With time on our hands…
I made a new song in early March – its on my Soundcloud music page…
Two guitars, drum loops, voice…
With time on our hands…
I made a new song in early March – its on my Soundcloud music page…
Two guitars, drum loops, voice…
Great films should be savored like fine wine/beer/whatever your flavor and experienced without hesitation and time restraint. I just saw Parasite for the third time and recently did the same with The Irishman – twice each in the theater and once on the very big home screen with fine Dolby accompaniment. Overkill you say – I say not at all. Time well spent, something new comes with each immersion – a fine film will reveal more of its secrets and pleasures each time it unreels.
Much has been said about these films and it will continue after the award’s season is long gone. I have one particular thought for each, distilled from the twenty or so hours I’ve spent with storytellers Joon Ho and Scorsese.
First, a response to an annoying critique of The Irishman by folks who feel it necessary to complain about something they do not understand. Then a sort of personal love of cinema note about Parasite.
I was talking with a good friend who writes screenplays about The Irishman, who wasn’t impressed with the de-aging technique that Netflix paid so much for and Scorsese says was the only way the film was going to be made. He watched it on a television. In the theater, as a film should be seen, it works. Most likely on a Macbook/iPhone as well. Who knows what’s going on with a television? Jeez, ‘nuff said about that.
Then he pointed out a “serious flaw” in the performance of De Niro and – by extension – the directing of Scorsese. You’ve probably heard this one. Frank Sheeran, De Niro’s character, comes home from a hard day on the trucks and his daughter is moping, his wife is looking at him with worry. The guy at the little grocery store down the street “put his hand” on the daughter because she knocked some stuff over. Sheeran gets the daughter to confirm, takes her by the hand, marches to the shop, and puts a heavy beating on the guy. As he kicks the poor fellow when he’s down De Niro, the actor, and Sheeran, the character, has arms horizontal at the waist, his hands kind of hanging there, in a decidedly non-masculine and (implied) old person’s manner. The kicks and stomps are brutal, but the upper body doesn’t scream “youthful gangster”. In the scene Sheeran is probably in his forties. In real life De Niro was at that time most likely 74. The argument, which I later discovered seems to have originated in a well circulated critique of the film, is that you can de-age an actor with technology but Scorsese can’t get De Niro to really “act” like a young man. I didn’t see it this way on first screening, nor on third. It looked like a “real” beating to me, not a polished amped-up thing you would find in the work of a lesser director. But fine, everyone has their own opinions.
Parasite is a multi-layered success of story, script, image and acting yet critics again feel it necessary to knock it down and call it out. For instance an accomplished cinematographer I know felt it was “predictable” because during the “dinner scene” in the big house when the four intruders celebrate, he knew that, because it was raining, the owners of the house would be coming home early. Well, yes, we all knew that. This is how classic screenwriting works. It leads the viewer to inevitable conclusions based on clues in the script. We all feel smart to know what is going to happen but – and here is what a well-written script will do – we do not know when the event will happen. When will that door open, that phone ring, that text message go off? This is the nature of suspense and it is very satisfying when it is done well. Parasite does it as well as any film this year.
I love when filmmakers are inspired by other directors. Each generation passes on their inspirations and accomplishments – those who watch and listen to the past are in touch with something that is alive and is nourishment for the very act of creation. We say a film is like Hitchcock, or Tarantino, or Varda – pick your favorite master or mistress of cinema. I’ve had the great pleasure to meet many accomplished directors and actors over the years, including Almodovar three times and Antonio Banderas twice. Talking with Almodovar we seem to always come back to the work of Luis Buñuel, the Spanish master who’s brutal and surreal films spanned seven decades. I revere Buñuel and have not hesitated to bring him up – but I think Almodovar has mentioned him first as well.
It was during the third screening of Parasite that the sound design and the brilliant use of classical music as motifs for the intruding characters impacted me in a conscious way. There is a new music motif each time the intruders begin to implement their plans. The musical soundtrack is a powerful and almost overwhelming presence in the sound design. When the original inhabitants remember dancing to the records in the sunlight of their past lives or when the layer of piano based classical composition swells over the snowfall/montage when the son discovers the wonders of morse code and has his fantasy, the film reaches a rare and powerful depth of sound and image. And it was during the third screening that I discovered Joon Ho’s nod to Buñuel’s rich influence. One influence, as a friend had mentioned, seems to be Kobe Abe’s play Friends, about a family that moves into someone’s apartment and won’t leave. But Joon Ho is a disciple of cinema history and analysis of his work bears this out. After all, he has created a black and white version of Parasite, just as he did with his earlier film Mother, doing shot by shot color correction with his cinematographer, all to honor that work that has come before him.
Buñuel’s 1960 film Virdiana is a striking inspiration. In this earlier film, the first he made in his native Spain for nearly 30 years, a naive woman invites the homeless into her large lovely house, unaware of what this would lead to. And destruction, just as it does in Parasite, ensues. There are clear parallels between the world of Parasite that trace back to Buñuel and his close collaborator Jean-Claude Carriere – A barely submerged threat of violence permeates Discreet Charm of the Bourguiose, L’age D’or, Belle de Jour and the original offender Un Chien Andelou.
The dining scene of Parasite, in which the interlopers ravage their surroundings in a drunken and sloppy banquet, recalls the “Last Supper” sequence in Virdiana in which homeless men and women gorge themselves in a rowdy way on wine and food at the elegant dining table of the wealthy woman who let them in.
In Parasite, when three of the intruders are hiding under the large living room table while the young home owners, in matching silk pajamas, settle into a night on the couch, we encounter the precise kind of crazy love that Buñuel and his surrealist compadres reveled in.
The young, beautiful and rich home owners watch the rain fall through the massive glass wall, striking the American teepee to which their son has retreated. They settle into an intimate posture, she in his arms, as they lie on the narrow couch. The husband casually puts his hand on her right breast, fondling her through the silk pajama top. Concerned the son might see, she asks him to stop. But he can pull his hand away any time, he assures her. She continues to resist as he reaches into her shirt and massages her other breast. And when she inevitably gives in, it is with the most peculiar of phrases. Depending on the translation she asks him to either “circle the other way” or “do it clockwise”.
