PREMATURE (Rashaad Ernesto Green, 2019)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Opens Friday, February 21
From the first time their eyes meet, you know that Ayanna (Zora Howard) and Isaiah (Joshua Boone) are destined to fall in love in Rashaad Ernesto Green’s sweetly tender and moving Premature. A Sundance hit that was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards — the John Cassavetes Award for best film made for less than $500,000 and the Someone to Watch Award for Green, whose previous film was 2011’s well-received Bronx-set Gun Hill Road — Premature is an expansion of Green’s 2008 fifteen-minute HBO Grand Jury Prize-winning short that starred Howard as a Bronx teen facing a crisis. Ten years later, longtime friends Green and Howard, who live in the same Harlem neighborhood, teamed up to write the feature-length version of the story, which opens February 21 at IFC. (Green will participate in Q&As at the 8:20 shows on February 21 and 22, joined the first night by Howard.)
The film was shot on location in Harlem primarily around 145th St., where Ayanna, a poet, is spending her last summer before heading off to college. She hangs around with her close group of friends, Shonté (Imani Lewis), Tenita (Alexis Marie Wint), and Jamila (Tashiana Washington), some of whom already have children and who don’t share the dreams of independence that drive Ayanna. Meanwhile, her mother, Sarita (Michelle Wilson), shows only a mild interest in her daughter, instead taking up with a series of men, searching for her own love. Upon meeting the slightly older Isaiah, a music producer dedicated to the legacy of his late jazz musician father, Ayanna at first plays coy, then heads full steam into a relationship with Isaiah, who appears to be more honest and dependable than most of the other guys in the community, who like talking trash and getting it on with any woman in their path. But when Ayanna suddenly faces an unexpected crisis, she has to decide what she wants for herself, her once bright future now possibly in question.
Premature is beautifully photographed in 16mm by Laura Valladao, giving the film a kind of timelessness, both modern and a throwback to an earlier era, attempting to capture a Harlem that is quickly undergoing gentrification, losing some of its identity; in some ways it is reminiscent of Horace Jenkins’s recently discovered and restored 1982 indie gem Cane River, in which a young woman about to go to college falls in love with a slightly older man who wants to be a poet, although Premature is far more accomplished in both storytelling and acting, has a feminist perspective, and purposely steps aside from issues of race, politics, and the legacy of slavery. Instead, Green and Howard, a playwright whose Stew closes at Walkerspace on February 22, focus purely on the love story between two black people who are practically living in a private dream world, as if their relationship exists on its own plane.
Their Harlem is not the one you usually see onscreen; it’s not a spoiler to say that there is no crime or violence in Premature, no side plots of drugs, prostitution, clashes with law enforcement, or other stereotypical sociocultural elements that usually creep into such narratives. Yet the gentle, sensitively told Premature, with a lively score that features Dave Eggar on solo cello and a mix of song styles from diverse musicians, is as much about Harlem and its black community as it is about a man and a woman who might be destined for each other. The film slips as it reaches its conclusion, stretching the limits of credulity as it devolves into a sentimentality and cliché it wisely avoids otherwise, but it also includes an unforgettable scene when the dreadlocked Ayanna takes a pair of scissors to her hair, a defining moment for the character and the movie itself. Green and Howard sought to make a different kind of black love story set in New York City, and that’s exactly what they have done, to all our benefit.
ONCE WERE BROTHERS: ROBBIE ROBERTSON & THE BAND (Daniel Roher, 2019)
323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St.
