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Interviews

Bobby Sheehan's "Docufantasy" Has a Twist

When I first moved to New York City as a freshly minted associate editor at Circus Magazine, I quickly immersed myself in the downtown scene where conceptual art events, outlandish fashion statements and cutting-edge rock performances flourished in its clubs, galleries and loft spaces.

Joey   AriasAs the scene developed at the end of '70s and flowed into the early '80s, places like the Mudd Club, Club 57, The Pyramid and Danceteria provided the environment for punk rock to merge with electro-New Wave, for sexual identities to alter and for new kinds of art to get invented.

For a moment there, just hanging out was something of a statement -- of rebellion against the encroaching conformity and cultural backsliding suggested by the Reagan era -- and a celebration of an artistic world where money and marketing weren't all that mattered.

Read more: Bobby Sheehan's "Docufantasy"...

Stranger Than Fiction Inhales Documentaries

In the immortal wisdom of comedian Robin Williams, "Reality is just a crutch for people who can’t cope with drugs." Judging by the high that Stranger Than Fiction has been delivering its audiences since the documentary showcase began in 2004, reality is quite the opiate (though perhaps less mutually exclusive than Patch Adams would have it).

Each STF screening — whether a sneak preview, special tribute or retrieved classic — is punched up with commentary from its filmmaker(s). The moveable feast resumes at the nearby Alibi bar, letting participants swap thoughts with a film’s creators, or hit them  up for professional tips, without a couple hundred other pairs of ears intercepting.

Programmed by Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen and hosted by New York’s IFC Center, Stranger Than Fiction opened its 12th season on January 12, 2010, with a preview of Vikram Jayanti’s Snowblind, about a blind dogsled racer in Alaska.

Upcoming titles are The September Issue, which deconstructs Vogue and its editor, Anna Wintour; The Cove, Louie Psihoyos's baring of Japan's dolphin racket; and Dan Klores’s sports-rivalry epic, Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. The New York Knicks. Other entries in the series, which convenes every Tuesday night through March 16, are listed below and at http://STFdocs.comorifccenter.com.

On offer last night was Weijun Chen’s kitchen and class portrait, Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World, followed by a Q&A with editor Jean Tsien. It played to a sold-out crowd of mostly filmmakers, including such industry grandees as Barbara Kopple and Michel Negroponte.

"We turned away 10 pretty unhappy people in the wait line," faux-lamented Powers.

As vying entertainment platforms hack away at theatrical box office, interactive, personality-driven forums like STF assume an increasingly prized place in the cinema cosmogeny. Attendance for the hosted documentary series has grown incrementally with each season, making it a top performer for the IFC Center and fueling the amoeba-like division from two annual editions to spring, fall and winter trimesters.

"I could see these movies on Netflix, but the reason I come is because the filmmakers are here," said Bill Gallagher, associate producer of Marshall Curry’s forthcoming Earth Liberation Front exposé, If A Tree Falls.

Fellow STF regular Anne Checler is also drawn to the industry fold and its networking possibilities. "As an editor, I sometimes feel isolated, and here you really get that sense of community that I was missing."

To promote STF as a place to "meet accomplished people" in the New York scatter, "Passholder" bios are posted on the festival website, explained artistic director Powers, who also programs the documentary section of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Beyond providing the glue for current encounters, STF celebrates the "continuity of documentary filmmaking," per Powers. On January 19, cinema verité legend Albert Maysles joined Powers in retro-examining Running Fence, his 32-year-old portrait of Christo and the recently deceased Jeanne-Claude’s vast fabric fence along 24 miles of California soil.

On February 2, Sherman’s March director Ross McElwee will show two of his rarely-seen short works, Charleen and Backyard; and the February 9 session features Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim’s 2001 study in Silicon Alley hubris, Startup.com.

For the spring lineup, Powers is keeping tabs on current Sundance favorites. Though on a far more modest scale, the ongoing West Village series has begun to serve as a distribution platform not unlike a film festival.

"We are one of many incubators trying to find ways to bring documentary films to larger audiences," said Powers. A key impetus behind STF’s launch was to provide filmmakers with a venue to show their work to decision makers — without having to rent screening rooms — after failing to secure distribution on the festival circuit, he explained. Rather than pay to showcase their creations, filmmakers receive a $250 honorarium per STF screening.

Several of the series’ selections have gone on to commercial runs at its host multiplex. "The IFC Center has used our series as a barometer of how a film might perform," said Powers, citing Erik Gandini’s Videocracy as an example. Having sold out at STF, the documentary about Italian celebrity worship is now slated for a week’s run at the IFC Center in February. 

Still Bill is another title whose STF sellout swayed IFC Center programmers. Music fans have the series to thank for the currently extended showing of Damani Baker and Alex Vlack’s filmed biography of soul great Bill Withers.

As Powers put it, "The series is sometimes used as a buzz builder." STF screenings accommodate either 114 or 210 voluble cinema mavens, depending on the IFC Center plex.

In today’s glutted content marketplace, credible arbiters of taste command an increasingly important role, both viewers and curators alike, Powers opined. "Because you can’t stay on top of all the work that’s out there now, you look to other people to help you decide."

That glory once fell to film critics, he pointed out. "Film critics have been reduced to giving thumbs up or down or four stars," he said. "They haven't been supported by their publications."

What's more, film critics don’t run theaters. Said Powers, "If I see something at a festival, I can bring it straight to an audience."

With today's competition for public screens to exhibit documentaries, some might say that gratifying scenario is stranger than fiction.
 

