Taking a break from video essays to serve the community

While video essays have been the majority of my creative output for the past couple of years, I still keep a hand in other types of video production, especially when it’s for a good cause. I just received word that a video I produced for the Sikh Coalition has been accepted to the Spinning Wheel Film Festival in Toronto, September 25-27. The video, “From the Classroom to the Capitol” was produced for the Sikh Coalition’s first annual awards gala earlier in August.  It was posted on the Coalition’s YouTube page this week, and apparently the Spinning Wheel Festival caught it and liked it enough to add to their program.

I’ve been involved with the Sikh Coalition and the Sikh community for several years now, most notably through the production of a short documentary “Dastaar: Defending Sikh Identity.” I’ve done a lot of work with the Coalition in building up their capacity to make videos on their own, thanks to a grant from Manhattan Neighborhood Network. The Sikh community remains one of the most misunderstood people in the U.S. and the victim of ongoing bias and hate attacks, often violent ones. The Sikh Coalition has done much since 9/11 to combat prejudice, defend people’s civil rights and educate the nation at large about the Sikh identity. I am extremely proud to be involved in these efforts.

Here’s the new video “From the Classroom to the Capitol”:

Ingmar Bergman: an Annotated Webliography and Top 10 Quotes

It’s been exactly a year since Ingmar Bergman passed away at the age of 89, leaving us with dozens of films, many of which are considered among the greatest ever made. On the anniversary of his death, it’s my privilege to present a compilation of the most valuable resources on Bergman available online, as well as ten of the most illuminating quotes about him, from filmmakers, scholars, and Bergman himself.


It’s been exactly two years since Ingmar Bergman passed away at the age of 89, leaving us with dozens of films, many of which are considered among the greatest ever made. On the anniversary of his death, it’s my privilege to present a compilation of the most valuable resources on Bergman available online, as well as ten of the most illuminating quotes about him, from filmmakers, scholars, and Bergman himself.

This array of information was compiled by a longtime friend on the IMDb Classic Film Boards who goes by the handle Antonius Block. Back when I was a regular on those boards Antonius was widely regarded as the person to go to about all things Bergman. Back then I was a bit of a Bergman naysayer, and Antonius patiently weathered many a row with me over some of his favorite films. Over time I’ve come to appreciate Bergman’s special qualities, much of which is reflected in the links and text that Antonius has resourcefully assembled:

When Kevin asked me recently if I would compile an annotated ‘webliography’ of web resources and quotes by and about Ingmar Bergman for Shooting Down Pictures, my answer was a resounding yes. As it turns out, that initial enthusiasm somewhat exceeded my findings. While there are indeed a couple of excellent websites devoted to sharing useful information about Bergman, much of what I found doesn’t seem worth including here. Other resources I’ve used in the past have disappeared, or become seemingly defunct, like the Ingmar Bergman Yahoo Group (http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/BERGMAN/). At any rate, my hope is that by paring away some of these lesser resources, this webliography will be more useful — a fundamental quality that Bergman always wished his own films to be.

Continue reading “Ingmar Bergman: an Annotated Webliography and Top 10 Quotes”

Check out the wonderful essays, interviews and podcasts at dGenerate Films

I can’t believe I haven’t posted about these wonderful podcasts and interviews available on the dGenerate Films website, especially given that I’ve worked so much on preparing, recording and editing them. But yes, I’ve started a new series of podcast interviews over there called CinemaTalk, an ongoing series of conversations with esteemed scholars of Chinese cinema studies. These conversations are presented on dGenerate in audio podcast and/or text format. They are intended to help the Chinese cinema studies community keep abreast of the latest work being done in the field, as well as to learn what recent Chinese films are catching the attention of others. This series reflects dGenerate’s mission to bring valuable resources and foster community around the field of Chinese film studies.

The first one we did was with the one and only Chris Berry, Professor of Film and Television Studies in the Department of Media and Communication at Goldsmiths, University of London. I spoke with Chris about various topics from his current work and areas of focus, to comparisons between contemporary Chinese cinema and the Fifth Generation filmmakers whom he helped to champion in the 1980s and 1990s, to which recent Chinese films that have excited him the most.

You can go here to listen to or download the podcast audio, as well as read the full transcript.

Next we interviewed Lu Xinyu, Professor and Director of the Radio and TV Department, School of Journalism, Fudan University, Shanghai, China.  Professor Lu is widely regarded as the leading scholar on independent Chinese documentaries.  Her influential book Documenting China: The New Documentary Movement (Beijing, SDX Joint Publishing Company, 2003) was the first book to systematically theorize the New Documentary Movement in China from the beginning of 1990s.  She spent the past academic year as a visiting scholar in the department of cinema studies at New York University.

