Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 14, 2015
Before the start of his heartbreaking rural romance True Heart Susie (1919), D.W. Griffith asks in an intertitle, “Is real life interesting?” He implies that the answer is yes, expecting that you’ll sit through the ninety minutes to follow based on its adherence to the facts of everyday life. But there is no expectation of documentary truth, since the star is Lillian Gish and and the writer of the story, Marian Fremont, are named front and center. Instead, Griffith said, “I am trying to develop realism in pictures by teaching the value of deliberation and repose.” The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s second annual Art of the Real series, a wide-ranging survey of non-fiction (ish) cinema that runs through April 24th, is one that privileges the contemplative and dreamlike over works that only admit to one truth. Like Griffith’s work, the Art of the Real films (over twenty shorts and features), co-programmed by Rachael Rakes and Dennis Lim, think along with you, offering multifarious pathways to the “real”. The series will feature the North American premiere of the Lebanese portrait film Birds of September, Luo Li’s environmental doc/shaggy dog mystery Li Wen at East Lake and Luísa Homem & Pedro Pinho’s epic observational documentary of the Cape Verde tourist boom Trading Cities. Not to mention sidebars on The Actualities of Agnès Varda (with Varda introducing her films in person) and Repeat as Necessary: The Art of Reenactment, which takes the abused reenactment form and traces its storied history in documentary art.
The most affecting work in the series, though, might be its simplest. Masa Sawada’s I, Kamikaze is a seventy-five minute interview with the ninety-year-old former kamikaze pilot Fujio Hayashi. Hayashi sits behind a table, his glasses traveling up and down his nose, as he dredges up the memories from his time in the Japanese Imperial Navy. One of the original volunteers for the air suicide attack units, he was, and remains, a good soldier. He lost his mother at a young age, and the few words he spares for his father depicts a neglectful, distant figure (after he returned from WWII, he said, “I’m back. I’m sorry for losing the war.” His father did not respond, and they barely spoke the rest of their lives). Hayashi poured his soul into the unit, and was willing and able to give up his life for his country. Instead he was tasked with training the young kamikaze recruits, ordering their missions, and hence, their deaths. Hayashi takes long, considered pauses before many of his answers, opening up blocks of time to study his face, his posture and his too-large suits. These are silences filled with thought, for Hayashi and the viewer. His expressions are almost entirely impenetrable and thus open to interpretation, a stonewall even when discussing his good friend Nishio, whom he had to order on a suicide mission. His military bearing is still intact, emotions attaching to the meaning of the words, but none in the inflection of his steady, phlegmy voice. Hayashi is comfortable with death, and has lived with it all his life. He keeps repeating that for long stretches of his life living or dying made no difference to him. He was, in this sense, the perfect kamikaze -though he was never able to achieve his intended destiny. He describes that period as “memories bathed in light”, and that when it is his turn to leave on his final mission, he will have a smile on his face, just as the kamikaze pilots did on theirs as they were heading out into oblivion.
Posted by Susan Doll on April 13, 2015
I love attending film festivals. I love the manic dash from theater to theater to catch as many movies as possible; I enjoy comparing notes with complete strangers who become my new best friends as I queue up for the next movie; I like the feeling of triumph when I squeeze in four or five movies in one day. Most of all, I enjoy helping an unknown movie by writing about it, and I like suggesting good films to readers who might appreciate them. I only write about movies that I like, and I make an effort to contact the filmmakers to let them know I appreciated their work. I find there are too many negative reviews and too much snarky writing, and I won’t contribute to that. For me, festivals are all about the films: How many can I see; how can I give a little-known gem some exposure; how can I let others know about this movie.
The Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) is in full swing in my new adoptive hometown, and I was eager to cover it, because of its focus on American indie features and documentaries. As a matter of fact, the fest’s slogan is “the Hearts and Minds of Independent Film.” Not only am I writing about the fest for my TCM post, suggesting titles to readers for future viewing, but I am also covering it for a local radio station, WSLR.
Posted by Susan Doll on November 17, 2014
As Hollywood continues its love affair with 12-year-old boys, who make up the desired demographic, real movie lovers seek alternatives to the noisy blockbusters that are long on CGI and short on story. Film festivals of all types and sizes have proliferated in the last fifteen years to fill the void created by Hollywood for well-crafted films with an engaging story and three-dimensional characters. I recently attended the Cine-World Film Festival in my adopted hometown of Sarasota, Florida, and I was impressed with the selection of foreign, indie, and documentary films.
