Monday, August 29, 2005

Thoughts on Progressive Criticism & Film

Big thanks to Paul Fileri for drawing my attention to The French Cinema Book (eds. Temple and Witt), in which there is a fantastic article by Nicole Brenez on 'Forms' from 1960 to 2004. I had, for some inexplicable reason, judged the book by its cover and presumed it was a cheesy undergrad textbook which would no doubt fall prey to the very master narratives of French cinema that it explicitly tries to problematize. But I'm glad to know now how worthy a book it is, or appears to be on a cursory look-through.

Something I cherish about Brenez's writing, her critical and philosophical stance, is that her intense air of commitment finds itself channeled through various and unpredictable circuits. As she outlines early in her article, there are a handful of avant-garde work: the 'figurative' (Bresson, Hanoun, Pialat, et al.), the socially and politically engaged (she mentions here René Vautier), and the purely formally inventive (or the 'useless' as, she says, Jonas Mekas puts it). For Brenez, all of these very different (and yet not always distinct!) formations of cinema can lead in the desired direction, namely, for her (and for myself as well), a resoundingly critical investigation of our real, capitalist world and a productive expression of freedom and beauty.

One of the symptoms of proclaimed progressivism with regard to the arts is a mind-numbing settling into critical cliches, formulas, quotas--it's almost as if one is bitterly frightened at the prospect of thinking progressively on one's toes, provisionally & multiply, where there are innumerable paths to any given end, and a work of art has a lot of different aspects. (If I can toss off this judgment so freely it's only because it applies to myself, too.) Why do a lot of progressive viewers turn the game into a checklist for mainstream movies (e.g., this black lesbian occupies a lead role, thus the film must be progressive)? And I'm not trying to belitting the genuine necessity for analysis of representation, here. But I once came across a militantly "Maoist" film review that praised Spielberg's Amistad because it taught that it is right to rebel against oppressors! And this is not the only example of such crudity and cluelessness I've come across. And, whatever the centrality or importance one assigns to Hollywood and its international equivalents (the main arena or the giant enemy), I've found that oftentimes bad (progressive) criticism and cinephilia ultimately does precisely what Brenez bravely fights against--positing the 'industrial' (commercial) cinema as the center, and everything else as the periphery, the marginal. What we need to do is not invert that so much as shatter it.

Every work of art is an argument, an experience, and a treatise, and it's a major job of the critic (however defined) to locate and open up these forms of address, to try to see which ones are of greater magnitude and which ones are of lesser, to uncover how a film or any artwork gets to where it is and what it does while it's there. We should not be obliged to play by the rules of business ...

Sunday, August 28, 2005

NYFF, etc.

The Shochiku retrospective this fall may well be the most vital series of the year. I'd love to see all the films. But just when I thought I would be in the clear, financially, and could at least get by with a little spending money on the side, student loans--larger than I was anticipating--rear their ugly head. So I will have to select only a handful: as many of the Hiroshi Shimizu films as I can make, at least one early Mizoguchi as well as The Loyal 47 Ronin, at least one by Heinosuke Gosho, Mikio Naruse's Every Night Dreams, and Kiju Yoshida's Love Affair at Akitsu Spa. That's at least eight films, a hefty investment for a single series during a busy moviegoing period, and I shudder to think that it's not even half of what I originally marked down as 'must see'. (Souls on the Road is also one I should really try to catch.)

As for the NYFF, I'll probably try to see only three films: Hong Sang-soo's A Tale of Cinema, Philippe Garrel's new film, and either Mitsuo Yanagimachi's Who's Camus, Anyway? or Sokurov's The Sun. I liked Yanagimachi's 1986 effort Himatsuri, which had some beautiful compositions and a nice sense of rhythm, but from all appearances it would be more important to see The Sun, and I do like the 20th century "bio" films Sokoruv has done that I've seen (Moloch more than Taurus). I have a feeling that the Hou and the Dardennes films, like a few others I want to see, will show up again, and I don't have the same immediate desire to catch them as I do for Hong's work. The Views from the Avant-Garde festival looks surprisingly lightweight (excepting the Straub/Huillet program); though I had high hopes to finally see everything in it this year, I don't think I'll feel too bad passing most of it over.

Being broke can really grate on one's nerves ...

