Carte Blanche: Amy Taubin

Jean Peters and Richard Widmark in Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953)

A frequent contributor to this publication as well as to Artforum and the Millennium Film Journal—and in the past, to the Soho News and the Village Voice—Amy Taubin is one of the sharpest and most provocative and engaging critics currently writing about cinema. In the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, she appeared in films by Andy Warhol, Michael Snow, and Yvonne Rainer, and she can also be seen in Todd Haynes’s The Velvet Underground, from 2021. She’s also made a few of her own.

The Museum of Modern Art has given Taubin free rein in a series called Carte Blanche: Amy Taubin, and MoMA notes that her selections “celebrate a New York of the collective imagination.” Even better, Taubin has written the program notes. The series opens this evening with Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953), “a very sexy film,” she writes, “not simply because of the slap/kiss heat between Jean Peters’s sort-of bad girl and Richard Widmark’s agile-fingered cannon, but because Fuller’s charged-up camera moves and crossfades ensure the adrenaline rush.”

Fuller is “crude and subtle, blatant and deep, unschooled and spilling over with ancient lore, harsh and plaintive, cynical and so attuned to complicated human emotions, you can’t accuse him of being merely sentimental,” writes Lucy Sante in the essay accompanying our release. “If film noir is a genre in which tin-pot crimes are merely the outer manifestations of the churning unconscious, then Pickup on South Street is quintessential noir.” For Richard Hell, the film plays “like pulp journalism, like a fluid Weegee.” The noir classic will screen with Standish Lawder’s eleven-minute Necrology (1970), which Taubin recommends walking into cold.

Taubin has Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975) on the ballot she cast last year in Sight and Sound’s latest Greatest Films of All Time poll, and for this NYC-centric series, she’s chosen News from Home (1976), in which Akerman’s mother’s “anxiety-ridden missives permeate the film’s coolly distanced visuals of New York during the hottest days of summer.” Also screening tomorrow are two short films by Joie Lee about her mother, Untitled (2022) and Vitapoise (2023), as well as Spike Lee’s Crooklyn (1994), cowritten by Joie and Cinqué Lee and “a rare and indelible depiction of girlhood.”

Saturday offers Martin Scorsese’s Life Lessons (1989), starring Nick Nolte as an “effortlessly grand and hilariously self-destructive” painter, and Emile de Antonio’s Painters Painting (1972): “Simply the best filmed history of American painting from the 1940s to 1970, when New York was the center of the art world.” Later that afternoon, Kathryn Bigelow’s 1978 short Set-Up screens in front of William Greaves’s Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968).

In 2006, Taubin wrote the essay for our release, observing that what was “immediately striking about Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One was that it did not directly engage race or racism,” and yet at the time, “for an African American director to make a feature as experimental as a film by Warhol or Godard could not have been imagined if Greaves hadn’t gone out and done it.” On Saturday evening, Steven Soderbergh will be on hand to present High Flying Bird (2019), and Taubin recommends getting your hands on a copy of Harry Edwards’s 1968 book The Revolt of the Black Athlete. “The book is the movie’s ‘Rosebud,’” she writes. “You’ll see.”

Sunday is given over to the 1960s, and the day begins with eighty minutes of previously unseen footage from Andy Warhol’s never-completed Batman Dracula (1964), “his most ambitious film project” featuring “his potentially greatest superstar, Jack Smith, in the titular double role.” Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) “will transform your idea of what a film can be,” writes Taubin. “Because I am the woman who appears late in the film to make a phone call alerting someone to a death, I have always experienced Wavelength as a projection of an ever-intensifying awareness of mortality. In any case, my presence in what often has been praised as a moving-image masterpiece is my perch on immortality.”

Snow passed away in January, and we should note that—also on Sunday—Mezzanine and Los Angeles Filmforum will present a tribute to the interdisciplinary Canadian artist with screenings of Wavelength along with Standard Time (1967) and See You Later (Au revoir) (1990). After the weekend, Amy Taubin: Carte Blanche returns next Thursday with Darnell Martin’s I Like It Like That (1994), starring Luna Lauren Vélez as a rising record producer specializing in Latin music.

Taubin wraps up the series with Agnieszka Holland’s Washington Square (1997), an adaptation of Henry James’s 1880 novel. “Anchored by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s extraordinary performance as Catherine Sloper,” she writes, “the film zeros in on the source of patriarchal power: money, to be sure, but more crucially the refusal to value women, whether mothers, daughters, sisters, lovers, wives, or friends, as autonomous human beings.”

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