Monday, March 28, 2011

Confession of an Auteurist


When I heard that Elizabeth Taylor had died last week, the first thought that popped into my mind was this none-too-flattering realization: Other than faint memories of seeing clips of her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and in her Oscar-winning turn in Butterfield 8 on PBS, I don't think I've actually seen a film she was in from start to finish—unless her guest voice appearances on two episodes of The Simpsons count. And a result of that grievous oversight, her death didn't really hit me with the same emotional force that it seemed to do with many others, cinephiles or otherwise. I did post something on my Twitter feed acknowledging her death, but to be completely honest, it was half-hearted—an objective acknowledgment of a fact—at best.

The more I thought about this (lack of) feeling, the more I began to reflect on this fact about my cinephilia: When it comes to the movies, for the most part I find myself valuing directors far more than I do actors. When Eric Rohmer died last year, that had a marked emotional effect on me mostly because I do find a lot of value in his Six Moral Tales; by contrast, the deaths of actors like, say, Tony Curtis or Patricia Neal last year barely made a dent on me.

Part of it, I'm sure, has to do with my relative unfamiliarity with each actor's respective body of work (regarding Curtis, I've only seen him in Winchester '73, Some Like It Hot and Spartacus; with Neal—only The Fountainhead, to be completely honest); if I had seen more of their work and thus formed a certain attachment with them, maybe I would have felt a greater sense of loss upon their deaths. On a deeper level, though, the truth is: When it comes to the films I choose to watch, I almost always choose based on who directed a given picture; rarely do the actors in a certain film sway my decisions. (Cary Grant is perhaps the one exception to that rule that I can think of—with Robert Mitchum running him close.) Maybe it's the result of being raised on a partial diet of Andrew Sarris—whose classic book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1962-1968 first introduced the auteur theory to many in America—as well as recently reading film books like Richard Brody's Jean-Luc Godard critical biography or the Farber on Film collection (famous film critic Manny Farber often seemed to think in terms of directors as well), but, true to the line of thinking first proposed by François Truffaut in his famous essay "A Certain Tendency in French Cinema"—that, to summarize it roughly, the best film directors are ones who manage to put a distinct personal stamp, whether visually, thematically or otherwise, on whatever films they make, even if it's mere Hollywood studio product—I've always thought of films in terms of the directors overseeing them, not so much in terms of the cast and crew collaborating with a director to realize his/her vision. There have been instances where I've devoted a block of time to going through the certain director's entire body of work in one shot; I have rarely thought of doing anything like that for an actor or actress (unless, in the case of someone like Jerry Lewis, that actor also directed a fair amount of films; or unless an actor/actress like, say, Anna Karina, was so closely tied to a director that it would be difficult for me to avoid seeing that actor/actress's work if he/she was in a lot of it).

Maybe, in a sense, as a member of a film audience, I think of actors in films the same way Alfred Hitchcock famously approached actors in the films he directed: as "cattle." Sometimes an actor may transcend script and direction and form a considerable imprint in my consciousness; this is especially true in a star vehicle like, say, Jamie Foxx's virtuoso Ray Charles impersonation in Ray (when many people think of that film, I have a feeling most of them think of it as Jamie Foxx's film, not as director Taylor Hackford's). Honestly, though, much of the time I judge actors on the basis of how they're serving a director's vision.

I know filmmaking itself is very much a collaborative art, so, in that sense, as friends of mine who have actually made films have relayed to me, the auteur theory has always had its holes. Nevertheless, I guess my own tendency, in keeping with Truffaut's and that of the rest of the Cahiers du cinéma cohorts at that time (including Godard), is to look at films through the lens of the director-as-author. Apparently, that has had the effect of cutting off my ability to form many of the kinds of attachments to actors/stars that others are able to do.

Does anyone else have this problem? Is this in fact a problem, at all?

Thoughts and comments on this are welcome, as always, dear readers! 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

South by Southwest 2011: Photos, Videos and a Few Random Observations


Hello, Austin!

