Traversing Life’s Challenges: A Review of “A Useful Life”

Traversing Life’s Challenges: A Review of “A Useful Life”

“A Useful Life” by Federico Vieroj is a 67 minute mini-feature that focuses on a major turning point in the life of Jorge, the curator of a small art house cinema in Montevideo, Uruguay. Vieroj’s movie is about the fate of film in a digital world and an adoring ode to the days before the advent of video when movie watching was a collective experience. Most importantly however, his film is a brilliantly lyrical example of how motion pictures can prepare us for the big changes in our lives.

Jorge’s life has been dedicated to bringing the best films from around the world to his fellow Montevideans. Evidently most of them must have either switched to home video, or moved on to other interests. Jorge hosts a weekly radio program dedicated to a deeper appreciation of cinema, but it fails to increase the theater’s patronage. Meanwhile, the projectors grow more rickety by the day, as do the theater seats, film archives and balance sheet.

This does not discourage Jorge who seems happy to go on eating his sack lunches while acting as programmer, projectionist, promoter, curator, business manager, janitor—in other words, a single cog on which all essential tasks must turn. Other than a feeble attempt to date a member of his audience, it appears that life at this little movie house is the sum and total of Jorge’s existence.

After Jorge submits a report requesting funds for repairs from the philanthropic organization on which the theater has grown dependent, the group’s representative informs him that, due to the theater’s hopeless insolvency, support will be withdrawn altogether.

Their lifeline is cut and the doors of the cinematheque are closed. The remainder of this story unwinds as Jorge spends his first day floating free from responsibilities that have occupied him for 25 years.

Early on in “A Useful Life” there is a shot of Jorge pacing the floor as he waits for the female patron, with whom he wishes to become better acquainted, to emerge from the theater door. Just above Jorge’s head stretches a series of photos, depicting a horse and rider in full sprint. They were captured in 1878 using 24 cameras rigged with trip wires at a racetrack in Palo Alto, California by the photographer Edward Muybridge.

Those images represent a major breakthrough in the birth of motion pictures, just as their appearance in this story foreshadows the breakthrough, which Jorge is about to undergo. It also attributes the grace and fluidity that mark his swift adjustment to a lifelong involvement with motion pictures.

The horse motif is echoed in a hauntingly poetic song that accompanies a montage at the beginning of Jorge’s transformation. From this point on, photographs appear in various places Jorge visits on his way to indicate his progress toward a final epiphany. The filmmaker invites us to consider how such immersion in the vivid storytelling of cinema can become a trustworthy steed for navigating life’s challenges.

Motion pictures contain endless examples of characters coming to terms with difficulties in their lives. In this way they prepare us for unexpected turning points in our own.

In the closing scene, when Jorge is seen traversing the ups and downs of his environment with joy and grace, it is deliberately staged in order to call to mind a strip of film moving through the sprocket of a projector. Jorge embodies it as a metaphor so that his life becomes the ultimate movie.

Tough Love: A Review of “Monsieur Lazhar”

Tough Love: A Review of “Monsieur Lazhar”

Monsieur Lazhar,” Canada’s official entry for the 2011 Best Foreign Film Oscar, concerns an Algerian immigrant that finds work in Montreal standing in for an elementary school teacher who recently committed suicide. It sounds straightforward enough, but nothing is as it appears on the surface–and yet the story does not play out like a mystery in the orthodox sense. The emotional truths that each of the main characters arrive at become a far more interesting journey than determining the bare facts of the tragedy at its center.

Philippe Falardeau’s fourth feature is a tender, engrossing drama played out mostly in a 6th grade classroom with some gifted child actors. The title role is played with remarkable delicacy by a handsome, ex-patriot Algerian comedian, writer and social commentator now living in France who goes by the name of Fellag.

Monsieur Lazhar is saddled with the pressures of enduring a personal tragedy while he attempts to bridge the gulfs that separate him by age from his students, by his differing teaching methods from his fellow educators, and between his native culture and that of his adopted country.

From his opening scene onward, when Lazhar persuades the school’s headmistress to hire him, he seems to comprehend the breadth and scope of his responsibilities and appears equal to the task. Once inside the classroom, her faith in him is confirmed as he demonstrates genuine compassion for the students, continually proving his worthiness as teacher and role model while the children adjust to the uncustomary rigors of his teaching methods and grapple with their grief and confusion over the loss of their esteemed former teacher.

I was surprised to discover that the leading child actors are evidently both quite new to cinema. Emillien Neron, who plays Simon, is burdened with a guilt complex connected to the death of his former teacher. Sophie Nelisse, plays Alice, Simon’s best friend and favorite pupil of Monsieur Lazhar. The movie opens with an exchange between the two that distinguishes their bond. Simon’s behavior reveals a passive aggressive streak that appears as harmless teasing. Alice, being the more mature of the two, takes it for the display of macho affection to which boys their age are prone.

