Photo: Brimstone and Glory / Courtesy American Museum of Natural History
The theme of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival — “Activate” — sounds rather apropos in a city and a country that have been battered over the past several months by the intolerance and authoritarianism of the Trump administration. Tucked away at the American Museum of Natural History, the documentary-oriented fest honors the famed anthropologist’s desire for attaining a fuller understanding of the human condition. The four-day program will include screenings, dialogues with filmmakers, parties, and a special installation (by the stop-motion-animation artist Amanda Strong). As for the movies themselves, there will be, among others, a piece about a man documenting his own impending blindness and another about an Iroquois lacrosse team fighting struggling for recognition.
Pride month may be over, but there’s still plenty of time to catch the Museum of the City of New York’s current show, “AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism,” which takes a new look at the disease and its politics through a domestic lens. AIDS activism often involves spectacular forms of protest, but MCNY’s exhibition explores the relatively less visible role of queer homes and support networks during the Eighties and on through the present day. Three rooms divide the show into broad themes — caretaking, housing, and family — mapping out a novel history of New York’s LGBTQ community in documents and artworks across an array of mediums, including works in yarn, embroidery, wallpaper, textiles (think: the AIDS quilt), and other household materials. Arriving during a period of great discontent in Washington — six members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS recently resigned to protest the White House’s lack of a strategy for addressing the ongoing epidemic — the show couldn’t feel more urgent.
It began with “Freestyle,” back in 2001. Since then, every few years the Studio Museum in Harlem has held a series of influential exhibitions that are specifically intended to bring a fresh crop of noteworthy Black American artists to the attention of a broad audience. An alliterative conceit binds together what have become known as the “F shows”: “Frequency” in 2005, “Flow” in 2008, “Fore” in 2012. Now, the museum has decided the climate is right to release a new batch of talent from the continual prospecting that is part of its mission. “Fictions,” featuring work by nineteen artists from around the country, and with a strong proportion of installation and work in unorthodox materials, began in September and runs through early January.
As part of the Peak Performances season devoted entirely to works by women, Pam Tanowitz, one of the most interesting choreographers still engaged with ballet, sends her dancers onstage with pianist Simone Dinnerstein, notorious for her 2007 interpretation of Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Further deconstructing the ballet vocabulary, New Work for Goldberg Variations finds seven movers surrounding the piano to communicate the essence of Bach’s remarkable suite. The handy bus that brings New Yorkers to the suburban theater is running, now, only on Saturday night, so plan ahead; a New Jersey Transit train comes right to the campus on weeknights. For the Sunday matinee, you’re on your own to hitch a ride or an NJ Transit bus.
The writer and director Amir Nizar Zuabi’s play Oh My Sweet Land has no fixed address. Instead of being housed in a theater, it is being performed every night in the kitchen of a different New York apartment or community space. This movement around the city mirrors the plight of Syrian refugees, the subject of the piece, who have been pushed out of their homes by war and forced into a nomadic existence. The unsettled nature of the story’s characters neatly gel with its peripatetic premise: In just 65 minutes, Zuabi sends his audience across time and space, through vivid storytelling, aggressive smells and sounds, and descriptive detail — all imbued with a furious intensity that is not easily shaken.
The Siege grew out of actual events that occurred in April 2002, during the Second Intifada. As Israeli tanks rolled into Bethlehem and several other cities in the West Bank with the aim of capturing alleged militants, about two hundred Palestinian fighters crowded into the Church of the Nativity seeking refuge. The script for The Siege was informed by interviews with several of the real-life Palestinian fighters, who were eventually exiled to Europe or Gaza, as well as with civilians and monks who experienced the events. Running at around ninety minutes, and performed in Arabic with English subtitles, the show is mostly centered on the voices of six of the combatants as they struggle to survive and debate whether to surrender or fight until the end.
