Storm the Arthouse

New Yorker Films
As next week’s issue

of this paper will prove conclusively, ’tis the season for list-making, when not just Santa Claus but movie critics and other pundits set about distilling the past 12 months into tidy inventories of naughty and nice. Even as I write, an e-mail pops up on my computer from the American Film Institute listing six “moments of significance” from the past year in film, as selected by a 13-member jury that included a handful of academics; critics David Denby, Kenneth Turan and David Thomson; and filmmakers Norman Jewison and Martha Coolidge. Among their chosen “moments” from 2005 were the continuing corporate consolidation of Hollywood — by which both the oldest (MGM) and the youngest (DreamWorks) of film studios were absorbed into larger conglomerates — and the precipitous downturn in theatrical attendance, as moviegoers opted for the company of their DVD players, video-game systems and big-screen televisions over the company of their fellow men. Once upon a time, the AFI’s press release reminds, “strangers came together in the dark and were awed by images of light and a story well told” — an experience that may soon seem as distant a cultural memory as vinyl records and the world before cell phones.

So does it come as any real surprise that a number of the best movies of 2005 have yet to appear in Los Angeles? I’m not talking about undistributed films, mind you, but rather movies that do have U.S. distributors yet still manage to bypass the supposed movie capital of the world. Movies like Marco Bellocchio’s Good Morning, Night, a coolly considered account of the 1978 kidnapping and assassination of former Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, which played to great acclaim at the 2003 Venice and Toronto film festivals. Good Morning, Night was acquired shortly thereafter by Wellspring Media and proceeded to sit on a shelf for the better part of the next two years before being quietly released on a single Manhattan screen last month. A couple of friends who saw it there said that the print was in dreadful condition. Despite strong reviews, it grossed all of $6,000 °©— roughly the cost of a thumbnail ad in The New York Times — and closed after two weeks. On February 25, Good Morning, Night will finally have its local premiere in a one-off screening at the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

As David Ehrenstein reported in these pages earlier this year, even rave reviews from the major daily newspapers are no longer any guarantee that a foreign-language picture will perform in New York, and most distributors and exhibitors remain of the opinion that if you can’t make it there, you can’t make it anywhere. Not that the news is especially encouraging for those movies that speak English as a first language. Just two weekends ago, Michael Almereyda’s scintillating sci-fi/film noir/romance Happy Here and Now opened on both coasts after nearly four years in distribution limbo and took in $1,800 in its first three days of release. (Just goes to show how far being the Film Pick of the Week in the L.A. Weekly will get you.) By comparison, Debra Granik’s excellent Down to the Bone, which recently won Best Actress honors (for star Vera Farmiga) from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, has amassed a relative fortune — $25,000 — since opening a month ago, which is still less than half of what Brokeback Mountain has been making on an average weekend at The Grove. No wonder then that at Indianapolis’ Keystone Art Cinema and Indie Lounge, the newest multiplex in the Landmark Theaters family, the current lineup includes not only Brokeback, but Syriana and Memoirs of a Geisha, collectively consuming more than half of the theater’s seven screens. Will the same programming philosophy reign supreme when Landmark (which proudly touts itself as the nation’s leading exhibitor of foreign and independent films) opens its long-in-the-works 14-screen multiplex at the Westside Pavilion in early 2007?

Raising such questions always risks earning the ire of distributors and exhibitors — who like to blame each other for their woes — to say nothing of readers. “Why do so many reviewers feel compelled to reference these obscure films that most of us have never even seen?” asks one of my recent correspondents, calling herself an “advocate for frustrated moviegoers” and proceeding to invoke the pleasures of Dukes of Hazzard and Fantastic Four while deriding those audiences who crave “some sort of intellectual stimulation from the screen.” For some reason, reading that letter brought to mind the image of a deranged mob setting fire to an art-house cinema, then dancing joyously amid the flaming ruins. So it is with due caution that your intrepid critic dons his asbestos jumpsuit and heads into the breach to offer a user’s guide to the best movies you couldn’t see — at least not in L.A. — in 2005:

