Activists as Pranksters

The Yes Men (Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum)

The Yes Men (Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum)

Nearly twenty years into their serious hoaxster crusade for economic and environmental justice, activists (and “each other’s perfect enablers”) Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum have zeroed in on climate change, and the last five years of their sophisticated pranks are documented in “The Yes Men Are Revolting” (co-directed by Laura Nix).

“Revolting,” the best of their three films not only follows the frequent-flying Yes Men to their events and actions but also looks into their personal lives. Mike, raised in Troy, NY, by parents who taught their kids to question authority, moves to and back from Scotland and has an “environmentally unacceptable” third child. Andy, a son of survivors, visits home in Tucson, and loses a  boyfriend he really cares about by endlessly prioritizing work over his personal life. Both are now professors, Mike at RIT, Andy at the New School.

Andy and Mike supervise a group plunge into the East River (from the Queens side), activists inside Yes Men-designed “Survivorballs” (beige roly-polies with eyes and small apendages, bearing a strong resemblance to Baymax in “Big Hero 6″), and an unsuccessful attempt to bob across the water to the United Nations during a climate conference.

More effective, at the National Press Club in D.C., Andy (in a trademark thrift store ill-fitting suit) impersonates a spokesman for the Chamber of Commerce (the largest lobbying group in the United States), presenting the Chamber’s position on carbon tax–thumbs up!–and  declaring, “Mother nature means business and we do too. Mass death is bad for business.”  The press conference makes TV news before the punk’d Chamber responds with horror, calling Andy a “fraud,” and denying support for the tax. The Chamber subsequently sues The Yes Men, a suit (ill-fitting, indeed) it eventually withdraws, rather than complying with the requirement of opening its files for research by Mike and Andy for their defense.

Posing as representatives of the Department of Energy, Mike and Andy join with Native Canadian activist, Gitz Crazyboy (who works  against the production tar sands oil), to stage a presentation at a Homeland Security Congress in D.C.  Hilarity ensues–the audience of defense contractors puts on paper headbands, forms a circle and dances and sings along with Gitz’s “Indian Song.”  Grumman execs express how much they enjoyed the event.

But while progress flows slower than oil, The Yes Men know that they can’t afford the luxury of disillusionment, and must continue screaming with their hair on fire to prevent global climate catastrophe.

To get involved: https://actionswitchboard.net

“The Yes Men Are Revolting” will close the fifth edition of DOC NYC on Thursday, November 20 at 7:00 pm and will be released theatrically and digitally across North America in 2015.

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What Did Joe Know and When Did He Know It?

Amir Bar-Lev, NYC, 6/19/14

Amir Bar-Lev, NYC, 6/19/14

In Pennsylvania’s Happy Valley, community identity has long been inextricably entwined with that of the legendary Penn State football team, coached for more than 40 years by the iconic and much-loved Joe Paterno, aka JoePa, aka Saint Joe (who turned down lucrative employment with the New England Patriots to stay in State College) and whose athletes were successful in the classroom as well as on the gridiron.

In footage in the beginning of director Amir Bar-Lev’s riveting and even-handed new documentary, “Happy Valley,” Paterno says, “College football is something special.  Hopefully we’ll never lose sight of that.  Or screw it up.”

The screw up, in 2011, was a conflagration–former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was charged in November of that year with 40 counts of child sex abuse, involving eight boys over 15 years.  And after the first day of the trial, Sandusky’s adopted son, Matt, who had been lifted out of an impoverished  family, and who had denied having been abused when interviewed by the police (“Jerry had seemed like a savior to me…I needed the family”), joined the accusers and eventually testified.

The conflagration consumed Paterno (fired by the Penn State Board of Trustees on November 9, 2011), Penn State’s president, the football program and Happy Valley, PA’s, sense of self, as information came out that suggested that Paterno may have dissuaded university officials from going to the authorities after “something of a sexual nature” happened between Sandusky and a young boy in a shower on campus.

Interviewed in the film, Matt Jordan, a film professor at Penn State, says that Paterno’s firing was the “loss of the father figure” for the community, adding that Paterno “kept Happy Valley happy.”  And the denial and grief were compounded when Paterno died of complications from lung cancer on January 22, 2012.

