Wednesday, December 23, 2009


"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

Monday, December 14, 2009


"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

Sunday, December 13, 2009


December 12, 2009
Exhibition Review | 'The Red Book of C. G. Jung: Creation of a New Cosmology'

Jung’s Inner Universe, Writ Large

We know the archetype; we cherish the myth. The hero, like the world around him, is in a state of crisis. And in seeking to restore himself and the shattered cosmos, he valiantly passes through a vale of despair, descending into darkness. He risks his life and psyche in perilous encounters with dreams or dragons and finally emerges into the light, spiritually transformed, ushering in a new age.

That restoration may be like Odysseus’ epic journey home or like the return of the Israelites to Canaan. It may be like Siegfried braving his way to the side of the sleeping Brünnhilde or like ... well, perhaps like the journey that Carl G. Jung tried to outline in a private chronicle he kept for 16 years that until recently had scarcely been seen by anyone outside the extended family of his descendants. It’s an elaborately designed scripture, filled with his fantasies and surreal imaginings, known as “The Red Book.”

The title is not a metaphorical allusion to blood’s primal coloration nor does it require elaborate symbolic explication. The book really is red, and you can see it until mid-February, lying open in a glass case in an exhibition mounted in its honor at the Rubin Museum of Art in Chelsea: “The Red Book of C. G. Jung: Creation of a New Cosmology.”

Jung, who by the time he began work on this tome had already broken with Freud and was developing his mythically suffused conception of the human psyche, made certain that the book’s significance would not be overlooked by future acolytes. Bound in crimson leather, it is an enormous folio, more than 600 pages, bearing the formal title “Liber Novus” (“New Book”). Jung gave it all the trappings of antique authority and stentorian consequence, presenting it as a Newer New Testament.

He wrote it out himself, using a runic Latin and German calligraphy. Its opening portion, which begins with quotations from Isaiah and the Gospel according to John, is inked onto parchment, each section beginning with an initial illuminated as if by a medieval scribe with a taste for eyes, castles and scarabs.

The book’s accounts of Jung’s visions, fantasies and dreams are also punctuated with his paintings (some of which are on display in the exhibition), images executed during the years of World War I and the decade after that now appear as uncanny anticipations of New Age folk art of the late 20th century. They display abstract, symmetrical floral designs Jung came to identify as mandalas, along with almost childlike renderings of flames, trees, dragons and snakes, all in striking, bold colors.

But what is particularly strange about this book is not its pretense or pomposity but its talismanic power. It was stashed away in a cabinet for decades by the family, then jealously withheld from scholarly view because of its supposedly revealing nature. Since being brought into the open, partly through the efforts of the historian and Jung scholar Sonu Shamdasani (who is also curator of this exhibition), it has become a sensation.

A meticulously reproduced facsimile, published in October by W. W. Norton & Company, with detailed footnotes and commentary by Mr. Shamdasani (who also contributed to the volume’s accompanying translation), “The Red Book,” costing $195, is in its fifth printing.

This modest show, in which the book is supplemented by displays of the author’s notes, sketches and paintings, is now scheduled to travel to the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles from April to June, and then to the Library of Congress in Washington.

The book really is a remarkable object, and not just because it so eccentrically insists on its own significance. It represents Jung’s thinking during a period when he was developing his notion of “archetype” and a “collective unconscious,” positing a substratum of the human mind that shapes language, image and myth across all cultures. And as he was developing his ideas about psychological therapy as a form of self-knowledge, he seemed to have been engaging in just such a self-analysis: the book provides a bewildering, seemingly uncensored path into Jung’s inner life. Mr. Shamdasani writes, “It is nothing less than the central book in his oeuvre.”

That is something students of Jung’s life and work can ponder as they try to put these gnomic tales into intellectual and biographical context. As Jung himself warned in an unfinished 1959 epilogue to this unfinished book, “To the superficial observer, it will appear like madness.” Perhaps even to the nonsuperficial observer.

The narrator is a stand-in for Jung; he splits into multiple parts, engaging in cryptic dialogue with alternative souls. He is often in the company of a being named Philemon, an old man with the horns of a bull, a creature, Jung said, who evolved out of the biblical character Elijah. Philemon is a “pagan” who carries with him “an Egypto-Hellenic atmosphere with a Gnostic coloration.”

Nearly every visitation has some such mix of exotico-mythico-primitivo coloration. One painting on display here shows a centipedesque dragon, its jaws opened to swallow a yellow ball.

Jung’s explanation: “The dragon wants to eat the sun, and the youth beseeches him not to. But he eats it nevertheless.” An inscription goes into more detail, naming figures in the story without explaining them: “Atmavictu,” “a youthful supporter,” “Telesphorus,” “evil spirit in some men.”

Confusion about the meaning of it all was apparently shared by Jung, who transcribed these visions and then reflected on them in streams of semiconsciousness, invoking death, sacrifice, love and acceptance, sounding at times like a Greek priestess moaning from the bowels of the earth. He wanders in the desert, he cries aloud, he eats the liver of a sacrificed girl, her head “a mash of blood with hair and whitish pieces of bone.”

The temptation, after numbingly turning these pages, is to react finally like the psychiatrist Spielvogel at the end of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and say: “So. Now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?” Maybe that was Jung’s reaction too, which is why he abandoned the project in 1930. He couldn’t even complete the epilogue, some 30 years later, breaking off in midsentence.

Now it may be, of course, that Jung was speaking profoundly in tongues, and that more devoted souls may stumble on the key to all these mythologies. Perhaps. Jung himself, after all, was engaged in more compelling systematic work about the primal forces of the psyche during this period (ideas that may have also influenced the late speculations of Freud). Yet right now the lure of the book comes not from within, but from without, not from what it deciphers, but from what it signals about our own mythological predilections.

Mr. Shamdasani argues that “the overall theme of the book is how Jung regains his soul and overcomes the contemporary malaise of spiritual alienation.” And as he points out, Jung undertook his strange project after a series of apocalyptic visions in 1913 and 1914 that he later believed were prophesies of an imminent world war. He looked out a window, he said, and “saw blood, rivers of blood.” Jung felt it within himself as well, the “menace of psychosis.”

And so he began this enterprise of self-examination, a ruthless overturning of the rational Western mind, submerging himself in a pilgrimage through the pagan land of his own psyche. This project was his belated answer to Freud’s “Interpretation of Dreams,” which had also presented itself as the account of a heroic self-analytical descent into the maelstrom of the unconscious.

We are lured by that archetype still, even if it does not seem to shed the illumination Jung claimed. Go see this book and the exhibition, though, to glimpse an extraordinary relic of a particular way of thinking about the mind and its history. Then, cued by a 13th-century Tibetan mandala here that Jung owned, go upstairs and see the Rubin’s astonishing show of these ancient Tibetan designs, each enclosing an encyclopedic universe, encompassing desire, venality, wisdom, ecstasy and passion. Maybe “The Red Book” deserves a diagnosis: Jung had mandala envy.

“The Red Book of C. G. Jung: Creation of a New Cosmology” is on view through Feb. 15 at the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 West 17th Street, Chelsea; (212) 620-5000,

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

Sunday, September 20, 2009



Armando Diaz with José Angel Santana

Armando Diaz visited Chair's Workshop on September 16 with a group of actors from the Magnet Theater to demonstrate improv acting techniques used by actors, writers, and directors. Assistant Arts Professor Jose Santana hosted the event.

Armando Diaz is widely regarded as one of the best improv teachers in New York City and beyond. His list of teaching credits is a long one: the ImprovOlympic Theater, Victory Gardens Theater, The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, The Peoples Improv Theater, and Michael Howard Studios. He has trained dozens of actors who have performed or written for Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Mad TV, and The Daily Show.

A Chicago native, Armando studied improv under Del Close at the ImprovOlympic, Mick Napier at the Annoyance, and graduated from the Second City Conservatory. He performed in and helped create one of the most popular improvised longforms in Chicago, "The Armando Diaz Experience...." For the last decade, "the Armando" has been performed weekly in Chicago, and is now taught and performed in many other cities including Los Angeles and New York.

In addition to writing and producing short films, Armando wrote sketches for the show Upright Citizens Brigade on Comedy Central, and has performed on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009





'Widely regarded as one of the finest improv instructors in the country.'

Armando Diaz (see bio at bottom of page) will bring in actors and conduct an improv demonstration

Jose Santana will host a Q&A with Armando following the demonstration.

*This is a fantastic opportunity to watch a leader in his field demonstrate how to best bring out an actor's abilities. DON'T MISS IT!*

WEDNESDAY, September 16th

6:30 PM

Room 1027

Armando is widely regarded as one of the best improv teachers in New York City and beyond. His list of teaching credits is a long one: the ImprovOlympic Theater, Victory Gardens Theater, The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater, The Peoples Improv Theater, and Michael Howard Studios. He has trained dozens of actors who have performed or written for Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Mad TV, and The Daily Show.

A Chicago native, Armando studied improv under Del Close at the ImprovOlympic, Mick Napier at the Annoyance, and graduated from the Second City Conservatory. He performed in and helped create one of the most popular improvised longforms in Chicago, "The Armando Diaz Experience...." For the last decade, "the Armando" has been performed weekly in Chicago, and is now taught and performed in many other cities including Los Angeles and New York.

