Greetings

Welcome to the formal launch of my new professional site, Patrickzmcgavin.com.

I am a Chicago-based writer, cultural journalist and film critic. My writing on film has been published in the New York Times, Screen International, Hollywood Reporter, RogerEbert.com, Stop Smiling, Cineaste, Time Out New York, Time Out Chicago, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, Playboy, LA Weekly, The Nation, City Pages and Crain’s Chicago Business.

I have also been privileged to cover film festivals at Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, Toronto, New York, Turin and Thessaloniki.

With this new site, I wanted to have a single place where I could provide ready and available links to other professional work as it becomes published. It is important to have a place for archival material. For instance, the recent restoration, theatrical reissue and publishing of the Criterion Blu-ray of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s monumental Dekalog allowed me to publish a series of interviews with the director.

My primary impulse was to have the freedom and range to write on movie, director or movement worth evaluating and discussing—film festival dispatches, new releases, restorations, special Blu-ray boxed sets, new streaming options, director interviews and actor profiles.

Unless otherwise noted, all material on this site is original and previously unpublished.

Please enjoy and explore the content of this site, and help deepen and expand film culture.

Sita Sings the Blues . . . online!

My favorite animated feature last year, the undistributed Sita Sings the Blues, created almost entirely in Flash by Nina Paley, has become Thirteen.org‘s first feature to be streamed in its entirety on their website. The film has been idling in legal limbo for many months because of its use of 80-year-old pop songs Paley hasn’t had the resources to purchase, but PBS stations have special rules governing their broadcasts that allow the work to be shown.

However, note Paley’s new post at her blog:

“Many more formats will be online by March 7th, the day Sita Sings the Blues airs on WNET TV (part of Reel 13 on March 7 at 10:45 pm). These will be higher resolution and free to copy and share. If you want a copy, please wait for the higher quality formats instead of capturing the very compressed channel13.org streaming version. As the artist, I want the highest quality versions to circulate; it’d be sad if a super-compressed capture started torrenting first. Together, we can keep quality high!”

Bernardo Rondeau at LACMA

I’m still trying to post some reviews from AFI FEST, but my baby has been in the hospital for “minor” surgery this week and everything else has been put to the side.

In the meantime, I was able to attend a few Festival screenings with the LACMA film program coordinator Bernardo Rondeau, which became a highlights of my Festival experience, and he has just posted a “Best of AFI” write-up at the LACMA blog, Unframed.

Los Angeles is famous for its diversity and dispersal, and while its film culture doesn’t benefit from the kind of concentrated public transit and integrated community of, say, New York City, it is home to many dedicated cinephiles who are less interested in the Hollywood machine than the latest art house screenings that flitter through our network of indie theaters. Bernardo and LACMA’s film program director Ian Birnie consistently provide one the city’s oases of film culture.

AFI FEST repeats


The Class

In case you missed some of the higher profile films at AFI FEST this week, here’s a list of some of the films that will have upcoming screenings or distribution in Los Angeles:

• Slumdog Millionaire (LACMA preview on 11/11; Landmark release on 11/12; Laemmle release on 12/21)
• Gomorrah (American Cinematheque screening on 11/11; Laemmle release on 12/19)
• A Christmas Tale (Landmark release on 11/14; Laemmle release on 11/14)
• Lion’s Den (American Cinematheque screening on 11/22)
• Hunger (Nuart release on 12/5)
• Wendy and Lucy (Laemmle release on 12/12)
• The Wrestler (LACMA preview on 12/12; UCLA preview on 12/14; Laemmle release on 12/26)
• Waltz with Bashir (Laemmle release on 12/25)
• The Class (Laemmle release on 12/25)
• Tokyo Sonata (release 3/13/09)

Stay tuned for some summary reviews from this year’s Festival…

Halloween viewing


Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space (1999)

I’m wondering if anyone has any superior horror films or recent discoveries they’d recommend?

I still think Romero’s last zombie movie, Diary of the Dead, is a fantastic genre piece with impressive stylistic qualities (first person camerawork, documentary footage of Katrina) and incisive social commentary, as is typical for the series.

Last year, I watched a lot of the Hammer titles I had never seen, and Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed (1969) was probably the most complex and emotionally resonating, with a very evocative sense of the Gothic.

Two years ago, I was blown away by The Innocents (1961), an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. (I’ll be showing this and 1962’s Burn, Witch, Burn!, which I haven’t seen yet, at my own Halloween party this year.) I was fortunate enough to see Jack Clayton’s masterpiece on the big screen, and its immersive widescreen black-and-white cinematography (by Freddie Francis, who later worked with David Lynch) and sound design is first rate.

