Welles in L.A.


I’ve got a piece in today’s LA Weekly previewing Academy @ LACMA’s new Orson Welles series, the most comprehensive in this city in at least a decade. The series includes more readily available titles, but there are a few more films Welles directed that are available online; I thought I’d list some here:

The Fountain of Youth (1956) (YouTube) This very witty television show, based on a story by mid-century fantasist John Collier, was only broadcast once in 1958, but it still managed to win a Peabody Award. It was intended to be the pilot for an anthology, but Welles was never permitted to continue the series.  It might have sank into obscurity if it wasn’t for the many Welles fans and experts who have rightly championed it for years.

The Immortal Story (1968) (Hulu Plus) Made for French TV, this adaptation of an Isak Dinesen short story stars Jeanne Moreau as the daughter of a man who’s ex-business partner (Welles) is now an aging business tycoon who hatches a plan to make an erotic urban legend come true.  It’s a strangely sedate and ethereal drama for Welles, and it downplays the potentially lurid elements of the story and replaces them with a reflective, simmering tone.

F for Fake trailer (1976) (YouTube) Welles made this lively nine-minute trailer when his film was released in the U.S., but the distributor never used it.

Filming ‘Othello’ (1978) (YouTube) Produced for West German television, this is an amiable “conversation” with Welles at the editing table, regaling the viewer with the colorful story of his three-year independent production of Othello. Among other things, he talks about his collaboration with designer Alexandre Trauner – whom he cites as one of the true artists of the profession (along with William Cameron Menzies, Vincent Korda and Georges Wakhevitch). He also incorporates a fascinating after dinner talk with his old theater friends (and Othello costars), Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards, who engagingly discuss the themes of the play.

Filming ‘The Trial’ (1981) (YouTube) A feature shot by Welles’ late cameraman, Gary Graver, recording a live Q&A discussion at USC following a screening of the film.

It’s All True (1993) (Amazon streaming) This documentary about Welles’ experience in Brazil during the 1940s shooting his unfinished film for RKO makes extensive use of Welles’ original footage that was discovered and restored in the ’80s and ’90s. Despite a slightly dated flair in the narration, it’s beautiful, well-researched and well-written (by critic Bill Krohn, Welles associate Richard Wilson, and critic Myron Meisel), detailing the complex events and political undercurrents at the time.

The Projection Booth: The Magnificent Ambersons (2013) I recently came across this gem, a roughly 48-minute podcast from last December about Ambersons that includes interviews with experts such as Peter Bogdanovich, Joseph McBride and Jonathan Rosenbaum.  You can also find a four-hour version; I’ve only listened to a portion of that one, but it seems to feature a lot more material by the hosts of the podcast.

Post Sarkozy Cannes 8


By Robert Koehler


Palme d’Or: Amour (Michael Haneke)
Grand Prize: Reality (Matteo Garrone)
Best Director: Carlos Reygadas for Post Tenebras Lux
Jury Prize: The Angels’ Share (Ken Loach)
Best Actor: Mads Mikkelsen for The Hunt
Best Actresses: Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan for Beyond the Hills
Best Screenplay: Cristian Mungiu for Beyond the Hills
Camera d’Or: Beasts of the Southern Wild (Behn Zeitlin)

Michael Haneke can no longer have anything to complain about. Expecting to win the Palme every time he makes a film, Haneke has now broken general patterns and won two Palme d’Ors in four years—a rarity surpassed only by, yes, believe it, Bille August. (Cannes used to be even worse.) With plenty of amour for Amour, a film that reportedly was widely and strongly supported by nearly the entire jury, Haneke can go home and not worry anymore. He’ll then be back later this year and early next year to pick up more prizes from critics groups. The man may have to build a new wing to his house to hold all the awards still to come.

