Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bava and the spectacular

It isn't easy going back to normal movies after watching a few by Mario Bava. The exquisitely delicate (yet always, always kind of tacky and garish - lovely) color and lighting design seems to mark Bava as one of the few filmmakers who really learned something from Eisenstein's second Ivan the Terrible.

Watching Blood and Black Lace last week, on something of a whim, I very quickly realized that there was no way I could avoid discussing Bava and the Italians. I had avoided jumping into the gialli because I know little of the genre and had never had much enthusiasm for Argento. Horror is a genre that attracts ardent and very knowledgeable fans - or, rather, it's subgenres do. Tackling J-horror is a heady enough task for a project devoted largely to American output, but at least that consists of a much smaller archive of both films and writings about the films (particularly in English). The Italian horror film is such a large topic, with so much written and such expert devotees, that I feel a little overwhelmed, and more than a little like a dilettante. But I think that I've decided I need to focus largely on Bava, whose relationship to both the American slasher genre and, to a less explicit extent, the Japanese horror films of the 90s make him immediately relevant to my project. His spatialization of the threat and his concern with the unseen becoming seen makes him both a direct progenitor (especially, I'm told, of the Friday the 13th films) and a valuable contrast with the later films. Blood and Black Lace was made in Italy in 1964 and would have clearly fit in with perfectly with American films of 15 years later, much more than it would fit in with the Americans of the time or of the intervening years. Here's where I start to create more work for myself, of course, because the Italian context would seem to be essential to understanding where Bava's coming from. But, first, I have more Bava to watch.

From the few Bava films that I have seen, it's clear that Bava is much more concerned with visual tableaux than he is with narrative or even suspense, which sets him apart from the Americans but perhaps not as much from someone like Argento. The American horror films (and I included the Canadian Cronenberg here, as his films enter very clearly into the conversation between North American horror filmmakers in the 70s and 80s, even if his non-USA background is equally important to grasping his filmography) concern themselves with visual spectacle primarily when the scene is one of what I'm tentatively calling "spectacular abjection" - a half-paradoxical term that nicely sums up the motivation for much of the gore that started dominating the genre after Romero's opening salvo.

The other kind of tableaux one sees in the American horror film has a clear genesis in the genre's earliest entries: the monster, particularly his face. Robert Spadoni's writing on the face of Frankenstein's monster doesn't need to be elaborated on, as it's a brilliant explanation of both the power of monsters' images as well as the cinema's fascination with the human face - not to mention one of the best pieces written on early sound film. In the post-Night of the Living Dead modern horror film, you tend to see this more in the larger budget horror film. Regan in The Exorcist - but even there the abject substances being oozed and expelled by the monster mark its modern pedigree. I have an awful tendency to efface films like that because they're much less interesting and - more shamefully, also explaining the former a bit - they don't fit my arguments or the frameworks I've developed for reading modern horror; I keep telling myself to be less afraid of engaging these films head on, because they don't invalidate my arguments and can actually be made to strengthen them, but with an attention paid to films that I actively dislike, i.e. The Exorcist. (I aggressively roll my eyes at trashy genre films that try to rationalize their trashiness through high-minded thematic discussions. For a theological horror film that takes theology seriously, try John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness, which is far creepier and way more fun.)

The abject tableaux and the localized suspense of the stalking sequence are matched in the slasher film, where the abject display of graphically opened bodies frequently resolves the suspense of the stalking sequence. It is, I think, very significant that the visual spectacle is based in the attack and the victim rather than the monster/killer. DePalma might be the primary practitioner of Bava's style of spectacle in the following decades of American horror.

Bava's stalking sequences are themselves elaborate visual spectacles in which lighting, color, and movements of both camera and actress (usually) engage in a complex choreography. They are gorgeous, remarkable eye candy that is arch and perverse but most of all it is spectacular (to keep re-using the same word over and over again until it's run into the ground... sigh). That is, suspense provides an ideal vehicle for structuring the sequence, but Bava's stalking sequences are overpowered by the visuals - tableaux isn't the right word because they're rarely without movement, but it's close because there's a sort of frozen, posed quality to everything. Bava's a master at injecting life and movement into the stillness of the tableau, of course, because his compositions manage to be rough and sloppy while remaining intricately controlled (and, to repeat myself, choreographed). But the reason why the stalking sequence makes the ideal subject for someone like Bava gets right to the heart of the appeal of the horror film for its makers and its audiences: there is a deep, visceral reaction to these scenes of terror and suffering that are unique among film genres. For a stylist like Bava to tackle narratives of abject (ahem) terror is to inject a gut-level emotional response into the film that gives even the most cerebral exercise in style a powerful pull for an audience. And Bava's films seem to fail if considered only in larger narrative terms. They string together remarkable set pieces and brilliant, highly effective individual sequences, and momentum between these sequences tends to lag. If the viewer foregrounds the visual progression of the film and to appreciate the rhythm of the intense (stylistically and dramatically) sequences within themselves and as a sort of rhythmic composition throughout the film, then they work.

