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Crash Course in The Golden Age of Cinema

DiCillo's Double Whammy
The closing show: Tom DiCillo's Double Whammy
June 6, 2002 | The original Golden Age of Cinema is generally considered to have stretched from the early 30's to the early 60's, when the Hollywood studios were at the peak of their powers and names like Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Bette Davis, and Humphrey Bogart were attached to titles like Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, and North by Northwest. Zhenya Kiperman, however, has a different vision. For the past two years. Kiperman, an adjunct professor in the film department of NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies, has produced and programmed a series that he calls "The Golden Age of Cinema Film Festival." Kiperman takes his definition of the "Golden Age" from something director Martin Scorsese once said: "This is the art form of the century... And this whole hundred years is like a Golden Age... People in 2050 are going to look back at this [entire] century as the Golden Age of Cinema."

"We look back at the entire 15th Century as the Renaissance era," says Kiperman. "It's a beautiful idea. It instantly defined the level of films to be picked and chosen. It puts a responsibility on you." What makes his series especially notable is the theme shared by the great films on this year's program all are classic New York stories. Also, Kiperman has been able to attract an impressive list of actors, directors, and writers to screenings, offering an insider's perspective to the audience.

"[The idea for] this year's program — "New York, New York" — came to me after September 11th," he explains. "[It] was intended as moral support for New Yorkers. The idea came when I was watching this big concert in Madison Square Garden dedicated to families and friends of the New York police and firemen who died. The concert happened in middle of the anthrax scare in New York and Billy Joel came out and said 'We ain't going anywhere.'"

Kiperman and Auster discuss Smoke
Kiperman and Auster discuss Smoke

Kiperman first came to New York from Russia 13 years ago and simply never left. "It's a tough city. Personally, I'm not sure that I even like New York, but I definitely respect it. I respect this energy, this cosmopolitan aura. I respect the opportunity it gives. A festival like mine could not have been pulled off anywhere else, with the filmmakers who live here and the love and respect for the art of film that New Yorkers have." The audience itself already reflects the diversity of the city. During the pre-show chatter, an observer can pick out conversations in Russian, Japanese, Hebrew, Italian, and French.

The theme of the first "Golden Age" festival was "The Giants," by which Kiperman means "the idea was to show some films that really affected the film culture and determined the direction that film culture developed after them." But after screenings of films by such masters as Chaplin, Fellini, De Sica, and Bunuel didn't sell out, the final shows — Scorsese's Raging Bull, Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Woody Allen's Annie Hall — proved to be extremely popular. He describes it as a "crash course in great films and filmmakers and great film movements of 20th century."

This year's program has included a number of modern filmmakers, including Jim Jarmusch, Tim Robbins, Tom DiCillo, and Paul Mazursky, and the crowds can't seem to get enough. "I just picked some of my favorite films, many that I teach regularly, and we [were] very lucky that most of the filmmakers involved appeared to be very responsive and enthusiastic and all our guests came."

Leary and Hurley: Double Whammy
Keitel lights up
Top: The Brooklyn of Smoke
Bottom: Keitel lights up

At the "Golden Age" screening of the 1995 film Smoke, Kiperman conducted a nearly hour-long question and answer session with the film's screenwriter, celebrated author Paul Auster. Smoke, which begins with a long, lingering shot of a Brooklyn-bound elevated subway with the World Trade Center standing in the background, is a real love letter to Brooklyn. Auster's literary style (a deep interest in the little personal philosophies of everyday folks) finds embodiment in a cluster of characters mostly centered around the fictional Brooklyn Cigar Company.

Auster said he "wanted to make a film that went completely against the Zeigeist. Something slow," where characters had "a chance to talk to each other, where words actually meant something." Each character tells stories. Long stories that drift like the wisps of smoke from a cigar. With actors like Harvey Keitel (who Kiperman calls a "genius actor"), William Hurt, Stockard Channing, and Forest Whitaker, it's easy to see how a writer used to working with words might feel emboldened to write long, involved scenes. Wayne Wang's direction is elegant but minimalist, with many scenes playing out in master shots and with few distractions.

Woody Allen's manhattan
Leary and Hurley: Double Whammy
Mueller-Stahl, Perez, and Esposito in the New York segment of Night on Earth
Top to bottom: Woody Allen's Manhattan, Scorsese and Dunne on After Hours, Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth

During his opening comments, Kiperman quoted a scene in which Paul (Hurt) flips through a book of seemingly identical photos that Auggie (Keitel) has painstakingly categorized chronologically. Auggie stops Paul and tells him "You'll never get it if you don't slow down, my friend." This sentiment is at the heart of Smoke's various character relationships. The whole film, with its lazy Brooklyn summer days and patient tone, has a very natural feel.

Kiperman feels very strongly about Wang and Auster's film. "Of the eight [films in the program], Smoke is my personal favorite partly because I live in Brooklyn. The real reason I like it so much is that it is about the ordinary people next door, people we know, people we see every day. We never get to talk to them but if we finally spare 15 minutes to talk to the guy behind the counter, or more importantly listen to him, we discover a whole world full of drama and poetry hidden behind the mundane, waiting to be discovered. It's much more challenging for an artist to reveal the extraordinary behind the ordinary, to reveal and convey the poetry behind the prose, and that's exactly what Paul Auster and the creators of Smoke have done, and exactly what Paul is doing always in his work."

