Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Rotterblog (2)















Jan 30, '06


Hou Hsiao-hsien, a longtime Rotterdam attendee since the days when the late and great Hubert Bals was still running things, showed up to the premiere festival screening of Three Times wearing a baseball cap with the word "Hollywood" emblazoned on it. I can just picture the self-righteous grin coming from that Taiwanese distribution exec (see first entry), as if the hat represented Hou's admission to his own failure.

Three Times may not be commercial, but every filmmaker in the IFFR has Hou to both thank and blame for doing what he does at such an impossibly high level of artistic excellence. And if you like Three Times as much as I do, you'll see how easy it is to compare every film you see afterwards to it and say, "Well, it's no Three Times!" (See how lazy critics can be?)

I decided to watch Three Times on the gargantuan screen at the Pathe 1 over Takeshis', which I knew I could see at a later point and which was playing in a theater with a tiny screen. After the screening I headed over to de Doelen to see if Hou would be leading a karaoke ballad as he has in past years. Not this time, though I did run into the Dutch distributor for Three Times who helped me to secure an interview with Hou for this Thursday. Check that out, and more comments as I digest Three Times, at a later point on this blog.

Ruiz's Klimt, which two critic friends have asserted is much improved in the director's cut being presented at the festival than in the previous producer's cut, is still pretty bad if you ask me. As a portrait of the last years of Gustav Klimt's life (played by John Malkovich) in the Vienna of the fin de siècle, it joins the sub-genre of kitschy, tourist-eye biopics of painters in the tradition Ivory's Surviving Picasso and Schnabel's Basquiat. (Aside: the absolute masterpieces of this genre--it can be done well, believe it or not!--are Pialat's Van Gogh and Shengelaya's Pirosmani.) In Ruiz's superior Time Regained, which can only becompared to Klimt for being set in roughly the same time period, the eye-popping visuals (rollercoaster-like sets that have characters and objects shifting around in all sorts of ways) and time-shifting narrative worked in the service of Ruiz's interpretation of Proust. Here the fancy visuals are an expression of Klimt's delirium on his deathbed--a pedestrian use of Ruiz's creativity.

That's all for now, folks. Coming up still: Depardon at the Fotomuseum. Also, the interesting new film by Vibrator director Hiroki Ryuichi. And pictures!

--Gabe Klinger

Oh! Fantasma

A very intriguing film, this O Fantasma (João Pedro Rodrigues, 2000), where a trash worker deeply attuned to his senses and his libido develops into ever more "deviant" behavior. This worker, Sergio, is kept at bay from much of any psychologizing or pathos, and at the same time we're presented his actions with the utmost intimacy, and so we come to live with a figure who's not quite a character, not quite an icon, but more than a cipher. To me he's much like Misael in Lisandro Alonso's La Libertad or Vargas in Los Muertos. Have we the proliferation, in one stratum of cinema, of the 'three-dimensional' cipher ... whose significance is also, or ultimately, symbolic? If we take these massive generalizations with all the grains of salt they deserve, might we wonder if (building off of Deleuze) it's not so much a question of the pre-WWII figure who acts and the post-WWII figure who also sees, but now a figure who does or is something else, or something more (and I can't yet pinpoint what that is)?

I have a few ideas about all this, but they're too poorly formed even for this blog's off-the-cuff standards. But more thought will go into the question soon. In the meantime, I await Odete (Rodrigues' new one) with interest.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Gabe from Rotterdam (1)

[Here is a guest blog entry from Gabe Klinger at Rotterdam '06. More should follow. --Zach]

Rotterblog

#1 Jan 29, 06

First day spent jet lagged. In the official festival van I took from the Amsterdam airport to downtown Rotterdam there were people who had flown in from Taipei, Hong Kong, Auckland (via Singapore), and Montreal. My flight, from Chicago, had been the shortest (roughly 7.5 hours) out of all of us early morning arrivals, though to my amazement no one wasted any time to start promoting their films and/or projects. The gentleman from Taipei, a film distribution executive, was the only one not interested in networking, and at some point, when I asked him if there were any Taiwanese films of note in the festival, he answered, "Taiwanese cinema is dead."

What a great way to start off the day!

At de Doelen, the festival's industry center, I took a new photo (to replace my old one from 2002) and got my badge. "Am I special press?" I asked, knowing that certain daily writers get privileges freelance and alternative press don't. "No, you're like everybody else," the lady behind the counter replied. Well, thankfully, in Rotterdam, unlike Cannes, you can still basically see everything you want to see, regardless of what kind of badge you get (regular press just have to wait outside of sold-out screenings for fifteen minutes before being allowed in). At 11:35 I checked on the venue for Alain Cavalier's Le Filmeur, which was scheduled to begin at 11:45. Ten minutes before the start, the room was still empty. When the screening started, the room was still pretty empty, and during the film there were many walkouts. Between falling in and out of sleep, I saw a movie I mainly liked, by a director whose last two films, Vies (2000) and René (2002), I also liked. Le Filmeur is a ten-year diary of Cavalier's own life, though I suspect parts of it were staged, as in Vies, which is at least three-fourths documentary (the last part, about a house in Île de France where Orson Welles was said to have once lived, is fake), and René, which is structured as a fictional narrative though the lead character undergoes a transformation that is entirely real. The freeness of Le Filmeur--which has all the qualities of the typical essayistic portrait but no music or narration to tie it together--was probably too much for me on the first day, whereas something playful like Takeshis', or the Dardenne-like Dutch film everyone is talkingabout, called Northern Lights, would probably have been better.

