Friday, December 30, 2005

Music: Gal Costa

Many weeks back a reader of this blog asked if I would be willing to do a write-up on favorite albums, personally meaningful ones. (Who was this reader? Well, if the name 'St-Germain' means anything to you, you're one of the lucky ones who know [of] the person who was quite probably the keenest cinephile of my generation. He's pulled a Terrence Malick in the world of film criticism, though!) I've been sitting on this request for some time now, thinking of which albums I would choose, and what I'd write about them. I can, and will, talk about the music's personal meaning to me, but I'd like to take a stab at the music itself, too. The problem is, it's very difficult to do this, as I am not the most musically inclined person in the world ... so if you choose to read this entry, and others like it, please be patient with me!

Gal Costa's Índia (Philips, 1973) is the first album of Brazilian music that I have "discovered" of my own accord. I sought it out online, downloaded the album, loved it, and got rid of that burned CD to buy the actual thing. I'd had recommendations before--globetrotting cinephile of Brazilian extraction Gabe Klinger once generously handed off to me a mix CD of Tropicália classics, a co-worker recommended to me Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges' album Clube da Esquina, and hey, I've also seen Carlos Diegues' famous, mildly entertaining and highly musical films (including, twice, Quilombo with its indispensible music by the man who is today the coolest Minister of Culture ever). You get the picture. But while this exposure is probably respectable for the average American, it still leaves me quite clueless with respect to the formal, historical, and sociopolitical currents that shaped and were shaped by Brazilian popular music of the 1960s and 1970s. So the following thoughts are going to come necessarily from the mouth of someone who not only understands only about 5-10% of what Costa is singing (my reading comprehension of Portuguese is a little higher so at least I could track down lyrics if I tried...) but wouldn't even know how to place it into a larger context if I could understand the words.

My favorite track is "Milho Verde" and it exemplifies a lot of what I love about this album--a certain musical idea (a phrase, a tone of voice) is pulled and stretched in a folk/popular composition that veers in a lot of directions, quite unlike a 'verse-verse-chorus' of much popular Euro-North American music at the time. I wish more catchy pop songs would do precisely this: float around for three minutes, introduce a new rhythm or some altered facet of tone or timbre late into the song, and maybe repeat this process once or twice more. The song becomes more like a journey or a meditation--an experience--than a compact message. The percussive syncopation (at least I think this qualifies as syncopation--recall I don't know what I'm talking about!) that underscores Costa's ecstatic, sweet-voiced delivery makes for something stimulating to both the hips and the head. As with many of the tracks (like "Relance") Costa picks out a quick musical phrase and voices it repeatedly, letting the processes of repetition and gradual/drastic changes provide the drama of the piece.

So what I essentially love about this album is the beauty of Costa's voice used in conjunction, and sometimes counterpoint, with the catchy but still sometimes 'prickly' beats and progressions over which she sings. I would love to hear what else I'm missing, what I'm making too big a deal out of (for I'm certain that I'm picking up on things and praising them in the same way a film rookie would praise an old noir for being "dark"!). And more Brazilian music recommendations are always welcome ...

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Year's End

I've been something less than consistent in keeping up with email and the Internet over the past week or more. But I hope to get back into the swing of things fully a few days into January. This blog entry will be my obligatory best-of-the-year rundown. Since I didn't really see many 2005 releases (almost all of those that I did see were DVD viewings at my family's place during the last two holiday breaks), I definitely cannot offer a "top ten of 2005." However, I saw something approaching 350 films this year (including shorts and repeat viewings, but I didn't pad the list with either!), there were plenty of older works to enjoy and savor.

Film of the Year - A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974). I watched this alone, late at night, on DVD. Cassavetes is the supreme welder of the appearance of "documentary truth" with the cinematic potential offered by the performative-plastic.