The films in the 2002 series all display the different personalities of New York in their own unique ways. Martin Scorsese's After Hours (1985), which he once called "a parody of Hitchcock style," plays with the notion of downtown SoHo at night as a completely foreign land to an uptown guy. Woody Allen's Manhattan (1979), possibly the most visually stunning of his films, delves into his usual bag of neuroses and comes up with an extremely intimate analysis of the filmmaker's idea of love (as well as an oddly premonitory peek at tabloid headlines to come). Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder (1990) uses subways and streets as backdrops for mysterious, feverishly ambiguous visions that ultimately degenerate into a hellish nightmare. Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth (which also has segments set in Paris, Los Angeles, Rome, and Helsinki) views Manhattan and Brooklyn from inside a taxi filled with funny, loud, unpredictable characters. And Paul Mazursky's Moscow on the Hudson (1984) drops a Russian defector in the middle of Bloomingdale's and uses him to explore the rituals and traditions of being a New Yorker. Each of these films uses the city as a backdrop to explore different sides of humanity. In fact, the scale of the city has more often led directors and writers to create films that function on a personal level than as slam-bang eye candy.

Leary and Hurley: Double Whammy
Leary and Hurley:
Double Whammy

According to Kiperman, "the idea was to show how universal the artistic energy of the city is. As romantic and poetic as Woody Allen or Wayne Wang, at the same time it can be as close to hell as Jacob's Ladder or as tough and brutal as Taxi Driver. People just pick different parts. They don't build it, this is all the same city."

The film scheduled to wrap up the festival on July 2nd hasn't even had a chance to enter the pantheon of New York films. Tom DiCillo's Double Whammy stars Denis Leary, Steve Buscemi, and Elizabeth Hurley, but assorted hurdles have kept it off American screens. (European distribution hasn't been quite as elusive.) So far it has only had two public screenings in the US: at Sundance and the Tribeca Film Festival. In a recent interview in the New York Press, DiCillo explained how the film's original distributor (Lion's Gate) and the producers (Gold Circle) basically abandoned the project shortly before the release date. "Now [Gold Circle] keeps [their] million dollars. I had to cast the [financier]'s karate teacher in the film before he gave me the money. That's what I do for Gold Circle, and I don't even get anybody telling me that they're sorry." DiCillo is living a filmmaking nightmare right out of his indie hit Living in Oblivion (which was also featured in the "Golden Age" festival) "I've had to struggle to fund every single one of my films," DiCillo explained in the Press interview. "This is going to make raising the money for my next film a million times more difficult."

Kiperman suspects that the difficulties surrounding Double Whammy might have superstitious origins. He says DiCillo invited him "to a press screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. He invited many reporters to come. I arrived 15 minutes early and went to the men's room. While I was in the men's room, in the ladies' room a huge pipe broke. A huge flood of water burst into the hall and downstairs. I'd never seen [anything like it] in my life. Most reporters could not physically enter the building. I told [DiCillo] 'You call your movie Double Whammy, you expect problems.' He said 'I probably should call the next one Eternal Happiness.' At our screening we're determined to break this spell of bad luck."

The Cantor Fillm Center
The Cantor Film Center

Kiperman expects the film to be a huge hit at his festival. He says that each previous screening has been "very successful. It got a great reaction." It was a last minute addition to "The Golden Age" because "I think the film is great. I personally owe it to New Yorkers to do everything in my power so they can see this great essential New York film in theaters in the city. It's Denis Leary in his best part up to date, Elizabeth Hurley refreshingly funny and moving, and Steve Buscemi is, as always, hilarious."

He's also excited about some of the fresh talent in the film. He specifically mentions Melonie Diaz, in her first role, and Keith Nobbs, who plays a Tarantino-esque wannabe screenwriter (along with Donald Faison) whose violent visions have a tendency of coming true. Diaz and Nobbs will be at the screening along with DiCillo and various other members of the cast and crew. Kiperman's enthusiasm for the film is palpable: "Double Whammy is a much better film than 99% of the films that are playing in theaters right now."

Kiperman — who partially finances the festival himself — plans to expand the program next year. Some of the artists that he plans to invite include Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon, Natalie Portman, Martin Scorsese, Sidney Lumet, and Emma Thompson, as well as past participants like Jarmusch and Forman. But, ever the populist, Kiperman is also soliciting suggestions and requests on the "Golden Age" web-site.

Double Whammy will be playing at the final "Golden Age of Cinema" screening on Tuesday, July 2nd at 6:30pm (box-office opens at 6pm) at the Cantor Film Center (36 E 8th St, off University Place). DiCillo will be on hand to discuss the film along with various other cast and crew members.

The Golden Age of Cinema Film Festival
Tom DiCillo interview in the New York Press

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