Though a small, low-key fest, Cine-World has been a Sarasota fixture for 25 years. Opening day included Mike Leigh’s latest feature Mr. Turner, a biopic of Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner, while the fest closed with Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s Two Days, One Night starring Marion Cotillard, who redeems herself after slumming in Anchorman 2. Film festivals prove that Hollywood no longer has the lock on feature filmmaking; indeed, studio blockbusters seem like lumbering behemoths compared to the stripped-down indie dramas that do so much with so little. Sadly, a lack of distribution to medium and small markets continues to keep these films from audiences who would doubtless appreciate them.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on September 30, 2014
The New York Film Festival opened this past Friday night with the sadistic comedy of remarriage Gone Girl (which is released nationwide October 3rd). It trails success in its wake, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster novel, which has occupied the majority of bedside end tables in the United States. It is the second straight bestseller that director David Fincher has adapted, following his glacial Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Gone Girl is another story of female victimhood and bloody revenge, except this time the narrator is highly unreliable. If you are one of the zeitgeist-less few not to have read the story, it concerns the unraveling marriage of struggling writers Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy Dunne (Rosamunde Pike). After Amy goes missing after an apparent home invasion, a massive investigation is launched to find her, with the evidence continuing to pile up against Nick. What follows is a thorough autopsy of their lives together, their union a sustained performance of mutual denial and dishonesty, an act that Amy internalizes to such a degree that she stages a much larger, more entertaining production in response. Fincher and Flynn jettison the balanced 50/50 POV split from the novel and filter the majority of the narrative through Nick’s perspective. This simplifies the story but also flattens Amy into a sociopathic cipher, one who can too easily be dismissed as a hysterical female. But Rosamunde Pike’s performance is ferociously controlled, betraying no loss of agency. If men want Amy to play a part to salve their fragile egos, she will oblige only until a better role comes along, whereupon she can trash their script and obliterate them.
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night depicts a different kind of determined female. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) returns to work after a bout with depression, only to find her job at a solar panel factory will be eliminated. In an either/or vote, the union chose to receive a 1,000 EUR bonus over Sandra keeping her job. Sandra successfully lobbies for a re-vote after rumors of tampering, and has a weekend to convince each individual employee to forego the bonus and keep her on staff. The film is a kind of moral procedural, the question re-framed through each employees’ personal circumstances. Sandra troops through the Dardennes’ terrain of Seraing, Belgium on foot, bus and car, continually wilting and re-forming under the stress and humiliation of her position. The handheld camera sticks tight to Cotillard (who, with this and The Immigrant is in perpetual close-up this year), whose face is a Richter scale of emotional tremors.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on September 23, 2014
The fifty-second New York Film Festival begins this Friday night with the world premiere of Gone Girl, the David Fincher adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s ubiquitous spousal murder mystery. But the early highlight of the thirty-film main slate concerns another missing woman, although in a less-outwardly-thrilling scenario. Hong Sang-soo’s Hill of Freedom, which screens the evenings of 9/30 and 10/8, concerns an unemployed Japanese intellectual in Korea, searching for an absent woman he once loved. It’s another variation on Hong’s recent string of films about travellers and transitional spaces (Our Sunhi, In Another Country, The Day He Arrives) where drinking is the main form of communication. Hill of Freedom works hilariously well as a fish-out-of-water comedy, but also contains pockets of melancholy about time’s passage, professional failure, and the inadequacy of language. It is currently without a distributor, and unlikely to acquire one, considering how poorly his sparsely distributed output has done stateside.
There is another gone girl in Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (screening 10/7 and 10/9), when the daughter of a colonial Danish military engineer (Viggo Mortensen) scampers off into the Patagonian wilderness. In his three features La Libertad, Los Muertos and Liverpool, Alonso has chosen landscapes first and built narratives around the spaces and the habits of its people. Jauja is his first period piece, and an imaginative leap from the patient everydayness of his previous films. With nods to The Searchers and Heart of Darkness, Jauja follows the engineer as he plunges deeper into a country he doesn’t understand, ending in hallucinations and a legacy of confusion.
