyd, 1990), along with its companion piece the Best Worse Movie, which was a 2009 documentary dir. by Michael Stephenson (aka: Joshua Waits from Troll 2). But, for reasons unfathomable to me, my assistant loves this movie with the red-hot passion of a cougar in heat. My assistant is also my house-sitter while I’m at the SXSW Film Festival, so I’ll consider this a full return of favor.
Copacabana (dir. by Marc Fitoussi, 2010).
This is unapologetically light-hearted fare about a quirky mother and her mortified daughter. I think Isabelle Huppert is one of the most daring actresses to grace the screen, but my audiences usually see her in heavy roles (like The Piano Teacher). Copacabana allows Huppert to show us a more playful side. It reminded me a bit of like when Mike Leigh came out with Happy-Go-Lucky… it was a pleasant surprise for those who only knew him as the dour and intense filmmaker behind Naked and Secrets & Lies.
Woman in the Dunes (dir. by Hiroshi Teshigahara, 1964).
Ah! Now we begin the second-part of my black-and-white celluloid series. The first half was film noirs while this, the second half, tilts itself toward different terrain. It boils down to showcasing films with black-and-white cinematography that gives me goosebumps – and Hiroshi Segawa’s work in Woman in the Dunes most certainly does exactly that. It’s surreal premise involves a bug collector who gets tossed into a sandy pit by the sea, trapped as a mate to a mysterious woman. I first saw it as a college student, whacked-out on no sleep and after several days of cramming for exams. It’s haunted me ever since. This is a film I like to bring back every few years for my own repeat enjoyment.
The Strange Case of Angelica (dir. by Manoel de Oliveira, 2010).
Manoel de Oliveira was born in Portugal in 1908 and has worked in the movie industry since 1928. How often can you say that you are watching a film made by somebody who is over a 100 years old? I’ll confess to the fact that I haven’t seen this film yet, but I programmed The Strange Case of Angelica for two reasons. One: I was quite moved by Oliveira’s previous film (Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl), so I knew he still had all his chops down. Two: when going over the long list of films I was thinking about bringing to my Spring calendar, I asked one local filmmaker (Jeanne Liotta) for input. She pointed out this title with wide and enthusiastic eyes. Jeanne’s been showing her latest work at different film festivals, so she’s certainly “in the know.” Anyway, she told me this film was one of her favorites on the fest circuit and that was the frosting on the cake. One of my dirty little secrets, here revealed, is that as somebody who loves watching film prints over digital projections I sometimes forego a preview DVD screener in favor of seeing the film for the first time alongside the audience. But only after the necessary amount of research, of course. Still, I’ll ‘fess up to having had a few – *cough* – “bad” blind dates. (And, yeah, dragging a few hundred other people along for a bumpy ride isn’t the coolest of moves, but sometimes you gotta fly by the seat of your pants to keep things fresh.)
On the Bowery (dir. by Lionel Rogosin, 1957).
Speaking of spanning 100 years: The good folks at Milestone Film & Video have a library of titles that go from 1908 to the present. They have impeccable taste, and here have put their efforts into a newly restored print of a film that was nominated for an Oscar back in 1958. On the Bowery features incredible footage of New York’s skid row and caused a bit of a stir when it first came. Some critics didn’t care for how it mixed some scripted moments into its documentation of a very real place and its people. Here’s to hoping it creates a stir again: but this time for its invaluable worth in preserving the latter.
Sing, Cowboy, Sing (dir. by Dean Reed, 1981).
An East German spaghetti western about singing cowboys that – frankly – only has a few reviews (and not exactly favorable ones, at that)? What was I thinking? Well… Dean Reed might not ring any bells stateside, but as a musician he was bigger than Elvis… in Eastern Europe and South America. He made albums, starred in movies, had a television show, and was a real rabble-rouser known for protesting various U.S. policies of his time. Aside for his own film career (cut short when he died in 1986 at the age of 47, and under mysterious circumstances), there are three documentaries about him: American Rebel: The Dean Reed Story (1985), Dean Reed – Glamour und Protest (1993), and The Red Elvis (2007). There are two reasons for me to bring this film to my calendar. One: he has roots to this area (born in Denver, buried in Boulder). Two: another local film programmer (Joel Haertling, director of the Boulder Public LIbrary Cinema Series) urged me to bring it because he can only do 16mm and digital presentations, and the only way to screen this German film with subtitles is on a 35mm print from Deutsche Film. I told him that if he’d pay for the rental of the film I’d do it. Added bonus: it’s free!
The Woodmans (dir. by Scott Willis, 2011).
