Friday, September 30, 2005

On 3-hour films, plus random comments

Last weekend, for three days in a row, I watched films that hovered around the 3-hour mark. The first, Les Amants réguliers (Garrel, 2005) was quite good though I had some minor reservations. The second, The Cardinal (Preminger, 1963--on DVD) was a near-masterpiece though I thought it fell into very problematic territory (dramatically & politically) in its final minutes. The third, The Return of the King (Jackson, 2003--also on DVD, original cut) has a lot that can be said about it, and unless it's intelligent and well-stated, probably is a lot more than it deserves to have said about it. I make no claims that my thoughts will be intelligent and well-stated, but that's why I'm putting them in a blog entry and not in an article.

I was struck at the differences in Les Amants and The Cardinal for how they clarified each other's organizational strategies. Both are unified by a distinctive aesthetic: highly 'textural' and intimate, immediate scenes splayed out over 175 minutes in the Garrel, versus a leisurely-paced but highly purposeful narrative progression, brushed in bold (but masterly, and often subtle) strokes ... for 175 minutes ... in the Preminger. But the aesthetic, not to mention thematic & philosophical, unity of the former work only comes about when viewed a posteriori, and dialectically, I think. There is no conventionally satisfying progression, simply a flow whose essence changes drastically (but not suddenly) in the early May scenes and those right after, and which changes (more subtly still) in the early post-May scenes and late post-May scenes. It's all about tone and texture really, and the power of tiny nuances on grand scales. The Cardinal doesn't seem to operate on this same wavelength, and instead offers an Olympian-scaled 'regular' narrative. The interplay between past and present, so important in both films, is more explicit in Preminger's; this is largely because of its sense of iconographic ingenuity. A moment like the one where young Romy Schneider, about to meet her young American priest (whose profane yearnings might cause him to leave the priesthood for her), sees her object of affection (Tom Tryon in the title role) in a cafe--only he rises to his feet, mercilessly, wearing his collar for the first time in two years. Preminger knows how to hit all those big, smashing, orchestral notes with perfect balance: the past would never be such a looming and physical monstrosity in the Garrel film (at least not this particular one). This is because The Cardinal, like almost all Hollywood narrative (great, awful, or in between) is not dialectical, and not opaque. One doesn't hold in one's head the contrasting experiential flows between 'the past' (at one point in a film) and 'the present' (at another point), as with Les Amants réguliers, and deduce the greater meanings and aspects of the work from the interplay. The interplay is there, and obviated, in something like The Cardinal.

As for the third installment in the Tolkien trilogy: some background. I never saw the second film, and I saw the first one in theaters, remember kind of liking it, but don't really recall the film at all. I read half of Tolkien's opus when I was younger (I couldn't get past that notorious "middle section of The Two Towers"). From the ages of, roughly, 9 to 13, however, I was a big fan of sword-and-sorcery novels, usually the mass market, commercial stuff. When I realized that open enchantment with elves and swords might prevent me from having girlfriends or sitting with cool kids at lunch, I torpedoed the hobby ... if not quite the affection. To this day, I have an uneasy fascination with tales of myth & valor that involve magic and derivative names of kingdoms. 'Uneasy' because if I ever revisit it--flipping through old paperbacks of mine, for instance--I find that I hate the stuff as much as I love it, and am as annoyed as I am riveted. (I actually feel a little bit of the same way with some of the more literary figures in the SF&F fields: the work of people like China Miéville or Gene Wolfe or Jack Vance, which I've sampled lately, has proven disappointing even when I like it quite a bit.) All this is to say that I have a more complicated personal relationship to that much-scorned area of "fantasy" than to other areas of 'junk' fiction.

