Friday, June 30, 2006

Interview with Ira Sachs

Here's an interview I conducted with the director of the Sundance winner of the 2005 Grand Jury Prize, Ira Sachs (pictured), whose film 40 Shades of Blue opens in the UK today. I shower Sachs with praise and he deserves that. Go see his film. It's a very rewarding film experience. This interview was published yesterday on Kamera, an independent film site I edit.

Occasionally we come across a film that hits us like a mesmerising surprise, one of those films that feel more like a real life experience than the mere contemplation of a sequence of images. This is the case with Ira Sachs's 40 Shades of Blue (out in the UK on 30 June), his long overdue follow-up to The Delta (1996). The film won last year's Sundance Grand Jury Prize and has been heaping deserved praise in America ever since. Set in Sachs's native Memphis (he's based in New York now), 40 Shades of Blue is redolent of vintage European arthouse cinema (Rainer Wainer Fassbinder, early Ken Loach) and John Cassavetes in America.

Sachs, 41, says his love affair with cinema started when he was a student in France. "I didn't go to film school so I have a very aficionado approach. When I was living in Paris in the 1980s as a student, and students are always lonely, I think I saw 200 films in three months. I think [not having formal training] is definitely an advantage because I have no concept of what's right". Wherever the roots of his cinematic genius lie, Sachs achieved with 40 Shades of Blue a rare feat for a male director, which is to create a genuinely feminine narrative point of view. The film focuses on the moment when sad-eyed Michael (Darren E. Burrows), the son of Memphis music veteran and legend, Alan James (played by a satyr-like Rip Torn), comes back to visit his father and his young Russian girlfriend Laura (played by the unforgettable Russian actress Dina Korzun). It becomes clear that Michael and Alan's relationship has a history of pain. But the film is Laura's and the audience goes along with her through a process triggered by Michael's arrival that will result in a cathartic self-discovery.

"We worked for six years on the script, which started as a slice-of-life type of story. The idea from the film came experiences in my childhood. I grew up with a larger-than-life father who had lots of women. My initial intention was to make an amalgamation of the different women who I met, take the camera away from the guy and focus on the woman. My co-writer Michael Rohatyn then turned the story into fiction," says Ira, who is currently shooting The Marriage, based on the British pulp mystery novel "Five Roundabouts to Heaven".

Central to the film's effectiveness and its atmosphere, sometimes so evocative that you can almost smell the time-warp of a house where Alan and Laura live, is its cinematography, simultaneously intimate and detached and almost three-dimensional in its configuration of space. "I chose the cinematographer Julian Whatley after I saw a video he made for the band Green Day, Time of Your Life. I was struck by his use of light. He's a very creative DOP. We put the camera in the corner of the room to allow the actors more space to play out their parts. And I didn't want to use digital; it was important for the emotional impact of the film." Besides, all the cast give consistently good performances and special mention should go to Korzun for her meticulous yet un-mannered rendering of Laura. "The most important thing is to cast well," says Sachs. "I'm very happy with the performances. We rehearsed very little, if at all. I felt that I wanted to leave some room for the performers to feel alive and that's why I think the film has a mystery, like there's something about to happen."

Sachs wears his European influences on his sleeves and even cast Paprika Steen, the Danish actress who played one of the main characters in Festen (Thomas Vintherberg, 1999), for a supporting role. Did he want to make a clear reference to a film he admires? "It was not so much a reference but actually a steal. I remember her performance in Festen and so I cast her as an Euro rock singer". Sachs says his influences go beyond film, though. "They go further back than cinema, to the novels of Henry James, the portrait novel. I'm interested in how can you focus attention on the character and make it be about the audience as well. In Cassavetes and Ken Loach's films there is an authenticity to the performers, a kind of loving. I see myself more engaged to the legacy of the 1970s than the independent cinema scene that emerged in the 1990s. I felt very involved as a gay filmmaker in the questions that were happening in the late 1980s, the New Queer Cinema. We collectively internalised the work of more radical filmmakers." Sachs walks the walk when it comes to keeping independence: he is a member of the Dependent Cinema collective, a loose group of directors, including Karim Ainouz (Madame Satã), Jonathan Nossiter (Mondovino) and Oren Moverman (Hiding Place) who help each other out on a informal basis.

Did receiving a Sundance award ignite significant changes? "There's a certain kind of affirmation on a personal level. On a professional level it doesn't mean that much. It's very hard to make movies, people will make it hard for you; this is the part of you that likes awards. The critical reception has been much better than I thought it would be. It's an art film and there are not a lot of art films being made."

