Monday, January 31, 2011

UNITED TRASH at The Silent Movie Theatre's NIGHT WITH UDO KIER

Cinefamily at Silent Movie Theatre's "Night with Udo Kier" was an embarassment of riches. The showing of the Kier-starring short film MRS. MEITLEMEIHR and two previously unscreened Guy Maddin shorts (part of a project to reconstruct over 200 lost silent films) were fascinating and a fitting tribute to the actor's comedic and avant-garde sides. And the Q and A session, in which Udo responded frankly and engagingly to moderator questions and audience questions, was also fascinating. While Kier's biography would be a fascinating thing to read, what hooked me the most was his comment that, the reason he thought he did such a good job playing bad guys and creeps was that, at heart, he was a nice guy.

And of course, Kier seemed to enjoy the night as much as we did. He remarked that this was the first time he'd ever seen a marquee lit up with his name and that he wanted to get a picture of it himself. I feel like what makes Kier so engaging as a performer and a person is that combination of professionalism and sheer enthusiasm he has somehow maintained over almost a half-century. Even when he's appearing in a Uwe Boll film, he's enthusiastic about being in the same film as Michael Madsen and Ben Kingsley. And it's great to see someone who still recognizes the sheer fun of getting to do a photo-shoot with Madonna or smell Pamela Anderson as his day job.

But I think what I'd really like to talk about is UNITED TRASH (a.k.a. THE SLIT, 1996), the feature-length film they showed. Directed by Christoph Schlingensief, starring Udo Kier and Kitten Natividad, this film really is something.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Great moments in history, part 1...

Courtesy of Julia Lovell's hilarious and nuanced history, The Great Wall: China Against the World:

After Wang [a eunuch tutor with great hold over the previous emperor]'s death in battle, officials took a terrible revenge on Ma Shun, one of Wang's surviving eunuch lieutenants at court. In an extraordinary scene, unprecedented and unrepeated in Chinese political history, a bloody fistfight broke out at an imperial audience when, unable to restrain his hatred of his eunuch rivals any longer, a censor rushed at Ma, wrestled him to the ground and bit him. Other officials immediately abandoned all sense of decorum and leapt into the scrum. Lacking in conventional arms, the struggle was brutishly drawn out with improvised bludgeons: officials eventually blinded and battered the eunuch to death with his own boots [Emphasis mine]. The nervous new emperor tried to escape the bloody fray by tiptoeing out of the audience chamber, until the new minister of war grabbed him back by his robe, forcing him to condone this spontaneous execution scene. (199)

Let me add, that Ma Shun's superior basically caused the massacre of an entire Chinese army because he didn't want soldiers marching through his own property and then forced them to delay after a valiant rear-guard defense against a Mongol horde.... because he was afraid he had lost his luggage.

Truth is definitely stranger than fiction.
The Great Wall: China Against the World, 1000 BC-AD 2000

Ooooh, speaking of things I want....

The non-zillion dollar version of Taschen's book about Kubrick's Napoleon (a steal at a mere 70 dollars!) is coming out soon-ish.

Seriously, check the link. I mean, I already want half of Taschen's releases, but this blends my cinephilia and art-nerd lust into one object.

Monday, January 17, 2011

My retro career just melted....

On top of reading The UFA Story, I've been on a "behind-the-scenes" of Hollywood kick lately.

About John Gregory Dunne's The Studio I have very little to say, other than that it is a fascinating view of how some great (and not-so-great) films were created over at 20th Century Fox, even as studio executives show an inability to relate to the realities of '60s America.

However, I also read Edward Jay Epstein's The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies. I can't really recommend it as highly as Dunne's book, because most of Epstein's book is just reprints from his Slate and New Yorker columns, with even the new material feeling short and fluffy in the way that most magazines and internet publications expect from regular columns.

The snapshots that Epstein gives of the movie industry can be fascinating. He hints at what would have been a more interesting book in the epilogue, where he breaks down the ways that the loss of foreign financing and the bank/hedge fund collapse have severely impoverished the film world (artistically as well as financially). Epstein lays out the case that the recession strikes the independent production companies the hardest, since the difficulty in securing initial funding sinks almost anything without a big star already attached.

Furthermore, even the major studios, which are slightly better off as far as actually getting their films made, but still in an unenviable position re: making a profit, are relying more and more on overseas sales, which means a swing further towards the comic book/licensed property/shoot-out/car-chase side of the entertainment spectrum. So if you were hoping that the recession would mean smaller, smarter pictures and less empty blockbuster, Epstein's not on your side.

