WEST OF THE JORDAN RIVER (Amos Gitai, 2017)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th St. at Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday, January 23, 12:30 & 6:00 pm
34 West 13th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Opens Friday, January 26
The New York Jewish Film Festival, presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Jewish Museum, concludes January 23 with the U.S. premiere of Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai’s West of the Jordan River, screening at 12:30 and 6:00 at the Walter Reade Theater. Both are followed by a Q&A with Gitai; the first will be moderated by New York Film Festival director emeritus Richard Peña. The eighty-seven-minute documentary revisits a familiar theme for Gitai, the continuing crisis between Jews and Palestinians, which he previously explored in such nonfiction works as 1982’s Field Diary, 2016’s Rabin, the Last Day, and last year’s Shalom Rabin. The camera follows Gitai from the Erez checkpoint at the Gaza Border in 1994 to Hebron in the West Bank in 2016, from a conference room where he interviews Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1994 to a backgammon tournament in Jerusalem in 2016. “I’m making a film which will have entries like a travel diary and it will chronicle the negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians,” he explains at the beginning. “I decided that my role in this visual diary should be like an archeologist. I want to scratch layer after layer to get to the substance of the matter to understand how we could possibly reach some reconciliation in the region.” Gitai, who likens himself to an architect (he has a PhD in architecture), speaks with groups of angry Palestinians in the street, demanding fair treatment; Israeli soldiers explaining how complicated it can be dealing with Arab children throwing rocks; the Parents Circle in Beit Jala in the West Bank, where Israeli and Palestinian women who have lost children in the conflict get together to promote peace; the NGO B’tselem, an Israeli organization that teaches women to document human rights violations in the occupied territories safely using their cell phones; Khan Al-Ahmar, who runs a Bedouin school in the West Bank that is threatened with demolition; and terrorist victim Michal Froman and her sister, Lia Raz Twito Froman, who live in the Israeli settlement of Teqoa and offer a surprising reaction to Michal’s stabbing by a fifteen-year-old Arab boy when she was pregnant.
Gitai also interviews Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Tzipi Hotovely, Knesset member and former minister of foreign affairs Tzipi Livni, Knesset member Tamar Zandberg, Haaretz journalists Ari Shavit and Gideon Levy, Yediot Aharonot journalist Ben-Dror Yemini, and Haaretz editor in chief Aluf Benn, who offer their intriguingly different views of the Israel-Palestine dilemma, discussing humanization and dehumanization on both sides. But Gitai, who has made such well-regarded sociopolitical fictional trilogies as Devarim, Yom Yom, and Kadosh and Kippur, Eden, and Kedma in addition to the play Yitzhak Rabin: Chronicle of an Assassination, does not take the passive role of documentary filmmaker; instead, he often puts himself front and center, sharing his own opinions and challenging those of some of his subjects. (The project was a commission by France Télévisions, which wanted Gitai’s personal point of view.) “Nothing is more solid than the coalition of those who oppose peace,” he tells a group of Arabs mourning the killing of a fifteen-year-old boy. Gitai is shown traveling in cars and on planes, setting up for interviews, and walking through various areas to talk to regular citizens, revealing significant parts of his creative process. “I want to look at the little moments in life and the general political discussions,” he says. He sees the Middle East conflict as a TV series in which “the roles of heroes and villains can be interchangeable,” and that’s how West of the Jordan River, which opens theatrically at the Quad on January 26, unfolds. Perhaps one of the most important lines in the film is one of the first. As Gitai sits down with Prime Minister Rabin in 1994, the thirty-five-year-old director says, “I understand we don’t have much time.” The next year, Rabin was assassinated, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, with no end in sight.
BRUNCH MOVIE: BLAME (Quinn Shephard, 2017)
136 Metropolitan Ave. between Berry St. & Wythe Ave.
Saturday, January 20, and Sunday, January 21, 11:45 am
Twenty-two-year-old Quinn Shephard proves herself to be a sextuple threat in the daring, sexy teen thriller Blame. The New Jersey native wrote, directed, edited, produced, and stars in the film, in addition to writing the lyrics for several songs performed by Peter Henry Phillips. Her mother, Laurie Shephard, also produced and cast the movie, which takes place in a New Jersey high school where Abigail Grey (Quinn Shephard) has returned after a mysterious psychotic incident. She is immediately targeted by mean-girl leader Melissa Bowman (Nadia Alexander) and her trusted bestie, Sophie Grant (Sarah Mezzanotte), while the third member of the clique, Ellie Redgrave (Tessa Albertson), might be on the outs for showing sympathy for Abigail. Melissa sics her boyfriend, T.J. (Owen Campbell), and Sophie’s beau, Eric (Luke Slattery), on Abigail, taunting and teasing her, calling her Sybil, after the book and movie about a woman with multiple personalities. When Jeremy Woods (Chris Messina) takes over their drama class, he switches the play they’re presenting from Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, casting Abigail as protagonist Abigail Williams, who might be involved with witchcraft, and Eric as John Proctor, a married man she might be having an affair with. Melissa, who wanted the lead role, is furious when she is named Abigail’s understudy. When Eric doesn’t take things seriously, Jeremy steps in to play John, angering Melissa further as Abigail gets to spend more time with the rather attractive teacher, especially as she watches Abigail and Jeremy grow very close. And Melissa doesn’t like to lose.
