"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

James Wolcott on the Dreamlife of Film Prints


I started reading James Wolcott’s memoir Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, and was particularly taken by his description of watching beat-up film prints at the uptown arthouse cinemas:

“The prints in those pre-DVD days were legendarily scuffed like locker room floors, with washed-out colors, bleached black and white, frames missing, vertical lines slicing the frames, strange blotches appearing like fungus, fuzzy sound, the screen going blank as a reel came unsnapped and the audience groaned, what little audience there was in the dead of the afternoon. But the imperfections in the prints made the experience more dreamlike, closer to an unfinished rough draft from the unconscious, the subtitles a ghostly reduction of dialogue that sounded so much more expressive and layered than the plain words at the bottom of the screen.”

Wolcott was one of Pauline Kael’s acolytes (a self-professed “Paulette”) and like her, his voice is at once passionate and unrelenting, a binge of petal-to-the metal prose that leaves you exhilarated—and possibly overwhelmed, if you can’t keep up with his references. This passage on celluloid stands out for its simplicity, a pensive nugget in the midst of Wolcott’s dense lore. The phrase “unfinished rough draft from the unconscious” is perhaps the most perfect summing up of Freud’s Mystic Writing Pad that one can imagine. But connecting the scratches, the blotches, the lines—the materiality of film and its imperfections—to cinema’s dreamlike dimension was a discovery for me, an insight that upon reading I knew to be true.

Gut Renovation [Su Friedrich, 2013]

Su Friedrich on the rooftop of her former building in Williamsburg.

In case you didn’t catch it over at the Brooklyn Rail, here’s an interview I did with Su Friedrich about her gentrification diary-doc, Gut Renovation.

Su was an excellent to talk to, and we ended up walking around Williamsburg and visiting her old building on 118 North 11th Street. Here’s the facade of the historic building, which used to be the site of the Hecla Iron Works factory:

As I witness the city that I grew up in morph into something unrecognizable, documentaries like these seem all the more urgent. Gut Renovation is effective because it’s angry—as I think more of us should be. There’s an important outcropping of anti-gentrification films that are channelling anger, along with docs that depict failed urban experiments (Detropia, The The Pruitt-Igoe Myth). Though they vary widely in scope and tone, all of these films depict urban decay, and the moral decay of the government that kowtows to moneyed corporate interests over the basic needs of its people.

Deleuze on Taxi Driver [Scorsese, 1976]

Deleuze writes: “In Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the driver wavers between killing himself and committing a political murder and, replacing these projects by the final slaughter, is astonished by it himself, as if the carrying out concerned him no more than did the preceding whims. The actuality of the action-image, the virtuality of the affection image can interchange, all the more easily for having fallen into the same indifference.

In the third place, the sensory motor action or situation has been replaced by the stroll, the voyage and the continual return journey. The voyage has found in America the formal and material conditions of renewal. It takes place through internal or external necessity, through the need for flight. But now it loses the initiatory aspect that it had in the German journey (even in Wenders’s films) and that it kept, despite everything in the beat journey (Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda’s Easy Rider). It has become urban voyage, and has become detached from the active and affective structure which supported it, directed it, gave
it even vague direction. How could there be a nerve fibre or sensory motor-structure between the driver of Taxi Driver and what he sees on the pavement in his driving mirror? And in Lumet, everything happens in continual trips and return journeys, at ground level, in aimless movements where characters behave like windscreen wipers (Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico). This is in fact the clearest aspect of the modern voyage. It happens in “any space whatever marshalling yard,” disused warehouse, the undifferentiated fabric of the city–in opposition to actions which most often unfolded in the qualified spacetime of the old realism. As Cassavetes says, it is a question of undoing space, as the story, the plot or the action.”

[From Cinema I: The Movement-Image, by Gilles Deleuze]

Jean-Michel Folon, Cannes Film Festival Poster [1979]

Jean-Michel Folon, Cannes Film Festival, 1979

In honor of Cannes, here’s one of my favorite editions of the annual Cannes Film Festival poster by an extremely whimsical and popular artist: Jean-Michel Folon. Born in Belgium in 1934, Folon attended architecture school, but abandoned that career in the 1960s and moved to New York and then Paris to work on his art. He quickly distinguished himself as a talented painter and was known for watercolor paintings that featured wide graduations of color and recurring symbolic figures with simple outlines. Two of the most frequent motifs in his work were a featureless, hat-wearing man with glowing eyes in a deserted urban landscape, and a bird alighting from an outstretched hand.