Meanwhile, Leos Carax wasn’t called back to Cannes by Thierry Fremaux, and he must be wondering what he has to do to get some of the Haneke Treatment. It’s Carax who should be throwing a hissy fit, since his astonishing Holy Motors should have won the Palme at the end of the day. It was, along with Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux, the competition film that marked out a new path for cinema’s future, and managed to completely revive the career of a director who was deemed by many to be dead in the water. To give nothing to Holy Motors seems like some kind of statement in itself, only slightly mitigated by throwing Reygadas the best director bone—maybe more than a bone, really, since the most divisive movie in Cannes looked like it would be completely ignored for the prizes. And to give nothing to Denis Lavant, the sui generis actor at the heart of Holy Motors, its Lon Chaney, Jr., is beyond reason and responsibility. If there was love, this feels like outright hate.

Meanwhile, yawn, Ken Loach takes home another Cannes (jury) prize, as if he needs one, this one for a movie I plan to never see: The Angels’ Share. More bad choices include two awards, which two too many, for Cristian Mungiu’s profoundly annoying drama, Beyond the Hills, which contrives characters’ silence and stupid decisions to propel the narrative. And for this, it wins best screenplay. Mungiu’s co-leads shared the actress prize, which must be a compliment for whispering your lines, and whispering them as flatly as possible. This from a jury composed of four actors.

It’s not the worst Cannes awards ever, since a far worse film than Amour known as The Tree of Life won the Palme last year. And Amour isn’t bad, and is a vast improvement on The White Ribbon. But it’s a safe set of awards, with the exception of Reygadas and perhaps for Matteo Garrone for his adventurous if overly schematic Reality. When the jury had the opportunity to support the dangerous in cinema, they preferred not to. No love for that.

A New Direction for Directors Fortnight

By Robert Koehler

Barely a month after the Society of French Directors (SRF), which runs Cannes’ Directors Fortnight (aka Quinzaine des Réalisateurs), unceremoniously dropped Frederic Boyer as artistic director, film critic and festival director Edoard Waintrop has been named to replace Boyer. A fixture in the French cinema culture as longtime critic for Liberation (and currently blogging on Libe’s website with his column, “Le cinoque”), Waintrop had just departed Fribourg after a successful four-year run as artistic director, and had been named in March to run the Grutli cinemas in Geneva, which formerly housed the Voltaire Center of Animation.

The speedy replacement reflects SRF’s urgency to ensure strong leadership of the Quinzaine, which has been viewed by most Cannes observers as faltering since the departure of Olivier Père, who left the Quinzaine after an acclaimed 2009 program to take over the Locarno film festival. Boyer, who had worked with Père on the Quinzaine’s selection committee, had attempted to strike out in a somewhat different direction than Père’s eclectic sensibility, but the consensus after his second year was that the program was stuffed with too many failed, uninteresting films. Even more surprising to Cannes visitors this year was the widespread view that Critics Week (aka Semaine de la Critique), for the first time in many years, had artistically raced past the hobbling Quinzaine. Once a vital player in Cannes cinephilia with an eye for bold alternatives, Semaine has been a minor sidebar on the Croisette whose films had been routinely ignored by the vast majority of visitors. In the past two years, however, this perception has been changing, and with such vivid films as Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter landing at Semaine rather than the Quinzaine (or even Un Certain Regard), the Quinzaine’s loss has increasingly been Semaine’s gain.

For his part, Boyer protested that his dismissal had been the result of a concerted attack by French critics and film cultural figures “whose primary goal was to make heads roll.”

Waintrop enters at a critical juncture in the history of Quinzaine, founded in 1969 by SRF as a radical counter-festival to the establishment profile of the Cannes competition–and when Waintrop, now 58, was 16 years old, and swept up in the heady turbulence and revolutionary fervor of Paris ’68. (Read some of his memories of that time).

In a statement released by SRF, Waintrop describes himself as a “passeur who wants to continue discovering cinema from around the world and present it to the public, critics and other crazy people from the cinema world.” He adds, in phrasing that sounds directly out of the style of his blog, that “I’m a curious person who never gets bored.”