Bava is an important, influential figure in the genre, I think, largely because the power of his images shift the spectacle away from the monster to the act of stalking and killing. Romero and the 70s filmmakers, and then the gore-comedians of the 80s like Raimi, Stuart Gordon and Peter Jackson, would shift the emphasis even more to the body of the victim. The slasher films would do so as well, but not because they don't try to emphasize the stalking - it's just that Tom Savini and co.'s makeup effects are much more effective and powerful than the editing or mise-en-scene of everyone besides Carpenter and Craven (which leaves about 6 years of relying on gruesome makeup before Nightmare on Elm St. reinvigorated the genre and the sub-genre).

The film of Bava's that works the best narratively is also one of his most striking visually. The Wurdulak section of Black Sabbath is only about 30 minutes long, and is a perfect film. Reminiscent of The Leopard, and the sort of garish, astonishing melodrama that Fassbinder would have admired, it's another horror story in which the aging, vaguely aristocratic patriarchy turns monstrous and preys on the young. Here, the vampire Boris Karloff's greatest thirst is for those he loves the most, and he begins with his grandson. He shows affection for the boy, before it's clear he's a vampire, in a way that seems both caring and dangerously predatory - in a way that threatens bodily harm, bodily consumption, more than sexuality. The film works so well narratively because it basically builds up to a single stalking sequence, one that is more elongated and geographically dispersed than most stalking sequences but rhythmically and structurally that is the best way to understand it. It shows a narrative economy that suggests Bava's gifts as a storyteller come when he can focus on visual solutions to dramatic problems rather than building characters. The progressive menace of Karloff's patriarch is performed subtly and strikingly, while Bava's features tend to wander when characters have to discuss points important to the plot and to their own placement within it.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Call for Papers

Alternative Non-Fictions: Essay Films, Hybrids, and Experimental Documentaries

Fifth annual cinema and media studies graduate-student conference

University of Chicago
Conference Date: April 5, 2008
Keynote Address: Richard Neer (University of Chicago)

Deadline for Abstracts: January 1, 2008

Alternative Non-Fiction: Essay Films, Hybrids, and Experimental Documentaries will be the fifth Graduate Cinema Conference at the University of Chicago, a one-day event that will bring together graduate students on cinematic theory and practice. Vaguely defined and broadly inclusive, the term “essay film” has been used in popular and academic discourse to describe a wide variety of alternative nonfiction films and filmmakers that defy easy categorization. The term has been applied to the practices as diverse as Chris Marker’s philosophical travelogues, Michael Moore’s incisive polemics, William E. Jones’s queer archaeological ruminations, Trinh T. Minh-ha’s explorations of post-colonial embodiment, Ross McElwee’s filmed diaries, and Jean-Luc Godard’s meditations on art and cinema. While certainly alternative and innovative in form, these practices have historically been used to address social and political issues, as well as intensely personal visions, in ways that are not often open to conventional filmmaking.

With the rise of documentary in both mainstream and avant-garde film and media practices, alternative nonfiction forms have taken on an increasingly important place in filmmaking today. These practices have served as supplements to and refutations of traditional modes of cinematic rhetoric and representation—bringing to the fore issues of medium specificity, textual hybridity, and narrative conveyance. In this spirit, the conference aims to examine the discourses that have arisen in these alternative non-fiction practices and their implications for the wider field of cinema studies.

We invite papers on a wide range of topics including, but not limited to:

--Conceptual frameworks for analyzing alternative nonfiction filmmaking.
--Formal and expressive possibilities afforded by alternative nonfiction.
--Filmmakers including: Vertov, Godard, Marker, Welles, Rappaport, Farocki, Kluge, Akerman, Friedrich, Trinh, Errol Morris, Derek Jarman, Ross McElwee, Cheryl Dunye, William E. Jones.
--Presentations and representations of minority subjectivities, including but not limited to racial, postcolonial, sexual, and gendered minorities.
--Figurations of alternative desires (feminist, queer, postcolonial, and otherwise).
--Politics and polemics in essay films.
--The social, political, and critical constructions of the traditional/alternative dichotomy.
--Essayistic practices in narrative filmmaking.
--Cinematic essays in new media.
--First person documentaries and the diary film.
--Fiction and non-fiction hybrid films.
--The essay film and the underground/avant-garde traditions.
--Literary practices and essay filmmaking.
--And the larger issues raised by alternative nonfiction (originality, public domain, aesthetic categories like romanticism and modernism, cinematic ontology, indexicality in cinematic and digital images).

The keynote speaker will be Richard Neer, Department of Art History, University of Chicago. Professor Neer has recently published an article in Critical Inquiry titled “Godard Counts” on questions of cinematic evidence in Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinĂ©ma. Working on the relationship between style and politics, he has published widely on classical art, historiography, Poussin, and French cinema.

