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.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Paris Belongs to Us

Jacques Rivette's Paris Belongs To Us (Paris nous appartient) was an exhilirating experience. A very nice BFI print played to an appreciative crowd at the Siskel as part of the Rivette retrospective (I already have my tickets for Out 1). The first ten minutes of the film is packed with Hitchcock references: the credits roll over images of Paris shot from a train (which for Rivette is by definition Hitchcockian), the first post-credits shot is taken directly from Rear Window, a production of Shakespeare's Pericles keeps replaying a scene including the phrase "South by Southwest" (the title "North by Northwest" comes from Hamlet), and, of course, the heroine is immediately surrounding by paranoia-feeding conspiracies of murder, suicide and international intrigue. The heroine, Anne (Betty Schneider), is just on the periphery of a dense and convoluted web of mystery and violence, which seems to involve her brother and seems to involve a man with whom she's fallen in love. Everyone has secrets, except for Anne. Anne's a student who doesn't bother showing up for her exams. She tries acting, but ends up losing her part and losing interest in the whole endeavor. She tries to get to the bottom of these intrigues and secrets, but never quite figures it out and fails to save anyone (or even to accurately predict who's in danger).

Paris Belongs To Us, with Anne at its center, is like a Hitchcock film told from the perspective of the Pat Hitchcock character - the peripheral little sister figure not implicated in but curious about the mysteries and the dangers just to the side of her; acting nosey and butting into the complicated, enigmatic plots. Anne even looks like Pat Hitchock: slightly plump ("movie plump") but still pretty, poofy 50s hair, smiley and kind of bookish. (And I could swear that Rivette modeled Anne's wardrobe after Pat Hitchcock's.) She's never personally threatened, and never witnesses or finds evidence of any crimes. She finds herself frustratingly outside of the sinister elements swirling around her - like a film lover who walks into a movie, but she can't find the good parts on her own.

Betty Schneider, the actress who plays Anne, is wonderful. She only appeared in a handful of movies, but has one other major screen credit. Major to me, anyway. She was in Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle playing the daughter of Hulot's landlady. We see her grow up as the film progresses. Her seemingly innocent crush on Hulot at the beginning of the film provokes a paternal pat on the head. At the end of the film, she's mature enough (and dressing accordingly) that Hulot's too embarassed to treat her like a child (and definitely too embarassed to treat her like a woman...). He gives his customary paternal greeting to her mother instead.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Syndromes and a Century

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century is a wonderful movie, a truly great film whose monumental status will become clear, I suspect, once the initial rush of its charming modesty wears off - that is, if enough people start paying attention. Although its narrative structure is radically experimental, with a rupture midway that is never explained or resolved, everything about the film feels warm, casual and stridently humanistic. Apichatpong loves his characters and their milieu and attentively explores the details of both without ever letting them overwhelm the bigger pictures of which they are always a part. It's also his funniest film, and its humor is the laugh-out-loud kind: an elderly female doctor pulls a hidden bottle of alcohol out of a spare prosthetic leg, a dentist serenades a monk while working on his teeth, a young woman spots her painfully lovesick would-be suitor peeking out at her from behind a Buddha statue. It's a film of moments and details compiled into disjointed, interrupted and unfinished narratives, held together by Apichatpong's immense affection for the people and places he films, and by an elegant structure whose overall shape is elusive enough to remain just out of the viewer's grasp until well after the theater lights come up.

I have more to say about the film and about Apichatpong's films in general, particularly his habit of splitting films in two, with one story cutting off midway through as another starts up. Syndromes is bracingly virtuosic in this regard, with the second half constantly returning to and echoing the first in surprising ways. Apichatpong even incorporates (almost) exact repetitions, which make up some of the most delightful moments of the film - the new angles, changed settings and slight alterations (mistakes?) provide welcome and humorous supplements to the earlier scenes. I'd like to think more about the film before getting into it much more, possibly making it down to the Siskel for a second screening before it leaves on Thursday.

Syndromes and a Century int'l trailer:

Sunday, April 29, 2007


The Sonic Youth show at the Roseland last summer was amazing, and Lee's performance of "mote" was undoubtedly (for me) the highlight. Somehow, a soundboard recording of the full concert hit the internet and I managed to snag a copy. I haven't done a particularly thorough search, but it seems that the only high quality recording of any of the dates on their Rather Ripped tour is from Portland. Sonic Youth live is a necessarily lived experience - a live recording doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The voices never quite make it all the way to the right notes (though they get close), and the lyrics can be even more difficult to parse. But live - and I listen to the recordings now, basically, to re-live - they're electrifying. Competing noises and tones fill the concert space, and, to permit myself an understatement, they rock.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Have you watched Rich Little's routine from the White House Correspondents' Dinner? He dives right into the impressions. Before doing the presidents, he does John McCain (a fairly poor impression), Arnold Schwarzenegger (in which Arnold actually does refer to himself as "the governator"), Johnny Carson (to tell a joke about lawyers and there's something about wheelchairs) and ANDY ROONEY (which allows him the opportunity to offer such choice nuggets as: "If you choke a Smurf, what color does he turn?" and "If you overdose on Viagra, do you have trouble getting the coffin lid closed?"). Then the presidents: Ronald Reagan (a man he "loves"), Jimmy Carter (which requires false teeth, also inspires a joke about how as a peanut farmer he had "the biggest and best nuts in the country"), George H.W. Bush in conversation with Bill Clinton (basically to tell the following joke: "All they have in Chicago are hookers and hockey players." "You know, Hillary's from Chicago." "What team did she play for?" It takes Little about four minutes to get to that punchline), George W. Bush (the worst impression of the bunch) and Nixon. Nixon was supposed to be the highlight of the routine, but he rambled on forever without really remembering to add any jokes - although there was a lot of jowel shaking and something about how in order to win a Nobel prize you have to be "out standing in your field," which he says when he's supposed to be outside, in a field. Then ended singing "My Way." He tried to get the crowd to sing along, but they wouldn't bite.

