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Buffalo Film Seminars to move to the Amherst Theater in September

Filed under: News, Uncategorized

It’s long been suspected, but now it’s official: UB professors Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian will be moving their popular Buffalo Film Seminars from the Market Arcade to the Amherst Theater beginning this September, citing the Mayor’s office’s lack of interest in supporting the theater as a community resource.

Here’s the text of a letter by Bruce Jackson sent to the Film Seminar’s mailing list:

The Fall 2014 Buffalo Film Seminars, our 29th series, will take place at the Amherst Theater rather then the Market Arcade, where they have been for the past 15 years.

This shift in location is because Buffalo’s Mayor’s Office decided not to continue supporting the theater as a major community arts resource, but instead to put it on the open market for developers. It will take months for that to process to work out and, and months more for the theatre to be brought up to date (if the new owner wants it to be a theater at all). Because the Buffalo Film Seminars are is grounded in a UB class that is open to the public, we can’t just stand by and wait for the political money to change hands and the necessary development to be completed.

So far as we know, there are four potential bidders on the property. One has approached us and said his company would like the theater to continue as a community resource. Another, according to the Buffalo News, wants to turn the property into a “Laverne and Shirley Bar and Bowling Alley,” with community offerings on the side; we know nothing about the other two potential bidders.

Mayor Byron Brown has been unfriendly to the arts since he took office, so we don’t think the presence of this important center of arts activity will have much to do with how the deal goes down. His office had never appreciated the quality of life or economic implications of a vital arts community.

More important is time and technology: if the Market Arcade doesn’t upgrade to digital production in a month or two, the theater will go dark. Hollywood will soon be distributing almost nothing in celluloid, so the theater’s projectors will all be obsolete very soon. We cannot want until fall to find out what a potential developer might say he wants to do with that space, and then wait another six months to find out if is actually does it. One of the potential developers apparently wants to drive all the community groups out of the theater.

Several months ago, the Buffalo Common Council unanimously voted to provide the theater four new digital projectors. That purchase would have permitted the theater to keep operating. But the Mayor’s office blocked it. The Mayor’s legal department said that since the theater was run by a private company, the City couldn’t provide such funding. That was total nonsense, totally untrue. The theater is owned by the City and it is managed by a not-for-profit corporation created by the city, the board of which is mostly appointed by the Mayor. (Bruce is chairman of that board.)

So the city blocked maintenance of the Market Arcade as a public resource, not because it had to, but because politicians in City Hall decided to.

The two of us have been doing the Buffalo Film Seminars for 15 years now. We would prefer to continue in the heart of the city. But City Hall seems hot to turn a buck. So we are moving to the Amherst, which is located outside the Buffalo city line. We love our relationship with Dipson Theaters, which has made it possible to maintain this series all these years, but we hate abandoning downtown. We wish City Hall gave a hoot for the arts—but it doesn’t, so we’re moving.

If the new owners of the Market Arcade, whoever they turn out to be, create an environment in which it seems viable for us to move back downtown, we’ll be happy to do that. But as of now, City Hall has driven the Buffalo Film Seminars out of town. We’re happy that our friends at Dipson’s Amherst Theater have offered us a new home. We hope to see you at the movies in the Fall.

The Amherst has lots of free parking, handicapped parking close to the theater, the same popcorn, and is on the city metro and UB bus circuit.

Bruce and Diane
Here’s the tentative Fall 2014 schedule:
Aug 26 D.W. Griffith, BROKEN BLOSSOMS, 1919, 90 min
Sep 2 Fritz Lang, M, 1931

Sep 9 William Cameron Menzies, THINGS TO COME, 1936, 100 min

Sep 16 Howard Hawks, RED RIVER, 1948, 127 min Criterion

Sep 23 Robert Bresson, PICKPOCKET, 1959, 76 min, Criterion

Sep 30 Luis Buñuel, VIRIDIANA, 1961, 90 min

Oct 7 Agnés Varda, CLEO FROM 5 TO 7, 1962

Oct 14 Akira Kurosawa, REDBEARD, 1965 Criterion

Oct 21 Nicolas Roeg, PERFORMANCE, 1970, Warner Bro

Oct 28 Víctor Erice, THE SPIRIT OF THE BEEHIVE, 1973 (Criterion)