Such an odd thing to say. (Not to mention that she soon pleads for drugs in exchange for sex). Buñuel, who’s work is steeped in the counter-logic of surrealism, showed over and over that L’amour Fou has its own logic. That is, no logic at all. Joon Ho has delved into the world of the surreal, the same world where ghosts come up from basements, ants swarm out of hands, people sit on toilets while dining, and lovers prefer to be rubbed in only one direction and not the other. There is no logical explanation. And for lovers of cinema it is very inspiring.
Two of my films (about an hour total running time) will be screening at Howlarts Gallery, 6 East 1st street, in the East Village on Friday night, September 20 @ 7:00. They will be followed by a Q&A with myself and the artist.
The films are: The Motorcycle Art of Linus Coraggio and The Art of Linus Coraggio: 3D Graffiti
Here is a link to the event:
My film The Motorcycle Art of Linus Coraggio has recently screened at two festivals, including the New York Indie Film Festival in the beginning of May (Click here for a link to the blog post about that). A number of dear friends showed up and I got to meet a some of the other filmmakers (which is big part of attending festivals!)
We also did two Q and A’s and fellow filmmaker Marianne Hettinger was gracious enough to record the second one, which is included in this post.
In 1988 I shot super-8 film and recorded sound of a performance by Survival Research Laboratories. Eventually I made a Low Rez digital video transfer and the files sat dormant. Thirty years later, in 2018, Mark Pauline returned to NYC for a gallery show (first time) of his infernal machines. This film explores the footage from each of the events, 30 years apart, constructed in a way that I hope engages, raises questions about art and the work of artists, and also creates a sense of completion for myself. Special thanks to Mark Pauline for his lifetime of visionary work and to sound designer Matt Heckert for his generous interview at the Shea Stadium show in 1988.
Survival Research Laboratories was founded by Mark Pauline in the late 1970’s. This 19 minute film is a Sound/Time/Image montage that explores the continuity and meaning of how we experience and understand art.
And here is a festive trailer for the film:
My film about Linus Coraggio and his Motorcycle Art will screen twice at the NYC Independent Film Festival on May 9 and May 10. This is the fourth film that I have worked with Linus on and the first one that is out there to be seen! Since the screening in Nice I’ve done a few updates – the black and white 16mm film at the beginning has been retransferred to Hi-Def, there is a nod to Indian Larry with an image of him and one of Linus’s choppers, I’ve added an image of my biker brother in the dedication and the soundtrack now includes a musical excerpt by Linus’s father, the experimental composer Henry Brant.
The links below that will get you to the festival for information and to buy tickets. We hope to see you there…
Here’s a short festive trailer:
This is all true!
On Wednesday evening I arrived home from work and went for a walk in my Upper West Side neighborhood. Strolling along, listening to music, past the Cathedral, through Columbia University, taking in all of the sights and people on Broadway, I thought this is great place to be – write, work on my projects in the apartment, go for long walks, find the music and art and good meals that are all within walking distance (even long walking distance) from my humble little home.
When I got back to the apartment I plugged in an old radio tube amp and a more modern Fender, split a signal through a cheap tube distortion pedal, and started to see what sounds I could get from the beautiful 1966 Kapa (American) guitar I was so fortunate to come across recently. Got through this recording:
Then a text came in from a friend in the know: Lou Reed’s guitars and amps are droning in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine until 11:00 this evening!! What? Two Blocks away? Another chance to hear these instruments at work? The neighborhood surely does call…
I’ve heard and recorded music over the years at the Cathedral – it is a remarkable building run by great people who understand the value of art and humanity. I loaded up my portable recorder with the freshest batteries I could find and went next door.
There were four (or maybe five) sound stations in the Cathedral, with Lou’s gear in the pew area at the back, an open space, a keyboard, a guitar, and finally Laurie’s performance as one moved toward the front of the structure.
The recording below, of Lou Reed’s guitars and Amps in feedback mode, was recorded on the iPhone and is in mono.
Here is another mono recording, a front angle:
And here is a stereo audio only recording of Lou’s gear from the Pew, with mics facing the amps sitting to the right, about 15 feet away:
The sound design was inspiring and seemed to work like this – each section of performance had access to a live feed of the of Lou’s guitar and amp feedback and Lou’s section also had a bit of live access to the other performers. It was subtle and allowed each of the performers to play with and react to what was coming from Lou’s gear.
Below is a stereo audio only recording of Laurie performing with an electric violin (of sort):
My recording technique is to go to a space or place, hold the recorder in front of me, and just stand there, occasionally glancing at the device to be sure nothing is distorting etc. Remarkably, people generally just ignore me. Finding a nice spot between Lou’s feedback and the rest of the Cathedral, I set the recorder down at one point and stepped back a few feet. Oddly, or not, people thought the recorder was somehow part of the event – a few people, including a woman and her entire family, came up to study it,
Below, I believe, is one of the recordings made from this spot.
One of the musicians played some subtle and tasty licks, while the cathedral filled with sound around him:
I spent some time in the space near where Laurie was playing, which also included the guitarist (on her side of the space) and a keyboard performer on the other side. Everyone was playing in minimal style, riding the wave of Lou’s feedback and drone. Below is a stereo spatial recording that concludes with movement through the space and an exit through the front door to Amsterdam Avenue.
And here is an older post about a day of celebrating Lou’s life at Lincoln Center a few years back:
On Tuesday, April 11, 2017, The National Board of Review screened James Gray’s new film The Lost City of Z and afterwards I had the pleasure of moderating a discussion with the director and Sienna Miller, who plays Nina Fawcett, the wife of explorer Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnum). It’s a fascinating film, adapted from the best seller written by David Grann and shot by the outstanding cinematographer Darius Khondji, who shot Gray’s The Immigrant, and, just prior to that, Michale Haneke’s Amour. Both Gray and Miller were lively and engaging during our conversation and we covered as much ground as we could in the relatively brief time we were together. The film is in the theaters and also on Netflix, who were co-producers.
Here is a link to an excerpt from the Q&A.