I'm press-accredited! Alas, even though having a Gold badge allowed me access into Film and Interactive events, I ended up pretty much doing only Film events. I have a feeling that if I tried to apply for a Gold badge next year, I'd be rejected as a result of my not covering any portion of the Interactive conference.

A view of downtown Austin from the so-called "Smoking Deck" of the fourth floor of the Austin Convention Center. No, I was not smoking. Yes, it was this beautiful—and warm!—most of the time I was there.

Lady Bird Lake. Supposedly, at dusk every night, bats fly en masse from below the North Congress Ave. bridge. Alas, I didn't get a chance to see this potentially awesome sight for myself; too busy watching movies, I guess. (This is my default excuse for a lot of the things I missed in Austin; more on those regrets below.) Next time, I hope!

A sign posted at the Austin Convention Center. I'm not sure if this was meant to promote a start-up promoting their online product at SXSW Interactive...but, you know, this is a certainly a sentiment I echo.

This was the scene on Saturday, March 12, at around 2 a.m. on 6th Street. Apparently, for Austin bars, last call is at around 2 a.m., not 4 a.m. as I'm used to here in New York. Thus, as I walked down 6th Street that night, I felt like I was back in college, walking along Rutgers's College Ave. campus on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night, with a slew of drunken college kids populating the street. The scene only got crazier once the music conference got underway; a video I shot that's posted below gives you an idea just how crazy it got..

Star sighting! Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock—whose latest film The Greatest Movie Ever Sold played at South by Southwest this year (I, alas, was not able to fit it into my screening schedule)—is seen here at a screening of Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein's (so-so) new documentary Fightville.

On Sunday, March 13, while munching on a brisket sandwich from a food truck, from a distance I started to hear big-band music coming down East Cesar Chavez Boulevard. I looked behind me and saw a parade of bands marching down the street, one of them holding a big sign saying "HONK TEXAS." Apparently, on that particular weekend, Austin held a "festival of community street bands" that culminated in a public parade that Sunday. (See here for more info.) This wasn't really related to SXSW...but it was still fun—an exuberant cacophony Charles Ives might have loved.

Parties are apparently as big at South by Southwest as the films, the bands and the up-and-coming online start-ups. I didn't really go to many of the parties this year; the one party I did go to was held at the Seaholm Power Plant, which was lit up with this seductive blue light. I might have had more fun at the party had the person I was expecting to meet there shown up before I gave up and went back home.

In addition to the many independent features screened, there were many world premieres of bigger studio fare. Among the latter was Win Win, the latest film from writer-director Thomas McCarthy (he of The Station Agent and The Visitor, though many others may know him as the unprincipled journalist in the final season of the HBO series The Wire). Here he is along with (from left to right) Alex Shaffer, Amy Ryan, Paul Giamatti and the film's co-scenarist Joe Tiboni. The movie's currently in limited release...and it's not bad.

To celebrate the 15th anniversary of the website Ain't It Cool News, founder Harry Knowles (left) hosted a special screening on Monday, March 14, of a film that remained unknown to all of us until that night, with a special guest that he didn't reveal until that night. The special guest turned out to be Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (right), and the film turned out to be Matthew Robbins's 1981 fantasy film Dragonslayer—which I had never seen before, and which turned out to be quite enjoyable. If nothing else, the unveiling of the film's big bad dragon is totally worth the build-up; I daresay that I don't think even CGI would touch how realistic the dragon looks and moves! (Both this photo and the one above, by the way, were taken at Austin's lovely Paramount Theatre.)

As the music conference got underway, 6th Street became even more lively during the day than I had seen it during the first few days of SXSW. I tried to capture some of that sense of bustle here in this short video. (I guess you can consider my shakycam style an expression of said sense...if it doesn't make you nauseous first. Sorry about that; obviously, I was walking as I shot this with my iPhone 4.)

