The Strange Intimacy of Zoom Q & A’s

September 22, 2020 § 2 Comments

Werner Herzog

For as long as I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I’ve been going to screenings with Q & A’s afterwards. Though the films varied in quality and genre, there was a stultifying sameness to their aftermath: an interviewer and the director, sometimes joined by the lead actors, talking onstage in canvas folding chairs. The questions were rote, the answers rarely memorable, and the audience questions frequently inane.

Since the pandemic closed theaters, post-screening Q & As have changed, for better and worse. No longer inhibited by live audiences and stage lighting, interviewees seem at more at ease, and thus more likely to provide interesting answers to their interviewers’ questions. For the audience, seeing directors in their home offices, shelves of books and memorabilia in the background, is a far more intimate experience than seeing them onstage. 

Charlie Kaufman and Tony Gilroy

Still, Zoom Q & A’s are a mixed bag, as two recent programs at the American Cinematheque illustrate. An interview with Charlie Kaufman on his new feature “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”, might have been illuminating if not for the interviewer, writer/director Tony Gilroy, who made it mostly about himself. After several minutes of Gilroy saying how excited he was to be interviewing Kaufman and how amazing it was that they hadn’t met earlier, given their mutual friends and professional connections, and then interrupting Kaufman when he tried to talk, I gave up. While bad interviewers weren’t unheard of at the Egyptian, I usually stayed for the Q & A’s, not only because they were live but because there were enough distractions—my companions, the rest of the audience, the huge gilded scarab on the ceiling—to engage me.  

I fared better with Werner Herzog’s Q & A about his new documentary, “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin”. Herzog, who has been preaching the gospel of low-budget indie filmmaking for decades (his Rogue Film School, which meets periodically in Los Angeles and other cities, has become an institution), has often talked about his beginnings as a filmmaker. But this time, surrounded by books and binders in his office, his story seemed more vivid than in previous iterations, and more moving. About the arduous job he took during high school, Herzog said:

I worked the night shift as a welder in a steel factory, and I financed my own films….At that time it was expensive because you had to buy 35 millimeter raw stock celluloid and…develop it in a laboratory and cameras were big and clumsy and expensive….Today even with your cell phone, you can shoot a feature film that you can show in theaters….Never complain. Roll up your sleeves and you can make a one-and-a-half-hour documentary for under $5,000. And you can make a narrative feature film with actors for under $30,000. Just go out and earn it and start shooting.

No More La La Land, Part II: How Los Angeles Became the Center of the Art World

February 29, 2012 § 2 Comments

Last October’s opening of Pacific Standard Time, the Getty Center-organized mega-show of Los Angeles art from 1945-1980, was greeted with much fanfare in the national and international press, though from different perspectives. While California publications viewed the linked exhibitions at 130 museums and galleries as a long-delayed retrospective of the area’s painting, sculpture, design and photography, those outside California seemed to regard PST as revelatory, as if Southern California and its enormously varied trove of artwork had just been discovered.

Nowhere was the reaction to PST more confused than in the New York Times. A review by Adam Nagourney–http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/13/arts/design/southern-california-claims-its-place-on-the-art-world-map.html
–lauded the exhibition while noting:

No one is suggesting that Los Angeles is about to supplant New York as an art capital; it is not lost on people here that the executive directors of three of the four biggest museums in Los Angeles are from New York.

Here Nagourney has it backwards: Michael Govan and Jeffrey Deitch are here because Los Angeles represents the art world’s present and future, not because they’ve taken up missionary work. Nor for that matter has Larry Gagosian, whose first gallery opened here in 1979 and whose Beverly Hills gallery opened in 1995. Ironically, Nagourney’s comment that New York still contains the greatest concentration of galleries, museums and buyers is exactly the same argument that Parisians made after World War II, when all signs pointed to New York.

The pertinent question is whether the art world centers on those who make art or those who consume it. If it’s the latter, New York still reigns. But if it’s the former–as it was in New York from approximately 1945-2000–the center of the art world moved west some time ago.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to fathom. New York has become increasingly inhospitable to young artists due to its exorbitant cost of living, which puts studio space out of reach for all but the wealthiest and most established artists. In the last thirty years, young artists have gone from Soho to Chelsea to Brooklyn to Queens in search of studio space, gentrifying each before being forced out by rising rents. The last stop seems to be the South Bronx, where studios reportedly are still within reach. When that area becomes gentrified, artists will be shut out of New York City entirely, leaving it to the one per centers. Unfortunately for them, a city can’t be an art capital without artists, however many hedge fund managers decide to take up collecting.

