Monday, October 29, 2007

Film Review #133: Key Canadian Films by Women
2007 – Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre

Artist on Fire: The Work of Joyce Wieland (1987, Kay Armatage, 54 min.)
Kisses (1976, Betty Ferguson, 55 min.)
P4W: Prison for Women (1981, Janis Cole & Holly Dale, 82 min.)
Low Visibility (1984, Patricia Gruben 84 min.)

Looking straight into the camera, her own face alight with enthusiasm, the artist and filmmaker Joyce Wieland – who had confided only a few moments before that as a child she drew pictures of naked women for neighborhood boys because they’d pay her a nickel each – recalls the excitement of one project from the early 1980s and how, “In the middle of drawing something, I’d say, “Wait’ll they see this!”

These and other infectious moments make it unsurprising that Armatage borrowed the title of a 1983 painting by Wieland for her film, just as Jane Lind did for her biography of Wieland in 2001. Introduced to the breadth of Wieland’s work – besides extensive clips from the films, oil paintings, water colors, drawings, quilts and mixed-media constructions – by way of this captivating documentary, it’s hard to imagine one can’t order up the films straight away by a quick jump on-line to Netflix. Alas, one cannot – not her feature fiction film about the French/English tensions in Canadian identity, The Far Shore (1976), which Armatage writes about in the first chapter of George Melnyk’s new Great Canadian Film Directors, nor any of Wieland’s shorts, or indeed any of the four films in this set – and chances are that vast armadas of movie lovers don’t know they exist at all. In choosing Armatage’s film as the centerpiece of this important four-disc set, the CFMDC has wisely and strategically provided the kind of inviting overview that might jumpstart a revival beyond Canada too.

This four-disc set presents feature-length experimental works produced by Canadian women filmmakers from the mid-1970s through the late 1980s. Besides the portrait of Wieland, an obvious choice, there’s a found-footage compilation of the history of movie kissing, a cinéma vérité doc about Canada’s only maximum security prison for women in 1981, and a haunting narrative suspense feature from the founder of Vancouver’s Praxis, the screenwriting institute modeled on her own experience at Sundance. But in even broader context, because Wieland particularly worked across art forms and is well known in Canada – in some quarters perhaps more for her visual arts than her films – besides shedding light on that period of women’s filmmaking in Canada, this set links with parallel developments of the same period in the US when women’s visual arts were exploding – a period now being systematically observed and celebrated by major museum shows in the US such as the traveling WACK! show in Los Angeles and Washington, and the Brooklyn Museum’s permanent installation of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party along with its Global Feminisms exhibit by younger women artists. The latter especially comes full circle back to Wieland’s ease in working across art forms with its high concentration of video and film works. Meanwhile, the 18th annual St. John’s International Women’s Film Festival – just held in mid-October in Newfoundland – culled a five-day program of 80 films from over 500 entries.

Kay Armatage has herself been a senior programmer since 1983 at the Toronto’s International Film Festival, where she lives and writes prolifically about Canada’s women filmmakers, teaches cinema studies and between 1975-87 made seven well-received documentary and experimental narrative films that concluded with the award-winning Artist on Fire. This kind of long-term familiarity with Toronto’s film scene has especially infused and informed Artist on Fire. Wieland was mostly based in Toronto except for the decade (1963-73) that she and her husband and sometime collaborator, filmmaker and sculptor Michael Snow (Wavelength), spent in New York City. As a painter, Wieland held her first solo show in 1960 at the Issacs Gallery, a space often devoted to screening evenings for avant-garde Toronto filmmakers. This moment also gave rise in 1967 to the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC) itself – founded by young filmmakers including David Cronenberg, producer Lorne Michaels (Wayne’s World, Saturday Night Live), Ivan Reitman and others – now celebrating its own 40th anniversary.

Wieland made nine films, eight of them shorts that experimentally linked and extended her visual arts work, focusing on Canadian identity, ecology, feminism and sexuality. Rat Life and Diet in North American (1968) focused on Vietnam-era US draft dodgers seeking refuge in Canada from a symbol-laden giant cat. Reason Over Passion (1969) explored her admiration for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and what his presence meant for the nation. In Dripping Water (1969) she collaborated with Michael Snow and in 1984’s A and B in Ontario with avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton. Armatage draws from a variety of archival interviews with Wieland, footage of her at home and in her studio, in conversation, at work and facing a camera, clips of her films and paintings and quilts. Armatage also provides extensive voice-over commentary and discussion from Michael Snow, The Far Shore’s producer Judy Steed, and art historian Dennis Reid, an expert on both Michael Snow and Canadian nationalist landscape painter Thom Thomson, one inspiration for The Far Shore.

In 1976, Wieland used this feature-length film to present a narrative melodrama of deep woods romance between married, French-speaking Quebec native Eulalie (Céline Lomez) and English-speaking Tom McLeod (Frank Moore), loosely based on painter Thom Thomson (who had mysteriously disappeared in the northern Ontario wilderness). Because Armatage has written in detail elsewhere about this film, it’s possible now to match many clips from The Far Shore that she uses in Artist on Fire. But it’s likely that when she made the film in 1987, she assumed a familiarity with Wieland’s then only 11-year-old film among audiences. Now, despite the film’s engaging style and its wealth of accessible detail about Wieland’s fine arts work, many of the references to The Far Shore especially are obscure without aid or the chance to actually watch that film. Although the CFMDC maintains an inventory of Wieland’s films, they remain hard to come by in the US.

In producing this set, the CFMDC has provided written background for each film that highlights each film as an example of a style from that period, background on filmmaker and subject, and suggested further reading and viewing, but these are rather more skewed to film theory than will be helpful for many new, more general viewers.