All of which is encouraging for lovers of the Quinzaine, which has recently been the international launching pad for many crucial young filmmakers such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Lisandro Alonso, Albert Serra, Denis Cote and Pedro Costa, and has made the Quinzaine a crucial element in contemporary world cinephilia. Given the tendency of Fribourg’s programming under Waintrop to lean toward films outside of Europe and North America, it might be expected that the Quinzaine’s upcoming editions could follow this pattern. In Fribourg this year, for example, Waintrop’s competition lineup (all selected from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America) included such lesser-known films as Carlos Cesar Arbelaez’ The Colors of the Mountain and Martin Sastre’s Miss Tacuarembo. At the same time, Waintrop is an impassioned writer about classical Hollywood, a kind of updated “Hitchcocko-Hawksian” with an eye for overlooked films both from the past and the present.

What Matters at the Los Angeles Film Festival

Drive and The Tiniest Place

By Robert Koehler

A running conversation at film festivals in the US and abroad (mostly abroad): The urgency of film criticism to advocate for certain cinema, and ignore the other cinemas. The best reason? Life is too short to deal very much or very long with crap, and is much better spent considering the good work, and why it is good. Most American criticism is not founded on this principle; rather, it tends to be dominated by a consumerist mentality that says that all films which can be seen commercially should be written about, and those that can’t should be ignored.

The difference between these two approaches–both quite simple on their face, yet quite complex beneath the skin–produces an entirely different cultural effect. For one, the latter requires critics to expend inordinate amounts of energy lambasting bad films that the culture hardly needs reminding are bad. (Green Lantern, for the latest example, despite the noble efforts of Ryan Reynolds to inject it with humanity. Green Lantern is somehow screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival.) “Bad” can also mean “worthless,” therefore, not worth my time to write about it, and not worth your time to read about it. The latter exchanges in an endless grind of pointless negativity, filling web pages and column inches attacking the obvious, like dropping more NATO bombs that only make the rubble vibrate in Libya. Much American criticism does little more than watch the rubble move. The former approach actively supports directions in cinema, represented by the film at hand, that call for our attention, and care. This approach implicitly condemns other cinemas; by ignoring them, passing them over, the silence accorded them directly equates with their value.

This is where criticism and programming intersect, which is also perhaps why I’ve noticed that many of the writers who favor a criticism of advocacy are or have been programmers. Critics do have greater latitude than programmers, to be sure; as all programmers painfully know, not all films desired for a program are obtained, not every film in a program is equally desirable, and just because a film happens to be absent from a given program doesn’t necessarily mean that the programmer considered it unworthy (and indeed, may have wanted it, but couldn’t get it, and this due to innumerable factors too long to get into here). Critics can, if they have the editorial freedom, exactly situate their cinephilia, and by advocating for certain films over others (implicitly or explicitly), precisely define their ideological position on the cinema field.

This is also the other problem with that other brand of critic (my Cinema Scope colleague and editor Mark Peranson, in his wrap-up of Cannes 2010, quite accurately referred to this group–which included more than just critics– as “them.” “They,” for example, were scandalized by Tim Burton’s jury choice of Uncle Boonmee for the Palme d’Or.) They don’t consider their practice or their view of cinema–say, that the films that matter are the ones that are the most heavily marketed, or the ones that the largest number of readers would be discussing right now or next week–as ideological in the least. It never occurs to them that their position is even a position; rather, as some have said to me, it’s (1), their job, and (2), the condition of things as they are. I’m not going to argue with their job–a job’s a job. (We all have one, or two, or three.) As for (2), this is the great illusion of their brand of film criticism, one shared by probably every newspaper entertainment section editor in the world: The “big” movies (this week, Green Lantern, or the ones promoted in the Los Angeles Times trailer as the Los Angeles Film Festival, including X-Men: First Class, Captain America, The Zookeeper, Cowboys vs. Aliens) deserve the big treatment, the “small” films less, and the “unknown” films none at all. This is ideology, all right: The Ideology of advertisers, the force that most fundamentally drives “their” criticism. It informs movie websites and blogs as much as the papers, by the way, as more and more websites are propelled forward by the hits metric that advertisers gauge in order to determine whether or not they want to invest in a given site. The very fact that I’m able to freely discuss this at this site should tell you everything you want to know about where Film Journey stands in terms of “their” advertisers and “their” movies. “We” acknowledge and identify the ideological stance on cinema; “they” don’t.