Nov 4 Roman Polanski, TESS, 1979 Criterion

Nov 11 Sydney Pollack, TOOTSIE, 1982

Nov 18 Joel and Ethan Coen, FARGO, 1996, 98 min

Nov 25 Erik Skjodbjaerg, INSOMNIA, 1997, 97 min

Dec 2Mike Nichols, CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR, 2007

Bruce Jackson
SUNY Distinguished Professor & James Agee Professor of American Culture

 


New Alice Cooper documentary plays at the Screening Room

SUPER DUPER ALICE COOPER

By Ed Grant

Super_Duper_Alice_Cooper_1

The once and future king of shock rock gets his due in this flashy Canadian documentary. Filmmakers Sam Dunn, Reginald Harkema and Scot McFayden overuse the “animated photo” technique that has become de rigueur in show-biz docus and include little more than a chorus and verse of some of Cooper’s seminal hits, but despite its cringe-worthy title Super Duper Alice Cooper delivers a potent dose of Seventies nostalgia.

The talking heads narrating the film (among them Iggy Pop, Elton John, Wayne Kramer of the MC5, producer Bob Ezrin and former bandmates Dennis Dunaway and Neal Smith) are kept off-camera; instead we see rare photos (many from Cooper’s collection) and familiar stock footage of the Fifties and Sixties: high school dances, hippies frolicking in the park and, yes, even Clichéd Clip No. 1, the dreaded shot of old-fashioned telephone operators putting wires into sockets. But don’t abandon hope: after 30 minutes of this archival overload, in which Alice’s “battle” with his onstage persona is illustrated with clips from silent (i.e., non-copyrighted) horror movies, we’re finally treated to actual performance footage from concerts and TV appearances—entertaining even if most of it is drowned out by more narration.

The cursory treatment of Cooper’s music—presumably stemming from the belief that it’s all available online for free anyway—makes the film less effective as a 101 for the uninitiated and more of a valentine for the already converted. How else to explain the single minute spent on “School’s Out,” the Cooper anthem most likely to be heard on oldies radio these days?

The most enjoyable segments cover the band Alice Cooper (before singer Vincent Furnier took the name to himself) cultivating their nightmarish onstage image and crafting a string of memorable hits in the early Seventies. Following the band’s demise, the docu moves on to chronicle solo Alice’s years “bottoming out” on booze and cocaine.

From the opening scene Cooper attributes his eventual “salvation” to his Christian upbringing and strong belief in God. A positive, upbeat message may seem a bit odd in a documentary celebrating a shock rock pioneer, but Alice has been quite vocal about his Christianity, and it certainly provides a more believable solution to his dead-end drug dilemma than his much-publicized “addiction” to golf.

Speaking of which: Alice’s celebrity commentators include John Lydon. The erstwhile Johnny Rotten testifies that the Sex Pistols (in his eyes) were meant as a “complement” to Alice, and speaks for fans everywhere when he says, “I think anything Alice has ever done is good enough for me… except golf. Alice, lay off the golf!”

Super Duper Alice Cooper will be shown at the Screening Room in Williamsville this Wednesday (April 30) and Monday (May 5) nights. The film will be accompanied by a Q&A Alice did with fans who saw an early screening.


Hayao Miyazaki’s final film sneaks into one local theater

Filed under: Uncategorized

Add this to the long, long list of reasons to despise the Walt Disney Company: buying the rights to THE WIND RISES, the final work from Hayao Miyazaki, the greatest living maker of animated films, and dumping it in one local theater with no advance notice. This despite the fact that it is all but guaranteed to win the Academy Award this weekend for Best Animated Film. It would be paranoid to theorize that Disney is trying to hide the work of a master animator who makes their own movies look shallow, fatuous and pandering. But it’s the best guess I can make. It opens Friday at the Regal Transit theater.

 


Long Nights, Bright Paranoia opens at Hallwalls

Filed under: News

Tonight Hallwalls begins a month-long series of Tuesday night screenings curated by the gallery’s visual arts director John Messier. Titled “Long Nights, Bright Paranoia,” the films are linked by their strong visual styles and themes of paranoia. Tonight’s film is the original INVADERS FROM MARS (1953). Upcoming movies in the series include John Frankenheimer’s SECONDS (Feb 11), the 1994 cult hit DARK CITY (Feb 18), and the classic 1974 political thriller THE PARALLAX VIEW (Feb. 25). All film start at 7 pm. Tickets is $8 general admission, $6 students and seniors, $5 for Hallwalls members. For more information visit http://www.hallwalls.org/media-arts/.