When Sandusky was convicted on June 2, 2012, by a jury that had deliberated for over 20 hours, the crowd at the courthouse cheered wildly, like at the stadium.  Local attorney Andrew Shubin says that the community had been fiercely polarized and many in it were “as angry for the damage done to their football program and way of life as for the damage done to the kids” and with the “predator knocked out” were eager to dismiss ambiguities and restore “normal.”

The strength of “Happy Valley” is that it doesn’t ignore the ambiguities and contradictions of the horrific tragedy.  The film provides space for Paterno’s wife and sons’ profound sadness, and for them to discuss his legacy.  And Paterno is revealed as a figure of almost Shakespearean proportions, a man of many great qualities and talents–who developed young men’s characters, not just their athletic abilities, encouraging intellectual curiosity and leadership skills–destroyed by an inexplicable and grievously wrong, ongoing choice.

And while Bar-Lev shows, in the wake of gob-smacking NCAA sanctions, the crowd embracing “O’Brien’s Lions,” 2012′s “new era in Penn State  football,” he also includes professor Jordan, who comments on Sandusky’s conviction and the larger American situation, “We create a shaming spectacle to allow the culture to move on without doing anything.” And Shubin, the Pennsylvania lawyer, says “the focus on football (was) a lost opportunity for the community.”

“Happy Valley” will open on Wednesday, November 19 in New York at Village East Cinema and on Friday, November 21 in Los Angeles and will be available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, VuDu, Google Play and YouTube.

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“Interior Portraits”

Accord, NY

Accord, NY

I’m dog crazy (mine, Babette’s, friends’) and grin like a madwoman at every pup I pass on the street.  But I’ve managed to restrict the Venn diagram where my love of dogs and collectible objects overlap to vintage cast iron dog doorstops (and two boot scrapers). The first doorstop I acquired was in Lucketts, VA, and it was, of course, a black and white Boston terrier.

At an auction at the Epworth Center in High Falls over Memorial Day weekend 2012, I bulked up my collection, adding a German shepherd, an English setter, and expanding into the boot scrapers, a dachshund with the scraper in his back and two spaniels flanking the blade.  It was one of those rare sales that although the room was full, everyone else’s desire was fixed on other objects and my haul was a giddy bargain.

A uniquely stylish woman whom I recognized from New York (and only knew by first name) was after a few specific paintings and when she and I spoke, and introduced ourselves, I was surprised that she was someone I certainly knew ofLinda O’Keeffe, design writer and editor extraordinaire, and formerly the creative director of the much-missed Metropolitan Home.

That August Linda emailed to find out if I shot interiors in addition to portraits.  We met, talked for hours on her screened porch, and she asked if I’d like to shoot the Hudson Valley houses that would be part of the new book she was working on, her first for Rizzoli. With a lot of excitement (but also more anxiety than I’d had in accepting an assignment since very early in my career), I said yes.

Fast forward–I photographed eight projects for Linda’s recently-published “Heart and Home: Rooms That Tell Stories.”  The book includes houses, apartments and lofts–in New York (upstate and down), Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, Berlin, France, India, the Philippines–which belong to architects, designers (interior, fashion, furniture and creative), artists, collectors, antique dealers, and shows in gorgeous photos and layouts and fascinating pieces how the pros please their most demanding client: him/herself.

I loved the shoots–working with Linda, meeting the designers (and sometimes their dogs), loved how different shooting interiors is from shooting portraits, and then again, how it’s not that different.  And I’m immensely proud that one of my images is on the back cover.

Kerhonkson, NY

Kerhonkson, NY

Kingston, NY

Kingston, NY

Accord, NY

Accord, NY

Amenia, NY

Amenia, NY

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“And though she feels as if she’s in a play she is anyway”

Robert Greene, Brandy Burre, NYC, 11/7/14

Robert Greene, Brandy Burre, NYC, 11/7/14

Brandy Burre, the lovely titular “character” in Robert Greene’s fascinating new documentary, “Actress,” seems to live by a twist on Descartes, “I act, therefore, I am,”  and as a young performer with scant professional experience, she was selected by David Simon for a recurring role in “The Wire.”