I went to the Easter Sunday parade in Manhattan with a friend on April 16 and we took lots of pictures. What a great day filled with cheerful and friendly people. The weather was lively, fluctuating between sunny and overcast, making for an ever changing tapestry of shadow and light. We shot on the RAW format, which photographers have used for years but, as a filmmaker, I began working with about three years ago. It’s true, as a few cinematographers I have spoken with have said, that it is more like working with film than video as there is a great deal of latitude and information that can be digitally controlled and tweaked. As a documentary film maker I always work in RAW because I’m often shooting and directing at the same time and am unable to get the lighting “perfect”. And so much of what you are shooting in documentaries simply isn’t meant to be controlled – you are a guest in the doc world as a filmmaker, not the other way around.
Here are a few shots from the Easter Gathering.
In the summer of 1995 I had the good fortune to travel to Europe to study taiji for a week and then to spend a week in East Berlin. What more might a young man want than to do than to explore the world in good health and happiness!
In Strasbourg, I practiced taiji with my fellow New Yorkers in an international festival celebrating Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan, taught by fourth generation master Wang Yen-nien. Then I traveled to the heart of old East Berlin. Will post pictures when I find them 🙂
East Berlin notes, Summer 1995
Visit the Berlin Zoo
Cash on hand and 80 dollars in traveler’s checks
Buy – Eurail Pass
– Film roll
Shop – Cheese
Places of Importance to visit:
S. Hackeschen Market (train H,2,3,4)
3 Frieden Strausse
Stu Zoologischer Garten
Unter den Linden
Sans Souci (without sorrow)
J. F. Dulles Allee
Oranienburge Strafze (Connects Cine?)
– Seems to lead to … Cafe and Plost Alley
East Berlin on a Thursday Night (1995)
I drank some wine, made a late lunch in the apartment, and went to S. Hackeschen Market. Should I have had a coffee? Am now in a bar on Oranienburge Strafze. What beautiful waitresses the German girls are – One is very butch. But that’s OK, what counts is attitude.
The bar seems to be called Kino Blowup. Could it be that they also show films here? Butch just cranked up the music – not going to be easy to communicate here. I have been told to watch out for the women of the night, who are neither subtle nor without experience. I will keep my attention elsewhere.
Whew – just made eye contact with the blond woman at the bar who is really cute. Careful – night’s early.
I could fall in love very easily in Berlin. People seem to be open, and intent on life. There is not a lot of excess attitude. The girls are very sexy in a natural way. Not that I am really out to be super social. But the women do not put up stiff barriers to talking, either. Former East Berliners (Essies) are regular folk. They have experienced a lifetime under communism and are still tentative about themselves and their new lifestyles. They are sweet, and almost naive.
I like them. I like being in Berlin.
Krombacher is a good (light) beer. Later I must try Budweiser, the noted Czech beer. Butch girl is the DJ. She is spinning some big beat sounds. Bose speakers pump it out.
The girl behind the bar, with short blond hair, very short, and a small nose ring has grabbed my attention. She bops around well to the music. I think she has a body like (redacted) – small – sweet. I’m going to ask her about Budweiser.
In response he says “It’s Czechoslovakian”, not German. But very good. When I ask her for a glass she nods, professionally and nicely.
Bartenders pour beer in Berlin so that the head comes out really large, then they slowly add more beer to the glass only as the foam settles. I was told this was a European thing – and here it is. There is no rush to get the beer over to the presumed drinker. It’s not like “Serve ‘em up and get ‘em drunk. ASAP”. There is style and care in the process. A very hand-crafted experience. A special touch. I appreciate this.
The dark skin girl (also with a nose ring) says to the bar girl “How late are you open to?” “Until 4:00” She second girl is sweetn too – has on an olive green T shirt with a balloon police car vehicle. It is funny… Bright Blue, white and red, cartoonish.
Maybe they are lovers. They are friendly and the place is fun. “Kino Blowup”. With cast metal sculptures and thin tall-back metal chairs.
Also, centered on the wall to the left of the bar, is a large conspicuously vagina-like sculpture. On the other side of the bar a thin long-necked statue of a man that seems to fly off the floor.
It is odd that people come into the bar carrying baskets of things to sell, hawking their wares. A respectable looking man (Peter Framptonish) arrives with a basket of good looking breads and pastries and croissants, walking around and selling them. It is perfectly accepted, more than that it is appreciated. His breads and snacks are good, his way is friendly and his prices, from the reaction, are reasonable. It’s an old world thing. In “the states” he would be infringing on the bar’s territory and be tossed to the street.
People drink beer with red (berry) syrup here. Have seen at least three people order it. I ask the bartender about it and she says, kidding. “It’s for children. Sweet syrup” she says, softly. Am I understanding her? I smile and nod. I must learn some German or French, so that I can connect better.
And the DJ keeps the place rocking.
My short animation Under the City the Blue Bag Dropped was part of the 13th annual Cinema on the Bayou in late January, 2017. I did the first drawings for the video in December of 2008 and just kept coming back to it over the years. Finally, this spring, wanting a followup to my short Rooftop Serenade, that played in festivals last summer, I stayed on it every evening when I got home from work until it was where it needed to be. Everything is hand shot or hand drawn, put together in Photoshop, Premiere and After Effects. The original soundtrack, a song called Jaguar Muse that I composed in 2015, was edited and mixed in Pro Tools.
The festival ran from January 24 to February 1 and took place in Lafayette, Louisiana. The film has previously screened in the Coney Island Film Festival, the East Village Chain Film Festival and was awarded Honorable Mention at The Marblehead Festival of the Arts. The film has also been accepted into the Three Minute Film Festival in Santa Barabra, California and will screen on July, 6 2017.
Saturday, July 30, 2016 was a day long celebration of the Music and Songs of Lou Reed. Everyone came out to play.
Here is a link to the original web page for lots of info:
The evening show took place in the rain so it was not conducive to bringing an DSLR camera to the show. But it lingers on in memory – David Johanson was particularly excellent.
