First of the 2009 Best Lists

List-making is a tiresome exercise for me. I dislike the act of quantifying my enjoyment and/or appreciation of films, music, literature, et al. However, if lists do nothing else or function as nothing else, they are at the very least dialogue-starters. I look at lists I've composed from years back and gawk at how much they run counter to my current tastes, but it is often an accurate gauge of a person's tastes and a person's radar at a particular time. So, without further ado, I am inaugurating the best-of 2009 lists with the DVD and Repertory Screenings reviews. I am still in deliberation over the best films of 2009, but until then, you can nosh on these.


BEST DVD RELEASES OF 2009

1. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai de Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Region 1) Pound for pound, Criterion’s release of Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece is the best DVD package of the year. The transfer looks crisp and vibrant, and the extras, which include interviews with the cinematographer (Babette Mangolte as of late has become my favorite cinematographer) and the director’s mother, which is an extraordinary interview with an extraordinary woman and justifies being a film in and of itself. I will be among the first to line up for Criterion’s release of the Chantal Akerman in the 70’s Eclipse set. If the transfers are anywhere near as good as the one for Jeanne Dielman, I am in for a very big treat. I can’t wait!

2. The Whole Shootin’ Match (Region 1) Watchmaker Films’ release of Eagle Pennell's recently resurrected independent classic of regional filmmaking is compulsory viewing for anyone who has made or wishes to make a movie on the cheap, to make it good and to live to tell about it. The release of this film on DVD inspired its own article on the blog many months ago. To read it, click here. The 2-disc special edition also features Pennell's first short film, A Hell of a Note, along with a rare interview with the director and a soundtrack for the film. Rumor has it that a Watchmaker Films DVD release of Pennell's Last Night at the Alamo (1983) is in the works. One can only hope that they do as fine a job with that one as they've done with this one.


3. The Human Condition (Region 1) Long available only in three separate heavily compressed barebones Image Entertainment releases with poor transfers, the Criterion Collection saves the day once again and delivers not just an excellent transfer of this nine-hour-plus Japanese masterpiece but also rare interviews with its filmmaker Kobayashi and the actor Tatsuya Nakadai. This is epic filmmaking to say the very, very least.



4. A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Region 2) Douglas Sirk has long been a contentious director for me, causing many a heated debate between me and his staunch defenders who say I’m either crazy or am missing something, or both (I was and am still outnumbered). This film, however, one of the few of his not currently available in the United States, held up due to American rights issues, is not just my favorite Sirk film, but also one of my favorite films period, and certainly the best melodrama to come out of the Hollywood machine at that time. It comes to DVD from Eureka!’s “Masters of Cinema” Collection, known to video-monsters stateside as the British Criterion Collection. It also may be one of the most ambitious war films on record.


5. Yentl: The Director’s Cut (Region 1) Some call it a vanity project (honestly, what Streisand-directed film has not been a vanity project?), and the DVD comes complete with wall-to-wall Babs, not just in the film itself. She introduces every single featurette, every single making-of doc and every single deleted scene as if the very fate of the world hinged on their inclusion on the DVD. Despite Streisand’s unmistakable hubris (for example, she is insistent about and constantly reminds us of the alleged “fact” that Spielberg called her film “the best since Citizen Kane”), that does not take away from the fact that Yentl is a strong, visually impressive, emotionally impactful film. I still cannot buy the movie’s central conceit that anyone, much less an entire community of the most mentally agile Talmud scholars and yeshiva buchers, would believe Streisand to be a boy. However, there’s this thing called suspension of disbelief, I guess. Test how deep yours is by seeing this film. The second disc is jam-packed with extra materials, including the original test film-rolls that were shot in order to convince the backers that the film was a viable project.


6. Inglourious Basterds: The 2-Disc Special Edition (Region 1) One of the most popular films of 2009 gets an excellent DVD treatment in both the one-disc and two-disc releases. My advice is to go for the two-disc because you can get a full sense of how fun it must be to be on a Tarantino set. Just from interviews of the likes of Rod Taylor, Enzo Castellari, Bo Svenson and other veterans, this is worth the little extra you pay over the price of the one-disc version. "Oooh, that's a bingo!"

7. L’Important c’est d’Aimer (The Important Thing is To Love) (Region 1) It would seem that Polish auteur Andrzej Zulawski’s work is a rare delicacy in both America and England. This 1975 film, which some say is his masterpiece, was one of the almost deified works profiled in the documentary Z Channel: Magnificent Obsession. I had been kicking myself for years after I had missed taping a few showings on the film on the IFC Channel years ago. That feeling has subsided now that I have this gorgeous DVD from MondoVision, featuring a commentary track and video interview with Zulawski, as well as a 24-page booklet and a whole featurette on the remastering of the film alone. It does my heart good to know that people care about movies like this, and providing extra materials for such obscure works. The cover package for the disc looks pretty deluxe. It’s a beautiful and toweringly difficult film (I mean that in a good way), and the DVD of it is something truly awesome.


8. Lookin’ to Get Out (Region 1) Hal Ashby biographist Nick Dawson resurrected Hal Ashby’s never-before-seen director’s cut of this originally panned 1982 box-office disaster from the UCLA vaults from a print that Ashby willed to UCLA Film School just before his death in 1988. The film can now finally be seen the way Ashby originally intended it to be seen. Warner Home Video gets faulted only slightly for not releasing the original theatrical cut in the same package. Just because I can access it (on my aging VHS) doesn’t mean that others will be able to do the same in an effort to see how the director’s cut differs from the version exhibited in 1982. It would have been a most valuable lesson for people on the power and importance of movie editing, and how just a little cutting makes for a completely different motion picture.


9. The Other Side of the Underneath (Region 2) The British Film Institute has, in the past year, taken to engineering the re-release and resurrection of the films of Jane Arden (who sometimes co-directed her films with filmmaker Jack Bond). Whereas I am not the biggest fan of their Anti-Clock (despite the BFI’s DVD of that being up to this same standard), The Other Side of the Underneath is a truly fascinating film, and an extremely disturbing one as well. You cannot shake this film off very easily. It lingers with you, almost as if you yourself had the mental collapse the movie depicts.


10. Comrades (Region 2) Here is yet another great BFI DVD release. It’s been a great year for them, what can I say? Bill Douglas’ bold, rugged and beautiful epic about the exile of the Tulpuddle Martyrs to the Australian Outback in the 1830’s. This is one of the hard-to-describe films. It is three hours in length, it is toweringly ambitious and yet it also seems very little known and discussed. I will say that a special badge of valor is awarded to BFI this year for resurrecting films like this and many others.


BONUS DVD:
11. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: The Criterion Collection (Region 1) I am by no means an admirer of the film and, in fact, have a great many problems with it. Criterion’s two-disc DVD set of the film, however, is perhaps one of the best video releases I can think of which offers a comprehensive look at the making of a given film. The making-of featurettes and behind-the-scenes material, the interviews with all those involved, accounts of the epic history of the project (its evolution throughout a more than twenty-year timespan, throughout which time it was in turn-around) is alone worth the price of purchasing this.




HONORABLE MENTIONS (A.K.A. THE “I’M-HAPPY-THEY’RE-FINALLY-RELEASED” LIST):
Generale Della Rovere, My Dinner With Andre, Wise Blood, Palermo or Wolfsburg (R2), Sometimes a Great Notion (R2), Herostratus (R2), Zabriskie Point, Nous Ne Viellirons Pas Ensemble (R2), The Adventures of Werner Holt, Anti-Clock (R2), Grin Without a Cat, the other Chris Marker films that are now reasonably priced for the first time, every title released on the Warner Archive label, all releases from Eureka!’s Masters of Cinema Collection


CONFLUENCE’S BEST DISCOVERIES/REDISCOVERIES

1. The Free Will (Matthias Glasner, 2006)
2. Margot at the Wedding (Noah Baumbach, 2007)
3. The Arrival of Joachim Stiller (Harry Kumel, 1976)
4. Model Shop (Jacques Demy, 1969)
5. Goin’ Down the Road (Donald Shebib, 1970)
6. 12 (Nikita Mikhalkov, 2007)
7. Events (Fred Baker, 1970)
8. New York Story/Hotel New York (Jackie Reynal, 1981/1984)
9. Charlie Bubbles (Albert Finney, 1968)
10. Billy Two Hats (Ted Kotcheff, 1973)


