October 31-November 6, 2002
Last Dance (Sat., Nov. 2, 8 p.m.; Sun., Nov. 3, 2 p.m.; Mon., Nov. 4, 7:30 p.m., $7-$12.50, Gershman Y, 401 S. Broad St., 215-446-3033) Collaboration may sound nice from the outside, but as anyone who¹s tried it knows, it¹s often no more than an agreement that every argument will come to a conclusion. When Pilobolus, the New York dance company that had built its performances up from improvisation for 30 years, took on Maurice Sendak as a collaborator, they were looking for a "storyteller," but what they got was a fellow combatant. Mirra Bank¹s documentary takes us inside the often-contentious process of creating "A Selection," which, per Sendak¹s suggestion, is a Holocaust tale set in a front camp designed to show foreigners how well they were treating their Jews (although, as Sendak says, "the back door went straight to Auschwitz.") While Sendak insists that the Holocaust can¹t be discussed enough, the Piloboleans, particularly artistic director Jonathan Wolken, show discomfort in taking on a dance with such explicit subject matter. When the Piloboleans balk, for example, at Sendak¹s insistence that two dancers be stripped naked in an examination scene near the dance¹s climax (feeling the nudity will distract the audience), Sendak argues back, "This was done!" At the same time, the dancers respond positively to Sendak¹s character insights, his attention to their personalities, not just their physicality. Bank doesn¹t encourage you to take sides, exactly, although Wolken comes off as a bit of a prick, and excerpts enough of the dance to allow viewers to decide for themselves whether all the trouble was worth it. Sendak and Bank will attend the Saturday night screening, which opens this year¹s Jewish Film Festival.
Koyaanisqatsi/Powaqqatsi ($29.98 DVD; $19.98 each) Godfrey Reggio spent the years from ages 14 to 28 in a monastic community, a way of life he calls remarkably insane and beautiful, words which might equally apply to 1983's Koyaanisqatsi, the first installment in what became a trilogy, and which reaches completion with Naqoyqatsi, released in theaters this week (see review, p. 40). There's no fixed order to the films, since they're all different aspects of the same theme. That's probably why Koyaanisqatsi, Reggio's first bite at the apple, is the strongest of the films -- that, and the unique presence of cinematographer Ron Fricke (who later went on to direct the similarly themed Baraka). Though Fricke and Reggio's time-lapse images of cars speeding along freeways or commuters bustling down city streets have passed into the popular lexicon to the extent that they've become cliches, laid end-to-end they retain their power to transport, even on the small screen. The way Fricke's camera captures clouds reflected in a towering skyscraper, they seem imprisoned by its mass, caged by its glass and steel frame. Reggio wittily observes New Yorkers walking along sidewalks in crushed packs beneath billboards that read Have a barrel of fun and real. The film's juxtaposition of unaltered nature and modern megalopolises may seem facile, but there's as much love, or at least awe, in the overhead shots of cloverleaf exchanges as in the views of southwestern buttes.
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It may be Fricke's absence, but 1988's Powaqqatsi (translated as a way of life that consumes another way of life) doesn't have half the power. The images are prose, not poetry. Set in the developing world, the film takes fully half its length laying out what comes across as a simplistic, touristy version of daily life, which is then conveniently demolished by encroaching technology. The images are lustrous, helped by a larger budget occasioned by the first film's success, but that just increases the sense of remove, and Philip Glass' synthetic, faux-worldbeat music doesn't help. The discs include insightful new interviews with Reggio and Glass.
German Horror Classics ($89.95 DVD) If the Prince¹s vampire screenings have whetted your appetite for stylish silent horror, feast on this. Kino¹s four-disc box skims the cream of the German horror boom, including F.W. Murnau¹s Nosferatu, Robert Wiene¹s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Paul Leni¹s Waxworks and Paul Wegener and Carl Boese¹s The Golem. In truth, not all have aged so well, with the lesser-known films coming out on top. Nosferatu (1922) has plenty of style, but the melodrama gets awfully hokey, and despite its celebrated Expressionist sets, the 1919 Caligari is stagebound and primitive. The hidden jewel of the set is Waxworks (1924), directed by Paul Leni (The Man Who Laughs, The Cat and the Canary). Though this three-part anthology film is a bit lopsided -- of its 83 minutes, the final segment occupies about six -- it¹s a delight, featuring a rare comic turn from Emil Jannings (The Blue Angel) as the chubby Grand Vizier of ancient Baghdad, and a characteristically menacing performance by Conrad Veidt (best known as Dr. Caligari himself) as Ivan the Terrible, in a sequence whose influence on Sergei Eisenstein is unmistakable. Despite its creepy setting, the film isn¹t horror per se -- the Baghdad sequence is a reputed inspiration for Douglas Fairbanks¹ swashbuckling The Thief of Baghdad, excerpted on the DVD -- at least, not until the final, chilling segment. Though Jack the Ripper makes only a brief appearance in Waxworks, the segment which features Spring-Heeled Jack stalking his prey through a carnival funhouse (shades of The Lady of Shanghai) is a mini-masterpiece of mood and lighting. The set also includes The Golem (1920), one of the earliest and most memorable film versions of the Jewish folk tale.
Singin’ in the Rain ($26.99 DVD)/Charade ($39.95 DVD) Perhaps the most extravagant special edition since Warner Bros.' Citizen Kane, Singin' in the Rain arrives with tons of extra features, including audio commentary from all the living principals (and, of course, Baz Luhrmann). Betty Comden and Adolph Green (who recently passed away) responded to Arthur Freed's demand to build a story around his pre-existing songs with gusto and brilliance. What sets Singin' apart from its contemporaries isn't so much Stanley Donen's inspired direction or Gene Kelly's glorious dancing; it's the film's inspired book, which sparkles with good-natured wit and clever situations. (How many musicals boast a non-singing performance as delirious as Jean Hagen's here, playing the screechy-voiced silent-film ingenue?) Of course, the singing and dancing don't hurt. There's probably no screen dancer who exudes free-swinging, easy masculinity the way Gene Kelly does. Fred Astaire might sweep you off your feet; Kelly just bowls you over. Included with the disc are excerpted versions of the original songs -- which, among other things, reveal the accomplishment of the film's orchestrators, who turned the title song from a ukulele ditty to a triumphant, giddy number -- and the delightful Musicals Great Musicals, a lengthy documentary about the accomplishments of MGM's Arthur Freed unit. All in all, it's a fitting tribute to a movie that deserves it all.
Charade, also directed by Stanley Donen, has been in the news recently as the source material for Jonathan Demme's The Truth About Charlie -- but don't hold that against it. Donen's tongue-in-cheek spy thriller is a strange fish, part self-conscious star vehicle, part genre parody, with a few jarring helpings of grotesque violence. (The uneven tone is the one element Demme accurately copied.) If Charade is never quite as delightful as its Op Art credit sequence, it's still got tons more sophistication than the stuff they try and cram down our throats nowadays. Donen and writer Peter Stone's commentary is a crabby hoot, with the two septuagenarians arguing with each other like an old married couple.