Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A New Master (Chop Shop)

In Roger’s new book on Scorsese, he talks about seeing the director’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door at a Chicago film festival when they were both 25. Even from that first film, Roger says he knew he was viewing the work of one of the most important filmmakers of his generation.

I love stories like that, and have always lamented that I might not get to say the same about any director of my own generation. At least until I first saw Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart back in 2006, and got that crazy shiver. Bahrani had emailed me several times while I was running a Sundance blog for Flavorpill to ask me to screen his film, and though I’d wanted to — especially when I realized he also lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — I didn’t get a chance to see it until New Directors/New Films that year, where I was totally floored.

Muscular and emotive without ever dipping into sentimentality, this was the kind of film about one of the “unseen” characters who populate contemporary cities that I wished people made but never saw. More to the point, it was clearly made by someone who not only could craft tremendous stories but fiercely loved and respected the medium in which he’d chosen to tell them. I met Ramin at that year's Ebertfest, and was struck not only by his intelligence but by his generalism, a quality I’ve found actually cements a more informed focus in the right minds. (Roger’s among them.) During one conversation, Ramin accurately quoted Rumi and Camus and statistics about immigrant populations in various New York neighborhoods and the budgets of a surprising range of films. When, in 2008, we sat down to discuss his second feature Chop Shop, which screened at Ebertfest this year, he beamed the same bright light, now burnished by a savvy granted by his two film’s positive buzz — which he was immediately funneling back into his work. His third film, Goodbye Solo, released earlier this spring, has only validated my belief that Bahrani’s the real deal: the filmmaker I will be proud to say I spotted early on, even if he had to remind politely alert me to his existence.

So it was great to see him in the more leisurely setting of Ebertfest this year but it was almost even greater to watch Chop Shop in the scope it deserves rather that in a small screening room or, worse, on an actual DVD screener (which is how I saw Solo). Here’s the short Flavorpill synopsis I wrote at the time of its release:

Director Ramin Bahrani may be as "true indie" as the directors loosely clumped into the mumblecore movement, but that's where all similarities stop. Rather than middle-class white kids who struggle to complete their sentences, the subjects of Bahrani's films are outsiders who matter-of-factly eke out existences the average American couldn't imagine. In his latest, Chop Shop, a homeless teenager and her little brother hustle in every sense of the word to keep a tin roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and rice and beans in their guts. Blunt and beautiful, this film pulls no punches as it articulates the hard-won joy that often accompanies struggle.

What struck me most this viewing was what a relief it was to watch. A funny thing to say about a film that has its core such a potentially sobering subject — two virtual orphans doing whatever it takes to stay off the streets and stay together — but Bahrani’s willingness to present them as subjects rather than objects of pity is infectious. More to the point, it was great to watch a film I embrace so unreservedly. Too often, I find myself in the awkward position of recognizing a film’s good qualities and earnest intent but just feeling like it doesn't quite cut it — doesn't demonstrate the mastery and foresight that distinguishes the truly worthy. (I’ve seen a few such ventures that shalt remain unnamed at Tribeca Film Festival this year thus far.) All of Bahrani’s films remind me of what I can still allow myself to expect.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Sleeping on Winnipeg

Confession: These days I rarely blog, so you’ll either forgive my terrible pacing on these posts (aka no pacing, practically) or you won’t. But as Aretha Franklin is wont to say, “this is what it is (what it is).” I am a slow digester by nature, even eat slowly, and don’t really decide what I want to say for at least two or three days, a quality and rate that is becoming archaic as all text migrates online. A topic that we covered in our many compelling meal conversations during this week in the much-hallowed Ebertfest Green Room this week. (More on that later.)

And so long as I’m in the business of confessions, I also confess that I’ve never seen Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg without succumbing for at least a few minutes to a really lovely sleep. It’s not that this film is dull — far from it, truly — as much as it lives in the interstice of fact and fiction (the interstice being the only interesting element in that equation), between dreams and reality.

For those unfamiliar with Maddin’s films, they’re best, at least initially, described as “talking silent films”—funny, tragic bits and pieces of typography and narration and staged scenes and found archival footage. Maddin makes no bones about embracing melodrama, a genre I deem increasingly refreshing in a sea of contrived naturalism. What would exist as subtext in anyone else’s film looms in his as supertext—sometimes literally, since he is wont to flash words right before your eyes in what amounts to a not-very-subliminal cinematic traffic signal.