But when very early in her relationship with restauranteur/bar owner Tim Reinke, she got pregnant with their son Henry, she abandoned her career, “chose to be a mom,” and the couple moved to Beacon, a small town in New York’s Hudson Valley.  Brandy characterizes the decision, “It wasn’t well thought out, I suppose.”

For several years, Brandy, with deep love for her children (daughter Stella was born three years after Henry), relishes her new role, but unable to have the part she had expected in Tim’s business, the reality of her “new adventure”–”stuck in the house with the kids” and in a relationship that feels stale–makes her feel “disenfranchised from my own life.”

As Stella turns three, Brandy decides to try to get work.  She also meets someone (the film correctly chooses to be vague about the particulars) and when Tim realizes, he moves out. Saddened by the split, but calling it inevitable, Brandy says, “we were playing the roles that you think you need to play.”  A scene in which they try to separate their belongings is profoundly sad, two wooden rolling pins standing in for all that is being lost.

Returning on the cusp of 40 to an industry that likes its women young to the point of absurdity (when I photographed Brandy, she pointed out that Ben Affleck’s twin sister in “Gone Girl” is played by an actress nine years his junior), Brandy is determined to work.

“Actress,” a hybrid of cinema verité and melodrama (one of Greene’s favorite directors is Douglas Sirk), is beautifully shot, mostly by Greene (with some assistance provided by frequent collaborator Sean Price Williams): trains leaving Beacon for NYC, a more and less frozen Hudson, Brandy back to the camera at the sink, orange dress, orange poinsettias, and a truly startling sequence beginning with a close-up of Brandy with a blackened left eye and a bandage above it, widening out to see her sitting on her sofa in the defuse light in her living room and being joined first by Stella and then Henry.

I’ve seen three films this year with Robert Greene’s name in the credits.  In addition to “Actress,” he edited Alex Ross Perry’s so funny/not funny “Listen Up Philip” and produced Amanda Rose Wilder‘s riveting, soon-to-be released documentary, “Approaching the Elephant.”  I intend to see all of his future projects.

“Actress” is playing at the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Elinor Bunim Munroe Film Center through Thursday, November 13.  Q&A with Robert Greene and Brandy Burre tonight at 7:00 pm (moderated by author and journalist Lauren Sandler) and at 9:30 pm (moderated by Dan Nuxoll of Rooftop Films).

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Fassbinder and His Friends, Part 2

Hanna Schygulla, NYC, 2/13/03

Hanna Schygulla, NYC, 2/13/03

When Rainer Werner Fassbinder, prodigious, original, unrestrained, died in 1982 at the age of 37, he left behind a miraculous body of work–nearly 40 feature-length films, made for theatrical distribution and German television, a mini-series “Eight Hours Are Not a Day” and a “maxi-series,” the towering, 14-episode, nearly 16-hour “Berlin Alexanderplatz.”

The Film Society of Lincoln Center, continuing its retrospective, “Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist,” beginning where Part 1 left off, will screen all of the director’s theatrical features (including the much lauded “The Marriage of Maria Braun,” and his final film, “Querelle”), and the non-series television work, that were made between 1974 and 1982.

Fassbinder returned obsessively to themes of love, exploitation (by intimates and society), crime, the effects of World War II, fascism and “the economic miracle” on Germany, realizing his work with a steadfast company of actors (including the incomparable Hanna Schygulla, Ulli Lommel, Kurt Raab, Hark Bohm) and other creative partners (among them, composer Peer Raben, editor Juliane Lorenz, now head of the Fassbinder Foundation, cinematographer Xaver Schwartzenberger).

Also included in the series are films in which Fassbinder acted for other directors (Volker Schlöndorff’s “Baal,” unseen for decades–the adaptation displeased Mrs. Bertolt Brecht–and “Kamikaze ’89,” directed by Wolf Gremm), films by directors he admired (Luchino Visconti’s “The Damned”), and two documentaries about RWF (Dietor Shidor’s “The Wizard of Babylon,” wrapped hours before Fassbinder’s death, and two free screenings of “Rainer Werner Fassbinder–Last Works,” with director Wolf Gremm in attendance).

