This week, New York paid tribute to the generally unheralded artists behind the scenes, be they cinematographers, writers or documentarians. Lincoln Center’s “Open Roads” series presented the theatrical version of Italian filmmaker Angelo Longoni’s “Caravaggio.” Maysles, Kopple, Churchill and Peck gave their take on documentary at BAM, and back at Lincoln Center, the women of “Evening” had their night on the town.
No Sex Please, we prefer violence…
The 7th annual Lincoln Center’s “Open Roads” film series continued this week featuring a selection of new Italian cinema that has managed the feat of having a U.S. screening despite a national film industry which, after its recent structural collapse, largely eschews exportation (and translation). Friday night’s world premiere of the theatrical cut of Italian miniseries “Caravaggio,” the story of the Renaissance painter was mostly anticipated in light of its cinematographer, three-time Oscar-winner Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now“), who was on hand for the Q&A, along with director Angelo Longoni, and star Alessio Boni (“The Best of Youth“).
The film itself was a mess–the theatrical version includes all of the events from the full-length version but none of the pauses, with the result being that it mostly feels like its own trailer, all shouty exposition and quick cuts. Caravaggio’s romance with his male lover is limited to fey glances and some light nuzzling, yet the camera settles down and stays put for some gruesomely explicit and entirely tangential beheadings and stake-burnings.
Doc Giants on the Reality of it all
The Sundance at BAM program wrapped up this weekend with a fine pair of documentary programs which were not featured at the 2007 festival. On Saturday, cinematographer Ellen Kuras (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind“) unveiled her work in progress and directorial debut “Nerakhoun: The Centre Will Not Hold,” the story of co-director Thavisouk Phrasavath, whose family was left as outcasts in their native Laos in the wreckage that followed the U.S.’s extensive bombing of that country (still unrecognized by the U.S. government) after his father colluded with the U.S. occupiers in exchange for some extra money and military rank.
“I never wanted to make a verite movie in the first place,” said Kuras afterwards, in a discussion with Phrasavth (many of whose family members with in the audience). “I wanted to make a poem, an elegy about what stirs memory,” an idea that changed over the twenty years that she and Phrasavth have been working on the project as she grew to really know him. As he put it, “”Sometimes it’s very irritating to see a film, where the narrator speaks on behalf of the subjects and says how they feel, what they think, or what their vision is… Working on this film has encouraged me to speak on behalf of myself.”
This sentiment would certainly be encouraged by any of the documentarians featured in Sunday’s extraordinary program, “Four Independents That Turned The Tide,” in which four of the preeminent figures in documentary film held simultaneous screenings before moving to BAM’s Harvey Theater for a conversation about “the state of documentary film today,” wherein the only drawback was having to make the decision about which film to see. The participants were Barbara Kopple (“Shut up and Sing!“), Joan Churchill (“Soldier Girls“), Raoul Peck (“Lumumba“) and the legendary Albert Maysles flanked by a throng of young admirers who specially curated a collection of clips from his over-50 year career.
Maysles, a former psychologist, fondly recalled two bits of advice that he ignored when first filmmaking: “One was to use a tripod, and the other was to follow a point of view. You don’t follow a point of view when you come from a background [of psychology].” This interest in human behavior and a habit of shooting in close-up resulted in his ultimate goal of, as he put it, “getting close,” and its usefulness was echoed by Koppel and Churchill, who worked with the filmmaker on “Gimme Shelter.”
“I never follow a point of view… Whatever your preconception is, it will change once you start,” said Churchill. Peck, the most blatantly political of the four, provided a counterpoint, saying “Where I come from, I can’t afford not to have a point of view… Whether you’re aware of it or not, you have one.”
All of the filmmakers seemed excited about the position of documentaries in contemporary culture. As Koppel put it, “When I started making documentaries, people could care less what you were doing. You would be at a party, and somebody would ask ‘what are you doing?’ and you would say ‘I’m making a film about coal miners in Kentucky,’ and they’d say, ‘OK, well I need to go get a drink. Now, everybody’s listening, everybody’s interested.”
Film Society Fetes an “Evening”
The Film Society of Lincoln Center took a break from Italian cinema on Tuesday night to host a special sneak preview of Lajos Koltai‘s “Evening.” While the film’s casting consists almost entirely of exclamation points (Vanessa Redgrave! Meryl Streep! Glenn Close! Toni Collette!), this screening sought to highlight the efforts of the writers, featuring a discussion afterwards with the book’s author Susan Minot and the principal screenplay adaptor Michael Cunningham. It was a good thing too–the actual film was drek. While the cast is enticing on paper, Streep and daughter Mamie Gunner seem to have been the only ones informed that they were in a movie rather than a play, and the story launches so quickly into histrionically convoluted emotional entanglements that by about the 20 minute mark, the audience is left with the distinct feeling that they are listening in on somebody else’s gossip.
If Minot minded, she did not show it. Both authors, in fact, seemed in agreement that a book’s author’s involvement with its adaptation should be minimal at best. Said Cunningham, “All the novelists I respect don’t pull this thing about ‘don’t touch my precious baby.’ I hate that, the notion that one’s book is like the fingernail of a saint that must be kept in a reliquary.” Minot agreed commenting, “The book still remains in tact between its covers, and a movie is, well, not gravy, but it’s something more. Period. It doesn’t change the book.”
When asked if these authors had had more control than most in their involvement due to their credits as Executive Producers, Cunningham admitted to not knowing what an Executive Producer does, and Minot explained it for him as such: “When they can’t pay you, but they really want you to work on the script, they say ‘we’ll make you an executive producer.'” “Evening” will be released by Focus Features on June 29.
In Theaters this week:
“Beyond Hatred” (June 15), directed by Oliver Meyrou. Distributor: First Run Features. Official website
“Eagle vs Shark” (June 15), directed by Taika Waititi. Distributor: Miramax. Official website
“Gypsy Caravan” (June 15), directed by Jasmine Dellal. Distributor: Shadow Distribution. Official website
“Fido” (June 15), directed by Andrew Currie. Distributor: Lionsgate. Official website
“Unborn in the USA: Inside the War on Abortion” (June 15), directed by Stephen Fell and Will Thompson. Distributor: First Run Features. Official website