Milling Around

Calling all art lovers. After the Saratoga Film Forum’s Friday evening screening of The Mill & The Cross, Rachel Seligman, Associate Curator at the Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College, will lead a discussion about the film. “I have taught Bruegel in the past and have always loved his work,” Rachel tells us. “The conceit for this film is such an unusual one that I was very intrigued and curious about it. And the more I’ve read about it, the more excited I am to see it.”
Rachel and the Film Forum go a long ways back—and in fact she was the Film Forum’s first paid employee. Friday’s screening starts at 7:30 p.m. For more information, please visit the Saratoga Film Forum’s Web site or Facebook page.

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While You Were Art

Those of you who may have been fans of the old 1960s TV show Wild Wild West no doubt recall the episode where the evil Dr. Loveless invents a device that lets people travel inside paintings. The device is used for nefarious purposes (inhabited paintings placed in royal houses were designed to facilitate the theft of royal jewels, etc.), but having seen the episode at an impressionable age, I have always thought it would be pretty cool to travel inside a painting (of course, this would depend on the painting…). While those of us who require glasses often have the experience of being in an Impressionist painting, generally, though, we can only imagine what the oil-on-canvas-based life would be like.

Now, however, Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski takes moviegoers inside a painting, specifically, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1564 painting The Way to Calvary. The movie is The Mill & The Cross, which will screened at the Saratoga Film Forum this Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. This is not a first for Majewski, who is himself a painter; his 2004 film The Garden of Earthly Delights involved reenactments of scenes from the titular triptych by Hieronymus Bosch, which sounds like it would put the “trip” in “triptych.”
The Mill & The Cross goes even further than simply reenacting a painting—it uses computer graphics and heavy-duty compositing to simulate Bruegel’s visual style and place the actors within extrapolations and interpolations of what is on the canvas, in some ways “finishing” Bruegel’s work. The film brings the 16th-century Flemish master into the 21st century, and this “bringing Bruegel forward” is not just visual, but thematic as well.
Bruegel the Elder(so-called in retrospect to distinguish him from his son, also a painter, who became known, cleverly enough, as Bruegel the Younger) was known for what has been called “genre” painting; his works often featured peasants and the daily life of a fairly typical village. This was quite rare at the time, and Bruegel’s works have been important documents of 16th century Flanders. Part of this “everyday” life also unfortunately involved torture and execution, and the painting—and film—depict victims strapped to Catherine wheels, ravens pecking away at them. At the time, Flanders was occupied by Spain, and by all accounts it was a brutal occupation. As a result, the crucifixion of Christ depicted in the painting is performed not by the Romans, but by the Spanish. Bruegel invented a style of painting perhaps known as “protest art.”
Bruegel’s The Way to Calvary
And yet if you look at the painting (click here for a higher-resolution version), you’ll notice the milling crowd (as it were) going about their business blind to many of the horrific events around them, as if they have become immune to them.
Majewski spoke about Bruegel’s attitude toward the subjects of his painting in a recent interview:
[H]e is a realist in looking at human conditions. He is a profound observer. I feel a lot of compassion in his paintings, a softening for Flanders and its people. He is compassionate in his depiction, but realistic…it is the inbred condition of human beings, that’s the way it is…to be cynical you have to be on purpose, so to say.
His message is timeless, anything important happens, you most likely won’t see it because you just don’t see beyond your own nose…the foreground is less important…Bruegel’s attitude is truthful, I mean people go after the incidents that catch their eyes, but that’s not necessarily the most important thing happening around them.
Times have changed, but not too much:
People have to be particularly stronger today as we are attacked by many aggressive disruptions, whether we like it or not. Disruptions to our train of thought are constant; if you want to communicate with yourself there will be constant interference – radio, TV etc.
And, above everything, the mill. For Majewski, the mill is the primary symbol of both the painting and the film, representing the divine. There is a scene in the film when the blades stop and the world stands still. What should we make of this?

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Cult Following

When we hear the term “cult film,” the first thing that comes to mind is something along the lines of an old John Waters film, Plan 9 From Outer Space, or perhaps the quintessential cult film Rocky Horror Picture Show. So when we hear that Martha Marcy May Marlene is a “cult film,” the first question we may ask is, “Do I have to stay up until midnight to see it?” and/or “What did I do with those old fishnet stockings?”

Martha et al., however, is not that kind of cult film but is instead a film abouta cult—and, rather than midnight, it will be screened at the Saratoga Film Forum Thursday and Friday, January 19th and 20th, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, January 22nd at 3:00 p.m.  

