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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Amos Vogel, 1921-2012

Amos Vogel died this past week, signalling perhaps the end of an era in which film existed as something other than a pure financial product.  Amos, whom I met a few times and recall visiting in his Village apartment in the middle of NYU, was an early and ardent champion of film as an art, a provocation, something to stir the soul and mind, and not merely a transitory means to slip X bucks from your wallet.   Long ago, he set up Cinema 16, a distribution and exhibition system for the propagation of art/underground/avant garde.  Later he started the New York Film Festival, which he directed until 1968.   A political radical, he had no qualms in describing himself as an anarchist, and in openly supporting very “left” views.

In his book, “FILM AS A SUBVERSIVE ART” he cited among many others, my own film,  “Canyon.”   In doing so he made clear that his idea of  “subversive” included the sublime.

His death comes at a time when the commercialization of everything in the name of  “the Market Economy” has bludgeoned the kind of cinema he supported into a near-death coma.   I imagine he looked at the “independent” cinema which in its various guises and labels of the last few decades, as a sad denouement for the kinds of work he dreamed of, a sign that indeed the insidious forces at work in “the Market Economy” reduced most young filmmakers to imagining that a modest shift in television sit-com formulas constitutes “creativity.”

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The Hunger Games

As if to demonstrate the mental corruption of  Hollywood’s landscape, the makers of the BO smash The Hunger Games, which as of this week has grossed 366 million dollars domestically, released for their promotional picture, the above item.   A modestly careful look at this image shows that while archery apparently plays a major role in the film, no one could be bothered to figure out how to actually shoot an arrow:  aside from holding the arrow rather far from the near-center point on the string which is technically “correct”  one must also wonder by what gravitational magic the arrow manages to hold itself on the wrong side of the actress’ hand.  Perhaps Photoshop?  Or she has an extra finger that grows from the backside of her hand?   Truth being the last pursuit of those who control Hollywood, I imagine we will never get an answer.

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From Nathaniel Dorsky’s “Compline

While lamenting the near-collapse of the kinds of cinema which Amos Vogel supported, I do note that a recent screening of works by my friend Nathaniel Dorsky at the Redcat Cinema in Los Angeles, elicited this item in the New York Times.   [For other thoughts on and from Nathaniel, see his "letters" in my other blog.]

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Tornado alley

I am presently in Stanberry Missouri, population 1,240 or so, here to help my friend Blake Eckard shoot a new film – I’m doing camera for him (with my equipment) and about 10 days ago he also asked me to act in it, so I will be playing Burl Enright, drunkard red-neck dad, who, if things stick to plan, will get killed by his no-good sons by the end of the film.    I hope I can do a reasonable job of it – in front of and behind the camera.

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The Market Economy, aka, Titanic

Chicago streets

I was born in Chicago, though in infancy was moved to Detroit, then Ft. Benning Georgia and then in a long list, on to foreign shores, and other cities and towns.    Given a choice of 3 colleges to go to at the age of 17, I chose IIT, solely because it was in Chicago, and some homing sense provoked me to wish to know a bit of the city I had been born in.  The choice clearly served as a marker, a kind of  “destiny.”  Had I chosen instead the University of Pennsylvania, or Providence’s RISD, I am sure I likely would have had an entirely different life.    So Chicago, where I lived for only 3 years, but highly formative ones, is a place ripe with reverberations in my own life.   Its prosaic simplicity and rough edged nature both appeals to me and repels me.  It is full of memories lingering in the names of streets, buildings, people and important events in my life, all enriched by a handful of surviving friends dating back to 1964.

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This visit was a quick one, a rushed stay with long ago friends, a talk at Columbia College, screenings and a workshop at Chicago Filmmaker’s, the original of which I’d helped found in 1967.   A fast visit through parts of the city reminded of personal events:  the Federal building where I was sentenced to prison in 1965, and outside of which I was almost arrested 3 years later.  Other places which invoked other memories,  such as the Convention of 1968.   All of it far too fast and weighted with too much personal history for me to begin to put in some perspective.  I hope next time around to be going slowly, with time to tape with friends, and to absorb to the city, and find a small toe-hold for grasping this part of my life,  of the nation, and my small place in it.