Featured in one of my favorite films at SXSW this year, Bellflower (which I reviewed for The House Next Door here) is a vehicle invented by its two main characters, one that has a flamethrower built into it. At its Thursday, March 17, screening at the Alamo Drafthouse Lamar, director/star Evan Glodell and co-star Tyler Dawson brought a real-life version of the Medusa and gave us all a demonstration. It truly is awesome. If you don't believe me, see for yourself above!


As I have mentioned before, this year's South by Southwest represented my first time going to a film festival outside of New York...and, as I expected, it proved to be quite a different experience than my four weeks attending press screenings last year for the New York Film Festival. The most important difference is that, at SXSW, everyone is considered an equal: civilians, press members, filmmakers. For that reason, everyone had to wait on line in order to see films at the festival; there was no special access for us members of the press (except for those who woke up early enough to line up for special "SXXpress" passes that would make gaining access into screenings much easier; I was successful only once at rousing myself that early to wait on said line).

But you know what? No big deal! This just forced me to do something I normally don't do while waiting on long lines for anything: try to engage with the people standing around me, if those people were willing to reciprocate. For the most part, the people I interacted with while waiting on those long lines were friendly and receptive to the time-passing conversation. Some of them turned out to be filmmakers; others were just SXSW employees and film fans. I got into a fairly deep conversation with one filmmaker before The Beaver, for instance, in which I found myself trying to defend the idea of taking film critics and criticism seriously. (On a less serious note, he also turned out to be a Renny Harlin fan—though he cited The Long Kiss Goodnight as his favorite Harlin film rather than Die Hard 2 or Cliffhanger.) I got so bitten by the social bug at SXSW that, on a couple occasions, I found myself looking forward to actually waiting on line, just to see who I'd meet next. (Has this newfound gregariousness carried over back in New York? The jury is still out on that one...)

So I may not have necessarily networked with the right people—fellow film critics and such—quite as much as I had planned before going to Austin. (I especially regret not taking golden opportunities to introducing myself to, say, Scott Weinberg and veteran film journalist Anne Thompson when I had chances to do so. I still have my shy moments after all, I guess.) But I managed to forge other personal connections and possibly lay the groundwork for other lasting friendships; it's just up to me, now, to follow up on them!

Speaking of regrets: Yeah, I have a few. Of course, there were plenty of films I ended up missing as a result of scheduling conflicts. Remember all those movies that had generated buzz from previous festivals that I was so excited to finally catch at SXSW? Stuff like Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Miranda July's The Future? I ended up missing more of them, including those two, than I would have liked; in trying to figure out my schedule every day, I often found myself having to choose between films that didn't currently have a distributor versus films that I knew were going to be released eventually. But those kind of regrets, I imagine, haunt every film-festival-goer's experience, especially one covering the festival for a website and trying to keep up with what's generating fresh buzz. A more serious (relatively speaking) regret, though: I didn't have a proper authentic Texas barbecue meal! Everyone was telling me that BBQ was one of the main attractions of being in Texas, but, except for a couple of brisket sandwiches, I ended up not having any! REGIONAL CUISINE FAIL! TOURIST FAIL!

And, as I mentioned earlier, I didn't really partake much in the festival's active party scene—and apparently the parties are considered just as much a part of a well-rounded SXSW experience as the individual conferences. (As a member of the press, I got many invites to film-premiere after-parties and such, but I ended up not RSVPing to any of them, due mostly to this nagging sense that there's just something about film journalists socializing with filmmakers that seems...I dunno...a bit ethically problematic?)

All in all, though, I had a good time. And I'm sure next year, if I return to Austin for SXSW 2012, I'll be more prepared for possibly a fuller, more wide-ranging experience!

Until then, though...well there were a bunch of SXSW promotional bumpers that showed before each film screening. Some of them are available on this one...

...this one...

...and perhaps, best of all, this one:

It's been real, Austin and South by Southwest! 'Til next year, perhaps!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

South by Southwest 2011: A Whole Bunch of Films in Two Dispatches

NEW YORK—I guess, in the last few days I was in Austin, Texas, for South by Southwest, I managed to crank up my film-watching output to the point that, while I found time to write up one final dispatch before I left on Saturday morning, I wasn't able to keep up on this blog. So consider this my way of catching up, now that I've been back in New York for a few days.