So much.  Not enough.

“Fassbinder: Romantic Anarchist (Part 2),” at the Walter Reade Theater and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center, opens Friday, November 7, and runs through Wednesday,  November 27.

Clockwise from top left: Xaver Schwartzberger, Berlin, 2/25/83, Ulli Lommel, Hollywood, 11/18/82, Hark Bohm, Berlin, 2/21/84, Juliane Lorenz, Berlin, 7/7/82

Clockwise from top left: Xaver Schwartzenberger, Berlin, 2/25/83; Ulli Lommel, Hollywood, 11/18/82; Hark Bohm, Berlin, 2/21/84; Juliane Lorenz, Berlin, 7/7/82.

Left to right: Volker Schlöndorff, Munich, 6/25/82; Kurt Raab, Munich, 6/29/82.

Left to right: Volker Schlöndorff, Munich, 6/25/82; Kurt Raab, Munich, 6/29/82.

Wolf Gremm, Berlin, 7/10/82

Wolf Gremm, Berlin, 7/10/82

Barbara Sukowa, NYC, 8/7/83

Barbara Sukowa, NYC, 8/7/83

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A Revered Institution (And the National Gallery Is Important Too)

Frederick Wiseman, NYC, 11/5/14

Frederick Wiseman, NYC, 11/5/14

Frederick Wiseman, undisputedly one of cinema’s masters, has followed up last year’s “At Berkeley,” a view of a great public university at a time of dwindling/disputed resources, with his 39th documentary, a tour of the workings of London’s National Gallery (not without its own money issues).

“National Gallery” opens with a gorgeous montage of faces from the museum’s collection of Western masterpieces from the Middle Ages to the 19th century (Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Titian, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Rubens, Velázquez).  Then a quiet shot of a worker buffing the floor, followed by faces of museum-goers looking at the work.

Wiseman who shot for 12 weeks (with few days off), examines how the staff realizes its concern to build a bridge between, as one lecturer calls it, “the mystery around what the artist intended,” and the viewing experience of the audience, how the pictures speak to people through time.  And the viewing at the National Gallery is immediate, unmediated by digital devices, which are forbidden.

The filmmaker follows docents and curators in the galleries, attends lectures for teachers, life drawing classes, staff meetings.  Wiseman shows single works and exhibitions being installed, and paintings being restored, with not only tremendous technical skill but restraint, a deep reluctance to impose contemporary materials (and esthetics) on centuries-old work.

In a fascinating sequence, that involves both restoration and the proper lighting of work in the galleries, a staff member discusses that before electricity, paintings were made for where they were to be hung and the light they would have, and that an area of a painting that might appear as if it’s darkened over time, was made to glow in the light of a fireplace.

Asked by an interviewer how he approached filming the paintings, Wiseman answered, “It’s an exceedingly complex issue, especially bearing in mind the large number of artworks…I used an approach similar to making a film, alternating between wide shots and close-ups, and then working on the depth of field in the paintings. On film, the painting comes to life if you don’t see the wall, frame, or card to one side with the artist’s name, title, date and technical details…My aim was to suggest that the painting is alive and tells a story all of its own.”

“National Gallery” opens today at Film Forum for a two-week run, with Frederick Wiseman in person at the 7:50 pm show today and on Friday, November 7, and at 4:15 pm on Saturday, November 8.

I photographed art installations (and artists) for The Village Voice for 20+ years, often working when the gallery or museum was closed.  I always like being alone with the work, sometimes it was thrilling.  But the unmatched adrenalin experience was shooting “Picasso and the Weeping Women” at the Met for Peter Schjeldahl’s column.  He had requested details of the paintings–eyes, mouths, noses–and I complied, shooting  these extreme close-ups,  just a few inches from each painting, camera on a tripod, me on a stepladder.

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Brown (Stillwater Diary)

Stone Ridge, NY, 11/14

Stone Ridge, NY, 11/14

“All the leaves are brown…”

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