Saturday, July 9, 2011

Interview with Adam Nayman (On Love Em or Hate Em: MORE Controversial Directors)

In anticipation of Adan Nayman’s newest series of classes Love Em or Hate Em: MORE Controversial Directors, I decided to take the opportunity to meet up with the guy to ask him a few questions. In this new series there will be lectures on Lars von Trier on Monday July 11th, Michael Haneke on Monday July 18th, Luis Buñuel on Monday July 25th and Woody Allen on August 8th. All of the classes start at 7PM and are at Miles Nadal JCC (750 Spadina Avenue). – D.D.

Toronto Film Review : So Adam why these particular directors?

Adam Nayman : The first course seemed to go well, and I felt that the idea of talking about challenging filmmakers was still appealing to me. So I asked around about some other directors who might fit into this class, and Lars von Trier's name kept coming up, plus he was in the news at the time because of what he said at Cannes. And then from there, I thought that it would be good to pick some filmmakers who were a little less famous than the ones I did last time: Verhoeven, Cronenberg and Polanski are all artists who moved from the margins to the mainstream (less so Catherine Breillat). Buñuel is of course famous but maybe not to a non cinephile audience. Michael Haneke is well known and his films are polarizing but he's someone who people might want to learn more about. As for Woody Allen, he's more mainstream but in some ways he's a guy who begs to be considered as a kind of European art-house auteur even though he's American. I think that the throughline between all four filmmakers is that there are elements of satire and absurdity in their work -- all expressed very differently of course.

TFR : Buñuel is the one director out of the four that I am least familiar with. I remember seeing his Las Hurdes at the Cinémathèque québécoise in Montreal. I was just wondering how many of his 34 titles have you seen? Are they available on DVD? I know Criterion Collection has released a few of them. And have you gone over his autobiography My Last Sigh? I remember Jonathan Rosenbaum was telling us that in the editing process from French to English that the editor was conspicuously editing things out; I wonder what he actually removed?

AN : I can't speak to the differences in the translations. That's something that Jonathan Rosenbaum would know more about then I do. And there's no lack of critical writing on Buñuel, but one of the things I want to work against is the idea that he mellowed as he got older -- that his late pictures are the work of a less strident filmmaker. For me, films like The Phantom of Liberty, Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire are still examples of an artist challenging himself and his audience, right to the end. As for whether I've seen all of his films; I can't count offhand, but probably not.

TFR : I think Woody Allen is just great! And I am especially fond of his latest films, did you know that both You will meet a tall dark stranger and Midnight in Paris made the cover of Positif, which is not an easy task. And it is interesting to note that Richard Brody, one of the biggest Woody Allen partisans along with Eric Lax, sees the Barbara Kopple documentary Wild Man Blues (1997) as the beginning of his late period. Allen also excels at fiction; there is a big database over at The New Yorker of his collected work; I particularly recommend Udder Madness. Which brings me to how I like that you bring up his fictional writing in your review of Midnight in Paris. One of my favorites of his short stories is Fabrizio’s: Criticism and Response from Side Effects. Have you read that one? It is about a high-minded restaurant critic who writes these elaborate criticism and responses about restaurant food profiles, and in the process undermines the jargon of analysis:
“I began my meal with an antipasto, which at first appeared aimless, but as I focused more on the anchovies the point of it became clearer. Was Spinelli [the chef at the restaurant in question; Fabrizio’s Villa Nova Restaurant] trying to say that all life was represented here in this antipasto, with the black olives an unbearable reminder of mortality? If so, where was the celery? Was the omission deliberate? At Jacobelli’s the antipasto consists solely of celery. But Jacobelli is an extremist. He wants to call our attention to the absurdity of life. Who can forget his scampi: four garlic-drenched shrimp arranged in a way that says more about our involvement in Vietnam than countless books on the subject?”
Anyways, what themes are you going to highlight in your WA class?

AN : Yes, I like that essay, among others in Side Effects. Like Polanski, Allen’s films are not overtly transgressive (although I rewatched Husbands and Wives last night and was shocked by how raw it was). He does not craft extreme images. The controversy stems from his private life and the possibility that his films -- especially the ones in the 1990s -- are autobiographical. Polanski used to deny that sort of thing, and Allen doesn't encourage it, but it seems plain. I feel like Allen makes movies as a form of therapy -- like Lars von Trier -- but he seems to get less out of it; he has the same hangups and phobias as he did forty years ago. If you want to put it positively, you can say he's consistent; if you want to be negative you can say he's redundant.

