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By Joe Bendel. Something as profoundly traumatic as the Cultural Revolution cannot simply be papered over. It hangs over the national psyche, like a malevolent ghost. As much as present day China embraces globalism and crony capitalism, the excesses of the Mao years still have a bearing on it. Indeed, it is part of the internal contradictions Bo Wang analyzes in his documentary-essay China Concerto, which screens as part of MoMA’s 2013 Documentary Fortnight.

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A film of observation and rumination, Concerto has a pseudo-epistolary structure, featuring a woman’s disembodied voice reading a man’s dispatches from China. The writer is not a passive viewer, having trained himself to dissect imagery and look for the telling details nobody is supposed to notice. He is in the right place for it. Aside from the movie clips and newscast excerpts incorporated for illustrative purposes, Concerto was almost entirely shot in Chongqing, the China’s version of Chicago. While Bo Wang was shooting, Bo Xilai’s neo-Maoist “Red Culture” campaign was in full swing, but the Chongqing party secretary would soon be removed after the Wang Lijun scandal brought international media attention to rumors of extensive corruption.

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He certainly captured images that are both striking and ironic. Perhaps his richest vein of material is the park where viewers witness couples dancing under a model of Mount Rushmore and an elderly man reclining near a Statue of Liberty. Yet, tucked away, there is also a cemetery dedicated exclusively to Red Guards that remains padlocked and shunned. According to the woman’s tantalizingly vague narration, it seems many of those interned were involved in an incident of cannibalism, which has since been consigned to the memory hole. One suspects this park could easily be the subject of an entire documentary feature.

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It is absolutely fascinating to watch Concerto apply the techniques of deconstruction to official state propaganda. The stand-in for the filmmaker’s stand-in explicitly argues that China’s obsession with spectacle is intended to mask and empower it Communist rulers. It also offers trenchant analysis of the capitalism promoted by the state, a mutation described as “collective capitalism,” in contrast to the western individualistic variety. The implications for the individual in Chinese society are obvious. That is one reason the correspondent always focuses on a single individual when watching sprawling propaganda pageants.

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Indeed, Concerto’s concern for the overwhelmed individual is rather noble, in a genuinely subversive way. As if its indie bona fides needed more burnishing, China Concerto holds the distinction of being a selection of the 2012 Beijing Independent Film Festival, which was shutdown not once, but three times by the government. This is a film that simply encourages audiences to think, but some might find that threatening. Highly recommended for sophisticated viewers, China Concerto screens during MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight this Wednesday (2/20) and Thursday (2/21), with the director present for Q&A both nights. For Georgians, it also screens March 27th at Kennesaw State and March 28th at Emory, as part of the well curated Independent Chinese Film Series.


Posted on February 18th, 2013 at 2:48pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Tzvetanka Gosheva was an oncology specialist forbidden to tell her patients they had cancer. This is how medicine was practiced in Bulgaria during the Soviet era. It wasn’t pretty. Gosheva endured the horrors of war and subsequent absurdities of Communist oppression, living to tell the tale to her filmmaker grandson Youlian Tabakov in Tzvetanka, which screens again today as a selection of MoMA’s 2013 Documentary Fortnight.

Born in 1926 to a prosperous shop-owner, Gosheva’s family would carry the “Bourgeoisie” label like an albatross during the Communist years. While she recalls vivid memories of the bombings, her real experiences with terror began post-war when her father was picked up for a “brief interrogation.” Despite eventually having both parents branded class enemies and sentenced to labor camps, Gosheva somehow was admitted to university. She wanted medical studies but was initially accepted as an English student, which seems doubly ironic given her suspect background, but that was how the Socialist system worked.

Gosheva passed away in the late 2000’s, but she obviously left behind an extensive oral history and some surprisingly playful footage (sometime bordering on the surreal). Tabakov does not take a traditional talking head approach. Instead, he creates impressionistic imagery to accompany his grandmother’s recollections. Sometimes they are rather whimsical, but probably the most striking visual is the blood droplets turning into a crimson rain (not unlike the original Shining trailer) that perfectly fit her discussion of the post-war purges and show trials her parents were caught up in.

At times, Tabakov really pushes the hipster envelope with his post-modern visual style. However, he always gives Gosheva her full say, which ultimately keeps the film grounded in reality. Viewers quickly learn to appreciate her resiliency and keen powers of observation. She makes no secret of her contempt for the so-called “former Communists,” whom she calls out for deliberately undermining Bulgarian democracy. Bulgaria will miss her, even if most of her countrymen do not realize it.

At least Tabakov has preserved her memory and her spirit. His Tzvetanka might be a bit eccentric as eulogies go, but avoiding the maudlin seems perfectly in keeping with its subject. Recommended for students of the Soviet era as well as those fascinated by intensely personal family histories, Tzvetanka screens again this afternoon (2/18) as part of MoMA’s Documentary Fortnight.


Posted on February 18th, 2013 at 2:47pm.

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By Joe Bendel. Boris Pasternak’s epic novel Doctor Zhivago was banned, denounced, and was a major factor leading to the Nobel Prize for Literature he was forced to decline. It was also a love story. Unfortunately, the woman who inspired Pasternak faced the full force of the Communist Party’s wrath, to an even greater extent than her more famous lover. Their romance and its legacy also inspired Scott C. Sickles’ play Lightning from Heaven, which officially opened this weekend at the Main Stage Theater in New York.

Set in various cells in the Lubyanka, Lightning is told in flashbacks during Olga Ivinskaya’s many KGB interrogation (torture) sessions. Sadly, she is no stranger to the place. A literary editor by profession, Ivinskaya had more in common with Pasternak than his wife Zinaida. However, as the daughter of a moderately high ranking military officer, Madame Pasternak was able to protect her husband when he publicly spoke out against Stalin.

