new york city nostalgia

new york in the 50s banner

In his capsule review for The New York Times Stephen Holden calls New York in the 50’s (Blankenbaker, USA, 2000) a “documentary scrapbook,” and that’s a neat way of summing up both the appeal and the limitations of this brief, CliffsNotes-like introduction to the New York City/Greenwich Village arts and culture scene during the 1950’s and early 1960’s.  Writer Dan Wakefield is extended screenplay credit, and the film is based on his book by the same name, though it’s unclear how much of the film is actually based on the book (which I have not read, but is characterized as a memoir featuring firsthand accounts from others).  Wakefield is the most regular interviewee among what seem to be a bevy of his personal friends and acquaintances who end up serving as a collection of chatty talking heads, including but not limited to Joan Didion (who, unsurprisingly, provides several of the film’s sharpest and most memorable anecdotes), Gay Talese, John Gregory Dunne, Robert Redford, David Amram, Bruce Jay Friedman, and a number of others, all whose testimony and remembrances more or less comprise the bulk of the running time as well as provide the chief pleasures of the film.  Because there’s scant else to it, and the distinct lack of archival footage makes New York in the 50’s come off as a nostalgia act simply coasting on the strength of the interview footage.  Quite honestly, it feels and plays like a program that one would expect to find broadcast on PBS as filler for a slow weekend afternoon.  It’s fine for what it is, I suppose, but it’s basically a rather forgettable treatment of a memorable topic.

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portrait of the artist and her family

Several minutes into Alice Neel (USA, 2007), director Andrew Neel makes his connection to his subject explicit: he is in fact the grandson of the celebrated American portraitist.  The possible implications of a family member being the main presence behind the camera immediately begin to present themselves: Neel will undoubtedly enjoy access and intimacy into the life of his subject–indeed, his father, uncle and other relatives serve as the film’s main sources of information and there’s lot of home video footage and family photos–but to what extent can such a cinematic portrait be trusted?  Will it become some kind of laudatory, familial propaganda?  Or will it become too introverted, too in-crowd, possibly even an exercise in navel-gazing?

Neel confronts these issues head on, and actually goes so far as to implicitly structure his entire film around these issues, so much so that it would be more precise to regard Alice Neel as a portrait of the Neel family, and an examination of how a life–particularly an unconventional one–is not autonomous, but reverberates in countless ways throughout the lives of others.  On the one hand Alice Neel commemorates the great accomplishments of the eponymous artist; on the other it traces at what personal costs those same accomplishments entailed.  We become acquainted with the headstrong young woman who eschewed traditional gender roles to devote her life to art and who defied the post-War ascension of Abstract expressionism and continued her exploration of figural painting and portraiture.  As is noted in the film, this essentially amounted to “career suicide,” as her work systematically ignored until “rediscovered” by the feminist movement of the 1960’s and 70’s and rightly proclaimed as a pioneering feminist icon, which in turn flowered into a flurry of late-life fame (including several major retrospectives, honorary doctorates, college lecture tours, initiation into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, memorable appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, etc, etc) before she passed away in 1984.  But we also get to know the woman who ceded complete custody of her first daughter to her first husband’s affluent Cuban family, and who could be justly accused of devoting more attention to her art than to her family’s financial or emotional stability.  A complicated portrait of a complex woman and an equally complex family situation quickly emerges.

Documentaries of these types tend to give in to the impulse to be nostalgia acts about bygone eras, and so it is a bit shocking when Alice’s son Richard looks directly into the camera and bluntly states “I don’t like bohemian culture, frankly; I think a lot of innocent people are hurt by it.  I think I was hurt by it,” and admissions revealed in the film make clear this was not intended as some kind of a rhetorical statement.  Another sequence turns tense when a conversation between Neel and his father, Alice’s other son, begin to argue over certain painful questions; the camera is averted but the audio is covertly allowed to continue rolling, and the ensuing exchange is as poignant as it is revealing.  In other words, what initially seems like Neel’s tremendous advantage in making this film suddenly threatens to become a huge liability as his proximity to the subjects threatens to derail–or at least overshadow–the life and the art the film is ostensibly supposed to be about.

Which it never quite does.  Even if Alice’s sons chose to become a lawyer and a doctor (the exact antithesis of their bohemian upbringing), both remain emphatic about the importance of their mother’s art, and understand that it was only possible through the life decisions that she ultimately did make, even if it hurt them (and others).  And the footage that is included, both personal home videos and material from Michel Auder’s earlier documentary Portrait of Alice Neel–reveals a warm and smiling woman quick to laugh, and one with an impeccable eye capable of seeing art in everything, whether it the face of a famous celebrity she is painting or a violent cacophony of fluttering pigeons outside her apartment window.  The film concludes with a nice crescendo because, happily, Alice’s life did in fact follow that trajectory, her work receiving the much-delayed accolades while she could still enjoy them.  Come for the art–for it is, indeed, breathtaking and often quite haunting–and stay for a fascinating film.

week in review – 07/10 – 07/15/12

Theatrical Viewing

Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) (Fellini, Italy, 1957) – PFA, 35mm; 2nd viewing

Ted (MacFarlane, USA, 2012) – Century Theater, Digital Projection

At the San Francisco Silent Film Festival at the Castro Theatre:

The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna (Schwarz, Germany, 1929) – 35mm

The Docks of New York (von Sternberg, 1928) – 35mm

Stella Dallas (H. King, USA, 1925) – 35mm

Le voyage dans la lune (The Voyage to the Moon) (Restored Color Version) (Méliès, France, 1902 – Digital Projection; 3rd viewing

