The King of Cannes

May 25, 2012

In the early pages of Geoff Dyer’s Zona, the author’s attempt to unpack the mysteries of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film, Stalker, author Geoff Dyer makes humorous reference to Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s 20Image02 film, Distant (Uzak).

Ceylan’s film tells the story of Mahmut, a photographer in Istanbul, and his unemployed cousin Yusuf, who comes to stay with Mahmut. In one sequence, the two men watch a justly famous, wordless sequence from Stalker, a tribute from the Turkish Ceylan to the revered Russian poet of contemplative cinema.

It’s a cinema that Ceylan himself has advanced with Distant and his two subsequent films, Climates and Three Monkeys. The films haven’t exactly burned up the box office in North America. Distant grossed $96,293, Climates $119,958, and Three Monkeys $41,393. Turkish art house films in the United States are a tough business case, apparently, even when the films arrive on these shores adorned with international awards from major film festivals.

If Ceylan could name his film festival of choice, surely it would be Cannes. Not only the world’s most revered film festival, Cannes has heaped praise upon Ceylan’s oeuvre, giving Distant its Jury Prize and having both leads share the Best Actor award at that year’s featival; awarding Climates its FIPRESCI critics prize; and giving Ceylan its Best Director award for Three Monkeys. Last year’s Cannes festival gave its Jury Prize again to Ceylan, for Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. At this year’s festival, Ceylan received the Directors’ Fortnight Carrosse d’Or prize.

Dyer cites Distant as an example of “films where bits of other films are seen, glimpsed or watched, either at a drive-in, on TV or in the cinema,” referencing Distant‘s use of a Stalker scene that features, in Dyer’s words, “three men on a trolley as they sit there and the blurry landscape clangs past”:Image

This sequence in Stalker is used to brilliant effect in Uzak (Distant, 2002) by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan. [Mahmut and Yusuf] may be from the same village but they’re worlds apart, and Mahmut is not about to compromise his high aesthetic standards just because a dull-witted cousin has come to stay. So when we see them at home, feet up, watching TV, it’s not Top Gear or Turkey’s Got Talent they’re watching; it’s Stalker, the trolley sequence. The two of them are slumped and stretched out in their chairs, in a torpor of concentration and boredom. Mahmut is eating nuts, pistachios presumably. Cousin Yusuf has nodded off. One can hardly blame him; even the most boring night in the village cannot compare with the depths of tedium being plumbed here.

That’s funny. Offensive to Stalker fans? No. Dyer is, of course, a huge fan of Stalker, as am I. He’s paying a compliment to Tarkovsky’s film, to the Ceylan film that makes use of it and to the concentration required by viewers to enjoy either film, or both.

Dyer concludes his description of this strange, shifting passage from Distant with this:

If you wanted a definition of deadpan you could do a lot worse than choose this sequence to illustrate your point. In fact, thinking about it, this sequence is probably the most deadpan I have ever seen in a film. It’s so deadpan that you have to be a real cinephile to find it funny, and even then you don’t actually laugh out loud. You just sit there on the sofa with your feet up, munching pistachios, watching, snickering.

Dyer’s passage came to mind as I watched Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. The film opened at Landmark’s E St. theater in Washington, D.C., in mid-May and was cut to two showtimes a day during its second week. Its total North American box-office take, as of the May 11–13, 2012, weekend, was just $118,194, with the film having never played on more than 6 screens at a time (usually just one screen per week).

ImageA dark film—literally, the film is shot and takes place largely in the dark of night, with car headlights being its only source of illumination in several scenes—with several discussions about mortality and ethics, Anatolia, like Distant, includes several moments of humor, deadpan or otherwise, beginning with a discussion about yogurt between detectives who are trying to locate a crime scene. As the men argue about all things dairy, Ceylan slowly zooms in on the pained face of a confessed murderer in the back seat. The tedium of the surrounding conversation generates sympathy for the killer.

But the film’s main story is deadly serious. As the cops search for a body of a murder victim, one says they’re “riding on the road to hell,” where facts and evidence are only part of the equation. Anatolia has been compared to U.S. police procedurals such as CSI, but it’s less interested in solving a crime than it is in what motivates the human heart to acts of cruelty—and kindness. To get to the bottom of what Anatolia is exploring, you “need to be less a prosecutor and more an astrologer,” as one character says.

“Why did God pick us?” wonders the wife of the dead man, in one of the film’s allusions to faith in the face of trials. (During an earlier shot of a windswept landscape, I couldn’t help but think of John 3:8).