Here and here are my last two dispatches from a mostly successful festival. Unlike my first three dispatches, in which I covered one film apiece, I manage to cover nine films in my last two. Among them are two of my other top favorites of the festival, Takashi Miike's enthralling 13 Assassins and Evan Glodell's gloriously nutty debut feature Bellflower. And yes, I do say a bit about the narrative feature that more or less swept the South by Southwest awards, Robbie Pickering's Natural Selection, which I did not love as much as the majority of South by Southwest audiences apparently did.

Soon enough, I'll post something on this blog about the festival experience itself—the good memories, the disappointments and everything in between. I even have (some) video to go along with it!

Watch this space.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

South by Southwest 2011: The City Dark


One of the thrills of going to a film festival, of course, is taking a chance on a film that might sound interesting from a brief plot summary, but which doesn't necessarily have much in the way of previous buzz or a promising artistic pedigree. I think I've made a couple of fascinating discoveries of this type at South by Southwest so far this year, one of them being the subject of my second dispatch for The House Next Door, a truly eye-opening and enthralling documentary by Ian Cheney entitled The City Dark. I had never heard of Cheney before (though, as I discovered after seeing the film on Saturday evening, he had previously worked on a 2007 documentary called King Corn that I had heard a bit about), so I didn't really have any expectations going into it based on exposure to previous work; all I knew that it had something to do with light pollution—not necessarily the most exciting of subjects on the face of it. But the movie itself had me in its grip right from the beginning, with beautiful New York City night photography that, honestly, put me in something of a nocturnal Fallen Angels frame of mind. The rest of The City Dark obviously ain't nothing like that Wong Kar-Wai masterpiece; still, it's the rare documentary—a compelling mix of talking-heads and first-person modes—that deserves to be appreciated on a big screen. I do hope it gets some kind of theatrical release in the future.

Other than that, I'll let my review speak for itself.

The other film of interest is something I saw this morning called American Animal, a truly bizarre work that had me ready to claw at the screen in frustration for its first half hour until it began to go into more fascinating and provocative directions. I hope to say more about it in my next dispatch; it's definitely like nothing I've seen at the festival so far.

Now, off to my next screening!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

South by Southwest 2011: Source Code

AUSTIN, TEXAS—Well, that was fast!

This year's Opening Night film for South by Southwest was Duncan Jones's second feature Source Code. I was able to get in to a packed screening at the Paramount Theatre last night, and this morning I wrote up a fairly brief review of it for The House Next Door. Not much more than an hour it is, posted online, for all the world to see! Because I tried to avoid spoilers or spoiler alerts altogether, I couldn't get into nearly as much depth as to why I find the last five minutes of the film problematic as I would have wanted; maybe I'll get into it in a later post. The rest of the film, thankfully, is solid, intelligent entertainment—worthy, for the most part, of the enthusiastic applause it received at its world premiere last night.

I also saw Saw director James Wan's latest horror film Insidious at midnight at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz—my first time at the fabled movie theater (they serve food there, with waiters and all!). I'll perhaps get to that film in a later dispatch. Short version: It's a skillfully made, effective scare machine—no more, no less. Oh, and it's not particularly gory either...which, considering the filmmakers' pedigree (Saw screenwriter Leigh Whannell also penned this script, and even gives himself a comic-relief supporting role), is an interesting stylistic departure, but may lead critics to overrate this film just a tad.

In the meantime, South by Southwest rolls along. Films I hope to get to today: a couple of in-competition documentaries, plus James Gunn's Super, which I hear is supposed to be yet another goof on the superhero genre. Hopefully it's a better one than Kick-Ass.

Friday, March 11, 2011

To the People of Japan

AUSTIN, TEXAS—I am here at South by Southwest, ready to begin the deluge of cinephilia that awaits me in the next nine days. And yeah, I'm excited.

