30 November 2000

Greek to me

Communing with the oracle of cinema in Thessaloniki

JETLAG 8AM ON A SUNDAY MORNING, or is it midnight Saturday?

The north of Greece: I am trying to discern Mt. Olympus through lustrous fog over the silvery sea, shimmering like scales on a great fish. I've got PJ Harvey's "Stories from the City, Stories From The Sea" clamped to my ears, a song called "A Place Called Home." I stare at the horizon, city behind me, the Aegean before me, watching a pair of tankers over the duration of a song just discernibly part, move to opposite ends of the world. I had watched five films on the first Saturday of the forty-first International Thessaloniki Film Festival, I'd been on the phone to the states near dawn for an hour, and I craved the narcosis of sun and sea and mute dazzle. I stared, tried not to blink.

My vacation the third year in a row, indulging a grand secret city filled with food, drink, cultural mysteries, and as for the festival, the best of a poetic, alternately sober and delirious kind of cinema. The tossed-off term is "arthouse," and U.S. distributors and exhibitors call it "specialized." I just say it is what I want film to be. Thessaloniki is not a premiere festival, like Sundance or Cannes, or a catch-all like Toronto, but ten days with one and a hundred pockets. Most of the films have played elsewhere, including Chicago's festival. But the combination of films and filmmakers are always a great treat.

Several retrospectives are shown each year, in 2000 including the old man of the Greek cinema, Theo Angelopoulos, and it gave me a chance to revisit a couple of movies he shot in Thessaloniki, the city so many of his stories return to. Jerzy Skolimowski was the president of the festival jury, and getting to see "Deep End" on screen, his 1970 masterpiece of male adolescent dreaminess and erotic rage, would have been a highlight of any festival.

Borders and cultural miscommunication were the subject of many of the films I saw, as if the lowering of frontiers in the European Community had freed both the imaginations and the production capabilities of the filmmakers. David Gordon Green's "George Washington" was a strange jewel out of its American context: its fragrant Southern poetry is so delicate that it was lost in translation to south central Europe, and I had to do a kind of simultaneous translation for a friend from Bucharest. Pawel Pawlikowski's "The Last Resort," a sturdy BBC-made film, shot on digital video, took the festival's three highest prizes, and its tale of a Russian woman and her child stuck in an emigrant encampment in the U.K. -- and made by a Polish-born director -- gained greater cosmopolitan clutter by having its Russian dialogue subtitled only in Italian and Greek. Paddy Considine, excellent as a scary neighbor in "A Room for Romeo Brass," is superb here as an arcade manager who takes the lost pair under his profane wing.

Dino Tsintsadze's deadpan comedy, "Lost Killers," was also filled with cross-cultural commotion in the story of a pair of inept assassins in Mannheim, Germany, one Georgian, the other Croatian, who keep stumbling in their attempts to kill a Russian businessman, eventually soliciting an immense Haitian who is about to sell a kidney and his girlfriend, a tiny Vietnamese prostitute, into their ill-fated schemes. The film takes a while to warm up, but eventually its skewed, drunken universe is as convincing as it is laughable. "Im July," Fatih Akin's hilarious road movie, was perhaps the champion border-crosser, with "Run Lola Run"'s Moritz Bleibtreau as a naif pursuing a mysterious Turkish woman from Hamburg to Istanbul. The story races across southeastern Europe, and it may be the most polished German movie I've seen since Tom Tykwer's masterful bubblegum. (It also has one of the best scenes I've ever seen about someone discovering marijuana: both poetic and hilarious.)

More traditionally German was Christian Petzold's "Die Innere Sicherheit" (The State I Am In), a lovely, severe and haunting story of couple on the run since their terrorist past in the 1970s, with a teenage daughter straining their camouflage. Julia Hummer's performance as the young girl grounds a serious, elliptical story, and the film's look, emulating the brilliant hyperrealism of the photographs and figurative paintings of artist Gerhard Richter, dazzles. Mokoto Shinozaki's "Not Forgotten" was a sentimental favorite, about a quartet of aging Japanese war veterans who still have not reconciled with their treatment after the return from the islands. One of the characters is played by an actor who was one of the children from Ozu's 1932 masterpiece, "I Was Born, But... ," and the spareness of Ozu is present in the film. More importantly, as a protege of Takeshi Kitano, Shinozaki understands a thing or two about bursts of the unexpected, and the ending of the movie is both shocking and grand.

Some of the Best Foreign Film nominees played as well, including a snort-worthy comedy from Croatia about the return of a late dictator's ghost, "Marshal Tito's Spirit"; and the unlikely but lovely light-hearted look at schizophrenia from Iceland, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson's "Angels Of The Universe." (Among Fridriksson's other loopy Icelandic gems are the comic culture-clash road movie, "Cold Fever.") A movie that should be wending its way to Sundance and onto U.S. screens is "Songs From the Second Floor," Roy Andersson's Swedish black-comic parable of a world in unending gridlock. Its dry wit that suggests Terry Gilliam, Ingmar Bergman and Luis Bunuel having a big laugh over several pitchers of Bunuel's Virgin Martinis.

