Cate Blanchett with Sony Classics co-presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard. Photo by Godlis

Cate Blanchett is having a good year. She starred in one of the biggest box office indies of the year and is widely tipped as an Oscar nominee. Blanchett was celebrated this week with a Gala Tribute at Alice Tully Hall where she participated in a conversation with Film Society's Kent Jones. The first full week of the New York Film Festival also featured a number of premieres including the debut of The Immigrant, Tim's Vermeer and the upcoming French film directed by Claire Denis, Bastards.

Cate Blanchett Gala Tribute

Cate Blanchett was feted with a Gala Tribute Wednesday evening at Alice Tully Hall, treating an audience with a dash of self-deprecating humor and insight into her long career including her latest film, Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, which awards prognosticators have tipped as an Oscar nomination shoe-in. She also recalled her first film gig, working in Egypt as an American cheerleader. “I was traveling through Egypt staying at a hostel called the Oxford,” noted Blanchett, speaking with Film Society's Kent Jones. “[My agent worked with someone] in the Egyptian film industry and they were looking for someone to play an American. I said, 'Well, my father is American…' and they were paying five Egyptian pounds and a free falafel. I had to play a cheerleader. It was a boxing film. The falafel never came, so I left…”

Blanchett said watching herself on screen is “excruciating” and, despite turns in various Lord of the Rings installments as well as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, her kids ask her why she doesn't do blockbusters. She recalled playing Bob Dylan, agreeing to take it on after seeing director Todd Haynes' early (and now banned) film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. “The first day was a series of photo shoots, so I just got to play the first day… As a woman, I was asked to inhabit that iconic silhouette of Dylan. It was utterly great because I was crossing the gender line in a medium that is often literal. If a man had been asked to do it, there would have been a greater weight put on him for accuracy somehow.”

Blanchett did not give details about her recently announced foray into the director's chair, but dropped a few tidbits about her latest role in Terrence Malick's new project, Knight of Cups. “It's a cross between cinema, philosophy, poetry and a quasi-religious experience. It's like he's inventing a new form. I don't know what my role in that will be, but it is certainly an extraordinary experience.” [Brian Brooks]

Pen and Teller along with Tim's Vermeer subject Tim Jenison. Photo by Godlis

Tim's Vermeer

“This idea just sorta kinda came to me. It’s funny how our subconscious mind works, but I’ve been probably thinking about this problem for some ten years and how Vermeer got the photographic look,” said Tim's Vermeer subject, Tim Jenison. “I mean, there were no cameras. But it was years later when this idea occurred to me that you could match the colors exactly. They have theorized that people could trace shapes in a camera obscura. The camera obscura goes back to Egyptian times. I thought they could only trace the shapes, but they could trace the colors.”

Directed by Teller (of Penn and Teller fame), the documentary centers on Jenison, a giant in video and post-production software. After he read Philip Steadman and David Hockney’s hypotheses about Vermeer and his alleged use of optics, Jenison built his own camera obscura and decided that there was one missing component. He then put his theory to the test, which drove him, step by step, to his grandest and most obsessive project ever. Jenison built a “set” in a San Antonio studio that recreated Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson,” one painstakingly crafted object at a time, from the ceiling beams to the jug on the carpeted table.

“The idea occurred to me in the bathtub, and usually if I get an idea I write it down and then I start Googling and ninety-nine times out of a hundred somebody has already done it, and then I can take it off the list. Well, that didn’t happen,” said Jenison. “I searched for months, searched in other languages, looking for 'artist,' 'mirror,' 'comparison,' anything I could find in all these languages. [But] nothing.”

So, Jenison took matters into his own hands and set up a prototype to test his theory. “I did the experiment on the kitchen table,” he said. “The experiment worked way, way too well and that’s when I got this feeling I was onto something and that’s when I mentioned it to Penn and it sort of developed some momentum at that point and then decided that a movie should be made about it.” [Erik Luers]

James Gray and Joaquin Phoenix talk The Immigrant. Photo by Godlis

The Immigrant

“My grandparents came through Ellis Island in 1923, and their entire history was quite well-documented. We've got all the paperwork… What was really an interesting thing for me, is that it was not like the typical immigration story. When I saw movies about the American dream, it was always 'I came to America, and it was fantastic and I loved it.' The truth is, my grandparents spoke very little English until the day they died, they never really assimilated, and there was a tremendous melancholy, especially to my grandfather, who always talked about missing the old country. Which I never understood.”

