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“It used to be so easy, my emotions were so close to the surface…”

–Gena Rowlands on acting

That’s me, on writing. I used to have words dripping from my fingertips. But no more.


Silverdocs 2011

Swinging by soon to pick up my pass and am very much looking forward to friends from all over converging in Silver Spring next week. Also very excited about the opening night film, Swell Season. Despite myself I loved Once, the simple love story that inspired the real-life love story between the film’s two stars and which is the topic of Swell Season, so I’m eager to check it out. Somehow all of my writing about film has moved to Facebook in the past few years…indicative of trends in social media, I guess, as well as a change in me. But Silverdocs starts Monday and I’ll be posting reviews and more in this space, so stay tuned. Or just keep catching up with my 140-character facebook status film reviews:

Spam and Waste

Had to put a 30-day limit on commenting because WordPress seems to have stopped blocking spam or something and I don’t want to be deleting hundreds of emails every time I (infrequently) update this thing.

But here’s an update: watched HBO’s John Adams, which was kind of bad but I was quite transported by the set design. So I watched the “making of” bit on the DVD and was kind of sickened by the amount of waste that goes into making a big-budget Hollywood film. They razed a stretch of land and actually built a mini Boston, tons of wood and bricks and all that. What happens to all this material when the production’s over? I hope it at least gets reused for other productions. But either way I was suddenly struck by how wasteful moviemaking is, all for the sake of make-believe. Check it out for yourself:

And just for kicks here’s Tracy Jordan/Morgan on 30 Rock in his Jefferson film, clearly a John Adams parody:

Drunk History

I am crying from laughing at this.

Amelia Earhart’s Prenup


Saw Earhart last night, which somehow managed to be both schmaltzy and lifeless.

No Wonder People are Scared of Clowns


Found this when searching for crochet patterns. *Shudder*

Silverdocs 2009

I’d like to blog Silverdocs this year but with two other jobs in addition to being on the programming committee I’m probably not going to have time. I will, though, likely be twittering via text @ceerock. And if you want some recommendations, please see ENJOY POVERTY for a seriously disturbing and thought-provoking satirical take on the tried-and-true save-starving-Africans doc, and for pure joy head on over to SUPERMEN OF MALEGAON, a real-life India version of BE KIND REWIND. You’ll smile through the entire thing, I guarantee it.


British Reportage of Israel

Wow. You don’t read about this stuff in American papers:

Across the street, behind a cordon, the Rabbi Avraham Greenberg took his Israeli passport from its plastic wallet and slowly set it on fire with a gas lighter until its ashes floated around him. He explained to the small crowd on the pavement that he had been born in the state of Israel but he was ashamed to hold a passport from that country. He stood with more than a dozen Orthodox rabbis who joined in chants of “Judaism here to stay, Zionism no way”.

But many more thousands of Jews attended in support of the rally rather than opposing it, waving Israeli flags and placards saying End Hamas Terror and wearing Stars of David on their faces.

State of Play

I’m only three episodes in to this six-episode BBC miniseries and I’m already sad in anticipation that it’s going to be over in three episodes. It’s that good. Put it at the top of your Netflix queue.

I did some rooting around, though, and found that it’s being adapted into a film starring Ben Affleck and Russell Crowe. Barf. It’s a conspiracy thriller so it’s not like it’s some sacred text that’s being defiled but it just has such perfect chemistry that there’s no way a dumb U.S. version condensed to two hours and starrring those bozos will be as good.

It’s to be released in 2009, so we’ll see.

Resolution: Take the Bitch out of Criticism

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to try to be nicer to people who like movies I hate. For some reason I’m not bothered if someone hates movies I love, but when someone loves movies I think are bullshit I fly into attack mode. I guess I consider being critical of someone for not liking a movie you like to be pushing an ideology on someone, while being critical of someone for liking a movie is … puncturing an illusion? Or maybe I’m just a jerk. I don’t know. At any rate, I apologize to those who have felt attacked by me and vow to (try to) disagree more elegantly. Though a recent trail of comments on my Facebook status indicates my struggle:

Cynthia hated slumdog millionaire, what is wrong with you people. 12:23am10 Comments
Aaron Dobbs at 1:12am January 3
You hate a lot of good movies. Your hating this one isn’t particularly surprising. 🙂
Cynthia Rockwell at 9:20am January 3
and you like a lot of crap, so likewise. 😉
Cynthia Rockwell at 1:06pm January 3
i will add:
-great music
-possibly cutest kids i have ever seen
-the outhouse scene is worth the price of admission alone

but that’s about it.

