Saturday, February 25, 2006

Viva la Muerte

Several days after watching it on DVD, I still find it difficult to describe Fernando Arrabal's Viva la Muerte (1971), and how strangely and utterly moving I thought it was. [Note that clicking on the Arrabal link will take you to an introduction page where a little midi or wav file where the melody of Viva la Muerte's theme song plays...] A deeply, openly surrealist (wait, does the Panic Movement qualify as a large-s Surrealism?) and politicized film that recasts some of Arrabal's own autobiography (his father was an anti-Franco prisoner who escaped prison never to be heard from again...) in both literal and symbolic terms. Especially considering that this was his first film, Arrabal is remarkably adept at sliding down any number of axes--emotionally pitching his scenes as scathing Buñuellian anti-bourgeois tableaux one moment, and moving images of childhood memory the next; working with the flatness of an image almost like his own ciné-tract, or telling a sequence of childhood cruelty (visually composed "in the round"). Really interesting.

I don't know Jodorowsky's work, except some of (I think) The Holy Mountain. Time to try to fix that ...

On a completely unrelated note, those who habla español may want to check out Enfocarte, a Spanish online journal devoted to art, philosophy, culture, cinema, poetry, etc. I just discovered it the other day and though I haven't (tried to) make it through a full article, a quick perusal of the contents was intriguing ...

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Quote of the Day

"The regular spectator before 1910 surely learnt to be more alert to the screen than the modern spectator, more on the look-out for the surprises of a booby-trapped surface. The commercial failure of Jacques Tati's hilarious masterpiece Playtime, whose images frequently share this primitive topographism, confirms that we have lost the habit of 'keeping our eyes open' in the cinema."

-- Noël Burch, Life to Those Shadows (p. 155)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Question Regarding Cassavetes

Who here finds his work challenging in the specific way that Ray Carney does? (If you need to be refreshed, just check out his website.) If you look at Stephen Bender's guest essay on the site, you'll see this about Faces:
"Yes, this film is one of the supreme masterworks of all of American cinema. It is absolutely essential. Yes, it is "difficult." Yes, it is "slow." But those standards are for enterainment. Cassavetes wants to take us out of our ordinary ways of viewing. He wants to deny us the escapism of "entertainment." That's the point. If you have trouble with this film--good! If you find it infuriating--good! If you find it not entertaining--good! It wants to get under your skin. It wants to shake you up."
Cassavetes' films are always tricky, uncontainable creatures--they are demanding, exhausting, rewarding in so many surprising ways. Yes. But never, not even as a teenager watching Shadows or Chinese Bookie, have I felt the urge to turn off the television or leave the theater. I've never felt initially that any of these were bad or incompetent or infuriating films that I had to "scale" like Brenez did with Stromboli; never been put off by their alleged "amateurishness." I never feel the need to justify Cassavetes' work to myself or others by contrasting it to "entertainment." Is it just me--is it the product of my self-conditioning that I'm not as put off by Cassavetes as someone who saw almost primarily postclassical Hollywood films would presumably be? Or are Carney and his advocates here pressing too hard on this point, not considering that not all people who watch Cassavetes are coming from the same allegedly Hollywood-sanitized place?

So the question I want to put forth to those who read this blog is, what kind of challenge does Cassavetes represent to you? Is it, for anyone, especially for anyone who loves these films, an affront to your system, each time you see a film of his, so much that you're tempted to stop watching, or to shout out in anger?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Site News

If you click here you might find a page worth taking a look at. More will come within the span of the next week or so.

The Imagistic Genealogy of the Chinese Bookie

Spending time the past few days on cult/exploitation DVD review sites (and the like) I've started to notice some very interesting resemblances among film stills. For seasoned cultists, associations and lineages probably come easily enough (like being able to say about a given musical scene, "Yeah, that's 1998 acid ambientcore from St. Louis, but all the interesting stuff in that scene was really over by late 1996 ..."). For yours truly, it's exciting to connect the dots between films, to look at a given film's aesthetic and try to determine it's simultaneously socio-cultural and imagistic origins--what films might we label a work's ancestors, its friends & neighbors? Its enemies?