One of the daytime highlights was a working display of 6 guitars and 6 amps, all from Lou’s collection, set to a four hour feedback loop in the lobby of Alice Tully hall. Ear protection was handed out. Below is a photo and a link to a 7 minute stereo excerpt I recorded:
Here are some photos I took – and a few notes:
@11:30 AM the “House band” played Rockers. Jon Spencer joined the band for “Venus in Furs”. Being a Lou Reed show someone had to unbutton their trousers. The belt came off and he gave his guitar a good thrashing, worthy of De Sade himself, while Sal Maida laid down the bass:
Patti Smith and her band, including long-time Smith band members and collaborators Lenny Kaye and Tony Shanahan, opened the 2016 Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival on Wednesday eve, July 20, 2016. It was a rocking show – tight, soulful, Smith’s voice having lost nothing over the years.
The all-female, Latin Grammy–nominated group Mariachi Flor de Toloache – a quartet bringing New York style to traditional Mexican music – opened the show with energy and style.
I’ve been a member of the National Board of Review since 2008 and have had the honor of doing over 60 after-film Q&A’s with many of the most interesting and talented directors, actors and producers in the world. Because NBR is a private organization most of these events go undocumented – unlike many of the press promotions and publicity stops, NBR offers a relaxed “off the record” experience. Which makes for really good conversations. Whether I’m moderating a Q&A or watching my fellow board members doing them it is a rewarding experience and a reminder that most filmmakers, actors, producers, and cinematographers are passionate about their art and generous about sharing their experiences. I can’t say enough about the National Board of Review and how it supports the art of film, supports filmmakers and provides valuable knowledge and financial assistance to young filmmakers.
Occasionally an excerpt from a Q&A will make it to the NBR website. Here are links to a few that I have done in the recent past. You can also find a number of my film reviews elsewhere on this blog. And, if you have the Blu-ray of Pedro Almodovar’s I’m So Excited you can find a nearly complete Q&A that I moderated with him and his cast on the specials disc.
Film review by Thomas W. Campbell
Update: Life, Animated was chosen by the National Board of Review as one of the best documentaries of the year.
On Monday, June 20, 2016 I moderated a National Board of Review after-screening Q and A of the new documentary Life, Animated. The participants were Pulitzer Prize winning writer Ron Suskind, his wife Cornelia, his son Owen, Academy Award winning director Roger Ross Williams, and Producer Julie Goldman (Weiner, Best of Enemies). The film, released on June 24, is about the life of Owen Suskind, who fell suddenly victim to the silence of autism when he was three years old. First told in 2014’s New York Times best seller Life, Animated (The story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism), the film picks up where the book leaves off, following Owen’s tentative steps into adulthood and self-reliance. Owen and his father Ron were able to stay for a short time before making off to a television interview and then a fuller discussion took place with the director, Cornelia and Ms. Goldman. The complexity of bringing Owen on the publicity tour was on everyone’s mind but he seemed comfortable and not only answered questions about his experiences but shared some funny and precise impressions from his massive catalog of film and animation knowledge.
Life, Animated begins with a series of shots revealing Owen Suskind, a young man in his early twenties, walking around a parking lot in what seems an aimless circle and talking to himself in a cryptic and indecipherable manner. It’s the fear of anyone who knows an autistic person – that they will lose their way and you will not be able to help them find their way back. Can someone help this young man? Can he help himself? Putting us in a subjective place where we feel and experience the disorienting nature of autism is one of many strengths of this engaging, informative and ultimately entertaining documentary.
The book by Ron Suskind, Life, Animated (The story of Sidekicks, Heroes and Autism), which the film is based on, is over 350 rich, thoughtful and dramatic pages. It’s a rollercoaster ride of emotions – revealing in an honest, even unflinching way the complexities of the autistic experience from the parent and child’s point of view. There are complexities that a novice could never imagine. Having a child who is born into the autistic experience is a life uprooting experience. Having a “normal” child who, at the age of three, suddenly becomes one of these “different” children is arguably even more life-shaking.
Life, Animated picks up this story and moves forward though Owen’s life after graduation while dipping back in time, using photographs, occasional clips of home movies, and first person interviews with Ron, his wife Cornelia, and Walt, Owen’s older brother. We see a video, alluded to in the book as the turning point in the Suskind family life, of Owen and his father playing in the backyard, laughing and romping in a lawn of fallen leaves. It would be the last memory of Owen, barely three years old at the time, before “the change”. Ron describes the impact as being akin to his own son’s “kidnapping” – a complete psychological disappearance of the boy he once knew.
The Suskinds struggled for answers, talking to professionals, losing hope. And then, two years after Owen went silent, there came a series of unexpected revelations. Before the change he was joined by his older brother Walt, and often by his father and mom, in a ritual shared across the world by families with young children at the time – watching VHS copies of their favorite Disney animations. When Owen “went away” these viewings were the one continuity in his before-and-after life. If anything, Owen became even more engaged with the films – Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Lion King – and began to spend increasing amounts of private time with them. One day Ron and Cornelia heard something that sounded like “juice” – heartened they poured him one kind after another but he would not take it. Later they saw him rewind a sequence he had already watched, and then rewind it again. And then again. It was a song, and the final line of the performance was “Just the voice”. Owen repeated the line – he was not just “parroting”, he was communicating about his own voice. It was the kind of breakthrough the Suskind’s had prayed for. And the beginning of a remarkable journey of hope and discovery.
Animation is is used in three ways to bring life – and clarity – to the story. Excerpts from the Disney films are used to share and illustrate Owen’s self discovery and expression. Black and white ink and water color animation is used for recreations that bring us back in time to events experienced by Owen as a child. And vivid color animation is used to bring Owen’s own screenplay to life, to illustrate his core belief that “No Sidekick is left behind”.
It is a testament to the producers that they were able to get complete cooperation from Disney and have access to the Disney catalogue. Owen only truly comes alive in his relationship to the films that are the core part of his life. Disney films, it turns out, are a great attraction not only to young minds but also to people with autistic-like symptoms who have difficulty decoding visual cues. Walt Disney literally told his artists, after the commercial failure of his first animated film, that the key to success was in the face – full, animated, exaggerated expression of all emotions would be the Disney way. And it worked. The next film was a huge success and the Disney formula had gained one if its’ most important cornerstones. And these expansive and expressive displays of emotion – in the face and across the entire body – offered a way into life for many people that Disney could never have imagined.