There's also the song about how he's "gonna poke a lot of fun/ poke a lot of fun at Washington." He sings it in between each presidential impersonation. Groan. And yet, I can't turn away - the fascination of painfully unfunny comedy is remarkable. Oh, and he cracks himself up when he says the word "ass."

Andy Rooney, seriously.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Morris Brown

My favorite song of 2006, which has one of the most audaciously tacky, who-thought-this-was-a-good-idea music videos of all time:

Dancing midget televisions? A pink poodle (and does the purple dog remind anyone else of Clifford the Big Red Dog)? An amusement park? And are those Big Boi's label recruits riding the Ferris wheel? My biggest problem is, I think, the large number of things with faces singing along: the sun, the flowers, the car, the walls, the dog... Wow. I'm pretty sure this was directed by the same guy who made Big Boi's video for "I Like the Way You Move," except this time he let the whimsy run wild. It's a shame, because the song's phenomenal. So's the album, by the way. Aside from the pointless final track - which I can safely say is the lowpoint in Outkast's entire discography - the album's consistently excellent, and drags rarely, despite what the music police would have you think.

Fassbinder on understanding/portraying human behavior

On Chabrol:

“Chabrol’s eye is not that of an entomologist, as is often claimed, but that of a child who keeps a number of insects in a glass jar and observes the strange behavior of his little creatures with a mixture of amazement, horror, and pleasure. […] He doesn’t do research with them. Otherwise he could, and would have to, discover reasons for their brutal behavior, and convey these to us. Never mind that there have to be some little creatures who are less colorful than the others, less showy, but the vast majority of them are completely colorless creatures that provide the basis for the existence of the more beautiful ones. But these are completely overlooked by the child, who doesn’t do scientific observation but only looks, allowing himself to be dazzled by the glittering, special ones; he overlooks them, and therefore can’t really understand the behavior of his favorites.”

Sunday, April 22, 2007

A Hubley Sunday


Emily's animation for Hedwig:

Emily animates the dB's:

Georgia singing one of the slow, pretty ones from I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass:

Georgia sing the acoustic version of Tom Courtenay:

Finally, John Hubley directs A Date with Dizzy:

"Hey Pete! Let's eat! More meat!"

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Invisible Man

Although I didn't really have the time, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see James Whale's Invisible Man at Doc Films tonight. I'd previously only seen Whale's Frankenstein movies, and while Bride of Frankenstein might be the filmmaker's ultimate blend of comedy and classical horror, The Invisible Man is grotesque and unabashedly slapstick, with a remarkably advanced camp sensibility. It's as if Whale knew that his laughs would outlive his scares, and planned accordingly. Or, perhaps more likely, he was just making himself laugh.

Really, The Invisible Man hardly qualifies as a horror movie, especially since most of the violence is utterly ridiculous, with Rains childishly taunting his victims while they fall all over themselves. It's hard to think of the episode where the invisible man steals a policeman's pants as anything but hilarious. A horrible train wreck half way through the movie seems curiously out of place, tossed in to the film to justify the manpower that would be expended on catching the invisible man in the second half - but Whale executes the crash so unrealistically and with such precise comic timing that I couldn't help but chuckle. Most of the actors don't seem to be fully in on the joke, although even the more wooden and clueless among are obviously enjoying themselves (with one or two very notable exceptions in the prosthetic ingenue Gloria Stuart and the cowardly William Harrigan). Claude Rains as "The Invisible One" (as per the credits) is all covered up and can't play for sympathy like Karloff in the Frankenstein movies, keeping the film firmly within the realm of farce. There's one actress who knows exactly what kind of movie James Whale was making, and that's character actress Una O'Connor. Running the tavern/inn where Claude Rains holes up to seek an antidote, she's the first to discover Rains's horrible secret - a discovery that sets off a series of periodic shrieks of shock, disbelief, fear, discomfort... really anything that might merit a reaction of any kind. Whale is so enamored of her rather hilarious scream that he had her do it over and over and over again, occasionally with almost no provocation whatsoever. Maybe my favorite thing about the film is that, without really dipping into irony, Whale isn't above utilizing the weaknesses of his script or his actors for laughs (just look at his casting of Henry Travers - Clarence the angel from It's a Wonderful Life - as respected scientist Dr. Cranley if you have any doubt as to Whale's intentions). As a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure that a fully competent cast would have weighed it down. As it is, I haven't had more fun in a movie theater in ages.

