The Box-Art Underground: A Tribute to Video Cover Art Snobs and Snobbery

One might say that I have a special affinity towards movie artwork. Because I take that affinity to heights I have heretofore neither expressed nor “confessed,” I have instead often called it yet another strangely obsessive peccadillo of my movie-crazy persona. Movie posters and video cover-art have always captivated me since childhood. Early on, I even took to designing my own hand-drawn covers for VHS movies I taped off TV at a very young age. It often got the point where, if I really liked a movie and it that movie had a video cover design that I considered poor or substandard, it would cast a pall over everything—my enjoyment of the movie, the thankfulness that I could watch whenever I wanted, everything. I know, that’s pretty crazy and taking the whole thing too far. Owning movies with video cover-art that is graphically pleasing was always a must for me, though. If I really had been questing in my search for a harder-to-find title that I wanted to see badly and if I had found the movie for sale only to discover that it lacked the desired cover-art, I would opt not to buy it at that time. Lazy cover-art for certain releases of titles superceded my intense desire to see the titles behind the art. It was a compulsion and, yes, a neurosis that I never have spoken about openly until now. Even as a filmmaker, I’ve been rather particular about the art and design for promoting my own films. If such a self-help group called Movie-Art Snobs Anonymous existed, I would undoubtedly be recommended to join. However, in the past couple years, I have discovered that there are many others out there just like me. How lovely to know that I’m not alone! Now, deep breath and say “I’m okay.”

My compulsive snobbery eventually did, however, become the impetus behind what still remains one of my favorite hobbies: graphic designing of video covers. Click on the Video Cover Art link at the top of this page to see some of my DVD cover designs. I soon found that there are worse cover-art snobs than myself, and they live on the Criterion Forum pages. For instance, I remember an “epic struggle” on the site that resulted in a petition being written to urge Janus Films and the Criterion Collection to completely overhaul the planned hot-pink cover-art planned for a release of Buñuel’s Viridiana before it officially hit the shelves. There were many, many signatures. In case you are interested in the outcome, Criterion did wind up redesigning the cover for that title. Power to the people! Um, yeah.

For an entire transcript of the impassioned Viridiana cover "uprising," visit Criterion Forum.


Recently, as I was browsing through Barnes and Noble, I encountered a very curious book called Portable Grindhouse: The Lost Art of the VHS Box by Jacques Boyreau (pictured above next to the first paragraph) — a picture-book consisting entirely of VHS cover-designs for grindhouse titles. I was beginning to feel a lot more sane. And the saner and saner I started to feel, the more I also began to realize that there were obviously other “cover-heads” out there who felt the same way I did about good video-cover designs. Brothers! Sisters! ‘Tis I, a fellow cover-head! With this realization (and confirmation that friends of mine have much the same appreciation for a well-designed cover), I have decided to pay tribute to unsung video companies with the best cover designs, mostly in VHS but also in DVD.


A Tribute to the VHS Cover Art of United American Video
Where did I really pick up my movie-art snobbery? It’s not an easy answer because it’s something that cemented itself over the years. However, I can attribute a great deal to the work of one particular company and their designs. When I was about seventeen, I took to buying only VHSs from United American Video. I loved their cover designs so much that I was resolved to find all of them. My love of this company is deep-seated because I remember, as a nine and ten-year-old in the early-to-mid 1990’s, accompanying my shopaholic mother to thrift stores and spending the entire time looking at a special rack of brand new and shrinkwrapped videos, all of them manufactured by United American Video. At that age, all the titles on this rack were so mysterious. I had never heard of any of them. I still connect a lot of those titles with the smell of Citronella. Why? Because this rack of videos always bordered a bin of Citronella candles that were on sale. The actual movie titles I remember seeing ranged from things like obscure spaghetti Westerns, badly dubbed Euro-thrillers, mid-range 70’s action thrillers, Italian romantic comedies featuring some adventurous American star, little indies that fell between the cracks, unknown made-for-TV pictures, TV series episodes like Lou Grant with Ed Asner (I had only known about that through watching “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” on Nick-at-Nite), and the like. The thing that struck me the most then, though, was how aptly designed and smart-looking the covers looked.

Some time later, I discovered that United American Video put out a series of arbitrary collections, like The Samuel Goldwyn Collection, the Rank Film Classics Collection, the World Premiere Movie Collection, etc. Obviously, the company had licensed films from other companies (often defunct ones) at a given time and had chosen to distribute them under collection banners. For one, the Samuel Goldwyn Collection titles had bright-colored strips running across the top of the boxes garishly exclaiming their inclusion in the Samuel Goldwyn Collection, and the man with the gong (the J. Arthur Rank Films trademark) logo lay below a band reading “Rank Film Classics” on those titles. UAV was (and still is, for that matter) a budget-release company, but what set them apart from others of their like was how cool their designs looked, as well as the wider range of interesting obscure titles. I also attribute my love of markedly obscure films to my days of collecting UAV videos. Their designs (at least the ones from 1989 through around 1996) were never slapdash and always seemed fresh, original, well-arranged and rightly colored. I became a video collector at a very early age and, by the time I reached the age of seventeen, I had made a vow to myself to get my hands on every UAV title worth owning, and to complete my Samuel Goldwyn and Rank Film Classics collections. The word “weirdo” is probably running through most of your heads right now. Okay, then, I’m not going to read your passionate blog entry about your impressive collection of rare belly-button lint! Or the one about your celebrity shot-glasses and how you’re still missing Scott Baio’s! How ‘bout that?! I jest, of course. It took me a long time to find images for these, but here are just a few images of Samuel Goldwyn Collection titles:


I first had to do a great deal of research about what titles were actually in these collections. Information on the Internet was not forthcoming in any way because, even if the same titles had then been available from other distributors at that time, they had long gone out-of-print from UAV. I even called the company at their North Carolina headquarters at several points, to inquire about titles connected to specific product spine-numbers (which, in retrospect, must have been a weird call from the people on the other end—if I recall, when I told one of the UAV employees I was collecting these titles, a long condescending silence followed). Through sheer determination, I was able to piece a lot of the information together. On many an occasion, I even got lucky and happened onto purchasing desired titles at flea markets and such. I was most often more lucky than not at picking up a lot of them unexpectedly. All of a sudden, as I would be scouring vast tables of VHS tapes at flea markets, one or two would be staring me right in the face. I would excitedly squeal, daresay almost like a little girl, as I found one and picked one up. As for the others, I can only thank a little site called eBay. At one point, I chanced to meet a video-dealer on eBay who had an “in” with a warehouse stocked full of UAV titles. I was his favorite customer for a long time and he was perhaps my biggest help in tracking a lot of titles down, aware of my goal to complete the given “abritrary collections”. You might even say that this seller and I developed a real friendship. eBay-user “mebisping” (if that even still is your user name), if you’re out there and, perchance, find yourself reading this so many years later, a profound thank you.

I hope I haven’t lost you by this point. If you are still reading this by now at this point, I have another story to tell—a recent one. I was browsing through Mondo Kim’s Video and Music in the East Village the other night and happened upon one of just a few VHSs for sale, and it the VHS was a UAV release from the Samuel Goldwyn Collection, and one of the ones I had originally failed to acquire. The old feeling came back, just like the days of my great hunt…that old feeling of profound satisfaction and pride that I had located yet another one. The quest to find these things was momentous and, after all, took a great deal of exertion for me. I am sure that, all these years later, it would be even more of an exertion than it was then, as VHS are getting scarcer and scarcer.

Below are the only photos I could find online (and I looked everywhere, believe me) of covers from the Rank Film Classics Collection, of which many videos were a part. The pixel quality in these photos vary, but you will of course pardon that. Concessions must be made because of their rarity.


