Thursday, July 20, 2017

AFS Goes a Long Way Back with A GHOST STORY Director David Lowery

When David Lowery's film AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS became a breakout hit in 2013, many filmgoers were introduced to this special talent, a writer-director poised to break into the pantheon. But, as it happened, the Austin Film Society was already very familiar with Lowery.

If you only know AFS as the home of film exhibition, it may surprise you to know that AFS has given over 1.7 million dollars to nurture filmmakers and help them make career leaps via the AFS Grant, which you too can apply to receive for your project. This grant is funded by AFS members, donors, and people like you who attend films at the non-profit AFS Cinema.

In 2005, the then 24 year old Lowery applied for an AFS grant to complete his ambitious short film THE OUTLAW SON. With that film in tow, Lowery made the rounds of film festivals and began to put together the building blocks for his first feature ST. NICK, also helped along by a $6,000 AFS Grant in 2007.

When ST. NICK caught the attention of festival programmers, AFS again helped Lowery with a pair of travel grants, so he could attend a lab and festival and further advance his career.

Next, in 2011, Lowery made a short called PIONEER and was again able to travel to Sundance thanks to a $500 AFS travel grant.

By this time, Lowery's talent had been recognized and his career was well under way. After AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS, Lowery signed on with Disney to reimagine PETE'S DRAGON and now he has made one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, A GHOST STORY, now playing at the AFS Cinema.

Lowery's films are just a few of the nearly 500 film and video projects that have been partially funded by the AFS Grant. We're proud to be able to help and we hope you'll join us at the AFS Cinema for this remarkable new movie.

You can watch the trailer for A GHOST STORY here:

And as a special bonus, here is the writer-director himself recommending some of his favorite ghost movies. Take notes!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Watch This: Suzanne Ciani Brings Far-Out Synthesis to 80s Kid’s TV

Suzanne Ciani may not be a household name, but the sounds she invented were in every home in America during the early 80s. In addition to her brilliant work as an electronic composer, Ciani pioneered the use of synthesizers to create musical sound effects – like the fizzy pop of a Coke bottle cap (a hard attack of resonance followed by a long decay of white noise) – and 80s advertising embraced it in a big way. Soon her sound effects were in high demand - she even designed the sensual electric coos of the Bally XENON pinball machine.

Ciani became the unofficial spokesperson for the synthesizer in the late 70s and early 80s, appearing on a slew of popular television programs to demonstrate some of the futuristic sounds of this mysterious new instrument.

The new doc A LIFE IN WAVES (playing AFS Cinema July 19 & 22) tells of Ciani’s singular path through the music industry, despite the intense zeitgeist of sexism in commercial music, to become a modern cult figure among electronic music aficionados. Not just a great story about an overlooked artist, the film is a veritable overdose of 80s aesthetic nostalgia, featuring an abundance of rich archival material including Ciani’s commercials, TV appearances and home studio. This is the stuff that Tumblrs are made of.

Here is one TV appearance that somehow didn’t make the cut: in 1980, Suzanne Ciani brought her cosmic synth sounds to the popular PBS kids program "3-2-1 Contact." With the soft-spoken patience of a kindergarten teacher, Ciani breaks down some rather sophisticated concepts of sound and synthesis, all while dropping some pretty spaced-out synth sequences. Check it out, you might even learn a few things yourself.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

The Peter Sellers Comedy Classic You've (Probably) Never Seen is Coming to the AFS Cinema

AFTER THE FOX (1967) closes the AFS Comedy, Italian Style series with a bang. It screens (in 35mm) on Thursday June 29 and Saturday, July 1.

When we reflect on the great Peter Sellers' comedic performances we might, understandably, first think of Blake Edwards' PINK PANTHER movies, of his performances in the early dark comedies of Stanley Kubrick, and of his seriocomic turn in BEING THERE.

But there is a Peter Sellers film that is not only a tour-de-force of comic acting, but also a loving satire of the Italian film industry. This film is written by the dream team of Neil Simon (THE ODD COUPLE, BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, SWEET CHARITY and Cesare Zavattini (BICYCLE THIEVES, SHOESHINE, TWO WOMAN), and directed by the great master Vittorio De Sica.

