Monthly Archives: October 2015

Filmmaker Interview: Agnes Varda

I conducted the following interview for Time Out Chicago. It should appear there at some point today.

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French New Wave legend Agnès Varda recently attended a career-spanning retrospective of her work at the University of Chicago. The Logan Center Gallery in Hyde Park is also currently hosting an exhibit of her work, “Photographs Get Moving (potatoes and shells, too),” through November 8. I recently spoke to Varda about the exhibit and her career.

MGS: The photographs of the potatoes in your new exhibit have both a playful and mysterious quality. Some resemble science-fiction landscapes. I also remember the heart-shaped potato that you discovered in The Gleaners and I. Where does your fascination with this particular vegetable come from?

AV: As you said, the discovery of heart shaped potatoes started, by chance, during the shooting of The Gleaners and I. I felt right away all the thoughts related to that modest vegetable with a shape that means affection, love, tenderness. You can’t resist the usual meaning of that word, heart, of its usual shape. Since I kept those potatoes for a long time in different places: in the dark or in the light, in open air or in boxes. I started to photograph them, to film them. When invited at the Venice Art Biennale, I did my first potato installation, Patatutopia, a triptych that has been exhibited in the Logan Center in Chicago. It’s an homage to the energy of life coming out of old potatoes, uneatable, useless, quite dead. The beauty of germs and new thin roots… It’s not science fiction, it‘s real science. Life resists, energy resists. I showed some photographs, each old potato is different from the others.

MGS: The title of the exhibit is “Photographs Get Moving” and all of the early photographs on display depict some kind of movement. One senses the movement within these still images just like, conversely, one senses the individual still frames within your movies. What in your mind is the relationship between still photography and cinema?

AV: What you saw, what you noticed is just what it is. The photographs chosen with me by Dominique Bluher, the curator, contain movement and lead naturally to the moving images, video or cinema. My work, for years, has been using the links between photography and cinema, playing to erase the borders between these two ways of showing reality, re-inventing reality.

MGS: Cleo from 5 to 7 is one of the seminal films of the French New Wave and just played to a packed house in one of Chicago’s largest movie theaters. Are you surprised by its enduring popularity?

AV: I couldn’t imagine, when I wrote and directed Cleo from 5 to 7 that my ideas related to continuous time and real geography during 90 minutes would remain an interesting approach to cinema and that the fear of Cleo facing a possible death would remain touching to future generations. How strange and wonderful 54 years later to communicate so directly with audiences of many countries…

MGS: For a long time now you’ve exclusively made documentary films, which I think are wonderful for the intense curiosity they show in the people who are your subjects. But my personal favorite of your works is Vagabond, which has a documentary influence but also an incomparable performance by Sandrine Bonnaire. Do you ever miss working with actors and would you ever be interested in making another fiction feature?

AV: Yes, even in a totally fiction as Vagabond I looked for a documentary texture. The non-actors (the real people) had their way to speak the words I had written for them (but inspired by their ways of speaking, their natural behavior…). As for Sandrine Bonnaire, very young actress, she was over-gifted. About making another feature… I miss sometimes the help of talented actors as those I worked with, such as Michel Piccoli, Jane Birkin, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Catherine Deneuve… I’m impressed by them. I’m shy. I work more easily on documentaries since I like people, I like to make connection with all kinds of people especially the outsiders, the out of society format. Everybody is somehow unique and precious…

MGS: Jean-Luc Godard has an amusing cameo in Cleo from 5 to 7. Since you and he are the only directors from that era still working today, I was wondering what you thought of his recent work.

AV: Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina were very good friends of Jacques Demy and I in the ’60s. He came to perform with Anna a little sketch in which he accepted to take his dark glasses off for a few minutes. That’s the peak of the sketch. Jean-Luc is an experimental director and he’s certainly the one who has the most invented the language of cinema in different aspects. The way he recently used the 3D in Adieu au Langage showed how different he is from the other directors. I’m glad that he persistently films his thoughts about cinema and art.