What is interesting is how Peter Jackson's adaptations, as expansive and epic as they may be or seem to audiences, are pretty severe abridgements of Tolkien's work. Jackson is not a filmmaker without talent (the one film of his I've seen that doesn't have hobbits is Heavenly Creatures, and I liked that one a lot--probably would like it still if I saw it today). So the enormous Battle at Pelennor Fields (its buildup and aftermath included), which takes up something like two hours, is fine narrative filmmaking, with strong pacing and rhythm. I enjoyed it, I felt that "sense of wonder" that we're no doubt meant to feel, and so on. But what I didn't like about the film has a lot in common with why and how Jackson has "abridged" Tolkien. Not this film's specific elisions because, as I said, I haven't even read the third part of The Lord of the Rings. But the ethos which justifies the choices Jackson made as to how to tell this story in his way. There are some things which might boil down to taste: the pristine, New Age-y compositions that mar a lot of the film (especially beginning and end) might appear unspeakably beautiful to someone else, I suppose--on par with Terrence Malick. OK. But there is a certain infusion of modern "attitude" to the film that undercuts the timelessness which has been so unhonorably ladled upon this 'epic masterpiece.' For instance, the scene in which Eowyn kills the Witch-King, who was to not to die by any man's hand. "I am no man!" she says with relish as she kills him. Tolkien's original text, which I looked over to compare, presents a very different event (I wish I had it here to quote). She says something along the lines of, 'No living man am I. You look upon a woman. [And more.]' And the violence of this moment is presented clumsily, almost luckily. Eowyn "stands up" to the Witch-King in Tolkien's text with great fear, which is poignant, whereas she is a badass and a strong role model for young viewers (tm) in the film, which is thrilling.

I am not a believer that a film adaptation should hew to the text, nor do I think that we should be making films which replicate Tolkien's retrograde gender politics. But Jackson's effort smacks of tokenism to me. Here is this film trilogy, with slightly beefed up roles for its grand total of three female characters, which basically doesn't 'alter' Tolkien or really 'update' him--it doesn't even present him in such a way that we could "read against the presumed grain" as I think we can with Milius' Conan. It simply puts Tolkien through a processor for today's audience, translating all that can be kept into the form of a product to reach the hearts and wallets of millions.

There are readers of this blog who like these films a lot, I'm sure. And I'm not dismissing them--I don't think they're horrible films whatever my reservations. But I also cannot for the life of me understand their massive appeal. I don't think they're magical, I don't think they're "finally the real deal." They seem very much like products of their time for the global market, constructed with all the CGI loveliness & darkness that money can buy, with romance and comic relief inserted according to today's conventions amidst a 'danger/safety/danger/safety' narrative--one which was of course taken from Tolkien, but which again goes to serve a sensationalist mentality. What might I be missing that speaks in the films' favor? Or have I been to lenient on the films as it is?

OK, as if this wasn't already the longest post I've probably ever written, I have a few random notes and gripes. In the space of a week NYC will have two different Kiju Yoshida (aka Yoshishige Yoshida) films playing--Love Affair at Akitsu Spa and A Story Written with Water. Finally! In both cases I will have to miss them, the former because I will be staying in Martha's Vineyard next weekend, the latter because I have a ticket for Hong's Tale of Cinema that afternoon. Damn it. Also, I thought of another father/daughter duo in which case I might cherish the daughter's work more--Asia Argento. I've only seen a few Dario films, and only one by Asia, but cult canons bedamned, I'd rather see Scarlet Diva again than, say, Suspiria. Asia Argento is one of my favorite people in the cinema.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Les Habitants (1970); on close analysis

By Artavazd Pelechian, if you haven't been reading earlier posts.

An impressive work, insofar as you can tell from an .avi file. About nine minutes long, it's divided into three sections in which the soundtrack and images essentially articulate beautiful things, then horror & chaos, then beauty again. Shots of animals doing animal things, basically--in groups or solo. It's the sort of film that repays close attention and repeating viewing, I think.

I've always liked the idea of spending a lot of time with a single film, watching it all the way through over and over, breaking it into chunks, replaying passages, comparing passages to other films, etc. I need to push myself into impeccable knowledge of certain films. There are several films I'm thinking about delving deep into and writing about, but I probably shouldn't name them because I'd just jinx myself. I've been bad at getting things finished--I've done a fair amount of writing on a handful of films (a few American ones come to mind: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; Before Sunrise + Before Sunset; New Rose Hotel) but can't seem to rein them into anything coherent and useful for other people. At any rate I also want desperately to get away from American narratives (by adding variety if not necessarily abandoning them); too much of what I've written the past year or so revolves around them.

