Tag Archives: new york film festival

Lame Adventure 349: Farewell 2012 New York Film Festival

Sunday night the New York Film Festival closed with several screenings of Flight starring Denzel Washington.  He is one of my favorite actors, but I refuse to shell out $20 for a film opening nationwide November 2nd that I can see at my local multiplex before noon for seven clams.  Milton did snag a ticket, but if he thought that Flight was the greatest movie ever made, he is in no hurry to sing its praises to me.  I am not feeling any suspense as I await his verdict.  It is very likely that when I see him this evening, any discussion of Flight might well be superseded by something as mundane as someone in his office misplacing the precious pizza cutter that he personally guards.

Milton and I did see two more films together – a hit and a miss.  The miss was The Last Time I Saw Macao.  We, along with our fellow audience members attending this sold out screening, chose to see this film because we were so impressed with the Portuguese director, João Pedro Rodrigues’ previous film that played the NYFF in 2009, To Die Like a Man.  That earlier film was a compelling story about a drag queen in Portugal living her life as a woman whose estranged son in the military re-enters the picture.  If this film sounds anything like La Cage aux Folles, that’s unintentional for it’s very different and ends tragically, no heartfelt singing of I Am What I Am here.

For The Last Time I Saw Macao Rodrigues collaborated with João Rui Guerra da Mata, a fellow filmmaker of Portuguese descent that was raised in Macao, a former Portuguese colony in China.

João Rui Guerra da Mata (left), João Pedro Rodrigues, and NYFF moderator Melissa Anderson.

The filmmakers original intent was to shoot a documentary about how much Macao had changed since Guerra de Mata lived there thirty years ago.  Instead, they turned it into a story with film noir-type elements about a man the audience never sees searching for an unseen friend in some sort of trouble with unseen bad guys.  If that last sentence confused you, exalt in the fact that you were not attending that screening.

The dialogue is voiceover of Guerra da Mata reading his memoir about Macao and Rodrigues reading something else I was frankly too bored to recall, but they revealed afterward that they wrote the script after they shot the film.

It showed.  We suffered.

The action is all on the soundtrack while the images are focused on various scenery including numerous stray dogs and cats, building windows, a dead rat in the gutter, a shoe, a cloth-covered bird cage, etc.  While watching these images the viewer hears the action occurring off screen throughout the entirety of the film.  Sometimes the audience hears someone terrified pleading for her life followed with the sound of a loud splash, sometimes the audience hears gunshots, sometimes there’s a fantastically loud rumble as if Armageddon is approaching.  As the ending credits rolled Milton declared:

Milton: I could have made that on my fuckin’ iPhone!

Milton’s iPhone with screensaver featuring Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford in “Gilda”.

Afterward during the q&a, where much yawning was emanating all around us, one of the audience members volunteered:

Audience Member: I really didn’t understand who was being killed.

The filmmakers explained that they had made “an abstract film noir”:

Filmmakers: Some people get killed.  Some people survive.  Some people turn into animals.

Milton groaned deeply.  Afterward, he told me that the woman sitting next to him didn’t know whether to laugh or sleep.  He found her struggle infinitely more interesting than what was taking place onscreen.  He issued me a dictate:

Milton: If you write about this in your blog, don’t raise it a notch and call it crap!

The next day we saw No, a vastly more entertaining political thriller directed by Pablo Larraín set in Chile in 1988 when the Pinochet government announced they would hold a vote to get the people’s permission to maintain control.  The opposition was allowed 15 minutes of broadcast time each day for four weeks leading to voting day to build a case urging the citizens to vote no.  A clever  ad man played by Gael García Bernal oversees the No campaign.  Larraín intercut many of the actual campaign spots that were broadcast in 1988 within his film which he shot on U-matic videotape, the same format used in that era.  Compared to The Last Time I Saw Macao, No received our vote for the greatest movie ever made.

Pablo Larraín sitting between Antonia Zegers (left) and NYFF moderator Amy Taubin (right).

As Milton and I were leaving Alice Tully Hall for the last time until we return to the New York Film Festival in 2013 he announced:

Milton: This was a lot of fun even though I hated most of the films.

