Saturday, November 25, 2006

Gunvor Nelson

Experimental filmmaker Gunvor Nelson came to campus last week for a screening of three very personal films: her tribute to her daughter My Name Is Oona (which the screening notes claim might be her best known film), the experimental mother/daughter/mother fiction Red Shift, and an absolutely devastating documentary portrait of her dying mother that I believe was called Mother. I'm not sure how representative these films are of the rest of her work, but her impressionistic, flowing montage is truly remarkable. And, I have to say, the experimental canon is such a boys' club, Nelson's films are a wonderful balance to the cumulative testosterone of her fellow filmmakers. Feminine without being overtly feminist, Nelson's more concerned with exploring ideas of immediate relevance to women without (explicitly) positioning her work against any conventions or traditions. My Name Is Oona and Mother are undoubtedly the most beautiful, affecting films of their kind that I've seen. There's something hypnotic in Nelson's images, and she's got a remarkable eye for the extreme close-up. The extreme close-up, used liberally in Red Shift, strikes me as a key technique to understanding her films, even if it was rarely used in the other two films last night. With Red Shift's magnified portraits of features and body parts, and Oona's endless, overlapping repetition of the name on the soundtrack, there's a sense in which Nelson's films fetishize the smallest, most tangible details (or at least they attempt to make these details tangible through the film) as a sort of defense mechanism, a way of understanding powerful and possibly painful relationships to her subjects (her daughter, her mother, aging, death) piece by piece, keeping them immediately comprehensible while allowing the montage to express the complexities and ambiguities (and the various inexpressibles) she feels towards them.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Atom Egoyan

Atom Egoyan was at Chicago last week. He came to our German class, just sat there listening for an hour. (I didn't say anything remotely smart while he was there, in case you were wondering - but as soon as he left...) He spoke at the Mass Culture Workshop about physical relationships with technology in his work, but really more generally than that. He's done several pieces - films and installations - in which old-fashioned tape recorders play a central role, and he's fascinated with them because the user does have such a physical relationship with the machine, a relationship that's one a wholly different order than the one with a computer, an mp3 player or any other kind of digital technology. Old analogue machinery creates an impression of having some sort of physical manifestation of its processes - you can, to a certain extent, see it working. In other words, Egoyan is incredibly sensitive to the postmodern (which I bring up because I'm finally the tiniest bit confident as to one specific aspect of the most poorly-defined word in the English language), and nostalgic for the modernist. You can see this in his films, which are structured/styled in a manner that's often characterized as "postmodern" and yet place an extra emphasis on physical transit - think of the body hunt in Exotica, the bus crash in The Sweet Hereafter, and all those customs agents that keep reappearing from film to film.
I'm kind of obsessed with the way that space is organized and categorized on screen, and have a vague suspicion about the possible relevance of Manuel Castells's "space of flows," which is, in my own horribly incomplete understanding, similar to Egoyan's conception of digital technology: space that's organized by informational logic rather than physical, geographical logic, and in which physical distance is less a factor than access within the network. My further vague suspicion is that, not only does the cinema have a similar relationship now to postmodernism that it did in the 20s and 30s to modernism, but that the cinema has been one of the central places where we've been working through that transition from modern to post, and that there's something fundamentally postmodern (in that incomplete "space of flows" definition I tried to explain above) about the onscreen organization of space, which would therefore lead one to conclude that the cinema has not only reflected that transition but, in some sense, led the charge.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

George Kuchar

Attended a screening of George Kuchar's most recent videos at the Siskel on Thursday with Pam and her housemate Emily, both of whom I think enjoyed themselves or at least found it interesting, but I loved it unconditionally. As he did when we brought him out to Seattle, George showed several of his diary videos, all of which were wonderful, and followed it with a ridiculously overblown campy melodrama that he made with his students at the Art Institute in SF, and which went on way too long. Of course, just as much as the actual work, the filmmaker was the draw and the biggest source of entertainment, and he didn't disappoint.

The program started on the wrong note when whoever it was that introduced Kuchar read a portion of an essay calling him "one of the great artists in the history of the medium," or something like that. Kuchar's films don't require such hyperbole. His place, along with his brother's, in the history of film, underground or otherwise, has much more to do with the amazing surplus of goodwill the rest of the film world feels towards him/them. His films are easy to like in a very fundamental way. The Kuchar brothers are both quintessential New York characters, lovably eccentric and wholly non-threatening (which is particularly important when you take into consideration the lurid subject matter of so many of their most influential films) - and their movies have a similar appeal. Amateurish, occasionally overearnest, delightfully strange, what-the-hell random, the Kuchars are perhaps unfairly treated something akin to outsider artists in the history of experimental filmmaking - the "perhaps" is there because when placed alongside Jacobs, Brakhage, even Jack Smith, it's clear that the Kuchars have a different, much less deliberately confrontational, relationship with the medium.

George Kuchar's diary videos on Thursday, all of which he shot over the summer and had recently finished editing, are truly delightful (to repeat myself), free-flowing jumbles. His presence at the center of all of them is key to their appeal, along with their endearing over-utilization of editing tricks (George has Final Cut Pro now, evidently). And I love the very basic philosophy of his video-making, that he carries a camera with him whenever he feels like filming something and then just turns it on, whether that's taking his aging mother around the block, visiting John Waters or Robert Breer, having dinner at a friend's house, or watching Mother Angelica on late night television. He'll jump from one location to another, and even, in one film, alternate between documentary and fiction, with no apparent motivation (narrative or otherwise). All this can be done because Kuchar creates a space that neither mythologizes nor belittles the everyday, but is instead an investigation of the quotidian for the sometimes faint traces of the stuff of melodramas and movie spectacles. But Kuchar makes no effort to compile them into one grand lurid narrative (even his grand lurid narratives are disjointed enough that they can't really be considered as such), he realizes they exist as bits and pieces and doesn't try to force them into any other formation.