In this interview conducted by dGenerate’s Yuqian Yan, Lu Xinyu told us about her current work during her visit in New York and how she was attracted to independent Chinese documentary from an aesthetic and humanist background.  Starting from Aristotle’s poetic concept of “tragedy”, she led us to understand the New Documentary Movement as a unique art form that depicts the tragic life of ordinary people in the rapidly changing Chinese society.  The interview was conducted in Chinese.  Click here to listen to the audio and read a full English transcript.

I must also mention the outstanding series of blog articles the site has been getting from Shelly Kraicer, programmer at the Vancouver International Film Festival and passionate expert on Chinese Cinema. He’s already posted three essays, each of them both informative, insightful and fun to read. They are titled, “An Independent Scene, Thriving Miles from Main Street,”Does China’s Past Have a Future?” and “Between the Cracks of Capitalist China.” By all means check them out.

10 Films in 5 Hours: Notes from BamCinematek All Night

Back in the good old days my brother and I would go to the local cineplex on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and watch as many as five movies in a five hour stretch. Typically we’d see one film in its entirety, bracketed by random snatches of other films that we didn’t pay to watch but were easy enough to sneak into. It was our way of sampling as many movies as we could for our money; the cinematic equivalent of the all-you-can eat Asian buffets that my value-obsessed mother compulsively takes us to.

So when BAM unleashed the latest of what has become an annual tradition, the BamCinematek All Night series, I took it as an opportunity to relive a bit of my moviegoing past – and best of all, I didn’t have to break the law. As part of its sprawling CinemaFest still going on now, BAM opened up all four of its theaters from 11:15 to the early dawn, each playing as many as three features back-to-back. The films were programmed to a different theme for each screen: Diana Ross, Scientologist actors, marijuana-inflected narratives and 2000s arthouse cinema, respectively. Fueled by a 16 oz. Red Bull (pictured below) I spent five hours hopping from one theater to another, just to see what kind of impressions and comparisons would come up. Here’s how it went down (I only wish I had thought sooner to take photos of the screen to illustrate my points):

Continue reading “10 Films in 5 Hours: Notes from BamCinematek All Night”

What I Watched at the Berlin Film Festival (while others were too busy complaining to be bothered)

Here’s my summary report for Spout. The reports elsewhere of the festival’s crappiness were somewhat exaggerated, and symptomatic of complacency on the part of several unintrepid critics and journalists. Really, why waste readers’ time by saying that the festival was a waste of your time? Like you expect us to feel that much pity about you being flown out, put up and paid to write about your awful experience? And what does that say about you that you, a professional film watcher, can’t be bothered to go out and find the good stuff? Personally, it really wasn’t that out of the way to discover some great films. Even with the not-so great films, there were interesting things to be said of them.

To that point, here are capsules on all 30 films I watched in Berlin, spread over three entries on The Auteurs Notebook, and ranked within each. Vive la cinema!


LAST MINUTE ANNOUNCEMENT (as usual): Special Screening Event in NYC Tonight

Come see what I’ve spent hundreds of hours working on for the past year!


Discover the New Chinese Indie Film Scene at China Institute SINOMATHÈQUE
The China Institute and dGenerate Films
Friday, January 30, 2009
6:30pm – 8:00pm
China Institute
125 E 65th St
New York, NY


Join us for TWO SCREENINGS and a LIVE Q&A with insiders from the burgeoning Chinese indie film scene:

6:30-7:15 PM
SAN YUAN LI (45 min, OU Ning, CAO Fei, 2003) 

Equipped with video cameras, twelve artists present a highly-stylized portrait of SAN YUAN LI, a traditional village besieged by China’s urban sprawl. Reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (USSR, 1929) and Godfrey Reggio’s KOYAANISQATSI (USA, 1982), China’s rapid modernization is brilliantly presented, with fast-edited scenes choreographed to music. Commissioned by the Venice Berlinale, SAN YUAN LI explores the modern paradox of China’s economic growth and social marginalization.

7:20-7:40 PM
(18 min: 6 episodes, 3 min each, Rachel Tejada, 2008) 

On a mission to acquire films and seek out the best and brightest of the Chinese independent film scene, Karin Chien and Suyin So from dGenerate Films visited post-Olympics China in September 2008 Traveling from Shanghai to Nanjing to Beijing with cameras rolling, they found China’s OTHER film community. Join them as they visit the largest underground film festival in China, explore the spirit of independence in Beijing, tour film compounds, attend a government-approved film event, and discuss the future of Chinese cinema. Karin Chien and other members of the dGenerate Films team will lead an open discussion.
(Videos courtesy of Chunnel.tv and Berlin Cameron United/WPP)

ADMISSION: $5 for China Institute non-members, $3 for members.

