I want to shout out to whoever curated the 2010 Cinema Arts Film Festival in Houston this year. While I couldn’t attend as many events as I wanted to, there was plenty to see and nothing sucked (except for Black Swan – see below). But on the whole, I saw some great movies and heard some very interesting Q & A’s.
GRAVITY WAS EVERYWHERE BACK THEN
With Brent Green and Donna K. Accompanied by Brendan Canty and John Michael Swartz
Brent Green created this ramshackle film with so much tenacity and pluck, it was hard not to sit back sort of amazed. The movie was based on the story of Leonard Wood, some dude in Kentucky that built a house/healing machine for his terminally ill wife, Mary. Green rebuilds the home and stages the fictionalized story inside its odd little corridors, among handmade lamps and a vaulted laundry room. And the film-making is well… joyfully messy I guess. Whimsy abounds. The characters were filmed while “slow acting” each scene. During post production, the whole thing was sped up to create a stop-motion effect. There were lots of animated widgets (things like angels and such) falling in and out of the film. A live band accompanied the movie and someone did sound effects on a large table in front of the screening. During the screening, Green narrated the story of Leonard & Mary, veering off pretty quickly into rants about God, love and what it means to build something. While you’re sometimes wincing at the atheistic incantations, there’s a peppering of humor and self-effacement that save them from spoken-word-hell. I couldn’t help loving Green’s theory of angels flying around filtering out our dumb prayers so that only a few reach God. Or his musings on Noah building the ark like Paul mutherfucking Bunyan. All in all, Green attempts to make the movie/performance its own little healing machine fraught with incantations, exorcisms and egg-collecting. And for all its messiness, I do believe he succeeded.
THE WOMAN WITH THE 5 ELEPHANTS
My absolute favorite film of the festival was this documentary about 85-year-old translator, Svetlana Geier. The five elephants in the film of Dostoevsky’s five novels, all of which Geier has translated into German. The film begins in Geier’s home, watching her cook, iron and translate with a few quirky collaborators. Sounds boring, but is so touching and wonderful I could barley stand it. While ironing, Geier explains how the threads of a textile need to be realigned after washing. She pulls out old linens and lace-work, explaining the precision in which they were crafted. These explanations illustrate her approach to translation and text. The film takes a turn after her son is injured in an accident. Geier cooks him food every day, explaining how she used to care for her father in a similar way after he released from one of Stalin’s camps. This sparks a journey back to Kiev, where Geier hasn’t been since girlhood. She lectures on translation and visits old sites from her complex past: memories of Stalin’s purges, WW2 and her work for the Nazi’s (which brought her to Germany). It’s not the drama of these events (tho there’s plenty of that), but how Geier thinks through them that is so riveting. With the same intelligence and feeling that she describes the eccentricities of language; she talks about her journey from Kiev to Germany, often recalling lines from Pushkin or Dostoevsky. By the end of the film, you come to understand why she translates Russian literature into German and why she’s so good at it. It’s a remarkably patient and beautiful film about the kind of person you wish you were.
SCREENING: TERMS OF ENDEARMENT w/ CONVERSATION WITH SHIRLEY MACCLAINE
It was me and all the big-haired women in Houston packed in to the Museum of Fine Arts theater to watch Terms of Endearment and listen to Shirley Maclaine. As everybody was sniffing and wiping their faces after the film, the house lights flipped on and in walks Shirley. I can’t believe that woman is in her 70’s. Maclaine is just as kooky as you’d think. She didn’t waste any time admonishing G.W. Bush, calling Republican’s “horse beaters,” talking about her past lives and being her feisty self. She tittered about working with “Hitch” and “Billy” and how much she liked “Frank.” She went on and on about the ‘fabulous’ Jack Black, with whom she just shot a movie. She promised us he was going to win an Oscar one day… we’ll see. While I’m not into all the Hollywood antics; I was interested in how much she needed us to like her. It was touching, actually, to witness this quintessential performer still working hard to bring down the house. And the house was definitely down but the end of the hour-long conversation. Go Shirley!
CLIENT 9: THE RISE AND FALL OF ELIOT SPITZER
I loved the documentary Gibney made about Enron and this one met every expectation. Just a straightup political documentary, but a diligent look at Spitzer’s work on Wall Street and as Governor. The film was well worth a watch, if only to see the “Madame” of Spitzer’s choice call girl service, The Emperor’s Club. Seriously, you have to check that chick out. Gibney did an interesting Q & A after the film and I get the sense he is an intent, fastidious man–just the kind of person you want making a film like this.
I can’t say enough how much I HATED this film. It was one of the darlings of the festival-completely packed-and a total fucking disaster. All the things that gave Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” its charm and humanity were completely absent and/or overshadowed by the ridiculous psychological trope that took the movie hostage. Portman plays a psycho ballerina obsessed with notions of perfection and not able to let herself go. Teetering between real life and delusion; all the characters in the film become half-visions playing out hyperreal scenarios vis-à-vis Swan Lake. Gag me with a spoon. You feel the signature Aronofsky abjectness when Portman hurts her feet or cuts her nails, but instead of making these body motifs humane and vulnerable (as they were in The Wrestler); they become dimensions of the mind and flights into neurosis. Ugh. What a waste of excellent actors, photography and cinematography. FAIL!