Category Archives: Films


To the Academy: Consider the Women

In honor of my daughter, the film editor. Right now her work is mainly for the small screen, but I’m confident she’ll move on to the big ones.

Moments of Ecstatic Passion

Just last week I was able to hear Werner Herzog in conversation with film students at UMass.

What was so cool was Herzog’s advice to film students to read, read, read the world’s great literature. Here’s his “Rogue Film School” reading list.

•    Virgil: Georgics
•    J.A. Baker: The Peregrine
•    Hemingway: The Short, Happy Life of Frances Macumber
•    Diaz del Castillo: The Conquest of the New Spain
•    Warren Commission Report on the assassination of JFK

Interesting assortment, no?

Someone asked why his films featured only, or nearly only, male characters. He spoke about screenplays he’s written with female leads that he hasn’t found funding for yet. I noted to myself that the film industry is still predominately a “white guys rule” world. Though women are up and coming, especially in documentary.

Discussing his Antarctic film Encounters at the End of the World, he described the impossibility of explaining the enormity of the continent. Making that film, he realized you don’t explain the world in film, you name the glory. He showed a clip where that seemed to happen. Here’s the trailer, which opens with a Russian song that “names the glory.”

The books on his reading list are all about naming the glory.

His remarks on editing struck a chord with me, as I spend most of my writing time selecting what works, cutting what doesn’t. Most of what I write ends up on the cutting room floor.

Here’s his process. He goes through all footage with editor in a sitting or two, and keeps a log with rough time indicator. He notes what’s there and puts ! or !! or !!! by footage times that he thinks are really good. Three exclamation points for footage that he feels life wouldn’t be worth living if he left them out.

Then he selects only the footage with the exclamation points and makes that into a film. He says the best footage will fit together. You don’t have to worry about preparing an arc before hand, or outlining. What is most important is the tone of a film, and using only the footage that “names the glory” keeps the tone consistent.

The most important thing for a filmmaker is to know “the heart of man.” Life experience tells you where to look, what to ask your subjects, how to find “moments of ecstatic passion,” “moments of illumination.”

He doesn’t think of himself as an artist, he thinks of himself as a soldier.

True enough. To be a filmmaker–or a writer–one does have to combat all the obstacles the world imposes, including critics and the demands of an overly commercialized market place. In the process one suffers wounds the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” At times one must make tactical retreats. And then again one “takes arms against the sea of troubles” and moves forward.

Yeah, Shakespeare had that “moments of ecstatic passion” thing down pat.


Memories of Empire

Amherst is great. A couple of weeks ago Paul & I saw John Sayles introduce his film Amigo at Amherst Cinema and answer questions after viewing.  It took him a long time to find the funding. He had to focus on a village to encapsulate a very large experience, which he wrote about in a sprawling 900-page novel A Moment in the Sun . He eventually found a portion that told a story he could fit into a space small and intimate enough to make a low budget film.

Here is Sayles on modern parallels with Amigo at Amherst Cinema.

And here is a link to his own blog post on the trip to Amherst.

The World as It Should Be

Tintin at Sea

Over the holiday, I saw three movies that I really liked. Tintin, Hugo, and The Descendants. Of the three, I found Tintin to be the most unusual. This New York Times review by Charles McGrath pinpoints some of the reasons why. And this New Yorker review by “Front Row” blogger Richard Brody teases out a few more reasons why.

McGrath points out that Tintin is an unusual adventure hero, having no extraordinary powers. Brodie underlines the lack of violence and murder despite the tremendously fast pace of the film.

These two reasons are probably why I enjoyed the film so much. It was tremendously charming and fast moving, without ever creating the anxiety that adventure films usually do, even though there was plenty of fighting and numerous explosions. Part of this was the result of the visual beauty of the film.

It’s always nice to see someone win superhuman struggles without having access to superhero strengths. It appeals to my sense of justice in an unjust time — the world as it should be, not as it is.


