Category: Film

World on a Wire: Fassbinder at MoMA.

Sit back and enjoy the simulation: Klaus Löwitsch in Fassbinder’s dystopic sci-fi flick. (Image courtesy of MoMA.)

When German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder died of a lethal combo of sleeping pills and cocaine (don’t try that mix at home) in 1982, cinemaphiles lost one of the most talented and prolific directors in movie history. At the forefront of the New German Cinema movement — which captivated international audiences and launched the award-winning careers of Werner Herzog, Volker Schlöndorff and Wim Wenders — Fassbinder emerged as the enfant terrible of the group. He had a notoriously hedonistic personal life and was a prodigious filmmaker, producing more than 40 flicks in just 15 years. As a director, he had a dazzling ability to navigate historical drama, contemporary melodrama, realism, socio-political landscapes and stylistic excesses with an aplomb that we venture to guess has never been equaled on celluloid. Yes, we loves us some Rainer!

So, it was with great anticipation and a remarkably clear head that we ventured out to catch a screening of his little-seen venture into the realm of sci-fi — namely, his 1973 mini-opus for German television, World on a Wire. The film recently underwent a glorious restoration which premiered at the 60th Annual Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year (where Fassbinder’s longtime combative muse, the great German actress Hanna Schygulla, was honored with a lifetime achievement award). Beginning this Wednesday, April 14th, it will have a brief run at MoMA — which gave us the opportunity to see what the fuss was all about.

Simply put, Fassbinder has done it again. His adaptation of American author Daniel F. Galouve’s Simulacron-3 is hardly groundbreaking for its man-versus-machine themes or for its portrayal of a dystopian society where the future looks shiny and new, but harbors dark secrets. As a sci-fi flick, it is clearly stuck in the early 70’s: there are computers the size of a small rhino and special effects that would make Steve Austin proud. Yet, we were mesmerized. Perhaps it was the set, filled with shimmering modular furniture. Or maybe it was Fassbinder’s homage to one of his cinematic idols Douglas Sirk, making heavy use of reflective surfaces to frame the relationships between his characters. Or maybe we had just been hankering for a time when film directors used imagination, timing and composition to tell a story — without having it end up looking like a video game. (James Cameron, we’re looking at you.)

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On the road…

I’m takin’ a break from the Digest and affiliated art B.S. The next coupla weeks are gonna be about getting in a little R&R and going on what promises to be a pretty badass roadtrip. Naturally, I’ll have updates of weird/cool stuff I see and eat. In the meantime, check out my new movie. I think it’s got Golden Globe written all over it.

See ya on the dark side.


New Directors/New Films ’10: “I Am Love”

The ties that bind: Swinton e famiglia in I Am Love. (Image courtesy of New Directors/New Films.)

Directed by Luca Guadagnino
120 minutes
Screening Fri., April 2 and Sun., April 4

Let’s just get this out of the way, we LOVE Tilda Swinton. From her early collaboration with the late Derek Jarman (that naughty little iconoclast), to her Oscar-winning turn in Michael Clayton to what should have been another award-winning performance in last year’s Julia (Sandra Bullock? Really, Oscar voters?), Tilda has proven to be one of the most consistently reliable performers in contemporary cinema. Her latest work is no exception. Italian auteur Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love focuses on La Swinton’s star turn as the matriarch to a powerful Milanese famiglia whose sense of tradition begins to unravel when passion threatens to disrupt their carefully manicured lifestyle.

There are many things to enjoy in this film: the refreshing focus on contemporary Italian landscapes, the gliding camerawork reminiscent of maestro Robert Altman, the beauty of Italian boys (mamma mia!) and the very welcome return of ’70s fashion icon and actress Marisa Berenson, perfectly cast as the regal grand dame of the beleaguered brood. But the film belongs to Swinton. Crafted as a labor of love between herself and the director, she owns every minute of screen time. Outwardly cool as a former Russian beauty that married into a filthy rich industrial family, her frosty exterior begins to dissolve once she meets her eldest son’s best friend, a hirsute chef with a penchant for exotic recipes and a hunger for life.