For now, though, a brief moment of prayer for the victims of another deluge: the tsunami that came about as the result of the 8.9 earthquake that hit the coast of Japan today. This morning, I woke up and watched pieces of video footage of the earthquake and tsunami...and my God:

After I spent a few minutes looking at videos like these, I called my dad—who was born and raised in Japan—and asked him if any of our relatives in the country were affected by this. He said he would make some calls later tonight to make sure, but that he didn't think they were hit; apparently they live far away from where the worst damage took place.

In any case, my thoughts are with all of the people of Japan—personal relatives and everyone else—and with the people of other nations who have been affected by the tsunami (as of this writing, much of the West Coast had been put on alert).

If you want to donate money to help with the inevitable relief effort in Japan, the American Red Cross has come through again with this link.

Thursday, March 10, 2011


BROOKLYN, N.Y.—By the time you all read this, I will most likely be on my way to Newark Liberty International Airport, heading to Austin, Texas, for this year's South by Southwest festival!

I'm covering the film-festival portion of South by Southwest for The House Next Door. I guess I'm supposed to be covering the interactive portion as well—I have a press badge that gives me access to both—but considering how many films I want to see, and how many I want to try to squeeze in a day...well, we'll see how much of the interactive part I actually get around to covering.

Last year, of course, I covered the New York Film Festival for The House. Sure, that's considered by many as an elite film festival. But South by Southwest promises to offer up a far different experience. I saw the majority of the films in last year's New York Film Festival at press screenings, all of them scheduled by the Film Society of Lincoln Center so that we'd take in two or three films in an average day. At South by Southwest, however, there are no press screenings; we in the press are, for the most part, getting into the same screenings as the rest of the public. Sure, we all have press badges, which might make it easier for us to get into a desired screening. But then, it's up to us to decide what we're going to see each day...and since there are so many screenings scheduled on a given day, choice—as I suggested in my last blog post—can be quite difficult! Even now, after I've worked up a tentative daily screening schedule, I have a feeling I will be departing from it...a lot. (Hey, I'd like to also have some fun there too, and not just feel like I'm working all the time.)

We'll see how all of this goes; this feels like a brand new experience to me, and I'm looking forward to the surprises and possible frustrations it might bring. In the meantime: If anyone has any suggestions about cool bars to hang out in, fun places to eat, and so on in Austin, by all means, let me know!

And, of course, watch this space for links to festival dispatches as they go up on The House Next Door, or as I find the time to post them up on this blog.

Wish me luck!

Friday, March 04, 2011

Best Laid (SXSW) Plans...Yet to Be Laid. Plus, A Video for the Day

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—Sorry for the light amount of posting this week, dear readers.

Basically, I have devoted much of this week to figuring out my screening schedule for South by Southwest, which starts next Friday (I'll be flying out to Austin, Texas, on Thursday). That shouldn't be too difficult, at least on the face of it...but, as usual, I've discovered a way to overthink even a film-festival screening schedule and have found myself obsessing over it during my lunch breaks and during moments of relatively inactivity at work.

I think what I'm obsessing over is trying to strike a balance between my inner journalist's obligation to take chances on previously not-buzzed-about world premieres—in the hopes of discovering, say, the next Tiny Furniture—and my inner cinephile's excitement at finally seeing some of the films screening at SXSW that have generated buzz at previous festivals (films like Werner Herzog's 3D Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Miranda July's The Future and Susanne Bier's recent Oscar-winning In a Better World, among others). So far, I have come up with schedule after schedule, never satisfied that I was striking that balance enough to my liking. (Plus, my SXSW partner-in-crime, fellow House Next Door contributor Jonathan Pacheco, had already come up with his own tentative schedule earlier in the week, so I'm also trying to settle on a schedule that doesn't overlap too much with his.)