The film unfolds from here as if it was headed directly for the mutual healing of the main characters and we are content to be set up for a heartwarming redemption, for its finale, overflowing with finely-honed performances and sweetly observed details in between. However, there are darker undercurrents to these characters than we are not immediately capable of comprehending yet even when they are exposed, it does not significantly change the mood or timbre of the story. It simply makes the characters even more real, their emotions extra vivid and the entire movie more satisfying. We are brought down to earth and served a helping of real life in a most lucid and loving fashion.

The Joy Is In The Journey: “The Cardboard Bernini”

The Joy Is In The Journey: “The Cardboard Bernini”

Chasing virtuosity, the mid-20th Century born illustrator and sculptor, James Grashow, performs a tour de force over the course of 78 breezy minutes of “The Cardboard Bernini.” In this engrossing, feel-good artist bio, satisfaction comes in the living space of extended bouts of creativity.

I don’t think it would spoil anything about the story for you to know in advance that many of us baby boomers were introduced to this man’s work as an illustrator 40 years ago. His folksy, intricate woodblock prints decorated some of the most classic LP record album art of all time. I hope at least some of you enjoy the tingle of nostalgia that came to me seeing his early work again after so long. As it turns out, James Grashow has made a pretty good living ever since.

Pushing 70 now, Grashow is at the height of his powers and vows to be reaching for something heroic here. There are scenes of him straining his ligaments, blistering his fingers, sweating over his monumental task, dedicating three solid years of his life on an elaboration of Bernini’s Trevi fountain in Rome, made of cardboard, paper and glue, which he then plans to abandon it to the elements.

Mixing interviews with archival photos and movie clips, the documentary playfully reconstructs his unique life, inter-cutting scenes of his latest sculpture being born with flashes from the past. The visual design of the movie helps sustain our attention over the course of a long and storied career.

A highlight of these proceedings is his wife, Lesley. The artist attributes his success to their partnership. The bond between the couple is both admirable and palpable. His adult children call him a “wizard.” Their upbringing was “magical”. We get a glimpse of their exquisite Connecticut residence, which looks like something out of one of his shows.

His family contributes abundantly to the story of this grown man with the child’s imagination who has been producing original art full-time for fifty years. But the real enchantment to which his wife and children refer is the creative swoon that James Grashow floats around in most of the time.

The artist appears intoxicated with life, yet claims he is afflicted with existential blues. The notion of eternity’s indifference to his creations and the notion of his own death is an ever-nagging bummer. Grashow recounts a life-changing story of when his close friend, the art dealer died. The artist went to pay his respects and some favorite sculptures of his, giant paper people made of maché and wire, his friend had displayed for years, were piled in the back yard decomposing, exposed to the elements. It upset him, but he also saw the beauty in it. This event made Grashow plan the most ambitious art project of his career. We are invited into the process from conception to last rites.

His wife, while obviously proud of her husband’s accomplishments, is not 100% onboard with his decision to dispose of his newborn masterpiece in its infancy. You wonder what his wife does for a living besides being mother to their grown kids and an accomplice to the wizard. She’s got her own inner life, for sure, and can be as interesting a study as her husband.

I’m not suggesting the life of a professional cardboard bender is devoid of struggle. Birthing original art can turn into a decidedly more difficult proposition at any point in the process. Imagine the deep doo-doo this holy fool must have found himself in, from time to time, over the 150 solid weeks it took to construct and display his pulp homage.

The finished work emerges in the third act, exhibiting a mature decorator’s sense of style and execution, but resembling Bernini’s monument in design only. You can’t make cardboard do what marble can. He does, however, achieve just about everything you could imagine, given the material.

Concerning what he calls “the back end of my art,” its disintegration becomes vitally important to Grashow. In embedding the demise of this piece into the project, it becomes a ritual to address his deepest fears. He finds peace now when it’s all over, instead of regret. “It was perfect,” he says. It was pretty good for us too.

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The Current State of Polish Cinema

The Current State of Polish Cinema

I had the pleasure of attending one of the 2011 Santa Fe Film Festival’s panel discussions Friday afternoon at Zane Bennett Gallery. Brent Kliewer, this year’s program director for the festival, hosted the conversation. The audience was made up of hungry local film lovers like me and guest filmmakers, from various parts in and outside the US, whose movies are screening at this year’s festival.

