It was a quiet week as New York welcomed August. Stephen Frears came to the Walter Reade with his "The Queen" prequel "The Deal", and the Museum of Modern Art's comprehensive exhibition of Salvador Dali films started its latest chapter. And once again, Film Forum is showing one of the most exciting lineups in recent memory.
Film Comment Selects "The Deal"
Lincoln Center's cinematic journal Film Comment held one of its occasional "Film Comment Selects" programs on Wednesday night at the Walter Reade Theater, hosting an appearance by British director Stephen Frears with his film "The Deal", a predecessor to "The Queen". The film, about the struggle for control of the labor party between old school leftist Gordon Brown and chipper populist Tony Blair, was aired on British television in 2005.
"To be clear, this isn't the New York premiere," introduced Frears. "This is the only time the film will ever be shown in a cinema in America. It was made for British television... when they said "Why didn't you make it for the cinema?" I said, "because, why would anybody else be interested in British domestic politics?"
Quite a lot of people, as it turns out. It's a riveting story, and even those audience members who follow international politics may be unaware of the personal dynamics present in the struggle between Blair and Brown, who went from close friends to political rivals; screenwriter Peter Morgan shows a particular talent for teasing out human interest stories from political situations without resorting to standard cliches or overtly expository dialogue.
As Frears put it, "the nice thing about the script was that everybody in Britain knew everything, we didn't have to explain things. We all know the minutiae of what happened."
It is impossible to watch this film and not be reminded of "The Queen", partly because both films share the feeling of being excellently made television docudramas, and partly because both feature Michael Sheen in an uncanny performance as Tony Blair. While he was the affable voice of reason in the later film, he is a much less likeable character here, a Clinton-style politician who makes the left wing more saleable by moving it towards the center. When Film Comment editor pointed out that one roots for Blair in "The Queen" and against him in "The Deal", Frears seemed shocked, saying "You actually liked him in 'The Queen'? You should be ashamed of yourself. He won the election in 1997 promising to change things, and the first thing he did was protect the monarchy." Of course, when the monarchy is played by Helen Mirren, it's hard not to like him.
The film is currently available on DVD. Film Comment Selects will return at the end of August with a screening of Philippe Ramos' "Captain Ahab".
"Crime Wave" at Film Forum
It's time to live at Film Forum again. On Friday, August 8, the downtown institution launches its series "The French Crime Wave" with the great heist film "Rififi", and continues the next month with a comprehensive portrait of the underbelly of Gallic life. It's a thrilling series, combining supremely effective suspense films like "Diabolique" and "Eyes Without a Face" with hard boiled noirs such as "Touchez Pas Le Grisbi" or "Le Cercle Rouge", with new wave classics like "Elevator to the Gallows" and "Breathless".
"We had someone tell us that they were coming to New York just for our annual noir festival," says Film Forum's director of repertory programming Bruce Goldstein. "I wasn't aware we had one; we didn't plan it, but this is like a sequel to our New York Noir series, more of a Paris Noir."
It's a uniformly excellent series, packed full of Film Forum's typically exciting double features; while many directors are featured throughout (it wouldn't be Film Forum without a healthy helping of Godard), the series is particularly rich with films by Jean-Pierre Melville, whose greatness is only now becoming known to many Americans, featuring "Bob Le Flambeur", "Le Cercle Rouge", "Le Doulos" and "Un Flic".
"Melville was a great director, but never recognized here in his lifetime," says Goldstein. "We've been behind him for the past 10 years, and it seems like he's finally getting the reputation he deserves."
The series is also an actor's showcase. "This is a retrospective of Gabin, Ventura, Belmondo; they were pure and pure tough guys, and they really acted as mentors- Gabin to Ventura, and then Ventura to Belmondo... Jeanne Moreau and Simone Signoret are the two great noir actresses. Signoret in particular has the best scene in the Becker film "Casque D'Or."
"The French discovered the same thing the Americans did about Noir," says Goldstein. "It's a good way to make a movie inexpensively... They were great, inexpensive showcases for directors and writers. It's like Godard said, all you need is a girl and a gun."
The French Crime Wave series continues through September 11.
MoMA Does Dali
On Monday, The Museum of Modern Art launched into its latest series in its massive exhibition of Salvador Dali paintings and films with the program "Salvador Dali: Consumer and Consumed", an exploration of films and images that influenced the master of surrealism, as well as films that were in turn influenced directly by Dali.
"I have the idea of a nexus with Dali at the center, with arrows going 2 ways," explains curator Anne Morra, who programmed the series. "These were films that either drew from Dali, or that Dali might have drawn from.... There are so many ways in which we see Dali's influence throughout the past 70 years of cinema, it really gave me an opportunity to be creative, to go beyond the obvious associations."
It is a group of films as esoteric as the mad artist, including a 1917 series of ophthalmological films that may or may not have directly inspired the famous eyeball slicing in "Un Chien Andalou", as well as Darren Aronofsky's flop "The Fountain", with its direct visual references both to Dali and the work of Dali's idol, Hieronymus Bosch.
The museum's main exhibition originated at the Tate Modern in London, and has traveled to a few locations before making its way to MoMA. "It's a great program, but the other venues didn't have quite the same focus on film exhibition that we have... we are a particularly film-oriented institution" says Morra. "The full, encyclopedic film component of this exhibition is key to us, and is unique to MoMA."
That program has included several other series, including "Salvador Dali: Creator Collaborator", which includes many of the films most commonly associated with the artist, such as "L'Age D'Or" and "Spellbound"; "Dali Laughs," which play off the silent comedies loved by Dali (he once wrote, approvingly, that the work of Buster Keaton was 'anti-Artistic'); and "Salvador Dali and the Three American Surrealists", featuring work from the three figures Dali believed to be the foremost American surrealists, Walt Disney, Cecil B. DeMille, and Harpo Marx. The exhibition finishes with a series of films by and about Salvador Dali in relation to New York.
"It's a true mix of films," says Marra. "By the end of this exhibition, we hope that audiences will have a truly expansive knowledge about who Dali was, where his ideas originated, and what his legacy has been."
"Salvador Dali: Paintings and Films" runs through September 15