TFR : Once when you and Andrew Tracy were in the, he picked up Screening Modernism and was saying that since the book had a blurb from David Bordwell that it was reason enough to buy it. I bring this up because there are some critics that I hardly see make these kind of blurbs. For example, there is Dave Kehr, out of all of my DVDS his name is only on two of them: James Cameron’s Ghosts of the Abyss and Lars von Trier’s The Boss of It All. Though his DVD reviews for the New York Times are great as well he highlights books sometimes on his personal website. I bring this up as I have noticed your name only once on a DVD and it is on the Canadian film Six Figures. Are you quoted on any other DVDs? What is it about supporting these quality under-exposed Canadian films that you like?

: I have been quoted before on DVD boxes, sure. and I even wrote the liner notes for Sergei Dvortsevoy's film Tulpan (2008). Pull quotes can be funny to be read, and I've had my name on films I'm not sure I'd stand by now -- like the 2001 Canadian drama Treed Murray -- but it's not really an important thing one way or the other. On the other hand, I think it's great when critics get to write liner notes or essays for DVD releases, like my friend Mark Peranson’s text for the Pedro Costa Letters from Fontainhas Criterion box set and Michael Koresky’s pieces on The Actuality Dramas of Allan King Eclipse box-set. It’s not the format that most people usually look for penetrating criticism but they can be a wonderful supplement to the features on the disc. I think that Kent Jones has written better DVD booklet notes than most critics have ever written good film reviews. And I would rather read a pull-quote blurb by Dave Kehr then an entire review by Peter Travers.

TFR : Michael Haneke. That guy is controversial. I was blown away the first time I discovered Cinema Scope. It was an issue dedicated to the Cannes Film Festival and there was only one sentence (!) dedicated to the Palme d’Or winner The White Ribbon. What I got from that was the position that sometimes the movies that are the most interesting are not the ones getting the main prizes at film festivals. What are your thoughts on Haneke?

AN : What I think Mark was getting at there, in his inimitable style, is that Haneke is a little old to be an enfant terrible. Though he always was a little too old. The Seventh Continent and Funny Games were films made by a guy in his forties, even though they feel more adolescent and even a bit snotty. You would picture their maker as a punk like Gaspar Noé rather than an older Austrian intellectual. I think Haneke has had that paradoxical thing happen to him where the more acknowledged his talents have become by the critical establishment, the less certain kinds of anti-establishment critics want to go the bat for him. I would say that I think he's one of the more brilliant contemporary directors in terms of composition, pacing, sustaining tone and staging acts of violence. He’s a born film director. Even The White Ribbon, which I didn't really want to write about either, there's more filmmaking savvy than in 90% of whatever came out that year. But it's also very much of a piece with his old work, thematically, and if someone finds his style didactic, there's nothing in the new movie that's going to change their mind. If a critic like Mark, or anyone else, found the didactic qualities of his old films unforgiving back then there is nothing that’s going to change their mind.

TFR : Do you recommend any particular film books relating to the directors in this series? I really tried to get you the Director’s Cut book on von Trier.

AN : Linda Badley 's book on von Trier in the Contemporary Film Directors series is good. She does not mythologize the guy, partially because he does that already himself. It's incisive analysis without a ton of jargon. The book on Woody Allen in the Masters of Cinema series is atrocious; it feels like the copy-editor was so bored that he stopped catching errors by the end, and I am not a fan of film books that you can read in 8 minutes. One of my favourite pieces on Haneke is a very negative short take by Nick Pinkerton at Reverse Shot, who describes him as the kind of guy who could not watch someone enjoy a steak without mentioning the abattoir. At the other end though there is Robin Wood, who was one of Haneke’s best champions. I do like the Directors Cuts series, even if I didn't use it for this class; the Spielberg book in the series is good, it made me think that in possible future iterations of this class that I could maybe focus on supposedly uncontroversial directors. I'd point to Spielberg as someone who's actually sort of complicated.

TRF : On von Trier, do you take his films seriously or do you see a kind of snarky derision in them to both the characters and the stories? I saw some black humor in Antichrist which I liked even thoughhe was always putting his characters through the most unbearable situations where things could not have gotten worst.

AN : I think in summation that Lars is funny. I think that snarky is only half of it. And I think that it is rare that his films end up on the side of snark. It is a weapon in his arsenal, and he is so good at it that people think his films are only snarky and mean. Re-watching Breaking the Waves or Dogville or Antichrist, I think that it is superficial to dismiss them as essentially mean-spirited. One of the things that I have come to think about Lars is the characters in his films that get punished are the ones he feels closer, whereas Haneke like to pummel people he has contempt for. A film like Antichrist would be unbearable if the film took Willem Dafoe’s point of view, but it has the courage, or the craziness, or both to align itself with Charlotte Gainsbourg even in her worst moments. Von Trier identifies with her character and how incredibly infuriating it is for her to be told how to feel and how to think by someone that is condescendingly trying to help her.