Masterpieces - Know that this is not quite a complete list; I'm sure I skipped over a few when I ran through my film log; first viewings only - On Top of the Whale: A Film About Survival (Raúl Ruiz, 1982); My Darling Clementine (John Ford, 1946); Les Maîtres fous (Jean Rouch, 1955); The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962); Epileptic Seizure Comparison (Paul Sharits, 1976 - mentioned in the Liberty Valance link as well); Ugetsu monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953); A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956); An American Romance (King Vidor, 1944); The Heartbreak Kid (Elaine May, 1972); Black Ice (Stan Brakhage, 1994 - only on DVD, but this is the only film of Brakhage's I've seen just on DVD and suspected I still was "getting it"); The End (Christopher Maclaine, 1953 - but really all of Maclaine's film work, probably an oeuvre of four films second only to Vigo's); Docteur Chance (F.J. Ossang, 1997); Le Voyage à travers l'impossible (Georges Méliès, 1904); The Cameraman (Edward Sedgwick and Buster Keaton, 1928); Carriage Trade (Warren Sonbert, 1973); The Loyal 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1941-42); The Cloud-Capped Star (Ritwik Ghatak, 1960); The Long Gray Line (John Ford, 1955). The majority of these are major films by pantheon filmmakers, so no surprises here, except perhaps a few like Maclaine or Ossang.

Special mention goes to Dieter Roth's overwhelming installation Solo Scenes (1997-98), which isn't cinema, exactly. A great, great work anyway.

And of course, these were only the masterpieces amidst a whole ocean of exceptionally worthy films I saw, from which I'll mention five standouts:

Dark Horses - five near masterpieces (at least!) whose status took me at least a little by surprise - Bandits of Orgosolo (Vittorio De Seta, 1961); Winstanley (Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo, 1975); Blanche (Walerian Borowczyk, 1971); Mr. Thank You (Hiroshi Shimizu, 1936); Street Angel (Yuan Muzhi, 1937).

And this represents only a fraction of my filmic passions over the last year. What about Donovan's Reef (Ford, 1963)? Coffin Joe? Edward Yang's The Terrorizer (1986)? Artavazd Peleshian? A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)? The bizarre mindfuck Three Crowns of the Sailor (Ruiz, 1983)? Cassavetes' Love Streams (albeit on pan-and-scan video--I forgot about the BAM screening a few weeks ago until it was too late!)? Strike! by Eisenstein? Naruse? Guru Dutt? Kawashima Yuzo's Not Long After Leaving Shinegawa (1957)? I could go on ...

But that was the best of my year in film-viewing.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Cinephile Business: Key Texts

(Be forewarned: I had some weird formatting issues with this entry, maybe because I saved it as a draft several times, so there may be strange text colors or line breaks that I can't figure out how to fix.)

Inspired by conversation at Esoteric Rabbit, I wanted to put down an annotated list of really important cinephilic documents for me. That is, I want to mention the works that have had a major effect on me which are about--explicitly or heavily implicitly--the practice of cinephilia itself, and the related fields of film scholarship & criticism. This could be a really interminable blog entry, but I'll genuinely try not to make it too long.

The first thing to understand is the presence of critical figures whose entire bodies of work have made them exemplars in some way or another. This means that I can mention a few "big" or personally meaningful articles but really must point to their entire "aura," and more than single articles or books or essays, I'm going to discuss people, writers. Reading a lot of their work, cutting a swath across their publications, is probably the best way to get a sense of where I'm coming from. (Sorry, Girish, that this can't be more concise and accessible! I did try to make it a list of single texts with commentary, but just kept getting carried away, in draft after draft.)

So: Jonathan Rosenbaum was a huge formative one around the time of my cinephilia's birth (as opposed to my broader enthusiasm for film or movies--'98-'99 as opposed to '95). That means: the reviews (Dead Man, Small Soldiers/Saving Private Ryan, Eyes Wide Shut, and Taste of Cherry especially) and the polemical essays which accompanied his treasure trove lists (especially the '96-'99 lists and perhaps most especially his Alternate 100 Best American Films).

After this, there were other figures connected to Movie Mutations (perhaps the central text on cinephilia, and I mean its general importance for me, not necessarily the degree of its alignment with my own feelings on the subject). Adrian Martin and Nicole Brenez are the two whose work I have latched onto the most (though let me stress that Alex Horwath & Kent Jones are hardly unimportant to me!).

Overall what I respond to is the passion and commitment with which they energetically tackle areas that mainstream movie culture would have us believe are high-and-mighty, esoteric and arcane, and barred so that non-specialists cannot enter. Witness the freedom in Adrian's first letter, when he says the early 1980s (when he would be roughly my age as I write this now!) brought him treasures from Marker, Wenders, Godard, Ruiz, et al.:

Suddenly here were the films playing right outside the maps of 70s' theory: free, lyrical, tender, poetic films, but also tough, savage, cruel, perverse, sometimes violent films; films that were open diagrams, unashamed to link up raw fragments of human (or humanist) experience with the most severe or expansive kinds of experiments with form. These discoveries got drawn into a rich historical loop, too: suddenly I and my friends were seeing afresh the films of Jean Vigo, Humphrey Jennings, and especially that unique pre-nouvelle vague figure, Jean Rouch.