“There’s a reason for everything,” says another character. “Everyone suffers for what they do, but kids suffer for the sins of adults.” It’s a truth—a cruel truth—that comes toward the end of a long discourse between the doctor and prosecutor about a woman’s death, likely by suicide. The movie suggests that rationality and science can be cold and cruel in the face of human suffering. What are we to do with difficult facts? Is it compassionate to tell less than one knows? How much ugliness can the human soul tolerate? How does our reaction to wickedness alleviate, or compound that wickedness?

“They shouldn’t be treated like humans!” shouts one angry investigator after discovering that a murder victim had his limbs bound before death. “They should be tied up like him!” But the man stands alone in his reaction. Others struggle with what they’re learning about the crime, and with the toll a lifetime of thinking about the mechanics of death has taken on them.

In a film with striking widescreen imagery that bests the most arresting shots in Distant (which was photographed by Ceylan himself; his subsequent films, including Anatolia, have been shot by Gokhan Tiryaki), Ceylan takes a particular interest in the human body: those male figures crowded into a small car; the shimmering, lit face of a beautiful young woman; an exposed ear that leads to a buried corpse; a naked body on an autopsy table; the profile of a doctor’s face as heImage makes a pivotal decision.

Ceylan’s triumphant film shows that light can break through the darkest night, and it holds out the possibility that discretion in disseminating information is sometimes more important than the information itself, especially for the youngest among us.

In Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, truth is always hiding, just below the surface.



Changes at the Top for the Arts & Faith Top 100

February 14, 2011

The Arts & Faith Top 100 list has been updated for 2011—and there’s a new title atop our list!

Unseating Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Ordet is another Dreyer film, The Passion of Joan of Arc. Ordet has dropped to number 3, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev rises to second place.

Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow blasts onto the list at number 6, the only English-language film in the top 10. The next highest-ranked English-language film on the list, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, comes in at number 16. John Ford’s The Searchers, two places lower, rounds out the English-language titles in the Top 20.

The most recent films on the list are 2008’s Summer Hours (2008) and five films from 2007: Munyurangabo at number 27, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days at number 41, Heartbeat Detector at number 58, Silent Light at number 66 and There Will Be Blood at number 92.

The Arts and Faith Top 100 is determined by 65 film critics, writers and watchers who participate at the discussion board.

WAFCA Winners!

December 6, 2010

The Washington Area Film Critics Association has named The Social Network as best picture of 2010 and David Fincher best director.

The Supporting Actor and Actress awards went to Christian Bale and Melissa Leo, respectively, for The Fighter. Leo triumphed in the category despite being nominated against her co-star Amy Adams.

The full list of nominees appears below, with winners in bold and my choices indicated by an asterisk. My own choice for the best film of the year, Mike Leigh’s Another Year, was nominated only for Best Original Screenplay — an odd category considering Leigh’s working methods (based on what I know of them, from what I’ve read over the years). I did vote for the film as a gesture of my enthusiasm for the final product.

I also voted for Black Swan in several technical categories, even though I tipped negative on the film overall. It didn’t matter: The film was shut out of our awards.

Best Film:
Black Swan
127 Hours
*The Social Network
Toy Story 3

Best Director:
Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
Danny Boyle (127 Hours)
Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit)
*David Fincher (The Social Network)
Christopher Nolan (Inception)

Best Actor:
Jeff Bridges (True Grit)
*Robert Duvall (Get Low)
Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)
Colin Firth (The King’s Speech)
James Franco (127 Hours)

Best Actress:
Annette Bening (The Kids Are All Right)
Anne Hathaway (Love & Other Drugs)
Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
*Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone)
Natalie Portman (Black Swan)

Best Supporting Actor:
Christian Bale (The Fighter)
Andrew Garfield (The Social Network)
John Hawkes (Winter’s Bone)
*Sam Rockwell (Conviction)
Geoffrey Rush (The King’s Speech)

Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams (The Fighter)
Helena Bonham Carter (The King’s Speech)
*Melissa Leo (The Fighter)
Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom)

Best Acting Ensemble:
*The Fighter
The Kids Are All Right
The Social Network
The Town

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours)
*Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network)
Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3)
Joel and Ethan Coen (True Grit)
Debra Granik and Anne Rossellini (Winter’s Bone)

Best Original Screenplay:
*Mike Leigh (Another Year)
Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin (Black Swan)
Christopher Nolan (Inception)
Stuart Blumberg and Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids Are All Right)
David Seidler (The King’s Speech)