My Winnipeg in many ways is the ultimate Maddin movie. His films always have been mildly autobiographical, but this one actually was financed as a documentary about Winnipeg, Maddin’s native tromping grounds. As every reviewer worth his or her salt before me has already observed, whether the film is comprised of all (any?) facts is hardly germane. Not knowing comprises at least half of the fun, and if even half the facts are true, the city deserves a much brighter spot on all of our psychomythological radar. Yes, I just made up that term, but I think it deserves to exist, if only in reference to Maddin himself.

For only he would make a movie about an endless train ride circling a small North American city that could pack such a punch, that would feature so many shots of female laps, that would literally picture his mom (portrayed, naturally, by Ann Savage) in the window of that train car. It’s possible that Woody Allen might try that move, upon second thought, but listening to Maddin reveals Allen to be what we should have recognized all along: a reactionary. Interestingly, in person Maddin channels a version of the same cocktail of self-loathing and bemusement that is Allen’s trademark, but he also seems more sincere and articulate. He is, after all, Canadian.

My Winnipeg is as nonlinear as that train ride, and so I have found in my three viewings that no matter where I fall asleep, I have awakened to a scene that makes the same amount of sense, which is to say: some. This time while watching it I opened my eyes to a recreation of a fight between his mom and his sister—a congenitally familiar topic to me--and so jumped right into the film’s flow. Until I fell back again into a reverie about that subject which somehow slid me from my subconscious to unconscious. To be fair, the film lingers quite a bit on Maddin’s stand-in, as he wobbles in and out of sleep while struggling to escape his hometown, and Maddin touts his hometown’s (alleged) high rate of sleepwalking in a way that reads as an inarguable endorsement of sleep, sleep, sleep. A snakecharmer of a director, that one.

The effect of this film even more than his others, then, is to entwine his subconscious with my own, with perhaps every viewer of his film. By the time I staggered back into the sunlight, I had no choice but to make a beeline to a local thrift store, where I bought a hat that normally would have suited Savage more than me, though I do boast a certain dowager chic. This may be a new medium altogether: a film that doesn’t require its audience to be conscious in order to cast a spell upon it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Begin Here

And another year begins. How wonderful.

This is my fifth year participating in Roger Ebert’s film festival. That’s long enough for me to witness its original moniker –-the “Overlooked Film Festival”—fall by the wayside; long enough to make some wonderful friends and, sadly, long enough to bid farewell to a few of them. I’ve even been participating long enough to know how to get to Steak N Shake on my own volition. To name but a handful, I’ve met Paul Cox and Werner Herzog and Alan Rickman and Farmer John and Darrell Roodt and John Malkovich and Jeff Nichols and Joey Lauren Adams and Christine Lahti and Guy Maddin and Ramin Bahrani (the latter two I’ll see again this year), and here at Ebertfest, “meeting” someone actually means something.

I consider this festival free grad school for all of us lucky enough to participate in any capacity. We eat all our meals together, camp out in the university’s student union, and, best of all, sit shoulder to shoulder in front of the Virginia Theater’s satisfyingly wide screen.We watch one movie after another, all together, and only take breaks to talk about what we’ve been watching with the people who made the films and the people who have thought about them a lot already. When I first started attending, I merely tagged along as a film enthusiast who’d barely done any film writing. But because my enthusiasm, if not my knowledge, was boundless, the powers-that-be here (especially Roger Ebert and the late Dusty Cohl, co-founder of the Toronto International Film Festival) always included me in their conversations, even benignly forgiving my deep-rooted hatred of Kubrick. Of course I learned more from listening than from talking, not only about what was on the screen but what went on behind it, from production to distribution. For movies are extraordinary for so many reasons, not the least of which is that they are both art and business, social commentary and in many cases social perpetrators. What better way to view the whole world than to view what we choose to view?

These days, the film industry—including film criticism—is facing the serious challenges that all seemingly extraneous fields face during times of financial crisis. Just as I and many of my colleagues are finally hitting our strides, the bottom has fallen out beneath us. The future is maddeningly uncertain: where will view our films? who will view films? how will we view films? how will we write about them? and make them? and for whom? and how?

As I’ve always said, when the tough gets going, the tough goes to school. So Ebertfest11 couldn’t come at a better time. We need to calm down and just look at some significant films to remember why we love them. We need to discuss in a comfortable place what comes next.

Also, and this may truly be my most important point yet: I personally need to drive the awesome silver jeep that the rental car agency gave me this year. For a Brooklyn girl, these are no small apples.