Or Brenez's anecdotes about the Daney student whose tears she had to erase (over lemonades) after Daney said that the cinema would die; or the itinerary about her young cinephile-friends ("They get up in the morning (around noon), watch films over breakfast (on video) ..."). I don't have the same cinema-all-day life as these latter cinephile youths, but I want to share in that same intensity of focus, that same deep profession of love for film (and video).

Perhaps even more, from Brenez's letter, is her articulations of her own practice (I'll return to this in a subsequent post), such as when she writes about her work on Lon Chaney, and asserts, "[H]ow can one explain that the tools of psychoanalysis, such as castration and incorporation, do not encompass the inventions of Lon Chaney, but rather that Chaney opens a new field in matters of understanding the body?" Or the glee and sense of community she projects when (in her letter in the second Movie Mutations relay) she talks about the rebirth and proliferation of Epsteinian avant-garde cinema in France.

The past two years especially have seen some remarkable developments, I think--or maybe I've just been paying attention to them, finally. For one thing, there has been the rise to some prominence in English-language cinephile culture the work of Olaf Möller, who has been a blessed gadfly and indeed also a sort of singular (and contradictory?) combination of bulimic-skeptic with a self-appointed missionary role. (See Matt's Esoteric Rabbit entry linked above if this doesn't make sense!) A lot of the heroes of the Movie Mutations-crowd, like Hou, Kiarostami, and Denis, have become ensconced in contemporary canons of many critics and cinephiles, quite the opposite of the uphill battle Rosenbaum and others had to fight in the 1990s. I like the fact that Möller, in his Olaf's World columns for Film Comment, in his Books Around column for Cinema-Scope, in his Senses of Cinema top ten lists, and in a recent mother-of-an-essay he wrote for a Serbian magazine, is doing everything he can to keep cinephilia from being complacent, from growing ossified--it's a sign, and a truly exemplary one for me, to never let us wax lazy and sluggish in our own practices. Ultimately, what this essential-for-me triumvirate of Möller, Martin, and Brenez emphasize is that cinephilia is alive above all things, active and reactive to the world around it--socially, politically, ethically, historically, aesthetically, everything.

When Quintín writes his Anorexic's Case Against Uchida Tomo, and sets himself against a lot of practices I support, but this is one of the key recent texts on cinephilia because it draws some lines in the sand, delineating the emphases certain camps hold, without really devolving into an us-them battle mentality. As a friend suggested, it's a sign of Quintín's intelligence (and integrity, I'd add) that he acknowledges at his article's end that he may well be wrong.

Also recently, as I've already written about here, Andrew Grossman's very long essays and articles have been indispensible. The first part of his essay on Tsui Hark, which deals little with Tsui Hark, is amazing. And his long essay, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Ho Meng-hua," is superb and, like his other Bright Lights essays, productively questions a lot of accepted critical, academic, and cinephilic practices.

OK, I'm getting way too long-winded here, so let me just unceremoniously wrap this up with a few more names and texts: Nicole Brenez's "Ultimate Journey" essay and her "Vogel Call," and Tag Gallagher on auteurism, Adrian's report on the 2002 Rotterdam Film Festival, and Robert B. Ray's book How a Film Theory Got Lost (which I must admit I don't own). These are some of the most meaningful texts to me on (or at least tangentially about) cinephilia itself. I'd be happy to elaborate or add more choices in the comments ...

The Long Gray Line (1955)

Just a few quick thoughts. This is probably the first bona fide masterpiece I've watched since The Cloud-Capped Star. I'm not giving away huge spoilers but if you'd rather see the movie first before hearing certain plot points, please see the movie ASAP! It's worth it ...