Limited financial assistance for travel may be available for international students.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Saw and Irrational Fear

Wanting something without much of a plot that I could let play in the background while finishing up my paper, I put on Saw. I dislike any kind of shock-driven horror, and haven't seen any of the so called "torture porn" films (although Takashi Miike's The Audition would be close - and that one scarred me, deeply).

Like so many films in the past decade or so, Saw's narrative comes in part from a video game structure - it's all about succeeding within the rules of a game and graduating to the next level, with an eventual goal of "beating the game." These films achieve whatever resonance they have by playing with or destabilizing these rules - the world of the characters is first shrunk to the parameters of whatever game they're supposed to be playing, then it's revealed that those rules, which would be the one dependable element of their existence, are in fact not dependable.

What's interesting about the film from a cinematic standpoint is the lengths it goes to in order to mobilize the traditional cinematic horror devices. The horror comes from the same place it has in any film since Psycho or Halloween - the film depends on its ability to maintain its villain's status as being essentially disembodied: the separation of voice from body and, when the body is shown, giving it as few human characteristics as possible (particularly a mouth). When Danny Glover first encounters the killer, he has no chance of controlling him, because he has no human vulnerability or identity. At this point in the film, he's basically supernatural. He starts to lose his invulnerability little by little: first we see his fingers, then we see a little bit of his face (and probably figure out who it is), then his identity is revealed.

A man with a rifle in a well-lit room might be more certain to kill you in an attack than a skinny psychopath lurking in the shadows with a power tool, but horror films mobilize in the audience an irrational fear of the unknown and incomprehensible. You saw it in (again) Psycho and in Halloween, villains who have no clear origin for their monstrosity. With Psycho, however, the villain is human, sort of, and vulnerable as soon as his/her true face is shown. Michael Myers's face is never shown, and he never becomes vulnerable - what causes the monster's psychological drive to kill or his inhuman invulnerability is never explained. He never becomes human, or comprehensible in any physical or psychological way, and therefore the characters' attempts to fight, cure, reason, etc. are at best temporary solutions. Michel Chion's writings about the "acousmetre" - the bodiless voice - are essential to understanding the mechanics of the horror film. In a horror film, particularly a slasher film, the filmmakers go to ridiculous extremes to not only hide the villain's face, but to maintain a disjunction between the voice and the mouth from which it issues. Audio distortion (since Scream?) is a favorite, so are masks, phones ("I don't want to alarm you, but the call is coming from INSIDE THE HOUSE!"), shadowy cloaks and robes. Or how about all of them, plus a doll, in the case of the Saw films.

Roger Ebert, in his review of Saw, writes this: "As for the (possible) Jigsaw Killer, he of course is glimpsed imperfectly in some kind of a techno-torture lair, doing obscure things to control or observe the events he has so painstakingly fabricated. We also see another version of the killer, also annoying: Jigsaw (or someone) disguises himself as a grotesque clown-like doll on a tricycle. Uh, huh. Whenever a movie shows me obscure, partial, oblique, fragmented shots of a murderous mastermind, or gives him a mask, I ask myself -- why? Since the camera is right there in the lair, why not just show us his face? The answer of course is that he is deliberately obscured because he's being saved up for the big revelatory climax at the end."

It's this irrationality - both in the threat and in the structure of the narrative - that separates what we think of as "horror" films from suspense films or thrillers. I know very little about the history of the genre, but this seems to be a recent development. In Hitchcock's day, it wasn't unheard of to refer to his films as horror films. The giant monster or alien invasion films of the fifties - what we would consider strict science-fiction - were also horror films, sort of. If the Universal horror films (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Invisible Man) are still considered "horror" today, it's because their monsters are human-like but still inhuman, and are supernatural in that rational methods of defense against them don't work, at least initially. (Viewed today, James Whale's films are more comedies or melodramas than horror, or even science fiction - but the monsters of the Universal films are so iconic that when they are considered in cultural terms today, the tragic figures from which they've descended are less important than the subsequent iconography.)

The irrationality of these horror villains is constantly being thematized in these films. You see it again and again, victims being put in a perilous situation and trying to work their way out of it by figuring out the exact nature of the threat. Once the threat is supposedly decoded, the villain is suddenly less supernatural and seemingly vulnerable - but the last big twist of these films is usually something that reveals these efforts to be in vain. Naomi Watts figures out the little girl's story and thinks she's discovered out how to end the cycle of supernatural violence, the action lulls and then all of a sudden it comes roaring back as she and the audience realize that no one understands anyhing. That is, in The Ring as in Saw, the audience is placed in the same position of trying to translate an irrational, supernatural threat into something rational and concrete that can be dealt with. In Zizekian-Lacanian terms, horror films are scary because they traffic in this irreducible kernel of irrationality, which can't be verbalized or reasoned away. It's an irrational kernel within our own make-up (Zizek would say, and maybe he does somewhere or other), one that is simultaneously within us and not part of our reasoning ego - both an internal and external threat.