RT at 1:10pm January 3
is there a short answer to why you hated it? was gonna go see it today? Too Sappy? Manipulative? Etc?
Cynthia Rockwell at 1:28pm January 3
it may not be hollywood but it’s the height of hollywood melodrama, manipulative and obvious and big and bombastic. i scoffed through the entire thing. except the outhouse scene.
RT at 2:10pm January 3
seen this? I don’t know much about this org, but their picks & categories seem very lame..what are they thinking?
TE at 7:55pm January 3
oh, lighten up. it was entertaining and visually grand. i pay good money to be manipulated!
TE at 7:56pm January 3
and yes the kids were adorable, makes me want to bring home a little slumdog.
Cynthia Rockwell at 9:24pm January 3
“what will we live on?” “LOVE.” vomit! he is a shellshocked zombie and she’s a gorgeous party girl, they will break up a week later.
MP at 4:29am January 4
i’m with you, cynthia — it was cliched, poorly acted, full of holes, and shamelessly unimaginative. if we pay for manipulation let it at least be good manipulation.

but at least it was fast with lots of music and shiny colors.

Facebook status updates get most of my film criticism these days. I also posted a link to this article, with which I fully agree, but which also does the kind of criticism I tend to do but want to move away from: criticizing the critics rather than the film:
A quick scan through the critical reactions on a review aggregator like Metacritic or Rotten Tomatoes reveals a fountain of excessive praise, as if, with the year’s end approaching and the award-movie field looking paltry and weak, many critics found themselves in possession of use-it-or-lose-it superlatives and decided that Slumdog was their only chance to get rid of them.
But on the fundamentals of the film itself, I fully agree with him:
Slumdog isn’t a terrible movie, but it’s sappy, suspense-free, and packed with one-note characters, including a female lead who’s more object than person. In terms of violence, it’s grittier than most similar pictures, but mostly in a desperately “edgy” way that seems designed to gloss over its blatant sentimentality. The best you can say about it is that it’s stylish schmaltz.

Tell No One

“It sounds like a schlocky thriller but it’s French, it has to be better than that, yeah?”

I was wrong.

Spoiler ahead.

Please no more movies where the big secret, the root of all evil, is pedophilia. Cheap. Use a little imagination, screenwriters.

Not Offensive, Just Kinda Stupid

What’s most notable about the film’s use of blackface is how much softer it is compared with the rather more vulgar and far less loving exploitation of what you might call Jewface. Hands down the most noxious character in “Tropic Thunder” is Les Grossman, the producer of the movie-within-a-movie, who’s played by an almost unrecognizable Tom Cruise under a thick scum of makeup and latex. Heavily and heavy-handedly coded as Jewish, the character is murderous, repellent and fascinating, a grotesque from his swollen fingers to the heavy gold dollar sign nestled on his yeti-furred chest.  link

Jewface? Huh? Other than his name (Les Grossman) there is nothing “coded as Jewish” in his appearance or demeanor, and most certainly not “heavily and heavy-handedly,” unless Manhola considers baldness, hairy chests, gold chains, and belligerent attitudes to be code for Jew. I’m afraid  Jews don’t have a monopoly on those traits, Manhola. This is what I would more precisely term as heavily coded for Jewish:

And this is what I call worth the price of admission to a film that is really not very funny and full of belabored jokes:

Attack of the Vaginas!


Fascist Opening Ceremony


While I was as wowed by China’s opening cermony for the Olympics as the rest of the word was,

I was struck by how much it reminded me of the film Hero and its fascist imagery.


Only a few days later did i find out that Hero director Zhang Yimou directed the ceremonies.