Because Michael Mann was best known at the time for his TV police dramas (Crime Story, Miami Vice), his decision to adapt this 1826 James Fenimore Cooper novel at first seemed like an inexplicable detour. In retrospect, The Last of the Mohicans (1992) fits neatly into Mann’s lifelong project of both amplifying and validating the intersection between macho integrity and rugged, often persecuted individualism. Mohicans has indeed become one of Mann’s most influential works — it’s hard to imagine a time when historical dramas weren’t pitched to young viewers — but almost nobody has been able to achieve the unity of tone that Mann produces, without apparent strain. (On Sunday, the theatrical cut will screen at the Museum of the Moving Image four, followed by Mann’s director’s cut at seven.) His impatience with conventional “period piece” filmmaking further unifies the picture’s crisp action sequences and romantic crescendos — it never seems to stop moving forward, even when it pauses to rest or regroup.
—Jaime N. Christley
Head to Red Hook for a first look at Skybox, the latest work from Bessie winner Walter Dundervill, renowned for constructing immersive environments that fuse dance, costume, sound, and visual art. This one’s a pip: It promises “ancient Roman frescoes, a seventeenth-century mathematical theory, and a late mannerist painting” as points of departure, and examines how we construct “highly ordered views of nature and the supernatural to express concepts of futurity and the infinite.” A project of New York Live Arts’ Live Feed residency program, Skybox takes place in a huge old factory building near the waterfront that the artist Dustin Yellin has converted into an art space, garden, and interdisciplinary community cultural center.
The English rock band Psychedelic Furs, who started putting out music in the late Seventies and became iconic with the song “Pretty in Pink,” are both touring again and, according to band member Tim Butler, working on a new album. Their last full length was 1991’s World Outside, an expansive pop record that now feels incredibly Eighties. Now that these sounds are back in style, it’s not hard to imagine a new album from the band fitting in with the many young indie groups that emulate them.
Photo: L'Enfant Secret (1979)
An admirer of Murnau and von Stroheim, Philippe Garrel infuses his fiercely intimate, artisanal work with the expressivity of early silent cinema. At times, he turns off sound entirely. Not knowing what is being said heightens the spectators’ anxiety and contributes to the general sense of ambivalence that pervades Garrel films, forcing us to hang on to the actors’ fleeting facial expressions and gestures. In this way, Garrel’s oeuvre is about the body language of love, the choreography of the myriad physical manifestations of the joy but mainly the pain it inflicts.
Alex Cox’s 1998 film establishes a brief stop in Liverpool as the stuff of slapstick so dry it almost isn’t there (except when jokes intrude like Whac-a-Mole), all while adhering to a dishwater-realist mode in photographing that town’s tourist quadrant. It’s a clash of styles that shouldn’t work — imagine sober mystic Rivette absconding with a few pages of Tati’s gag notebook. Miguel Sandoval is our first businessman, lacquered in indefatigable yet perennially exasperated good cheer, not an atypical road-warrior personality cocktail. Circumstances and a derelict hotel staff throw him in with a second businessman (played by Cox himself), transforming the largest part of the movie into a nighttime buddy comedy: Linklater’s Before Last Call. Things get pretty strange as drastic location shifts assert themselves casually, but this must be Cox’s most rigorously programmed fantasy, a Buñuelian Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas on a budget and without pharmaceutical intervention.
—Jaime N. Christley
Photo: Cortney Armitage
There’s going to be a really long blackout, Heather Christian warns us, sometime during her show. If you’re afraid of the dark, find an usher — they have flashlights. She’s right to alert us: That long, late-breaking episode of darkness is one of the most affecting parts of Animal Wisdom, a sweet, quirky musical meditation on death, now playing at the Bushwick Starr. The piece takes the form of a “requiem mass” in which Christian communes with her beloved dead and recalls her Natchez, Mississippi, childhood. In between raucous musical numbers, she tells us about her grandmother and great-grandmother, both clairvoyants, and about her childhood phantasms. Christian’s past identities shimmer in these fables of a vanished childhood.
With the unexpectedly deep and moving Professor Marston and the Wonder Women in theaters and the excellent and uncannily accurate BPM (Beats Per Minute) opening this week, audiences no longer have to go to queer film festivals to see good films about queer people created by queer filmmakers. But NewFest, the New York LGBTQ film festival that embarks on its 29th annual run this week (and includes a screening of Marston), continues to provide, in films from the past and current ones that delve into it, a perspective of the community’s history that still never makes its way to the multiplex — or Netflix.