Best Animated Feature:
Despicable Me
*How to Train Your Dragon
Toy Story 3

Best Documentary:
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Inside Job
The Tillman Story
Waiting for ‘Superman’

Best Foreign Language Film:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I Am Love
White Material

Best Art Direction:
Alice in Wonderland
*Black Swan
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1
True Grit

Best Cinematography:
*Black Swan
127 Hours
The Social Network
True Grit

Best Score:
*Clint Mansell (Black Swan)
Hans Zimmer (Inception)
A.R. Rahman (127 Hours)
Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network)
Carter Burwell (True Grit)

WAFCA Voting: Which Films and Performances Are the Best of 2010?

December 3, 2010

This Sunday, the Washington Area Film Critics Association will announce the results of its votes for the best films and performances of 2010. Stay tuned for results!

Memories of a Film Distribution Internship

August 2, 2010

It was 1990. I was 19 years old, and had just finished my sophomore year at Virginia Tech as a Communications major, with an emphasis in Film/Popular Culture. Summer arrived, and I headed home to Northern Virginia.

Aspiring to a career in film and needing a three-credit internship, I turned my attention to the one D.C.-based film shop I knew of: Circle Releasing Corp. Ted and Jim Pedas ran Circle, which had owned several local movie theaters and had also tried its hand at film production. In the early 1980s, Circle had bankrolled a small film called Blood Simple, by Joel and Ethan Coen.

Blood Simple was a success, but in D.C., its local connection qualified the film a mini-sensation. Arch Campbell, the movie reviewer on D.C.’s NBC affiliate, raved about the film, which I managed to see at a packed screening at the AMC Skyline 6 theaters. It was my first exposure to modern film noir, and the Coens’ dark humor was instantly appealing.

Then, in 1987, came Raising Arizona. I declared it my favorite film after first viewing, and it held that slot for several years. If it’s not still at the top—I’m not sure which film is—it’s close. Twentieth Century Fox distributed the film, which was financed, again, by Circle.

Two wildly diverse films, both outstanding, and unlike every other big-filmmakers-in-the-making stories of that era, Washington, D.C., played a critical role. Any student with film-related goals but too intimidated to move to New York or Los Angeles had one avenue—Circle. It was all or nothing.

So, late in my sophomore year, I decided to look up the number of Circle Releasing Corp. It wasn’t the production arm of Circle. I wasn’t sure exactly what Circle Releasing Corp. released, given that the Coens’ films were being distributed by Fox. There was no Internet, no easy way to research the company, but I knew it was part of Circle, it was film-related, and it was the only thing that interested me as a possible summer internship.

I cold-called, introduced myself to the woman who ran the operation, Fran Speilman, and asked if an internship would be possible during the summer months. I figured it was the longest of long shots, and braced myself for the inevitable “no.”

Instead, Fran, in her husky voice, quickly agreed to take me on as an intern. I was thrilled!

The summer of 1990 was an interesting one for Circle. If I had to choose a word to describe the day-to-day business environment there, it would be “slow.” My internship progress report, which I recently came across and which inspired this post (pictured at left, although the pic isn’t really legible), indicates that I spent 13.5 hours a week at Circle. If memory serves, that was three 4.5-hour days each week. I would take the Metro into town but, because I left late in the morning, never had a chance of finding parking in the Metro lot. Instead, I had to park more than half a mile from the local station and hoof it in the summer heat.

Years of staying at home, watching movies and generally nurturing a lack of physical activity had caught up with me. Add to that the “freshman 15” I put on a year earlier, and the walk to the train, as well as the walk from the destination station to Circle Releasing HQ, always left me sweaty and, I’m quite certain, smelly. The Circle employees never mentioned my overheated appearance, and if I stunk up the place, they never said anything about it.

My days consisted of sitting in Fran’s office, reading Variety and the Hollywood Reporter cover to cover, and listening to any conversation I could between Fran and the company’s full-time employees. There was Bruce, Hap, Liz and Carolyn. An accountant from another area of the office would sometimes stop in to chat with Fran. I once heard him say that Raising Arizona had, that very summer, finally broken even as an investment for Circle.

The distributor wasn’t having lots of success with its films that summer. Releases that had opened earlier in the year were played out. At least that’s my memory. IMDB is telling me that some of the movies I thought had opened and closed by the summer of 1990 didn’t release in the U.S. until late summer of that year, or until the following year. IMDB has been known to screw up sometimes, but so has my memory, so take all of this with a grain of salt.