I wanted to do a little “Hero or Opening Ceremonies?” photo-guessing game but either my web connection or my computer has slowed to speeds that make such a photo-finding mission unpalatable. So this taste will have to do.

The End of Silverdocs, the End of the World

I was on the programming committee for Silverdocs this year, which has made the question of blogging a bit confusing for me—how do you review an event that you had a hand in creating? My answer for now is to review just those films I hadn’t yet seen in the programming process, those I did not vote on.

One of which was Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, in which the director continues on the path of the aging artist who no longer has patience for subtlety and now spells out his ideas for you in plain English. Or with a brick over the head. Back in 1971 Herzog made Land of Silence & Darkness, which is about people who are both deaf and blind, and I still think about the scene where the camera just sits, and sits, and watches a deaf-blind woman as she sits on her bed. The silence, to use a cliche AND pun, is deafening, as we watch her and ponder, where *is* she?

In some later films, as his patience wears thin, Herzog’s camera will linger on a person’s face, but in voiceover he’ll *tell* you what he thinks that person is thinking. And in Encounters at the End of the World, in which Herzog travels to Antarctica to photograph the breathtaking ‘ecstatic imagery’ of the landscape and interview its odd inhabitants, all tact is lost and he moves to damping down the sound while a subject is talking and coming on in voiceover to paraphrase and interpret what the subject is saying as he says it. At least he’s not hiding anymore the fact that he often invents scenarios in his “documentaries”; it’s almost as if he’s making a joke out of it. He does it twice in the film and the audience got a hearty laugh out of it. Much of the film is funny, in fact, which is another, more refreshing trait that has emerged in Herzog’s films as he ages. Most of his early films were deadly dramatic and bombastic, but he seems to have embraced the knowledge that enlightenment means lightening up (to quote that mad genius in his own mind, Mike Myers). In interviews he has always been hilarious while at the same time poetic and thought-provoking, and his films now embody that as well.

And nothing is funnier than the exchange in the film between Herzog and a scientist who studies and lives with penguins. “Can a penguin go crazy?” he asks the laconic man. And he clarifies, “I don’t mean that a penguin will suddenly think he’s Napoelon, but do penguins ever just get fed up with their colonies and leave?” And what follows is the most poignant sequence in the film, a film he vowed in voiceover would not be “another penguin film.” We watch a line of penguins waddling toward the sea in the distance, while one stops and seems confused for a moment, and then begins wandering off alone on a path toward the mountains, and as Herzog points out, toward certain death.

The parallel to humans is obvious, as Herzog has throughout the film (and indeed, throughout his career) been interrogating the various weirdos and “castoffs” who inhabit such an inhospitable place. And I think in his youth Herzog would have let that point make itself.

Silverdocs: Dust

A funny thing happened in the screening of Dust, a German film about the infinitesimal particles that we consider insignificant yet battle daily, in futility, to get rid of. I had high hopes for the film, as it seems there is such poetic possibility in this tiny disregarded stuff that is much stronger than us, more ubiquitous, and ultimately even lethal. When the film started, the projectionist had the wrong aspect ratio so the bottom portion of the film was cut off, leaving us able to see only about half the subtitles. We all sat for about 10 minutes wondering what the hell we were watching—we only got about every third sentence, and even then it was just a partial sentence, leaving me puzzled as to whether the film was so poetic I just didn’t get it or if something was missing. After I checked with the theater manager and they resolved the problem, I was glad to see that even with full sentences, the film does attempt poetry, and inspires thought—the images of the obsessive-compulsive housewife wiping down everything in her home, even the inside of her television, in a battle against dust; images of terrifying dust storms about to swallow whole towns in Oklahoma in the 1910s; and the image above, part of a sequence showing the impossibility of ridding the floor of all traces of a pile of red dust. These tiny particles seem to rule the world, even the universe, the film points out. But despite the Godardian narration, which constantly brought to mind the coffee cup scene in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, unfortunately the film is rather heavy-handed at times, forcibly making and repeating its philosophical points and pounding some of the film’s mystery—yes, I’ll say it—into dust. And it didn’t help that some of the more scientific explanations were too technical to be understood by the layperson, or perhaps just too dryly presented, and dragged on way too long. Overall the film provided plenty of food for thought, and I admire the effort and the intention, but would have preferred a bit more mystery.