Opens Friday, February 21
The opening night selection of the tenth annual DOC NYC festival, Daniel Roher’s Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson & the Band is an intimate, if completely one-sided, look inside one of the greatest, most influential music groups in North American history. The film was inspired by Band cofounder Robbie Robertson’s 2016 memoir, Testimony, offering his take on the Band’s ups and downs, famous battles, and ultimate breakup. “I don’t know of any other group of musicians with a story equivalent to the story of the Band, and it was a beautiful thing. It was so beautiful it went up in flames,” Robertson, sitting in a chair in a vast, empty room, guitars hanging on the wall far behind him, says. The setup puts the focus on Robertson’s individuality, his alone-ness, in what others trumpet as a collection of extraordinary musicians. “There is no band that emphasizes coming together and becoming greater than the sum of their parts, than the Band. Simply their name: The Band. That was it,” fan Bruce Springsteen says. “I was in great awe of their brotherhood. It was the soul of the Band,” notes Eric Clapton, who says he wanted to join the group made up of singer-songwriter and guitarist Robertson, singer and bassist Rick Danko, singer and keyboardist Richard Manuel, singer and drummer Levon Helm, and keyboardist and accordionist Garth Hudson.
When Robertson, who was born in Toronto in 1943, talks about his childhood — his mother was born on the Six Nations of the Grand River Indian reserve, which had a profound effect on him musically, and his biological father was a Jewish gangster, although he was raised by an abusive stepfather — the film is revelatory, with archival photographs and live footage of Robertson’s early bands and his time with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Robertson shares mesmerizing anecdotes about going electric with Bob Dylan, recording the Basement Tapes in a house called Big Pink, and discussing his craft. “I don’t have much of a process of like I’m thinking about this, and now I’m going to write a song and it’s gonna be about that,” he explains. “A lot of times, the creative process is trying to catch yourself off guard. And you sit down and you’ve got a blank canvas and you don’t know what you’re gonna do and you just see what happens.”
Hawkins speaks glowingly of his protégé Robertson, who wrote his first songs for Hawkins when he was only fifteen. Roher also talks to executive producer Martin Scorsese, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, record producer John Simon, road manager Jonathan Taplin, equipment manager Bill Scheele, photographer John Scheele, Asylum Records creator David Geffen, and musicians Dylan, Taj Mahal, Peter Gabriel, Van Morrison, and Jimmy Vivino, who all rave about Robertson and the Band. “They were totally in love with their music, and they were in love with each other,” photographer Elliott Landy says. “I never saw any jealousy, I never saw any arguments, I never saw them disagree. They were always supporting each other. They were five brothers, very clearly five brothers who loved each other, and I never saw anything but that.”
Of course, Roher cannot talk to Manuel, Danko, and Helm, who are all dead, and Hudson did not participate in the documentary. Robertson and his wife, Dominique, paint a harrowing picture of the Band’s severe strife as drugs and alcohol tear them apart. There’s really no one, aside from a brief point made by guitarist Larry Campbell, to offer an opposing view to Robertson’s tale, which puts him on a golden throne despite some very public disagreements, particularly with Helm over songwriting credit and royalties. Robertson speaks enthusiastically and intelligently throughout the film, but it’s clear from the get-go that these are his carefully constructed, perhaps selective memories about what happened. But Roher doesn’t disguise that conceit; the film is named after one of Robertson’s solo songs, and the second half of the title is, after all, Robbie Robertson & the Band, as if Robertson is separate from the rest.
One of the main surprises is Robertson’s claim that the Last Waltz concert at Winterland in 1976 was not meant as a farewell but just a pause; Roher and Robertson fail to point out that the group continued to tour and record without Robertson. On his sixth solo album, Sinematic, which was released last September, Robertson has a song about the Band, the aforementioned “Once Were Brothers,” that can be heard at the start of the film. “Oh, once were brothers / Brothers no more / We lost a connection / After the war / There’ll be no revival / There’ll be no one cold / Once were brothers / Brothers no more,” Robertson sings. “When that curtain comes down / We’ll let go of the past / Tomorrow’s another day / Some things weren’t meant to last.” It’s a sad testament to a storied legacy, packed with amazing photos and live clips that make it a must-see for fans of the group. Once Were Brothers opens at IFC on February 21, with music photographer Elliott Landy, who appears in the film, participating in a Q&A at the 7:45 show Friday night.