Director James Gray joined a packed house for a pre-premiere screening of his latest film The Immigrant at the Walter Reade Theater on Friday morning and related his grandparents' immigration story to his latest film, which stars Marion Cotillard as Polish emigre Ewa, who arrives at Ellis Island in 1921 with her sister Magda (Angela Sarafyan). The two are separated when Magda is detained as a possible tuberculosis sufferer. Desperate to find help for her sister, she heads to Manhattan penniless but finds possible help from burlesque theater impresario Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who provides her with shelter, food and a job at the theater. But Bruno's motivations become less than altruistic as Ewa struggles to survive in a city that is not quite the ideal American dream she had sought.

“I have three young children, and I kind of stopped going to movies in 2006. I go to see some, but I'm a little bit out of touch, and I didn't know who Marion Cotillard was,” said Gray. “I had become friendly with her boyfriend, and we went out to dinner in Paris and I met her, and she and I started arguing about an actor that she thought was overrated, and she threw a piece of bread at my head and she mentioned that she thought I was a jerk. I thought she had a great face, and not just physically beautiful because she is, but a haunted quality, almost like a silent film actress…”

Gray also shared his experience with acting, saying he's not quite a pro. He had once had the chance to appear in a Wes Anderson movie. “I'm the worst actor ever. I had two chances to act in my life; first was Wes Anderson wanted me to be in The Life Aquatic. He said, 'No, it's gonna be fun. You come, we'll be in Rome, it'll be amazing.' So I said, 'What do you mean, Wes? How long?' He said two to three weeks, and I'm thinking, 'No way two to three weeks.' I didn't understand why he wanted to cast me, but I don't know, he's a friend and as a consequence wanted some form of revenge. So I said okay, and then we're gonna go, and all of a sudden I got the schedule and it was five months in Cinecitta, and I could just see mental illness creeping in.”

In a topic that has come up repeatedly at NYFF this year, Gray weighed in on the digital vs. film discussion, though Gray had a unique prediction on the matter, relating 35mm film to the record of decades past. “The decision about digital or film is going to be made for us. I think the answer is that film is gonna be gone. Although I think it'll make a comeback, it'll be like vinyl records or something. But the movie was shot on 35mm film. Darius Khondji and I did tests on Alexa, Red, Kodak, and Fuji, and I did them blind, we just screened them and said, 'Which one is the best?' And screening them blind wasn't even close; the Kodak looked incredible. But I think it's the power of what is new that is in some ways very damaging. Let's say everybody shot in digital—the whole world, Steven Spielberg, Chris Nolan were all shooting digital—and all of a sudden I come out with a new product, and say, 'There's this thing, it doesn't see in pixels it sees in grain, it's more like your eye sees it. It has better contrast ratio than digital and better representation of color than digital, the blacks are better…' Everyone would be like, 'this new thing, film. I gotta change to film.' Because I can't understand why everyone wants to migrate to what is, in my mind, objectively worse. It's not even that much cheaper. ” [Brian Brooks]

Claire Denis discusses Bastards with Kent Jones. Photo by Godlis


Claire Denis paid a visit to the Walter Reade Theater on Thursday ahead of the Sunday premiere of her latest film Bastards. The veteran French filmmaker's new feature is being described as her darkest ever. Inspired by a recent French sex scandal centered on men with wealth and power, the film stars Vincent Lindon, who appeared in her 2002 film Friday Night, as the movie's moral and erotic center. Lindon comes to the aid of his estranged sister, played by Julie Bataile and his teen niece. Chiara Mastroianni plays Lindon's married lover who has sold her soul in exchange for the security of her young son. Actor Michel Subor, meanwhile, is the embodiment of evil.

Denis took some self-deprecating shots at herself at the press screening as well as Saturday's free NYFF Live talk, saying that she has difficulty dealing with dialogue in her movies. “I have a preference for monologue,” she said. “Monologues are very strong for me. Dialogue is like a jail for me. I don't want to do a wide shot and then a close up. I like pure dialogue that is less. It may be that I'm not talented. I'm not witty. I'm a very sinister person. This is true. So a monologue is something that I can do well.” [Brian Brooks]