It's not a matter of a mere concept, but a sense of concrete common palettes & tropes--like genres predicated on visuals & tones rather than mostly narratives & themes. (Obviously, genre works in both ways, so there's still going to be narrative & thematic overlap.)

What has intrigued me specifically is seeing what I guess I'd call a mostly NYC-based lineage that had a limb in the underground, the (s)exploitation/grindhouse film, the taut action/gore film, and the independent movement--all of which are marked by low budgets, of course. Starting in the 1960s (with Radley Metzger and things like The Dirty Girls, as well as with the New American Cinema & Andy Warhol), there become an interesting gray area wherein the highbrow serious art cinema and and the lowbrow sex-and-violence film met whenever both ends of the shoestring (budget) got tied together. A lot of cheap, disingenuously "artsy" (trippy, "elliptical") works were made for audiences around this time--Metzger for instance started out by acquiring, distributing, even re-editing European films (some of which were legitimate "art movies") into titillating features for the raincoat crowd. Doris Wishman got her start in this scene.

By the 1970s, more of the film were in color, and we start to get a more standardized palette for this loose family tree of films and "film styles." Along with all manner of flesh tones and perhaps neon lights, our dominant colors are reds, browns, black, and white. Our most familiar settings are apartments (such as one for a gangster's mistress; and quiet and still on the soundtrack) and NYC streets (loud and cacophonous), and in-between, bars and stripclubs. Common totems: the handgun, the glass of alcohol (be it wine or bourbon...), cigarettes, doors and stairways, breasts (of course), glaring lights (inside & out), and the image-concept of the film theater or the stage. The framing seems to have a particular commonality, as well: no swift, baroque movements and angles like in Italian gialli, and perhaps lacking even the energy of Russ Meyer or the Roger Corman stable: instead a straightforwardness in which the intensity of the images sometimes crystallizes into an overwhelming composition whose impact may go beyond the mere brief moments we see it on the screen (as Cassavetes & Ferrara, two who have done masterly work in this loose idiom, do with close-ups as well as with images of performers & strippers).
The navel of this universe is, of course, Times Square. Pre-Giuliani. And the great obituary of this place is Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant ('92) ...

Even films which exist largely outside of this aesthetic genus may still refer to it: Bette Gordon's Variety (1983) has a lead character who works at a Times Square porn theater box office; Travis Bickle of course takes Cybill Shepherd to a porno in Taxi Driver (1976) and of course has the bloody grindhouse shootout in the stairway and threshhold at the climax; Allan Moyle's dear-to-my-heart Times Square ('81) has its two underage heroines singing and dancing (clothed) in a strip club. This set of colors-objects-conventions more or less declined in the 1980s. If the 1960s saw the birth of a movement, and the 1980s its expiration, then its "peak" would presumably be the 1970s. Cue John Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie ('76), an unassailable masterpiece. It's obvious enough to see, and to say, that Cassavetes "borrowed" or "worked within" generic elements. But what bears emphasis is how acutely Cassavetes captured some of the definite "look" of a scene, even if relocating it physically and diegetically to Los Angeles, in order to ground his material with something to play off of. He wasn't engaging in meta-games, but chose to really dig deep into the look and feel of his figures and his decor, his compositions. I tend to dislike the phrase "transcending the genre," for a number of reasons, one of which is that many films which elicit this claim are standing above the genre to begin with--but Cassavetes' film "transcends the genre" precisely because it works from the bottom "up," breaking out of the emotional, moral, or psychological formulations that the exploitation film, the action film, or even the standard (yes) independent art film would map out and follow.

At any rate, let me put forth my hypothesis--and stress finally that this is a hypothesis, not a "finding" or even really an assertion--through some images, several of which are from films I have never seen:

Stairways & Doorways (from One Side to Another):
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1) (2)
Deadly Weapons (Doris Wishman, 1973) (1)
Driller Killer (Abel Ferrara, 1979) (1)
Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981) (1)
Pasties & a G-String on Stage:
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1)
The Gore Gore Girls (Herschell Gordon Lewis, 1972) (1) (2)
The Ultimate Degenerate (Michael Findlay, 1969) (1) (2)
Field of Red:
The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1)
Deadly Weapons (1)
Driller Killer (1)

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Blog-a-Thon: Code inconnu

I believe that this is my 100th blog entry (if, that is, you count my very first one, whose title and text are both "Just a test.") I could think of no more rewarding way of doing a hundredth post than partaking in one of these great blog-a-thons which have sprung up: one person's contribution to a larger community and dialogue.