Films about cults are surprisingly few and far between, at least beyond those TV “movie of the week” tales common in the 1970s and 80s about brainwashing and deprogramming. Dramatically, 1981’s Ticket to Heaven was the product of a late 70s/early 80s “cult mania” as the Moonies, Guyana, and others were in the news at the time, while 1999’s Holy Smoke!(starring Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet) takes a more Eastern route.
Martha et al. takes a different approach, and becomes much more of a psychological—perhaps even existential—thriller than a cautionary tale about brainwashing. Newcomer Elizabeth Olsen (she is the younger sister of Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen) stars as all three title characters: her proper name is “Martha,” while “Marcy May” is the name bestowed upon her by the leader of the cult she has found herself a member of, and “Marlene” is the generic name all the women use when they answer the phone. So right off the bat you can see there’s a bit of an identity crisis in the making.
Martha was led to join the cult—which is based in the Catskills—because of things that had gone wrong in her earlier life, although we don’t really know a great deal about what those things might have been. All the women in the cult are damaged psychologically in some way, and those kinds of damages are often what lead people to join cults.
The other thing that lures impressionable people—particularly young people—into cults is a charismatic leader. Let’s face it, few cults would be successful if they were run by complete shlumps. So Patrick (John Hawkes) is the charming Svengali, playing the guitar, extolling  a seemingly appealing countercultural philosophy, and knows how to push all the right buttons of impressionable young girls (and a few boys).
We only see the workings of the cult in retrospect, and in pieces. Martha has escaped the cult and fled to the home of her older sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and Lucy’s husband Ted (Hugh Dancy). It’s not the most comfortable of reunions, especially since Martha is silent on where she had been and what she had been doing; for all Lucy and Ted know, she just ran away from a boyfriend. However, as she readjusts to living with Lucy and Ted, she has flashbacks to her life in the cult, triggered by everyday activities. Her experience of cult life was at such an impressionable age, she is now unsure how “normal” people behave. To wit: in the cult, sex was a communal activity, and at one point Martha freaks out Lucy and Ted by, um, joining them. Awkward, to say the least.
Martha Marcy May Marleneis the sister film (so to speak) of director Sean Durkin’s 2010 short film “Mary Last Seen” which, like Martha et al., also played Sundance and Cannes. The two stories, while related, evolved together. Said the press notes for the Cannes screening of Martha et al. (via In Contention.com): 
The script for MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE took time to evolve. “I started in 2007 and was writing for a couple of years before we started to think about making it. It takes place in the summer and we wanted to shoot it in New York, so we had a three to four-month window. We tried to get it going in 2009 and the script wasn’t quite right. I had never done anything as a director to show people, either. I’d made a student short but it wasn’t something I wanted to show people since it wasn’t representative of what the feature film would be.”
Durkin decided to shoot a short instead that summer, MARY LAST SEEN, casting actor Brady Corbet in a role that he would reprise for the feature film, as a cult member who becomes Martha’s boyfriend. “I wanted to direct a short that was related,” recalls Durkin, “but I didn’t want it to be about Martha. I had all this rich material about how people get involved in cults, but that’s not what the script was about. I knew Brady Corbet was going to be playing Watts [in the feature] and wanted to do something with him as the same character. That’s where the short came from.

What makes people join cults and, perhaps more importantly, why do they (usually) stay, often to live in ways that are at odds with conventional morality—or even legality? Why do cult members give themselves over so willingly to their leaders (if Jim Jones comes to mind, well, he should)? I have never been a member of a cult, so it is only through movies such as Martha Marcy May Marlenethat I can get some idea. But as unusual (or horrific) the cult’s actions may seem to us as outsiders, think about how our normal activities may seem to someone who has been so conditioned by a cult. What is “normal” anyway?

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Kidding Around

In this age of computer-generated animation à la Pixar, it’s nice to see that some “old-school” techniques are often still the best school. Wallace and Gromit are two animated characters—a man and a dog, respectively—created by what is colloquially known as “claymation”—plasticine modeling clay is applied to metal armatures, and the figures are filmed using stop-motion photography, or one tiny movement at a time. It’s a time-consuming and laborious process, but the results speak for themselves, as you’ll be able to see on Saturday night, January 14, when the Saratoga Film Forum screens three W&G short features as part of the “Family Flick” series.
Wallace and Gromit were the brainchild of the UK’s Nick Park, who has a long history in animation. In 1985, he was hired by Bristol-based Aardman Animations (which produces the W&G films), and one of his earliest claims to fame was working on the cutting-edge stop-motion-animated music video for Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” (the dancing chickens were his). In 1989, a short film about talking animals living in a zoo (“Creature Comforts”) was spun off into a much-loved series of advertisements for the UK Electricity Board, which have since been named among the top 20 TV ads of the past 50 years.
Park created Wallace and Gromit in 1989 and the first W&G short was A Grand Day Out with Wallace and Gromit which, along with The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave, will be screened on Saturday. The series has gone on to win numerous awards, including three Oscars.
An extensive interview with Nick Park can be found by clicking here.
By the way, the Film Forum Family Flick is a new series launched last fall in which the screening is run entirely by kids who choose the film, man the projection booth, sell the concessions and generally run the show. If you happen to know any kids who might be interested, let us know at films@saratogafilmforum.org. The Family Flick series is sponsored by the Nordlys Foundation and all proceeds will be donated to charity.

