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

Reg Hartt’s Cineforum

When I visited Toronto this past June, I had the pleasure of stopping by Reg Hartt’s Cineforum, a legendary microcinema that screens everything from subversive shorts by Salvador Dali­ to Hollywood rarities. The theater manages to stay on the radar of most Torontonians thanks to aggressive postering campaigns, how I initially learned of its existence. The venue is the polar opposite of the shiny new TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto’s state-of-the-art cinematheque and home of the Toronto Film Festival. Yet each venue is, in its own way, a temple to cinema—and I think true lovers of film appreciate that Toronto is lucky enough to have both.

The Cineforum is bit off the beaten path, located on nondescript stretch of Bathurst street (just a short trolley ride away from the now-trendy Ossington Avenue). When one walks up the steps, she is greeted by the founder himself, and this quote by Aldous Huxley:

Inside, the Cineforum is a ramshackle wonderland of memorabilia, complete with vintage film posters (many of them painted by Hartt himself), books, movie swag, Frankenstein heads, and more.

The films are for the most part projected on DVD. Here’s Reg Hartt firing up the projector.

What’s truly special about the Cineforum is the programming: an idiosyncratic mix of high and low, with a proclivity towards subculture/countercultural cinema and lots of undeground oddities thrown in. When I was there, I saw a documentary portrait of Jane Jacobs, which seemed appropriate—because the lively eccentricity of the Cineforum is something Jacobs would advocate for (and in fact, she and Reg Hartt were friends).

I spoke with Reg Hartt for a spell about his reasons for starting the Cineforum, which if you haven’t gathered, is run out of his own house. He said he quit programming for another theater when they told him he couldn’t screen a certain film, and so he started his own screening series as a result. The Cineforum has been an eclectic and necessary fixture of Toronto ever since.

A framed letter to Reg Hartt from Lillian Gish!

The philosophy of the Cineforum in a nutshell.

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.

N.U. [Nettezza urbana, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1948]

I saw N.U. for the first time on film as part of the recent Antonioni Centenary conference; and what a revelation it was. Though it clocks in at around ten minutes, it qualifies as a miniature masterpiece.

N.U. is set in Rome. The first frames go by in flashes without any apparent link and without the rhythmic games of montage. We then discover the city through the eyes of the sanitation workers, and our eye is drawn to minute details as well as grand monuments, such as a homeless man and the Spanish steps of the Trinità dei Monti. The sweepers’ work is routine and their gestures seem automated, but Antonioni imbues even the simple act of sweeping with poetry and humanity. With minimal voiceover, Antonioni focuses on the immobility of the workers when he isolates figures in space. Time is suspended, accompanied by a contrapuntal and aesthetically discordant (but for that reason very effective) jazz soundtrack. There is a reflexive pause when Antonioni cuts to a shot of a soldier lingering in front of a cinema. Note the last deep focus, extra-long take on the poles receding into the distance in a painterly, perspectival manner.

Antonioni explained why there were few internal shots of the homes: “It would have required lighting which we did not have at our disposal: therefore we remained on the street. Let’s say that I constructed an aesthetic system from this fact. Even the other Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel within the space he was assigned.”

Directors were more sensitive than the critics to Antonioni’s documentary work, which is at the very heart of his aesthetic. Valerio Zurlini states: “For us who were then busy with documentaries, N.U. was the revelation of a master. It made an extraordinary effect on us, like the great films of De Sica and Rossellini. We didn’t have eyes suited to looking at the city. Antonioni made us see it for the first time. All my documentaries, and not only mine, are indebted to N.U.

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 2011 Cynephile Awards

Baby you can drive my car: Ryan Gosling in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Drive

Now that 2011 has faded from memory like Ryan Gosling driving off into the sunset, the film-critical has assessed the annual cinematic bounty via elaborate list-making rituals. Criteria are established, “Passiondexes” are instituted, antes are upped, insults are lobbed, and enemies are forged over the smallest of differences. Then, after all that excitement comes the coup de grâce: the frantic bacchanal known as awards season.

But as we all know, imposing hierarchies and trophies on art is a mug’s game. Making the game all the more pointless this year was a bumper crop of truly great cinema from all over the world, along with some revolutionary documentaries. If 2011 was a banner year for anything, it would be the 3D documentary, which in the hands of filmmakers like Werner Herzog (Cave of Forgotten Dreams) and Wim Wenders (Pina) became something ecstatic and exultant, creating an in-the-round cinematic experience that was both sculptural and phantasmal, real and imagined. As Méliès and Feuillade and even André Bazin knew, the film image is at heart the province of ghosts, the 3D image has the salutary effect of making those ghosts all the more real. I loved that these two documentaries paradoxically insisted on cinema’s otherworldly, spirit-laden existence.

