Friday, February 16, 2018

The Hidden Worlds of Filmmaker Bette Gordon

Sandy McLeod in Bette Gordon's 1983 VARIETY

AFS Head of Film & Creative Media Holly Herrick provides this overview of the work of Bette Gordon. Gordon will be a guest at the AFS Cinema for a series of screenings starting on Friday, February 23 with a screening of VARIETY. The series continues through Monday, February 26.
“I came from a time where market driven art didn’t exist in film. It was such a small world… the filmmakers of the time, we were just mucking around, kind of just making films for each other.”
An early arriver on the New York independent film scene, Bette Gordon was part of the group that laid the groundwork for what was to come. The perception of New York as a fringe community of experimental artists would quickly change to that of a hotbed of filmmakers with market and Hollywood-ready material. But in the early 80s, New York’s downtown filmmaking scene was still dominated by artists experimenting with discovery and the possibilities of expression within the moving image. Bette Gordon’s work was born of this scene, but also suggested the next wave of artistically driven but viably commercial films like the more frequently cited STRANGER THAN PARADISE and SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT-- a narrative cinema rooted at once in cinephilia and the distinct, original visual ideas that were the outcome of a fertile period of experimentation.

Gordon editing VARIETY, circa 1983

Bette Gordon was totally ahead of her time in every way when she made VARIETY (1983), one of the greatest films of the New York of its period. Just take a look at her choice of collaborators: Christine Vachon was on her first gig as a production assistant, Luis Guzmán appears in his first feature film role, a then-unknown Nan Goldin co-stars, Kathy Acker co-wrote the script , John Lurie, fresh off of composing the music for Jim Jarmush and Kathryn Bigelow’s first features, did the score. After collaborating with James Benning on several shorts and then breaking off on her own with a proof of concept short called EMPTY SUITCASES (all of these shorts are playing in our Bette Gordon Experimental Shorts program), Gordon embarked on this first feature, a combination of her passion for hidden areas of New York, and an ongoing exploration of feminist ideas. In looking back at VARIETY with Film Comment’s Violet Lucca (for Metrograph) Gordon remembers the following:
“I was attracted to the underworld, the kind of movies I’d seen on late night TV or in film noir: PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, other Sam Fuller films, THE NAKED CITY. The idea that a world was underneath. In exploring the night world of New York, I came across a lot of places, especially ones that I was told were dangerous, and they became shooting locations. What attracted me to film noir was the female with a kind of agency that she didn’t have normally have in other genres, a kind of dangerous sexuality that, in a way, threatened men. Sometimes in noir the woman had power, but ultimately she was only there to assist or she was the obstacle. Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”changed a lot of things for a lot of people. I was drawn to this idea of seeing and being seen and the status of conventional Hollywood narrative, with the male as subject and the woman as object. I started thinking about taking a detective noir or a Hitchcock and flipping it around: what if she actually did have agency, with woman as explorer and man as enigmatic figure? What about a story in which a woman looks back? This whole question of looking, and the pleasure in looking, and the way in which sexual desire is represented in cinema—I was very inspired by all of that.”
It’s these ideas about representation, pulling the veil up in interesting ways on the mechanisms of masculinity, that echo in her later films including LUMINOUS MOTION, HANDSOME HARRY and THE DROWNING. LUMINOUS MOTION finds Gordon adapting a novel about a boy and his mother, living in their car and the odd motel room, and the string of short-term boyfriends who offer the mother money or a place to stay. Mom, played by Deborah Kara Unger, is the center of a story around which all the male characters rotate, but the film is told through the point of view of her possessive son. It becomes increasingly clear that the little boy’s devotion is out of control, and that there is more to the situation than meets the eye. This is where Gordon digs in—she’s attracted to the story under the surface. We see this straight off in THE DROWNING, when the film opens with what appears to be a mysterious coincidence, and the mystery of that moment only gets deeper and more layered as the film progresses. It’s Gordon’s strange characters and their questionable decisions that give way to the deepening shadows in her stories. As Gordon says:

“I’m not interested in making a “feel good/everybody ends up happily ever after”kind of movie. I always will probably gravitate to stuff that’s more difficult. I’m not interested in characters that are easy or conventionally likable. In fact, that’s something that drives me crazy about so much art now—the tyranny of likability.This idea that you must like every character or that you have to relate to them somehow. Who cares about that? I don’t think you have to like the characters,but you should at least find them interesting. For me a creative problem that needs to be solved is usually just, how to do I make people see something that they might not otherwise see? I mean, I grew up at a time at the end of the Vietnam war,and as a young person then so much of what I was feeling was about wanting people to open their eyes and see the truth. I think I’m always looking for an element of that in my stories and in my films.” 
(quoted from her interview with the Creative Independent).

Gordon’s approach to making images that are more than meets the eye will be discussed in the days to come when we welcome her to Austin to present her films, including VARIETY, LUMINOUS MOTION, her newest film, THE DROWNING, and the short films that laid the groundwork for her features.