Betty Ferguson’s 1976 collage, Kisses, collects clips of an extraordinary range of kisses from silent movies and later mainstream narrative film, newsreels and vintage television series. Ferguson noted that the censorship of Hollywood films under the Hayes Code (1930-66) meant that kissing came to stand for more explicit and sexual acts, though well before the 30s - even in the earliest days of the moving image - there was already a preoccupation with kissing as a subject. “Found footage” remains very much a part of experimental filmmaking today, as ever serving to comment on how ideology attaches to visual images by severing them from their original context and comparing them with similar images. Just as Wieland often worked in fabric, intentionally collapsing the distinction between high art and women’s craft, Ferguson hand-painted and tinted each print of Kisses in order to directly touch each, likening the film to a quilt in describing the images as “patchwork” and the tinting as “embroidery.”

In some ways an exhaustive catalogue, Kisses systematically “lists” examples of types of kisses – on hands, resisted kisses, aborted or interrupted kisses, baby kissing, kisses on the cheek, congratulations, kisses between manly comrades, variations on Sleeping Beauty, passion past and well, more recent, deadly kisses, debauched kisses, making out at the movies, operatic kisses, kisses on the way to the guillotine and devout oaths sworn on the good steel of pistols and swords. A good deal of humor arises from rapid juxtaposition of clips in some spots, and Ferguson provides more extended clips elsewhere – for example, a long (and quite tense) sequence of Lillian Gish as a tragic heroine almost swept away on an ice floe over some wintry falls. Elsewhere she pulls a 1956 dream sequence from the George Reeves Superman TV series in which Lois Lane imagines her marriage to the Man of Steel.

Having met in film school in 1975, Janis Cole and Holy Dale formed their Toronto-based production company, Spectrum Films, in the early 1980s. P4W: Prison for Women (1981) was a key early feature length documentary, subscribing to direct cinema’s insistence on hand-held cameras, small crews, natural light, and the absence of the filmmaker’s own voice as narrator. Cole and Dale have specialized in films about people who are marginalized – their 1984 Hookers on Davie portrays Vancouver sex workers, for example – and in allowing them to tell their own stories.

Broadcast nationally in Canada on the CBC, P4W won the 1982 Canadian Genie for best documentary, profiling Bev, Janise and Debbie (a couple being split by the release of one partner who sentence is almost up), Maggie (acquitted of killing one abusive husband during an alcoholic blackout, she is serving time for a second murder under similar circumstances), and the red-robed Susie (“I was known to be kinky,” she says of the still-hazy murder of a transvestite roommate). P4W features remarkable and still riveting extended sequences of intimate conversation among these and other inmates at the Kingston Women’s Prison in Ontario – about their relationships, their attempts to stay connected with their children, how their time has piled up, and the affectionate banter among them as well as the toll prison life takes. Two women who seem too young to be out of junior high school appear briefly several times, offering opinions on the fairness of the system, each casually bearing grids of fresh cuts, scars and pinched, hand-done tattoos up and down both arms.

Finally, Patricia Gruben’s Low Visibility (1984) was her first feature-length narrative film, which has been followed by further suspense dramas Deep Sleep (1990) and Ley Lines (1993). A Texan who migrated to Canada in 1973, Gruben settled in Vancouver a decade later and in 1986 co-founded Praxis, a twice-yearly screenwriting institute for Canadians housed in Simon Fraser University and modeled on the Sundance Institute that Gruben attended while making Low Visibility.

This story begins inside the frigid wilderness mountains and forests of Vancouver’s Manning Park as a man stumbles wildly along a deserted snowy roadside in dawn light. Two women drive by and decide not to stop as he might be dangerous. Taken to a Vancouver hospital, this nameless man (Larry Lillo) appears amnesiac and unable to speak except in explosive profanities. The combined will, technologies and methods of reporters, police and various doctors fail to uncover his story. The more casual and irreverent nurses, who nickname him Mr. Bones, and a psychic called in to channel events, have more success. Low Visibility is certainly about cerebral concerns that Gruben has developed in all her films – the importance of context and geography specifically in acting upon and defining self, the dubious efficacy of language, the pervasive and oppressive nature of media, and the scant possibilities for contact. Low Visibility is based upon an actual reported incident of a wilderness plane crash after which some survivors ate the remains of those who died in the crash, even though, as the police officer informs Mr. Bones late in this story, “the road was right there.” So when one doctor asks Mr. Bones – absurdly, it’s plain – to use plastic pieces to “make a face” from a child’s Mr. Potato Head set, and Mr. Bones smashes the plastic pieces into his dinner plate, this seems nonsensical and resistant, until we learn that another passenger's flesh – perhaps a pregnant woman who “was going to die anyway” – may have been what sustained him. The sequences during which voices from the crash faintly intrude upon the psychic’s imagining of the frigid, blue wilderness from a plane are a radical and haunting stylistic departure from the flat footage inside the hospital room and the blurry monitor installed to watch Mr. Bones from above.

In observance of CFMDC’s 40th anniversary, except for the Armatage film, these will have public screening in Toronto during a week over the end of November and early December, along with some others, notably David Secter’s Winter Kept Us Warm (1965), Canada’s first gay feature-length film. For those of us who can’t make those screenings, this set signals a growing interest and availability of some enduring Canadian work.