I miss the white light on the screens there, but even more? I miss the Greek sunlight. Movies are always better as part of a balanced diet.

23 November 2000

GIMME PROVIDENCE: Sympathy for the documentarian

YOU CAN'T ALWAYS SEE WHAT YOU GOT.

Thirty years after its coming—as a kind of bookend to both the optimism of the 1960s and the school of American cinema verite—David Maysles, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin's 1970 Gimme Shelter has been restored and reissued, both on screen, and, as a Criterion Collection DVD that, among other features, includes five unheard, unseen songs from the Rolling Stones' 1969 tour, audio commentary by Albert Maysles and Zwerin and a high-def digital transfer from the original camera negative.

Gimme Shelter."Gee, whiz. What can be said about this movie? The Stones are on tour, and a free concert in the San Francisco area is shifted to the Altamont Speedway at the last hour; crowds crowd, Hells Angels cause and prevent as much ruckus, a man dies before the camera's lens. The Stones, notably a taciturn Mick Jagger, observe the footage at some point in the future/present. We return to the past/present: figures scurry into the night, across smoky backlit hillsides as if escaping the primitive past. Gimme Shelter is an exemplar of documentary opening its eyes to life, succinctly and tellingly ordered, as the stuff of drama. But it does not tell you what you should think, pronouncing what the material you are regarding means. It's all a matter of letting the mix of music, Jagger charisma and terrible menace speak quietly, yet stereophonically, for itself. Godard called Maysles the best American cameraman, and there are moments in this brilliantly edited masterpiece that take the breath away: an amoral eye, greedy only for a picture of life.

This is rock; this is dread; this is sex and longing; and Gimme Shelter is an exquisite microcosm of ambiguity in an observer's art. I dare you to put half a dozen people in a room and get them to agree on any aspect of Gimme Shelter but its essential excellence. Here are a few words from surviving Maysles brother, Albert. At 73, he has multiple projects in play, including a portrait of contemporary filmmakers for the Independent Film Channel. We talked to him over dinner, then a formal interview the day after the he revisited the picture at the Chicago International Film Festival.

"Did I tell you the story of my experience with Fidel?" the generous, avuncular raconteur begins. Yes, but tell us again. "In 1960, I spent a lot of time with Fidel and with Che, also. I was making a film that ended up being called, 'Yanqui, No.' One day, Fidel mentioned that he was going to the Chinese Embassy for a party, did I want to come along? I said, 'Sure.' So I'm with him at the Chinese Embassy, standing shoulder to shoulder, I don't have my camera because I couldn't just walk in with it on my shoulder, I would need someone to do sound. A messenger comes rushing in, hands a telegram. He opens it. As he's opening it, reading it, knowing that I don't speak or read Spanish, he turns to me, and says, 'Shall I translate it for you.' I say, 'Please do.' Just inches away from me, he tells me, 'The State Department has just broken off relations with Cuba!'"

Maysles smiles. "I have some plans to go back to Cuba. This time, I'll have my little video camera." He holds up his palm to show the camera's scale. "If I'm at the Chinese Embassy, the Romanian embassy, wherever it is, I'll have that little camera ready when he reads the telegram which he'll translate, saying, 'The American State Department has restored relations with Cuba'! I missed the first one because of the movie camera. I'll get the second one because of my video camera!"

As with the myriad details of the Altamont Speedway crowd in Gimme Shelter, Maysles loves discerning details afterward in the miles of footage that video now allows you to burn through. "There are things you noticed at the time, but later, things you didn't think were that important then, are on tape, you can use it." Maysles says video's affordability as a recording medium leaves the documentary maker no excuse not to shoot, and to shoot promiscuously, with today's equipment. "The tape for an hour runs only ten dollars. A little cassette. For a day's shooting, you can carry the tapes in your pocket."

So you can find the authentic moment accidentally? Let God offer you the world? "Y'know, actually, in the case of the documentary filmmaker, God is reality," he says. "Or, as the word that was used most often a couple hundred years ago, Providence. Reality is the great provider of subjects, of events, of drama, of insight. If it's a brief moment that's very telling, you've got it on tape. I joke with my kids, when we have a dinner party, I make a toast to Providence and they roll their eyes. 'Oh, Providence again!'" A pause. A big smile.

This interview was conducted with the invaluable participation of documentarian Amy Cargill. "Gimme Shelter" is available on Criterion DVD.