The criticism of advocacy then means, when it comes to commenting on the latest edition of the Los Angeles Film Festival, that the only films worth mentioning are the films worth watching. I’ve seen about 65% of the program thus far, with six days and twelve films left to see: these are The Dynamiter, Renee, Senna, The Innkeepers, Self Made, Operation Peter Pan, The Yellow Sea, Love Crime, The Guard, Another Earth, Project Nim and Guy Maddin’s live performance/film, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.

The films I’ve wanted to see and will miss are: Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Position Among the Stars, The Salesman, Tomboy, Karate-Robo Zaborgar and On the Ice.

Then, there’s a short list of films here that needn’t be seen at the festival (or can’t be seen at this point), that don’t succeed for any number of reasons, but should nevertheless be seen eventually: Asa Jacobs’ Terri, James Franco’s The Broken Tower, Richard Linklater’s Bernie, Paddy Consadine’s Tyrannosaur. Oh, and yes, there’s a couple of OK films that can’t be deemed essential: Fernando Perez’ Suite Habana and Gerard Roxburgh’s Once I Was a Champion.

Finally, here are the essentials (including a few which have already screened, so catch them when you can). I will note that this group comprises a small percentage of the overall program, less than 10%. Read into that whatever you want. These are in order, from high masterpieces to excellent:

Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive (already screened; in release this September)
Tatiana Huezo’s The Tiniest Place (Fri)
Raul Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon (Sat)
Denis Cote’s Curling (Wed, Fri)
Renate Costa’s 108 (already screened)
Theo Court’s Decline (Thurs)
Sivaroj Kongsakul’s Eternity (Thurs, Sat)
Alexei German, Jr.’s Paper Soldier (Sat)
Chad Friedrichs’ The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (already screened)
Stephane Lafleur’s Familiar Ground (Tues, Wed)
Natalia Almada’s The Night Watchmen (already screened)

Boyer Out, 108 and Decline In

By Robert Koehler

The Society of French Directors (SRF), which governs the Quinzaine des Realisiteurs, or Directors Fortnight, has dismissed Quinzaine director Frederic Boyer after his second and stormy year. The 2011 edition was roundly criticized and even lambasted (see Jacques Telemacque’s widely discussed Le Monde attack that ran during the festival), and suffered particularly in comparison to the past editions directed and programmed by Olivier Pere, who left after the 2009 edition to take over Locarno in 2010. It further didn’t help Boyer’s position that Locarno 2010, with its overall superb program, only tended to remind people of what the Quinzaine had been, and was apparently no more. For those of us who had witnessed the disastrous Mexican vampire family movie, Somos lo que Hay, at its premiere in Guadalajara, the shock that it was slotted into the 2010 Quinzaine program felt like a shot across the bow, and signaled a crisis. At this point, we were far from Serra’s Honor de Cavalleria or Alonso’s Los Muertos. Now, who will take over? The international festival community will be watching…. (Read more at the Telerama site.)

Speaking of Locarno, the juries announced today further underline Pere’s solidity at the Swiss event and his taste for highly distinctive independence in the cinema. Portuguese producer Paulo Branco, who produced Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon (screening in the Los Angeles Film Festival this Saturday), is president, and certain to steer his jury toward strong, ambitious films. He’s joined by actor-director Louis Garrel, the brilliant German actor Sandra Huller, Swiss filmmaker Bettina Oberli, and Best of Youth co-star Jasmine Trinca. The jury for the typically adventurous Cinema of the Present section is headed by German filmmaker (and co-director of the great Dreileben, Christoph Hochhausler, with three distinctive fellow directors (Raya Martin, Athina Rachel Tsangari and Michelangelo Frammartino) and Karamay producer Zhu Rikun. In full disclosure, I’m on the jury for best debut film, with fellow critics Kong Rithdee and Anthony Bobeau….