After lunch and checking into my temporary residence*, I ventured to the TENT gallery to see one of a number of exhibitions happening in conjunction with the festival. Part of a section they call "Exploding Television", the gallery curated a series of installations, mostly dealing with the television image (i.e. one is a living room which you sit in and stare at yourself sitting down--an experience easily had at any Best Buy or Sears store). There was at least one interesting piece: a lone TV on the floor of one room showing color security camera footage of a fox (real) wandering around in a large art museum, sniffing around from room to room, with no apparent direction. I found it compulsively watchable, as it's obviously meant to put us--art spectators--in the same situation as the fox: aimlessly wandering, not knowing what we'll find or what we'll make of what we do find.

And what better way to end my first entry as I start to navigate the mysterious terrain of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) inits final week.

Next up: Klimt (Ruiz, director's cut); Raymond Depardon exhibition at the Fotomuseum; Takeshis' (Kitano); hopefully a run in with Olaf Möller to get some suggestions….

* Since all hotels were booked for the night of the 29th, a friend was able to hook me up with a place to stay. It's such a weird place I thought it would be worth a mention: a hospital, formerly specializing in eye care/surgery, turned apartment complex that is still eerily like ahospital. I felt like I spent this last night in The Kingdom

--Gabe Klinger

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Call Me Up in Dreamland

I had a lot of strange and strangely vivid dreams last night, a few of them distinctly cinema-related. The extraordinary self-indulgence of turning this blog into my "dream journal," even for one post, will hopefully be off-set by the fact that I'll relate just the filmic stuff. (And I do think that at least one reader will find this topic interesting.) So I'll share.

1) I dreamt I took my girlfriend to see a film musical at a massive theater--it was on a special screen because, being made in the 1950s/60s, it was widescreen. And when I say widescreen, this dreamfilm had an aspect ratio of maybe 4:1. Although I recall no singing or dancing in dreamwatching the film, I know it was a musical because (a) in my dream state I had seen it before, "but only on pan-and-scan VHS" as I recall I told another patron, (b) a musical is the sort of film I'd take my girlfriend to see (one of our first dates was to Singin' in the Rain), and (c) I wanted to tell my co-worker, who's really into musicals, that I saw this special extravaganza on the big screen.

At the screening itself, the huge theater wasn't packed--though there were proportionally more people, and the shape of the auditorium itself doesn't correspond, I'm reminded somewhat in mood (but only in my current, waking state) of the theater from Goodbye Dragon Inn.

The screening had some camp elements, with crowds of cultist fans yelling dialogue at the screen, too. But I can't recall much about the film itself. I do remember that the screen actually would 'freeze' sometimes and only one square of movement (framed, say, 'inside a window') would appear, and in my dream I figured it was quite logical for the filmmakers to not waste time or money shooting moving images with all cameras (because, like Cinerama, this super-widescreen work must have been shot with several cameras...) and just use stills for certain frames when need be. The only plot element I can recall is that the protagonist (a middle aged white man) is mentally unstable and, as I said to myself in the dream screening, "Oh yeah, now I remember from my first viewing--there are certain scenes that are figments of his imagination, but you can't know that until deeper into the storyline." Doesn't quite sound like a Hollywood musical, does it?

Because it was a camp screening and everybody was eating and having a good time, people were walking in and out of the theater, too.

2) So I went out at one point, and walked into another screening down the hall, where a John Ford film was playing. (This one, too, I had "seen before" and loved well, though I realized upon awakening that there's no such film as this one.) The moment in the film that I dreamed is a brief narrative digression--probably away from John Wayne's story--where Victor Maclaglen is saying an ode to his dead wife. The film (in black and white) shows Maclaglen as he talks, but pans away from him, and his voice continues offscreen, like a narration, and I remember someone throwing dirt. Maybe in the dreamfilm they were burying her at her grave? I can't remember the context except that handfuls or shovelfuls of dirt were thrown into the air (contrasting with the pale sky) and the music played gently underneath Maclaglen's voice, and in my dream I was so incredibly moved by this moment of Fordian beauty that I had to turn away from the screen and cry. At the same time as I was overwhelmed emotionally, I had an epiphany in my dream that Ford's cinema borrows much from early British documentary cinema (like John Grierson) and I thought I had discovered the key to something big about his art.

Now I'm scratching my head a little bit and will have to give it some thought. But it was right after this epiphany that a sound from outside pulled me from my slumber.

Ah, to write about films that don't exist ...

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Food for Thought

(Or maybe it's just "chicken soup for the cinephile's soul?")

Jonathan Rosenbaum in the last Slate Movie Club:

For some people, the social aspect of moviegoing has been brutally curtailed ever since Hollywood started focusing on the youth market and scaring away most other people. Apart from a few important initiatives, such as MoveOn's organization of house parties around certain documentaries, DVDs aren't regarded as social instruments yet in quite the same way as movie theaters, but it's possible that this is only a question of time. Consider the potential options: Anybody can organize a film club with DVDs that can meet in storefronts, houses, flats, or just about anywhere else, and it isn't even illegal if you don't charge admission. Maybe someone will figure out a way of both charging admission and selling copies of the DVD after the screening, but even if they don't, the social possibilities of viewing DVDs in surroundings that are more intimate and comfortable than theaters have barely been tapped. And what's equally important is all the social activity that's already been taking place around these movies on the Internet.