A Gabriel Byrne/Nick Broomfield movie called Dark Obsession has received some notoriety because of a sex scene that led to an NC-17 rating, but the film hadn’t done much business. Bye Bye Blues, from director Ann Wheeler, had received some decent reviews but not much attention from audiences. A Polish drama, Interrogation, included a stunning lead performance and had yet to be released. I was able to see some of these films, as well as earlier Circle releases like Guy Maddin’s Tales From the Gimli Hospital and Vincent Ward’s The Navigator on videocassette, after Fran flattered me by asking for a “young man’s opinion” of some of the distributor’s titles.

My biggest “get,” however, was finding a copy of the Coen’s screenplay for Barton Fink, and reading it well before that film released. My love of the Coens had reached fever pitch that summer, and the most memorable aspect of that internship was being invited to the D.C.-area premiere of Miller’s Crossing at a local theater. Although it has strong competition, Miller’s Crossing to this day remains my favorite Coen Brothers film, no doubt in part because of the circumstances in which I first saw the film. If memory serves, the premiere took place an evening or two after the film had premiered at the New York Film Festival, and after it had been reviewed negatively by Vincent Canby in the New York Times. I can still picture the man introducing the film at the D.C. premiere, who mentioned that the film had received “almost unanimous praise” from critics who had seen it.

The Coen films were perks—opportunities to see Circle productions that, as far as I understood, Circle Releasing Corp. had no hand in distributing. But the distribution arm had its own treat to come that summer: The national release of John Woo’s The Killer. Woo was a favorite of those who had managed to see bootleg videotapes of his Hong Kong action films, but the rest of us had to wait for a legitimate release of his work. I had just completed a course at school on the Western genre, and was at the apex of my admiration for Sam Peckinpah’s stylized violence—a style that Woo had said in interviews that he was attempting to emulate with The Killer.

My experience watching The Killer did not approach Miller’s Crossing-level ecstasy. I saw a videotape version of the film, panned-and-scanned, and, sadly, dubbed! That was the way Circle planned to release the film in a test market in Texas: Dubbed, and aimed at the action-movie crowd.

I protested. Woo’s movie was full of action, but his reputation was that of an auteur, and his natural audience were arthouse film fans who might be willing to give a bloody gangster film a shot, as long as it wasn’t dubbed. That, I argued, would be the kiss of death.

But what did I know? Circle was hoping to find a broader audience for The Killer. To reach that audience, two poster designs were assembled. Mr. Pedas brought the two into the office, and asked the employees what they thought. I chose the artsy-fartsy design, with a silhouette image of a man with a gun. Mr. Pedas preferred the other image, which depicted the Asian protagonist. “This one shows you what you’re getting,” he remarked to Fran and the others. I started to object, “But the other one is more evocative…”

That was when Fran pulled me aside. “Chris,” she said, quietly but sternly, “the decision has been made.”

And, indeed, it had been.

The film played in that Texas market, but the first-week grosses were squat. I recall a second week, which showed the usual dropoff in attendance. After that, I don’t recall what happened. I think the distributor pulled the film and rethought its strategy. My internship progress report notes, “We eventually released the film in a dubbed and subtitled format,” but also that the film “never took off quite the way we hoped it would.” I do remember that as soon as Criterion issued the title on laserdisc years later, I bought it, laying out a cool $100 for the film. (And that was 20% off retail! Those were the days, weren’t they?)

One of the highlights of my time at Circle was being given the task of comparing the newly struck subtitles for The Killer to the dubbed version, making sure no dialogue was left out of the subtitles. Why the dubbed version should have been the basis for this I can’t quite figure—maybe the dubbed version left off sections of dialogue in the original language!—but that’s what my internship progress report states: “Before we made the subtitle band, I was asked to compare the dialogue from the dubbed version with what we were going to print on the subtitle band. This was done to check for any continuity errors or breaks in the film’s action.” The report also reminds me that I helped to send out 500 letters to exhibitors across the country alerting them to the days and times The Killer would be screened.

I helped find and clip reviews of Circle films for the films’ respective press kits. I answered telephones. I helped set up “opinion-maker screenings” for Winter of ’54, a film about which I remember nothing at all. I also did some filing, a task I cited as “least beneficial” in my progress report. A lowlight was once taking a call for producer Ben Barenholtz, and trying, unsuccessfully, to transfer the call from my office to Barenholtz’s. I stared at the flashing line for several seconds after completing—or so I thought—the transfer, only to see a shadow fall over the phone and then see the hand of Barenholtz himself reach down as he said, “No,” and completed the transfer himself.