In addition to writing and producing short films, Armando wrote sketches for the show Upright Citizens Brigade on Comedy Central, and has performed on Late Night with Conan O'Brien.

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

Saturday, September 12, 2009


(click on image to enlarge)
Roberto Luis Santana as Juan Almeida Bosque, in "Che."
Published: September 12, 2009

Filed at 1:44 p.m. ET

HAVANA (AP) -- The death of Juan Almeida Bosque, a vice president who was one of the last giants of Cuba's 1959 revolution, plunged the island into mourning Saturday and was a stark reminder of the mortality of all of Cuba's aging leaders -- including brothers Raul and Fidel Castro.

He was the first of Cuba's revolutionary leaders to die since President Raul Castro's wife Vilma Espin, a one-time guerrilla commander in her own right, passed away in June 2007 at the age of 77. (read more)
"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

Wednesday, September 2, 2009


In February 2008, a blogger named Devin Faraci led off a post on the Hollywood news site CHUD (Cinematic Happenings Under Development) with a solemn proclamation: “We’re on the verge of losing a movie.” He was referring to “Where the Wild Things Are,” a big-budget adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic picture book for children. According to Faraci, executives at Warner Brothers had deemed an early cut of the film “too weird and ‘too scary’ ” and were now contemplating extensive personnel changes and reshoots. The news rippled through Hollywood’s online underground. At, it generated 88 reader responses. At, another 25. Some readers pleaded with the studio: “Please please please follow through with the original.” Others took a more authoritative tone: “Do not turn ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ into something common and forgettable!” There were calls for fan solidarity and several threats of boycott, or worse: “I will personally face-punch anyone who stands in the way of this film being released.” Such variations aside, though, a common theme emerged: “Jonze is brilliant”; “Jonze is an artist”; “Trust Jonze!” (read more)
"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."



Camp Victory, Afghanistan is a verite documentary that tells the story of several U.S. National Guardsmen stationed in Herat, Afghanistan and the Afghan officers they are assigned to train.

These Americans along with a band of Afghans have been given the enormous task of building the 207th Corps of the nascent Afghan National Army into an institution capable of providing security, stability, peace and justice to a tattered, volatile nation. Although the United States has poured military aid into Afghanistan, money alone does not produce an army; people do. And these Afghans and Americans have more in common than anyone would expect.

With lives on the line and the military budget ballooning, can a modern Afghan army be created when 80% of the enlistees are illiterate; all are impoverished; the weaponry is second rate; and the enemy is elusive, dangerous, and lawless?

Using nearly 300 hours of verité footage shot between 2005 and 2008, Camp Victory, Afghanistan, directed by Carol Dysinger, is the first film to examine the reality of building a functioning Afghan military-the initial critical step toward bringing stability and peace to Afghanistan.

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

Friday, August 28, 2009


(click to enlarge)

photo: Richard Termine for The New York Times
J.J. Kandel and Neal Huff in “The Killing” by William Inge.
Directed by José Angel Santana

The New York Times
“A Death Request . . .

After watching ‘The Killing’ by William Inge, it’s best to take a slow, quiet walk home. This is a play that benefits from reflection, a story that sticks in the mind and demands further thought, no matter how dark those thoughts may be.

. . . ‘The Killing.’

In the play Mac (Neal Huff) brings Huey (J. J. Kandel) home after the two meet in a bar. Within a few minutes Mac reveals that he wants Huey to kill him, ending a life of deep despair. Knowing that Inge struggled with depression and committed suicide adds an even stronger undercurrent to Mac’s plea, and that awareness, combined with the tension of whether the request will be carried out, leads to a play that is both bleak and riveting.

José Angel Santana’s direction is wisely restrained, and the two actors deliver truly heartbreaking performances. ‘The Killing,’ a superb piece of theater, is given an intelligent production here. It’s a story of loneliness and great pain, one that explores the saddest parts of the soul.” – The New York Times, Ken Jaworowski, August 8, 2009.


“William Inge's never-before-produced one-act "The Killing" . . . Jose Angel Santana's perfectly modulated production keeps the action grounded. He elicits nuanced performances from his two actors, with Huff exuding a quiet desperation and Kandel speaking in slow, measured tones that give weight to the crucial choice his character must eventually make.” – Theatermania, Dan Bacalzo, August 6, 2009, New York.

“Jose Angel Santana makes a fine New York directorial debut with a revival of William Inge's The Killing. Through the use of pauses and awkward silences, Santana furthers the psychological drama the playwright so aptly captured in his words.” – Jo Ann Rosen, August 4, 2009.

“Huff, Kandel, and director José Angel Santana give these lonely souls an aching presence. . . . . "The Killing" is chiefly valuable as a new addition to the canon of one of America's underappreciated playwrights, but the performances make it worth seeing.” -, David Sheward, August 7, 2009.

(click to enlarge)

photo: Richard Termine for The New York Times
Neal Huff, left, and J. J. Kandel in “The Killing” by William Inge

New York Post

“A recently exhumed William Inge play . . .

‘The Killing’-- about a despondent, religious man who asks a young drifter to murder him -- is hardly first-rate Inge. Still, it's a fascinating rediscovery that's only now receiving its world premiere.

Staged with real tension by Jose Angel Santana and superbly acted by Neal Huff and J.J. Kandel, it also has an eerie resonance today, decades after Inge, a closeted homosexual, committed suicide." – New York Post, Frank Scheck, August 11, 2009.

(click to enlarge)
Scenic Design by Maruti Evans

Lighting & Sound America

"The Summer Shorts series of one-acts is generally a showcase for new work, but, this year, the buzz is all about "The Killing," by William Inge -- who died in 1973.

'The Killing' is one of a couple of dozen Inge plays that have recently come to light, and it's a much darker work than such signature pieces as Picnic or Bus Stop. Mac, a middle-aged loner, has brought back Huey, a near-total stranger, to his apartment, ostensibly for an evening of whiskey and conversation. The situation looks, for all the world, like a gay pickup -- that's what Huey thinks he's in for -- but Mac has another plan: He wants Huey to kill him.

As Mac tells his stunned companion, he can't stand another day of loneliness, but his religious scruples prevent him from pulling the trigger. Huey balks, but, over the course of 20 minutes or so, Mac quietly and devastatingly makes his case.

'The Killing' . . . offers a fascinating inside view of the demons that tormented this fine writer. (Inge was deeply closeted, self-loathing, and addicted to the bottle; he ultimately committed suicide.) Under Jose Angel Santana's highly controlled direction, the piece achieves an intensity that's far beyond anything in the rest of the series; he gets especially fine work from Neal Huff, who vividly captures the way Mac's soul has been corroded by lsolitude. J. J. Kandel isn't quite old (or working-class) enough as Huey, but he partners well with Huff. 'The Killing' makes one eager to see what other works Inge had filed away." -- Don Barbaur, 11 August, 2009.

Smith & Krouse

"['The Killing'] . . . is a long-lost play by William Inge . . . wherein a lonely man brings a guy he picked up in a bar back to his room late one night. What at first appears to be a gay pick-up play turns dark when we learn that this lonely man is terminally depressed . . . this takes on heartbreaking poignancy . . . it’s a gem of a one act play, beautifully acted by Neal Huff and J.J. Kandel." - August 13, 2009 Lawrence Harbison,

"'The Killing' by William Inge - a premiere performance of a lost play by a renowned writer. It was directed by José Angel Santana, and starred Neal Huff and J.J. Kandel . . . Both actors are fantastic, and certainly do justice to this neglected play by a master of the stage." Friday, August 14, 2009; Posted: 10:08 AM - by Duncan Pflaster

(click to enlarge)

Show Business

"Inge’s terse, poetic dialogue evokes an eerie 20th-century night-world populated by rugged individualists. Under José Angel Santana’s direction, Kandel and Huff neatly embody their archetypal characters in a fitting tribute to a bygone style of American playwriting." - Ethan Kanfer, Auguest 14, 2009


"William Inge’s “The Killing,” recently discovered, has the best pedigree. This unknown play by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Picnic, Bus Stop and Come Back, Little Sheba may be the most autobiographical play that Inge ever wrote. . .“The Killing” brings two middle-aged strangers together. Mac (Neal Huff) has brought Huey (Kandel) home for a drink after meeting in a bar, but his real motive is that he has an unusual request: he wants Huey to put him out of his misery by shooting him . . . Jose Angel Santana has staged the play with great sensitivity . . ." Victor Gluck, Theater, August 16, 2009.


"The Summer Shorts series . . . have a forgotten gem . . . William Inge's horrifying "The Killing," a terrific one-act, never before performed, about an unnamed man (Neal Huff) and the guy he picks up in a bar (J.J. Kandel) for reasons that aren't clear until well into the play. The setup is vaguely reminiscent of an Alfred Hitchcock scenario and gets an appropriately noirish staging from helmer Jose Angel Santana . . . it's nice to see work that occasionally pushes the shortform boundaries (especially "The Killing")." - Sam Thielman, Variety., August 17, 2009

The Epoch Times

"'The Killing' . . . casts a dark and mysterious note. One man (Neal Huff) invites a younger man (J.J. Kandel) to his furnished room. The purpose of the invitation is not known at first. The two chat . . . What is desired is something so unique, so startling, that I won’t disclose it.