And some choice bits from a fantastic interview with Bérénice Reynaud (read the whole thing!):

So what we have to do for a place like REDCAT or Los Angeles Filmforum is start rolling up our sleeves and do it grassroots. Send emails, send reminders, make phone calls, because we can't afford half a page in the LA Times. We have to make sure that we maintain an alternative film culture in Los Angeles, which is even more difficult than maintaining an alternative film culture in the United States in general because people in LA think that they know everything that there is to know about film. The entire film culture revolves around Hollywood and maybe a few European art films. This is such a waste. Why isn't information circulating more? Why aren't we doing more?

...

But look at Paolo Davanzo [curator of the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles]. He doesn't get articles because he usually does not know far enough in advance what show he's going to have. His mode of programming reminds me a bit of what used to happen in the old days of the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris: people would drop in with a print under their arms and they would get it shown. To keep the culture alive, we need screening spaces with this kind of spontaneity, energy and flexibility. So Paolo publicizes his screening through e-mail. And he does get an audience.

Earlier this week I went to the Galapagos art space in Williamsburg, where among other things the Ocularis screenings are held, and saw Amir Muhammad's The Year of Living Vicariously (not bad). And it was comforting to me to think that, even if celluloid goes within a decade, even if theatrical exhibition were to one day cave in to pure digital-online availability, experiences similar to these--where friends, or a community of some kind, can put together a screening and show something they feel is important, worthy, underseen, or just interesting--will never die.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Swimming

An interesting moment in Robert Breer's ostensibly atypical Pat's Birthday (1962), which follows Claes Oldenburg and friends as they celebrate Pat's birthday ... we see an idyllic scene at a swimming hole, a waterfall, friends & children, a relaxed time. And I think I realized something about the rhetorical functions, in American film at least, of the 'swimming hole' and the 'swimming pool.' The hole can be a private place (as it is for Reese Witherspoon in The Man in the Moon) or a group one (Pat's Birthday), but it seems to serve many of the same functions regardless--it's peaceful, restful, primordial, upfront, it's where we "get away" from life's harassments.

The pool, on the other hand, is just another source of life's harassments, its inanities (even when, as Herman Blume and Benjamin Braddock try to do in Rushmore and The Graduate, respectively, one wants to use it to escape). The pool, when private, is a conspicuous sign of prestige--the great Jason Robards, as Al Capone, shows up on his Miami vacation in his swimming pool in The St. Valentine's Day Massacre (Roger Corman, 1969). When public, the pool is a veritable factory of hijinks, impersonality, manufactured emotion--above all, performance. Robards' Capone, in fact, has reporters over to his poolside as he gives a very 'performative' interview! (And, also, in contrast, in Pat's Birthday Breer has several shots of a public swimming pool--in long shot, impersonal, wearing none of the lyrical beauty of the swimming hole scene.) One can think of the great sequence in The Cameraman where Buster Keaton struggles to clothe himself properly and then, once in the pool, to keep his date--or one may also recall the plucky kids in The Sandlot (maybe only a movie people my age and younger know at all!?) among whom one, bearing a crush on a blonde lifeguard, schemes to get a CPR kiss by faking his own drowning, since the pool is apparently no place for honest admissions ...

Reese Witherspoon's swimming hole is frank, earnest. The swimming hole is where one can be naked, where a glimpse (or more) of bare skin asserts some innocence and straightforwardness of its own. (Maybe it takes us back to The Garden.) If it's natural water, flowing water, if it's surrounded by trees, one "goes back," or represents a "going back," like Jodie Foster's semi-civilized Nell, or one's secrets are revealed, as with the young man and young woman in Dragonslayer (Matthew Robbins, '81). Images from the opening of Sternberg's Blonde Venus flash through my head, too--but I can't bring back the narrative context!


The swimming pool sees nakedness only when it's "naughty," that is, one does not emphasize anything natural about it--it's a performative opportunity, as the notoriously showy pool fucking in Showgirls (not to mention John McNaughton's Wild Things, 1998) demonstrates. Or if there's no performance per se, there's another kind of 'imaginary' at work here--like the famous Phoebe Cates fantasy sequence in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

And just to make myself clear: I'm not trying to celebrate the 'swimming hole' and damn the 'swimming pool'--I'm just trying to clarify the connotative spaces these two settings tend to make for themselves. (And the "tend" is important--I make no claims to clear, cut-and-dried divisions here!) It's the same cultural, rooted ordering system which presumably assigns "honesty" to the hole and "performance" to the pool, if I'm even correct to propose these assignments. Perhaps I'll get comments from unconvinced readers with a laundry list of exceptions to disprove my 'rule.' Which would be OK, as at least it would mean I won't go on enamored of my own crackpot idea.


All of this ignores the figure of 'the ocean,' which is something else altogether, but that's OK because it's clear that this is anything but a rigorous stream of thoghts ...

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The Film Journal

FYI ... issue 13 of Rick Curnette's Film Journal is up at long last, with the symposium on Hollywood director Richard Fleischer, to which I contributed the essay, "Follow Him Quietly: Richard Fleischer and the Consideration of Metteurs-en-scène." As I post this I've only read one other piece in the symposium, Robert Keser's long and excellent article on Mandingo, which very productively cultivates some quite similar territory to what I went into in my own brief discussion of that film. Good job putting this together, Rick & Peter ...