Speaking of the Los Angeles Film Festival, it’s urgent to alert readers to two absolutely essential films to catch tonight Monday. Make this your Monday viewing, no excuses: First, at 7:40, Theo Court’s astonishingly beautiful semi-documentary, Decline aka Okaso. (The original Spanish title is so vastly preferable that I’ll refer to the film under that title, and not the glum Decline.) In my Variety review of Ocaso also ID’d as Decline due to Variety‘s style policy of listing the English-language title), I noted the film as “an excellent example of the crossbreeding of fiction and nonfiction,” its fusing of reality and poetry. Court observes an aging caretaker, attending to a crumbling Chilean rural estate, and maintaining not only a house and its grounds but a certain way of life and rituals–from cooking to clearing brush. But the film frames and preserves this activity in a kind of suspended animation, cast in a colored haze of both atmosphere and memory. It is where the cinemas of Ermanno Olmi and Victor Erice intersect. That’s probably sufficient praise. Then, at 10:30, and there really is no excuse for missing this one, since it’s THE LAST TIME YOU’RE EVER LIKELY TO SEE THIS FILM IN LOS ANGELES, EVER: That would the incredible doc by Renate Costa, 108 (its international title, as opposed to its more eccentric Spanish title, Cuchillo de Palo). Why this small masterpiece has taken so long to get here–18 months since Berlinale 2010–is anyone’s guess, but good on LAFF for selecting it for the International Showcase section, the section with the vast majority of the festival’s best films. In it, Costa considers the life of her gay uncle living in Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay under the oppressive military dictatorship of Gen. Alfredo Stroessner. But her consideration is wrapped in the optics of incomplete memories, uncertain accounts of the past and the disturbing cloak of ghosts. There is no better recent case of first-person, autobiographical documentary filmmaking achieving a state of poetry, and a prime case of the new generation of Latin American filmmakers transcending the polemics, and anger, of their parents for a more honest and reflective perspective. Did we say it was essential?

Cannes 2010 Awards: The Future of Cinema Wins

By Robert Koehler

You would have to go back to either 1999–when the Dardennes won for Rosetta–or 1997–when Abbas Kiarostami won for Taste of Cherry in a tie with Imamura Shohei for The Eel and when Tim Burton was a member of the jury–to find a Palme d’Or winner quite as satisfying and unconventional as tonight’s prize for Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s endlessly inventive, mystical and funny Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Going in, there were plenty of concerns about a jury comprised of such wildly disparate personalities as Tim Burton, Victor Erice, Alberto Barbera, Benicio Del Toro and Kate Beckinsale. But when the dust cleared, this turned out to be one of the most intelligent and independent-minded juries in recent Cannes history. As had been widely expected, the prizes were spread around among several Competition titles, with three films scoring the top film prizes for Jury (Mahamet-Saleh Haroun’s richly deserving win for A Screaming Man), Grand (Xavier Beauvois’ majestic Of Gods and Men) and Palme (Apichatpong).

By the time the Beauvois was announced for the Grand Prize, the sense became overwhelming that Apichatpong would win the day, since most of the attending filmmakers had already won something. Kiarostami won via the official festival poster gal Juliette Binoche’s deserving best actress prize for Certified Copy (though I would have thought that Yun Junghee for his phenomenal lead performance in Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry would have warranted at least a tie). The tie instead went to the actors, with Javier Bardem’s sweaty portrayal of a dying man in Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s Biutiful and Elio Germano in Daniele Luchetti’s La nostra vita, widely perceived as the evening’s most curious prize.

Lee’s prize for screenplay is a sign of a jury that thought through its choices; the most impressive aspect of Poetry is Lee’s fascinating, densely layered and structured screenplay, comparable in every way to Secret Sunshine and a further indication that Lee’s years as a novelist inform his approach as a film storyteller.