The big reveal:

Monday, April 16, 2007

Video link

Matt McCormick's got a new video for the Shins song on his website here:

It's fun. Enjoy.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later

We screened James Benning's One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later last night at the Film Studies Center, the first show of the spring for the "Experimental Film Club" (coming up: the new print of Harry Smith's Heaven and Earth Magic and Jonas Mekas's documentary Birth of a Nation). Made in 1977, One Way Boogie Woogie is comprised of 60 one-minute shots of Benning's hometown of Milwaukee - some staged, some captured on the fly, all meticulously and cleverly composed. 27 Years Later is designed to be screened on the same program (without intermission - one flows into the other with only a very brief pause between the two). It's a sort of attempt at a shot-for-shot remake of the original from 2004, but of course the city has changed considerably since the seventies. Benning plants the camera as close to its original position as he can and points it in roughly the same direction. When possible, the original people (actors?) are used again to perform the same simple actions, with frames seemingly remaining unpopulated instead of using any sort of substitution. The original soundtrack plays over the new images, sometimes matching up, sometimes not.

The effect of the two films is markedly different. Both are "structuralist," of course, with their dedication to formal guidelines, and both are nicely playful about and around their constraints. The original strikes me as the more satisfying experience, not least because the constraints of 27 Years Later mean that the camera positions of the original aren't adjusted to achieve the same careful composition and balance. The play with structure in Boogie Woogie has a lot to do with the limits of the frame: the viewer can't help but try to figure out what's just off screen (with Benning encouraging our speculation by occasionally throwing sudden intrusions into the mix, with people or objects suddenly entering the frame, objects being hurled in front of the camera, etc); and, similarly, the viewer reflexively attempts to decode the meaning of the soundtrack and the relationship of these sounds (which sometimes are diegetic in the sense that they can be assigned to something happening on screen, even if its far in the distance in the very corner of the screen, and sometimes are not: music, radio broadcasts, etc) to the image. The other major source of conflict and play has to do with the carefulness and abstraction of the images on screen, the disruption of these lines and shapes by people (and trees, the other non-symmetrical figures that constantly reappear). 27 Years Later is equally witty and playful, but most of the play has to do with the differences and changes from the viewer's partial recollections of OWBW. The second film does help to illuminate the delicacy of the original compositions, and the dependence on a unique perspective for their creation (i.e. the images are in a sense created, and not just "found"). 27 Years Later is an aesthetic game, not a social one, and it's about general change rather than decay or gentrification or neglect. The original wittily questioned the basic assumptions of the medium about form, and although the "remake" retains the wit, the stakes are lower. That doesn't change the fact, however, that the general consensus in the cinema was that 27 Years Later seemed to move faster than Boogie Woogie - I guess some games are more fun than others. The first time around, anyway - I have the feeling that the next time I see the film the original will still have plenty of surprises to impart while its follow-up, though not necessarily less enjoyable, will be considerably less mysterious.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Leni Riefenstahl

I have no desire to defend Leni Riefenstahl, but can somebody please tell Clive James to stop writing about movies? [Registration Req'd] A week or two ago, a level-headed review that was really quite well-written parsed the Riefenstahl problem in the NYT arts pages. The piece, by NYT's regular reviewer Michiko Katukani, herself not exactly a "film person," actually discussed the books in question, managed to register the historical importance of Riefenstahl's work along with the historically evolving arguments about her relative merits as an artist/human being. She distinguishes between the strengths of both authors and suggests how they are similarly valuable by establishing a historical tradition against which the writers are working, and she does just about everything else you could expect from an average book review. Her piece also contained a nicely succinct summation of Riefenstahl's politcal situation, from the new biography by Steven Bach: "the ‘horror of history’ in which her apologists thought her ‘imprisoned’ was a narrative of her own making about which she remained nostalgic and unrepentant. It was richly rewarded and free of any compulsion save ambition. She did not suffer from it but profited and to suggest otherwise — as she often did — is an insult to the millions who died at the hands of a regime she took pride in glorifying, using and enabling.”

That quote from Bach manages to perfectly capture the full repugnancy of Riefenstahl's situation without resorting to discussion-ending insult hurlings.

The last time James wrote about a film book for the NYT, some righteous anger was unleashed on the world wide web. James would seem to be a sort of cosmopolitan catty writer, the kind that keep New Yorker readers entertained and self-satisfied, and yet the sort of snobbery that James wishes to preach is childish, at best. Name-calling, opinions existing only at the far extremes or not at all, adopting a tone that can best be characterized as 'taunting.' And woefully underinformed and incurious. Clive James traffics in generalities and partial information so that he himself may offer the definitive assessment. And in this particular article his judgement inflates its own authority by making his attack on Nazism about the personal deficiencies of one of its foremost figures - and in the process seeming to wage a personal vendetta against his subject rather than offering any sort of useful historical, biographical or artistic critique, though disguising his argument as all three.

