New York

Video Artist Omer Fast’s REMAINDER is Playing at New Directors New Films NYC Today

REMAINDERBERLINALE2016 REVIEW

If the attributes cold, callous and conceited might not conjure up the image of the most watchable of film heroes, Tom Sturridge’s nameless character in video artist Omer Fast’s feature debut Remainder might strike some as a slight surprise.

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Adapted from Tom McCarthy’s cult novel of the same title, Remainder is an intriguing drama of identity and memory with enough thriller elements to keep you wanting to watch more even when the events portrayed become part of a seemingly never-ending repetitive loop. Reminiscent in its basic premise of Nolan’s Memento, and in its reality-fantasy blurring strategy of Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, the film follows a 30-something London professional who receives an exorbitant amount of money in compensation after becoming the victim of an arcane accident that leaves him emotionally shattered and mentally tabula rasa.

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With £10 million in the bank and a completely clear conscience as a result of his traumatic memory loss, what does our hero set out to do? Book a flight to an exotic island and live a life of utter indulgence in a state of blissful oblivion, the kind of oblivion that alcohol, sex and drugs, our culture’s panacea, will never be able to induce? No, what kind of film would that be? Instead, in philosophically appropriate fashion, our hero responds to a most powerful inner urge that compels him to find out who he is, an action echoing the ancient adage nosce the ipsum that posits the source of all happiness as lying, irrevocably, in self-knowledge. Using his new wealth and one feeble, fragmentary memory he still detains, that of a small boy at the top of the stairs in an old house reaching out his hand to an old lady on the floor below, the hero goes about his trauma in the most extravagant fashion: he acquires an entire block of apartments and populates it with actors, cats and other such props in order to physically restage the scene again and again and hopefully trigger a more substantial memory that will “cure” his identity loss.

But as every cinema-literate person knows, it’s not about what a character does, but what his actions mean. And the character’s actions in Remainder can mean a lot of things, the film being conceptually very rich. Conceptual without being dry though: the film tackles trauma, mediation, repetition, re-enactment, the unreal nature of reality, even issues of gentrification, with much humour and irony. Visually, it is a real feast: the director’s artful sense of framing, ironic mise-en-scène and the ephemeral beauty of the shallow focus alluding to a character who completely fails to see the bigger picture, make for a very polished, very accomplished first feature.

Remainder is playing today, March 22nd, at New Directors New Films in New York.

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A Portrait of the Actress as a 40-year Old Woman: JANE BIRKIN by AGNÈS VARDA. Screening in LA November 13

Agnès Varda has been making films for over 60 years and contrary to what this playfully suggestive photo of her might indicate, Varda did not stand on the shoulders of the (film) giants that came before her. Her first feature, La Pointe Courte, came out in 1954, way ahead of the French Nouvelle Vague films, surprising everyone with its fresh vision and innovative style.

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Since then, Varda continued to surprise with every film she made, amounting to an impressive filmography that earned her an Honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival this year.

Varda’s films are small, intimate productions, marked by a unique style that we unfailingly came to associate with her. She usually finds her inspiration in real life, her creativity being sparked by things and people around her.  

For instance, JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. was born out of a confession that Jane Birkin, the famed singer (“Je t’aime … Moi non plus”), actress (BLOW UP), fashion icon (the Hermes Birkin bag) and longtime muse to Serge Gainsbourg, made to Agnès one day in 1987 when they went for a walk with their children in the park: “I am afraid to become forty very soon.”, said Jane.

Agnès was surprised, “Well you’re wrong! Forty years old for a woman is beautiful. It’s at the peak of her beauty, the peak of her intelligence and her capacity. I really believe that women of forty are wonderful.”

jane b kung fu posterAbandoning the traditional biopic format, Varda puts her rich imagination to work, casting Jane in an array of ever more fascinating, surreal roles. The result? JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. – a luxurious portrait that shows Jane Birkin in all her puzzling, paradoxical complexity. A surreal and captivating essay on art, fame, love, life and children.

Jane Birkin also plays the lead in a charming, bittersweet drama, KUNG-FU MASTER!, a companion piece to the former film, in which she delivers one of her finest performances as a lonely 40-year old woman who finds herself falling in love with a teenage boy.

My interview with Agnès Varda felt as spontaneous and as surprising as her films. Although I had diligently prepared a set of questions I was eager for her to answer, I got so involved in the spontaneous feel of the conversation that I let it take its natural course rather than impose a pre-determined structure on it. Breaching the sensitive subject of film distribution was one of these surprising turns the conversation took. I found myself voicing some serious doubts about the way the industry works, the fact that the gate-keepers of the industry, those who ultimately decide what films will be seen by the larger public, are so uncourageous and so conventional in their choices, and they end up condemning the audience to see only what they think the audience wants to see: mostly uncourageous, conventional material. But is it possible that the gate-keepers are wrong? Could this be the reason why so many big productions fail to impress and fail at the box office nowadays? Is it possible that the audience is bored? that the audience is actually more adventurous and ready to explore something different, something more original, surprising, enchanting, something a bit more challenging? 

And when it comes to original, surprising, enchanting and challenging material, there’s no better filmmaker than Agnès Varda to deliver on that!

After a one-week run at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in New York City last month,  JANE B. PAR AGNÈS V. and  KUNG-FU MASTER! are being released in their newly restored 2K version at LAEMMLE ROYAL in LA on November 13.

The following interview with Agnès Varda was taken over the phone on October 14 in French. This is my English translation.