This film series is made possible through the generosity of the public and private grantors, and the support of the general public. All proceeds will go to the Education Department at China Institute to support future programming.

FREE popcorn and refreshments will be served and an open discussion will follow the screening. 

Seating is LIMITED. Reservations are on a first-come, first-served basis.

Please visit www.chinainstitute.org/edu/sinomatheque for tickets.

For further info, contact sinomatheque@chinainstitute.org or 212-744-8181 x150

Ten Old, Ten New, One Awful, Ten for the Decade, and Modest Pinprick for a Red Balloon

I’m heading to Asia for ten days tomorrow, so I thought I’d tie up some loose ends and set a couple things on the table going forward…

We’re a week into the new year and neck deep in top ten lists cluttering the blogosphere, but I’d might as well put on record on this site that my top ten list for films released in 2008 can be found on IndieWire as part of their annual poll of critics.  I’d also like to mention how proud I am to take part in this annual poll, given the caliber of critics participating, some of the finest voices covering mainstream and specialty cinema in the alternative press and the blogosphere.  I’ve followed this poll ever since it kicked off in 1999 when it was run by Dennis Lim at the Village Voice. Sadly, the first several editions of the poll are no longer online. Too bad since I was counting on referring to those poll results for another project I have warming up for this year – more on that further below.

In addition to the ballot I submitted to IndieWire, here’s an alternative list covering the ten best films I saw in 2008, regardless of their distribution status. Again the criteria I stick to is “how much do I wish I had made this film?”

1 – Happy-Go-Lucky (Mike Leigh) – If this world were fair, this movie would be getting the distribution and box office of any given Judd Apatow flick.  It’s as funny and funky as anything Apatow has done, but a heck of a lot smarter and genuinely thought-provoking about the role that happiness plays in one’s life and its impact on one’s social interactions, sometimes as much for the worse as for the better.  And it has a female character and a performance that should shame Hollywood for not coming up with anything as smart, funny,  and loveable for its own immense pool of actresses starving for a good role.
2 – The Class (Laurent Cantet) – I’m disappointed that this film hasn’t been getting more attention in the US – I think Sony Pictures Classics is screwing up the campaign for the film, despite it being the French submission to this year’s Foreign Film Oscar competition. It’s really one of the smartest, most immersive depictions of the process of institutional education. It’s funny, it’s dynamic, it’s amazingly naturalistic, and it has an equanimity towards all of its characters unique beauties and frustrating flaws that would make Jean Renoir proud.  With all due respect, it makes Half Nelson look half-baked.
3 – Wall-E (Andrew Stanton) I’ve heard the backlash towards the film: how it supposedly “celebrates the end of culture” (Armond White) and its dumbed down, feel good take on an environmental apocalypse that is very much at risk of becoming reality.  People can be as demanding or implacable as they want, but as far as I’m concerned this film is a breakthrough in terms of articulating a social crisis and a moral ethos in a language that is eloquent, meaningful and yes, simple enough that an 8 year old can understand it.  And a big part of that has to do with how cinematic it is.  One day when I was comparing top ten lists with Richard Brody he commented that our appreciation of cinema shouldn’t be confined to films in their whole form, but in moments that sear themselves into our mind forever, which occur in any number of films, not just masterpieces.  Well my favorite movie moment of 2008 is from a masterpiece, and it’s the scene where Wall-E and Eva dance among the stars, a breathtaking expression of the lyrical in what’s probably the most musically constructed film of the year.
4 – Serbis (Brilliante Mendoza) – Give me this funky, lively, lived-in redefinition of the “flophouse” movie over the airless formalism of Goodbye Dragon Inn anyday. My original review at Slant
5 – The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat) – Breillat’s enters into a “mature” phase, and I think she’s the better for it. As I wrote in my original review, “Breillat brings her indelible mix of braininess and rawness; mixing verbal and physical sexual exchanges, she aims both high and low where other films settle for a tastefully soft-core middle”
6 – Tony Manero (Pablo Larrain)Can’t believe this still doesn’t have a distributor.  Wickedly smart and uncompromising, it takes the Dardennes Brothers’ aesthetic to slap them in the face for everything they pretty much stand for, which at this point in their career, they kind of deserve.
7 – Tulpan (Sergey Dvortsevoy) – Despite its jaw-droppingly choreographed long takes, this one kind of crept up on me in terms of its overall impact, but I simply cannot deny its lasting power. I guess if it weren’t for Wall-E this film would get my vote for Moment(s) of the Year.
8 – Taking Father Home (Ying Liang) – full disclosure: my company dGenerate Films is the non-theatrical distributor of Taking Father Home. I can’t think of a better film to come out of China to describe the spiritual dysfunction afflicting so many of that country’s people in the wake of go-go capitalism. One of the decade’s best debut films, it’s scorchingly raw yet beautifully composed.
9 – Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle) – “It romanticizes poverty and makes it seem fun” the critics say.  Bollywood has been turning poverty into joyous cinema for over 60 years, so you know what, get a clue. This film honors that tradition, taking Bollywood’s penchant for fabulous, borderline credible narrative incident as an occasion to hit audience’s aching wish fulfillment smack between the eyes, and does as good a job at it as any of the classics.  And frankly it’s amazing to have a film that so blatantly depicts the injustices and suffering of an entire people in such wide distribution. For that, those tears of joy at the end are very much earned.
10 – Trouble the Water (Carl Deal, Tia Lessin) – The best doc released in the US this year, the audience-pleasing but fairly pointless Man on Wire be damned. Though I did see at least a couple of even better documentaries from China, as part of my duties as programmer for dGenerate, but I can’t disclose what they are at this time. It sucks because I feel that I’m in a position to advocate for their release, and yet due to my position I have to keep mum until my company has resolved its interest in these titles.  Hopefully this year, you’ll be hearing a lot about these films, and soon.