Whenever I think of UAV Video, though, I also think of the lost, magic days of the VHS boom, when home theater was a new and exciting commodity that was just on the heels of becoming popular. I romanticize nights at our local video store, a now long-defunct place called Braverman’s Video in my hometown Pittsburgh, which I remember as being well-stocked in selection but not big at all in square-footage. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, the store would be very literally filled to the brim with people renting videos on a given weeknight. Those memories are still very real to me, so many years later. The DVD boom just isn’t even nearly the same as the VHS boom. They are just two different animals, you might say. The VHS boom was right when people were getting acquainted with the revolutionary concept of home theater, the idea of being able to play any movie when you wanted and where you wanted. DVD releases might be more plentiful and comprehensive in terms of the number of titles never released on VHS that have thankfully become available for the first time, but the age of the birth of the DVD market is hard (if impossible) to really romanticize in the same way. And then there is the joy of watching an old VHS that hard-core cineastes can attest to. It is the act of watching the films we know in a different way, and it is something in which most everyone has become totally disinterested.

As a person whose need to make films and study films is deep-rooted, those memories of going to the jam-packed Braverman’s Video in Pittsburgh on a given night mean more to me and are more immediate to me than anyone knows. Ultimately, the need that developed within me to be comprehensive and “encyclopedic” with film knowledge I attribute to three things: a severe stutter that alloted the time for advanced film study, UAV Video Corporation’s ecclectic VHS releases complete with their attractive cover-art designs, and the amazing 1990-91 TLA Video Guide that I studied cover-to-cover and nearly memorized as a kid (there has never been another movie guide like that one before or since, even from the TLA themselves, trust me; as an aside, the main TLA video store in Philly even uses the amazing pages of that book as wallpaper). Whenever the opportunity to browse VHSs for sale presents itself, which is sadly seldom these days, I still find myself looking to complete those arbitrary UAV collections…and I still keep those particular accumulated titles all grouped together in the place where I have my vast video collection stored in Pittsburgh. UAV also introduced me to a few of my still-favorite films (e.g. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Dear Mr. Wonderful).


Navigation by Design
Many companies’ designs just fade into the blitz at video stores. Regardless, though, think about this. If you walk into the action section, the colors on the spines conform very neatly and you know that you are in the action section by sheer virtue of the colors and fonts you are seeing together. Action covers, after all, seem to be heavy on blacks, dark greens, heavy browns and the like, and the fonts are very blocky and feel very authoritative. If you are in the comedy section, you know it by spines that are heavy in whites, pinks and light blues, and by fonts which are funner and more spirited, hence less official-looking. One might say that comedy designs have a “tentative” look. Even the drama section, which is an exceedingly general genre name and covers an extremely wide range of subject matter, certainly has its “look,” so much so that you know you are in a drama section. The rest of the genres have their colors and font-styles as well – sci-fi (deep blues, purples, lime greens, skinny and pointed outer-spacey fonts), Western (heavy on browns, beiges, earthtones), thriller (black, baby, black). Yep, you always know where you are in a video store.

When you are in a video store, you can likewise also tell very easily you are in the Criterion section. In many video stores, there is a section for just titles from the Criterion Collection, as they stand for always and ever as the standard of excellence in U.S. video companies. If a film has a Criterion spine number, it speaks to the very excellence of the film. It is fair to say that video junkies expect a great deal from the cover-design artists at the Criterion Collection. Their designers, after all, are real artists and not just your average schmo with a bachelor’s in graphic design. The covers have a definite aesthetic, as their designs are known for their discernible cleanliness (often noticeably resembling the covers of modern fiction books), their meticulous spatial relationships, their conservative but nonetheless still pleasing and intiguing use of colors, their tasteful font selections. The designs are all-around class. The Criterion Forum has a boards-section about the Criterion cover designs. Fans even go so far as to design their own Criterion-style covers. There is even a board devoted entirely to mock Criterion art. What is most important, though, is that the designs speak to the needs and qualities of each individual film. The artists designing them have seem to have thought long and hard about bringing the tonal qualities of each film to life in a graphic sense. In the Region 2 lands, Eureka!’s Masters of Cinema Collection (what some refer to as the British Criterion Collection) have a similar high-standard when it comes to cover art. Some of my favorite Criterion designs appear below.


I will say it upfront and without any flowery build-up: Alpha Video does great cover-art work. Their DVD designs are astonishingly good; they also sell full-size posters of their original video cover-designs. Ironically, they are also a budget-release (read: cheap or bargain-bin) company. Quite frankly, they are the UAV of the DVD market. You might make the case that their catalogue is just as diverse as UAV’s, ranging from old serials to bonafide classics like Meet John Doe and One of Our Aircraft is Missing to 30’s-40’s B pictures (often by directors like Edgar Ulmer) to bonafide obscurities from the 70’s. There would seem to be a regard for a vintage-poster-like sensibility in both the work of UAV and Alpha, but particularly with Alpha.


Of the majors, I cannot say much. Warner Home Video preserves the original poster-art of each individual film for the most part, but other than that, every cover-design aesthetic for companies like MGM, Sony, Fox, Universal and Disney are indistinguishable from the other. However, back in the day, I loved the then-MGM/UA’s pre-1995 VHS cover designs for older catalogue movies. Again, you had exciting graphic arrangements, fine use of color, apt choice of font and a classy presentation. I still have a fine collection of old MGM/UA VHSs, including their gold-topped “Epic Classics” collection (two-tape sets of epic films with a metallic gold legend of an MGM lion logo at the top, see below). There were also single-tape covers with a silver MGM logo legend at the top. Shout-outs must be given to other old and now-defunct VHS companies, like New Yorker Video’s VHSs, Charter, Media, Embassy, Vestron…others that I am sadly forgetting.


Everything Shrinkwrapped
Originally, I just wanted to do a tribute and a salute to UAV. I gradually realized this was too narrow a focus and decided to fit it into an article about cover-art snobbery. Even today, I am still prone to putting titles back in the stores if I am convinced I can get a better cover-design of the same film elsewhere. Ultimately and regardless, the films are still more important, but the need for perfection in collecting is one that requires good movies and good art.

As I examined months ago now in a blog article, movie art is getting lazier and lazier, and there is more of a draw towards bland and “boxy” designs. This is indicative of the fact that Hollywood and mainstream movies seem to be getting lazier and lazier, so it’s logical and apropos that the art would reflect that. Movie-art is a smarter barometer of such things than most people would give it credit for. Besides my personal adoration of and interest in film graphic-design, it may reflect dry-spells, particularly in mainstream cinema. After all, when is the last time you saw a movie-poster or DVD cover design that truly grabbed you? You don't have to be a movie-art snob to have noticed this. I can say, though, that good video cover-art takes me back to that, to me, magical time when home video was the hot new commodity and the movie lover's world seem full of possibility. It may not have been the first time the world opened it itself up, but you cannot deny that it was a milestone.

Culture Must Deal With Us: An Interview with Revolutionary Independent Filmmaker Amos Poe


This will be the last fully transcribed interview-article for at least some time. Most interviews from here on out will be podcast format, unless of course they are e-mail interviews.

As I await my interview subject’s arrival at the Noho Star Restaurant at Bleecker and Lafayette on the first official day of winter, I scoop spoonfuls of thick, lukewarm soup into my mouth and gaze out the window to meditate on the snow and slush-covered New York of now, glittering with trendy shops, “hip” restaurants, chain stores and the like, all of which, as per standard procedure, have been spruced up with ornamental tokens of holiday season cheer. Specifically, though, in observing these things, I consider the innumerable ways New York has changed in the years since my subject made his groundbreaking do-it-yourself features in the late seventies and the early eighties. I am speaking of The Blank Generation (1976), Unmade Beds (1976), The Foreigner (1977) and Subway Riders (1981), and the director of those films, the titan of the “No Wave Cinema Movement,” Amos Poe.