For anyone that would like to know what are Milton’s 100 personal favorite films click here.

Milton’s iPhone gotcha shot of Pablo Larraín.

Lame Adventure 347: New York Film Festival 2012

The New York Film Festival is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.  Milton and I have been there every day since Saturday, even though we’ve only seen three films thus far.  Milton, who has been a longtime member of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, has not been wild about the location of our seats.  For many screenings we seem to be sitting in the nosebleeds.

Guy playing the piano with his dog outside Alice Tully Hall on Saturday.

The first film we saw was Amour, written and directed by one of our favorite filmmakers working today, Michael Haneke.  He won the Palme D’Or at Cannes for this very unsentimental story set in Paris about Georges and Anne, a longtime married couple coping with the ravages of old age after one suffers a stroke and the other is the caregiver. The octogenarian actors, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, both give extraordinary performances. Veteran actress Isabelle Huppert plays Eva, their middle-aged daughter that resides in London, who feels increasingly frustrated and helpless every time she visits her parents.  Although this film is depressing,  Haneke is such a talented filmmaker, it is riveting and packed with brilliant moments including a chilling nightmare sequence that elicited gasps from the audience.  Of course the real horror is the physical decline that likely awaits many of us as we approach our own mortality.   Yee ha.

Paparazzo Milton sees Michael Haneke milling around the Alice Tully Hall lobby pre-screening of “Amour”.

We noticed that our audience was full of senior citizens including a woman that inched toward her seat with half the energy of a sleeping snail before she settled in front of us.  All the while her friend repeatedly bleated in a thick New York accent, “Fran!  Over here, Fran!  Fran, over here!”  This agitated Milton who kept muttering fluent monosyllabic. There was also quite a lot of loud phlegmy coughing around us prompting him to mutter:

Milton:  God, we’re seeing this in a tuberculosis ward.

Fortunately, the film was excellent, even though we were sitting in row U.

The next day we had tickets to Beyond the Hills, written and directed by the Romanian filmmaker Christian Mungiu.

Milton’s iPhone gotcha shot of Christian Mungiu mingling with fans post “Beyond the Hills” screening.

We’re sitting in row T and Milton is fixated on the two and a half hour running time:

Milton:  This better be good.

I reminded Milton about the Bela Tarr screening we attended last year for The Turin Horse, a film about the futility of existence as illustrated through an ill work horse and two peasants eating potatoes. It was 146 minutes long – but we both loved it.

Beyond the Hills, is a story set in the present about two 25-year-old women that were best friends in a Romanian orphanage after they were abandoned at a very young age by their parents.  One woman is essentially an atheist, but the other has joined a monastery.  When they were in the orphanage, the relationship was sexual.  The secular woman, after working as a waitress in Germany, misses her friend terribly, so she visits her in the monastery.  She wants to rekindle what they had before but the religious woman has decided to devote her life to God.  Life in the monastery provides her with security and a sense of home. The besotted secular friend, grows increasingly unhinged.  The members of the monastery, a priest and several nuns, resort to a barbaric religious ritual to control the situation.  It ends miserably.

Milton declared this film:

Milton: Brokeback Mountain meets The Exorcist.

Milton iPhone gotcha shot of Anjelica Huston trying to slip into Alice Tully Hall through a side door.

On Monday night Milton and I had tickets to a film written and directed by Sally Potter called Ginger and Rosa.  We have third row balcony seats, seats he despises because they’re located a time zone away from the screen.

Ginger and Rosa is a pretentious 89-minute film with a terrific classic jazz soundtrack that seemed to run five hours as I drifted in and out of consciousness.  The story is set in 1962 England during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time when 17-year-old Ginger, a budding radical suffering extreme anxiety about a potential nuclear holocaust, worships her best friend, Rosa, a full fledged slut, who sleeps with Ginger’s cad of a father.  The worship ends, the world continues and Ginger writes a poem where she forgives Rosa.  Milton delivered a one-word review:

Milton: Awful.

I would have almost preferred watching a black screen with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie playing on the audiotrack.

Afterward he revised it when he assessed the talent of the 63-year-old filmmaker, Sally Potter:

Milton: She’s too old to be making a film this bad.