Sellers plays a master thief, "the Fox," who, despite being a criminal mastermind, is still a Mama's boy through and through. He also has a beautiful sister, played by Sellers' real-life girlfriend Britt Ekland, of whose virtue the Fox is zealously protective. When an opportunity arises to steal a fortune, the Fox poses as an eccentric Italian movie director, engages a crew and cast (led by the surprisingly hilarious American leading man Victor Mature), and goes "on location" in a rural fishing village.

Here's a Trailers From Hell commentary from ED WOOD screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, an avowed lover of the film.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

An Introduction to UGETSU Director Kenji Mizoguchi

Mizoguchi and company behind the scenes of UGETSU

With the new restoration of Kenji Mizoguchi's late masterpiece UGETSU (1954) playing in theaters nationwide - it opens at the AFS Cinema on Saturday, June 24 - the rediscovery of this great master, whose career was roughly contemporaneous with our John Ford and who was similarly a poet of the screen, has begun again. Film scholar and essayist David Bordwell has pointed out that this Mizoguchi rediscovery happens roughly every ten years.

In his long essay here, Bordwell provides what might be the best sustained context for understanding the career and work of Mizoguchi before you plunge into the mysteries and ecstasies of UGETSU.

Mizoguchi's approach to melodrama, summarized here by Bordwell, gives an idea of his approach to genre and commercial expectations of the film markets:
"Mizoguchi refuses to beg for tears. Some directors, notably Sirk, amp up melodrama; others, like Preminger, bank the fires. Mizoguchi seems to try to extract the situation’s emotional essence, a purified anguish, that goes beyond sympathy and pity for the characters."
This purity of film essence is what makes Mizoguchi so special, and what sets him apart from his distinguished counterparts Ozu and Kurosawa, who also made a splash on the American atthouse scene in the '50s (Bordwell details this as well, and it's fascinating - well, to me it is).

Here is the trailer for a film that has often been considered one of the most beautiful ever made.

Monday, June 19, 2017

BEATRIZ AT DINNER - We Need to Talk: Opens at AFS Cinema This Week 6/22

Every once in a while a movie like BEATRIZ AT DINNER comes along and says, "we need to talk." In the midst of the seismic political, cultural and, yes, spiritual forces that quake around us now, we certainly do need to talk. And talk is what Salma Hayek's Beatriz and John Lithgow's Doug Strutt do in this provocative, insightful and even funny new film. BEATRIZ AT DINNER, currently in limited release, and expanding to more theaters, including the AFS Cinema, on Thursday June, 22.

Beatriz is a massage therapist who has had a really bad day. When she packs up to leave her wealthy client's home, her beat-up old car won't start and she is invited to stay for the evening's dinner party. As it happens the guest of honor is a business magnate and right-wing news personality played by Lithgow. Their conversations at dinner (it should be noted here that Beatriz is a Mexican-American immigrant), and interactions afterward, form the heart of this remarkably engaging film.

BEATRIZ AT DINNER could hardly arrive at a more advantageous time. While almost everyone seems exhausted by such confrontations in their own lives, it's still not out of mind. Some resolution is desired. Cinema and its stars are best when offering resolution to what are almost impossible problems. In BEATRIZ AT DINNER the resolutions are not simple and neither are the performances.

The Austin Chronicle's Kimberley Jones says Selma Hayek's Beatriz "cuts such a striking figure, you’ll want to follow her anywhere … and where the film ultimately follows is utterly gutting."

Anita Katz of the San Francisco Examiner praises Hayek and Lithgow, "While Lithgow's Strutt can be a hoot, Hayek owns the movie. Her Beatriz is a complicated mixture of clarity and confusion, and she's a self-described old soul whose capacity for caring, however unfashionable, proves lastingly moving."

Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out praises the movie's level of discourse, "Together, screenwriter Mike White and director Miguel Arteta have an almost magical way with light-touch verbal sparring, an art that's become lost in today's broad, banter-filled comedies."