Other noteworthy events in cinephillia: New York got another theater, Lars von Trier made a film that wasn’t completely misogynistic, and Terrence Malick came back from the dead with Tree of Life. The latter was perhaps the most anticipated film of the year for cinephiles, and though I respect the breadth of its ambition, I’m not quite sure I appreciate the film as a totality—or its philosophical, cosmological and/or religious underpinnings. But I can appreciate its vivifying details and gestures, and the extremely inventive editing which made the shots feel fluid and connected, in a way that was evocative of memory. It is, I think, a film for those who cherish the grace note over the whole.

The great whatsit that begins and ends Tree of Life.

Here are my awards, bestowed upon idiosyncratic films that sing, surprise, shock, and appeal to me for weird and fluttery and unknown reasons. Please nominate your own in the comments.

Most deserved/belated theatrical run:
Edward Yang’s masterpiece A Brighter Summer Day gets its due at Walter Reade.

Best documentary with depth:
Pina in 3D wins by a hair over Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Both are must-sees.

Best slow cinema:
Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s lush, astounding long shots in Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives create a cinematic experience that feels like a fever dream.

Best fast cinema:
Drive has it all: white-knuckle car chases, bloodsoaked shoot-em-ups, and bone-crunching violence, all stylized to perfection and set to an electro-pop beat.
Runner-up: Senna, a profile of the Formula One driver that races around so many twists and turns, it practically induces motion sickness.

Best performance by livestock:
The goat that stands on the table in Michelangelo Frammartino’s Le Quattro Volte.

Best portrait of a life well lived:
Bill Cunningham New York imbued me with tremendous respect for a true artist and a gentlemen from another time.

Best subversive use of state propaganda:
The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu brilliantly remixes state footage to reveal the truth that its authors wanted to conceal.

Most gorgeously-realized apocalyptic vision:
I have to hand it to Lars von Trier: Melancholia is the cinematic equivalent of a Romantic painting.

Best crowd pleaser that is too cute for words:
The Artist

Best New York film:

Other films worth seeking out, in no particular order:
Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry, A Separation, Attenberg, Tomboy, Sleeping Sickness, Weekend, Certified Copy, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Skin I Live In, The Future, Of Gods and Men, Nostalgia For the Light, To Die Like A Man, Another Earth, A Screaming Man, Viva Riva!, and Christian Marclay’s 24-hour mashup, The Clock.

Ming Wong’s Persona Performa

Death, from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, makes a cameo.

Ming Wong’s Persona Performa at the Museum of the Moving Image was one of the highlights of 2011 for me, in part because it synthesized the genres I’m most passionate about: cinema, art, and live performance. Ming Wong, a multimedia artist whose name deserves to be better known in the art and film worlds, created a fluid experience that morphed from a museum-installation to a theater piece to a dance sequence, to culminate in a screening-cum-performance. These different segments bled into one another quite seamlessly, emphasizing the protean nature of live performance as the audience moved throughout various spaces in the museum.

The catalyst for Wong’s piece—or perhaps the navel—is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, one of director’s most austerely experimental works and the film that Susan Sontag deemed his masterpiece. Persona is centered on the relationship between two women: an actress who has suffered a nervous breakdown (Liv Ullmann) and the nurse who is assigned to take care of her (Bibi Andersson). The film is most renowned for an iconic sequence in which the same conversation is shown from both characters’ perspectives. The final scene will make you gasp.

Wong’s piece fleshes out the central motifs of the film, that of communication and doubling. Actors and actresses in blond wigs performed continuous configurations, deconstructions and reconfigurations of the film’s gestures, pairing up at the finale to mimic moments from the film in different languages with their images projected on the screen behind them. The performers were a diverse group of women and men, reflecting the diversity of the surrounding neighborhood, Astoria (which a narrator refers to cheekily as “Actoria”), and adding a layer of variation and defamiliarization. Here’s glimpse of what the performance looked like, but please don’t mistake the copy for the real thing—the actual event was immersive in a way that a YouTube video can never be.

