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Pressing On: The Letterpress Film

“Printing is a privilege”

When Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type in the 15th century, the world changed forever. The printing press ushered us out of the Dark Ages into the Age of Enlightenment. Fast forward today’s Information Age and we still have much to thank Gutenberg for how the printing press revolutionized the world. For centuries, letterpress, a form of of pressing ink into paper with the use of engravings carved into wood, metal, linoleum or zinc cut plates, was the standard for creating books, newspapers, magazines, brochures, pamphlets, posters and many other forms of printed words on paper. Over the years, the craft of letterpress was fine tuned byartisans who learned how turn type into an art form. Unlike today’s flash in the pan technology which quickly becomes replaced or obsolete, letterpress machines were improved upon in such a way they became timeless. A machine from a century ago could still function the way it was intended if handled with care. With the birth of offset printing in the mid-Twentieth Century and the advent of computers, letterpress became obsolete. But a group of letterpress printers who value the art and craft of the process are keeping it alive and hoping to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.

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Co-directed by Andrew P. Quinn and Erin Beckloff, Pressing On: The Letterpress Film is a love letter to this art form. It asks the question, why is there still a love for this obsolete technology? The documentary seeks out to answer this with interviews of letterpress printers, both professionals and hobbyists who honed their craft, appreciate the process and ultimately find joy in it. The film revels in the romanc and nostalgia of this form of graphic design. The beat up blocks, the machinery, the colorful designs, the beautiful typography are all part of a long tradition handed down from generation to generation. The interview subjects hail from mid-west and mid-Atlantic. We hear from people who operate independent presses whether at established shops or out of their garage. We learn about the long tradition of Hatch Show Print in Tennessee which made concert posters a collectible art and the Hamilton Museum which keeps the history of letterpress alive. I was particularly taken with the interviews with hobbyist Dave Churchman who collected, you could even say hoarded, letter press equipment. He passed away in 2015 and within the film we also hear from his son who was left in charge of the vast collection his father left behind.

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Dave Churchman

There is a “pressing” need to pass on the knowledge of the art of letterpress to the next generation so it won’t be lost. Today we can appreciate the unique aesthetic of letterpress as a form of graphic design (everything you do in your Adobe Suite is influenced by letterpress!) but can we save the process? When the master printers pass on, who will carry their torch?

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Pressing On: The Letterpress Film is a sensitive and reflective documentary that is clearly in love with its subject. It’s joyful about the form but melancholy about the future. If you have any interest in the history of technology, in graphic design or even in what drives people to pursue their passion, I would highly recommend watching this film.

Pressing On premieres on digital today. You can find it on iTunes, Vimeo or your favorite VOD platform. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-Ray which you can find on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Best Buy!

Pressing On: The Letterpress Film Official Trailer

 

Aesthetic and Process: Exclusive Clip

The Young Karl Marx

The Young Karl Marx

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Station: 19th Century Political Biopic
Time Travel Destination: 1843-1848, Cologne, London, Manchester, Paris, Brussels, Ostend, etc.
Conductor: Raoul Peck

 

The Young Karl Marx

“In early 1843, Europe, ruled by absolute monarchs, wracked by crises, famine and recession, is on the verge of profound change.”

On the heels of his critically acclaimed documentary I Am Not Your Negro (2016), director Raoul Peck brings audiences something vastly different but still as potent in its political message. The Young Karl Marx (2017) tells the story of two German philosophers: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, their friendship, trials and tribulations and the birth of Communism and Marx’s Communist Manifesto. August Diehl stars as Karl Marx, the headstrong and arrogant writer who is constantly getting in trouble for his radical ideas. Struggling to make ends meet for his growing family, Marx is battling the internal struggle of his passion for social justice and making a decent living. His partner is his equally headstrong wife, former socialite Jenny von Westphalen-Marx (Vicky Krieps), who gave up her comfortable life for the love of Marx and his ideas. They try to make a go of it in Paris but are soon exiled from France. In the meantime, another young philosopher Friedrich Engels (Stefan Konarske), lives a conflicted life in Manchester, England. He works for his father, a successful mill owner and tyrant to his workers, and is constantly butting heads with him. Inspired by outspoken worker Mary Burns (Hannah Steele)’s protest of his father’s treatment of the mill workers, Engels seeks out justice. Marx and Engels meet and become fast friends. Over the next few years they fight for the proletariat and against the bourgeoisie. They know something big is about to happen and won’t let anything or anyone get in their way.

The Young Karl Marx

The Young Karl Marx

Peck’s biopic could have easily been called The Young Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels because it focuses almost equally on both historic figures. However, it would have been a convoluted title and Marx is the one whom is best known to contemporary audiences. While you don’t have to be pro-communism to appreciate the political message of this film you do have to have some interest in liberal philosophy, political history and social justice. Even Peck within the confines of the movie, leaves room for doubt. In one scene Arnold Ruge (Hans-Uwe Bauer) warns Marx to not follow in Martin Luther’s footsteps, when Luther broke down Catholic dogma only to help usher in an equally intolerant religion. I thought this to be quite powerful.

