Monday, October 27, 2008

Film as a Human Song: Nathaniel Dorsky interview

By Elise Nakhnikian

“One of the reasons that I’m a late bloomer in terms of recognition in the avant-garde is that I broke the two biggest taboos: I included beauty and I included heart,” says Nathaniel Dorsky. “Heart especially is taboo.”

“Heart” is good shorthand for the organic feel of Dorsky’s mystery-rich, plot-free short films, which lead viewers into a contemplative state of heightened awareness. Stephen Holden of the New York Times wrote that Dorsky’s silent films are “about as close as movies can come to evoking the experience of lying on your back in the grass on a summer day, gazing through leaves at the clouds and letting your mind drift into the cosmos.”

In a recent phone interview, the filmmaker described what he does as “trying to see if I can get film form itself to become a human song.

“In film, there are two ways of including human beings,” added Dorsky, who looks like an absent-minded professor but is refreshingly direct and partial to plain English when discussing his work. “One is depicting humans. Another is to create a film form which, in itself, has all the qualities of being human: tenderness, observation, fear, relaxation, the sense of stepping into the world and pulling back, expansion, contraction, changing, softening, tenderness of heart. The first is a form of theater and the latter is a form of poetry.”

In Dorsky’s films, a thing often appears as an abstract shape or pattern before coalescing into a familiar form, often because he shows it to us first out of focus, in extreme close-up, or from an unfamiliar angle. Being unable to name the thing you’re looking at makes you look at it differently – and more attentively – than you otherwise would. “I’m trying to create images that are a state of mind rather using pictures to represent language or an idea,” Dorsky says. “The idea is to see what is intrinsic to film itself: The language of the unconscious. Dream language.”

Summerwind, an early film Dorsky recently showed at the Anthology Film Archives in New York, was shot when he was high on LSD and is, he said, “in a way a reflection of that,” but it’s hardly the only one of his works that induces a trippy state of blessed-out hyper-awareness. His films find beauty everywhere, even in a shower curtain or a scattering of Styrofoam peanuts dancing in the wind.

Dorsky’s beatific images are generally taken from nature, often showing light that moves like a living thing. He’s also prone to layering images, and likes to shoot something moving in the background behind a still foreground. It’s all part, he says, of “trying to create images that are more state of mind – not using the screen as a stage where the bottom of the screen is the bottom of the stage. State of mind is very layered. When different layers of the frame are resonating with each other, then it starts to become a world in itself rather than a picture of a world.”

Dorsky, who is 65, began making films by instinct as a boy and started developing his philosophy of film in the early 1960s. As a young man who loved poetry, he says, “I became very curious to see if one could create film that could be a self-existent thing. I got some ideas from other people’s work – especially (Yasujiro) Ozu, whose work provided cues about a cinematic language which could reflect and promote human wisdom.”

Another epiphany came from a concussion he received in a head-on collision in the mid-1990s. While recovering, he says, “One of the few things I could do was walk about with my camera. I started to make an avant-garde film, and the idea of copping an attitude with the camera made me feel nauseous, because a concussion makes you feel like a child -- very simple. I went back to what I was when I was 10 years old and I started making films, and it all started to work. I got shaken out of my adulthood, in a way.”

Dorsky is teaching this year at Princeton University, where he’ll show his three latest films --Sarabande, Song and Solitude and Winter – next week. The clarity and passion of his vision and his talent for articulating what he and other filmmakers are doing probably make him a very good teacher, yet a campus is an odd setting for his work. “My films are not about being in school,” he says. “Being in school is about behaving well, being good for society. This is about what happens after school, when true adventure starts.”

Monday, October 20, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

“We make our own luck in life, don’t we?” says Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) to her friend Poppy (Sally Hawkins) at the end of Happy-Go-Lucky.

Mike Leigh’s latest feature is a lighthearted yet serious answer to Zoe’s question. “An anti-miserabilist film,” as the director called it after a screening at the New York Film Festival, it examines what it takes to live a good life. “We are living in tough times, and it’s very easy – and appropriate – to be gloomy,” Leigh said. “But there are people out there who are getting on with it, not least among them the teachers. You can’t be a teacher without being an optimist and caring for the future. Poppy is the embodiment of that.”

