Five reasons to come see My Uncle at the NWFF, where it’s playing daily through Thursday as part of the Children’s Film Festival:
1. Jacques Tati was the Buster Keaton of France.
2. It was very considerate of Tati to make this English language version of his masterpiece Mon Oncle (which won the 1958 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film) for those of us too short to read subtitles.
3. The mid-century modern design is to die for.
4. Mon Oncle has an 89% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (higher than Inception‘s!).
5. I need someone to tell me why I keep having dreams about that fish fountain.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness
When I saw there was a movie called Howl playing at NWFF this weekend, I kind of hoped it was about werewolves. But it’s actually about “angelheaded hipsters” – which, come to think of it, would make a fun Halloween costume. (Send us your photos!)
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall
These hipsters are the friends, lovers and fans of Allen Ginsburg, the young gay poet whose 1956 Howl and Other Poems, along with Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (published one year later) created an instant beatnik canon. The movie is an ode to the poem, the poet, and the movement. It was made by documentary filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, which probably accounts for its unusual structure.
who burned cigarette holes in their arts protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism
James Franco is a charismatic and convincing Ginsburg, in a recreated 1957 interview and in flashbacks to the people, adventures and nightmares that inspired Howl. These are intercut with scenes of Franco reading to an appreciative coffeehouse audience, animated sequences, and dramatized excerpts from the surreal obscenity trial of Howl’s publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
who drove crosscountry seventytwo hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity
The trial scenes are a lot of fun, as a parade of expert witnesses (played by appropriately hip actors like Mary Louise Parker and Alessandro Nivola) alternately attack and defend Ginsburg’s work. Subjecting art to cross-examination is unavoidably silly, and as one witness points out, can unintentionally turn individual pieces into historic icons.
Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!
But my favorite part of “Howl” is the recreated interview with Ginsburg, which shows him to be insightful, articulate and wise well beyond his then 30 years. Example: “The question is what happens when you make a distinction between what you tell your friends and what you tell your muse. The trick is to break down that distinction, to approach your muse as frankly as you would talk to yourself or to your friends, to commit to writing, to write the same way you are.”
It isn’t often that I can say I first heard about a movie showing at NWFF on “At the Movies.” But Daddy Longlegs, the microbudget indie playing through Thursday, has grabbed the attention of all kinds of film critics. Its mainstream fans include J. Hoberman, Roger Ebert, and A.O. Scott. You can see Scott and co-host Michael Phillips give Daddy Longlegs the “At the Movies” treatment here (it’s listed under Now Playing).
To paraphrase Tolstoy, all good parents are alike, but every bad parent is bad in his or her own way. This is certainly true in American movies, where portrayals of wayward moms and dads have ranged from lovingly eccentric (The Royal Tenenbaums) to unforgivably flawed (Lolita) to downright evil (The Manchurian Candidate).
Lenny, the divorced 30-something father who is the protagonist of Daddy Longlegs, playing this weekend at NWFF, is not easy to categorize. And that’s what makes the movie compelling. In many ways, Lenny is a pretty good guy; during the two weeks a year he has custody of his young sons, he does his best to clothe, feed and entertain them. He takes them waterskiing, introduces them to some colorful characters, and makes them actually look at the exhibits in the Museum of Natural History.
Lenny’s best, though, is severely limited by his lack of common sense. He swears at the boys’ principal, leaves them with strangers, and sends them out alone into the Brooklyn streets where he was just robbed at gunpoint. In a comedy, such behavior would be treated as charming and harmless; in a melodrama, one of the kids would end up in the hospital (or worse). But Daddy Longlegs is something else, which leaves you not knowing what to expect – or what to feel. It effectively communicates the confusion that such children experience.
Brothers Josh and Benny Safdie, who wrote and directed Daddy Longlegs (with some help from the lead, Ronnie Bronstein, also a director), describe it as “emotionally autobiographical,” meaning it is about their memories of their father, whom Lenny is based on, rather than facts. Regarding the delicate balance they achieve between accusal and sympathy, they write: “Our obligation to adulthood demands expose, whereas our dedication to childhood screams and cries love! It’s somewhere in between.”
To anyone going SIFFing this holiday weekend, I highly recommend Marwencol, a documentary about trauma victim Mark Hogancamp’s unique form of art therapy: he dresses up G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls as people he knows, uses them to act out elaborate cinematic fantasies in a fictional WWII-era Belgian town he has built in his backyard, then photographs the results. Hogancamp’s photos have caught the attention of the art world, giving him an opportunity to re-engage with society – or not. Director Jeff Malmberg is scheduled to attend both performances.
SIFF is also screening Rouge Ciel, which offers a larger perspective on outsider art: it includes a historical survey of Art Brut (this is a French film), conflicting opinions on the meaning of outsider art, and several case studies. The latter include Chicago janitor Henry Darger, whose 15,000 page fantasy novel and accompanying illustrations were the subject of a fabulous exhibit at the Frye a few years ago (as well as the excellent documentary In the Realms of the Unreal).