This review appears in today’s Key Canadian Works by Women is available either as a four-disc set or by separate title, for sale on newly mastered DVD and for rental and exhibition on newly struck 16 mm, from the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in Toronto, Earlier issues of Kay Armatage’s Artist on Fire also available from Women Make Movies in New York City and Patricia Gruben’s Low Visibility (as well as her short, Sifted Evidence) from Canyon Cinema in San Francisco.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Film Review #132: Oswald’s Ghost
Director: Robert Stone
Cast: Lee Harvey Oswald, Norman Mailer, Oliver Stone

One could see this new documentary, which premiered earlier this month at the 8th Woodstock Film Festival in the Catskill Mountains north of New York City, simply as a stream-lined recapitulation of the John F. Kennedy assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963 and the persistent controversies surrounding that event – an update arriving at a moment when reappraisal of the 1960s and especially Vietnam is well underway, driven by the competing convictions that Iraq either is or is not like “that” – and useful to a younger audience for establishing a kind of baseline. After all, Robert Stone is the same filmmaker commissioned in 1992 to produce the 22-part permanent multimedia exhibition at Boston’s Kennedy Library, so he certainly comes to this project well enough immersed in Kennedy-as-subject. But slotting this film as a Cliff Notes primer – a short-cut around the 2,000-plus books already written about the Dallas assassination – both underestimates and misses Stone’s point.

Just as his 2004 film, Guerilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, was really not much about Patty Hearst – he didn’t interview her, focusing instead on her surviving kidnappers, remnants of the Symbionese Liberation Army – Oswald’s Ghost is not so much about Kennedy per se as a history of the belief in his assassination as an act of conspiracy and how the upheavals of the 60s as a decade unrolled from that point. Stone notes that, for many, Kennedy’s assassination and Vietnam merged into a continuum whose parts mirrored and reinforced each other. With “lie after lie after lie” about the prosecution of the Vietnam War from the government, asks investigator Josiah Thompson (his Six Seconds in Dallas proposed three assassins, five bullets), why not believe in some JFK plot and cover-up? And vice versa. Even before Richard Nixon’s “dirty tricks,” the 60s saw Medgar Evers assassinated four months before JFK, Malcolm X assassinated in early 1965, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinated just two months apart in 1968.

But explicitly making this link between JFK’s death and Vietnam – laying out what may seem intuitively too obvious to belabor – allows the parallel with our own decade to snap sharply, vividly into focus. It seems entirely fitting that Stone premiered Oswald’s Ghost at Woodstock – with its conscious nod to the legendary rock festival, its poster and logo drawn by the psychedelic artist associated with that era, Peter Max – and that Stone has moved upstate himself with his productions offices in nearby Rhinebeck now so that such an icon becomes “my local film festival.”

To be sure, the roots of Oswald’s Ghost are deeper for Robert Stone than 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror. Stone says he’s wanted to make this movie for fifteen years, since seeing JFK, Oliver’s Stone’s 1991 film about New Orleans DA Jim Garrison’s convoluted accusations against the CIA, with his truth serum and hypnotism and coded phone numbers and penchant for blaming gay men. Oswald’s Ghost features archival footage from a 1991 interview Oliver Stone gave on the set plus a clip of Senator Richard Russell explaining solemnly to Congress the steps that supposedly yielded Jack Ruby’s phone number. Robert Stone was only five years old when Dallas happened, but he still recalls watching Lee Harvey Oswald “crumple” on live TV when Jack Ruby shot him in a hallway full of police officers.

Dallas – that event about which we have no single set of facts everyone agrees on, the event that Kennedy’s successor in office, Lyndon Johnson, privately believed till he died involved conspiracy, to which he must respond by acting tough in the only place he could make the point, Vietnam – Dallas was simply the 9/11 of Robert Stone’s generation, what “robbed my generation of our idealism, optimism and security. In the past six years, we’ve watched a new generation experience that same trauma.”

At the time of the Woodstock Film Festival screenings, Stone related that he had just sold Guerilla to PBS and the BBC when he proposed the Oswald film to them. “It was the quickest pitch I ever gave: half a sentence.”

That link between eras is in the water these days. Photographer Geoffrey Clifford’s touring Smithsonian exhibit of Vietnam prints – a US pilot during the war, Clifford returned afterward numerous times – though slated in 2001 to tour nationally for two years, had bookings that kept it going until late last summer. It’s telling that young Iraq Veterans Against the War members have been distributing David Zeiger’s bracing, revelatory doc about Vietnam-era war resistance within the US military, Sir! No Sir!, out on DVD late last December, at peace marches. In May, Vincent Bugliosi – prosecutor of the 1969 Manson Family murders and author of Helter Skelter (1994) – published his Reclaiming History, two decades of research in defense of the Warren Commission’s official findings that Oswald acted alone. In January, Norman Mailer re-issued his 1995 effort to imagine his way inside the assassin’s psyche, Oswald’s Tale.

Three days before the Mailer book re-issue, Robert Stone had screened his work-in-progress once in Salt Lake City. Stone wastes no time making his link: Mailer essentially opens the film – after a long shot that strains upward through tree foliage at the window from which Oswald fired his shots – with his emphatic statement, “The real shock was philosophical – that American might not go on. The same kind of confusion followed 9/11.” Later Mailer elaborates that confusion in an elegant phrase as “a morass of possibilities” that introduces the section in the film that catalogues the range of conspiracy theorists and their books – Edward Jay Epstein’s Inquest (the Warren Commission was honest but missed certain trails), Mark Lane’s Rush to Judgment (the Warren Commission was in on it and knew shots came from two directions), Josiah Thompson’s Six Seconds in Dallas (three assassins, five bullets), Garrison. Photographed with his arm around Mailer for the film’s publicity stills, Stone has said that Mailer is the only person he interviewed for Oswald’s Ghost with the “intellectual honesty to change his mind about the assassination.” Concluding that Oswald was “damned bright,” Mailer says, “I wanted it to be a conspiracy, but I couldn’t make it add up.”