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Frank Lloyd Wright’s Oak Park Studio

Gerry Fialka in Venice

LA Land

On LAX arrival from Korea, the previous 4 and a half years in Seoul (mostly) vanished in an instant, and former “home” of Los Angeles immediately became, once again, if briefly,  “home.”    Couch accommodation from friends Ryan and Tiffany in quiet Silver Lake.  Recovered from jet-lag in LA following screenings with the LA Film Forum, the Echo Park Film Coop and Cinefamily, all of which went nicely.  Saw friends, made new ones, acclimated to the laid-back world of palm trees, Mexican food,  and the tone of SoCal.   Despite the superficial shifts of graphics on the signage, and the new buildings, and the constant flush of wealth and accompanying new “hip” neighborhoods, LA was essentially the same place, with the same a weird concentration on looks, fashion, the movie biz, being “hip” LA style:  things changed and didn’t really change at all.

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Alenka in Venice

Ryan GraySilver Lake

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Took Amtrak to Portland for $80, thanks to too much luggage to fly it – brought to deal with the next 18 months on the American road.   To take it likely would have added $300 to the airfare given America’s airlines’ draconian profit-minded gouging policies on extra bags – or even one.   I went coach, and once the sun settled before coming into Oakland, it was the question of trying to sleep.  Dawn saw us in Klamath, Oregon, on the high plateau east of the Cascades which was still graced with snow.  Just as the train was coming down off the Cascades into the Willamette Valley above Eugene a large Douglas fir fell down, derailing the baggage car.  Our 29 hour long journey turned into 38 hours and ended on a bus in a snowstorm in the valley, a very unusual occurrence there.

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Had a nice stay in Portland with friends, Mark and Jane, though thanks to the lengthened train ride I seemed to acquire a terrestrial form of jet-lag taking another few days to get back on the local clock.  Real fun sleeping in upright chairs.  Portland was itself:  laid back, rainy, full of young people sitting in cafe’s buried in their notebooks, good micro-brews and Powell’s.  If I were going to live in a city in the USA I think it would be Portland.  But that’s not in the cards.  Took a ride up the Columbia River Gorge and a bit of eastern Oregon with Mark, a little hint of the coming year and more or travels to come.

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Mark Eifert

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From Portland it was on to Nashville and Vanderbilt University, with a screening, a quick look around and a short night of honky-tonk cruising.  As it turns out the strip of clubs with all-night music cranking out golden C&W oldies has, in my view, descended into something akin to Disneyland, with the clubs and the music aping the good old days about as successfully as the original Disneyland evoked “Main Street.”  Plastic.   Of course Disneyland is enormously popular and surely so is this strip of erstaz “country,”  which saw many a cowboy hat and what amount to “country” costumes.   I was somewhat taken aback by the evident epidemic of obesity, sometimes in the form of two-stepping lady couples emulating the manatees I’d see some days later.   Except they weren’t waterborne and gravity was working triple time.

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The Parthenon in Nashville

Former home of the Grand Old OpryHatch’s Print ShopThe King

Lacking time, and somewhat allergic to the tacky nature of all things Elvis, I skipped the pilgrimage to Graceland, which, I suppose shall be mandatory should life let me return for shooting the upcoming long essay on America.  Nothing can be more American than Elvis.

From Nashville I took a Megabus, for $9, to Knoxville.  2:30 am departure, which had  I been able to book earlier would have cost a mere $1.   The fellow passengers inverted the national figures and I was, along with one other light-skinned soul, the 12% minority.   Arrived at 7:30 and after a breakfast was whisked to a morning classroom presentation at the University of Tennessee, followed a day later with a public screening and a dinner at Calhoun’s, a famous eatery on the river, and an evening at the Preservation Saloon with good beer and music.  Great time, and I happily recommend both joints.   As with many other smaller American cities and towns, the center’s of which had been let go to seed, Knoxville in the last decade has seen a renewal, with old factory and office spaces turned into the ever-hip “lofts” for sale and lease, and an attempt to revivify the area with boutiques and such.   There it appears to be partially working, though many an empty store space suggested there wasn’t really enough wealth around to ape, say, New York’s Soho.    But still far more welcoming and livable than 10 or 20 years ago.

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Kelley McRae at the Preservation

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After workshop and screening at UT, had a few fallow days with my sister Jolly and husband Bob down near Louisville, some 30 miles or so south of Knoxville.  Gorgeous countryside with river meandering through, in foothills of the Smokey Mountains.  They have a lovely house and garden, and some acres surrounding them to fend off impending housing tracts.   A nice relaxing time for me before I headed south to Tampa.