Here’s another film with a local-angle, but this time out the film in question gets much better reviews. The Woodmans got some very nice press at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, and Melissa Anderson, writing for The Village Voice, put it on her list of “5 Tribeca Film Festival Must-Sees.” The film looks at how George and Betty Woodman use art to deal with the death of their daughter, Francesca (also an artist and photographer). I’m not sure where George and Betty Woodman are now, but I know they used to teach and live in Boulder, and they still have many connections and friends to the area. Illustrating how small the world can be, my ex-wife was the subject of many of George Woodman’s photos.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (dir. by Jack Arnold, 1957).
Heck, yeahs! A personal favorite? Must be Sunday night! This amazing film never ceases to make me laugh, giggle, cringe, and gape slack-jawed with childish awe and wonder. I don’t even know how many times I’ve seen it, but it’s not enough. I’d always fantasized about being on the set to this film, with its oversized blocks of cheese and coffee cans – but watching it on the big screen is the closest I’ll get. And I’ll take it! Also: this is the ONLY 35mm print Universal has in their archive. (Thanks to Paul Ginsburg at Universal for trusting me with the print – we will take good care of it, I promise.)
Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie (dir. by Michelle Esrick, 2009).
I first learned about Wavy Gravy back when I was programming concerts for campus in the late eighties and I booked a band called The Vicious Hippies. At that time they were criss-crossing the country with Mr. Gravy as part of a 1988 “Nobody for President” tour. The film opened last month in San Francisco and also screened at the International Buddhist Film Festival – and here in Boulder we’ve still got a thriving community of both hippies and Buddhists, so this documentary about the ever cheerful counter-cultural icon who’s been at it for fifty years seemed like a good fit.
City of Life and Death (dir. by Chuan Lu, 2009).
Yin to Wavy Gravy’s Yang is this somber Chinese film that looks at the atrocities committed by the Japanese during the Rape of Nanking in 1937. I admit that it’ll be hard to pull people in to see a film whose main subject is mass murder and other war-related horrors, but my hope here is that readers of my program will also take a moment to read a few external reviews. If they do, they’ll quickly see that despite the disturbing subject matter this film is being hailed by many critics as a very accomplished movie that is gripping, moving, and profound.
Poetry (dir. Chang-dong Lee, 2011).
One of my favorite films to screen at the last Telluride Film Festival, this South Korean film by the director of Secret Sunshine is about a 65-year-old woman who finds out that her grandson was involved in the gang-rape of a girl who later killed herself. Adding to her grief is the onset of early stages of Alzheimer’s. Yeah, I know, I know… what kind of genius programmer am I to follow up a film about mass rape with yet another film that will subject my audience to the nasty topic of rape. Honestly? That’s probably a bit of a flub on my part. In my defense, Poetry isn’t so grim. In fact, it’s unpredictable and beautiful, and Korean actress Yoon Jung-hee is amazing to watch.
We Live in Public (dir. by Ondi Timoner, 2009).
This film by the director of DIG! made a big splash at Sundance and is already out on DVD. But when a poker buddy told me that he made the acquaintance of the director and floated out the idea of bringing her out, I jumped at the chance. With the help of another poker buddy (who controls the strings to the Lea and Nick Aronson Visiting Documentary Filmmakers Series) and one grant (from the Roser Visiting Artist Program) I can now fly Timoner out for a free event. Much like DIG!, which benefited from many years of footage that Timoner had slowly accumulated and which chronicles the very different outcomes of two bands, here she once again puts together an incredibly insightful film that benefits from her Zelig-like ability to have been smack-in-the-middle of craziness spanning several years, and with footage to back it all up. In this case it’s the various social experiments conducted by internet pioneer Josh Harris in the early nineties. As I recently wrote to the director: “WE LIVE IN PUBLIC really blew me away – I thought it was way better than THE SOCIAL NETWORK, especially in terms of its insights into how technologies morph our behavior.” No lie.
They Live (dir. by John Carpenter, 1988).
I’d like to make this the subject of a longer and separate post in the near future. Some people might squawk at my decision to drop this in on my Sunday night programming with it’s focus on magical black-and-white films, and I’m well aware that the film has many detractors who dismiss it as a bumbling bit of cheesyness, but I’m a genuinely big fan of what Carpenter did here. Although most of it is in color, the key sequences that really blow me away are the ones in black-and-white: when Roddy Piper dons the glasses that let him see the world for what it really is. I’m not the only one who finds this film interesting and worth revisiting; author Jonathan Lethem recently picked They Live as worthy of in-depth analysis (check out his entry into the Deep Focus series of film books by Soft Skull Press at softskull.com).