In fact, New York stopped being an essential destination for young artists years ago. Bypassing the city altogether, they found other, more welcoming places to live and work: Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Seattle, Portland and–most of all–Los Angeles. Those who came to study at Art Center, UCLA and Cal Arts simply stayed; others made Los Angeles their destination of choice. While rents here are hardly cheap, it’s still possible for young artists to find studio space, as well as a community of like-minded artists, a lively gallery scene, and more museums than they can reasonably visit in a year.

Beyond the art world, Los Angeles has a creative atmosphere unmatched by that of New York or anywhere else. That the film and music industries are centered here provides still greater ferment, allowing writers, animators, painters, sculptors, musicians and other creative artists to inspire each other’s work.

I’ve long felt that Los Angeles is the most creative city in the United States, if not the planet, and PST has gone a long way toward promoting that idea. But it was a recent radio interview with Werner Herzog that made me realize others feel the same way. Much to my surprise, I discovered Herzog has been living in Los Angeles for the better part of two decades, making a film a year and running the semi-secret Rogue Film School. When he stated that Los Angeles was most culturally important place in the world, the interviewer asked what about New York? Herzog replied that New York was “more on the receiving end of culture,” whereas the actual creative work was happening here.

In light of this, Adam Nagourney’s assertions that “the sheer sprawl of the city” and “the difficulty of encouraging people to walk inside for anything but a movie in a city that has glorious weather so many months of the year” work against Los Angeles as an art capital seem nothing more than desperate cliches. And the latter comment, made despite ample evidence of crowds at LACMA, the Getty and MOCA, is a New Yorker’s fantasy of life in LA, not the art-filled reality.

Related article:

https://underthehollywoodsign.wordpress.com/2012/02/15/no-more-la-la-land-part-i-changing-references-to-los-angeles-in-the-new-york-times/

“Grey Gardens,” Albert Maysles and Me

April 27, 2009 § 2 Comments

Although I’d known about “Grey Gardens” since its theatrical release in 1976, I didn’t have a chance to see it until its appearance on video in the  late 90’s. I remember watching it alone in my bedroom, at once spellbound by Big Edie and Little Edie and horrified by the squalor in which they lived. The film was fascinating, baffling and gorgeous. It swept me up into the Bealeses’ world as it unspooled.

Because “Grey Gardens” was unlike any documentary I’d seen, it was hard to assess. I both loved and was troubled by it, and I had questions. Were the Bealeses exploited by the Maysleses? Was this a mother-daughter love story, or one of maternal oppression? Were they both crazy? If not, which one was? And finally, was Little Edie an object of pity or an artist whose genius lay beyond the limits of my understanding?

Within a year of seeing “Grey Gardens,” I happened to meet Albert Maysles at a documentary conference in Los Angeles.  Cornering him outside a lecture hall, I blurted out my plan to make a documentary on the life of Jim Thompson, the American OSS Officer turned Thai silk magnate who vanished in Malaysia in 1967. I asked him what he thought, and he said something like “I think that sounds like a good idea.” (Coincidentally, Werner Herzog was there, too; he merely said, “I haf heard of zis man.”) Delirious from Maysles’s encouragement, I nevertheless remembered to compliment “Grey Gardens.” Beaming, he said in his thick Boston accent, “Isn’t it beautiful?”

All of this came back to me last week as I watched the new theatrical version of “Grey Gardens” on HBO. What could have been a train wreck turned out to be a beautifully acted and well-written treatment of the Bealeses’ story. While the documentary asked more questions than it answered, the movie did the opposite by tracing the Bealses’ descent from society into squalor in precise, logical flashbacks. Watching the documentary, I could never figure out how these two women–Edith Wharton heroines tranported to the latter 20th century– could appear sanguine about their impoverished lives in a filthy, broken-down house ; watching the HBO adaptation, I understood. Like enchanted princesses, the Bealeses carried their aristocracy within them. Their outward circumstances were simply that: outward and circumstantial. They were beyond the cares of ordinary life. Amid the squalor of  Grey Gardens, Big Edie and Little Edie, like storybook royalty, remained original, noble and nothing like the rest of us.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with Werner Herzog at Under the Hollywood Sign.