Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Female Gaze: Alice Neel and Women Artists Who Inspire

By Devin Wachs, Public Relations Manager

In honor of tomorrow's screening of Alice Neel, a documentary about the esteemed 20th century painter known for her expressive oil portraits, we asked audience members who their favorite female artist was and why. A number were fans of Neel's work, which you can currently see on display in the show The Female Gaze: Women Artists Making Their World at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA).

Here are our favorite responses:
"My favorite female artist is Mary Cassatt. I've always loved her paintings of children--playing at shore, little girl in a straw hat, little girl in a chair. The paintings are lovely and peaceful. Love her use of color and how her paintings make me feel.
I grew up in Augusta, GA. Now I live in Berwyn and exercise at the Upper Main Line Y--[located in] the Cassatt mansion. Life is surprising." - Joan Coney

Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878 (oil on canvas) by Mary Stevenson Cassatt (1844-1926)
"Alice Neel is my very favorite female artist and I am very fortunate to own one of her still lifes. I met her a year before she died and she showed an interest in doing my portrait but became ill so it never happened. Her art speaks to me with an expressiveness that very few other artists show." - Shirley L. Kurland
"There is no question... Alice Neel is my favorite female artist. Any woman who will paint a nude portrait of herself in her seventies when her bod badly needs ironing has my vote!" - Jean Homeier

Alice Neel at work in the documentary Alice Neel, showing at BMFI this week.
"Georgia O'Keeffe lived a life that we all wish we had the courage to live, forging a path for strong women to be able to follow their hearts rather than the predicable road that society has paved." - Jocelyn Grover

Thanks to everyone who responded and congratulations to Joan Coney, who won two tickets to tomorrow's screening for being the first one to reply! We hope that you'll join her to learn more about Alice Neel's work and her unconventional life. PAFA's Senior Curator Robert Cozzolino will introduce the film.

Which female artists inspire you? Tell us in the comments below.

Devin Wachs is the Public Relations Manager for Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She joined BMFI in 2005, following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College. If you send BMFI a message on Facebook or Twitter or are interested in onscreen sponsorships, she's the one who'll be in touch!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Miguel Gomez: Why I Love Miyazaki's Films

In celebration of our retrospective of Japanese master animator Hayao Miyazaki's films, showing on 35 mm as part of our Saturday Kids Matinees, Viva Video!’s Miguel Gomez explains why he thinks audiences of all ages should see Miyazaki’s animated gems.

Why I Love Miyazaki's Films
By Miguel Gomez, BMFI Patron and Viva Video! Owner

BMFI's Saturday Kids Matinees have been a bounty of wonderful so far this month, featuring the works of one of my favorite directors, Hayao Miyazaki. My son, wife, and I have been entranced by both My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service so far, and we can't wait for the remaining films in the series, Spirited Away (my personal fav) and Ponyo (a wonderful version of “The Little Mermaid" aimed at the younger set). The magic and beauty of Miyazaki's work has been clearly evidenced by the fact that, although the screenings have been filled with young 'uns, the audiences have remained quiet aside from appropriate laughter and even some clapping upon the films' completion!

Prior to Spirited Away, Miyazaki had been making films for years; Spirited Away is his eighth feature film. All of them are 100% worth your time, particularly Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind and Princess Mononoke, which aren't part of BMFI’s Miyazaki Retrospective. I find Spirited Away of particular interest because of the way it straddles children's cinema and cinema for adults. The imagery in this film is of such incredible creativity that anyone watching it should be floored by what they see.

A scene from Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away
Heads up adults! Make sure you have your child's hand nearby for you to hold when you watch Spirited Away. The surreal nature of the film is downright freaky to those above the age of ten. Having rented the movie to families for years over at TLA Video, and now at my own shop in Ardmore, Viva Video!, I have never encountered a kid that was scared by the movie, but most adults that have watched it (and loved it) could definitely use their child's hand for comfort during some of the more surreal moments in the film.