How steve mcqueen blew it on a movie that almost had stampeding elephants, and other stories behind CALIFORNIA SPLIT
Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on September 7, 2014
I spent the Labor Day weekend at the 41st Telluride Film Festival. There were many highlights, but at the top of my list was a 35mm print screening of California Split (Robert Altman, 1974), which was presented by TCM. And, no, I’m not just sucking up to the folks who sign my paycheck on this one, because if you search “California Split” on the Morlock site you’ll see that I refer to it in a 12.30.12 post as a title I’ve been wanting to watch for quite a while. Since writing that post I did purchase an out-of-print DVD that then proceeded to collect dust along about 100 other “must-watch” titles that currently sit on a bookshelf near my entertainment system. In retrospect, I’m glad it got lost in the shuffle. Why? Because thanks to Kim Morgan and Guy Maddin (this year’s Guest Directors at Telluride), I got to see a nice, uncut, Panavision print of California Split that was followed by a very entertaining Q&A with actors George Segal and Joseph Walsh (who was also its producer and wrote the script based on many autobiographical elements). Frosting on the cake? The film print is three minutes longer than the DVD, due to legal issues involving musical clearances (strange how the ubiquitous “happy birthday” song can cause so many problems). I want to give an additional shout-out to both Morgan and Maddin for the excellent lineup of other selected films, which included A Man’s Castle (Frank Borzage, 1933), Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1957), The Road to Glory (Howard Hawks, 1936), and Wicked Woman (Russell Rouse, 1953). The fact that all of these titles were screened on 35mm film and are each rare and off-the-beaten-path works worthy of a future lengthy post is testimony to both a great film festival and inspired curators. But, for now, let’s get back to California Split, and the story behind how it was almost appropriated by Steven Spielberg, Dean Martin, and a pack of rampaging elephants. [...MORE]
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on May 20, 2014
In one of my treasured yearly rituals, I feign relevance by writing something tangentially related to the Cannes Film Festival, which I have yet to attend. This year I make the bold move of reviewing a feature currently screening at the ongoing Cannes fest, Jim Mickle’s grizzled revenge movie, Cold in July. Opening this Friday in theaters and on VOD from IFC Films, it’s an unrepentant scuzz-fest, from Michael C. Hall’s matted-down mullet to the saturated neon that turns all of East Texas into a Red Light District. It is the fourth film from Jim Mickle (director/co-writer) and Nick Damici (actor/co-writer), two historically-minded genre aficionados who treat their lowdown material with respect and ingenuity.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 22, 2014
From the beginning documentary filmmaking was synonymous was artifice. For Nanook of the North (1922), Robert Flaherty re-staged scenes of an Inuit family at home, complete with an igloo constructed for the shoot. Getting to truth through fiction was an accepted practice for that non-fiction pioneer. It was a common sense approach, using all the filmmaking tools available to capture as much of a multifarious reality as he could. Today the model, best exemplified by An Inconvenient Truth, is that of a TED talk, in which a pre-determined position is supported by talking heads, explanatory slides and jaunty animations. Most of these message documentaries, well-intentioned or not, have no need for moving images at all. Flaherty’s model has survived, but it lives at the periphery of the film world, in academic contexts like Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL), or documentary boot camps like the yearly Robert Flaherty Seminar, which programs formally innovative non-fiction work by a rotating cast of curators. Programmers Dennis Lim and Rachael Rakes have gathered the tendrils of these non-fiction experiments into the definition-expanding series “Art of the Real”, which runs through April 26th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Posted by Susan Doll on April 21, 2014
Last weekend, I attended the TCM Classic Film Festival as just another movie-lover in the crowd. The 2014 festival featured appearances by big-name stars Maureen O’Hara, Mel Brooks, Alan Arkin, Shirley Jones, and Jerry Lewis (left, at Grauman’s Theater with Quentin Tarantino). Interestingly, while waiting in line with other fest-goers, conversations drifted to the rapidly declining roster of Hollywood legends available to attend these events. Perhaps it was the recent death of Mickey Rooney, who was honored with a screening of National Velvet, that prompted these solemn conversations. Fest-goers speculated on what could possibly replace the interviews and appearances by these incomparable stars. Some presumed that TCM would showcase the films of younger stars and then reach out to them to appear in person—along the lines of the Richard Dreyfuss tribute this year. Others speculated that offspring of the major stars could step in to honor a famous parent, as Fraser Heston did for his father, Charlton, and Suzanne Lloyd did for her grandfather, Harold.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on February 25, 2014
Since 2001 the Museum of Modern Art has hosted “Documentary Fortnight”, a series devoted to formal innovations in non-fiction filmmaking. It’s where talking heads go to die. This year’s edition includes twenty features and a passel of shorts from twenty countries, covering a wide range of styles and subjects. I was taken with two documentaries that take wildly different approaches to the observational form. The Mother and the Sea is an immersive ethnographic study of pioneering Portuguese female fishing captains, while Campaign 2 (non Will-Ferrell division) is a run-and-gun vérité portrait of a Japanese city council election. Running through February 28th, Documentary Fortnight is a one-stop-shop to witness the future of the non-fiction form.
My most anticipated title was The Mother and the Sea, the latest ethnographic deep dive from Gonçalo Tocha. At the beginning of his 2011 documentary It’s the Earth, Not the Moon, he promises to “to film everything we can” of the Portuguese island of Corvo, the westernmost point of Europe. That 3-hour epic captures the past in the present, as the history of the island emerges through dying out traditions and the reminiscences of its oldest inhabitants. Corvo was once a major whaling outpost, as well as the repository of local wisdom ranging from cheese mongering to hat knitting. Tocha tries to extend these traditions and incarnate memories through his patiently wandering camera, where static portraiture of residents conjures up whole histories in a glance. In The Mother and the Sea he takes a similar approach to the small coastal Portuguese village of Vila Chã, though with a narrowed focus. Tocha is fascinated by the group of 1940s women who became captains of small fishing boats. He claims they were the only women in the world to captain their own ships at the time, their ages ranging from 16 to 60. He can only find scraps of published memory in the library stacks, consisting of a few articles and one heroic photo of the women standing at attention.
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