Next time I write an entry I will try to make it something substantial and interesting, and not the enormously self-indulgent rambling I've provided lately.

Friday, September 23, 2005

On the Internets

So I see that Ryan Wu has thus accompanied his link to my page: "Lend him some dough so he can catch the latest auteurist obscurities." I realize I have now whined enough about my financial instability to have made it my calling card.

But Ryan's nice to link to my page--it's getting less and less kosher to keep up a cheesily designed Geocities site. By year's end I think I'll have a cheesily designed domain of my own. (Seriously. I've been working on very basic layouts. The biggest problem is that I get tired of the same old font. Georgia, Trebuchet, Arial, they all look bad to me after I use them for a month.)

UbuWeb, so I discover, came back online recently after a hiatus, although I understand that they had to take down some of the stuff they had up merely a week or two ago (?) for legal reasons. Still, they have a lot of stuff up--I've only rummaged through the film section since they've been back up, having downloaded exclusively MP3's from them in the past--and among them is an .avi of Les Habitants (1970) by Artavazd Pelechian. Ask and ye shall recieve, eh?

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Favorite Films of 1971

No reason for this, really. I'm just waiting for my lentils to finish cooking and have nothing else to do in particular at this moment. I picked a fairly random year.

1. Summer of ‘42 (Robert Mulligan, USA)
2. The Devils (Ken Russell, UK)
3. Blanche (Walerian Borowczwyk, France)
4. Silent Running (Douglas Trumbull, USA)
5. Four Nights of a Dreamer (Robert Bresson, France)
6. He Who Waits for a Deadman’s Shoes Shall Die Barefoot (João César Monteiro, Portugal)
7. A New Leaf (Elaine May, USA)
8. How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Brazil)
9. WR—Mysteries of the Organism (Dušan Makavejev, Yugoslavia)
10. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Robert Altman, USA)
11. Two-Lane Blacktop (Monte Hellman, USA)

Numbers 1 and 4 are very sentimental, extraordinarily beautiful commercial films. 2 and 3--unrelenting historical reconstructions. 5 and 6--slightly inscrutable statements from often misunderstood, underappreciated individuals. One was still fresh in his "late" period, the other just beginning his cine-odyssey. 7 through 11--portraits in how we've lived our lives, yesterday and today, and perhaps how satisfying the tiniest freedoms can be in the face of much, much futility.

There are some films I haven't seen yet, obviously, and some that I'm just not crazy about.

Honorable Mentions (unordered): Minnie and Moskowitz (John Cassavetes, USA); A Gunfight (Lamont Johnson, USA); Sweet Sweetback’s Baad Asssss Song (Melvin van Peebles, USA); Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood, USA); Wild Rovers (Blake Edwards, USA); El Coraje del pueblo(Jorge Sanjinés, Bolivia)

Five Points in Search of a Theme

1. Raúl Ruiz is one of the most mind-boggling, frustrating artists ever. I'm a big fan--don't get the wrong impression--but one can't be a lazy fan of his work, that's for sure. His Poetics of Cinema, for those who haven't had the frustrating pleasure of reading it, is immensely and breezily erudite. It's along the lines of, 'In order to illustrate my Narrative Principle of Anti-Causality and its appearance in those old movie serials directed by Ford Beebe, I will have to go back to the 4th century BC Chinese text on architecture ...' That's parody rather than a summary or a verbatim quote, of course. But you get the picture of the way Ruiz playfully jumps from one context to another, pulling his arguments and running his reasoning through all of them one after another. It must be the sort of book which time and experience "open up." At least I hope it is. Frustrating Ruiz exhibit #2: Life Is a Dream. I tried watching it on video. I was fascinated, but defeated, very early in the film. Had to turn off the tape. (In my defense, I was exhausted at the time.) I'll go back and start the experience anew, but this is hardly the first Ruiz film I've had to struggle with before seeing fully through.