Miyazaki's films are interesting for a few reasons. First, the pacing and narrative arcs are really different than what you may be accustomed to watching. Both My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service (screened earlier this month—I do hope you saw them, they are fantastic!) are just a bit off-kilter. Conflict plays out to a different rhythm, and the third acts are generally more low-key and subtle than we see in most films. Kiki's Delivery Service even includes a fair amount of story during and after the end credits! These films are lovely, and tend to seem like a window into these fantasy worlds, which feel much more real due to these structural shifts. It's hard not to imagine the stories continuing outside of the bounds of what you see in the theater.

Also of note is the feminist nature of Miyazaki’s films. It is rare to find a film—movies for adults included—that features strong, well-rounded female characters as agents of action. His characters don't depend on males to get them through troublesome scrapes and they aren't entirely pre-occupied with finding a boyfriend. Impressively, they aren't presented as one-dimensional tomboys either. In Kiki's Delivery Service, Kiki both saves the boy from certain death and wants to wear a pretty dress. In Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (not shown at BMFI), the main character is a warrior princess of sorts who fights for her land and the environment. I feel embarrassed for the film industry as a whole when watching Miyazaki's children's films portray more three-dimensional female characters than most of Hollywood's output intended for adults. If you have a girl child, you owe it to her to show her these films and undo some Barbie-style harm. If you have a boy child, you owe it to our society to show these films to them to combat what preconceptions they may have gotten about female roles from pop culture!

BMFI’s five-film tribute to Hayao Miyazaki continues Saturday, March 23 with Spirited Away and concludes with Ponyo on Saturday, March 30. Screenings are at 11:00 am and are presented on 35 mm film, the way they were intended to be seen!

Miguel Gomez, in addition to being a Haverford College grad and an all-around good dude, worked at TLA Video in Bryn Mawr for thirteen years. After TLA closed last October he opened up his own video rental store in Ardmore, Viva Video! The Last Picture Store to continue to bring all manner of cinema from Alphaville to Zombie to the Main Line. Visit him at his store and get updates at or follow Viva Video on Facebook.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Alan Webber: Why I Love BADLANDS

BMFI patron and film fan Alan Webber shares with us his reflections on Terrence Malick's directorial debut Badlands, the first film featured for discussion in our four-week Special Topic: Philosophy on Film - Terrence Malick’s World program, which starts on Thursday and is sponsored and presented by the Greater Philadelphia Philosophy Consortium.

Death and Poetry on the Prairie
By Alan Webber, BMFI Patron
*Spoiler alert*

One of the perks of getting married is that your spouse brings to the marriage all of the great books and authors she has come to love. Thus, it came to be that my wife introduced me to the “prairie” stories and novels of Willa Cather (1873-1947), most notably My Ántonia (1918). A true masterpiece of American literature, My Ántonia is a lyrical tribute to the Eastern European immigrants who settled the harsh landscape of the Nebraska prairie where Cather had spent her youth. In My Ántonia, the land becomes a character and shapes everyone on the hardened soil and under the vast prairie sky. It is a novel of astonishing beauty.

Like Cather, Terrence Malick also is enraptured with nature, and this is immediately evident in his debut feature film, Badlands (1973). This film changed the way I view all movies, and in its own way, Badlands is as much a masterpiece as My Ántonia.  In addition, when writing and directing Badlands, Malick was inspired by real events that took place in the same Nebraska landscape where Cather had grown up.

Caril Ann Fugate and Charles Starkweather, the inspiration for Terrence Malick's Badlands
Charles Starkweather, the notorious “Mad Dog Killer”, emerged from rural Nebraska as a poor 19-year-old in the waning weeks of 1957. He fashioned himself to be another James Dean after seeing Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, and was frantic to marry his baton-twirling, 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate. Starkweather had failed at every job he encountered, which was another reason he wanted to get out of the Nebraska town where everyone thought of him as a loser. He had what people today would call an “attitude problem,” himself noting that, “...the more I looked at people the more I hated them, because I knowed (sic) that there wasn’t any place for me with the kind of people I knowed (sic).”