Dana Knight: In Jane B par Agnes V., you created a fascinating array of roles for Jane Birkin to play. The film struck me as a very luxurious portrait of the actress  Do you like me using the term luxurious in relation to the film?

Agnes Varda: Yes, I love that you used the word luxurious, it’s a rare word in French and it’s very appropriate here. Because Jane is a woman of many contradictions. She wants to be a poor woman, à la Dickens, but she also wants to play a goddess. She wants to be loved, she wants to play a little girl and then a grown-up woman. She wants to play every role and feel everything. What I like the most about Jane is that she wants us to look at her, to love her, but she also wants to be anonymous, not to be known. It’s very touching, do you agree?

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Knight: I do!There are many surprising scenes in the film. I really wasn’t expecting the Laurel and Hardy scene in which Jane is impersonating Laurel. And I guess it was you playing Hardy?

Varda: No, it wasn’t me! Maybe we look alike but it wasn’t me in the scene. Jane plays Laurel but Hardy is played by this extraordinary Italian actress, Laura Betti. It’s a nice idea that it’s me playing the couple with Jane but no, it’s an actress who played in Pasolini films. It’s also her in the bakery scene where she laughs at Jane who is painting a white painting. That was a scandal in contemporary art at the time.

Knight: And it is also her in the scene about unemployed people?What inspired that scene by the way?

Varda: Yes, that’s her also. In all my films, even in comedies, I’m trying to bring in contemporary subjects. At the time, there was a problem with unemployed people, and also the scandal about white paintings. I’m obviously having fun and keeping a light tone because it’s a comedy, but there are truthful bits, there’s a certain sensibility.

Knight: Going back to the surprising scene with Laurel and Hardy, which became Morel and Lardy in your film, Jane says that she was not comfortable in that role. Since it was you that created that role for her, did you expect her to have this reaction, did that surprise you?

janebparagnesv_mirroirs deformantsVarda: Well, she’s paradoxical, sometimes she likes to show off, sometimes she likes to stay hidden. That’s why she’s so happy to be filmed in deforming mirrors. She says: “What counts is the painter behind the painting, the filmmaker behind the camera”. In other words, it’s a matter of trust, she had trust me in.

Knight: You’re using many art works in this film, you’re placing Jane within the realm evoked by them. What made you choose those specific art works?

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Varda: We were in the studio of a painter, he let us have his studio to shoot in. So it was another opportunity to talk about painting, to talk about Salvador Dali. Every scene of Jane B is an opportunity for her to do a different role that she would never do in cinema. Especially Jeanne d’Arc. But what was also interesting is that we also invented a lot of characters. And actually the idea for Kung-Fu Master! came to us while we were shooting Jane B. Jane wanted, all of a sudden, to do this other story, where she is in love with a teenager. But if we had told the story in its length, it would have broken the rhythm of Jane B. So we decided to make a separate film, Kung-Fu Master! When the film was originally released in the US in 1988 or 1989 it was called Le Petit Amour and a lot of critics saw it, Jonathan Rosenbaum among others, they are old now.

Knight: How was Kung-Fu Master! received in the U.S. in 1989?

Varda: Very well, but it’s a shocking film. The critics were a bit shocked, it’s a delicate subject.

Knight: Yes, it’s a very daring film, even for contemporary audiences, I would say.

Varda:  With this film, I was trying to understand teenagers. There is a scene at the beginning with Jane in front of a window and you can even see me for a few seconds. I always ask myself the same question about teenagers and their interior world. They are fragile. But I can’t imagine this story happening now because with the internet, and porn films and the wide availability of pornographic materials, teenagers today are not in the same situation as teenagers were 35 years ago. It was the first time we were talking about AIDS in France. So until then we were telling teenagers, “love is beautiful, make love” and in 1987 we suddenly started telling them “be careful, love is dangerous”. This made a big difference in the lives of teenagers.

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Knight: Yes but also I’m not sure the teenager in this film is so fragile. I’m thinking of the last scene now, he comes across a bit cynical in the last scene.

Varda: He is cruel, yes. Both these traits exist in him. He’s fragile because of things he does not understand very well, and he’s cruel because he feels suffocated by love. The film is cruel towards Jane’s character because, although a grown-up woman, she is a teenager at heart. That’s why the story is sad, she is rejected by society as if she were a bad person. But she is not a bad person obviously. It’s an interesting film and now that we are talking about it, and maybe other people will see it and talk about it, I’m also a bit sad because of distribution issues, my two films come out at Lincoln Plaza for one week and that’s it. People can see one film one night and the other film the following night. That is very cruel because people don’t decide very fast what film to see. Also for the press, you only have a few days to tell people what films to see, that’s a little cruel too, don’t you think?

Knight: Yes it is, we need to be very alert to what films are being released every week and time our reviews and interviews to correspond with that. Since we’re on the subject of distribution: you say that your films have a small audience because they are small art house films. But this is also a matter of marketing in which the gate-keepers of the industry are very much involved.

Varda: I am lucky to be very well known by cinephiles, very well known and loved by students in every country, I have a little reputation, a lot of people love my films but I don’t know if they are commercial. That’s why I always say, I don’t have a career, I just made films. I am marginal and I am happy to be marginal because I’m very well known in these marginal circles of cinephiles.

Knight: Yes but what I’m saying is that it’s a pity that the larger public doesn’t have access to your films. And access is decided by the gate-keepers of the industry. If they were more daring and willing to take risks, they might have the nice surprise to realise that the larger public would also enjoy your films. Your films are not inaccessible, esoteric, they are very sincere, intimate films.