Bruce Jackson on the closing of the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center

After the piece in Friday’s Buffalo News about the imminent closing of the Market Arcade Film and Arts Center, UB professor Bruce Jackson posted the following comments to Facebook. As the co-host with Diane Christian of the theater’s popular Buffalo Film Seminars (now in its 15th year) and the vice-chairman of the theater’s volunteer board, Jackson is particularly qualified to talk about the situation. Here’s what he had to say:

After Mark Sommer’s excellent article about the perilous condition of the Market Arcade Theater appeared in Friday’s Buffalo News (http://www.buffalonews.com/city-region/downtown-buffalos-only-movie-theater-may-soon-go-dark-20131128) there were a bunch of online comments attacking Dipson Theaters as the villain in the whole affair. That is totally crazy. The Market Arcade could not have survived the past 14 years, and Diane Christian and I could not have done the Buffalo Film Seminars, were it not for the very serious work to keep the theater alive by Mike Clement, president of Dipson. A lot of silly, erroneous, and perhaps planted things appeared in those comments following Mark’s article. I read as many of them as I could take and then posted a comment of my own.

Two further comments before you read it. The first: one of the reporters who called me today about this sorry affair said Brendan R. Mehaffy, head of the city’s Office of Strategic Planning, told him we’d never offered a serious business plan for the theatre. That’s hearsay and I hope Mr Mehaffy didn’t say that, because we’ve been sending City Hall detailed business plans for the theater for three years. It just isn’t true. There is a detailed business plan, which Mike Clement of Dipson and Buffalo Place spent a lot of time preparing.

The second is this: the city regularly gives developers millions of dollars in tax breaks. It would cost the city only a few hundred thousand dollars to make the Market Arcade a totally viable, self-sustaining enterprise. In practical terms, there is no difference in the city giving a developer millions in tax breaks and the city giving a major resource what it needs to survive. Both have exactly the same effect on the city’s bottom line. A tax break and a check are functionally the same: the city deciding this is in our community’s interest, so let’s invest in it.

Keeping the Market Arcade alive requires only one thing: that the second floor of City Hall decide that Buffalo really should have a movie theatre downtown. If the mayor’s office decides the city could use a theatre like MAFAC, these problems will evaporate in a day. If it doesn’t, you’ll soon see condos and maybe a bar in the building where we’ve been showing movies.

Here’s my Buffalo News response to the vicious emails attacking Dipson:

The comments in this string attacking Dipson for problems with the Market Arcade are all silly-putty. Diane Christian and I have been doing the Buffalo Film Seminars at MAFAC for 15 years. For every year but the first, which was handled by Angelika in NYC who were total scoundrels, we’ve worked with Mike Clement of Dipson. We couldn’t have done any of this without Mike’s commitment to downtown Buffalo. Mike and Dipson aren’t our enemy, they aren’t predators, they aren’t villains. Mike as a person and Dipson and a corporation really care about what is going on here.

Neither Mike Clement nor Dipson has ever been part of the not-for-profit corporation that runs the theater. I am. I’m vice-chairman of the theater’s volunteer board. Mike and Dipson have worked with that volunteer board and they have done this city huge service.

The ONLY reason we haven’t been able to improve that theater in all these years is because City Hall didn’t care, because it didn’t think this kind of artistic complex in the heart of the city was worth as much as a new condo by the developer-de-jour. Every week, when Diane and I went down to do the Buffalo Film Seminars, we wondered if we’d encounter locked doors because the building was being converted to something else. We could never get a lease. No foundation could give us grants to improve the place if we couldn’t prove we’d be there a year hence. The City has refused to give the not-for-profit corporation a lease, so we’ve been unable to make any improvements. It’s that simple. Mike Clement has come up with one financial operating plan after another; they’ve all been met by dead silence.