He and Caril Ann would embark on a two-state murder spree that horrified the country and left eleven people dead, including her mother, stepfather, and half-sister. They were captured on January 29, 1958. Charlie was executed seventeen months later, while Caril Ann served seventeen years in prison, always claiming that she was a reluctant participant.

Charlie and Caril Ann’s deadly exploits from 1958 have inspired more than a few American artists, and several films have been directly influenced by them, including Tony Scott’s True Romance (1993) and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994).

Terrence Malick's prairie landscapes in Badlands are integral to the film.
In Malick's version of the events, the story is moved to the South Dakota prairie where Martin Sheen, in a great screen performance, plays Kit, a 25-year-old garbage man who begins dating Holly (Sissy Spacek), a 15-year-old schoolgirl who is inflamed with romanticized notions of love despite her boring life. She is smitten with Kit because he looks like James Dean and, as she says, “he wanted to die with me.” When Holly's father (Warren Oates) discovers the relationship and forbids Kit from seeing his daughter anymore, he is gunned down. Kit and Holly end up on the run from the law, and as they make their escape, they leave a trail of death behind them. Holly’s stream-of-consciousness narrates events, revealing her belief in her romance-novel fantasy to be unwavering and stating that it is “better to spend a week with one who loved me for who I was than years of loneliness.”

Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as the murderous young lovers in Badlands
When Kit sets fire to Holly's childhood home, I realized that Badlands was no ordinary film. This scene is set to the music of Carl Orff's "Musica Poetica", mesmerizing pieces of artistry that are echoed again as Kit and Holly go into hiding in a forest and roam mindlessly across the empty prairie. There is additional music by Eric Satie and George Tipton, which is touchingly romantic in contrast to the events on the screen.

It is this contrast between the violence of Kit and Holly’s lives and the lyricism of Malick’s visual and aural expression that gives the film its greatness. As they are driving north to Canada, the lights of Missoula, Montana on the horizon, they seem to enter a mythic landscape. We almost hope they will make it and forget the violence that they have wrought. In a big, stolen Cadillac, they leave paved roads and ride across unfenced prairies that connect them to the pioneer settlers who came to the land in the century before, and whom Cather loved so dearly.

On the way, as Roger Ebert has noted, “There is always much detail, of birds and small animals, of trees and skies, of empty fields or dense forests, of leaves and grain, and always of too much space for the characters to fill… There is a strong sense of humans uneasily accommodated by the land.” This is a recurring theme in Malick’s films, as it is in Cather's “Prairie” tales, especially My Ántonia. Badlands is haunting, violent, and disquieting--a lyrical descendant and an artistic equal of Cather's masterpiece--and one of the greatest American films.

Thanks, Alan!

Film fans, if you would like to submit a post of your own about a movie or film star that you love, please contact
Devin Wachs with your idea.

Monday, March 11, 2013

HOW TO SURVIVE A PLAGUE: A Q&A with Activist Peter Staley

By Devin Wachs, Public Relations Manager, BMFI

AIDS activist Peter Staley never thought he’d be going to the Oscars. Yet this year he accompanied the director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague on Hollywood’s big night. Featured in the film, Peter has been a key AIDS activist since shortly after being diagnosed with AIDS-related complex in 1985. He led ACT UP’s 1989 campaign to force lowering the price of AZT, the first FDA-approved drug treatment for HIV, and became the Founding Director of the Treatment Action Group (TAG), whose successful lobbying for radical changes in how the government's AIDS research efforts were managed led to the creation of the Office of AIDS Research. President Clinton appointed Peter to the National Task Force on AIDS Drug Development in 1994 and he has served on the board of amfAR, the foundation for AIDS research. 

In advance of Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s screening of How to Survive a Plague on Wednesday, March 13, Peter answered some questions via phone about the film and how its success has impacted his activism.

We’re so glad that you can come to BMFI’s screening.