The moment when Marty (Power) & Mary (O'Hara) first meet is amazing. His marriage proposal to her, later in the film, is equally amazing. It was while watching this that I realized the extent to which John Ford's direction of actors is so deliberately his own. The proposal takes place on a porch bench. Up until this scene in the film O'Hara hasn't spoken a word, steadfastly so. Marty decides he's going to give her one last shot, he wants only two words from her: "Yes or no." (You can guess what she says out of the blue.) Ford has his actors sit straight, staring ahead and not really looking at each other, instead looking in the direction of the camera, eyes wide. They only turn to each other when their animated fury and passion insist on it. It's a moment like this--a moment when the turning of the earth is felt in the lives of the characters--where Ford always has them look off, gaze away from the substance of the illusory material life the film-narrative represents, and gaze into the suggestive unknown in the camera's offspace. The same effect is given in Ford's work within the frame when characters gaze at signs of dead loved ones, whether it's Nathan Brittles at his wife's grave in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon or where Spencer Tracy's character looks at (I think) his late wife's portrait in the hallway.

The night when Marty & Mary's son is born and the (much later) Christmas night when West Point cadets crowd Marty's home are linked by the same song, which takes on multi-faceted resonance due to the circumstances around each social celebration, where loneliness is the acutely felt elephant in the room.

Maureen O'Hara is immortal, in case you didn't know. She counts as one of those cinema axioms, I'd say. There's a scene where the cadets are rushing off and she tries happily to swat one on the behind, and basically misses, and it's in the graceful arc of her swing, as well as the camera nonchalantly capturing her failure to really connect, that we get a glimpse of what Serge Daney might have referred to as the quickness of Ford's camera, where the blink of an eye brings you the world in a Fordian frame, but it's over before you can feel and realize it simultaneously. Which is why time crushes all, and why for Ford life in all its vibracy is still dwarfed by death.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

John Ford ... Forever?

I feel about John Ford something like the way Armond White feels about Steven Spielberg, although hopefully I can be a bit more flexible in my thinking. If someone has a looming directorial presence writ large--larger in magnitude than anyone else--over their psychic geography of Hollywood, I suspect the choice of that presence says a lot about the person's view of Hollywood cinema (and its most positive potential) in general. For more people than any other figure, this single presence is doubtless Hitchcock, which is why there is so much written about him--and because Hitchcock deals with elements that happen to be ripe for analysis at the tools readily available for the academic and critical fields, he's had his lease on the pantheon slot renewed several times over.

This isn't quite the case with Ford, whose body of work is no more or less complex than Hitchcock's, but whose body of work is also hard to dissect and make sense of through the tools given us in film studies and film criticism from structuralism, from psychoanalysis, from "genre studies" and "star studies." Ford doesn't navigate these paths as much as Hitchcock. He does deal a lot with race, gender, and ethnicity. But the fact that his films constantly present culturally conservative stereotypes of such things--and sometimes, quite arguably, do so uncritically--tends to stifle analysis in depth of these elements, as scholars skim the surface of the work in order to decide how to best condemn Ford for his racist complicity or celebrate him for his heartfelt tolerance. Even so, as it stands Ford is still a great mystery to us, or at least he should be if we're paying close attention to his work.

In a film like The Long Gray Line--a masterpiece that left me humbled--we can see the huge swaths of material left unexamined if we limit our analysis (and our evaluation) to the matrix of race/class/gender, Mulveyan voyeurship, and bourgeois aesthetics. A textured ode to military life (and by extension, as most such odes are, to governmental military policy and abstract concepts like patriotism, sacrifice, and duty), The Long Gray Line, a "true story," focuses on the 50-year-career of an Irish immigrant who comes to West Point and spends his life there as an enlisted man and instructor (played by Tyrone Power). He sees his cadets grow up, learns some die in both World Wars, and along the way he marries a fine Irish immigrant girl herself (played by--who else!?--Maureen O'Hara). It could well be a recruitment film, especially story alone, but the important thing to keep in mind is that in the experience of a Ford film--for me at least, and for many others, I know--one doesn't take away any new or renewed faith in the often-conservative institutions and ideologies he depicts. One takes away, instead, an understanding of the working of these systems, the dynamics of them that have an impact on the characters' (and thus our) inner lives. This is something like the Straub-recognized "objectivity" they bestow upon their hero Ford, which I always hear about. Likewise one feels the effects of time, sees in it the spectral visage of our dead loved ones, our cherished outmoded traditions. Ford's cinema is a profound reminder of the eternal and preordained victory of unbeing, and the absoluteness of existence's transience.