Community and dialogue are precisely what are at stake--and in crisis--in Michael Haneke's Code inconnu (2000). Racial divisions, generational divisions, gulfs between lovers. An "EU" styled social portrait if there ever was one, Haneke hits what notes he can in his running time without affecting a frantic pace.

Code inconnu tells a multilayered story almost as though one were surfing through television channels. The vignettes cut from one to another without conventional dramatic roundedness. This is not aleatory, however--though Haneke's actors give the impression of naturalism, his cuts still often come at pointed moments (cf. Juliette Binoche's supermarket fight with her boyfriend, when the heated conversation resumes to the mundane). The difficulty in dealing with Haneke is that he is, I suspect, fully aware of the paths he takes, conventional or otherwise, and like Brian De Palma, his work is essentially essayistic even if its vessel is fiction. The question of whether or not Code inconnu is exhilirating, entertaining, moving--to me--almost evaporates because the foremost question is whether or not they engage the viewer productively, to draw out new and active participants in Haneke's research into the production of social dissonance.

I don't even know for certain how much I like this film. Overall, if I were a guest on Ebert's show, sure, I'd give it a thumbs up. But what does that really mean? That I enjoyed Haneke's deft weaving of narratives personal and social? That I enjoyed the progressiveness with which Haneke's conception depicted European diversity in our day and age? That I was pleased by my own ability to recognize and appreciate both the deft narrative and sociopolitical nuance? One of the valuable things about Code inconnu is that it seems to be aware of this question of valuation. The scenes culled from Binoche's film-within-a-film, which may be quite perplexing for the first-time viewer, bear out the problem of investing one's faith and interest in a scene before one knows its context. They represent an exercise (but only an exercise: in viewing a film there are no real risks) in judging too quickly, in formulating an opinion before we give of ourselves the patience to let something impart its own truths on us. By extension these scenes are, for me, commentaries on the question of one's relationship to the cinema itself, and though I have not found the answers that Haneke himself may want us to arrive at (if he has any), I suspect part of the resonance of the scenes, like this film, come in recognizing and fruitfully exploring the separation that can result between immediate experience & rational reflection.

(So, this is coming a little early for the blog-a-thon, but Matt's already put his two cents in, and even if I don't live in Australia myself, it's Monday somewhere. And more convenient for me ...)

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Signs and Wonders: Ice

1. I spent time before a screening of Robert Kramer's Ice reading up on Jean Renoir in the library after work. One of the books I looked at was Leo Braudy's. Of the handful I perused, Durgnat's was the best.

2. Ice is such a fascinating film! I've waited long years to see his work screened. (To my knowledge I did miss one film of his, probably completely my fault, a year or two ago. I arrived in New York in 2001, a year after the city was the site of a big retrospective.) It would make a great, momentous double bill with Garrel's Les Amants réguliers. Escalation / deflation of the revolutionary drive. During one exhibition of the newsreels which the radical network makes to educate the people, the soundtrack contains people giving examples of false consciousness about their political situation (e.g., "I don't know anything, I'm not an expert," "I have to worry about my house and kids") and black leader is intercut with still photographs of individuals who we might presume are to have made each given statement. Later in the film, when one character (not a radical) is talking to another about how things aren't that bad, and no revolutionary changes are needed, the black leader re-appears, articulating her "false consciousness" through form even as Kramer allows this character to voice her concerns in a compelling and revealing way. This is ostensibly Kramer's concern: to connect the revolutionary imperative to human(ist) experience. At any rate, the IMDB lists Leo Braudy as one of the actors in the film. The Leo Braudy? Whose book on Renoir I had in my hands only an hour before seeing the film? Hmmm.

3. After the screening of Ice, I went to a small party. This party was held, I am almost certain, in one of the building complexes where they shot an extended sequence of Ice. I will have to do some research ... or try anyway. But it seemed pretty unmistakeable.