I read about this in The New Yorker (Nov. 15, 2010). The director behind Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and other films that have, collectively, grossed over a billion and a half dollars around the world decided to make a handmade documentary that cost “seventy-four million dollars less than his last comedy.” Unlike Roddy Piper, Shadyac didn’t stumble across sunglasses that suddenly revealed the world to him with sudden clarity . Instead, he stumbled off his bike and got a concussion. That accident caused him to look at the world differently. The result? He gave up his private jet, cell phone, and 17,000 square foot property in Pasadena. He now lives in a Malibu trailer park and is helping various charities. Have I seen this film? Nope. But I’m pretty sure it’ll be a great fit for Boulder. According to The New Yorker article, Shadyac tours “around the country – sometimes by bicycle – screening the film.” Hey! We’re all about bicyclists here in Boulder! Second only to Portland. Mr. Shadyak, we welcome you with open arms and a comprehensive map of local bike paths. Our microbrews aren’t too shabby either.
Brazil (dir. by Terry Gilliam, 1985)
The Angry Robot who signs off on my TCM checks once accused me of treating my film series as a personal Netflix queue – and he’s absolutely right. This programming choice is the most blatant example. Brazil is my all-time favorite film for several reasons. I just screened it two short years ago, so I’m not even giving the poor thing time to breathe. But here’s what happens: as I make new friends and they ask me what my favorite film is, I’ll reply “Brazil,” and then I’ll ask them if they’ve seen it. To my shock and horror, the answer is often “no.” Then they ask me to show it at my house since I have a nice digital projection system and a big screen. But unless it’s on Blu-Ray, I don’t want to do this. And why the heck is Brazil STILL not out on Blu-Ray? That’s not just appalling, it’s weird! Disaster Movie gets the Blu-Ray treatment but Brazil does not? This makes no sense. Anyway, yeah; I’m bringing this in specifically for a couple friends who need to see it on the big screen. Even so, it’d be optimistic to think we’ll have the theater to ourselves as Brazil always packs the auditorium with other fans who feel the same way as I do.
Having been the first person to import the European version of Brazil as a college student back in 1991 I feel a bizarre kinship to this film. Last year, at Sundance, I ran into Gary Meyer (of Landmark Theatres and Telluride Film Festival fame) and he told me something that was news to me: back in the early nineties he’d referred to me as “The Brazil Kid,” and the print that I’d imported (and which Landmark later borrowed for a national tour) was almost confiscated by the MPAA because it hadn’t been given a proper U.S. rating at that time. Meyer hid the print and, despite orders not to screen it, showed it at Landmark Theatres anyway, thus setting a new precedent allowing unrated films to be shown in chain theaters in the U.S. I’m sure there’s more to it than that but, hey, it was a long time ago, and why pop my bubble? I sleep better at night thinking I may have played a small role in helping unrated films get wider exhibition.
Bill Cunningham New York (dir. by Richard Press, 2010).
As an avid bicyclist with over a half-dozen bikes in my carport, it’s no surprise that I’d be happy to screen a film about the 80-year-old fashion photographer for The New York Times who still rides his bicycle throughout the streets of NYC taking pictures of everything. Funny, uplifting, and inspiring – here’s where I try to make up for all the bad mojo people put up with the previous week.
IFS CELEBRATES ITS 70TH ANNIVERSARY!
Yup, it’s a party. We’re not quite as old as Manoel de Oliveira, but we’re working on it. My plan is to have a couple of my favorite bands come out for a concert and add a whole bunch of other festivities for a big shebang. Of course, various films will also be screened… but the details are all still being worked out. I’d like to say that it’ll be a fundraiser, but the last time I threw a huge fundraiser with bands, circus freaks, movies, beer, etc., well… I seem to recall spending four thousand dollars and only netting two thou at the door. I’m really bad at making money, so it’s probably a good thing I’m programming a non-profit.
The American Astronaut (Cory McAbee, 2001).
I have, admittedly, lost track of how many times I’ve brought this film to my film series. But there’s no way I can screen a bunch of films with beautiful black-and-white cinematography and not include this sci-fi, western, and musical – it’s right up there with Brazil as one of my all time faves. Another reason for repeat screenings: we brought our own 35mm print, a new one – struck right from the lab. We first screened that new print last year, with Cory in attendance, but he was a bit unhappy with how the blacks came out. They seemed a bit washed out. So he told us he’d have another new print struck for us, one with deeper blacks. And that’s what we’ll screen tonight. Cory’s band, The Billy Nayer Show, also has a new album out and – hey! – wouldn’t it be great if they showed up the day before to be part of our 70th Anniversary Party? I’m crossing my fingers…
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