Varda: Yes, but it’s a matter of distributors, exhibitors and ultimately it’s a matter of money. They all want to make money and that’s why they decide not to screen a film too many times, they want new films all the time. I can’t discuss the system, it is how it is. But I am lucky to have my films shown in public institutions. In April this year, The Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York organised a retrospective of my films as part of their Art of the Real programme. Now, the University of Chicago, where I am right now, at the Logan Center, they showed all my films during 15 days. It’s part of a beautiful exhibition that includes all my photographic work, videos and installations as well. It’s something that gives me a lot of pleasure, the exhibition is spread over 3 big rooms in a big gallery at Logan Center and it gives the opportunity to people of Chicago to see my work. And there are a lot of people at the screenings, the films are playing several times not just twice and that’s it.

Knight: Talking about the entirety of your work, one of your recurring themes is female psychology, the feminine subjectivity. You conveyed this so well in cinema and also at a time when portraits of women were not very complex. What was the inspiration for that?

Varda: Maybe I understand women better than men do. But I also did portraits of men, of children. Maybe you saw One Hundred and One Nights, The Creatures. In these I spoke a lot about men, also in Beaches of Agnes. I don’t have the impression that I focused exclusively on women. But it’s true that probably the most well-known portraits that I created are those of women: Cleo, Mona in Vagabond, Jane B. These are very precise portraits of women, and also very warm portraits. Even Mona who is so angry, I like her a lot, she interests me a lot. 

Knight: Are you excited to show the restored versions of Jane B and Kung-Fu Master! in U.S. this fall?

Varda: Yes but I would have liked these films to be shown during 2 months, to give the possibility to the people of New York to see it. But the reality of distribution is: both films are playing for one week. And I can’t change the world of distribution. I can change my relationship with the public. For instance, everyone talks to me about The Gleaners and I, all kinds of people. Yesterday at the market there was a cheese merchant who recognised me in the street and told me how much he liked The Gleaners. This means that when people see my films, they understand very well, it’s not a difficult cinema but as you said the problem is access, it’s distribution. But I can’t force cinemas to show my films for longer or show them everywhere. I have to accept that. And I’m glad that so many people write to me, love my films, buy the DVDs. Criterion put out a collection of my Californian films. But I can’t compete with the films they are showing in cinemas now, I’m old enough to be wise, I just go on and make other films.

Knight: By the way, what are you working on right now?

Varda: Right now I’m working on a documentary about the artist J.R. He is a very famous artist and we’re working together on a documentary in France. It will probably be ready next spring. We meet and work for one week every month, because we both travel a lot. And I’m taking my time, I’m not pressured by distributors if you see what I mean, people like my films but no one pays me to do it faster! I will also have an exhibition of my visual art at Centre Pompidou in Paris soon. But now I’m enjoying my time in Chicago.

Knight: You’re not coming to New York this time?

Varda: No, I only passed through New York on my way to Chicago but very fast. I must return in France as I have a lot of work there. But when you come to Paris you should call me. It won’t be this number, but if you open the page Ciné-Tamaris, you’ll find me there, it’s my production company and I have a few people working on my films. 

Knight: I know where Ciné-Tamaris is, I found it by coincidence 3 years ago when I was in Paris. The outside display was so fanciful, I thought it’s a vintage shop so I went in. And one of your assistants welcomed me and told me that you live across the street and I should go and visit you. I was so surprised! But I did not want to disturb you.

Varda: Actually, there are a lot of people who come into my editing room because it’s at street level. They come in, they say “Hello”, I tell them, “Please sit down”. And they are total strangers, Australian, Portuguese, it’s very amusing!

FORT BUCHANAN – the darling of NDNF 2015. Interview with its creator, Benjamin Crotty

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FORT BUCHANAN, the feature debut of American-born, Paris-based writer-director Benjamin Crotty marks the arrival of something rare in contemporary cinema: a wholly original sensibility. Expanding his 2012 short of the same name, Crotty chronicles the tragicomic plight of frail, lonely Roger, stranded at a remote military post in the woods while his husband carries out a mission in Djibouti. Over four seasons, Roger (Andy Gillet, the androgynous star of Eric Rohmer’s The Romance of Astrea and Celadon) seeks comfort and companionship from the army wives in the leisurely yet sexually frustrated community, while trying to keep a lid on his volatile adopted daughter, Roxy. Shot in richly textured 16mm, Crotty’s queer soap opera playfully estranges and deranges any number of narrative conventions, finding surprising wells of emotion amid the carnal comedy.

Below is an interview with Benjamin Crotty @MoMA, March 28th 2015

Dana Knight: You’re the second American filmmaker I spoke to recently, the first one being Eugene Green, who lives and makes films in France. What is it like to work under the French system?

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Filmmaker Benjamin Crotty

Benjamin Crotty: I think Eugene Green has lived there for quite a long time, I think he might be a French citizen now. I lived in France for 12 years and my experience is exclusively European, I don’t have an American comparison. I was born in the U.S. and when I moved to France I hadn’t really started making film work. At this time I was a painter and only really started to become interested in making movies while I was in France. And I really came at it from an artist’s perspective, I was quite autonomous. And it’s only with this project Fort Buchanan, this is the first project where I was involved with French public financing.

Knight: So you actually have no experience of making films under the American system.

Crotty: No. Actually I’ve  just finished the first draft of an American script and I’m just starting to get an idea of how it works. But it seems very very different. When you’re working under the French system there’s a lot more support and subsidies than there are in the U.S. so that’s a good thing for me!