I had high hopes this year for the new Swedish film, Let the Right One In, but I was ultimately disappointed by it. It is wonderfully directed and a masterpiece of tone (mixing sweet romanticism with horror) . . . but it’s also a narrative film that wants to sweep the audience along, and its ending is unresolving and even works against some of its more interesting themes.

Of course, we at Masters of Cinema (and the folks at Criterion) have released Martin Koerber’s restored version of Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931), so if you haven’t seen it yet, now is your golden opportunity.

Lastly, the adventurous programmers at CineFamily here in Los Angeles screened a 35mm print of Tscherkassky’s Outer Space last week, along with other films curated by Provocateur Pictures, the latest incarnation of The Other Cinema, who released both of the Experiments in Terror DVDs. As a rough facsimile of the 35mm experience, you can watch Outer Space here, although I’m almost embarrassed to link to it given the YouTube quality. Aside from the aforementioned DVD compilation, however, it may be your only chance to see this remarkable film, a re-edited and reprocessed, black-and-white assembly of scenes from the ’80s Hollywood thriller The Entity.

The film increasingly simulates the destruction of the very medium it’s created on, finding visual and aural resonances with unexpected superimpositions, strobe lights, and an emphasis on the physicality of the celluloid itself, its sprockets flying across the screen as if crumpling in violent disintegration. As a young child, I recall watching my parents’ home movies on our aged 8mm projector, and invariably a film would get momentarily jammed and an organic, billowing cloud of putrid brown blobs would emerge as the lamp burned a hole in the film. I remember feeling truly horrified by this visual effect, partly because I knew it was the active destruction of the medium itself (and, by extension, our memories) but also because of its hideous scaly aesthetic, like some kind of expanding, rotting fungus. (Check out Bill Morrison’s 2000 film, Decasia, for a stunning compilation of deteriorating film.) I don’t know anything about The Entity, but Tscherkassky’s film also provokes the same sense of dread–its implication that the celluloid itself is being radically manhandled and destroyed wholly intensifies its unsettling montage. (I’m also reminded of the similar moments of “film destruction” in Persona and Two-Lane Blacktop.)

For more, Rhys Graham provides a perceptive analysis here at Senses of Cinema.

Unknown Forces

Last night at the REDCAT, Thai filmmaker (and graduate of Chicago’s School of the Art Institute) Apichatpong Weerasethakul opened his first solo exhibition in the US, entitled Unknown Forces (2007). A filmmaker who often blends narrative and experimental techniques (particularly structural innovation) in his feature films, I learned he also produces and distributes avant garde works through his company Kick the Machine, and has created several video installations for gallery spaces over the years.

Unknown Forces is set up in a bare, roughly 40-foot-square, darkened room, with four large, looping video images projected on three walls, and a pulsing, techno soundtrack (established music rearranged and remixed) that provides the dominant audio experience. The two videos that share a wall feature a man and a woman in each, speaking happily (though the dialogue is drowned out by the music and is basically inaudible, even for Thai speakers) and facing forward from the back of a pickup truck cruising down a Thai freeway. On the opposite wall, the screen follows a young man dancing in the back of a pickup truck that is also speeding down a freeway. The third wall at a right angle to the other two features imagery exploring the scene shown above–an enigmatic, rural film set lit up at night, with significant winds battering an unknown object covered by a black tarp. (Though the press image above features a crew, I didn’t see people onscreen either time I viewed the installation for about 20 minutes each, though it’s hard to know how long the footage lasts before it loops.)

Weerasethakul–smallish, soft-spoken, and polite–attended last night’s opening reception, and he considers the exhibition a political work (by his own admission, an unusual subject for him) in a number of ways. Last September, a military coup overthrew the elected government of Thailand, declaring martial law for several months, and the filmmaker talked about coming abruptly face-to-face with political realities and the concept of personal freedom. He intends Unknown Forces to be the first in a series of works about the changing political landscape in Thailand, and he wanted this exhibition to express the “blissful ignorance” of ordinary Thai citizens who go about their lives as unwitting cogs in a machine. He also wanted to begin on a note of liveliness and implicit humor as a tribute to the American comedies he loves (including, he told us last night, favorites as diverse as Dr. Strangelove and Dumb and Dumber).