Blame is a carefully crafted, intimate tale of lust, jealousy, and obsession, capturing the complicated zeitgeist of high school life, the fear and trepidation along with the experimentation and confusion. In shifting from The Glass Menagerie to The Crucible, Shephard equates mental illness with witchcraft as seen through a feminist lens as her story parallels Miller’s, much as Amy Heckerling’s Clueless follows Jane Austen’s Emma (only without the laughs) and Roger Kumble’s Cruel Intentions is based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses. The scenes between Shephard (Hostages, The Miseducation of Cameron Post) and Messina (The Mindy Project, Damages) are sizzling hot as teacher and student teeter on the edge of a major taboo. Shephard, who appeared in a high school production of The Crucible, also gets to show off her fab eyebrows, which are a character unto themselves. She is one talented filmmaker deserving of attention in an industry that must do a much better job cultivating, acknowledging, celebrating, and rewarding films by and about women. Blame is screening January 20 and 21 at 11:45 am in the Nitehawk series “Representation,” which focuses on films by female directors, continuing January 27-28 with Maysaloun Hamoud’s In Between and February 1 with Alex H. Fischer and Rachel Wolther’s Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone and Catherine Fordham’s Best Thing You’ll Ever Do, followed by a Q&A with Fordham, Fischer, and Best Thing star Monica West and a live performance by Tallie Medel, Sunita Mani, and Eleanore Pienta, who all appear in Snowy Bing Bongs.
INHERENT VICE (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014)
7 Ludlow St. between Canal & Hester Sts.
Friday, January 19, 3:45
Series runs through January 25
It makes sense that award-winning writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson, who has made such complex, challenging films as Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and The Master, has made the first cinematic adaptation of a novel by reclusive, iconoclastic author Thomas Pynchon, who has written such complex, challenging books as Gravity’s Rainbow, V., and Vineland. It also makes sense that the book he chose to adapt is Inherent Vice, probably the most lighthearted and breezy of Pynchon’s tomes. But it also makes sense that the film itself is complex and challenging — and downright confusing. Walking out of the theater, we were pretty sure we liked what we had just seen, even if we didn’t completely understand what had happened. (As Jena Malone said of the making of the film, “The logic becomes the chaos and the chaos becomes the logic.”) The neonoir takes place in 1970 in the fictional Valley town of Gordita Beach (based on Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon lived for a long time). Joaquin Phoenix stars as Larry “Doc” Sportello, a mutton-chopped ex-hippie who is now a private gumshoe working out of a health clinic. One day his ex, Shasta Fay Hepworth (a transplendent Katherine Waterston), shows up to ask him to get her out of a jam involving her billionaire boyfriend, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who has gone missing, perhaps at the hands of Wolfmann’s high-society wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas). Meanwhile, Doc is also hired by Hope Harlingen (Malone) to determine whether her supposedly dead husband, surf-sax legend Coy (Owen Wilson), is actually alive. As Pynchon himself says in the book trailer, “At that point, it gets sort of peculiar,” and peculiar it does indeed get, as Doc becomes immersed in a web of lies and deceit, dealing with a dangerous cult known as the Golden Fang (where Martin Short plays a sex-crazed dentist with a wild abandon), a curious health facility called the Chryskylodon Institute run by Dr. Threeply (Jefferson Mays), and Det. Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a “renaissance cop” who has no time for any of Doc’s hippie crap, as the Manson murders hover over everything. Well, at least that’s what we think the plot is about.
