Cinemascope, in English

In 1998-1999 I wrote for “Maariv” from New York. At that time I also dabbled a bit  with writing for “Time Out New York”. Here, for example, is an interview with a filmmaker I adore.

Interview

Poetry in motion

Oscar cutup Chuck Workman applies his quick-edit finesse to the Beat Generation

By Yair Raveh

Chuck Workman isn’t a household name, but the filmmaker’s creations are certainly familiar: His funny, often moving compilation montages have opened ten Academy Awards telecasts. This week, Workman, who already has one documentary feature under his belt, continues to branch out from his gun-for-hire editing work with his second feature-length nonfiction effort, an exhaustive documentary about the Beat Generation called The Source.

?From many years of directing commercials and editing trailers—including the original teasers for Star Wars and American Graffiti—Workman honed his unique ability to condense volumes of films into six or seven mind-boggling minutes. It was one of these compilation films, a Directors Guild commission called Precious Images, that earned him his own Oscar
in 1987. (Curiously, Workman’s award was in the live-action short category, not the documentary short category. “The documentary committee didn’t think it was a documentary,” Workman says. “Actually, I didn’t think it was a documentary either. I thought it was a piece of video art, an abstract piece. So we put it in the live-action category and they accepted it.”) Workman went on to earn a CableACE Award for the HBO special The First 100 Years, which documented the history of motion pictures, and also applied his trademark blink-and-you-miss-it technique to the popular 1997 Mad About You compilation episode.

?In his follow-up to the 1991 documentary Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol, which examined the personal and creative worlds of the artist, Workman reaches further back in time with The Source, exploring the groundbreaking 1950s literary movement, dubbed the Beat Generation. Workman’s style is kinetic: He compiles and mixes new interviews with a plethora of archival material, blending them into a new and dynamic linear narrative. The result is a pop version of documentary filmmaking, a sort of profound cinematic jigsaw puzzle. “I force you to look at the image,” he says. “I believe that the essence of the shot is its content. I deal in images in order to get across a subtext that may not be the story itself.”

?The story of The Source is nothing less than the history of the Beat literary movement and its primary players: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Beginning when the three writers met in the late ’40s, the film traces their direct and indirect influence on literature, film and music. The documentary also proposes the charismatic but debatable notion that the Beats gave rise to most anything radical that followed (the film implies that once Ginsberg went Buddhist, everyone else followed).

?To help introduce the audience to the literary achievements of the Beat triumvirate—and to allow much-needed breaks from the film’s dense visual assault—Workman includes dramatic readings: John Turturro gives us Ginsberg, Dennis Hopper delivers Burroughs’s eloquent ramblings, and Johnny Depp (shot at L.A.’s Viper Room) recites Kerouac. “In a film dealing with writers,” Workman explains, “I needed to let the audience know what they wrote. I don’t care if those scenes break up the pace of the film.” (And, naturally, a little star power never hurt
a documentary.)

?The complex and rich family tree that Workman constructs makes the Beats, whom Gen Y folk might consider passé, seem surprisingly relevant and very much alive. Sadly, over the five years it took Workman to make the film, Ginsberg, Burroughs and Timothy Leary all died. From a filmmaking perspective, though, Workman views their passing as an asset. “It only made [The Source] more poignant and sentimental,” he says. “When I used to teach documentary filmmaking, I’d say that the best thing that can happen to you is if you make a documentary about a person and he gets shot, because then you have an end. Look at The Times of Harvey Milk.

?That might read a little grim, but The Source remains unmistakably enjoyable. Still, Workman’s dense visual style is quite demanding of the viewer. “I’m looking for a more intelligent audience, one that is more aware,” Workman insists. But what about the audience for the Oscar telecast? “Yeah, it isn’t the most intelligent audience, is it? I guess I trust my films to work for a general audience because of the experience of [doing the clips for] the Oscars. [In the Oscar compilations,] the subject matter and the connections between the shots are subtler but the style is the same. It’s dynamic editing where images and scenes are colliding with each other, forcing you to create a synthesis.”

?Superstar and The Source form a synthesis of their own, bookending the social changes that occurred between the ’50s and the ’80s. Workman agrees, saying, “The big explosion of gay nightlife in the late ’70s and ’80s that Andy was certainly the leader of probably came out of the Beats. In fact, I met Allen Ginsberg when I did the Warhol movie.” But Workman also reveals a personal link between his films. “There’s definitely a connection [between the Beats and Warhol] and that is what interested me in both of them. They all had one foot in popular culture and the other in serious art. That’s something I identify with. I want my art to be taken seriously, but I also want to be involved with the Oscar show. I don’t have the lifestyle of these people—I’m not gay and I didn’t take a lot of drugs—but I share the same kind of dichotomy they did.”

The Source is now playing at Film Forum. See Also Review.

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And here, from an April 99′ issue of the magazine, is a review of one of my all-time favorite movies which was re-released in Manhattan at the time:

Review

8 1/2

Dir. Federico Fellini. 1963. N/R. 138mins. In Italian, with subtitles. Marcello Mastroianni, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo, Claudia Cardinale.

Thirty-six years after its initial release, 8 1/2 may seem uncannily familiar even to those who have never seen it, since Federico Fellini’s 1963 masterpiece remains one of the most influential films ever made. Explicit references to it crop up in everything from Nikita Mikhalkov’s Black Eyes and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories to Jake Scott’s video for R.E.M’s “Everybody Hurts,” and more subtle echoes appear in hundreds of films dealing with acute artistic impotence; 8 1/2 has left an impact on world cinema second only to that of Citizen Kane.

?A nonlinear narrative shot in magnificent black and white by Gianni Di Venanzo, the film follows the spiraling downfall of Guido (Mastroianni, in his most subtle performance), a film director who, after suffering a nervous breakdown, retreats to a resort clinic where he unsuccessfully tries to pull his life, and his next film, together. Beset by demands from his vulgar mistress (Milo), who’s shacked up in a nearby hotel, his unloving wife (the delectable Aimée), and his producer and writer, who bully him to finish the film (he never does), Guido is a wreck. Unable to create, he immerses himself in childhood memories and sexual fantasies in which he is a whip-snapping harem master. Indeed, the suffocating strength of this film, its power to drown the audience in its hero’s dilapidated existence, lies in its unorthodox free-form structure.

?Having suffered such a breakdown himself after the success of La Dolce Vita, Fellini turned to 8 1/2 and came away with his most personal film. The title refers to Fellini’s own filmography—this was his eighth and a half film (including shorts)—and serves as a midcareer meditation. Guido’s memories are mostly the director’s own, and the fantasies are vintage Fellini, particularly the mother-lover-whore view of women.

?From the opening scenes of Guido trapped in a nightmarish traffic jam to the cathartic finale, in which he leads his cast in a congalike dance to Nino Rota’s glorious score, 8 1/2 is a surreal, absurd and existential cinematic feat that begs to be seen over and over. As masterpieces go, this is as big as they come. (Opens Fri; see Index for venues.)—Yair Raveh