The people featured in the pickup trucks are representative of the itinerant construction workers in the northeastern parts of the country who are shipped across vast distances to meet the needs of the booming Thai real estate industry. Happy to be employed and enjoying the ride, they are hard-working and immediate in ways that prevent their larger awareness of purpose. “Powerlessness and ignorance” are the keys to survival in Thailand, the filmmaker asserts in his exhibition notes, adding that a more direct political statement could have landed him in jail or worse. (Currently fighting Thai censors for the right to release his latest feature, Syndromes and a Century, Weerasethakul is no stranger to cultural enforcement. He told us last night the ostensible objections include a monk’s wardrobe and a doctor’s romantic kiss in the hospital where the doctor works–hardly the provocations of sex and violence one might imagine–suggesting the censors are simply trying to intimidate and frighten the independent filmmaker more than anything else.)

However, beneath the carefree spirit of the three worker videos, the fourth screen imparts a subtle sense of foreboding, and I have to wonder if Weerasethakul didn’t arrange the screens to suggest continuous movement across the room–from the two workers facing the viewers on one side to the dancer facing away on the other–past the enigmatic and dark content of the fourth screen. During the Q&A he described the installation as “intense” and “a room full of pressure”; apparently, he told the exhibition curator, Eungie Joo, that it wasn’t good to remain in the room for very long. If the work celebrates a feeling of blissful ignorance, it also subtly suggests painful uncertainty, traveling a road without end, oblivious to the existence and importance of activity lying just beyond the realm of perception. The sound of the wind seen by the image’s violently flapping tarp occasionally rises in volume and merges with the music and muffled dialogue, creeping inwards and upwards before subsiding.

It’s exciting to feel as if Weerasethakul is on a journey of political awareness, uncertain of where it will lead, but inviting audiences to join him along the way. Just as in his features, Unknown Forces emphasizes momentary feeling and sensation, and arranges that experience in a way that provokes extended contemplation. The installation runs through June 17.

La Commune (Paris, 1871)

British filmmaker Peter Watkins’ nearly six-hour film, La Commune (Paris, 1871), made in the year 2000, is without a doubt one of the best and most important films of the decade, and it was just released this week on DVD by First Run Features. Count yourselves lucky–the film, which commemorates the short-lived working class attempt to turn France into a socialist republic following its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, has rarely been screened in France or elsewhere, although I’ve had the French DVD on hand ever since I first saw the film at a special screening in Los Angeles last year. (Arte TV in France, who financed the film, has apparently chosen to bury it, giving it as little exposure as possible.) Filled with wall-to-wall political debate, pleas for social equality and critiques of power, the film is a furious, provocative, and rousing experimental documentary that reenacts the Commune’s historical moment.

After the Revolution of 1789, France went through a series of empires, monarchies, and republics. By 1871, Napolean III had been defeated by the Franco-Prussian War, prompting a six-month Prussian siege of Paris. The workers and poor of the city were suffering extremes of poverty and starvation; many were feeding on rats. A provisional government, led by Adolphe Thiers, signed a treaty that would include the ceremonial German occupation of Paris. But the French National Guard–a large network of citizens’ militias who had served during the war–had no intention of opening their city to the Germans, and seized and hid cannons under the auspices of their newly-formed Central Committee. The Germans came and went without incident, but Thiers soon realized that a rival authority had risen in Paris, and ordered his army to repossess the cannons. Citizens (mostly women) in Montmarte, however, would not relinquish their weaponry; when troops were subsequently ordered to fire on them, the soldiers rebelled and a popular insurrection ensued.

Thiers immediately evacuated to Versailles (where the monarchist National Assembly resided), taking his administration, his police, most of his troops, and a lot of bourgeoisie and business owners with him; the National Guard’s Central Committee promptly elected a Commune to govern Paris and implemented socialist reforms that would improve the livelihood of the poor and working classes.

Watkins begins with the Prussian siege and follows the Commune through its short existence to its brutal suppression a few months later. But his film starts with a documentary preamble filmed on the last day of the production’s chronological, 13-day shoot; actors introduce themselves and the characters they play, and the camera roves around the film’s labyrinthine set, a collection of rooms and alleys poised between realism and artifice. Although there are many props and period textures, the studio’s concrete floor and ceiling lights are plainly visible, and continue to be throughout the film.

Thus begins the film’s formal strategy to provoke active viewing; Watkins–a longtime critic of standard, “monoform” media conventions–juxtaposes period drama with filmmaking artifice in a way that tells the story, critiques the story, and challenges the way it’s being told all at the same time. Dramatic reenactments are punctuated with reams of text that question and clarify the drama, offer commentary, and draw parallels to current events. Interviews with many of the film’s 200-plus actors (the majority of whom are nonprofessionals recruited from Paris and surrounding suburbs, including undocumented workers from North Africa) occur throughout the shooting, which allow the participants to offer their thoughts regarding the characters and events in medias res. Finally, Watkins offers a bracing critique of mass media by imagining how Commune life would have been represented by competing modern news sources, the National TV Versailles and the independent Commune TV. The result is a multilayered and thoroughly absorbing work that is as informative and thought-provoking as it is feverishly dramatic, suspenseful, and surprisingly brisk despite its length.