2. I find that I can group all of my really strong urges to spend money can be grouped into four categories: cinema (rentals, DVDs, screening tickets), music (CDs more than concerts), food (restaurants, groceries, alcohol), and books (all kinds!). Each week it seems like I'm obsessed with going and getting a bunch of one group or another. Lately I've been somewhat disciplined about not getting things, and probably deserve a pat on the back from myself. It will be what allows me to see some of these Japanese films this season.

3. Here are albums that I have been listening to and thinking about a lot lately: Love Cry (Albert Ayler), Hypnotic Underground (Ghost), New Skin for the Old Ceremony (Leonard Cohen), Aida (Derek Bailey), Now Is the Hour (Charlie Haden Quartet West), Fight Test EP (Flaming Lips -- but really only for the first two songs), The Stolen Stars: Anaphorian Dance Drama (Kraig Grady).

4. John Ford's Donovan's Reef is too beautiful for words. But, a few words anyway: what other examples of classical Hollywood cinema can we come up with that deal with the resolution of dramatic tension so subtly, so tacitly, as this one does?

5. I have to go do laundry now.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Roth, Bus, Humanity

An exhausting trip to MoMA today, mostly because of three singular and very absorbing experiences in a row. First, I stumbled upon the Dieter Roth installation Solo Scenes (1997-8), which consists of a whole lot of televisions playing DVDs of footage Roth took of himself as he worked in his studio, slept, thought, read, ate, showered, talked on the phone, etc. I was absolutely stunned and don't know why except that I can mumble something to myself that sounds vaguely and inadequately humanist. (I missed the MoMA Roth retrospective last year, so my knowledge of his highly diverse output was sketchy enough to begin with.)

Then there was Hiroshi Shimizu's gently insistent Arigato-san (Mr. Thank You), followed by Sadao Yamanaka's pessimistic, gorgeous Humanity and Paper Balloons. These are films which help pad out the view of classical Japanese cinema, what it can be and do, existing somewhere off the dimensional field created by Kurosawa/Ozu/Mizoguchi--which can be oppressive, even if you love all three of those filmmakers.

I'd like to talk about any or all of these in some detail, but I feel incredibly spent, suffering from a slight strain of active viewing (coupled with a hint of Stendhal syndrome), and can't find the words for each experience. My high recommendations to the two films and the installation ...

Monday, September 12, 2005

Argument, Treatise, Experience

Recent discussion on a_film_by has prompted me to sketch out some more ideas I have about film & politics (not the YahooGroup), but since they aren’t immediately applicable to the questions asked in the relevant thread, and since I developed a few of these ideas earlier here anyway, I figured I’d post the thoughts here. Most people who read this blog peek at a_film_by, and those who don’t always can if they want to since the archives are public. I said a little while back that a film is an argument, a treatise, and an experience all at once. This is a nice little aphorism perhaps but what does it mean? I promise I wasn’t saying it simply because it sounded nice.

By 'argument' I mean that a film as a product (commercial or otherwise) in a flow of exchanges of images, concepts, representations, experiences, etc. in the real world--that is, when we attack the Nazi ideology expressed and embodied in Triumph of the Will, we are directing our opinion at the film as an argument. (I’ve never seen Triumph of the Will, myself.) This is also what academics talk about as 'ideology,' that is, even those films which are apolitical or neutral on a given point are still necessarily embedded within a large number of cultural battles & progressions, deciding what to say and what to remain silent on ... no film can ever engage everything at once, and none ever will until scientists figure out a way to correct the sad fact that Bruce Conner and Chris Marker never had a love child (who would grow up to make films of course). These are films as material objects, limited things hurled and battered about in an apparently unlimited world.