It’s been bad for years, but now that film is almost gone, it’s critical. Mike Clement has sacrificed a lot of time, energy and money to keep the Market Arcade alive and going. The people who’ve attacked him here haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. If the City of Buffalo had cared about MAFAC half as much as Mike Clement we’d have a movie theater worthy as a partner of our friends across the street, Shea’s. We’d have a movie theater capable of serving all those people moving into all those city-underwritten condos. If the city put a fraction of the money into MAFAC as it has put into the condos (when it comes to the bottom line, a multi-million dollar tax exemption is no different than a multi-million dollar check), we’d have a theater that could serve us all, a theater of which we could be proud, a theater that could do its job. That’s what Mike, Diane, the working members of the Board, Buffalo place and I have been trying to do all these years. If the second floor of City Hall got that simple point, the City would be so much better for it.

Bruce Jackson
SUNY Distinguished Professor
Vice-chair, MAFAC Board of Directors


Film Review: Closed Circuit

closed_circuit

Somebody’s Watching You

Closed Circuit

It’s all in the timing. The British thriller Closed Circuit arrives in theaters at the perfect moment, for reasons both planned and accidental.

The former: after the usual summer menu of super heroes, apocalyptic misbehavior and other digitally devised scenarios, audiences who like their stories grounded in reality are starved for product. (Assuming they haven’t all migrated permanently to binge viewing of “Orange is the New Black” and “The Newsroom” in their living rooms.)

The latter: like Fruitvale Station, which opened wide the week of the George Zimmerman verdict, Closed Circuit features a premise, the ubiquity of government surveillance, at a time when Edward Snowden has us all debating that very subject.

It’s hardly the first film to take that up: anyone remember Sidney Lumet’s slick The Anderson Tapes from 1971, with Sean Connery as a thief planning to rob an apartment building without realizing that his every move is being unintentionally recorded by security cameras and FBI wiretaps? But at the risk of giving away too much, despite Closed Circuit’s title the issue of Big Brother watching us isn’t really central to the story, serving mostly to add some free-floating paranoia to what is basically a legal drama.

The film opens with London shaken by a bombing at a popular market, killing 120 people. MI5, the British security agency, quickly arrests a Muslim immigrant who was recorded near the market by security cameras. Because of what it claims are connections to other ongoing investigations, MI5 requests that certain parts of the evidence be presented secretly, unavailable to either the suspect or the public. (Bradley Manning, anyone?)

To represent the accused’s interests during presentation of that evidence, a special advocate is appointed, Claudia Simmons-Howe (Rebecca Hall). She is sworn to keep what she hears secret from everyone, even the suspect’s defense attorney Martin Rose (Eric Bana).

Wouldn’t you think someone tasked with making that appointment would have learned that Claudia and Martin had an affair a few years ago, one that broke up his marriage? If you do, you’re in the right frame of mind. This is the kind of film where what initially seem to be plot implausibilities can turn out to be clues. On the other hand, sometimes a clumsy story element is just that.

In short order, Martin and Claudia intuit that there is much more to this case than they’re being told. We of course realized that as soon as we heard that Martin’s predecessor unexpectedly killed himself: in movies like this, suicide is never simply suicide.

(Perspicacious viewers that we are, we also know that famous actors do not take small roles. If you see one in what appears to be a minor part, you can bet that he or she will be part of a third-act surprise.)

Written by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) and directed by John Crowley (Intermission), Closed Circuit proceeds like clockwork, with more efficiency than originality. It does what it does well enough, aided by a supporting cast of British actors who can make anything watchable—Jim Broadbent, Ciarán Hinds, Kenneth Cranham, Riz Ahmed (for once not playing the terrorist). Julia Stiles also shows up, presumably for the benefit of those American viewers who wouldn’t normally watch a British drama but will come to this because they think it’s anti-government. It’s not on a par with the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s, like The Parallax View. Still, even a modest entry in this genre is an unexpected treat in moviehouses these days.

 

Watch the trailer for Closed Circuit:


Local horror film The Legend of Six Fingers wrap production

Filed under: Uncategorized

News from occasional Artvoice contributor Greg Lamberson:

Principal photography has wrapped on The Legend of Six Fingers, the second feature from writer-director Sam Qualiana, in Royalton, New York. Qualiana, who stars in the film with local actor Andrew Elias, previously helmed Snow Shark: Ancient Snow Beast. Debbie Rochon and Lynn Lowry co-star in the found footage monster film, which was produced by Greg Lamberson (Slime City Massacre, Dry Bones) and executive produced by Michael Raso of Camp Motion Pictures.