When we first see Poppy, she’s riding her bike through town, wearing what we come to learn is a perpetual smile. As engaged with the world as her grammar-school students, she sees everything she passes and likes everything she sees.

It takes us a little longer to figure out what to make of her. After all, movie audiences aren’t used to seeing giggly, friendly young women presented as anything but airheads. But it soon becomes clear that Poppy’s anything but a ditz.

Happy-Go-Lucky moves as briskly through Poppy’s life as she does, telling us what we need to know without ever feeling forced or formulaic. As in most of Leigh’s films, nothing momentous happens, yet every moment feels full. We get to know Poppy by watching her interact with other people, including Zoe, her best friend, roommate, and world travel companion for about 10 years; Suzy, her hapless but goodhearted sister; and Scott (Eddie Marsan), her driving instructor.

The scenes with Scott, a splenetic misanthrope, form the core of the movie as the two tool around London in a claustrophobically small car, their diametrically opposed world views bumping up against each other. Scott spouts bitterness and bile, shouting at Poppy about her failings and everyone else’s. Poppy teases him good-naturedly, trying to coax him out of his shell. Their back and forth yields considerable humor and tension before culminating in a scene that I won’t ruin by describing it here.

In general, this movie lifts your spirits like a helium balloon, but that scene and others filled me with dread. My fear that something awful was about to happen to Poppy is partly thanks to the story’s spontaneity. Leigh creates his films by collaborating with his actors, whom he casts after only loosely deciding what he wants to explore.

For Happy-Go-Lucky, Leigh and his cast spent half a year in rehearsal, developing the characters and workshopping scenes before he wrote the script. “The job is to discover the film by making it,” he says. As a result of that process, his films retain the veracity of those initial exercises and the unpredictability of life itself.

I’m sure I was also conditioned by countless other movies and TV shows. How many times have we seen a woman in peril pay heavily for her good intentions or naivete – or sheer bad luck? How many damsels in distress have needed rescuing by stalwart heroes?

But when Poppy gets herself into a fix, she gets herself out. What’s more, she handles every situation with grace, compassion and a contagious air of calm. “This is a film about somebody who can deal with things,” says Leigh. “This is a woman who confronts things. We look through her eyes, which are open and honest and non-judgmental.”

It’s startling to realize how refreshing that courage and competence feel, even in these supposedly post-feminist days. The same goes for the detailed and authentic depiction of the female friendships that sustain Poppy.

With her wide open heart, mobile face, and empathetic eyes, Hawkins’ Poppy is a study in pure goodness – what Christ might look like if he came back as a woman in modern-day London. When Scott tells her “you celebrate chaos,” he’s right, for a change, though he chooses a typically negative way to describe the constant churning of life.

Those same traits make her a great teacher. The intervention she engineers for a kid who’s been bullying others is a beautiful thing to behold, kind and loving and delicately sensitive. Oh yeah, and her kids actually learn stuff.

The contrast between Poppy’s nurturing teaching style and Scott’s punitive one couldn’t be clearer. But apparently Leigh doesn’t want to imply that Poppy’s way is the only one. Another alternative is presented in the form of a charismatic flamenco teacher (Karina Fernandez) whose classes Poppy attends. That teacher lays herself so open, while explaining the emotional core of the art, that she has to leave the classroom to compose herself. It’s a funny scene, but she maintains both her dignity and the respect of her students, who appreciate the lengths she will go to for them.

Josh Rosenblatt, a reviewer for the Austin Chronicle, recently wrote about how we most love the movies that “provide us the greatest understanding of ourselves. Either the selves we are or the selves we want to be.”

I don’t know about you, but Poppy is the best fictional role model I’ve come across in ages. More than any souped-up superhero or self-serious goon with a gun, her story speaks to what it takes to be a good person, making the most of your own life and brightening others.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Express

By Elise Nakhnikian

The Express is one of those inspirational movies that gets to you in spite of itself.

Screenwriter Charles Leavitt and director Gary Fleder develop characters so thin you can practically see through them, then wrap them in a cloud of clich̩. But the extraordinary man whose story this more or less is Рand the raw shame of the racism he endured just half a century ago Рburn through the fog.