So, what came out of the internship? What did it all amount to? It helped me earn my college’s award for Outstanding Achievement in my area of study (my film professor cited the internship when presenting me with the award), but no job came of the experience. Fran had written on my report that “we would be happy to hire this student, should there be a job opening,” and that “His personality is such that it would be a pleasure having him in our group.” However, when I called Circle Releasing Corp. after graduating to see if there were any openings, the person then running the company—a budding author by the name of George Pelecanos—politely told me the company had no position to offer me at that time. A few months later, I called again. Pelecanos again told me—politely—that the company still had no openings.

I fell out of touch with everyone at Circle Releasing Corp., although in recent years I’ve briefly reconnected with one who’s now managing a local movie theater. I’m left with memories, mostly positive, of my brief fling in the film industry. It led to my only academic award, and it earned me those three credit hours I needed to graduate. And now it’s been the subject of this lengthy blog post.

One Fellini, Two Fellinis

June 25, 2010

“Several of Fellini’s films are masterpieces by anyone’s standards. Yet in no other director’s body of films does each work identifiably relate a specific image of the creator that he wishes to present to the world and to posterity. Whether any of the films are truly autobiographical in any traditional sense is open to debate.”

–From Film Directors, ed. Andrew Sarris, “Federico Fellini,” by Stephen L. Hanson and Rob Edelman

The Samuels and Sarris Books

“Another reason I don’t like to see my old films: they are like diseases, the germs of my fantasy. One wants to make the film quickly in order to free oneself. The sign that I have to make a film is given by my hatred for it. It’s like having a guest who sleeps in my bed, eats my food, puts on my clothes, and follows me when I make love. It’s always there, and if I didn’t throw it off my shoulders, I couldn’t do what I wanted to. I truly hate the film and make it in a mood of hatred.”

–From Encountering Directors, by Charles Thomas Samuels, interview with Fellini

If Fellini doesn’t want to watch the films he made, should I feel bad for not wanting to rewatch them myself? Or for not wanting to write much about them?

The years since I studied have not been kind to my estimation of the filmmaker. I don’t dislike his work, but I saw it a long time ago at a much earlier age, which may not be the best time to appreciate the nostalgia that infuses so much of his output. La Dolce Vita may have been sexy, but that fountain scene is the only thing I remember. I never watched it a second time, although I’ve seen clips of that fountain scene many times over the years. (Yes, I’m aware of its vaunted status as a classic foreign film. I’ll revisit it some day.)

is more interesting, but still a cold film about a lothario. It may be that my straitlaced 20-or-so self couldn’t relate to the dashing Marcello Mastroianni, or maybe I just needed another 20 years, for it was the movie version of the musical Nine, a reimagining of Fellini’s film, that stimulated my interest in the filmmaker after lo these many years.

I sat in the theater, unaware of the roots of the film’s story, until the drip-drip-drip of allusions to the long ago were suddenly unleashed in a torrent that washed over me and moved me. Yes, after years of keeping Fellini’s work at some remove, I connected with the material.

No, I’m not a filmmaker, not a womanizer, and I don’t have Penelope Cruz and Marion Cotillard fighting for my attention. (Who needs ’em, when you’ve a wife that looks like mine?) The critics all hated the movie, but I liked some of it and refused to pile on. Give me a problematic film with a few good moments—Penelope’s musical number, anyone?—and a lot of ambition, and you won’t get too much blowback from this critic, even if the final verdict is no better than a sideways thumb.

The only Fellini film that stayed lodged in memory into my 30s was Amarcord. Sure, it’s nostalgic, but even at age 19 or 20, whenever it was that I took my “Fellini, Hitchcock and Welles” class, the film stood out. It was in color, and although I have fond memories of Fellini’s black-and-white I Vitelloni, and especially La Strada, it’s the color of Amarcord, more than anything else that I remember about the film. Shot by Giuseppe Rotunno, who had worked on Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard and who would work on Robert Altman’s Popeye, the movie clothes its temptress, Magali Noel, in striking reds, and bathes many of its gorgeous images in soft light.

I bought the Criterion laserdisc in my mid-20s, watched it once, then shelved it again until last week, when I selected Amarcord as my next entry for The Laserdisc Project. The first thing I noticed this time wasn’t the cinematography, but the music, by Nino Rota. If there’s a full soundtrack, is it as lovely as the main theme?