Knight: The French don’t have Kickstarter though!

Crotty: They have something similar called Kiss Kiss Bank Bank.

Knight: That’s a hilarious name for a funding system!Who ever said the French don’t have a sense of humour!

Crotty: Yes. And I heard that Kickstarter is just starting now…

Knight:  Fort Buchanan is a very unusual creation. What inspired it?

Crotty: There’s a short-term and a long-term inspiration for Fort Buchanan. The long-term one – I grew up relatively close to an airforce space and I remember being quite intrigued by it, by its community feel. This place was a bit cut-off and as quiet as a bubble, they had their own schools and stores. When you’re a kid, that’s like an alternative reality, which is very interesting for kids! And I also made a short film that deals with the Iraq war, my little brother was in the army in Iraq.

Fort Buchanan mostly deals with the spouses of those in the army, it’s about the domestic side of war. This is something I became interested in after seeing this show on Lifetime TV, it’s like a soap opera about army spouses. I was very intrigued by this cultural object, it’s a weird hybrid of soap-opera and war drama.

Knight: Why did you decide to borrow the dialogue from TV? In cinema, this is unheard of. Most TV dialogue has this directness and quality of being “on the nose”, whereas film dialogue is supposed to be sparse and subtle and full of subtext…

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French actor Andy Gillet

Crotty: I’m a big fan of Éric Rohmer’s films, the star in my film Andy Gillet was the star of Éric Rohmer’s last film. A funny thing is I grew up in Washington State, Buchanon, a town where there were no art house cinemas. But they did haveÉric Rohmer films in the Public Library and I remember watching them when I was a kid. Back then I did not know about art cinema, so I thought they were like French “blockbusters”. And Éric Rohmer’s films have a particular vocabulary, very dense but I thought these films were representative for France, I thought this is how people probably speak in France!  So there was some shock when I grew up and realised that was not the case! That’s also when I realised what auteur cinema is. I also started to ask myself what role this particular way of speaking plays. So that’s where I got the idea of constructing this film with building blocks that are from a common culture.

Knight: This way of constructing a film has no precedent in cinema, has it?

Crotty: Perhaps not. But appropriation is a very common strategy in contemporary art so there are a lot of precedents in art.

Knight: Were you fascinated with the dialogue on this  TV show?

Crotty: I was. I didn’t watch it that frequently so when I did watch it, it had a really high impact on me. A lot of TV dramas really cut to the chase and the dialogue is very honed. In some respects I find it to be very beautiful in its efficiency. And it’s written by writing teams, so I suppose they peel away any unnecessary particulars and the words become like an arrow.

Knight: How about story and characters? Are they yours or have you deliberately borrowed plot lines and character traits from TV shows also?

Crotty: It’s kind of a mix. For the character of Roger, there’s no character like Roger in TV. But most other characters are like a snowball, or combinations of other characters. So I created the structure and the characters and then there was a questions of finding bits and pieces of dialogue for them.

Knight: This is very interesting because the film doesn’t give the impression of being made of all these disparate elements. The film feels very “organic”, everything gels so well.

Crotty: Yes and it’s important to emphasise that. When I speak about the film it sounds like this is a very complex cultural object but I find it to be quite a simple film actually. There’s a difference between my interest in construction and the actual experience of watching the film. So yes I think it’s quite an “organic” film for a viewer.

Knight: With this kind of dialogue, the acting ran the risk of being quite mannered but it is not, how did you achieve that?

Crotty: I think when you start watching  the film there’s a period of confusion and either the viewer is really turned off by the film or you accept it. And if you accept it then everything else appears quite natural and harmonious within the overall frame of the film. But it’s a credit to the actors also.

Knight: How did you work with them?

Crotty: We shot the film in 15 days, a very short amount of shooting time but it was spread out over a period of a few years. Because of this long time in between shoots, we had quite a lot of time to get to know each other. By the end I had a pretty good familiarity with the actors, what they can and cannot do. And it was a bit different for each one.

Knight: Was it fun on the set? I imagine this being quite a fun film to shoot!

Crotty: Well, I think it was really fun for the actors but I was pretty stressed! As my producer said at the Q&A, although this film just finished, it feels quite melancholy because I’m sure I won’t be able to make a film like this again. There’s something quite naive about the way we made this film and I don’t know if it could be reproduced. But yes it was a lovely experience, for sure.

Knight: Was the seasonal structure inspired by Rohmer also? Or was it simply a way of putting it together? The narrative is quite loose and digressive but the seasonal structure lends it unity.

Crotty: Yeah but also when I was working on the film I was interested in creating something that wasn’t focused on the individual psychology of the characters but more on the group psychology. So I was thinking a little bit of animal documentaries where you follow a herd of animals from one season to the next. It seemed like a good way to follow this group of people! For instance, in the summer portion of the film they all go to Djibouti, it’s almost like a herd migrating! And I was also a little bit interested in Medieval ideas of “humours” , [each season being connected to certain human characteristics], with summer being more sexually motivated. It was also a way to structure the desires of the group and to counterbalance the pop nature of the writing. I also like this medieval way of structuring time compared to contemporary seasons on TV or episodes. It’s a different way of structuring emotions and time.

Knight: I’m also curious about your influences. You come from an art background so you obviously think about film differently than someone who went to film school. Your film reminded me a bit of Hal Hartley’s films.