Friday, January 20, 2006

Coffin Joe

Some tour-de-force filmmaking, deeply attuned to, and stimulating for, the senses, comes from a shoestring budget and the imagination of filmmaker and actor José Mojica Marins, whose onscreen altar ego Zé do Caixão (Coffin Joe) terrorizes, torments, or haunts the "inferior" men and women with whom he shares the screen. Playing a crude Nietzschean Übermensch with some local color, Mojica's great feat here is that his altar ego seems to be both supernatural and (uh) human, all too human. But what makes the Coffin Joe films interesting is not primarily what they depict (which is interesting) but how they present it: Mojica's technique is a grab-bag of effects but all judiciously used, a good taste for severe and vulgar tricks, if you will.

À Meia-Noite Levarei Su Alma / At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1963) ... Zé looks for a bride who will provide him with the perfect son. He won't stop at maiming or murdering anyone to achieve his goal. This is, to me, the simplest and most basic of the four here, but it's taut and provocative. Probably also the funniest one mentioned here--Zé wants to eat meat on Holy Friday, and when his shocked wife says he might run into the Devil, he replies, "If I see the Devil, I'll invite him to dinner."

Esta Noite Encarnarei no Teu Cadáver / This Night I Will Possess Your Corpse (1967) ... Coffin Joe continues his quest from At Midnight... and in true sequel fashion, it's "bigger and better," as well as more diffuse, looser. There's a fantastic vision of Hell--the more one would try to describe it on paper, the more ridiculous it would seem, and it is ridiculous, but it's such a fascinating, visionary collision of Id and Ego, as so much of Mojica seems to be ...

O Estranho Mundo de Zé do Caixão / The Strange World of Coffin Joe (1968) ... The first one that I saw, and I was taken quite by surprise. Three segments. A powerful episode in which some thugs try to violate a dollmaker's four beautiful daughters, a silent episode of love and obsession, and a final episode in which a professor tries to show the limits of love and reason to a horrified husband and wife. If you're not convinced of Mojica's artistry by the end of the first episode, with its distinctive and powerful design, then you probably will never be a convert.

O Exorcismo Negro / The Blood Exorcism of Coffin Joe (1974) ... This is probably my favorite of the four I've seen, though Filipe commented here not too long ago that its reputation in Brazil is not so favorable. 'Self-reflexive' is just the tip of the iceberg (take that Charlie Kaufman!), as Mojica plays himself, beginning the film with a press conference where he discusses his plans to make his next Coffin Joe movie. He'll work on it as he vacations at a friend's home in the country. So when he goes to his friend's country home, what happens but something quite unusual regarding 'fiction' and 'reality.' (Y'know, I've never seen Wes Craven's New Nightmare but I feel like I should now...)

This is, of course, not even attempting to get into the specifics of Mojica's barebones but sometimes brilliant mis-en-scène which would require repeat viewings and more careful attention on my part. This is just a new fan's reaction, and nothing more. But I'll add my voice to the chorus that praises this filmmaker!

I must see soon Finis Hominis / The End of Man (the NYPL's video is damaged!) and Awakening of the Beast. Brazilian friends and video cultists: I know Mojica did many more films than this, so what else is around and how can I see it? And is this box set worth getting? If you don't yet know Coffin Joe, happy viewing ...

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Sátántangó (2)

Now that I've had the opportunity to let my experience of the film ferment, I want to actually discuss it--and, here, not so much the issues around it. And in this respect I'm once again in accordance with the blogger Waggish, who writes some insightful paragraphs on the film. And to take a cue from him, I want to say a few things about Tarr's tracking shots and the way they compare with (to choose one) Antonioni.

For me a long track across an open space (in which people, objects, and landscape are integrated equally) feels, in Tarr, like a sigh, an exhalation--the sliding down into gravity's pull, as though the camera itself were a felled animal assaying its surroundings at length. Quite unlike Antonioni, whose shots--to me--seem to always scrutinize, they produce tight lines of vision, and in that I suspect he's quite comparable to De Palma & Coppola, to evoke discussion of these three made here back in October. I'm only anthropomorphizing Tarr's camera because this is what it feels like, and the vibe of its particular "personality" that I get is that it's passive, weary (and wary). It's also a camera very attuned to the liveliness of the images it captures, perhaps because it imparts little liveliness or tautness of its own.

The weight of these images is crucial but what's also important is that Tarr is not simply a "visualist"--I believe he considers Krasznahorkai very much a collaborator on this project, as a whole, and while I've never read any Krasznahorkai and can't say much for certain about what he brings to the project authorially, this is very much a film with 'novelistic' meaning and importance. Jonathan Rosenbaum has once or twice written about Tarr as Faulknerian, even, which not only describes the film's very dry comedy, but brings up the issue of its narrative organization. The dozen episodes are given immense weight through time, insisting upon its very deliberate pacing, a very "cinematic" thing, but they are structured like a 20th century novel, including (yes) a Faulkner one--and also I'm sure a Krasznahorkai one too, if I knew what one was like--wherein actions are repeated and obscured/clarified on the basis of whose subjectivity we are following. This isn't a matter of Rashomon-istic philosophizing, but a technique to better describe a large construction of reality (the film's reality) by way of more intimate brushstrokes.

