Saturday, October 29, 2005

Too Lazy to Write Substantially

Movies: I've seen a few movies in theaters again. Yoshida Yoshishige's A Story Written with Water is ever-so-slightly overwrought in what I've come to believe is true Japanese New Wave fashion (I suspect it's a fine, painstaking craft, maybe like blackening meat perfectly in a dish). It's not bad, my shorthand description is that Oshima "does" Ozu here. Naruse's Floating Clouds gets a thumbs-up because it demands that you take it on its own terms, not your own. The pace seems almost deliberately anti-dramatic (which is not to say that it's static or "nothing happens" or "nothing changes"). The characters, while well-formed, are neither very sympathetic nor charismatic. The force of the melodrama (and this is definitely melodrama) creeps up quietly. First time in recent memory that I had an unobstructed view of the screen at Film Forum.

CDs: Not only films in theaters, I've also bought some music lately! Recent purchases are Yusef Lateef's Psychicemotus (Impulse, 1965), Ornette Coleman's Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, Art Ensemble of Chicago's Fanfare for the Warriors (Koch Jazz, 1973?), and Tim Buckley's Happy/Sad. I've been listening to a lot of Tim Buckley lately--"Once I Was" and "Morning Glory" from Goodbye and Hello have been Top 10 Hits in my mind's ear lately. The real find of late was Lateef's album, though. Reissued only last month, I knew nothing of Lateef's work and decided to take a chance on this CD (which was on sale for eight bucks) because the description sounded interesting. He plays several wind instruments and has a soulful rendition of Satie's "First Gymnopedie."

Do Hipsters Exist? Last weekend I helped a friend move to a new apartment in Greenpoint. I don't go to Brooklyn often and especially try to avoid Williamsburg and surrounding areas like the plague. The moving-in friend is the one person in my social circle who lives out there. At any rate, I had thought that maybe hipsters as such were fading out, not least because nobody ever admits to being one. But jesus christ were there some hipsters out there. I felt like I was the only one who wasn't either Polish or part of the early 20-something Interpol-Kanye-and-Fiery-Furnaces Fan Club. (No disrespect intended to these specific musical artists.) I get creeped out, uncomfortable really, when I'm around a lot of hipsters. (The same happens with frat and business school types.) There's this ridiculous, boring code of affectations that I feel I have no access to and want no part of. So while I was content to retire 'hipsters' as a whipping boy, I feel like I should keep it around a little while longer. The movement is alive and well in parts of Brooklyn. (Reason #412 why Queens is better.)

Food: New Yorkers have a chance, from 7-10pm on November 10th (@ 27 East 4th Street) to go to the 'Vendys,' a street vendor competition between four people chosen. It costs a pretty penny but it's for a good cause. I might go. One of the competitors is my man Thiru Kumar, who makes the delicious South Indian fast food I've raved about here before. Today when I was running errands in the Village I had a 'jaffna lunch,' four of his out-of-this-world jaffna dosas (which he says are unavailable at any other restaurant in NYC, and not officially on Thiru's menu) and a samosa. I cannot stress how much I love this guy's food. The American owner/chef (?) of a trendy dosa restaurant in Madrid actually came into the city to watch and swap secrets with this saintly street cook today.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Blow Up, Blow Out, and Converse

To continue with the thread on these three films, I wanted to mention Fredric Jameson's brief discussion of the films in his book The Geopolitical Aesthetic (which I like more each time I crack it open). Making an observation similar to the one Brian made in his comment about artistry/craftsmanship, Jameson writes: "At any rate, although both Blow Out and The Conversation retain the referent around which Antonioni's film turned for more problematically (was there really a murder in the first place?), the shift from the visual to the auditory has the (very postmodern) effect of annulling Antonioni's Heideggerian and metaphysical dimension, since it can no longer offer some bewildering Bazinian field of Being for desperate inspection. Not unsurprisingly, this occultation of the 'question of Being' now leaves the text fungible and open to all the manipulations the corporate world can muster. The artist-photographer of the Antonioni film, who still secured the philosoopher's art function although he earned a living by shooting fashion models, here gives way to technicians for sale to the highest bidder" (20). Jameson goes on to point out that in the two American films, the protagonists' spaces are destroyed and the strewn reels of sound equipment are an "auto-referential" marker of their own destruction--tools of reproduction deprived of their ability as soon as they become agents & adornments in the destrcution of these sound labs. (I don't remember this occurrence clearly in Blow Out, but it's true for The Conversation.) In Blow-Up, meanwhile, Hemmings' apartment is torn apart but it's not as if his photographs are thrown about as a sign of technological decay (because, according to Jameson, their very function would not be denied in the process as it would with the ruined audiotape). Unless of course I'm misremembering and there are photographs everywhere in Hemmings' place ...