Qualiana and Elias portray two amateur filmmakers documenting a string of animal slaughters in rural Royalton. They interview a farm couple (Lowry and newcomer Bill Brown) who tell them the Native American legend of “Ya Yahk Osnuhsa,” an apelike creature with three fingers on each hand. Generations ago, “Six Fingers” stalked settlers who invaded his land, until one settler agreed to keep people off the creature’s territory and to make animal offerings. The filmmakers set out to prove that Six Fingers exists and is responsible for the animal slayings, with terrifying results.

“We wrapped principle photography in just thirteen days,” says Qualiana, who shot the film in character. “I give credit to my cast and small crew for being on the ball each shoot day. I’ve been editing the film during down time, and I’m proud of what we have. People will laugh when they see the finished film, they’re going to sympathize with these characters and still get that taste of horror and gore. The monster is going to blow you away. We worked really hard to make this something fun.”

“This was a real smooth shoot,” adds Lamberson. “We came in on budget and ahead of schedule. We put together a solid cast and crew, and in the last year most of us have had a hand in Model Hunger, Return to Nuke ‘Em High, Battledogs, Dry Bones and now The Legend of Six Fingers. We’re trying to make Buffalo-Niagara the indie horror capital of the country, with smart movies made by hardworking, talented people.”

The Legend of Six Fingers will have its world premiere in Buffalo on September 26th, and a distribution deal will be announced soon.
sixfingers-green


The Food That America Eats: A culinary excursion to the Erie County Fair

For all of you  culture vultures, art hounds and foodies who turn up your noses at the idea of attending anything so plebian as the Erie County Fair, here’s what you’re missing by refusing to go out and rub elbows with the hoi polloi.

 

When you think of fair food, this is probably what comes to mind:

When you think of fair food, this is what probably comes to mind.

There’s plenty of that, but here’s what they’re lining up for:

IMG_20130810_191818

IMG_20130810_191849

I'm not sure if that's one item or two.

I’m not sure if that’s one item or two.

Well, it IS shark week.

Well, it IS shark week.

Bored with fried dough and funnel cakes?

I knew he’d get tired of eating at Subway sooner or later.

"New food"? It grows in the earth and never had a face - what a concept!

“New foods”? They grow in the earth and never had a face – what a concept!

Honestly, I'm less disturbed by the chocolate covered bacon than by the "fried bacon cinnamon roll," which sounds like it's trying to kill you in three different ways.

Honestly, I’m less disturbed by the chocolate covered bacon than by the “fried bacon cinnamon roll,” which sounds like it’s trying to kill you in three different ways. And wouldn’t “fried cookie dough” be a cookie?

IMG_20130810_192421

I really, really wanted to hang around to see who would order the fried butter, and if they would actually eat it. Fortunately, they can wash it down with the fried Kool-Aid.

And for dessert ...

And for dessert …

IMG_20130810_220640IMG_20130810_220518

Is there's anything they can't deep fry?

Is there anything they can’t deep fry?

Alright, that's just mean!

Alright, that’s just mean!

I can't imagine what this would even look like.

I can’t imagine what this would even look like …

deep fried Gummie bears

…but there are braver souls at the Fair than I.

When a taco just isn't enough of a challenge to your digestive tract.

When a taco just isn’t enough of a challenge to your digestive tract.

I was honestly disappointed to see that there wasn't really any ice cream in this.

I was honestly disappointed to see that there wasn’t really any ice cream in this.

Sorry, I just can't get over this.

Sorry, I just can’t get over this.

The tasty treat that turned the Pillsbury Dough Boy anorexic!

The tasty treat that turned the Pillsbury Dough Boy anorexic! (I assume it was the meth abuse than knocked out his teeth.)

What I wish I'd eaten instead of the tasteless Italian sausage and pepper sandwich I bought.

What I wish I’d eaten instead of the tasteless Italian sausage and pepper sandwich I bought – old habits die hard.

Of course, there’s more to do at the fair than just eat:
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IMG_20130810_222029

IMG_20130810_222008

IMG_20130810_222121

Do you think one in 100 passersby had any idea who these two were?