Museum of the Moving Image
35th Ave. at 36th St., Astoria
Sunday, February 16, $25-$30, 2:00
Exhibit continues through July 19, $20
In 1979, Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek show sought out new life and new civilizations by daring to go where no sci-fi television franchise had gone before: to Hollywood. Directed by five-time Oscar winner Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Sound of Music, The Day the Earth Stood Still), the film sent Admiral James T. Kirk (William Shatner), science officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley), chief engineer Montgomery Scott (James Doohan), weapons officer Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig), communications officer Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols), and Starfleet officer Hikaru Sulu (George Takei) back into space together, attempting to get to the bottom of a dangerous energy cloud and the mysterious V’ger. It was not the most auspicious cinematic debut, but it kicked off a new era of the Star Trek universe and was followed by the best of the franchise’s films, The Wrath of Khan. The Museum of the Moving Image will be screening the underrated Star Trek: The Motion Picture on February 16 as part of its “See It Big! Outer Space” series and in conjunction with the exhibition “Envisioning 2001: Stanley Kubrick’s Space Odyssey.” Seventy-seven-year-old director and special effects master Douglas Trumbull, who worked on such classics as Blade Runner, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Andromeda Strain, Silent Running, and, of course, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and 2001: A Space Odyssey, will give a multimedia presentation and take part in a Q&A at 2:00; a digital projection of the film will be shown afterward at 3:00. The $30 tickets include admission to the exhibition, which runs through July 19. “See It Big! Outer Space” continues through April 19 with such other films as Flash Gordon, Alien, Gravity, The Right Stuff, Wall-E, Interstellar, and Aelita, Queen of Mars.
I could watch Bill Cunningham talk for hours and hours. Although we get less than an hour of him serving up delicious stories in Mark Bozek’s seventy-four-minute documentary, The Times of Bill Cunningham, it’s time well spent. “I’m not a real photographer; I’m a fashion historian,” the beloved photographer and fashion historian says in the film, which opens February 14 at the Angelika. Bozek was scheduled to speak with the Boston-born Cunningham for ten minutes in 1994, shortly after the longtime Manhattan transplant had been hit by a truck while riding his bicycle, but Cunningham just kept sharing fab tales, literally until the tape ran out. An engaging, self-effacing raconteur, Cunningham traces his career, from working at Bonwit Teller first in Massachusetts, then in New York; running his own millinery shop, William J., where he provided chapeaux to a ritzy clientele; then working at Chez Ninon before becoming a photojournalist for Women’s Wear Daily and, from 1978 to 2016, for the New York Times, most famously with his popular “On the Street” column. He didn’t set out to take pictures; his life changed when his good friend, designer Antonio Lopez, gave him a 1967 black-and-white Olympus camera.
Throughout the interview, which lasted six hours, Cunningham is shot from the mid-body up, looking slightly off camera at Bozek as he discusses attending such fashion shows as Versailles ’73; meeting such luminaries as Diana Vreeland, John Fairchild, Stephen Burrows, Brooke Astor, Marlon Brando, Anna Wintour, and Bethann Hardison; learning his trade from such other photographers as Weegee and Harold Chapman; and dyeing the dress Jackie Kennedy wore at her husband’s state funeral. He also talks about living for half a century at Carnegie Hall Studios, utterly content even though he doesn’t have his own bathroom there; in addition, despite having taken millions of photographs of fashion folk, the rich and the powerful, and, primarily, people on the street, he doesn’t care very much what he wears himself, often depending on hand-me-downs from friends and relatives. “I know I should care more how I look, but it’s more important I go out and get the right picture. That’s the main thing,” he explains.
Cunningham makes it very clear that it is what his subjects are wearing that attracts him, not their celebrity status. In fact, he took the photo that launched his Times career, a candid shot of an unsuspecting Greta Garbo on the sidewalk, because of how she was dressed; he had no idea it was Garbo until someone told him later. “It makes people feel good,” he says of the attraction of being fashionable. “They get dressed to go out in the morning — I don’t care who you are, it lifts the spirits, it’s self-esteem. . . . As long as there are human beings, there will be fashion, because people want to feel good about themselves.” As happy as he is through most of the film, his big teeth and infectious smile dominating the screen, at one point he does turn sad and emotional, thinking about the impact of the AIDS crisis, which was so dire in 1994.