While producing a large body of work in many mediums, such as watercolor, silkscreen, sculpture and glass, Folon is best remembered for his iconic posters and his animation for French television. His designs for Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Woody Allen’s September, and Roman Polanski’s Quoi? [Forbidden Dreams] are especially memorable. He also acted in several films. With his friend, composer Michel Colombier, Folon created the credit titles for Antennae 2, the French public television station, which were broadcast from 1973 to 1984.

Here, for the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, he uses the same little hat-wearing character as seen in the animated Antenne film and a complex twelve color background gradient, which he obsessively supervised until it was printed to his satisfaction. In his naive, surrealistic style, he transforms the hat into a movie screen with a third eye glowing in the forehead. Yes, cinema does help you reach a higher consciousness! Towards the end of his career, he moved to Monaco and devoted himself to sculpture and designing for Amnesty International and other human rights groups.

Thomas Beard Goes to the Movies

Note: Thomas Beard, co-curator of the Whitney Biennial and co-founder of Light Industry, was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview in Joan’s Digest. You can read the full piece here. I also asked him to name the films that would make up his “essential cinema” list, to which he responded: “Oh my God. You would think that in my whole life of showing films and thinking of them that I would have an answer to this question, but I am always utterly unable to decide.” All true cinephiles are faced with this dilemma. Here are two films that make his cut:

This is Not a Film [Jafar Panahi, 2011]
This is Not a Film that stayed with me in a way that few films ever have. There’s a real moral and political imperative to the act of filmmaking itself.

Puce Moment [Kenneth Anger, 1949]
This I can say with metaphysical certitude (to borrow the McLaughlin Group’s phrase) but I have seen Kenneth Anger’s Puce Moment more times than any other film. For years I saw it on an old Mystic Fire VHS tape, but the I saw it on film at Anthology and it was a totally different experience. I was quite literally seeing it for the first time, and I had seen it a hundred times before.

CATS IN BAG BAGS IN RIVER [Christopher Wool, 1990]

Let’s get down to brass tacks: there are few things I love more than hardboiled film noir dialogue—that outrageous, rapid-fire back-and-forth smothered in pulp and peppered with slang. It’s a major source of the genre’s appeal, cloaking the film in the seedy, coded vernacular of the underworld. The tough talk in The Sweet Smell of Success represents a particular apogee of the form, and the neurotically articulate screenplay is chock-full of colorful metaphors, New York argot, and punchy one-liners. Some of the most memorable: “You’re a cookie full of arsenic,” “Just don’t leave me in a minor key,” “You’re dead son, get yourself buried” and “The cat’s in the bag and the bag’s in the river.”

Which brings us to Christpher Wool. This fine example of Wool’s language-based painting is now on view at MoMA as part of their current refresh of the Contemporary Galleries, and its visual impact is akin to that of a New York Post headline: graphic, sensational, and not overly predisposed to subtlety. Wool appropriates this evocative line from the film, shortens it like a text message, and then stencils it imperfectly in pump-em-full-of-lead-black on a stark white background. CATS INBAG BAGS IN RIVER suddenly morphs into a puckish haiku, a expression of hardnosed lyricism. Sidney Falco, the character who utters this juicy bit of repartee in the film, is someone that we come to admire for his gumption in doing away with the competition, and his cockiness has a comic edge. This painting too, manifests a certain biting humor, a humor that mocks the seriousness of painting and pays tribute to all of the sinister smart guys in the room—of which Christopher Wool is one.

Here’s Mr. Falco himself, aka Tony Curtis, delivering the line full of piss, vinegar and snarling ambition. Don’t be a two-time loser: see this classic if you haven’t already, and then check out this painting in person.