But these three films aren't the only members of such a club as this--as Filipe pointed out in the comments previously, Deep Red (which I need to see again) should be included. Jameson also talks about Edward Yang's The Terrorizer in conjunction with Blow-Up. In that film it's not so much about the questions an image prompts (and the truths it might conceal in plain sight) but rather the very possibility of capturing some ephemeral truthfulness in a photograph. (It would be as though Hemmings in Blow-Up saw the murder first but wasn't sure if his photograph could capture it.) There were a few gasps in the crowd at MoMA when the giant photocollage of the Eurasian woman revealed itself.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Hanzo the Razor

Does anyone have any suggestions at to why these films might be worth investigating? Is the Yasuzo Masamura one any good? I recently watched the first in the trilogy (Sword of Justice) and enjoyed certain balls-to-the-wall qualities (like Hanzo's self-torture scenes), but the fights were mostly underwhelming (poorly shot, often unconvincingly choreographed), and the misogyny was just unforgivable.

I ask about this one, though, because I must have watched an important precursor to Takashi Miike, what with the shared interest in extreme sex, torture, oversized genitalia, steam-activated tattoos, anachronistic elements clashing through diegesis and outside of it (e.g., the Curtis Mayfield Superfly rip-offs that comprise Hanzo's cheesily enjoyable soundtrack). I admire the matter-of-factness, which might be an especially Japanese trait here, with which characters dive into situations which test or exert their bodily limits. Is it worth it to look at the other films?

(I've also not seen any Lone Wolf and Cub films, and none of the original Zatoichi films in their entirety. Recommendations there are welcome.)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Filming (with three cursory cases)

OK, so I want to try to unpack the idea of form as "rhetoric" that I mentioned in my last post a week ago. Lately I've started thinking (navel-gazing?) about the possibilities of referring to cinema as an action, or as a verb: that is, to talk about "filming" and "filmers" rather than "film." It's an action, it's a practice, 'it is done' instead of 'it is.' This starts to synthesize a lot of the ways I've come to look at, and think about, the cinema. It recognizes the presence of authors, it recognizes that cinema works in a myriad of social ways, it foregrounds the reasons for studying form (because we can better understand rhetoric). There are long chains and webs of practicioners who influence each other materially and otherwise. The act of filming, itself, is a communication--saying, at the very least, that something deserves to be filmed. Cinema practices can be corporate, individualized, impersonal, intimate, local, global. They can be communication between cultures, or from one culture to itself, or from on individual to another. Maybe all of these things at once.

In the photographs in Blow-Up we have a dramatization of Antonioni's ethical and philosophical concerns. What might an image capture by accident? How can we tell what is there? What obligations does the photographer have to such images? Antonioni ruminates on his own role by proxy, which is a major through-line of his film. ("We have to take a picture of that corpse!" David Hemmings insists to his friend. "I'm not a photographer," comes the reply. Dismayed, Hemmings says: "I am.") Eight years later Francis Ford Coppola does much the same thing (albeit with a sound-image); his restatement shifts the technology away from photography and into audio and acoustics. The redefined premise ratchets up the pure suspense quotient of The Conversation because the mystery qualities say what they say less reflexively than they do in Blow-Up. They are about (a) smart plotting and (b) oblique social criticism. Coppola made a choice to code his examination into modernity's loneliness and alienation in this way--pushing off self-examination as an image-maker in the process. (I'm not criticizing him for this.) I think this is indicative of a lot of the 1970s Hollywood movie brats, pulling what they could from European models and turning them outward into stylistic entertainment-expressions of society.

