May 29-June 4, 2003
Horror Triple Feature (Fri., May 30, 7 p.m., $10, Darress Theatre, Boonton, N.J.) Hard to argue with Exhumed Films¹ triple bill of Friday the 13th, The Shining and Army of Darkness. Even harder to argue with the cause: Proceeds go to help 5-year-old Juliet Renee DiBonaventura, a Rockaway girl with a heart condition so rare it doesn¹t even have a name. More info at www.thejulietfund.org.
Jukebox/Peepshow: The Berlin Stories (Tue., June 3, 9:30 p.m., 700 Club, 700 N. Second St.) Not exactly a film event, but we’re pretty curious to see what Andrew McElhinney (A Chronicle of Corpses) is up to with his "multimedia juxtaposition" night at the 700, which this time around features such pairings as Paul Wegener’s The Golem and Kurt Weill’s Mahogany Songspiel, the film of Christopher Isherwood’s I Am a Camera and the Cabaret cast recording (okay, bit of a gimme there), and Se7en and Marianne Faithful’s The Seven Deadly Sins. (You’ll have to stay up until 1:23 a.m. for that one.) McElhinney has similar nights planned once a month through December.
Man With a Movie Camera/Earth ($29.95 DVD each) It's unusual to praise a DVD for its lack of special features, but it's tempting to do just that with Kino's new edition of Dziga Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera. Vertov's 1929 silent may run a close second to Citizen Kane as the most (over)analyzed movie of all time. Vertov, a pseudonym taken from the Rus-sian for "spinning top," proclaimed Movie Camera's "total separation from the language of theater and literature," a tall order to be sure, and one more fully realized in the underground films of the 1960s. But Movie Camera, a staple of collegiate film courses, is a landmark of cinematic history, perhaps the purest distillation of Soviet montage theory. Vertov investigates the camera as a tool for controlling and shaping our perceptions of reality and perhaps reality itself: The film opens with a theater that readies itself for spectators without human intervention, then focuses on still figures willed into motion by the fiat lux of a projector's sparking arc lamp. Still shots of faces turn out to be an editing-room view of footage in the process of being cut; at times, the camera almost seems to be drunk on its own power.
Vertov planned every shot, every cut, meticulously, giving rise to a cottage industry of Man With a Movie Camera deconstructors, but Kino's edition, accompanied by Michael Nyman's Glassian score, allows you to just sit back and enjoy the movie's inventiveness and humor. (Or you can go in the other direction and pick up Image's recently-released disc of Movie Camera with audio commentary and, oddly enough, the Alloy Orchestra score that accompanied Kino's videotape.)
Also out from Kino is an edition of Aleksandr Dovzhenko's Earth (1930), which belongs to a uniquely Soviet genre: tractor porn. Commonly regarded as an expressionist masterwork, Earth, whose title translates more literally as "dirt," was commissioned as pro-collectivization propaganda, but rejected as too abstract to appeal to the peasants who were its intended audience. It would be generous to say Dovzhenko's interest in narrative is slight and the film's overwrought poetry will catch unprepared viewers off-guard. (A montage shows villagers greeting the arrival of their first tractor with fits of quasi-sexual energy; a murdered organizer's wife clutches frantically at her naked chest while his assassin climbs to the top of a hill and shouts his guilt to the world.) But with all the bajillions being spent on samey CGI-imagery, it's worth reflecting how much Dovzhenko was able to get out of a black-and-white camera and a handful of wheat farmers. So much for technology improving our lives. Kino's DVD also includes Vsevolod Pudovkin's The End of St. Petersburg and his short Chess Fever.
About Schmidt/Citizen Ruth ($27.98/$19.99 DVD) Two chances to catch up with one of America’s sharpest observers, Alexander Payne. Payne, who also directed the brilliant Election, is a satirist, but an apolitical one, or at least one with a healthy distrust of politics. In Citizen Ruth, Payne’s first feature, his refusal to take sides feels cautious, indecisive; his portrayals of both pro- and anti-abortion forces tip into caricature, though Laura Dern does some of her finest work as the spray can-huffing mother-to-be in the middle. (In Election, Payne found a setting more convivial to the same themes: high school.) About Schmidt broadens the canvas, turning Payne’s jaundiced eye on the American dream itself. Jack Nicholson’s Schmidt, like the inverse of Nicholson’s iconic characters in movies like Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces (the latter of which is referenced directly in a deleted scene), has been a good soldier, a faithful worker bee in an insurance conglomerate, and has wound up with a wife he can’t stand, a daughter who can’t stand him and not much else to show for his 65 years of life. Closing out a trilogy of features set in Payne’s hometown of Omaha, which he packed up and left as Schmidt was released in theaters last Christmas, the film plays like an elegy to American promise; though it closes with a much-needed catharsis, it’s left up to the viewer to decide if it’s as deliberately contrived as a Sirk denouement. Citizen Ruth includes Payne’s commentary, while Schmidt features text introductions to a generous helping of deleted scenes.
Kandahar ($29.95 DVD) Though it was inevitably viewed at the time of its release through the prism of post-9/11 fascination with Afghanistan, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s wrenching, hypnotic feature might be better watched out of the spotlight’s glare. After all, the indications are that despite the Taliban’s (possibly temporary) ouster, conditions in the region have shifted little, especially where the treatment of women (a favorite Makhmalbaf theme) is concerned. (It’s also central to daughter Samira’s At Five in the Afternoon, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes on Sunday.) Kandahar patterns itself after the story of Canadian journalist Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan émigré who returned to the region after receiving a distraught letter from a friend. Pazira, who stars, more or less as herself, also provides commentary. (She’s also profiled in an Evening Magazine-type segment from Canadian TV, included on the disc, which provides interesting biographical data while completely missing the point of the film.) Shot with stunning visual beauty, perhaps to counter ideas of the country as a wasteland, Kandahar lays the irony on thick at times, but other images float as free as the artificial limbs which descend from the sky on parachutes at the movie’s opening.