Then, he revised his assessment a third time; he was impressed with Elle Fanning’s performance as Ginger:

Milton:  I don’t know what’s in the water those Fanning sisters drink, but they all have talent.  Too bad they can’t find a filmmaker that knows what to do with them.

Elle Fanning sitting in the center during post “Ginger and Rosa” screening q&a. Photo taken from third row balcony seat i.e., the moon.

He added authoritatively:

Milton:  This was so bad it made Beyond the Hills seem like Gone with the Wind.

Red carpet.

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.


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.

Lame Adventure 239: New York Film Festival Triple Play

Milton and I have recently seen three very diverse films at the New York Film FestivalShame, The Turin Horse and the Special Work In Progress Screening.

What might this film be?

Shame is an erotically charged psychological drama directed by Steve McQueen about Brandon, an affluent, Manhattan-based sex addict in his early-30s, brilliantly played by charismatic, Michael Fassbender, who makes this relentless horndog sympathetic.  Brandon lives a successful double life earning pots of money in his high tech job, while screwing anyone he can buy or bang for free at any hour of the day or night.  When overcome with the urge in the office, he visits the men’s room for a wank.  A quiet evening at home involves pounding a beer and eating take-out Chinese while streaming his favorite porn site.  Riding the subway into work he exchanges such penetrating eye contact with a woman doling out a boatload of come-hither glances back at him, one feels like a voyeur visualizing exactly what he’s imagining he’d like to do to her.

Brandon is content with satisfying his disconnected sexual compulsion until Sissy, his emotionally needy, hot mess of a cabaret singer sister, played perfectly by Carey Mulligan, invades his well-ordered empty life.  When he watches her perform New York, New York dirge-style, he is so overcome with emotion he cannot stop a tear from rolling down his face.  Needy Sissy also invades her brother’s privacy and discovers his secret, prompting him to suffer an existential crisis in response to her cloying need for love and connection.  Following one of their battles, he takes impulsive action to cleanse himself of his habit.  He even tries dating a co-worker with conventional ideas about relationships, but that temporary fix reinforces his natural inclination for the detached and impersonal.  As Sissy craves rescue, Brandon is trapped in his desire for escape, colliding penchants that ultimately exact heavy tolls on both of them.  As the ending credits rolled I was unsure what I wanted to do more, weep or take a shower.  Milton declared:

Milton:  Compared to what we’re seeing next, this was Disney.

Star Fassbender and Director McQueen at the NYFF.

What we saw next was the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr’s last film, The Turin Horse, a 146 minute black and white opus that was inspired by a horse that Friedrich Nietzsche saw being whipped.  This act of brutality upset Nietzche so much he threw his arms around the animal to protect it and then he pretty much went off his rocker until he died ten years later.  This film is ostensibly about what happened to the horse, but the narrative is so lean, it’s borderline anorexic.

It opens with a grizzled peasant with a paralyzed right arm who looks 70, but is probably 45, driving a wooden cart pulled by his weathered workhorse through a fierce windstorm.  Once home, he is wordlessly met by his adult daughter, who looks 40, but is probably 20.  They go about their routine of unharnessing the horse from her cart, putting her in her stable, and then they enter their stone house where she helps her father undress, and redress, he lies down, and she boils potatoes for their meal.  When the potatoes are cooked, she announces, “It’s ready.”  They eat wordlessly with their hands.  She clears the table and then sits at the window with her back to the camera watching the wind wreak havoc outside until her father orders offscreen, “Go to bed.”

Fetching water.

This segment is followed with the next six days of their lives, basically a repetition of the same routines in their thankless existence — fetching water from the well, dressing, undressing, boiling potatoes, eating potatoes, drinking a shot of palinka (a Hungarian fruit brandy), occasionally dealing with the horse that is looking increasingly ill, getting a visit from a gasbag neighbor, getting a second visit from an unwelcome band of gypsies that leave without incident, the well running dry for a reason that is never explained, an attempt to leave, failing to leave and finally, returning to what could be their doom — all while that windstorm of biblical proportion is blowing.  The storm stops, the lantern no longer lights, without water, the potatoes can only be eaten raw, and the screen fades to black.