Time and again Ford presents us above all with the private or social rituals people perform while they await collective death. (Though this collective death is often not the diegetic subject of the storylines, it is the implicit and palpable "untranscendable horizon" of the artworks.) The passage of time is crueler in Ford's work than anyone else's I can call to mind. The barely-retained veneer that Ford's reputation has as something of a sentimentalist (whose alleged sentimentalism we might excuse due to his "aesthetic greatness" and/or "historical importance") is misguided, I think. A lot of filmmakers who deal with death, pain, transgression, violence are in fact great celebrators of life and vitality: Imamura, Miike, Buñuel, others. Not to put too Eurocentric a spin on all this, but for shorthand we might say that these are the figures whose Nietzschean "fullness of pessimism" makes their cup runneth over. They throw into sharper relief their main concerns by concentrating on its constant negation. (A fleeting quote I remember reading or hearing somewhere: 'Pain lets you know you're alive.') Inversely Ford's parades and picnics, dances and broguish pub tussles, all work in counterpoint to their imminent destruction, their eventual total loss to unbeing itself, relieved only finitely by memories (individual and social) in the minds of the characters who inhabit Ford's world. Which is why Ford's traditions, and his institutions & ideologies that are in fact conservative to our progressive, enlightened laserbeam eyesight, speak not of complicity with the System, but as testament to its recurring processes of construction and destruction through the march of time.

And so when the System--when institutions of patriarchy or what have you--come in, through Ford's work, it is as an object of people rather than nature, progressively enough. And empathy and sympathy for the characters in these films (who in The Long Gray Line follow with human pathos the strict, traditional militarism of West Point) do not equate to our mutual complicity with their agendas, because it is Ford who so singularly lays bare the workings of all such agendas.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

I Almost Knocked Down Henry Kissinger

No joke.

I heard about it first this afternoon at the Dosa Guy--some big function to be held at NYU's law school across the street tonight. A former Mexican president, the current Colombian president, and Henry Kissinger were to be among the attendees.

So after staying late at work I was in a hurry to get to the subway. Walking fast along West 4th St. in front of the law school I was ready to zip behind three fellows as they exited a car to head into the law school. One of them stopped and gestured to his companion behind him to return to the car for something. Because he stopped, my trajectory and his trajectory were to have met if I didn't slow down. I awkwardly slammed on the foot-brakes a pace or two in front of him.

It was after I stopped that I realized this damn-tourist-who-didn't-know-how-to-walk was none other than former Secretary of State and Nixon lackey Henry Kissinger. After a moment I walked on, stunned and incredulous.

Did I do the right thing by stopping my stride?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Critics I Like: Jit Phokaew

Unfortunately the (English-language) material available by Jit Phokaew of Bangkok is limited: from what I can find, it consists entirely of one short piece on Bulle Ogier and a bunch of lists (usually with commentary) for Senses of Cinema. So go there, do a search on him, and find what thou wilt.

What I have found is a cinephile with a truly devotional relationship to the cinema in all its forms. He celebrates Rivette, Duras, and a number of independent films I've often never heard of from all corners of the globe (and his favorite director is registered in his all-time list as Derek Jarman) and yet mentions his favorite developments in some recent subgenre or national cinema (Argentine films; or: "Genre films that I liked very much this year include So Close (Corey Yuen, 2002) and Naked Weapon (Ching Siu-tung, 2002) in the female-action genre...").

Thus he's made something of an art of list-making, concocting "20 favorites" or so with pithy commentary that shows he keeps his fingers on many pulses. One of the most tantalizing titles he mentions: Birth of the Seanema (Sasithorn Ariyavicha, 2004): "This is my favorite Thai film ever. I think Sasithorn deserves to be ranked alongside Maya Deren, Marguerite Duras, Chantal Akerman, and Su Friedrich as one of the most talented and uncompromising female filmmakers."

(By the way, I'm only erring on the side of caution, due to the preponderance among websurfing cinephiles, by referring to Jit Phokaew as a male--I don't know anything about Thai names and perhaps this Critic I Like is a woman?)

