Current Projects in the Queue

Hello, loyal readers!  I apologize that it has been so long.  I am involved in a great many projects.  For one, I am finishing up the editing of Ezer Kenegdo, getting it ready for sound design, color timing and the works.  I am also editing a personal essay documentary called Ancestral Avenue, about how the house in which I grew up is now an abandoned, vandalized building in what is now a high-risk neighborhood in Pittsburgh called Swissvale.  I visited the grounds with my mother and father, and it was certainly an emotional experience.  The film examines the fragile nature of the places in our memories, and how memory itself is ungraspable.

And as I am sure you all know, I continue to work on my book about filmmaker Sidney J. Furie.  The book's new (and, I believe, final) title is Working the Angles: The Life and Films of Sidney J. Furie. I have interviewed many people with whom Sidney has collaborated, and have gone on more than a few research expeditions, including to the amazing Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills.  I continue to be grateful that I get to chat daily with Sidney throughout this process, both as friend and collaborator.  The book has been picked up by Patrick McGilligan's Screen Classics Series and will hopefully be published sometime next year.

In addition to all this, I am raising funds for my new film, entitled Raise Your Kids on Seltzer.  Please go here to donate on IndieGoGo!  The film tells the story of a middle-aged married couple, Terry and Tessa, who live in the Bay Area. They are exit counselors who have been forced into early retirement.  An "exit counselor" is a professional who is contracted by families to kidnap people away from dangerous cults so they can "deprogram" them at a secure location.  Terry and Tessa's cryptic motto during their often verbally and physically abusive deprogramming process: "Raise Your Kids on Seltzer, Bubble per Bubble!"  They have fallen out of favor in this profession in the years since their 1970's and 80's heyday, when cults were "booming" the most in San Francisco.  There is even a festering lawsuit filed by a disgruntled client following in their wake. For the last fifteen years, to make ends meet, they produce stylish, unintentionally humorous corporate media.  However, they are soon called back to do some exit counseling for one last, very special case. Raise Your Kids on Seltzer is a tender, funny, certainly quirky, and occasionally frightening comedy-drama mainly about how people deal with becoming obsolete.

Trailer for New Film: Ezer Kenegdo, Directed by Deniz Demirer and Daniel Kremer

Throughout this year, I have been in post-production on a new feature film shot predominantly in San Francisco (with other locations in Brooklyn), entitled Ezer Kenegdo, and a trailer is now available to view for the first time.  This very personal film was co-directed and co-written with my friend Deniz Demirer, and explores the frictions that develop when a Chassidic Jew from Crown Heights (played by yours truly, in front of the camera for the first time in six years) travels to San Francisco to visit a Polish-born friend (played by my co-director) with the intent of uncovering why a Bay Area art-world iconoclast (played by independent filmmaking icon Rob Nilsson) seeks to destroy a lifetime's worth of his own work. The film also stars filmmaker Josh Safdie (Daddy Longlegs, The Pleasure of Being Robbed) as my character's Chassidic buddy.  The film is about historical baggage, its weight on the relationships we forge, the complexities of male friendship (especially when it crosses fraught cultural divides), and how art and destruction plays into all of these things. It's the best time I have had shooting a movie in what feels like a really long time.  The cast, recruited mostly among the players in Rob Nilsson's current acting troupe, proved a total and utter joy of collaborative energy.  It was that most mirthful of film births.  We're still looking to maybe fit in a couple interesting cameo appearances into the film, so stay tuned!

We're looking for a late 2013 premiere of Ezer Kenegdo for cast, crew, friends and family -- possibly December. Then we'd look to pump it out to film festivals...with this one, we'll finally be trying for the best of them. I'm also still working on completing my full feature-length cut of my previous 2012 film A Simple Game of Catch.

Might Be a Giant: In Recognition of Director Anthony Harvey

   In the spirit of the article written last year about another unfairly forgotten and marginalized director who had been denied recognition, as an auteur with a rich body of work, I continue the tradition this year with British director Anthony Harvey.  I write this article concurrent with drafting a book on my last subject, Sidney J. Furie.  I am not “cheating on” Furie in the literary sense, as it were.  (1) I feel the need to keep the blog alive while I complete the demanding book project, and (2) I need to give my mind an analytical exercise outside of the realm of Furie-ous films to give my analysis of those works more freshness, variation, distance and perspective. The Harvey analysis might inadvertently shed light on my Furie analysis.

Coming Soon: An article about the excavation and resurrection of the 35mm negatives of Sidney J. Furie's missing-in-action 1959 independent film A Cool Sound from Hell, thanks to the British Film Institute!

   It's Oscar night, 1969.  An ever-radiant Ingrid Bergman emerges to announce the winner of undoubtedly the most anticipated award of the evening: the Best Actress prize.  The critics, the press and the trades have been publicizing a neck-and-neck race between the seasoned veteran Katharine Hepburn, who has won the coveted award twice previously, and newcomer Barbra Streisand for her starmaking film debut as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.  Variety’s droll headline roars, “Funny Girl vs. The Lioness.”  As Bergman opens the envelope, she is clearly flabbergasted. “The winn…,” she starts to announce as her voice trails off.  A bewildered double-take, followed by a shocked demur, accented with a movement of the hand to cover her mouth in amazement. “It’s a tie!”  For the first time in Oscar history, two performers are presented with the same award. Hepburn, whose Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter won nearly unanimous accolades, is not present to accept the award herself.  Accepting the award on her behalf is her director, Anthony Harvey.

   Arriving at the podium flanking a radiatingly happy Streisand, he holds the statuette in his hands and declares in a distinctly mellow-tenored “public school class” British accent, “When I asked Ms. Hepburn what she thought when she had broken the records for nominations, she said, ‘I suppose if you live as long as I have, anything can happen.’”  The audience murmurs a few courtesy chuckles.  He continues, “And I’m absolutely thrilled that it has happened. Thank you.”  He steps aside as Streisand takes the podium for her speech, gazing wide-eyed at her statuette and greeting it with a now-classic Streisand salutation.  “Hello, gorgeous!”  The audience explodes in laughter.  They’re in love with her.  Already, even at the height of his fame, Anthony Harvey had been forgotten with undue haste, his awkward and rare would-be cameo effectively upstaged.  Thus marked a rare public appearance of Harvey, who himself was nominated that same year for directing The Lion in Winter, losing to veteran Carol Reed for Oliver!, that year’s most successful contender.  The die, it would seem, had been cast.

    Anthony Harvey launched his career as a film editor on many British productions of the 1960’s.  Both Stanley Kubrick and Bryan Forbes regularly employed him, namely on Lolita (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964), the criminally underrated The L-Shaped Room (1962) and The Whisperers (1966), and both Martin Ritt’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold (1966) and Guy Green’s The Angry Silence (1959) bear his name as film editor.  He made his directorial debut with the 55-minute Dutchman in 1967, which earned its lead actress Shirley Knight an acting award at the Cannes Film Festival.

The Lion in Winter, undoubtedly the most prominent, most critically beloved and most commercially successful film Harvey directed, did not provide my own personal introduction to his work.  At the age of fourteen, I came into possession of the Rank Organisation-bankrolled British Western Eagle’s Wing (1979) on a pan-and-scan VHS.  Little did I know at the time that the film had been beautifully lensed by Billy Williams in anamorphic widescreen and that I was missing almost half the full frame on this video copy.  The epic splendor of the images, cited by even the film’s most virulent detractors, was more than a little lost on me, but I still nonetheless took note of its strange pacing — a pace that was particularly at odds with a story that pitted four separate components of a chase narrative against one other.  I might have been looking at a Western produced by men fond of regular daytime tea breaks, but I started to recognize a method to the ostensible “madness” inherent in the conflicting rhythmic and narrative elements.  In the subsequent years, I came to see most of the other works in Harvey’s directorial canon.  Recently, I had the occasion of seeing both Richard’s Things and the only recently released widescreen version of Eagle’s Wing.  Both incited the writing of this, the first formal written work justifying Harvey’s heretofore unawarded status as an auteur.