The Saw films, with drastically diminishing returns, become less like horror films as the series progresses and the killer becomes more prominent and more humanized. Their ridiculousness, and their moral offensiveness, comes from the way the films humanize Jigsaw and turn him into a moral authority - that is, when the killer's face is revealed, when his voice is wedded to his mouth, he no longer becomes a source of horror, danger, violence. The film's can't conceive of that irreducible irrational threat as existing within a flesh and blood human being, and so it displaces the responsibility for the crimes onto the victims. The horrific irony is that the victims become less human, more caricature, as "Jigsaw" becomes more human.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mon Oncle

I'm currently working my way through a paper-sized chunk of my ongoing Tati project. France underwent a process of remarkably rapid modernization in the postwar years. Reaching its peak in the late 50s, around the time Tati made Mon Oncle, France's modernization brought the basic necessities of modern living (electricity, indoor plumbing, etc) to the people, but was incredibly destructive. Massive rebuilding projects changed the overall structure of Paris while expelling workers and poor foreigners from the city's center. This neo-Hausmannization placed the great unwashed into modernist apartment blocks in the outskirts, luring them through affordable rents and the promise of modern amenites - mainly, though, the poorer classes had to relocate to the banlieus because it was the only alternative to the older apartment buildings the city was tearing down left and right. In short, between the rebuilding of France's rubble and the creation of new rubble, France was making drastic changes in how its people lived, how its cities were structured, how classes interacted, and how it looked.

In writing about Tati, I've been digging into the work of Henri Lefebvre. As Jameson points out, Lefebvre was a modernist (whose writings are first and foremost a response to the modernization of France), but as many have observed, he is (like, I would say, Tati) a forerunner of postmodern theory, even a transitional figure. He was fascinated with space and saw everything through that prism: how space is created, how it is utilized (and who controls it), how one kind of space differentiates itself from another, how it shapes and limits the behavior within it, what sorts of rhythms it contains or produces, etc. His writings on "everyday life" remain hugely influential, as does his Production of Space - little else, however, has received an adequate (i.e. grammatically coherent) translation into English. For the purposes of this paper, I wasn't able to get as deep into his writings (translated only - my French is serviceable but not up to the demands of sociological theory) as I would have liked, but what I did read indicated an intense sympathy between Tati and Lefebvre. Working at the same time, both obsessed with space and spatial practice, they seem to have looked on France's new way forward from a similar perspective. Both were acutely aware of what was being lost in France's modernization, and although one could accuse both (Tati more than Lefebvre) of indulging in sentimental nostalgia, to do is almost besides the point. Both worked with an eye towards the future, and both were explicit in their desire to change actual societal behavior with their work: Tati wanted to teach audiences how to look at spaces differently, how to recognize the human and organic in a mechanical/electrical world; Lefebvre, of course, wished to see results in actual city planning. While Lefebvre had to be aware of Tati's films - they were enormous successes and Tati was, after Mon Oncle, something of a national hero - hee never mentions Tati and hardly touches the cinema at all. It's conceivable (probable) that Tati never heard of Lefebvre. Tati once told a collaborator that books made his head hurt.

Anyway, much of my paper is (or, ahem, will be) a close reading of Mon Oncle with Lefebvre, along with Barthes, Kristin Ross's Fast Cars, Clean Bodies and a few others providing context, backup, inspiration, etc. It isn't a "Lefebvrian reading" per se; Lefebvre's writings offer theoretical articulation very similar to Tati's artistic one, and so are serving to highlight formal and diegetic details and their significance within the larger cultural context. Hopefully I'll post something more concrete in the next couple days. One thing that's clear is that everything I'd like to discuss won't make it into the paper.I think a major reception study needs to be done on the film. It was embraced wholeheartedly by the French public at a time in which modernization and loss of national identity was of huge cultural concern, a time in which the debate between the old ways and the new was a constant in the newspapers, magazines and literature of the time. The film's sympathies clearly lie with the artisanal village life of the old town rather than the loud and colorless existence of the Arpels and the new town, a position that fueled the sentimental self-regard in one (large) portion of the population, and was seen by another portion as a reactionary work that resisted modernization and modernity. Both sides have some truth to them, but neither can adequately encompass the density or specificity of the film's critique, nor its clear-eyed acknowledgement that the life of the old town has already passed. But I have done a little bit of digging, Chicago's sparse periodicals holdings notwithstanding. For now, I'd like to talk about sound and Tati's most eloquent, insightful interpreter, Andre Bazin.