Although he was heard to wisecrack with his bouncy cast of New Burlesque performers, “I didn’t know I was a director!,” Mathieu Almaric’s best director win for Tournée was a good way of giving something to one of French cinema’s hottest names. But Apichatpong’s Palme d’Or brings renewed meaning to the purpose of a prize which has increasingly been identified with establishment cinema, and in one dramatic stroke, a smart jury with nerve transforms it like one of Apichatpong’s jungle creatures into a whole new animal. Whatever anyone thought of the Competition going in, none of that matters now. A great film has gotten its due, and now, instead of gazing back, the Palme is looking forward.

Cannes 2010: Before the Awards

By Robert Koehler

Less than an hour before the announcement of the Palme and other prizes, rumors are swirling over possible winners based on sightings of who’s in Cannes….and who’s not.

In the latter category, count Mike Leigh, which makes Another Year unlikely to win any prizes. Based on who has returned or stayed in Cannes, look to the following as strong contenders for awards: Apichatpong for his masterpiece on Monkey Ghosts, catfish, rookie monks who can see themselves and the infinite recyclings of life, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (pictured above); Xavier Beauvois for the widely admired drama about Cistercian monks caught in the midst of an Islamist terror campaign, Of Gods and Men; Mahamet-Saleh Haroun for A Screaming Man; Lee Chang-dong for his exquisite drama of a grandmother in the midst of a complex life crisis, Poetry; Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai for Chongqing Blues; Javier Bardem for best actor for his physically and emotionally grueling performance as a dying man in Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s Biutiful; and Cannes poster gal Juliette Binoche for best actress in Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy.

A running parlor game all week has been who and what jury president Tim Burton might go for in a competition slate that frequently disappointed and underplayed somewhat deflated expectations. I felt from the start that it was a strategic error to not include Manoel de Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica in the competition, based on its gorgeous black-and-white fantasy sequences if for nothing else–beyond the film’s sheer majesty and power, and Oliveira’s magnificently sustained sequences teetering on the edge between black comedy, pathos and reverie. (Claire Denis was so enthusiastic about Oliveira’s Un Certain Regard contender during the UCR awards announcement last night that many expected it as a lead-in to a prize; instead, it went to Hong Sang-soo for his genial Ha Ha Ha.)

If, as now seems possible, Apichatpong wins the Palme d’Or, it will certainly rank as one of the most daring and notable choices by a Cannes jury since David Cronenberg’s 1999 jury selected the Dardennes Brothers’ Rosetta, and will be wildly applauded by the growing pro-Joe contingent still here in Cannes. On the other hand, there will be considerable satisfaction if Beauvois wins for his superbly rendered and classically staged drama which seemed to my eyes to be as much under the sway of Jean Renoir as any French film in recent years. Well, we’re 30 minutes away from the start of the awards, so, we’ll see soon….

Update on LACMA Film

“Where’s the significant fine art?” Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s Lakeside Landscape (1889) and Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country (1936), courtesy of the excellent Landscape Suicide.

After several months in which the Los Angeles County Museum of Art was presumably doing good on its promise to re-prioritize and promote its threatened film program, my Save Film at LACMA partner, Debra Levine, and I have posted a new update on the museum’s progress: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose, or “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

Yuri Norstein in Los Angeles


Word is quickly spreading that the man whom many regard as the world’s greatest living animator–Yuri Norstein–is making a brief US tour, with visits to Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York City and Olympia. My 23-month-old daughter routinely requests viewings of Hedgehog in the Fog, but I’ve been an admirer of Norstein’s work for years (and wrote about Clare Kitson’s biography in 2005).

Norstein is renowned for his attachment to his Russian homeland and his refusal to work abroad, so I was shocked several days ago to stumble upon the announcement of his visit to the University of Southern California this week–initiated by two grad students, Elyse Kelly and Konstantin Brazhnik–which will culminate in a public screening of the filmmaker’s major works tomorrow. (The event’s RSVP system is already overbooked, but a standby line will form for anyone feeling especially lucky.) Fortunately, the event includes a website with video uploads, and it promises live feeds.

