Simply put, this year's film preservation series at MOMA has got flix for every kind of movie fan. In this first of several exclusives, I've chosen to share Urbanissimo, a 1967 animated rendering of modern consumption and overdevelopment.
I've always wondered why more New Yorkers don't take advantage of -- or even know about -- the film department at our Museum of Modern Art which houses one of the largest collections on this planet. While it's perhaps too easy to misperceive the joint as a silent temple for paintings, sculpture and objet d'art, whatever, it's even easier to actually check out their film schedule, and be fully surprised at the wide-ranging offerings.
NOTE: If you wanna skip the book and go straight to the movie, scroll down to the end of this blog. As always, ignore all typos.
By way of a run-on (and on) sentence, here's a partial rundown of the slate for this year's International Festival of Film Preservation ("film" being exactly that: celluloid) which reps 75 plus titles, including: Gangster-flick Lucky Luciano, restoration courtesy of -- and I mean this warmly -- hometown Catholic boy and wannabe gangster Marty Scorsese; a half-dozen Andy Warhol joints, five of which have never been screened for the public; Weekend of A Champion, a vintage doc on the world's most popular sport, Formula One racing; Chantal Akerman's gritty and beautiful time-capsule worthy film-as-canvas studies on New York of the 70's, News From Home and Hotel Monterey (which Ms. Akerman will present in-person); arty (Ab-Ex-esque), political, camera-less films made in the East Village of the 60s by Aldo Tambellini; The Sound of Fury, a noir which doubles as a look at yellow journalism and mob-rule -- and triples as a case of art imitating life, since it's written by Cy Endfield, who was blacklisted during the McCarthy witch-hunts; three restored works by the Oscar-winning husband and wife animation team John and Faith Hubley, who were blacklisted by Disney for their union-organization efforts; I Vinti, a newly-restored, French-censorsed Antonioni triptych examining deadly youths; silent films by maverick producer/writer/director/actor/stunt-person Gene Gauntier -- one of several selections that will be shown with live accompaniment; American anti-Nazi films -- which, I believe would make for great double-bills and panel discussions, if someone would screen them with Leni Reifenstahl's beyond harrowing, ultra-subversive Nazi propaganda films.
There are also spectacles: the relatively small-scale, bizarre, campy human-slash-puppet story of the duality twixt imagination and reality, I Am Suzanne; the grand-scale historical re-creation, The Storming of The Winter Palace, the filming of which drew 100,000 spectators, and is itself a historical re-creation, thanks to earnest film scholars who've managed to locate and piece together the film's two sections which, well, halve remained apart these past ninety years. This being MOMA, there is also a cinematic study of Magritte's philosophy and work, and a series of films by Belgian surrealists that make for worthy companion viewing to MOMA's Magritte exhibition.
In-person appearances will include 2013 Cannes Best Actor-winner Bruce Dern, presenting the correctly over-the-top 70s beauty-pageant film Smile; E.L Doctorow will present the W.C. Fields vehicle It's a Gift; animator and filmmaker Emily Hubley will present and discuss her three-time Oscar-winning parents' films; director Lav Diaz will present his heartbreaking Manila In The Claws of Light, a film about humans amidst increasingly desperate circumstances, which seems to be the theme of much of this year's slate, from the real-life tragedy of 8 Deadly Shots through the grim The Sound of Fury to the more optimistic story of circumstance-transcendence, Stark Love; Factory stalwart Billy Name will discuss Warhol's Tiger Morse with Bill Horrigan ; Jackie Stewart will introduce Weekend of a Champion, and the heroic team of Daria Ktrova and Yuri Tsivan will present the aforementioned The Storming of The Winter Palace, which is a major cinemarcheological discovery, about which you could probably make an interesting documentary, which one might hope to see on the DVD extras, should someone choose to distribute the film.
On the subject of DVDs, a recent deal for a DVD of The Hubleys' work has fallen through, and the rights-holders are currently seeking a production house to take up the project. Of Stars And Men would make for a dynamite grade-school primer on astronomy and cosmology, in tandem with the Harlow Shapley book upon which it is based. I could see this as a PBS sell-through during fund-raising.
By way of a fun fact and a few final digressions: after its premiere at the 1967 Montreal World's Fair Expo for which it was commissioned, Urbanissimo's first theatrical screening was in a pairing with Godard's Weekend, which must have made for a very special day at the cinema, circa 1968.