Hooking the Dallas assassination to the overall narrative of 1960s disillusion and rupture allows Robert Stone to more forcefully make the analogy with our own political situation now. Activists Tom Hayden and Todd Gitlin, journalists Dan Rather and Hugh Aynesworth, and historians Robert Dallek and Priscilla Johnson McMillan (she knew Kennedy and had met Oswald when he lived in Russia as a defector) all speak thoughtfully and incisively about these links. Just as important, Stone unhooks something else that’s related to Mailer’s change of mind. That is, eventually not proving one’s conspiracy theory doesn’t diminish the meaning and damage of what flowed in part from fearing that Dallas conspiracy is one among others that were real.

It’s actually Norman Mailer – who effectively closes the film too, just before a long slow pan around the inside of the room from which Oswald fired – who names the film, remarking that Oswald is a ghost over American life.

In a lengthy 2001 interview with Christina Pochmursky for the Canadian Documentary Channel’s “InCamera” program – you can find this as an extra on the DVD of Stone’s first feature length documentary, the Oscar-nominated Radio Bikini (1987) – it’s evident that Stone has himself been a creature of that skeptical zeitgeist in his cinematic methods and subjects. With Radio Bikini, this Princeton historian’s son addressed the 1946 atomic tests on the Pacific island of Bikini that left it uninhabitable, the evacuation and dispersal of its people and the long-term health effects on the US sailors who were swimming in the bay ten hours after the blasts – and the huge, later scrapped plan (some 750 cameras) to film this project as a propaganda tool for world opinion in the wake of Hiroshima.

Radio Bikini already demonstrates Stone’s style – his collaging of archival footage and images, his fondness for long quiet shots that establish a palpable presence in places, his overlay of subjects’ images and conversations in place of a single narration, his preference for allowing audiences time to feel instead of bombarding them with facts and statistics, his gentle use of music as counterpoint to images. Stone has also made documentaries that explored the propaganda pervading the early US/Soviet space race (The Satellite Sky, 1990), the belief in government cover-ups of UFO’s in the 1950s (Farewell, Good Brothers, 1992), narcotics detectives in Atlantic City (American Babylon, 2000), how Vietnam has been recreated on film (Hollywood Vietnam, 2005). Stone says his films are about belief, about what happens to images projected into the arena of mass media spectacle. A fitting preoccupation for a child of Dallas.

For one thing, every year, 400,000 people visit Dealy Plaza in Dallas for the still-running guided assassination tours. About 70% of Americans still believe JFK’s death was engineered by conspiracy. Oswald’s Ghost just might come to a theater near you – coinciding with the official Woodstock premiere, Oswald’s Ghost also screened in San Francisco, and since then has had successive short stealth runs in Santa Fe and Portland, Oregon – but if it doesn’t, catch it on PBS’ America Experience on January 14th.

This review appears in the 10/29/07 issue of Oswald’s Ghost starts its official theatrical run in New York City on November 30.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Film Review #131: Misery
Director: Rob Reiner
Cast: Kathy Bates, James Caan, Richard Farnsworth

I’m sure other places have their stalkers. But there’s something peculiarly American about obsessed fans targeting celebrities. It’s embedded in the stories we tell here, ever since the frontier West, with its sheer expanse, invention and excess – and its desperados and swindlers – gave rise to dime novels and trashy headlines. And our celebrities have often been bandits in some way or other too, playing fast and loose, only to meet their come-uppance from self-appointed judges.

Suppose fandom gone awry is one new brand of frontier justice? It’s no coincidence that David Milch began his HBO series Deadwood with the murder of Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine) by a resentful fan who shot him in the back during a poker game after Hickok dissed his reverence. The show’s entire first season really occurs in the shadow of Wild Bill’s murder. Now we wait week after week here in Central New York for Brad Pitt’s new movie, but how many films have re-counted how hanger-on Robert Howard shot Jesse James, also in the back? Netflix carries DVDs of a dozen such films, including San Fuller’s recently re-issued 1949 classic, I Shot Jesse James, which recounts how Ford – playing himself – turned that event into popular touring entertainment.

The story of best-selling romance novelist Paul Sheldon’s abduction by his deranged “number one fan,” Annie Wilkes, seems headed for similar longevity and there’s more than a whiff of parallel. Careening down a Colorado mountain road in a blizzard, fueled by champagne because he’s just finished a novel, his radio blasting Junior Walker’s “Shotgun” and his baby blue Mustang slewing around those hairpins, Sheldon (James Caan) plunges right off a wilderness cliff. Then a powerful, completely bundled figure – not obviously female – plucks him as easily as a doll from the wreckage.

Kathy Bates won an Oscar for her full-tilt Annie Wilkes, by lightening veers efficient, playful, adoring, easily flattered, coldly annihilating. The ex-nurse first sets Paul’s crushed legs, then holds him prisoner so he can write again, resurrecting the heroine he tried to kill off. Annie imagines the world will soon know her as Sheldon’s “muse,” but decides a suicide pact is their destiny when a nosy old-school sheriff (Richard Farnsworth) intrudes on her “spread” outside town. “I’ve given it some thought, darling,” Annie confides earnestly after one raging outburst, putting it as someone a third her age might, “and I think the main reason I haven’t been more popular is my temper.”

Stephen King published his novel Misery – partially based on his own abduction by a fan – in 1987. Rob Reiner directed the 1990 screen version, following an earlier King adaptation (Stand by Me). Screenwriter William Goldman came aboard for the first of three collaborations with King. This movie has returned on DVD six times now, the latest just this month. In 1992 Simon Moore adapted Misery for live performance. That play opened last night at Syracuse Stage, with a nod to King as “master of horror,” as we head for Halloween But I think Annie Wilkes’ horror is more home-grown than otherworldly.

