Saturday, September 22, 2012

New York Film Festival: The Dinosaur and the Baby

The Dinosaur and the Baby is a documentary film by André S. Labarthe from 1964 that paired the legendary Austrian film director Fritz Lang in conversation with the enfant terrible of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard.  Lang was a revered idol in the pantheon of the "auteurs," ensconced there by Godard and his colleagues during their formative years when they were film critics at Cahiers du Cinéma in the 1950s.  By 1963 Godard had already established himself as the true modernist of the "French New Wave," and had convinced Lang to play a mirror image of himself in his film Le Mépris. This documentary reunites the two directors in a discussion that ranges from camera placement to the use of improvisation.  Their conversation is interspersed with scenes from Godard's film as well as sequences from M, Lang's 1931 masterpiece about the manhunt for a child murderer. The film is being shown as part of the New York Film Festival.  The entire film is posted on YouTube, so if you are unable to attend the festival showing of this interesting documentary, you can watch it right here.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Master: A New Film by Paul Thomas Anderson

The title of Paul Thomas Anderson's new film The Master, a thinly disguised examination of the career of L. Ron Hubbard, the author of Dianetics and creator of the Church of Scientology, might lead you to believe that the film is a biopic centered around one man.  Instead, its narrative revolves around the relationship between the Hubbard character, here called Lancaster Dodd, and Freddie Quell his wayward protégée. Dodd, as played by Philip Seymour Hoffman is the rosy-cheeked guru of a new cult, and Joaquin Phoenix is a shell-shocked, scrawny World War II veteran whose chance encounter with Dodd while he is taking his formal portrait at a department store where he has landed a job after leaving the V.A. hospital leads to a relationship filled with tension, love, regret and pain for both. When they first meet, their picture session ends in a fight, and their last encounter in the film produces a tearful, angst-ridden version of the song "On a Slow Boat to China,” which Mr. Hoffman sings to Freddie with a sad grandeur that recalls Orson Welles at his imposing best.  It is a singular, unforgettable moment in the film that crystallizes the thwarted love between these two very different men. Dodd is an intellectual mountebank who seems to be convincing himself of his new creed the more he lectures to his converts about it. Freddie is a walking contradiction ruled by an uncontrollable id. At times he is grateful that Dodd has taken him under his wing, but he does not know how to become the perfect acolyte of this new religion. When someone doubts the word of the Master he is quick to let his fists fly and punish any doubter or unbeliever. The film is a brilliant study of the relationship between master and servant; and at times both characters cross the line to become their polar opposites before changing back to their primary archetypal roles.

In addition to the volcanic performances of the two leading men, Amy Adams shines in the role of Lancaster Dodd's ever-pregnant wife, Peggy.  Her performance is unforgettable for its simplicity.  While Hoffman and Phoenix spend the film re-writing the rules of Method acting, Ms. Adams creates a character as rooted as the Earth Mother figure that she portrays.  We remember her intensity but also her clean, non-mannered approach to the role.  A lesser actor would be erased when put side by side with Hoffman and Phoenix.  Ms. Adams is very much in the driver's seat in her scenes, and the result is that her performance is on the par with her male leads.

By now, Paul Thomas Anderson's style is well-known.  As America's true auteur, he creates films that pose questions that may not have answers.  Time after time, his films hide more than they reveal.  In his world there is a sizable unknown component at the heart of his stories that keeps us from getting close to his characters -- and that's exactly where Anderson wants us.  His scripts are often challenging collages that we are allowed to contemplate but not totally comprehend.  His affinity for Magic Realism and Surrealism is always given free rein.  His predilection for the American West, whether geographical, as a state of mind, or as an archetypal component of American cinema is ever present in his films.  In The Master, shot in gorgeous 70mm by the brilliant Romanian cinematographer Mihai Malaimare, Jr., it serves as a metaphor for the unattainable, as in a key scene where both Hoffman and Phoenix take turns riding a motorcycle in the desert at full speed out to an infinitesimal abstract point in space.

