“On Cinema: Alexander Payne” at New York Film Festival

Director Alexander Payne

On October 15 the New York Film Festival presented “On Cinema: Alexander Payne,” in which the director (“Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” and the soon to be released “The Descendants”) talked about influential films in his life.  The event was sponsored by HBO, moderated by NYFF Selection Committee Chairman Richard Pena and took place in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater.

Payne proved to be an affable, frank and intelligent subject who frequently turned Pena’s questions around, playfully shooting them back at his interviewer.  Interspersed throughout the talk, Payne showed clips from four influential films: Anthony Mann’s “The Naked Spur,” Michelangelo Antonioni’s “La Notte,” Martin Scorsese’s “Casino” and Akira Kurosawa’s “Red Beard.”  Payne also brought a 16m print of an early film by director Carroll Ballard, “The Perils of Priscilla,” a lively, imaginative short which showed the world from the point of view of an abandoned house cat.  Payne said it was one of the best movies ever made.

Payne began by talking about growing up in Omaha and the fact his mother took him to all kinds of movies, regardless of ratings.  Payne admitted, with some embarrassment, that the movie with which he first fell in love, and saw several times, was “The Sound of Music.” Through the influence of his brother, Payne soon graduated to films like “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” “Cool Hand Luke” and “One Eyed Jacks.”  His biggest exposure to art house films occurred in college.

Before screening a clip from “The Naked Spur,” Payne described the film as, “the perfect mix of western and noir.”  He said Mann was, “an expert at keeping the viewer’s attention on the actors, the drama and the emotions in the foreground, while always providing spectacular backgrounds, always in deep focus.”

Payne also talked about the wise choice it was for actor James Stewart to not be concerned with his “nice guy” movie star persona, choosing instead to play darker characters in Mann’s westerns, as well as in the films Stewart made with Alfred Hitchcock.  “It’s good when stars who have that inner goodness (like Stewart) are cast as sons of bitches,” Payne offered, offering that, as a result, Stewart had a career that lasted for the rest of his life.

Payne introduced Antonioni’s film “La Notte” as “The one Antonioni film in which I fall asleep the least,” a comment which elicited big laughs from the audience.   Payne defended his comment by explaining that falling asleep was part of the experience of seeing an Antonioni film.  Payne said he would re-watch Antonioni’s films and, hopefully, would not fall asleep during the same parts.  He showed the ending of “La Notte” as an example of “one of the all time great endings.”  Payne praised Antonioni as a director “who could make a film about a feeling.”

Payne introduced a clip from Scorsese’s “Casino” describing at as “the under appreciated masterpiece that it is.”  While he pointed out that most people prefer Scorsese’s film “Goodfellas,” Payne said, “There’s something about “Casino” that gets under my skin.”  He said he particularly admires the film’s first 40 minutes.  He said the first 40 minutes of “Casino” are something he uses to unwind with after a long day, calling “Casino” a “chicken soup” film.  After screening the clip from “Casino,” Payne talked about the sense of rhythm in the film’s editing which blends with the film’s use of pop music and voice over.  Payne said he loves voice over in movies because he loves being told a story.  “Voice over is one of the greatest contributions of talking cinema,” Payne said. He went on to give examples of what he termed great “voice over” films:  “Sunset Boulevard,” “A Clockwork Orange” and “Barry Lyndon.”

Payne introduced a clip from Kurosawa’s “Red Beard” describing it as “a really fierce film about how people should simply be nice to each other.”  He described Kurosawa as “less interested in being ‘nice,’ but very interested in being ‘kind.’”  Payne described “Red Beard” as a coming of age story about a young physician learning about compassion.

Payne ended the event by expressing his thanks to Pena for having his film, “The Descendants,” as part of the festival.  It will be the closing night film on October 16.


About unpaidfilmcritic

Up until 2009 Seth Shire spent nearly two decades in the New York film industry as a post production supervisor of feature films. Highlights include working on the films of Martin Scorsese, James Toback and Spike Lee. Since leaving the film industry Seth has expanded into new and varied areas where he has found a great deal of satisfaction. Seth currently teaches in the Sociology Department of CUNY Queens College. His courses include "Mass Media and Popular Culture," "Introduction to Sociology," and "Sociology of Cinema" where he is a very popular teacher. Seth is also the film critic for "Town & Village," a Manhattan weekly newspaper, a position he has held for the past six years. Seth gives back to his community through volunteer teaching at Manhattan's "The Caring Community," a center for senior citizens, where he teaches a very popular course on documentaries called "The Golden Age of the Documentary. In the fall of 2010 Seth taught "Critical Reading and Writing" at Parsons School of Design. He has also taught "Cinema Studies" at the New York Film Academy. Seth lives in Stuyvesant Town, in Manhattan.

Posted on October 16, 2011, in Feature Articles, New York Film Festival 2011 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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