As I continue just sitting there with my soup and my saudades, what comes to mind readily are the opening shots from The American Friend (1977) and Lightning Over Water (1980), both Wim Wenders films. The opening shots of both films use the same exact location, and that location is in the general vicinity of the Noho Star. The Spring Street of then was a cobblestone thoroughfare of lofts and loading docks; a tourist or out-of-towner who found himself there was most likely lost or a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed completist. That Spring Street is no more. For one thing, there’s a Gap around there now, and a Nike store. I could go on.

I know, I know…I’m making it all sound like some numinous fairy-tale kingdom when maybe it doesn’t quite fully warrant that. In the spirit of my classic m.o., I am naturally pining for something that no longer exists, like a young old man. After nearly a year of living here, though, I still cannot bring myself to stop thinking about the films shot in this town when I walk the streets or sit down to look out the window of a restaurant in any of the five boroughs. It’s a visual addiction. My eyes dart everywhere on a simple little weekend constitutional. If I’m in the presence of others, I will point out my theories (e.g. “I think a scene from Death Wish was shot here,” “I think this is where Sylvia Miles picked up Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy,” “James Garner wakes up around here in the opening scene of Mister Buddwing,” “This is where they fly the kite in You’re a Big Boy Now.”). As one who was not alive and around to take in the New York of then, I have always harbored a deep-seated, overwhelming desire to take a magical walk through the Manhattan of those lost days.

After a few moments more of waiting, Poe arrives. We begin by our meeting by making a trade-off: a DVD of his most recent film Empire II for a DVD of my film A Trip to Swadades. He orders himself a coffee, and I mentally ready myself while he fixes the coffee to his liking. My day has already worn me out, and it isn’t even half over. Nonetheless, there are many things I still wish to ask him. As something of a self-proclaimed scholar emeritus of New York on film, in both the mainstream and obscure/underground realms of cinema, I wonder what he will have to say about the city’s evolution, specifically throughout the last thirty or so years. In the post-Giuliani era alone, the old Needle Park which is now Verdi Square, the old 42nd Street of yore has given way to becoming Disneyland, many of the types of haunts that Holden Caulfield would have frequented have vanished or have gone corporatized. You could say that this is a topic with which I am obsessed. It was the subject of its own article many months ago…the one about “Lost New York on film”.

The Israel-born Poe, as a singularly New York filmmaker, has had a most fascinating career and his legacy (even though his career isn’t really even close to being over) is truly something of great value. He was basically the founder of the movement that nurtured the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Vivienne Dick, James Nares and others. After a long run of making personal, often self-financed works (the end credits of his The Foreigner announces proudly the source of its financing for the film being a $5,000 personal loan from the Merchants Bank of New York as the film ends), he helmed his first 35mm film Alphabet City in 1984. Ultimately, he wound up writing the screenplay for the 1988 film Rocket Gibraltar, from which he was fired. In the wake of this brush with Hollywood politics, he was, and remains, unfazed, and has continued crafting small but well-regarded independent films. His most recent film, Empire II, is a three-hour self-described “sequel” to Andy Warhol’s Empire, which is known to most as the classic cinematic sleep-fest. It is fair to note, however, that Poe’s film is most certainly not that. For additional information about him, visit his website.


DK: I recently read an interview you gave for BOMB Magazine in January of 1981. In that interview, you talk about telling a linear story and how, if you are not doing that, you’re essentially not really making a film.

AP: I actually just read that interview again recently. That interview’s a funny one because, at the time, I was being interviewed by someone who was my girlfriend and someone who would eventually become my wife. In it, I was talking a lot about things I wasn’t really doing. That was written right as Subway Riders was about to be released. I had been working on editing that for a long time. What I said in that interview, a lot of it I really meant but most of it I wasn’t really doing in my own work, even though I talked about it like I was. When I made films like The Foreigner and Subway Riders and Unmade Beds, I was dealing with a really experimental approach to traditional narrative. Nowadays, I’m really working in this new form that I call “documental,” which I guess you could categorize as a kind of experimental documentary form. Empire II, to me, looking at my own work, is the purest thing I’ve made. And my next project is a treatment of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In that, I’m really working on peoples’ perception of motion. I am doing things like animating the still image, for instance, largely inspired by the photographer Eadward Muybridge, who captured movement with multiple still cameras. Also, the concept of Markov chains.

You know, cinema can always do so much. I remember I went to Madrid right around the time of the March 11 bombings in 2004. The trip would result in the strangest screening experience of my life. I actually went there to screen The Foreigner, which is of course a film I made all the way back in 1977. The film is about a terrorist hiding out in New York and it’s all framed like a potboiler espionage movie, except that it’s not. Really, it's a subversive pseudo-espionage film. At the time of this screening, the world looked pretty grim and unpredictable and I almost felt like calling off the screening. Everyone was nervous and really upset about the bombings and it just seemed like the thing to do. But I went and they screened the film and, if you’ll recall, there is a scene shot directly underneath the World Trade Center, right smack underneath the two towers. It’s a really eerie shot, and it was especially eerie seeing it that night. And this amazing thing happened. So you’ve got an audience that’s fucked up by these very real events, what they’re seeing up on the screen is fucked up, the world is very clearly fucked up with no end in sight, and what you get out of this “fucked-upness” is this amazing synergy of all this stuff.

So, the movie ended, the lights went up and the Q&A started…and it became basically like some town-hall meeting. And I thought, “Perfect!” It was perfect! What happened was this: what was happening in the audience’s head and what was happening on the screen kind of meshed to form this extraordinary, electric town-hall discussion with people expressing themselves openly about their concerns of living their life in the world today and their worries about the future and such. They weren’t even really so much talking about the actual film. It was beyond the film. They were talking about things that were very immediate and real to them. That, to me, is the magic of cinema! It was this extraordinary head-to-screen action. That is the magic of cinema, and to a certain extent that is what I am still very much trying to do in my work…to recreate that synergy. That’s still the strangest and the greatest screening experience I’ve ever had.

DK: That’s a great story! The Foreigner is actually one of my favorites of your films. It’s like a genre tone poem.

AP: That is an interesting way of putting it. They may have been what that audience was responding to. The tone, the themes, the images resulting from that…those combined with everything else happening around them at that time. Even though the film wasn’t discussed, it was perceptible to me that the movie became realer to them and more immediate than it ever was for any audience.

DK: Talking about legacy, you were identified in a film publication as being “the progenitor of punk cinema”. How does that moniker make you feel and do you think that, to any extent, is true?

AP: Yeah, I think it’s true, but it really doesn’t matter all that much. I mean, people like myself and Vivienne Dick and James Nares…we were New York filmmakers, we liked to think of ourselves as members of the New York avant-garde, and we were openly looking to reinvent cinema, to reinvent the form. If you look at our collective films, you could really call them neo-narratives, insofar as that they told stories but didn’t tell them in a way that was at all traditional. This idea of reinvention was central to what we were all collectively trying to do. And this do-it-yourself quality to these works that, I think, made my films as popular as they were among their kind, really played into my unschooling. I didn’t go to film school before I made those films. They had that purity about them. So, as opposed to just making one film, we conspired to forge a movement, one that became known as the No Wave Movement, and make far more than just one but many that functioned the same way. Speaking for myself, I was already on fire…I was unstoppably compelled to make movies. It was ingrained in me. But through the making of this movement, we were able to look at culture so we didn’t have to deal with it…so that the culture would instead effectively have to deal with us.

