Tag Archives: hbo

Lame Adventure 241: Goodbye New York Film Festival 2011!

The final two films Milton and I saw together at this year’s New York Film Festival were excellent documentaries, Vito and Pina.

Vito, directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, is about the late gay rights activist and film historian/critic, Vito Russo.  Vito wrote the ultimate history book about gays and lesbians on film, The Celluloid Closet.  His book was also made into a fascinating documentary in 1996; required viewing for anyone interested in this aspect of film culture.  Schwarz pieces together Vito’s life story with painstakingly researched archival footage intercut with interviews Vito gave and recollections from those that knew him best, his friends and family.

Vito’s family, all highly opinionated but clearly very loving Italian Americans were resigned to the reality that Vito was different, but they were also very ahead of their time in accepting him years before Stonewall.  This strong family foundation undoubtedly contributed to his confidence as a proud gay man determined to make an impact.  Vito knew that being gay was as natural as being straight and he was going to prove it by being honest about who he was.  This included his practice of Judyism, his devotion to Judy Garland.

His early activism got underway post-Stonewall, during a difficult time when there was deep division in the ranks of gay leadership.  Vito was very accepting of all gay people including drag queens and lesbians, an unpopular stand in the early Seventies.  Following a gay pride celebration in New York in 1973 where the crowd was particularly unruly, he switched gears and focused on writing and the daunting mission of researching The Celluloid Closet.

In the early Eighties, in response to the AIDS crisis, a crisis that had a unifying effect on the LGBT community, Vito again took action fueled by the homophobic Reagan administration’s deeply unsympathetic response to the impact of this deadly disease.  Vito’s relentless AIDS activism was integral in forcing the LGBT community to realize that if they didn’t take action, cold-hearted right wing politicians would continue to ignore the severity of this disease that they foolishly assumed was just a gay plague.  Therefore, they denied funding research that could have led to the development of a cure or contain the epidemic.  Vito was outraged as he watched friends as well as his companion, Jeffrey Sevcik, die far too young from this disease.  When Vito was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, his mother wanted him to move into her house in New Jersey so that she could nurse him.  His cousin recalled that although Vito loved his mother dearly, “He would rather die in New York than live in New Jersey.”

Overall, this poignant documentary is as much about Vito the man as it is also a history lesson about the gay rights movement and how gays and lesbians were depicted on film.  During the Q&A Schwarz said that his goal is to have Vito screened in high schools throughout the country so that today’s youth can be educated about gay history.  Frankly, I think that everyone young, not so young, gay, straight or undeclared should see this entertaining history lesson about this charismatic force.  HBO will screen Vito in June 2012.

Milton the Paparazzo iPhone shot of Lou Reed standing outside Alice Tully Hall before entering Pina screening.

Pina

Milton thinks and I agree that the documentary, Pina, about the modern dance choreographer, Pina Bausch, directed by Wim Wenders, is possibly the first film shot in 3D where 3D has enhanced the storytelling.  A documentary about dance shot in 3D now seems like a no-brainer, but it took Wenders almost twenty years to figure that out.  He and Pina had been discussing collaborating on this venture for decades, but Wenders was reluctant to take on the project because he was unsure how to effectively tackle this subject on film.  After he had his epiphany, he organized the film shoot, but tragedy struck; Pina suddenly died.  Wenders canceled the shoot.

Eventually, he reversed course and decided to proceed with the project.  With the participation of Pina’s dance company, he has created a stirring homage to his friend and fellow artist.  The dances are intercut with portraits of the dancers staring silently at the camera while they speak their thoughts about her in voiceover.  There are not many spoken words in this film, for it is the complex, athletic dances that tell the story about this woman and her unbridled enthusiasm for expressive movement.

Personally, I am not much of a fan of dance, but I realized after seeing this film, I am now a big fan of Pina Bausch’s emotionally charged choreography, especially in 3D.  Her dancers are men and women of many nationalities and ages; some had to be close to fifty (prompting Milton and I to pop Aleve and swath ourselves with Ben-Gay on the spot).  The musical choices, many by Pina, but others by Wenders, also set the tone of each piece.

Costumes are as varied as diaphanous shifts and ball gowns for the women to business suits and just trousers for the men.  Props and sets include chairs, tree branches, dirt and water.  Several of these inventive dances were staged in actual outdoor locations including a glass house, an island near a traffic intersection and a suspension railway’s floating train.

This exhilarating tribute to such an inspired artist in the 3D format makes the viewer feel like you’re present with the dancers.  Unlike choppy music videos that flit from shot to shot, Wenders editing is generous, showing the entirety of the choreography.  The trailer accurately describes this film as being for Pina Bausch by Wim Wenders.  Pina opens in New York on December 23rd at the Walter Reade Theater.

Lou Reed imploring his friend, Wim Wenders, to make Milton the Paparazzo with the iPhone go away.

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Lame Adventure 237: New York Film Festival – George Harrison: Living in the Material World

Milton and I attended the sold-out screening of the HBO documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World at the New York Film Festival.  This 208 minute film directed by Martin Scorsese with the cooperation of Harrison’s widow, Olivia, will be shown in two parts on HBO starting tonight.