Suffice it to say that the play has tremendous tension; the actors compel our attention. José Angel Santana has directed with sensitivity and verve." - Diana Barth, The Epoch Times., August 23, 2009.

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Brent J. Craig/VH1 and Abramorama
Steve Ludlow in “Anvil! The Story of Anvil.” Its director, Sacha Gervasi, took out a second mortgage to pay for the documentary.

August 13, 2009

LOS ANGELES — Quentin Tarantino never had to go through this.

When “The Age of Stupid,” a climate change movie, “opens” across the United States in September, it will play on some 400 screens in a one-night event, with a video performance by Thom Yorke of Radiohead, all paid for by the filmmakers themselves and their backers. In Britain, meanwhile, the film has been showing via an Internet service that lets anyone pay to license a copy, set up a screening and keep the profit.

The glory days of independent film, when hot young directors like Steven Soderbergh and Mr. Tarantino had studio executives tangled in fierce bidding wars at Sundance and other celebrity-studded festivals, are now barely a speck in the rearview mirror. And something new, something much odder, has taken their place.

Here is how it used to work: aspiring filmmakers playing the cool auteur in hopes of attracting the eye of a Hollywood power broker.

Here is the new way: filmmakers doing it themselves — paying for their own distribution, marketing films through social networking sites and Twitter blasts, putting their work up free on the Web to build a reputation, cozying up to concierges at luxury hotels in film festival cities to get them to whisper into the right ears.

The economic slowdown and tight credit have squeezed the entertainment industry along with everybody else, resulting in significantly fewer big-studio films in the pipeline and an even tougher road for smaller-budget independent projects. Independent distribution companies are much less likely to pull out the checkbook while many of the big studios have all but gotten out of the indie film business.

“It’s not like the audience for these movies has completely disappeared,” said Cynthia Swartz, a partner in the publicity company 42 West, which has been supplementing its mainstream business by helping filmmakers find ways to connect with an audience. “It’s just a matter of finding them.”

Sometimes, the odd approach actually works.

“Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” a documentary about a Canadian metal band, turned into the do-it-yourself equivalent of a smash hit when it stretched a three-screen opening in April into a four-month run, still under way, on more than 150 screens around the country.

“I paid for everything, I took a second mortgage on my house,” said Sacha Gervasi, the film’s director.

Mr. Gervasi, whose studio writing credits include “The Terminal,” directed by Steven Spielberg, nearly three years ago, began filming “Anvil!” with his own money in hopes of attracting a conventional distributor. The movie played well at Sundance in 2008, but offers were low.

So Mr. Gervasi put up more money — his total cost was in “the upper hundred thousands,” he said — to distribute the film through a company called Abramorama, while selling the DVD and television rights to VH1.

The aging rockers of Anvil have shown up at theaters to play for audiences. Famous fans like Courtney Love were soon chattering online about the film. And an army of “virtual street teamers” — Internet advocates who flood social networks with admiring comments, sometimes for a fee, sometimes not — were recruited by a Web consultant, Sarah Lewitinn, who usually works the music scene.

The idea behind this sort of guerrilla release is to accumulate just enough at the box office to prime the pump for DVD sales and return the filmmaker’s investment, maybe even with a little profit. “Anvil!” has earned roughly $1 million worldwide at the box office so far, its producer, Rebecca Yeldham, said.

Finding even relatively small amounts of money to make and market a film is, of course, no small trick. “The Age of Stupid” raised a production budget of about £450,000 (about $748,000) from 228 shareholders, and is soliciting a bit more to continue its release, Franny Armstrong, its director, said.

“Money has simply vanished,” said Mark Urman, an independent-film veteran, speaking of the financial drought that has pushed producers and directors into shouldering risks that only a few years ago were carried by a more robust field of distributors.

Many of those distributors have either disappeared or severely tightened their operations, including Warner Independent Pictures, Picturehouse, New Line Cinema, Miramax, the Weinstein Company, Paramount Classics and its successor, Paramount Vantage.

Typically, the distributors have paid money upfront for rights to release films. That helped the producers recover what they had already spent on production, but it often left the distributor with most or all of the profit.

Mr. Urman’s own position as president for distribution at Senator Entertainment evaporated this year when financing fell through for a slate of films. So he started a new company, Paladin, to support filmmakers willing to finance their own releases.

In September, Paladin is expected to help the filmmaker Steve Jacobs and his fellow producers release “Disgrace,” a drama with John Malkovich that is based on a novel by the Nobel laureate J. M. Coetzee.

The film won a critics prize at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, but no attractive distribution offers. One key to releasing it without a Miramax, said Mr. Urman, is to minimize expensive advertising in newspapers or on television and play directly to a friendly audience — in this case through extensive promotional tie-ins with Mr. Coetzee’s publishers.

“Everyone still dreams there’s going to be a conventional sale to a major studio,” said Kevin Iwashina, once an independent-film specialist with the Creative Artists Agency and now a partner at IP Advisors, a film sales and finance consulting company. But, he said, smart producers and directors are figuring out how to tap the value in projects on their own.

Some big companies will still be on the hunt in Toronto this year, where the annual festival is scheduled to begin Sept. 10.

“We’ll be there in full force,” said Nancy Utley, a president of Fox Searchlight Pictures, which last year acquired rights to “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Wrestler,” both screened in Toronto.

“It’s a great opportunity for us,” said Robert G. Friedman, a chairman of Summit Entertainment, which acquired “The Hurt Locker,” directed by Kathryn Bigelow. The film was offered in Toronto last year and has already been mentioned widely as an Oscar contender.

But some filmmakers and producers pointed toward the festival have already started working for themselves, rather than waiting for the few remaining, and ever fussier, buyers to swoop in.

In fact, the next-wave Tarantinos are in Canada already — coddling not prospective buyers, but concierges, who just might steer people to promotional parties and screenings.

“These guys have figured it out,” Barry Avrich, a member of the festival’s governing board, said of the do-it-yourself crowd. “They’re into all the cool hotels, to get the concierges thinking about them.”

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Richard Termine for The New York Times

Neal Huff, left, and J. J. Kandel in “The Killing” by William Inge.

After watching “The Killing” by William Inge, it’s best to take a slow, quiet walk home. This is a play that benefits from reflection, a story that sticks in the mind and demands further thought, no matter how dark those thoughts may be.

The play, which languished among a stash of Inge’s unproduced works at a college library, is making its premiere in Series B of Summer Shorts 3, a program that, on the whole, acquits itself better than Series A, with which it runs in repertory at 59E59 Theaters.

The first piece, Carole Real’s “Don’t Say Another Word,” stays true to its title, jumping into a couple’s droll conversation just as the going gets good, and leaving as soon as the jokes run dry. Straightforward and enjoyable, it’s a smart way to begin a collection of one-acts.

“The Sin Eater” by Keith Reddin, however, is imprudent on every level. A modern retelling of “Electra,” it is misguided in concept (the original is too wide-ranging to be raced through in a brief time) and execution (the clichéd dialogue is delivered in a mishmash of styles).

A sharper use of the short form can be found in “If I Had,” Roger Hedden’s tale of two landscapers, one of whom longs to inflict harm on a rich client. The play delivers quite a bit: a little risk, a couple of laughs and an idea or two to consider. While it’s not a flawless work, its efforts are certainly worthwhile.

Then comes “The Killing.”

In the play Mac (Neal Huff) brings Huey (J. J. Kandel) home after the two meet in a bar. Within a few minutes Mac reveals that he wants Huey to kill him, ending a life of deep despair. Knowing that Inge struggled with depression and committed suicide adds an even stronger undercurrent to Mac’s plea, and that awareness, combined with the tension of whether the request will be carried out, leads to a play that is both bleak and riveting.

José Angel Santana’s direction is wisely restrained, and the two actors deliver truly heartbreaking performances. “The Killing,” a superb piece of theater, is given an intelligent production here. It’s a story of loneliness and great pain, one that explores the saddest parts of the soul.

Series B of Summer Shorts 3 is in repertory through Aug. 27 at 59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, Manhattan; (212) 279-4200,

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

Thursday, August 6, 2009


Richard Termine for The New York Times
J. J. Kandel, left, and Neal Huff in “The Killing,” a rediscovered Inge one-act that is part of the Summer Shorts festival at 59E59 Theaters.

The New York Times
August 6, 2009

In a small Kansas town that inspired some of William Inge’s most melancholy characters, about two dozen never-before-performed plays are poised to become the found treasures of his collected works. These plays were not hidden in the proverbial cedar chest in a dusty farmhouse but languishing in a college library in obscurity and solitude, like a tragic Inge heroine.

One of them, “The Killing,” is part of the Summer Shorts festival at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan. This story about a man so terrified of committing suicide that he asks another man to kill him has parallels to Inge’s life. He killed himself in 1973 after struggling for years with depression and alcoholism.