BEST 2009 REPERTORY SCREENINGS IN NEW YORK

1. Elia Kazan’s America America (1963) at Film Forum, Hosted by Foster Hirsch, who facilitated a Q&A with two of the films stars, Stathis Giallelis and Linda Marsh, following the screening of an extremely rare, beautiful print loaned to Film Forum by Martin Scorsese (a piece of privileged information I received after the film was shown). There is a funny story involving this particular screening experience. I arrived at the theater to discover that the show had been sold out. Somewhat dejected and only somewhat consoled that I owned the rare Warner VHS from the 90’s, I decided that I would use the theater’s bathroom and go home. On the way out, almost as if it were fated, I bumped into Foster Hirsch, whom I had met some time ago at a Preminger retrospective at MoMA. He remembered me by name, and asked if I was there to see the Kazan. I told him the situation. “No, no, you can’t give up,” he told me excitedly, after which he enthusiastically informed me that he believed America America to be one of the most important American films ever made. A few minutes later, he single-handedly managed to get me into the filled-beyond-capacity screening, so here is a special thanks to Foster Hirsch for an amazing night, and for the wonderful Q&A that followed the film. Film Forum gets additional kudos for an excellent Elia Kazan retrospective of which this was part.
2. Ivan Passer’s Born to Win (1971) at Museum of Modern Art A packed theater for an obscure, gritty black comedy about a heroin addict and his scraping-bottom $100-a-day drug habit? Yep, we’re must be in New York City! This is one of those nights upon which I said aloud to myself, as a cineaste, “I love living in New York!” What shocked me more, though, was just how jaw-droppingly gorgeous and pristine the print of the film shown was. It was almost as if the film had been made yesterday. No scratches, hardly any specks, sterling sound, super smooth reel-changes. At a few moments during the screening, audible “wow”s escaped my lips. I informed my friend, actress Karen Black, one of the film’s stars, about the screening of the film. She connected me with the film’s director Ivan Passer, who was tickled to learn about the conditions of MoMA’s print, the size of the audience of the recent reception of a film he made almost forty years ago. If MoMA were to screen it again in an hour’s time, I’d pick and leave for it right now. Ivan Passer’s Law and Disorder (1974, also featuring Karen Black) and Intimate Lighting (1965) were screened before this film. This screening was also the impetus for a blog-article I wrote in April, and its presence is felt in the first big article I wrote for the blog, on the topic of New York on film.
3. Ulrike Ottinger’s Johanna d’Arc of Mongolia (1989) at Anthology Film Archive, which featured a Q&A with Ulrike Ottinger herself following the screening of another beautiful print. The film itself is an underappreciated and little-screened mix of social satire, Noel Coward comedy of manners, feminist drama, magical mystery tour, ethnographic documentary and sweeping epic a la Lawrence of Arabia (you got that…can you picture it?). The audience for this screening was meager compared to the audience sizes for the top two listed above,
4. Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947) at Film Forum. Film Forum screened one of my favorite films in mid-2009 and I was there bright-eyed and bushy-tailed to see it with a good friend of mine. I’m not so sure there is another film quite like it, although in my e-mail correspondence with a well-known filmmaker the following day, I was met with derision when I informed him that I found Odd Man Out to be a better film than The Third Man. To each his own, I guess. That opinion still stands.
5. Milos Forman's Taking Off (1971) at Film Forum. Officially part of Film Forum's "Madcap Manhattan" series, this screening of Taking Off was introduced by Milos Forman himself, who stayed for Q&A after the film ended. The film's producer Michael Hausman was also in the audience. The print was in pristine condition and, although I had little doubt that the film still played well, the enthusiastic audience reaction proved its status as a real "audience picture".
6. Robert Kramer's Milestones (1975) at Anthology Film Archives. It seems that there is at least one Kramer retrospective a year in New York. I had already seen his Ice (1970), which was the first film ever funded by the American Film Institute. I had heard a great deal about Milestones and Anthology's July 2009 Kramer Retrospective was my first real opportunity. It blew me away, but then again, movie examinations of 60's radicalism are most certainly my cup of tea.

The Curious Case of Hugo Stiglitz: Points of Reference in Inglourious Basterds

Here we have Round 1 in our Guest Writers Series at the ConFluence-Film Blog. Our first guest writer, Sunrise Tippeconnie, is a filmmaker and writer currently living in Oklahoma City who dabbles in film criticism and history. You can read more of his work in Sooner Cinema: Oklahoma Goes to the Movies and on The Candler Blog. To view Sunrise's original response to Inglourious Basterds, click here.


With the release of Inglourious Basterds for home viewing, I’ve culminated some suggested cinematic links to aid any Basterds study, and allow the film’s conversation to continue, and allow for a means of navigating some of the referenced materials.

While discussion about Basterds often results in it’s definition as a “war movie,” we must be specific, and just as Tarantino observers are quick to correct with definition of the film’s concept as propaganda analysis as well as a lover letter to “grindhouse” grade war-fare, we should be specific about what issues of these types of cinema are being discussed. While most war films about a squadron have a tendency to place the concept of manhood during war beneath the microscope, Basterds does not.

Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) is very clearly referenced through the initial framings in which we begin to learn about the assumed title roles, the men under watch by Lt. Aldo Reine. While this implies a connection to Aldrich’s film, what normally follows reference is thematic homage. This is where Tarantino severs the tie and we do not come to understand how these men develop a camaraderie, a code of honor among themselves, nor do we see them grow beyond their social status as “bottom of the barrel” expendables like The Dirty Dozen. While the initial response to these omissions is runtime and viewer completion, these elements are quite important in understanding the film’s satiric nature and would introduce problematic identification with these men, one that could destroy the film’s ending effect and film’s final messages.

As important as the development is of these themes, their removal allows for a better understanding of propaganda’s ability to instill pride and inspiration. Without such identification, these men appear ruthless and slightly unjustified. The introduction of “The Bear Jew” opens an opportunity for violence to be inflicted upon a Nazi soldier. This sequence also omits, and in this case it omits any context for the violence. There is no back-story given about the Nazi party, the war in Europe, nor the background histories of Raine and his collected rag-tag group of misfit soldiers. Just as audience completion requires the accessing of Aldrich’s film to understand these men might have learned to work as a group, learned the necessary war-survival skills and can be successful in their collected attempts, the film also assumes the audience will access their knowledge of history to complete the context of this violence. This is where the strength of the film’s narrative allows for the satire to plant its seed. While the violence in this section of the film feels justified, because of the Nazi agenda and tactics during the war, the mistake in assumption is what allows the satire to grow without notice until the final reel of the film. The justification for the violence comes from a specific assumption that these men have learned to develop camaraderie and honor instead of blind patriotism, which is perhaps something that we have missed between the scenes –and in omitting such moments allows for the film to play out a hidden narrative, one in which the men do not learn a value of life, nor question the meaning of war, thus becoming merciless vigilantes bent on winning in the name of patriotism. This ultimately becomes what feels like maniacal terrorism, the frightening reality of the film’s final moments of violent outburst. This is what makes Tarantino’s film diverge from most films in the war genre: without the compassion towards life on either side of the war zone there is no hope in cinema and thus such works are Tarantino-ized as propaganda.



It is important to look at the final moments of Aldrich’s film, which allows for this moment to come quite successfully when Jim Brown falls from Nazi bullets. At this moment the disheartened survivors see the fall of a man, who at the start of the film would have been seen as a less than a man because of his color. What is most incredible about this moment is twofold in the compassion for the death a fellow man as well as their ability to see beyond the limits of their racism. While this moment does not erase the possibility for future racist tendencies for these characters, and thus not suggestive of a solution to such tensions, what is important is the ability for these characters to put aside prejudices to mourn for the fatality and mortality of humanity.

What seems like a conscious response to this moment results in the fascinating introduction of “Hugo Stiglitz”. Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz serves as a means to understand the vigilante wrath of a propagandized hero; he is the only Jewish solider to look like an action hero, while others in the squadron look scrawny, disheveled, and un-muscled. Sgt. Stiglitz is further presented as an extreme assassin who’s Nazi SS officer death count is unrivaled, and Tarantino ignites an adrenaline rush through a flashback sequence that depicts intense infliction of violence upon Nazi officers while we hear the theme from Jack Starrett’s Slaughter (1972). The audience is again asked to access their own knowledge of both history and cinema via the Brechtian device of a Samuel L. Jackson voice over. While accessed history implies associations of World War II, it is most important to acknowledge contemporary associations of the recent Iraqi War and the violence of Iraqi ground forces and prisoners held within Guantanamo Bay. Cinema associations recall Jim Brown, and thus a connection is made between an action hero and the real horrors of violence in the name of patriotism. This connection suggests the actions of characters portrayed by Jim Brown are just as heroic, and perhaps justified at this point within the context of Basterd’s narrative since the satiric nature of the film has yet to completely unspool. Looking at this point closer, Jim Brown’s cinematic nature is not just implied by Slaughter and The Dirty Dozen, but through another musical reference of Dark of the Sun (1969), and further implicit connections to Pacific Inferno (1979).

All of these films contain Jim Brown as heroic protagonist that utilizes violence to overwhelm an oppressive force, justified by the sides of war. While these films reinforce the issue of humanity as the true victim of war, and those that find a bond beyond the confines of political allies are those that truly learn from the atrocities depicted on screen. Clyde Peterson, in Pacific Inferno, throws the final switch that explodes the Japanese prison camp, yet the film attempts to humanize his actions through the relationship he develops with one of the camp leaders who is indebted to Clyde for saving his life. The honor of code and a reverence for life allow Clyde (and thus, the audience) to define the elements that are in opposition of these humanistic concepts allowing justification for the violent end of the Japanese soldiers as part of the prison camp. While these seems acceptable, it is only so because of the propagandistic nature of the narrative elements, as Tarantino ultimately delivers. While experiencing such heroic tales with Jim Brown, the ultimate question is whether these violent responses are appropriate.



As Basterds comes to its close, non-historical events take precedent and allows for the accessing of history to halt with a sudden error, meanwhile the accessing of cinema remains un-severed. This disconnect springs a sudden question of legitimacy. While cinema history serves the moment as possible, world history states the moment is fictive, unbelievable, and absurd. These audience threads don’t simply separate, they open the door wide for a sudden reassessment of one’s allegiance to American cinema history in its entirety: have we been lied to? Why would the actions of Jim Brown’s characters be dishonorable since his position against such oppressive forces is justified. While Slaughter’s anger (as well as Clyde Peterson’s) is justified by racism, oppression, and exploitation, the means of his violent reparations and retaliations are what is questioned.