DK: New York has certainly changed a great deal since the time you made films like Subway Riders and The Foreigner. How does today’s New York make you feel as a filmmaker?

AP:
Essentially, what you’ve had happen is Death Row turning into the Hilton. I personally love it. It is a different place, but I really do feel that it is a better place. I mean, I remember coming down to the East Village in the 70’s to do things like score drugs and it was a much darker place than it is now. Now, you have restaurants and shops and people everywhere. It’s richer and more alive.

DK: Interesting, because I was expecting you to think the total opposite of that.

AP:
I guess it’s something that is easy to romanticize. I was there and I can tell you that I like the New York of now more than then. That said, I really cannot imagine myself living and working anywhere else. I tried the Hollywood thing and it just wasn’t for me. I can really go both ways. I love Hollywood movies just as much as I love arthouse and foreign films. In my mind, when I am in New York, I am in a place in-between Hollywood and Europe, in-between popular filmmaking and the arthouse world. I feel most comfortable in that state of in-between. If you sell yourself out to either side, I feel almost as if you’re selling yourself short and losing your individuality. New York is the perfect place for a filmmaker to be a true individual. I had my shot at Hollywood, with Rocket Gibraltar. I wrote that film, they wind up making a film out of it with Burt Lancaster and Macauley Culkin. I got taken off of it before they went into production. So I took a shot at Hollywood. I’m happier doing what I am doing here and now.

DK: I wish I could have seen that New York. It’s actually not enough for me just to see it in movies. I’m obsessed with it. So, okay, another thing that has changed is the accessibility of the technnology. When I interviewed Henry Jaglom about his change-over from flatbed editing to non-linear computer editing, he was excited by the speed, efficiency and easiness of it, but lamented that he no longer feels like the artisan and misses the feel of the actual film between his fingers. How do you feel about it?

AP:
Technology is really an Oedipal thing. We’re constantly killing off the past when it comes to technology, and there will always and forever be new ways and new methods of doing things. There are some things I miss, sure. I wouldn’t do anything differently looking back, even if I could. Regret is a silly thing when you’re talking about filmmaking. I can tell you right now that I don’t miss things like a roll of film unspooling accidentally all over the floor, and I don’t miss editing issues that are unblievably tedious to fix, and I don’t miss the countless other struggles and nuisances that come with shooting with film, but there is still nothing like light passing through celluloid. There is a price to that though. I mean that literally and figuratively.

DK: I am going to get potentially controversial here, because there is a lot of contention about what I am about to mention.

AP:
Okay, go ahead.

DK: Hipsters and hipsterism. When I was in film school, it was the height of what I like to call the hipster craze of the aughts, which many people feel is either nonexistent or imperceptible. To me, it’s very perceptible. Hipsters will deny being hipsters. Articles have been written about it and the word “hipster” is often dropped in conversation nowadays. Along with that, you basically have the birth of hipster trends in popular youth films. I remember these nerdy suburban kids injecting punk music and general punk references into their thesis films, while at least ostensibly defying totally what it means to be “punk” themselves. It’s done in an effort to make them look cooler. What do you think about the whole hipster thing, if you indeed thing such a craze exists, and what do you think about “punk” being bastardized, misused and glamorized in perhaps the wrong way?

AP:
I actually don’t see that so much, even as someone who teaches film [at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts]. One thing I believe, though, is that you have to write for eternity. That is vital. I mean, if you look at “Paradiso” in The Divine Comedy…that thing reads like a film script, and look how long ago that was written! James Cameron should be making a movie of that. The tremendous impact it must have been to read it then remains tremendous even reading it today. To make lasting works should be everyone’s objective, and it should be everyone’s goal. Jim [Jarmusch] and his films, they were made for a particular time, but they have a lasting power and they are timeless. Jim was a funny guy…one of the funniest, and his films have that humor and it clearly appealed to people. Those films are cool. No one else could have made Stranger Than Paradise. You know, if we’re talking about this whole idea of “cool,” you know, a hip guy makes a hip film, and that film is cool. But a total square can make a total square film, and that square film can be equally as cool. You need to be true to yourself in order for your work to be lasting and for it to mean something, let alone for it to be cool.

[At this point, Amos orders a desert for himself. The desert is called “Garden of the Gods” on the menu.]

DK: Well said. So, okay…money.

AP:
Money. Yes?

DK: The whole DIY thing still suits you pretty well?

AP:
I was reading recently something having to do with Fellini. It was the early 60’s, the very height of his career. He had won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, he won at Cannes, he was internationally acclaimed and loved the whole world over. I mean, when you make a film like La Strada, I mean come on! So he makes La Dolce Vita and it’s this great masterpiece. You would think the whole world would be at his feet and that he could name his next project, whatever it was, and people would be literally throwing money at him. He goes to producers to try to get funded, and he can’t…nobody’s interested. One producer tells him it’s too racy. [getting excited] Now that’s Fellini we’re talking about! If Fellini has to put up with it at the point in his career when you think he’d be at the height of his power, where do we stand? Where do anyone of us stand? You’ve just got to get off your ass and get it done, no matter what. If you care enough about a project and you want to see it through, you have to work for it and believe in it. Money should really be no obstacle. Most things of value come out of some degree of DIY.

[The waitress brings Amos’ Garden of the Gods desert. On top, there are two fortune cookies. I take one, he takes one. Amos looks at his fortune.]

AP:
This fortune, I did a double-take at first. I thought it said, “It’s up to you to make the next movie.” It says, “It’s up to you to make the next move.” He’s my dime-store philosophy of the day. The only thing standing between move and movie is I.

DK: [laughing] Author! Author!

[My fortune reads, “Nothing in this world is difficult if one sets one’s mind to it.” Both fortunes, we agree, make for good filmmaking mantras. We finish our lunch by discussing my current work.]


Amos and I end our lunch/interview together by discussing the films we feel have been the best of 2009. He mentions two films I have not heard of, both of which he saw at the Cannes Film Festival this year. We also briefly discuss Jacques Rivette, about whom I had recently written an article, then part ways at the corner of Houston and Lafayette. I couldn’t deny to myself that it had been one of my favorite interviews.

I decide to walk the area a little more before returning to the Upper East Side. I carry with me the new copy of Empire II which Poe had given to me, wondering how Poe’s New York of then differs with Poe’s New York of now, considering the feelings he had expressed to me about the evolution. After a good bit of walking, I start playing the game again, and this time it’s more immediate. “Isn’t this where Robbie Coltrane makes his first appearance in Subway Riders?” “Is this where one of the first scenes of The Driller Killer was shot?” The thing of it is…I can’t seem to tell anymore. The past is getting scrubbed away more and more strenuously. Part of me feels like Marty McFly walking through the befuddling future world of 2015. I feel like a stranger in a strange land, and I have no logical reason to feel so. One thing I agree with Amos on when it comes to New York…as a filmmaker, I still couldn’t live anywhere else. It is an in-between place in more ways than one: between Hollywood and Europe, but also between sleep and awake.

The Coming Attractions, and the Latest About My Newest Feature Documentary Raise Your Kids on Seltzer

Coming up on the ConFluence-Film Blog, we have an interview with New York filmmaker Amos Poe. That article will be the last text interview featured on the blog for at least a little while as ConFluence is giving way to a new podcast format. Following this, there will be a podcast interview with filmmaker Peter Nicks, award-winning director of the upcoming Sundance Film Festival feature The Waiting Room, a muckracking documentary about healthcare in America. Peter Nicks is an old friend of mine (we're talking more than ten years) and a distinguished maker of documentaries. His newest film is certainly receiving a great deal of attention.