Ming Wong’s practice reminds me a bit of Yasumasa Morimura, the Japanese visual artist who alters famous paintings to include his own image. For his video installations, Wong often impersonates characters from the movies—enacting his cine-obsessions as well as subverting expectations of gender and race. Wong (who is from Singapore originally but resides in Berlin) has drawn inspiration from auteurs such as Wong Kar-Wai, Fassbinder, Pasolini, Visconti, and Sirk, as well as exploring classic cinema from Singapore and Malaysia. Almost all of his pieces deal with language barriers, in juxtaposition to the obstensible universality of film-image. Though originally he was both the director and star of his films, his recent productions have become larger in scope, with several cast members, more elaborate sets and costumes, and numerous locations. For his next project, I’d love to see him take on a film that explicitly engages in multilingual wordplay (Godard, anyone?) collaborate with a well-known auteur (maybe that master of genre satire Tsai Ming-Liang) or re-construct an epic film—his artistic capacity to speak through the medium of cinema comes through loud and clear.

Persona Performa Panorama is on view at the Museum of the Moving Image until April 1.

In addition, many of Ming Wong’s pieces can be previewed on his website.

Martha Rosler Goes to the Movies

A photo I took of Martha Rosler giving a lecture in Shanghai. Fun fact: That back of the head belongs to Anton Vidokle.

Note: This past summer, Martha Rosler was kind enough to sit down with me for a profile in Joan’s Digest, a new feminist film journal. You can read the full piece and see what she’s been up to here. Anyway, we also gabbed about the movies, a topic I can’t resist. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

When Martha Rosler was a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, she was the teaching assistant to none other than Manny Farber. He was a profound influence on her thinking (“He taught me everything”) and brought a host of filmmakers to lecture to her cohorts, including Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin.

Anna Karina in Alphaville (Godard, 1965)

Favorite movies of all time: Alphaville and Kiss Me Deadly

On Luis Buñuel: “In one of the classes I TA’ed for Manny, we watched the entire filmmography of Buñuel. I loved many of his films; I despised Belle du Jour but loved Los Olvidados — it’s like Dragnet, but Surrealist.”

On Tree of Life: “I did like Terrence Malick until I saw Tree of Life, which I thought was hilarious…It was engrossing but weirdly grandiose and self-indulgent. My assistant told me that Malick is a Heideggerian…I thought he was simply a pantheist. Badlands is an incredible film, and so is The Thin Red Line but as his budgets get bigger, he gets worse.”

On Imitation of Life: “I love to what Sirk did with the myth of the natural woman…and the image of Hollywood as a completely vacuous and dangerous machine. He shows the raw edges of race and class privilege and pretension, but he understood that no matter how cynical and revelatory he meant his films to be, they were always taken as straightforward, as just what the characters are enacting. The Left reviles that film, but I’m always saying to them, ‘Watch the movie!’”

Imitation of Life (Sirk, 1959)

The Death and Life of 35mm

Though reports of the death of 35mm have been rumored for some time now, the death knell has officially sounded in the form of a report from the IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service, which marks 2012 as the year that digital technology will overtake 35mm projection.

What does this mean? For the first time in cinema’s 120 years, analogue film will no longer be the norm, but the exception. 35mm projectors will likely disappear from theaters by 2015. The technology and equipment required for 35mm filmmaking will be accessible only to a privileged few. And a treasure trove of 35mm prints will be left to rot in a vault somewhere, save for a few deemed worthy of preservation by a handful of film archives. Repertory houses who are devoted to the format will continue to the screen 35mm until distribution ceases. Most moviegoers will never notice the difference.

But there is a difference. Film is an index and retains a physical impression from its exposure to light, while digital movies are composed from a finite number of pixels. The fact that digital imitates film is purely superficial, and in fact, they undergo drastically different mechanical processes. Digital cameras record a series of 0s and 1s to create an approximation of a photograph, whereas the film camera catalyzes a chemical reaction between light and film stock.

There is also detectable difference in the look and feel of the two mediums. Digital is often noticeably digital: spotless, precise, or at worst, grotesquely pixelated. Whereas film has a certain texture that closer to the smoothness of a painting. The blacks are richer and have more depth, and actors’ faces are warmer and suffused with light. Digital is glacial, flat, and sterile-looking, and 35mm is full-bodied and radiant.

The shift to digital also disproportionately affects the distribution of older films, which were shot on 35mm with the intention of projecting that way. Many studios have said that they will stop producing 35mm prints of older films for use in repertory cinemas, and instead present those films only in digital formats. For serious film lovers, this is unthinkable.

The British artist Tacita Dean has mounted an incredibly eloquent protest in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Simply called Film, her installation is an elegaical plea for the continuation and the preservation of the medium. A short film in which she captures the legendary green ray (yes, that same rayon vert at the end of the eponymous Rohmer film) is perhaps the most poetic raison d’être for film—real film—that I’ve encountered.

I’m not dead
I’m merely changing places
I am still with you
In dreams you’ll see my traces

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.