Crotty: I’be been told this but I’m actually not very familiar with his films […]. I certainly watch a lot of movies but my thinking about films comes more from contemporary art strategies. In our day and age, films have usually a touch of realism. The character of Travis who is the protagonist of the last part of the film – he is someone who comes back from the war and has a really tough time adjusting to domestic life and ends up killing himself by jumping off a tree. So if you were casting this character in a film with a realist vein, you would probably choose someone who looks like a father and soldier, someone strong and a bit older. But the actor who plays Travis is this poetic, tragic-looking boy. So this is counter-intuitive casting. And this is something that in contemporary art practice is very common, it is very common to play around with these things. And the sense of play and playfulness is perhaps really important in the film.

Knight: You also play around with gender stereotypes, you turn gender stereotypes up-side-down. There are some incongruous scenes, such as the daughter hitting her father at the beginning. And having Roger be the tragic romantic figure whereas the female characters are pragmatic if not a bit predatory.

Crotty: Yes, totally. When I watched TV shows like Modern Family or shows in the US where they try to bring in a gay character, it makes you wonder what is the end game of homonormativity in culture. The Roger character is a very empathetic character but also quite funny, he is also conservative in a way that is difficult for gay men in our culture to be: he never had premarital sex, he dropped out of school to have a child, things that don’t normally happen to a man.

Knight: But he’s also quite convincing in this role!

Crotty: Yes, I even see aspects of myself in this character and also aspects of men and women that I know.

Knight: Considering your fascination with TV dialogue, would you considering writing for TV in the future?

Crotty: I would certainly consider it, for primarily financial reasons! But I don’t have much experience…I know that in the US there are a lot of TV channels and that creates a lot of opportunities. Channels like HBO for instance – you can offer something quite extreme on these channels because people subscribe to the entire channel whereas with a film you really have to cater to a large audience and that means taking higher risks. But that could change, I don’t know if that will continue or not.

How To Love Creative People – Interview with ZACH HEINZERLING, the Director of CUTIE AND THE BOXER

A while ago, Ideas Tap published a very amusing article on “How to date creative people” and the advice was: give them space, don’t compete, get creative with your dating ideas, don’t plan too far into the future, lower your expectations even further, etc.

All very sound advice… And then? What happens after the dating stage?Any hope for a “happily ever after” dénouement?

cutie_and_the_boxer_biggieCUTIE AND THE BOXER, winner of the documentary directing prize at this year’s SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, offers one of the most surprising answers to this dilemma.

Imagine this “stranger than fiction” scenario: You are a super cute Japanese 19-year old girl, an aspiring artist, and you move to New York to start your art education. A few months later you meet Ushio, a very charismatic artist-provocateur,  21 years your senior. He asks you on a dinner date, sparks fly, then you go back to his place to see his art among other things. Then the following morning he asks to borrow money to pay his rent. And because you’re nice and he seems trustworthy, you part with the tiny allowance that your parents gave you to get by in New York lest poor Ushio get evicted. Six months later you become pregnant with his child, which forces you to give up your art education as the money doesn’t stretch to cover both… And you become Ushio’s full-time wife, cook, assistant…Thus began one of the most enduring romantic and artistic entanglements we ever heard of: 40 years later Ushio and Noriko are still making art, love and especially war…

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Zach Heinzerling

In an interview taken on October 18 at the Filmmaker Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013, the film’s director ZACH HEINZERLING tells us more about his most endearing subjects…

Dana: How and when did you first discover Noriko and Ushio, the “Cutie” and the “Boxer” of the title?

Zach: I like taking pictures and I was in Dumbo one day, this is a neighbourhood in Brooklyn that a lot of artists used to live in, art studios are still there but it’s become very posh and expensive. They have an open studio day when you can walk in and meet artists. A good friend of mine speaks Japanese, we went together and he introduced me to them. I was an art student, I’d just moved to New York and I was interested in getting to know them, they are very welcoming, they want to share their art, their art is about their lives and you get personal very quickly, which I think for a documentary subject is really interesting because you don’t have to work very hard to understand what they want to say, it’s out there and they are projecting it and drawing on it. First I made a short film about them, kind of a day in the life. Then, I just kept going over there, sometimes with a camera, sometimes not.

Dana: Did they welcome the idea of you making a documentary about them immediately or did it take some effort to convince them?

Zach: Yes they welcomed the idea immediately. Ushio is obsessed with being filmed, he’s a performance artist, his art results in paintings but it’s the performance really that is the art itself, so the idea of being watched is important for him. Noriko was more shy but with my interest in her art she really opened up for me and that became the basis for the film, it’s more her story as opposed to his.

Noriko and Ushio Shinohara

Dana: Their relationship sounds very interesting, there’s a bit of dominance/submissiveness going on…

Zach: Yes there is, they’ve been married for over 40 years, she met him when she was 19 and within six months she was pregnant and basically taking care of him. He’s sort of the classical drunk, egotistical artist, the “only thing important in life” kind of guy, and I think she was wooed by that and fell in love with him for his purity but then had to sort of clean up after him.  And I think there’s an element of, you know, in Japanese culture, sticking with your spouse through thick and thin, and she suffered through most of their relationship…The film is about them now in the present and how that past affected them today. And the resentment she holds against him, but also the power that she’s trying to extract back. She is the dominant personality now, she very much wears the pants in the relationship, she’s very strong, fierce, competitive. It’s always very interesting to have two headstrong artists, when you combine them something beautiful is created, and complex, and I think that’s really what the film is about, it’s about what’s created from the two of them as opposed to either one of them individually. The tension is drama and that’s what the film is.