What makes this moment of Hugo Stiglitz more complex is the nature of this character’s name, which is a direct association with a caucasian, Mexican actor of the same name. While Stiglitz is associated with the “grindhouse” aesthetic with which Tarantino has made his name, the context of his cannot be overlooked in comparison to the referenced Jim Brown roles.

Within the range of Stiglitz’s work, a good consistency of roles portray a confident, imposing character that takes charge and gets things done, often resulting in the kind of antagonist strong enough for a climactic battle. The work that Basterds seems to reference most strongly is Counterforce (1988), in which Stiglitz portrays a world-class assassin that races an American counter-terrorist squadron to a targeted Middle Eastern leader. Stiglitz is constantly out maneuvering the team with disguises, weaponry, and most notably through a surprise attack upon a theater audience during the leader’s address.

With such an antagonistic character actor serving as reference through the name for a Jewish war hero, the resulting conflict between Jim Jones and Hugo Stiglitz implies more than just race or audience identification. What results is a complicated identity that implies the real nature of a war hero: one side is an honorable man that fights against the injustice of oppressive forces and ideals, while the other side in a dishonorable man that will do whatever is necessary to stay atop of his game, and eliminate all others in the way. While Basterds eliminates the Stiglitz character after a game of deception, the violent tactics of Counterforce’s surprise attack remains. Humanity becomes a casualty that cannot survive such moments of deception within the games of war, and any character that holds the possibility of the human integrity of Jim Brown’s Clyde Peterson will not see the sight of the third act, which would imply that all those alive at the end of the film are in fact the Basterds of the film’s title. What remains is a request for audience identification removal from cinematic material that requests joyous participation in violence as an acceptable means for accomplishment. Even if American Aldo Raine obtains the upper hand in the end, the reality of this situation completes the absurdity of the actual political nature of America’s contemporary international relationships, allowing Tarantino to strongly suggest a change in allegiance to vengeance over patriotism.

A final thought, before anyone comes to the conclusion that Jim Brown is a good guy, Hugo Stiglitz is a bad guy, and therefore a racial divide occurs between “good” and “evil,” this critical analysis of the “suppressed” taking vengeance upon their “oppressors” is further paralleled by Aldo Raine’s brief comment about his moonshine exploits that mirror the plot of Burt Reynold’s Gator in White Lighting (which is also musically referenced). Although Raine’s back-story implies an empathy with Jim Brown’s Slaughter, he is not capable of completely understanding the racial tensions because of his privilege as a Caucasian male during the fifties. Raine’s own name is similar to character Aldo Ray, who played a rough mixture of Brown and Stiglitz character descriptions. The reference that serves best here is Raoul Walsh’s The Naked and the Dead (1958). In this film, Aldo Ray plays tough Sgt. Sam Croft who heads a Pacific reconnaissance squadron behind enemy lines when his tactics of leadership are questioned by his men. The film deconstructs the morality and integrity of war’s catch-22 nature, where successful leadership takes no prisoners, disregards individual humanity, and often appears murderous as a means to save lives. Failure to comply with Sgt. Croft’s hard edged and crazy rules results in what feels like negligence with life. The Naked and the Dead treads a really thin line between moral decency and reckless murder when conveying that war sometimes necessitates a clear line of division between sides for survival. When placed within the context of Tarantino’s Raine, the development of the character excludes such dichotomies that are more likely developed within the parallel character in The Dirty Dozen. This exclusion implies that Raine lacks the internal moral responsibility of Croft while maintaining the murderous exterior, which allows for the most two-dimensional character of the major cast. This vapid character further perpetuates the myth of the American hero so that there is a point for comparative analysis with Jewish war hero Hugo Stiglitz. Without such a comparison point there is no way to understand the complicated satire implied through character actions and intentions when the film’s violence comes to full climax, otherwise belief within the actions of these heroes would be misrepresented as appropriate.


Epilogue

Two more films that serve as subtle reference points for comparison films for further dialog on the themes of race, violence, and the war genre: Lee Frost’s The Scavengers (1969) and Umberto Lenzi’s Desert Commandos (1967). Also a strong satire, Frost’s film follows a troop of Confederate soldiers that continue the war against the North after the Civil War has ended, and their maniacal leader holds nothing back when he retaliates against supposedly freed slaves. Lenzi, whose film Bridge to Hell (1986) also serves as a visual reference for Basterd’s violence, helms Desert Commandos’s similar plot with a clever approach towards breaking down audience identification without satire nor irony, and yet remains just as strong as Basterd’s analysis and critique.

The Permanent Satisfactions: Addressing My Love of Jacques Rivette


There has been a flurry of question-asking directed towards me recently, and this flurry has all been a single question. “Kremer, why do you love Jacques Rivette so much? Why is he your favorite filmmaker? Just what is the attraction?” Whether it be people I have known personally for years or ConFluence-Film Blog readers who have written in to me about it in the past year, there is an interest in discovering the true nature of my unbounded admiration of the beloved French auteur, whose work is little seen Stateside. I believe it is the fact that his work is so hard to track down that accounts for much of the fascination from people. Just how is it that I have even seen a lot of these films? So finally, I am, at long last willing, interested and ready to answer the question and to articulate my love and overwhelming respect for the iconoclastic French director, who has recently turned 81. It is fair to say that, as my personal hero, I might mourn his eventual death like a member of my own family. That’s a pretty big statement, but read on and I will tell you why he means so much to me as an artist and as a personality.

I am going to begin my answer by mentioning my favorite audience reaction to a film of my own. Shortly after my final cut of A Trip to Swadades was completed, I sent a copy of the film to an old friend of mine on the west coast, a documentary filmmaker. When I asked him if he liked my movie, he replied unabashedly and point-blank, “I hated it!” A little stunned and honestly rather crestfallen and hurt by the candor of his response, I nonetheless went about my business of promoting and trying to distribute and screen the film as if no such response to it had been received. Let us just say it was a quiet shellshock. But while I was hurt, I was not angry with this friend at all. I appreciated his honesty because…well, it is just so rare for someone to be so forthcoming and frank with such a terse and straightforward negative opinion. About a month later, the friend called me up at what was almost midnight east-coast time. He told me that, although he had been initially resistant and irately puzzled by my film, he had since viewed it two additional times and he grew to admire and even love it. He accounted how the film had gotten under his skin and how he couldn’t shake it off, even when he tried. He then proceeded to dissect my film, which is a work of an extremely personal nature, for me over the phone, providing his own interpretation, and a unique one at that.

When this conversation ended, I was immediately flooded with a deep well of emotion and a sense of profound accomplishment. Why, you ask? And what does this have to do with Rivette? Well, I had the occasion of seeing Jacques Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974) as a senior in high school. On my first viewing, I really disliked the film, although I had a definite taste for the absurd. I thought it was nonsensical, protracted and muddled and I failed to see much of a point for it being made. I barely got past the first hour of the intimidating 193-minute running time. Time passed and I realized that the film had lingered, and it had lingered so steadfastly and unerringly that it had similarly gotten under my skin, to the extent that I could not shake it off. I could not stop thinking about it. And so I watched the film (this time, all the way through) again, and again, and again. The fact that something I made functioned in the same way, that I was able to fashion it, direct it and edit it in a way that lingered in someone’s mind — that I was able to do what Rivette did for me, which I find to be one of the greatest gifts a filmmaker can give — was, and still is, to me, my greatest accomplishment as a filmmaker thus far. The very fact that any film can do this excites me as both audience and filmmaker. That is not the only gift Rivette has given me. He also respects his audience enough to believe in their intellectual curiosity towards further discovery. This was not the only occasion of watching, hating, lingering, rewatching and loving a Rivette film. Not by a long shot.

In a sense, I guess you could say I am talking about a modern audience's desire for “immediate results” and the “instant thrill”. These audiences might watch a film and want to say, “Damn! That was good!” directly after the final fade-out. While, for instance, Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse is the best film about the artistic process ever made in my opinion, it is certainly deliberately paced throughout a four-hour running time. Although the film is greatly praised, audiences have had general difficulty wading through what they perceive as fat in desperate need of -ectomy. But in the time allotted, we are made to perceive the canvas as a battlefield, and we feel so intensely and intimately all the agony and the ecstasy to which Chuck Heston’s Michelangelo couldn’t hold a candle. Rivette is also the first person I have known to observe how an artist cannot bargain with the source of inspiration, and that a source of inspiration just is. Rivette’s films provide neither immediate results nor instant thrills. The kinds of results and thrills that are provided by Rivette, however, are most substantial and lasting than anything “instant.” To quote Warren Oates in Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, "those satisfactions are permanent." But, you know, that’s not even it really. It’s other things too, like his restrained, economical but nonetheless dynamic use of music, which rivals only Robert Bresson in Western cinema. He is a treasure as an artist because, simply put, all of his films are somehow and in some way magical. There is not a single one that is not magical to me. It is becoming, then, that many of his films are explicitly about magic (e.g. Noroit, Duelle, Histoire de Marie et Julien). My favorite film of all time is Celine and Julie Go Boating (1974), and it is about the magic of storytelling, and the heroines return to a “film-within-the-film” through sucking on a magic candy-rock which places them back within the strange house where the meta-drama unfolds. I encountered the film at a flea-market when I was still in high-school. It was two dollars for a two-VHS set. No film, then or now, has so perplexed, baffled and exhilarated me as much. It knocked me on my behind like no film had. This is all without mentioning that the man has respect for effective and intriguing titles. I always say that if a filmmaker or novelist isn’t interested in naming his work effectively, I am not really interested in seeing or reading it effectively.