Do you think one in 100 passersby had any idea who these two were?

Sometimes a balloon isn't just a balloon.

Sometimes a balloon isn’t just a balloon.

Are they really trying to make fairgoers (in the grip, no doubt, of digestive shock) think that these garments are made from lion pelts?

Are they really trying to make fairgoers (in the grip, no doubt, of digestive shock) think that these garments are made from lion pelts?

nonfood freaks 4
nonfood freaks 5
nonfood freaks 6
nonfood turtle

But when all is said and done, there is, and e’er will be …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IMG_20130810_191849


North Park Theater to close

Dipson Theaters has announced that it will cease to operate the North Park Theater, multiple winner of the Artvoice reader’s poll for best local movie theater, as of June 6. It is not known at this time if the building’s owner will seek another operator or repurpose the building.

Here is Dipson’s statement.

“It is with deep sadness that Dipson Theatres Inc., is announcing that it will no longer be operating the North Park Theatre on Hertel Avenue effective June 6th, 2013. The North Park Theatre has been an historical single screen movie theatre in Buffalo since it opened in 1920. It has been an amazing experience to offer the City of Buffalo such history and richness on the big screen.
“Dipson Theatres President and Vice President, Michael Clement and Bryan Spokane, wish to thank all of their dedicated staff for their hard work and dedication over the years. They are especially grateful for Mr. Norm Dechert, who began his employment at the theater in 1966 and held the title of General Manager until 2013. The North Park and Norm go hand in hand.
“Dipson Theatres thanks its patrons for their support and dedication over the years. The success of a local business thrives on the support of the community and its patronage. The North Park wasn’t the big guy in town, but it sure felt like it in the day, and that is thanks to all the wonderful community members and their support.
“The North Park Theatre is a historical single screen movie theatre in Buffalo, New York. It has functioned as a cinema since it opened in 1920.
Originally called Shea’s North Park, the theatre, along with Shea’s Performing Arts Center, serves as a remnant of the now defunct Shea’s theatre chain, once owned by early twentieth century businessman Michael Shea. Its design by Henry Spann was influenced by the neoclassical movement. The auditorium features a proscenium above the screen and a 5-paneled recessed dome arched into the ceiling, both decorated with murals by Raphael Beck.
“In June 1998, the North Park held the world premiere of Buffalo ’66. This marked the first major film to premiere in Buffalo since The Natural opened in 1984. In attendance were Vincent Gallo, Christina Ricci, and Asia Argento.
“In the same city spirit, on Friday, May 31st, the North Park will release its final motion picture Queen City starring Vivica A. Fox and directed by Buffalo devotee Peter McGennis. The “North Park Farewell” will feature live blues from musical cast in attendance and opening night festivities will be filmed as bonus material for the future Queen City DVD & Soundtrack release paying respect to The North Park and other Buffalo landmarks. The event kicks off at 8:00 PM and tickets are $12.00.”

—M. Faust


Mike Leigh on NAKED, tonight at the Buffalo Film Seminar

Filed under: Uncategorized

Whoops! I got a week ahead of schedule and listed the wrong film for the Buffalo Film Seminars tonight. Instead of HEAVEN’S GATE (which will be playing next week), tonight’s movie is Mike Leigh’s epochal NAKED, by any standards one of the most memorable films of the 1990s and one that stands apart from the usual Leigh oeuvre.

Here’s my 1992 interview with Leigh, conducted by phone from London just prior to the film’s American release:

To hear him describe it, you’d think there was nothing unusual about the way filmmaker Mike Leigh works. “All I’m doing,” he says, “is what all writers do.”

Perhaps. But not all writers go to these lengths to develop characters. For each of the forty works he has created for television, theater and film (his newest film, the controversial “Naked,” opens Friday at the North Park theater), Leigh began with neither script nor story. Instead, he holds workshops with actors in which he and they discuss characters they’d like to develop.

This is followed by weeks, maybe months of research and improvisation. The characters come to life, as do the relationships among them; eventually a story emerges. By the time the cameras roll, Leigh has a tight script and a firm knowledge of what the film will be.

Until recently, the credit on his films read “Devised and directed by Mike Leigh.” He now uses the traditional “Written and directed by,” not because his method has changed but because he felt too much attention was being paid to that method at the expense of the films’ content.