And, in the end, there are moments like those of the fog, which I mentioned before, impossible to adequately describe, which remind me a little of Herzog and Tarkovsky, but all three have ways very much their own of handling the camera's capture of 'phenomena' (be it winds blowing the sand in Nosferatu or the disappearance of condensation on a table in Mirror). Tarr's concern, I think, is with the immanence of moments that will occasion burst through the ordinary. Philosophically, he's a skeptic, maybe atheist too (I don't know), and so he doesn't treat his phenomena like phenomena--he treats them like things that happen which other people treat as phenomena. (Does this make any sense? I can't figure out now how to phrase myself more clearly.) So by the 400th minute of Sátántangó, if not before, the viewer is likely defeated because the images offer us only transcendence at one remove: it's tantalizing, but we come to feel through the film's sheer scale and pace, and the character of its camera-eye, the crushing acquiescence that the collectivist characters undergo all this while ...

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Circumnavigating the Cinema

Let's imagine film culture as a vast global terrain, and video technology, the Internet, and all the gratifications of commerce are the methods for mapping out and travelling on this terrain in this day and age. It's easy to get from place to place, and heretofore "remote" areas are becoming more accessible. Now we can throw around buzzwords, "rhizomatic" and all that, but for all the benefits of a smooth space for cinephiles, buffs, Net-surfing compulsive spenders, etc., to inhabit, it is necessary to point out that these benefits exist as part of a trade-off, and are not solely gains. There is always a price to be paid. This trade-off includes video, and the technological-aesthetic complications that arise, but furthermore it concerns questions of access. Once you level the playing field, so that access for "cinematic experience" is limited only by one's amount of disposable income (and leisure time), you negate & erase history, in fact you relegate history itself to the past--"this film, now restored and available on a pristine DVD, was once almost lost." And once the market makes it clear that 'everything is available' with a few clicks and a credit card transaction, if not with cash at your local videostore, anything that is not available doesn't exist. (Until ... the market makes it (re)exist by making it available!) This is a problem that has plagued film culture before video technology, but which is potentially more dangerous now because it is cloaked by the "ultimate freedom" of the digital marketplace.

It's not that things were once good, and are now bad. Things are changing. As Gabe put it, he can't decide if he wants to live in world before or after DVD's arrival. The question is how viable resistance to this latter-day strand of commercial hegemony will now be. Because true cinephilia, as I see it, is one not of consumption but devotion, not of hedonism but real world and cine-world engagement. And it's what ensures that film culture remains lively, that it changes and that we who follow it change with it, that we're never bereft of ways of connecting to other people and other cultures ... through films and through those who also watch them. Sátántangó, an unusual case, is important because those who have seen it, those who love it, and those who want desperately to see it are conjoined in a dialogue with each other--if this resolute, deliberate film (a film unlike just any other) is simply transferred to discs so that anyone can see it at any time and in any (video) way they wish, then Tarr's film becomes culturally irrelevant as an event, it's simply a marathon in Eastern European miserabilism. Of course this is how it is existing only in 35mm, as well--but I'd say, even apart from Tarr's celluloid intentions, film screenings ensure that the event trumps the novelty, whereas video availability reverses this. And all this happens basically in replacement, not in addition to, the small but greatly dispersed base of admirers whose dedication to the cinema, and to this single particular work of cinema, is a sign of connection and perhaps even fellowship.

More people will see Sátántangó if it's on DVD of course, but (a) I don't buy the truism that all art everywhere is best seen by more, more, more people--we need our local specificities, our hidden masterpieces, our holy grails, our challenges, our Mount Everests!; and (b) the trade-offs involved in this specific case with Sátántangó weigh too heavily against it as a work of art. Certain films, for reasons of form or scale, or maybe also reputation, are best not made so readily available for our television screens. Tarr's film is a work that requires an investment of time, patience, and energy from its viewers--it should be large, uninterrupted. And while one could feasibly reproduce these circumstances in a superb home theater, most people won't be seeing the film this way on DVD, and I fear that "to have seen Sátántangó" will lose a lot of its meaning.

Perhaps, perhaps "to have seen Sátántangó" in the sense I'm describing connotes a certain sense of elite club mentality (not the same thing as elitism!), but at least it's upfront about such. I mean, what does someone who sees the film with bathroom breaks, phone calls, and snack runs at their discretion (and perhaps a discontinuous viewing time) mean to accomplish? "Yeah, I sat through Sátántangó as well"--so one can say they've seen it and arrogate for him- or herself that much cultural capital, but perhaps without having put in the same investment for those of us who counted our days-months-years to see the film and then numbed our asses and dried out our eyes watching it as it was meant to be seen.

I am certain that there is a cinephile in, say, Arizona who longs to see this film, who lacks the money to travel far just to see it (trust me, I can relate on this point). And, in the end, when Sátántangó becomes available to all on DVD, I certainly can't blame this devoted person for seeing it on that format. I'm sure this hypothetical cinephile will be more appreciative of this compromised experience than, for instance, the quartet behind me at the screening who tittered at this film that "moves too slow." I won't begrudge such to anyone who cares this much, especially not when I occasionally take my own liberties with rare cinema (mpegs of c. 1970 Godard films!?). Still I--even as lucky as I am to live in New York--know what it is like to pay my dues, bide my time, await chances to see films for years (I have no idea when I will again be able to see my very favorite film, Une histoire de vent), and for me, not only is waiting for some films worth it, but it constitutes part of what being a cinephile (i.e., the audience that will likely want to see and most appreciate Sátántangó) is about. And a DVD of Sátántangó will render smooth and bland the complicated, fascinating terrain that surrounds the film, that helps make it singular, that helps make it important. This is a film, like some others, not meant to be seen under the basic commercial cinema-video lines of exhibition & distribution. It is meant to circumvent these formulae to communicate what it wants to communicate, and it is the type of film worth fighting for to keep "special."