MGS: You spoke very movingly the other day about Chantal Akerman being an “uncompromising” filmmaker. I met Chantal in 1997 and she seemed pessimistic about her ability to get films financed in the future due to what she perceived as the increasingly commercial nature of the medium. Do you feel optimistic about the future of cinema and, more specifically, the possibility that daring new filmmakers will be able to create works as radical and monumental as Jeanne Dielman?

AV: Chantal Akerman’s films remain important for all the film-lovers. You know what I said about her work. The difficulties she met to get her projects off the ground are the same for all the unconventional or daring writer-directors and more and more since the mainstream films are most of the time just the same as ever…

For more information about “Agnès Varda: Photographs Get Moving (potatoes and shells, too)” visit the Logan Center Gallery’s website.


My Winnipeg at the Chicago Cultural Center

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Next Wednesday, November 4, I will be moderating a discussion with a pair of architects, Design With Company co-founders and UIC professors Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer, about Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg at the Chicago Cultural Center (78 E. Washington St.). The discussion is part of a series called “Architects on Film” that the Chicago International Film Festival is presenting with special screenings of films that an architect or designer has curated. The event runs from 6:00 – 8:30 pm.

About the film:

My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007) — Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin conducts a personal tour of Winnipeg, Manitoba, the town where he grew up and still lives, in a film he calls a “docu-fantasia.” By combining archival footage and interviews, dreamlike camera work, and re-created scenes—including several with actress Ann Savage (Detour) playing the part of Maddin’s mother — the filmmaker builds a portrait of Winnipeg that manages to be historical, intimate, surreal, entertaining, and entirely his own.

About the architects:

Design With Company was co-founded by Stewart Hicks and Allison Newmeyer. Hicks is Assistant Professor of Architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A Fellow of the MacDowell Colony, he is a recipient of Architectural Record’s Design Vanguard Award and the Young Architects Forum Prize. He received his M.Arch from Princeton University. Newmeyer is Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and also teaches architectural design and representation courses at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and the Illinois Institute of Technology. She is a Fellow of the MacDowell Colony and the recipient of architectural awards from the Van Alen Institute and Architizer.

For more information, visit the website of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Hope to see you there!


Hitchcock/Truffaut and Under Electric Clouds at CIFF

I wrote the following capsule reviews for Time Out Chicago. They should appear there in truncated form at some point today.

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The Chicago International Film Festival continues through Thursday, October 29. Here are your best bets for the festival’s second week.

Hitchcock/Truffaut

Hitchcock/Truffaut is the title of the seminal book-length interview, originally published in 1966, in which Alfred Hitchcock discussed every film he had made up to that point with the neophyte critic-turned-director Francois Truffaut. It is also the title of this cracking new documentary in which critic/filmmaker Kent Jones corrals commentaries from a who’s who of contemporary cinema’s finest directors (Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, et al) into a swiftly paced but thoroughly illuminating overview of both the legacy of the book as well as the Master of Suspense’s career in general. Amply illustrated with well-chosen clips, from 1926’s The Lodger through 1976’s Family Plot, this is crucial viewing for Hitchcock — and movie — fans.

Hitchcock/Truffaut screens on Saturday, 10/24 at 5:00PM and Monday, 10/26 at 6:00PM.

Under Electric Clouds

A suicidal architect. A Kyrgyz construction worker searching for an electronics repair shop. The heirs of a wealthy landowner returning from abroad to claim their late father’s estate. A demoralized scholar who dresses up like a hussar to give tours of a 19th century mansion to Japanese tourists. All of these characters are connected through their relationship to an unfinished skyscraper in a Russia of the not-too-distant future as the world teeters on the brink of apocalypse. Under Electric Clouds was directed by Aleksey German, Jr. (whose father died not long before the release of his final masterpiece Hard to Be a God) and he proves to be a chip off the old block when it comes to grave, darkly funny and amazingly photographed political allegories.

