Tuesday, March 31, 2015

AFS Viewfinders Podcast: Cinefamily's Hadrian Belove Talks Programming

Los Angeles's Cinefamily is one of the most hallowed film cultural institutions in the world. Their mix of programming and overall concern for an audience experience that involves not only a love of film but a love of the communal experience of gathering for film is evident in every event they program. Cinefamily's founder and executive director Hadrian Belove is one of the most thoughtful and reflective people in any level of show business and if you are interested in any aspect of programming or the business of the spectacle, listen to Hadrian. He approaches the day-to-day running of the theater like a ship pilot constantly monitoring the wind and swell of the sea, making minute corrections in course all along.

We talked in the AFS screening room last week about some very inside topics, such as theater layouts, the best way to host a show, the role of values in an organization and the need to change and innovate, even if it means leaving behind perfectly serviceable structures. It's a deep dialogue, as seemingly all conversations with Hadrian tend to be, and it's also funny.

Listen to the podcast here or search iTunes for the AFS Viewfinders podcast.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Happy 78th Birthday Warren Beatty

As an actor, producer, director and all-around creative force in Hollywood, Warren Beatty is justly celebrated, but probably not enough. BONNIE & CLYDE, for instance, which more than any other movie, kicked off the New Hollywood era, would probably have been a dreadful, forgettable formula picture without his work as producer and star. What other movie stars used their onscreen clout with such formidable leverage?

Once BONNIE & CLYDE became a hit - which took a while, actually, but that's a different story - Beatty had the kind of power that always matters in Hollywood, the power to draw young, hip audiences. His next 20 years are unmatched in terms of number of great films. Beatty has excellent taste in stories and collaborators and it shows.

Consider the following films that Beatty made as a producer or director - or got made because he had box office power and used it:

Robert Altman's brilliant, wholly uncommercial McCABE & MRS. MILLER, Alan Pakula's definitive story of conspiracy paranoia THE PARALLAX VIEW, Hal Ashby and Robert Towne's immortal SHAMPOO, the terrific, fun HEAVEN CAN WAIT, written by Beatty and Elaine May, the still too-little seen major epic REDS - which deserves to be considered one of the greatest films ever made, and Elaine May's still underrated (but appreciating in reputation every year) comic fandango ISHTAR.

In celebration of Beatty the screen performer, enjoy these wardrobe tests for BONNIE & CLYDE. It's 7 and a half minutes of Beatty making faces, putting on hats, taking off hats and squinting. Happy birthday!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Watch This: Video From the Moving and Funny L.M. Kit Carson Tribute Panel at AFS

On March 11 we were honored to host a special screening of DAVID HOLZMAN'S DIARY in memorial tribute to L.M. Kit Carson who died on October 20 of last year. Carson, who acted (brilliantly) in Jim McBride's seminal underground classic as the titular character, also wrote, produced and directed many films of his own and was a mentor and scene-maker whose great influence is impossible to calculate.

Impressive as it is, his IMDB listing can never account for the number of people he brought along, whose personal or professional courses he corrected, who received a helping hand or encouraging word at the right time, or who were inspired by Kit's herculean endeavors to "do it themselves."

The panel assembled on stage at the Marchesa Theater by AFS on March 11 went a long way towards helping all of us understand just what a powerful force Carson had been to those who knew him.

Assembled for the occasion were:

Cynthia Hargrave, Kit's wife and producing partner; writer/director/producer Guillermo Del Toro, actor/director Jonny Mars, SXSW director and Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black, writer Natalie Dickinson, producer Joe Dishner, writer Jim Hart, and a very special surprise guest, Kit's son Hunter Carson.

The event was exceptionally moving and funny, which everyone agreed was an appropriate tone for a night in tribute to a man who did it all, had a lot of fun doing it and loved and was loved by many in return.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Working To Code: The Educational and Industrial Cinema of Tom Sachs

This SXSW it happened that I was remarking over lunch on the bizarre character of "space nuts", people who are obsessed with NASA and who, in Texas anyway, tend to be very military, conservative types. Most space documentaries are equally buttoned down, which struck me as a trifle incongruous. Then a friend recommended that I check out the doc by Van Neistat and Tom Sachs depicting Sachs' exhibition that simulated a Mars landing mission. Sachs is a big deal artist, though I will confess I had never heard of him before watching A SPACE PROGRAM.

The doc does a good job of recording the many different components of the Mars Mission installation, and it shows the process as if it were an actual mission - with preparation, take-off, Mars landing, scientific collection, departure from the Martian surface and return to Earth. The filmmakers slyly play on our ideas of spectacle and they delight in including absurd, dissonant and perverse details, like the attempt to grow opium poppies on Mars using the scrapings from a poppy seed bagel, and many pseudoscientific explanations that are just wrong.

Sachs and his team are bricoleurs, which is to say they use materials commonly at hand. Much is made of plywood and epoxy glue, and there are a number of Charles and Ray Eames style explanatory breakouts. It's very, very funny.