Monday, August 22, 2005

Snatched ... (2)

Ferrara's Body Snatchers improves on a second viewing. The camerawork is more intelligent and foreboding than I had realized a few months ago. The creaky acting not such a distraction. In short, the sense of the film being a messy palimpsest (the B-movie brainchild of several disparate & divergent figures) lessens a bit, and everything works a little more cleanly than before. (Some spoilers again.)

As Brad Stevens notes in his book on Ferrara, the final shot, which has a soldier on the landing zone guiding our heroes' chopper in, echoes several earlier shots in the film, such as the one Stevens explicitly points out (Meg Tilly as a pod-mother, sounding the alarm when her human family flees), but the final image is a low-angle shot where the soldier is ominous like Ermey and Whitaker both are in the scenes which introduce them. The point is not that the pod people are frightening, but that the military people are, and the difference between the two ('mindless drones') is hard to spot.

(Has anyone noticed how much Gabrielle Anwar & Tilly's hair suggests the pod tendrils?)

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Recent Films Seen

After recently watching some Keaton (The Cameraman--a long time coming) on DVD, I was prepared to do some research and investigate Keaton as the reluctant poet of modernity, but realized while watching the Harold Lloyd vehicle Number, Pleace (directed by Hal Roach/Fred C. Newymeyer) that really that's an unfair title to hoist onto Buster, because (a) it's too vague and doesn't do his genius justice, and (b) Keaton's brilliant reaction to modernity is still just one reaction to it.

Number, Please follows the travails of Lloyd as he tries to woo a sweetheart at a theme park (Coney Island?), where he's ill-fitted to a world of Merry-Go-Rounds and telephones and has a string of exasperating encounters with the manifestations of a busy, technologically unfamiliar, world. That's right, it's basically a Keaton scenario, and was no doubt formally invented before either Lloyd or Keaton became stars!

What distinguishes Keaton is necessarily more specific, more localized ... it has to do with his face and body and their singular sharpness, the direct pose of Keaton's stare (large eyes directed fearfully and sometimes defiantly at those competitors in the frame). It has to do, also, with the faculty of imagination. Film comedy, no less so silent film comedy, is of course very conversant with fantasies of its inept heroes; in The Cameraman Keaton captures the philosophical resonance of this sort of fantasy when his character mimes a game of baseball in an empty Yankee stadium. I want to one day be able to pinpoint why that is profoundly moving (in its distinctive way) in addition to being funny, whereas my imagining of Chaplin or Lloyd doing it would come out to be something very different indeed.

The fantasies of childhood pop culture take on their own moving resonance when one revisits them later in life. I recently subjected/treated myself to revisitations of two big films for me from the Eighties: The Dark Crystal (Jim Henson and Frank Oz, 1982) and The NeverEnding Story (Wolfgang Petersen, 1984). In both cases the act of watching the films proved simultaneously disappointing and exhilirating. Disappointing because I thought that, overall, neither of them worked well 'as films,' though I surely wanted them to do so. (Some images in The Dark Crystal were fascinating, and I loved the pacing. I still think there's something bizarre and transfixing about the cataclysmic climax of The NeverEnding Story.) Exhilirating because I wasn't necessarily expecting them to work, and one can simply go into these works as if reacquainting oneself with a comfortable environment. I am no more able to understand the distinct appeal of certain 'blocks' of information in these (and other) films that appealed to me when I was a kid: the moment in which Bastian (Barrett Oliver) takes a single bite of sandwich in Story and then puts it away; the throwaway line where the girl in Dark Crystal tells the hero that he doesn't have wings ("Of course not ... you're a boy") that always seemed to vivid and pronounced when I watched it in grade school.

The power of the clear uniqueness of a film-moment found its way crashing home in my (looooong-awaited) first Garrel film, Les Baisers de secours (1989). It contains, among many beautiful things, a moment of quick, apparently aleatory magic (deeply akin to Kiarostami) in which a mother and son walk by the street, the mother pointing out pigeons to the little boy. "It won't fly," he says, and after a beat, a pigeon directly behind him shoots up into flight. This could have been achieved in post-production, using non-synch sound, but the unexpected impact of the moment is the same.

