Monday, October 12, 2020

City Hall: Frederick Wiseman in Boston

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh in Frederick Wiseman's City Hall.

Still turning out documentaries at ninety, Frederick Wiseman is one of the enduring treasures of American filmmaking. His early films, produced for PBS, dealt with thorny, troubled institutions, and half a dozen of them – High School (1968), Law and Order (1969), Hospital (1970), Basic Training (1971), Juvenile Court (1973), and Welfare (1975) – are classic works of non-fiction humanism, balanced mysteriously between the poignantly familiar and the utterly unpredictable. The greatest sequences in them are the ones that provide moving glimpses of how professionals engaged in the work of these places, which are blighted by deep-seated institutional flaws and misguided policies and decades of accumulated cobwebbed bureaucracy, try like hell to break through and help the ordinary people they’re supposed to serve. At some point, Wiseman’s explorations became less radical and focused on more localized settings – meticulous excavations of towns and neighborhoods, cultural and educational and recreational entities. But the approach he had famously pioneered, drawing viewers into the world of each of these places through sometimes extensive fragments of their daily interactions and eschewing all the elements that we’re still used to in documentaries (voice-over narration, on-camera interviews, intertitles) has remained his modus operandi.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Elemental: New Glass/Metal Paintings by Michael Burges at Odon Wagner Gallery, Toronto

No 2. (2020), acrylic, Plexiglas, goldleaf on aluminum, 8 x 8 inches (Odon Wagner Gallery).
“If we keep our eyes open in a totally dark place, a certain sense of privation is experienced. The organ is abandoned to itself, it retires into itself. That stimulating and grateful contact is wanting by means of which it is connected with the external world.”  – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Theory of Colours (1810).

Some viewers and readers may recall earlier bodies of work by Michael Burges executed in reverse painting on glass, a resistant surface which allowed us to look through to get at, and an intriguing strategy devised to liberate the artist from the acres of textile and canvas customarily used by painters throughout art history, those who formally celebrated its absorbent and tactile qualities. With these new works, this painter continues to explore reverse glass painting mounted on aluminum, an equally resistant and reflective surface capable of carrying the subtle language of his images of time-soaked light as a most effective medium. Our eyes themselves are now the delicate textiles which absorb their fleeting messages, if we allow their mesmerizing gaze back at us. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Neglected Gem: Monsieur Vincent (1947)

Pierre Fresnay in Monsieur Vincent (1947).

Movies about men and women of faith are usually tepid and sentimental, but a few are extraordinary: Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), Fred Zinnemann’s A Nun’s Story (1959) and more recently Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men (2010) come to mind. Lesser known is Maurice Cloche’s 1947 Monsieur Vincent, which chronicles the religious vocation of Vincent de Paul (Pierre Fresnay) in seventeenth-century France, beginning with his leaving Paris, where he completed his education as a priest, to take over as curé in a small town in the countryside during the plague. His early life, when he was captured by pirates and sold into slavery, isn’t included in the film; Cloche and the screenwriters, Jean-Bernard Luc and the playwright Jean Anouilh, aren’t interested in the parts of Vincent’s life that qualify it as an adventure story; the entire focus of the picture is on his devotion to the poor, which culminated in his founding the Congregation of the Mission and the Daughters of Charity. (He died in 1660 and was canonized in 1737.) Cloche is a filmmaker from the cinéma de papa era in France – that often-derided period between the golden age of French cinema (the 1930s) and the French New Wave (beginning in 1959-1960) – with whose body of work I am otherwise unfamiliar, but Monsieur Vincent is a fine piece of work: intelligent, sensitive, understated, with a purity of narrative style that lends it a kind of poetry.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Dishonour to Us All: Mulan

Liu Yifei in Mulan (2020).

It may look like a film and quack like a film, but something’s just not right with the new Mulan, based on the classic Chinese tale of a young woman who gets conscripted incognito in her disabled father’s place to fend off northern invaders, and gets exposed – yet saves the emperor anyway.