The film maintained our interest throughout — with a couple of glaring exceptions. To help visualize the  inner passions that have been simmering underneath Swinton’s carefully-coiffed veneer, Guadagnino indulges in some very florid transitional montages that simply come out of left field. We understand the psychology behind the choice, but did not appreciate the excess. And for a movie that does so well in portraying the intricate familial relationships of a large Italian clan, the scenes that involve the business side of their empire fall flat. (Joan Collins was more convincing as a successful businesswoman.)

What makes this film memorable is the handling of the characters and the performances. We understand these people, we care about them and when the movie builds momentum in its shattering final set piece, we are completely hooked. Aided immeasurably by renowned modern classical composer John Adams’ minimalist score, not to mention the balls-to-the-walls acting, the climax is satisfying on all levels. While we enjoyed the ride immensely, however, we would like to caution viewers to pay close attention to the final moments: Once the end credits begin to roll, we implore you to grab your Fendi clutch and RUN! Apparently, the director could not resist one final lapse in judgment, a tacked on coda that almost ruins the solid ending.

À Bientôt!


Find the key to our Schnabel heads ratings system here. For more information on the New Directors/New Films festival, log on to their official website.

New Directors/New Films ’10: “Women Without Men”

Taking it to the Streets: A young woman joins a protest in 1953 Iran. (Image courtesy of New Directors/New Films.)

Directed by Shirin Neshat
100 minutes
Screening Tues., March 30 and Wed., March 31

C-Monster: Reinforcing what we already know
When it comes to the Middle East, the issue of gender — and gender inequity — is one of endless fascination to the West. We regularly read, comment and discuss disquieting stories about honor killings and burqas and the ways in which some women are treated little better than farm animals. (Less fascinating to us: the West’s role in propping up corrupt, exploitative oligarchies for the sake of cheap oil.) It is in this space that Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat has most frequently operated, creating lush, cinematic photographs and videos that show Middle Eastern women in a decidedly non-traditional light (singing, holding weapons).

With her first full-length feature film, Neshat is once again exploring the lives of women, this time the intersecting lives of four women in the tumultuous days of early 1950s Iran: a trapped wife, a politically-minded young woman, a love-stricken girl and a prostitute. Like her video art, the film offers some lovely moments. A stark, white adobe building is framed by a luminous sky. Female figures clad in fluttering black chadors disappear into a bright desert horizon. A few rays of light slip through a set of archways to gently illuminate a traditional Persian bath. But there’s little else to sink your teeth into. The narrative is wan (men bad, women good) and the principal characters are opaque to the point of inducing narcolepsy. In her art, Neshat has illustrated what we already know about gender relations in the Middle East. Women Without Men — which clocks in at an hour and 40 minutes — was an opportunity to address all the complexities and ambiguities that lie beneath the surface. Sadly, it does not.

Yvonne Connasse: Pretty to look at…
We couldn’t agree more. Being unfamiliar with Neshat’s art, but aware that she had copped the Best Director prize at the 2009 Venice Film Festival for her debut, we were anxious to see what all the fuss was about. Post viewing, we must agree completely with C-Monster’s take on this superficial attempt to combine human drama with political intrigue. Unlike her fellow Iranian filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami or Jafar Panahi, who excel at balancing intimate portraits set against a greater social landscape, Neshat is incapable of making us care for her characters despite her ability to compose beautiful images. (To be certain, visual artists can be solid filmmakers, British artist-cum-director Steve McQueen proved this with his haunting 2008 flick, Hunger, about an IRA volunteer’s fatal hunger strike in a Belfast prison.)

Moreover, while the use of four disparate female archetypes may have a proven track record for American sit-coms, this film fails to make them come alive. On the whole we’d rather watch Dorothy, Blanche and the gals gather in their kitchen to eat cheesecake and discuss Fidel Castro, than lumber through this lackluster attempt at socio-political film making. Having seen Women, we can honestly say we have little interest in viewing Neshat’s art. Instead, to help clear our minds, we’re going to rent some classics in the same genre: The Battle of Algiers, Z, The Lives of Others. Now, that’s good movie making!


