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NY NY | Handheld New York: Pennebaker, Latek and Romero Screen Their Films

NY NY | Handheld New York: Pennebaker, Latek and Romero Screen Their Films

This was the week of the handheld camera in New York. On Monday night, D.A. Pennebaker was at Film Forum, discussing his history-making Bob Dylan documentary “Don’t Look Back“. Director Erik Scott Latek swung by the IFC Center’s Stranger Than Fiction series on Tuesday night with his boxing doc “Sweet Dreams“, and veteran horror director George A. Romero celebrated his birthday on Wednesday at a sneak preview screening of his home video-style “Diary of the Dead“.

Film Forum Looks “Back”

Todd Haynes‘ pseudo-biopic “I’m Not There” has now been playing at Film Forum for nearly three months, and in commemoration the theater showed a one-week revival of documentarian D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal 1967 Bob Dylan film “Don’t Look Back”, which chronicles the singer’s 1965 tour. The film- and in particular the video for “Subterranean Homesick Blues”- was instrumental in establishing Dylan as more icon than celebrity, a fact celebrated by Haynes most notably in the Cate Blanchett section of his film, which features the Dylan character (in beautiful black and white) responding to his stardom uncertainly, bating reporters, and looking generally, sardonically overwhelmed.

On Monday night, Pennebaker stopped by the theater for a Q&As following his film, and discussed making it under less than ideal circumstances. “This was essentially a homemade camera I was using, and it kept breaking down,” said the legendary director, also responsible for “Monterey Pop” and “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars”. “I cut it very fast- I didn’t have a Movieola, or an editing flatbed, I just had a viewer that I got for about $50 and a synchronizer to run the soundtrack. I probably edited that film in about 3 weeks.”

The film achieved a certain raw, intimate immediacy from the process, and as a result is one of the most fascinating relics of the 1960s. “Dylan hardly knew what he was doing, he was busy trying to invent himself in front of a lot of people who didn’t know what he was inventing. It just led to foolish questions by these poor reporters- I would have asked some foolish questions too, except I never asked questions because I was too busy fixing the camera.”

“There was always an audience that appreciated handheld cameras,” explained Pennebaker when asked if his film seemed stylistically shocking in 1965. “They were always around. It’s not that people liked the cameras to shake, or anything, but they wanted to see places that the studio cameras couldn’t get into.”

“Sweet Dreams” For Doc Series

Certainly, this is a sentiment shared by the audiences at the IFC Center’s “Stranger Than Fiction” series, now in its third season, an excellent selection of under-the-radar documentaries curated by Toronto International Film Festival programmer Thom Powers, who moderates a Q&A with the filmmakers after each screening.

On Tuesday night, Powers screened Eric Scott Latek‘s moody, lyrical documentary “Gary “The Tiger” Balletto, an Italian-American in Providence, Rhode Island on the brink of success. It’s a rather dreamy movie, beautifully capturing the rhythms of life as Baletto attempts to juggle boxing with a full-time construction job while raising two children and trying to organize a boxers’ union. Interspersed with this is a counter-story about a sweet wannabe tough-guy Derek, an aspiring bookie who has a hard time hiding his goofiness.

The filmmaking is pure verite, and all the more surprising for it, particularly in one sequence where Derek is embarrassed to collect a debt from one gambler’s father, or when Baletto’s depressive hermit grandmother comes out isolation to play Santa at Christmas.

“Documentary is such a powerful form to capture people’s lives,” said Latek after the screening (also attended by surprise guest Balletto). “I felt like the story was telling itself… so I decided to shoot it and edit it in a way that was passive. I just let it go.”

“I was originally only filming Derek,” continued Latek, “he was such a soft-spoken, good guy, and he was trying to create an image of himself that was the total opposite, I wanted to see what would happen to him. And then I met Gary, who would just pulverize guys in the ring, but when I met him he was so good natured and sweet. I was really interested in these contrasts.”

The film premiered at the 2006 Full Frame festival, and is still awaiting distribution. Stranger Than Fiction continues next week with a selection of documentary shorts from McSweeney’s excellent DVD magazine Wolphin.

George A. Romero and MoMI assistant curator Livia Bloom at a special screening of Romero’s “Diary of the Dead.” Image by Charlie Olsky/indieWIRE.

Romero Previews His “Diary”

Wednesday night was horror maestro George A. Romero’s birthday, and the director was greeted with a standing ovation from some his obsessive fans at a special preview screening of his latest film, “Diary of the Dead” presented by the Museum of the Moving Image. Romero’s latest return to zombie-held territory shows the first days of the zombie apocalypse through an avid blogger’s handheld personal camera (much like the inferior “Cloverfield“), and the characters spend as much time discussing their moral uneasiness with obsessively documenting the unacceptable as they do about the whole zombie situation.

“For me, the idea of a movie, the sociopolitical idea, motivates the story,” said Romero afterwards. “The story comes later. First, I think “I’d like to do something that talks about, say, New Media, or post 9/11 life with ‘Land of the Dead‘, and then there are fifty different stories I can use.”

Romero has always been one of the most political filmmakers around, sometimes absurdly so (“Land of the Dead” was all overwrought political tract and almost no horror), and this film is hardly an exception. There is so much speechifying politics, in fact, that the movie would be ridiculous if it wasn’t so much fun. The grandstanding is hilarious, and when it comes to his gory set pieces- a zombie’s eyeballs exploding from electric shock, say, or a man putting a scythe through his own head- Romero is in top form.

“I can’t imagine being a journalist in Afghanistan and just filming a marine pointing a gun at a boy, and not doing anything,” explained Romero. “That’s part of what this film is about, and the other part is about how the new media has made it possible for everyone to be a reporter, to have a blog and get their word out there. There’s a great danger there…. The character in this film thinks he can help by documenting everything, and he can’t tell the situation is beyond anything he can help.”

Romero had a few words for the current trend of horror films, currently petering out in the box office. “If someone can tell me what torture porn is trying to do, please raise your hand, because I can’t tell. Is it anger? I just don’t get it.” “Diary of the Dead” comes out in theaters on February 15.

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