Take a look at his Riefenstahl review. Notice how he takes to calling her "Leni" instead of the Times-approved "Ms. Riefenstahl," or how he manages to throw in an insult about her looks (her eyes were "too close together"). (Also notice how he says "cineaste" when he means "cinephile" - it would be nice if writers about film at least accquainted themselves with the basic vocabulary before proclaiming generalities about the entire medium.) Blatantly misogynist and patronizing, the moral of the review is that we shouldn't be thinking about Riefenstahl at all because she was stupid and only got where she was because she used her "feminine wiles" to get there. James paints her as someone who's not quite intelligent enough to have a morally complex response to Germany's crimes against humanity, but she eventually is "distressed" and then starts lying "until people got tired, or old, or died."

For those who aren't insulted twice by any of the above, I believe James is taking (unwittingly, I hope) a broad swipe not only at Riefenstahl (take THAT!) but at Susan Sontag and the feminist movement that adopted Riefenstahl as a pet cause (briefly) when they went looking for significant female film artists and found one in a pure aesthete who, it seemed, didn't care one way or another about the Nazis as long as she got to make her movies. It probably could have only happened when it did, in the late 60s/early 70s, when critics were willing to remove material from its historical situation a lot more readily than they were before or have been since. In essence, James is saying not only that she isn't a good filmmaker (she's got "no real brain" and no talent), but that she slept her way to the top (or, rather, bottom, as James says when claiming she only got her parts by sleeping with filmmakers: "there was no director, however illustrious, whom she could not hurl herself beneath wearing no clothes at all"). Even if you overlook the whole Nazi thing, Riefenstahl was nothing more than a slutty opportunist. Slutty and too dumb to recognize questions of morality - and she wasn't even all that attractive!

Other head-scratching claims include the almost non-sensical one about how this documentarian possessed "almost no sense of story," which he evidences by pointed out that she had to work through a "mountain of footage." To hear James tell it, Triumph of the Will was Albert Speer's film, "Leni" only filmed it. And Olympia offers the opportunity to be catty about her promiscuity once again - it's hardly even a movie, really, it's just a beautiful event that Riefenstahl managed to adequately capture based on the logical choices anyone would have made. The following passage deserves being fully reproduced:

"She wasn’t having a thing with [Jesse] Owens. She was having that with another American, the decathlete Glenn Morris, whom she obliged to add an 11th discipline to his event. But she filmed Owens with loving appreciation. It’s a shameful consideration that no Hollywood director would have been encouraged to do the same, at the time. Owens in repose looked lovely anyway, and on the move he was poetic, but it took a fine eye and a lot of knowledge to get the poetry on film, and Leni knew how to do that with him and with many another athlete. It was only logical for the camera to climb the tower with the diver, for example, but she figured out how to do it.

"Susan Sontag later made a serious mistake in arguing that “Olympia” was entirely steeped in fascist worship of the beautiful body. But it’s nature that worships the beautiful body. Fascism is natural. That’s what’s wrong with it: it’s nothing else. Despite the too often prevailing calisthenic mass maneuvers, as if Busby Berkeley had met Praxiteles, much of the reputation Olympia has for beauty can thus safely be endorsed, but always with the proviso that a lot of the athletic events were beautiful anyway, and that her technical inventions for capturing them would eventually suffer the fate of all technical inventions and be superseded: everything she did in Berlin in 1936 was topped by what Kon Ichikawa did in Tokyo in 1964. Nevertheless, Leni, with her raw material handed to her on a plate, and unhampered by those requirements of invented narrative that she could never manage, had made quite a movie for its time."

Again, why the preoccupation with Riefenstahl's sexuality (or, rather, sluttiness)? Insulting female sexuality is the first refuge for the chauvinist looking to attack a woman, and James can't seem to find a way to criticize nazism without calling its practitioner a nymphomaniac - and I could possibly see ways in which that could make an interesting piece of rhetoric, except that James isn't introducing the whole slut thing to connect perversion to fascism (which is, like, way popular in movies), but just to make Riefenstahl into a sexually marginalized woman. Who should be evidently be ashamed of her (sexual) behavior. Is it just me, or does it sound like Riefenstahl turned James down for a date to the Homecoming dance? (How's that for a personal attack?)

Back to the review. The next sentence is another something a reviewer should be ashamed of. After reading TWO biographies of the woman and writing with such dismissive authority about her, he says that she "had probably always had one eye on Hollywood." Probably? Based on what, exactly? More generalities, this time not even bothering to hide them. And of course this generality conforms perfectly to the gold-digging opportunist narrative he's been cultivating.

Basically, James read two books he was supposed to review, and instead of reviewing them, he did a book report. Almost no relative evaluations of the two works and their strengths and weaknesses, never crediting one book or the other when discussing a piece of information. His familiarity with the topic seems to be based mostly on the two books, but he adopts a tone of total authority. I'm pretty sure that he hasn't seen most of Riefenstahl's films, and that he knows next to nothing about Weimar cinema, about early documentaries, or anything else having to do with film. So, luckily for him, when it comes to having extreme opinions there's not a whole lot of facts or historical information to get in the way. He avoids even attempting to explain why Riefenstahl has remained such a fascinating figure to critics, cinephiles (or, as James would say, "cineastes") and the general public, or why her films, as opposed to all the other propaganda pieces produced during the Third Reich, are still the subject of passionate discussion. Instead of moralistically calling her a "liar" (repeatedly), perhaps he could have explained how Riefenstahl continued to insist on blatant falsehoods even in the face of the most undeniable evidence. She wasn't just a lying, lying liar, her denials became pathological and ridiculous, and her need to rewrite her past would consume the rest of her life. Which is particularly interesting when you think of it this way: Riefenstahl was 31 when she finished Triumph of the Will, 34 at the time of the Berlin Olympics and 43 when she was arrested. She lived SIXTY MORE YEARS, nearly all of which was devoted to attempting to retain the achievements of those twelve years while denying their implications. Yes, there's not a whole lot of moral redemption in there, but there's one hell of a story. Could it be that James has a similar "sense of story" to the one he ascribes to Riefenstahl, i.e. none? He can only describe her in the most hideously exaggerated cliches, and then houses her character in the most rigidly archetypal narrative.

