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Global Giants and Golden Men

Michelangelo Antonioni and Federico Fellini

This week we lost one of the most beloved figures in film criticism, F. X. Feeney. A film historian, screenwriter, and critic known primarily for his work for the LA Weekly, Feeney was only sixty-six. Of the many tributes that have been posted over the past few days, perhaps the most moving comes from actor Paul Reubens, who first met Feeney back in the early 1970s and who, of course, tweets as Pee-wee Herman: “In every way, he was an amazing human. Gentle. Friendly. Astute. I will greatly miss him.”

Highlights from the week that was:

  • At the top of a fresh piece for Lapsus Lima, Greg Gerke recalls a conversation between filmmakers Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story) and Kent Jones (Diane) that pitted Michelangelo Antonioni against Federico Fellini “with the endpoint being an understanding that, given the choice, people should go with Fellini . . . Be [that] as it may, something about Antonioni is deeply embedded in my soul.” Why not both? With a season in London celebrating the Fellini centenary through the end of the month, Sight & Sound is running a series of articles approaching the work from a variety of angles. And Film Comment has recently posted the interview Renee Epstein conducted with Antonioni just after he had completed The Passenger (1975). When Epstein asks him about the enigmatic ending, Antonioni replies: “Things are what they are, they are what you see. We work with images not with words. I cannot use words. That is my problem.”
  • In the late 1960s, as West Bengal tumbled into poverty and political chaos, police and protesters clashed—often fatally—on the streets of Calcutta. “This was the atmosphere,” writes Abhrajyoti Chakraborty in the Point, in which Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen “made their respective Calcutta trilogies. Ray’s approach was typically humane: he etched out fictional portraits of three men trying, in their separate ways, to come to terms with the turbulence outside, their experiences indirectly reflecting the collapse of the city they had known. Sen plunged headlong into the chaos. He would travel with his cameraman to rallies, or to scenes of potential unrest.” While much of Ray’s work has been revived and restored, Chakraborty worries about Sen’s legacy. “His early films have already disappeared,” he writes. “In the months since his death, the fear has been that his work will be preserved only in memories.”
  • On the latest MoMA Magazine Podcast, Isabel Custodio talks with Laurence Kardish, who was a curator in the film department for forty-four years, about the relationship between the Museum and John Cassavetes. It was clearly one of mutual admiration. Kardish recalls a rough spot in Cassavetes’s career when the New York Film Festival had turned down The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976) and Opening Night (1977). “He was very upset about not being recognized in his hometown,” he says, “even after the success of Faces [1968] and A Woman Under the Influence [1974].” So Kardish programmed a full retrospective that culminated with the world premiere of Gloria (1980) and a dinner afterwards that Cassavetes ended up more or less stage-managing. Custodio also talks with MoMA’s current chief film curator, Rajendra Roy, who notes that Martin Scorsese has said something to the effect that after Shadows (1959), “we had no excuses.” Cassavetes had led by example, making the films he needed to make. No compromises. “Would Mean Streets be possible without Shadows?” wonders Roy. “Probably not.”
  • You’ll have heard that the Oscars will be presented on Sunday. Nine films are in the running for best picture, and in his latest piece for Tablet, J. Hoberman argues the case for many a cinephile’s least favorite of the bunch. Todd Phillips’s Joker is “undoubtedly the year’s Trumpiest movie and I mean that as a compliment,” he writes. “Not only an intelligent throwback to the feel-bad shock cinema of the 1970s, Joker is all but unique in its social realism: No other movie so cogently addresses the crisis of the present moment, both in Hollywood and the world.” For a delightful survey of seventeen Oscar contenders competing in an array of categories, turn to A. S. Hamrah, the Baffler’s new film critic.
  • Let’s wrap with an Oscar-related kicker. For the New Yorker, Dana Goodyear sits in as comedian Patton Oswalt, filmmaker Erik Nelson, and screenwriter Josh Olson lay down a commentary track for a forthcoming release of Russell Rouse’s 1966 megaflop, The Oscar. Cowritten with Harlan Ellison no less, and starring Stephen Boyd and Elke Sommer with walk-ons from Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and a slew of other Mad Men–era stars, the movie is, by all accounts, awful. Toward the end, Oswalt reminds the viewer of all the other things he or she could have been doing instead of watching The Oscar: “You will flash back to this moment on your deathbed and curse yourself.”

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