Which, jumping back to The UFA Story, sounds vaguely reminiscent of the German film industry's problems between 1924 and 1928 (which, I remind you, was during a period of economic improvement BEFORE the Great Depression hit). To quote Kreimeier:
This risky product with unpredictable sales potential, which even on the domestic market made life hard for producers wanting quick returns, was now pulled into the malestrom of crisis-prone international finance. (123)
 Moving on from there, Kreimeier notes that the studios that managed to weather this storm the best were those with vertical integration (control of distribution and exhibition) and investments in property (studio space, equipment, movie theatres). These giant conglomerates also usually had ties to a friendly and corporatized press that printed stories and reviews that were basically glorified press releases.

That sounds rather familiar to me. Is this where the American film industry is heading for the near future?
The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies The Ufa Story: A History of Germany's Greatest Film Company, 1918-1945 (Weimar and Now: German Cultural Criticism, 23)The Studio

Saturday, January 15, 2011

UFA versus Hollywood: or, what Archie Hickox was talking about...

I'm reading Klaus Kreimeier's The UFA Story: A History of Germany's Greatest Film Company 1918-1945, because I've been very interested in Nazi Germany art and culture for a while and the way the state interacted with artists beyond mere censorship. Watching Inglourious Basterds again, which briefly touched on the way UFA tried to be both a branch of the entertainment industry and of the propaganda industry, definitely piqued that interest, but there have been other factors as well.

Spotts' Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics already touched on the visual arts in Nazi Germany and Richard Evans' The Third Reich at War touched on the performing arts, though Evans is most interested in statistics of consumption, production and attendance. It wasn't until I recently watched the fascinating Goebbels Experiment on Netflix Instant Viewing and heard some of Goebbels' attempts at film criticism that I got an idea of how seriously the party (or Goebbels, at least) took the integration of art and propaganda in the film industry.

[A side note: only after watching The Goebbels Experiment did I get an idea of how unrepresentative of UFA's work Nation's Pride is. For the sake of the film, I understand why it ends up being a weird Samuel Fuller-esque shoot-out, but, at least judging from the clips of Uncle Krueger and Kolberg the documentary displays, UFA's directors seemed capable of some expressionism, but never such frenetic usage of editing and montage.]

I'm probably going to be blogging about it as I read, but right off the bat, what is most striking is how the early German film industry came down to a fight between big industrial interests and the military. Heaven knows Hollywood ended up being a giant collectivist trust, but it was never so heavily tied to the government and the corporatist state as the early German film industry was.  On top of that, both sides of that fight are conservative or right-wing, but in different ways.

More to come...

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tears of the Black Tiger Mother

Okay, this is not the real post I promised. And Tears of the Black Tiger is a Thai film, not Chinese, but it was the first pun to come to mind...

So there's apparently some sort of mild controversy around Amy Chua, who wrote a book about her rather strict "Chinese mother" (her formulation, not mine) parenting style, which raised two genius daughters. The whole thing is rather storm-in-a-teacup, the kind of controversy that I'm sure publishers love springing up around non-fiction, because suddenly everyone wants your author to show up and explain his/her life/decisions or what-have-you.

For the most part, count me as a disinterested party. On the one hand, I think children are sociopathic little monsters who need to be disciplined (and also loved) into being socially tolerable. On the other hand, no matter what, I doubt Amy Chua's parenting style will ever be adopted by more than a small minority, mostly because parenting has become such a strange creature due to societal and economic pressures that even the strongest willpower can only do so much to overcome.

But... what bugs me about every article I read w/r/t Mrs. Chua is that, among the things she denied her kids, along such usual culprits as sleep-overs, TV and computer games, was being in the school play.

Amy Chua has nothing against art in general, as she talks about the importance of teaching her daughters music and making them practice, and also ballet. But not only did she not allow her kids to be in the school play, she also let drama be one of two classes they did not have to be #1 in.

(Gym was the other class, which seems rather silly, as most gym programs would give you an A just for not beating up kids and trying to do the activities. And if you practice ballet for hours a day, I bet you can climb the rope once.)

Rather than turn this into a huge rant, I just want to say that acting in school plays was the first time I ever had people other than a teacher (or my parents) applaud my imagination and creativity. It was the first time it was socially acceptable for me to show those traits and, not only that, even be appreciated by my peers.

I'm not going to claim it turned me from an outcast to a popular kid, but it at least showed me that, at times, the world beyond administration could value creativity and imagination. And that's the one thing I personally would not want to deprive a kid.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Welcome to the working week...

Thanks, Eve Tushnet, for the link!

Right now, I'm busy with a new temp assignment and other projects. Updates soon, including one on Peter Sasdy's Countess Dracula, possibly the late Ingrid Pitt's best work.