It is that point in space that Paul Thomas Anderson's films often want to reach, and in his best work he succeeds in taking us along for the ride even though we may not always reach our destination.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Jones and Koehler to replace Peña at the NY Film Festival

A year after it was announced that Richard Peña would be leaving his post as program director and head of the selection committee at the NY Film Festival, the Film Society of Lincoln Center announced that Kent Jones would become director of programming for the festival, and Robert Koehler would take on the job of director of programming year round.  To my knowledge, the first time that this job has been divided between two people.  Here is an excerpt from the press release that was sent today:

New York, NY (September 13, 2012) – The Film Society of Lincoln Center, America’s pre-eminent non-profit film organization, announced today the appointment of Kent Jones as Director of Programming, New York Film Festival and Robert Koehler as Director of Programming, Year Round. As announced previously, after 25 years, Program Director and New York Film Festival Selection Committee Head Richard Peña will step down from his post at the end of 2012 and Jones and Koehler will then move into their new programming roles with the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Peña will continue his involvement with the Film Society of Lincoln Center in helping design and organize a new educational initiative.

The appointment of two directors to the programming team will allow the Film Society to better serve the needs of an organization that has recently expanded its operations with the opening of the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film. In addition to continuing the Film Society’s trademark programs, Kent Jones and Robert Koehler will continue to develop new programming initiatives and film series including first runs, family films, new media, educational and artist development programs.

“The New York Film Festival has always been a beacon to me – when I was young and pouring over the yearly schedule in the Sunday Times, when I moved to New York in my 20s and started to actually attend the festival, and later when I served on the selection committee” said Kent Jones. “It means a lot to me to be entrusted with its stewardship after Richard Peña, to whom I owe a lot."

Kent Jones’ writing on film has been published throughout the world in numerous magazines, newspapers, catalogues, websites and journals. In 2007 a collection of his writings, Physical Evidence, was published by Wesleyan University Press, and he recently edited the first English-language volume of writings on Olivier Assayas, published by Filmmuseum Synema Publikationem. He is a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow. Jones has collaborated for many years on documentaries with Martin Scorsese, beginning with My Voyage to Italy (2001) on which he served as co-writer. He and Scorsese co-wrote and co-directed A Letter to Elia (2010), an Emmy-nominated and Peabody Award-winning film about the director Elia Kazan. Scorsese was the producer and narrator of Jones’ 2007 documentary about Val Lewton, The Man in the Shadows.

Jones began in programming with Bruce Goldstein at Film Forum, and served as the American representative for the Rotterdam International Film Festival from 1996 to 1998. From 1998 to 2009, he was Associate Director of Programming at The Film Society of Lincoln Center, and from 2002 to 2009 he served on the New York Film Festival selection committee. He has also served on juries at film festivals around the world, including Rotterdam, Buenos Aires, San Francisco, Venice and Cannes. In 2009, he was named Executive Director of The World Cinema Foundation.

Robert Koehler is a film critic and festival programmer and has served as an instructor and programmer for UCLA Extension’s Sneak Preview program from 2003-2007. In 2003, he developed the successful, innovative film program, “The Films That Got Away,” an ongoing series presenting significant recent work that has previously not screened in Los Angeles. Institutions with which the series has collaborated include UCLA Film Archive, the American Cinematheque and the Los Angeles Film Festival. In 2009, he was appointed director of programming at AFI Fest Los Angeles, where he helped create a new and focused competition section titled “New Lights,” as part of AFI Fest’s programming concept as a festival-of-festivals.

A graduate of UCLA, Koehler was a theater critic for the LA Weekly and Los Angeles Times during the 1980s and 1990s. He has been a contributor to Variety since 1994. As a film critic, he has written for Variety, Cinema Scope, Cineaste, Film Comment, IndieWire, The Christian Science Monitor and, as well as Cahiers du Cinema (France and Spain) and Die Tagezeitung. His blog column analyzing film festivals can be read at, the website of the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He is a member of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics, and has served on festival juries in Cannes, Berlin, Locarno, Vancouver, Buenos Aires, Indie Lisboa, Copenhagen, Montreal, Mexico City, Santiago, Palm Springs, Bermuda and Miami. Among his published work are chapters in the books “Cine Argentino 1999-2009,” “On Film Festivals,” from Wildflower Press, and “American Comedy,” published by the San Sebastian Film Festival.