And when it comes to writing about film (which I keep returning to because, really, this is what pisses me off the most) , James is the kind of viewer that undergraduate film textbooks try to address in their introductions, as the authors explain slowly and carefully that films don't "just happen" but are the result of all sorts of choices behind and in front of the camera, in the editing room, during the sound mix, etc. For James, Olympia was "handed [to Riefenstahl] on a plate" and she was the mere technical engineer who executed it. She had "a good eye" for capturing male beauty - which James comes *this close* to insinuating was only possible because she wanted to "throw herself under them."

Also illuminating: "Final Cut, the best-ever book about a film director." Clive, care to fill us in on what other books about film directors you've read? Or which of "Leni"'s films you've actually seen, versus the ones you've read about? And how the hell did you manage to make me feel defensive about Leni Riefenstahl?

My own opinion of Riefenstahl is much less passionate, mainly because I don't buy her bodies the same way I do the bodies of Berkeley or Claire Denis. There's nothing seductive about them - it's a cold beauty, pneumatic (to use Andre Bazin's favorite erotic description, which he swiped from Huxley), overly reverent and concerned with the classical and divine, as if appreciation of the human body required intellectual justification. I think that, more than any other of the filmmakers experimenting with documentary at the time (and this has come up in discussions about Vertov several times in my experience), we can't see her images with the same eyes audiences did in the 1930s. The impact of her compositions is largely lost on me, and I've become far too used to her techniques to be engaged, let alone persuaded, by her propaganda. Triumph of the Will is a sickening experience, truly, and the images, which are fascist to their very core, are disturbing but never stirring.

I do find her to be a fascinating figure, though, and think the documentary on her (The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl) is endlessly absorbing, and there are plenty of reasons why biographers continue to write about her after her death. Personally, I don't hold her in a particularly high place artistically or in terms of historical importance, however, and for me it's important not to exaggerate either of those. The impulse to glorify women filmmakers from the past is certainly understandable and, to a certain extent, necessary. However, it isn't like this problem has disappeared - directing is still overwhelmingly dominated by men and talented women filmmakers rarely get the attention or opportunities they deserve. Better to own up to the problem and figure out how to deal with it (and to keep making the efforts to discover more great women filmmakers - Claire Denis, Samira Makhmalbaf, Agnes Varda, Francoise Romand, Chantal Akerman, Lynne Ramsay, etc) than to only focus on the positive. And if there was ever a filmmaker whose reputation was born of cinephiles only focusing on the positive, it's Riefenstahl.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Why I wish I had a digital camera

Travelling alongside the Dan Ryan Expressway today on the bus, we past a large truck whose cargo was stacked inside a sort of mesh, net-like container. It was carrying at least two dozen flattened cars. And that's why I wish I had a digital camera.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Warhol on space

Today's inspirational verse, from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again):

"When I look at things, I always see the space they occupy. I always want the space to reappear, to make a comeback, because it's lost space when there's something in it. If I see a chair in a beautiful space, no matter how beautiful the chair is, it can never be as beautiful to me as the plain space.

"My favorite piece of sculpture is a solid wall with a hole in it to frame the space on the other side."

Tuesday, March 20, 2007


To call Querelle, Fassbinder's final film (finished before his death but released posthumously), "strange" is a bit of an understatement. Andy Warhol visited the set, and attended one of the early festival screenings, supposedly told the filmmaker that he found the movie to be "strange" - although it's unclear whether or not he watched the film through to its conclusion. There are photographs of posters Warhol made for the film's initial release here, if you're curious. These posters, although they don't come from any of the images in the finished film, pick up on what I'm discussing in the essay I'm currently writing: the image depicted emphasizes the mouth and the ear in a film that pushes speech into the background in favor of the more urgent focus on looking and being looked at.

The film's images are aestheticized to a point that occasionally nears stasis, posed and composed tableaux that are, to paraphrase Shaviro, almost wholly irreal yet possessing a compelling weight. Their artificiality owes much to Sirk (particularly in its lighting, but Sirk's stylistic influence hangs over all of Querelle's visual style), and it's useful to remember a quote of Sirk's that Fassbinder picked up on and liked to repeat: "camera angles are my thoughts, and lighting my philosophy." (And Fassbinder has a lot to say about Sirk's lighting and interiors.) The act of looking is foregrounded even more in this film than elsewhere in Fassbinder, with characters lurking in nearly every scene whose only purpose is to be ostentatiously watching, and they're usually watching the sailor Querelle, whether or not he's doing anything interesting.