 The Far Side of the Moon
The Far Side of the Moon

Canadian film and theater director Robert LePage’s tour de force premiered at Toronto in 2003, and snuck into New York in early December. It will play San Francisco in February, but as of press time distributor TLA Releasing had not confirmed a Los Angeles booking. In the meantime, interested parties can order a copy of the Canadian DVD from Nearly as impossible to describe as it is wondrous to behold, this deliriously clever human-scaled epic stars LePage himself in a spectacular dual performance as two radically different brothers — one a vain TV weatherman, the other a neurotic graduate student — each coping in his own way with feelings of solitude in this vast universe of ours. One resigns himself; the other explores, hoping against hope that he might better understand his own place in the cosmos and, just maybe, break free of the literal and figurative gravity that binds him to his lonely existence.

The Intruder

A grizzled recluse (the sublime Michel Subor) searches for an old life and a new heart — a quest that takes him from a remote French-Swiss border region to the tropical isles of Tahiti, with a stop in Korea en route to purchase the boat that will become, in a sense, his aquatic coffin. But that story is itself merely the vessel by which the visionary French filmmaker Clare Denis (partially adapting a text by the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy) examines the idea of intrusion in all its physical, emotional and geopolitical dimensions. The Intruder adheres not to a linear narrative, but to the private logic of a dream — a dream about a world that is at once increasingly global and ever more isolationist — until, in its final moments, you feel you are witnessing nothing short of the birth of a new cinematic language. More to come when The Intruder finally reaches L.A. in March 2006.

 My Mother's Smile
My Mother’s Smile

Before making Good Morning, Night, Bellocchio (Fists in the Pocket) emerged from a long creative funk with this scabrous portrait of the Catholic Church as monarchy and multinational, and of a people subservient to its whims. Taken together, the two films offer a fascinating self-portrait of a former radical looking back, through the prism of experience, at the implacable ideals of youth. When atheistic artist Ernesto (Sergio Castellito) learns that his late mother is a candidate for canonization, he also finds that his brothers, aunts and long-forgotten childhood acquaintances — even his own wife — want him to play ball, to help ensure things proceed smoothly. Sainthood, it seems, is more (or less) than just a spiritual achievement — it’s a big business too, complete with Web sites, artistic commissions, the redemption of the guilty and the restoration of tarnished reputations. The premise may suggest farce, but My Mother’s Smile is closer to a soulful rumination — with flashes of paranoid thriller — about the exploitation of faith in a world where nothing is without its price. Sadly, distributor New Yorker Films has no plans for an L.A. release.

 (top): the Intruder
(bottom): The Power of

The Century of the Self | The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear

Two brilliant documentaries by Adam Curtis, the first about how the nephew of Sigmund Freud single-handedly invented the field of modern public relations; the second a deconstruction of the myths and realities of global terrorism, niftily paralleling the rise of Islamic extremism in the east with the dawn of neoconservatism in the West. Both are revealing and sometimes absurd records of the mass opiates (namely, consumerism and fear) of the latter part of the 20th century, marked by Curtis’ crack skill at tracing complex social phenomena back to their very DNA. The films’ lengths (four and three hours, respectively) and wall-to-wall use of film and music excerpts licensed only for the initial BBC broadcasts have thus far proved hindrances to theatrical release, yet both works have secured surreptitious berths in New York and demand further underground showings.

The Weeping Meadow

Like so many films by the Greek master director Theo Angelopoulos, The Weeping Meadow is about the havoc wrought on individual lives by the turbulent tide of history — here seen through the eyes of a woman named Eleni from her early childhood (as an exile from Odessa in 1919) through to the end of World War II. This film is intended as the first in a trilogy that will eventually follow the characters across Europe and the Atlantic before ending in present-day New York, thus mirroring the 20th-century migration of so many Greeks driven from their homeland by tireless civil strife. The set pieces in The Weeping Meadow including the flooding of an entire village Angelopoulos had constructed from scratch for the filming — are remarkable, but above all, the movie feels like a summary of everything Angelopoulos has done, and a renewal. As Eliot said, “In my beginning is my end.” And vice versa.

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