But a film is also a self-explanatory 'treatise,' that is, precisely the opposite of an argument, in that we can take it out of time and history and actual space, and dissect and analyze it. This doesn’t happen in that crazy, unlimited, real world but in fact occurs at an intimate setting, a psychological one or something near it, between one viewer and one film (or even one moment) perhaps, wherein the film comprises its own outer limits. Here there are innumberable methods toward analyzing (in part because they are innumberable ways for films to organize themselves). This is what, say, Fred Camper talks about when he says that Triumph of the Will is great, I believe—the internal cohesion of form in the film’s own limits, as recognized by an observer.

A film is also finally an ‘experience,’ and this is a hazier category for me, but a necessary one because it is how the former two categories relate to each other. It’s the most difficult thing to describe to oneself, let alone communicate to another, I think. Let me try to illustrate the dilemma I’m getting at by way of example. I am a great fan of John Milius’ work, or at least what I’ve seen of it. (I’m preparing myself for a big letdown when I finally catch Red Dawn.) Not only is Milius the man a rabid paleocon (hardly as dangerous as the right-wingers in power, but as far as the NRA goes the man has serious political baggage). And then there are the gray areas—his gender politics are neanderthal, but then again he tends to have independent, strong, well-formed female characters, and then again they’re always relegated to supporting roles. What I feel ultimately ‘allows’ me to like Milius’ work is how they operate not simply formally but experientially. To me a Milius film may be all about nostalgia, the sad void left when the myth of patriarchy is exposed (a Straussian sentiment at least in part), the heroic male and his heroic quest, etc. But the entry point into these movies does not normalize this for the viewer. One doesn’t need to be enamored of (or critical of) the same things Milius is, or his characters are, to feel something expressive. Whereas, on the other hand, the Mel Gibson vehicle stuff (The Patriot, We Were Soldiers) tends to operate on principles in which one must be complicit with the ideology in order to feel the proper, intended emotions—for instance, one must think highly of Sam Elliott barking deadpan orders to his troops amidst enemy fire, or of Mel Gibson and the boys praying before going to battle. In comparison, When it comes to steel and swords, violence, conquest, patriarchy, and religion in Conan the Barbarian, the film moves toward a profound ambivalence. The Gibsonian film works to hit your buttons for ideological complicity (and some degree of conformity), while Milius’ sort of film asks only that one feel empathy or sympathy for its characters and situations, and in turn makes no effort to corral us into a tacit acceptance of anything else. In this case it almost comes down to the pedestrian matters of good and bad storytelling, although in today’s reviewing climate my preferences must seem irredeemably backward. But more than that, the Miliusian film seems ‘open’ and contains the space for one to profitably read against its presumed grain, whereas reading against the grain (which is never presumed, always crystal clear) in a Gibsonian film is necessarily a violent act.

I think ultimately this principle is illustrated empirically. When I was 12, Braveheart was the film that ignited my passion for “the movies.” And I have loved Conan the Barbarian since childhood. The former doesn’t hold up very well in my opinion, while the latter has only appeared more vital as years go by.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

A lazy night of film theory and French avant-garde

I have spent the evening thus far sipping one leftover glass of wine, casually revisiting Radiohead's Kid A (which I think grows more beautiful every few months I pull it from my shelves), and reading film theory. If I can't be a grad student yet, dammit, I'll take a stab at its most pleasurable aspects.

The readings for tonight were Noël Burch's article on avant-garde and primitive cinema (particularly its first half), and Dominique Noguez on French avant-garde cinema in an early issue of Millennium Film Journal (second time I've read it). Burch's work is absolutely fascinating, rigorous but expansive in the way I identified before with the likes of Willemen and Brenez--I should go through and give his books a serious read as they deserve. Too many classics of film theory to catch up with, and which I can't believe we weren't required to read in my time as an NYU student. (Amos Vogel's Film and a Subversive Art comes back into print in two weeks, as well. Another one that's no doubt essential.) At any rate, reading Noguez, I'm very excited to one day see some of these works. I'm kicking myself for letting the Lettrist films go by when they showed at Anthology a while ago. (Come to think of it, I'm kicking myself for letting tonight's MoMA screening of Dick Higgins' The Flaming City pass by, too. Forgot about that. I should be in the theater right now! Damn. I think it's playing once more this weekend though.) The figure who seems to come up a lot is Patrick Bokanowski. Noguez mentions him in connection to both "contemporary" (i.e., 1970s) strains of French avant-garde cinema. Brenez mentions him. Super-dense and -allusive Middle Eastern theorist Jalal Toufic once dedicated an article (in the journal Discourse, I believe) to Bokanowski.