That I want the film to be one of the "special" ones does not mean that I want to be unavailable or scarce--in my own film-healthy city I'd love to see a few screenings organized each year or two!--but I think it should be an event that only comes very occasionally, which requires the viewer to succumb to its terms rather than the other way around. When it comes out on DVD, I personally can't think of seeing it in this form.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Sátántangó

Maybe it's only because I finally saw it this time around, or maybe because it got a positive write-up in The New York Times. But Béla Tarr's amazing Sátántangó seems like a real cultural event here in New York City this weekend, where it enjoys a handful of showings at MoMA. (I think the film has had tiny "runs" in NYC rep theaters twice since I've lived in the city, but this may be the most extensive Sátántangó exposure the Big Apple has had since 1996.) The theater where my friend (it's his favorite film and his third viewing) and I saw it was pretty full, even if both intermissions saw a healthy flow of people never to return, and even if the 'cat sequence' (one of the hardest things I have ever watched) propelled a lot more people back out into the real world.

This blog entry on the film is a fantastic read, by the way, and one of the things it "sets straight" in my book is that Tarr is actually not very much like Tarkovsky: he's about (to paraphrase Waggish) an overdose of the ordinary rather than the extraordinary. The moments of 'spiritual resonance' that punctuate Tarkovsky, and which at his best take him into fascinating, singular wavelengths, don't exist in Tarr, who is inclined to undercut such transcendence, as when a character stops dead in his tracks, falls to his knees, and after watching him frontally, the camera cuts to a view of him (and his two standing companions) watching fog disperse before a ruined church. When he stands back up and the trio continue walking, one of them says, "What, you've never seen fog before?"

Sorry that analysis and reflection have been skimpy for these last two blog posts, but I have needed to get off my chest a little of the exhilirating weight of these heady, heavy, transformative, and long-awaited encounters. I won't be able to really say a thing about either The Text of Light or Sátántangó until many more days of weeks of pondering. When one of Claire Denis' most "perplexing" or "difficult" films, reputation-wise, is easily the cheeriest and smoothest thing you've seen in over ten hours of film-viewing in two days, you know it's time to shake things up and watch a yakuza movie. Which is what I plan on doing this weekend ...

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Text of Light

Cinema has given us the world in a coffee cup (Godard) and an ashtray (Brakhage). Whereas Godard is content to let his image stand by itself, a metaphorical concept-image within a progression of camera recordings, Brakhage tries to pull as many images as he can out of a single object and its refraction of light.

The Text of Light is a very sheer film. It came off to me as a bit intimidating, and while Brakhage's films usually seem like a shared vision, this was imperious, magisterial--it would have existed without me, that's for sure. It's almost austere, but that word doesn't sound exactly right, or totally right, because the film has some breathtaking beauty to it. (Maybe "sublime" is a better choice.) It's a film I'll have to work a long time to understand: so my problem is it is not that it lacks a surfeit of beauty, of awesome imagery (it has all that), but that I'm unable to unlock the mystery of its organization, I can't see how it achieves its effects. This is a film which defeats me, as I'm defeated also by Sharits' Epileptic Seizure Comparison as well as (in a gentler if no less bewildering way) Cassavetes' films. These are films that remind you that being a cinephile always involves, also, being a student.


In the end, though, the challenge was nourishing, especially after the surprising, dull disappointment of L'Intrus when I saw it earlier today--the first Claire Denis film I haven't liked. That one, too, may require at least one more viewing for me to clarify my feelings properly, and maybe appreciate the film more. I'll end with a funny quip from a few moments before Text of Light started:

Me (impressed by the unusually high attendence at Anthology): "Wow, some turnout for Brakhage, huh?"
Steve Erickson: "I think he's the new Tarkovsky."

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Showgirls Blog Party

Dear Elizabeth Berkley,

So here you are at this metal pole. You lick the pole because it is "hot" for you to do so. You're to be "hot" because you were once Jesse Spano on Saved by the Bell. For the money they paid you, your role was not simply to be a stripper in a movie story, but something larger than that, something that expands outside of the diegesis and outside of the film itself, into the larger celebrity sphere. You were to be--not just play, but be--a "girl gone wild." That bearded man in the background of the film still I've linked to (sorry for only linking but Blogger's photo function is being melodramatic with me): he's as much a part of your role as you are, because your role necessitated from the first a spectator. Maybe, preferably, a "dirty old man." Maybe someone whose children watched Saved by the Bell (because, after all, your fan base on that show was not yet old enough to legally see Showgirls in American theaters).