I cherish and I am blown away by every one of his films. Each of them is infallibly honest and could have been made by no one else except him. My fascination with the inherent power within the act of telling a story has been the subject of some of my recent reading. I have been looking at Martin Buber’s books on his collection of Chassidic tales, rapt and joyfully mired in his accounts of how integral the act of storytelling is to the Chassidic world. Storytelling is a form of prayer, an act of devotion that signifies our overpowering need to connect with eternity, to paraphrase Buber in my own words. Spirits chained in things, in both animate and inanimate objects, are unlocked through prayer, so thinking of storytelling as a form of prayer, you can just imagine the implications. Considered this way, it is more than mere escapism.

Storytelling, to me, is to be cognizant of cycles — cycles with all the shifts, the gauntlets and the cosmic tumblers we may not be immediately cognizant of, but which lead full-circle to some truth, and a braiding of elements. Human beings make sense of themselves through this sacred act. It is through my favorite filmmaker that I have come to realize my own true feelings and philosophies about the act of storytelling, and it is because of him that I am able to articulate them in such a way. Rivette, more than any filmmaker with whom I have yet been acquainted, recognizes this magic and much of his work has been successfully characterizing and analyzing the importance of theater and storytelling's grand illusion and the cathartic process(es) of creating it. It is intrinsic to humans, and this need not be illustrated further than simply watching children being let loose in a room with or without toys, and observing how they will immediately find a way to make-believe, and this is most certainly the purest form of theater. From our earliest years, we relish the idea of “going boating” (i.e. French vernacular meaning “to get wrapped up in a story you are being told”). In this sense, the films Rivette makes about theater and theatrical companies staging productions of plays (he uses this device in six separate films, including his two beloved but seldom seen/screened epics L’amour fou and Out 1) is more than just a series of tired examinations of theater and its relationship with reality, and vice versa (because that is just plain boring and grossly unoriginal, lacking imagination). It is our intrinsic need to create illusions, and the implications and ramifications of that, which fascinates him.

I often liken Rivette’s films to the music of the Sun Ra Arkestra. You hand yourself over to the wonders of dissonance, letting go of any preconceived notions of being in control and getting joyfully lost. His films have often been improvisatory with a full-on, unbridled feeling of jazz. His film Merry-Go-Round (1981) even uses the often cacophonous “Greek chorus” of a saxophonist and a bass player in a strange jam session to pace his hallucinatory story. One could almost call many of his works “jazz filmmaking”. Yet they rarely meander and, if they do, there is very just cause for them to do so (e.g. the seemingly interminable opening chase in Celine and Julie Go Boating). One of my favorite quotes about Rivette is from critic and film scholar Richard Roud who, upon seeing one of Rivette’s films, exclaimed, “Cinema will never be the same, and neither will I.” I, as a viewer, particularly in Rivette’s earlier works, am transformed with each viewing of one of his films.



His genre experiments of the 90’s are fascinating in and of themselves, and one might argue that his work starts getting more “accessible” when he enters this phase of his career. For example, his musical Up Down Fragile is an homage to the 1953 Stanley Donen musical Give a Girl a Break (a Hollywood production with economical musical numbers which, according to Rivette himself, “was shot in next to no time”). The first musical number in Rivette’s three-hour musical does not appear until almost a whole hour into the film! When it does appear, though, your brain is so happily busy and you have so much of a sense of what is at stake in the film’s story that the first musical genre element means something much more than if it were arbitrarily placed and just an excuse for a big production number. The philosophy of placing music sequences in a musical is, after all, often a disaffected “It’s about time for another song” mentality. Rivette subverts this and makes elements of the genre mean something to the audience on the levels of both emotion as well as logic. In addition, there is a single long take in the film I must have watched and rewound about twenty times, on a dance-floor as Enzo Enzo sings “Les Naufrages Volontaires”. In his thriller Secret Defense, we have the character of an ordinary woman (played extraordinarily by Sandrine Bonnaire, who it would seem was his 90’s muse) driven to the extreme task of murdering another human being who killed her father. In a marvelous long take, we observe her transformation and the maelstrom of emotion she undergoes as she prepares to commit the act, taking many trains and transferring many times on her trip up to the country to do so. He stages the Electra drama as Hitchcock, and explicitly furthers the psychological depth in the process through the use of one fraught long-take. This is all without mentioning frequent Rivette collaborator William Lubtchansky’s sublime camerawork.

When I make new films, I find that I am often thinking, “What would Jacques do? Would he like it? Would he approve?” He is, after all, the filmmaker I most want to emulate, a filmmaker whose sensibility, I feel, is closest to my own. I am heading into my next feature film and find that I am constantly asking myself these three questions. I remember being at a Hollywood party a couple years ago and being asked by my host, “What artist makes you feel so full of life that he or she almost makes you cry just by how much you are inspired by their work?” I do not, in this circumstance, have to answer that for you. What I have said about my so-called hero should speak for itself. It is not just in the work, of which there is no real equal, but it is also the way Rivette comports himself in public and in interviews. How he comports himself also speaks to the fact that while he may be concerned with illusion in his work, he is not consumed by any of it in the reality. He feels a great deal of comfort, it seems, in being slightly lesser known than his French New Wave contemporaries, almost as if he has consciously willed it to be. He seems happiest with a smaller cluster of fans who are devoted in a most hardcore sense. Another interesting aspect of his work: He has been known to recut his films into completely different other films. For example, La Belle Noiseuse becomes Divertimento and Out 1 becomes Out 1 Spectre. I've never known any other filmmaker to do that in this manner.



Jonathan Rosenbaum is without a doubt the foremost American champion and scholar of his work, and contributors to the Criterion Forum have long been in an uproar over Criterion’s overdue release prospects of any of his films through the Criterion Collection. It speaks to his appeal, however, that many screenings during a comprehensive 2006 Rivette retrospective at the Museum of the Moving Image sold out. I have most of his films on DVD, many of them foreign discs and bootlegs, but would buy them yet again if they were officially released here. Truffaut said in 1977, “French New Wave and cinema itself would not be what it is today without Jacques Rivette.” Highly esteemed film scholar David Thomson called Celine and Julie Go Boating “the most important narrative film since Citizen Kane. It's the only film where everything is invented.” All I know is that I believe he is one of the very few living genius still working in cinema, and in the order of poets.

I want to end this article with Jonathan Romney’s review of Celine and Julie Go Boating in Time Out London, because I think it’s a beautiful review which encapsulates at least part of Rivette’s mission as an artist: “Favorite films are always the hardest to describe. There are the two pairs of actresses, Berto/Labourier and Ogier/Pisier. The first play a magician and a librarian who meet in Montmartre and wind up sharing the same flat, fiance, clothes, identity and imagination; the other are the Phantom Ladies Over Paris, whom Celine and Julie either invent or stumble upon (or both) in a haunted house, along with a man and his child. There is also Rivette’s love cinema—the movies he cherishes—and the childishness of his and our and Celine and Julie’s rapt attention as we embark on the adventure together, experience a collective form of narrative rape, all spinning a tale that is spinning us. It’s scary, evocative, exhilarating and essential.” I couldn't have tied it up better.

Coming Soon!

Next up at bat is New York City filmmaker and "No Wave Movement" luminary Amos Poe, who will be discussing his recent work as well as the evolution of so-called "punk cinema" since his pioneering of it in the late 70's. Elliott Gould is still also forthcoming. We're just awaiting a window of time. Karen Black is on the roster to be interviewed as well. Plus, we still have the Guest Writers series to look forward to as well. Stay tuned!

Old Friends and Teachers: An Interview With Randal Kleiser on the Upcoming DVD Release “Nina Foch: Directing the Actor”


I met director Randal Kleiser at a premiere screening at the Director’s Guild of America Theater on Sunset Boulevard. Our meeting at this premiere was brief and none-too-memorable. As a matter of fact, I simply told him, “I grew up on Big Top Pee-Wee,” which he of course had directed. He met this with a polite thank you and went about the business of schmoozing. Now, what I had told him was an honest statement but, in all honesty, how are you going to begin any substantive conversation with that? In any case, as Pee-Wee himself would sardonically exclaim, “I love that story!”.

A few months later, however, we better acquainted ourselves at a Midwestern film festival where I was premiering my film A Collection of Chemicals and where he was being honored for a lifetime of work. This, after all, is the man who gave us beloved mainstream American films like Grease, Flight of the Navigator, The Blue Lagoon and many others. An appearance in George Lucas’ student short film Freiheit is also noteworthy (he and Lucas were college roommates and remain friends to this day). Offhandedly one day, he mentioned that he was working on promoting a directing workshop somehow centered around the teachings of actress Nina Foch. When I told him that I was an admirer of the classic Hollywood actress’ work and rattled off a few of my favorite performances of hers, including her role as Dyan Cannon’s cartoonishly vain pseudo-beauty-queen mother in Otto Preminger’s Such Good Friends, he informed me that he had been on the set of that film as an observer in 1970. I got all misty-eyed.