Several Tati collaborators have mentioned in interviews that Tati was particularly sensitive to bad reviews (another reason why a reception study could be crucial). If you read the interview he did with Bazin and Truffaut in 1958 carefully, you notice two things: 1) it's clear at which point the admiring Bazin ceases to the the interviewer and the petulant Truffaut takes over; and, 2)Tati has read Bazin's review of Les Vacances de M. Hulot (when he says "you saw in Les Vacances" he doesn't mean the generic/hypothetical "you" but Bazin specifically, referring to a comment made in the essay "M. Hulot and Time"). I mention this because the sensitivity to criticism becomes apparent once again when Tati starts conducting interviews for Playtime. He claims that he lost his way with Mon Oncle, that the film is too narrative and has too traditional a message for his liking. This echoes the criticisms levelled at the film by its detractors and indicates (along with the exclusive use of long and medium-long shots, and the ideological rationale behind it) that Tati's conception of his art was perhaps shaped to some degree by the Cahiers critics and, especially, Bazin. The original title of "M. Hulot and Time" was, by the way, "Pas de scenario pour M. Hulot," referring to Bazin's description of Hulot as a character who could not exist in a traditional story, with a job and a normal life.

The interaction between Bazin and Tati is an essay in and of itself, but for the moment I want to concentrate on the soundtrack to Mon Oncle. One of the most beautiful passages in all of Bazin's work is the lengthy discussion of sound in Les Vacances that concludes:

"It’s the sound which gives M. Hulot’s universe its depth, its moral prominence. Ask yourself where that overwhelming sadness, that inordinate disenchantment comes from at the end of the film, and you may find that it comes from silence. Throughout the film, the playful cries of children inevitably accompany shots of the beach, and their abrupt silence signifies the end of the holiday."

Similarly, the sounds of a busy village square occupy the soundtrack of Mon Oncle during any visit to the old town. Heavy on children's voices and vendors hawking their wares, little is intelligible in this pleasant noise. However, there's a difference between the endless expanse of the beach and a small, largely enclosed village space. Although you can occasionally hear bits and pieces of a conversation between characters, most of the voices on the soundtrack in these crowd scenes are never attached to any specific mouth. There's a ghostlike quality to this free-floating jumbling of voices. And Tati again ends with the silencing of these voices, this time camouflaged somewhat by the umpteenth reprise of the film's main theme. However, without any diegetic motivation, the final shots of the old town are deserted (people-wise), and the very last shot of the film is taken, for some reason, from inside an unknown building overlooking the main square. The square can be seen through a window that's largely covered by a sheer curtain swaying in the breeze for a shroudlike effect in this portrait of the iconic and practical center of the village life.

What I'm getting at is that there's a similar melancholy at the end of Mon Oncle, and that again the soundtrack plays a central role, perhaps more pointedly this time. In Les Vacances it's the just-finished holiday being mourned, but Mon Oncle is an elegy for an era that may have already passed. That ghostly chorus of shouts and chatter in the background gives the whole community a slightly unreal quality. Sound behaves differently in the new town, where the sound of every little step or shift in a chair booms and machines emit all manner of abrasive squawks and squeaks. It's very concrete and literal minded - realistic in character if not volume. I don't hold the film's sentimentality against it: Tati isn't making a reactionary choice between "traditional" France and the onslaught of modernity, but rather paying tribute to a way of life that is dying out if it hasn't passed already.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Zabriskie Point

I don't know of another film for which the ridiculousness of the plot, dialogue, performances, etc, seems to neither negate nor even work against the film's beauty or the ideological critique at its base. Though supposedly set in then-contemporary Los Angeles (although the characters make a little more sense if you pretend they're Italians), Zabriskie Point is in many ways belongs to the post-apocalyptic genre. If there's something millenial to all of Antonioni's films, Zabriskie Point's vast stretches of desert landscape suggest an end to urban society, a destruction of/escape from a human population represented in the film by campus radicals, police, and businessmen. But really, the society is mostly represented through billboards and advertisements, with the human aspect - aside from the three leads - seeming almost incidental manifestations of a faceless mass of opressive capitalist society.

Filmed in a visual style closer to early 70's Altman than the Antonioni of L'Avventura and Red Desert: hand-held 35mm scope, color, lots of close-ups and slight zooms. The near-frenetic camera style indicates a different kind of relationship to his subject than in the ennui-laden trilogy, with Antonioni no longer investigating the image with such meditative intensity. The city presents nothing but surfaces, images being held up by nothing, with nothing behind them - his characters are not much deeper, but they at least realize that something's wrong. The desert offers a chance to think, where the city is all noise and ads. And the desert is where the camera starts to settle down a little bit, not exactly empty landscapes but inhuman ones.