Did you know that you sold yourself and not your acting talents, not even your good looks? You were a sacrificial lamb in this multimillion dollar T&A flare-up. You have unfairly shouldered the blame for this "travesty." Paul Verhoeven, Gina Gershon, Kyle McLachlan? They've all done fine post 1995--popular discourse may consider Showgirls a blemish on their careers, but it's just a blemish, not a cancerous tumor. (Of course, Joe Eszterhas achieved notoriety precisely because he wrote cancerous, scandalous material. So take that for what it's worth.) What people who laugh at the naked Jesse Spano fail to realize is that it was never your fault, at all, and that had they gotten any comparable starlet to play Nomi Malone, should would have been burnt by the flare-up, as well. It's a pity that you've been left on the curbside, referenced only by your humble rise on television and your ignominious fall on film. (I see you've since been in at least two moderately praised films I've managed not to see: Rodger Dodger and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion.) I sincerely long for a bigger Berkley resurrection--just to see where it goes!

What was so shameful about Showgirls was that only it made transparent the stupidity behind the star success story, the girl-making-good, the triumph "despite" the machinations of a greedy system. Eric Henderson has already stated it perfectly: the film made viewers feel bad not about wanting T&A, but about wanting the conventional dramatic payoff. (At least pure sexual desire is honest and upfront, like "dancing at The Cheetah," while the cultural pedastal Showgirls topples is embodied in the Stardust's Goddess.) And as Christoph Huber has pointed out, director Paul Verhoeven "somehow represents the only Hollywood filmmaker who constantly exposes the cynicism inherent in blockbusters."

When you, Elizabeth Berkley, throw down your french fries in dismay early in Showgirls, you're acting in a completely unbelievable way. But when this film provides the viewer with such palpable unbelievability so early in the film (and this isn't the first instance of it in the film, either), and when the film's director has consistently given us variations on this register for years in either direction of 1995, well, you'd think that people would understand a little something about what Showgirls is and is not trying to be. You'd think so, anyway ...

Something Showgirls actually does try to get across is a sense of a system, a corrupt and crushing system, which immediately makes this "unrealistic" film more honest about our world than a great many "realistic" films. There is no evil little man pulling the strings that keep our plucky Nomi Malone and her friends down: no villains, really, only villainous behavior. On the flipside, no saints: only the occasional saintly act, and often depressingly limited, as Nomi's climactic "victory" over a lion-maned Vegas singer demonstrates.

One final recurrent aspect to consider as an example in favor of the film's complexity--every time that Nomi and Cristal (Gershon) trade a line or a sentiment about Nomi's nails, the meaning is never singular and clear, but instead carries with it layers of positive/negative, constructive/destructive, sincere/scheming emotions. That's sharp filmmaking, filmmaking in tune with the gut as well as the head, and a far better criterion on which to judge a film like Showgirls than whether or not you, Ms. Berkley, were believable in your sex scenes.

In 1995, my sentiments would have had no effect, they'd be viewed as only contrarianism. Now, in 2006, we have a network of fans who will sing praises for you and for this film. No longer contrarianism, we're quickly making inroads through reconsideration, and with luck will soon pass into revisionism. And why not, with Jacques Rivette on our side!?

Sincerely,

--Zach

Sunday, January 08, 2006

British Sounds / See You at Mao

Sound? Awful. Image? It was a Windows Media file (or something close). But I'm still glad I saw a shadow of the film. Godard no longer seems to put much stock in his Dziga Vertov-era work & ideology, and seeing British Sounds one can sort of see why: there's a lot of fascinating work, some good questions being asked, some intriguing formal & imagistic propositions, but a large amount of it seems rote, thoughtless. (Though I love Godard, I don't think he's untouchable, and one of my dirty cinephile secrets is that I don't think Breathless is actually that impressive a film--at least as far as features go, I don't think he hit his stride until either A Woman Is a Woman or Le Petit soldat, whichever you consider "first," since the latter was filmed earlier but released later. And no need to press me on Breathless: I'm more than willing to revisit the film multiple times in my life, and hope to one day love it. I'm just expressing my raw, unsophisticated, untempered personal reaction to the film.) At any rate, British Sounds organizes its anti-capitalist screed through four segments, which, if you haven't seen the film are: the Vertov-era Godardian tracking shot (of an auto factory), a naked woman walking around her apartment, a 'television announcer' spewing reactionary rhetoric intercut with dialoguing working class folks, and some young activists doing hippie things. The segments are generally narrated, sometimes doubly or even triply narrated, so that if you're watching the film in the same non-ideal circumstances I was, you admittedly miss a lot of information. Some of the segments are tough going--the hippies especially, perhaps for no more defensible reason than that it buys into a notion I don't agree with, aligning the force of its sympathies so strongly with rock-and-dope youth counterculture. (I'm no expert but I've always felt like Pasolini probably characterized May '68 correctly, and I don't think the well-educated Marxist children of the bourgeois class--a category of which I'd say I'm part--are exactly the guiding light of revolutionary struggle!) The scene I like the most is probably the first one, where, as in Tout va bien, the distant tracking shot can help parse some serenity and (more) some sense of enlightenment from amidst a complicated political sound-image morass. You see the workers, you see the car parts, the reds and the grays, you hear the Marx & Engels and the cranking machinery, and instead of culminating in overload, one feels (or, anyways, I felt) strongly attached to the wavelength of the film, its hatred for the wage system, its unimpressed tracking-shot perusal of the system in action. I'm looking forward to watching some more from this era, so long a minor grail of mine.

Anyway, those are some very preliminary thoughts on British Sounds.

P.S. One of my dreams is to own a cat--the personality would have to be right, of course--whom I could name Mao. His or her nickname would be "The Chairman."