Dana: How did they receive the film?

Zach:He didn’t like the film. When you see the film you’ll understand why, he only really cares about his art and the film starts out to be more about him and then transitions to be more about her. And he expected the film to be more about him, for his art to be more featured. And the film is not only about art really, it’s about this relationship, and love in a way, and he doesn’t enjoy love stories. But he wasn’t critical of it, this is something I worked on for five years and we’re very close, we’re like family, so his reaction wasn’t like “You have to change it”, it was more like “I didn’t expect this”. But he’s since come to really appreciate and compliment the film and he’s supportive of the film because it’s essentially promoting his artwork which he likes. She’s always loved the film, she takes ownership of it and uses it in a way as more of a weapon in their battle…

cutie at work

Noriko at work on her Cutie paintings

Dana: What made you choose to focus more on her, is it because you found her the more interesting character, or is it because she is kind of the “underdog” and you wanted to side with her?

Zach: Yeah she’s definitely the more complicated character, she’s layered, there’s a complexity to her.  And she’s got a fascinating story, she moved to New York when she was 19, and she was kind of taken under the wing of this crazy personality and she lived in this bubble that he’s created ever since. And she’s now 60 and looking back on her life. The film’s title, Cutie, comes from this comic that she’s created, the Cutie character is basically her alter-ego, she’s created herself as this 19 year old girl with pigtails, and part of it is tied to this longing for a youth and an innocence that was taken from her at a young age and she’s trying to recreate it through her artwork and deal with a lot of her problems through her artwork. So it was fascinating, she wears her pair of pigtails today as a 60 year old woman, she has this kind of ageless beauty to her and a real strange way of dealing with things. So yes I think that her character has legs and it was also something that over the course of the film would shift and I could observe that shift…

Dana: It sounds almost like a feminist film, a woman who really comes into her own…

Zach: Yes, in her art now she creates drawings of herself dressed as a dominatrix and whipping her husband who’s in chains, she’s revenging against her husband …and she’s this cute Japanese woman so it’s crazy…(laughter)

Ushio_Zach_Noriko_at studio

Zach with Ushio and Noriko in their art studio in New York

Dana: How long have you spent with them to make this documentary and what were the challenges?

Zach: I met them five years ago so it’s technically a five year process but the film really takes place over the last two years. Early on, it was a film more about art and more of a slightly traditional style of documentary where I was using other people to kind of contextualise them and their art, historians, and their friends and curators. And then it shifted to being only them, observational in style, where they were sort of interviewing each other. But there’s no interviews in the film, it’s just reality observed, reality sculpted obviously, the editing process creating a story out of these two years where she starts to gain the respect of others and the relationship shifts from her being the assistant to her being a real artist in her own right. And the challenge was that I’m not fluent in Japanese and the film is almost entirely in Japanese. So a lot of time when I was shooting I had no idea what they were saying but I could generally understand the idea and I would just film scenes in their entirety and then get all of the footage subtitled and recover scenes from that…It’s an inefficient process but I was interested in things other than exactly what they were saying, the rhythm of the scene, or what it looked like, or what it sounded like…And I shot the film too, trying to get that kind of intimacy that’s needed for the kind of scenes that I wanted…And it took that long, it was only after three years that I started to get scenes that were natural…and to observe them in more vulnerable situations. So obviously that’s an immense amount of time, I was working on other projects throughout but the film is really as much about my relationship with them as it is about their relationship…

Dana: Are you in the film?

Zach: No, I’m not in the film.

Dana: Because you mentioned the word “observational” and I was wondering whether you put yourself in the frame in the style of cinema vérité or whether your film is purely observational in the style of direct cinema?What was your approach?

Zach: I wouldn’t describe it as purely observational.Traditional cinema vérité is this whole idea that you don’t direct at all, it’s just the camera as is. […] But the genre shifted and these sort of hybrid films were created. I mean everything that happens in the movie, happened, but the order that you place it, the way that you shoot things, we use music in the film, we use animation, her comics are animated, there’s a level of me deciding which stories to tell. And even cinema vérité is subjective, nothing is observed reality, it’s always sculpted reality so I constructed it slightly more than say 60’s vérité films, but that was always the intention, you turn something into a cinematic experience to make people understand your version of the story, this is my version of their relationship. They understood that and that’s why they weren’t critical of it because they knew it was my version as opposed to the real version or…

Dana: What they wanted to project…

Zach: Yes…when you film artists, a lot of the time that’s a benefit because there’s a sort of understanding that “ok, this is my art”, even though it’s about them, they are more exhibitionists…(laughter)

Dana: This is your debut feature film and you made shorts before. I was wondering what you have lined up for the future, will you continue to make films?

Zach: I think so. I went to arts school, I studied philosophy, I didn’t go to film school but I do think I’ll probably continue making films, I’m currently writing a script for a fiction film, so my ambition is to create and construct a story. I would do another documentary, this documentary was special because the subject lent itself to an interesting and creative style of documentary, you can’t find that in every subject…

Dana: What would be the main themes you would like to explore?