When watching 40 Forty Shades of Blue you get the impression of being a witness to some kind of truth pattern forming in front of your eyes, an unflinching type of emotional realism. How can the medium of cinema be used in the quest for the truth, to extract it from underneath the surface of images? "I was in psychoanalysis for many years, and for me it was the perfect training for making films. In a good analysis, what you develop in the process is not only a better understanding of yourself, but also a greater empathy and analytic ability for understanding others. That's one of the reasons why Freud thought it was so important for analysts to go through the process themselves. What is directing but listening very closely to others and trying to guide people to certain moments of self-revelation? I don't exactly believe in a concept of truth. I am more interested in what I would consider detail: the ability to break down any one moment into a thousand little pieces of experience. This is what I look for in film. Not a conscious and theoretical explanation of why people do what they do, but a reportage of that complexity, that depth, perhaps unspoken but always present and tangible on the screen".

40 Shades of Blue is out in the UK on 30/06/06.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Ken Loach at the Barbican

Ken Loach's appearance as a guest of the Barbican's ScreenTalk series is available to download from the organisation's site.

Here +

1980s clips

I came across this website where you can see 1980s music video clips. Heaven...
Go +

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Atom Egoyan at the Barbican

Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan will be talking to journalist Gareth Evans on Monday 3 July, following a special screening of his experimental camcorder documentary Citadel, which traces the deeply personal return of actor Arsinee Khanjian, Atom's personal and professional partner, to Lebanon after a 28-year absence.

Says Egoyan: “Citadel was shot on a Sony Mini DV camera during a family vacation to Lebanon. Arsinee was born and raised in Beirut. She hadn't been back for 28 years. Upon looking at the footage on our return, several ideas began to cross my mind. This film is a spontaneous reflection on what the trip meant to us. The film was edited on a home computer with Final Cut Pro. Needless to say, this film was made without a budget, script or any sense of pre-conception. Citadel was completed for Camera, a multi-media gallery designed for digital projection. Twenty years ago, I shot my first feature film, Next of kin, for $25,000 on 16mm. Twenty years later, digital technology has allowed me to make Citadel for a fraction of that amount.”

Further info

Expanded Cinema free to download

The seminal 1970 book Expanded Cinema by Gene Youngblood is available for free download (the book is no longer in print).

Here's a description of the book:

"In a brilliant and far-ranging study, Gene Youngblood traces the evolution of cinematic language to the end of fiction, drama, and realism. New technological extensions of the medium have become necessary. Thus he concentrates on the advanced image-making technologies of computer films, television experiments, laser movies, and multiple-projection environments, laser movies, and multiple-projection environments. Outstanding works in each field are analyzed in detail. Methods of production are meticulously described, including interviews with artists and technologists. Expanded Cinema is filled with provocative post-McLuhan philosophical probes into :"the Paleocybernetic Age," "the videosphere," and "the new nostalgia," all in the context of what the author calls "the global intermedia network." In "Image-Exchange and the Post-Mass Audience Age," Mr. Youngblood discusses the revolutionary implications of videotape cassettes and cable television as educational tools. His observations are placed in a comprehensive perspective by an inspiring introduction written by R. Buckmister Fuller. Vast in scope, both philosophical and technical, Expanded Cinema will be invaluable to all who are concerned with the audio-visual extensions of man, the technologies that are reshaping the nature of human communication. "

Get it here +

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Watch: Everybody's Biography

Back in 1998 I got a grant from the city of Vitoria in Vitoria to produce a video art piece called Everybody's Biography. The film received the Best Video award at the city's annual film and video festival. I've now made it available on line. So here it is:

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Sexual frankness on film

The history of the representation of sex on the screen can be seen as a barometer of society's moral codes and its devices of control such as censorship and ideas of what is decent and acceptable. Although cinema from the off understood and tapped the allure provided by eroticism to attract punters into the dreamy space of its cave-like projection rooms (as in the case of Theda Bara, cinema's first vamp), the industry has had to adapt to changing climates. As it stands now, unfettered sexuality has become the remit of arthouse and independent cinema. Mainstream Hollywood cinema is more likely to adhere to restrictive codes and self-censorship to deal with Eros, often avoiding dealing with it altogether.