La Commune is shot with striking, black-and-white digital video, often in ten-minute takes. The wide-angled footage would seem slower if the action wasn’t occurring simultaneously in the foreground, midground, and background–usually in the form of public masses in “streets” or long, crowded rooms–and if the handheld camera didn’t move through the crowds as often as it does, pushing from one conversation to the next. Dramatic momentum is comprised of a multitude of small conflicts, all coexisting and colliding with one another through protests, arguments, and ongoing discussions.

In all of this, the actors maintain startling conviction, even as they oscillate in and out of character–as fine a distinction that makes in a Watkins film; many of the actors developed their own dialogue through a combination of research and personal conviction. “This film showed me the huge gap between reflection and action,” one woman playing a dissident remarks. “In a barricade situation, for example, deeply involved in a direct, strong, chemical, physical struggle, as soon as the camera comes up and we have to speak, it’s a very difficult relationship; for reflection to connect with action. Real change will come from this type of work.”

The faces are real and the emotions are palatable as the film highlights bakers, midwives, teachers, servants, mechanics, soldiers, and many other Communards who envision and attempt to forge a society founded on personal dignity, political participation, and livable wages for all members.

The Commune implements a variety of reforms and precedents: it insists on a separation of Church and State, and a free secular education for all, particularly women, who at that time were trained in religious schools only to be housewives or homemakers. (“Jesus was an anarchist, the carpenter always on strike! You have made him the God of the bourgeoisie,” one women shouts at a priest.) A system of pensions for war widows is created, late-night hours for bakers is abolished, pawnshops are forced to return tools and household items less than 20 francs in value, and stores abandoned by their owners are given over to the workers (with the owners, should they return, receiving requisite compensation).

Yet organizing a society is a complex task, particularly when the national army is bearing down with encroaching finality. Thiers eventually launches his assault on Paris, and as cannons rumble in the distance and the untrained and ill-equipped National Guard clumsily attempt to defend the city, the Commune struggles to balance its various tasks and contradictory factions. Should Versailles be met with violence or peaceful negotiations? Should women be able to serve on the battlefield or on emergency medical teams? How can traitors and conspirators be rooted out without trampling on the freedoms and civil rights of citizens? Watkins doesn’t shy away from highlighting the dark underbelly of Town Hall, with its promises of systematic surveillance, the wives of suspects being interrogated, or drunks being charged with sedition. And while the Church is seen as a potential tool of oppression, it provides genuine services and meals otherwise hard to come by.

In order to highlight the role of the press at the time, many quotes and statistics in the film are taken from progressive journals of the day, such as PËre DuchÈne and Cri du Peuple. But Watkins also focuses his aim on the modern media, and the continual spin doctoring by the national TV station in Versailles provides some welcome humor as pseudo-intellectuals pontificate on the Commune’s ineffectual idealism or provide sound bites re-articulating the party line. One talking head cites Napolean’s writing on workers’ rights, as if such concerns were addressed decades earlier. “Things would’ve worked out, but they wanted revolution instead of evolution,” he sighs. For their part, the Commune TV reporters do a serviceable job giving voice to the Commune, but they, too, struggle with finding a balance between penetrating analysis and nonpartisan coverage.

Yet for all of Watkins’ carefully conceived interruptions and proverbial mirrors highlighting his creative process, the film never substitutes irony for genuine feeling or seriousness of purpose, which may be its singular aesthetic triumph. Watkins obviously cares about the subject deeply and his many passionate actors clearly do as well; no amount of self-imposed critical distance diminishes the film’s dramatic force or real world relevancy–it only intensifies it. (Many of the film’s participants have formed Le Rebond, an association for the promotion of the film and the development of discussions and workshops that address its themes. “Le Rebond is undoubtedly the most important ongoing development in the process of any film I have made,” Watkins has written, “and shows that it is entirely possible to create processes within the audiovisual media which can move beyond the limitations of the rectangular frame.”)

As the film builds to its violent and tragic climax, its atmosphere of urgency is overwhelming. Ultimately, 20,000 to 30,000 Communards and others–men, women, and children–are executed, while many others are rounded up, arrested, and placed in exile. (Some readers may recall that the title character of Isak Dinesen’s Babette’s Feast was a Commune survivor whose husband and son were killed during its suppression.)