Pain permeates most of Inge’s work. His major plays, “Come Back, Little Sheba,” “Picnic,” “Bus Stop” and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs,” portray rural Americans struggling with sexual repression (he was gay), alcoholism, small-town gossip and religiosity.

These issues haunted Inge most of his adult life, said Peter Ellenstein, artistic director of the William Inge Center for the Arts in Independence, Kan., Inge’s hometown. Inge, who won the Pulitzer Prize for “Picnic” in 1953 and an Academy Award for writing the 1961 film “Splendor in the Grass,” sought approval from townsfolk who often scorned him for being a homosexual.

“The Killing,” which runs through Aug. 27, is the second rediscovered Inge play to receive its world premiere in New York this year. The Flea Theater in SoHo staged a reading of the three-act “Off the Main Road” on May 11 with Sigourney Weaver, Jay O. Sanders and Frances Sternhagen. The Flea is considering staging a full production of it or another unperformed play by Inge this fall.

These two works are among about 25 — an exact count is still being determined, since some of the plays may be incomplete — stored in the library at Independence Community College, which houses a collection of Inge’s writings, as well as artwork he collected. The plays have been available for researchers to read on site but, in order to preserve them, were not to be copied or checked out of the library. It was a case of manuscripts hiding in plain sight.

“There’s often a disconnect between the caretakers of a collection and the arts organizations that might want them,” said Marcel LaFlamme, curator of the collection and the college’s library director. “Curators have been trained to put the preservation of the artifact first, but within the last 20 years there’s been more of a focus on access, mostly because of digitization.”

Beyond Inge’s hometown few knew these plays existed. Many of the works, including “The Killing,” were written after his naturalistic style of characterization became passé.

“Inge has been called the American Chekhov because on the surface you have mundane conversation about the smallness of people’s lives, but the characters go very deep,” Mr. Ellenstein said. “I think for many years in the flash and bang of new types of theater and sparkling dialogue, the richness and the fabric of his writing got lost.”

Mr. Ellenstein and his colleagues at the center decided last year to petition the Inge estate to allow these plays to be disseminated. With approval from Inge’s heirs, they approached International Creative Management, the literary agency that represents Inge’s estate, about doing an anthology. This collaboration led to a more elaborate idea.

“I was so thrilled about this, but I thought many of these, especially the one-acts, might be ignored in a catalog,” said Buddy Thomas, an agent at ICM. “I thought we should get them out there to theaters because we’ve always felt that he doesn’t get the modern attention that Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller get.”

The William Inge Theater Festival in Independence, a four-day celebration of his works held annually since 1982, staged six of the plays in April and published them in the anthology “A Complex Evening: Six Short Plays by William Inge.” Mr. Ellenstein said the works ranged from Pinteresque minimalism to a comedy “that could have been written by Christopher Durang.” After Inge’s last Broadway play, “Where’s Daddy?,” flopped in 1966, he turned to different forms of writing, experimenting with the one-act, then in vogue, Mr. Ellenstein said.

At the Summer Shorts festival “The Killing” joins one-acts by contemporary playwrights, including Neil LaBute and Carole Real. In Inge’s play two men enter an apartment with unclear motives; then one begs to be killed.

While working on the play the director, José Angel Santana, said he found an unanticipated connection. “One of the big influences after I decided to direct it was the death of Michael Jackson, a man who was truly lonely and who needed relief from that,” Mr. Santana said, adding that this made the play more timely for him. “The pain of isolation is so great that he asks for relief.”

That pain feels biographical: “The Killing” depicts a possible gay sexual encounter and a plea for death from a character too afraid to kill himself.

Independence, Kan., has not always celebrated Inge, one of its own, Mr. LaFlamme said. But as times have changed, so has his local legacy and popularity.

“There was resistance in the community at one time even to archive his works,” Mr. La-Flamme said. “Gay and closeted was a dark secret once upon a time. The town now seems to feel like, ‘This is our native son, even if he was different.’ ”

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

Saturday, July 4, 2009


****** WINNER ******

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."


"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."


July 3, 2009
An Appraisal

A Character Actor of Intensified Normalness

It’s a face that you can’t help noticing. Not handsome in the usual movie-star way, by any means, but — befitting a man who defined what it meant to be a character actor — full of character. The jutting chin and oft-broken nose curve toward each other as though affixed to a Punch-and-Judy puppet, but Karl Malden’s face was not made for comedy. Like his voice, pitched between a honk and a growl, it was an instrument full of gravity and dignity, capable of showing strong measures of menace, passion and hurt.

Like most people who came of age after Mr. Malden’s big-screen heyday, I first saw that face on television, in a series of terrifying dramas about vacations gone awry that doubled as advertisements for American Express traveler’s checks. In the wake of a mishap involving American tourists menaced by brazen thieves, surly waiters, incompetent gendarmes or other nasty foreigners, Mr. Malden would stride into the frame in a trim suit and a sharp fedora, a figure at once reassuring and slightly threatening, an embodiment of probity, seriousness and practical no-nonsense Americanism. If you had to leave home — maybe not the best idea, all things considered — you’d better have a brusque, fatherly guy like this to back you up and bail you out.

This patriarchal capitalist pitchman persona was a variation on Mike Stone, the detective Mr. Malden played in the 1970s on “The Streets of San Francisco.” That show’s clean, mean sensibility holds up well against the arty forensics of the current “CSI”-dominated network crime-drama landscape. For most of the program’s run, Mr. Malden’s foil and partner was Michael Douglas, and the generational and stylistic contrast between them — counterculture versus old school, slick against gruff, pretty-boy next to plug-ugly — is no less satisfying for being a little too easy.

But Mr. Malden, who died Wednesday at 97, specialized in being uneasy, playing men who are variously worried, angry, disappointed and defeated. Like many other actors who distinguish themselves in supporting roles and whose charisma consists of a kind of intensified ordinariness, he has often been referred to as an everyman. That doesn’t seem quite right, though. In his best movie roles, mainly in films directed by Elia Kazan, Mr. Malden is specifically the other man, the guy defined partly by his lack of certain attributes abundantly present in the protagonist. The other man is never ruthless, or dangerous, or dashing, or cool. His regret may be that he could never have been a contender, but he makes up for it with a stoical sincerity that is all the more affecting for being so easy to discount.

Twice, in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “On the Waterfront,” the magnetic protagonist was Marlon Brando, and in embodying Brando’s antithesis Mr. Malden achieved an unusual kind of heroism. In “Streetcar” he was Mitch, fumbling suitor for the favors of Vivien Leigh’s Blanche DuBois, his awkward gentleness a quiet rebuke to Stanley Kowalski’s brutish self-confidence. And in “Waterfront” his Father Barry, full of righteous rage and social concern, serves as the angel on Terry Malloy’s shoulder, a figure of conviction and moral clarity in a world lousy with corruption and double-dealing.

Mr. Malden’s blunt features, combined with the subtlety of his craft, helped provide a crucial ballast of realism in Kazan’s feverish fables of American life. His finest, strangest and most heartbreaking performance came in “Baby Doll,” in which he plays Archie Lee Meighan, the dull-witted, sexually frustrated (to put it mildly) proprietor of a decaying cotton plantation who is driven around the bend by the caprices of his child bride (Carroll Baker) and the machinations of a wily business rival (Eli Wallach). The film, like “Streetcar” a collaboration between Kazan and Tennessee Williams, is a pungent hothouse, ripe with free-floating eroticism and Southern Gothic motifs. That Mr. Malden seems so manifestly out of place in this environment — baffled, earnest and sweaty, a can of tomatoes dropped into a flower garden — is exactly what makes him so perfect in the film, which depends on his anxious, uncomprehending discomfort.

Mr. Malden’s achievement as an actor was both substantial and modest. The paradox of great character actors is that they are at once adaptable and unmistakable, irreducibly individual yet able to be typecast. And Karl Malden, especially in the 1950s, was one of the best. No other guy could ever be the other guy the way he could.(Link)

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


From the Los Angeles Times

Producers struggle to stay productive

Michael London, Gary Lucchesi, Marshall Herskovitz and Gale Ann Hurd discuss current challenges in making films.
By John Horn

June 3, 2009

What does a movie producer really do?

Before you start with the jokes, the Producers Guild of America wants to have its say. This weekend, the PGA will present its first-ever Produced By Conference, an open-to-the-public (although sold out) gathering on the Sony Pictures lot with seminars on such topics as independent film financing, digital rights, viral marketing and -- why not? -- booking private jets.

Ahead of the three-day conference, kicking off Friday, four experienced producers sat down to discuss the many challenges they face in these turbulent economic times: Studios are cutting producer deals, taking fewer risks, and finding more reasons than ever to say no. Our panel -- Groundswell Films Michael London ("Sideways," "Milk"), Lakeshore Entertainment’s Gary Lucchesi ("Underworld," "Crank"), Marshall Herskovitz ("Blood Diamond," "The Last Samurai") and Gale Anne Hurd (" The Incredible Hulk," "Terminator") -- covers an array of filmmaking styles.

Here are edited highlights from the conversation:

Q: What does it say about your business when well-reviewed, star-filled adult dramas like "Duplicity" and "State of Play" don't work?

