Recommended on a Friday: Manchester by the Sea, Uncle Howard, Off the Rails, Daughters of the Dust, J’Accuse, Pitch
Kenneth Lonergan’s masterful Manchester by the Sea is the high-profile opening of the week, and one strongly recommended by all of us at Filmmaker. The writer/director is our current print issue cover, with James Ponsoldt’s interview now online as well. In his intro, Ponsoldt wrote:
Lonergan’s films all feature stand-out performances, and the constellation of actors in Manchester by the Sea — Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Gretchen Mol and Affleck — are beautifully cast. Their family could be your family. The Chandlers’ struggle to find a new normal in the wake of tragedy is surprisingly funny, human, messy and yes, occasionally gut-wrenching.
The film is a major achievement by one of America’s great dramatists, but here’s the kicker: for a story that features death so prominently, Manchester by the Sea is perhaps most remarkable for being one of 2016’s finest films about the goodness of life.
And in his review out of Sundance, Vadim Rizov wrote:
Manchester overflows with ripe dialogue, developed characters, and a toughmindedness that resists the all-American bromide that with a little emotional elbow grease, anyone can transcend their past and get on with it. Lonergan is, indeed, a writer/playwright, but he understands how film can compact trajectories: there’s at least one scene that’s just two lines exchanged between uncle and nephew. That’s a whole shot that needs to be both there and exactly as short as it is, and it’s not a minor moment: it’s the kind of thing you can only do with moving images. This is a great film….
Another strong recommendation is Aaron Brookner’s documentary, Uncle Howard, which is opening this weekend at New York’s IFC Center. If you were part of New York’s independent film scene in the late ’70s or ’80s, you either knew, or knew of, Howard Brookner. A keenly observant documentarian of artists, Brookner made personal-feeling documentaries like Burroughs: The Movie, about author William Burroughs, and Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars, about the legendary theater director’s quixotic attempt to mount his magnum opus, a multi-hour, country-skipping historical fantasia. Brookner also took a shot at comedy drama with his Damon Runyon adaptation, Bloodhounds of Broadway, which starred Matt Dillon and Madonna. In 1989, at 34, he died of AIDS, with his illness exacerbated by the stresses of shooting Bloodhounds.
Directed by Brookner’s nephew, Uncle Howard is portrait, detective story and philosophical inquiry. For the younger Brookner, Howard was a mythic figure, a kind of distant artistic godfather. Uncle Howard details the director’s own search for his uncle’s filmmaking archives — outtakes from his features as well as his video diaries, personal photography and more. As the younger Brookner assembles more of these materials, finally winning over poet John Giorno, who has kept private a vast swatch of footage in Burrough’s old “Bunker” on the Bowery, and shoots interviews with his uncle’s friends and colleagues, like director Jim Jarmusch and former boyfriend Brad Gooch, a lively, affectionate yet layered portrait of Howard Brookner emerges, a portrait that is as much of the man as of the New York art and filmmaking scene as it enters the AIDS crisis.
I saw Uncle Howard at Sundance, where a film like this carries a certain melancholy charge. For Aaron, the search is obviously personal — an attempt to trace his own artistic lineage. For the viewer, if the viewer is a filmmaker, the search takes on other meanings. The footage found in Uncle Howard hails from a pre-digital age, a more innocent time when archiving takes work, and physical space, and that commitment equates to a belief that the past will be remembered. Now, however, as we are drowning in surprisingly fragile data stored on a smaller and rapidly obsolescing storage formats, we older filmmakers realize how fragile and out-of-grasp the past can be. Aaron’s fear that his uncle’s work will be lost becomes a existential one as well as an attempt to retrieve a catalog of aesthetics, attitudes and freedoms in danger of being lost to the current generation. His search for his uncle’s footage, and his quest to make the film we are watching, becomes a search for, in the current historical moment, cinema itself.