Ernie Davis was a quiet kid from Pennsylvania’s coal country who found a way out of poverty through football just as traditionally all-white college and professional teams were beginning to recruit black players. As a star at Syracuse University, which won a national championship during his tenure, Davis got lots of laudatory press coverage, but he and his team were also on the receiving end of vicious slurs, death threats, and more.

Davis died at age 23, before he ever had a chance to play professional ball, but he managed to make history even so, becoming the first black player to win a Heisman Trophy. He was also voted MVP at the 1960 Cotton Bowl in Dallas – and ushered out of his own celebration early, since it was held at a whites-only country club.

The Express sketches Davis’s story in strokes so broad they could demarcate the lanes on a highway. Virtually every scene in the movie is about racism, a reductive impulse that surely does his memory a disservice. And they sometimes twist the truth into melodrama, as if the casually uttered racial slurs, social ostracism, and derogatory assumptions that kept black Americans “in their place” in his day needed embellishment. One of the most shocking set pieces in the movie, a game played in West Virginia where the other team’s fans rain racial epithets and broken glass on the Syracuse players, never happened at all.

Two polar opposites represent the possible responses to racism in the unsubtle universe of The Express. The first is Jackie Robinson, who broke the color line in major league baseball by walking softly and swinging a big stick (“This here’s a man who’s doing a lot without saying nothing,” says an admiring young Davis). The second is pro football pioneer Jim Brown, who stands up to the injustice he encounters, earning a reputation as an Angry Black Man.

In life, Davis followed in Robinson’s path. He mostly does the same in the movie, but the screenwriters can’t resist giving him a few cinematic – but totally uncharacteristic – defiant speeches.

Davis is played by the sweet-faced Rob Brown, who played varsity football in high school and college. He seems like a nice kid, but he’s a bit of a lightweight, failing to project the self-confidence and strength of character needed to achieve what Davis did.

The fault lies mainly in the script, which tells us almost nothing about Davis’ inner life. But it doesn’t help that Brown seems anachronistically young, a still-adolescent 21st-century American kid rather than the young man that Davis probably was by his early 20s. People grew up faster in those post-war years, and black kids from the wrong side of the tracks probably grew up fastest of all. And people who knew Davis invariably talk about his gentle grace, a grown-up quality that Brown can’t quite muster.

The movie’s structure feels numbingly familiar. First, sepia flashbacks show us the shy, stuttering young Ernie, a fatherless boy with a gift for sports. Next we meet Ben Schwartzwalder (Dennis Quaid), Syracuse’s craggy head coach, who shows up with Jim Brown, a recent Syracuse grad, to woo Davis. Then Davis arrives at Syracuse, where the college boys actually wear beanies and the white kids all stare at him coldly.

He instantaneously befriends one of the team’s two other black players, Jack Buckley (played by the likeable Omar Benson Miller) and just as promptly falls for the first black coed he sees (an adorable Nicole Beharie). Meanwhile, he and Schwartzwalder stumble awkwardly into a sort of father-son bond, though none of the relationships in this movie has enough heft to feel truly significant.

We see a lot of football along the way, which is rendered tedious by bad camerawork and editing. Slow-motion close-ups of Davis running fail to convey a sense of his legendary speed, though we do get a sense of his famous footwork. Too many balls spiral slowly through the air toward the camera, and there are too many WHOMPs as one player tackles another. And one sequence that keeps switching between present-day footage and old (or old-looking) black-and-white is just plain annoying, shredding the action into incomprehensibly tiny bits.

Yet some of Davis’ accomplishments are so impressive it almost doesn’t matter how they’re portrayed. When he finally got his Heisman, the popping flashbulbs, freeze frames, and swelling music were corny and predictable – but I was so choked up I didn’t really care.

Monday, October 6, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

You know niche marketing has come of age when even we atheists get some representation, mostly in the form of books and YouTube videos from the likes of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. And now comes our first official feature, Bill Maher’s Religulous.

About time, too. After all, as Maher points out in Religulous, about 16 percent of Americans don’t believe in God. That’s “a huge minority,” he says, “much bigger than Jews, black, NRA members – lots of minorities that have lobbies and get everything they want, or are at least in the game.”

