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.