Speaking of an earlier era of New York independent film, now playing at New York’s Film Forum 25 years after its premiere there is Julie Dash’s newly restored and entirely seminal Daughters of the Dust. Writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody, “Julie Dash’s boldly imaginative, ecstatically visionary drama, from 1991, is one of the best all American independent films; she turns one family’s experience of the Great Migration into a vast mythopoetic adventure… Dash plots family relationships with a novelistic intensity and observes the cultural interweave of Christianity, Islam, African and Native American religions, mysticism, and politics with luminous lyricism and hypnotic pageantry. The intimate action shimmers with mysteries and myths.” (More from Brody here.) Daughters of the Dust was a huge influence on Beyonce’s film Lemonade, by the way.
Opening in New York at the Metrograph today is a singular New York story, Off the Rails. A documentary directed by Adam Irving, the film presents the sweet yet also tragic tale of Darius McCollum, whose compulsive fascination with New York’s MTA provides both solace and alienation. Mesmerized from a young age by the trains — their sense of motion, the community of their workers, the reassuring geometry of their maps — McCollum grows up to repeatedly impersonate transit officials, absconding with trains and busses and quite reliably taking passengers to their final destinations. McCollum has Asperger’s Syndrome, and trains provide his most functional way of interacting with the world. But, needless to say, his criminal record stops the MTA from hiring him, and the compulsive nature of his thefts leads to longer and longer jail stints. Irving relies on McCollum’s own narration and on-camera interviews along with archival footage and photography; interviews with various supporters; and amazing recreations that mix McCollum’s present-day voice with imagery that appears ripped from the past. I was on the DOC NYC jury that gave the film the top prize in the Metropolis section and, indeed, the film dramatically captures New York with both a child-like wonder as well as an enraged frustration. Highly recommended.
Finally, Jim Hemphill’s home video and TV recommendations are going to be spun off into their own column next week. But, for now, here are two you can catch on the small screen.
Jim Hemphill’s Picks for Friday, November 18
This week sees the Blu-ray release of one of the greatest of all war films, made by one of the silent era’s boldest innovators. Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (1919) begins as a melodramatic love triangle set against the backdrop of the First World War, but over the course of the film’s nearly three-hour running time it becomes clear that Gance has only been using melodrama as a pretext, drawing us in with the comforts of genre only to rip that comfort away with brutal immediacy. World War I veteran Gance returned to the front lines with his camera to record actual battles for J’Accuse with the full cooperation of French government officials, who mistakenly thought Gance was assembling a patriotic call to arms. The truth couldn’t have been more different — seeking to expose what he referred to as “the war and its stupidity,” Gance shot positively chilling combat footage. Years ahead of most of his contemporaries in his use of expressionistic visual metaphors and rapid-fire editing — the perfect visual corollary to the advanced rat-a-tat weaponry being employed in the war — Gance came the closest of any filmmaker in history to capture the experience of battle. Particularly unforgettable is a hallucinatory sequence in which soldiers rise from the dead to question the validity of their sacrifice. Gance used real soldiers, many of whom would die in the war soon afterward; the chilling result is a scene in which men are playing their own ghosts.
For an emotionally and aesthetically rewarding home viewing experience that comes with considerably less trauma, I’d like to recommend Fox’s TV series Pitch, which streams on Hulu and a variety of other platforms and is one of the best new shows of the fall. A drama about the first female pitcher in major league baseball, it’s a razor-sharp, buoyant examination of gender and class issues that brilliantly juggles old-fashioned inspirational sports movie virtues with anthropological detail and trenchant social commentary. The writing and acting are top-notch throughout, as is the directing – the first two episodes helmed by Paris Barclay keep all the show’s disparate elements in perfectly calibrated balance, and subsequent installments follow Barclay’s lead in their energy and precision. Last week’s episode, “San Francisco,” is a particularly impressive example of what the show has to offer thanks to the deft directorial hand of Mary Lou Belli; Belli’s previous credits include extensive work in both half-hour comedies and hour-long dramas and procedurals, and her intuitive knack for managing multiple tones and styles serves Pitch beautifully.— Jim Hemphill