* Waiting for my subway ride home, about 1-ish, I saw a poor guy who was what I guess I'd call "henpeck drunk." Leaning against the wall he would bend over as if about to pass out, and kept bobbing up in a burst of resilient consciousness. All I could do is shake my head and say to myself, "Oh man, I've been there." And I'm glad I wasn't there last night.

** In case you can't read it in the image above, the words scrawled on this person's back in the still most often taken from Ice are: "Humanity won't be happy until the last bureaucrat is dissolved in the blood of the last capitalist."

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Rotterblog (6)

Feb 9, '06

Funny thing about Rotterdam: one eats healthier, more satisfying meals in the lounges of movie theatres than in actual restaurants. Fancy a squash and pumpkin soup with a seven-grain roll on the side? Or how about a beat, apple, and radish medley with a slice of fluffy ciabatta bread? Not into salads? Well, smoked salmon, dill, cucumber, and tomato sandwiches on a baguette are customary in any of the movie theatre "stands"; or if you don't like salmon, there's brie with all of the aforementioned ingredients. To drink? The house tap beer goes down oh-so-easily (this year it seemed to be mainly Heineken, though Grolsch and Bavaria are also big brands); if you don't drink, Schweppes' Bitter Lemon is a nice alternative to coffee for a mid-afternoon buzz. Be watchful of your spending, though: if you're coming from the Americas, the Euro can totally kick your ass.

Anyway… Now to talk about ass-kicking cinema. For brevity's sake, I'll only discuss major highlights and major disappointments. In the latter category, a consensus seemed to form around Jan Svankmajer's Lunacy less than twenty-four hours after the international premiere screening. Svankmajer arguably reached the height of his tactile, surrealist cinema in the late '80s, with the beautifully extroverted Mu né hry/Virile Games [1988], in which members of opposing soccer teams are brutally killed off one by one in various tortuous and impossible ways. Conspirators of Pleasure [1996] showed the Czech animator was finally adjusted to the feature length form. In comparison with the earlier film--and the subsequent Little Otik [2000]--Lunacy is overdrawn in its wordiness, its laborious structure, and its somewhat haphazard inclusion of the usual Svankmajerian elements (severed cow tongues and other assorted meats follow the characters throughout the film). As the director himself announces to us at the beginning, Lunacy is an indictment of how society treats the mentally ill, and furthermore, of how the world is at a culminating point of craziness. This note of quasi-seriousness, and the intended hilarity of the filmmaker appearing before us to present such a prosaic metaphor, only furthers the notion that Svankmajer's cinema, in its stab to be "relevant", is sadly behind the times.

Philippe Faucon's La Trahison/The Betrayal, on the other hand, is just at the curve in its treatment of the Algerian War of Independence. Unlike Michael Haneke's Caché and Alain Tasma's Nuit noir, 17 octobre 1961--two major films from the last year which also touched on this subject--The Betrayal has only received plaudits in France (the Cahiers raved) and received select festival screenings. It's easy to see why: it's the closest thing to Bitter Victory [1957] this side of austere low-budget war movies with disappointingly few action sequences (and like the Ray film, it's shot in gorgeous 'Scope). It takes place towards the end of the war, though more than a year before the Paris protests depicted in Tasma's film. The situation that we see, and which Faucon is careful not to reveal too much of, is of a French unit becoming suspicious of fellow harkis (Algerians who sided with French troupes), eventually imprisoning their foreign comrades in an emotional, abrupt finale. The Betrayal is rhythmically different than any film I saw at the festival, moving forward with such conviction that we can't help but keep our eyes peeled even at the moments when we know nothing at all and nothing appears to be happening. Not for everyone, though thinking of the film in retrospect, it's as psychologically rich in what it shows and doesn't show us as Caché, though certainly not with as many immediate thrills as the Haneke.