   The crux of Harvey’s films lies, of all places, within the title of Noel Coward’s most beloved play: Private Lives.  The private sphere is sacrosanct in the filmic worlds that Harvey fashions, because the self-determined fragmentation and moderation of human behavior seems to fascinate Harvey as his characters slingshot between public and private.  This is most prevalent in Harvey’s films in which his characters specifically operate as public figures, namely King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter (1968), the pseudo Sherlock Holmes and his crafty female psychoanalyst Watson in They Might Be Giants (1971), Queen Kristina of Sweden and Cardinal Azzolino in The Abdication (1974), Aimee Semple McPherson in The Disappearance of Aimee (1976), the two Wimbledon-class tennis pros in Players (1979) and the eponymous stroke-plagued actress in The Patricia Neal Story (1981).  While these films especially function within this construct, most of his other films also are suffused with this conceit as well.  Harvey’s gravitation towards material like Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1973) and Frederic Raphael’s Richard’s Things (1980), despite their exclusive resignation to depicting the lives of ordinary people, is still logical, particularly in the latter case.  Both of these are about private lives and, more aptly, inner lives.  Grace Quigley (1985) takes an almost farcical and darkly zany approach to charting the lives of the same brand of ordinary people.  The only anomalies within this paradigm, Dutchman (1967) and Eagle’s Wing (1979) use the public sphere exclusively as a fisticuffs ring in which characters attempt to resolve their private angst and interpersonal treachery.  It is an unwilling stage platform for these private lives.  Put another way, the narratives of these two films solely occur within the public sphere as to define Harvey’s task as director as one being meant to show how private hostitilies disrupt and irrevocably alter this public sphere.

   Considering this and other elements, one can perceive a voice and a preoccupation with certain themes through which one can stake a claim for Harvey as an auteur.  Add to this a richness of craftsmanship.  The technicians and writers with whom Harvey associated constitutes a formidable list of masters.  Cinematographers Gerry Turpin, Douglas Slocombe, Geoffrey Unsworth, Freddie Young, Billy Williams and Larry Pizer, and writers Amiri Baraka (nee LeRoi Jones), James Goldman, Ruth Wolff, John Briley and Frederic Raphael have all worked under the aegis of Anthony Harvey the director.  This is to speak nothing of the impressive working relationships that had been sustained by Anthony Harvey the editor.  Though not an overt visual stylist, save for Geoffrey Unsworth’s soft-focus work in The Abdication and Billy Williams’ epically charioscuro panoramica in Eagle’s Wing, Harvey always remained apt at subtle visual cues and framing a story within a larger visual context using these cues.

   Anthony Harvey’s directorial debut Dutchman (1967) is Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with the braying, ornery uglieness turned up to eleven, featuring a young interracial Taylor and Burton grappling for control over each other in an unmistakably public arena, with the innocent bystanders as witnesses to the treachery and as silent victims to the drama.  Likewise adapted from a stage play, the film is set in the underground New York City of a subway train that doesn’t seem to me making its stops.  An aggressive and obnoxious firecracker of a woman named Lula takes a seat beside a young black man named Clay.  Harvey tempers the early scenes with a reactive but articulated zoom lens.  In an early shot preceding the meeting of the two characters, Harvey and his cameraman Gerry Turpin choreograph a low-angle zoom from the foregrounded Clay to the backgrounded Lula.  With the arrival of subway passenger onlookers in the second act, the zoom lens not only ceases being reactive but ceases all usage en toto.  The surrounding eyes that have congregated take the place of these early reactive zooms, thus the camera approach changes, marks the point in which the film’s subjectivity switches and turns on itself.  It is a fascinating stylistic choice.  Although the film certainly has weaknesses (for one, it is often too obvious in its roots as a dated polemic on race), its virtue lies in this kind of sophistication.

   In a quantum stylistic leap from Dutchman, Harvey moved on to his sophomore effort The Lion in Winter, a well-budgeted and handsomely mounted Joseph E. Levine production adapted from James Goldman Broadway stage play.  The story involves King Henry II’s selection of an heir to the throne, and Eleanor of Aquitaine’s struggle for influence in the selection.  Harvey’s latitude with thematic auteurship is, of course, dictated by his treatment of the source material, to which he is slavishly faithful.  The playwright James Goldman is also the film’s screenwriter.  At heart, the play’s and the film’s central idea of a human, character-driven insight into historical incident that almost accidentally seemed to conform with Harvey’s past and future works.  Peter O'Toole championed Harvey as director of the project from the outset.  It was he who lured Hepburn to the co-starring role following rumors that she would retire after Spencer Tracy's death (the two of them had just co-starred in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, for which Hepburn also won a Oscar statuette).  Hepburn saw Dutchman at O'Toole's behest, fell in love with it, stating the film "grabbed you by the throat, which is exactly the approach that our material needed.  Not that glossy old MGM stuff, but cold people living in cold castles."  She remained steady friends with Harvey for the rest of her life, as Hepburn would go on to star in two future Harvey productions, The Glass Menagerie (1973) and Grace Quigley (a.k.a. The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley) (1985).

  Staging is of the essence in The Lion in Winter, even more so than its stage incarnation could have been.  Looking at the film as an ensemble piece, every room in its castle location could be considered a smaller theater within the castle's (and the film's) larger theater.  The perfect example to cite is the key scene that intimates a scandalous sexual relationship between Richard the Lionheart (Anthony Hopkins in his second film role) and King Phillip II (the debuting Timothy Dalton).  As the two men are about to illicitly liaise, O'Toole's Henry II intrudes, prompting Richard to hide behind a nearby curtain.  Richard becomes voyeur to a conversation between Henry and Phillip.  The contrasts of the initial intimacy, the interruption of that intimacy, and the ensuing voyeurism all speak to Harvey as one who moderates and mines the levels of complexity in a favorite theme with taste and precision, even at such an early stage of his career as director, as if he knew the thematic path he would tread later.

  As in Fred Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons (1966) and Peter Glenville's Becket (1964, in which O'Toole plays the same character as in Lion), while the fate of a nation hangs in the balance within the film's narrative, the focus is not lavished on cold, impersonal epic pomp that would have plagued a more Samuel Bronston-esque production, but more on the contentious interpersonal power plays which determine that fate; how the private effects and conclusively transforms the public, for once and for all.  We cannot see the latter morph, because Harvey nestles his interests in the former, but   The Lion in Winter thus becomes a different kind of affair than A Man for All Seasons and Beckett, because Harvey is more specific in his approach and execution as to what it is about the narrative that engages him, and you can start to see this in the broader expanse of his work.  Periodic scenes feature all of the characters together in the same space, but they will once again resign themselves to one-on-one hideouts in the same larger space.  This is carefully schemed and choreographed, of course, by the writer, but it is orchestrated by its director.  This is a key differentiating factor.  Harvey's auteurship emerges in his representation of the reciprocity of his binary spatial constructions.

   Excepting Mike Nichols' Carnal Knowledge, The Lion in Winter proved the last successful prestige production that Joseph E. Levine’s now-defunct Avco-Embassy Pictures mounted.  In yet another quantum leap, Harvey followed up The Lion in Winter with a ripping yarn of a nutty comedy called They Might Be Giants, starring George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward, and produced by Paul Newman.  It is in this film that an opening-up of Harvey's thematic thread of public vs. private occurs.  The film tells the story of a widowed Manhattan lawyer named Justin Playfair who, in an apparent bit of paranoid delusion, believes himself to be Sherlock Holmes.  He garbs himself in deerslayer attire and takes to the streets in search of his nemesis, Moriarty.  His concerned brother hires female psychoanalyst Dr. Mildred Watson to treat him.  Soon, largely thanks to her fortuitous surname, she is drawn into his infectiously exciting world of "adventure, danger and intrigue" against her better judgment.  As Holmes/Playfair also lures a cast of “Bleecker Street irregulars” into his fantasy world, it becomes more and more apparent that these irregulars not just inhabit this world, but own it as well.  The They Might Be Giants universe is one based in fanciful quixotic fable, where public and private become blurred, ultimately indistinguishable.  If The Lion in Winter is about the existence of the binary of public and private, They Might Be Giants is about the deconstruction of that binary, and what happens when the barrier is torn away.  Finally, at the final fade-out, it asks the existential question common and popular in the theater of the absurd: Does it matter to which reality we subscribe?  The film, quite befittingly, has become a cult favorite over the years, even though its original box-office returns were somewhat less than encouraging (despite Maltin's description of it as a "box office disaster," which simply is hyperbole).