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Bob’s vineyardBob & Jolly

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Flew to Tampa where Charles Lyman put me up in studio space next to his house on river there.   Though nestled in a suburban housing area, the side facing the river plunges one into seeming jungle Florida – a manatee grazes near by with its back a slash of white diagonal lines thanks to the prop of a speeding boat, birds paddle off with their young, and an alligator trolls across a little lagoon.   A dense canopy of trees and moss hang overhead, offering quiet and shade.  I took a little paddle upstream in a kayak, relaxed, and had a nice time lazing in the local manner.   Next day at the University of Tampa I seemed to step into the kind of internecine warfare that academia seems to foster – perhaps more so these days as faculties shrivel, “adjuncts” dangle on their personal tight-ropes, and the fiscal noose engenders ever more draconian save-yourself behaviors out of the usually erstwhile “liberal” persons championing whichever ethnic/gender or theoretical models of the moment (for a full treatment of this see this.)   Per usual, the faculty avoided meeting me, and one got the sense that only the person who invited me, Tom Garrett, wished to have me there.  He informed that thanks to the bloodletting he was, after a few decades, moving on to Texas the next term.   I was glad to see my friend Eli show up, and we decamped the campus (with a lovely old hotel transformed into cultural locus) and had a pretty good Mexican meal nearby.   He’s been wandering America’s back roads the last year or so, in a converted emergency medical truck, making his rather insane YouTube pieces.   Next morning I was off for next leg of this journey – Chicago and friends.  Of which, more later.

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Eli Elliot

Moving too fast and falling behind.  The hazards of such journey’s as this, which largely mirrors a lifetime of being uprooted, sent to a new place to meet new souls, is that the past is instantly erased, and that old ’60’s mantra becomes a living axiom:  be here now.   I’ve never been one for nostalgia, and in this time of less than a month of travels the trail of faces and places already smudges into a strange scrapbook of the past conjunct with present:  here today, gone tomorrow.

Dennis Grunes

I don’t recall quite when I first noticed Dennis Grunes and started reading his reviews and blog.  Seems a long time ago.  I do recall meeting him in Portland perhaps in 2005 or 6.  He came to some screening of mine (private), I forget of which film.   Later I went to visit him at his apartment on the northeast side of Portland.   Hardly enough time to call him a friend, but I liked him, and what he did, and think of him as a friend despite the very limited real-world contact.  What he does is about the opposite of what I do.   He watches 2 or 3 or is it 4 or 5 films each day, and writes concise, intelligent reviews of them.  Films of all kinds and times – old, very old, brand new and everything in between.  I hardly ever watch films – instead I make them.

Dennis has a pretty severe diabetes problem which has slowly nibbled away at him, and periodically leaves him adrift and in need of help, and lands him in the hospital seeming to be at life’s edge.  After I left Portland in 2006 I recall him having what seemed a particularly bad bout and I contacted a handful of friends asking them to drop by and see if they could offer a hand, as I would have had I still lived there.  One, Jane Wilcox, did, and has apparently been going by a few times a week for some time now, helping with shopping and such things, for which I am deeply grateful.  She’s been a real dear, helping, as well as keeping me apprised of Dennis’ condition.   A week and some ago I dropped by with her to see him, which was a treat for me.  I hope it was in some way for him.

Given his condition I am rather amazed at his stamina, when after one or another bout with the ravages of diabetes, when he’s at risk of losing a foot, or his eyes dim still more, or he’s in hospital flickering near “the end,” he seems to bounce back, immediately sit down to see another fistful of films and write his reviews.   It would be one thing if his reviews were just opinions, but he has an ability to briefly give a sense of a film, tying into a to me vast knowledge of film and its history, and convey things in a way that has prompted me to want to see any number of obscure works I had never heard of.   In some odd way, my vision of Dennis is weirdly that I see him as heroic – which is again, utterly contrary to my views of life: I don’t believe in heroes, or geniuses or the ideas and concepts that do.  We’re all just people, constricted by our own circumstances, and do what we do, for better or worse.   Dennis has taken a pretty harsh hand dealt to him, and managed to find something possible for him to do, and something he clearly loves, and make the most of it.  His blog, www.grunes.wordpress.com, is, for anyone interested or engaged with cinema, a priceless compendium of intelligence and insight, touching on a oceanic range of films.   It strikes me as a kind of personal catalog of the cinema and should stand as a kind of reference source for a long time to come.