The festival ended as all things do, and we found ourselves together at the airport, catching the same connecting flight home, on separate coasts mind you. When we parted, I gave him a copy of my film and asked him to stay in touch. His mention of the Nina Foch project lingered on my mind and, for many months, I wondered about the specifics of it.

Some months later, I called Randal up to ask about something technical (i.e. pertinent to the pre-production of my upcoming movie project). At this time, I then asked him if he would be willing to sit down for a phone interview to talk about the Nina Foch project, of which I had just superficial knowledge. Little did I know that the project had its roots as far back as 1965 during Kleiser’s tenure as a film student at University of Southern California, at which time he himself was a student of Foch’s.



He informed me that 200 hours of footage had been recorded of Nina Foch teaching her “Directing the Actor” class at USC. shot over the span of fifteen weeks. Foch passed away in December of 2008 and, in her wake, Kleiser and others have been aiming to package Foch’s videotaped classes to new and upcoming generations of writers, directors and actors, intending to market them to a DVD audience. The DVD package will be entitled “Nina Foch: Directing the Actor” and will be available in early 2010 (with no exact date set at this time).

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DK: Can you discuss your relationship to Nina Foch and this project?

RK: When I took Nina’s class way back in 1965, it was the most amazing class I had ever taken and, in retrospect, I’d say it still is the most valuable film-school course I have taken. I had long considered it an ambition to somehow record her teachings and to keep them for posterity because I was convinced that it would be a really great tool for teaching directors how to direct actors. In 2002, George Lucas financed the taping of a whole semester. The project then grew and morphed into an interactive DVD, with the theory being that the viewer can either play everything and take the whole course, or view specific lessons. What was recorded of her…there are details in directing the actor in all areas. You learn how to breakdown a script for one, and there is no way the worth of that can be overestimated. Nina had been at this for forty years and had made a lasting impression on such directors as John McTiernan, Amy Heckerling, Ron Underwood, many others. It wasn’t even just actors and directors she touched and influenced. Singers like Barry Manilow, Natalie Cole, Melissa Manchester, Julie Andrews, Neil Diamond. Nina taught them how to comport themselves on stage in the presence of an audience, how to command the space, how to make a performance more compelling and intriguing—this was all stuff that Nina taught like no one else taught it. Barry Manilow said, for one, that his whole career changed and that everything became fresh. He said that everytime he is on stage, he feels as if she is up there on the stage with him.

She also gives tips on how to treat the crew. She teaches you to never rely solely on your AD [assistant director] and how a director needs to be proactive and alert to the tasks of every department. She teaches you how to properly prepare for shooting a scene the night before you shoot it, how to be as organized as possible…for actors how there is a separate physical action for every line. There are so many things of value that actors and directors can learn, and so much knowledge to be accrued from her classes and her teachings.

DK: Do you have any of them talking about her influence on their careers on the DVD?

RK: Yes, we have gotten many of them commenting on how important and vital Nina had been to their careers, and they share anecdotes about her as well. Their interviews will be included in the final product.

DK: How are you going about distribution?

RK: We are initially going through USC. I just got a call from Sony, so there is a possibility of it being distributed over there. We’ve also gotten advice from George Lucas. Peter Broderick, who runs the site peterbroderick.com, has also been a help in terms of our distribution plans.

Below is a clip from Executive Suite (1954), for which Nina Foch was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.


DK: You’ve worked with Nina Foch as her director?

RK: [laughing] I directed her twice, if you could really call it that. How can you direct the greatest directing teacher you’ve ever had? How can you direct someone as intelligent and naturally intuitive as Nina? Maybe you can imagine. I worked with her on It’s My Party (1996), which is my favorite of my own work. I worked with her on Shadow of Doubt (1998) with Melanie Griffith. I remember I was directing a scene with 500 extras in black tie. Nina was at a podium on one side of them, I was on the other on a crane. It got to the point where we were talking back and forth to each other over PA systems, saying things like, “Isn’t it great to still be working after all these years?!” That was one of my fondest on-set memories. She was one of my greatest friends as well as my greatest teacher. She just teachers you how to get in there in do your thing and do it right. I consider it something of a Bible for actors and directors, without question. It’s just going to be a great resource for people. Even for animators, it will be something of tremendous worth. She also teaches you how to light actors. For a woman who was sixty or seventy years in the business, she knew more than a great deal about that. She actually physically lit the set a couple times on my films.

DK: I now want to touch on something that is in a way related but is kind of a diegression.

RK: Okay.

DK: Back in 1965—I don’t know because I was not around then—but I can’t imagine anyone really and truly knowing about how accessible the film medium would become in the future. Nowadays, films can be made so easily and so cheaply within the digital form. A class that you take back in 1965 with Nina Foch would one day be available to not just USC students but everyone via a home-viewing format. With the development of the medium, with more stuff being produced, are you concerned with a loss of quality and the process of having to wade through the junk to get through the stuff of value and worth?

RK: One thing I’ve learned is that the cream always rises to the top. I know that the Sundance Film Festival has four times as many submissions for festival consideration as they once did so, as you were saying, there is more being produced and a lot of it isn’t good. But, again, I will say that the cream always rises to the top and if something is good, it will get seen. I went to a financial distribution seminar at the DGA a couple of nights ago. There were a lot of people present saying how everything in film distribution has changed completely, and how a great deal of personnel have moved over to television. They were also saying that there is little to no room for small films these days because they are competing with these other forums, and television is getting steadily more ambitious. Films get seen more and more online and work gets disseminated more easily. When I was learning to make films, that obviously didn’t exist. You had to physically schlep a film-print of your movie from venue to venue. There were no easy distribution avenues like there are today. Now, you can just log on to the Net and you can watch these shorts that people make on there. It’s completely different and everything has changed so absolutely. I am grateful and enormously thrilled that not just USC students can learn from Nina, but everyone with a DVD player can learn from her. There are many things to be grateful for in the digital age. I guess you could say Nina is one of them.

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To view a tribute article written shortly after Nina Foch's passing, visit the ALT Film Blog.

ConFluence-Film Blog is Nearing Its First Anniversary!

The ConFluence-Film Blog is nearing its first anniversary. It has been an eventful year for the blog. I started it the month before I moved to Manhattan. This is just the beginning! Thank you for your readership and for being a loyal audience to my epic rantings about the subjects I have examined.

Next up at bat is director Randal Kleiser (Grease, The Blue Lagoon and Flight of the Navigator) who was interviewed last week about the Nina Foch Acting and Directing Workshop. The full article is now being written. Keep checking back! An interview with Elliott Gould will feature audio from a podcast to be co-hosted by myself and Jon Poritsky of The Candler Blog.

Appear, Disappear, Reappear: An Interview With Beloved Chanteuse/Actress Andrea Marcovicci In Which We Discuss Cult Film Resurrection

It is a sunny Friday morning in Manhattan, approaching eleven o’clock. As I look out a twenty-fourth floor bedroom window overlooking Spanish Harlem from my Upper East Side apartment, I take a moment for personal reflection just to consider that, in less than two minutes, I will be on the phone with someone I have long admired since childhood in the worlds of both film-acting and music. It would perhaps be one of those things you rehearse:
Take 1: “Hello, Ms. Marcovicci?”
Take 2: “Hello, Andrea?”
Take 3: “Um…hello?”
I did not go quite that far. I had scheduled an interview with Marcovicci’s assistant the previous week, to discuss with her a rare and latently “cult” film in which she had starred in the late 1970’s, but it was just then that I asked myself if I was limiting the scope of this opportunity. Granted, the film I wanted to explore with her was a film I admired, an exceptionally obscure work and something of a hidden gem, but I felt somewhat dismayed that I was possibly restricting my audience. In the first place, relatively very few have seen the film about which I was to question her and, in the second place, who outside of the film’s small but dedicated micro-cult would care enough to even read it? I then thought about the recent article I wrote about audience. How could I open it up to explore a larger topic while still discussing something as narrow as that single film — and how could I do justice to an interview with such an internationally beloved chanteuse? Also, I felt some trepidation that I was catching my subject at 8:00 a.m. west-coast time, a time when I am barely conscious (if at all), and beholden to remember what I did a previous night spent even at home let alone events surrounding a film production from years and years ago.
‘Well, okay…I’ll take what I can get,’ I say to myself. I dial the number I had been given by her assistant a few days prior. It rings. I mentally prep myself and, with one small gesture, gain my composure. Someone picks up. “Hello?,” a distinctively cheery voice answers. I recognize the voice — O, methinks ‘tis she! Mystified at the spiritedness and sparkling vitality of this single hello, I sputter and involuntarily chuck my composure out the window directly towards Spanish Harlem, leaving its inhabitants to consider the things they will do with some starstruck schmegegge’s discarded composure. “Uh, hello? Is this Andrea Marcovicci?” ‘Ugh, you idiot!,’ I say to myself. Then comes a laugh, an infectious one, one that puts me at ease again. She tells that she has been up since 5:00 a.m. on account of her teenage daughter, then marvels at her husband’s natural ability to wake up so early in the morning to take her to school. When she tells me this, for some strange reason, I am ready to press on with the interview with confidence. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable phone conversations I’ve had in quite some time.