London: I think there is something sobering about it. I think right now there is a premium on escapist material that makes people feel good. I don't believe for a moment that adult movies are going away, but it definitely has given me pause -- not to abandon the things I am most inspired by, but to make sure I am not out of step with what people are feeling.

Lucchesi: Having once been a studio president [at Paramount] and trying to turn the business into a science, I know that it's impossible. Last fall, I looked up the top movies of the '30s, during the depression. They were the Marx Brothers, comedies, escapist movies, "King Kong" was big then. You had "It Happened One Night," so you had romantic comedies. And then you had musicals, and then gangster movies like "White Heat." So, there were certain types of genres that were working during a recession.

Q: Is the passage through which you have to squeeze narrower than before? Gary, your last two films were "Crank: High Voltage" and "Underworld: Rise of the Lycans." Is there a future where you make Philip Roth's "American Pastoral"?

Lucchesi: Before that, we made [the adaptation of Roth's "The Dying Animal"] "Elegy." We're a very practical company. We're going to keep making commercial movies and then occasionally we're going to make those movies that are very, very difficult to make.

London: My company has worked primarily in adult drama. And right now there is such an enormous challenge in getting studios to assign a distribution slot to a movie that they perceive as belonging to this shrinking market. Right now, the number of distributors has shrunk dramatically, and of the distributors that are still in business, they are reserving those distribution slots for movies they feel appeal to the so-called four-quadrant [young and old males and females] audience. It's hard to give them a rationale to devote one of their precious eight or nine distribution slots to one of our movies instead of holding it back for a tent-pole, a comic-book, pre-sold franchise.

Herskovitz: There's a structural problem that permeates the entire media business in America, which is consolidation. In the last 15 years there has been this very interesting opening up of the movie business because you could make films independently -- there were a lot of distributors, there were a lot of different ways to get a movie out there. That's starting to shrink now, and now there's starting to be a bottleneck in the distribution area. This happened to us last year with " Defiance." We had independent financing, all we needed was a domestic distributor -- which was very hard to find. We finally found one, they did a great job, but they were the last -- we wouldn't have gotten the film made if it wasn't for them.

Q: Why was it so hard?

Herskovitz: Companies fear taking risks. The perception was that it was a World War II Holocaust film, and therefore would be difficult to find an audience. A lot of people said "Sorry, no thanks. Been there, done that."

Q: Does that mean marketing is now more important than ever?

Hurd: Everything really is about marketing. What is going to get people to leave their homes to go see a film? The industry has changed. It used to be that a film didn't need to have a huge Friday night, but now everyone looks at the grosses Saturday morning. And that determines a lot: "Well, that movie bombed, I'm not going to go see it."

Q: When you start making a movie, do you have to know how you'll sell it before you even shoot a foot of film?

Lucchesi: I think the process of getting a green light is so complicated that you pretty much have to know who your audience is before you start shooting.

Herskovitz: The audience is inundated by inputs from the culture -- from television, online and films. Marketing has become so difficult -- to penetrate the clutter. And you don't always succeed, even if you have good materials. So I have to know what is going to be the imagery or the sensibility of the film that will attract people.

Q: When studios are less willing to take risks, how does that affect you?

Lucchesi: When Universal greenlit "Duplicity" and "State of Play," it also was greenlighting "Fast & Furious." They didn't know that one wasn't going to work, that one was going to overperform and another was going to underperform. They didn't know that. No one can read the future. But producers are the greatest optimists in the world. I mean, that's who we really are. We are the people that find some material and actually imagine that it could be a movie. What are the odds of that? And then not only do we imagine it can be a movie, we imagine it could be a hit, and maybe even win an award. We are the ones with the machetes going through the Amazon jungle to the places we've never been before.

Q: Can you try to crystal ball the national mood in two years? What do you think people will want to see?

Hurd: I hope my movies!

Lucchesi: My gut tells me that people are desperate for emotion.

Q: How has industry belt-tightening affected you? Does it change who you hire and how much you pay them?

Herskovitz: The studio belt-tightening has had a direct affect on many producers because they cut producer deals. Producers not only create but also nurture intellectual properties for the five, seven, 10 years it takes to get movies made. I don't think we can afford to lose that as an industry. The studios have to cut their overhead, they have to deal with their bottom line. But in terms of the future, that army of producers that was creating new properties is going away. I think that is a problem for all of us.

Q: But don't good ideas rise to the top?

Hurd: What's a good idea? Who could have predicted "Slumdog Millionaire"?

Herskovitz: The reality is that most producers are financially struggling and being driven out of the business, and you have fewer and fewer independent producers. There are a whole bunch of young people trying to come up, but in terms of experienced, independent producers just trying to get by, it's very, very difficult right now, and a lot of them are being driven out of the business. If you begin to say, "The American film industry is starting to look less creative," you have to look at the causes of that in a lot of different areas. And one of them could be that it's really difficult now for creative people to get a movie made.

Q: Are there now more awkward conversations with actors about how they are not going to earn what they are used to?

Lucchesi: Here's something that I learned as an agent. Many years ago, clients would do movies and television and they would also go back and do New York theater, and make maybe $500 a week. With the more art-type movies, it's very easy to go to somebody and say, "We know you get X amount of dollars for your big studio movie, but this is a different animal, this is like you are doing equity theater, and you've got to cut your price to do it." Most people get that.

London: I think that everyone is so cognizant of the world we live in. I'm sure there's a lot of agents who are unhappy about the fall in that pay scale, but anyone who's got their eyes open recognizes that what's important now is to keep working.

Q: Michael, you're dependent on outside financing, and that money seems to be in jeopardy too.

London: From a business perspective, I'd like to have a successful business that rewards my investors and keeps my company afloat. But we're in a culture now, a movie culture, where so little premium is placed on original ideas, as the studios veer more and more toward this notion of something that has a pre-sold element, whether it's a comic book, or a remake of a movie or a television series. Well, what do we do? What have we all done our whole lives but find and champion and support original ideas? The truth about producer deals being cut is that [the studios] are not interested in original ideas. But you are talking to a group of people who when we leave here will go to a meeting, or lunch, or a movie this evening and fall in love with something that completely defies the analysis that we are talking about here.

Hurd: Let's go back to "Slumdog Millionaire," perhaps the most profitable film out there. If you start thinking, "Who is the audience for that? A film that takes place in India?" It was clearly a struggle to get it made, and yet, if you had gambled on that film you would have the greatest return of any film last year.

Q: "Milk" won a couple of Oscars, but didn't do all that well at the box office.

London: We had certainly thought at many points that it might follow more in the path of something like "Brokeback Mountain" and some of the other Oscar movies that sort of exploded. "Milk" bore a certain burden in terms of its seriousness and its themes, and its perception in terms of the audience that it spoke to. The pop culture has become really unpredictable and really resistant. People are not going to want to stop going to see movies about grown-ups. They might be slightly different movies about grown-ups, they might not be $45-million movies about grown-ups, they may not be led by movie stars, but people are always going to want to see those good stories.

Herskovitz: There's no doubt in anybody's mind that some of the above-the-line people in this business have been overpaid for a very long time to the point where it was very deleterious for the business itself. In fact, the business-model movie, when you look at it from the outside, often looks a little bit crazy where you have a star making four or five times more profit on the movie than the studio did. The studio risked all the money and the star risked zero. That's just not a sustainable model, and it's been one of those things that's been very hard to talk about.

Hurd: The interesting thing is that the tent-pole films don't generally star the top box-office names. Having been part of negotiations, they're very tough on actor compensation because there's a dynamic there, which is for actors to raise their fees for the next film, they need a huge breakout box-office hit. So the trade-off there is, well, if you star in this tent pole we may even pay you less than your quote. If there's a next film, you'll get a significant increase.

Q: Does that mean you're having to spend more time trying figure out deals than work on scripts?

London: In the independent world, we have to do it ourselves, and that's a nightmare. It's just like the movie business has become this incredibly intricate house of cards with so many different elements. And unless you're professionally devoted to spending morning, noon and night figuring that out, it's complicated and yet it's important to understand.

Herskovitz: But let's remember that no matter how odious it is, relatively speaking it's a small part of the process.

Hurd: On the other hand, if you are too close to the process, you are blamed for having an actor unhappy with the compensation package. Then it's your fault, as opposed to the person in business affairs.

Q: What are the things that take up your days that you would not have wasted more than a few minutes doing five or 10 years ago?

Lucchesi: It's the panning for gold that's the hardest part -- you wade through a ton of material. You know, you don't have pitches anymore, so you've got a lot of spec scripts and sometimes there might be a kernel of an idea in a spec script, even though it may not be completely well-written, that you feel is worth chasing.

Herskovitz: It is very difficult to pitch these days. I spent 20 years going in a room and telling stories and making deals based on a story that I told. But we're not in that business anymore. Right now there is a project that we're trying to sell, and there's really no way to sell it other than tell the story in the room. It's an amazing, wonderful story, and it's a struggle now. And I feel like there's a potential this great thing will be lost because that means of getting that development money is gone. They don't want to hear a pitch because they are not going to pay to have a script written.

Q: How do you think technology is going to change your business?