I consider myself very liberal so I was fascinated by the story of these two important 19th century figures. If you enjoyed Elizabeth Gaskell’s social justice novel North & South (or its mini-series adaptation), about the working poor of mill town Manchester, England around the same time of Engels and Marx, you’ll want to see The Young Karl Marx. Especially if you have an interest in the political message of that story and want to explore it more deeply.

Written by Pascal Bonitzer and Raoul Peck, the original screenplay really hones in on a dark time in European history. I was especially impressed in the character portrayals of Marx and Engels. These are two figures caught in conflicting worlds. Marx is torn between stability and his passion. Engels is caught between his bourgeoisie upbringing and his desire to help the proletariat. Both Diehl as Marx and Konarske as Engels play their parts with great tenacity and attention to detail. I was particularly impressed how the filmmakers incorporated two strong female characters in what could have solely been a movie about two men. Actress Vicky Krieps, best known for her stand out performance in the Academy Award nominated Phantom Thread (2017), is a delight as Marx’s wife Jenny. Even when she hangs out in the background she makes her voice heard and everyone, especially Marx, respects her for it. Mary Burns, played by Hannah Steele, is feisty, brash and outspoken and Engels falls head over heels for her and rightly so. In the movie they marry but in real life Engels felt marriage was repressive construct of culture and they were lifelong romantic partners instead. In the film though you still get a sense that their union is anything but ordinary.

The Young Karl Marx felt as real as a biopic set in different parts of Europe could possibly be. Lots of on location shooting helps. Peck and his team filmed in France, Belgium and Germany. There is a keen attention to period detail and I always felt like I was thrust into the world of 1840s Europe and not a movie about 1840s Europe. But one thing that stands out about this film is that it’s trilingual. German, French and English are spoken interchangeably throughout the film depending on the location, circumstances and characters in the scene. This is truly European. I myself am trilingual (English, Spanish and Portuguese) with many family members in Europe who all speak more than one language. I love that Peck’s film embraces multiple languages instead of having one language pretend to be all three. The end result is an exercise in attention and comfort with subtitles that is truly worth the effort.

The film ends a month before Revolutions of 1848. It’s a time capsule of just a few years in Marx and Engels’ lives but an important one that helps us begin to understand what is to follow.

Raoul Peck’s The Young Karl Marx is a powerful, multi-lingual biopic that explores inequality and class struggles within the context of the lives of two influential philosophers. Highly recommended.

The Young Karl Marx debuted in New York and LA last week and a national roll out is to follow.

 

Django

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Stations: Biopic, WWII Drama
Time Travel Destination: 1940s Paris, WWII
Conductor: Etienne Comar

Django (2017)

Available on VOD and iTunes on February 6th. List of upcoming screenings can be found here.

“Since the Americans left Paris, I’m the King of Jazz.”

Based on a true story, Django follows the story of celebrated Romani jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (Reda Kateb) as he tries to navigate the treacherous political climate of occupied France during WWII. Singled out for his incredible talent, Django and his Hot Club de France Quintet have been invited to go on tour in Hitler’s Germany. But the invitation isn’t voluntary and it comes with a rather strict protocol. Django doesn’t take it seriously until his lover and confidante Louise (Cécile de France) warns him of the possible ramifications of his actions. Django plans to flee Paris with his pregnant wife Naguine (Bea Palya), his mother Negros (Bimbam Merstein) and the fellow musicians who agree to go with him. The plan is to cross over into Switzerland but in German occupied territory that’s easier said than done.

Directed by Etienne Comar, Django (2017) is an atmospheric film that juxtaposes the beautiful music of a talented artist with the brutality of WWII. The film only explores a few months of Django Reinhardt’s but this is a crucial time  when he in grave danger but also at the apex of his career. Some have complained that we really don’t get to know Django but this film does tell quite a lot but in more subtle ways. For example, years before the story took place Django Reinhardt suffered burns to his hands and arms due to the flammable artificial flowers his first wife sold to feed the family. He had scars all over his hands and two of his fingers were paralyzed. Doctors told him he’d never play again. We get a glimpse about this part of his life through a scene when German doctors are examining him before his scheduled tour.

The cinematography in this film is stunning. There are some exquisite shots in this film. I was quite enamored with the first performance where we see Django and his quintet before in front of a glittery gold curtain. The camera pans around the musicians and the audience and often settles on Django’s hands as he performs his magic on the guitar.