The Striped Shirt in Cinema

If you routinely draw your fashion inspiration from films (as I do), you’ll notice that one classic item of clothing keeps appearing over and over: the sailor-striped shirt. Known alternately as the marinière, the Breton shirt, and the telnyashka in Russia, the simple white and navy blue pullover is an iconic fashion piece with international appeal. Originally created for the French navy—the stripes helped spot seamen who had gone overboard—the style was co-opted by Coco Chanel, and the rest is fashion history. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the shirt has been equally prominent onscreen: its graphic horizontal stripes read well on film, and both the masculin and the féminine look good in it. Below are some of my favorite striped-shirt in cinema moments:

Zouzou [Allégret, 1934]. Jean Gabin sports the classic French naval uniform while Josephine Baker dons the pom-pom hat.

Intermezzo [Ratoff / Selznick, with cinematography by Gregg Toland, 1939]. Leslie Howard is a virtuoso violinist in a sailor shirt? Of course Ingrid Bergman would swoon.

Breathless [Godard, 1960]. A bit of graphic wit from Godard: Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo’s stripes go up, down, and across.

Jules and Jim [Truffaut, 1962] Jeanne Moreau looks blissful in this perfect-for-cycling sweater.

Death in Venice [Visconti, 1971] Björn Andrésen as the beautiful Tadzio wears the shoulder-buttoned version.

Coco Before Chanel [Fontaine, 2009] This one’s easy, but I do like the way the film immortalizes Coco’s borrowed-from-the-boys style.

This photo is not from a film, but is so awesome that I had to include it. Who wouldn’t want to be Gloria Vanderbilt surrounded by um, stripes in this photo? [From the 1954 “April in Paris” ball at the Waldorf-Astoria]

Of course, seeing all of this striated loveliness begs the question: where can one obtain the perfect sailor shirt, and the waves of cool that come with it? My secret source, which is not-so-secret anymore since this piece in the New York Times, is Kaufman’s Army Navy. Shopping at this chaotic, one-of-a-kind New York institution is an experience altogether unequalled.

Wearing my Russian naval shirt from Kaufman’s—perhaps the easiest piece of clothing I own.

If you don’t live in New York, I’m sad for you, but you can order the high-end French original from St. James, or the easier-on-the-wallet Russian version from I Sea Stripes. Both are authentic (because really, do you need another striped shirt from the Gap?) and evoke the effortless charm that only stripes can.

Some belated documents surrounding an Illegal screening of Film Socialisme

A friend just pointed me to this fascinating exchange of emails published in the December issue of Harper’s surrounding an underground screening of Film Socialisme that never took place. Here’s the gist of it: the collective Red Channels organized the screening; the Film Society found out and they (along with Wild Bunch, the film’s distributor) threatened to sue if they went through with it. Not surprisingly, the screening was canceled. I remember being invited to the screening on facebook, so I included that text too, because I think it’s pretty telling.

Here’s a PDF of the email exchange here (quick read, I promise).

And here is the original invite promoting the “ non-screening”

Godard’s Final Struggle: Socialism(e) from Below
We are not hosting, organizing, or sponsoring a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme. Our event is not the World, North American, United States, festival, or theatrical premiere of Film Socialisme. Our event is in no way a violation of agreements between the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Wild Bunch, Wild Bunch and Vega Film, Vega Film and Jean-Luc Godard. Our event is not in opposition to the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s premiere of Film Socialisme. We wish no one any alarm. Our event is a group reflection and response to the future and legacy of Jean-Luc Godard, filmmaker, in anticipation of his newest feature film, Film Socialisme, screening officially at the New York Film Festival. We welcome discussion on the future of socialism, internationally, with filmmakers and socialists, artists and revolutionaries. It’s a party. Please join us at this private social night.

Raymond Depardon, The Picture Thief

I would give anything to be in Paris right now to catch Raymond Depardon’s La France at the BNF, in order to see his miraculous and ordinary (yes, those two words can go together) photographs up close. Raymond Depardon is a photographer and a filmmaker, the French equivalent to a modern-day Paul Strand, and film work has often been compared to Frederick Wiseman. Depardon’s overarching sensibility is that of reverence for small and intimate improvised experience. The result is that each ordinary moment he photographs is enshrined and somehow emblematic of both a dense sweet past, and a thinned out, scattershot present.