How I managed to stay awake, much less find myself completely riveted to the monotonous routines of these two miserable souls essentially living the saying, “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” is a testimony to whatever it is that Béla Tarr does with the camera.  I never looked at my watch once.  In fact, it never even occurred to me to look at my watch.

As the ending credits rolled, Milton eloquently confided:

Milton: I never want to see a potato again if that shit ain’t fried.

Afterward, Dennis Lim, a member of the festival’s selection committee, conducted a q&a with Béla Tarr, who insisted on standing throughout.

Béla Tarr and Dennis Lim on stage at Alice Tully Hall

Béla Tarr succinctly explained it best why this film works so well for the viewer:

BT: The details are more important than the stupid story.

He answered the question about why this is his last film with a question:

BT:  Do you think I can say more?

He added that he felt no reason to repeat himself.  Afterward, Milton shared another confidence with me:

Milton:  I want to screw Michael Fassbender and marry Béla Tarr.

Another man blocking Milton's path to Béla's heart.

Our mystery work-in-progress screening was for Martin Scorsese’s adventure in the world of 3D, Hugo, based on the novel by Brian Selznick titled, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  Hugo is a caper about a clever orphan boy who secretly lives in a railway station in Paris with a broken automaton he’s determined to repair.  On a narrative level, the first hour is so leaden with cliché chase scenes and contrived suspense, it made The Turin Horse seem light as a soufflé.  In the second half, it veers into an entirely unpredictable direction when it turns into a compelling film history lesson about filmmaker Georges Méliès, before reverting back to more contrived shenanigans, yet another chase, and the predictable tugging at the heartstrings ending.  I looked at my watch several times while watching this one.  Hugo is scheduled to open November 23rd in time for Thanksgiving.  Pass the turkey.

Lame Adventure 238: New York Film Festival – Melancholia

It seems perversely fitting that on the day after Steve Jobs buys his rainbow, Milton and I are attending a screening of a film at the New York Film Festival called Melancholia.  Written and directed by Lars von Trier, this is a story about the end of the world.  At this moment, many Mac devotees including myself felt that the world had ended a bit when we learned that Steve had checked out.   Milton has an iPhone, his first taste of Mac hardware but his Dell desktop has often been the bane of his existence prompting me to bark:

Me:  Get a Mac!

On cue, he will grouse about having just paid off his PC, and I will issue my usual taunt:

Me:  Once you have Mac you’ll never go back.

Milton and I had not planned on attending any NYFF screenings of films with distribution, but we both highly regretted not bending our rule for the latest from reliably controversial Lars.  When Melancholia played Cannes last spring, word spread fast that it was one of his best films thus far in his career.  Then he blew all the great press devoted to his work by suffering diarrhea of the mouth at a post-screening press conference when he went on a stream-of-consciousness tangent about Nazis, Jews, being a Nazi, etc.  This stupidity quickly got him ejected from the festival.  Do I think he’s a Nazi?  No.  Do I think he was the king of self-destruction at that press conference?  To get vomitously Sarah Palin here, “You betcha!”  Lars might be the type that recoils from admiration and approval.  Yet, I have no interest in playing Sigmund Fraud (sic) about his psychologically.  Everyone has demons, but most of us keep them under wraps in public or at least when cameras, microphones, and hundreds of reporters are present.

We knew that the Melancholia screening was sold out, but Film Society member Milton visited the box office and asked if any seats were available.  The ticket seller took pity on him and sold him a pair (at his member discount rate) of center section seats in row G; a row that Milton is now referring to as “Row Good.”

An image that probably sends chills up Vera Wang's spine.