I should also mention that I was tapped this week to select my least favorite film of 2008 by the New York Magazine Vulture blog. And so I obliged – the resulting paragraph was quite cathartic to write, I must say.


Next, to celebrate the conclusion of another year of the Shooting Down Pictures project, I’d like to highlight my ten favorite films out of the 48 that I watched for the project in 2008.

Wild River – the last Shooting Down Pictures film that I saw in 2008 may very well have been my favorite.
Night of the Demon – with an amazing video essay contribution by Chris Fujiwara, author of Jacques Tourneur: a Cinema of Nightfall
The Art of Vision
Murder by Contract
El Verdugo
Days and Nights in the Forest – with two video essays by filmmaker Preston Miller
Two English Girls – with video essay by C. Mason Wells of IFC
La Region centrale
Grey Gardens – with video essay by Vadim Rizov, the Kevin Durant of film critics
The Outlaw Josey Wales – with video essay by the one and only Matt Zoller Seitz


Finally, I want to announce (somewhat tentatively) that, in anticipation of the inevitable onslaught of “best of the decade” lists towards the end of this year, I’m planning to watch several dozen films from the ’00s as I prepare my own list. It will be a combination of catching up with highly lauded titles I haven’t seen, revisiting favorites of each year to reassess their value, and reassessing films that were highly lauded but that somehow didn’t do it for me (i.e. Inland Empire).

First up are a few films by Taiwanese directors, in commemoration of my upcoming trip to Taiwan.  One is Edward Yang’s Yi Yi (which last time I checked was my favorite film of 2000), and then a couple by Hou Hsiao Hsien: Cafe Lumiere, which is probably my favorite Hou film of the decade, and Flight of the Red Balloon, which, as good as it is, feels like a European variant with more expressive acting, but essentially seems to overlap a good deal with its predecessor. That didn’t stop the IndieWire critics from voting it the best film of 2008 – and I would wonder if those elements had everything to do the film – Hou’s first shot in the West – being the first of his films to claim top prize in a critics poll.  I don’t begrudge the film or its supporters (of which I am one – indeed, I was quite shocked when I listed 10 films I liked more than Flight of the Red Balloon; not a bad year for movies at all) anything; the film deserves the praise it’s received. I just wonder why an earlier, and to my mind better film of his didn’t fare as well.

Maybe it’s just the accumulation of Hou’s reputation over recent years, vaunted especially by the Hou 101 primer known as Three Times that gave people what I consider to be easy gateway into understanding his aesthetic.   The “problem” – for me at least, is that all this praise lavished on Hou’s recent work seems to overshadow his earlier work, which to me is more unique and challenging in terms of how it constructed a new dialect of cinema not found elsewhere, not even in the cinema of Yasujiro Ozu, to which he is often compared.  The recent stuff, especially from Millennium Mambo onward, is still uniformly great, but it strikes me that Hou has taken his aesthetic in a direction that feels more in line with a global art festival aesthetic of masterful choreographed long takes helmed by the virtuoso Mark Li Ping-Bin.  It wasn’t always like this – one could argue that the most amazing thing about early Hou wasn’t his use of long takes, as beautiful as they were, but his astounding and at times even confounding editing schemes, where the sequence and emphasis of narrative events would be distorted to create a wholly new approach to storytelling that mimcked and shed light on how the human mind constructs memory (and without resorting to the easy tricks found in Christopher Nolan’s Memento).  So I hope that in the midst of all the hoopla surrounding Flight of the Red Balloon, viewers might dig back a little and check out films like A Time to Live and a Time to Die, City of Sadness, or The Puppetmaster, which as a trilogy offers many times more depth and genuine sense of time, place and cinema than Three Times.