Fellini’s nostalgia (the film’s title translates as “I Remember”) is on full display here in this loosely autobiographical film, and his sexual hang-ups are a big part of the depiction of childhood. I’d say this, too, made the film hard to forget, but the truth is that I’d forgotten all about the group masturbation scene in the parked car, the character of Volpina the prostitute and even Uncle Teo climbing a tree and crying out, over and over again, “I want a woman!” What I remembered was the teenage boy hoisting the massive, huge-breasted tobacconist, who allows the young man to show off his blossoming physical prowess by grabbing her below her midsection and lifting her again and again, as they both become sexually aroused. This leads to … well, you really should see Amarcord, which, if it gets anything right—and it does—gets the virginal young-man fantasy element right, in all its awkward passion and ineptitude. I don’t know when I’ll see Amarcord a third time, but as with the interval between the previous viewing and this most recent look, I’m sure the scene with the tobacconist will remain at the fore of my memories of Fellini’s film.

Amarcord is also, much to my surprise this time around, an intensely political film, poking fun at fascism in ways that surprise and delight me as I near the beginning of my fifth decade on this terrestrial ball. So worn down was I by the political slogans and messages of my college days that I failed to appreciate Fellini’s jabs at Mussolini. Fellini was no fan of authority—not in governments, or in the church—and although I don’t share completely his views on the church as an institution (unlike Fellini, I’m a Protestant, and I submit to my own church’s authority on doctrinal matters), I’m not adverse to the occasional jab at any system unduly concerned with outward behaviors and confessions—even when the confessors are portrayed as nose-blowing buffoons, as Fellini depicts one priest in Amarcord.

Variety Lights

Thinking that the black-and-white I Vitelloni had overtaken Amarcord in my memory as a superior film from the director, I decided to investigate another Fellini’s black-and-white films. Variety Lights was his first directorial effort, and he shared duties and credit with Alberto Lattuada. Fellini had yet to break from the neorealism school that shaped his early work (he worked on Roberto Rossellini’s Open City).

The film is more than a footnote in Fellini’s career, but nothing about it made an impression on me. Looking at my notes while watching the film, they take up just one short page, and peter out halfway through it. After that, I have a note that read, “Maybe Fellini’s not for me.”


It’s Been Too Long, Hasn’t It?

May 31, 2010

I could express embarrassment over my declaration of weekly posts here, at the least, when I launched the Laserdisc Project, but I’m long past embarrassment. I’ve settled into a “what will be will be” frame of mind. I don’t have regular readers — those are tough to obtain when I don’t bother to post regularly — so this is more like an online diary, for my eyes only. If I want to update it, I will.

Truth is, I need to update it if I ever hope to achieve what I wanted to achieve when I launched the Laserdisc Project. Today is Memorial Day, and, in some ways, the beginning of summer. Fewer distractions. Time to give this blog a go … again.

Film Festival Programming Do’s and Don’ts. Actually, Just One Big Don’t

April 15, 2010

I’m a movie lover and struggling film critic, but I’m not a “festival-goer.” I don’t buy plane tickets each year and try to get credentials to cover the major film festivals in Cannes or (let’s be a bit more realistic) Toronto. I’ve never bothered to travel to major festivals in New York or Colorado for the film festivals that take place there each year.

I keep up with those events by reading the ever increasing number of articles speculating on which films will be selected to screen at the major festivals, followed by articles about how those screenings went, followed again by which distributor picked up which film. Then I forget everything I’ve read and eventually, months or years later, sit down in a theater and am reminded that the film I’m about to see won this or that accolade at some festival or other. Sometimes that’s exciting news, sometimes it elicits nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders.

But I’m not completely immune to the lure of film festivals. In fact, I try to attend at least one screening each year in the fall at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, Va., and each spring at FilmFestDC, with venues that are just a subway trip or car ride from my work place and home in Northern Virginia. So, in a sense, I am a festival-goer. But just ask anyone who seriously attends film fests and they’ll let you know that people like me don’t count.

This year’s FilmFestDC starts tonight, April 15, and continues through next weekend. I hope to get to one screening (two screenings is to dream) before the festival wraps. I’ve seen several fantastic films at FilmFestDC over the years. Hawaii, Oslo, Silent Light, Opera Jawa – each was among the best films I saw in the respective years they screened at FilmFestDC.

