Aug 31, 2020

Writing About (Dead) Iconic Figures

In my last two "Cinema" columns for Ambassador, instead of interviews with living filmmakers, I was compelled to write about film professionals who are dead, namely Federico Fellini and Ennio Morricone. This was a somewhat new endeavor for me. I have written two long-form pieces about my favorite actress, Anna Magnani, one a review of a retrospective of her work at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and another in a year when there were so few Italian films released in the U.S., I could indulge myself by devoting a column to my favorite Magnani roles. 

I occasionally write about recently released classics on Blu-ray, mostly for Cineaste, for instance my recent review of John Ford's The Last Hurrah (1958). I always enjoy revisiting Ford, one of America's great directors, and researching stories about the production, especially when I feel that the movie is under-appreciated as this movie undoubtedly is—who can resist a cast that stars Spencer Tracy, and includes such Ford regulars as Basil Rathbone, Jane Darwell, Donald Crisp and John Carradine? 

With the Fellini and Morricone columns, my writing was focused on the work, the cinematic legacy, a comfortable circumstance for a film critic. With the 100th anniversary of Federico Fellini's birth this year, there was no way to avoid writing about him. His portrayal of women has always made his films problematic for me, and in revisiting his work in the course of my research, I found my opinion had not changed. Much of his oeuvre is dated, but the performances of his wife, closest collaborator and star, Giulietta Masina, are vibrant and worthy of more critical consideration than they have been afforded. Their collaboration gave me the "hook" for my piece. (It appears here:

With the Ennio Morricone column, which will appear in the upcoming Fall issue of Ambassador, the research was daunting, in part because of the length of the composer's career in film. I had the advantage of being able to read some newspaper articles in Italian, and that gave me anecdotes that did not appear in the American press, but it was necessary for me to conduct more database research than usual. While I consider myself well-informed on the subject of film music, I am not a musician. And, to write about the maestro, who was also a classical composer, I had to explain the reason his music was considered so innovative, without the benefit of a web-based platform. (Ambassador appears online but as a PDF.) In other words, I could not provide readers with musical or video clips.

I found myself rewriting the introductory paragraphs for two weeks before realizing that I needed some of the vocabulary of a music critic. Of course, I did more research, and that yielded an intriguing quote from Morricone in an interview published 25 years ago, in which he said that he began each of his compositions with "a brick from Bach." As a passionate early music "fan," I listen to Bach often, and started speculating about the nature of the maestro's "brick" in Bugsy (1991) and Cinema Paradiso (1994), two of my favorite Morricone scores. 

I was not exactly "off and running" after that—Red Smith was not exaggerating when he said that writing is an endeavor in which you "open a vein and bleed"—but I had the structure for my 1300-word article. In retrospect, I found a way to comment on the life of two iconic figures with some biographical research, although in the end mainly through their work. One of the benefits of being a film critic is that the research, in addition to reading interviews and reviews (and sometimes the more painful task of rereading your own published pieces), entails screening the work of talented filmmakers like Giuseppe Tornatore and Barry Levinson.

Jun 7, 2020

Pandemic Woes

Yet another iteration of Box Office's abandonment of Film Journal International's content has left dozens of writers with broken links and audiences without the comprehensive coverage of that magazine.
In addition to having less work over the past three months, I recently discovered some of the links on this website from Film Journal International (where I was a contributing writer for over 20 years) are not working because Box Office, the entity that purchased FJI, changed its website configuration. I'm working my way through fixing these.

Like others who do creative work, I also discovered that the pandemic did not really free up time for me to pursue projects that were delayed by the exigencies of earning a living. I never had that two-week pause many received during the depths of the pandemic; my husband and I were both working, he at locations away from home. Sitting 6 feet apart at the dinner table, and having to sleep in separate rooms, our only consolation was that we were still able to pay our bills. Uninterrupted sleep was rare--and still is as the phased "reopening" of the city feels rushed and ill-advised. 

Nothing stifles the ability to write more than anxiety. It is a romantic notion that the vast majority of writers are half-mad or heavy drinkers who continually ask their editors or publishers to extend their deadlines. Actually, just the opposite is the norm. Most of us stick to a strict routine of writing every day, and the slightest interruption of that routine--having to work in the afternoon rather than the early morning, for instance, or having too much work or too little--can cause tremendous disruption, to the point where an 800-word piece that usually takes a few days to write can stretch to weeks of revision.

Yesterday, Governor Cuomo announced that New York City saw "only 35 deaths." That flattens the curve, yes, but what of those 35 families who could not be beside their loved ones as they struggled to survive? And what of the families of the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who died? Have they "recovered"? The misery of loss, so many iterations of loss, hangs over the city. Four hundred thousand New Yorkers are expected return to work on Monday. Does that mean we have recovered?

I've not lost anyone to COVID 19, but the rush to "recovery" feels forced. I have trouble remembering what I wrote just a few weeks ago, and I have not touched the book I began in February. Finding my way back to my routine does not yet seem possible. The undertow is still there.

Mar 20, 2020

Updating Feature Articles

My Winter 2019 interview with Jared Lamenzo

Please note updates to "Recent Features" that includes some of my Toronto Film Festival coverage. In print, the cover story in the current issue of Cineaste is my interview with Kasi Lemmons for Harriet (2019), also part of my TIFF coverage.

See updates to "Favorite Interviews" that includes my interview with master organist Jared Lamenzo who also heads "Friends of the Erben Organ," an organization formed to restore the historic instrument in Old St. Patrick's Cathedral here in New York City.

Cinema in Our Historical Moment

Luca waiting for the 11 AM pet and scratch.
Spring is a busy time for film critics, but press screenings are far and few between this year, and major film release dates are being pushed to later in the year. In New York City and Los Angeles, movie theaters are shuttered. The very fabric of an industry, of its deal-making, its celebrity-packed festivals, and the glittering allure of openings and award ceremonies, seem evanescent—the Cannes Film Festival, founded in 1939, and cancelled after its first screening with the invasion of Poland, is rescheduled for mid-summer.

Critics are being offered Vimeo links for review, but magazines and newspapers are warning their freelancers that pages will be cut. This is true not just for those of us who write for print venues, but for online periodicals as well. Budgets, too, will be trimmed. Streaming services may be flourishing—it is hard to know when so many are private companies—but in a few weeks’ time, if not already, many Americans will tire of working at home. Frayed nerves are likely in households where spouses are suddenly working in the same room, and children and perhaps extended family, are also at home. I am accustomed to writing at home—in fact, I am challenged by my part-time educator position where I have to write in a cubicle. Now the latter will move to online modalities. I’m learning new skills.

I posted a list of films on my Facebook page ( for the age of viruses, but I feel as I did after 9/11. Somewhat adrift. Frontline healthcare workers are at risk, but they have purpose, as does the cleaning crew at my college—last week, Mickey, one cheery soul among that group, admitted that the absence of students made her sad, but that it was nice to be able to clean something and have it stay clean for a few days! So many have lost their jobs in New York City that of us struggling to adjust are lucky. While full-time and part-time educators, especially longstanding ones, are being tested by online course delivery, we, too, have purpose. But what of the purpose of the cinema, of the film book I am researching and writing? Learning is a lifelong pursuit, and I am in the privileged position of conducting research, of contributing to film scholarship . . . and I have a family that includes two cats. Eleven AM, right about now, is neck-scratching time. COVID 19 hasn’t changed that! The wisdom of our beautiful, furry companions: live in the moment.