   The Abdication, adapted from a stage play by British dramatist Ruth Wolff, feels like a even more stage-bound work than The Lion in Winter, sporting flashbacks that were perhaps better served on stage, where its lead characters more likely recounted strictly in words what the film version perfunctorily stages in rather bland terms via recreated event.  Pauline Kael, that imperious New Yorker dame, attacked the film, writing that the film is "embalmed in such reverence for its own cultural elevation that it loses all contact with the audience."  Laying into Harvey, she continued, "Anthony Harvey directed, on his knees.  We're never allowed to forget the exalted rank of the characters, and nothing like human speech intrudes upon the relentless dignity of Ruth Wolff's script."  The rest of the reviews were not much better.  The Abdication and the television film The Disappearance of Aimee are both rather dry treatments of their historical sources.  Only Geoffrey Unsworth’s alluring but woefully ornamental soft-focus camerawork lifts it one step above.  The nadir of Harvey's career came in the form of Players (1979), a Robert Evans pet-project for which the ex-Paramount head personally oversaw the making and marketing.  Starring Evans' ex-wife, Ali MacGraw, as a tennis pro at Wimbledon in love with another player, Dean Paul Martin, a real-life tennis pro in a dreadful performance.  However, disregarding the quality of the film, Harvey's burgeoning attraction to examining the dichotomy of public in relation to private is still palpable.  Even in the most de rigueur work, Harvey lets this preoccupation be known, flashing it well above surface.

   Harvey returned to form with two consecutive works: the exquisite Eagle's Wing (1979) and Richard's Things (1980).  In the same tradition as Dutchman, Eagle's Wing showcases a string of characters engaged in a dedicated private struggle in the open public space, in this case the landscapes of American Southwest (versus the earlier film's single subway location).  Eagle's Wing, penned by John Briley (Gandhi), is perhaps an apotheosis for Harvey as director probing specific and sustained thematics, and Richard's Things in response is his striking, calculated and effective diminuendo.  It is also Harvey's return to the British film industry after a short tenure in Hollywood and American television films.  The "public" in Eagle's Wing, however, is one that is of questionable basis.  Harvey is constantly aware of this particular land as sacred space, and the film plays out visually, mostly silent, with a scant dependence on the spoken word, as not to disturb the gravitas in the vistas that Billy Williams' camera constructs.  These vistas are not there simply to provide picture-postcard snap, crackle and pop.  This is a film about the very meaning of land, meaning dependent on through whose eyes we choose to perceive it.  Apotheosis, then, becomes the most apropos term.  Public and private are again blurred, albeit in a way that is worlds away from the way it is blurred in They Might Be Giants.

   At one point in the film, in a microcosm sequence, Martin Sheen's character Pike invades what can be nothing other than a sanctified space during the foiled ritual slaughter of the white horse that gives the film its title.  The encounter ends in the accidental death of the Indian priest, followed by Pike's appropriation of the beautiful "mystical steed" that has been spared ritual death.  The film becomes about something else: how the now-blurred public and private space has relative meaning.  In a film that purports to be about "the West before the myths were born," what is not intimated is that the myths to which this opening voice-over alludes are myths manufactured by the white man.  Eagle's Wing exists in what the civilized "white man" would call the primordial world, in an environment that naturally exists apart from the empty meanings it would be ascribed later in time.  The horse is used by the white man to traverse the space.  In this scene, it is intimated that the horse itself assumes ritual and spiritual meaning beyond the practical use the white man attributes to it.  The ensuing duel between warrior White Bull (Sam Waterston) and fur-trapper Pike (Martin Sheen) quickly and unpretentiously ascends to the level of allegory, as two men grapple for dominion over the white horse Eagle's Wing.  In a four-way struggle, with a posse recruited from a nearby hacienda in hot pursuit, the wide-open spaces of Eagle's Wing also allude to those who attempt to lend to the land a colonial (read: Christian) spirituality.  For instance, at one point, White Bull traps a scorpion first with a tribal object decorated with feathers and beads, then exchanges it for a large crucifix-topped chalice-cover pilfered from a hacienda-bound stagecoach he ambushed earlier.

   I am personally rather partial toward Tom Milne's review of the film in Time Out London: "Set in the as yet untamed American wilderness 'long before the myths', this is unusual not only as a first-class Western made by a British director, but in being virtually a silent movie as an Indian and a white man (Waterston and Sheen), each a failure in his own world and determined to prove otherwise, pursue a strange, obsessive duel for possession of the glorious white stallion that gives the film its title. Quirkishly funny as the duel evolves into a sort of medieval quest attended by its own rituals and chivalries, the film gradually weaves its concentric subplots (various other parties tag along behind, driven by their own passions) into a plaintively spiraling lament for lost illusions. Marvelously shot by Billy Williams, it's weird, hypnotic and magical."

  The phrase "long before the myths" to which Milne alludes helps to introduce the film in the film's laconic "mysterioso" opening voice-over narration.  It is one of the few films that examine the primordial, "pre-historic" West that ends with a tearful white man in defeat.  As White Bull blazes off into a wide-open plain, trailing thick white dust behind him, Pike overlooks the victor's escape from a see-all vantage point and mournfully whimpers, "Help me."  It is a fitting way to end what is Harvey's best film, and what French cineastes might call his "testament film" (the one-film summation of a director's technique, the work that signifies "what cinema means" to that director).  All the more extraordinary is the fact that it stands as Harvey's best not just because it clearly exemplifies everything he had been working towards throughout his entire directorial career, but also because of a clarity and poetic truth inherent in the final product.  The film has only recently been released to video in its original anamorphic widescreen form.  Eagle's Wing and The Lion in Winter mark the only occasions Harvey uses this format, usually reserved for large-scale productions.  In the case of the former of the two, the film loses its very soul when it is reformatted to fit the standard television screen.  It becomes an emptier work, less about the land, the mythics, the allegory, et al. than the chase itself (or what is left to see of it).

   In another in a series of film-to-film departures, Richard's Things is based on a novel and a screenplay by Frederic Raphael, author of John Schlesinger's Darling (1965) and Far From the Madding Crowd (1967), Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and the BBC miniseries "The Glittering Prizes" (1976), also based on his own novel.  While I would certainly argue that his best, most accomplished work on both an aesthetic level and storytelling level remains Eagle's Wing, Richard's Things is likewise one of his richest works, and one that stands up next to the likes of The Lion in Winter and They Might Be Giants, despite dissent from shallow critics who have listlessly reduced it to an insipid, facile stereotype which unjustly cheapens the work.  Harvey's drama, featuring Liv Ullmann (yet another Harvey alumnus from her work in The Abdication) in a colossally challenging lead role which won her the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival, can easily be and has been lazily displaced into the "average lesbian soap opera" camp.  Andrew Sarris, scholar and Village Voice critic of the time, was among the few to note its subtle power, writing, "I am hopelessly hooked on the scintillating blend of sensuality and sensibility expressed through the intense rapport of Liv Ullmann and Amanda Redman.  Oh those lips and those eyes.  Ullmann has never acted as eloquently and emotionally in English.  Magic is worth celebrating."

   The film tells the story of Kate Morris (Ullmann) who, following twenty years of marriage, is confronted with the news of her husband's death while he is away on a business trip.  His hotel register reveals that he had been traveling with another woman.  Kate tracks her down her rival and discovers the secrets of her husband's double life.  However, as the two women talk about their relationship with Richard, this becomes a kind of exorcism for both of them.  This soon develops into a physical relationship between the two women.  Where Eagle's Wing filled its canvas with breathtaking visuals and largely dialogue-free sound design, Richard's Things conversely fills its canvas with the motion picture equivalent of "the talking cure," i.e. scenes that are driven by mutual psychoanalysis and a kind of symbiotic therapy between the two women.  The film's cinematographer, however, is Freddie Young, who lensed expansively epic productions like Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, Nicholas and Alexandra, and many others.  Young is no stranger to dialogue-driven films that function often like stage plays, including Robert Enders' Stevie (1978), starring Glenda Jackson.  Superficially, the film sounds Bergmanesque: a brooding, Persona-like two-women study of an interpersonal communion born from an infidelity -- what Susan Sontag called "the violence of spirit" when she described the theme of Persona.