It’s great to come home. I’ve been in New York since 1983, but I grew up in Berwyn and I went to Conestoga High School, class of ‘79.

That’s great. How to Survive a Plague was recently nominated for an Academy Award. What was it like attending the Oscars?
It was amazing, kind of dreamlike. As a gay kid, I grew up watching the Oscars from as early as I can remember and I never missed one. I never dreamed in a million years that I’d end up attending them. It was a dream come true—fun and exhilarating. Regardless of the outcome for the film, I had a blast.

Peter Staley (far right) with David France, Howard Gertler, and Joy Tomchin on the Oscars' red carpet.
Has the film’s success changed your activism strategy? How?

It has. I was largely inactive when the film came out. I’d just finished ten years of work on a website that I created for people with HIV [] and I was looking for the next chapter of my life. Since this film came out at Sundance fifteen months ago, I’ve been traveling around with it doing Q&As and it’s gotten my juices going again. I’ve been working with current activists on some projects to put this recent celebrity to good use.

Can you tell us a little bit about your current projects?

One of them is a problem that a lot of people are frustrated with: the lack of engagement in AIDS activism from the community that started it all, the gay community. As the movie portrays, it was the gay community’s strongest moment. We rose up and fought back and got the treatments that are keeping people alive today. But after the treatments came out, we kind of turned our backs on the cause. Among gay men, specifically younger gay men of color—the fastest growing group of HIV positive Americans—infections are on the rise again. 55,000 Americans become infected with HIV every year. We’ve got a lot of work to do in this country. It’s not the death sentence it used to be, so people think the job is over, but it’s not. Getting the gay community reengaged in fighting HIV/AIDS is something I want to work on now.

An archival photograph of Peter Staley being arrested during a protest.
How did you get involved in the film?

Director David France came to me when he first got the idea, almost four years ago now. He told me his vision for the film and asked if I had some VHS tapes from those years. I had a whole bookshelf of them, mostly old news broadcasts. He cleared out my collection and went off and made the film. After that, I didn’t have much involvement myself except to come in for the contemporary interviews like the other featured activists did.

I remain stunned by the beautiful work of art he created and how he captured that extraordinary moment in time, especially considering that he’s a first-time filmmaker. I find the film to be intensely honest.

Thank you, Peter.
Learn about these brave AIDS activists' efforts to get life-saving medications developed and available for the patients who needed them and ask Peter Staley your own questions at Bryn Mawr Film Institute's screening of How to Survive a Plague and Q&A on Wednesday, March 13 at 7:30 pm.

Devin Wachs is the Public Relations Manager for Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She joined BMFI in 2005, following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College. If you send BMFI a message on Facebook or Twitter or are interested in onscreen sponsorships, she's the one who'll be in touch!

Monday, March 4, 2013

The $650 Film: Advance Interview with DOSTOYEVSKY MAN's Larry Loebell

By Devin Wachs, Public Relations Manager, BMFI

Can a feature film be successfully shot on an iPhone? Larry Loebell—award-winning director, writer, dramaturg, and professor—proved that it can, and how. His new drama, Dostoyevsky Man, is a locally made gem that features stage favorite Seth Reichgott as an out-of-work Russian Literature professor who turns to kidnapping in a bid to reclaim his job. The film, inspired by Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novella Underground Man and adapted from Larry’s own play, was named a “top pick” by the Philadelphia Inquirer after premiering in the 2012 Philadelphia Live Arts/Fringe Festival.

Larry Loebell's Dostoyevsky Man stars Seth Reichgott as an out-of-work Russian Literature professor who takes extreme measures to get his job back.
Larry was kind enough to answer some questions via email in advance of Bryn Mawr Film Institute’s screening of the film. Keep reading to find out more about his inspiration, casting the lead, shooting on an iPhone, and how teaching has impacted his work.
The film script is adapted from your own play, The Dostoyevsky Man. What made you decide to revisit the story and turn it into a film?