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Journeymen

“We’re all looking for someone,” sang The Moody Blues back in 1968’s “Dr. Livingstone, I Presume” off the classic “journey” album In Search of the Lost Chord (I use “journey” rather than “trip,” which, when referring to 1968, is a word one uses advisedly). When we think of spiritual journeys, we often think of it in the context of a search for God, but it doesn’t always have to be. Case in point: the Emilio Estevez film The Way, showing this weekend at the Saratoga Film Forum. The Way is a classic “road movie,” a genre that long predates actual movies, and illustrates, through its four main characters, that we are all on our own, respective, individual journeys. From The Aeneid and The Odyssey, to The Canterbury Tales, to The Wizard of Oz, to Easy Rider, to…well, even to It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World…we’re all looking for someone…or something.
The Way takes place along El Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, a popular pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, where it is believed that the remains of the apostle St. James are buried. Originally a trade route in the pre-Christian era, The Way became a popular Christian pilgrimage route starting in the 8th century and even today draws walkers from around the world. In fact, The Way was filmed on location, and does feature many actual pilgrims.
However, “The Way”—singular—is a bit of a misnomer. There are actually a variety of routes that are collectively known as “The Way of St James,” depending upon where you are starting out. And tradition has it that “The Way” starts at one’s own doorstep. So even in the context of an ancient tradition, we all have our own, individual journey.
In The Way, Tom’s (Martin Sheen) journey begins in Los Angeles. He’s had an adversarial relationship with his son Daniel (Emilio Estevez). Daniel was a wanderer, and Tom felt his son’s life lacked focus. (See, Tom is an ophthalmologist, so he wouldfind a lack of focus objectionable…) Daniel, on his own journey, sets out to walk The Way of St. James, and is killed en route during a storm in the Pyrenees. Wracked with guilt, Tom sets out to collect the body, has it cremated, and decides to himself walk The Way in tribute to his late son, scattering Daniel’s ashes along the way.
Along The Way, Tom reluctantly joins up with three other pilgrims, each on his or her own, decidedly secular journey—or so they say. The Dutchman Joost (Yorick van Wageningen; I bet he got “Alas, poor Yorick” a lot) is walking The Way as to lose weight for his brother’s wedding; Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger) is a Canadian chain smoker who vows to break the habit once she gets to the end of the trip; and Jack (James Nesbitt) is an Irish writer trying to break his writer’s block, and tries using his fellow walkers’ journeys as fodder.
As befits a road movie—and characterizing it as such is not intended to belittle or trivialize it—the journey and the sharing of stories become more important than the destination. What do the characters ultimately find? The film may seem frustratingly mum on that—but that’s exactly the point. What do any of us on our own personal journeys find? Or, by the time we’ve found it, does it even matter?
The Way as a movie also had its own unique journey. Inspired by Emilio Estevez’s son Taylor, who had driven the length of The Way with his grandfather, the film did not have a lavish budget, and shooting on location required using a small crew and only available—that is, natural—lighting; nighttime scenes were shot using literally candles and firelight. After its release, it also did not have a lavish promotional budget, but it eventually became a rave success, initially on college campuses, by way of word-of-mouth buzz.
As you watch The Way, think about whether would you ever make that kind of journey.  What would you hope to find? Or would you just not worry about it and “take it as it comes”? And what kind of journey are you on now?

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Welcome to The Film Forum!

Welcome to the new official blog of the Saratoga Film Forum, the community organization dedicated to bringing a wide variety of quality films to downtown Saratoga Springs, New York. The Film Forum screens the best alternative, indie, arthouse, foreign, animated, documentary, and classic films Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm at the Saratoga County Arts Center at 320 Broadway, with additional “classic” films screenings at the Spring Street Gallery, 110 Spring Street. We also schedule special events throughout the year. To stay up-to-date on the latest happenings at the Film Forum, sign up for our mailing list here, and/or find us on Facebook.
One of the hallmarks of the “offline” Saratoga Film Forum is its sense of being just what its name says, a “forum” where film aficionados can gather and not just watch movies but discuss and debate them, as well. Thus, the purpose of this blog is to offer something a bit different than the usual review or promotional blurb. Here, we will be commenting on the movies we are currently showing, going behind the scenes, looking at some of the larger, overarching themes, placing a film in the broader context of film history, and so on. We encourage movie lovers to comment on any post and share their views—but please be civil.
Thanks for reading—and we’ll see you at The Film Forum.

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