Not De Palma, who among his crowd probably took the European model mostly strongly to heart. Blow Out (which synthesizes audio and photo dilemmas) tries to turn around against the cultural current and corral in as much of it as it can. I'd really like to watch these three films in close succession and see how they play off of each other. But when thinking about them together I'm struck that their differences are attributable to different choices of rhetoric--different ways of speaking out from where they are (culturally, geographically, historically) to where they want to be. And the choices have to do as much with what kind of technology they deal with as with the way they shoot their characters and locations. (Antonioni likes to play with scale and large swaths of color in isolated compositions linked by travelling characters. Coppola takes some of this and fuses it with a gritty, propulsive Hollywood idiom borne of genre cinema and concurrently worked out by, say, Friedkin. De Palma as usual applies powerful doses of Hitchcock and Powell to any and all problems.) In other words, the best way to answer the questions raised by these serious feature films is to first figure out 'the forms of their questions.'

Hopefully more on this before long.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

'Committed' formalism

Is the study of an artwork's rhetoric essentially the analysis of its form in a larger sociopolitical context? When Nicole Brenez writes on 'the forms of the question' in Godard (in the For Ever Godard book), she's trying to outline the authorial and aesthetic strategies by which Godard's films do what they do: the substance (political and otherwise) of their compositions rather than the content in them. This needn't be author-based or author-centric: when Serge Daney writes about watching She Wore a Yellow Ribbon on television in one of the greatest passages of Cinema-in-Transit, he does so as a compendium of thinking about what Ford does and what the small screen does to what Ford does. The rhetoric to be found in Ford's accomplishment (immediately available to us in celluloid, although perhaps diluted by time and history, and embroiled with the 'Hollywood system') is mediated again, if by no means destroyed, by cathode ray, which has its own rhetoric, and one most immediately tied to corporate/capitalist machinations and the continuing emergence of globalized communications which could render the cinema out of its medium and out of its historical elements. Even Pauline Kael noted this in some piece or another: old films were being presented to younger viewers completely out of context.

The confluence of variegated rhetorics is one of the things that makes art, and discussion about art, so difficult--and one of the things that continues to make auteurism confusing or threatening to some people (or why lazy applications and definitions of "auteur theory"--sans any theory really--are sometimes so ridiculous). We have to talk about Ford's rhetoric (no easy task in itself) and how it plays against the rhetoric of the cast, crew, and suits behind the film he made, and how the finished product originally got to people (film screenings), and how it tends to get to people now (via DVD or TV), and how the rhetoric of those modes of distribution and exhibition shape, affect, limit, and move the art about which we care so deeply. Tracing forms is, for me, the most workable way to map out how the cinema works and how it works in the world. Serge Daney's figure of passeur really is some sort of inspiration here, as is the man to whom Daney is (was) an heir according to Bill Krohn: Walter Benjamin. We should be drafting the skeleton of the cinema (/world), or connecting the dots into meaningful constellations--whatever sort of metaphor fits best. It doesn't matter. Henceforth I consider myself renewed in an effort to play a part mapping out this skeleton in as much of its completeness and complexity as I can.

(Sorry about all the run-on sentences here but I found them hard to avoid ...)

Friday, October 14, 2005

Scattered musings

This is going to be film-lite and self-indulgent, so feel free to skip this one. The last few weeks I have to admit I just haven't been feelin' it with regards to film-viewing. Not burned out, not bored, just busy and flighty enough to be easily drawn to other things.

- The NYTimes has a lip-smacking write-up about food in Bangkok: It makes me want to go to Sripriphai (i.e., for non-Gothamites, the Queens restaurant regarded by many as one of NYC's very best and most authentic Thai places) again really soon. (Brian Darr, I hope you'll leave some general impressions about real Thai cuisine in the comments.) The writer's friend, Robert Halliday, sounds like a real character--knowing Hungarian and Thai, studying Russian lit in college, combing Bangkok for fried-light-spicy-tangy-salty-peanutty goodness, writing psuedonymous film and music reviews. The allusion to Monet that he makes comes off as kind of insufferable but in general this is a sort of person I like hearing about: idiosyncratic polymath bon vivants. How does one get to be like this?