The Cameraman (Keaton, USA, 1928) – 35mm

Home Viewing

Ulysse (Varda, France, 1982) – Digital Projection, Fandor; 2nd viewing

The Extraordinary Voyage (Bromberg & Lange, France, 2011) – Digital Projection, Fandor

Alice Neel (Neel, USA, 2007) – Netflix Instant (expired)

Upcoming Possibilities

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Zeitlin, USA, 2012)

Sandra (Visconti, Italy, 1965) – PFA, 07/25


week in review – 07/02 – 07/09/12

Theatrical Viewing

Magic Mike (Soderbergh, USA, 2012) – AMC Century; Digital Projection

Le amiche (Antonioni, Italy, 1955) – PFA, 35mm; 2nd viewing

This Is Not a Film (Panahi, Iran, 2012) – PFA, 35mm

Running Around Like a Chicken With Its Head Cut Off (short) (Blank, USA, 1960) – PFA, 16mm

Dry Wood (short) (Blank, USA, 1973) – PFA, 16mm

Always For Pleasure (Blank, USA, 1978) – PFA, 16mm

Home Viewing

Toute la mémoire du monde (short) (Resnais, France, 1956) – Digital Projection, DVD; 2nd viewing

Plaisir d’amour en Iran (short) (Varda, France, 1976) – Digital Projection, Fandor

Upcoming Possibilities

Le notti di Cabiria (Nights of Cabiria) (Fellini, Italy, 1957) – PFA, 07/11

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is almost here!!! – Castro Theatre, 07/12 – 15

rite(s) of passage

U.S. Go Home (France, 1993), an hour long contribution to the fabled French television series Tous les garçons et les filles de leur âge, was one of the great coups of the Pacific Film Archive’s Claire Denis retrospective, as it has become practically impossible to see (legally), particularly on this side of the Atlantic.  And it really is a shame that it is so completely unavailable–there’s a sweetness and charm to it that doesn’t really appear elsewhere in her work (the possible exception being Vendredi Soir, though that’s of a much more of an adult fantasy).  A wisp of a narrative co-written by Denis and Anne Wiazemsky and featuring Alice Houri and Grégoire Colin as siblings several years before they would do the same in Nénette et Boni, one the surface the film is a rather overfamiliar sexual coming-of-age story set in the 1960’s, but it is elevated by the tenderness of its observation.  There’s a wonderful, extended sequence early on involving Colin, where, alone his bedroom, a despondent feeling of restlessness slowly gives way to a spontaneous, ebullient catharsis as he tentatively begins to dance to a record of The Animals’s rollicking “Hey Gyp.”  Mumbling along with a few English phrases, epileptically keeping time to the beat, it’s the type of private moment usually experienced alone behind locked doors, which makes it all the more remarkable to witness on a screen (also, one can’t help but feel the enigmatic conclusion to Beau Travail starting to germinate here).

The bulk of the film, however, takes place during a boozy, dimly lit house party and the drama takes place in fleeting facial expressions and awkward gestures on an impromptu dance floor in a darkened living room which begins to take on larger mental and emotional dimensions as it becomes a site of initiation into adulthood for Houri in particular.  And while I’m not exactly sure what the exact circumstances are that have has made this film so completely unavailable, it wouldn’t surprise me if the soundtrack, which is chock full of English language music from the period (not just The Animals, but Nico, The Rolling Stones, The Yardbirds, Prince Buster, among others), poses substantial rights issues.  Which is unfortunate, because it really is itself an important rite of passage exercise in Denis’s overall filmmaking trajectory; admirable on its own, but even more impressive when considered within the context of her ever-expanding body of work.

out and about in 1960’s paris

In light of Marie-France Pisier’s tragic, unexpected passing last year, we pulled out Antoine et Colette (François Truffaut, 1962), which I had not seen.  It’s a lovely, wryly observed little film, though clearly the emphasis is on Antoine at the expense of the kohl-eyed Colette, who remains an enigma to both Antoine and the viewer.  This is Léaud at his most beautiful but also Antoine at his most unformed, and it was enlightening to see the awkward transition phase the character undergoes between Les quatres cent coup and Baisers vóles.  But if it’s primarily remembered as an essential moment in the Antoine Doinel mythology, it’s also an exquisitely rendered portrait of certain time and place–Paris, early 1960’s–and the spaces both public (theater lobbies), private (the shabby hotel rooms Antoine holes up in) and those suspended somewhere in between (the supremely funny moments around the family dinner table at Colette’s house) that the pre-political, pre-68′ Parisian youth culture inhabited and came of age in.  A wonderful little transitional moment in Truffaut’s career–I’m not sure if any other films exhibit such a low-key, spontaneous charm.

week in review – 06/25 – 07/01/12

Better late than never!

Theatrical Viewings

Barbarella (Vadim, France/Italy, 1968) – Castro Theatre, 35mm; 2nd viewing

Roman Holiday (Wyler, USA, 1953) – Stanford Theatre, 35mm; 3rd viewing

Sabrina (Wilder, USA, 1954) – Stanford Theatre, 35mm; 2nd viewing

Home Viewing

Les dites cariatides (The So-Called Caryatids) (short) (Varda, France,) – Digital Projection, Fandor

Elsa la rose (short) (Varda, France, 1965) – Digital Projection, Fandor

The Girl’s Nervy (short) (Reeves, USA, 1995) – Digital Projection, Fandor

Upcoming Possibilities

The Connection (Clarke, USA, 1962) – Roxie, 06/29 – 07/05

Beyond the Black Rainbow (Cosmatos, Canada, 2012) – Roxie, 06/29 – 07/07

Le amiche (Antonioni, Italy, 1955) – PFA, 07/06

Always For Pleasure (Blank, USA, 1978) – PFA, 07/07