Find the key to our Schnabel heads ratings system here. For more information on the New Directors/New Films festival, log on to their official website.

Calendar. 03.25.10.

A still from Tell Me About Your Dreams, an animated film by Christine Rebet. Part of the exhibit Decalogue: Films You Can Count on Two Hands, organized by Eve Sussman, at Edward Winkleman Gallery, opens Saturday at 6pm. (Image courtesy of Winkleman.)

New Directors/New Films ’10: “Samson and Delilah.”

Two outback teens await a not-so-promising future. (Image courtesy of New Directors/New Films.)

Directed by Warwick Thornton
101 minutes
Screening Thurs., March 25th and Sun., March 28th

The legend of Samson and Delilah has been influencing artists since the sand and sandal days of yore. From Michelangelo to Rembrandt to Basquiat, the strongman and the seductress have been depicted in paintings, statues, grand operas and of course, movies. Dozens of them. The latest is the feature debut of Australian director Warwick Thornton. A beautifully filmed update, it transplants the biblical tale to the modern-day Australian desert, specifically, a remote Aboriginal community that is home to two teenagers destined to fall in love.

Samson is a petrol-huffing teen whose only purpose appears to be to daydream and torment his family. Delilah cares for her aging grandmother, an artist who spends her days crafting large canvases for which she is paid a pittance — but which upscale art galleries then resell for a tidy sum. The first third of the film is Jeanne Dielman-meets-the-outback, repeating the bare bones existence of a young couple that will come to rely on each other when the world turns its back on them.

And ye Gods, does it ever! After a family tragedy, the duo find themselves outcasts from their village and take to the road in a stolen car. Here, the film takes on a slow ride down a very dark tunnel that threatens to overwhelm the lead characters and the audience in turn. While good movies can be made from the darkest of themes — Last Exit to Brooklyn, Dogville, a good chunk of the Bergman ouevre — it takes a great commitment from the part of the audience to sit through what is essentially a passion play of the underprivileged. We watch as Samson begins to lose himself completely to his addiction, while Delilah braves humiliation and physical harm in order to help them survive.

This is not an easy film to sit through, but we were grateful that Thornton has the touch of a true filmmaker in being able to tell a story visually, with forceful, rich images. His movie may not be on par with a similar auteur approach (Terrence Malick comes to mind), but it is nonetheless a notable achievement for a new director. If the pain and suffering of the title characters is meant to be an allegory for the indigenous people of Australia, it certainly succeeds. It’s an admirable debut from a director whose future work we look forward to, perhaps after a few drinks to steady our nerves.

À Bientôt


Find the key to our Schnabel heads ratings system here. For more information on the New Directors/New Films festival, log on to their official website.

New Directors/New Films ’10: “Bill Cunningham New York.”

Cunningham gets his shot. (Image courtesy of New Directors/New Films.)

Directed by Richard Presse
84 minutes
Screening Wed., March 24 and Thurs., March 25.

In recent years, American documentaries seem to have become distilled versions of the Maysles Brothers’  infamous 1975 expose, Grey Gardens. Every film student with a camera has, at one point or another, obsessed over someone living on the fringes of society. While some directors excel at these creations (Werner Herzog), what we’re often left with is a lot of middling fare that would be better suited to a fluff segment on a prime-time news program. (Wordplay, we’re talking to you.) In this regard, Richard Presse’s Bill Cunningham New York isn’t exactly mining new cinematic territory. But it does provide a wonderful glimpse into the life of one of New York City’s most beloved icons: New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, a figure who has long lived on the fringes of high society.