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Occupied & Liberated

Some recent film viewing on 'occupation' and 'liberation' in some sense or another. Eddie Romero's Filipino-American low-budget action film The Ravagers (1965) is a run-of-the-mill work, but has a little interest. The romantic content, such as it is, comes between a white American woman (Bronwyn Fitzsimmons) and a Filipino man (Fernando Poe, Jr.), instead of with John Saxon as I personally would have been led to believe. So I am curious the extent to which Filipino films (although Romero was always insistent on his films being American productions, wasn't he?) would depict these sorts of interracial attractions (in The Ravagers it's all very tame, and nothing conclusive is shown). Was it a mark of progressive thinking to cross racial/ethnic/national boundaries? A mark of wishful thinking on the part of Filipinos towards a dominant American culture? (The Americans are the good guys here, of course: it's a WWII narrative with Japanese soldiers occupying a convent.) Maybe it was simply par for the course? Or maybe something entirely different?

There's a shot near the end of the film when three Filipino/American soldiers (among them Poe and Saxon) stand on a beach, and they're framed so that Poe is in the background, but he's also in the middle of the frame, and I realized that there was a simultaneous focus in the shot, with Saxon's commanding figure holding forth a certain sense of authority on the left edge of the frame, while Poe's body is the balance point, and the locus for the subtextual romance. I don't want to get too "postcolonial lit crit" on everyone, but for a single shot, there's a two-pronged meaning that's sociopolitically fascinating. We've got an iteration of white American 'big brotherism' as well as a certain gesture towards Third World autonomy (i.e., "they" get "their own" protagonist, uncastrated, civilized, appealing). The final shot of the film is an eerily ambiguous one wherein the sillhouettes of Poe and Fitzsimmons stand on the beach, several yards between them, staring at each other. There's a big question mark as to what their attraction means, and as to what it might mean. It was worth watching this whole mediocre (yet not bad) film for these final fascinating moments.

A different kind of occupation than that of Japanese imperialists and American liberators is the one that factory workers practice in the "narrative" of Godard & Gorin's amazing Tout va bien (1972). After having toiled outside the realm of Dziga Vertov agitation (oh, these films that I will finally see, albeit in diluted forms--more on that soon!), Godard had his "comeback" of sorts, although of course it didn't work well with audiences. What I like so very much about this film is how directly Godard & Gorin tackle the question of living politically, as I guess I'd phrase it. What does one do in the event of a strike but watch, try to learn some things? Having been personally, if not seriously, affected by two strikes recently (the NYU graduate teaching strike and the New York transit workers' strike) I've seen how vilely management and the media can attack workers--"selfish thugs" is a label somehow fairly attached to a worker putting his or her ass on the line, but never bandied about against the likes of Metro Transit Authority's upper echelons! So in Tout va bien, Yves Montand and Jane Fonda simply sit and watch and talk a little bit about what's going on around them--the bickering workers and their grievances, the caricature of a manager, the pettiness in gargantuan struggles (and vice versa). J. Hoberman's Criterion essay says that it's about celebrity, and the politicization of celebrity, but I think it's more about the transformation of consciousness from formlessness to political purpose, which is why Godard and Gorin make a point, in the end, of stressing that films show problems being solved one at a time, but in reality, there are a lot of struggles--major and minor, sexual, domestic, careerist--that one must negotiate in order to make any progress. I guess there's a pretty simple moral lesson towards which Tout va bien culimates, but it's at least a lesson about possibilities, sustainable and practical growth, which I find both comforting and motivating.

The fact that I'm not bemoaning this film's "datedness" or its tired communist ethos suggests, however, that I'm really out of lockstep, and out on a limb. Still, these are where my sympathies reside, and what can I really do about it ... ?

If readers may not want to get behind me on Tout va bien, let me push another slightly obscure leftist classic (unless of course you're really into leftist classics, in which case it's not obscure!), Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo's It Happened Here (1966). This superb film is a fiction, shot in a highly 'documentary' key, which shows a Britain overtaken by the Nazis in World War II, and largely "laying down" in order to keep law and order. (Though more low-key, I think it's even better than Renoir's This Land Is Mine, and Brownlow & Mollo have the luxury of hindsight, which gives the film a meditative intellectual resonance we can't expect Renoir's firestorm to have had.) One character in the film, with "partisan" sympathies, gives a great little speech to the effect of, 'The awful thing about fascism is that you must be a little fascist to fight it. There's a little bit in all of us, and it's easy to bring out. It must be guarded against vigilantly, it's a disease of the mind.' Brownlow & Mollo--who are truly excellent filmmakers, this and Winstanley cement their names in British cinema history--make some of the most effective political cinema I know. Their images are spare, the photography as clean as the budget will allow (and the attention to "period details" in the production design appears meticulous); the acting is enviably "artless." The editing tends to produce a rhythm, a serene forward march which Brownlow & Mollo, as storytellers, match stride for stride with the movements of the characters. (The protagonist, a nurse, goes through a gray area, in sympathy, between Nazis and partisans.)

What's so sad--and I really was deeply moved by this film which engages in no histrionics, no pathos--is how matter-of-factly it depicts everything, so that we understand the desperation occurring in the actions onscreen, even if the characters don't. It Happened Here shows people, under the direct and dangerous threat of fascism, caving in to the conformism Tout va bien agitates its viewers to fight against.