Monday, December 12, 2005

I Think I Must See These Films

While I should have been focusing more attention on Christmas shopping this weekend, I gleefully pawed my way through super-cheap East Asian DVDs at a store a block up the Bowery from Lai Ying. Only now do I see and regret some more of the vast fields I have left untilled! As a teenager I would rent the occasional Wu Tang dubbed VHS, and I quite liked Tsui Hark (of the handful I saw, The Blade above all), and I otherwise just sort of skimmed the thinnest layer of the most well-known cult/genre/exploitation/alternative commercial cinemas of the United States, Japan, and Hong Kong. But I certainly didn't learn it, in part because I was--and still am--not really able to identify with the cultish brands of videophilia that mark those fantastic magazines like Video Watchdog and Asian Cult Movies.

Now I want to be a fellow traveler in these circles.

So, high on the agenda for viewing sometime in the first months of 2006 are Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare, Yokai Monsters: 100 Monsters, and Yokai Monsters: Along with Ghosts. Just as I must also see Miike's newest (released in Japan this summer) The Great Yokai War, inspired by films like these. (I feel bad that I missed Izo, but it was showing at the IFC some months back, and that place is not getting my money. But I guess I will shell out $6 or $16 for a DVD if I don't find it to rent at TLA.) What to do with these films, which have no reputation in Western mainstream or intellectual film culture, which will not help me advance myself as a critic or a scholar (unless I decide that kaiju-films and related areas are part of my "turf")? Why see them, let alone spend time thinking about them before I even get to see them? I've never gone so far into myself as a cinephile to forget that life is short and seeing that scarce print of a Lubitsch silent (or something) is not the worst thing that can happen. At the same time, part of really being a cinephile involves re-incorporating yourself and your cinephilia back into that "real world," that external world for which the lights don't dim, and to be good at that--to justify it beyond being a coach potato with good taste in entertainment--one needs some focus, some faith, some intensity, a certain degree of purpose and vision.

Good examples and some of the answers can be found in a matrix between Olaf Möller, Adrian Martin, and Nicole Brenez, among many others. With the latter two we have the quote from Adrian that Matt Clayfield reprinted in a comment on this blog, and of course Brenez's amazing counterintuitive proposition that the most important films are the ones we don't even know or see. Möller, a madman and a fine cinephile-critic (well anyone who reads this blog knows my opinion of him), always comes up with words of wisdom of his own, which come from his own experience but to other people about the relationship between film, cinephilia, and the world. I'm still coming to terms with it, but there's something big he's getting at here in his article on Farocki and the Filmkritik stable, which speaks to the way I'm dealing with films these days:

Ultimately there is, after all, a “ghostly apparition”. In Imaginäre Architektur (Imaginary Architecture, Germany 1994), Bitomsky uses multiple exposures in an attempt to bring into view various gazes in houses designed by Scharoun. It remains only an attempt, and Bitomsky thematises his “failure”. However, these multiple exposures become spectral images, shots of what we can't see and yet is there, never really tangible, a phantom without circumstantial evidence hence powerfully suggestive.

Living with films, a little the way one lives with music, a little the way it looks in 3 American LPs: looking at the world from a balcony, listening to Van Morrison, who is describing the way things are, then seeing it so.

It's easy to do that with the Filmkritik films, as a cinephile. A good many have videocassettes with films by Farocki, Bitomsky, Bühler and/or Thome right at the front in the video cabinet, clearly visible, clearly accessible; when they come home at night, alone, yet again, depending on how dark the mood they're in, they take a look at Highway 40 West – Reise in Amerika, at Kinostadt Paris (Film City Paris), or Leben – BRD. Thome, especially Berlin Chamissoplatz (W. Germany 1980), Das Mikroskop (The Microscope, W. Germany 1987), Der Philosoph (The Philosopher, W. Germany 1988) and Liebe auf den ersten Blick (Love at first sight, Germany 1991), is rather dangerous in such hours of bleak despondency. One holds these films dear, and with them the self-portraits of their auteurs, and their surrounds.

And I think I must see these films, also.

Thursday, December 08, 2005


Some thoughts of a clouded mind trying to reach that which is the title of this blog.