I chose to pass up the one playing at BAM tonight, for a number of reasons, but I hope to see the rest of the films in the series.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Genre Films (2)

As I noted before, a problem with the study and appreciation of contemporary genre films is that a lot of them are absolute drivel. It doesn't help when even the "names" among the ranks are inconsistent. Paul W.S. Anderson makes futuristic films with, a think, some identifiable "concerns." But I watched some of Soldier (1998?) a little while back--I had seen it before--and found little of interest, even though it 'fits' in a certain auteurist sense. I know some people think Event Horizon ('96) is a good film, and I'll have to go back and look at that, but really my esteem for the most commercialized young Anderson in movies today is based on Resident Evil ('02). Has anyone seen his first feature, which I think is called Shopping? It has Jude Law and I think Bill Krohn once plugged it ... but keeping track of the movies Bill Krohn recommends is practically impossible.

Let me suggest a different model here than the 'smuggler' of auteurist genre cinema. There is also a 'surfer,' someone of a little or a lot of talent, though probably less "personality" than a smuggler, who doesn't wrestle a vision into a project, but who rather tries to temporarily harness a flow or a series of flows, to sculpt something of beauty and control out of the great Zeitgeisty wave. And it doesn't have to correspond only to today's Hollywood cinema: it might be best applied to any director who seems to make one or two or three bizarrely impressive films that seem to be, on one hand, total products of The System, and yet are unusual enough to exist well outside the mainstream of The System. We need a theory of 'surfers.'

Monday, August 08, 2005

Dreaming About Retrospectives ...

If I were an uber-programmer at a rep house or university cinematheque with a respectable archive, some superb contacts, and a windfall budget, these would be a baker's dozen filmmakers whose bodies of work I'd try to bring to the screen right now. The first five choices are only names to me, the next eight are names I have some familiarity with. Those who've followed my blog with any regularity know that a lot of these names have appeared here in the recent past, more than once. Some are totally new. Consider it a snapshot of what I'd like to see on celluloid. And feel free to list your fantasy retrospectives.

Yervant Gianikian & Angela Ricci Lucchi
Artavazd Peleshian
Adolfo Arrieta
Robert Kramer
Rene Vautier
Harun Farocki
Raúl Ruiz
Yevgeny Bauer
Walerian Borowczyk
Takashi Miike
Buster Keaton
Abel Ferrara

Jean Rouch

(Why am I in such a daydreaming mood lately?)

Méliès, Silent Film, Pedagogical Concerns

So today on my lunch break I took at a look at two Méliès films on DVD, Le Voyage à travers l’impossible (1904) and Photographie électrique à distance (1908). I'm pretty sure I saw the former, one of his most famous works, before, but it's quite possible that I only saw an excerpt. (In the past I haven't always been good at marking down short films, noteworthy fragments, etc. in my viewing logs.) Le Voyage... is a remarkable, amazing, beautiful, the sort of thing that becomes embedded in one's memory, or so I would think but maybe I had forgotten it already once.

As I looked over the types of films screened in my silent cinema course at NYU, and thought back to our readings, I became very dissatisfied. None of it sparked in me the intensity of feeling I've had towards early and silent film lately. It seems like a standard line.

It wasn't the professor's fault, it wasn't the TA's fault: they were both fine. I think it has more to do with a certain rigidity of curriculum, so that we go over predetermined points (racism in Birth of a Nation, women filmmakers, the Lumières vs. Méliès, and so on) and the real opportunities for engagement, vigorous and passionate engagement, with this arcane and primitive material find themselves passed over. In effect we take our medicine: hem-and-haw over the question of Griffith and ideology, nod our heads at the history lesson that Oscar Micheaux provides a week later, etc.

I suspect that if I were ever to teach an introductory course on silent cinema I'd begin with as much of a hands(and eyes)-on approach to late 19th century Western visual, scientific, and leisure culture as I could. And in the first or second lecture, whenever I got around to showing a "proper" film, I would have tried to recreate the experience as outlined and stressed by Tom Gunning, where the magic of the movies was in fact the appearance of motion from out of a still projection of a photograph. I would emphasize the multiplicity of ways of making, exhibiting, and taking in these cinematographic images--it wasn't a straight line from the mythical December 1895 night in Paris to the Regal Cinemas on 14th St. in New York, and it's not enough to simply say that, it's necessary to show it, and to spend some time in those alternate pathways. Look at coloring techniques, sound and music, narration, intertitling, and all the things that make these objects interesting, and not simply relevant to academic/theoretical concerns of the day. (And I'm not downplaying those concerns, just denying that they are all that matter, or all that legitimize the study of silent film, or any kind of culture.) I'd want students to revel in the sheer power of Le Voyage..., to discuss and write at some length on the tactility of colors, the importance of motion in frame, composition strategies, speed and pacing, connections to other media, and (let's not be scared of it) actual philosophical questions raised by all these practices.