   The level of sophistication of Richard's Things easily usurps films like Robert Towne's Personal Best (1982), although Georges Delerue's score sometimes threatens to suffocate that sophistication.  In tone, the film tends to feel like a cousin to Schlesinger's Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971), which is fitting for many reasons.  The main reason is the respective sensitivity of both works, which computes because both Schlesinger and Harvey were/are gay men.  What makes the central romantic relationship between the two women particularly fascinating in Richard's Things is that the erotic is given rise through a kind of exorcism, i.e. drudging up an inner-private life and making it public to another.  The question is not one of space, as it had been in Eagle's Wing.  The world of spaces in Richard's Things is almost entirely private, although a key scene in a supermarket early in the film, in which the cuckolded Ullmann slips an incriminating personal item into her rival-cum-lover's shopping basket may momentarily say otherwise.  On the whole, however, the idea of public vs. private becomes more of an abstraction in the film, but not any less of a thematic presence.  Ullmann's last words in the film, in a voice-over monologue, allude to public illusion and presentation.  As she drives off into an uncertain future, having left behind her new lover, we leave in the film exactly how we first encounter her, in the driver's seat of a car as she she says, "My pleasure will come from being what people believe me to be, and from not quite being it.  I shall never be suspected of being other than what I appear, and I shall appear to be exactly what I am."  This deceit is pure Anthony Harvey -- a signature.

   Grace Quigley (1985) started as a script by A. Martin Zweiback, entitled The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley.  It had been a pet project of Hepburn's for eleven years when Golan and Globus of Cannon Films agreed to finance it, and Harvey agreed once again to stand at her side as director.  Featuring Nick Nolte as a beleaguered hit man faced with the prospect of administering euthanasia for pay, the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1984 at 102 minutes to the most dismal of notices.  Originally slated to play in-competition at the festival, its cold reception from the programming committee relegated it to an out-of-competition slot.  The film was twice re-edited, at 87 and 94-minute versions, once even by Zweiback the screenwriter, respectively all with different endings.  Theatrically released in the U.S. one whole year later in May 1985, the film came and went without a whisper.  It was Katharine Hepburn's final leading role in a motion picture.  The film's troubled post-production speaks to the fact that it is a troubling (but nonetheless interesting) film.

  Tonally, Grace Quigley defies Harvey's other works, even that of the wild and woolly They Might Be Giants.  It takes the anarchy of that earlier film to another level.  The characters on Nolte's mercy-kill list are fond of gathering for what could only be described as "death parties," where they air their joy at the prospect of facing the eternal void, making it well known how miserable their lives are.  I have only seen the Cannon-approved cut of this film.  Curiously, Maltin pans this version, calling it an "abysmal misfire that manages to be both bland and tasteless," yet in the same review calls the 94-minute director's cut of the film "a touching, funny and surreal black comedy about the problems of the elderly and the right of choice."  It goes to show you what a little editing can do!  I have not seen the version with the better review, so I refrain from extensive commentary on this title until I can get around to scoring a copy.

   Although Harvey is still alive (at the time this article is being written, he will be 82 years old in June), but Grace Quigley proved to be his final theatrically released film, and he has long since ceased working as a filmmaker.  He officially ended his career with the television film This Can't Be Love (1994), once again starring Katharine Hepburn, this time paired with Anthony Quinn.  I have not seen This Can't Be Love.  His career, however, is that whose auteurship is specific and honed in a sustained focus.  I find myself continually frustrated by directors who are overwritten-about, whose claims to auteurship are, in reality, based on precious little to make the claim for them, apart from occasional, isolated "good work" without the threads and through-lines to the rest of the director's work.  Go back to the source.  Andrew Sarris defined auteurship and auteur theory as "the idea that a director helps shape the creative intent of a film."  From The Lion in Winter through Richard's Things, from They Might Be Giants through Eagle's Wing, Harvey has often made films that are worlds apart from each other, but has clearly demonstrated how authorship and voice can emerge from any genre that exists within a director's corpus.

Update: A Book About Sidney J. Furie, and a Talmudic Interpretation of the Carney-Rappaport Affair

Please pardon my blogging absence for the last couple months.  I have been extremely busy working on three features (A Simple Game of Catch, Ezer Kenegdo and One Corner Surfacing) as well as two book projects.  The first of the two books, my literary debut, is entitled Working the Angles: The Life and Films of Sidney J. Furie, a biography of an unjustly marginalized filmmaker I have greatly admired for some time.  Furie has directed many diverse and uniquely intriguing films, including The Ipcress File, The Boys in Company C, The Leather Boys, Lady Sings the Blues, The Appaloosa, The Naked Runner and others.  I have been writing this book with the help and participation of Furie himself, now 80 years old and still a happily working director.  He is actually currently in pre-production on what he knows will be his final project, which he hopes to shoot within the next year.  Furie will be arriving in New York next week to spend time with me working on the project on my own home turf.  Sidney Furie has been a truly wonderful collaborator and it has been a great honor knowing him and capturing his story, and I can already say that the book will be both a very compelling account of his filmmaking adventures (including stories involving his collaborations with Brando, Sinatra, Redford, Caine, Pryor, and many others) and an analysis of his individual films that make the argument for them as auteurist works.  Furie’s journey through cinema is a truly fascinating case study, having started as one of the single greatest pioneers in Canadian independent filmmaking (having directed not just one but two 1950’s north-of-the-border features, very much against the odds), emigrating to England at the outset of the British New Wave boom, then taking off for Hollywood when his British work proved critically and commercially successful.

    The second book is entitled The Bridge Between Two Nights: The Nature of Canadian Independent Cinema 1957-1986, a continuation of the blog writing project I started approximately two years ago.  Thankfully, in the intervening years, I have far expanded my collection of Canadian films and have rustled up a valuable contact who has procured the rarest of titles for me.  I intend, with the book, already well in progress, to take an in-depth look at the work of filmmakers Claude Jutra, Donald Shebib, Larry Kent, Jean-Pierre Lefebvre, Gilles Carle, Paul Almond, Frank Vitale, Don Owen, and…Sidney J. Furie.  It is part design and part happy accident that both book projects intersect in this way.

    Early in February, I had the great pleasure of working with Sundance Film Festival Award-winning filmmaker/actor Josh Safdie (The Pleasure of Being Robbed, Daddy Longlegs/Go Get Some Rosemary) as an actor in Ezer Kenegdo.  He plays my character’s Chassidic buddy Levi in the film.  Josh and his brother Benny are filmmakers I definitively admire, and it was rewarding to work with him on this film.  We shot a few of his scenes in Crown Heights, and were even able to sneak cameras into Chabad Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway to shoot a key scene.  Run-and-gun guerrilla filmmaking at its most edgy!  I return to San Francisco on April 8 to shoot the rest of that film.  A Simple Game of Catch, which started production in January 2012, is still in post-production after having been shown in a 52-minute median-length version at the One-Night-Only Philadelphia Film Festival.  The final version of the film will be approximately 80 minutes.  I anticipate final cut and delivery of A Simple Game of Catch for summer 2013.  One Corner Surfacing will continue shooting in late spring and early summer of this year, in Sag Harbor.

    At this point, I want to discuss something that has been especially on my radar for the last few months: the Carney-Rappaport Affair, possibly the biggest arthouse film world scandal to come along in decades.  For those who do not know about it, I will provide a condensed history.  When independent filmmaker Mark Rappaport (The Scenic Route, Local Color, From the Journals of Jean Seberg) left the U.S. to live in France for some years, he left raw materials for his films with controversial film scholar Ray Carney.  I say “controversial” because many of the people with whom he has come into contact throughout his career have notoriously feuded with him.  Actress Gena Rowlands has perhaps had the most acrimonious relationship with Carney, alleging that Carney refuses to relinquish rare, one-of-a-kind materials left over from her husband John Cassavetes’ films.  When Rappaport returned from France and requested the materials back, assumedly because interest had resurfaced for his early work and screening opportunities had opened up for him, Carney refused, claiming that Rappaport issued the materials to him as a gift.  Carney has long held the opinion that Rappaport is a national filmmaking treasure and had been one of the biggest scholarly supporters of his work.  Rappaport’s contemporary, filmmaker Jon Jost, helped forge a campaign to help Rappaport get his materials returned, involving a blogging crusade and an online petition.  Among the petition's signatories were Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, Atom Egoyan, Susan Seidelman, Guy Maddin, Jim Jarmusch, Tom DiCillo, Monte Hellman, Costa-Gavras, Barbara Kopple, Bela Tarr, John Waters, Olivier Assayas, as well as, from the other side of the aisle, Ken Jacobs, James Benning and many, many more.