However, that final entry, Opera Jawa, was nearly sunk by the nasty surprise that greeted me and the other screening attendees at FilmFest DC a couple of years ago: The film started with a black screen and a hard-to-ignore “PLAY” icon in the upper left of the screen. Clearly we weren’t watching a film; we were watching a projected DVD.

Forget that the imagery of Opera Jawa was lush enough and suitably fascinating to override my concerns about the presentation during the film’s running time. Just what was the festival thinking in screening a DVD at a film festival?

I left the screening conflicted. Opera Jawa was great, but there had been no announcement of the film being screened on DVD, and nothing was said to us on the way out by the festival volunteers. An e-mail sent to the FilmFestDC staff the next day went unanswered. Did anyone on the staff care?

That experience was still smarting when I set off for the Virginia Film Festival in the fall of 2009. On tap: A screening of Norman Jewison’s The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming! with the director in attendance for a Q&A after the screening. And once again, the film was projected on DVD. Jewison noted during the discussion that the “print” we’d seen had been recently restored, but he never mentioned that the “print” had been transferred to video before we viewed it.

Outside the theater, I questioned a volunteer who had no idea whether the film had been projected on video. I walked to the festival office, where yet another staffer looked stunned and confused when I asked her to confirm that the Jewison film had been projected off DVD. Only later, before  a screening of the low-budget film “Corked!” did a festival worker confirm that the Jewison film was a DVD projection. But “Corked!” wouldn’t be, he assured me.

The Corked! screening was a DVD projection. Although the film’s slight ambition and talking-heads mockumentary style doesn’t demand 35mm film-print treatment, the fact that I had been assured it would be projected on film was the most upsetting betrayal of the event.

I fired off an e-mail to Jody Kielbasa, who was overseeing the festival for the first time in 2009.

 Hi, John. I came to festival last Friday for a couple of screenings and wanted to share a concern I shared with a couple of festival volunteers, in hopes that someone in a position of authority will respond.Northern Virginia for the film festival, both movies I screened were projected DVDs, not films. This bugs me. I feel cheated.Washington Area Film Critics Association

After driving more than two hours from

During Friday’s screening of The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!, I recognized that I was watching a projected DVD and approached a festival staffer afterward who admitted that was the case because efforts to get a quality print had fallen through.

I understand that this happens sometimes, but no effort was made to publicly explain the situation in either case. This was doubly odd because the staffer introducing the screening had apologized for the film’s lack of subtitles for the Russian dialogue. However, he said nothing about the actual medium of the source material! So you located a DVD for the screening, but one without subtitles? I guess it wasn’t from the local Blockbuster.

After the screening, Norman Jewison, who was a featured guest, mentioned that the reason the film looked so “good” was because it a recently struck print to honor Eva Marie Saint, who stars in the film. He didn’t mention that what we’d just seen was a projection of a DVD of that new film print. The staffer acknowledged that fact to me and was apologetic, saying the festival should do more to make it publicly known. When I asked if my later screening of Corked! would be film or DVD, he assured me it would be film. I stopped by the festival offices and asked another woman working there about the DVD projection. She was surprised and seemed taken aback that the earlier feature was a DVD projection, but she, too, assured me that Corked! would be a film print.

It wasn’t. I was unable to confirm this — a volunteer usher said he couldn’t confirm the details and didn’t offer to get the projectionist — but the black bars above and below the image (on a standard size film screen) looked very much like a video. Because the film is a “mockumentary” with a low-budget, I wouldn’t have expected it to look all that sharp on film, but it was definitely soft in spots.

This would’ve really irritated me if I’d seen films that were more notable for their visuals. When I attend something called a Film Festival, that’s what I expect: film. It’s not the Virginia Projected DVD Festival. In any case, to be told by two festival volunteers that I’d definitely be watching a film, not a video, for my second screening suggests that they were either misinformed themselves, or that they deliberately lied. Neither option is acceptable, in my opinion.

In the future, I would suggest that you the source of each film print (I hope the films will be film prints, not videos) be listed in the online festival program, so that those few of us who still care about these things can make more informed judgments about which films we choose to see.

Thank you for reading.

Christian Hamaker
Film Critic,

 To his credit, Kielbasa replied. His is a model response, relaying everything I had hoped Kielbasa would say.

 Dear Christian,

I apologize in advance for taking the wind out of your sails, but I agree with you wholeheartedly. I am committed to screening on film whenever possible. Unfortunately, with CORKED it was only offered on DV CAM. Either they have not struck a print or they were unwilling to part with one. There were other challenges with THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING! as well that did not allow us to screen it on 35mm. That being said, I hope to fix these issues moving forward and you are well within your rights to express your dismay at not having been notified in advance.