As I left a week ago, I gave Dennis DVDs of two of my most recent films.   A few days later, he wrote this:

IMAGES OF A LOST CITY (Jon Jost, 2011)

“I think we are blind. Blind people who can see, but do not see.” ― José Saramago

Prolific Jon Jost’s videographed Imagens de uma cidade perdida, from Portugal and South Korea, now that I’ve seen it, replaces Lars von Trier’s Melancholia as my choice for the best “film” of 2011. Jost has written about “the Portuguese inclination towards fatalism and sadness,” their saudade. His portrait of modern Lisbon perhaps suggests this (although this would not have occurred to me had I not read Jost’s remark), but reflects as well its mirror-image, the sadness that derives from the gradual loss of everything to Time. Jost has dedicated Imagens to his young daughter, Clara. (For an explanation of the tragic situation involved, see my essay on his 2006 Passages.) Poetic and never poetical, it is a documentary that ferrets out glimpses of human and material disrepair. Only children at play and hands at work hammering pieces of stone into the sand to create an alley pathway—something for future feet—escape the pervasive tenor of loss, exhaustion, dilapidation. We witness people who are being, or feeling, left behind in a globalized city dropping from its historical and cultural stature into the Third World.

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Jost casts his camera behind and under places and structures, favoring peoples’ backs. (A mischievous boy, though, pops his face into the camera; we enjoy following his vivid shirt to the far back of the frame and again up front.) The framing divides and otherwise restricts exterior space. The opening static, long-held shot is behind a residential structure—a house, I think—and another, an apartment building, with an alley in between the two. Children play. On a bench, closer to us, her back towards us, a solitary older woman sits; at one point, the boy mockingly kisses her and is reprimanded, presumably by his mother. The woman sits and sits; is she observing, or simply staring into space? Is she as much remembering as living?—inside her head in the past, or in the moment? Eventually she is joined by a neighbor her age. They softly converse. What of life has slipped away from them? Both are nearly as stationary as the camera—so much so, in fact, that when the first woman, alone, reaches once to the ground, this motion of hers perplexes and unsettles.
Jost’s video passes between substantiality and abstraction; sometimes, abstract images are conjoined with clear, immediate sounds, or substantial images are conjoined with abstract sounds, the echo-y or distant sounds of seeming voices of the past. Images also pass between color and monochrome. An overhead long-shot, seemingly black-and-white, studies children at play in the street. They resemble the blind, groping, evolutionary beetles in Robert Browning’s poem “Two in the Campagna.” Individually some of them may have futures; but, visually, vertically, the group of them, however young, are imagined lost to Time. In time, most everything we see and hear in this “film” becomes a metaphor.

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The governing one, because it evolves into a metaphor for the creative process that is generating Imagens, as well as a wider metaphor for the narrow, peripherally blind purposefulness of our laboring lives, shows masculine hands at work constructing the aforementioned pathway. The activity is “in the moment,” direct and immediate, except that the abstraction achieved by focusing only on hands almost feverishly busy amidst speechlessness and the alienating sound of hammer on stone, consigns it to something more elusive than a material dimension. Later, a dissolve restores the activity, now approaching completion, to our view. Both passages seem to be in black and white—until a glimpse of a worker’s blue jeans enters the frame: as quietly explosive a visual gesture as when the woman on the bench reached momentarily to the ground. Is it an illusion that the present seems capable of redeeming, however briefly, whatever has been lost to Time?

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For a long time, Imagens remains out of doors, in a way separating us, as well as the people themselves, from the stability of their lives. Eventually, the camera is indoors—for instance, at a window observing a municipal bus, as well as other traffic, outside. Darkness; covered with blinds, the window—or another window—is doubly mysterious. Jost applies distortion to create the illusion that the venetian blinds and window are undulating—breathing. It is a blind and labored—a mortal—breath. Sound, also, seems distant, ghostly. The occupants of the house or apartment, although it is their own struggle, are themselves blind to the struggle at the window.

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Imagens de uma cidade perdida, outdoors again, closes on an older gentleman occupying a bench. The image startles for two reasons. This bench, on the street, isn’t shot from behind; we are given a lateral view. The solitary occupant, moreover, seems to be in the throes of anguish or terrible pain. Rather than sitting upright and facing forward, he is all over the bench, as though he were using it to hold himself together. We are seeing how he feels—for whatever cause. Jost doesn’t budge the camera, and we cannot help but see. Is it Portugal’s experience of fascism, which an earlier inserted passage addressed, what is weighing on this man? Is his health, like his city, in disrepair? We do not know, we will never know; but we cannot help but see.

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Lisbon is a city that has never meant anything to me. Now it will haunt me for the rest of my life.

I note that while Imagens de uma cidade perdida played at the Rotterdam Festival, 2011, and was in competition at the Yamagata Documentary Festival in Japan in October 2011, it was rejected by a fistful of other festivals, among them the Margaret Meade, Florence Documentary, Bilbao, DocLisboa, Lisboa Indie, DOCSDF (Mexico City), Mumbai and Busan and Jeonju (Korea) fests.  Win some, lose a lot.

Thanks Dennis, and be well.

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