Encounters at the End of the World

Diver under the Antarctic Ice

Diver under the Antarctic Ice

Paul and I watched this fantastic documentary film last night. I expected a ho-hum, “good-for-you” learning experience. Not so with Werner Herzog! It is a fascinating exploration of the strange creatures, including the humans, who live in this world of ice and extreme solitude.

Among the highlights: divers under the ice, scientists scaling the crater of a volcano into a magma lake, a deranged penguin running into the endless void.

Haunting, eerie, and mind-blowing.

Films of 2008

My favorites:

  1. Frozen River
  2. Happy Go Lucky
  3. Trouble the Water
  4. Slumdog Millionaire (sorry Brit)
  5. Across the Universe (on DVD)

Why did I love these films? They were unusual, had that quality of “strangeness”* that sets a work of art apart from the merely “extremely well done.”

*Harold Bloom’s term/The Western Canon. Despite many disagreements with Bloom’s argument, I can adopt “strangeness” wholeheartedly.


Speaking of The Way We Live Now, here’s an interesting essay from Chris Hedges — author of the indispensible War is a Force that Gives us Meaning.

He quotes the documentary The Corporation:

A corporation that attempts to engage in social responsibility, that tries to pay workers a decent wage with benefits, that invests its profits to protect the environment and limit pollution, that gives consumers fair deals, can be sued by shareholders. Robert Monks, the investment manager, says in the film: “The corporation is an externalizing machine, in the same way that a shark is a killing machine. There isn’t any question of malevolence or of will. The enterprise has within it, and the shark has within it, those characteristics that enable it to do that for which it was designed.” Ray Anderson, the CEO of Interface Corp., the world’s largest commercial carpet manufacturer, calls the corporation a “present day instrument of destruction” because of its compulsion to “externalize any cost that an unwary or uncaring public will allow it to externalize.”

“The notion that we can take and take and take and take, waste and waste, without consequences, is driving the biosphere to destruction,” Anderson says.

The ease of externalizing of costs worries me. And the difficulty of opposing that externalization — recently seen in the debates over energy, the killing of coral reefs, the debate over universal health care. I don’t see how we get past this impasse. If Obama can do that, his will truly be a transformational presidency.


Ah…The holidays! Thanksgiving was wonderful, with a special visit from my brother and nephew, but it put a dent in my blogging momentum. Soon to come — our verdict on The Ambassadors, a discussion on arranged marriages inspired by our film viewing of The Namesake, and the difficulties of choosing books.

Thanksgiving feast



Good and evil don’t exist in heaven or hell, they exist between people. The cinema exists for showing that, too. – Pedro Costa

Last night I saw Pedro Costa’s film Bones (Ossos) at the wonderful Amherst Cinema. If you live in the Five College area, please support this magnificent resource. They show an array of popular and “art house” films, as well as films you rarely have an opportunity to see in the theater.

We were lucky to have the filmmaker himself there to introduce the film and take questions afterwards.

This is a mysterious, exquisitely shot movie — fictional, but with the feel of a documentary. The setting is a slum on the outskirts of Lisbon. The pace is slow, but a meaning-filled slow that invites the observer to question and ponder the ambiguous significance of the elliptical plot and the equally ambiguous relationships between people.

Shot at night with little light, in crowded slum streets, or in interiors where the viewer is conscious of looking into a room, through a doorway or window, the visually the film is dark, color soaked, rich, and luminous.

Costa spoke at length —

  • About his definition of realism — being true, he said if I remember correctly, to something you knew as a child.
  • About the sexuality and tensions in the film — some of the female characters have a masculine aspect, the male characters feminine. The actor who played the father, in life a junky, told him that he felt more fragile than the baby he held.
  • About the significance of the baby: a metaphor for life and rebirth.

The film is full of near deaths and re-awakenings, of waiting.

The visuals reminded me of paintings by Vermeer — seeing through doors and windows to a private world that remains in some ways unknowable, intimate, forbidden. The colors looming out of darkness are reminiscent of Rembrandt or Goya’s late “black” paintings.

Costa on the cinema as an art of absence:

Griffith saw that the cinema could show things that everybody knows, that everybody wants to recognise, and at the same time, not show certain things which are very violent, which must be hidden. Continue reading