Zach: I think I’m most apt to continue exploring this sort of morally complex relationship stories, smaller personal stories are what I’m most interested to catch on film…Why I like cinema is that you can approach this idea of something or someone without having to define it, you can make an audience sympathetic to a character then turn around and make them disgusted by that character. It shows how complex people can be and you can shatter people’s preconceived notions of why someone does what they do, I think that’s the most interesting thing about film, it’s very difficult to find another medium that doesn’t rely on specificity. Ambiguity is something that is sometimes scary and hard to sell but if you can make a film that is ambiguous but also engrossing, I think the audience feels perhaps changed in some way or their perspective is shifted. So it’s those kinds of films, with characters that you might not always like. I mean in this film Ushio the husband is kind of demonised at the beginning and then by the end maybe you feel differently.At the beginning, one of the lines in the film is that he is a genius and his wife is average so it’s her job to support him.

Ushio boxing

Ushio performance art

Dana: Oh no!He really said that?And you left that in?

Zach: Yeah.So you might hate him. But then there are other things that you might like about him.

Dana: Did he know he was being filmed?Didn’t he say it as a joke?

Zack: Oh yeah, he knew…Well, she wasn’t there but no, it wasn’t a joke. He laughed and the camera was on… As you’ll see in the film, there’s no place he won’t go, his life is to be as exposed as possible but the irony is that you never actually feel like you get to his core, it’s always a performance with him, he’s always kind of acting in a way, so I think that line is probably a version of acting and finding out what he really thinks. And he definitely cares more about his art than hers and he definitely thinks he’s a more important artist than she will ever be, and based on what he’s done, he was part of a 60s post-war Japanese group that’s very important in the art history of Japan, so his paintings are all over the world. But now he’s actually not selling at all, he’s not known for his work of the last 30 years, so in some ways he’s sort of this washed-up artist who’s not really relevant anymore. She is the more sort of fresh, with something to say, you know. Whether he actually respects her or not is still a question, and whether she actually respects him or not is a question…

Dana: Why are they together?

Zach: I don’t know (laughing), that’s the subject of the movie…

If we managed to pique your interest and you want to find out the secret to Ushio and Noriko’s enduring love, don’t miss out on the film’s cinema release, Cutie and the Boxer is screening at ICA and other cinemas in the UK starting today.

To book your ticket at the ICA click here.


A LOVE STORY LIKE NO OTHER FROM KIWI FILMMAKER FLORIAN HABICHT

In case you didn’t know what it means when a woman is holding a piece of cake, LOVE STORY will give you the answer! A truly original self-referential documentary/
romantic comedy based on a collaboration with complete strangers on the streets of New York, the film has been a hit with audiences and critics alike around the world. More than a love story, the film is a joyous ode to the Big Apple and its vividly engaging and delightfully eccentric inhabitants.

Inciting factor: In late 2009, Auckland Arts Foundation offers Berlin-born Kiwi filmmaker Florian Habicht the Harriet Friedlander New York Residency Award worth $80,000. Florian is already an established filmmaker at home, being responsible for some of this decade’s most original New Zealand films. His début feature Woodenhead (2003), a Grimm inspired musical fairytale, quickly became a cult hit being renowned for the innovation of recording the entire soundtrack before shooting the visuals. This was followed by the iconic documentary Kaikohe Demolition (2004) which won best digital feature at the New Zealand Screen Awards; Rubbings From a Live Man (2008), a hybrid documentary  performed by and based on the life of performance artist Warwick Broadhead;Land of the Long White Cloud (2009), a documentary about a five-day fishing competition held on 90 Mile Beach in the North of New Zealand…Once in New York, Florian is under no obligation to do a lot of work but for him, making a film is a total adventure and great fun so why not…

Main Ingredients:a double dose of contagious feel-good factor mixed with despair that money is running out and the NYC residency is coming to an end; a psychic reading that tells you NOT to go in front of a camera overridden by the compulsion to do the opposite; feeling inspired by a mysterious girl carrying cake met on the subway;seemingly absurd idea to shoot a film without a narrative, without actors,without casting anyone, without the slightest idea of what might happen next; seemingly crazy idea to track the girl down and persuade her to play in your film; but what film??!; start asking for love advice from complete strangers you meet on the street, and also from your dad via Skype, then act it out with Masha, the lovely cake-carrying girl; surrender directorial control to your audience and rely on them to drive the plot forward; inject humour, a lot of humour and blur all boundaries, between fact and fiction, between art and real life, between being and acting, between love and the illusion of love; add jazzy and clichéd  romantic score from Nino Rota and Ennio Morricone that mocks traditional romantic film conventions to perfect the confusion. End result: a truly original and beautiful love story, but no story as you know it!

Watch the trailer here:

Love Story screened at the 2012 LONDON FILM FESTIVAL on the 11, 12 and 14 October. The following interview with Florian was taken at Filmmakers Afternoon Tea, Mayfair Hotel, London, 12 October 2012

Dana:”Please tell me a little bit about the creative process that went into making a film like this”.

Florian: “I decided to shoot a film before I went to NY, and I arranged to shoot with my DOP Maria Ines Manchego and my editor PeterO’ Donoghue from Sidney who were going to fly to NY. And I told them it would be an improvised feature film and that in three weeks time I’d tell them what the story is. And three weeks later, I still didn’t know…and I sort of felt like a version of Marcello Mastroianni, like having to pretend that he knows what he’s doing when really he doesn’t have a clue. And that’s when I started asking random people I’d met in New York  on the street and told them my problem, my dilemma, that I’ve organised this shoot and that I really don’t know what to do. And they started helping me, giving me ideas. And at that point I always had a camera in my bag…and when I watched the footage I really fell in love with it, I thought wow, I can really make a film out of this”.

