New York Film Festival - diary four

From the Applied Science of Tim's Vermeer to the Cloud Chamber Mystery, It's The Cat and a restoration of The Chase.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Revivals, Views From The Avant-Garde, Convergence, Applied Science, Motion Portraits took place at the New York Film Festival.
Revivals, Views From The Avant-Garde, Convergence, Applied Science, Motion Portraits took place at the New York Film Festival. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Breaking off from the New York Film Festival Main Slate, here are some of the highlights. In the Applied Science programme at the press conference for Teller's Tim's Vermeer, David Hockney, Johannes Vermeer, and Jimi Hendrix were intertwined by Teller's partner Penn Jillette. This year's Convergence focused on the "intersection of technology and storytelling" and opened with a Keystone Presentation of Investigate North's The Cloud Chamber Mystery, co-produced by Lars von Trier's Breaking The Waves producer Vibeke Windeløv, whom I met at the New York Film Festival in 2003 where she presented Dogville with Nicole Kidman. In the Revivals, Arthur Ripley's restored The Chase starring Robert Cummings, Michèle Morgan and Peter Lorre would be a high-water mark for any festival, at any time. In New York, it was screened with the added treat of Mark Kausler's It's The Cat, and Some Other Cat.

Tim's Vermeer

Teller, Tim Jenison, and Penn Jillette discuss Tim's Vermeer
Teller, Tim Jenison, and Penn Jillette discuss Tim's Vermeer Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Tim Jenison, an inventor from San Antonio, Texas, decided to re-paint 17th century painter Johannes Vermeer's The Music Lesson, in an attempt to prove the theory, brought into the spotlight by David Hockney, that the Dutch master used "technology" like a camera obscura, to paint his art. I attended the conference in 2001, at NYU where Hockney explained the "Secret Knowledge" of optical devices used for centuries by artists. Jenison admitted "I'm not an art historian, I'm not an art critic and I'm not an art expert - I'm a computer guy who did a weird experiment."

"We know nothing about how he [Vermeer] worked," the film states during a visit with Hockney. The project started in 2008, although Tim began thinking about it in 2000, and it took many years before the "magic varnish" could be applied.

Penn & Teller, producer and director of Tim's Vermeer respectively, joined their friend Jenison for a press conference to discuss how the fascinating journey, based on the "dream of trying to paint a Vermeer" came about.

Jenison spoke about how "the camera obscura goes back to Egyptian times" and how he "thought not only about tracing shapes but tracing colors."

Jillette first got in involved over a supper conversation: "You want to know about Vermeer?" And he started telling me… And he also showed me. My mind was blown. I didn't know much about Vermeer. I told him 'just stop what you are doing - this has to be a movie.'"

Teller kept mostly quiet during the conference. Penn took the wind out of the sails of anyone who might feel that the experiment shown in the film could diminish Vermeer's artistry by defining what we mean when we speak of technology: "Paint is technology, brushes are technology, a canvas is technology. I don't think that any use of any technology diminishes art whatsoever. Art is not sports. Art is not the Olympics. It is okay if Jimi Hendrix used some drugs to write his records. It is okay if you use a projector. It's okay if you use anything. What matters is what's there. Once anyone has decided that one photograph ever taken is art, we have opened this up completely."

The Cloud Chamber Mystery

Christian Fonnesbech and Frederik Øvlisen presenting The Cloud Chamber Mystery
Christian Fonnesbech and Frederik Øvlisen presenting The Cloud Chamber Mystery Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Christian Fonnesbech and Frederik Øvlisen presented their concept for The Cloud Chamber Mystery that they hope will revolutionise online storytelling as "part alternate reality game, part film, part social network".

"It's about faith," Fonnesbech said at the opening Convergence event. "Twelve months ago, it took an hour to explain, today it takes two minutes and 50 seconds." He said he felt "haunted by the idea of what is the narrative form of the internet" and agreed with his CEO Frederik Øvlisen that to be successful, "It has to feel real and it has to be big enough for people to suspend disbelief". Financed by the Danish government and with Vibeke Windeløv as one of the producers, Cloud Chamber combines the personal with the galactic. Creative Director for Investigate North Fonnesbech, showed an image of his biologist parents' wedding with his "very religious grandparents" next to the happy couple. The director concluded, after he spoke to astrophysicists about the 100 billion galaxies out there, "claiming that we're alone seems a little self-centered." Øvlisen, who has an economist background, talked about "stories as service" and "how to tell stories to the Facebook generation". "We don't believe in user generated content," they agreed.