Dostoyevsky Man was first written as a short screenplay when I was in graduate school getting my MFA in film. I actually shot a version of that script, though it was very rough. Over the intervening years, I have revisited the piece several times. In its first incarnation as a play it required seven actors. But it never quite felt right to me in that form, and I think the whole time I knew it was essentially a told story—a long monologue. For me, the story and themes have stayed relevant, perhaps even more so now than when I first wrote the piece, because of the social disruption caused by the economic downturn over the last few years. So there were artistic and philosophical reasons that I returned to it. But there was also a practical reason. It is the one play of mine that had not been produced. I thought it was a worthy project, and I was not ready to declare it an orphan. Thinking of it as a monologue and rethinking of it as a story for camera occurred at the same time. I knew that I could make it with a very small budget (which was all I had) if I made it as a one person movie with myself as the one person crew. And I thought aesthetically it would work as a story told to a smart phone camera, as if the main character was making his own video.

How did you decide to cast Seth Reichgott in the lead role?

I have spent the last fifteen years working in the theater and I met Seth some years ago when I dramaturged a play he was starring in. We hit it off, and I have seen a lot of his stage work since then. When I started thinking about producing this, there was really no one else I wanted in the role. I thought he brought the right mix of literary passion, anger, and humanity to the part. I knew he would be a great collaborator, and I think the results bear me out.

The film is shot on an iPhone. How did you determine that this was the technology you wanted to use?

In some ways the decision to use the iPhone was simple. It seemed to me to be aesthetically correct to shoot this project on an iPhone since that was the [story] set up. It’s a one person piece about a man telling his story into his own smart phone, so there was a certain practical logic. The question was whether the outcome would be watchable. I spent some time doing tests with my own phone, and also consulting with some tech-savvy friends, and I became convinced that I could achieve what I wanted using the phone as the primary camera and sound recording device—assuming I was careful about it. My initial assumption was that Dostoyevsky Man would never be projected. I knew I wanted it to be part of the Philly Fringe Festival but I thought that perhaps its public showings would be in a room with multiple small screens. I assumed that after its initial showing I would create a Vimeo channel for internet distribution. Also, I have a certain affection for the Golden Age of Television “Teleplays” and in many ways the writing of this piece seemed to me to parallel that style more than “film” style, and so small screen seemed more likely to me than large. But as we began to look at the footage, it became clear that it could be projected, and we ended up projecting it on rather large screens during the Fringe.

But there were also other factors in my original intention. I wanted to create an example for my students that spoke to how these democratized tools could be used to create finished work. My film students often feel limited by their lack of funds, and lack of access to top quality equipment, particularly. I wanted to use the tools I had at hand. And I also didn’t want to put a lot of money at risk. I already had the phone. I created a budget to do the rest. Our hard costs were under $650, which we made back at our premiere showings.

You teach film and video production as well as writing for the stage and screen at several local universities. How did your own experiences in academia influence the way that you approached the story?

I love college teaching and have been doing it part or full time since 1974. I have had my share of both positive and negative experiences in academia. I don’t think it is possible to spend as much time on college campuses as I have (or in any job, probably) and not experience both the best and worst of it. I have watched fine people exit places for reasons that were not unlike the ones I present in Dostoyevsky Man, and I have seen people who are simply time markers and place holders stay in academic positions long after they should have been gone. But overall, my own experiences have been very positive. I love the classroom and I find my students and my colleagues energizing, engaging, and inspiring. What more can one ask from one’s workplace? And I owe much of my skill as a writer and director to my own teachers whose lessons still echo in my imagination after all these years.
You can ask Larry your own questions at Wednesday’s screening of the film, after which he and lead actor Seth Reichgott will be interviewed by radio host Phillip Silverstone.

Devin Wachs is the Public Relations Manager for Bryn Mawr Film Institute. She joined BMFI in 2005, following her graduation from Bryn Mawr College. If you send BMFI a message on Facebook or Twitter or are interested in onscreen sponsorships, she's the one who'll be in touch!