Silverdocs: Head Wind


Leave it to me to get teary-eyed from a film about Iranians installing illegal Satellite TV dishes. But near the end of this film, which takes an often humorous approach to the proliferation of foreign TV programs and internet access in Iran despite the government’s tireless efforts to prevent it, two of the film’s subjects offer plaintive cries about the way the government’s restrictions are stifling their thoughts, their dreams, their desires. One is a former journalist whose paper was shut down by the government, who now operates a roadside tea stand where he offers free newspapers to his clientele, and the other is an underground rock musician who dreams of playing his music “above ground”, where he can be heard and not have to hide in a hole. The musician says he will continue playing underground, because such agitation, even if futile, is better than apathy. He will continue to play in opposition to the govenment’s plan to separate the people from their desires. (Sniff, sniff.) And the journalist searches the Internet every day for news from around the world, even though most sites he visits are blocked by the government days after he finds them. But he persists, saying that it helps him to still feel like a journalist, and not just a former one.

And yet, the film is not so simplistic as to claim that access to media will cure everything. We see families (who have illegal Satellite dishes installed) eating dinner around a TV set, staring trance-like at images of Christina Ricci and Hugh Jackman and not interacting with one another. And the very image of the technology itself—the crude dishes, the old TV sets, the antennae boosters—is ugly, marring the gorgeous Iranian mountainside.

But there are moments of transcendence. A man riding a donkey down a hill sings at the top of his lungs, as the film cuts to a television set showing a music video for the song he’s singing, offering us the source of the man’s inspiration, his dreams.

It’s Silverdocs Time Again

bf…and I’ll be there. I had the pleasure of previewing some shorts for the festival, the highlight of which is the newest from Jay Rosenblatt, the man who had me bawling my eyes out in the sheep-shearing scene of his Phantom Limb a couple years back at Silverdocs. We also studied a few of his films in my grad school classes, and images from the highly intense Smell of Burning Ants is still burned into my brain. This year’s offering is Beginning Filmmaking, in which he tries, and struggles, to teach his 4-year-old daughter Ella how to make a film. This is a very different film than his others, as it consists entirely of home-movie footage of Rosenblatt himself grappling with a child who clearly has her mind on other things. “I wanna make a movie about me eating a lot of candy,” she proclaims when her dad gives her a camera for her birthday. At every turn Rosenblatt tries to impart his wisdom about camera angles and focus, but Ella more often than not would rather be thinking about fairies. As Rosenblatt gets increasingly frustrated the film seems to transcend its ostensible subject of a father-daughter or teacher-student relationship and becomes a portrait of a man trying desperately to control the uncontrollable. “Listen to me.” “Sit down.” “Pay attention.” “Don’t lick the screen…” and on and on; in one scene the camera even chases Ella down the hallway as she runs from her father. In every scene Ella seems to outsmart her dad, or at least slip from his grasp. “Now, what does focus mean?” he asks her. “I’m out of focus…” she says, crunching on an apple. “What is light?” he asks. She touches his arm very lightly with her fingertip, whispering “this is light.” I stopped thinking of her as his daughter, or even as a child, and began seeing it as the monumental and ultimately futile struggle of head trying to control heart.

Another lovely little short is Shikashika, a dialogue-free film about the process of making Shikashika, or shaved ice treats. The film follows a Peruvian family whose business is selling shaved ice at a weekly market. Each week the entire family climbs a mountain in the Andes, hacks out a large chunk of ice, straps it to a donkey’s back and brings it back down the mountain, and takes it to market, where mom shaves bits off and douses them with sweet fruity syrup for eager customers. With beautiful cinematography, a lyrical structure, a happy family, and the gorgeous Andes, the film, like the shaved ice, is saturated with color.

Stay tuned for the next post, with a few more shorts and a profile of the features I’m looking forward to…

Where Has the Year Gone?

I don’t know but I didn’t think you’d be interested in hearing detailed fangirl analysis of my latest obsession:


So I haven’t blogged much. But expect a Silverdocs preview coming soon…

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