I write lately about my experiences with, and baby steps toward knowledge about, Indian films in basically a same way a little kid will show you a new coloring book: it's an undiluted (perhaps unwisely so) expression of satisfaction and happiness at the accumulation of something new and fascinating. (The Soviet experiences seem less new to me, since I already knew some of the films and the history and the mythology.) Call it the joy of learning. I wonder if many people who read this blog (or is that phrase "many people" oxymoronic here) actually care about these experiences. In the end, who will both see Roja and read this blog except for a tiny handful of people, at best? And I do not expect it to happen, either. For myself, I have not bothered to see e.g. A History of Violence, a recent hot topic for film-and-culture bloggers. (And on top of this I quite like Cronenberg. As for other hot topics in recent months, I won't see these Showtime horror films in the very near future. Or Brokeback Mountain. I did see No Direction Home, but basically declined comment on that one.) So in a way I must content myself with the very aloneness of my voice. I do sometimes mumble quietly to myself when I walk down the street alone, lost in thought, and I promise I'm not crazy.

At my friend's apartment last night I raided his small but good collection of Indian DVDs (some Raj Kapoor titles, Mughal-e-Azam, Guide, some others). He was telling me that part of the experience of seeing these Bollywood films, in the age before DVD especially, involved getting awful dubs and bootlegs from the store and watching them. And I said, "That's also what I'm interested in! Because it's not only seeing how films are intended to be seen, but also experiencing the alternate ways in which they are often seen." Or, when I asked him about Gujarati films, which is the language of his parents and grandparents, he mentioned how awful they tended to be (but I say that a whole new world of mediocrity and awfulness is somethign to experience!). This is important not because it's big business, which it is (and which is why I'm spending little money on it), but because it's a widespread cultural experience. Something like a billion people watch South Asian cinema: can any cinephile with interest in the world at large feel content passing over this rich tradition? I didn't feel like I could, at any rate.

For several years (in college) I tried with limited success to wring out a valuable theory of (tacitly American) commercial cinema, which mainly meant skimming mainstream and genre work which had redemptive auteurist value. Some months ago I started to give the whole question a rest, and resultantly it feels as though I've experienced a touch of unexpected zen. I was not going for a comfortable formula that would let me wallow in Hollywood's funhouse guiltlessly, nor for its opposite, a blanket condemnation of the commercial cinema for being an "enemy of art." (So much great art has been produced throughout history and geography in cultures we'd call quite hostile to "art.") I wanted a viable and complex way of approaching mainstream films and all those films that rest "beneath" it on the cultural radar.

The point, which I didn't see before, is not to base my experience and comprehension of these works in my pleasure, i.e., in my feeling of how a "great" or "interesting" or "bad" commercial/genre film worked. The point is instead to base my pleasure in how these films work, both as formal objects and cultural entities. And this is something I've written about here before, a sense of 'rhetoric' in which the form and material of an artwork is profoundly and intimately tied to larger, external, extra-textual realities and positions. And I can only speak of my own experience here, and haven't figured out yet how to best bridge a gap between myself and someone who will disagree with me. But, to try to clarify things on this end, I want to say that before, I would see an avowedly commercial film (let's say, one of these recent and oddball Spielberg films, like Catch Me If You Can). I liked this film quite a bit, and having liked it, would try to justify it as a great latter-day auteurist expression from this complicated entertainer. (At the time, I was a big proponent of Spielberg and especially a proponent of his weird string of films from A.I. to, well, Catch Me If You Can. Don't ask me where I stand on Spielberg now, because I can't even tell you myself.) I don't think I was wrong to try to justify the film--I think I was missing the opportunity for more productive thought. I didn't ask myself why I liked the film, only what I liked about it. I didn't ask myself why the film was addressing me in the way it did, only what was "good" and internally coherent about its address. In this way I found myself in curious boats with other supporters of the film who "got it" (or so we told ourselves), looking at my other friends adrift across the waves in the anti-Catch Me boat. I was trying to understand better how those of us in my boat felt in our mutual bond, when I should have devoted at least as much energy to throwing a rope over to the other boat. (This metaphor is awful, I know, but it's what I have to work with at the moment.) Concensus needn't be the goal, only meaningful communication and understanding.