Bozek might not be the best interviewer — this is his directorial debut, having previously studied acting with Lee Strasberg, worked in marketing for WilliWear, then spent more than two decades as a home-shopping pioneer (he was portrayed by Bradley Cooper in Joy) — and his camera is fairly static, but he and editor Amina Megalli let Cunningham regale us while interweaving hundreds of never-before-seen photographs taken by Cunningham from throughout his career, along with shots of Cunningham from the 1950s to just a handful of years ago, when he could still be seen riding his bike in the city. (It’s somewhat hard to fathom that Bozek had forgotten about the footage he shot in 1994 until hearing of Cunningham’s death in 2016.)
Sex and the City fashion plate Sarah Jessica Parker adds fairly standard voiceover narration that is not quite revelatory but moves the story forward, while the soundtrack features numerous songs by Moby. The Times of Bill Cunningham is very different from Richard Press’s 2011 documentary Bill Cunningham New York, in which dozens of celebrities sang Cunningham’s praises; here’s it’s just the thoroughly charming Cunningham himself, raw and uncensored, accompanied by his photographs, his passion, his visual love letter to the city and the people who live, work, and play there. “The streets are reflecting precisely what’s going on in the political world, in the social upheaval of our times,” he says. “It’s all right there.” Bozek will participate in a pair of Q&As opening weekend at the Angelika, following the 7:45 screenings Friday night with André Leon Talley and Saturday night with Hardison.
MoMA’s FESTIVAL OF INTERNATIONAL NONFICTION FILM AND MEDIA: FILM ABOUT A FATHER WHO (Lynne Sachs, 2020)
MoMA Film, Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Tuesday, February 11, 8:00, and Friday, February 14, 4:30
Series continues through February 19
“We’re pretty candid about who Dad is, and we’ve seen him through a lot, but we’re also able to shift what we might recognize as who he really is to what we want him to be,” experimental documentarian Lynne Sachs says in Film About a Father Who, a revealing look at the patriarch of her seemingly ever-expanding family, her dad, Ira Sachs Sr. Inspired by Yvonne Rainer’s seminal 1974 work A Film About a Woman Who . . . , a cinematic collage exploring sexual conflict, and Heinrich Boll’s 1971 novel Group Portrait with Lady, Sachs’s movie, screening February 11 and 14 in MoMA’s annual Documentary Fortnight series, consists of footage taken over a period of fifty-four years, beginning in 1965, using 8mm and 16mm film, VHS, Hi8, Mini DV, and digital images, edited by Rebecca Shapass. Now eighty-three, Ira Sachs Sr. was a sex-loving, pot-smoking minor-league hotelier, a neglectful, emotionally unavailable husband and father, both selfish and generous, carefully guarding secrets that Lynne, her sister, journalist and author Dana Sachs, and her brother, filmmaker Ira Sachs Jr., discuss with their six half-siblings, children their father had with other wives and girlfriends, some of whom they did not know about for many years.
Ira Sr.’s mother, Rose Sachs, known as Maw-maw, who left him when he was young, says of his womanizing, “I can’t stand that way of life.” His first wife, Lynne’s mother, Diane Sachs, speaks about what an easy decision divorcing him was. “Marriage was just a lot of being up at night, going to the window, wondering when he was coming home,” she explains. His second wife, Diana Lee, says through tears, “He’s a mistake.” Yet nearly all the women in his life, relatives and companions alike, profess their undying love for the long-haired, bushy-mustached man who was able to cast a spell over them despite, at least outwardly, not appearing to be a particularly eloquent Don Juan type and never remaining faithful. But there’s also more than a hint of psychological abuse he suffered at the hands of his mother. “She treated me as an enemy,” he says.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that the first three children of such a secretive man all went into the storytelling arts, mixing fiction and nonfiction in film and literature; Ira has won awards for such films as Forty Shades of Blue and Love Is Strange, Dana’s books include the novel If You Lived Here and the Vietnam memoir The House on Dream Street, and Lynne’s documentaries range from Investigation of a Flame and Sermons and Sacred Pictures to Your Day Is My Night and States of UnBelonging. There are numerous shots of family members filming other relatives; at one point, Lynne is filming Ira Jr. filming Ira Sr. while watching home movies on the television. A Film About a Woman Who . . . , which features music by sound artist Stephen Vitiello, is a striking portrait of an unusually dysfunctional family, a true story that has been in the making for more than a half century and even now provides only some of the answers. Perhaps you can find out more when it screens at MoMA’s Festival of International Nonfiction Film and Media on February 11 at 8:00, introduced by Lynne; it is also being shown February 14 at 4:30.