Previous films by Roger Ross Williams include the deeply moving Music for Prudence, a documentary about a physically disabled young woman in Zimbabwe who finds her voice in a society known for killing the disabled at birth and God Loves Uganda, about the way religion is used to marginalize homosexuality. He has crafted Life, Animated with assurance, intelligence and style. He has known the Suskinds since Owen was a young man, working with Ron on television documentaries and journalism stories, and was the only filmmaker they could imagine adapting the book to the screen. But he knew little about autism when he began the project and has discussed how making the film has given him a perspective into a world he could only have imagined. Understanding that hearing at times will create barriers in autism by garbling and mixing sounds in ways that prevent comprehension, he uses sound design to vividly recreate this experience for a young Owen.
An intimate director who works close to his subjects, Williams borrowed a shooting technique known as “the interrotron” from Errol Morris, who perfected a behind the TV screen camera apparatus that allows the interviewee to see the director’ face on a television monitor while the camera shoots the subject through the glass. This is a deceptively simple and powerful technique that disarms the speaker and has become a common tool in Morris’s brilliant documentary toolbox. Williams uses it to create big facial closeups during interview sessions which are all the easier for Owen to decode and react to. We look through the camera into the eyes of a joyful and engaged young man, inspired by the trust engendered from his relationship to the onscreen images. In one instance Owen watches us intensely from an extreme closeup, undergoing strange and exaggerated facial contortions that elevate rapidly from wonder to fear. Lips purse, his tongue wags, his eyes radiate deep concern. Then we see what he is watching – The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s Quasimodo being tricked into a false friendship that turns into humiliation when he is tormented by a cruel and angry crowd.
Williams works with cinematographer Tom Bergmann to “be there” for the ordinary and the transformative moments in Owen’s life. We visit The Disney Club, Owen’s great achievement for himself and numerous other “different” children who share their love and deep knowledge of the Disney Universe. To the surprise of administrators the students not only showed up – but they brought passion and commitment. With his father’s help Owen has developed deep and mutual friendships with numerous actors from the Disney world. The film documents a visit by actors Gilbert Gottfried and Jonathan Freeman, who joyfully struggle to match the enthusiasm and acting chops of the kids around them.
Life, Animated is a film that can open doors into the minds and experiences of the autistic, the “different”, and those who care for and love them. It is a powerful introduction to how difficult and how rewarding a relationship with these often misunderstood sons, daughters, parents, and friends can be. Using well-designed animation (all of it the hand-drawn variety that Owen loves) a thoughtful and carefully constructed soundtrack, and patient storytelling, the film brings us into Owen’s world in a way that touches the heart and informs the mind.
Summertime and outdoor music – a real treat.
Here’s a link to more pictures, as they are added: More photos by Thomas W. Campbell
Birth of the Sun is a short documentary video about Grady Alexis and the East Village of the 1980’s/90’s. Using interviews, art, and archival footage, the film explores the life and times of the Haitian artist who moved to New York City when he was a young teenager, lived on the street while he sold his art in Tompkins Square park, found community and shelter with other artists and outsiders, and finally died in a traffic scuffle with an off-duty policeman at the age of 26.
Grady lived on the edge, bonding with the artists and activists he met through the downtown community, developing a style based on his own experiences in New York City that also became firmly rooted in the tradition and culture of his native Haiti. Grady never had a legal address, living in squats, on the street, at El Taller as “Resident Artist”, and with friends and lovers. He was a collaborator, which brought him into touch with many people, movements, and cultures. Birth of the Sun examines these distinct sides of Grady’s life. It looks at the family that he found when he became “artist in residence” at El Taller Latino Americano, when he was involved with the artist known as “the Maroons” and his time with the artists who convened at the Mars Bar.
Grady’s life was also on the street during a time when violent crime was at a peak and police-community relations were strained and tenuous. That is where his life ultimately ended. On the evening of May 6, 1991, Grady Alexis and two others were confronted by two men, one an off-duty policeman, at 8th street and Fifth Avenue. Grady died hours later from the eruption of violence that ensued. His untimely death on the evening of May 6, 1991, was swift and had a lasting impact on those who knew him. When he died El Taller seemed to collapse beneath the tragic weight of the event. The Maroons had already broken up, although Thom Corn and Grady had continued to collaborate. The film is about the many people who still remember their friendship with Grady.
The filmmakers use many narrative and stylistic techniques to examine the life and death of Grady Alexis and his lasting impact. Working from a photograph of his long-lost mural “the Birth of the Sun”, people who knew Grady, and artists from El Taller have gathered to recreate the mural. The completion of the mural, which is documented in the film, culminates in the celebration of Grady’s life – a gathering of people from past and present at the first retrospective of Grady’s painting and sculpture. The filmmakers sorted through hundreds of hours of archival material that spans the entire duration of El Taller’s rich history to find the small bit of video documentation that exists of his life. Birth of the Sun is in many ways an investigation. The filmmakers are interviewing numerous people who knew Grady and were active in the arts and political culture of the time, attempting to put his life – and death – into a broader social context. The film uses subtle and artistic re-enactments to explore the relationships that defined Grady’s life and death. The filmmakers also documenting much of Grady’s surviving artwork – paintings, sculptures, masks, murals, and installations. The film has a rich and completely original soundtrack that reflects the many musicians who knew Grady.
Although Grady’s life ended almost 25 years ago, his death was part of a turning point in the city’s cultural and social landscape. Birth of the Sun, which was produced in 2008, is about that time and will shed light on the life of Grady Alexis and this unique moment in the life of New York City.
It would be great to have films in so many festivals that one would have to pick and choose which ones to attend. Not the case so far, but it was wonderful to have my short Rooftop Serenade selected for the Extremely Shorts Film Festival in Houston, Texas. Aurora Pictures is a great and dedicated group of film makers/producers/exhibitors/ enthusiasts who are doing important work to keep the spirit of film art alive. The breadth of quality filmmaking that made up the screenings, all selected by guest curator Jolene Pinder of the New Orleans Film Festival, was remarkable. Stop-motion and 2D animation, poetry, slices of real life, quirky, sad and funny narratives, funny twists, good music, social critique – 80 minutes of unconventional and totally satisfying film viewing.