Niki Caro directs this live-action remake of the 1998 Disney animated film with a notable lack of vision. The placement of Mandy Walker’s camera is off and limiting, and we frequently wish for another angle, or a wider one. This is worsened by David Coulson’s slightly sluggish editing. Grant Major’s production design feels stagey: supposedly outdoor locations (excluding the battle scene) are obvious soundstages, and the phoenix that replaces Mushu, who was beloved even in China, looks like a kite. And American Humane wasn't able to say in the end credits that no animals were harmed. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Great Screen Matches: James Cagney and Joan Blondell

Joan Blondell and James Cagney in He Was Her Man (1934).

This is the third in an ongoing series of discussions of classic pairings of screen performers who collaborated on several movies.  Steve Vineberg has also written about Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray and about James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

They were both made for Warner Brothers. In the big-studio era, before Truman broke up the motion picture monopolies following the Second World War, the studios owned theatres across the country, and their individual styles were linked to the kinds of audiences they attracted – that is, to the neighborhoods their movie houses served. Warners catered to working-class and lower-middle-class audiences, so they specialized in gritty films with proletarian heroes and heroines like gangster melodramas and social-problem pictures. Their roster of actors included Edward G. Robinson, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sidney – and James Cagney and Joan Blondell. When Cagney played a tough, cocky gangster in William Wellman’s terrific The Public Enemy, he wound up a star. Blondell played leading roles some of the time but never quite made the leap to movie-star status. But she was fantastically likable and she had a long career, first in movies and then in TV: in 1979, the year she died at seventy-three, she made two movies and one TV movie and appeared in two series. Her last picture came out two years later.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Balls: The Criterion Collection Release of Town Bloody Hall (1979)

“It was a trivializing, peripheral, silly sort of event, in the best uptown tradition,” Germaine Greer said in 2004 of the panel discussion — or public forum, or celebrity sideshow, or one-off improvised sitcom episode — that was staged by the Theatre of Ideas at New York’s Town Hall on April 30, 1971, under the banner “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation.” In one respect at least, she wasn’t wrong: the event, which put Greer onstage with three other women representing a range of feminisms, plus Norman Mailer, was very much a production of and for the Manhattan intellectual elite. But the evening was also what it promised to be, a theater of ideas — ideas held up, tossed down, kicked about, laughed at, shouted over, defended, derided. It was raucous and suspenseful and dirty and funny and unsettling, and everything else we’d want theater to be.

It’s all there in Town Bloody Hall, which D.A. Pennebaker (along with two other cameramen) filmed on the night, and which Pennebaker’s creative partner and wife, Chris Hegedus, edited into shape in 1979. The film has now been restored and given its first DVD release by the Criterion Collection, with stellar extras including a new interview with Hegedus; years-later interviews with Greer and Mailer; a partial reunion panel convened in 2004; audio commentary from Hegedus and Greer; and the complete Dick Cavett Show of December 1, 1971, in which Mailer, his brow darkened by drink and professional resentment, took a combative posture toward guests Gore Vidal and Janet Flanner, Cavett, and finally the audience. The Criterion release is a nifty package, and the main attraction still packs a punch. Whatever evasions are attributable to the event or its participants, as a film and as a document Town Bloody Hall is nothing less than thrilling for anyone who cares about the people, the issues, or the history. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Ambience of Mind: Music and Meditation

Tony Scott's Music for Zen Meditation. (Verve Records, 1964)


“We ought to listen to music or sit and practice breathing at the beginning of every meeting or discussion.” – Thich Nhat Hanh,Vietnamese Zen Master and music lover (Plum Village Records).

What kind of music, if any at all, serves the environmental purpose of establishing the equilibrium sought after by all meditators? Some teachers would suggest that music is in itself a distraction, and perhaps it is, but it’s one which I’ve always felt formed a core place in my own longtime practice. Mine is a kind of beat hybrid of Zen and Dzogchen, and I’ve long used sound as an ideal accompaniment to concentration on the breath, which is in itself a kind of reverberating music created by our own lungs. Putting on a piece of music in order to facilitate meditation also provides me with a set formality and a ritual pattern, within which one can briefly forget all limits.

Rather than calling it meditation music, however, composed or performed to aid in meditation or prayer in a literal religious or spiritual sense, I prefer calling it meditative music, almost as if it’s the music itself which is doing the meditating, through us. The approach of certain modern composers using meditational techniques in their creative practice, with or without application to or focus upon specific religious content, has long been recognized. Many notable examples have also combined concepts, meditation and music in their artistic work.