Sunday, March 05, 2006

Eight Arms and a Head (an Octopus), or, Nine Films

The Whitney Biennial had a great series of nine films on Saturday, programmed by one Chris Williams. One of the great discoveries was Jean Painlevé's Les Amours de la pieuvre (made with Geneviève Hamon in 1965). I had expected this to be a "lesser effort" from Painlevé, whose 1930s films L'Hippocampe and Hyas et stenoriques occupy vaunted if hazy positions in my memory. This 1965 thing must be a mere Cousteau sort of rip-off, certainly Painlevé had abandoned all efforts for the avant-garde by this time, right?

How wrong I was! This is at least as good as those '30s films I've seen. Gorgeous color, amazing scientific cinematography (including images of octopus embryos sped up 14,000x), Painlevé's inimitable fusion of clever low-key humor with almost reverent wonderment.

To me the program's quality had a pattern--the first four films were of increasing quality (or at least gave me increasing amounts of cinematic pleasure), and the next four films were a repetition of this trend, and the ninth film, suggesting a real pattern, was "merely OK" in comparison to the other films in the program, as were films #1 and #5. This ninth film was Morgan Fisher's Picture and Sound Rushes ('73), and to be honest, it seemed like an interesting work, but you see, the eighth film in the program (and surely the "head" in this film-program-octopus) was Jean Rouch's Les Maîtres fous ('55), the only film I'd actually seen prior to this program (well, I probably saw the Ivens before, too, but without checking my film logs I'm not 100% sure). And Les Maîtres fous doesn't get any easier the second time around: my body grew increasingly tense as each minute went by, my brain was defeated by a vision on Rouch's part that was just too overwhelming, which remained tantalizingly visible on the far side of my own intellectual powers.

The program began with Otto Mühl's Grimuid, a fine film, but if I never saw it again I don't know that I'd feel too much regret. (Given that the second part of Chris Williams' Whitney programming, in May, also begins with Grimuid, however, I'll probably be seeing it again soon enough!) Joris Ivens' Die Brug (The Bridge) followed--Ivens made my single favorite film of all time, A Tale of the Wind ('88), so absolutely anything by him is of interest to me. But his poetry (as opposed to the filmic appeal of his curiosity, his willingness to tinker with images and his desire to see and to learn) doesn't really develop into something special very early in his career, by my estimation--it comes in parts and passages, but my limited knowledge of the Ivens corpus doesn't reveal anything like Pour le mistral ('65) in his earlier, more montage-driven work. A good film, though.

Harun Farocki's Ein Bild (An Image), however, is a sort of film that I love--forthright but complex, clear if not exactly obvious. In what would make a nice companion piece to his Still Life ('89?), Farocki films a photo shoot for the German Playboy, and the resultant dialectic between flatness/artificiality and depth/reality is really interesting. The first shot of the film is indicative of the way Farocki draws a lot out of a few unforced gestures (his observant and "passive" kino-eye has few peers in the cinema--Kiarostami comes to mind). We see a shot of a studio, the back wall of which is painted to look like a beach and an open blue sea. A few men, who we shall see constructing a set for a photo shoot over the course of the next few minutes, walk through the gulf of space between the 'artificial' space of the painted sea and the point of the camera's lens, underscoring through their movement the divide between a presented image and an actual (or lived) space, something that Farocki riffs on for the next twenty or so minutes.

What can follow something like Farocki's dry, charming, potentially upsetting statement and not suffer for it? Well, we can always move into sublime flicker cinema, that is to say, Peter Kubelka's Arnulf Rainer (1958-60). This was my first film by the renowned filmmaker--which I'm a little sheepish to admit, but very glad that I can finally have behind me. It's all about the frame, here, and the optical play between our gaze and the black-or-white screen, where intense pockets of activity start to form during the really strong flicker-passages, and what you "see" in the frame depends on where and how intensely you are looking.

So I figured the films couldn't keep getting better at this point, and David Lamelas' wry, interesting film A Study of Inner and Outer Space ('69) simply didn't grab me: I may be forgoing its merits, but in this ambitious film program, its role was really to let me catch my breath from Arnulf Rainer.

Ténériffe (Yves Allégret and Eli Lotar, 1932), number six on the program before we got to the octopi, the possessed, and finally Morgan Fisher, may or may not have been a better film, but I was ready to appreciate it more. I feel like I've seen an Allégret film or two in the past--did he do one of the Josephine Baker vehicles? Anyway, it's a poetic documentary (shown without subtitles). Nicole Brenez has mentioned Lotar as a 'martyr and/or sacrificial victim of the industrial cinema'; that's all I know about him. Time for research. And so, in a sense, this is one of the things that made this program worthwhile for me--I came and I got something substantial out of it, but with each step I take on the trail towards True Cinephilic Nirvana, I can only see that the end of the road is one step farther than I had previously imagined ...


jmac said...

The octopus is so beautiful! I wish I could have been there for Arnulf Rainer especially . . . How does it compare to the other flicker films? Is it silent? Does it take you to the threshold of consciousness or no? (Was Peter Kubelka there?)

It sounds like the program was a real cinematic workout! I'm glad that you attended this, Z. You are an incredible writer!

P.S. I ordered the Painleve book on Amazon!

Gabe Klinger said...

I'll second the awesomeness of Les Amours de la pieuvre.
I love how Painleve alternates between footage of small octopi in a tank and large octopi in their natural environment, giving the film a striking spatial distinction. And that's not even mentioning the microscope-eye look at embryonic octopi.

"Animal horrifique"...

Tom Sutpen said...

I always read posts like this with a mixture of pleasure, envy and rage that I wasn't there to witness it (I was also wondering if Kubelka showed up). There's something to be said for temples like the Whitney after all.

Now, all I need to hear is that the prints of Die Brug and Les Maitres fous were pristine. My copies are just . . . sad.

Still, it was a salutary reporting job all around!

Zach Campbell said...

I don't believe Peter Kubelka was at the screening--if he was, I didn't see/recognize him.

J., I can't really say anything about how Arnulf Rainer compares to other flicker films--I've seen a few, but I've not even seen Tony Conrad's major one! 'Threshold of consciousness' ... hmm, I don't know--threshold of vision, YES. (By the way, is your April 29 Whitney program a film one or what? I can't find mention of it on the website...)

Gabe, great to have another octopus fan. Do you know the Painlevé book (Science Is Fiction)? Also, online you can find a free MP3 of the Yo La Tengo track inspired by this work of Painlevé's.

Tom, the Ivens print was quite decent, the Rouch was bad--pink & battered, poor sound.

jmac said...

Oh My God, not the Whitney program, the Millennium Film Workshop program! :) April 29!

The threshold of consciousness, that's what I look for in a movie!

Maya said...

I'm also glad you attended this, Zach! I hope the program travels to the West Coast.

Brian said...

The Octopus film is wonderful. Painlevé kept his experimental sensibility intact through the end of his career, it seems. Check out 1976's Liquid Crystals if you can- it may be my favorite of his works!