For 25 years Pawel Wendorff has worked in Poland as a cinematographer, having shot about a dozen feature films and documentaries. “Odd One Out,” which plays on Saturday, 5:15pm at CCA, is his first feature as full-fledged director. The film has already begun gathering awards on the festival circuit.

Brent began the program by asking him, “How did the Polish film school happen to be located in a place like Lodz, which is a factory town? Why not one of the obvious cultural centers such as Krakow or Warsaw?”

“It probably had to do with the time period in which the decision was made to open a film school,” the filmmaker answered. “That was 1956. Warsaw was still a heap of ruble from the war. Lodz was conveniently located nearby. It was nothing but gray factories and factory workers.” He then began to paint a rather amusing picture of what it must have been like when this Polish industrial town of 90 percent blue-collar workers was suddenly infiltrated by a group of artists with movie cameras. I am paraphrasing heavily as his English came forth in halts and gallops. At the very least, it sounds like the students made the most of Lodz’s gritty locations for their student films.

Brent then asked Wendorff to compare his first encounter directing features with his extensive experience as a cinematographer. “I have done so many pictures as a cinematographer that it begins to feel like just another job.” the filmmaker replied. “Directing provides the most creative inspiration for me now. It feels more like art.”

When one of the audience members asked if he would ever consider wearing both hats simultaneously while making a feature film, he was not enthusiastic. “I would like to have the camera operator be someone else,” was his answer, “then you can better focus on things that are most relevant to the film, such as the conduct of the actors.”

Wendorff’s film “Odd One Out,” is a kaleidoscopic narrative revolving around a man who lands his first job as a delivery driver and inadvertently becomes a witness to a traffic accident. When he gives his statement at the police station, he finds himself suddenly entangled in a surreal web of intrigue. The movie has a quality of paradox and absurdity characteristic of the great tradition of literature from countries where oppressive bureaucracies assume the visage of labyrinthine nightmares.

Being the fountain of film facts that he is, Mr. Kliewer engaged Mr. Wendorff in a lively discussion on the Polish film tradition, which dates to the invention of motion pictures. Mention was made of early associations with Yiddish theater, prior to the Nazi and Soviet Invasions, and the cunning adoption of Aesopian codes by those filmmakers forced to find ways around political censorship. From there the discussion progressed to more recent milestones in film including Polanski’s “Knife in the Water” Bugajski’s “Interrogation,” and Kieslowski’s “Decalogue.”

The legacy of filmmaking that Wendorff was born into is very different from ours. We take for granted the demands of a free market that determines which projects attract investment and which do not. With few exceptions this has been our model since the beginning. Though it may sound like an advantage to have lived in a country where motion pictures were subsidized by the State, film projects were, often as not, paralyzed by red tape and burdened with the agenda of the party in power. For better or worse, State funding in Poland came to an end in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

In the present day, a movie tax goes to the Polish Film Institute that helps pay half the budget for qualifying movies and the filmmakers raise the other half. If their film makes a profit, they refund the seed money for the benefit of future film projects however, in a country with only six million people, it’s hard to make your money back.

I was surprised to learn that, throughout Europe, movies do not generally reach profitability, at least on non-English language films. Even when Italy was numero uno in international cinema in the late fifties and early sixties, it only commanded 50 percent of its returns from the home market. Importation to America is practically essential for a movie to financially succeed.

If this trend continues, it portends the eventual death of national cinema. When you consider the extraordinary treasures that Polish cinema has contributed since its beginnings, such a development is heartbreaking if not outright outrageous.

In response to this news, I asked Wendorff if he wouldn’t prefer to come to America to make movies. “There are currently no Polish directors working in Hollywood,” he said. “Polish filmmakers may dream of making movies here but it’s a far-fetched notion. They are more focused on earning enough money to survive and finishing the next film.”

Wendorff appeared to be humbly gratified to be attending our festival and discussing his national cinematic heritage. Capturing attention at prestigious American film festivals will support him in being able to make his next film when he returns home.

The Abysmal Gaze: A Preview of “Leviathan”

The Abysmal Gaze: A Preview of “Leviathan”

“Leviathan”, screening at the Santa Fe Film Festival this year, is a highly effective horror film made all the more so without a clear beginning, middle or end, because what we witness goes on in real life, day after day after day. With the preponderance of super-portable HD cameras, more and more directors are adopting this shotgun approach to filmmaking.

For his latest outing, anthropologist/filmmaker Lucien Castaign-Taylor collaborates with fellow Harvard faculty alum, Verena Pavel. We are in experimental territory here, with filmmakers aiming their panoply of lenses at the craft, crew and carnage of a Bedford, MA. commercial fishing outfit. Some viewers have found this non-verbal work of pure cinema, bleak, directionless and detached. Some will praised its democratic aspirations for the audience. All have found it visceral, challenging and unlike anything they’ve ever seen on a movie screen.