Herskovitz: I fear that we are on the precipice right now of . . . a huge rise in piracy in America. I think that the era of illegal downloading of films is about to begin in a major way. Beyond that, what I've seen in the last two years in terms of delivery systems is utter confusion. And I think that nobody knows anything yet. I think that what's clear is that people want to go out to the movies and will continue to want to go out to the movies for a long time to come. I think that we just don't know how this whole multi-platform thing is going to sort itself out. And everybody that I talk to just throws up their hands and says, you know, "I can look at four different models and I don't know which one is going to work."

Lucchesi: Had "Milk" come out on video on demand eight weeks after its theatrical release, would it have done better? I don't know, but I'd be curious about that.

Q: What gives you reasons to be optimistic?

Hurd: What I find exciting is that my 17-year-old daughter and her friends don't want to give up going out to movies. Their choice of films is much wider than we would expect. They get excited about some foreign films -- and they forget that they are reading subtitles. We are at times underestimating the younger filmgoers and what entertainment interests them.

London: The indie world is not as healthy as we'd all like, but there is a huge wave of new directors that are creating a lot of excitement, and audiences are excited about movies that take them out of their day-to-day lives.

Herskovitz: There's a huge diversity in the kinds of movies being made, and that allows for change to happen, and that to me is the healthiest sign.

Hurd: Being at Comic-Con last summer, everyone knew at that point the response to Robert Pattinson, in Comic-Con, heralded a new star is born. It was unbelievable, I haven't seen a reaction like that since the Beatles. . . .

Q: Don't you think also that there has been a shift in the traditional notion of stars? The studios are more open to new faces, new kinds of stars. Obviously, we cycle through them a little more quickly too, but it feels like the traditional movie star notion is changing.

London: Does everybody get that, though? Do the studios get that? Do the agents get that?

Hurd: It's harder to quantify that now. If you look at television and you look at ratings, that's not necessarily capturing the audience that is viewing a particular TV series, especially something like "Gossip Girl." My daughter couldn't even tell you what time it's on, she watches it online, on demand, and every one of the actors in "Gossip Girl" is a huge star to her and her friends, which is not something that you can quantify so easily just based on . . .

Q: It seems as if the studios care most about concepts -- "Transformers," " Star Trek," " Harry Potter."

London: I think execution is king. I really do. I saw "Star Trek" last week -- I'm not in particular a tent-pole movie guy -- and I loved it. It was alive and funny and moving and imaginative, hot and smart.

Herskovitz: A lot of these high-concept movies fail when they are not done well. This notion that concept is king is already 25 years old. I think the audience is more discerning about it now. But there is a danger here that is analogous to the auto industry. More and more of the studios have placed their bets on these high-concept films, but there could be a moment where people just get tired of those films. My fear is the studios are essentially getting rid of the apparatus for creation of new content.

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."

Sunday, March 22, 2009


Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories, of Kelly Reichardt on the set of ‘‘Wendy and Lucy.’’

March 22, 2009 Neo-Neo Realism By A.O. SCOTT

IT IS NOW ALMOST A YEAR SINCE “Wendy and Lucy” played in Cannes — not a watershed moment in the history of cinema, perhaps, but a quiet harbinger. Kelly Reichardt’s third feature, about the struggles of a young woman and her dog stranded in an Oregon town en route to Alaska, was certainly among the more admired films in a strong festival, where it showed out of competition. But by the time it opened in New York last December, the movie, a modest, quiet, 80-minute study in loneliness and desperation, seemed like something more — not so much a premonition of hard times ahead as a confirmation that they had arrived.

“Wendy and Lucy,” with Michelle Williams in one title role (the other belonged to Reichardt’s dog), had a successful art-house run and found its way onto many critics’ year-end best-of lists (including mine). There was some talk of an Oscar nomination for Williams, who was so believably ordinary in her look and so rigorously un-actressy in her manner that you could easily forget her celebrity. But “Wendy and Lucy,” released by Oscilloscope Laboratories, a small and ambitious new distributor started by Adam Yauch, a member of the Beastie Boys, would have looked a little awkward alongside the other Academy Award nominees. It’s true that the big winner, “Slumdog Millionaire,” concerns itself with poverty and disenfranchisement, but it also celebrates, both in its story and in its exuberant, sentimental spirit, the magical power of popular culture to conquer misery, to make dreams come true. And the major function of Oscar night is to affirm that gauzy, enchanting notion.

The world of “Wendy and Lucy” offers little in the way of enchantment but rather a different, more austere kind of beauty. And while Wendy, at the end of the film, is poignantly, even devastatingly alone, the film itself now seems to be in good company. This spring, as the blockbuster machinery shifts gears from “Watchmen” to “Wolverine,” a handful of small movies from relatively young directors are setting out to expand, modestly but with notable seriousness, the scope of American filmmaking.

“Goodbye Solo” is the third feature directed by Ramin Bahrani, a New York-based filmmaker whose previous movies, “Man Push Cart” and “Chop Shop,” explored corners of the city rarely acknowledged by Hollywood. In the weeks following its debut at the end of this month, Bahrani’s movie will be joined by — and, given the beleaguered state of distribution for noncommercial movies these days, may have to compete with — Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s “Sugar” and So Yong Kim’s “Treeless Mountain,” each a second feature. All of these films — like “Wendy and Lucy” and Lance Hammer’s “Ballast,” which came out last fall — were highlights of the 2008 film-festival calendar, showing up at Cannes, Sundance, Toronto and elsewhere.

The lives they illuminate, of fictional characters most often played by nonactors from similar backgrounds, are not commonly depicted on screen: the Senegalese cabdriver in Winston-Salem, N.C., whose friendship with a customer is at the center of “Goodbye Solo”; the aspiring baseball player in “Sugar” who is transplanted from the Dominican Republic to rural Iowa; the African-American shopkeeper in a sparsely populated stretch of the Mississippi Delta whose grief is the dominant mood of “Ballast”; the two very young Korean girls abandoned by their mother in an unfamiliar provincial town in “Treeless Mountain.” But these people and their situations are nonetheless recognizable, familiar on a basic human level even if their particular predicaments are not. And if the kind of movie they inhabit is not entirely new — the common ancestor that established their species identity is a well-known Italian bicycle thief — their unassuming arrival on a few screens nonetheless seems vital, urgent and timely.

WHAT KIND OF MOVIES do we need now? It’s a question that seems to arise almost automatically in times of crisis. It was repeatedly posed in the swirl of post-9/11 anxiety and confusion, and the consensus answer, at least among studio executives and the entertainment journalists who transcribe their insights, was that, in the wake of such unimaginable horror, we needed fantasy, comedy, heroism. In practice, the response turned out to be a little more complicated — some angry political documentaries and earnest wartime melodramas made it into movie theaters during the Bush years, and a lot of commercial spectacles arrived somber in mood and heavy with subtext— but such exceptions did little to dent the conventional wisdom.

And as a new set of worries and fears has crystallized in recent months — lost jobs and homes, corroded values and vanished credit — the dominant cultural oracles have come to pretty much the same conclusions. Remember the ’30s, when we danced through the Depression with Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley and giggled amid the gloom with Lubitsch and the Marx Brothers? (Not many of us do, of course, which makes this kind of selective memory easier to promote.) Then as now, what we wanted most was to forget our troubles. In recession, as in war — and also, conveniently, in times of peace or prosperity — the movies we evidently need are the ones that offer us the possibility, however fanciful or temporary, of escape.

Maybe so. But what if, at least some of the time, we feel an urge to escape from escapism? For most of the past decade, magical thinking has been elevated from a diversion to an ideological principle. The benign faith that dreams will come true can be hard to distinguish from the more sinister seduction of believing in lies. To counter the tyranny of fantasy entrenched on Wall Street and in Washington as well as in Hollywood, it seems possible that engagement with the world as it is might reassert itself as an aesthetic strategy. Perhaps it would be worth considering that what we need from movies, in the face of a dismaying and confusing real world, is realism.

In 1940, Otis Ferguson, the plain-spoken film critic of The New Republic, saw unbounded democratic potential in this still-young art form’s connection to the everyday. “Like the novel,” he wrote, “the fiction film is wide open to anyone who can use it to advantage. Unlike the novel . . . it has taken all of actual life to be its province.” By “all of actual life,” Ferguson meant the ordinary modes of existence idealized in the political idioms of the time as belonging to the common man. The faithful representation of “the majority of people” was the very substance of what Ferguson grandly called “the promise of the movie in America.”

But in the decades that followed, American movies had other, gaudier promises to keep. Which is not to say that realism was altogether forsaken as a practice or an ideal — it strutted its hour on the Broadway stage with Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan in the ’40s and ’50s, and some of its theatrical cachet migrated briefly from there to Hollywood. But more radical and innovative cinematic explorations of “actual life” occurred elsewhere, most notably in Italy, where filmmakers during and after the Second World War, driven by a mixture of necessity and inspiration, invented Neorealism.

Their methods included the casting of nonprofessional actors, often portraying characters close to their real selves; the use of unadorned, specific locations and an absorption in the ordinary details of work, school and domesticity. Some of the first Neorealist masterpieces — Roberto Rossellini’s “Open City” and “Paisan,” for example — were stories of war staged in the immediate aftermath of the fighting. But it was in the late ’40s, a moment of economic crisis and political turmoil, that the movement achieved its characteristic form in movies like Luchino Visconti’s “Terra Trema” (1948) and Vittorio De Sica’s “Bicycle Thief” (1948), an international sensation at the time and still perhaps the single best known Neorealist work.