And it was a smart and appreciative audience – after each evening’s screening Mary Magsamen, the creative director of Aurora, invited the filmmakers in attendance up to ask questions, joined by Ms. Pinder. It was fun to be part of this young, select group and to answer questions during the Q and A and afterwards (there was a lot of interest in the fact that my film was shot and cut on 16mm film).
And Houston was fun to explore – everyone drives but the mass transit is civilized, runs on time, and affordable. Excellent museums (the Menil Museum and the Rothko Chapel are next to each other and not to be missed), good food, and a bridge in the middle of the city where thousands of bats sleep and emerge from every dawn.
I was looking through a box of old photographs and came across some production stills from the 2002 Rooftop Serenade shoot that were taken on film. It was a really hot and bright day that was full of visual contrast. The photographs were taken by Holly Leavy.
Misenus is the fourth video production, produced in 1991. It followed Giving Maury the Treatment (1989), The Perfect Girl (1990) and No Parking Any Time (1990). J. Henry Fair was a partner in the first three and an inspiration in the last one.
Misenus stars Neal Keating. His music is also featured. Michael Benson contributed a strong Nagel (inspired by late night horror films of the early 20th century). And Billy Lee was an imposing Mr. Lowery.
Shot in wonderfully primitive Video 8 and reanimated in After Effects.
The password is: trojan hero
A film by François Ozon
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
In March of 2011 I talked with Catherine Denueve following a screening of François Ozon’s comedy Potiche. The screening was for members of the National Board of Review. Denueve spoke about her pleasure of working with the young director, pairing up against the legendary Gérard Depardieu, and her continued love of acting. She was as graceful and beautiful as one would expect from an icon of modern cinema.
The review originally appeared here on the web site of the National Board of Review.
Potiche literally means a large impressive looking vase that is displayed to the owner’s benefit. Another definition, referred to in François Ozon’s latest film, is a “Trophy Wife”–a beautiful woman (or man as the case may be) who paid for and displayed to the husband’s (or wife’s) benefit. Catherine Denueve play Suzanne Pujol, the wife of a rich and unpleasant factory owner who has become, in her own words, “The Queen of kitchen appliances.” Ms. Denueve has filled world cinema with some of the most memorable roles of the last 45 year–as the troubled Severine in Louis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour, as the psychologically tormented Carole in Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, as Caroline Steiner, the wife of a Jewish theater owner in Nazi occupied France who falls in love with an actor played by Gérard Depardieu in François Truffaut’s The Last Metro. Potiche is the second film in which she has worked with Ozon, previously starring with an all-star ensemble cast in 2002’s Eight Women.
Potiche is an extremely enjoyable film that relies on carefully developed style, adept comic pacing, and the kind of character based humor that could fall flat if not done in the hands of a director capable of pulling it off. Potiche is a surprising departure for Ozon, who’s most memorable work has dramatic gravity that is anything but comic. Swimming Pool (2003) is a suspense film about a mystery writer (Charlotte Rampling) who leaves England to vacation at her editor’s French countryside cottage. A sudden visitor pulls her away from her work and ultimately draws her into a world of deception that might lead to murder. Hideaway (2009) tells the story of a young woman who loses her lover to a drug overdose then must struggle with the pregnancy she has been left alone to confront. Potiche feels like a new direction for Ozon, yet from start to finish it is accomplished, engaging, and a great deal of fun. The characters seem to have a strong resemblance to the good humored and playful ones in Truffaut’s lighter films (Day for Night, Jules and Jim) and the style of the film is just as colorful and intelligently created as in the recent work of Pedro Almodóvar.
Thomas W. Campbell
After finishing college and moving to New York I saw my first silent film in a movie theater, probably at the Bleecker Street Cinema where I was working at the the time. Even more memorable were the occasional silent film screenings at the Carnegie Hall Cinema with live accompaniment. Silent films were never really silent and here was a link to the past, to the time when movies were performed by musicians who, at their best, really understood the art of the live cinematic experience. The Carnegie Hall Cinema is probably where I first saw Lee Erwin, an elegant man then in his late sixties, accompany a silent film. He played at least once a month, and did so with such dedication, precision, and joy that he seemed to lift the films from the past and deposit them directly into the theater. But the real revelation was hearing him perform on the huge pipe organ of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The precision and power of the massive organ and its towering tubes was like an adrenaline injection straight into screen.
These memories flooded back to me when I learned that Makia Matsumura, who I had met within the context of her band m2duo (a collaboration with violinist Machiko Ozawa), was performing for silent films. I was intrigued. Since 2003 she has accompanied silent films in Japan and Italy, and began, in 2008, to play in the United States, including at numerous theaters and museums in New York. She also scored the soundtrack for the Kino International DVD release of the 1923 Frank Loyd feature Within the Law. Makia first began performing at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in 2010 and, on September 8 and 9, 2012 she performed in the Film Society of Lincoln Center series “Capturing the Marvelous: Ukranian Poetic Cinema”. Both films were classics by Alexander Dovzhenko: Zvenigora (1927) and Earth (1930). We met in the busy Indie Food and Wine Cafe at Lincoln Center before her accompaniment of the screening of Earth. Makia was gracious enough to discuss her work before crossing the street and sitting at the piano to play for an audience eager to turn back the clock to the days when films were silent but the music that accompanied them was anything but.
Thomas – What is it like to prepare for each of the films? This will be the second film that you perform this weekend. What is the preparation process like to prepare for the performance?
Makia – This time I was lucky to see the film beforehand so obviously I could learn how the story develops, what the background will be, what the visual tone of the film will be. How the story would proceed, is it an action narrative, slow paced, like that. It helps a lot to have that information. Depending on the film I might do some research. If a movie is set to a certain historic period, if there is a dance hall scene or something that might call for a specific reference to a certain type of music, then I might do some research. I might not play that exact referential piece from my research, but it helps me to get an idea as to what kind of music could go with the film.
In the winter of 1988 I had the pleasure of doing a phone interview with San Francisco based filmmaker John Korty. I conducted the interview for The Off-Hollywood Report (then known as the Magazine of the Independent Feature Project). I was pleased to see it published in the March issue of that year and am reprinting the last part of the interview below. Korty was a wonderful person to talk with and our conversation went much longer that either of us probably thought it would. I think the magazine agreed to cover any phone charges so we just burned a lot of cassette audio tape.
