Monthly Archives: March 2011

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. White Heat (Walsh)
2. Hiroshima, Mon Amour (Resnais)
3. Rear Window (Hitchcock)
4. Bicycle Thieves (de Sica)
5. Adieu Philippine (Rozier)
6. House by the River (Lang)
7. Psycho (Hitchcock)
8. The Intruder (Denis)
9. Directed By John Ford (Bogdanovich)
10. Directed By John Ford (Bogdanovich)

Filmmaker Interview: Pierre Kattar

Photograph by Dennis Brack

Pierre Kattar is a Washington D.C.-based video journalist and documentary filmmaker. (Since meeting him in the green pastures of DePaul University in the fall of 1993, he has also become one of my oldest and dearest friends.) After graduating from DePaul, Pierre worked a lengthy stint at where he received numerous honors including an Emmy award and a White House News Photographers Association Video Editor of the Year award. More recently, Pierre has branched out to work as a freelance journalist and independent filmmaker. One of his latest projects, made in collaboration with Jill Drew, is The Buzz and Beyond, a 10 minute short that tracks three prominent journalists (NPR’s Don Gonyea, Mark Leibovich of The New York Times and Alexander Burns of Politico) as they cover last year’s midterm elections. I recently spoke with Pierre about this and other projects.

MGS: On your website you refer to yourself as both a “video journalist” and a “filmmaker.” How would you define those roles and what do you see as the main differences between the two?

PK: I define a video journalist as someone who reports, writes, shoots, edits and produces a news story for publication on a news website or broadcast on TV. I use the term filmmaker because the stories I tend to produce aren’t the hard news kind. They lend themselves to an approach one finds in documentary films. I’m inspired by the cinema verite approach and Errol Morris’s work. When I can, I try communicating not only the facts but also the sense of place, the mood of a story.

MGS: I was really fascinated by The Buzz and Beyond for the behind-the-scenes look it gives at print, radio and television journalism. When you start out making a video like this do you have a clear idea of what the outcome will be in terms of style, content or length – or is it all pretty much left to chance?

PK: The idea for The Buzz and Beyond came from Jill Drew, a former Washington Post reporter and editor and recent advocate for video journalism. We talked at length about the style, content and length. In the end, we were most able to control the style.

Jill wanted the piece shot in the cinéma verité style. She found the characters and I shadowed them as they went about their day reporting the midterm elections. True to cinema verite, nothing was staged or repeated for the camera. I never asked the subjects to do a certain thing or answer any questions while they worked. We diverged from strict verite when Jill interviewed the subjects. We tried to minimize the narration as well but realized that the piece needed context. We knew we would have to interview the subjects beforehand and probably narrate given the short amount of time we spent with the subjects. So stylistically speaking the execution lived up to the vision.

The content on the other hand was harder to predict. For the visuals, it was important for us to get both Leibovich and Gonyea reporting on the road. Leibovich agreed to be part of the story just twelve hours before he left Washington, D.C. for Little Rock, Arkansas to catch the Senator Blanche Lincoln campaigning at the Arkansas state fair. We knew that, regardless of what happened, we wanted to be there for that scene. I rushed to get tickets, pack and make it to Little Rock on time. With Gonyea, we wanted to capture him recording his radio story. The problem was that his deadline got pushed back and my flight was scheduled to leave before the deadline. Jill and I decided to delay my flight (twice) so we could capture the scene. With Burns, the scene we wanted to capture was of him writing the must-read early-morning bulletin he composes every day in the wee hours of the morning. He was a bit reluctant at first to let us into his apartment at 4 am but with some persistence, we were able to get in and capture the scene. The audio story or verbal content was where chance played a greater role. We talked about all the topics we wanted to touch on with each interview but it’s impossible to predict what someone’s going to say. The run time was a bit longer than what we planned but at nine and a half minutes long, it’s certainly within reason.

The final product is different than what we expected it at the outset to be. Nonetheless, we love it for what it is.

MGS: What, if anything, do you feel you learned by watching Gonyea, Leibovich and Burns that might help you in your own journalistic endeavors?

