The summer heat continues in New York, as its cinematic institutions continue to offer the option of escaping or embracing it. The 5th Annual Animation Block Party had a record screening outdoors on Friday night in conjunction with Rooftop Films, while Lou Reed showed up at Film Forum for a prickly Q&A following a screening of Julian Schnabel‘s concert film “Lou Reed’s Berlin“. And for the upcoming week, the Film Society of Lincoln Center celebrates one of the pillars of Japanese film culture, Madame Kawakita.
As summer continues through its dog days, everybody wants to be outside, something a lot of New Yorkers have realized in recent years with a proliferation of outdoor festivals. The 5th Annual Animation Block Party celebrated a record weekend during its opening night with the Rooftop Film Festival and for the following weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. “People are really attracted to the block party aspect of our festival,” said Casey Safron. “Not only do we have this curated festival of animated shorts, but for the same ticket you get the party, with free beer, free food, all kinds of giveaway goodies. It’s a good, cheap way to spend a summer evening in Brooklyn.”
The festival itself contains the opening night of popular selections (“it’s our fun night, so we show all our gross-out movies”, says Safron), as well as an experimental program, a storytelling program, a “professional and independent” program, and a narrative program.
“Everybody always loves the more fun cartoons,” says Safron, “but I love being able to put the experimental, visual films in movie theaters, because it’s usually seen in a museum or installation space. It’s just a different experience in movie theaters.”
Safron is a veteran of animation production, having spent almost 8 years at SVA (The School of Visual Arts), and then a subsequent 10 years in animation production. In 2004, after a night he curated at Dahlia Smith‘s weekly “Flix & Mix” film series at the Tribeca club Sugar received attention in the New York Times, he decided to try out a stand-alone festival which mixed animated shorts by unknown filmmakers with work by Bill Plympton and Emily Hubley. “We weren’t sure what the turnout would be like, it was so last minute,” says Safron. “We had free PBR and free Krispy Kreme, but it was pouring rain that night, and nobody was showing up. Suddenly, the rain completely stopped, and instantly 300 people showed up all at once. New York Magazine named us one of the 5 small film festivals, immediately afterwards, and by the next year we were suddenly an international festival, just out of nowhere.”
The festival continues to grow. “A few years back, we had some network people from MTV come to us and ask if we had anything that could work for a series. We made a few suggestions, and our 2005 audience award winner, “Binge and Purge”, by Ben Meindhardt, was picked up for a series called “Perfectland“. And they’re currently working on a second series from a film by Bob Fox called “Breakfast“. It’s really exciting.”
Iconic rocker Lou Reed made a visit to the Film Forum on Monday night, in support of “Lou Reed’s Berlin”, a concert film directed by fellow Warhol remnant Julian Schnabel. The film’s opening title card gives all of the necessary context- that Reed released his album “Berlin”, a seminal bummer depicting the tortured lives of two drug addicts, in the aftermath of his most commercially successful album “Transformer”, and after its commercial failure he refused to publicly play any of the songs for 33 years, until agreeing to perform the album in its entirety at St. Anne’s Warehouse in 2006.
“I had performed a couple of songs separately, out of context,” explained Reed afterwards, “but the only way they work for me is in context, the whole piece…[the songs] never made as much sense to me otherwise.”
The entirety of the film is the St. Anne’s performance, shot by Ellen Kuras to highlight the advancing age of musicians, as well as their joy in performing even the most agonizing of songs. It’s quite a performance, too- Reed’s voice is as tunelessly evocative as ever, and he is joined on stage by dozens of musicians, including a women’s gospel choir that performs a horrifically lyrical rendition of children’s screams for several minutes.
Most significantly, the performance feels like something of a play, rather than a concert, helped by background film shot by Schnabel’s daughter Lola. Asked if he’d originally intended the music to be presented as this type of show, Reed assented, saying “Oh, we were so ambitious. We had this idea we thought we could actually stage it, very much like what you see.” Discouraged by the less-than-enthusiastic reception to the album at the time, the plans were abandoned. As Reed said, “We never even got a chance to give up on the idea.”
Lou Reed’s Berlin plays at the Film Forum through Tuesday night.
On Wednesday night, the Film Society of Lincoln Center began its “Japanese Screen Classics” series, as a tribute to one of Japanese cinema’s most important offscreen presences, Madame Kashiko Kawakita. In the 1930s, Kawakita and husband Nagamasa began distributing and publicizing noteworthy European films throughout Japan, while simultaneously helping to fund Japanese filmmaking, encouraging a dialogue between cultures which helped to foster the golden age of Japanese cinema. Kawakita also founded the Japanese Film Library Council to help restore both known and unknown classics of Japanese cinema; after her husband’s death, the institute’s name was changed to the Kawakita Memorial Film Institute, which has put together this program in celebration of her 100th birthday.
“Kawakita is one of the great behind-the-scenes players, someone that many people haven’t heard about but who made a huge impact on film” says the Film Society’s Richard Pena, who fondly recalls his annual tea with Madame Kawakita at the Cannes Film Festival. “She was instrumental in making the work of Mizoguchi and Kurosawa well-known internationally, and she helped foster the following generation of filmmakers, making Oshima and Imomura international figures.”
For the past 17 years, the Kawakita Institute has been giving the prestigious Kawakita Film Award to a wide spectrum of cinematic figures, from film critics to film festival directors to filmmakers- any person who has helped promote Japanese cinema. The series at Lincoln Center is focusing on the work of the 8 directors who have been granted the Kawakita award, which include such filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa and Seijan Suzuki.
“What I love about this series is you see such an enormous variety of films,” says Pena, “They range from war films to New Wave films to documentaries. You have real B-movie directors like Suzuki, to grand masters like Yoji Yamada or Kurosawa. It covers all of the bases, from the most esoteric to the most popular, and many things in between.”
“One of the things Madame Kawakita always emphasized was the international interplay of cinema,” says Pena. “She was a proud Japanese nationalist, but she was very interested in all international film; she wanted to see the cinema of the world in dialogue. In many ways, the world has gone according to her plans.”
“Japanese Screen Classics: In Honor of Madame Kawakita” continues until August 14.