At the beginning of this process, says the filmmaker by phone from his London home, “In one sense I have no idea what I’m going to do. But in another sense I’ve always got things on the go, ideas, feelings and passions. My movies aren’t so much about specific things as about my continuous, ongoing preoccupations, which mainly come down to life and living.

“I like to mix the creative activity with the rehearsal process because I like to involve the actors. But I don’t form a committee where we sit around and discuss what the film’s going to be about or anything – it remains my authorial preogative.”

However they come about, Leigh’s films are extraordinary humanistic depictions of ordinary lives. Sometimes they’re sad, sometimes funny; more often, they’re both at the same time.

After years of making acclaimed films for British television (long the only avenue available to independent British filmmakers), Leigh began to attract international attention in 1988 with “High Hopes,” a biting satire of life in Mrs. Thatcher’s England. “Life is Sweet” (1990), named Best Picture of the year by the National Society of Film Critics, was (despite the cloying title) a remarkably shaded and touching portrait of an urban family.

If “Life is Sweet” recapitulates the best of Leigh’s previous work, his new film moves into unexpected new areas. The most surprising, mesmerizing and powerful film of 1993, “Naked” features a tremendous performance by David Thewlis as Johnny, a self-destructive drifter wandering the streets of London. Alternately hateful and charismatic, Johnny is a brilliant young man with no place in the world, whose only goal is to spread the bleakness in his soul to the various unmoored people he encounters.

Leigh, who recently turned fifty, has always based his films from his own current position in life. “Naked” expresses his concern about the world that his teenaged children will inherit, and it’s not a pretty picture: this is a movie about people racing toward the Apocalypse.

“Overall, yes, there are many things we have need to be pessimistic about. The future is very much in that territory,” he feels. “But while I may be a pessimist about the future, at the same time I’m an optimist about people, and there are elements of compassion, even of love, lurking about in `Naked.’ The film has to be seen in terms of people’s potential – the waste of intelligence and of talent, but also the potential.”

“Naked” can be a highly unsettling experience because of its contradictions. Johnny is witty, intelligent and charismatic, but he is also grungy and abusive (the film opens with one of several scenes of sexual violence or rape). Shot mostly at night, the film renders bleak urban settings eerily gorgeous. (In every way – photography, lighting, composition, design, editing – it is a visually striking, even seductive film). “Naked” is all questions and no answers. But, like Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” the questions it poses are difficult and important.

Despite receiving top awards at film festivals from Cannes (Best Director and Best Actor) to Toronto (where the international press picked it over “The Piano”), “Naked” has caused a furor at home. The usually supportive London critics came down hard on Leigh, calling his film everything from misogynistic (a charge he hotly denies) to a “feel-bad film.”
Noting that American and European critics have been much more positive, Leigh is “never surprised when they’re negative in the UK. It’s a British habit – or an English habit, I should say.”

But he does understand why “Naked” may throw even some of his staunchest fans. “It’s not my normal habit to be enigmatic, whereas this film has quite a lot of unexplained elements. Normally in my films you know exactly who everyone is and why they’re there and all the rest of it. But this one is very elliptical – you don’t know who people are exactly, or why they’re where they are – everybody’s where they don’t belong. Which is what life now is like.

“Yes, I like to surprise and shock and confront and audience – I think a film is dull and boring if you know exactly what’s going to happen or where you are all the time. But not in a gratuitous or tricky way – it’s fairly organic and germane.”

Although Leigh has been making films in England since 1971, it is only recently that what he calls “the stuff” has been seen in the United States. After the success of “High Hopes” and “Life is Sweet,” a package of his television films toured this country to critical acclaim and box office success, a response that pleases him enormously but doesn’t entirely surprise him.

“For years people told me, your stuff will never work in the States – people won’t understand it because it’s so British. But it has worked, and I think it’s because the stuff is not in fact about matters British at all. Without wanting to be pompous, it’s about universal matters, being born and dying and relationships, sex and marriage and love and hate and food and all these other things.”

And even though some of these films that we’re seeing for the first time are nearly twenty years old, Leigh still feels close to them. “I make very, very personal films in a very personal way. Every one of them represents a year or a year and a half’s work. All of them came into the world with some sort of traumatic birth pains. So I do feel very strongly about them, and very passionate.”




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