As with all Anderson films, Inherent Vice looks and sounds great; cinematographer Robert Elswit, who has shot most of Anderson’s works, bathes the quirky drama in hazy, syrupy colors, while Jonny Greenwood’s score is accompanied by songs by Can, Sam Cooke, Minnie Riperton, the Marketts, and Neil Young. (In fact, Young’s Journey through the Past experimental film served as an influence on Anderson when making Inherent Vice, as did David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker’s Police Squad and Naked Gun series, Robert Altman’s 1973 Philip Marlowe movie The Long Goodbye, and Howard Hawks’s 1946 version of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep.) It all has the feel of the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski as reinterpreted by Anderson and Pynchon — who might have been on-set during at least some of the shooting and supposedly makes a cameo in the picture. The film is littered with absurdist jokes and oddities, from the way Bigfoot eats a chocolate-covered banana to a trio of FBI agents picking their noses, from the right-wing Vigilant California organization to a clip from the 1952 Cold War propaganda film Red Nightmare. Phoenix once again fully inhabits his character, who putt-putts around in an old Dodge Dart and just wants life to be mellow and groovy. Brolin is hysterical as his foil, the straitlaced, flattop cop who has a penchant for busting down doors. The large cast also includes Benicio del Toro as Sauncho Smilax, Doc’s too-cool lawyer; Reese Witherspoon as Penny Kimball, Doc’s well-coiffed girlfriend; Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s real-life partner and the daughter of Riperton) as receptionist Petunia Leeway; Sasha Pieterse as Japonica Fenway, who hangs with Golden Fang dentist Rudy Blatnoyd (Short); and Joanna Newsom as Sortilège, the film’s narrator (who does not appear in the book). Inherent Vice is yet another unique cinematic experience from Anderson, one that is likely to take multiple viewings to understand just what is going on, but as with his previous films, it is likely to be well worth the investment. Inherent Vice is screening January 19 at 3:45 in the Metrograph series “Paul Thomas Anderson x 6” and will be preceded by Anderson’s Radiohead: Daydreaming music video in 35mm. The mini-festival is being held in conjunction with the release of his latest work, Phantom Thread, and continues through January 25 with Punch-Drunk Love and Boogie Nights.
BEUYS (Andres Veiel, 2017)
209 West Houston St.
Opens Wednesday, January 17
About ten years ago, I was visiting Chelsea galleries on a sunny afternoon when a car pulled up on the corner of Eleventh Ave. and Twenty-second St. A father and a young boy of about five or six got out, and the man led the child to one of the stone sculptures that make up Joseph Beuys’s “7000 Oaks.” The boy relieved himself on the stone; the pair then returned to the car and the family drove off. I always thought that the German avant-garde artist would have gotten a kick out of that scene; after watching Andres Veiel’s new documentary, Beuys, I’m sure of it. If you’re going to make a documentary about Beuys (pronounced boys), one of the most influential artists of the postwar generation, it had better not be a straightforward, talking-heads film but something that pushes the boundaries and challenges the viewer, much like his art. Award-winning director Veiel (Balagan, Black Box Germany) does just that with the film, which concentrates primarily on rarely shown and never-before-seen archival footage of Beuys, including radio and television interviews, art openings, panel discussions, live performances, photographs, and home movies, mostly in black-and-white. Veiel conducted approximately twenty new interviews and met with more than five dozen people who knew Beuys, but he only uses spare clips from art historian Rhea Thönges-Stringaris, publisher Klaus Staeck, collector Franz Joseph van der Grinten, and critic, curator, and writer Caroline Tisdall, who wrote seven books about Beuys and worked with him on several major exhibitions and lecture tours. “The anonymous viewer is back there, yeah?” Beuys says early on, looking straight into the camera, and it’s a critical moment, as the documentary emphasizes how important it was to him that his work be seen. “I want to inform people about the true culprits in our system. I want to inform and educate people,” he says. Beuys, who also taught at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, is eminently quotable, his speech filled with manifesto-like declarations. “Forget the conventional idea of art. Anyone can be an artist. Anything can be art, especially anything that conserves energy,” he explains. “I’m not an artist at all. Except if we say that everyone is an artist,” he opines. “The concept of what art is has expanded to such a degree that, for me, there’s nothing left of it,” he offers.
Veiel, cinematographer Jörg Jeshel, and editors Olaf Voigtländer and Stephan Krumbiegel begin many scenes by scanning a contact sheet of photos of Beuys and zeroing in on one, which suddenly comes to life. Among Beuys’s projects they focus on are 1969’s “The Pack” (das Rudel), sleds tied to the back of a VW bus; the 1974-75 installation “Show Your Wound,” which might have been inspired by the injuries he suffered as a pilot in WWII; the 1965 performance piece “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare”; “Boxing Match: Joseph Beuys & Abraham David Christian”; “Honey Pump in the Workplace,” an example of what Beuys called “social sculpture”; and the expansive “7000 Oaks,” in which he paired stone sculptures with tree plantings. Usually smoking a cigarette, baring his big, white teeth, and wearing his vest and trademark hat — perhaps to cover up war injuries — Beuys is always aware he is being watched, on exhibit himself, and it’s something he toys with, tongue often in cheek as he expounds on concepts about life and art and plays around with interlocutors. The film touches on his childhood, his war experience, his association with the Green Party, and his descent into a deep, dark depression, but it evades various controversies, from possible Nazi ties to shamanism to his oft-told tale of a plane crash in which he was supposedly saved by Tartars. Veiel also doesn’t delve into Beuys’s personal relationships or the illness that led to his death in 1986 at the age of sixty-four. Instead, he gives us a Beuys who is ever-present, an iconoclastic, often inscrutable, and wildly intelligent artist and innovative provocateur who constructed his own mythology that continues to tantalize us today — even when his work is used as a public toilet. Beuys is making its U.S. theatrical premiere January 17 at Film Forum; Veiel will participate in a Q&A with MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach following the 7:00 show on January 19.