PK: Three words come to mind when I think about what I learned: persistence, flexibility and dedication. Stories change all the time and you have to be flexible in order to change direction or focus. Persistence helps find the story when your imagined story doesn’t flower. All three subjects were dedicated to their craft. Gonyea persisted in getting the audio because he knew his radio piece would be that much better, Leibovich wrote and wrote and wrote. He wrote in his hotel room, at Starbucks, on the moving walkway at the airport, on his blackberry while in flight. And Burns wakes up at 4 am to be first. You have to love doing the work of journalism to do it well.

MGS: Leibovich says that when covering politicians he’s trying to find “the gap between what is true and what they are trying to present as true.” How does a journalist go about finding this gap?

PK: Like Leibovich said, “…being on the ground is everything.” The gap he spoke of is the image that politicians want you to see. Press releases, press conferences and television ads are all versions of the truth, what politicians want you know about them. You find the gap by talking to people on the ground who aren’t affiliated with a campaign. You follow politicians to get a sense of how well attended their venues are or how people are responding to them on the ground. You don’t rely on handouts.

MGS: You just went to Africa to work on a project for NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. What can you tell me about the project and what was the experience like?

PK: The NewsHour hired me to shoot for them in Sudan and Ethiopia. I worked with a producer and a correspondent on three stories. The first two focused on the referendum in south Sudan and the third explored the problem of fistula among rural women in Ethiopia. Working in both countries was challenging but rewarding. Just getting there and getting credentialed took days. We arrived in Juba, south Sudan’s capital, to get credentialed and then traveled by charter flight to Bentiu, a town in Unity state, close to the border with north Sudan. There was no plumbing. I surprised myself and ended up loving taking bucket showers in the morning and shaving outside with bottled water. Power was available during the day between noon and midnight so charging batteries was a hassle without the chance to charge overnight.

I stayed on in Ethiopia after the PBS folks left. I got a commission from VJ Movement, an online news video site, to do a piece on journalist Dawit Kebde who runs an independent newspaper in Ethiopia – not a small feat in a country that likes to control its message. In fact, the Ethiopian courts sent him to jail for nearly two years. He was charged and convicted of treason, attempting to subvert the constitution and genocide. This was in 2005 when protests erupted throughout the country when election results, considered fraudulent by international observers, were announced in May. Opposition party members and thousands of protesters demonstrated in the streets of Addis. The police beat and shot at student protesters killing 200. Kebede says his only crime was writing an editorial asking why the police killed those students. After his life sentence was commuted to 21 months (he had to sign a presidential pardon admitting guilt to the charges), he started another paper. He’s fearless.

MGS: Assuming money, resources and access were not a problem, what would be your dream project as a documentarian?

PK: I have lots! But I would immediately start documenting President Obama. In homage to Robert Drew’s Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment, I would like to document the President as he and his administration grapple with a crisis. Imagine Woodward’s words turned to moving pictures.

MGS: Your work has been honored by the last two Presidential Administrations. What I’d like to know, Pierre, is who has the firmer handshake: Bush or Obama?

PK: Bush, for sure.

Photograph by Pete Souza / The White House

You can view The Buzz and Beyond at the Columbia Journalism Review.

You can learn more about Pierre on his official website.

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Vertigo (Hitchcock)
2. Bicycle Thieves (de Sica)
3. Rome, Open City (Rossellini)
4. The Lady from Shanghai (Welles)
5. Bay of Angels (Demy)
6. Poetry (Lee)
7. Once Upon a Time in America
8. Annie Hall
9. Change Nothing
10. Pursued

Now Playing: Change Nothing (Ne Change Rien)

Change Nothing
dir. Pedro Costa, 2009, France/Portugal

Rating: 8.9

The bottom line: Crucial viewing for lovers of cinema or music.

Now playing in limited release across the U.S. and just finishing its second and final screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center (as part of their essential annual European Union Film Festival) is Change Nothing, an intimate documentary portrait of French actress-turned-chanteuse Jeanne Balibar. Directed by the great Portugese filmmaker Pedro Costa, this is a highly original and unusually accomplished film about the working life of a musician. Unlike most music-themed films, where directorial point-of-view tends to be subsumed into hagiography, Change Nothing is a stand-alone work of art not aimed squarely at the fan base of its subject (just like Costa’s earlier In Vanda’s Room wasn’t made for heroin enthusiasts). Knowing nothing of Balibar’s music, as I didn’t prior to seeing this, shouldn’t prevent you from rushing out to experience Costa’s vital movie if it returns to Chicago cinema screens later in the year; the only prerequisites to enjoying it are having open eyes and ears.