 I assure you the volunteers did not lie. They just did not have the proper information. I should have made this clear in advance to them and made sure it was posted on the website before you journeyed here. I can only throw myself on the mercy of the court and say that with just five short months since my hire I’m glad that we were able to pull a program together and hope that you will believe that we will iron out these wrinkles next year.

 Again, My sincere apologies for the inconvenience and you have my promise we will do better next year.

 Very Best Regards,


Jody Kielbasa


Virginia Film Festival

So, FilmFestDC officials, take a lesson: That’s how it’s done. No refunds are required—just an apology. I understand that there are no guarantees in life, and that prints sometimes don’t show up, or can’t be located in time. But surely you understand that the expectation of a film festival-goer is that he’ll be seeing a projected film and not a DVD — and you could make an effort to at least alert screening attendees to what they’ll be watching before the lights go down.

 It’s good to know that the director of the Virginia Film Festival cares about these things. I’ll certainly be returning to the Virginia event in the future.

 And if I do make it to a FilmFestDC screening this week, I’ll just keep my fingers crossed.

The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films List

March 1, 2010

I’m honored to announce the Arts and Faith Top 100 Films—a list I had a hand in creating, and of which I am immensely proud. (Is it OK for a Christian to feel pride?)

Arts and Faith is an online community of mostly Christian film critics and movie lovers. I’ve been part of the community since 2001. The board has gone through a couple of iterations during that time, changing administrators and owners. It’s now run by the folks at Image, and they’ve done a wonderful job with the site. The update of the Arts and Faith 100 list, which has been published twice before, is their biggest undertaking so far, and they’ve pulled it off during a time when Image has been facing significant financial and staffing challenges. I honor their commitment to the Arts and Faith site and their dedication in pulling together this new list of top films.

So, what about the list? Take a look at it. It’s amazing. Sure, there are immediate questions on first look: Why is Ozu’s Early Summer ranked higher than Ozu’s Floating Weeds, and why are both ranked above the director’s Tokyo Story, which, on one list of the best movies of all time, supplanted Citizen Kane in the top slot? Why is the top-ranked English language film number 22? Are we just a bunch of foreign-film snobs? Why is the list tilted toward recent releases?

All legitimate questions, with answers that boil down to the personal preferences of a select group of passionate advocates of worldwide cinema that stirs the spirit. The voting was open to all registered participants of

You might be wondering what the criteria were for ranking the films. Great question. This has been debated among the board participants for years. What makes our viewpoint unique? We’re a group of religious individuals who are moved by soul-stirring cinema. Some would describe “soul-stirring” as films that deal with overt spiritual themes; others would say that great cinema touches the soul regardless of whether or not the films deal explicitly with spiritual themes. Some look for uplifting, hopeful messages, while others find depictions of destructive behaviors instructive, illuminating and helpful. The criteria have never been settled.

This year, a group of films were nominated (several were grandfathered in from previous Arts and Faith 100 lists) and rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 representing the strongest films, and a 1 the least strong, among the nominees.

A few things jumped out at me about the new list. The Dardennes brothers are all over it—and deservedly so. They have consistently made the most thought-provoking cinema of the last several years. Their film Lorna’s Silence, which got a raw deal from several critics but which placed at number 2 on my own Top 10 list for 2009, comes in here at number 67, while the film that topped my list last year, a remarkable French film called Summer Hours, is number 74. Not so many comedies on the list—that’s unfortunate—but Jacque Tati’s delightful Playtime comes in at number 37. And Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Ordet continues its lock on the number 1 spot.

Take a look at the list and post any thoughts or questions you might have. Then, if you’re interested in joining the conversation at the board, register for the site. You’ll be involved in some great discussion—and you’ll get to contribute to the next revision of the Arts and Faith 100.

Light Reading

February 10, 2010
My current book stack, consisting of nearly every book on my gift lists from last year:

“The Night Gardener,” George Pelecanos;

“Pops,” Terry Teachout;

“Robert Altman,” Mitchell Zuckoff;

Two volumes of “American Fantastic Tales,” Peter Straub (ed.);

“Zeitoun,” Dave Eggers;

“American Movie Critics,” Phillip Lopate (ed.);

A new Thelonious Monk biography;

and, ummm, “Real Food for Mother and Baby,” Nina Planck, which my wife added to the stack!