Under Electric Clouds screens on Sunday, 10/25 at 7:45PM and Tuesday, 10/27 at 8:15PM.

For more info, including ticket info and directions, visit the Chicago International Film Festival’s official website.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Halloween (Carpenter)
2. The Inquiring Nuns (Quinn)
3. Citizen Kane (Welles)
4. My Darling Clementine (Ford)
5. Mountains May Depart (Jia)
6. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Oshima)
7. My Golden Days (Desplechin)
8. Hitchcock/Truffaut (Jones)
9. JSA: Joint Security Area (Park)
10. The Treasure (Porumboiu)


Tickets for Cool Apocalypse at the Siskel Center On Sale Now

Tickets for the November screenings of my film Cool Apocalypse at the Gene Siskel Film Center are on sale now. They can be purchased in person at the box office or online at the Siskel’s website here. I will be present for Q&As following both screenings along with members of the cast and crew. Hope to see you there!

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Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin at CIFF

I wrote the following capsule review of The Assassin for Time Out Chicago. It should appear there in truncated form at some point this week.

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The Chicago International Film Festival continues through Thursday, October 29th. Your best bet for the second week is The Assassin by Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien.

The best film playing this year’s Chicago International Film Festival, and arguably the best film to play anywhere in Chicago in 2015 period, is The Assassin, the latest masterpiece from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-Hsien (A City of Sadness). Although the film, starring the gorgeous and charismatic Shu Qi (The Transporter), has been marketed as a martial-arts extravaganza a la Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, it can more accurately be described as a deliberately paced character study that takes place in 9th century China where the protagonist happens to be a professional killer. Nie Yin-Niang (Shu) is a young woman who has been trained from childhood to assassinate rogue politicians by a “nun princess.” When the film begins, Nie’s moral conscience prevents her from completing a job. As punishment, she is ordered to assassinate her cousin, the governor of Weibo province (Chang Chen), to whom she was once betrothed.

Some critics have complained that the plot is overly complicated. In actuality, it’s a simple plot that is told in an oblique way (due to Hou’s admirable indifference towards conventional narrative exposition). The substance of the film is to be found in the God-level mise-en-scene — where characters converse on fog-enshrouded mountaintops and behind the billowing silk curtains of exquisite, candle-lit interiors. This amazing recreation of the crumbling Tang Dynasty proves to be the most ideal backdrop imaginable for what Hou posits as Nie’s universal and timeless dilemma: should she obey her sense of professional duty or the desires of her heart? The result is a meditation on violence and morality that would make an excellent double bill with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven; Nie chooses her destiny and then, like a character from a folk tale, vanishes back into the pages of history. Unmissable.

The Assassin will screen on 10/21 and 10/23. Click here for tickets and showtimes.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Taxi (Panahi)
2. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda)
3. The Big Heat (Lang)
4. The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Lau)
5. Laurence Anyways (Dolan)
6. Failan (Song)
7. Comedy of Power (Chabrol)
8. Medium Cool (Wexler)
9. A Very Ordinary Citizen (Barzegar)
10. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax)


WCCRH Episode 3: Thao’s Library / Nahid and Stinking Heaven at CIFF

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The third episode of my White City Cinema Radio Hour podcast is now online. It features a Google-chat between me and New York City-based filmmaker Elizabeth Van Meter whose excellent documentary Thao’s Library recently won the Audience Choice award at Geena Davis’s inaugural Bentonville Film Festival. Thao’s Library, Van Meter’s first feature film, will open across the U.S. at AMC theaters today. Incredibly, Van Meter is also an old high-school classmate of mine; we studied theater together at the North Carolina School of the Arts during our senior year of 1992-1993. This interview marks the first time we’ve spoken in over 22 years! I think it’s a fun listen. I also throw out some recommendations of films to see at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival where I recently served on the Animated Shorts jury. You can listen to the episode here.