This cosmic tale is as beautiful as it is bleak.  The story opens with a brilliant prologue depicting mini-scenes of destruction leading up to the grand kahuna of “holy crap, did we see what we just saw” moments  while music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde graces the soundtrack.  The prologue segues into the first part of the film called Justine.  Kirsten Dunst plays Justine, a new bride who arrives two hours late with her groom, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), to their wedding reception held at her sister Claire’s lavish mansion.  A two-word description of the wedding reception is ‘emotional disaster’ as Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg delivering yet another pitch-perfect performance), struggles to make this toxic celebration a success.  Unfortunately, she is fighting an impossible battle with forces beyond her control including her bitter divorced mother (Charlotte Rampling) delivering a speech so withering I became infected with Milton’s giggles.  The foremost force that resists Claire’s good intentions is Justine, who grows increasingly detached from her own party to a socially suicidal degree.

The second part is called Claire, the sister that is fighting hard to maintain some semblance of normalcy in the life she shares with her husband and young son, a tall order to fill since psychopathic Justine is around.  The film unfolds with a sense of calm, but as worried Claire’s anxiety about the fate of the world as a rogue planet approaches escalates, Justine, who has a premonition of what’s to come, seems at peace.  Meanwhile, Claire grows increasingly unhinged and considering the circumsances, who the hell wouldn’t?

If there is a recurring theme throughout the entirety of the film it’s one of hopelessness.  In the world according to Lars it seems that no matter how hard we try to make things right, to play by life’s rules, to be prepared in the event of an emergency, or even if we consciously stop trying at all, either way it doesn’t matter what we do.  Forces beyond our control are out there that are going to crush us one way or another.   On the upside, this makes me feel a lot less lousy about my inability to get out of bed to get to work on time. 

As the ending credits rolled, many audience members sat in a daze.   This thought provoking highly original work is going to stick in our heads quite a while.

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.

Lame Adventure 236: Breakfast with Ben-Hur

Now that the New York Film Festival is fully underway, Film Society of Lincoln Center member, Milton, was notified that he could have a pair of tickets to Saturday morning’s special screening of Ben-Hur.  This was a rare big-screen showing of the gloriously restored spectacle from 1959 that was directed by William Wyler and stars Charlton Heston.  This lavish epic that cost $15,900,000 to produce between May 1958 and March 1959 ($122,709,369.72 in 2011 dollars) won eleven Academy Awards, a feat that has only been equaled by two other blockbusters that were cat-nip to the masses, Titanic (1997), and The Lord of the Rings: the Return of the King (2003).  Milton called me at work on Friday:

Milton: Do you want to see Ben-Hur at 10:30 Saturday morning?

Me: I’m going to see Greg perform at a bar with Coco, Albee and Enchilada tonight.  I anticipate drinking heavily.  Isn’t it three hours long?

Milton:  Closer to four.  Have you ever seen it?

Me:  A religious epic?  Me who endured twelve years of atheist training* in my youth?

[*Atheist training: how I refer to my Catholic school education.]

Milton:  This is your opportunity to see the chariot race on a wide screen.

Me:  I’ll probably feel run over by a chariot.  I’ll need triage.

Milton:  They’re giving me free tickets.

Me:  Ben-Hur with a hangover, here I come!

While waiting for me, Milton milled around the lobby of Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall snapping pictures with his iPhone when he encountered this young gladiator, William Wyler’s great-grandson.

Little gladiator threatening to stab Milton the Paparazzo in the pancreas.

Both the Wyler and Heston families participated enthusiastically in this event and made it extra special for the audience.

Proud Wyler and Heston family members.

Wyler’s daughter, Catherine Wyler, with Charlton Heston’s son, Fraser Heston, delivered a few personal anecdotes by means of introduction.  The costumes that Catherine’s grandchildren were wearing had been designed by the MGM wardrobe department for the film.

Fraser told us that his father filled his sandbox with sand from the set telling him that this wasn’t just any sand, “It’s MGM sand!”

Fraser Heston with his dad and William Wyler.

He said his father was suffering anxiety about the chariot race so he discussed his concerns at length with Yakima Canutt, the stuntman in charge of directing that pivotal scene.  Fraser told us that “Yak” listened patiently to his father, pushed back the brim of his cowboy hat, and said, “Chuck, I guarantee you’re gonna win the race.”

The film got underway with a music overture over a blank blue screen.

Me:  Hey, shouldn’t it say “overture” on the screen?

Milton (authoritatively):  They only do that on TV, so you know there’s nothing wrong with your set.