    I have met a few people loyal and empathetic to Carney’s perspective on the situation, two of the three of which were former students of his.  However, I was quite frankly angered recently to read Ray Carney’s long-gestating response.  It took Carney eleven months to publicly or in any other way respond to Rappaport’s allegations.  Considering Carney's undeniably rocky history with others in the film world, the odds are not in his corner when it comes to who stands up as the most honest in this struggle.

   Carney claims in his jeremiad titled Resting Blackmail and Standing Up for Principles at Boston University that he spent his own money and resources to restore and place in proper storage Rappaport's work, writing “Here’s a useful comparison: Imagine that someone you distantly knew told you he was moving to Europe and asked if you wanted an old, beat-up car he had that he obviously couldn’t take it with him. He told you he had given his fancy cars to auto museums, but no one wanted the junker. Did you want it? It was a beat-up mess and you were reluctant to take it, but once you got it, rather than having it towed to the junkyard, you were inspired to restore it. So you built a garage to store it in and work on it, and spent tens of thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours of your time cleaning it up, fixing it up, and restoring it. Almost eight years go by and you keep working on it. It’s not a jalopy anymore. It’s cleaned up. It’s shined up. It now purrs like a kitten. Thanks strictly to you, since it wouldn’t have been around at that point if you hadn’t taken it. You tell the person who gave it to you about your work, how you’ve put all this time and money into his present. He decides he regrets giving it to you. It’s years and years later but he decides he wants it back, even though he doesn’t own it anymore. So he goes to a lawyer and claims you stole it from him, files court papers to scare and intimidate you, and (on top of everything else) sends you a bill demanding you pay his lawyer’s costs to get the car back from you. Well, that’s a fair illustration of what happened in this situation."

   Within only twenty-four hours, Rappaport bounced back, writing, "Everyone seems to be so concerned about Carney’s side of the story. All well and good. It took him over 11 months to come up with a letter filled more with hot air than with information—mostly about how everyone is treating him badly, and especially me, who has unfairly, it seems, spreading lies about him on the internet. I don’t intend to go over his attacks and vilification of me point by point and give concrete evidence (which I have in the numerous e-mails he sent me) of his prevarications. Just showing you a couple of examples of his egregious lies might give you an idea of what Carney, who talks endlessly about ethics and morals and honesty and truth (from now on we capitalize them), veers from anything resembling truth when he talks about this situation.  When he finally showed up in court after the third try, after he had defaulted twice and was going to be held in contempt of court unless he turned over my materials (I was paying a lawyer for the other two no-show court appearances of which he had ample notification at his primary residence via FedEx, signed by Mrs. Carney).  This, dated July 12, 2012, three months after I initially tried to contact him by phone (2 phones) and e-mail (3 e-mail addresses) to no avail, was presented to the court. This is his response to the detailed inventory I presented. Carney’s response is shown here with absolutely no alterations, scanned in from the court record."

    At which point, Rappaport scans in the said document.  Rappaport also goes into how Carney failed to show up to two court hearings.  Only on the third time, when threatened with a contempt-of-court citation, did he bother.  This speaks to intensely sociopathic behavior, if you ask me.  As my perturbed friend said of this whole affair, "It's pretty clear he's demented."

    Mr. Carney, let us be realistic and, above all, let us be that thing you claim that you strive to be, which is fair.  An artist’s work belongs to the artist, and only the artist, particularly in the event that there was no original written agreement or stipulation.  Your hesitation to return the items coupled directly with your excessive buying of time and your intent to draw things out speaks oh so obviously to your inexplicably ill intentions.  For a long time, I tried to understand your possible perspective and I tried to air both sides of the argument.  The problem is that your logic seems to defy and counter most everyone else's sense of logic  -- everyone, that is, except for those who remain loyal for strictly personal reasons, and for the empty sake of loyalty.  Restoring the work does not under any circumstances mean it belongs to you, particularly if you restored the materials and then, only afterwards, told the individual who "gifted" it to you.  My advice: If you claim to support independent American filmmakers like you claim you do, give yourself a restoration credit and return the work to the person to whom it belongs, whose life's work it is.  Restoration doesn't mean the work belongs to you.  It's not like the jalopy in the metaphor.  It does not function within the same paradigm.

   In fact, there is something in the Talmud about such a case.  Talmudic law dictates very clearly (for once, ha ha) what is to be done in such an instance.  After all, 'tis an Orthodox Jew writing what it is you are now reading.  In the tractate called Bava Matzia, a tractate which deals with ownership, possession and theft (among other things), the third perek (chapter) called Ha-Mafkid takes us through the case of a man who enlists a shomer (a guardian or custodian) to watch over an item while he goes off on a journey.  When he returns, he discovers that the shomer has restored, repaired and otherwise upgraded the object from the condition it was originally left in his custody.  Is the owner of the object liable (chiyuv) to reimburse the shomer for the money, time and effort he spent restoring and repairing if it was not part of the original agreement?  Absolutely not, and the rabbis debating the case agree on this point.  In fact, it says that the owner should receive remuneration and damages if he paid the shomer to watch the item.  The shomer, if paid, is called a shomer sukuhr.  Now, this is Talmudic law, not American judiciary law.  The later tractate Bava Kama later coined the expression "Possession is nine tenths of the law," so there you have it.  People will take it for what they feel it's worth.  But, in principle, we are discussing the same things, and the principle remains.  It is clear, in the Talmudic ruling, that Carney is at fault.  I find it absolutely impossible to believe that a man would gift such precious one-of-a-kind items to someone, then change his mind one hundred and eight degrees and request the precious one-of-a-kind items back.  It just does not make sense to me.  Maybe Rappaport is liable for not getting the initial agreement in some kind of writing.  But hey, what are friends for, right?

My "Movie Camp" Vacation to San Francisco

   Before I start this article, I need to mention that this January 2013 marks the fourth birthday/anniversary of the ConFluence-Film Blog.  On a virtual blur of a day in January 2009, immediately after booking a U-Haul for emigrating to New York City from Philadelphia, the blog was launched.  At the time, truth be told, I never really thought that I would have still been keen on keeping it going for this long.  It was originally an act of caprice for which I eventually fell head over heels.  Thanks to all the people who have continued to loyally read what has been written and posted on this forum.  As people have been known to chant at political conventions, "Here's to four more years!"

    I have just returned from a venture out to San Francisco where I shot a new feature film, this time as co-director next to my friend Deniz Demirer, who is also currently editing a very exciting feature film called American Mongrel, due for release this year.  Our new collaborative feature is titled Ezer Kenegdo, and it is certainly a work of an extremely personal nature for both of us.  Truth be told, it is perhaps the most personal and most close-to-the-breast film I have yet made, as it explores and probes issues that have long been the subject of much intense meditation for me.  I think my collaborator would say the same.  The shooting of the film is something I have recently been fond of calling "Movie Camp," in that the experience of making it re-invigorated me and revitalized my filmmaking drive after it had been dampened by a prodigiously difficult and stressful production this past summer in Sag Harbor, Long Island.

   Deniz often works as an actor and editor for local Bay Area filmmaking legend Rob Nilsson, who recently published two articles on the ConFluence-Film Blog as a guest writer.  I got to spend some time with Rob, who will appear in a key supporting role in Ezer Kenegdo, and shared one particularly rewarding and engaging conversation of length with him.  We discussed mutual friends we shared, the dying art of making work that is true and good and worthwhile, our excitement for our upcoming projects and a variety of other things.
   While out in the Bay Area, I got my hands on a number of excellent films that I felt compelled to write something about.  So here it goes...