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I encountered the Montreal-shot film Kings and Desperate Men (1981) on VHS at a flea market in 2000 for either one or two dollars. Ever since my first viewing of it, the film became one of those rare, obscure works with which I became unduly obsessed. Slow days on summer breaks from high school were often spent Googling the title for any additional information I could acquire about it, its production, its distribution, anything, at least once throughout the day. I was soon determined to loan it out to others. I would be the one to usher in its reappraisal and joyous rediscovery…well, either that or gauge the extent of my perhaps misguided mania about it. Information about the making of this strange film was a mystery to me, and an exciting one. Reviews are decidedly scattered with critics either loving it or hating it. Never have I seen an “in-between” to any review. It is fair to mention that, at the time it was shot, the film attracted a great deal of attention in the Canadian press for the casting of Canada’s “First Lady” Margaret Trudeau.
So, in framing the true subject of this interview, I came to consider a recent phenomenon: that people who worked on obscure films that were unceremoniously buried, perhaps never to be heard about again, observe folks like me dig them up in an age when excavation has become, more than ever before, a favorite pastime in the cineaste world. Thus, film lovers have seen the birth and fruition of “boutique” home entertainment labels like Anchor Bay, Blue Underground, Cult Epics, Plexifilm and many others, companies that thrive on exhumed lost works like Kings and Desperate Men which I have recently learned is seeing a DVD release in 2010. The wildly expanding video market, one in which everything is becoming available, has opened films up for new audiences more than ever before, even in the age of VHS. As the VHS age dawned, Orson Welles was known to have exclaimed, “We’re collectible!”
I decided that the interview would be an examination of how a person involved in the making of an about-to-be-exhumed uber-obscure film reacts to “strange-folk” like myself thinking as highly of it as I do. That said, it came as something of a surprise to Ms. Marcovicci that not just I loved it, but a “micro-cult” (mostly among The Prisoners BBC series fan circles) thought very highly of it. Note that two of the film’s stars (one of them being the writer-producer-director and one-man band) were alumni of that cult favorite 60’s television program.
Marcovicci had many-a-memory to share about the making of the film, and the interview turned into an account of a near on-set free-for-all. In exchange for this interview, the deal was that I would meet her this coming month at The Algonquin in New York, where she has an upcoming performance engagement, and deliver her a DVD copy of the film (which I ripped from my personal VHS). She claims that she has never seen the film and, in point of fact, she had no idea the film was available in any readily available form whatsoever. Needless to say, I am looking forward to the night I see her perform and hand her a copy of the film. Note: With all hope, there will be a post-scriptum to this interview, which will catch and record her reactions to her long-awaited viewing of the film thirty years after the fact.
Her account below of the film’s making, is just one of those enormously entertaining and exceedingly fascinating production-history stories. Even if I do say so myself, for anyone involved in the world of film production, this interview is not to be missed, even if you have not seen the film! The act of being found and being remembered stirred memories both painful and funny for Andrea.

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DK: How did you first become involved in Kings and Desperate Men?

AM: First of all, can I ask how you even saw the film? I didn’t even know it was available to be seen…anywhere.

DK: I got it for two bucks at a flea market in Pittsburgh about eight years ago.

AM: [laughing heartily] Oh dear! Now that is amazing! Tell me, have you talked to Alex [Alexis Kanner] about the film?

DK: Unfortunately, he passed away in 2003.

AM: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I wasn’t aware.

DK: So, first of all, can I ask how you became involved with the film?

AM: I actually auditioned for the role in the film. At the time, I was pretty much just starting out and beginning my career as an actress. I remember meeting Alex [Alexis Kanner] and that, initially, there was not much to audition with, and I should have been on my guard right then. There was not much script at all. I had been accustomed to working in a very traditional way of getting a full manuscript, memorizing lines and all that. This was 1977. So I remember the first time I met Alex — he invited me to dinner, and right away I should have felt something was rather amiss, you know. He wound up falling asleep in his soup! I’m not kidding! [laughing]

DK: And what was that a result of?

AM: At the time, I thought it was perhaps due to jetlag or something. What did I know? I mean, it’s not every day that someone passes out in their soup in a restaurant. I soon learned that the jetlag possibility was quite the contrary. I was told that I was going to have to hold a gun throughout the film, and I thought that was just nifty. [laughing] So I was hired for the role and they gave me this gun and I got to point it at Patrick McGoohan, and no sooner did I learn that I was going to have be dealing with two men falling asleep in their soup. I remember there was pretty much an outline, not really a script. It wasn’t until working with Henry [Jaglom] years later that I would begin to see what wonderful things working like that yields. But on Kings it didn’t seem to make much sense at all at the time. There was just an outline, really. I thought the experience was going to be unforgettable because everyone in my family were all fans of The Prisoner. I mean, how could you not be? The show was just one of the things you had to watch. It did wind up being unforgettable, but in a very different way than what was expected.

DK: How is that exactly?

AM: You know, it would probably making me dizzy seeing it again today. But I certainly want to, because you’re not the only one to have approached me and ask me about this film. Keep in mind, though, this is not my only…cult film. Not by a long shot! [laughing] But to get back to the question, there was a joke among those who worked on the film…or really, it was a joke among everyone involved in the film except Patrick and Alex. It was “Kings and Desperate Crew”.

DK: [laughing] That’s hilarious!

AM: Well, honestly, you had two English drunks who really didn’t mean any harm, but they thought they were creating something new, creating an art that was theirs and theirs alone, this profoundly original work. In attempting to mount this, what they were doing so frustrated the crew. Now, it’s one thing if you try to do that and you’re sober, However, trying to do that when you’re not sober didn’t make for a positive experience for anyone but themselves. So everyone starting calling the production “Kings and Desperate Crew”. Alex was a truly fascinating man, though. All those wonderful long speeches at the radio-show microphone were all his, improvised on the spot, I think…and I thought that was marvelous.
Patrick, though, was shockingly mean-spirited, which was a disappointment. Alex and Patrick fascinated each other and it was wonderful to see two men who fascinated each other in such a way. But once we saw how chaotic the shooting was, none of us could really imagine how Alex was going to cut it all together. That was our biggest concern. So little of it was being matched, the script girl (i.e. continuity department, to use today’s nomenclature) was shooed off the set when she complained about it. The sound person was not allowed to do his work accurately. The two of them were really in the world of their own imagination, which was fascinating. Often times, the lighting crew was shooed off the set before they had sufficient time to set up, there was a lot of rushing of the crew, and not getting the necessary coverage. It was a fascinating film to be on the set of, but it was also trauamatic.

DK: Can you tell me about working with Margaret Trudeau?

AM: Okay, so here I have as my pal the Queen of Canada! Every time I walk out of the door with my new best friend, the cameras are clicking. She was like Jackie Kennedy. Today, it would be like hanging with Paris Hilton, with the papparazzi everywhere…and I do mean everywhere. I’m on this stressful set in a strange country and I really need a friend, and here is Maggie with a permanent smile on her face, smiling constantly because she’s a politician’s wife. We’re in chaos on “Kings and Desperate Crew”. We really have no director, no script and Margaret is smiling non-stop, because God forbid the paparazzi should catch her without smiling. [laughing] This is really all just coming back to me, all these feelings. Thinking back on all this now, the time during the making of the film was perhaps the most psychologically complicated time I’ve ever had in my life…but the hotel was lovely. [laughing]

DK: Well, that’s a relief!

AM: The film was shot mostly in this hotel. I now remember that Alex showed up one night at my hotel room for a script conference, which is just funny because a script didn’t exist, and he passed out on the couch. I’d be on set and Maggie and I would laugh and laugh, and we really comforted each other, She was a hoot, a lot of fun, and an extremely fun shopping partner. It would have been traumatic enough doing this kind of improvisation for the first time with sober directors, and I wouldn’t become accustomed to thinking that way of working was wonderful until Jaglom directed me a decade later in Someone to Love. Then, however, at that time, I was frightened. I was in a strange country in this hotel with no one to protect me, Alex is screaming at the crew, we’re improvising absolutely everything. I’m holding a gun and have no real dialogue, this seeming lack of structure. You needed to have a real sense of self in this environment, and I didn’t really have such a thing yet because, like I said, I was just starting out in the acting world. I was twenty-six or twenty-seven. It was scary.

DK: Were you aware of the film’s scattered release, and were you cognizant of the responses the film received from its various premieres over the span of a decade? It was shot in 1978, released in Canada in 1981, premiered in London in 1983, finally made it to the U.S. in 1989 on a video release.

AM: To tell you the truth, I totally lost track of the film after we wrapped. That’s how traumatic the making of it was for me.

DK: What do you think of the film itself in retrospect?

AM: I still haven’t even seen it. Recently, I’ve felt the need to finally see it. Do you think you could make me a copy of it?

DK: Sure thing!

AM: Because I know they had a vision and, despite it all, it could be a really interesting film. I feel I need to see it. I still cannot even begin to imagine how Alex could have cut that film together. It’s mind-boggling to me. Editing must have really been a task, a true undertaking. It would probably make me dizzy seeing it today. [laughing]

DK: Were you at least somewhat aware of the film’s cult following? Also, of the film’s ability to often divide and alienate its audience?

AM: I had no idea really. But you have to remember, darling, that this is not my only cult movie. There was The Hand and The Stuff and…

DK: Airport ’79: The Concorde?