Whatever the hippie-dippie blather spouted by the characters ("Pretend your mind's a plant. Would it be a forest or a well-ordered garden?" "It'd be a jungle." ... That's a paraphrase, but pretty close - there's something perversely admirable to Antonioni's refusal to clean up the characters' dialogue as well - how many hippies do you know who can articulate their rebelliousness without making you cringe?), the film's actual critique is aesthetic. Billboards, advertisements, brand names are everywhere, and if there's a message to the film it's that, as proven by the jaw-dropping beauty of the final scene, consumer products are more beautiful when exploding than when put being put on display or advertized, or even when being used. The city's photographed almost exclusively through the windows of moving cars, reminding me of nothing as much as Fred Halsted's L.A. Plays Itself, while echoes of the desert scenes can be found in The Road Warrior.

Watching Zabriskie Point and L'Eclisse while elbow-deep in a paper on Mon oncle, I made a startling observation: Michelangelo Antonioni is a huge Tati fan. Rod Taylor's office building in Zabriskie Point is straight out of Playtime, and his desert house reminds me, though less explicitly, of the Arpel's modernist home. In L'Eclisse, after a Mon oncle-ish episode in which a domesticated family dog goes for a romp around the neighborhood with a pack of roaming mutts, Monica Vitti whistles at a random person on the street while hiding behind a pole.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Alain Resnais's Coeurs (aka Private Fears in Public Places) finds Resnais in full operetta mode - although there aren't any musical numbers, with the pleasantly artificial sets and carefully-designed interactions and transactions between the different characters and sets, it certainly wouldn't be out of place for someone to burst into song. The film is light-hearted enough that an indoor snowstorm works quite nicely as metaphorical punctuation for the understated climax.

Because Resnais is working in what feels like such familiar territory, when the film strays from classical romantic formula there's something of a shock effect. As in Hollywood's grandest romantic tradition, characters are paired off from the very beginning of the film - obliquely at first, more directly later. Resnais understands perfectly well how invested the viewer becomes in an ending that is not just "happy," but the sort of happy ending in which romantic pairings are all finalized by the end of the film - and so the departures from this formula take the audience out of its comfort zone, and made me, for one, feel a little uneasy leaving the theater.

I think the play with conventions (which I'm assuming - and please correct me if I'm wrong - comes from the original theater piece from which the film is adapted) is pointed, in that it serves what appears to be a very specific purpose. Nobody ends up together, romantically-speaking, but the ending isn't really a sad one. The romantic loneliness spread among (most of) the characters does give the ending a melancholy feel, but my impression is that the ending offers an intervention that's not exactly cheerful but is nonetheless necessary. That is, Resnais's characters lean on the possibility of romantic fulfillment (and, more than that, on the potential of a relationship that hasn't yet begun) as the sole object and outlet for their own happiness. As a relationship falls apart, one partner finds a replacement without pausing for breath. A woman spends every night answering personal ads. An older man pines after a co-worker who has inadvertently left him naked footage of herself on a borrowed video. Romance (or rather, the possibility of romance) serves a different specific function for each, but in each case it's an all-purpose solution, an escape from whatever problems they have in their daily lives. The resolution forces the characters to return to the lives they're running away from, and signals that they need to be secure in their own lives before they start chasing fairy tales. As cynical as that sounds, the film is strong in both optimism and humanism - Resnais isn't condemning his characters to loneliness, but forcing them to start over. It should be noted that the proposed pairings would make for terrible relationships, the kind born out of convenience, proximity and desperation. What makes it truly optimistic is the sense all the characters will be okay, that they'll learn to exist in their own situations before seeking to enter someone else's (or that they'll stay single, and that might be fine as well). Coeurs is an extraordinarily mature, humane film. It's also a lot of fun.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Spiderman 3

An instructive, if ridiculous and slightly unfair, point of comparison for Out 1, the 2.5 hour Spiderman 3 is packed with plot and very fast-moving but feels slight, and does get a little boring. Out 1 buries its (questionable, and occasionally nonexistent) plot points underneath the rhythms and minutiae of everyday life, while Spiderman is so dominated by narrative and so full of action that we never get the chance to know any of the characters. Watching Spiderman is like gathering together a year's worth of comic books and working your way through the pile in 20 minutes, glancing at the pictures while flipping through the pages. It's an outline for a movie whose script remains to be written, filled with high concept plot points but lacking enough details to make it interesting to humans.

Sam Raimi doesn't seem all that into it anymore, except for a single scene in which Tobey Macguire (as an evil, emo-looking Peter Parker) performs a song-and-dance routine - a scene that reminded me of something Raimi said (possibly from my favorite book of interviews ever) about how the climactic fight scene in Army of Darkness was originally supposed to be a grandly choreographed dance. The second Spiderman movie was a wonderfully shameless melodrama, and the first wasn't bad even if it wasn't especially memorable. Raimi's put his time in at the studios and has done quite well for himself. Speaking as a well-wisher and admirer who appreciates the chaotic humor and transparent production of his genre films as well as the taut intelligence of his "serious" prestige indies (though I prefer one over the other, naturally), let's hope Raimi can and will return to more personal projects. As is the case with Peter Jackson, I've given up hope that he will return to the endearing shabbiness of his roots, the slapped-together horror films that had so much humor and energy and seemed willing to try anything. And maybe someday he'll parlay that studio goodwill into a Sam Raimi musical. I'd say he's earned the opportunity, and, regardless of the project, this hypothetical musical already sounds like more fun than all three Spidermans combined with Darkman.