Nocturnal Jake (2009, Deniz Demirer) - Deniz prefaced his originally reticent screening of this film for me by referring to it as "an exorcism," which immediately turned my head.  On first attempt of viewing the film, I was so fatigued from a full day of shooting and schlepping for Ezer Kenegdo that I fell asleep somewhere in the middle.  Deniz, however, continued watching on his own, and reported back to me the next day how rewarding it was to see it again after a time of essentially half-burying it.  I informed him that, allegiances and friendship aside, I was absolutely entranced by the half that I saw, and that I had literally been fighting the tremendous weight of my eyelids the previous night, out of sheer old-fashioned exhaustion.  I later finished the entire film solo back home in New York, and I must say that if I were to return to re-compose my Best of 2009 list, Nocturnal Jake would certainly have found a place in the Top 10.
   As much as I would seem to admire the film, Nocturnal Jake is not an easy film to describe, and it would be foolhardy and half-hearted of me to attempt to do so.  Some films defy a reviewer's routine impulse to recount filmic event, by sheer virtue of the fact that the work in question is more of an experience to be had rather than simply a collection of scenes.  Nocturnal Jake boldly creates its own language, and immerses the audience in that storytelling language so that, by the time the deliciously enigmatic end rolls around, a thoughtful and intelligent viewer not just understands the language but will also find it challenging when attempting to indulge in watching a more traditional work.  After a film like this, you are spoiled by sheer originality.  Everything comes together, from the moody jazz music score, to its custom-made narrative voice, to its take-it-to-the-streets camerawork, and of course the performances, particularly that of lead actor, real-life jazz musician David Boyce.  Boyce recalls the quiet intensity of Dexter Gordon's tortured sax player in Bertrand Tavernier's 'Round Midnight.  The film also fuses so many forms so effectively that it leaves a viewer enrapt in the experience, and thankfully breathless.
   Last week, a friend of mine informed me about a L.A. Rebellion Movement film retrospective in Philadelphia, and informed me that Larry Clark's Passing Through (1977), the story of a jazz saxaphonist, was screened, along with Clark's previous featurette As Above So Below (1973).  I have seen neither film, but cannot imagine Passing Through being any better or more poetic with its form than Nocturnal Jake.  I have a natural soft-spot for impassioned grass-roots features.  Nocturnal Jake is also infused with the impetuous, irresistible "first-time filmmaker" spirit  that highly charged, almost tangible energy  that made debut works like Shadows shine through the dross that's all dressed up with nowhere to go.  Seeing a film like Nocturnal Jake exposes this dross for what it is: invalid and worthless when compared to a film of its like.

Over-Under Sideways-Down (1976, Eugene Corr, Peter Gessner and Steve Wax) -  This is the classic example of an unjustly buried film that has long been missing-in-action.  I myself learned about it only through having read a particular piece some time ago about Nilsson's Cannes Camera d'Or winning debut feature Northern Lights (1979), which was produced by a "Marxist-light" independent filmmaking group called Cine Manifest.  While Northern Lights developed more of a name and reputation, Cine Manifest's first feature film Over-Under Sideways-Down never quite made its spot in any kind of limelight, other than a one-off showing on a public television independent film series called "Visions" in 1977.  I asked Rob Nilsson, when first formally put into e-mail contact with him a little over a year ago, about how one could get a copy of that particular film.  Upon meeting him in the flesh just recently, Rob gave me filmmaker Eugene Corr's contact information and told me to get in touch with him.  Corr returned my inquiry quite promptly, informing me that "other than a single screening a couple years ago at Anthology Film Archives, the film has been unseen for 35 years or so."
   In the e-mail, he continued, "My old video tape copies of it deteriorated to the point of being unwatchable.  My intention is to make a DVD from the 16mm sometime in 2013.  Steve Wax in NYC says he has the internegative somewhere in storage but I don't think that's definite.  In any case, thanks for the interest." Then, in the very same e-mail, mind you, in a post-scriptum, he informed me that he did indeed locate a DVD copy from what he claimed was a substandard videotape recording, which he offered to me.  I enthusiastically took him up on the offer and arranged to pick it up from him the next day.  I excitedly plopped it into the DVD player as soon as I returned to my co-director Deniz's house, just for a taste-test.  Deniz and I were rather immediately entranced by the brilliant economy of the film, in that it was succinct both narratively and visually, and also poetic in its efficiency.  Quite honestly, it is a film that knows exactly what it wants to say and what it wants to do, with no namby-pampy sidelining of what is at its center.
   Wisely and quite fluently recalling the British "angry young man dramas" of the late 50's and early 60's (especially Richardson's Look Back in Anger, Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Clayton's Room at the Top), Over-Under Sideways-Down tells the story of a working-class couple, Roy and Jan, who live with their two children in a cramped tract home.  An assembly line worker in a steel plant with developing racial tensions, Roy entertains the escapist fantasy of moving from the local semi-pro baseball team for which he plays third base, to the big leagues.  I was likewise reminded of the homegrown indie work Eagle Pennell, as well as two other films, one being No Pets (1994) by Tony Buba, a native of my hometown Pittsburgh who makes films about the Pittsburgh experience, and the other being Sundance-winning friend Paul Harrill's ITVS short film Quick Feet Soft Hands (2008).  Incidentally, I sent Paul a copy of Over-Under after he expressed active interest in seeing it.  I hope he likewise shares the wealth.
   Corr should not have to scrounge for a new print of Over-Under Sideways-Down.  This is the type of film that someone should be spending money to restore and preserve.  The government with an endowment, perhaps?  I might be naive here.  Why am I worried about this statement being construed as naivete?  That's sad...

   I often feel that one of the duties for which I've been put on this Earth is to locate, excavate and circulate films like Nocturnal Jake, Over-Under Sideways-Down, and other wrongly neglected and unseen works that have fallen into the cracks of obscurity.  When I embarked on my India-lensed feature The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour a few years ago now, it was likewise a little film called Montreal Main (1974) by Frank Vitale that gave me the energy to move forward with an all-stops-out feature-length DIY undertaking.  Over-Under provided Deniz and myself with an extra tank of gas to move forward with Ezer Kenegdo.  Nocturnal Jake gave me the faith that the co-director is a consummate artist with whom I'm honored to be collaborating.  That is what works like this have done for me, and this is what they can do for other filmmakers...others, that is, willing to dig up such priceless artifacts awaiting rediscovery.

Next up, I review Rob Nilsson's Chalk and What Happened Here.  To be continued...

Guest Article: Transfixed, by Rob Nilsson

A guest article written by Rob Nilsson

To me, George Lucas’ Star Wars films are enormous cartoons. Funny mechanical characters and one dimensional human characters together create a supremely expensive (and lucrative) comic book view of life. As much as I used to admire Camille Paglia, when she calls Lucas our greatest living artist I think David Letterman might as well be Socrates. At that absurd level almost anything is possible.

Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, Walt Whitman’s cosmic consciousness, Anthony Burgess’ created cultures and languages have no place in the Sunday morning funny papers, the ones the kids grab before the adults indulge in what once would have been a guilty pleasure. Today there’s no guilt in Dick Tracy. The parents have joined their children on a trip to the local museum where we find…Mirabile Sanctu!… that what we once thought was innocent fun, is now High Art. Except that there is no more High Art.

Alexis de Tocqueville was right. Our democracy has allowed a terrible thing to happen: a leveling of sensibility, a contempt for the work necessary to create a superior art culture, an excuse for adults to remain children, for children to father the family, and the museum and gallery world to laugh at the dearth of Art with cathartic depth.

I’ve re-read Re-Considering the Spiritual in Art, Donald Kuspit’s talk given at Virginia Commonwealth in 2003 which discusses Wassily Kandinsky’s 1911 essay Concerning the Spiritual in Art. Kandinsky blames Western materialism for destroying the spiritual underpinnings of art and Kuspit traces this blitzkrieg of aesthetic promise to the present day where the avant garde has become the establishment and art has become a pop, hip-hop, and shop till you drop Hollywood mantra. Kuspit says that the word “spiritual” has a somewhat sophomoric tone in 2013 America and suggests the German word “geist.” He says that if we want to describe a person of depth and serious “spirituality” we might call that person a “Geistiger Mensch.”

Kuspit says, “The idea that the artist might invest his or her subjectivity in the material medium, which is what brings it alive—indeed, the idea that the artist might have a profound subjectivity, and to be an artist you have to be a certain kind of person, that is, experience the inner necessity of spiritual aspiration, and that the only person who can legitimately call himself or herself an artist is the person who experiences art as part of a personal spiritual process—this idea is discarded as absurd and beside the artistic point. Thus the apparently revolutionary materialistic conception of art is emotionally reactionary.”

I don’t speak German but the word “spiritual” does feel uncomfortable to me. Too many tie-dyed t-shirts, bubbler bongs, and self-authorized gurus come to mind. Too many football Sunday devout Midwestern Protestant ministers yammering on. I was confirmed in the Congregation Church of Rhinelander, Wisconsin and my mother later told me how phony I looked up there with my abashed piety. Maybe that one comment suspends in amber how she and my Dad advocated secular honesty. But as much as I think organized religion is usually a dangerous soporific, I am an unabashed believer in art as an experience which transforms, transfixes and amazes.