These movies, made by directors closely (if not always comfortably) aligned with the Italian Communist Party, concerned themselves with the plight of the poor, in Visconti’s case a family of Sicilian fishermen, in De Sica’s a Roman man fighting to keep himself, his wife and their young son from destitution. Neither “La Terra Trema” nor “The Bicycle Thief” is exactly subtle in its politics: they paint a somber picture of a society ruled by exploitation, mistrust and an imperious bureaucratic state. But if they were merely didactic — simple indictments of the system or hymns to the nobility of the proletariat — the postwar films of Visconti and De Sica would now most likely be regarded as historical curiosities rather than as artistic touchstones. Their art lies not in their messages but in their discovery of a mysterious, volatile alloy of documentary and theatrical elements. Simple, fablelike tales unfold to the beat of quotidian rhythms — the morning bustle and noontime stillness of Roman streets; the implacable movement of the tides on a primordial stretch of coastline — and the faces of characters show not only emotion but also the natural reserve of people whose dignity is at stake. The “star” of “The Bicycle Thief,” a steelworker named Lamberto Maggiorani, is hesitant and inarticulate in ways that capture, with a gravity few professionals could approximate, the character’s struggle to maintain some control over his circumstances.

That character, Antonio Ricci, wants to work and finds a job pasting movie posters to empty stretches of roadside wall. He gets the job because he owns a bicycle, and when it is stolen, everything else starts to unravel — Antonio’s status as a father and a husband, his confidence in the efficacy of the law and the decency of other people, his ethical grounding. Antonio’s dream of autonomy, humble as it may be, is cruelly untenable — a fate he shares with the fishermen of “La Terra Trema,” whose attempts to own and operate their boats founder in the face of social injustice, poor planning and plain bad luck. Though these stories end in disappointment, they are somehow the opposite of depressing. Neorealism rests equally on the acknowledgment that life is hard and the recognition that life goes on, that there is something in human nature that will persist in the face of defeat.

In the ’50s and after, Visconti and De Sica — and Italian cinema generally — moved on, to bigger stories and more elaborate productions. The Neorealist impulse, however, proved remarkably mobile and adaptable. It might be thought of less as a style or genre than as an ethic that finds expression in various places at critical times — touching down in Bengal in the ’50s and early ’60s and infusing the work of Satyajit Ray; migrating through Brazil in the ’60s, Senegal in the ’70s and ’80s and Iran in the ’90s; surfacing in the recent waves of post-Soviet cinema from Romania to Kazakhstan. But in the United States, Neorealism has sent up only fragile shoots, popping up at the edges even of what is habitually and somewhat misleadingly known as independent film. Historians will point to outliers like “The Exiles,” Kent MacKenzie’s 1961 drama about Native Americans living in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, or Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” (1977), a small masterpiece steeped in the details of black working-class life in Watts. These films, and a handful of others like them — David Gordon Green’s “George Washington” (2000) and Jim McKay’s “Our Song” (2001) serve as more recent examples — offer not only bracing, poetic views of real life but also tantalizing glimpses­ of a cinematic tradition that might have been. Their local, intimate narratives remind you that, in spite of the abundance of American movies, there is an awful lot of American life that remains off screen.

“The Exiles” and “Killer of Sheep,” long known more by reputation than firsthand, were recently revived in theaters. Burnett’s film is finally on DVD, and MacKenzie’s will be later this year. The timing of their availability — and the appreciative attention they received from critics and cinephiles — hardly seems coincidental. American film is having its Neorealist moment, and not a moment too soon.

“WHY SHOOT THIS WAY?” That was the question Ramin Bahrani, the 34-year-old director of “Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop” and “Goodbye Solo,” asked when I sat down with him in the back corner of a West Village cafe on a frigid afternoon not long ago. It was our third meeting. Two weeks earlier, we ate lunch together at a noisy Dominican restaurant in a workaday, relatively unhipsterized corner of Williamsburg not far from his apartment, and more recently I spent most of a day following Bahrani from a classroom at Columbia University, where he was teaching a graduate course on directing, to a downtown screening room, where he was checking the color on new prints of “Goodbye Solo.” On those occasions, our conversations had ranged far and wide. We had discussed Dostoyevsky and Persian poetry, the logistics of location shooting and the mysteries of effective casting, the shortcomings of “Slumdog Millionaire” and the virtues of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”

But it seems we had not quite gotten to the heart of the matter, and Bahrani, politely reversing the usual protocols of journalist-subject relations, e-mailed me to request a further interview. Tall, thin and stoop-shouldered, with a calm voice and gracious demeanor that only partly disguise an almost-feverish intellectual intensity, Bahrani greeted me with the question I had been asking myself somewhat obsessively over the past few years, inspired by the appearance of movies like “Chop Shop” and “Man Push Cart” at festivals and on art-house screens. “Why realism?”

When “Man Push Cart” surfaced in 2006, those who saw it had the experience of discovering something that they couldn’t quite believe hadn’t been done before. The film follows a Pakistani immigrant named Ahmad — played by Ahmad Razvi, whom Bahrani discovered in the Midwood section of Brooklyn, home to many South Asian cabdrivers and pushcart vendors — through the dramas and routines that define his working life. Ahmad, who operates a coffee cart, is hardly an unusual figure on the streets of New York but rather the kind of guy nearly everyone who works in a Midtown office building has encountered many times. He is also a dreamer, a lover, a hustler, a former pop singer and, not incidentally, a Muslim man making his way through a city still gripped by post-9/11 anxiety.

But if “Man Push Cart” can fairly be described as an immigrant’s story, a home-front tale from the War on Terror, it is none of these things in the usual way. It is not, in other words, a parable of the melting pot or a lesson in tolerance. And even though Bahrani’s subsequent films are also about immigrants working their way toward some version of the American dream — a Dominican doing odd jobs amid the low-rent mechanics and auto-body repair technicians of Willets Point, Queens, in “Chop Shop”; an African man ferrying passengers through the North Carolina night in “Goodbye Solo” — their multiculturalism is not a theme but a fact.

Bahrani describes these characters as outsiders, but in a sense that designation is as much existential — the image conjured by the title “Man Push Cart” was inspired by Albert Camus’s “Myth of Sisyphus” — as sociological. Bahrani, whose parents emigrated from Iran before he was born, grew up in Winston-Salem, with only a few other Persian families in the area. In 1998, Bahrani went to Tehran, planning a six-week stay in his parents’ homeland, which he had never visited, and ended up living there for almost three years. He was, he says now, amazed by the complexity and energy of the city, the way it scrambled all different types of people together and forced them to deal with one another. “This is the part of New York that reminds me of Tehran,” he said to me one windy afternoon as we walked east under the train tracks in Williamsburg. He did not mean the demographic particulars — a smattering of arty establishments among the bodegas, chop shops and dollar discount stores, with blue-collar Latino blocks flanking one side of the avenue and Hasidic enclaves on the other — so much as the hectic, patchwork ambience of work and idleness, affluence and hardship.

In Tehran — whose metropolitan area has almost double the population of New York — this atmosphere was overwhelming, he said, and he tried to make his first feature there. It was going to be an urban romance, “something like what Wong Kar-wai did in ‘Fallen Angels.’ Not like an Iranian movie at all.” After Sept. 11, it proved impossible to secure financing for such a movie. Bahrani came back to America and, as he put it, instead of making “a Taiwanese-style movie in Tehran,” set about shooting “an Iranian-style movie here in New York.”

“Man Push Cart” is just that, which is to say that it shows the influence of Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami and Amir Naderi, who refined the old Neorealist spirit through the 1990s and into the next decade. Most of the scenes in the film take place outdoors, and while there is a clear, poignant story, it takes shape not through expository dialogue but through gestures, actions and details that the camera absorbs in long, patient shots.

“Chop Shop,” released last winter, is, if anything, even more deeply Iranian in mood and method, in part because its protagonist is a child — something of a hallmark of Kiarostami’s mid-’90s work in particular — and also because it seems at once utterly naturalistic and meticulously composed. The main characters are Ale (short for Alejandro), an energetic 12-year-old, and his older sister, Izzy (short for Isamar), who comes to stay with him in his makeshift quarters above the car-repair shop where he does odd jobs. There is no back story — no flashbacks or conversations about how they arrived at this state of virtual orphanhood in the shadow of Shea Stadium — and, at first, only the whisper of a plot.

A conventional way to explain what this movie feels like is to say that it’s like a documentary, but this is misleading. To some degree, the sense of uninflected realness comes from the authenticity of the setting. Bahrani and his cast and crew spent months in the area of Willets Point, known as the Iron Triangle, and some of the workers and business owners in the neighborhood appear in the film. But Bahrani also spent a long time rehearsing with Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales, the amateur actors who play Ale and Izzy, and when it came time to shoot, he pushed them through 20 or 30 takes of each scene. Every camera movement, nearly every bit of incidental business — a plastic bag blowing along a dark, empty street like a tumbleweed; a pigeon fluttering into the frame — was blocked out, controlled, adjusted, repeated.