We had fantastic seats, seventh row, almost dead center.  The filmmaker, Wes Anderson, was sitting behind us.  We saw Fisher Stevens and we also thought we saw the composer Philip Glass.  I pointed out a guy that I thought could have participated in a John Lithgow look-alike contest.

Milton:  He could have entered but he would have lost.  I can’t believe we have VIP seats!

Me:  Someone probably got fired for making that mistake.

As I was leafing through my program, chatting with Milton, I reached our film’s description page.  The woman sitting next to me, a Bjork-wannabe in the appearance department, floats her finger over George’s face in the photograph and mumbles his name into my left ear.

Floating finger re-enactment.

This unsolicited gesture captures my attention. I don’t want to encourage her but I don’t want to appear rude.

Me:  Yes, that’s George Harrison.

Milton mumbles her name into my right ear.

Milton:  Weirdo.

Olivia Harrison and Martin Scorsese introduce the film.  Then, the lights dim, the screen fills with tulips, and George’s middle-aged face appears in the garden.  He looks at the camera and flashes an ethereal smile.  I instantly feel a lump in my throat, but it just as instantly dissolves because Weirdo unfolds the oversized program guide and starts perusing it using her cellphone as a light source.  She is also leaning over my armrest.  She is so close to me that I can sniff her fragrance, Eau de Gag.

There I am sitting next to a stinky deranged space invader that I’d like to beat with a Rickenbacker guitar while watching what might be the definitive documentary about one of the most spiritual rock stars ever.  Instinct tells me that if I address her, this could get very ugly, very fast.  I inch closer to Milton and stay focused on the film, but I do notice that when I react audibly to whatever is happening on the screen, it  distracts her from her program guide reading and I can feel her staring at me.  If I were  to look at her, I know she’d be looking at me square in the face.  I stay focused on the screen.

Every so often her illuminated phone chimes.  It also fully rang once.  She quickly killed the ring, but the guy sitting next to Milton leaned forward and did address her.

Guy Sitting Next to Milton:  Shut that off!

She followed his order.  At that moment, I could have had that stranger’s child.

The first half of the film, told without narration and deftly edited by David Tedeschi, reveals George’s early life through archive footage and home movies, as well as interviews with the man himself.  This footage is intercut with interviews with key talking heads including the surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, record producer George Martin, Harrison’s ex-wife Pattie Boyd, Eric Clapton, Yoko Ono, Phil Specter (filmed before his world imploded), and many others sharing anecdotes and personal insights about “the quiet Beatle”.  Until Paul McCartney revealed it, I never knew that young George referred to his highly stylized pre-Beatle haircut as “the turban.”

The film conveys George’s frustration as being the lead guitarist to the Beatle’s two domineering writers, John Lennon and McCartney.  In the beginning Harrison’s songwriting talent was undeveloped, but it blossomed over time (being in the company of Lennon and McCartney could not have hurt) but he had a tough time getting his less commercial songs on Beatle albums.  He smashed one hit out of the park with Something.  In the second half of the film, an interviewee suggests that although this classic Harrison composition is about a woman, it could just as easily have been about his close relationship with God.

Part two of the film, the post-Beatle half, devotes much more time to George’s original music as well as to his spirituality.  This was the half where I caught myself nodding out on several occasions.  Yet, whenever he or Ravi Shankar began strumming a sitar, I quickly regained consciousness.

The more controversial areas of George’s life including his philandering and his recreational drug abuse were downplayed.  Olivia skirts the topic of his indiscretions.  It was clearly a painful topic for her, but she answers her own question when she herself asks the secret to a lasting marriage:

Olivia: You don’t get divorced.

A glaring omission was not mentioning that George lost a major copyright infringement suit that lingered for years.  A judge ruled against him when it was deemed that he subconsciously plagiarized the Chiffon’s He’s so Fine when he wrote My Sweet Lord.  Milton and I are both deaf to the similarities.

What we also found baffling was why the filmmakers were so coy about the specific cancer that led to George’s death in 2001.  He was seen smoking cigarettes throughout the film and was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1997.  The subject of his cancer from the initial diagnosis through where he traveled for treatment was downplayed. Yet, it is mentioned that his cancer was in remission when an intruder attacked him in his home on New Year’s Eve 1999.  Dhani, George and Olivia’s only child, eludes that the stress of that brutal attack may have expedited his father’s death.  I am sure that that attack did not help George recover, but I am also sure that smoking a few packs for 30 or 40 years may have also contributed significantly to his passing.  Why not be straightforward about that?  I don’t think this film was funded by Philip Morris.

As we left the theater Milton observed:

Milton: I feel like I was lied to but in a very clever way.

Overall, this film is very entertaining, but there are gaps in the narrative.  As for Weirdo, she left her seat at intermission and did not return.  Maybe Krishna or possibly George himself interceded on my behalf.

Forbidden panel discussion iPhone photo that nearly got Milton handed his head on a plate by a watchdog usher. Left to right producer Nigel Sinclair, Olivia Harrison, Martin Scorsese, Margaret Bodde, David Tedeschi, and moderator Scott Foundas. Note woman in foreground wearing Sgt. Pepper-ette collection coat.