Consider the figure of Paul Sheldon, whose choice of car and music immediately echoes the Old West, and whose career trajectory conjures traces of outlaw celebrity and disappointed fans. He considers himself a fake and a thief for writing sentimental, formulaic trash. His Manhattan agent (Lauren Bacall) tartly reminds him that the travails of Misery Chastain, spread over ten books, have bought his daughter’s braces and put her through college. But Paul Sheldon was on that Colorado mountain – old gold rush country – to reinvent himself with a manuscript that restores his self-respect. His first clue about Annie is precisely her heart-felt belief in the brilliance of his Misery books. Nearly as devoted to the kitsch pianist Liberace, she helpfully pipes endless looping tracks of his renditions of “I’ll Be Seeing You” and Tchaikovsky’s “Moonlight Sonata” into Paul’s room to inspire his creativity. Along comes Buster the sheriff, right out of Dodge City with his Stetson and handlebar mustache and sheepskin jacket and laid-back ways. Whatever their artistic yearnings and veneer, you know this signals that Paul and Annie’s showdown is savage when it comes.

It’s also worth watching Reiner and Goldman, both action thriller veterans, move their story along on tension and dread, setting parallel scenes racing against one another: Annie’s truck sliding by Buster’s office window with a shark’s silent menace, Sheldon’s hurried, painful, secret forays out of bed during Annie’s trips to town, her own escalating outbursts against Buster’s steady, intuitive but plodding search. It makes you worry that this fan stuff is more than a phase.

This review appeared in the 10/25/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Film Review #130: American Gypsy
1999/DVD 2007
Director: Jasmine Dellal
Cast: Jimmy, Jane , Grover & Lippie Marks

“It just goes to show, you don’t know what you have till you get back in the editing room! I had rejected that interview in my mind, because I didn’t get the answers I wanted. Then I watched it and it’s gold dust!”

British-born filmmaker Jasmine Dellal is talking about one of my favorite scenes too in American Gypsy, her 1999 feature-length documentary about the Marks family and their eleven-year civil rights suit against the city of Spokane, Washington, for a 1986 police raid during which money, jewelry and family heirlooms were confiscated and women in the family manhandled in ways particularly repugnant to their culture. Once a student of the great Marlon Riggs (Tongues Untied, 1990), Dellal has spent the past decade researching, filming, editing and marketing this film and its exuberant successor, last summer’s concert tour movie Gypsy Caravan. Although it’s long sold well on VHS, American Gypsy just released last month on DVD, getting a leg up from the summer buzz trailing Gypsy Caravan. Both have taken awards and broken serious cinematic ground in their coverage of the Rom – a.k.a. Gypsies – legendary for their avoidance of strangers or gadje, because of persecution they have endured nearly everywhere in the 1,000 years since they left northern India to wander westward and because of their own cultural practices around ritual purity and contamination.

Dellal’s films hit US screens at important moments in public attention toward the Rom. This particular scene – the magic one Dellal almost threw away – clearly records what feels like one of those deal-breaker moments without which Dellal’s films might not have happened in nearly the same form we now have them.

The scene she and I are talking about on the phone – she lives in New York City where she runs Little Dust Productions, and just got back from Gypsy Caravan premieres in two European countries – involves getting a kind of implicit permission along with more obvious background information from Jimmy Marks’ parents in order to proceed with filming what became American Gypsy. A charming, pudgy, Stetson-wearing tale-spinner and head of the family car dealership in Spokane, Jimmy had already stepped shockingly outside custom by suing the city. Then he answered Dellal’s newspaper ad. (She wanted to make a movie about Gypsies in the US, of which there are about a million, by far the greatest number being Vlax, those hailing from Romania where landowners held them as slaves until 1864.) Then Jimmy got his wife Jane to appear on camera with Dellal. But Dellal could not go forward as easily if Jimmy’s parents, Grover and Lippie, said no.

Lippie is the hold-out, a bent old woman with wisps of silver hair, huge dark-framed eyeglasses dwarfing her face, and a high-stake poker player’s ruthless, steady, calculating squint. With one eye ever on the alien camera in her dining room, Lippie’s a marvel of cool evasion, mildly answering with contradictions, testing this gadje girl. Then Dellal catches a lie, asks, amused, “Lippie, are you joking me? You said…” and lays out the trick. Once Lippie stumbles and laughs back, heartily, until they are laughing together – and you know the movie’s on.

Not that Dellal didn’t have other superb footage and spokespersons. American Gypsy is remarkably rich in texture and background, employing archival photos, historical texts, swooning music, a thread of dramatic reading about an “Uncle Noah,” and clips from Europe’s wide store of films about Gypsies, often used as astute ironic asides about persisting stereotypes. She also spoke extensively with Bill Duna (Minneapolis musician, college teacher of Rom history and Rom representative on the US Holocaust Commission) and with fellow-Brit Ian Hancock (University of Texas Rom scholar, UN rep for the Rom and coiner of the term Porrajmos – “the devouring” – for the million and a half Gypsies lost in Hitler’s camps). But both men’s life works is to act as public translators and advocates. It’s the Marks family saga and their journey out onto the skinny branches of encountering the larger culture that makes American Gypsy so special.

And the achievement of American Gypsy is largely what made “direct cinema” master Albert Maysles want to shoot Dellal’s next film, the five-bands-from-four-countries, nine-languages-and-35-musicians, sold-out, 16-cities-in-six-weeks 2001 extravaganza that captures so vividly why Time Magazine has compared the emerging growth and popularity of Roma music to the birth of jazz.

So Lippie was right about Jasmine.