- And just as I'm intrigued by Mr. Halliday, I have found myself really fascinated by Paul Bowles lately. I only know and own one book by him, a collection of travel writings, and the other day I gave that to a friend (and I don't know if either of us was clear on whether I lent it or gifted it to her--doesn't matter much). But I am seriously interested into delving into his fiction and more of his nonfiction. Bowles spent a total of 52 years in Morocco, as well as 7 on his own private island off the coast of Sri Lanka. At times I'm very taken by the idea of expatriation or even just peripatetic indulgence. And if (like Bowles) one can do it all while fashionably dressed, cheers. Then again the truly exciting prospects of this kind of travelling are probably attainable when you are (also like Bowles) equipped with a big account and an entourage.

- Perhaps I should move to a modest apartment in a little town in Nation X and just kind of subsist by doing odd jobs and writing freelance. (I'd love to be a film or cultural magazine's correspondent from the sticks of South America!) The problem is that a lot of the best food is located along the equator (which is ridiculously hot and prone to monsoons, etc.--no good). And in the end I think I'm too much of a wuss to ever expatriate to anywhere that would actually be cool and original.

- Speaking of wandering, here's a great line from indispensible cultural icons of my childhood: Calvin says to Hobbes as they're walking, "What would you say if someone called us a pair o' pathetic peripatetics?"

- Next film book to buy: Amos Vogel's newly reissued Film as Subversive Art. I can almost taste it.

Monday, October 10, 2005

The Battle of Bresson

With Armond White's gauntlet throwdown to Bresson revisionism, the 'Battle of Bresson' (or more accurately, the battle over him) comes to a new level. We've got at least one expression of support over at Long Pauses, but frankly I'm going to side with David Ehrenstein (not to mention my former instructor Brian Price, who wrote his dissertation on the color films) on this one. Are Bresson's films "nihilistic," as the conservators accuse the revisionists of insisting? Well, no, but we can't simply base our perceptions of Bresson and specifically his late work on the sole and overriding theme of Bresson's austere Catholic/Jansenist faith. Bresson was a complex individual with a lot going on, and yes, one aspect of that is very much spiritual and religious in address. But anyone who wants to shoehorn something like The Devil, Probably into a straightforward vision of the absent God's great presence is going to do have to do a lot of rhetorical gymnastics.

In this case, the revisionists are--contra the conservators--the ones arguing for both a bigger and more accurate picture of this unspeakably great artist, and Armond White is dead wrong to whine as he does about Bresson's reputation being under attack from degenerates and perverts.

And also, if anyone wants to tell me Ozu was, at heart, a unknowably zen and Japanese individual whose "slow" and "un-Western" films "break rules of film grammar," they can prepare to meet me on the field of honor (by the oak trees and the pond) Thursday morning come dawn.


More coming sooner or later this week. But because I can't wait to express it: One of many very pleasant aspects of my trip to Martha's Vineyard was seeing most of the corpus of BBC's The Office, which might be the best television show in recent years. Not that I'm anywhere near qualified to make such a statement. But what fun--merciless, awkward, insightful, low-key fun.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Brief departure

I've been a bad cinephile the past week or so--feeling tired (from mild sinus headaches and a Sunday night that would have made for a more-than-eventful Saturday night thanks) and have missed a ton of films, excepting The Loyal 47 Ronin which was not a very optimal viewing experience anyway, excessive popcorn crunching and heavy breathing neighbors considered. I even missed Hong's Tale of Cinema, which I had a ticket for and everything. Pleasant afternoon otherwise, but yeah, I'll have to see the DVD or wait until another NYC screening. It just wasn't in the cards.

I'm going away for a "weekend retreat" at Martha's Vineyard tomorrow afternoon and will be back and blogging next week. Nothing substantial here, just wanted to leave the equivalent of an away message.