Have I mentioned before on this blog how great Bokanowski's L'Ange (which I've only seen on the ReVoir video) is? About five absolutely riveting segments which seem impossibly timeless, incredibly fluent with the film medium. An explosion of spilled milk that (as in Tarkovsky) is full of ineffable suggestive meaning. A fencer. A woman trapped in a room beset by attackers. A stairway. It's such a bizarre, singular experience. I can't do it justice on one viewing. I look forward to visiting his early short films on video at the NYPL.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Avant-gardes and new cinema

By way of Matthew Clayfield, today I came across the academic blog Digital Poetics, where there was this fascinating recent entry: The Abstract and the Real. This post does something rare and very valuable in both scholarship and online commentary--finding an obscure connection between images, thus throwing the question on the table as to whether this is a 'Zeigeist burp' (a phrase that, after applying it elsewhere, I realize I liked and may have coined) or perhaps a hidden authorial continuity. Who knew that The Ring was so connected to Man Ray's cinema (or maybe the press packet gave this fact a small proud bullet, who knows!?).

I'm not very well versed in digital cinema or interactive/online contributions to the expanding borders of the moving image, although I would like to be, and "support" or "endorse" research and theory on this front. I think that the appropriation of avant-garde techniques, hashed out especially in the comments to the blog entry, are an important 'dulling' factor for a lot of avant-garde cinema. (However: I saw Un Chien andalou probably ten times in NYU classes, and the sliced eye never ceased to draw gasps.) That said, I think that not all avant-garde elements have been appropriated--only those which can lend a hand to the selling of a product (to put it cynically and crudely) are appropriated. What about patience, and looooong slooow chunks of time which encourage contemplation, which insist that we don't pull a nugget of information out of an image or a cut, but instead exist with these things? I don't believe Michael Snow has been "appropriated" in any significant way. What about painstaking recreation which squarely emphasizes some kind of truth content over dramatics--as in the work of the Straubs, but also Francesco Rosi? It seems to me not that the avant-garde gets neutralized but that it gets recontextualized, so to be "truly" cutting edge, formally, yes, one must always try something new. But some effects are not amenable to a commercialist/capitalist ethos and aesthetics, and will not be taken up by it at all. So the avant-garde will--or can--always retain its resonance.

* * *

I am pretty certain I saw Armond White perusing the sale shelves of the Donnell Library today.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

September 04 2005 (miscellany)

Warren Sonbert's Carriage Trade sets forth the same kind of feeling that Joris Ivens' A Tale of the Wind does, in part, and which a film like Baraka wishes it could do: to formulate a vision of global living wherein an artist and a viewer glimpses connections among contrasts, and vice versa, and wherein the view of the Earth and its component-inhabitants (sentient, mineral, and otherwise) makes for an achingly beautiful and overwhelming experience. Aesthetically Sonbert strikes me as a middle ground between Brakhage and Dorsky--on first viewing, at any rate. One older man at the screening was incredibly upset that his companion brought him to the film, though I can't exactly figure out what the problem was: either they had seen Carriage Trade once before, or he couldn't believe it had no sound, or he didn't like the fact that it was an avant-garde film. (The mutterings veered variously into any of these objections.) Anyway, the guy vocalized his distaste several times throughout the first 10-15 minutes, stayed quiet but for the occasional sigh, and then left for the final 15-20 minutes after announcing his intention to do so. Jeebus.

In other news: I am totally psyched to splurge one day soon on Japanese avant-psych-folk-experimental music. Now playing is Nagisa Ni Te's pretty Feel. It was part of a controlled spending spree which also scored me (among a few other things) Raúl Ruiz's Poetics of Cinema. Can't wait to finally read it ...