(I'm well aware I'm being perhaps a bit too idealistic, but I don't think I'm being wrongly idealistic. Still, while I'm dreaming: it would be great if professors would screen prints, even if only 16mm, and if they would also give students in a class like this the chance, if at all possible, to do something I still long to do ... see a nitrate print!)

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Video Games

Recent email discussion with one of the great (former) web cinephiles of my generation has piqued my curiosity about videogames, especially games as complex works open to both hermeneutic and historical investigation.

My all-time favorite game was probably Blades of Steel (Konami, I think? ... for NES), which I basically mastered (it's an incredibly easy game to master!). But what I want to talk about is a game for which I had much less proficiency, Samurai Shodown (the versions I was familiar with were the arcade one and SNES). This was a fascinating game which, for the most part, reinterpreted legendary and historical warrior figures (most, but not all, of which were Japanese in origin), gave them weapons and special moves, and stuck them in combat with one another. So as a text which "reimagines" cultural history of some kind, it's worthwhile. But its gameplay is also important--it always seemed like the most graceful of the fighting games of its period, which relied on psychology (e.g., a special meter measured how angry a fighter was, so that his or her hits were more damaging when they were landed). Moving to and fro and sparring was just as much of the action as a well-placed flurry of sword slashes: the intensity of combat was subdued (though not diminished) in a certain way in contrast to, say, Street Fighter 2 or Mortal Kombat. Playing Samurai Shodown was not solely a way to pass time; there was a certain transference of consciousness involved in the playing, so that the space and time of the game took on a kind of resonance; this is something that needs to be discussed and which has been discussed a little by the aforementioned cinephile, at least.

Thinking of videogames as complex, rich aesthetic objects (whether high art or not) is not something most of us, cinephiles or culturally savvy folks, are adept at right now, I think, but in the future thoughtful appreciation will be more widespread.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

This and That

This is going to be another substance-lite collection of random thoughts. Sorry. Over the weekend I read in full a book I bought for my silent cinema course some years back (but I don't think we were ever assigned any readings from it!) ... Paolo Cherchi-Usai's superb Silent Cinema: An Introduction. Today I skimmed through Cherchi-Usai's The Death of Cinema, a fascinating book in its own right, I think. Whenever I'm able to purchase books regularly again, I think this will be one of the first film books I pick up. (By the way, have any readers read the recent book of a conversation between Godard and the Egyptian--or Palestinian?--critic?)

The Méliès films were shown at Anthology this past weekend, weren't they? Too bad I was out of town and had to miss them, because Cherchi-Usai's book has sparked an interest in looking at some silent films (on film) and I want to scratch that itch.

Last night on the subway I saw a curious pair. They were two high school boys (maybe--maybe--they were young college students) who were decked out in a carefully studied neo-retro look and sat next to each other. And I do mean "carefully studied" ... this isn't the don't-think-about-it-and-let-your-hair-grow-out-too look that marks the appearance of some people (like, um, myself). This was a planned plundering of subtle sartorial affectations from the years before and after 1980, including some shaggy rocker hairstyles with that just cut look. Anyway, the taller blond kid was sitting slouched in his seat, legs far out, staring at the floor. The shorter, dark-haired guy was sitting back straight and legs bent underneath his seat, his upright face gazing into the nothingness right in front of them. Neither moved for the handful of stops I shared a subway ride with them and a few other passengers. When their stop came, the tall one stepped in front of the short one, crossing his path, to go to the door at the front of the car, and the short one zipped to the door in the middle of the car, (effectively making a curvy X path, going to the doors on the side where the other person was closer). On the platform they eventually caught up to each other, standing just outside of reaching distance from one another, glazed gazes still plastered on their faces, not talking, not acknowledging each other. What were these two guys? Brothers who don't get along but share a wardrobe and go to the same concerts? A young gay couple having an awkward fight early in their relationship? I was just really inspired by the possibility of a telepathic link between them ...