Dana: “So how much did they contribute to the film, the people you met?In terms of directing the narrative, ideas etc”
Florian: “I’d say half. And also my dad via Skype, he was very excited I was shooting a film in NY, he was always in New Zealand checking the weather forecast in NY and if it was supposed to rain he’d skype me and give me his ideas, his film ideas…He’s an amazing photographer, he documented London in the 60s, he’s got a few beautiful books out, on London. He actually wanted to be a filmmaker but he wasn’t allowed to by his parents…”.

Dana: “So you made his dream come true…”
Florian: “Yes…He’d give me his ideas and I was like yeah…”
Dana: “Did you give him a credit on the film?”
Florian: “Well, this is the terrible thing, I didn’t give him a writing credit, I totally forgot…”
Dana: “That IS terrible…”
Florian (laughing): “yes, very…I totally forgot…but when I’m with the film and presenting a Q&A I make sure I mention that…”

Frank Habicht began his career as a photographer in 1960 and soon published a book, “Young London, Permissive Paradise”, a social document on London’s youth. He also worked as a stills photographer for film directors Bryan Forbes, Jules Dassin and Roman Polanski.

Dana: “Who is the girl in the film? How did you meet her?Was she a friend?”

Florian: “Her name is Masha Yakovenko and it was a chance meeting encounter…”

Dana: “So that bit is true.”
Florian: “Yeah, I met her for like five minutes maybe…And because I didn’t have a budget for this film, it meant I was the boss, I could do anything…And I was a bit taken by her and I said ‘Would you like to be in the film?’ and we arranged to meet so that I could tell her about it…so she said let’s meet up”
Dana: “Were you casting at that moment?”
Florian: “My whole year in New York, at the back of my mind I was casting, and I had a few different film ideas too but I didn’t really find the right person until I met her and I immediately was like yeah…and we arranged to meet so I could tell her more about it. A few days before meeting at Mars Bar, which is the bar in the film, which is an awesome NY historical place, I emailed her and I said ‘I’ve got this idea, do you mind if we film our meeting and if you decide you want to do this film we could use it as part of the film’…And she was pretty into taking risks so she agreed to that…”
Dana: “But she’s not an actress, is she?”
Florian: “Well I don’t know but she was studying acting and she was really up for the challenge and she didn’t want to watch any of the rushes of herself…”
Dana: “She totally trusted you…”
Florian: “Yes she did, she didn’t even want to watch my early films…I gave her a whole lot of dvds, and yeah she didn’t watch them. Which is kind of strange but yeah…so she didn’t see anything until right at the end.

Masha is studying acting in New York and she currently involved in a project with theatre company Waxfactory.

Dana: “So you say you were stuck in that Mastroianni moment, feeling a bit lost in your project, but once you started making it, did you encounter any difficulties after that?”

Florian: “After that things went really smoothly, it was amazing…There were a few days when I was in a bad mood, or a little sick or grumpy, and on those days I could spend the whole day walking around with my camera and I wouldn’t take one interview or footage…like there were no sparks or anything…But in terms of the process, everything flowed. Getting funding for post-production was a bit of a struggle but enough people came on board to support the film, the New Zealand Film Festival, the New Zealand Film Commission, and getting the music right, to that amazing Italian soundtrack, that was for me like a miracle”
Dana: “How long did the filming take?”
Florian: “It was spread over four months and we had a long break in the middle.”
Dana: “And how many people did you interview in total?”
Florian: “Twice as many as in the film.”
Dana: “You were very lucky, they were very friendly and willing to talk to you.”
Florian: “Incredible, yes”.
Dana: “You couldn’t have made the same film in London, I don’t think so.”
Florian: “I agree, New York is really special like that…I was wearing these pants (points to his pink hipster trousers)…
Dana: “Yeah I remember…”
Florian: “and if people smiled at me, I would pull out my camera…so half the people in the film cast themselves, like they made the first eye contact…”
Dana: “Except the woman in the cab…”
Florian (laughing); “Yeah yeah…”
Dana: “She was a bit aggressive…I hope you didn’t get beaten up by anyone…any other aggressive encounters?”
Florian: “Only one, I knew that you aren’t allowed to film children without the parents’ permission and once a group of children ran towards me and I was just excited and I started asking them questions about love and then the father came, then I got in trouble with the father being caught filming young kids and it was totally my fault…so that was the only time…otherwise yeah it was amazing, and I didn’t ask people, I was just there with my camera, recording, it was like being at a doctor’s being given an injection, if you don’t see the injection coming, it’s a lot less painful, whereas if you see the doctor preparing it, and you’re watching it, it really hurts…and I found that with filming,  people were just natural and it wasn’t a problem, whereas if I explained to them what I was doing, they might not have been as good…”.
Dana: “Overall, your film reminded me of Catfish, only that Catfish is more like an “investigation” whereas yours is more of an “experiment”.
Florian: “That’s amazing because I went to a screening of that and that was my main inspiration for making a film like this…the way it was made in the now and didn’t know where it was going to go…”
Dana: “Have you made any shorts previously in your career? What is your relationship with the short form?”
Florian: “Yes but I moved on to features really fast, I made a lot of low-budget experimental features, always mixing documentary and fiction, all my films do that…I find a short film hard because when I love a short film, I’m sad that it’s over so fast…”

And so was our interview over too fast but if you want to indulge your curiosity about Florian and his LOVE STORY, click here for more information.

KAIKOHE DEMOLITION, one of Florian’s previous films and an equally unique and striking works of idiomatic cinema, is available to watch online here.

To make sure you didn’t miss anything, meet Florian as the artist introduces himself.