We're not sure what will become of A SPACE PROGRAM, whether it will get theatrical or online distribution, or none at all, but it drove me to check out some of Sachs' and Neistat's other films, some of which document the Sachs house philosophy and most of which tend to propagate an idiosyncratic and insular studio culture. These are very funny films and there are more where these come from.

10 BULLETS is about "working to code" and it lays out several very practical and helpful techniques as it explains to employees of Sachs' shop what is expected of them as employees:

COLOR propounds Sachs' theories about color via a number of oddball pseudo-authoritative chapters. The section on purple is guaranteed to offend short musical geniuses who reside in the Minneapolis area.

LOVE LETTER TO PLYWOOD is just that, a paean to the "queen of building materials", plywood.

A retrospective show of Tom Sachs' boom boxes is on display until April 15 at the Contemporary Austin.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Ruben Östlund in Conversation at the Walker Arts Center

We've discussed filmmaker Ruben Östlund in these pages before. His film FORCE MAJEURE was one of the big surprises of the past year and the touring retrospective of his earlier work, which AFS presented here in Austin showed the evolution of a major filmmaking vision.

The Östlund retrospective is now over but this conversation between Ostlund and Dennis Lim at Minneapolis' Walker Arts Center has just been posted. Enjoy it.


Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Austin's Own Vulcan Video Has a New Series of Commercials Starring Matthew McConaughey and Jimmy Kimmel!?

The popular late night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live is in town for SXSW. Last night they did a "giving back" bit, in which they helped a local business make a TV commercial. The local business they chose was the great Vulcan Video which, along with I Luv Video, helps to make Austin the film cultural powerhouse it is today. Vulcan managers Bryan Connolly and Kristen Ellisor are seen welcoming Kimmel into the store - a lot of jokes about the supposedly doomed nature of video rental stores are made - and Kimmel brings in a special guest - the bearded Matthew McConaughey - to make some new Vulcan Video commercials.

As with every YouTube video, avoid the comments field, it's a little dispiriting. Do not, however, avoid your local video store if you are lucky enough to have one. There are thousands of titles in video stores that are not available on any online, streaming medium and the video stores that remain are vital cultural institutions. Ironically enough, Austin's video stores are breaking income records this year. We're out of step with the rest of the country, but that's only because we're so far ahead.


Thursday, March 12, 2015

'Made In Texas' is Back: Jonathan Demme and Louis Black's Shot Heard Round the Film World

For most of the 20th century, Texas had a mostly-pretty-well deserved reputation nationally as a cultural wasteland. There were bright spots of course but the image of the Texan that prevailed for most Americans was of a cowboy in overstuffed western clothes talking in a loud voice about the many wonders and natural advantages of Texas. Now that Austin is one of the recognized cultural capitals of the world, the Texan image has undergone a makeover.

One of the many milestones in the evolution of Texas culture was the 1981 "Made In Texas - New Films From Austin" presentation at New York's Collective For Living Cinema. Filmmaker Jonathan Demme assembled the series of shorts with Louis Black. These shorts showed Austin as a vibrant place full of creativity and punk attitude. It was the beginning of something important.

This selection of short films will re-premiere at SXSW on Friday night March 13 at the Marchesa Hall & Theatre with Demme, Black and others in attendance. Additionally, the films have been released by the University Of Texas Press on DVD.

Here's the (appropriately rough) trailer for the event:

Monday, March 9, 2015

Bizarro Treasures from the Texas Archive Of The Moving Image Online Video Collection

The TAMI (Texas Archive Of The Moving Image) site is a great place to tumble through the historical looking glass into Texas History both official (LBJ footage, news coverage from Texas cities, etc.) and also insane home movies, industrial films, commercials and other oddball time capsules. I have collected a few of my favorite hits from TAMI in this post. Find your own and post in the comment field.

Here's a silent (and therefore deeply mysterious) reel consisting of bikini clad women whose bodies are painted with schematic diagrams and such phrases as "Components & Basic Function" and "Minor Degradations" (that one sounds like a D.C. area hardcore band from the early '80s). It's very odd. It is evidently a teaching tool for radar operators but the narrative strategy is inscrutable today.

Here's a prime cut of the stock footage genre known as "assembly line porn." We see the selection of meat, the grinding of the meat and the machine-assisted formation of the hamburger patties. We could stand more of it, but the process is surprisingly photogenic.

Here's a 1968 TV commercial from Dallas featuring Dick Clark trying to sell the world on hot Dr. Pepper. The experiment was a colossal failure and has been suppressed from all official Dr. Pepper histories.

Here's a brief, silent bit of intro footage filmed for an Austin-based kids show called THE UNCLE JAY SHOW. It depicts a bearded man swinging slowly across the screen clasping a rope. The show was likely a jolly thing, but the clip tends to disturb and disorient today, especially when he seems to just disappear.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Albert Maysles and the Greatest Generation of Documentarians

Albert Maysles died Thursday at age 88. He was a hugely important member of what we might characterize as the greatest generation of American documentarians - the group who took handheld and shoulder-mounted 16mm cameras, previously used almost exclusively for TV news reportage, and used them to create a new style of documentary. Maysles' first 16mm camera was in fact a gift from CBS after he filmed a report for them.