Tomorrow marks the one year anniversary of the worst riots in France in 40 years, and news reports are already stating that police are descending into poor neighborhoods in the hopes of warding off potential repeat events, even though little has changed in the social fabric within the past year. With those concerns and a crucial US election coming up, La Commune may not only be one of the towering achievements of cinema of the last few years, but also an electrifying examination of issues and conflicts that couldn’t be more relevant today.

TIFF 2005 line-up

So the Toronto International Film Festival announced its line-up of films today, and those of us who will be attending can hardly contain our excitement. Of course, Girish and I have already started complaining that the new films by, say, Denis, Bujalski, Aoyama, Tian, Allen, and Hong weren’t included. (Time to order that Korean Tale of Cinema DVD!) But for every “missing film,” there are innumerable titles with great potential, from the obvious (L’Enfant, CachÈ, Three Times) to the perhaps not-so-obvious (My Dad is 100 Years Old, Les Amants RÈguliers, Instructions for a Light and Sound Machine). The next week before the schedule is announced will offer a chance to explore the line-up and decide which films we should try to crowd into our visit.

Since I’ve been viewing a lot of documentaries recently, I thought I’d start with that selection. Here are some that look particularly intriguing:

Philip Groening’s Into Great Silence
ïA film about life in the Grande Chartreuse monastery in the French Alps. The filmmaker: “The film will be a very strict, next to silent meditation on monastic life in a very pure form. No music except the chants in the monastery, no interviews, no commentaries, no extra material.”

Eugene Jarecki’s Why We Fight (to be released in 2006 by Sony Classics)
ï”The new film by Eugene Jarecki, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, is an unflinching look at the anatomy of the American war machine, weaving unforgettable personal stories with commentary by a ‘who’s who’ of military and beltway insiders. Featuring John McCain, Gore Vidal, William Kristol, Chalmers Johnson, Richard Perle and others, the film launches a bipartisan inquiry into the workings of the military industrial complex and the rise of the American Empire. Inspired by Dwight Eisenhower’s legendary farewell speech (in which he coined the phrase ‘military industrial complex’), filmmaker Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger) surveys the scorched landscape of a half-century’s military adventures, asking how–and telling why–a nation of, by, and for the people has become the savings-and-loan of a system whose survival depends on a state of constant war.”

Kristian Petri’s The Well
ï”A fascinating examination of Orson Wellesí lifelong relationship with Spain. Director Petri leaves no stone unturned as he visits the locations that were the backdrop to highpoints of this maverick filmmakerís career, deftly delineating another side of the life of one of cinemaís most hypnotically attractive figures.”

“Rare footage of Orson Welles visiting bullfights and holding forth in general represent good reasons for dipping into The Well, helmer Kristian Petri’s retracing of Welles’ footsteps in Spain. Less a conventional documentary than an essay with clips, structurally similar to but not as transcendent as Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik, Petri’s picture has Wellesian intellectual breadth about it…” —Variety

There are over a hundred feature films (a third of the festival’s line-up) that are world premieres, so any other suggestions, be they documentary or fiction, would be greatly appreciated…

Updates

I’ve taken a longer blogging break than I anticipated, partly because I was out of town and partly because I was immersed in finishing my liner notes for two upcoming Masters of Cinema DVDs in the UK, Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba (1964) and Kuroneko (1968). (Strictly Film School’s Acquarello contributed the essay for our first Shindo release, The Naked Island.) Now that I’m wrapping this up, expect regular updates to resume.

In addition, Cinemarati (“a professional guild for film writers whose work appears primarily online”) relaunched with a new design and structure last week, and it includes a group blog I will contribute to from time to time.

Lewton and Ulmer


I Walked with a Zombie

Great DVD news has arrived this week for fans of elegant horror: Universal have announced a Bela Lugosi collection for September that will finally offer Edgar G. Ulmer’s expressionist/art deco masterpiece, The Black Cat (1934), and Warner have solidified an October street date for their long-awaited Val Lewton collection. The Lewton set will contain five discs and nine films, including the three classics Jacques Tourneur directed (1942’s Cat People and 1943’s I Walked with a Zombie and The Leopard Man) as well as Mark Robson’s masterpiece, The Seventh Victim (1943), which critic Jonathan Rosenbaum recently called his “favorite horror film.”

I commented on The Black Cat and Tourneur, as well as other prized horror films, here.

All of the Lewton films will contain commentaries and the boxset will include a documentary entitled Shadows in the Dark: The Val Lewton Legacy. Unfortunately, Warner doesn’t seem to have tapped critic Chris Fujiwara for a commentary, who would’ve been an ideal choice.