In its quest for realism, cinema has tended to leave fully-fledged, naturalistic sex out of the diegesis, especially when erect penises are involved, although Romance (Dir: Catherine Breillat, France, 1999)and Nine Songs (Dir: Michael Winterbottom, UK, 2004) have famously and successfully broken this much feared taboo, since the difference between art and pornography is considered to be only a few inches long. Perhaps our resistance and uncomfortable-ness with 'real sex' stems from the fact that we don't want to be reminded that the thing is actually quite banal. Naturalising it means losing the magical, forbidden, subliminal appeal that pulls millions of filmgoers to cinema theatres in search of an elusive erotic moment. Western societies, obsessed as they are with sex, used to sell everything, from shampoos to cars, don't seem to like it when sexuality is de-fetishised in favour of the real, boring thing.

However, it would be naive to think that, based on the examples given by the aforementioned films, the loosening of moral codes for sex on the screen follows a linear, progressive path. As far as Hollywood goes, it seems to have gone back in time of late, due to economic factors arising from the anti-sex climate fostered by the fundamentalist Christian ethos of the Bush era. Would a film featuring Rachel Welch sodomising an all-American boy as she did in the adaptation of Gore Vidal's cult 1960s book Myra Breckinridge (Dir: Michael Sarne, USA, 1970) be given the go-ahead by studio bosses these days? Most probably not.

These days, when the biggest moneymakers in Tinseltown are family-friendly fairy tales and anodyne rom-com scripts, sex and nudity are the first to go in the cutting room. Besides, as Edward Jay Epstein, the author of The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, says in his book, "There is the Wal-Mart consideration. In 2004, the six studios took in $20.9 billion from home-video sales, according to the studios' own internal numbers. Wal-Mart, including its Sam's Club stores, accounted for over one-quarter of those sales, which means that Wal-Mart wrote more than $5 billion in checks to the studios in 2004. Such enormous buying power comes dangerously close to constituting what the Justice Department calls a monopsony—control of a market by a single buyer — and it allows the giant retailer to effectively dictate the terms of trade."

As a family-oriented company, continues Epstein, Wal-Mart will take care not to offend mothers, a criterion that studios will obligingly accept in order to maximise sales. Then there is the television factor. As a government-regulated enterprise, it has to conform to the rules enforced by the Federal Communications Commission. As the recent Janet Jackson's breastgate indicated, it doesn't take much to shock god-fearing Americans these days. So the same America that has kept Bush in power is telling Hollywood what to do in bed.

Of course this chaste Hollywood phase could potentially work to the advantage of independent and European producers, who can use sex as a selling point of their more specifically targeted films, with attitude towards sexuality becoming a parameter of taste and moral sophistication. What independent cinema will come up with to represent sex realistically on the screen remains to be seen. The question that lingers is whether even liberal arthouse cinema consumers genuinely want sexual realism.

PS* John Cameron Mitchell's Cannes triumph (see video below) with his sexually explicit Shortbus is the latest instalment in the independent's efforts to take sex back from the pornographic industry. The film is due out in 2007.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Trailer watch: Fast Food Nation

The trailer of Richard Linklater's upcoming Fast Food Nation has been made available:

Watch: Varese & Le Corbusier - Poeme electronique -1958

Beautiful 1958 musical collage from the the Electronic music genius Edgard Varèse, created for the World’s Fair at Brussels. Via Screenhead.

The real thing...

Via 'When is an indie film not an indie film?'

Read full article +

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Richard Linklater, America's most European director published an insightful profile on Austin native director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise/Before Sunrise) focusing on his European influences.

Read full article +

Monday, June 19, 2006

Call for entries: Video Formes

France's leading video and media art festival, Video Formes, is accepting submissions for its 2007 edition.

Apply online +

Friday, June 16, 2006

Vertigo Magazine and Cahiers du Cinéma get together in week-long event

Between 23 and 29 June at Ciné Lumière in London, UK film magazine and iconic film rag Cahiers du Cinéma will be holding a joint event called Crossing Borders: Vertigo, Cahiers du Cinéma and independent film. The organisers promise a line-up of "the very best in imaginative, innovative and always resonant world cinema."

The encounter between the two magazines will also mark the relaunch of Vertigo as a quarterly magazine with the publication of its first, expanded issue and a newly designed website.

Founded in 1951, the Cahiers du Cinéma was in its early days intimately involved with the Nouvelle Vague, publishing essays by Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Chris Marker and Claude Chabrol, among others. Even though it has lost the authoritative reputation that it once enjoyed, the publication still is a reference for cinephiles the world over.

Showcasing a dozen new and recent features, including UK premieres and rare screenings for little-seen and important work, the season will "defend difference and diversity in film culture, with director Q&As and three major discussion events contextualising the programme. Highlights include the UK premieres of Chris Marker’s Chats Perchés and Xavier Beauvois’ Le Petit Lieutenant. The season will look at the role played by both magazines in developing a broad film culture, and the influence of experimental work and world cinema on the aesthetics of contemporary cinema.