The first video on the site is about fifteen minutes of a seminar Norstein gave last night that I was graciously invited to attend. Soft-spoken but passionate (often interrupting his translator) he cited his inspirations and discussed his craft, beginning with clips from Jean Vigo’s beautiful 1934 L’Atalante (which, Norstein noted, was shot by Boris Kaufman, the brother of Dziga Vertov).


Norstein seemed especially taken by three shots: the riverside encounter with a one-man band (which he compared to Fellini); the apprehension of a thief (with its almost stroboscopic tracking shot alongside a fence); and, interestingly, the controversial shot of the male protagonist caressing a block of ice (that’s missing in newer restorations of the film). All three shots allude to the everyday eccentricity, technical virtuosity, and metaphysical touches that suffuse Norstein’s own work. He championed L’Atalante‘s ability to “present a whole world” in its simple, archetypal story, and later suggested that a film should only be made if the filmmaker has properly imagined it, and can conceive it in the simplest terms, like a proverb.

Norstein also shared his love of painting, describing how he recently spent eight hours at the Art Institute of Chicago viewing such favorites as Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles. He said he likes to take a magnifying glass with him to art museums to study the brushstrokes: “It’s not just a great painting but a concentration of the artist’s life, layer by layer.”

“My biggest wonder in life,” he said, “was my childhood in the outskirts of Moscow,” and he described the two story communal flats he lived in as a child that are vital to the setting of Tales of Tales. “Simple things made impressions,” he recalled. Old walls would break down and the young Norstein would marvel at their construction, the rusty nails marking the passage of time; he would spend hours searching for patterns in molds and stains in the woodwork, and was delighted when–years later–he read Leonardo da Vinci promoting the same activity. One can easily see in Norstein’s films his attention to natural decay and detail, the old houses and dank woods providing a powerful sense of atmosphere and place.

The highlight of the evening, however, was seeing the roughly twenty minutes of footage Norstein has completed so far on his first feature, an adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat that has taken him nearly thirty years to produce. (Funding comes and goes, and production is sometimes interrupted by commercial projects or travels.) About half of the footage was recently included in a Japanese documentary that can be viewed below, but rest assured that even the DVD we screened last night revealed enormous amounts of subtleties lost in YouTube’s low-resolution.

The Overcoat at present is a supremely subtle representation of an impoverished St. Petersburg clerk as he comes home, undresses for the evening, and begins the process of transcription; Norstein uses hundreds of cutout elements to simulate the facial shifts, contortions, and evolving expressions that continually play out while the clerk is lost in a world of meticulous perfection. It’s an almost bewildering study of the human face–not slavishly realistic but obsessively attuned to each and every physical fluctuation–that is wholly remarkable. It’s easy to see why this has been a thirty-year project and counting: such evolving minutia of movement has turned the face into an animated study that borders on scientific illustration. Norstein told us that in addition to a huge amount of photographic references, his animation for the film is influenced by eastern (Chinese) as well as western (Duret) anatomical studies, medicinal books, patients at a psychiatric clinic, and Charlie Chaplin and the art of pantomime in general. He decided early on to resist the temptation to film actors and mechanically reproduce their images, because “this way is submissive,” noting that it would include a lot of unnecessary visual information as well.

“Adapting a known text must involve discovery,” he said, claiming that the most important thing to him is to show the things not written by Gogol that are nevertheless true to the text–a reading between the lines. And one can sense that Norstein’s film is an ongoing project of discovery for him, evolving a life of its own and taking the filmmaker places he has yet to explore or conceive. After the lecture, the sixty-six-year-old filmmaker told me he had a lot of material in place to complete the picture, but part of me wonders if he really intends to finish it, or if he sees it as an opportunity to indefinitely explore the riches of his subject while living a meager life funded by lectures, appearances, occasional commercial work, and print and book sales.

