The Brooklyn Academy of Music, fresh off its winter hiatus, has had a busy month. This week, BAM launched series celebrating both the world’s oldest active director, Manoel de Oliveira, and one of its most astute film critics, J. Hoberman. In the meantime, Isabella Rossellini showed off a penchant for insect husbandry at the Bryant Park Hotel.
The world’s oldest active director was in Brooklyn on Friday night, as BAM began its series “the Talking Pictures of Manoel de Oliveira” with an appearance by the Portuguese 99 year-old (born the same year as BAM’s building was constructed). Perhaps the only director currently living that began his career in silent movies, Oliveira has been working for 78 years from his montage documentary “Working on the Douro River“, producing at least one movie a year since 1990. His films are often static and deliberately paced, with a dark political undercurrent.
While his work has generally been undistributed and unscreened in the United States, in Europe (and particularly Portugal) Oliveira is considered one of the master directors, on par with Bunuel or Bresson, which may explain the enthusiasm of the crowd, who gave the director a rare-for-BAM standing ovation.
It is hard to imagine the enthusiasm was generated by the director’s latest film, “Christopher Columbus: the Enigma“, in which a man (played by Oliveira’s grandson in the first half and Oliveira himself in the second, accompanied by his real-life wife) visits various sites of historical interest and notes that they may be related to Christopher Columbus, whom he insists was Portuguese and named Christopher Colon. That’s all there is to the film, besides a certain unfortunate sense of nationalism and a devotion to the mundane details of history and genealogy not often found outside of Mormons or hobbits.
“It’s a melancholy film, and speaks of two moments in time.” said Oliveira after the film. “The discovery of Portugal, a first-class nation, and today, a country that is impoverished…this film is the bitterness of a heroic past faced with a doubtful present, all over the world, not only in Portugal.”
It’s difficult to imagine that the Native Americans who encountered Columbus, or the Indians who dealt with Vasco de Gama felt the same way, but there it is. “The Talking Pictures of Manoel de Oliveira” plays at BAM through March 30, with 18 new prints, many of them rare.
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On Monday night, BAM kicked off its 3-week celebration of quintessential New York film critic J. Hoberman’s 30th year at the Village Voice with a screening of David Lynch‘s 1977 “Eraserhead“, the first film he reviewed.
“Myself, and many other cinephiles and younger critics have been reading J’s work for our entire lives,” introduced BAM assistant curator Jake Perlin. “It’s some of the only film criticism that’s being written that’s also literature.” Certainly, Hoberman’s work is some of the most definitive of any critic currently working — both his voice and his taste are so strong and so particular that even when one disagrees there is the nagging feeling that his opinion is correct.
“It’s amazing to me, I get to criticize people and then everybody’s so nice,” said Hoberman before the screening. “I feel like I’m getting away with something, I feel very lucky,” adding, “I feel lucky that I’m not Elliot Spitzer today, also.”
“I came of age during the heyday of the counter-culture, and managed to figure out how to have a job that kept me in a version of that for all these years,” said Hoberman, an occasional avant-garde filmmaker himself (a selection of his works will be playing next month at the Anthology Film Archives) and tireless champion of pioneering work.
A film like “Eraserhead”, then, might have seemed like an immediate favorite for the critic, but he admits that when he was sent to cover it for his first column, “I was completely nonplussed. What was it? … Was this an avante garde film, a splatter film? I knew it was artistic, but to what end?”
That’s understandable. Even 30 years later, in the beautiful new print that played at BAM, many audience members found themselves at a loss for what to think about the fetal calf, the amplified ambient noise, the monster woman in the radiator with hope in her heart. In 1977, Hoberman wrote that it was “not a movie I’d drop acid for,” though he says 2 or 3 years later he would have recognized it for what it was: “I’ll say it now, belatedly, this is my best movie of 1977.”
“30 Years of J. Hoberman” continues through April 3rd, including screenings of “Andrei Rublev“, “Assault on Precinct 13“, and a selection of works by Ernie Gehr.
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This may not be news to you, but Isabella Rossellini is rad. The always-surprising actress has recently directed and starred in 8 short films for Sundance Channel about the sex lives of bugs named “Green Porno“, which screened at the Bryant Park Hotel on Wednesday night. The films, rich with childlike, grotesque whimsy (“I thrust my palps into her epigyne and run off!” screams Rossellini, dressed as a spider), are intended for showcase on mobile devices such as iPods and mobile phones.
“When I was little, my father always told me about “the Great Event”, from silent films to talkies,” said Rossellini after the screenings. “I feel that we are again at another breakthrough event: this new technology opens up another canvas for artists to express themselves.”
Sundance Channel — which had previously co-funded the Rossellini-penned, Guy Madden-directed short “My Dad is 100 Years Old“, a tribute to Rossellini’s father Roberto — gave Rossellini a few stipulations. “They said, ‘we need it to be short, 2 minutes long. We would like it to be on an environmental theme, and we’d like it flashy.’ To me the word flashy translated into sex.”
When one audience member mentioned that former Rossellini collaborator and lover David Lynch had expressed distress that people might watch his movies on an iPod or cell phone, she said “It’s a pity that people would see things on the small screen that are not meant for it,” suggesting that she had experimented to see what art forms might work better. “Animation really translated well from the big screen to the little screen. If you watch Walt Disney or Chuck Jones it looks fantastic, big, small, medium…. That was why we decided to do this with paper cut-outs and animated backgrounds.”
“Short films have no outlet right now- they’re a dead art,” continued Rossellini. “My hope is that there might be a new life for them through this outlet.” The films will be released on SundanceChannel.com on May 5.