TRF : You got a Masters in Film Studies at the University of Toronto, right? I want to eventually do my Masters there and I was wondering a bit about their program and what are your thoughts of it?

AN : I loved their one-year program, even though I do not consider myself to be an academic as I have and will continue to work as a film-critic. They have a great faculty there: Bart Testa, Rob King, Nicholas Sammond and Corin Columpar are all terrific. Any graduate or under-graduate student would be lucky to study with them, listen to them and be listened to by them. I don’t know if it is true of all graduate film programs, but U of T offered a lot of space for students to contribute and lead the discussion. For anyone who might be reading this from outside of Toronto, getting a film degree in a city where there are so many films to see is a good idea. Toronto is the kind of city where you can get a film education in class or in your spare time, and if you combine both things, you will be in good shape.

TFR : When Stéphane Delorme became the editor of Cahiers late in 2009, he asked himself, what is the point of a film magazine today? The answer was simple: movies make you speak. As someone interested in films, it is always interesting to hear what other people have to say. So there are tons of books to read. What I like about your classes is that they offer the information and perspective you can find in a book but there is a more human and communal quality to them as you are there engaging with people. There is something comforting about being in that JCC room with other like-minded individuals; kind of like the feeling of acceptance in Role Models with that nerdy teenager and Paul Rudd reuniting for the medieval role-playing combat. Anyways, where I was going, can you tell me about your method of putting the classes together?

AN : I love the idea that you compared my class to L.A.I.R.E. from Role Models. I can only hope that in one of my classes I can ask the probing question: "Who the fuck is Marvin Hamlisch?" I really do try to leave space for people to chat and contribute, though I don’t think I was too good at it in the first series of lectures on contemporary New Waves in World cinema, as there was just too much information to impart in two hours. I think people attending a class on polarizing directors are already coming with an opinion and in this cycle I will try and let people assert how they feel, too.

TRF : I’ve read your writing in The Grid (formely Eye Weekly), Cinema Scope, Cineaste and Reverse Shot. And I recently saw a couple of articles pop up at the Museum of Moving Images and Project: New Cinephilia (am I missing anything?); where you wrote about the Toronto classes that you give, can you elaborate on this segment:
“The challenge, as I see it, is to retain my critical voice without alienating the uninitiated. A drop-in course is very different from a university curriculum, and it’s better to err on the side of accessibility than elitism — to encourage cinephilia rather than assume it. It’s a fine line between consolidating one’s critical authority and talking down to an audience, and the adjustment of that tone is an ongoing process. Nobody likes to feel lectured to, even when they’re attending something explicitly billed as a lecture; my goal was to make my points and leave plenty of room for group discussion. At the same time, the idea of a total free-for-all cheapened the idea that I was facilitating some kind of relevant film education.”
AN : There should be balance. It's about the sweet spot between having authority and being accommodating. I would rather a self-described cinephile feel a little bored then a less experienced and curious newcomer be alienated.

TFR : I remember in the last series it seemed like a big issue for you was staying within the two-hours time spot. Its weird, the lectures were generally thorough, wouldn’t cut anything from them, but they generally went over the time limit. I know that you just got a teaching position at Ryerson giving a class on documentaries. Are you going to be stricter on the time limit in this series? And how do you think these classes will prepare you to be a professor in the classroom?

AN : Yeah, I felt bad that a couple of classes went over, though it felt good that people did not mind as the classes are rather informal. It’s not nice to feel like anyone’s eyes are on the clock. But if I'm slow people can tell me to hurry up!

TRF : On a final note, what do you hope people take from these classes?

AN : A sense that their twelve dollars are not wasted. Or a desire to learn more about the films and filmmakers discussed. I'm not trying to have the last word on anything; I like starting a discussion.

TRF : Kaz and Dan from MDFF films first told me about your New Waves class, which I am grateful for, and now you moved onward to two Controversial Directors and then there will be Stanley Kubrick series. I’ve met some cool people there like Marc Saint-Cyr, Natalie Killick, Kiva Reardon and James McNally. I know that we all look forward to this new series!

1 comment:

James said...

Nice work David. I'm not sure how much more popular I want Adam's classes to become since I like the small seminar vibe so much, but I expect Adam wouldn't mind having a few more paying customers.

See you tomorrow night!