I also have two short capsule reviews of films playing at the Chicago International Film Festival in today’s Cine-File: the Iranian drama Nahid and the American indie Stinking Heaven. Because Cine-File’s listings for this week will not appear on their website (and will be sent out via e-mail only), I’m reproducing them in their entirety below:

Ida Panahandeh’s NAHID (New Iranian)
AMC River East – Sunday, 7:30pm and Monday, 8:30pm

This impressive first feature by the young female Iranian director Ida Panahandeh recalls Asghar Farhadi’s A SEPARATION in the way that it examines, in a completely naturalistic way, the intersection of a unique legal quagmire with the intimate emotions of the principal characters affected by it. Specifically, the title character (the terrific Sareh Bayat) is a divorced single mother and hardworking admin assistant who, under Iranian law, will lose custody of her son if she ever decides to remarry, throwing a wrench into her new romance with nice-guy widower Masoud (Pejman Bazeghi). Panahandeh shows with great lucidity and in a completely non-didactic way how Iranian law favors the husband in a custody battle through the depiction of Nahid’s former husband (Navid Mohammad Zadeh), a deadbeat dad and former junkie with a gambling problem who hopes to reconcile with his ex-wife. It was a major coup for the Chicago International Film Festival to snag the U.S. premiere of this incisive Cannes prizewinner, which does not yet have distribution and may not return to local cinema screens.

Nathan Silver’s STINKING HEAVEN (New American)
AMC River East – Saturday, 9pm and Monday, 8:45pm

Films tagged with the “mumblecore” label have often come in for criticism for their structural formlessness and aesthetic blandness. What a treat it is then to see this largely improvised black-comedy/drama by prolific director Nathan Silver, who vividly recreates life in a New Jersey “sober living commune” circa 1990. Shot on lo-fi Betacam video, to reflect the consumer-grade visual style of the era, this remarkable microbudget sleeper also boasts convincing pre-internet-era production design as well as a fine ensemble cast of brave actors (headed by indie stalwarts Keith Poulson and Tallie Medel) whose characters videotape themselves re-enacting past traumatic events as a dubious form of self-therapy. The result is an atmosphere of almost unbearable intensity where, as in the work of Jacques Rivette, “real life” and performance mingle, giving the distinct impression that the potent onscreen drama must have reflected the off-screen drama of how the film was made.


Goodbye to Language at Transistor / In the Underground at CIFF

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I am pleased to announce I will be introducing a screening of Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, my favorite film of the year, in its original 3D format at Transistor Chicago this Saturday, October 17 at 8pm. I will be giving out passive 3D glasses, which are required to view the movie, to the first 25 attendees only. The screening is FREE and BYOB. Here is the description I wrote for Transistor’s website:

In his astonishing first feature in 3-D, the legendary Jean-Luc Godard offers a philosophical meditation on the fractured nature of identity in our era of mass communication. Now 84 years old but eternally youthful, Godard pointedly shows, through an almost impossibly rich tapestry of stereoscopic images and sounds, how language and technology have conspired to create barriers that separate humans not only from each other but also from themselves. (2014, R, 69 minutes)

There’s more info about the screening at Transistor’s website. Hope to see you there!

In other news, my coverage of this year’s Chicago International Film Festival begins with a Time Out Chicago review of the Chinese coal-mining documentary In the Underground by first-time director Song Zhantao. I’m a big fan of this immersive, cinematically dazzling non-fiction pic, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the Harvary Sensory Ethnography Lab’s aesthetic. The CIFF’s Sunday screening is the film’s U.S. premiere. You can read my capsule review here.


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Citizen Kane (Welles)
2. Daisies (Chytilova)
3. Far From Heaven (Haynes)
4. Spring Night, Summer Night (Anderson)
5. Goodnight Mommy (Fiala/Franz)
6. The Assassin (Hou)
7. Nahid (Panahandeh)
8. Women He’s Undressed (Armstrong)
9. L’atalante (Vigo)
10. The Rules of the Game (Renoir)


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