'Al' Maysles, his late brother David and their collaborator Charlotte Zwerin are part of the "greatest generation" of American documentarians. Along with their now-departed contemporaries Emile D'Antonio, Robert Drew and Richard Leacock and (the blessedly still with-us) D.A. Pennebaker and Frederick Wiseman, they brought a new kind of fly-on-the-wall realism to filmmaking. Many called it direct cinema or cinema verite. In truth it was a whole new way of perceiving a filmed record of action.

The Maysles' and Zwerin made documentaries that will be studied not only as films but as immensely important cultural, historical documents. Consider SALESMAN, GREY GARDENS and GIMME SHELTER and think about all the dense historical, economic, pop cultural and sociological data embedded in every frame.

As the concept of filmed "reality" becomes hopelessly convoluted, it's hard to even grasp the concept of how different the Maysles' films were. When they (and Zwerin) filmed Marlon Brando on a press junket they included all the things that "responsible" journalists would be expected to exclude - his insouciance, his constant flirting with attractive journalists - in short, the gentleman's game of going off-the-record and making the subject look good was over, pretty much once and for all. Of course, this was a tremendously attractive new look for audiences, and for celebrities (like Brando) with a perverse streak. Pennebaker ran with this style a few years later when he followed the most perverse celebrity of all, Bob Dylan, and made DON'T LOOK BACK.

These documentarians changed our cultural expectations of access. TV news changed, narrative films changed, in some way our brains probably changed as we learned to weigh and evaluate our own perceptions from the data we were presented. We filtered the facts from what appeared to us to be a raw mass of data (in fact it was selected with artistry and discretion) and came to our own conclusions. And, of course, with our increasing sophistication as media decoders came an increasing sophistication in the halls of media manipulation, but the good guys were out in front on this one.

Maysles and company helped us find our internal cultural bullshit detectors. Their films help us better judge and evaluate the data we receive, and their subject-matter and editing choices allow us to truly see these things for ourselves, even when the lights come back up.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Stressful Day? Here Are 8 Pictures of Audrey Hepburn With Her Pet Deer

The Austin Film Society offices are abuzz with activity in preparation for the Texas Film Awards and the Texas Party next week. It's a huge endeavor with major guests, many attendees, an enormous stage set-up and international press coverage. It's a lot of fun and a lot of work.

There are schedules to be made, lights to be mounted, catering to be organized, voltages to be calibrated, flights to be changed, music and video cues to be refined, volunteers to be supervised. All these preparatory details are managed by our team of staff members, event coordinators, interns and volunteers and, not surprisingly, right around now people start getting that harried, cross-eyed look.

So for all the Texas Film Awards and Texas Party staff, and anyone else who might be having a stress-filled week, here are 12 photos of Audrey Hepburn and her pet deer Pippin - she called him "Ip." It all started when she was cast in the 1959 film GREEN MANSIONS directed by her then-husband Mel Ferrer. Her character in the film had a special bond with a baby fawn so she took the faun home with her to LA to bond. It worked. They ended up spending a lot of time together and were photographed numerous times.

Reportedly after the shoot she and Ferrer kept Ip but here the historical documentation falls apart. I'm going to speculate that they set Ip free in a big wild, beautiful sanctuary where there are no predators and where deer live forever.

Finally, here is a candid, totally unposed shot of Anthony Perkins, Hepburn and Ip at the GREEN MANSIONS wrap party.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Photographer George Hurrell & The Art Of Hollywood Glamour

Bette Davis

The work of photographer George Hurrell today epitomizes what we think of as Hollywood glamour. Even more than the films themselves, Hurrell's portraits, which were sent out en masse to theaters, fan magazines and fans, helped to create a mythos of gods and goddesses, more real than real and more perfect than perfection. Hurrell was a master of lighting and retouching. He was a house photographer at various times for MGM, Warner Brothers and Columbia, and he was highly in demand from the 20's until his death in 1992. Here are some of his most iconic classic Hollywood portraits.

Joan Crawford

Marlene Dietrich

Douglas Fairbanks Jr.

Anna May Wong

Norma Shearer

Errol Flynn

Katharine Hepburn

Merle Oberon

Gilbert Roland

Veronica Lake

Carole Lombard

Clark Gable

George Hurrell, self portrait

Monday, March 2, 2015

100 Years Ago: Dinosaurs and Ape Men, Courtesy of Willis H. O'Brien

When we think of stop motion pioneer Willis H. O'Brien (born on this day in 1886), we think of KING KONG, for which he designed and produced all the effects shots. He, more than anyone, created the special-effects spectacle, in which the effects work was the real star of the show. But before KING KONG, before THE LOST WORLD, and when films were in their infancy, O'Brien made several experimental shorts for Thomas Edison. They are rougher, cruder - naturally - but his figures have life in them already, and they teem with lifelike movement, even though the situations are fantastic.

Here is one of O'Brien's best early stop motion features. He calls it a prehistoric tragedy. We're inclined to see the humor in it.