All of this, he explained, was in the interest of clarity — the necessity of communicating, at any given point in the story, what the characters are doing and why. It was a notion Bahrani impressed rigorously, perhaps even ruthlessly, on his students at Columbia, whose three- or four-minute scenes (drawn from longer scripts they had written) he took apart shot by shot, word by word. His insistence on the tiniest details of camera movement, expression and composition was a reminder to them — and also to me — that transparency, immediacy and a sense of immersion in life are not the automatic results of turning on a camera but rather effects achieved through the painstaking application of craft.

And movies, even as they take their audiences on virtual journeys into hidden pockets or unexplored reaches of experience, are also frequently responses to other movies. “Goodbye Solo,” for instance, is in part an answer to, or a variation on, some of the themes and problems suggested by Kiarostami’s “Taste of Cherry.” That film, which shared the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997, explores the uneasy bond between a driver and passenger, one of whom turns out to want the other’s help in committing suicide.

A similar relationship is at the center of “Goodbye Solo,” in which Solo begins to suspect that a regular customer, a crusty old Southerner named William, is preparing for his own death. But the link between “Solo” and its precursor is not one of quotation or allusion — the viewer who has not seen Kiarostami’s movie does not miss anything essential in Bahrani’s; nor is the moviegoer who spots the connection rewarded with the self-admiring frisson that comes, say, when you decode a King Hu or Godard reference embedded in a Quentin Tarantino film.

“In Persian culture there’s something called tazmin,” Bahrani told me, “which is a longstanding tradition of poets taking one line or one beat or one idea from an earlier poem, picking it up and putting it in their own poem and going on from there.” His own borrowings are not acts of imitation or homage but rather attempts to absorb and extend what other filmmakers have done. And you can see a similar process of appropriation and modification going on in “Wendy and Lucy,” for instance, which seems to pick up an idea from De Sica’s “Umberto D” — a lost dog as symbol and symptom of an increasingly heartless society — and follow it from the bustle of Rome into the silence of the Pacific Northwest. And Reichardt’s film, based on a story by her frequent collaborator Jonathan Raymond, also shows some affinities with “Rosetta,” Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s groundbreaking and relentless 1999 film about a young working-class Belgian in a state of stubborn, futile revolt against her circumstances.

“Rosetta,” whose heroine is unforgettably vivid and not entirely sympathetic, was the movie that inspired “In Between Days,” So Yong Kim’s debut feature, an almost painfully intimate immersion in the life of a Korean girl drifting through adolescence in a wintry North American city. Kim, who started out as an experimental filmmaker, was drawn into narrative filmmaking partly through the example of her husband, Bradley Rust Gray, also a director. To make her second film, “Treeless Mountain,” Kim, who came to the United States when she was 12, returned to her family’s hometown in Korea. The story — two sisters must learn to cope with life as unwelcome wards of their moody, alcoholic aunt — had been on her mind for some time, but it was “Nobody Knows,” a 2004 film by the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda, that persuaded her to try to bring the story to the screen. “Nobody Knows” is also about abandoned children — four kids left by their mother to fend for themselves in a small Tokyo apartment — but the inspiration Kim drew from it was as much practical as thematic. That Kore-eda managed to draw such delicate, authentic performances from very young children encouraged Kim to try something similar.

“I was in Toronto, with ‘In Between Days,’ ” Kim said in an interview, “and I saw Kore-eda, and I went up to him and asked him: ‘How did you do it? How did you work with those kids?’ ” The language barrier prevented her from getting the answer she wanted — “he was giving all these long answers, and the translator turned around and said, ‘Kore-eda san says, “Everything is good with Super 16,” ’ and that was it!” — but further research helped her figure out what to do once she found the right children. The girls who play the sisters, 5 and 7 when shooting started, did not know anything about the story they were enacting. “We set up rules, like a game or something,” Kim explained. “There were four or five rules: You can’t look at me, you can’t look at the camera, you can’t leave the set until I say ‘cut’ and you have to repeat whatever I say, with all the other rules still applying.”

From this simple, mechanical process, a luminous, poignant story takes shape. And the accessibility of the story, the vividness of the emotions within it, is an important feature of the kind of realism that Kim and her peers practice. “Treeless Mountain” is not a difficult or an obscure movie. Nor, for all its lyricism, is “Ballast,” in which Lance Hammer uses the reticence of his actors and the strangeness of the Delta landscape to lay bare complex, primal feelings of loss, loyalty and fear. And “Sugar,” Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden’s new movie, is in some respects a classic sports picture, its narrative engine the familiar, quintessentially American drive to make it in the big leagues. You will recognize a lot of what you see, if you take the time to look.

AN INTEREST IN MOVIES from other countries is too often, even among people who should know better, taken as a sign of snobbery, an overrefined devotion to the esoteric and the difficult. There may be some commercial benefit as well as creative satisfaction in aspiring to be the next Tarantino or Scorsese — or even the next Spike Lee, Kevin Smith or Wes Anderson. But to set out to be the next Dardenne Brothers, the next Kore-eda or the next Kiarostami is to court stares of incomprehension from your peers and polite demurrals from financial backers. American filmmakers who decline to follow the standard career path, in which a low-budget, independent debut leads to festival exposure and, eventually, work for hire in Hollywood, are themselves outsiders of a kind, subsisting on the edges of the entertainment marketplace. This marginality is a challenge for filmmakers — some of them, like poets and novelists, support themselves between projects by teaching, as Bahrani and Reichardt do. But it is also, more important, a loss for the moviegoing public, which finds itself at once glutted with choices and starved for meaning. There are so many movies. How do we know which ones matter?

Nearly every movie, good or bad, commercial or independent, asks a version of that question: What matters? It’s a big question sometimes most effectively addressed on a small scale. “Goodbye Solo” is a film that, in its final moments, contemplates death, nature and the fragility of human identity in an indifferent universe. But it is also the story of a man striving to improve his lot, to move up, quite literally, from taxi-driving to a career as a flight attendant. This ambition is not just a matter of better working conditions or more money; work is never only about those things. Solo’s upward striving is an expression of his optimism, which in turn is crucial to his sense of himself as a man, a husband and stepfather, a friend and, though he would never put it so bluntly, an American.

Similarly, the main narrative of Lance Hammer’s “Ballast,” like that of “Goodbye Solo,” is not directly concerned with money or work. It dwells on the stricken reaction of Lawrence, a stolid bear of a man (played with heartbreaking stoicism by Micheal J. Smith, another remarkable nonprofessional) to the suicide of his twin brother and his subsequent rapprochement with the brother’s son and former wife. But at the center of this family drama is the store Lawrence and his brother owned, a small commercial enterprise whose continued existence becomes a tangible metaphor for enigmatic, ungraspable questions of life and death.

Money is never just money; a job is always more than a job. In “Chop Shop,” young Ale is saving to buy an old van that he plans to convert into a food-vending truck, in effect an expanded version of Ahmad’s coffee cart in “Man Push Cart.” Once this happens, everything will fall into place; Ale and his sister will have the comfort and security that is so evidently lacking in their lives. Wendy in “Wendy and Lucy” is, like Ale, almost entirely preoccupied with money. The notebooks where you might expect to find a young woman’s spiritual reflections or earnest love poems are instead filled with numbers. Wendy is budgeting her supply of cash, calculating how much will go for food and gas. Once she reaches Alaska, Wendy hopes to find work in a fish-canning factory. After that, everything will be fine.

The young Dominican pitcher in “Sugar” may seem, at first, to harbor a loftier, more glittery dream — he is working for a shot at the major leagues — but it is based in some pretty earthbound desires. He wants to help his mother finish a small addition to her low-ceilinged, cinder-block house, and to give her a new table. He might also want fame, glory, money and women — he is 19, after all — but these are expressions of that basic impulse to get ahead.

I don’t want to spoil any plots, but if you have read this far, it will hardly surprise you to learn that, in these movies, dreams generally do not come true. Antonio Ricci never did recover his bicycle.

“They all of them, in a way, can be connected to the myth of Sisyphus,” Rahmin Bahrani said to me, as our conversation ranged from his own films to those of his peers and precursors. “Because it’s like, that’s it: you will push the stone up to the top, and it will come back down again.” In contrast, Bahrani said, Hollywood wish-fulfillment tales — or the faux-independent dramas of adversity followed by third-act redemption — did not strike him as hopeful at all. “They just don’t make any sense,” he said. “They create massive confusion.” To which his own films (and films like “Ballast,” “Wendy and Lucy,” “Sugar” and “Treeless Mountain”) might serve, in their very different ways, as an antidote. Not because they offer grim counsels of despair or paint lurid tableaux of desperation but rather because they take what has always seemed seductively easy about moviemaking — the camera can show us the world — and make it look hard. Their characters undergo a painful process of disillusionment, and then keep going. The disappointment they encounter — the grit with which they face it, the grace with which it is conveyed — becomes, for the audience, a kind of exhilaration. What happens at the end of a dream? You wake up.

A.O. Scott, a chief film critic at The Times, last wrote for the magazine about the impact of the small screen on the movies.

"The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king."