AM: Oh lord! [laughing heartily]

DK: Hey, unintentional comedy like that is rare!

AM: I suppose. But, you now, the really great thing about this interview is the idea that these things can be found, that you for one found this obscure film at a flea market…I mean, some seldom-seen movie I was in the 70’s that I thought dropped off the face of the Earth…it’s astounding to me and I find it really very exciting. Above all, it is important to remember that Alex and Patrick meant well and they really did fascinate each other. Theirs was a wonderful, fierce madness. I am looking forward to finally seeing the end result of our work, after all these years. No one’s art should ever truly disappear.

DK: Did you ever encounter Alexis Kanner or Patrick McGoohan again after the film wrapped?

AM: Never. Truth be told, I actually chucked a glass ashtray at Patrick the moment we wrapped, and that’s not like me at all. They told me, “Okay, Andrea, you’re done.” I said, “Are you sure?,” because you never really knew which end was up sometimes. One moment you could be wrapped, the next moment they’d have you back on camera doing something or other. But they said, “Yep, we’re sure you’re done.” Patrick had been so unpleasant to most everyone during the shooting that I just took it upon myself to strike back and, even though I prided myself in being lady-like, felt he deserved it. The crew applauded. He was almost still in character when he asked me, “Miss Marcovicci, whhhy? Why, Miss Marcovicci? Whhhy?”

DK: You actually got some good notices for your role in Kings and Desperate Men. The film itself got glowing reviews from The Los Angeles Times and at the London Film Festival, among others.

AM: Well that is very nice to hear! I certainly never heard any of it.

DK: I know that you are foremost a singer, an internationally beloved chanteuse, but which movie acting role would you most like to be remembered for?

AM: Marty Ritt’s The Front with Woody Allen is a lovely film. And of course Someone to Love. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with great directors, and with great people in general. The thing about Kings and Desperate Men was that I was much younger when it was made and all was chaos in my eyes, and out of that came for me a lot of trauma. I remember the scene in the car with Patrick. It seemed to me that that felt good, and that turned out alright.

DK: (quoting that scene from the movie) “A nice, waaaarm, uncomplicated cognac.”

AM: Wow, right! But who knows? Maybe the chaos yielded a good film. We’ll see. I’ll let you know!

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Before Alexis Kanner passed on in December 2003, he allegedly recorded a DVD commentary before his death, for a video release of the film that never happened. If this commentary track exists, here’s hoping that it is on the DVD that is released in 2010.

Coping With the Denominators: An Exclusive Interview with German Director Peter Lilienthal on the Viability of Niche Film Markets

It's the inevitable question, isn't it? You're an artist, and you slave over your opus for an indeterminate time of blood, sweat and tears, at the end of which all that matters is that you feel ready and willing to reveal this opus to the world. Sound overly dramatic? Maybe. Words like "opus," "blood," "sweat" and "tears" in the same sentence welcomes reader scrutiny I admit, but for most artists, I'm sure this sentence spoke to the whirlwind sentiments felt when preparing to unveil a work to an audience for the first time. Hey, I feel those sentiments even now. I've slaved over this article. It took me awhile to compile and is rather long. Everything I write is long...I can't help it, folks. There go my blood, sweat and tears, so will it appeal to you? Well, it's all okay because I know my audience. Or do I? Wait a minute, just who the hell are you people?! Joking aside, back to the question -- the "inevitable" question mentioned earlier. Here it is: Who is your audience? You've gone to all this hard work and to top it all off, you've gotten all hot, bothered and passionate about it and you cannot bottle it up even if you want to (but why would you want to?). It has pleased you as its creator enough already during its creation and execution, so who will it successfully please next? Have you created art in a vacuum? Have you perhaps created a work of art to please yourself and no one else? Or does the work of art appeal instead to a select, narrow audience? ...or as distributors might call it, the dreaded "niche audience"?
Every filmmaker is at least somewhat convinced of the viability of his or her own work, but in the film world, for film distributors, a great deal of emphasis is of course placed on the term "marketability" and "commercial" when the audience factor is broached -- and often times, there is a daresay maddeningly overriding need to appeal to the lowest common denominator. I am not saying that it is not wonderful when a film appeals to as wide of a demographic as possible, but it would seem that the need to appeal to the everyman and everywoman often acts as an excuse to oppress filmmakers who wish to work more towards specificity. To film financiers, opening up the work means that all is hunky dory. So what of the others whose works cannot be opened up in this sense? What becomes of the films in niche markets and films made for niche audiences? Granted, the market for gay and lesbian cinema is perhaps the most successful (in terms of profitability) niche market in the film-releasing world, but what of the others? For instance, recently I had the privilege of going to see A Serious Man by the Coen Brothers. As a cineaste, I am convinced that this is best American film I have seen thus far this year. I saw the film in a crowded Upper East Side theater in New York City, a city whose "folk" can truly and properly appreciate it. What of the film, though, when it plays outside of this welcoming urban demographic? I am not even speaking of the Jewish urban demographic. A Serious Man's Jewish themes and often in-jokey Jewish content might be lost on a great many viewers (read: goyim). Only the Coen Brothers could have gotten a film like that made on that scale at this moment in time. I marvel at this. But not all filmmakers are as fortunate as the Coen Brothers, one of the few mainstream auteurs working within the Hollywood system, as independents with consistent autonomy from project to project. Boy, it must be wonderful to be the Coen Brothers!

Of course, it is extremely troubling trying to pin down what "commercial" means at any given time in history. Robert Towne's script for Chinatown was, in 1973, considered to be the very height of commercial; today, most likely, it would at best be relegated to an arthouse subsidiary, no matter its quality as an imminently filmable written work. In my personal experience, there is a film project I wrote (but am not directing) called Call Me Spoons, a wild and wacky road comedy. It is a project I wrote to sell and to be purely commercial and to appeal to that least common denominator...only to discover that my view of what "commercial" was did not really conform to what others perceived as commercial (as it turns out, I was missing the all-important "young characters" variable of the marketing equation, among other things). Call Me Spoons is still being made, but I was surprised at the time at peoples' appraisal of its commerciality.

One of my favorite films of all time, and perhaps the most curious fixture on my Top 10 Favorite Films list (although it is fair to note that I find it impossible to be comprehensive with this kind of often mind-numbing list-making) is New German Cinema director Peter Lilienthal's Dear Mr. Wonderful (1982) which I have written about on this blog in three (count 'em) prior entries. Lilienthal has also directed another of my favorite films, David (1979), which nabbed the Berlin Film Festival grand prize the year it premiered there. I was able to track down and contact the Munich-based Lilienthal via e-mail about two months back and our correspondence has touched on a great many topics -- subjects so close to the heart of filmmakers. One mainstay among our e-mails was the question of audience. Both Dear Mr. Wonderful and David tackle Jewish themes, and Lilienthal was quite candid with me about how difficult it has been for him to market films with Jewish-centered themes. I was reminded of a scene from Christopher Guest's most recent comedy For Your Consideration (2006) in which the movie-within-the-movie, a melodrama about a Southern Jewish family entitled "Home for Purim" is eventually retitled "Home for Thanksgiving" by studio bosses looking to streamline the work for a more popularized audience.

Considering that Lilienthal directed two of my favorite films, I was honored to be in contact with him at last. I sent him a series of questions and asked him to answer them for a formal interview, on the topic of audience. He had a great deal to say about this subject.

For reader reference, Lilienthal's film Dear Mr. Wonderful tells the story of Ruby Dennis (Joe Pesci, fresh after Raging Bull), the owner of Ruby’s Palace, a bowling alley attached to a bar-and-lounge where he performs to little fanfare, but still dreams of making it big crooning in Vegas. He lives in a cramped Jersey City apartment with his sister and nephew, both of whom also aspire for something more. Will this little man learn to accept what his life has to offer or will he be plagued by chronic dissatisfaction and pipe dreams?

Peter Lilienthal's Biography: Peter Lilienthal is an independent film director living in Munich, Germany. Born in Berlin, Mr. Lilienthal spent his childhood years in Uruguay. In 1956 he received a scholarship to the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Between 1959 and 1964 he worked at the German TV channel Südwestfunk, first as an assistant, later as a director. In 1967 and 1968 he was lecturer at the German Film and Television Academy in Berlin. He is the co-founder of the German distributor Filmverlag der Autoren, and served as the headmaster of the section Film and Medienkunst at the Akademie der Künst in Berlin. Mr. Lilienthal has directed more than thirty films, radio plays, and documentaries. Many of his films show solidarity with the victims of the Latin American military dictatorships. Mr. Lilienthal directed the film The Silence of the Poet which was an adaptation of the book by the Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua.


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DK: Can you first talk about what it was like distributing Dear Mr. Wonderful in 1982?

PL: When I finished the film, I was completely convinced that we would not have trouble finding distribution in the United States for the film. We had Joe [Pesci] who was right off of Scorsese's picture and he had just either won or was nominated for the Academy Award and there was all the attention surrounding him. So I thought we were all set and all would be well. It was a quiet picture, very understated. I wanted to do a film that tackled the Jewish working class in the United States because I felt it hadn't been explored yet. I had just come off of the success of David [the story of a rabbi's son during the Holocaust], which was very much a film about celebrating one's Jewishness, and while I was putting that film together, this passage of Pirkei Avos [a textual work of Jewish Oral Law devoted to the behavior of man, and how one can improve it], "A rich man is he who is content with what he has," started to intrigue me. What of the man who wants more? Shall he ever find riches beyond what he has been given? There were many things I wanted to explore in the film and at the time, and even still, I thought I succeeded. Joey brought Frank Vincent to me, because he was also in the Scorsese film.