Castaign-Taylor has also collaborated with his wife, Ilisa Barbash,Associate Curator of Visual Anthropology at the Peabody Museum, Harvard University. “In and Out of Africa” (1992). It is an ethnographic video about the African art market that has won eight international awards. Those two also gave us the film “Sweetgrass” (2009), which played at the Screen in Santa Fe, with a personal appearance by Castaign-Taylor. “Sweetgrass” is a mournful reflection on the American West and the primordial, tenuous symbiosis between humans and animals.

The absence of a narrative arc in “Leviathan” can be unsettling, but the creative duo at its core are rightly to be celebrated, by their peers at least, for delivering a work of profound ethnographic importance. For non-academic audience members, this is a monster movie extraordinaire.

“Leviathan” at the 2012 Santa Fe Film FestivalIf you long for a prolonged derangement of the senses, the big screen experience of this is not to be missed. The preponderance of dark, stark, compositions, above and below the surface, drag us through the deeps of our own conscience as constituents of the callous species who use machines to decimate earth. Most if not all of the audience are end users contributing to this ecological nightmare. We are the digestive tract of this mechanical Leviathan, the Biblical sea monster that is described in the book of Job: “Nothing on earth is his equal—a creature without fear.”

For viewers that like to be challenged, “Leviathan” filmmakers explore the deconstructive potential of the documentary form, effectively eviscerating its subject with the blunt-edge of dozens of cameras, at angles odd and even, frames fixed and floating, exposures majestic and confounding plus an abstract soundtrack both creaky and pounding.

Like the marine world under attack, the audience is not spared. This factual report cuts to the core, not in a preachy fashion, not with a message or an agenda, but with sheer observational authority. What we conclude from all of this is entirely up to us.
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“Leviathan” will be playing Saturday, December 8 at 12:15 p.m. at the Screen as part of the 2012 Santa Fe Film Festival.

More information and complete program and schedule, please visit the Santa Fe Film Festival website. To purchase tickets, visit


Tales of Hoffman: A Preview of “Quartet”

Tales of Hoffman: A Preview of “Quartet”

The musical quartet was invented to exploit the fundamental registers of the human voice. Its meaning has morphed to denote any art form where variations can be tried on the theme of four. Four is a tidy number. Like voices in a music composition, an effective quartet of characters in a script must interconnect and balance so that anything one character does, causes a complimentary, credible, and compelling reaction from the other three. Reactions from each of those characters in return should result in the same formal, complimentary symmetry. It is not an easy feat to achieve, though the masters make it seems so.

The movie,“Quartet” is a comedy directed by actor Dustin Hoffman and is set in a home for aging musicians. I know—it sounds kind of tame for the wizard that personified youthful alienation as Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate”, or dragged himself over the razor’s edge as Ratzo Rizzo in “Midnight Cowboy”—roles through which Hoffman established his genius.


The man has paid us several lifetimes worth of artistic gold already. The recent Kennedy Center honoree got his start in theater at the Actor’s Studio in 1962 and began attracting critical praise in 1966 for his role as Ventine Brose in “Eh?” by Henry Livings. So it is fitting that a film that is being called his directorial debut is an adaptation from a stage play (from a script by Ronald Harwood). “Quartet,” says Hoffman, “is about living this life.”

His roles in “Lenny”, “Papillon”, “Tootsie” or “Rainman” demonstrate, not only the versatile chameleon and courageous risk taker Dustin Hoffman has always been, but his good judgment in selecting worthwhile projects over the course of a long career. Assembling such a superlative cast for “Quartet” confirms my suspicions that this will be another Dustin Hoffman film we won’t want to miss. It brought cheering crowds to their feet when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Dustin Hoffman has scored almost as many victories on the stage as on screen, playing his generation’s definitive Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” on Broadway. To be able to project that transition from escapist optimism to spiritual bankruptcy eight shows a week for more than twelve dozen performances requires Michaelangelo-like will. It proves—far more than just a great actor—what a consummate artist he is.

Anyone reluctant to see a film directed by an artist that they’ve only previously ever considered an actor, remember: the Sistine Chapel was painted by an artist that considered himself a sculptor. As for this being Hoffman’s directorial debut, in fact, his first such gig was at a North Dakota theater in 1967 with Saroyan’s “The Time of Your Life,” a script, by the way, full of foursquare passages.

The high spirit Hoffman has always brought to his work makes me eager to discover what he is wrestling with now, in the deeper sense. His “Quartet,” is about an octogenarian opera diva that takes charge by refusing to sing. It is also about a distinguished actor that shows up for a movie and refuses to act.