Yet atheists and agnostics have no representation in Congress, politics are often skewed to the interests of religious extremists, and nonbelievers tend to maintain a don’t-ask-don’t-tell stance, fearful of being branded as amoral, un-American, or worse.

In theory, it’s great to have some spokesmen of our own out there, taking on the hypocrisy and intolerance that are often part of organized religion. But hypocrisy and intolerance aren’t just part of organized religion. They’re part of human nature, and they pop up just as much in the anti-religious arguments of professional nonbelievers like Maher as they do in the fundamentalist sermons those guys like to quote. And, even for a member of the choir he’s preaching to, that can make Maher’s message of tolerance and open-mindedness ring pretty hollow.

Maher’s movie is a loosely structured diatribe that skips around, both geographically and thematically, as he visits religious hot spots like Jerusalem, where he mostly talks about Christianity; Amsterdam, where he briefly investigates the fanatical brand of Islam that resulted in the death of Theo van Gogh; and Washington, D.C., where he talks to Senator Mark Pryor, one of several creationists in Congress.

Maher also makes side trips to parts of the American heartland – and to other religions, like Scientology and Mormonism, which he calls the “really crazy stuff.” Wherever he goes, his central questions remain the same: “Why is faith good?” and “How can smart people believe in the talking snake and people that are 900 years old and that kind of thing?”

Director Larry Charles, a longtime producer of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm, also directed Borat. This movie uses a similar approach to that one, combining man-on the-street interviews that often come off as ambushes, even when they’ve been pre-arranged.

Maher establishes a good rapport with the people he interviews, and he really listens to them, as he always listens to the guests on his TV shows. He gives people their due if they make a point he appreciates – and cuts them off to keep the conversation focused if he thinks they’re talking nonsense.

But that respectful attention is sometimes undercut by snarky captions that pop up to comment on what people are saying, or by his own sneering after-the-fact commentary, which he makes to an unseen filmmaker as they travel between interviews. What’s more, a lot of his interviewees come off more like straight men, saying hardly anything at all as Maher riffs on a topic.

Charles and his editors keep the pace lively and the tone light, delivering a couple of belly laughs and a lot of smirks. They make good use of clips of characters like Mel Brooks’ Indian chief in Blazing Saddles, Al Pacino’s Tony Montana from Scarface, and Maher himself in Cannibal Women in the Avocado Jungle of Death, whose snippets of dialogue function as wry asides. But they lean too much on montages featuring easy targets like Osama bin Laden, TV evangelists speaking in tongues, and football coaches praying for victory.

Every so often, Maher raises a truly thought-provoking question and hammers the answer home with humor, like when he asks whether we’ve maintained any other Bronze Age beliefs other than our religious ones, then tosses out a few others that are laughably absurd. He tosses out some tasty tidbits, like the fact that Thomas Jefferson called Christianity “the most perverted system that ever shone on man.” And he takes us to some interesting places, like a museum of creationism that shows animatronic dinosaurs coexisting with people and the Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando, where the crucifixion is played out as a tourist attraction.

But on the whole, Religulous is too glib to be thought-provoking and too doctrinaire to be consistently entertaining.

Maher claims to be “selling doubt,” yet he’s just as certain of his own point of view as any of the religious people he talks to. What’s more, he can be rudely disrespectful, drawing comparisons between pastors and pimps and equating religion with “f---ing kids and burning people alive.” And he ends with apocalyptic talk and imagery that he hasn’t earned, suddenly claiming that religion may lead us into a world-annihilating war. That’s a case that could be made, but he hasn’t made it, so his mushroom cloud feels like a cheap scare tactic.

Does anyone really believe there would be no homophobia, misogyny, or war if there were no religion? Haven’t people found plenty of other reasons to demonize “others”? And why bother trying to prove how irrational religious beliefs can be? To believers, logic is beside the point: That’s why they call it faith.

For an atheist used to being marginalized by a hyper-religious culture, Maher’s certitude is as dangerously seductive as that talking snake that he’s so obsessed with. In the end, his movie left me with just one question: Is it any better for an atheist to be intolerant of religious people than the other way around?