Pedro Costa is best known in America for his “Fontainhas Trilogy,” released last year as a quadruple DVD box set by the Criterion Collection (an unusually enterprising move given the paucity of the films’ American theatrical screenings). Over the course of three monumental films – Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006) – Costa found his voice as a master of lo-fi digital cinema, in which he chronicled the denizens of a Lisbon shantytown through non-judgmental Warhol-ian long takes and a Vermeer-like sense of natural light. By juxtaposing shots of dispossessed laborers, immigrants and junkies with shots depicting the systematic demolition of their neighborhood, Costa provided a voice for the voiceless and invaluably captured an ephemeral way of existence in the process. In Change Nothing, Costa applies his now-signature “patient” style to a radically different subject but with equally rewarding results.

Jeanne Balibar is best known in America as a terrifically precise actress who has worked multiple times apiece with heavyweight French directors Jacques Rivette, Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas. In 2003, she successfully branched out into a singing career by recording an album, Paramour, that featured among its tracks the theme songs from the classic Hollywood films Johnny Guitar and Night of the Hunter. Costa’s film picks up Balibar several years into her second career as she records in the studio (with a barely glimpsed art-rock quartet), plays live club performances and even rehearses for a bare bones stage performance of Offenbach’s opera La Périchole. But none of this is explained through the use of traditional documentary devices such as interviews, voice-over narration or intertitles. Instead, Costa plunges viewers directly into these situations in a way that focuses us relentlessly, hypnotically on the process of creating music.

Costa’s acknowledged influence here is Jean-Luc Godard’s One Plus One, the ultimate process-oriented music film, which famously and exhaustively documented The Rolling Stones rehearsing and recording their seminal track “Sympathy for the Devil.” (With characteristic perversity, Godard never lets us hear the complete song.) Godard’s Pop Art colors and elaborate tracking shots perfectly capture both The Stones at their peak as well as what might be termed the spirit of the late 1960s counterculture. But, these being very different times and Balibar not being a juggernaut like The Stones, Costa finds a more appropriate stylistic approach to her music with high contrast black and white digital cinematography, composing images that, in their starkness and minimalism, occasionally and thrillingly border on abstraction. When the film opens with Balibar performing the song “Torture” in concert as sparse slivers of light perforate a mostly-velvety-black screen, I was reminded of nothing so much as a live action Rohrshach inkblot test.

Shortly following this auspicious opening is an epic sequence of Balibar and her guitarist Rodolphe Burger rehearsing another track, this time in the studio. This sequence, which unfolds in real-time and lasts for nearly a third of the entire movie, sees Balibar scat-singing the same melodic line over and over again in a cigarette-corroded voice that recalls the sexy authority of Marlene Dietrich as well as the wrecked majesty of late period Billie Holiday. This is the part of the film most likely to test the patience of some viewers (at least judging by the reaction of the audience members around me); one could argue after all that “nothing” really happens in this scene. One could equally argue, however, that “everything” happens in this scene, as viewers are witness to nothing less than the miraculous act of artistic creation, a process as mysterious, profound and beautiful as that of giving birth or the creation of the universe. This is the true heart of the movie: one meticulous artist finding the perfect form for capturing a kindred spirit in a dreamy, entrancing portrait that ennobles them both. It is here that the hidden smile of Change Nothing lies.

Watch Jeanne Balibar perform “Torture” in an excerpt from Change Nothing on YouTube:

The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. A Man Escaped (Bresson)
2. Le Bonheur (Varda)
3. Leprechaun 2 (Flender)
4. The Matrix (Wachowskis)
5. Howl (Epstein/Friedman)
6. Cloak and Dagger (Lang)
7. Dance, Girl, Dance (Arzner)
8. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman)
9. Bringing Up Baby (Hawks)
10. The Long Goodbye (Altman)

The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Chaplin at Essanay Podcast!

Last fall I blogged about the fascinating but little known story of the film Charlie Chaplin made in Chicago. Yesterday I returned to the former Essanay studio complex (now St. Augustine College) in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood to record a podcast on this same subject with Chicago historian and author Adam Selzer and his trusty sidekick Hector Reyes.

