Monday, June 16, 2008

Kusturica Doesn't Do Storytelling

I am against the notion that cinema is storytelling and a film director is a storyteller. Storytelling is for a talk show, not for the cinema. It's one of the aspects of cinema, but cinema is a much more complex picture of the world than storytelling. It's like saying James Joyce is a storyteller, which would be completely stupid. Of course, there are storytellers. But if you read Shakespeare or Chekhov, you cannot say they are just storytellers. They had a story that they turned into a drama. But drama is not the same as story.

-Emir Kusturica, from the book My First Movie: Take Two

Friday, June 13, 2008

Chautauqua In The Summertime

I'll be heading to the Chautauqua Institution in Bemus Point, New York with my Dad right after the Fourth of July. It's a place rich with family history dating back to when my Mom vacationed around those parts with her family as a child. In fact, somewhere there's an amazing Super 8 from the early 50's of her Dad reeling a fish out of Lake Chautauqua. After my Dad married my Mom he was equally smitten with the place and they took us kids there, often staying a month or more over the summer months in a rented cottage or for a long weekend at the Hotel Lenhart.

The Chautauqua Institution, where my Dad and I will be hanging out for a week, is a fascinating place. It's the holdout (and now a designated National Historic Landmark) of a late 19th Century religious and educational movement that found its inspiration in that throughly American quest for self-improvement. Culture, with a capital C, along with heaping servings of Protestant religious instruction were the guiding lights of its founders, Lewis Miller and John Vincent, when they founded the Institution in 1874. In fact, its original name was Chautauqua Lake Sunday School Assembly.

Now that sounds like pure drudgery to me. But it's not the Sunday School strain that I found compelling (and the sacred was never any real match for the secular in my family anyway) so much as the residue of those enchanted summers I spent there as a child in the early 80's and how they've shaped my own fond feelings for the place in the present. Not having been there in over 20 years, I'm excited to see how it's both changed and been preserved.

My parents gave me a couple nice coffee table books about Chautauqua for my birthday this year. In the preface of one of them, Chautauqua: An American Utopia, Jeffrey Simpson is kind enough to give voice to some of my own sentiments about the place. Simpson feels conflicted with the two Chautauquas that crowd his mind-- the modern, "vital Chautauqua of today," and the "kindly, sleepy, rather shabby Chautauqua" of his childhood. Of that old Chautauqua, Simpson writes:

This was the Chautauqua where it was said that "old ladies brought their mothers." It was a kind, serene idyll, a sort of Chekhov play where private dramas were played out in atmospheres of wicker and ennui.

I mean, the place has over 1200 Victorian cottages, most of them with porches smothered in wicker. I remember those old ladies hobbling up and down the hills. And those little Chekhov plays were being played out by my own family, accompanied by the sound of music students practicing clarinets from nearby porches mixing with the rattle of silverware from a hotel's kitchen somewhere below. I wasn't there for the cultural life, though I suppose I found it anyway at the local Boys and Girls Club, where I became friends with half a dozen or so other kids, most from New York City, for a couple fleetingly enchanted summers.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Abby and I headed over to the Lincoln Restaurant to enjoy some silver dollar pancakes and a somewhat embarrassingly humongous Civil-War themed omelet for lunch. I was surprised that I hadn't done this already with her, though eating out with a 2 1/2 year-old isn't exactly what I'd call leisurely. But she was gentle dictator, demanding a few extra dollops of maple syrup and happily chatting away with our waitress. We came home and both took naps.
Taking advantage of the much appreciated balminess, we ate dinner in our backyard tonight, something Cathy seems committed to taking better advantage of this summer. We have a nice little fortress back there, ringed by fences and teeming with green and a raised patio space.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

California Split

Robert Altman had one of the most amazing runs of feature films of any mainstream American director working in the 70's. From 1970's utterly wacky and lovable Brewster McCloud through to 1980's Popeye, are all very good, with a few, such as McCabe and Mrs. Miller, The Long Goodbye, Thieves Like Us and Nashville being stone cold masterpieces, as much a product of their times as they are somehow ravishingly timeless. It's not surprising that many consider this his "golden period."

1974's California Split, starring Elliot Gould and George Segal as a couple compulsive gamblers in search of their next big score is one of the very good ones. Altman's love of overlapping dialogue (most of it written just prior to the shooting by screenwriter Bill Walsh) and documentary like ambiance are in full effect throughout the film, allowing the viewer to eavesdrop on conversations in the peripheral of the main dialogue track. And Elliot Gould continues to be a revelation. Was he ever better then in the films he made during the 70's with Altman? For somebody like me whose impressions of Gould were formed by his avuncular character acting work of the 90's and 00's (on Friends and the Oceans films), seeing him in Altman's The Long Goodbye was a completely unexpected surprise. There was a time there when Gould blew everybody out of the water, creating characters that were scruffy, moody, cynical and suave. They took hits and they hurt but they always prevailed. In California Split, Gould's Charlie chews up every scene he's in, often leaving George Segal's Bill to churn somewhat helplessly in his wake.