Maybe the way I put it isn’t delicate enough, nuanced, suitably hushed. But I think a more muscular, na├»ve, and enthusiastic approach is a good thing to promote in this country where many potential adepts are stopped from experiencing the power of Art either by turn-off-hip museum guides in pressed khakis or little old lady docents with decent ideas, and thereby discouraged from experiencing amazement at the raging color harmonies in Kandinsky’s early landscapes, the brutal candor and self revelation of painters such as Jenny Saville, the refusal to be duped by consumerism in the painful exorcisms of Francis Bacon.

Aesthetics are not effete to me, not exclusive and proprietary. When I look at a painting of Jerome Witkin’s I am filled with awe, energy, and hope. Here is an artist who wants to say it all, who neither spares our feelings, nor suspects we are too weak to receive his messages. He believes in the capacity of people to be “large” and to “contain multitudes.” In front of epic sized multi-canvas works such as his Taken, I feel like I’m being re-built in some way, that I know myself better and want my own work to be deeper, fuller, wilder, both more sensitive and less, an affront to some as it is an inspiration to others. I always think of Whitman’s “barbaric yawp” when I look at Witkin’s work, or that of David Park, Elmer Bischoff and Richard Diebenkorn back in the days of what was called the Bay Area Figurative Movement. They took the daring energies and free wheeling techniques developed by Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning and returned the human figure to natural landscapes bathed in California sunlight. Visit the Venice Biennale, Art Basel or Art Basel Miami today. You’ll find that anything human (or anything like sunlight) is in short supply.

I like Donald Kuspit because he’s one of the few commentators on the current art scene who doesn’t like scenes. For him it’s not about the crowd, the herd, the literati and gliterati and what they do or say. He sees viewing art as an experience, a thing you do in order to know what you feel, or who you are. Emotion, intuition, whatever you want to call it, something inside you is responding, wind chimes in a hurricane, or a hurricane inside wind chimes. I don’t think anyone’s gone beyond catharsis as the ultimate goal for significant Art: “a sudden emotional breakdown or climax that constitutes overwhelming feelings of great sorrow, pity, laughter or any extreme change in emotion that results in the restoration, renewal and revitalization for living.” Sounds dry, until you do the work which lets you experience it. Cinematographer Mickey Freeman calls it a “beckoning” and he’s not at all generous with it. He feels it or he doesn’t and he doesn’t lie. Over 14 films we’ve done together, and I think he’s mentioned two.

And for me, if I don’t wander in the Park City snow after viewing A Woman Under the Influence, wondering why, or cry on the shoulder of a woman I once loved on the corner of Bleecker and Thompson after seeing Wild Strawberries again, or had my life changed at the now vanished Bleecker St. Cinema where I saw Shadows and realized that film can be about the “you’s and I’s” of this world, then I may be watching good films or seeing good pictures, but I’m wasting my time. I don’t know what the word “spiritual” means but I think what it’s trying to describe is what I’d call the poetic impulse. To me, this is the overwhelm of sensory and psychic inspiration at something in life too powerful to bear without speaking out, singing out, painting out, getting it out in the form of Art. The universe’s natural processes are so powerful that if I ever do find another more powerful plane I can call spiritual, I’d welcome it. Maybe it would make me a better witness and hopefully, a Geistiger Mensch. Either way it’s a mission, a mission with a purpose. There’s a reason why Zen sitters seek satori. There’s a reason why there was once a four minute mile barrier, and now it’s closer to 3:30. We seed the clouds with our desire for some sort of transcendence, however momentary.  We hold our faces open to the rain and imagine the ultimate. I believe that poetry is the impulse, and that Art is the realized icon of our desire to know, to feel, to be.

Guest Article by Filmmaker Rob Nilsson — Exceptions and the Rule: Thoughts on the 2011 Film A Separation

A Guest Article Written by Rob Nilsson

ConFluence-Film Blog has a very special guest article to share.  In my travels to San Francisco to shoot a new feature film, I recently had the supreme privilege of meeting and sharing a nice long chat with a filmmaking hero of mine, after having exchanged e-mail correspondence with him.  Bay Area independent film icon Rob Nilsson, winner of the Cannes Film Festival Camera d'Or for his debut feature Northern Lights (1979) and the Sundance Grand Jury Prize for Heat and Sunlight (1987), patented a brand of independent filmmaking known as Direct Action, an improvisational theater approach to filmmaking that takes a "just do it" approach to making movies, allowing creative storytelling about real people in real circumstances.  Nilsson has acquired a dedicated coterie of admirers, which includes none other than the late John Cassavetes himself, who called his Signal 7 (1985), "A seminal work."  Rob is helping us with our film as well, and gave my film The Idiotmaker's Gravity Tour a lovely promotional quote this past year.  Mr. Nilsson penned a response to the 2009 Iranian film A Separation.  I am honored to be featuring it on the blog as a guest article.

Government is a four ring circus, each ring defined by a word beginning with P: Power, Protection, Pride and Profit.  Sad as this might sound we would never want to add Purity as the fifth P.  It’s the Pure I’m most afraid of.  Almost as much as the Sure.  Beware the “V word” too.  Virtue attends every inquisition, every bloody purge. Yes, we should advocate truthfulness, empathy, courage, honesty and other “virtues” but these are not ends in themselves.  How could they be?

Politicians are circus performers and we are the animals.  And in their four Rings our political figures perform many merry acts with and upon us, while regaling us with “truths” mostly lacking in empirical proof. When they are seeking election, they’ll say almost anything with the authority of worldly savants possessed of special understanding.  We listen to them pontificate and judge their obvious distortions, skeptical, but then, who else do we have? When they are elected they can’t act nearly as irresponsibly because now they are engaged in the actual work of governance.  And here, as greedy, petty, and venal as they may be, they need to be listened to.

Because it is through a process of intense debate with opposing peers that we get the best that can be gotten from the political process.  If we were to toss aside all the prevaricators and ask for the coming of the new Akhenaten who would toss out all uncertainty (and therefore all debate) in favor of sun worship, we would reap, eventually, the same as that all conquering poet.  Disaster.  His city deserted.  His tomb desecrated.  His memory besmirched.  Like Lenin.  Ghengis Khan.  Xerxes.  And as for Revolution as a means to achieve justice, which would you like to have lived through:  Russian, Chinese, Cambodian… ? Luckier the American or even the French.  But luck runs out and I don’t like the odds… or the body counts.

The only hedge we have against disaster is constant debate, constant struggle, constant warfare between competing notions, 1/4 of which will be too difficult for most to follow, 1/4 of which will be so self interested none of the opposition will support it, 1/4 of which will be criminally stupid, or insane, and 1/4 of which offers enough wiggle room for the kind of compromise which can actually benefit opposing sides.  This is a hard ball game in a stadium with owners prepared to give out the signal to kill, maim and destroy if this compromise cannot be reached.  Therefore, something as tenuous, mysterious, and poetic as truth, or virtue, or beauty can only be achieved outside the political realm, perhaps on the level of what we call Art, be that poetry, music, sport, dance, philosophy, literature, or whatever it is when we contemplate the wonders of the natural world.

I think it’s Eric Rohmer who said, “Life offers only exceptions.”  In spite of all our language, laws, beliefs and rational decisions, life almost always turns out different than we expect.  We write a Constitution, a Bill of Rights, and a whole host of laws.  You’d think we might be able to have a social structure with these helpful guidelines alone.  But we can’t.  Every day in every town, county, state, and city, there are hundreds and thousands of trials before magistrates, juries, and judges requiring fallible humans to interpret human experience on the basis of law, but a law never flexible enough to cover all the human contradictions, paradoxes and “exceptions” certain to crop up.

Everything written must be interpreted on the basis of what people actually do.  So this huge infrastructure of crime and punishment, of mercy and judgment, of sentences and acquittals, everyday grinds out decisions, some clear cut, some obfuscating, but all some sort of acknowledgement of compromises necessary because of the crazy prolixity of human need, desire, and belief.  When law and what people do seem to jibe, perhaps because of common customs and long standing traditions, everything seems more simple.