This is how they describe the experience: "Players are asked to work together via a single web portal to uncover the story of a young scientist who risked her sanity and betrayed her father in order to save humanity from its most dangerous enemy: itself."

It's The Cat, and Some Other Cat

Mark Kausler's It's The Cat
Mark Kausler's It's The Cat
One of the last hand-drawn animated cartoons, Mark Kausler and Greg Ford's It's The Cat from 2004 is set to the tune of It's The Cat by Gus Kahn and Isham Jones. The slightly unhinged protagonist cat goes for a stroll, makes a wooden plank carousel on a dog's head and flies off, taking a bite out of the moon. Can a cat exchange faces with the moon? Why not! When three blind mice dance by with their canes, you might remember for a second why you started loving movies in the first place.

Some Other Cat, the more recent sequel from 2012, kisses the photo of his beloved, picks up some cacti in the desert and off he goes to Pearly's house to pay her a visit, but - oh, no - there is someone else with her! If these cats and their tempo don't lift your spirits to the sun and the moon, nothing will.

Greg Ford, who attended the screening was slightly puzzled at the placement of his films together with The Chase. Festival chair Kent Jones told me in our conversation before the festival that he didn't want the cats to get lost in the short film programme, "it seemed like a good place to do it, because The Chase is kind of a crazy film".

The Chase

Robert Cummings as Chuck Scott and Michèle Morgan as Lorna Roman in Arthur Ripley's The Chase
Robert Cummings as Chuck Scott and Michèle Morgan as Lorna Roman in Arthur Ripley's The Chase
Based on Cornell Woolrich's novel The Black Path of Fear, Ripley's gem, The Chase - about a distressed ex-GI played by Cummings - was shown in the Revival section in a restored version that makes you feel as though you were in the audience in 1946 when the film first came out. The restoration - which is also being screened at London Film Festival - is perfect, because it helps the time-traveling and gives a sense of newness that is particularly effective when expressionistic atmosphere and stylish nuances rise to the fore and convince you of the structure of dreams.

There's Lorre, in a well-fitting suit and black shirt as Gino, Eddie Roman's (Steve Cochran) glib gangster aide. Roman has a woman barber: "How do you feel being a barber?" he says and slaps his manicurist in the face, because she "moved not quickly enough." Tough to be a woman in this world, or a "silly law abiding jerk", as Lorre calls someone not in their circle. The ex-GI becomes a chauffeur and meets the lady of the house played by the luminous Morgan. "Mrs Roman doesn't travel very much." "Doctor's orders?" "No. Mine." The husband looks at her filled with hatred. "She's lovely, isn't she?"

Cinematographer Franz Planer outshines himself when the, you guessed it, new couple escape to Havana, "because all roads lead to Havana". The song, something like "You're a promise of love," lingering in the Cuban bar sounds exactly the way the texture of the drink in the little glasses must taste - slightly sticky and utterly intoxicating. The light in her hair, her eyes, the glass - and the police, who know from experience: "You loved her so you killed her. That's undeniable." A knife with a little monkey closes all eyes.

Here is the information about the restoration: "After a decade-long search for elements, UCLA Film & Television Archive acquired a 35mm nitrate composite dupe negative from an archive in France, and dupe picture and track negatives from MGM. All of the elements were incomplete with considerable physical wear, however they are the only known surviving 35mm materials. UCLA relied on the various 35mm picture and track elements as much as possible, and only resorted to the 35-16mm reduction negatives when necessary. Combining these incomplete elements, UCLA completed a photochemical restoration using limited digital tools to restore a short section."

Greg Ford, producer of the animated films It's The Cat and Some Other Cat
Greg Ford, producer of the animated films It's The Cat and Some Other Cat Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

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