Jean-Michel Frodon’s review of the exhibition in is a beautiful piece of writing in its own right. Here is a translated passage that encapsulates the essence of Depardon’s style:

“There is no secret in these photos, no revelation. Depardon’s art was never that of the knockdown, it was often noted for his documentaries about the quality of listening. With his enormous camera, he listened to everyday landscapes. And everyone hears. Everybody hears something, but never the same thing. Everyone takes ownership of these images, they live in our own memories, as reflections as done over time, and most often kept to oneself.”

Depardon’s New York, NY is a film that epitomizes the act of listening. A mobile portrait of the 59th Street Bridge — shot most likely from the Roosevelt Island tram — the film is both intimate and spare. There are some iconic shots of Wall Street, and then we traverse the bridge again with our eyes, this time at night:

Depardon describes his process as that of a flâneur losing himself in the crowd. This passage is from his essay entitled “The Picture Thief”:

I would seek cover amidst the throngs of people in the busy streets of these big metropolises. For a few hours, a few days, I was an inhabitant, a special kind of local. I remained a foreigner, but I was adopted and protected by the crowd. I have always liked being invisible, disappearing as soon as I’m noticed and slipping unobserved from one street to the next without trying to hide. I remained a tourist a little off the beaten track, full of curiosity, but always an amateur.

I think Depardon is overdue for a New York retrospective, similar to the one MoMA mounted for Wiseman. His filmography is vast and varied, and includes documentary, narrative, and short-form work. Unfortunately, not much is available on DVD.

An interview with Depardon in Cinemascope [Engilsh]

Field Trip! Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Materials Store

Fellow cinephiles and obsessive collectors, I want to let you in on one of New York City’s best-kept secrets: Jerry Ohlinger’s Movie Materials Store. Located on a dreary strip of West 35th Street, it looks pretty unremarkable from the outside (and truth be told, gives off a Forbidden Planet/fanboy vibe, complete with the requisite Scott Pilgrim poster — not that there’s anything wrong with that. But inside lies one of the most incredible poster collections in the world.

I’m not kidding: it’s movie poster mecca. One-sheets, two-sheets, British quads, lobby cards, you name it. There’s also an incredible archive of film stills and ephemera, such as press books and magazines.

Almost worth getting a record player just for this piece of vinyl.

A copy of Photoplay magazine. P.S. I vote we bring back this term for movies.

One thing I love about Jerry’s is that it’s an absolute mess. The layout is not pretty or shiny nor “merchandised” to appeal to consumers. Jerry’s flea-market finds are scattered around the store, and if you want to see materials for a particular film, an employee will consult “The List” (also ancient) and find it for you. The store has been around for over 25 years, though not always at the same location.

Here’s a nice bag with the former address on 14th street.

I asked Bill, the softspoken employee who let me fool around for an hour and not buy anything, what his favorite movie poster in the store was. He brought out a lustrous Seurat-inspired one-sheet for Laurence Olivier’s A Little Romance:

And here’s a lobby card from the same film featuring a fourteen year-old Diane Lane (her first!):

Here’s the poster for Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire, which I saw recently and have become obsessed with (translation: post coming soonish).

The store also has some rare materials from the 20’s and 30’s, including crumbling film stills (some hand-colored) that start at $100. These set my vintage heart aflutter:

More of what I would purchase inasecond if I had unlimited funds/infinite wall space:

This poster forGentleman’s Agreement was designed by Norman Rockwell.

A Dirty Harry Poster features a very clean design.

Geez Louise I love this poster for Diary of a Lost Girl.

RIP Claude Chabrol, Coolest wryest deviate filmmaker ever.

This Spanish poster for Alphaville is awesome.

Also awesome: Isabel Sarli from behind in La Mujer de mi Padre.

I am curious about High Yellow — anyone seen it?

Beautiful, and not bad at all.

That’s all I got, but that’s certainly not all that Jerry Ohlinger’s has got to offer. Take a trip, geek out, and take advantage of this cluttered, old-school NY haunt and its treasures. And then head to K-town for some bibimbap after.