This review appears in today’s issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is regular column reviewing DVDs of movies that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth. Look for an interview with Jasmine Dellal next week at

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Film Review #129: Sir! No Sir!
2005/DVD 2006
Director: David Zeiger
Cast: Donald Duncan, Jane Fonda, Howard Levy

It's the oddest sensation, watching the opening frames of this film. Werner Herzog used footage like this to open Rescue Dawn, footage shot from a US helicopter as it bombed a Vietnam village, shacks erupting in plumed blossoms of red and white flame. Same war, really different take.

“It seems unthinkable now,” said Jane Fonda in an interview for David Zeiger’s film about the Vietnam-era GI war resistance movement. She’s talking about the FTA Show that she and actor Donald Sutherland organized. Officially FTA stood for Free Theater Associates, but also nodded at how some GIs transformed the Army’s recruiting tagline, “Fun, Travel and Adventure,” to “Free the Army” as well as a less friendly alternative verb. The cabaret for troops toured near bases in the US, until it was banned, and then performed for some 60,000 GIs in Okinawa and the Philippines. Fonda is talking about “a hall full of guys who were so happy we had come to acknowledge their reality. I used to love the faces of the GIs – a shell would drop away and you’d see the youth and the innocence and the vulnerability underneath.”

Then Zeiger’s film cuts away to 1971 or 72 footage of a packed off-base FTA show in Asia and you can see what Fonda means about the young soldiers’ faces. In another interview, a boyish GI muses on the body of a Viet Cong about his own age whom he had to shoot; he wonders about the young man’s girl friend and who will tell his mother of his death. Among the film’s many recommending attributes, Zeiger’s ability to capture such decisive moments – when we see the humanity of these soldiers and they see the humanity of others – may be the strongest.

Time and again, we see decent young men – and one young woman, a Navy nurse who flew a small plane over California military bases to release anti-war leaflets, in imitation of the US Army’s mass leafleting of North Vietnam – struggling to figure out the right course. Zeigler pairs strong interviews of some key players – he says they were anything but reluctant to speak on record 35 years later – with archival film footage, clips of pirate radio broadcasts, news broadcasts and clippings that show these young people then and now. Sometimes halting and unpolished, they seem surprisingly unconcerned with celebrity and courageous in unrehearsed ways that you can’t help liking them for.

By the Pentagon’s own figures, there were 503,926 troop desertions between 1966 and 1971. Sir! No Sir! is a tightly made, extremely well-edited documentary that recovers the vast history of war resistance within the ranks: strikes in stockades, refusals to fight (some say the extent of these refusals led to Nixon’s switch to an air war in Vietnam and to the non-deployment of the company sent to Chicago for “riot duty” at the 1968 Democratic Convention), marches of thousands, underground newspapers and pirate radio on nearly every military base, dozens of coffee houses where returning GIs mingled with fresh troops who hadn’t shipped out yet and told them the real deal. Donald Duncan, the decorated Green Beret who quit on the cover of Ramparts magazine, is here, silver-haired and unrepentant. Keith Mather was part of the Nine for Peace who refused orders to ship out and sought sanctuary in a San Francisco church; after he was arrested, he organized the sit-down strike inside the Presidio Stockade after a guard shot and killed a prisoner. Louis Font was the first – and only – West Point graduate to refuse orders to fight.

One of the film’s better sections details such war resistance among black GIs. Marine Terry Whitmore, decorated personally by Lyndon Johnson after he had been wounded, went to Sweden instead of back to duty after watching federal troops – “in the same uniform as I got” – battle citizens in the streets in the wrench of agony after Martin Luther King’s assassination. Greg Payton recounts that some brothers landed in the brig for greeting each other with special handshakes and says, “I didn’t know ‘gooks’ was a racial slur. One day a light went off in my head.”

In 1969 David Zeiger himself was just a 19-year-old college freshman. He dropped out that year to work at the GI coffee house outside Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. He spent two years there, where he first met many of those he highlights in this film. Equally valuable, Zeiger addresses official efforts to suppress the extent of the GI anti-war movement and to paint the peace movement as unsupportive of those troops. This includes the famous myth of the hippie girl in beads who spat in returning GIs’ faces and called them baby-killers. Never happened, says sociologist Jerry Lembcke, whose book The Spitting Image examines this circulating story’s origins and the massive disinformation campaign of which it was a part, including Hollywood mainstream movies like Sly Stallone’s 1982 First Blood: Rambo, with his character’s impassioned diatribe against “spitters.” Lots of other movies jumped on that bandwagon –remember John Wayne as a Green Beret ?

Meanwhile, there is one vet who chokes up and can’t finish as he recounts how he saw some soldiers treat Vietnamese prisoners. After a moment he goes on, “Well, I saw things – like we’ve seen again now.” I think he’d like knowing that the local chapter of Iraq Veterans against the War made this DVD, released last December, available to “Make it Snappy,” and I’ll pass it on to Emerald City Video so you can rent it.

This review appeared in the 10/11/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that didn’t open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Film Review #128: Shadows (Senki)
Director: Milcho Manchevski
Cast: Borce Nacev, Vesna Stanojevska, Sabina Ajrula-Tozija

In the 2003 introduction to the published screenplay of his first feature-length fiction film, Before the Rain (1994) – which appeared actually a few months after that of the screenplay for his second feature, Dust (2001) – Milcho Manchevski expressed his frustration with widespread assumptions about that film as literal historical account. “In almost all interviews I gave for newspapers and television in dozens of countries over the final years of the last century,” he writes, “I kept repeating that Before The Rain is not a documentary about former Yugoslavia, nor about Macedonia, nor is it a documentary at all. I would say: ‘You can see this from the aesthetic approach: it’s shot like a fairytale; look at the camera work, or the editing, or the music. I am using actors. It’s scripted, for Heaven’s sake.’ Who got it – got it.”