But the images are, in terms of conventional narrative construction, inscrutable. In transposing Genet's story to film, Fassbinder decontextualizes much of the action, refusing to explicitly reveal the motivations behind his characters' actions, leaving it up to the viewers to "read" the images. The film provides a variety of (partial) readings on the soundtrack through various diegetic and non-diegetic commentaries (which I've discussed, briefly, in earlier posts), but not only do these fail to explain the images in full, they often seem to be incorrect. Sometimes, as with Lysiane's tarot readings, the voice has the power to control the action on some level. The verbal professions of masculinity and denials of homosexuality are essential elements of the sexual performance found in the film, a ritual seemingly necessary for sex to actually take place. But it's rare that the voice is actually demonstrably correct - the traditional position of the narrator is one in which the voice seems to be controlling the flow of images, but in Querelle the narrator, along with the other voices, isn't concerned with what is shown but what is seen. That is, these voices tell the viewer what he should be reading in the image, but that information is often contradictory, unintuitive, or unelaborated by what we see (i.e. a narrator making pronouncements about the inner state of an expressionless character).

The depiction of watching places the viewer on the same level as the several characters whose main function is to observe, and I think that both these characters and the viewer identify with the object of their look, which here is almost invariably the sailor Querelle. (Does the narrator, never located within the diegesis, do the same? Is that the explanation for some of the more surprising interpretations he offers?) I think, furthermore, that this act of attempting to impose a narrative on the images is shared by these different voices with the viewer.

But, with an image that is so artificial, so "irreal," what exactly are these voices attempting to describe?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Claire Denis

I've been needing to fill a Claire Denis fix for a while, and have been having a particular hankering for her horribly underrated 2001 masterpiece Trouble Every Day.

In the meantime, however, I came across
this online.

There's a link to Denis' gorgeous video for Sonic Youth's "Incinerate" from last year's Rather Ripped. And I believe that the "Jams Run Free" videos are hers as well.

Procrastination can occasionally be productive, if you employ a rather broadly expanded definition of "productivity."

Back to Fassbinder.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Spring Screenings

Michelle P. and I are putting together two screenings for the spring for the Experimental Film Club, and it looks like, barring the unforeseen, everything's going ahead as planned.

We'll be screening James Benning's One Way Boogie Woogie/27 Years Later on April 14 and a new print of Harry Smith's Heaven and Earth Magic on May 12, both screenings taking place at the Film Studies Center in UChicago's Cobb Hall 307.

I'm starting to put together next year's schedule, which looks to include a visit from Matt M., who's got a new project (a few details here).

This weekend is the SCMS conference, which I won't have any time for whatsoever. I'm going to try to make it to the Godard panel and to at least one or two of the talks given by folks from UC or UW, but I'm not even optimistic about that. A hard and fast paper deadline's looming next Monday and I'm going to need to go on high alert to get everything done in time. I might even have to skip a talk/screening by Sadie Benning tonight to prepare for it. Uggh.

Monday, March 05, 2007


I've decided on general topics for the two essays I have to write in the next couple weeks. For Jim's Classical Film Theory, I'm writing about Bazin and Godard, focusing in particular on the Histoire(s) and Bazin's lovely essay "Death Every Afternoon." There, as well as in an essay on eroticism in the cinema, Bazin discusses the "ontological pornography" of actual death on screen (a term more conditional than you might expect from anyone but Bazin). Godard's fascination with the depiction of death and catastrophe, juxtaposed with fictional films, his repeated allusions to Raymond Queneau's "L'instant fatal," as well as a connection between his discussions of sex and violence, in real life and in the cinema, make for ideal points of comparison with Bazin. I should say that's currently the focus, before I've started writing. There are elements of Bazin's writings on eroticism, on his "Myth of Stalin in the Soviet Cinema," and much of What Is Cinema?'s first English-language volume that's of similar relevance - I just can't quite get my head around exactly how to approach them. I've already rewatched the Histoire(s) once, and I get the feeling it will continue to become more impressive with each subsequent viewing. The montage, and the arguments are incredibly intricate: they make sense on a purely aesthetic level your first viewing, and each time you revisit it the full implications become clearer.

The other paper will be a sort of elaboration on the Fassbinder paper I wrote last quarter, this time focusing more exclusively on Querelle. I think my interest lies more with In a Year of 13 Moons, but this being a class on "adaptation" I have to incorporate at least something of a concession towards the class topic. Still, the paper is on Fassbinder, not Genet. Querelle is a unique adaptation in that it claims to be "about" Genet's novel, not a version or adaptation of it - something like Straub as a postmodernist. It looks like the speech and the look will be the focus. Fassbinder's characters are constantly staring at each other and it's just as much their act of looking as what they're looking at that's being captured by the camera, and they all seem to have a sort of awareness of being looked at that probably comes from Fassbinder's origins in experimental theater but takes on whole new meanings when projected on film. Speech has several different registers in the film, all of which vie for some sort of control over perception (of a character's image, of his sexuality, of the basic facts of the narrative, etc). There's the dialogue, highly-stylized in both form and delivery, which is often a disavowal of what we can see to be true. There's Seblon's recorded diary, a literal removal of his voice from his body that eventually wins over Querelle when he discovers the tape recorder. There are the two offscreen narrators, the voice-over and the intertitles. The voice-over occasionally seems to contradict what we're seeing, and neither is at all evident from the image. Finally, there's Jeanne Moreau's Lysiane, who basically introduces the narrative by reading Robert's fortune and predicting trouble to come. The story ends as Lysiane read's Robert's cards again and effectively erases the whole of the film by declaring that she was mistaken, and that Robert doesn't even have a brother. Suddenly, the bar Querelle has left in devastation goes back to normal and Robert looks as if nothing had happened. Querelle's ship leaves with the exact same shot it arrived, this time projected in reverse. Lots to talk about, and I have to develop a small chunk of it for a presentation on Thursday.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Host