Guest speakers will include Cahiers du Cinéma editors Jean-Michel Frodon and Emmanuel Burdeau, Vertigo editors Holly Aylett and Gareth Evans, screenwriter Tony Grisoni, documentary maker Ken Fero, writer Iain Sinclair and others.


Cahiers Du Cinéma

Trailer watch: The Notorious Bettie Page

Mary Harron, who directed I Shot Andy Warhol and American Psycho, has now turned her attention to the most famous American pin-up girl: Bettie Page.


Thursday, June 15, 2006

One to watch: DINA KORZUN

Pauline Kael once wrote that cinema can give us almost everything. One of them surely is ration for our collective narcissistic appetite. Looking at the human figure blown up to the size of a house is one of the pleasures of seeing films, one that finds its pinnacle in the close-up, probably cinema's greatest contribution to the ego. The star system and celebrity culture, the contemporary, rather less glamorous version of the Golden Age predecessor, are the industry’s response to that craving.

I personally don't care very much for screen actors because I think cinema is a director's medium and most of them these days are so excruciatingly boring - Kirsten Dunst and Leonardo DiCaprio spring to mind. I'm not a member of the cult of the auteur either, except for a few exceptions who I worship. But I do believe that film actors are mostly marionettes and that most of the decisions that define the final product are the incumbency of the film’s director.

Occasionally I fall in love with an actress, rarely with actors, since the female image is more loaded with myth than men's - women have a mystery that thrives in the dark recesses of the celluloid sphere. Irène Jacob in Kieslowski’s The Double Life of Veronique remains one of the most unforgettable cinematic moments when an actor transcends the puppet role and becomes a collaborator without whom the film would be less memorable. I think I recently came across an actress who provided me with a similar film moment: Dina Korzun.

I saw Korzun for the first time in the upcoming film 40 Shades of Blue by American independent director Ira Sachs (due out in the UK on 30 June, the only European date set so far). The film won the jury prize at Sundance last year and it is one of the best dramas I've seen in a long time, an American film with a very European texture, which is of course enhanced by the presence of the Russian Korzun.

Often dubbed 'the Russian Julia Roberts', a comparison which does no justice to Korzun, who is much more charming and interesting than the scary-looking Roberts, she had previously been seen in Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort (2000). A famous and respected actress in her native Russia, the 35-year-old has a luminous, graceful and compelling screen presence. Add to that to Sachs' Ken Loach-inspired intimate and observational photography and Dina will hold you hypnotised for the duration of the film (good news: she is in almost every scene of 40 Shades…).

She plays the Russian trophy wife (Laura) of an aging musical legend in Memphis (also the location of Sachs’ previous feature, The Delta – he’s from there), Alan James (played by a satyr-like Rip Torn). Sachs focused on a character that normally in life would be in a supporting position, obscured by a strong man. It is a moving, brave portrait of a woman, who Korzun fleshes out with amazing skill, meticulous attention to detail and charisma. Talk about from Russia with love...

War of the Worlds

Orson Welles' famous broadcast of War of the Worlds is now available for streaming and dowloading from the Internet Archive.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

2006 New York International Independent Film and Video Festival awards

Via African News Dimension: Mo & Me, a documentary about photojournalist Mohamed “Mo” Amin, won Silver Screen Award at the festival held in New York City. The film offers an unflinching and deeply personal recollection of the man whose TV footage of the 1984 Ethiopian famine so galvanised the world.

Read full story+

Brazilian noir

Every now and then a neo-noir film is made in Brazil; typically these are stories set in the faded glory, neon-lit demi-monde of Copacabana in Rio with a detective as the main character. The latest is Lost and Found (Achados e Perdidos) and here's the official site+ site.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

One-Man Show

One of my first videos, One-Man Show, is now available online courtesy of DV Blog, a New York-based blog dedicated to showcasing video art.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Francesco Vezzoli at the Tate Modern

Those of you who will be venturing near London's South Bank between 03 June Sunday and 11 June Sunday should check out Francesco Vezzoli's MARLENE REDUX - A True Hollywood Story, which will be screened on a loop daily for free between 12noon and 4pm in the Starr Auditorium of the Tate Modern.

The Italian artist's new video project "takes as its starting point the impossible ambition of remaking Maximilian Schell’s 1984 documentary Marlene, which starred Marlene Dietrich and influential textile designer and Bauhaus figure Anni Albers. Vezzoli reformulates this classic film as a sensational fake television programme about art, fame and the deconstruction of a public persona. "