Last night, though, as I sat at a McDonald's (drinking a Shamrock Shake, by the way—because I was craving one yesterday), played around with SXSW Go—the festival's official app—on my iPhone and contemplated my schedule some more, I decided upon this approach: I would spend the first five days of the festival focusing more on catching as many of the world and North America premieres as I could, and then—because the SXSW Film Conference technically ends on March 15, even though screenings go on until the 19th—spend the rest of my time there filling in whatever gaps I wish to fill in.

Now I just have to nail down which films to see each day. Of course, even if I do figure out my day-to-day screening schedule, I'll probably need to allow for the possibility of last-minute changes—in case, for instance, buzz begins to generate around a certain world-premiere film that I haven't seen up to that point and I feel a strong need to see it as soon as possible. And then there's that dreaded fatigue I keep hearing about from seasoned film-festival attendees: If I decide to try to squeeze in, like, five films a day, including midnight screenings, I may well find myself dozing off through some films as the week drags on and the sleep deprivation accumulates. (Maybe you could consider my current mildly sleep-deprived state a practice run?)

However it all shakes out, at the very least I can take heart in the fact that, even before SXSW has started, I feel like I'm already getting the kind of film-festival experience that I was hoping to get out of this first foray into covering a festival outside of New York.


All that, then, has taken up my thoughts throughout this past week; thus the light blogging. I suspect next week will probably be the same story, as I pack, smooth out details and finally, on Thursday, fly out to Austin.

In the meantime, enjoy the following clip:

This is apropos of nothing, really, except that a) It made me laugh, and b) It comes from a well-regarded film from 1969 that I finally saw this past Monday at IFC Center: the late Arthur Penn's Alice's Restaurant. Though it certainly plays as a fascinating time capsule, the film is still a deeply moving experience in the way Penn mixes empathy with a palpable critical distance from the hippie lifestyle it depicts with such warmth and detail. That devastatingly lengthy final shot, of Alice standing alone outdoors as the camera pans slowly, behind trees, to the left, still haunts me, especially shorn as it is of any non-diegetic music to punctuate the moment. Did Penn, however unintentionally, foretell the loss of idealism that would hit many Americans in the 1970s? Whether it did or not, for all its (deliberate, I assume) roughness, Alice's Restaurant, as a film, feels like more of a deeply personal and heartfelt effort for Penn than even his previous film, the epochal Bonnie and Clyde.

And to think a film like Alice's Restaurant got major-studio backing! I doubt a film as daringly plotless and exploratory as this would inspire such confidence these days...

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Looking for More

BROOKLYN, N.Y.—I just wanted to toss in a quick plug for a promising new film-related web series that popped up online earlier this week:

The first thing that caught my attention about this first episode of the so-called Look of the Week is the rather creative way we are introduced to the host, Sara Vizcarrondo, before the credits: Instead of a banal formal introduction, it's staged as if we're dropping in on private pre-show moments, ones that happened to include the host talking about herself to others.

And towards the middle of this inaugural episode, another inventive feature pops up: a "Letter to an Unknown Director" (a play on Max Ophüls's 1948 classic Letter from an Unknown Woman?), in which a guest reads aloud a letter he/she has written as a tribute to a director close to his/her heart. Here, it's film critic Fernando F. Croce expressing, with his characteristic eloquence, his deep admiration for Fritz Lang, in closing out a discussion he's had with the host about Lang's Hollywood films (to correspond with the recently completed Film Forum survey of the German filmmaker's U.S. career). What a nice way to mix in-depth film criticism with passionate movie love!

Granted, I've only seen one episode so far of the new incarnation of Ebert Presents At the Movies...but based on that one episode, frankly, I find Look of the Week's more relaxed format far more preferable.

I found immense pleasure, then, in this half-hour mix of film criticism and inside dish, and am looking forward to seeing more episodes. However, the show needs financial help in order to produce more episodes! So take a look at the episode above, and if you like what you see, I would encourage you to go to the PayPal link offered on this page and give whatever you can.

By the way: I have never met any of the parties involved in this show in person, but I do read their writing and follow them all on Twitter, and they all seem like amiable and intelligent people. And I have interacted with them online. For what it's worth.