Doc Holiday: Art of the Real at the Film Society of Lincoln Center

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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.

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Adventures of a TCM Fest-Goer

festopener3Last 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.

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Documentary Fortnight: Highlights From MoMA’s Non-Fiction Showcase

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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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“First Look” at the Museum of the Moving Image

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Last week Manohla Dargis complained about the overwhelming glut of films released in New York City. The New York Times has a policy to review every new release, and in 2013 they published 900 reviews, seventy-five more than the year before. Worthwhile indies like Computer ChessThis is Martin Bonner and Museum Hours are subsumed in a flood of dreck, which rent out screens to fulfill contractual obligations before limping onto VOD. So vanity projects with deep pockets eat up theater space (peruse the Quad Cinemas slate for examples), rendering word-of-mouth success almost impossible, since most titles are forced out in a week. The day after Dargis’ complaint was published, the third annual “First Look” series kicked off at the Museum of the Moving Image (January 10 – 19), a program of forward-thinking work, almost none of which has distribution. These are the films left behind by the broken distribution system in the United States, a freewheeling mix of handcrafted oddities, personal essays, and deeply researched documentaries.

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Gypsy Musical: Caravan (1934)

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Poaching European talent has always been a popular Hollywood pastime, from Murnau to Lubitsch to Lang. Not every import had such an impact however, as proven by the reception of Caravana lavish 1934 gypsy musical directed by one Erik Charell.  Charell and his leading lady Lilian Harvey had become a hot commodity after the international success of their German film operetta The Congress Dances (1932). Fox decided to make Caravan a “super-special” with a budget over a million dollars, importing French heartthrob Charles Boyer as the male lead. It was a financial and critical disaster, with the NY Times moaning that it was  ”an exceptionally tedious enterprise”.  Charell’s professional career was over – but what a way to go out (Harvey also flamed out in Hollywood after four films). Fully utilizing the emerging mobile camera technology, Caravan is a perpetually moving marvel, pirouetting through the gypsies like a fellow reveler. The average shot is thirty seven seconds long, so even expository conversations become epic journeys through the cavernous sets – providing an anarchic sense of freedom. Screening as part of MoMA’s “To Save and Project” series of film preservation, Caravan is a major re-discovery.

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To Save and Project: The 11th MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation

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For eleven years the Museum of Modern Art has been hosting “To Save and Project”, their international festival of film preservation, highlighting the major archival discoveries and restorations from the past year. An annual reminder of the vital work being done by preservationists the world over, it acts as a preview of the repertory year to come, presenting classic Hollywood titles hopefully headed for Blu-Ray (Nightmare Alley) to epics from international auteurs receiving belated stateside attention (Lav Diaz’s Batang West Side). With nearly all of the 75-plus titles being screened on film, it’s also a polemical statement that celluloid remains the most stable and reliable format for preservation.

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The 2013 New York Film Festival

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In its 51st edition the venerable New York Film Festival is testing its boundaries. While still a small, tightly curated affair compared to the industry bacchanals of Toronto and Cannes, they’ve been slowly increasing their scope. There are 36 official selection entries this year, thirteen more than 2011, and have expanded the Revivals and Views of the Avant Garde sections to the point where they could stand on their own. A mammoth Jean-Luc Godard retrospective is also running concurrently with the festival. The official selection was heavy on the Brits this year (with four, although I didn’t see any), and otherwise tried for their usual balance of star power (Captain Phillips) and experimentation (Norte, the End of History, all of Views).

The Centerpiece screening was the world premiere of Ben Stiller’s The Secret World of Walter Mitty, the second adaptation of James Thurber’s short story, following the 1947 Danny Kaye vehicle. Stiller’s directorial outings, from The Cable Guy (1996) to Tropic Thunder (2008), have been dark and masochistic comedies about pop culture’s corrosive power. Mitty, on the other hand, is a nostalgia piece, mourning the transition from analog to digital. Having little relation to Thurber’s moody miniature, Stiller’s Mitty takes the daydreaming office drone and shunts him into a world-hopping, mountain climbing  journey of self-discovery, kind of a middle-aged male’s Eat Pray Love. Where Thurber’s story ends with Mitty fantasizing about his own demise, Stiller’s closes with all of his dreams coming true.

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Film Fest Favorites: The Ties that Bind

sffdeadmansposterI saw three of the best narrative feature films I have seen all year at the Sarasota Film Festival, and two of them are getting a theatrical release, which means other viewers will be able to catch them, too. Coincidentally, all of them are about family and community ties.

What movie lover doesn’t carry a soft spot for the western—a genre that Hollywood has all but abandoned. Dead Man’s Burden is a gripping indie western with a stripped-down, straightforward storyline that belies its complex character relationships. I was impressed with the film as soon as I realized it was shot on 35mm. Nothing is better suited for 35mm film than the western because of the narrative significance of the land, often depicted in lingering long shots. Robert Hauer’s crisp cinematography of the vast New Mexico landscape implies that land is important in this film, too, but it is family ties and divisions that make up the heart of this small-scale story. The main location was an actual house from the 1890s that had been built into the side of a hill, providing the perfect setting for a story in which the hard-scrabble pioneer lifestyle is central to character motivations.

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A Head’s Up on Some Terrific Documentaries from the Sarasota Film Festival

docsstrangersposter“Film festivals are the dominant way to see films like this,” noted documentary filmmaker A.J. Schnack , whose film We Always Lie to Strangers turned out to be my favorite doc of the recent Sarasota Film Festival. His comment was a response to an audience member who during the Q&A wanted to know where her friends might be able to see the film. Unfortunately, the question and comment reveal the dismal situation for documentary distribution and exhibition. Outside the three major markets (New York, Chicago, and L.A.), there are few venues that regularly show nonfiction film. Charles Coleman, the intrepid programmer at Chicago’s Facets Multi-Media, where I used to work, booked a variety of documentaries, which satiated my nonfiction appetite, but it is much more difficult to see docs on the big screen in smaller cities.

The festival experience provides a golden opportunity to catch a variety of nonfiction and alternative films. The selection of documentaries at the Sarasota Film Festival was excellent this year. I can honestly say I liked every documentary that I saw. In that spirit, I recommend all of the titles in today’s post in the hopes that fans of this tragically under-viewed format will seek them out on DVD or at local film festivals.

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The 15th Sarasota Film Festival: A Must for Movie Lovers

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A perk to living in a small city populated by art lovers is a film festival with all the advantages that such an event offers with none of the disadvantages that plague big-city fests. The Sarasota Film Festival (SFF) opened this past weekend, showcasing a variety of worthy foreign, indie, and documentary films in a conveniently located venue with a friendly, well-organized staff and free parking. (Special nod to festival staff member Josh Jacobson, who herded me to the right theaters all day with a smile and a joke.) My newly adopted hometown of Sarasota is filled with avid movie lovers of all ages, and the SFF fills a void for residents who crave more than Hollywood’s indistinguishable drivel (G.I. Joe: Retaliation; Fast and Furious 6; Pain & Gain) or the occasional indie hit. The success of film fests in smaller markets like Sarasota reveals the misconceptions of distributors who insist that audiences outside the major urban centers of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles will not support non-Hollywood films. The jammed screenings and enthusiastic patrons of the SFF prove how narrow that viewpoint truly is. [...MORE]

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