The high point of the film is its quietest section: as the Sandman awakens from a science experiment-inspired loss of consciousness to discover that he's now made of sand, there's an extended sequence of sand moving and shifting and slowly forming into a human-like figure, which then crumbles instantly on contact with anything else. After a while, of course, they have to get on with it because there's so much more narrative to zip through. (Four villains. Five if you count evil Peter Parker.) But before its premature and definite resolution about five minutes in, the scene was quite beautiful and evocative and eery - which is five more minutes of poetry than could be found in the last X-Men movie.

[I caught Spiderman last Friday at the pleasantly shabby - some would say ratty - bargain cinema in Logan Square. The theaters are asymmetrical enough that the best seat in the house is sometimes (depending on which theater you're in) up against the wall to the far left, but the rows don't really line up so your knees might be in for a surprise if you make your way down the wrong row without paying attention. They're notorious for starting films 5-10 minutes early, you have to check your backpack before entering, and the restrooms have single-serving toilet paper - but the folks at the Logan don't hold back with the air conditioning and the $3 ticket price does go a long way towards curing me of indifference towards recent multiplex fare.]

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Out 1

This weekend was spent submerged in Jacques Rivette's Out 1. A massive work with a slender plot, the sheer length of the film/mini-series allows an acclimation to the rhythms of the film and of its characters that other, more plot-driven epics can't. As a result, Out 1 grows more engrossing as it progresses, as opposed to Lord of the Rings or even a 3-hour Hollywood blockbuster, which can be hugely exhausting experiences.

Out 1
starts out with extended quasi-documentary footage of two theater troupes rehearsing plays by Aeschylus. Both interpretations are radical, to say the least - high modernist attempts to deconstruct the text to the point at which the author is incidental, and the performance is everything. The performances never leads anywhere; as in Paris Belongs to Us and L'Amour fou (and arguably Celine and Julie as well) the characters engage in rehearsal, without the payoff of any actual public performance. (Which, in an unintended irony, would be the fate of Out 1 itself.) I'm not sure what to do with that just yet, but the act of rehearsal is particularly bizarre. It isn't what we normally think of as performance, which has an audience to justify its occurrence. Instead, it's grown men and women pretending to be other people, like a game, but one that only works if all parties involved are absolutely serious.

It's difficult to wrap my head around a full twelve hours, even if several of those hours contain extended theatrical improvisations - some of which are truly brilliant, some of which fall flat, but all of which are fascinating. Over twelve hours, the usual standards of good and bad don't really apply anymore. At a certain point, the details of the film become fact, and it seems no more valid to criticize (or notice) fluctuations in "quality" or "success" than it would to do so in your daily life. Which isn't to say that the details aren't important: the incidental observations vastly overwhelm the portions of the film that contribute to the narrative(s). The film becomes a place the viewer inhabits. This weekend is Out 1: Spectre, and I'll have more to say after having seen the, ahem, sleeker four-hour version.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Brand Upon the Brain!

One of the more unique experiences I've ever had in a movie theater was Guy Maddin's Brand Upon the Brain!, which played the Music Box in full regalia last weekend. On the one hand, I worked on the film. My official title is "Set Journalist" but as it ended up I didn't do any of that - Guy Maddin likes to have somebody write a production diary that he can use for press kits or maybe give to the cast and crew, etc. I ended up as more of a garden-variety Production Assistant, being as helpful as I could, always planning on catching up with the writing later. The truth is, though, that during those ten days 2+ years ago I was busy and tired, and the whole set diary thing felt horribly redundant. It was the most well-documented set I've ever encountered (not that I've really been on that many sets), with an official photographer, an official videographer, and several unofficial videographers. Plus I hate diaries, in principle. So I kept busy instead. Anyway, I was there for just about everything, and that meant that I couldn't watch the film last Friday without recalling the actual shooting of each individual scene or set-up. Which I think makes me a little too distracted to adequately judge the film on its own.

As a spectacle, though, I can with confidence say that the experience (extravaganza) was top notch. Crispin Glover narrated and four extremely skilled foley artists provided sound effects in front of the screen right next to an 11-piece orchestra playing Jason Stazcek's score. And there was a castrato - who was lip-synching, obviously, but let's give him the benefit of the doubt anyway. (I'm a willing dupe, what can I say?)

Jason's score was distractingly good, Crispin Glover was great but occasionally just distracting, and I loved everything about the foley artists and their sound effects. They were off to the side and I tried to watch them out of the corner of my eye. There were plates being thrown, gigantic aluminum sheets being gonged, etc. The production of the little noises was clever, the big ones often had big gestures, and of course those were the most fun (i.e. the plates).