It's been a long, busy quarter. There are a lot of things that I've been meaning to write about - primarily visiting filmmakers Thom Anderson, Billy Woodberry, 17-yr-old videomaker Kyle Canterbury, Leighton Pierce, etc - but I guess I'll just have to move backwards trying to catch up. Final paper season is upon us once again, so I expect I'll be looking for the procrastination-ish outlet and will try to make my way through the backlog.

On Saturday, filmmaker Bong Joon-ho was on campus to present Memories of Murder and his latest film, The Host. I've been a fan of Memories of Murder since I saw it at SIFF several years ago, and agitated for putting it on the NWFF calendar as soon as Palm Pictures announced its dvd release (we had to talk them into it, which a handful of other art house-type cinemas were doing at the same time). Of course, as has been the case for all Korean films given commercial runs in Seattle (in my experience), almost nobody showed up - and that we had to program it during SIFF certainly didn't help. But I don't doubt that the film found a sizable audience through the festival screenings and early arrival import dvds at Scarecrow. It's nice to know that, in the tide of Asian serial killer movies, one of the few I've come across that manages to do something clever and original with the format has found its niche. And The Host will certainly shed more light on it for cinephiles.

Bong spoke after the screening of his "love-hate" relationship with genre, and of his desire to "explode" the conventions of whatever genre he's working in. With both Memories of Murder and The Host, a familiar generic structure provides the set-up while the execution moves along a thin line between parody, social realism, political critique, etc - the films almost perversely refuse to align themselves with or against the genre or the heroes, and the subversion of genre expectations never quite materializes as wholly mocking or as a more serious-minded criticism of narrative conventions. The protagonists in Memories of Murder are almost a classic comedy team of bungling cops, except that their incompetence is dangerous. Perhaps the film's greatest audacity is to avoid the perceived sophistications of a dark, comedic satire; instead, the humor is broad and slapstick-y, while the overall narrative remains grisly and opressive. And the humor is never without complications. Some of the funnier scenes in the film amount to little more than the physical and emotional abuse of a mentally-retarded boy, and the ramifications of the actions, while funny, are never pushed out of the foreground. And in The Host, the most prominent, sustained scene of physical comedy is a mass funeral. (Bong said he particularly enjoyed films that make sudden, drastic changes in tone, offering Jonathan Demme's sublime Something Wild as an example, a statement that I most definitely agree with.)

But Bong's films don't just use genre as a convenient backdrop, nor is it a ploy to get viewers involved with issues that are normally associated with stark pronouncements of cinematic outrage. From his comments after the screening, I gathered that Bong makes a monster or serial killer movie because that's the kind of movie that he likes. The "explosion" of genre he spoke of isn't a desire to do away with it altogether, but to realign the parameters to agree with both what he wants to make and what he wants to see.

The Host is a monster movie in the tradition of 50's Hollywood sci-fi, and it's the sort of movie that Howard Hawks could appreciate. Even more full of goofball, low-brow humor than its predecessor, but also darker and more thrilling. Without resorting to glibness, the death toll's higher, the narrative follows a more traditional path, and there's actually a resolution, of sorts. Bong introduced it by saying that he saw it as a family drama, which it is. There's also, as in Memories, a central awareness of how the political situation impacts the characters, which here translates to logistical incompetence on the part of the Koreans and what appears to be willful, deadly ignorance on the part of the American army. That is, I think, the greatest value of genre to Bong - it allows him to explore, rather inconspicuously, a wide spectrum of subjects. To bring in the US army to a film about a dysfunctional lower-class Korean family would be absurd without the inherent global inclusiveness of a monster film.

About his depiction of the US - which at least one American reviewer was particularly sensitive to in last spring's Cannes reports - Bong claimed that he was not trying to demonize America (or, as he put it in an awkardly poetic neologism: "monsterize). And he's right, in that the Americans get the same broadly comic treatment everyone else in the film does. He's also pretty astute, depicting an exagerrated military response that endangers the local population, all for reasons whose twisted logics serve as justifications in themselves. And while I don't think Bong is directly equating the film's monster (one of the more impressive CG creations I've seen) with American military Imperialism, a visual rhyme between the monster's first appearance and the machine that dispenses the US Army's "Agent Yellow" into a crowd unmistakably underlines the similarity of the two threats.