CANE RIVER (Horace B. Jenkins, 1982)
BAMfilm, BAM Rose Cinemas
30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Pl. & St. Felix St.
After nearly forty years, Horace B. Jenkins’s Cane River is finally being released theatrically, playing at BAM Rose Cinemas from February 7 to 20, not uncoincidentally during Black History Month. Shortly after its premiere in 1982, Jenkins died at the age of forty-two and the film disappeared without distribution. The original negative was found in 2013 in the DuArt Film & Video Vault and is now screening in a new 4K digital restoration overseen by IndieCollect. Cane River is a touching love story set amid colorism, classism, misogynoir, and the far-reaching tentacles of slavery in Natchitoches Parish in Louisiana, where tensions between blacks, whites, and Creoles have festered for hundreds of years.
A cast of mostly first-time actors (many in their only film) is led by Richard Romain as Peter Metoyer, a college football star who returns to his rural hometown of Cane River instead of pursuing a gridiron career; he was drafted by the New York Jets but would rather be a poet and a writer, choosing to help run the family farm with his father (Lloyd La Cour) and sister, Dominique (Barbara Tasker). One day he is visiting the Melrose plantation — where his ancestor Marie Thérèse Coincoin became a freed slave and successful land owner who married French merchant Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, had ten children, and controversially kept slaves as well — when he meets eighteen-year-old Maria Mathis (Tommye Myrick), who is getting ready to leave for college at Xavier. She is reading The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color by Gary B. Mills, a book partly about the very real Metoyer family history and the Melrose plantation. She is so desperate to get away from the boring and staid Cane River while he has come back to make a calm, easygoing life there. Despite his being a Catholic Creole and her being a black southern Baptist, they fall in love, which angers her mother (Carol Sutton), but Maria doesn’t want to stay, adamant to not get caught in the trap her brother (Ilunga Adell) is in, working in the hatchery, getting drunk, and having no perceptible future. “What is more poetic than planting a seed and watching it grow?” Peter asks Maria, both filled with hope.
A response to the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s and partially inspired by the true story of Jenkins’s longtime partner, Carol Balthazar, who served as a consultant on the project, Cane River is a film entrenched in dichotomy, mixing fact and fiction to explore the inherent differences between the country and the city, in the expectations of men versus women, of factory work and higher education, of flashy convertibles speeding down the highway and horseback rides along a beautiful lake, and, most centrally, the color of one’s skin. “You Creoles are different people,” Maria tells Peter, but that statement is more loaded than she realizes. The low-budget film is too static; cinematographer Gideon Manasseh’s camera seldom moves (although it does focus on many gorgeous natural landscapes), and editor Debi Moore can’t establish a consistent rhythm and pace. The acting is often less than compelling, the script can be overly earnest, and Leroy Glover’s score features songs with lyrics that often repeat exactly what you’re seeing onscreen. But there’s a deep-rooted charm to the film, which explores topics that are still hot-button issues today, especially colorism. “Black folks don’t stand a chance,” one character says, evoking the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. It’s important to have this film back in circulation, and BAM is celebrating its return by hosting four Q&As opening weekend with Romain, Myrick, Jenkins’s son Sacha, and, at one, his daughter Dominique.