As the overture played, we noticed that the cavernous theater was at most two-thirds full.  Those of us sitting in the crummier seats scrambled quickly to better locations.  We moved five rows back and towards the center.

When the Wyler and Heston families entered the theater there was a bit of a commotion.  It seemed possible that other patrons had moved into their assigned seats.  Slowly they began to angle their way towards us.  We gulped.

Milton (drily): It would be funny if we were sitting in their seats.

Fortunately, we weren’t, the overture ended, and the film began with an army of extras streaming into Judea, followed with a heavy-handed birth of Christ scene.  I thought that the circled twinkling Star of Bethlehem beaming bright blue light into a stable was overkill.  Once inside the stable, Milton got his first attack of the giggles thanks to a perpetually mooing cow that seemed to say to us:

Perpetually Mooing Cow:  Hey, look at me, I’m in the movies!  I’m not steak!

Fast forward 26 years and we meet sexy-brute Messala (played by Stephen Boyd), a decorated Roman soldier who wears a helmet with a maroon brush that reminded me that I needed to sweep my floor when I got home.  His boyhood friend, Judah Ben-Hur (played earnestly by Heston), who has not seen Messala in years, visits.  With tear-filled eyes these guys engage in such an emotional reunion replete with complicated arm shakes, bear hugs and testosterone-filled spear tossings, I ask Milton:

Me:  Are we watching Brokeback Mountain?

Milton suffers his next attack of the giggles.

Milton claims that this gay subtext was due to Gore Vidal‘s contributions to the script even though he did not get a screenwriting credit.  In my post-screening research I’ve learned that Vidal, who was under contract with MGM, was enlisted by Wyler to rewrite Karl Tunberg’s script, a script that Wyler deemed terrible.  Vidal added the overt gay subtext between Ben-Hur and Messala with Wyler’s approval.  Vidal discussed this idea with Stephen Boyd, but he did not mention anything about the gay innuendo to Heston.  Wyler feared that Chuck would freak out.  In many respects the story did seem like a tragic romance between spurned Messala who exacts hysterical revenge on Judah.  Heart-broken Judah cannot believe that Messala can be so cruel.

Approximately two and a half hours and one technical difficulty delay later, intermission arrived:

Milton:  What day is it?

People making a mad dash for the bathroom groused loudly about the theater feeling like a meat locker.  It was freezing but everyone that left returned.  I envied the woman sitting ahead of us dressed like an Eskimo.

If you only see one half of Ben-Hur, the half to see is the second half for that’s the riveting half with the chariot race.  That race is exhilarating.  Yak Canutt did a brilliant job directing it.  His son, Joe, was Heston’s stunt double.  In an unplanned crash, that was included in the film, Ben-Hur’s horses leap over a fallen chariot throwing Ben-Hur over the lip of his vehicle.  Somehow, he (actually Joe Canutt) manages to climb back in.

That was so impressive, our entire audience gasped.

I thought it was interesting that Ben-Hur never whips his horses, but his rival, the sadistic Messala, is in a whipping frenzy.  Messala is so mad, he even starts cracking his whip at his once dear friend.  If you’re looking for subtlety, you might want to skip Ben-Hur, but if you’re curious to see a blockbuster from another era and you have a wide-screen TV, TCM is broadcasting it on Tuesday October 4th, and again on Christmas day.

Although I would have enjoyed it more had Jesus been written out of the story, Milton said that the religious elements did not bother him because it promoted tolerance and acceptance of one another, which I agree is a good thing.  The way lepers were depicted made him reflect on the way people with AIDS were shunned in the early years of the epidemic.  I thought that was an interesting observation, but religion on the big screen still activates my gag reflex.  Aside from the corniness, camp moments, and tightly corseted women sporting impossibly tiny waistlines (particularly sole-surviving lead actor, Haya Harareet who appears as Ester, the slave-girl Judah loves and frees), Ben-Hur still retains plenty of entertainment bang for much of its three hour and thirty-two minute length.  Even this atheist can recognize that is is a masterpiece.

Left to right: Todd McCarthy, Richard Peña, Catherine Wyler, Frazer Heston

You take another picture of me and it's war!