Photo: Photograph by Patrick D. Pagnano
New Yorkers are accustomed to change, Brooklynites perhaps more than most. In the past thirty years, the borough has undergone tremendous adjustments that have brought both good and ill. Now BRIC, the nonprofit arts and media organization, presents “Brooklyn Photographs,” an exhibition of seventy-five images from the Sixties through the present day, by eleven artists and documentarians who have captured Brooklyn’s history and its makeover. The contributors include Max Kozloff (the former editor of Artforum magazine), who spent twenty years photographing the West Indian Carnival; Russell Frederick, who has tracked the gentrification of Bed-Stuy; Meryl Meisler, whose work has focused on her students at I.S.291 in Bushwick; and George Malave, who spent time with kids on Varet Street in the late Sixties. All told, the photographs offer a succinct snapshot of an enormous, diverse, and ever-changing city.
Photo: Courtesy Film Forum via Photofest
Fifty years ago, in 1967, Cool Hand Luke, The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, and The Dirty Dozen rocked American cinemas. And somewhere in a field outside Pittsburgh, George Romero and John Russo were shooting on black-and-white 16mm film a low-budget movie that would found and define an entire horror subgenre. While those of-the-moment studio films were polished, Night of the Living Dead, released in 1968, seemed amateur on the surface — the frames were noisy with film grain, the sound always corrupted by a hint of static. But the immediate, quasi-documentary feel, a result of budgetary constraints, actually served the film’s horror, jolting audiences because it all seemed just a little too real. (It will look more real than ever in Janus Films’ new 4K restoration.)
George Harrison himself reportedly said that as the Beatles ended, the group’s spirit was caught by Monty Python. In their own way, the Pythons, too, transformed pop culture forever, taking a beloved form and exploding it in such ways that all who came afterward had to reckon with their legacy. The six-man comedy troupe accomplished this not just through its TV show (Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which ran from 1969 to 1974) but also through its film work. That spirit lives on in “The Ministry of Silly Films: Monty Python and Beyond,” the Quad Cinema’s twelve-title retrospective, which features movies the Pythons made both together and separately.
Photo: Courtesy Metrograph
Universal honcho Carl Laemmle’s 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s endlessly renewable horror novel was so successful it helped turn the studio into a perpetual motion machine that has not come to rest, even today. Frankenstein, the Jaws of its era, has by now been ceaselessly remade, rebooted, and parodied. There’s even a breakfast cereal. Its compact form (seventy minutes) belies a wealth of detail and craft worthy of rediscovery. Popular memory enshrines James Whale’s dexterity with a few time-honored expressionist tropes, but the film is also propelled by the doctor’s fevered hubris and his monster’s shallow set of preverbal emotions, which number from unspeakable agony to lithe panic. A newly bereaved father’s tour through street after street of gradually disabused revelers lands as Frankenstein’s emotional and technical set piece, a kind perhaps only conceivable when talking pictures were still pretty new.
—Jaime N. Christley
Photo: Hollow Triumph / Courtesy MoMA
As major studios like Warner Bros. and Paramount dominated the Thirties and Forties, cash-strapped companies in the so-called “Gower Gulch” kept afloat by churning out genre fare to play on the back end of double-bill programs. In the series “Strange Illusions,” MoMA presents a dozen of these Poverty Row classics, preserved on new 35mm prints by the University of California Los Angeles. Eschewing glitz and glamour, these fillers offer oddball performances, dangerous stunts, and abbreviated running times. Financial corner-cutting allowed auteurs like Edgar Ulmer to conjure singularly surrealist sights, like those seen in his modern-day Hamlet, entitled Strange Illusion (1945), featuring William Warren as the manipulative, mustachioed murderer. Echoes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder populate the lurid two-strip Technicolor Mamba (1930), which follows an impish plantation owner who tortures both his slaves and wife in the heart of Africa. And the aristocratic performative weight of Erich Von Stroheim lends both heart and soul to his mad scientist in The Crime of Doctor Crespi (1935).