But rarely is.  In our democracy appeals can and do go on for years, leading us to understand that there are so many social, personal, religious, spiritual, ethical forces in play, that absolute certainty is impossible to attain.  Sure a person may be guilty, but was he insane?  Was he tortured, misled, confused, accused, molested, lost his capacity to reason?  And who is to blame for that?  And how much?  And, since the problem is difficult to resolve, can aggrieved and accused reach an agreement out of court?  Or plead diminished capacity?  Or… pay blood money for the whole thing to be dropped?

An extraordinary Iranian film A Separationdirected by Asghar Farhadi and winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, 2012 shows how the attempt to achieve justice can be extraordinarily painful and difficult when people come from different social classes and levels of education.  A labyrinth with no easy exits.  As an exercise I tried to write down its complex twists and turns.   After four pages, single spaced, I still could not re-construct everything.  And this is after watching the film twice.  But this should not stop anyone from going to see it.  The plot of A Separation is rare because its twists and turns are based on the human complexities mentioned above and creates a rambling blueprint for moral ambiguity and the interstices between truth and fiction where we spend most of our waking hours.

Most films with a lot of plot make few concessions to this kind of complexity.  They ramble on assuming people only want suspense, mystery, a thrill here and there, some plot “oohs and aahs” and a conclusion.  The tyros never tire of talking about stories needing a beginning, middle and end.  But nothing has a beginning, middle and end.  Everything in life is in flux, always changing, one form into another, a form into a color, into a contretemps of both, a Gaudi construct, a Chihuly flourish, a Mandelbrot mystery, commonplace, expected, unexpected.

Art which stops at “story” has stopped too soon.  There are no stories out in the world.  As adults we don’t live in stories.  We live in circumstances which change and evolve, and are ourselves, changing, changeable creatures, wanting one thing one day and another thing another.  When we were children stories were read to us.  But now the opportunity for a truly poetic immersion in the ebb and flow of things beckons us.  Unfortunately most of us don’t heed the call.

A Separation is that rare film where plot can’t be put on a graph and parsed out by acts.  It follows a precarious path of human need set against responsibility and social mores.  It’s a hard film to summarize and makes us feel like we’re watching everything else going on around us which we can’t quite figure out.  Two types of Iranian families create the conflict.  A modern family of some means, the husband, Nader (played by Peyman Moadi) works in a bank, the wife, Simin, (Leila Hatami), is a teacher, and both come into conflict with a traditional family when a caretaker for Nader’s father (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) a victim of Alzheimers, is needed. Razieh, a pregnant woman with a traditional Islamic background (Sareh Bayat) is hired and immediately a problem arises.  She can’t let her husband, Hadjat (Shahab Hosseini) an unemployed cobbler who is currently in legal trouble due to his inability to pay an onerous debt, know she is working in a home with no other women present (Simin has left Nader and gone to live with her mother.)

Complications ensue when the grandfather wanders away and Razieh is hit by a car while trying to rescue him.  She tells no one about the accident and later blames her employer, Nader, for a miscarriage, claiming he pushed her down some stairs.  Legal problems result and Nader will be charged with murder if it can be proved he pushed Razieh while knowing she was pregnant.  Hadjat feels obliged to avenge the death of his unborn child and is seen stalking Nader and Simin’s daughter, Termeh, (Sarina Farhadi). Blood money enters in.  If the modern school girl, Termeh, is in danger of Hadjat’s revenge, it seems that tradition allows for monetary compensation to substitute for the “eye for an eye” solution.

The plot is rich in uncertainy.  Razieh has told no one about her accident but is her failure to speak a “lie”?  Did she miscarry because of the accident or because she was pushed by Nader?  She says she isn’t sure.  Nader admits he pushed her, but not hard enough to make her fall down the stairs, and claims he never knew that Razieh was pregnant, but later admits to Termeh that he overheard it.   But to admit that in court would mean being tried for murder, with no one left to care for her or her grandfather.   Would Termeh want that to happen as a consequence of the “truth”?

Termeh’s tutor, who knew the woman was pregnant, swears on the Qur’an to a magistrate that, based on the position of people in the room when the pregnancy was discussed, the husband could not have known Razieh was pregnant.  But she later recants, possibly fearing for her own safety.  Now Termeh, who has great respect for the truth, is the only available protection for her father, Nader, and she tells a lie in court to protect him.

Her mother, Simin, fails to tell Nader of a visit she has with Razieh who tells her she doesn’t want Simin’s family to offer blood money because, since she is not sure how she lost the child, she could be committing a sin which could have negative consequences for her own daughter.  But Simin knows that if the blood money is not paid, Termeh will be in danger from Hadjat, and Nader will be required again, to prove his innocence in court.  Here’s a potential impasse which seems beyond solution.

However, a meeting does take place between the two families.  Nader is ready to make out a considerable check to the family of Razieh and Hadjat.  This solution would cross the divide between two ways of life and save Nader from formal prosecution, save Termeh from fear of a revenge killing, help Hadjat pay back his debt, and allow everyone to go back to their own lives.  It even appears that Razieh is ready to stay silent and to go along with this solution in spite of her fear of committing a sin.

However, Nader has not been told of Razieh’s reservations and of the meeting between her and Simin and, perhaps not realizing how precarious the situation is, commits the only error which could jeopardize the agreement.  Insisting on being assured that he is in the right, in spite of being willing to pay the price for being wrong, he asks Razieh to swear on the Qur’an that he, Nader, caused the miscarriage.  All he wants, as compensation for the money he feels he is being coerced to pay, is that Razieh, do the one thing she cannot do: swear on the Qur’an that something is true, which might not be.  The fear of the sin trumps all worldly considerations.

People try to wiggle out of things.  This is one of the conundrums the film explores.  Customs which require strict adherence to codes are always difficult to honor and here, it seems no one wants to be a martyr to the truth.  Razieh has caused a great deal of pain by not admitting she was hit by a car.  And, on principal, she is opposed to doing anything which might be considered sinful by her traditional religious code.  However, she has allowed the meeting to take place and so it seems that she will evade her moral dilemma by simply not saying anything.  But when Nader needs to know that he’s paying the money for a literal truth, (which is, quite likely, actually a lie) rather than compromising with social demands which can’t be controverted, he assures the failure of that compromise.

Hadjat is amazed and shattered that Razieh‘s fundamentalist fear of a sin makes a worldly agreement, agreeable to all, impossible. Now Hadjat will be unable to pay his debt and, facing debtor’s prison or worse, he rushes out.  The modern family walks to their car to find a rock thrown through the window, revenge on the man who was ready to write the check which would have solved all their problems.  In the end two fundamentalist positions, one Eastern, traditional and based on religion, and one Western, liberal and based on reason, make it impossible for a compromise to be made which would have benefited all concerned.

This is the great achievement of A Separation.  It never says so, but it illustrates, with great subtlety, that the only really humane decision must always be a compromise.  Absolute truth is absolute tyranny.  Ideals show desirable moral and ethical positions, but they must be interpreted, made flexible by circumstance and human feelings, proving out the one human truth we’ve never been able to circumvent: to be human is to disagree.  And disagreement must be kept short of the line which, once crossed, results in the mayhem and violence we see all around us, and which we are almost always powerless to prevent.

Life offers only exceptions.  And I would say that the “just exceptions” we seek are best obtained in a system where everyone accepts the proposition that absolute truth is impossible to achieve, and where everyone accepts mediation as the only way to avoid chaos.  And maybe we have that system in America where the burden of proof is on the state.  We’re innocent until found guilty.  Judges and juries make decisions.  Right and wrong ones.  Elections are won and lost. But time allows for new decisions, postponements, appeals and repeals.  Even if there is insufficient variety in our two party system, even if there is racism, class struggle, gender and sexual conflict, leadership can, and does change, laws are repealed and new ones created and even if the whole unruly process seems something of a freak show, we have the world of Art and Nature to repair to when politics, law and government get it wrong.

Except that here we find an “exception” with terrible consequences.  Today everything and anything is ART.  If enough so- called, and often self proclaimed, experts anoint and proclaim it so, however spuriously, it is SO. Which really means that nothing is Art. And so our real Masters are often ignored and their social power to instruct and delight is wasted. Jerome Witkin, for example is the greatest living American painter you’ve never heard of.  And his relative obscurity represents just one of many crimes committed today by the art establishment.  And nature is severely threatened by our expanding economies and wasteful use of resources.  Exceptions...which prove the rule.