His new website offers several Russian books, Hedgehog in the Fog and Fox and Hare (based on his films), and two lavishly-illustrated studies entitled Snow on Grass; the first volume summarizes his career and the second, his creative process and references for The Overcoat. Norstein flipped through his own copy of these volumes–currently only printed in Russian although he has submitted them to a publisher in London in the hopes of making an English edition–to answer a question I posed, and they were clearly labors of love filled with hundreds of storyboards, sketches, collages, film stills, and frame-by-frame studies. If The Overcoat is an ongoing voyage for him, these books are a testament to the journey.

LACMA Film Wrap-up


The Wall Street Journal published an article this weekend–“LACMA and the Cinéastes”–that provides a good account of the efforts of my colleagues and I during our previous five-week campaign to convince the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to reverse its decision to end its 41-year-old film program this October. At the moment, films have been announced for November, the program has been guaranteed to continue at least until next summer, and LACMA has promised to seek out large donors (with the help of Martin Scorsese and others) to fund the program on a long term basis. The museum also says it will upgrade the program from an underfunded public outreach to a genuine curatorial department.

While the program’s long term future is still hazy, the initial objectives we laid out for our Save Film at LACMA campaign have been met, and I can’t imagine the museum will step forward next year and announce that it just couldn’t find the funds after all–numerous public figures, journalists, and media have promised to hold the museum accountable to its pledge to seek donors; the public drubbing that would occur if it doesn’t would make the current outcry seem relatively minor.

In addition to the continuation of the LACMA program itself, I’m particularly pleased with the way the story has highlighted issues surrounding repertory and specialty cinema in Los Angeles in general; from the many venues that screen films to their potential vulnerability, to the role of the mainstream media in reporting the activities of the parallel universe of cinephilia thriving in our company town. I’ve often complained about the ailing community and lack of cohesion of Los Angeles, and social media may well provide a cure.

There is one aspect of the campaign (and resulting media coverage) that I haven’t seen highlighted very much, and that’s the basic spirit of the protest, the passionate voice of the thousands of working class Angelenos and international supporters who joined our Facebook group and signed our petition (often providing deeply felt memories). This may be a town of multimillionaire executives, but it’s also a town of technicians, artisans, and laborers who care deeply about the history of their craft. In a time when federal bailouts and corporate layoffs have promoted a kind of socialism for the rich, there has been an intensity to the Save Film at LACMA campaign that testifies to the widespread frustration with lavishly paid but remote CEOs around the country and their careless evisceration of personnel and services in order to maximize profits.

LACMA’s much beloved but modest film program, with its two friendly employees and spacious but aging Bing theater, epitomized the kind of high value/low cost labors of love that are increasingly being pushed to the edges of a financially desperate culture looking for larger than life solutions. Many felt this was their golden opportunity to rise up and make a difference for this one cherished program currently facing the corporate chopping block. (A related point, given equally little play: CEO Michael Govan may have his roots in the Guggenheim and Dia:Beacon, but we’re talking about the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; 30% of its budget comes from taxpayers who want their museum to continue to offer repertory and world cinema they can’t see anywhere else.)

In fact, it’s the spirit of making a difference that makes it difficult to get very excited about LACMA’s most recent idea, a Film Club that asks museum members ($90/year minimum) to donate $50 extra for priority ticketing/seating benefits and an e-newsletter. I commend those who want to join the Club, but given that the museum has made it crystal clear that the future of the program lies solely in the hands of large donors, I’m not sure how a few extra thousand dollars will help.

I wish the Film Club was designed to produce something concrete on behalf of its members that would enrich the program and increase awareness, something like a high-quality brochure that could be made available to the public at large. Once upon a time, LACMA printed such things as film calendars and programs, like the one pictured below that coincided with Ian Birnie’s nearly complete, four-month long Fritz Lang retrospective in 2001 (photos courtesy of Andy Rector). Is this too much to ask for again?