Now we have Manchevski’s third feature and again there should be no doubt about aesthetic approach. Shadows premiered in early September at the Toronto International Film Festival and was quickly tapped as Macedonia’s official 2008 Oscar entry for Best Foreign Language Film. Already scheduled for theatrical release in ten European nations, this lovely and moving film is just now making the rounds of US distributors. The other two features, with their extended historical elements and fractured, multiple and overlapping narratives – what Manchevski calls “Cubist storytelling” – are widely rentable in the US. Watching the three features close together is extremely rewarding. Manchevski is building a body of work that will shine in retrospective programs – for its shared, reverberating landscapes, elaborated images, and a cadre of supporting actors whose reappearance in successive film makes his work subliminally familiar and easy to enter – and now, for the clarity of his turn into newly personal territory and straightforward narrative.

“Return what’s not yours. Have respect,” says the old woman Kalina (Ratka Radmanovic), murmuring urgently in an ancient dialect that no one speaks anymore. She appears matter-of-factly, in her head scarf and heavy skirts and shawl, a small cross tattooed between her eyebrows in the old way, waiting in the dark on the living room couch of a young doctor. Lazar Perkov (Borce Nacev) has just returned to his apartment in the Macedonian capital of Skopje from his parents’ villa in the lakes district after a year convalescing from a near-fatal car crash. Trying to return to work at the hospital, he misses his little son and already straying wife, who have remained at the lake. He has nightmares, forgets things, fears his recovery isn’t stable, speaks in odd images that cause the unnerved family chauffeur to roll his eyes, and has now had his first visit from the unsettled souls of the dead.

That Lazar doesn’t know what’s stolen or how to put it back doesn’t get him a pass. Preoccupied with his young man’s struggle to emerge from the shadow of his mother’s overbearing ambition, herself a physician (the formidable Sabina Ajrula-Tozija) – impossible not to recall with the film’s final shot of blinding light – Lazar encounters one woman after another who teaches him that ignorance and personal innocence are no excuses, and who invite his wary, steadily growing search. In a land overrun for centuries by intruders, these women are preoccupied with theft and its attendant glaring debt. Manchevski’s images are earthy, specific, free of arid abstraction. For example, one day Lazar searches out the crowded ramshackle home of his mother’s chauffeur, Blagojce (Petar Mircevski, another Manchevski regular), wanting a ride to the country. With his trained scientist’s eye he diagnoses a burn on the driver’s wife’s arm. She patiently explains this as a birthmark, the perfectly obvious outcome of her mother eating stolen grapes while pregnant.

Manchevski tinkered for several years with the nuances of his film’s title, beginning with Ghosts and detouring to Bones before settling on the immensely resonant possibilities of Shadows. The word’s added visual dimension encourages our attention toward DP Fabio Cianchetti’s use of reflections, doubling, broken space, and Menka’s propensity for suddenly dropping out of the frame mid-stride and then abruptly reappearing. Cities in Manchevski’s films have always been claustrophobic and disorienting – there’s a similar handling of that maze-like Paris apartment in Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, a film Cianchetti also shot – and now a soft visual Cubism, fitting in a universe with walking dead, pervades this one.

Kalina is the first “shadow” who appears to Lazar, identified by her dialect as one of the displaced Aegean Macedonians. A linguist whom the young man seeks out to translate her message also remarks on Lazar’s own name’s Biblical reference to resurrection. Seeking that professor, Lazar meets the lovely Menka, a suicide by hanging (luminously played by harpist Vesna Stanojevska). On a hospital gurney, then waiting for the elevator, Lazar meets the cross, craggy-faced Gerasim, a refugee whose brother nailed a spike into his heel at burial in hopes of magically halting his wandering in the afterlife (Salaetin Bilal, the Turkish Major in Dust). There is an unbaptized infant whom Gerasim awkwardly but tenderly carries instead of abandoning, and Kalina’s sometime companion wolf.

These walking dead may invite Lazar’s curiosity and compassion – and in Menka’s case his intimacy – but they cannot explain their repeated violent deaths or their connection with the cardboard box of old bones that his mother scavenged for her own 1973 anatomy class from beyond the consecrated ground of the cemetery – “not a real grave,” she snorts indignantly – in her home village of Gluvovo. Or what he must do. In the pivotal showdown, slugging each other, sprawling on her office floor, Lazar forcibly takes the bones from his mother in this fight over laying the past to rest or making it “useful” to one’s own ambitions.

That fight over a box of bones has room to contain a parable about the past these shadows more broadly represent, though one of the film’s more courageous qualities is Manchevski’s insistence that Lazar’s own journey carry the film emotionally and dramatically rather than resort to exposé. Kalina’s dialect reveals she is from Aegean Macedonia – the eastern territory annexed by Greece in 1913 – but the film says little else about her people except that their fate was “exodus.” Manchevski says audiences outside that culture don’t need the specific history to connect with these characters’ pain and longing for relief as abandoned and forsaken peoples.

For those inside that culture, even that slightest reference to Kalina’s extinct dialect evokes the following specifics. In 1912 Greece allied with Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro, declaring war on Turkey. While this ended the Ottoman Empire’s occupation of Macedonia, it led directly to Macedonia’s partition among its neighbors. In Aegean Macedonia, Greece embarked upon a decades-long campaign to change the population’s ethnic composition, forcibly expelling hundreds of thousands, confiscating lands, forbidding languages, renaming places, plundering and destroying villages, and re-colonizing the area with ethnic Greeks from nations to the east. During the Greek Civil War of the late 1940s this campaign accelerated anew under the right wing. 60,000 were expelled in 1948. Some internments from the mid-40s continued until 1974 – just after Lazar’s mother’s anatomy class – and as late as 1985 Greek laws governing that area excluded Aegean Macedonian descendants from reclaiming confiscated lands. In 1991, the modern Republic of Macedonia emerged by referendum from the upheaval of Yugoslavia’s disintegration.