Of course, the publication of Zhivago was another matter entirely. Zinaida is quite certain she is not Lara. After all, the two fictional lovers never married. Nor is the Party pleased with Pasternak’s portrayal of the Revolution and the subsequent purges, so they target his greatest vulnerability: his mistress-muse Ivinskaya. In order to discredit the late Pasternak and his masterpiece, Vladilen Alexanochkin, the “good cop” KGB agent, engages in a cat-and-mouse game with the sleep-deprived Ivinskaya. Either she will renounce Pasternak and Zhivago, or she will proclaim herself the illicit inspiration for Lara.

From "Lightning from Heaven."

In a way, Lightning is like the historical forebear of the dystopian television show The Prisoner, with the question “are you Lara” replacing “why did you resign,” except it is very definitely based on fact. Sickles alters a detail here and there for dramatic purposes, but he is more faithful to history than David Lean’s great film was to Pasternak’s source novel. It is a smart, deeply literate play, driven by the conflict between individual artistic integrity and the collectivist state. Perhaps most touching are the scenes deliberately echoing Zhivago in which Pasternak and Ivinskaya find beauty in the increasingly drab, dehumanized Soviet world about them.

Jed Dickson resembles the Robert Frost-ish Pasternak that appeared on Time Magazine enough to look credible in the part. More importantly, he really expresses Pasternak’s poetic sensibilities. As a private citizen, Pasternak made some problematic choices, but Dickson makes them understandable, beyond the self-centeredness of the creative class (though there is that as well).

Likewise, Kari Swenson Riely is more than a mere victim of the Communist thought police, although she is certainly convincing enduring the KGB’s physical and emotional torments. She develops a comfortable romantic chemistry with Dickson’s Pasternak that is quite moving in an almost chaste way. Yet, when her character stands on principles, she makes it feel genuine and profound, rather than didactic (like, say, a character from Soviet propaganda). It is also important to note the work of Mick Bleyer as Alexanochkin, who keeps the audience consistently off-balance in satisfyingly ambiguous ways.

Perhaps the only historical figure getting short-changed in Lightning is Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, who ruptured his relationship with the Italian Communist Party by publishing Zhivago. He comes across a bit caricatured here, but that is a trifling complaint. Lightning is big idea production, rendered in intimately personal terms. It also boasts an admirably professional cast that continued on like troopers even when a freak accident in the audience forced an unusually long intermission Friday night. Highly recommended for fans of historical drama or Zhivago in any of its incarnations, the Workshop Theater Company’s production of Lightning from Heaven runs through March 9th at the Main Stage Theater on 36th Street.

Posted on February 18th, 2013 at 2:44pm.

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Feb 182013

From "The Jeffrey Dahmer Files."

By Joe Bendel. The Milwaukee police did some of their best and worst work on the Dahmer case. It will take decades for the department to live down the shame and notoriety stemming from the revelation that two officers returned one of Dahmer’s under-aged victims to him, effectively abetting in his murder. Yet, through the efforts of the arresting officer and the medical examiner, all of Dahmer’s horribly mutilated victims were eventually identified. The cop, the M.E., and an oblivious neighbor revisit the serial killer and the circumstances surrounding his crimes in Chris James Thompson’s documentary The Jeffrey Dahmer Files (trailer here), which began a week of midnight screenings Friday in New York at the IFC Center.

When Pat Kennedy dragged Dahmer into the station, he was only aware of the severed head he saw in the suspect’s refrigerator. Winning his trust, Kennedy convinced Dahmer to waive his right to an attorney and start talking. Initially, though, the cop doubted the sanity and truthfulness of the stories he was hearing, until word reached him of the grisly remains discovered throughout Dahmer’s apartment.

Wisely, Files never invites viewers to sympathize with Dahmer. Was he abused as a child? Who cares? Instead, we find ourselves empathizing with Kennedy, who became disturbed and angry with himself for feeling some limited sympathy for Dahmer, simply through the time he spent in close proximity to the murderer. That is human nature. Arguably, the dynamics were similar for his relationship with his neighbor Pamela Bass. She was on friendly terms with Dahmer, even sharing food with him (including a sandwich she now wishes she never touched), even though alarming smells were emanating from his apartment.

From "The Jeffrey Dahmer Files."

It is possible most of the material in Files will be intimately familiar to compulsive Investigation Discovery viewers. Yet, along with the facts of the case, scrupulously presented without sensationalism, Thompson gets at some very real aspects of human nature. Bass, who evidently waged her own battles with the law and addiction in the early 1990’s, demonstrates the ever so human tendency towards deliberate myopia and self-deception. Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen (the film’s other Jeffrey) is an authoritative screen presence, but he forthrightly discusses how he emotionally divorced himself from the gruesome business of murder investigations. Kennedy would learn that lesson the hard way, readily admitting he was initially caught up in his sudden celebrity status as the “Dahmer cop” and then rather bereft by the precipitous end to such an intense and all-encompassing experience.

Despite the dramatic re-enactments of Dahmer going about his suspicious-in-retrospect daily routine (featuring co-writer Andrew Swant, who is quite a convincing cold fish as the title serial killer), Files never feels lurid or exploitative. It is a fascinating story, well paced by Thompson. By the standards of most contemporary docs, it is also quite cinematic. Thompson and cinematographer Michael T. Vollmann clearly took the time to deliberately frame their shots and create their visuals, rather than just tossing together some talking heads with a grab bag of archival footage. Recommended for both art-house doc watchers and true crime audiences, The Jeffrey Dahmer Files opened Friday (2/15) in New York. It was a day late for Valentine’s, but most New Yorkers wait to celebrate when restaurants return to their normal menu prices, so here’s your dinner and a movie suggestion.


Posted on February 18th, 2013 at 2:42pm.

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