Bong's films highlight the value of South Korean cinema, which, it seems to me, often attempts to incorporate genres or approaches often held to be contradictory. And it's a cinema that doesn't value glibness, so its exemplary works really do feel challenging in a way that something like Pulp Fiction or Miller's Crossing, thrilling though they may be, don't achieve.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Video Art

I'm considering taking a class on early video art, but one week into the quarter remain undecided. The decision hinges mainly on logistics, but the class has got me thinking about my love-it-or-really-really-really-hate-it attitude towards video art. While I've seen plenty of genuinely exciting, innovative uses of video, I'm still generally ambivalent towards the whole damn medium. From my own (partially informed) perspective, the problem isn't just that a lot of gallery-based video art instantly arouses my bullshit detector, or even that sooo much of the stuff you see in museums (possibly more than what I've seen in galleries) seems to be a video version of a final essay in an art history class ("the performance symbolizes x, while the music on the soundtrack references y, which comments on z"), or even that fine arts types privilege technically-incurious video artists over any and all shades of cinema-bound experimental filmmakers. My biggest objection to video art has to do with its current status as the commodity form of performance art on the one hand and experimental filmmaking on the other - that is, it's performance art or experimental filmmaking crammed into a collectible/sell-able package, and not-infrequently fails to engage even a little bit with the properties of video as a medium. Part of me wants to say that's great, because any way that an artist can make money off his art is good for the culture because it keeps him making art. Part of me also wants to point out that performance art was at least partially born out of anarchic, anti-consumerist, anti-art establishment impulses.

It seems to me that video art collection is exclusive and exclusionary, and I have a real problem with the sort of habits it's encouraging. Although complexity (technical, narrative, visual, dialectic, sonic) isn't necessarily discouraged, much of what I've seen falls under the "high concept" category that makes for nice little explanatory notes from the curator. I've spoken with one filmmaker who makes narrative animations that are unusual but still highly accessible who prefers to sell her pieces as video art. Of course, the decision is financial - and I should quickly add that I'm very glad she has that option because I like her work a lot. What else is a maker of short films to do? But she does this instead of trying to screen them in cinemas, which wouldn't be particularly lucrative even in the best circumstances - even if there were large-ish, solid audiences, a short film program means there are several other filmmakers to split the door with. Unless you do a retrospective of your own short works, in which case you have to be well-known enough to draw a crowd, as there are few local publications that devote much space to experimental film screenings.

(Again, before I start to sound too shrill I should mention once again that I have seen some mind-melding videos and video-based installations, and am considering taking this class because of an interest in the classics of the medium. And pretty much everything I saw at the Henry in Seattle was interesting-to-great.)

But I'm interested in video art because I'm interested in the moving image, and because, logically, it seems like the line between video and film art should be blurring, rather than falling into such distinct, seemingly incompatible categories. Why isn't it blurring? Why is the art world now completely uninterested in experimental film, leaving experimental filmmakers even more broke now than ever before, and competing for grant money with art school hotshots videotaping themselves lip-synching to songs by the Backstreet Boys (to be as shrill as I possibly can in conjuring up an example). The hard truth is that experimental film is floundering in this country, because there's less and less money and smaller and smaller audiences. Noble attempts by Matt McCormick's Peripheral Produce, Other Cinema DVD, Microcinema and a couple others to put experimental films out on dvd has managed to make old and new classics available to the interested, but none of them has succeeded in making experimental filmmaking financially sustainable.

Not too long ago I saw two multi-channel video pieces by a highly respected artist. Scanning through the dvd, I watched one piece in its "installation view" and the other in "video view." The "installation view" chronicled what was, to me, a chaotic jumble of distinct experimental semi-narratives (five channels projected onto a wall) that failed to play off one another visually even as one performer could be seen on two channels simultaneously. The "video view" was a single-channel version of a different piece, or rather, it was the original video that would be divided among separate projectors for gallery display. It was shot on 16mm, and worked much better as a more experimental film-ish single channel piece than the other one did as a video/gallery art-ish multi-channel piece. I don't want to claim that I know the artist's motivation, but it's clear that galleries have a worldwide support system that for experimental film largely consists of three or four festivals, university courses and Anthology Film Archives. That is, it doesn't pay to be an experimental filmmaker, and I suspect that the desire/need to play up gallery-ready aspects of an artwork might be detrimental to the art itself. Watching the single-channel video, I found myself wanting to see it on film and in a cinema, rather than watching excerpts on a tv screen.

Also, the communal experience of a gallery is different from that of a cinema. I tend to think that the cinema is more prone to community-building, which is particularly important for experimental film. So often experimental filmmaking is done in isolation, one obsessive working alone, and one of the reasons why the 60s was so rich a time in experimental/underground film is that the NYC filmmakers had a community of artists in which they could screen their work, and see everyone else's films, bouncing ideas and new techniques off one another.

I'm of the one-world philosophy that believes that experimental cinema histories should be expanded to include video artists, but also that video art histories should take into account monumental cinema artists like Godard, Marker and Kiarostami as they explore digital terrain. And when important contemporary experimental or underground filmmakers like Jem Cohen and Matt McCormick alternate between film and video (while both can be seen on video either through Netflix or the VDB), we need to adapt our frame of reference along with the medium.

Oh, and, for me, Histoire(s) du cinema is, for me, the single most remarkable piece of video art ever made.