Lazar’s journey is also the artist’s journey, a parable for the work of cinema. It becomes his job because he is the one who is there to see. Let us hope this film is available on US screens, and quickly.

This review appeared on 10/9/07 at, accompanied by an interview with Milcho Manchevski. Shadows is distributed by Bavaria Film International (BFI).

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Film Review #127: Some Kind of Loving
Curator: Astria Suparak
Directors: Karen Yasinsky, Jane Gang, Jennifer Reeder, Stephanie Barber, Peggy Ahwesh

In 1996, when the filmmaker, performance artist and writer Miranda July was living in Portland, Oregon and nine years before writing, directing and starring in her theatrical feature film debut, Me and You and Everybody We Know (2005), she hatched a video subscription project to showcase the short-form movies that women were making. Belying her foot in the art world and the genre cross-overs involved in much of indie filmmaking, July’s idea was to invite “curators” to pull together thematic collections of shorts that would be compiled on VHS, mailed to participants and series subscribers, and offered for sale to the public. Then she and each tape curator would tour film festivals, screening events and art venues as each new edition came out.

Originally titled Big Miss Movieola, the series became Joanie4Jackie with its first release, July’s own Joanie4Jackie4Ever. Eventually the series produced thirteen of these videotapes, the most recent in 2002. The series’ pace accelerated considerably after the success of the third, Some Kind of Loving, made in Brooklyn in the summer of 2000 by Astria Suparak. That fall, July and Suparak took Some Kind of Loving and July’s multimedia performance The Swan Tool on a fourteen-date tour up and down the Pacific coast between Vancouver to Santa Cruz, earning widespread critical praise in new media and feminist magazines at every stop.

Just an hour long, Suparak’s Some Kind of Loving comprises six shorts by five women. A couple are older – the final one, for example, Peggy Ahwesh’s powerful and disturbing Martina’s Playhouse, dates from 1989. They ranged in length from five minutes to 20. They represent various ways to make movies – low-grade video, hand-processed super-8 film, optical printing, stop-motion animation and manipulated found footage.

Suparak is the recently-fired founding director of Syracuse University’s Warehouse Gallery in downtown Syracuse – an event that’s been galvanizing cyberspace art world comment and even reached the pages of the New York Times via a free-lancer who took an over-night bus to Syracuse from Toronto – and she’s curator of the recent international show there, Come On: Desire Under the Female Gaze (See my interview with Montréal artist Jo-Anne Balcaen, one of the exhibitors, in the Syracuse City Eagle's 9/13 issue). Some Kind of Loving is an earlier incarnation of Suparak’s long-standing investigation of how women experience and portray sexuality in both still and moving images. This includes a web of related topics – yearning, abuse of intimate power, lust, voyeurism, memories and imagined encounters, parent and child relationships, pop culture figures and the fandom they inspire. In Some Kind of Loving you can see the early roots of Suparak’s eye for combinations and sequences that encompass subtle wit, guffaws, devastation and pure chutzpah in equal, heady measure.

Suparak gets things rolling with Karen Yasinsky’s sly pair of stop-motion videos, No Place Like Home, #1 and 2, featuring the ruby slippers and Dorothy’s lower half.
Jane Gang’s Finelines (1995) weds a full-tilt monologue on recovering one’s self from child abuse’s morass with abstract images directly scratched and painted on celluloid, proving that one of experimental film’s earliest techniques remains fresh and evocative. Jennifer Reeder’s 18-minute Lullaby looks back at her own 11-year-old self. Stephanie Barber’s Pornfilm combines graphic footage with seemingly incongruous tabloid-style voice-over about one TV personality’s marriage catastrophe.

Selecting Ahwesh’s last super-8 movie before she went on to 16-milimeter films like The Deadman (1990), Color of Love (1994), She Puppet (2001) and Certain Women (2005) makes an important early work available to generations of younger viewers. Martina’s Playhouse alternates footage of the performance artist Diane Torr and her precocious toddler with footage of another subject, Jennifer Montgomery, in Ahwesh’s apartment, as all interact with – and pointedly for – the filmmaker. Doing double duty by its placement in the collection – implicitly clarifying and summarizing the purpose of a project like Some Kind of Loving – Ahwesh’s film quotes the philosopher Lacan: “The object of human love is never an organ, but the person who has the organ.”

It’s useful to know how wide the pool of Suparak’s selection was. In the summer of 2000, she had just finished undergraduate studies in studio art at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute of Art and Design. At 22, she had already founded the Pratt Film Series, twice-weekly multi-media affairs of experimental and indie films and video, live music and guest artists. Over the three years she ran that series, Suparak programmed 91 different events that drew audiences from the metro area and attracted the attention of Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman, who saw Suparak’s work as a major example of New York City’s renaissance of experimental/avant-garde film and video underway in early 2000.

You’ll miss this world if you’re getting all your movies from Carousel Mall and Blockbuster. Fortunately there’s a locally-owned rental shop that has kept its VHS stock on the shelves and a local, historically important experimental scene that’s lately blossoming anew. You’ll also miss Some Kind of Loving if you assume it’s stored in the “adult” section. Suparak says she made this tape for teen-aged girls to watch in the privacy of their bedrooms. You might wish she’d been around a few years earlier.

This review appears in the 10/4/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle
weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that didn’t open theatrically in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.