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The persecution of gypsies during WWII is not often explored so I was glad that this film went into depth on that matter. Although Django is Romani Gypsy, his status as a talented musician makes him an exception to the Germans only if he’ll follow their rules. If he doesn’t, he becomes an easy target for their wrath. The film is very adept at exploring the different facets of his culture, his personality and his life. The disparity between the countryside and the city, the performance halls and the underground night clubs show how this character navigated between very different worlds. From the very outset we learn that he can be a difficult guy, perennially late and can be both tough and loving to those in his inner circle.

This movie has received mixed reviews and been rather polarizing among critics. The film meanders much in the same way a jazz song tends to take its time so the listener can savor and take it all in. As a jazz lover myself I was comfortable with this pace and let the story take me along for the ride. There has been a resurgence in interest in Django Reinhardt and jazz nuts especially will definitely want to see this.

Django is a beautiful and atmospheric film that is in no rush to tell its story of a jazz legend in a critical moment in his life.

A Quiet Passion

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This post is sponsored by DVD Netflix.

Time Travel Destination: 1840s-1880s
Stations: Literary Biopic, Costume Drama
Conductor: Terence Davies

“Poems are my solace for the eternity which surrounds us all.”

A motion picture about the life about poet Emily Dickinson has never been made until now. How does one make a captivating biopic about a recluse? Director Terence Davies took on the task brilliantly with his feature film A Quiet Passion (2017).

The movie stars Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, a rebellious poet who forsakes the prospect of love to focus on her art and family. Her world centers around her home in Amherst, MA and as the years progress she retreats further and further into her home sometimes not even venturing down stairs. We watch her progress from a feisty outspoken teenager to a deeply sentient genius who translates emotions and ideas into beautiful poetry.

“My soul is my own.”

The viewer steps into the intimate space of Dickinson’s life and the players who inhabit her world. Her father (Keith Carradine), the stern patriarch who never understood his daughter’s rebellious spirit. Her mother (Joanna Bacon) who retreats more and more from life with each passing day. Then there is her sweet sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) who cares for Emily even when she doesn’t quite understand her motivations. Her brother Austin (Duncan Duff), the pride of the family who loses Emily’s trust when he betrays his wife Susan (Jodhi May), one of Emily’s closest confidantes. And one of the few outsiders able to break through Dickinson’s small world is the Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) whose larger-than-life personality threatens to be contained by societal expectations.

The film wonderfully captures the many aspects of Dickinson’s era: the religiosity, deprivation, isolation, deep brooding, heightened emotions especially sadness and the almost painful simplicity of life and death. Terence Davies read numerous biographies on Emily Dickinson and steeped himself in the era and it shows. The attention to detail is astounding. A replica of Dickinson’s home in Amherst, MA was recreated in a studio in Belgium. Exteriors were shot on location in Amherst. The viewer will feel like they traveled to the era and not just a representation of it. Davies selected Nixon for the role of Emily Dickinson because of her remarkable resemblance to the poet. In one of the scenes of the film we watch as the family members have their portraits taken. Age progression shows the passing of 20+ years. Emma Bell, who plays young Emily, and Cynthia Nixon pose in the style of the famous portrait of Dickinson.

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“My life has passed as if in a dream. As if I had never been part of it.”

I connected with this movie on a deeply personal level. As a lonely and angst ridden teenager I clung to writers such as Emily Dickinson, Emily Bronte, Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, etc. With Dickinson especially I was drawn by her deep sense of isolation and how desperately she tried to make sense of the world.

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Besides the incredible attention to historical accuracy and setting, I love how Davies and his crew imbibe the film with so much color. Many of us think of this era in American history as drab, steeped in sepia. There is so much color and vibrancy in this movie. It makes us understand a bit how overwhelming and heartbreaking beautiful the world was to Dickinson. In addition to the age progression scene, another element that stood out was the Civil War slideshow which featured colorized photos of Lincoln, soldiers, the battlefields, etc.

Catherine Bailey in A Quiet Pasison
Catherine Bailey as Vryling Buffam
Keith Carradine in A Quiet Passion
Keith Carradine as Edward Dickinson

Cynthia Nixon delivers a heartbreakingly beautiful performance as Emily Dickinson. When she uttered these words, I felt like someone had just punched me in my gut:

“For those of us who live minor lives and are deprived of a particular kind of love, we know best how to starve. We deceive ourselves and others. It is the worst kind of lie.”

There are many great performances in this film but I was particularly drawn to Keith Carradine as Edward Dickinson. He perfectly captures exactly what I would have imagined a stern, religious father of the 19th Century to be. I was also drawn by Catherine Bailey whose performance as Vryling Buffam imbues life into the story. I definitely want to see more of her work.

A Quiet Passion (2017) stirs up a lot of emotion. Davies delivers a powerful biopic about an elusive figure whose poetry has transcended many generations.

I rented A Quiet Passion (2017) from DVD Netflix. Click on this link and add it to your queue!

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