DK: What happened then when the film went out into the world?

Dear Mr. Wonderful did reasonably well in Germany. I showed a rough cut of it to Fassbinder before he died because his favorite cameraman [Michael Ballhaus] had shot it for me. He loved the film. But then when we took it to the States, there was suddenly this stigma. We couldn't get the film shown. We got respectable reviews in the New York Times and from other critics, but we couldn't find a proper distributor. No one seemed to be interested in picking it up. Eventually, a little company [Pierpont Films], they were just getting started, picked it up for a pittance. Then, eventually, United Artists Classics got a hold of it and they didn't do much at all to market the film effectively. It was some time later when I asked a friend of mine who worked in Los Angeles within the industry what could have accounted for the lack of interest in the film. He told me, "Marketing films about Jews in the United States is like trying to feed a tiger carrots...it may be good for them, but they're just after their not-unusual quota of red meat." The paradox in that statement is that Hollywood was started by Jews and, even today, there are many Jews in positions of power in the film industry. All the major studio heads in the golden age were Jewish. Harry Cohn, Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor. They were all Jews, yet it was and still is such taboo to make explicitly Jewish films. I've had the same problems since Dear Mr. Wonderful with other films.

DK: I remember hearing a story about the resistance towards Zanuck producing Gentleman's Agreement, an Elia Kazan drama about a journalist out to expose American anti-Semitism by posing as a Jew for six months, at Fox.

PL: The really interesting part of the whole thing was that Dear Mr. Wonderful isn't even so explicitly Jewish that it loses any of its appeal for non-Jews. I see it as a universal story, although the characters I depicted are very clearly of the Jewish-American lower middle class. Unless Jewishness is portrayed as quaint or cute like in Fiddler on the Roof or something, it just doesn't interest the fat cats.

DK: Thus, a film gets relegated to a niche market, where it can fade into obscurity.

PL: Keep in mind also that the film was made during a different time. Today, there are so many more avenues for distribution and it is easier now to make films for these select audiences. When Dear Mr. Wonderful was made, the independent filmmaking world as we know it now was just getting started in the United States. It was my first English-language film and, of course, the first film I made in America. I know Michael [Ballhaus] went immediately from photographing my film to shooting a John Sayles movie. It's just a completely different world. Now, there are even niche festivals. Jewish film festivals, gay and lesbian film festivals, festivals for every race, color and creed, women's film festivals, you name it. That certainly wasn't the case when Dear Mr. Wonderful was first shown in the U.S.

DK: But are these niche festivals really a proper place to show a film if a filmmaker is looking for a wider audience than what these festivals would offer in terms of audience? In other words, aren't these particular audiences often insular and often very shut off?

PL: Well, it's a place to start, at least. I didn't have that back in 1982. The United States market was a tough place. I haven't made or tried to actively distribute a film there in a long time, but I gather it still is. At the very least, films for a select audiences have a chance to grow from these niche festivals, and have a chance to reach wider appeal from this base.

DK: To ask particularly about the Jewish niche market, why do you as a filmmaker who has explored Jewish issues personally think that Jewish themes are considered so not viable in the United States film marketplace?

PL: I think that's easy to answer. American Jews seem to stick close to cities and suburbs and, let's face it, a rather cruel history has taught us to be insular. The most vast part of America is middle America, the wheat belt, which is populated with mostly people who are not Jewish, although of course there are always small pockets of Jews. There is this whole Orientalist perception about the Jew, it seems, especially in a culture like America, where there is such a need to assimilate into a culture built on Anglo-Saxon values. It's the foreign and the unknown that scares the average audience member. American distributors, I believe, are in the market to provide films about things the audiences know or things the audience feels a certain level of comfort with. Jews are a minority, and an often silent minority and, like I said, insular, particular outside the big cities and the cultural meccas. In these small pockets, it's kept even more hush-hush.

DK: In the United States, the Coen Brothers new film A Serious Man has just been released. That film, which I have seen and adored, is very explicitly Jewish and its humor is often derived from inside jokes and a kind of friendly self-parody, while at the same time it earnestly explores big, ambitious issues like religiosity and the search for meaning in one's identity. The kicker is that it is playing at a multiplex that screens big blockbusters in my neighborhood on the Upper East Side. Now, I know this is because of the Coen Brothers name and that, if some indie darling or debuting filmmaker had directed it, I'd find it at a downtown arthouse. Do you feel audiences (and not just cineastes) believe that a name or names attached to a film can make or break the viability of chancy material and do you feel the appeal of a film like A Serious Man can reach beyond the cities and cultural meccas you mentioned before?

PL: I'm not sure if I totally understand the question, but the Coen Brothers have proven themselves in battle time and time again. Not many filmmakers can say that when playing with big money on a film. They have their trademarks, their voice, their quirks, all the elements that make their work appealing to people. If they want to make a riskier movie for themselves, they can do it a great deal more easily than the majority of other directors would, but that is their privilege and their prerogative. What you and others have working in your favor is that, like I said, the market is slightly different than what it was in 1982.

DK: One of my favorite sequences in the film is the bar mitzvah party sequence about 45 minutes into the film.

PL: That's my favorite scene of the film as well. And it is the most important! I wouldn't have made the film without that sequence, or something akin to it. The film's whole point of the film is in that sequence.

DK: I agree. I'll tell you, I wasn't sure about the film the first time I saw it. It took repeat viewings to cement it for me as being not just a great film, but one of my favorite films and a work of genius.

PL: Very kind of you to say so. Thank you.

DK: Even on that unsure first viewing of the film, though, I rewound the bar mitzvah party sequence and watched it again because I was fascinated by certain choices you made in it. However, do you find that a sequence like that would alienate most audiences?

PL: How so? There are certain things as a filmmaker that you fashion so that people can understand without taking into account everything. For that sequence, the average viewer understands it's a party being hosted by our main character and that's all that particular audience member needs to understand. For a person viewing the film as simply a story who does not think or care to consider the ideas or the personal statement within the story, the work means something else to them, and I accept that. You can't do anything about that. There is no fail-safe button to make everyone understand the stuff underneath the scenes. People in a given audience will not be as proactive as others. Another will look deeper, see those cuts I make to the harbor with the Statue of Liberty juxtaposed against the bar mitzvah boy playing classical guitar and can take away something much deeper and much more. In terms of the Jewish content, as an artist, you try to make it accessible so the audience feels connected despite their disconnection to it in the real world.

DK: So, in the United States, Dear Mr. Wonderful fell into the budget video release netherworld in the early 90's and has been retitled for some releases [Ruby's Dream]. I know another filmmaker named Eli Hollander who has had this same thing happen to his film Out and it bothers him, but not enough for him to take serious action. How does it make you feel that the film fell enough between the cracks in the U.S. because of its so-called "niche market qualities" that it can now be purchased at any local Dollar Store under another title?

PL: I always carried the copyright on the film in the U.S. and I wasn't concerned with keeping it up over there. The film, through some kink in the system, fell out of copyright. In a way, it's good because it means more people see the film. In another way, I dislike the fact that they retitled it without my consent, but what can you do? You're powerless.

DK: Would you make the same film today?

PL: I've never thought about that. Every film and every work of art in general reflects the time in which it was made. One thing is for sure: I would not have changed any of the Jewish undercurrents in the film just to sell it to a distributor. Sometimes you have to do such things for money and I can respect that, but some projects you just can't toy with. They're too close. I wouldn't have changed anything about the film itself at all. It would be a different film if made today, sure. I wouldn't even have bothered to make the film without the elements that apparently made it unmarketable. Dear Mr. Wonderful is what it is by sheer virtue of the fact that it contains that Jewish-themed content. I felt and still feel that the film is universal and the Jewish stuff shouldn't deter anyone from seeing it or connecting with it.

DK: I agree. The film, to me, is very emotionally affecting, but it pulls those strings in such a quiet, imperceptible way. It seems like a lot of people miss that about it, even the ones who praise it.

PL: Well, you've had the privilege and the interest to have seen it many times. I find it, even as its maker, to be a film that grows on you. But like I said, there's nothing a filmmaker or any artist can do about that. Everyone reacts how they react. You can't make them feel a certain way. You can just know you did your best in delivering to them an experience that has a potential to do that.

DK: Do you think the climate concerning certain niche markets is changing, or has changed?

PL: With Jewish-themed stuff, it's hard to say. Certainly this new Coen Brothers movie sounds like it is doing well in the U.S. Then again, it is Jewish humor that has always been popular. Phillip Roth, Woody Allen, even Saul Bellow, it's the Jew lampooning himself. It's when it reaches over to something a little more serious and a little more earnest that it scares the people looking for commerciality. I don't think it's the same for other ethnic minorities, and I am not just partial towards this opinion because I'm a Jew myself. Gay and lesbian cinema has certainly come unto its own. It seems like the market for that has grown exponentially. Other niche markets too have done very well. Oh yes, things undoubtedly have changed for them, but not for us.

DK: Have you ever struggled during the actual making of a film, agonizing over who your audience for a given work is?

PL: I don't know a single artist who hasn't agonized over that.