For fans of the Grey Lady, Cunningham’s name is synonymous with style. In his weekly columns, On the Street and Evening Hours, he chronicles the latest street fashion and the doings of the champagne-and-caviar elite as they flit from ball to charitable ball. (His columns are benchmarks — to be caught on film by Cunningham is akin to winning the fashion lottery.) Cunningham is also renowned for maintaining his privacy. He may cover bold-face names, but he himself is rarely one. But the filmmakers nonetheless managed to record his daily whereabouts for a period of more than two years, from which they have composed a meticulously edited, briskly paced bio that benefits greatly from its subject’s ebullient charm.

The film is centered primarily on Cunningham’s day-to-day life. There is the Spartan studio apartment, furnished with rows of filing cabinets and a prison cot-style bed. There are the daily peregrinations around Gotham on his trusty bicycle, outfitted in a blue workman’s jacket, and juggling a camera with a dexterity that belies his octogenarian status. And we see plenty of layout sessions at the New York Times. There is also lots of effusive praise from the lions of the fashion industry. (The frosty high priestess herself comes on to exclaim: “We all dress for Bill.”) One of the more memorable moments shows Cunningham at home with his neighbors. He and a fellow photographer — the Norma Desmond-lite Editta Sherman — reminisce about the early years, when Cunningham was a young hat designer and Sherman would entertain her salon of chums with impromptu ballet recitals. The tenderness expressed between these two outsiders is utterly captivating. It is in one of these unguarded moments when Cunningham best sums up his passion for fashion: “Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe…I had no interest because they weren’t stylish!”

And this is what ultimately makes the film special. For Cunningham is not your standard paparazzo. He is not concerned with the identity of his subjects or the larger celebrity culture — he simply wants to capture the beauty of clothes. (This clarity of purpose is reinforced during a jaunt to Paris, where he turns his back on the legendary Catherine Deneuve, unimpressed with her ensemble. Quelle nerve!) At one point in the film, the photographer appears to dodge the filmmaker’s query about his lack of companionship. But the question appears somewhat irrelevant. Cunningham is a modern-day ascetic — and fashion is his religion. His humble apartment, spendthrift wardrobe and disdain for the spotlight have practically defined his existence. Towards the end of the film, we see him in Paris, being honored with the title chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. His French is fractured, but his joy shines through as he chokes back the tears while exclaiming: “He who seeks beauty will find it!”

À bientôt!


Find the key to our Schnabel heads ratings system here. For more information on the New Directors/New Films festival, logon to their official website.

New Directors/New Films ’10. Plus: Our Schnabel heads ratings system.

A still from Women Without Men, by Shirin Neshat. (Image courtesy of New Directors/New Films.)

This Wednesday, March 24th, the New Directors/New Films festival, organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art, kicks off in New York City with two weeks worth of screenings, featuring 27 films by a coterie of international directors. We managed to get ourselves invited to a few press screenings, but because I know even less about film than I know about art, I’ve pulled in reinforcements, namely the irrepressible Yvonne Connasse — who in her martini-addled head carries more cinematic lore than the entire basement archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It will be Yvonne who’ll be doing much of the reviewing, though I’ll jump in to give my two cents about artist Shirin Neshat‘s latest (sometime next week).

In the meantime, we want to kindly explain our complex ratings system, devised by a team of brainiacs at MIT. Naturally, it involves Julian Schnabel’s head. Here’s how it works:

No Schnabel Heads: This movie sucks. If you’re even thinking about watching it, make sure someone is paying you.
One Schnabel: More tedious than a teacup painting. As in, the explosions might look good on the big screen, but if this is a rental, forget it.
Two Schnabels: Not good, but has at least one redeeming moment. Think: Every Quentin Tarantino film known to man (in the cumulative).
Three Schnabels: These pleasing pics may not be worth burning a path to the theatre, but they’re the sort of thing you’ll want to add to the Netflix queue.
Four Schnabels: A very good movie, in the theatre, as a rental, in Second Life, or any which way you kids like to watch your movies these days.
Five Schnabels: This shit is hotter than Johnny Depp and Javier Bardem in a man sandwich in the tropics. We’re talking possible classic. SEE IT!!!!