Jacques Tati directed only six feature films, meaning you could watch his entire ouevre in a day. And what a fun day that would be. I can’t decide if my favorite is Mon Oncle, his bemused meditation on late ’50s modernism (which features the slightly creepy fish fountain above), or Playtime, his 70mm anti-epic that, like Citizen Kane, was unappreciated in its time but is now considered a masterpiece.
The documentary Magnificent Tati, playing at NWFF this Sunday at 5:00, is a good introduction to Tati’s life and art. We learn about his family’s business (picture framing – how perfect!), influences on his performance style (mimes, Buster Keaton), and his personal problems (mostly financial). But my favorite sections deal with the anti-Hollywood formal qualities of his films, which favor mis-en-scene over story, use dialogue mostly as a sound effect, and (especially in Playtime) give us so much to look at in any given scene that each viewer is forced to create their own version of the film. (Jim Emerson recently talked about Playtime in this context on his blog, where you can find a representative clip. )
And don’t miss the interview with the film’s director, Michael House, posted below.
Seems like every time I try to catch up on some film reading, I run across a reference to The Headless Woman, a dramatic feature from Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel playing at NWFF next week. It’s emerging as one of the most talked about foreign films of the year.
I saw THW several months ago at SIFF, and remember it vividly. A middle-aged, bourgeois dentist (Maria Onetto) claims she hit a dog with her car while distracted by her cellphone. The film charts her gradual admission, over the course of several days, that she might actually have hit a child, and the efforts of the men in her life to cover up what happened. What makes the film noteworthy is its narrative subtlety. The story is told partly through the constrained facial expressions of the excellent Onetto, and partly through bits of key information revealed to the viewer in an almost offhand manner. You have to do some work to follow what’s going on.
Film Comment’s Amy Taubin writes of the film’s “disturbing intimacy” in its “description of a condition of consciousness.” The New York Times’s Stephen Holden calls it a “brilliant, maddeningly enigmatic puzzle of a movie,” and compares it to Antonioni’s L’Avventura. In the same vein, New York’s David Edelstein says it is “so arty, enervated, and allegorical it might have been made by a European in the early sixties.” (In case you can’t tell, he liked it.) My favorite film blogger, Seattle’s own Jim Emerson, likens THW to Repulsion, but in reverse.
See for yourself, then read the interview with Martel on Film Comment’s website.
Within the first ten minutes of the documentary Pressure Cooker, opening Friday at NWFF, I was a little bit in love with all four of its leading characters: a cranky yet caring high school Culinary Arts teacher and three of her best students, all struggling to escape their working class neighborhood and troublesome families. One is a large and amiable football player, another an extremely bright cheerleader, and the third a melancholy African immigrant. Excelling in the culinary arts class and a subsequent citywide cooking competition is their chance at winning some big scholarship money and thus a ticket out of Philadelphia.
Pressure Cooker is comfort food, nourishing our hopes that inner city public schools are not as bad as they appeared in The Wire, and that smart and ambitious kids everywhere still have a chance to pursue their dreams. Knowing that this story is true, rather than a Hollywood fantasy, makes it pretty tasty.
I want to say watching the Swedish film Light Year, screening next week at NWFF as part of an Alternate Cinema series in partnership with SIFF, is like meditation. Then I wonder if it actually is meditation. During the 100-minute running time of this beautifully shot nature film that takes place solely in filmmaker Mikael Kristersson’s backyard, my eyes never left the screen but my mind wandered away repeatedly. Each time, some meticulously recorded onscreen action – a spider weaving its web, a baby bird emerging from a shell, a child climbing onto a roof, a drop of water rolling off a melting icicle – brought me back to the act of watching. And listening: to birds, rain, cars, cats, children, the wind. I felt like I was being trained to live in the here and now. I appreciate the lesson, and the reminder that nature films don’t need exotic animals or Philip Glass soundtracks to maintain interest. You can have your own Light Year experience next Monday the 25th at 9:00 or Thursday the 28th at 9:30.
Why isn’t the Seattle filmgoing community all abuzz about Northwest director Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy? It topped Film Comment’s year-end list of theatrical releases, made it to #4 on the indieWIRE 2008 Critics Poll, and has been nominated for two major Spirit Awards. But it didn’t get here until 2009, which pretty much kept it out of our best-of-2008 gabfest. Too bad, because it’s a gem, and deserves a better run that it’s got here so far. Thus NWFF is picking it up for five days, starting Friday.
The story is simple: A young woman (Michelle Williams), on her way to Alaska where she hopes to find work, is stranded in a small Oregon town when her car, which is also her home, breaks down. At the same time, she is briefly detained by the law, and her dog, Lucy, disappears. The film is driven by the suspense of problems which might seem small to some, but are huge to Wendy: How much will it cost to get her car fixed? Where will she sleep? What happened to Lucy?
I knew that Wendy and Lucy would be well-made and compelling, and it is. But I didn’t expect to be so affected by Wendy’s situation, which is similar to the low wage workers in Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Nickeled and Dimed, who end up living in shabby motels because they can never manage to put together a security deposit. Wendy has just enough cash and other resources to think she has options, but we can see they are actually few. Some critics have commented on her “poor choices” or “lack of sense.” I felt only compassion for her, though, and reserved my judgment for the film’s other characters, who have the power (whether they know it or not) to make Wendy’s life a little better, or a lot worse.