Watch the trailer for NO COVER: THE FILMS OF BETTE GORDON here:

Newly Restored: A MATTER OF LIFE & DEATH Comes To AFS Cinema For Select Shows

A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH starts on Saturday, February 17 at the AFS Cinema. This is the new 4K restoration. Buy tickets and find out more here.

At the end of WWII, the US and Great Britain, having just participated in a war to vanquish the greatest evil of modern times, were at a cross-roads. Resentment took hold against the American service-people who were still quartered in the British Isles. Territorial apportionment occasionally set Brit vs Yank against one another as the geopolitical stage was set for the post-war period.

What was needed, according to the British Ministry of Information, was a film to smooth feelings between the allies. The movie that resulted from this mandate may or may not have helped at the time. One thing is for sure, it has lived on in the hearts of people of all nationalities and is newly discovered by serious filmgoers all the time.

The team known as "The Archers," Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, had already made a masterpiece, THE LIFE & DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943) and several other good films, but A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH arguably surpasses everything they did before or since - not an insignificant task.

David Niven, who was both a matinee idol and a great screen actor plays a British RAF pilot who, in a moment of distress, makes a radio call to an American radio operator - (Kim Hunter) - which proves to be very important in the ensuing moments, which take a turn toward the supernatural. That's all we'll say, but you can be assured that the film is both technically astounding and emotionally moving, a true work of art.

Here is British critic Mark Kermode introducing the film. You should note that there are some mild spoiler elements in the video.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

"Funny & Brutal": What Critics are Saying About Two New Works By Romanian Auteur Radu Jude

From AFS Head of Film & Creative Media Holly Herrick

The Romanian director Radu Jude popped on the radar for Austin audiences when his second feature, EVERYBODY IN OUR FAMILY, became a surprise favorite of Fantastic Fest in 2013. A filmmaker who works outside of traditional genre conventions to make expansive and gorgeously cinematic narratives, Jude has had a prolific couple of years.

He brought home the Best Director Prize at the Berlinale for his pitch black comedic saga set in 1800s Romania, AFERIM!, and followed it up with the equally dark and beautifully funny and intellectual SCARRED HEARTS, which won a jury prize at Locarno in 2016. Now we await his next film, his first feature documentary that, like his two past narratives, deals in open secrets of Romania’s past.

While we wait, AFS is catching up with his latest two films that are making their first appearances in Austin, and we’ve rounded up some words from the critics about why you should mark your calendars for our screenings of AFERIM! And SCARRED HEARTS:

"'AFERIM!” — the title translates more or less as “Attaboy!” — is Radu Jude’s sublime new feature, a funny and brutal costume drama with a potent contemporary kick … [the movie] might be described as a perverse folk tale set in the present day. Its dry, wry minimalism will be familiar to devotees of the Romanian New Wave. Mr. Jude, while he shares with his contemporaries an unsentimental interest in human folly and failure, departs from the naturalism that has been their collective signature for the last decade… [AFERIM!] casts a fierce, revisionist eye on the past, finding the cruelty and prejudice that lie beneath the pageantry." – The New York Times, A.O. Scott

"Somehow, this movie, with all its full-frontal historical horror, is still loaded with laughs. It’s gallows humor reminiscent of Robert Altman’s best work." - The Guardian, Jordan Hoffman

"[Jude] has created an uncommonly beautiful film (shot in 35mm widescreen and in the glory of black and white) that at times evokes the simple beauties of classic Westerns." –, Peter Sobczynski

Catch up on Radu Jude's work with us by coming to our screening of AFERIM! at AFS Cinema on Sun, Feb 18 only.

"SCARRED HEARTS is the most interesting production I’ve seen from [Romania] this year…. Despite its bleak theme, the film brims with anarchic life... Marius Panduru’s Academy-ratio photography, each scene staged in mainly fixed tableaux, makes the film as memorable formally as it is dramatically." –Film Comment, Jonathan Romney
"Alternately funny, raunchy and sad, SCARRED HEARTS is an intimate look at one writer making the best of awful conditions. Starring extraordinary newcomer Lucian Tedor Rus in his first lead role, the movie tracks the experiences of 20-year-old Emanuel, who spends nearly the entire film hospitalized with a spinal disease — specifically, bone tuberculosis, which looks as awful as it sounds— that leaves him mostly immobile and bed-ridden. The source's author M. Blecher was himself afflicted by such a condition during the final decade of his life, perishing from the disease in his twenties and only finding posthumous acclaim. (SCARRED HEARTS is based on his semi-autobiographical novel.) But the movie focuses less on the plucky young man’s literary ambitions than the insular world that becomes his natural habitat. Set in 1937, as Adolf Hilter rose to power and the early stirrings of WWII put Europe on edge, the movie lingers with Emanuel and the various patients and doctors he befriends while lying around.…By chronicling Emanuel’s perseverance, SCARRED HEARTS successfully makes the case for the author’s work. But with its endearing characters and poignant themes, the movie doubles as a discovery for the filmmaker as well. Blecher’s career came to a sudden end early on, but SCARRED HEARTS suggests that Jude’s just getting started." - Indiewire, Eric Kohn 