We started off outside the luxurious high-rise building that housed the apartment of G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson (where Chaplin bunked for three weeks from late December of 1914 through mid-January of 1915), then retraced Chaplin’s footsteps to the site of Essanay where he went to work every day several blocks away. Incredibly, upon arriving at St. Augustine College, we were not only granted access to the buildings’ interiors but also given a tour of the former studio stages where filming took place and the fireproof vaults in the basement where the original negatives of Essanay’s films were kept. The interiors of both locations have barely been renovated and look almost identical to how they would have appeared when Chaplin worked there.

You can look at pictures from our tour and read Adam’s thoughts at his excellent Chicago Unbelievable blog (formerly the Weird Chicago blog) here:

You can download the full 28 minute podcast here: Chaplin Podcast

You can listen to a two-minute audio file of me discussing the significance of Chaplin’s His New Job here: MGS on His New Job

Inside the Essanay vault:
Photograph by Adam Selzer

Essential Arzner

Last Saturday at midnight I had the pleasure of presenting Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance as part of the series “Heroine Addicts,” Facets Multimedia’s latest edition of Night School. I was keen on showing and discussing this particular film because, in spite of the fact that Arzner has developed something of a cult following in feminist circles (she was one of the few female directors, and by far the most prolific, to work in Hollywood in the early sound era), I still don’t feel she has received her full due for being the great and original filmmaker that she was.

Below is the text of a handout I gave to the Night School attendees, a list of what I consider essential Dorothy Arzner films. At some point I will also try to convert my lecture notes into a proper essay on Dance, Girl, Dance.

The Essential Dorothy Arzner

The Wild Party (Paramount, 1929)

Notable as Clara Bow’s first talkie, a sexually suggestive pre-Code melodrama and the film in which the “boom mic” was first employed (Arzner rigged a microphone to a fishing pole). The plot has something to do with wild college girl Bow falling in love with her straight-laced professor (Fredric March) but Arzner’s real interest clearly lies in the scenes of scantily clad young women hanging out together in their all-girl dorm rooms. The cinematography is far more fluid than in most early talkies.

Christopher Strong (RKO, 1933)

Katherine Hepburn’s first starring role is that of a typically independent, strong-willed and free-spirited character, in this case a pioneering female aviator who embarks on a doomed affair with a married man. The highlights of this film are seeing Hepburn dressed up in an outrageous grasshopper costume(!) and a truly shocking climax that has to be seen to be believed.

Craig’s Wife (Columbia, 1936)

The film that made Rosalind Russell a star and it’s easy to see why; she plays the title character in a tour-de-force performance as a cold, manipulative woman who marries for money but inadvertently brings about her own ruin through her thirst for power and the desire to control everyone around her. If you only see one Arzner film aside from Dance, Girl, Dance, this haunting melodrama should be it.

The Bride Wore Red (MGM, 1937)

Joan Crawford has one of her best early roles in this exotic fantasy, a kind of fairy tale for adults set in Italy. Wealthy George Zucco tests his theory that the circumstances of one’s birth are all that distinguish the rich from the poor by disguising a working class nightclub singer (Crawford) as a countess and sending her to a high-class resort for two weeks. Once there, she finds herself romanced by aristocrat Robert Young and mailman Franchot Tone. The outcome seems preordained from the beginning but the journey there is no less fun because of it.

Dance, Girl, Dance (RKO, 1940)

Decades before Black Swan, Arzner’s masterpiece tells a story of rival dancers, pitting burlesque queen Lucille Ball as the older “vamp” character against innocent ingenue Maureen O’Hara as her ballerina “stooge” co-star. What will happen when these former friends both fall for suave leading man Louis Hayward? Feminist critics love this film for the way Arzner subverts the traditional “male gaze” of the director. Everyone else loves it for the juicy performances and irresistible climactic catfight. Meow!

Inspired by a similar blog post by “Classic Movie Man” Stephen Reginald (who presented Johnny Belinda at Facets a few weeks ago), here is a picture I took of the Facets Night School audience just before the Dance, Girl, Dance screening. As you can see, it was all very civilized!

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