I remember reading an early draft of the script - at which point the main character was named "Bruno" rather than "Guy Maddin" - and thinking of it as Maddin's (very) rough approximation of Proust. The film's all about memory and nostalgia, but it's a physical, tactile sort of memory. With Maddin the dreaminess is a style and a logic, but at base his stuff remains flesh-bound. Brand is extremely literal-minded when it comes to memory: Guy (the character) touches a rock and instantly brings up a memory in his head and on screen, and it's the same memory every time he finds that rock. He wanders the landscape trying to find the right combination of objects to conjure up the girl he loved - and when she materializes she's both there and not there, a fleshy apparition somehow more "real" than the other memories wandering the island but nonetheless insubstantial, only partly there. The nostalgia of Guy's mother for her own childhood is enacted by an actual, physical return to childhood thanks to a mysterious "nectar," drained from the brains of orphans, that makes her young again. In other words, Maddin takes a literal approach to non-literal ideas, and it's all based in play with the medium - these conjurings and youth serums are, at base, nothing more than flashbacks or fantasies that can be seen by the characters as well as the audience.

The film is pleasantly skewed, like all of Maddin's films, but its fever-dream logic is not as intensely focused as it was in Cowards, and its baroqueness is not as grandiose as it was in Saddest Music in the World. Other than Dracula, it's the least melodramatic of Maddin's films, more intent on a very contemporary kind of self-pity than on Sirkean hyperbole. It's interesting that as his style becomes denser and, in a sense, more guarded, his films start to move away from genre and towards a confessional mode. Plotwise, the central mystery, about draining the orphans' brains, feel insufficiently explored, and the big revelations not as shocking as they maybe should be. The teen detective subplot was a huge audience pleaser, and Chance/Wendy was the most compelling character, an indication that perhaps the narrative focus was either misplaced or was inadvertently hijacked by the more interesting sub-story.

Maddin's fond of blank-faced heroes, but here his hero is divided into two actors (grown-up Guy, who isn't on screen all that much and young Guy) and neither is given the chance to display much personality. The girls take over the movie, but the dramatic focus is on Guy, and this shared focus lessens the narrative's melodramatic impact - the miserablism that replaces the melodramatic structure doesn't have a dominant figure of association, it's all dissipated among four different actors. And it's my own particular quirk that I dislike framing devices, and for me the framing portion with adult Guy and his elderly mother drags us away from the main story without adding all that much to the flow of the film. Of course, Maddin's project requires that focus on remembrance, and he does a wonderful job of integrating the frame and flashback. The past bleeds into the present in all sorts of ways, but the narrative momentum nonetheless comes from the flashback portion of the film. And the frame is, in that sense, a sort of distraction.

As much fun as the big show was, I'd like to watch the wider release version - which would be on 35 rather than the (I think) video projected at the Music Box. My experience on the set already draws me out of the typical viewer experience more than most, and the further (awesome) distractions of Crispin Glover and company pulled me out even more. The thing is, I love Maddin's films and it's curious to me that I see a difference between this one and his earlier films, but the reviews seem to be about the same, describing it in the same terms and loving it or hating it for the same reasons they always do. So, is it me, or is it the film?

The trailer:

I believe this is the "official" behind-the-scenes video, with Guy narrating:

Guy Maddin talking in very Eisensteinian terms about the film:

It looks like the distributor's Vitagraph, whose notoriousness (which I can personally attest to) is such that I'm pretty sure I won't be able to talk Doc into bringing the film to campus for a second-run screening. Uggh.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Tarkovsky's Stalker

Watching a gorgeous 35mm print of Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker last Sunday, I involuntary pronounced the words "Oh my God" twice in the film. The first time it was in response to an image of a wall. The second time, a doorway. Beauty in Stalker is a revelation, found in decay and disintegration, a heavy relief that seems to push the images forward from the screen. The film is no less mysterious than any of Tarkovsky's films (with the probable exception of Ivan's Childhood), but is emotionally accessible, its characters coherent and empathetic. And its visual beauty is astonishing, striking enough that the images themselves seem heavy, weighing down the characters wading through the settings that overwhelm them. Tarkovsky's mysticism is fascinating to me, even though his deadly seriousness means his films are constantly on the verge of self-parody. It's especially interesting that, in Stalker, the supposedly supernatural settings never really manifest themselves as such (besides a single unexplained voice) - it's like a children's game, with the participants pretending that they're in a dangerous otherworldly place. It isn't until the very end of the film, when the Stalker's daughter moves a glass across the dining room table through telekinesis, that any evidence of the mystical is shown on screen. These moments of telekinesis or levitation that dot Tarkovsky's films always astonish me. And they're always so beautifully filmed, so meticulously composed, that it can't help but feel like the natural order of things.