Stranger Than Fiction: Spring 2009 Season
 
January 5: Pre-Season Special – Which Way Home (2009, Q&A w/ dir. Rebecca Cammisa)
January 11: Pre-Season Special - Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008, Q&A w/ dir. Matt Tyrnauer & editor Bob Eisenhardt)
January 12: Opening Night - Snowblind (2009, Q&A w/ dir. Vikram Jayanti)
January 19: Running Fence (1978, Q&A w/ co-dir. Albert Maysles)
January 26: The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World (2008, Q&A w/Jean Tsien)
February 2: A Night with Ross McElwee (Q&A w/ dir. Ross McElwee)
February 9: Startup.com (2001, Q&A w/ co-dir. Chris Hegedus)
February 16: The Art of the Steal (2009, Q&A w/ dir. Don Argott)
February 23: Winning Time: Reggie Miller VS. The New York Knicks (2010, Q&A w/ dir. Dan Klores)
March 2: A Healthy Baby Girl (1997, Q&A w/ dir. Judith Helfand)
March 9: Best of Orphans Film Symposium (Q&A w/ curator Dan Streible)
March 16: Closing night - David Holzman’s Diary (1967, Q&A w/ L.M. Kit Carson aka David Holzman)
 

Julie Taymor's "The Tempest" Unveiled

In director Julie Taymor's film adaptation of The Tempest, the role of banished-duke-turned-sorcerer Prospero goes to Helen Mirren – with a twist. Dame Mirren isn’t playing a man. Rather, the lead character in William ShDirector Julie Taymorakespeare’s last play now bends gender, and the result is named Prospera.
 
During a press conference at the 14th Capri Hollywood Film Festival (Dec. 26-Jan. 2, 2010), Taymor explained that no currently working male actor was up to the task. What began as a frustrated quest became an exhilarating commentary on the driving spirit of Shakespeare’s fabled magician -- and how female powers of intellect can settle a struggle such as Prospero’s with the “savage and deformed slave” Caliban.

Come to think of it, as Taymor did, Prospero is Shakespeare’s only character who loses nothing by losing a Y chromosome. Further relieving her casting dilemma was the nod from 16th- and 17th-century history, a time when women practicing the art of alchemy were frequently exiled or worse as witches. By the time Taymor saw pink in Prospero’s soliloquy to the Medea of Ovid’s Metamorphosis, Prospera was granted the artistic green light.   
 
Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand, Alfred Molina, Ben Wishaw, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper and Tom Conti hold onscreen court with Oscar-laureate Mirren as she rules over the magical Mediterranean island.
Alfred Molina and Djimon Hounsou
In Taymor's interpretation, Prospera is trumped by her brother Antonio (Cooper), and set sailing with her young daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones). She shipwrecks on an island, where her efforts to protect the now teenaged Miranda thrust her into a power joust with Hounsou’s Caliban.

Shakespeare’s The Tempest has the potboiling pulse of a thriller, the special effects potential of a fantasy and the gossip of a romance. Advancing the action are spirits, monsters, a mournful king, a sage, two scheming brothers and a roiling sea frothed into a fabulous conspiracy that crosses the stars of two unlucky lovers.
 
Taymor’s version freshens up Prospera’s odyssey of vengeance and self-embrace in an era when forgiveness and love are arguably saner strategies than the cycles of violence-eye-for-eyed in our daily headlines.  

For fans of Taymor’s three feature films – an 1999 adaptation of another Shakespeare play, Titus; 2002 biopic, Frida; and 2007 Beatles rock opera, Across the Universe -- her newest production is an ongoing tribute to her eclectic style. At very least, this means a phantasmagorical swirl of theater plays, musicals and operas reinterpreted but not dumbed down for cinema.

Taymor toyed with film only after a couple of decades of live performance, including two stage productions of The Tempest. The Lion King launched her theatrical comet in 1997 and signaled the arrival of a visual innovator with global inspirations to match the gathering zeitgeist. Artistic wanderings had brought the 1952-vintage Bostonian up through French pantomime Jacques Lecoq, experimental stage legend Peter Brook, ensemble director Herbert Blau and the shamanistic traditions of Asian theater using dolls, shadows and masks.
 
For the Miramax release shot in Hawaii (and not, to the chagrin of her Capri Hollywood Film Festival hosts, right there or in another island connected to the Italian setting of Shakespeare’s play), Taymor made some tough concessions to the medium. Reluctant to break the four walls of cinema, she killed Prospera’s epilogue beseeching the audience’s “release…from (her) ban,” and clinching the loss of her magical charms. She opted instead to roll credits over images of drowned books, a visual quote from the earlier Metamorphosis scene referencing sorcery.  
 
Still, if you listen up, you may hear Prospera – and Taymor – close with the appeal, “Let your indulgence set me free.”    

Director Paul Schrader's Controversial Holocaust Film at the Israel Film Fest

For veteran director/screenwriter Paul Schrader, seeing his film Adam Resurrected appear in this year's Israel Film Festivalalt in New York is a little like coming around full circle. Originally released here almost a year ago, his strange surreal little black comedy of a film stars Jeff Goldblum as a concentration camp survivor recovering his sanity in an Israeli psychiatric hospital in 1961. Goldblum's character Adam has tried coping with surviving.

Though the film received mixed reviews and limited exposure, Schrader will not only receive a special presentation of it at the 2009 Israel Film Festival in New York -- which kicks off Saturday evening -- but he will be honored with the IFF's Achievement in Cinema Award during the opening night Awards Gala being held at the SVA Theatre (23rd Street and 8th Avenue) -- where the other screenings take place as well.

Read more: Director Paul Schrader's...

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