T. Campbell: …Jumping ahead a bit. Twice Upon A Time is an animated film you made for the Ladd Company and George Lucas, You used a technique called Lumage, which is the use of cutouts and a method of animating the cutouts. Tell us something about this animation technique and your experience after completing the film.
J. Korty: I developed the Lumage technique over almost 20 years of animating because I couldn‘t stand cell animation and felt there must be a better way. We did Sesame Street spots and I‘d made a short before The Crazy Quilt that was nominated for an Oscar called Breaking the Habit. The making of Twice Upon a Time is a very complex story. It was an independent film to the extent that we raised some money independently to develop it and the money was supposed to go into a screenplay and a sample reel. Originally, it was going to be three or four minutes of animation, As we went along, we felt the sample was more important than a completed screenplay so we changed it to a kind of treatment and a 10 minute reel. lt took one-and-a-half years to do that much. I had known George Lucas for several years and thought “We might as well start here.” and we had a screening with George. He arranged a meeting in L.A. with The Ladd Company. We talked for a while, and within a month or two had a production deal.
T. Campbell: At the time there were other animators, like Ralph Bakshi, who were doing very well. Were you unhappy with the quality of animation you were seeing in general?
J. Korty: I‘m not really a fan of most animation. I don‘t get excited about the rounded forms or by nostalgia animation. I am more interested in modem graphics. Twice Upon a Time doesn‘t look like anybody else‘s animation.
I met James almost 20 years after he made Heartworn Highways. He came into an edit studio I was working at to cut a trailer of an independent film he had shot. We became friends pretty quickly, finding that we were interested in the same kind of things – telling stories, wrestling with technology, UFOs and government conspiracies (which led us both the X Files). James was an accomplished cinematographer with one of the brightest and most inquisitive minds that I’ve ever met. He liked to problem-solve especially in story telling and the technical ways we communicate them. But James was also a pioneer who moved to New York City from Minnesota 10 years before I moved to New York City from Vermont (He was 10 years older than me). When he came to the city he found an empty and essentially forgotten PreSoHo and moved into an incredible loft space on Spring Street, struggling and ultimately watching the region transform around him.
James was a pioneer who became a friend and mentor – he made a lasting impression on anybody who met him by being continuously supportive and always interested in what you were doing.
Whether shooting a documentary for PBS one month or directing a film with Roy Schneider later in the year James would always welcome the opportunity to actually tackle a new production problem – he was eternally ready to jump into life. Which made it all the more difficult for everyone when he finally passed away after and on and off battle with cancer that finally caught him in September of 2000.
Heartworn Highways is the great achievement in the life of someone who did a lot of pretty excellent things. It’s an honest and compelling look at a musical culture that was very much in transformation in 1976 – and was fortunately documented by James Szalapski and his small crew of merry filmmakers.
The following is an interview I did with James Szalapski in 1996, which was transcribed and printed in the DVD booklet that comes with the DVD..
At the time the movie was shot, and right up until the time of its original release, the film was called ‘New Country’ but then something happened which made you look for a new title. Could you tell us about that?
They came out with a yoghurt called ‘New Country’, right while we were cutting the movie and there was advertising everywhere … we don’t want people to think its a yoghurt movie, so we changed it to ‘Outlaw Country’ for a while because these guys where referred to mostly as “outlaws,” and tried to go for something more evocative, threw round a bunch of titles and this one came together like a feeling.
You mentioned that these guys were kind of, kind of outlaws and they broke off from Nashville… Can you give us some background on that?
Well, by the early seventies Nashville had sort of become very rigid. All the songs were sounding the same, they just turned out product like crazy and they kept country music in a narrow defined range. But the young guys wanted to do something different. A lot of them had gone through the sixties and had experienced the whole explosion in rock and pop music and wanted open it up a little bit. “LA Freeway” is kind of an anthem for these guys; they went to places like LA and New York and, and discovered it wasn’t where they belonged. Their roots were in the South and they had an emotional connection to their grandparent’s generation there. But when they came back to Nashville and to Austin, Texas they brought back with them the electric guitars and the raw sound of their own generation. But the music they were making connected more to a generation older than the one in place in Nashville.
They looked to guys like Hank Williams …
They where looking, back to them, and I found that very interesting, this generation jump which I tried to put in the film with some of the older characters in the film. Another thing that was happening was that there weren’t a lot of places to play music in Nashville – outside of recording studios. There were very few clubs there. But in Austin there was and Austin kinda became a new capital for this new music. Austin is a university town, very liberal, pretty advanced and there were a lot of clubs to play music in. It pretty quickly became like a rival to the main, established, “religion” there in Nashville.
I wanna get into how this film was made, but I’m curious that you talked about this group of people, these outlaws.
My connection to all this was very personal and direct. The film is dedicated to Skinny Dennis. Dennis played stand-up bass around LA. And Guy Clark was in LA at that point, this was the late sixties. The movie opens with ‘”LA Freeway” which Guy wrote about LA and he mentions Skinny Dennis in the song, “Here’s to you ol’ Skinny Dennis…” Dennis rambled around and for a time came here to live with me in New York City in seventy-two or so. Guy had gone to Nashville so he went down to visit Guy, and suddenly he felt at home for the first time in his life. When he came back he told me about the scene there and I was at the point where I really wanted to make my own film and I thought maybe this could be an interesting subject. So I went down there and stayed with him and then just met the people that he knew, Guy and Townes Van Zandt. He dragged me over to see David Allan Coe who was kind of very different from them, more outrageous, you know. He’s like the biker. And Townes is the poet and Guy is like superb craftsman/writer …
He’s the one who repairs the guitar in Heartworn Highways?
He also does that too, yes. Townes would be one of those people who wouldn’t do anything for a year and then sit down and write five songs in one night.
Dennis died before you made the film. Was there any forewarning of that?