[Newcity, 23 November 2000]

09 November 2000

SUSHIOLOGY 101

With more raw fish on Division Street, Ray Pride swims with the school

I HAD TO BE PLASTERED and it had to be right after this year's Oscars to wind up drinking gold-flecked sake for last call at Mirai. I had no delusions about my date or our shared laughter, the room was warm and friendly, the staff trim and cool, and the other customers less than the sum of the sweet burn of the pricey pour. Atmosphere was all. I didn't make it back for the fish until Friday the thirteenth of last month, when one of my best friends rang me up and reported he was ready to go out for dinner for the first time since recovering from major brain surgery. Something better than cheeseburgers and some place not too loud, as the accompanying steroid treatments made his anger surge. How about a super-popular Division Street sushi joint at eight on a Friday night? Perfect.

Division Street wears its celebrated tradition of immigrants and emigrants and shifts and changes, literary and literal, on its bookshelves. How many apartments within a mile of Wicker Park have barely-cracked copies of Studs Terkel's "Division Street: America" on the windowsills? We got a table on the sidewalk, and, as the full moon rose behind scudding bars of charcoal smudge, we piled on the basics: I was dying for Udon noodles, which came in a flavorful, not-too-rich broth with tempura vegetables, which I set to dipping. Two were special, a sweet contrast between pillowy shitake and brisk mint-leaf with plum paste.

There's a light breeze and we're away from the conversational din inside. It's all good: Tuna roll, wild yellow tail (buri) and salmon (sake) and freshwater eel (unagi). The waitress is funny, obsessed with the rare conjunction of the full moon, Friday the thirteenth, and the traffic light that had been out for an hour at Damen and Division. It's perfect; my friend and I laugh at life, the moon, the increasingly drunk and loud and vacuous table beside us, and at ourselves, and we order another round of sushi, appreciating the fish but also the unusually moist, dense ball of rice that Mirai serves.

Raw fish and rawer truth, from Nelson Algren's "City on the Make": "And Chicago divided your heart. Leaving you loving the joint for keeps. Yet knowing it will never love you." Cities change as quickly as we allow ourselves to change our minds about them. So, too, do culinary trends. In an era when sushi is served at Bridgeport all-you-can-eat buffets, you start to wonder if anyone knows what truly good sushi should be. Bob San, another sushi restaurant, opened cheek-by-jowl with sturdy Leo's Lunchroom. I visit with a great friend at Bob San's, open until midnight, and we ate late on an off night, spotting only a couple of neighborhood faces before ducking to our table.

Again: solicitous, amusing service. And on this quiet night, a respite from the incessant stream of the eager-to-be-pleased at Mirai. We share a spicy tuna roll, which, when split for two, had a curious burrito-like consistency. A salmon skin (sake) hand roll had delicious crisp bits that when dropped sent chopsticks dueling. Other bites were disappointingly mild-bland more than agreeable-such as sea water eel (anago); a prosaic asparagus beef dish, with fibrous asparagus and tasteless beef in a lackluster marinade; and a pale bit of snapper that left a lingering, odd but not unpleasant chlorophyll taste. Worse was the spicy scallop, its zest more picante than what we thought we knew to be Japanese. Best were the edamame, the soybeans moist as we popped them out of their pods, with a light, toasty savor.

A few nights later, we impulsively check into Mirai. While a few parties of destination-driven, too-cool-for-their-shoes, gracelessly aging thirtysomethings herded loudly through the room in ostentatious layers of leather -- in a virtuous world, the cow would be wearing them -- the meal was a revelation. A server going off duty offered suggestions before our own arrived, and we were both simply anxious for good, simple flavors. Kani nigiri, king crab marinated in a spicy sauce, was both cool and pungent in a single fresh bite. Madai, Japanese red snapper, had a so-fresh, meltaway texture, subtle enough not to mask the gentle notes of the vinegar between the fish and rice. The anago, again, a bold contrast from what we had a few nights earlier, elsewhere. Simple, vivid and memorable. The distance between the two meals was more than a city block. Kanpachi, Japanese amber jack, had us rolling our eyes until we could swallow and then smile.

Food, atmosphere and savor matter. We eat, we survive, we thrive. Little bites get us through life. The big bites are when setting and situation provide social grace notes, a kind of effortlessness and conversation that requires no-second-guessing which makes the transitory experience of the nosh something more than brief moments, digested, discarded. "Narrative bliss," the French essayist Roland Barthes called it: anecdotes and sweet bites alternate, a form of storytelling told by two. (Tell me about your food. Tell me about your day. Tell me about you.) The elegant simplicity of a proper, traditional-sized morsel of sushi means the food does not get in the way. We ordered a couple more pieces, a couple more, okinomi style, the sushi bar was closing, she was going, the fragrant fish would soon be memory, I finished my Kirin, the room was emptier, emptier: I watched her face. Some things are fresher than others.

Bob San, 1805-07 West Division, (773)235-8888
Mirai Sushi, 2020 West Division, (773)862-8500, www.miraisushi.com