"Filmed on 35mm and in the Academy Ratio, SCARRED HEARTS feels almost literally like a window into the past. If it wasn’t for the richness of the colors and the precision of the framing, we might almost take these as precious home movies, a notion underlined by the succession of black and white photographs from the 1930s which are among the first things we see on screen." – Screen International, Allan Hunter

Catch up on Radu Jude's 2016 award-winning film SCARRED HEARTS with AFS Cinema on Wed, Feb 21.

Watch the trailers for AFERIM! and SCARRED HEARTS here.

Friday, February 9, 2018

The Anti-Commercial Odyssey of Seijun Suzuki's Taisho Trilogy


The incorrigible Japanese filmmaker Seijun Suzuki is well known for having been basically banned from making films at all after 1967's explosion of bullets and butterflies BRANDED TO KILL. The stated reason from his bosses at Nikkatsu Studios was that his films "made no sense and no money."

You can see the BRANDED TO KILL trailer here:

He was able to sneak back into the industry 10 years later with A TALE OF SORROW AND SADNESS, an adaptation of a popular manga about a teenage girl golfer. In Suzuki's hands it became a violent, operatic condemnation of modern Japanese culture. This wasn't what the producers at Shochiku Studios had in mind, and he was on the skids again.

We showed the film in 2015. Here's our trailer for it.

Three years later he had hustled together some independent funding for his next project. Since he was still only 56 years old, the prudent thing for him to do was surely to prove his commercial viability as a maker of films that could recoup their investments. Right?

Care to guess what he did with the money? If you guessed, "he made an obtuse and surreal metaphysical trilogy about the nature of artistic creation, with ghost sex and phantom musical recordings" you are absolutely right.

As you might predict, the films did not make money at the box office, but they did score big with critics, and these three films are considered among his best and most important. They also tended to place his earlier work in perspective for audiences who may not have had much of a unified opinion about his works.

Now, nearly 40 years after their making, we are finally able to revisit these unusual films on the big screen in a new restoration. They will be playing over three successive Saturdays at the AFS Cinema starting with ZIGEUNERWEISEN Saturday, February 10.

The films constitute a trilogy in name and theme only so if you miss one, it won't affect your ability to grasp subsequent titles.

Watch the trailer for Suzuki's Taisho Trilogy here:

Thursday, February 8, 2018

BOMB CITY is the Austin Chronicle Pick Of The Week - Opens at AFS Cinema This Weekend

"First-time director Jameson Brooks’ BOMB CITY reads like a recipe pulled from "The Anarchist Cookbook": Everyday items which, when assembled, create a dangerous product capable of wreaking havoc and destruction." - Danielle White, Austin Chronicle

A tragic 1997 incident that took place in Amarillo, Texas forms the backbone of an exciting new film called BOMB CITY. Made by a team of filmmakers with Amarillo roots, BOMB CITY revisits the controversial death of 19-year old Brian Deneke which occurred during a period of volatile conflict between punks and jocks.

The film, which pulses with a hardcore punk beat, juxtaposes both tribes and lets us see the events with the clarity of hindsight. In this week's Austin Chronicle, Danielle White gives the film a 4-star "AC Pick" review and Marc Savlov contributes a much longer piece with a lot of interesting backstory and followup reviews.

Watch the trailer here:

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

A CIAMBRA Director Jonas Carpignano on Being Robbed Blind By His Cast (& Being OK with It)

A remarkable new film called A CIAMBRA opens at the AFS Cinema this Friday.

Produced by Martin Scorsese and directed with assurance and improvisational flair by New York-based Italian American filmmaker Jonas Carpignano (MEDITERRANEA), it takes us into the lives of some pretty rough kids who hustle and scrap in the tough Southern Italian enclave of Gioia, in Calabria.

The hero of the piece, such as it stands, is a Romani boy named Pio Amato (he plays himself here), who has to grow up and become the man of the family at age 14. Since most of his coping mechanisms revolve around stealing and other petty crimes, he faces some serious challenges. It's thrilling and compelling viewing.

Recently Steven Saito of The Movable Feast talked to Carpignano about A CIAMBRA, how he cast the roles, and the specific skills needed to make a film without a traditional script, set in a high-crime milieu, and still have it emerge as one of the best movies of the year. The part about how he met the family that formed the backbone of his cast (when they stole his car) is priceless.

We encourage you to come see the film, opening on February 9 at AFS Cinema.

Watch the trailer for A CIAMBRA here. Enjoy.