Despite these protestations, I’m not opposed to reconsidering my position. And so I’ll be watching Cafe Lumiere and Flight of the Red Balloon back to back in the next week or so, helping to kick off what I hope will be a year-long rundown of the decade’s best (and supposedly) best films.

Closing Out 2008: Kim’s Video, RIP

As the new year beckons, it’s also time to say goodbye to my favorite video store of all time, Kim’s on St. Mark’s and 3rd Avenue, which is relocating its retail operations and shutting down its rentals entirely.

While I don’t think I’ve spent more than a few hundred dollars in rentals at Kim’s over the years, it’s been almost exclusively in accessing titles that I couldn’t find anywhere else: not at the New York Public Library, not on Netflix, not online. I suppose the latter two constituents had something to do with the financial insolubility of Kim’s Video, not to mention the brick-and-mortar video rental industry as a whole. Perhaps it’s an inevitable outcome of video watching in the virtual age, but still it’s sad to see a longstanding revered institution go down.

The fate of the collection of rental titles, numbering 55,000, has been a looming question for some time.  For the past few months, proprietor Yongman Kim has been publicly seeking a benefactor to acquire the entire rental collection. One stipulation was that the collection be available to the general public, thus ruling out academic institutions that would probably have the endowment to purchase the collection but would be unwilling to operate a public borrowing or rental operation. Apparently institutions like the New York Public Library and online companies like Netflix didn’t figure into the solution.

As the fate of the collection became more uncertain over the past few weeks, I’ve focused the Shooting Down Pictures project on watching films that I could only find at Kim’s, so that I could review them in the event that they should no longer be available for rental. Such titles include: Judex, Before the Revolution, Il Sorpasso, Murder by Contract, Variety, Sandra, Carnival in Flanders, and We All Loved Each Other So Much.  I’ve also rented other titles that I digitized for upcoming entries. Like a squirrel I’ve been harvesting cinematic nuts for the bleak winter known as a post-Kim’s video world.

Last week I noticed at the checkout counter a blown-up poster-size version of a proposal kit from the city of Salemi, Sicily, offering to house the entire collection in its civic archives.

At first I thought this was some kind of joke, meant to foment enough outrage that a local benefactor would step up with a serious offer to keep the collection in New York City. But it seems that this proposal is for real, and is very much in the process of happening…

But what about Yongman Kim’s stipulation that the collection be available to the general public?  I guess when he said that he didn’t specify what nationality the public had to be, so New Yorkers are screwed. Oh wait, the Sicilians did take this into consideration. Read the fine print in the second paragraph under “keeping up with Kim’s Video members”.

Guess I can plan a trip to Sicily sometime to play into what apparently amounts to a small island city’s cinephilic tourist stunt.  And I love how it’s now to be known as “Kim’s Video Collection of New York in Salemi, Sicily.”

What to make of all this, I don’t know. It’s still too surreal to be believed. Just know that New York, as a global stronghold of cinema culture, has lost an invaluable resource (unless Sicily is now to be considered the sixth borough of the city).  As far as whoever is responsible for this development, I hold them in the same regard as the person who left his mark on Asia Argento’s forehead in a poster for The Last Mistress that was last seen gracing the stairwell of the video rentals section:

Harold Pinter, RIP

One of my favorite courses in college was on Beckett and Pinter. I actually enjoyed Pinter’s plays more than Beckett’s – at least they infiltrated my experience of life, as I started to read volumes into the intonations, rhythms and word selection in everyday conversations (not the wisest thing to do in college, when most people are still struggling to be articulate). So the news of Pinter’s death is a great loss.  I’m glad he was recognized by the Nobel folks just a few years ago – it’s hard to think of another playwright whose understanding of language – its predilections towards politics and power, its unplanned prevarications towards the past – applies not just to his own native tongue, but to everyone’s.

As a tribute, here’s the video essay I did with Dan Callahan earlier this year on The Go-Between. Look at 1:15 for a quintessentially Pinterian moment: