Thursday, January 17, 2019

Best and Worst Films of 1999

Here's a list I found of the best and worst films of 1999. Beau Travail, Rosetta, and The Wind Will Carry Us wouldn't make their way to me until 2000. No clue why my fave Jarmusch (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai) is missing. Kikujiro would probably top the list today. I still loathe the moralizing final third of Eyes Wide Shut but the rest hypnotizes (the grain! the performances! the dorky sex castle! Xmas!). * means I remember not a damn thing about it.

1. Crazy in Alabama (Antonio Banderas)
2. Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Julio Medem) - This is listed with This Is My Father (Paul Quinn) but all I remember about the latter is a cameo by John Cusack as a pilot. 
3. Amerikanos (Christos Dimas)
4. Fight Club (David Fincher)
5. Black Cat, White Cat (Emir Kurastica)
6. An Autumn Tale (Eric Rohmer)
7. The Iron Giant (Brad Bird)
8. Election (Alexander Payne)/Stir of Echoes (David Koepp)
9. eXistenZ (David Cronenberg)
10. My Parents Read Dreams I've Had About Them (Neil Goldberg)
 

Runners-up: 
Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (Jay Roach) 
Besieged (Bernardo Bertolucci) 
The Blair Witch Project (Eduard Sanchez, David Myrick)
Bowfinger (Frank Oz)*
Dick (Andrew Fleming)
Get Real (Simon Shore) - But I hate how the female best friend was shrugged off.
King of Masks (Wu Tianming)*
Limbo (John Sayles)*
Loss of Sexual Innocence (Mike Figgis)
Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Omega Code (Rob Marcarelli)
The Red Violin (François Girard)
Romance (Catherine Breillat)
Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer)
The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan)
The Straight Story (David Lynch)
Summer of Sam (Spike Lee)Superstar (Bruce McCulloch)
The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella)  
The Winslow Boy (David Mamet)
 

Worst:
1. American Pie - I no longer recall why this was #1 but voilà!
2. The Phantom Menace
3. The Mod Squad - At a preview screening, there was a loud industrial scraping sound that made the film great for 90 seconds.
4. The Out-of-Towners
5. The Thirteenth Floor
*
6. Detroit Rock City
7. An Ideal Husband
8. Jawbreaker
9.
Mystery Men 
10. Mystery, Alaska - Directed by Jay Roach for what it's worth.
11. Happy, Texas - At the press screening, the reels were out of order. A fascinating experience of a terrible film. 
12. The Dinner Game*
13. Dogma
A film called Elvis Lives was listed in the Worst category. But I can find no such film released around the time. Maybe I saw him at Taco Bell.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Three Hearts for Julia (Richard Thorpe, 1943)

I watched Three Hearts for Julia only because IMDb claims that Joan Crawford was offered the lead role but turned it down. Not sure if that's true even though Crawford starred in Above Suspicion (my vote for her most underrated film) also directed by Thorpe and released the same year. But it makes sense since Melvyn Douglas has the lead role. The female lead (Ann Sothern) would have proven too back seat for Crawford.

The mostly negative IMDb reviews note the poverty of laughs in this screwball comedy. But even though screwball comedies feature more violence (as a result from having to live by the dictates of monogamous heterosexual romance, say) than yuks, this one is especially odd since the dictates of wartime propaganda abrade against the comedy. It would make a great double feature with Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947) in which Crawford oscillates between two men. Here, Sothern juggles three men and the atmosphere feels on its way to Daisy Kenyon's enervated milieu populated with characters pulling themselves in myriad directions only to arrive at a nerve-wracked nowhere.

Douglas plays a war correspondent who returns home to find that his wife, Sothern, a violinist in an all-woman orchestra, has filed for divorce due to his lengthy absences. She tries to be best friends with him and even enlists his help in choosing between two suitors after her favor. Sothern's blasé path toward monogamy gives off a distinctive Lubitschian fragrance. But to continue along that path would have given the MPPDA pre-Code jitters. Douglas wants and eventually gets her back via the help of conductor and Czech refugee Anton Ottoway (Felix Bressart).

The inevitable reunion pivots more on (wartime) musical logic rather than comedic exigencies, exemplifying Jane Feuer's notion, from her seminal book The Hollywood Musical, that the musical marshals the forces of American entertainment to bring a film to its resolution. Ottoway longs to do a solid for Uncle Sam. So he plans a USO concert of Americana instead of the Borodin, Wagner, and Rimsky-Korsakov of previous scenes (during which the women preposterously halt rehearsals with makeup applications and child rearing) and through various machinations, uses the event to bring the two principals together. The concert is a medley of warhorses like "Kingdom Coming" and "Home on the Range." Sothern has been playing somewhat listlessly until she sees Douglas in the wings at which point she launches into a near-lusty solo of "I've Been Workin' on the Railroad." But their reformation is made through the music - they never embrace! And given that WWII is raging, it's more important to form a community on the heels of the formation of a heterosexual couple. So as the orchestra moves into "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree," the audience of military men sing along suddenly. Ottoway turns to them(/us) and the sing along blends imperceptibly into "America the Beautiful" for the last shot before the closing credits. If it feels uneasy, just wait 'til Daisy Kenyon.

Look fast for Marie Windsor in the orchestra.
 
 

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Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Empire (Andy Warhol et al., 1965)


Saturday, January 12 at 1 p.m., the Whitney Museum of American Art, in conjunction with their Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again exhibit, showed Warhol's silent Empire at 16fps making for a screening of eight hours and five minutes. It was one of the greatest cinematic experiences of my life. Below are some thoughts on the screening divided into three sections: the experience of the environment, the experience of the film, and the aftermath.

I. Without Me

I stayed for the entire film with two brief-as-possible potty breaks. It was impossible to determine how many people lasted from beginning to end (start to stop?) since many people filtered in and out of the extremely dark theatre. But I would wager that the core group of fellow intrepid travelers comprised about ten people, no more than fifteen. I brought several fig bars, two beef/pork sticks, and two coconut waters (thanks to Blake Gopnik's suggestion in a New York Times article detailing his experience seeing it at 18fps in 2014 at the James Fuentes Gallery). 

I was in procedural terror for days before the screening. It's preposterous to discuss authenticity in relation to Warhol but would there be any rules? Would it be a happening? Could I last? What if I fell asleep or, worse, snored?  I knew my buddy Whit Strub was going too. Do I sit by him? Could I last? 

I arrived around 12:45 and sat one seat away from Whit. We talked with the gentleman behind us for a bit. Whit later told me he was a retired Poli Sci professor who was spending his free time absorbing culture. He confessed that he would stay only until about 4pm and indeed, three hours into the film, he leaned in to us and whispered (paraphrasing), "Gentlemen, remember to tell Sparta of your heroism" before departing.

About an hour into the film, a group of twentysomethings entered. One gal took several pictures and maybe a video of the screen. Another who arrived a bit later (and whispered with a gal in the first group) sat in the row in front of us and was buried in her phone almost the entire time. I looked over and discovered that she was on Instagram (I believe) and I caught her typing the words "video [sic] of...minutes of the fucking...Building!"

It's difficult to police reception of a Warhol film especially one as environmental as Empire. But for better or worse, the Whitney set the conditions of reception as silence in the dark. No Velvets, no Woronov/Malanga wielding whips, no silver clouds. In those conditions, it would prove absurd to request reverent silence. And here, I wasn't initially annoyed by the cell phone intrusion. It could help pass the time if need be. But the Instagram harangue irked me. And when it was clear that this group was staying a while, I grew nervous about future interruptions and wanted to yell, "Do I go to your Avengers-ass movies and ruin those? No! So don't do it here!" or "Why are you even here?!?" Instead, Whit lost patience and seethed "Turn your cell phone off, please!" at cell phone gal who soon left.

I'm glad I didn't say what I wanted. During the first potty break, I ran into a guy staying for the duration too. Turns out he's a NYU professor teaching a JanTerm course called The Age of Warhol (!) (and author of the 33 1/3 on Marquee Moon I found out later!) and those were his students. He apologized for their behavior because he told them that Warhol screenings could be raucous events. I shrugged, we discussed reception for a bit, and then it was back to the Empire. 

Feeling emboldened, I later scolded the matriarch of a noisy family. She was already seated yet felt compelled to use her iPhone flashlight to look around the theatre. "You can turn that off," I curtly suggested and they remained in silence for a respectable five minutes. Hour six saw a lot of activity: a man looking at Warhol pictures on his phone who left in a huff after I asked him to turn it off; a family with two young children who stayed approximately one minute with a father who almost killed himself tripping up the stairs; a woman who opened the door and exclaimed in loud, hilarious New Yawkese "the Empire State Building!" The NYU professor got vigilant and went to the door several times to request silence before entering.

II. Within Me

On the morning of the screening, my procedural terror morphed into excitement. And now I have difficulty recreating that terror. For the most shocking aspect of the Empire experience is how easy it was to watch. With no perversity implied, I submit that it was much more difficult for me to sit through many feature-length art films, L'enfant secret (Philippe Garrel, 1979, 92 minutes), say, or most Godard, than Empire. This is because I entered what Douglas Crimp calls, in his book "Our Kind of Movie": The Films of Andy Warhol, Warhol's time. In an section on watching several Warhol films at the MoMA Film Study Center with Jonathan Flatley (author of the superb essay "Warhol Gives Good Face: Publicity and the Politics of Prosopopoeia" in Pop Out: Queer Warhol), Crimp notes, “Jonathan and I remarked to each other after our final day’s screenings that our sense of time had been utterly altered by the experience. On the simplest level, we had become completely relaxed about how much time was passing and not at all impatient at the films’ usually long-seeming duration. We felt at that moment as if we could go on watching Warhol films for days on end and continue to enjoy the experience thoroughly.” For me, this is a warm, cozy feeling I associate with Christmas as a child or hanging out with friends I no longer see like Pope and Jean-Guy in Montréal at the start of my grad student life. There were moments when the severity, if not the sadism, of the film blew me back. But overall, it felt like a gift, an extended stay at a day spa or a fuzzily defined sense of care washing over me. I came to it but it came to me. I was genuinely sad when I saw the increased scuzziness of the final reel heralding that the end was just seconds away.

For the first hour, the image is evenly lit so that you can make out the details in the Empire State Building and see downtown to the southwest. But then the floodlights go on (less noteworthy than reported since it occurs so early in the film) and the viewer is treated to an extremely high-contrast image of the lights which makes up the majority of the film. Much more shocking is that the floodlights go off and for the last 70 minutes, the film is complete darkness save for a few lights that form a vague Big Dipper pattern. No one entered during this time but it would have been fascinating to gauge the responses to staring at a "nothing" even more extreme than the Empire State Building's floodlights. 

The true star of Empire is the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company Tower eleven blocks to the southeast, Eve to the Empire State Building's Margo Channing. The tower features a light at the top that in real time blinks off every fifteen minutes and then blinks the number at the top of each hour. Since Empire is shown at 16fps, however, these occur at approximately 20 minutes and 70 minutes respectively in screen time. The first time I looked at my phone (apart from the first potty break at around 4:15 p.m.) was 6:50 p.m. not out of boredom or impatience but to time the blinks. These blinks were the friendliest aspect of Empire, lending the film a built-in metronome and grounding the Empire State Building's floodlights in space and time. The tower light shone the brightest during the last 70 minutes, much brighter than the faint antenna light on top of the Empire State Building which blinked incessantly but was easy to lose in the darkness. 

This Google Maps shot shows the positions of the two monuments along with the Time-Life Building from where the film was shot on the 41st floor. 
A window several floors below the floodlights remained lit for several hours. You can barely see it if you click on the picture at the top. Later I noticed it was off. But I never saw the moment it was extinguished. I call this light Li'l Window Dude. 

For a few seconds, Warhol appears and, more clearly, Jonas Mekas (along with four panes) in a reflection in the window. They turned on a light to reload the film and three (four?) times they forgot to turn it off before filming. This reinforces two realities about Empire: 1. It is not one continuous shot which would have been impossible with film. There are slight variations in each reel. 2. The film was originally credited to both Warhol and John Palmer, star of Warhol's John and Ivy (1965) and also visible in the film. And the concept of filming the Empire State Building was Mekas' idea. So the question of authorship is vexed in typical Warholian fashion.

Against the ceaseless image of the Empire State Building, the flares, hairs, and air bubbles on the film become events which the Digital Noise Reduction of a Blu-ray would eliminate (along with remaining captive to the film's duration, the best reason to see Empire on celluloid in a theatre). These elements compete with the core image for your attention, most intensely for a stretch where a ghost of the film, sprockets and all, floats on top somewhat akin to the material skidding in Little Dog for Roger (Malcolm Le Grice, 1967).

Finally, there are the perceptual tricks the film plays on the viewer. During the first hour, you try to focus on one part of the building. But the grain of the film starts to mimic movement that is not actually happening, a swarm of locusts accumulating or perhaps a gas leak wafting by one area. Turn your head slightly to either side and a black rectangle follows, a canted image of the frame that has been imprinted on your retina for so long. Sometimes you couldn't get the floodlights to render depth; other times you couldn't find their two-dimensional pictoriality again. Did the building just jump out at me?

III. Us 

After the screening, Whit, the NYU prof (one of his students stayed for about three hours!), and I chatted and were soon joined by a clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia. He emailed us his notes (sample nuggets: "About an hour forty five in I quietly move to the leftmost seat in the front row so that the parallax distortion of the image mimics the view of the Empire out my kitchen window" and "I dream of having an Insomnia cookie") and we shared our experiences. Apparently, someone towards the front was crying and everyone but me heard soft chanting at one point. 

At dinner afterward, Whit asked me to what extent my mind wandered during the film. I surmised it would be impossible to watch every minute of it in rapt attention. Certainly, there were moments when I snapped into philosophical mode, trying to fashion some sort of connection to sexploitation films of the era. But there were many more where I coasted in and out of lucid dreaming or kept repeating the Migos and disco I was listening to on the ride down to the Whitney. And I still remain stunned by how easy it all was, more sybaritic and opulent than some sort of severe exercise. 

Whit also noted that the core audience read as white men almost entirely including the four professors in conference at the end. Not sure how to address this fact except to suggest that the Whitney should revive the 8-hour Park Lanes (Kevin Jerome Everson, 2015) which they screened in 2016

Empire will be showing again at the Whitney on Saturday, March 9, 2019 at 1 p.m.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Random Art from the Whitney Museum of American Art and Allouche Gallery

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today: The Best Albums of 1998

I was all set to share a list found in the recesses of my hard drive of my fave albums of 1998 until I discovered it was online at MTV.com here. So here's a minor tweak and reshuffle because Come On Over was 1997 and the Kim cuts drag down A Thousand Leaves. I make no apologies for the preponderance of anthologies and compilations. The 1990s was the great reissue decade (all hail Rhino's heyday!) and 1998 fell several stories from 1997's sugar high.

1. Queer to the Core!: Queer Rock From the Vaults! (Quick Nuts) - We still have no clue who released this bootleg plucked from the bins of Atomic Records in Milwaukee. But I've never been able to shake how it epitomizes the alternately frustrating and glorious position of the queer historian. More here and still for sale cheap on Discogs.

2. The Music in My Head: Indispensable Classics and Unknown Gems From the Golden Age of African Pop (Stern's Africa) - Still my favorite African pop compilation. I reviewed it and Mark Hudson's delirious novel to which it was the de facto soundtrack for the Chicago Reader.

3. American Pop: An Audio History (West Hill Audio Archives) - And still my favorite box set ever. Gawd, its nine discs continue to educate although my one-disc distillation sieves out the poppiest (and weirdest) (and punkiest) moments.

4. Fat Beats & Bra Straps: Battle Rhymes & Posse Cuts (Rhino) - 90% of the rap I quote comes from this vicious collection of gripes and disses. Bow down to her, bitch, cuz she's the shit: Roxanne Shanté.

5. A Night On South Bitch (Max) - The finest bitch tracks comp extant. I'll see you after the function!

6. Sean "Puffy" Combs: Changing The Sound of Popular Music (Bad Boy Promo) - Cheating. But these Puffy-helmed hits honor the man who helped make 1997 the greatest year for singles since 1981.

7. George Clinton & The P-Funk All-Stars: Dope Dogs (Dogone) -The first "real" album on the list by a man for whom the importance of The Album meant precious little.

8. The Perfect Beats: New York Electro Hip-Hop + Underground Dance Classics 1980-1985 (Rhino) - Four volumes proving not only that disco never died but that 1981 was the greatest year for singles ever.

9. Suckdog: Onward Suckdog Soldiers (Tray Full of Lab Mice) - Here for the 20-second masterprank "I Knelt 2day Where Jesus Knelt."

10. Unkle: Psyence Fiction (Mo' Wax/London) - For years it had been an open question which turntablists would be the first to sample Olivia Record rockers BeBe K'Roche, to paraphrase Eric Weisbard's Jungle Brothers entry in the Spin Alternative Record Guide.

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Friday, January 12, 2018

Best Films of 2017

10. Division Movement to Vungtau (Benjamin Crotty and Bertrand Dezoteux)
These enfants terribles dishonor 16mm footage sourced from the US National Archives of off-duty American soldiers in Vietnam c. 1966-1968 by inserting motion-captured anthropomorphic fruit. To quote Phil Coldiron in a dead-on summation for The Brooklyn Rail, "the pair throw stink bombs into...the boomer nostalgia that marks Vietnam as more than just another catastrophe in our idiot nation’s storied history of them" and, as such, would make a perfect coda to Ken Burns' The Vietnam War.
9. Tonsler Park (Kevin Jerome Everson)
An 80-minute observation at a polling precinct in Charlottesville, Virginia on November 8th, 2016 of the black bodies our legislatures are gerrymandering out of existence.
8. The Florida Project (Sean Baker)
With many parking lots to cross, the barely working poor at a motel in Anywhere, USA find no relief from noise, heat, and the fitfully sympathetic management.
7. The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra)
Not a requiem but rather an ode to cinema's embalming function. I see dead people indeed.
6. Ismael's Ghosts (director's cut) (Arnaud Desplechin)
24 Hour Psycho Back and Forth and To and Fro (Douglas Gordon)
Hitchcock is always with us. Desplechin retells Vertigo as four films in one for the ADD set while Gordon's 2008 installation (at the 21st St. Gagosian through February 3rd) features one 24-hour Psycho running forward while another adjoining one runs backward. I haven't had so much fun at a gallery-cum-cinema, well, ever! My friend Bill and I were like giddy children before this monument to a lifetime of close readings. "Wait - wasn't Vera Miles walking backwards away from the house at one point?" "Do you know the name of the actor who played the cop?" "Man, he held this shot a long time." "Let's stay to see Ted Knight!"
 
5. Zama (Lucretia Martel)
A welcome and criminally tardy return of the genius Martel for a tale about a victim of hope winding his way through various disorienting spaces, the most terrifying pictured below from a brief moment I won't soon forget.
4. Baby Driver (Edgar Wright)
Finally - a big-budget Hollywood action film/box-office smash I loved! And a far better musical than La La Land. I can't even: Ansel Elgort.
3. On Generation and Corruption (Takashi Makino)
Makino takes Maya Deren's concept of vertical editing to unprecedented depths as you dive into his blizzard of superimpositions.
2. Sleep Has Her House (Scott Barley)
So gorgeous, so uncompromising that I actually wept at the end. Sleep Has Her House evokes Edward Steichen's eerie Moonlight photos or maybe The Turin Horse devoid of humans. You can scarcely imagine the profilmic events Barley encountered even though the film was presumably shot on this planet. As of this writing and for shame, Sleep Has Her House has yet to have its New York (or even North American!) premiere.
1. SPF-18 (Alex Israel)
In a year when cinema kept dying and Twin Peaks: The Return was a film (or not), and streaming threatened the thingishness of things, SPF-18 suggests that such epistemological uncertainty is the natural order of art. This is a film alright. But it's also part of a multi-platform project comprised of, to quote the VIA Art Fund's sober description, "a feature-length film, soundtrack, artwork, digital outreach program, and accompanying high school curriculum." Apparently, Israel toured high schools with the film although I've yet to uncover evidence that this actually happened and any documentation thereof would compete with the film as a primary aesthetic object. The film features cameos by Keanu Reeves, Molly Ringwald, Rosanna Arquette, Pamela Anderson, and Goldie Hawn (as the narrator), a 1980s soundtrack including hits from Duran Duran, The Cars, and Yaz, several of Isreal's art works, and some of the most ridiculous aerial shots ever filmed. It's basically an after-school special about the need for beautiful teenagers to follow their creative muse. I have absolutely no clue how to position myself with respect to this thing and I imagine further inquiries into Israel's access and privilege will force my mind in one firm direction. But for now, this was the most head-spinning encounter with cinema (or whatever) I had all year. SPF-18 is available on Netflix as of this writing. Watch it, kay?


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Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Bonding Occurs Between Enraged Film Lovers At Sold-out Nathaniel Dorsky Anthology Screening

Manhattan, October 17 - In an atmosphere reminiscent of the good vibes outside Studio 54 amongst the folks who couldn't get in, only far more bittersweet, several film lovers in the lobby of Anthology Film Archives (32 2nd Ave.) managed to bond with one another despite their rage over not getting tickets to a sold-out screening of Nathaniel Dorsky's new films. Avant-garde enthusiasts who arrived as early at 7:00 p.m. for the 7:30 p.m. screening were greeted with a "Dorsky Is Now Sold Out" sign, a phrase that soon took on an double meaning for the angry unfortunates.

Raising their hopes but also stoking their flames of rage was another sign reading "Maybe A Few Might Get In?" So a group of about 20 hopefuls waited in the lobby for word from an admittedly sympathetic Anthology employee about potential seating. Around 7:30 p.m. said employee announced that there were five aisle seats available which went to the names at the top of a long waiting list. But an occasion for revelry quickly turned sour since the announcement broke up several groups of friends. Kisses and hugs were exchanged with the unlucky as one loudmouth wondered aloud how they could possibly remain friends after this.

Two aspects of the evening contributed to the tense environment. Nathaniel Dorsky refuses to release his masterful films on DVD/Blu-ray so one must attend a rare screening in more privileged cities around the world in order to see them. Even worse, Anthology was screening (freakin') Eating Raoul (Paul Bartel, 1982) in their much larger theatre upstairs. Attendance figures for that 7:00 p.m. screening were not released by press time. But one could surmise that they could not have exceeded the turnout for Dorsky. Further compounding the offense is that Eating Raoul was a staple of early cable television and has been available not only on VHS but on a Criterion Blu-ray as well. The loudmouth asked the employee why the Dorsky films weren't shown in the larger theatre. "Nick (?) decided that they would work better in the smaller theatre," was the reply.

Once it was official that no one else beyond the lucky five would be getting in, the employee offered Dorsky bookmarks as a pathetic consolation prize. One particularly sad Dorsky fan was gifted the "Sold Out" sign (seen below). The loudmouth asked the employee to convey to Dorsky that we were pissed.

Nevertheless, the unlucky bonded over their misfortune. They wondered if buying a membership would get them in and then got even sadder that they didn't have a membership in the first place. Others discussed the genius of Dorsky while ruing the "necessity" of watching his masterpieces on film in a theatre. Genuine sorrys were exchanged as the supporters of the avant-garde dispersed morosely.

Brandishing a copy of Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility," the loudmouth went on a harangue:

"Today, I hate the avant-garde. I traveled from The Bronx to see these films. Three hours wasted. I've crossed state lines to see avant-garde films. I am not the enemy. But now I will fight to get these films shown to the unprivileged who can't attend screenings in Manhattan or at Harvard. I now want to bootleg every film ever! Long live KG! Long live UbuWeb! Blu-rays for all. Myron Ort sells DVDs of his films online. So does Joseph Bernard whose films are at least as gorgeous as Dorsky's? Why can't Dorsky??? We get it. We know they should be experienced live in motion on film. We get that, say, Luther Price's films are about decay, that even their destruction is part of their aesthetic experience. But let us have that aesthetic experience! We're here in the auratic space that is Manhattan and Anthology and we can't see Dorsky films??? There's something rotten here!!!"

Eventually, the loudmouth found himself talking to no one outside on 2nd Ave. and he walked home alone slowly in the wrong direction.


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