Well, Dennis had Marfan’s Syndrome. It’s a birth defect. Lincoln had it. And it causes your body to get very boney and elongate. Dennis was six foot seven and weighed 135 pounds that’s why they called him Skinny Dennis. The doctor said Dennis wasn’t gonna make it to his twenties, you know. And, he was a pretty hard partying guy, he didn’t walk around on tip-toes because of his heart problems. Eventually he did die of heart failure. He was twenty-nine. But back in the early seventies he introduced me to everybody in Nashville and Austin. I shot slides, I got copies of their music, most of the guys only had demo’s, they didn’t have albums at that stage. I took all that around and showed it to people to try to raise some money for the thing. And they said things like “Go and get Willie Nelson or Kris Kristofferson as a host for the film” and we’ll think about it, but nobody knows any of these people. But I wanted to go with the guys who were on the way up, I think they, they’ve got the most interesting energy, they’re the avant-garde on this thing that’s happening. So, finally, through George Carroll, I met Graham Leader in Paris who became the producer of the film. He was an art dealer in Europe.
The energy crisis had just hit and the bottom had fallen out of the art market. I played him the music and the music won him over. I also showed him some of my slides. So we went to Nashville and Graham financed what we felt was going to be an hour documentary for television. I think we had thirty-five thousand dollars. In about a month we had a small crew and were underway. We shot a couple of things the first day we were there, it was great, we were off to a running start, but then we didn’t do anything for four days. People’s schedules, cancellations, we just couldn’t get anything happening. The crew was getting grumpy… but then it took off. Way led to way and we started getting other people into it. I’d say it was about two weeks into it we felt we could make a feature film. So Graham he raised more money, basically over the phones and, and we finished shooting everything we could to make a feature. The whole thing took around four weeks.
How did the budget determine the style of the film-making?
We went as lean as we could. Me and an assistant cameraman…My assistant cameraman on was also my assistant director, Phillip Schopper. We had worked together before and had become good friends. Phillip’s a very creative person with a lot of good and you want people around you who will keep you honest. Then when we got to the editing room he became the editor and I became his assistant editor. He was there at the Steenbeck doing all the cutting and I was finding stuff and looking over his shoulder.
And of course we would always confer about the editing with Graham Leader who stayed in New York for pretty much the whole course of the finishing the film. The grip was Mike Harris, Skinny Dennis’s best friend, who was then living in New York also. Larry Reibman was the gaffer. Larry was working for a film equipment rental house at the time and wanted to get out of the rental house and make movies. The sound man was very organic. He was great. Alvar Stugard was his name. Like I would walk into a situation and start looking around for how the light- ing falls and where the lamps are, what this is gonna look like. Alvar would walk around with his microphone and his headphones on, and test the acoustics of the room, and he would find the best sound might be over in the corner and he would say what sounds best for the place what really gives the feeling of place too, you know.
This is a technical question before we move on. What equipment did you use to shoot this film?
A 16mm camera. About sixty per cent of the film was hand-held. I shot with an Eclair, French Eclair NPR, which is a difficult camera to use, it’s fairly heavy and the weight is about five inches in front of your chest, so you’re supporting it all with your hands.
Did you a use a Nagra stereo?
Nagra stereo. We made a real effort to record everything in stereo.
T. Campbell: Really?
And the final result was mag stripe stereo, 35mm film with mag stripe on the side. Because this film was done before optical stereo, you know, the whole Dolby optical stereo thing that came into movies happened about two years after we finished the film.
So not only the music’s in stereo but the presence, the dialogue track the chickens and the lambs and whatever are in stereo on the soundtrack?
Right, and we tried to get it as high fidelity as possible but we only had two tracks so when someone was singing and playing a guitar we put one mic on the singer and one on the guitar. Then in the mix we would put their voice in the centre, where it is on the screen pretty much, but we’d spread the highs and lows out according to the position of the guitar. If the guitar neck is up to the right, you’d put the highs up there and put the lows down at the body and so we’d have a stereo separation for the scene.
Is all of the music performed live?
Yeah. Oh, yeah. You know, people played music, like you and I are talk- ing then a couple of other people would drop over and somebody would say “I’ve got a new song”, and they try out their songs and sing together and so it goes. There was a lot of drinking, these things would go till three, four, five, six in the morning. Eventually people would sort of lose the ability to sing very well, you know, but they could still play. Their body seemed to remember the guitar stuff. I told them what I wanted to do and that I wanted to hear what they had to say about anything in this world, the movement, or whatever.
So what, what happened in a sense is that you meet one person, they would introduce you to someone else, they would introduce you to some- body else …
Exactly. Dennis was friends with Townes and Guy they’re both very highly respected in the songwriting community. They’ve written a lot of songs, they’re very original. Once they were both interested in the film people said “Oh, you should go talk to so and so”. Since Guy and Townes were my main characters people would say “Oh well, we’re in. Count us in. You’ve got those guys, we’re in”.
The Tree of Life
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Original review posted on May 27, 2011
The Tree of Life, the fifth film by director Terrence Malick, is a masterpiece of narrative and style. While this may not help in the marketplace against X-Men, Green Lanterns and drunk bachelors in Bangkok, it will resonate with anyone willing to be challenged–and rewarded–by an unconventional and completely original filmmaker at the top of his game.
Malick’s previous films–Badlands (1973), Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005) have for the most part stood the test of time. Each film features actors who were–or were to become–major stars. And each reveals its narrative in less obviously dramatic and more thoughtful ways than other films of their genres. Badlands slows down the drive of its predecessor, Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, and allows us to feel the way Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek’s pre-punk rebels are part of the landscape that created them. Days of Heaven takes a doomed love triangle and places it into the seductive light (much of it shot in the magic hour just before sunset) and landscapes of the Midwest. The Thin Red Line is a richly character-based war drama that explores death and loss from an unexpectedly philosophical viewpoint. The New World examines the first meeting between Native Americans and Europeans in a way that makes the pristine forests as important as the characters. Malick has a talent to transcend what others might see as limitations of genres and to turn them into meditations on the essential questions of life–why are we here? What should we do about it? What is the true nature of the world itself?
I was fortunate to be at the world premiere of The Campbell Brothers‘ A Sacred Steel Love Supreme, celebrating the 50th anniversary of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. A skilled blues and gospel band!