Fast-forward to Thanksgiving break when I see War of the Worlds on DVD and think it's dreadful. But I no longer consider myself part of a film culture political war pro- or anti-Spielberg. I'm not interested in trying to force my enjoyment or lack of it, my erudition or lack of it, on anyone else. What I want is to try to find middle grounds between myself and the rest of the world (which is unlike me) and who has an opinion on this film. I don't want my discussion of this film, or even my private thought of this film, to end with, to be rooted in, "It sucks." (Likewise, I don't really want discussion of films I've seen lately and love to be rooted in, "It rocks"--even for that towering achievement, The Cloud-Capped Star.) To decide whether it's right to be endlessly annoyed or tearfully moved by a moment like oft-screaming Dakota Fanning's quiet "Are we dead?" is beyond the point. In this case I may be endlessly annoyed, but I know what it's like to be tearfully moved in a Spielberg film that other people feel endlessly annoyed about. (Just today a co-worker asked my opinion of A.I., which I adore, before largely dismissing it himself.) So I recognize my annoyance, affirm that I'm no more special than any other member in this species, and try to get at the realities and factual roots of this film's existence so that subjective opinion is the vibrant texture of a discussion among people, and not the (flimsy) foundation of our own little floating man-islands.

How do we do this? That's what I'm still pathetically trying to figure out. Perhaps I'm behind the curve but I feel finally like I'm on the right track for wanting to try to do this and not for bickering (within, no doubt, a corporate- and consumerist-approved philosophical matrix) about the merits of "the movies." Cue stirring score, serve popcorn, and roll the Oscar clip. Because I've realized that, the all-powerful market entrenched in place, I hate its merits, and I hate "the movies."

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Few More Points

1. I had never noticed this before, or if I had I'd forgotten it, but Olaf Möller had submitted his favorite films to Senses of Cinema two years ago. An interesting list, with some films I love (like The Thin Red Line or A Touch of Zen) and some films I haven't seen but should have (like The Best Years of Our Lives or This Sporting Life) and some films I just wish I could see (like Operai, contadini and Thomas l'imposteur). And if it's ostensibly his #1 film ever, then now I really, really need to go back and see Kagemusha, a film I remember liking but can't actually remember. I saw it when I was maybe 16. (If you're reading this, Mr. Contreras, perhaps I'll do a double bill of Kagemusha/Throne of Blood.)

2. Chinese films! I've seen only two of the old ones at MoMA so far. Sun Yu's Daybreak ('33), the first I've seen by the director, was decent. Rather simple and straightforward elements, but I appreciated them as mildly abstracted or stylized storytelling rather than 'well-rounded' drama. (Hmph, three dimensions are for bourgeois pigs anyway!) The ending is morbid and fascinating. I was really glad to see Red Heroine (Yimin Wen, '29); the film itself wasn't that impressive, but it was fantastic to see such an early example of the wu xia film. I also recently caught up with Stanley Kwan's Lan Yu ('01) which I liked but didn't flip over. It's a sensitive and nicely realized love story. Now I need to see Kwan's Rouge. Sammo Hung's The Moon Warriors ('93), honestly, exceeded my expectations. I couldn't discern anything special really but this is one of those films, like a good Charles Marquis Warren-directed Western (or maybe a minor De Toth like Thunder Over the Hills or The Stranger Wore a Gun), that simply makes the best case for the existence (and expense) of "generic" entertainment. We (the royal "we" at any rate) are willing to forgive it any number of minor inanities because it possesses no larger crippling stupidity. It's economical, tight storytelling, devoid of pomp and circumstance (except when a little of it might prove pleasurable), eschewing too much button-pushing or audience-corralling, simply letting its images flow one after another in a narrative progression, with a nice simple pattern of threads that may come together or taper off as they will.

3. Fellow New Yorkers: Did the Two Boots Pizza on Bleecker St. go downhill, or has it always sucked and I just never noticed it, or am I just unlucky? Over the past 6-12 months I've been there maybe three times, and each time I've left feeling like I wasted money. Today was the worst instance. (And to think that I passed up a bahn mi sandwich in Chinatown because "Two Boots is closer and I haven't been there in a while.") But the two or three times I'd had Two Boots before this recent period I've always thought it was excellent, and it always seemed fresher.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A Few Points

1. A good blog I just discovered, relevant to one of my chosen objects of study - - basically just information and pictures on given Indian movies that don't seem to follow the "six songs, three dances" template.

2. Some filmmakers whose work I wish I could see: Shinsuke Ogawa, Arthur Omar, Mani Kaul, Carmelo Bene, Don Askarian, Mario O'Hara.

3. I hate how some New York Public Library VHS tapes are in fine condition, and others are shitty, and there's no way to tell or even reasonably guess which are which.

4. What's your favorite Russ Meyer film? I've seen maybe four, and like Supervixens and Cherry, Harry & Raquel equally--both solid efforts. Neither quite "list-worthy."