Also, creative collaborator Aaron Hollander will be posting his Best of the Decade list, either to counter or corroborate the one already posted. Counter or corroborate...whatever the case may be, it'll be a good discussion.

Also coming soon: news about my latest film project (the DIY one). I have been wanting to post something for awhile about my upcoming feature-length documentary essay film Raise Your Kids on Seltzer which effectively parallels the lives of three segments of the Jewish population currently in New York: a Holocaust survivor nearing the end of his life, a German-Jewish woman who came to America during one of the heights of Jewish immigration in 1920 and an Israeli immigrant song-spinner. I currently have about forty minutes of it cut together and working very well. There is a long road to go for it and, for once, I need funding for one of these little projects. I'll write more about the film tomorrow, but it is one that I feel very close to and one that I feel could be an important film.

The Best and Worst Films of 2009 (and What I Missed in 2008)

For a guy who claims to find the practice of best-of/favorite listmaking a senseless, futile and mind-numbing exercise, I certainly do make a whole lot of ‘em. Look no further than the right column of this blog to take notice of that, and the two articles below this entry, for that matter. However, to reiterate, I do feel that, despite the drawbacks inherent to such lists, mostly the fact that quantifying the quality of one’s intake of movie-watching through lists is not what movies are about, they are still dialogue-starting stimulants, as well as gauges of one’s taste and judgment despite their inherent fallibility. I find that readers appreciate reading them as well. So, here we have it: the obligatory 2009 Best-of lists.

I was not at all proud of my 2008 list (I mean, come on, it has to be a pretty rough year when I name Vicky Cristina Barcelona as my best, even though John Waters did the same). Keep in mind I also missed more 2008 films than I care to mention because I was making and promoting two of my own films at that time. Therefore, I have added an extra section at the bottom (i.e. the “Best of What I Missed in 2008 and Saw in 2009 List”) to make up for that. Unless you are a working full-time critic, it is nearly impossible to see all the notable films of a single year in a compressed amount of time. All in all, however, 2009 was a much better year for cinema than 2008, in my opinion (neither year can hold a candle to the amazing 2007, however).

Also, it is necessary that I affirmatively lay down some ground rules. I got into some trouble last year when a few people pointed out a few films of foreign origin they felt I missed or unjustly ignored, which I had counted as 2007 films. The rule I am setting down is as follows: If the movie has an official 2008 release year and made it to the United States in 2009, I will henceforth count it as a 2009 release. Basically, whatever year the films would be up for American awards consideration is what I am counting. So here we go…


THE 10 BEST OF THE YEAR LIST

1. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino) Truth be told, I never thought I would see the day when I would name any Tarantino film as the best of the year. However, I could not seem to shake the feeling that the film was somehow important, particularly at this moment in time. Inglourious Basterds is a film that accepts itself as reflection and not as recreation or representation. I am going to begin making my case for this film’s importance by asking a stupefyingly and inanely naïve question: How many films have been made about history, or how many have depicted historical events? “Oh, come on!” I know, I know, a stupid question, but just bear with me. Easy answer? Lots and lots and lots. What this film does is build a war movie around other war movies at a time when the traditional film about historical incident has knowingly lost any sense of enterprise and originality, despite a machine in the habit of churning out the old models in snazzy little packages, and despite the dazed and deluded machinists who respond to this loss by just shrugging and saying “C’est la vie” in an ineffectual murmur. As we have entered an increasingly tongue-in-cheek post-post-modern era in which it has become harder to jar audiences loose from viewer complacency, Inglourious Basterds stands alone as a film that tests our sense for what a historical film should be and how it should function (for one, it challenges a viewer’s implicit need for rigid adherence to truth and historical “fact,” cognizant that aspirations to such things are misguided and foolish, regardless of any degree of earnestness and good intention). Some have called this film “revenge pornography” and “grossly irresponsible populist fantasy” without recognizing that these are both used as platforms to address the meanings we glean from the idea of popular memory depicted in a popular medium. It functions on so many levels that, even after a few subsequent additional viewings, I still find it mind-boggling.

Some claim it is mired in a devil-may-care sense of social responsibility, but Tarantino is perhaps the first to recognize, at least within the confines of the Hollywood machine, that the only way to be truly socially responsible at this stage in American movie history is to test our perceptions of what it really means to make so-called “socially responsible works”. He does that by pushing these unspoken standards, and that in and of itself is extraordinary. However obvious the following statement is, people still go to a theater and have no trouble accepting “true stories” as truth and cannot see that the real truth has been filtered through a medium that worships technique, mechanism, maneuver, aesthetic elbow grease, and takes liberties to do so. Inglourious Basterds has enough technique, mechanism, maneuver, aesthetic elbow grease and taken liberties to jam into three movies, and the fact that it possesses all that speaks to its intention, i.e. the intention I mention above. To reitereate, Inglourious Basterds is a film that accepts itself as reflection and not as recreation or representation. The film is extraordinary and is, in my opinion, thus far Tarantino’s masterpiece, which is funny considering that the final line of dialogue in the film is “I think this could be my masterpiece”. For every bit of "bang-bang," there is just as much (if not more) "talk-talk," and his nonstop referencing of pop-culture for once works like clockwork in this movie, and it doesn't strain the film's progression at any point. In fact, this element is integral to it. All this, of course, comes from someone who has never been a fan, and someone who has even been a flagrant, vocal disliker of Tarantino’s much-praised work. This one is different and it is certainly his most mature film. Never have a seen such a specimen: a “historical” film pointedly about historical films, and at the same time I was enormously and gratefully entertained without the need to be “in on the joke(s)” overshadowing my being unconditionally absorbed (even though as a cinephile I most certainly was in on the jokes). Also, every single performance is par excellence, particularly Christoph Waltz as the sly, conspicuously poised, multi-lingual German commandant. If this performance doesn’t earn Waltz an Oscar, I’ll eat my head with my hat on it. And I have never enjoyed the stone-jawed Brad Pitt more, even counting his hilarious comic turn in last year’s Burn After Reading.

And who puts veteran Rod Taylor in a scene together with Mike Myers? Even the most surly critic of the film has to acknowledge this as astonishing. This gutsy, thinking-out-of-the-box type of “stunt” is part and parcel of an artistic voice that I am finding, in some ways, more and more irresistible.


2. The White Ribbon (Michael Haneke) Haneke’s latest is a masterpiece by any measure of the word. Visually, narratively and otherwise, I just cannot say enough about it. Before I went to see it at Film Forum this past week, I saw it described as "a ghost story without a ghost". This is very apt. Haneke's output in the past ten years has always been, by and large, quite substantial. From The Piano Teacher to Cache to this film, which I think might very well be his masterpiece, he has stood as one of the most solid and consistently successful directors working in the international cinema scene. The only thing that prevented this from occupying the number one spot currently occupied by the Tarantino's film is what I perceive as Inglourious Basterds doing double duty as both popular entertainment and timeless commentary on the nature of a genre that has spawned thousands upon thousands of films that have, heretofore, failed to truly recognize what that film recognizes. In terms of achievements in cinema aesthetics the year, however, I hand the mega-gold prize to The White Ribbon. It confidently captures and evokes the spirit of Bergman without imitation and being affectedly Bermanesque, thus managing to be a creature all its own, entirely fresh and visionary. The black-and-white photography is gorgeous, the performances (particularly those of the children) are simultaneously restrained and direct, and as a result, tremendously touching. This one is as good as they come.