Anthony Lane of The New Yorker notes some of the movie's fascinating narrative ambiguity, which is what sets it apart from a run-of-the-mill exercise: "Arteta is clearly confident of preaching to the converted, and of whipping up indignation at those who mean us harm. Thanks to his leading players, however, the movie grows limber, ambiguous, and twice as interesting, and the sermon goes astray."

Once you see the film, you're going to want to talk about it. Join us at the AFS Cinema for a free lobby discussion on Monday 6/26 at 7pm. See you there.

Wait... Erroll Morris Made a Short Interview Film with Trump? About CITIZEN KANE?

It's almost too astonishing to be true, but Donald Trump's favorite film is CITIZEN KANE. He's said it many times, and has even displayed some insight about Charles Foster Kane's plight - along with some seemingly pretty vapid misunderstandings. Certainly he is among the few people who can identify with Kane's great wealth, his vulgarity, his emotional disconnectedness and, perhaps, the primal trauma that seems to drive Kane, his "Rosebud."

The great documentarian Errol Morris has a way of drawing his subjects out and filming them in such a way that makes them tell you things that they may not realize they are telling you. When he films an interview, the result can be like one of those Goya portraits of the members of the royal court. He captures the soul beneath the skin. It's in the eyes. It's in the incautious turn of phrase. It's everywhere. It is the great value of Morris as an artist.

Watch this 2002 commissioned interview with Trump carefully. What is Trump telling us about himself, about his unusual life circumstances and about the universality (or non-universality) of art? When he sums up the message of the film, after making some good observations, it lands with a thud. We've become accustomed to that thud in recent months, but its's so strange to hear it in relation to the arts.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

In The Zone: Stalking Hypernormalisation with Tarkovsky

Special guest post by AFS Senior Programming Intern Cameron Timmons:

We at AFS enjoy programming films we’d love for you to see and enjoy, and occasionally those have an important relationship with current events. You have probably noticed some interesting political developments globally and at home where certain circumstances have western democracies now facing critical questions of character. What does this have to do with film? A lot—but here specifically we’re thinking of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 film STALKER.

By 1979, years of Soviet government repression had led to clashes with the West which left the Soviets economically and culturally bankrupt. Despite it being plainly apparent their socialist experiment had failed as their country collapsed around them, Soviet leaders insisted things were normal and the people believed them because they knew of no other alternative. The Soviet Union became a world where pageantry and patriotism masked a broken economy and broken dreams. U.C. Berkeley professor Alexei Yurchak termed this unreality ‘hypernormalisation’ in his aptly-titled book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More.

Science fiction authors and brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky described this reality in their 1971 novel Roadside Picnic. The novel considers life following an unexplained extraterrestrial visit unwitnessed by anyone and realized only through the discovery of Zones, places subject to a kind of unreality outside natural laws where nothing is what it seems. A group of people called Stalkers venture into these Zones at great risk.

One of the reasons to venture into cinema is its opportunity of escape, and no other film offers an escape quite like STALKER. Based on a screenplay written by the Strugatsky brothers and adapted from their novel Roadside Picnic, STALKER takes audiences from their own reality into that of the Zone or ‘Zona’. Tarkovsky uses his unique cinematic skillset to examine the nature of physical reality and mental states inside the Zone. The film is an unsettling experience arising from an unsettling time in Russian history.

Western democracies, including the United States, are currently experiencing their own unsettling moment in history. Lately it seems the foundation of our American reality has begun to shift—the laws of politics are suspended, facts have an alternative, and the people have begun to divide themselves based on the reality they experience. STALKER is immediately relevant to our unsettled political reality because it shows us an iteration of reality and asks if we believe it—or if we even want to believe it.

In one section from documentarian Adam Curtis’ 2015 film HYPERNORMALISATION, the unique historical setting of STALKER’s production is explored through a series of archival clips from the period. Though not quite exacting scholarship, Curtis’ film is still a provocative study of the powerful effect politics have on individual lives.