I'll note that perhaps my favorite day at the cinema this year was during the New York Film Festival's "Revivals" slate (and it's nice to see the use of the word "revival", about which I have been harping in this column for half a decade, yet sadly, my hometown still lacks one) when the cozy Walter Reade theatre housed a perfect triple-bill: Godard's Hail Mary, a film which you could rent, yet makes for a nice series of meditations in the cinema; the American time-capsule noir The Chase, and Providence, a gem from the great Alain Resnais, that I'd never seen. What more could you ask for? A vintage cartoon of course, which was also on the bill. I'm glad this was shown at Walter Reade and not the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center, which is nice enough, yet, as I also harped about to my fellow bleacher-creatures at the NYFF, seems, in comparison to the Walter Reade, like one of those small connecting flights that harsh your travel buzz.
In addition to the excellent film preservation series at MOMA, my hometown is in its final week of an early Xmas -- by this I mean the Godard retrospective at Lincoln Center. Extra-credit reading on JLG can be found in Daniel Morgan's Late Godard And The Possibilities of Cinema (a book that lived up to my judgment of its cover, adorned with an image from one of my very favorite Godard flicks, In Praise of Love) and those seeking out harder-to-find Godard titles on DVD should check out the Godard pages at the Olive Films website as well as Facets' website.
More info, tix and screening schedules for The Museum of Modern Art's 11th International Festival of Film Preservation can be found HERE.And Now For Our Feature Presentation: Urbanissimo
Rendered in a simple line-style, an animated ("animated" used herein as both verb and adjective) soot-black tower of rabble, personifying industrial growth and urban sprawl, embarks on a planet-devastating rampage, acting-out our collective consumerist ID, co-opting and exploiting everything in its path, all in its wake left spent-up and polluted. The animation here is simple and brilliant: the tower mows through and levels the top of a mountain; devours trees; washes itself in a pond which becomes a brown pool of the dead; sucks the oil out of the earth, then smokes the oil-well tower like a cigar.
Manifesting the McLuhanism that "invention is the mother of necessity", we see the seduction of a simple individual, namely a farmer, who is given a song and dance -- to a swingin' Benny Carter score -- by the tower. Subsequently, the farmer's own fruit is sold back to him as a canned good; for his troubles raising eggs, he is given an egg-beater (a most poetic encapsulation of repetitive cycles of consumption); for his feeding the mouths of babes, he is given a portable radio which instills in him dreams of playing his own piano in a high-rise apartment...and on and on he goes, through a series of paltry upgrades, obsessively seeking out the proverbial bigger, better, faster, more, unable to keep up with his own joneses for that first hit of newly-opened product-as-experience.
We also get a look at the co-option of the societally useful, vigilant artist, when, after recycling rusty pipes and a heap o'junk into a sculpture, the farmer has a cheap ribbon slapped on him by the tower, manifesting the corporate-slash-government-sponsored creation of what pseudo-hip marketing tools like to call "the creator class" (which, in its way, seems a positively Orwellian term).
In the end, when it all falls apart, the circus is taken on the road, and around the globe -- and in a very telling and downright subversive end-title sequence, we see the word "urbanissimo" churned out in puffs of black smoke curling into the different languages of the world, reminding me that what was once the Marxist analysis that imperialism manifests a stage of capitalism in which ever-more resources and markets must be found abroad, is now in reality a lynchpin of our entire global economy: nearly all of us are either addicted to, and/or co-opted by, and/or enslaved to global cycles of consumption and production. Which, if perhaps an inevitability, nonetheless continually begs the question of how we can be more humane and ecologically sound in our interconnectedness. As this animated gem suggests, there's got to be a better way.
Also on the Hubley bill are the aforementioned Of Stars And Men, which delivers a fine meditation on, and sense of scale about man's place in the cosmos, and the decidedly darker, edgier, Eggs, which depicts an argument about the fate of an overpopulated, genetically engineered, centrally-controlled dystopia, between a Vishnu/Shiva-esque pairing, in this case a voluptuous Mama Nature and a fedora'ed Grim Reaper. Their debate is silenced by a freaky, mumbling God who decides that humankind will be subject to the wrath or salvation of its own free will. This tripytch of films beginning with Of Stars And Men, through Urbanissimo, to Eggs, was made in three-year intervals from '61 - 67, with each subsequent work (understandably, given the times) more angry, pessimistic -- and, sadly, prescient -- about our planetary state of affairs.
The three-film Hubley program will screen at 7 p.m., on Tuesday 11/22, and at 4:15 p.m. on Wednesday, 11/23 at MOMA. Tuesday's screening will be presented by animator and filmmaker Emily Hubley and Oscar-winning animator John Canemaker, and will be followed by a panel discussion between Hubley, Canemaker and astronomer Dr. Charles Liu. More information can be found HERE
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