3. A Serious Man (The Coen Brothers) For awhile, I thought this would be the number one film of the year on the list. Much of this is due to personal proclivity because the movie’s focus and its subject hit very close to my heart and head. However, the film met with curious reactions from the ethno-religious group it depicted. I would hear many-a conflicting report about it being passed from ear to ear when I would attend synagogue on shabbos from week to week. I saw it the first week it played at a multiplex on 86th Street and I immediately fell in love with it. When you discuss the voluminous content of the film with someone, one thing that is extraordinary is that the conversation is never quick nor can it be rushed. Identity, the nature of faith and belief, the uncertainty principle, what it means to ascribe meaning to things we cannot explain, the collapse of the Midwestern suburban American family, unwitting victims, what it means to be a "serious man," a father, a good man, a Jew. One can have a lengthy conversation about the shtetl prologue of the film alone. This is perhaps my personal favorite of the Coen Brothers' output this decade. It seems the closest work to them...as people as well as filmmakers. And, despite a circulating and epidemic opinion, the film is really no way anti-Semitic. I remember reading a hysterical (and nonsensical) account in The Village Voice by a writer who claimed that it was the work of vehemently self-hating Jews. That would be as short-sighted and facile as calling Do the Right Thing racist, or calling Meet John Doe communist.


4. 36 Views from the Pic San Loup (Around a Small Mountain) (Jacques Rivette) I, for one, hope that Time Out magazine’s claim about the possibility of this being Jacques Rivette’s final film is just rumor. Maybe they do have a case, however, because this is the notoriously lengthy director’s shortest film to date at 84 minutes. Was a regular three-hour outing too much for the reportedly ailing 81-year-old French master? That is immaterial and maybe an ill-founded basis for my believing the rumor because these 84 minutes are certainly among some of the best in his distinguished career. The themes are familiar (i.e. illusion, the struggles of artists, the nature of theater, the mysteries of interpersonal relationships) but, as always, he continues to stretch these themes, economize them and render them in ways that are new and exciting. The story revolves around an Italian drifter who decides to tail a circus company passing through a string of small villages in the northern France. An awkward romance develops between him and a female member of the company (Rivette alumnus Jane Birkin), but struggles to understand why she remains so distant towards him. The film's jarring finale is pure Rivette. That is not to say that the rest of the film isn't. In fact, the classic Rivette themes are more present than ever. If it is my favorite filmmaker's farewell film, it's a good one (and a fitting one, if I may say) to go out on. You could almost make the claim that the film is very consciously a farewell. I could go on and on about this, but you would have to see the film and then get a sense of Rivette's public image.


5. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch) This one isn’t going to make many peoples’ best-of-2009 list. I know that many filmgoers found it a troubling, enigmatic and self-indulgent exercise in smarmy arthouse alienation tactics. Jarmusch has reached a point in his career, however, where he feels absolutely comfortable in continuing to deliver openly and welcomely idiosyncratic films that remain integral to the style he pioneered back in the 80's with the groundbreaking Stranger Than Paradise and Down by Law, still keeping it fresh as opposed to tired and knee-jerk. I originally saw this in a theater on the Soho area where you would expect that Jarmusch's films would draw the biggest crowds. When I went there, however, it clearly wasn't. I have since purchased the film on video and have seen it again since. It is rare that an American film has a sensibility that feels as European as this. Shot and set throughout Spain, The Limits of Control in the spirit of existential theater and literature features characters lacking names (they are instead called things like Lone Man, Creole, French, Blonde, etc.), and only two of whom are played by "Jarmusch Repertory Company" members, namely Bill Murray and Tilda Swinton. It is the kind of story concept a filmmaker like Antonioni would have loved. In spite of its perhaps justified lack of popularity, I still think it has a voice that most other films this year lacked...and I, for one, think it is an exceptional film.


6. Tetro (Francis Ford Coppola) I was truly surprised to see how soon everyone forgot about this one in their year-end round-ups. "O, so soon we forget!" Coppola’s digital follow-up to his 2006 digitally-shot critical and financial failure Youth Without Youth faired amazingly well in critical circles this past spring, countering his previous film's failure. Featuring the notoriously irascible Vincent Gallo in the lead, the film is one that reminds us that Francis Ford Coppola can still make substantive contributions to film art as it stands today. I personally think it is very fitting that Coppola has returned to this comparably smaller and more personal production model. Youth Without Youth and Tetro are the types of the films that his company American Zoetrope was originally built to produce and distribute. He is doing exciting things now with the digital form that American Zoetrope aspired to do back at its first inception, but never really succeeded in doing (short of Lucas' THX 1138). It is exciting that he seems to be finally realizing his long-held, deep-seated ambition to helm these more personal works, and this one is the first recent effort to truly succeed in really every department. I also identify with the film's story for personal reasons, and that only heightened my appreciation of it.


7. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe) This, along with Von Trier’s Anti-Christ, was the most scandalous film of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It has not been released stateside yet, but I was able to see it through let's just say "other means". Noe is the director who gave us the equally controversial Irreversible (2002) and he was heard to have called Enter the Void a "psychedelic melodrama" in that the film is just as much of a sensory experience as it is a story (although there is most certainly a story). I have chosen it for this list because this is a film that defies convention in nearly every conceivable way. Its ventures into unpleasantry are occasionally hard to sit through but, throughout it all, you get the sense of a director testing the constraints, the boundaries and the limits of the form and the medium itself without over-indulging himself too heavily. This is something for which I immediately look when I am analyzing degrees to which films are cutting edge these days, as it is obviously becoming more challenging to challenge a form that is constantly being challenged in new ways every day, especially as digital media become more accessible. Enter the Void makes bold strides in forging new paths for telling stories, even if the journey isn't always a pleasant one. This should be a film that lives on, not just for its provocative, sure-to-be-censored content, but for its guts.


8. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow) This one would seem to be this year's prime Oscar bait. Even as a summer release with little fanfare, it drew a great deal of attention at a very early stage in the awards race, but that is neither here nor there really. The United States has not given us a truly compelling or gripping war film in quite some time. Bigelow's The Hurt Locker functions as many things. It goes without saying that the film is a gripping commentary on America's involvement in the current Iraq War, telling a story of which one could easily allegorize: the story of a bomb defuser part of a bomb-squad operating like frantic surgeons in a city where everyone could go up in smoke at a single frozen moment. Yeah yeah, right. Allegories are passe these days. What Bigelow does well is dip the movie in large vats of adrenaline, directing it so effectively that you will swear suspense has rarely, if ever, been this agonizingly suspenseful. This is one of those movies where I felt myself almost tremoring as I was leaving the theater. What the film allowed us to recognize is the U.S. film market's burgeoning aversion to uber-topicality. Think Vietnam movies, for instance. Besides John Wayne's inept The Green Berets (1968), Hollywood steadfastly refused to bankroll war-genre films about the war in southeast Asia until well after the fact. The Hurt Locker would seems to exist thoroughly as the first successful non-documentary film about American military involvement in Iraq, and it does not make it a fleeting, wasted or self-important experience. To use Full Metal Jacket terminology, with this movie "Hollywood's grown a pair," thanks ironically to the help of a trail-blazing female director.


9. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (Terry Gilliam) Poor Terry Gilliam. Lady Luck just doesn't like hanging out in his corner for some reason. It seems that every film he makes is fraught with production trouble. What happened during this production is old news (if you don't know, somebody died...an actor, someone you should probably know really) and how Gilliam proceeded to complete the film shows that, despite the hardships that seem to effortlessly trot his way, the man has some get-up-and-go that hasn't gotten up and left (even when maybe it easily would have). This year, he delivers another piece-de-resistance in the fantasy genre. From the man who brought us The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Time Bandits comes a film that sports that signature style and depicts the fantastical in similar ways, but one which continues to trudge the path in furthering where the previous films left off, specifically in the visuals department. Gilliam has not lost one iota of his command of delivering some spectacular visuals (we all know that this has always been his strong-suit). Following his dreary Tideland, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus is a most welcome bit of redemption, as he makes us aware that he continues carrying his own torch...and, boy oh boy, does it blaze!


10. Born in 68 (Olivier Ducastel) This film met with virtually no fanfare when it arrived in the States. It played at a few domestic festivals, won a couple awards and then saw a no-frills video release. As one who has studied and continues to study May 1968 in films as well as history books and literature, this epic drama, while failing to capture the time and its aftermath as artfully as Philippe Garrel's Regular Lovers (2005) did, still packed a punch of great emotional and intellectual resonance. The story is epically ambitious. We follow various couples during the May 68. The film covers the span of twenty plus years, examining the aftermath of that time of demonstrations, street guerrilla warfare and youthful idealism, staying with the characters well after the fact to observe the impact that the era has had on their children, all the way up until the early 90's when it appears that two of these children born in 68 are HIV-positive. The film is a very curious epic that was originally conceived as a French miniseries, then eventually released as an actual film. It stands as a lucid historical examination on the dovetailing of history, the evolution of civil unrest and the path towards transcendence from oppression.


HONORABLE MENTIONS:
Funny People (Judd Apatow), Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze), The Beaches of Agnes (Agnes Varda), The Maid (Sebastian Silva), Hunger (Steve McQueen)

STILL NEED TO SEE: TOO MUCH


THE DISAPPOINTMENTS OF THE YEAR

1. New York, I Love You (Various) I was invited to a preview screening of this film many months before its actual release. I have a soft spot for omnibus movies and had enjoyed Paris je t’aime, so the bar had been set high. Instead, I was treated to one kitschy, irritating short after another. This is all without mentioning…a-hem…Brett Ratner’s installment. Pound for pound, short for short, this is a whopping disappointment beyond any scope of belief. It is frustrating partly because it seems as though every filmmaker felt drawn to the “young-and-hip-strangers-meet-funny-banter-follows” formula. And if it wasn’t that, we were treated to (if I may quote Wayne from Wayne’s World) “alienating and pristine” episodes like Shekhar Kapur's (penned by Anthony Minghella, to whom the film is dedicated) featuring Julie Christie and Shia LaBeouf…or Shunji Awai's episode, which features a cloyingly "cute" Christina Ricci and Orlando Bloom. After the preview screening, I was handed a survey, on which the question “What was your favorite episode?” was posed. Reading down the list, I started to laugh heartily and shake my head in disillusionment, because I’ll be damned if I could even remember most of them, even five minutes after the final fade-out, and I have an extremely good memory. When the welcome presence of Eli Wallach cannot redeem a single thing about the film, you know you’re in trouble. I think I’ll skip the upcoming Shanghai omnibus, thank you very much. That’s okay because I’m not a big China fan anyway. I'll live if I miss it.

2. The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson) One could argue that the critics were just waiting to jump on this adaptation of Alice Sebold's pop-literature neo-gothic novel. After all, I remember hearing a story about how Pauline Kael warned Spielberg that he was riding for a fall following two major successes, and that she would be unsparing of cruelty in her review of his next film. She was (but then again, so was everyone, because we are talking about 1941). I did agree with something I read, however, which said that Jackson did not direct the film the way it needed to be directed: quietly, delicately. Any sense of nuance and subtlety is absent, perhaps because Jackson has been painting in outlandishly broad strokes for so long, in works like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. However, I cannot fault Saoirse Ronan in the lead role, even if I tried.

3. Irene in Time (Henry Jaglom) I am going out on a limb here because I know most of the people involved in the making of this film. For one, its director was interviewed for this website a few months back. I also had the unique opportunity of sitting in on some of the editing of the film, and I had seen three rough cuts of it at various points of its post-production before attending its premiere at the DGA Theater in Los Angeles this past June. I feel, however, despite any allegiances or biases, that it is still my duty to be honest and upfront about reviewing this year’s successes and disappointments and, to me, Irene in Time stands as one of the year’s major disappointments. Jaglom’s film is ostensibly an examination of the complex relationships between fathers and daughters, which is actually a novel concept. The means by which that concept is explored, however, is what is ultimately suspect and faulty. What we are treated to is a parade of shallow and/or vehemently irritating characters prone to lounging poolside and spending many a workless day kvetching, moping and chatterboxing about their “daddies” at endless impromptu roundtable discussions. Shallowness really pervades this film. Why do I really care about this particular rich woman character whose only problem is that she cannot find an ideal boyfriend/husband to replace her father? What does that mean to me? Okay, sure, I'm a man. That said, I doubt that, excepting a few moments in the film, even women would connect to it in the way Jaglom wants them to. The real crime is that little effort is made to make one care. The character is just not compelling and is, instead, inordinately taxing of one's patience. The pseudo-documentary/fiction hybrid form which once seemed, at the very least, fresh and emotionally raw and compelling in films like Eating and Someone to Love feels forced, seemingly over-solicited, strained from every angle in this film. When people even take to talking about their fathers to strangers at parties, you know the director needs to cool it and take a few steps back with his theme for it to be rendered to its fullest potential.

The actors seem game, but the director seems less concerned with reality, emotional or otherwise — this film resembles no reality that I or anyone in my wide circle of friends knows — than making some kind of point that, despite the specificity of his focus, is still inconclusive and muddled. Its inconclusiveness is just the cherry on the cake really. Tanna Frederick has a terrific screen presence, a scrupulous and awesome ability to step into any emotion and a truly amazing instrument, but in this film she lacks a director who can mold that natural passion and performance intuition into something focused, articulate and truly impactful. Instead, her director allows an unwieldly performance that goes all over the place, testing the audience’s tolerance of Jaglom's and Frederick's self-indulgence in gapingly bold strokes. Also, motivations given to other actors seem to be frustratingly and overtly one-note (e.g. “Act this way,” “Act that way”). Other supporting players, like Karen Black and David Proval, feel underutilized and also misdirected, and screen-time that should have been more theirs is given to actors like newcomer Lanre Indewu who, to be frank, really grated on me. Jaglom has a singular voice that is unique in cinema, but this is far and away his worst film. Although this undisputed “chick flick” adds up to very little (New York Times critic Jeannette Catsoulis, in a review that basically panned the film, called it a "letter bomb to men"), it still stands out among other films, however, due to the virtues of that singular directorial voice. By the way, Jaglom makes the claim that he appreciates both the good and bad reviews he receives, so in theory he should love this write-up. No one could have made this film except for Jaglom…and that might be enough. But, to be totally honest, this film isn’t even close to being good...not at all. Andrea Marcovicci’s excellent performance, though, is one of the film’s saving graces. But again, underutilized.

4. The Girlfriend Experience (Steven Soderbergh) This is one of those films that is not easy to talk about, and that fact, despite my disappointment in it, is one of the film’s virtues. Nonetheless, I feel that this film’s biggest offense is that, in less time than anyone is willing to truly acknowledge, this film will acquire the “quaint time capsule” moniker and, to supplement the limiting nature of its topicality, it seems much too pleased with itself to really appeal loud and clear to much of anyone. It will not live on because it was made expressly for the time it was made in. Soderbergh’s thesis on the economic crisis may very well be articulate and sophisticated, but he has failed to make a film without an expiration date. The Girlfriend Experience will turn into a "curio" in less time than I think anyone is giving it credit for. Time capsules can be fascinating, but I think films should stand on their own and implicitly comment on the state of things, lest they become too topical and lose their impact watching them in retrospect. As Milos Forman said at a Q&A at Film Forum recently, “All you have to do is really mean what you say and feel it way down deep and, no matter what the film is about, it will immediately become political."

Soderbergh is a hero of mine because of his prodigious nature, the frequency with which he makes stuff and his methods of making it. And he hasn’t sold himself out to either "side" (i.e. the mainstream vs. arthouse markets, which has been a slippery slope for every other filmmaker to juggle, even those who consciously strive to balance both methods and audiences). He’s the guy who says, “I’m going to make this little movie in between these two big ones.” I exploded with delight when I discovered just recently that he had directed another “small indie” totally on the fly and on the spur of the moment whilst directing the play Tot Mom on stage overseas (using the same cast of the play for the film). He has a passion for filmmaking and for the form that is unparalleled and especially rare among well-known working filmmakers today. While porn-star-gone-legit Sasha Gray needed to portray her call-girl character with the air of entitlement and cold privilege that envelops her performance, she is a downright lousy actress and it was difficult to stomach her performance most of the time. The actors playing her clients were also much too self-conscious and felt like amateurs. In essence, it is not just the lead actress but the whole film (and its director) that seem to have a feeling of irritating entitlement and self-importance, which I cannot wrap my head around. The recession is prime target for a filmic treatment (I would stop short of thinking that Wall Street 2 will have something important to say), but this one fell way short of the mark for me.


5. Whatever Works (Woody Allen) Woody has certainly made worse in this decade. Remember Melinda and Melinda (which occupies the top spot in my “Worst of Woody Allen” list) and Scoop? However, I expected more from a collaboration between him and Larry David, even beyond what seemed to be predicted as a raucous schlemeil-athon. Although a good many of the jokes fell flat and the characters were one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs, I cannot call this a total disappointment. Woody’s worsts, to me, fullfill my entertainment needs more than others’ best. However, I was neither able to be seriously analytical nor was I able to laugh freely without feeling duty-bound. And I find myself constantly amused by Woody’s curiously guarded and conservative depiction of gay and lesbian characters. You feel he wants to break out and do it right, but he still remains cautious and perhaps prudish, which itself is something rather funny to think about. He remains one of America’s premier film artists and he has taken great strides towards growth in this past decade, opening himself up to experimentation.



THE WORST FILM OF THE YEAR:

Anti-Christ (Lars Von Trier)
Much too much has already been written about this film, which is certainly the most controversial offering of the year, and the grand majority of what has been written is not flattering. Even the word “unflattering” is a euphemism, so I am not going to join my fellow movie scribblers in debunking it at length because that would be just yet another highly unoriginal case of been-there-done-that. I wish I could say that the film’s bad press is just critical short-sightedness, but I most certainly cannot. The film, although a few of its elements are of intrigue (although they are never properly fleshed out or even understood by the artist conceiving it), is almost irredeemable. The main problem with it is perhaps the most simple, fundamental issue and the one that is actually directly under my nose as a viewer: Why was the thing even made? Even Lars Von Trier doesn’t seem to know why. If it simply, and only, functions as an outlet, a vent, for its director’s deep suicidal depression and his misogyny…well, that is no reason for the existence of anything, lest it be made for the artist and the artist alone with no intention of it being seen by anyone else. Von Trier’s well-known reputation as a shameless self-promoter, press-hound and provocateur is at hand here. What I can affirmatively tell you is that unmotivated sexual violence is insufferable and nearly impossible to sit through.



BEST OF WHAT I MISSED IN 2008 AND SAW IN 2009

Note: I have composed a new Best of 2008 list in light of new films seen. The ones that were on the list last year have been re-ordered to accommodate the new 2008 titles I recently saw. The titles on last year's list appear in bold.

1. Waltz With Bashir (Ari Forman)
2. My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin)
3. Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen)
3. Man on Wire (James Marsh)
4. Frozen River (Courtney Hunt)
5. Medicine for Melancholy (Barry Jenkins)
6. Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson)
7. Gomorrah (Matteo Garrone)
8. Milk (Gus Van Sant)
9. Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman)
10. Che (Steven Soderbergh)

RUNNERS-UP: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu), The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky), The Wackness (Jonathan Levine), Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller), Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle)


LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING THESE IN 2010:

And Everything is Going Fine
(Steven Soderbergh): There are personal reasons I feel so eager to see this, Steven Soderbergh's long awaited documentary about Spalding Gray. I made a documentary essay film a couple years back called Yarns to Be Spun on the Way to the Happy Home that examined the life and career of Spalding Gray in a way that was very personal to me. I am curious to see how a filmmaker like Soderbergh frames the man's story.

Tree of Life (Terence Malick): Honestly, what movie nerd isn't looking forward to this one? I would venture to say that even Malick the Opus Filmmaker's detractors look forward to his upcoming new work.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (Woody Allen): I always anticipate the next Woody. It's like a default button. Like the old tune goes, "I'm with ya rain or shine." And, as usual, he has assembled a truly interesting cast (Anthony Hopkins, Naomi Watts, Antonio Banderes, Josh Brolin, Lucy Punch).

Shutter Island (Martin Scorsese): After seeing a rather underwhelming trailer, I am a little less anxious to see this than I was. But I still want to see it. Trailers can be deceiving in the extreme.

Greenberg
(Noah Baumbach): I'm curious to see where Baumbach goes after his fascinating film Margot at the Wedding which showed me he was growing, maturing and evolving as a filmmaker.

Queen of the Lot (Henry Jaglom): I may have given Henry Jaglom a bad review for Irene in Time this year, but I am looking forward to this sequel to his 2006 film Hollywood Dreams which, even though I also had a great deal of problems with, I still enjoyed (at least more than Irene in Time).

The Social Network (David Fincher): David Fincher is making a Facebook movie? What the Sam Hill? It just goes to show you that wonders never cease!

An Audio Interview with Legendary Actress Karen Black

Karen Black has enjoyed the successes of an extremely distinguished acting career. As one of the highest paid, most highly acclaimed actresses of the 1970's, Karen's roles in films like Bob Rafelson's Five Easy Pieces (1970), John Schlesinger's The Day of the Locust (1975), Robert Altman's Nashville (1975), Alfred Hitchcock's Family Plot (1976) and Jack Nicholson's Drive He Said (1971), among others, have made her legendary.

I am good friends with the great Ms. Black (we are working on a project together called Call Me Spoons to co-star David Proval, known a great deal for his work on The Sopranos), and the photograph you see above is me (in the wool cap) with her on a movie-shoot. So, to inaugurate this new podcast format with a bang, I sat down to talk with her and recorded our conversation. The interview begins with the two of us discussing music and the evolution of the popular song beginning in the 1950's (it's immaterial and totally irrelevant to the interview proper, but still fun...and you get to hear Karen sing). We then begin discussing the projects she has in the works currently. For the many Tim and Eric Show fans I know, she has recently become involved in one of their shows. We also take a look back at her lengthy career. It was truly an honor to have her as the first guest on the "show".

Unfortunately, I am extremely frustrated that I am very much an idiot when it comes to the podcast format, hosting audio online and getting it up onto iTunes and such. I visited a few hosting sites today, but all of them make you pay and the free ones are impossible to understand. It's so bad that I might actually need someone to sit down with me (want to volunteer?). Until I get all this stuff figured out, you can access the interview here.

Now for a catchy name for these things. I hand it off to you. I was thinking something like "ConfluCast" or something akin to that. Any ideas?