Three Japanese films that I saw at the festival are still growing, as I think more about them: The First Emperor [1973-93], Heart, Beating in the Dark [1982], and It's Only Talk [2005]. Coincidentally, all feature depressive characters who float in time in search of meaning and structure. The First Emperor, by experimental legend Hara Masato, existed for years at a length of nearly seven hours. The two-screen version shown at the festival, re-edited in 1993 from 16mm footage (blown up from Super 8), is only 108 minutes, though as a condensation it hardly suffers in getting across the idea that Hara's project is about artistic frustration and is designed as an endless meditation on cinema itself. A roadtrip through northern Japan effused with LSD-inspired musings, The First Emperor seeks to trivialize the meaning of its grainy, soundless images; progressively, time and place become unfilmable, as the director encounters dialectical significance in the ancient myths of Japan and the absence of any images that would be illustrative of those myths. The film was shown as part of a program called "White Lights", which is described as dealing with the "sultry relationship between drugs and film". Though not mutually tied to the drug film theme--as curator Gertjan Zuilhof readily notes in the program description of "White Lights", the topic at least "make[s] sure there are plenty of new and wondrous things to discover"--The First Emperor rests somewhere between where Andy Warhol left off in his talking pictures and where structural filmmaking began: it goes from the emotionally mundane and becomes a celebration of mundane intellectuality. Given the circularity of Hara's conclusions about cinema and the reality around him, we're tempted to just stop thinking and enjoy the flux of colors and light and the sublime, Brian Eno-like music the director has put on the soundtrack. By allowing us to alternate our passive and active roles as spectators, we're left with an unforgettable impression of a specific time in history, as if having wandered through it ourselves.

Hiroki Ryuichi's subtly affecting It's Only Talk is the director's 40th film, amazingly, since he brings to it a youthful directness in portraying a manic depressive woman named Yuko. At first I found this character grating, but as the filmmaker takes us into the dark tunnel of depression, revealing every step of Yuko's recovery process, the audience feels an enormous pleasure in reaching the other side along with her. In the end, the resolution isn't so simple, though a radical shift in the way we look at Yuko's relationship to those around her gives new meaning to the preceding events. I'll resist from commenting on Heart, Beating in the Dark too much, since I saw it in a bad copy in the festival video office, but I'll quickly note that it has been updated with a new version that I'm told incorporates much of the footage from the older one. Also, Tony Rayns has called it "the finest achievement in recent Japanese cinema". Look out for it on the festival circuit. The original, shot on synch-sound Super 8, is messy in the range of the characters' emotions, though the film itself is an impressively written off kilter love story.

Boy, I didn't think I'd be running this long. I still haven't mentioned the Stephen Dwoskin program, Noel Vera's mighty selection of films from the Philippines, or any of the very worthy Tiger entries. But I think I'll stop here, and at the appropriate time I'll ask Zach to redirect his readers to the rest of my coverage, which will be appearing either at Senses of Cinema or some other place.

A big thanks to Zach for agreeing to host these, and to my brothers and sisters in Rotterdam, who in our long conversations helped me to sort through the various thoughts that were posted here: Alicia, Belinda, Christoph, Cristine, Dana, Elena (who helped me to experience an entirely different kind of festival), Hans-Christian, Mark, Neil, Nika, Olaf, and Scott--see you all at the next one!

--Gabe Klinger

The New World

(Hey, let's see if I can get myself mentioned on Matt Zoller Seitz's blog! Wonder how I can do it ... hmm ... I guess I could write about The New World.)

I finally saw this last night (the 135-minute cut, of course). It's a film caught between conflicting visions: part Deren & Emerson, part Ridley Scott & AMPAS. Of course we know where Malick's "heart" is, but for whatever reason, he's devoted to making big budget films, and that means stars & multiplex releases. Consequently he must be aware of the sorts of critical entanglements and public disapproval his film was bound for, especially after The Thin Red Line (which was an immensely important film for me when I saw it at the age of 16). Malick could easily make gorgeous films about nature (and love, and history) on small budgets--Nathaniel Dorsky makes his own eye-poppingly gorgeous films without Colin Farrell, after all. Regardless of what drives Malick to make the sorts of films he does in Hollywood (and it could just be naivete, or a willful and reckless ambition to make great "popular art" as MZS repeatedly puts it, even if it's far from popular at the moment), one thing cannot be denied whatever one's opinion of Malick: he is certainly 'a thing apart.'

So (ahhhh) The New World: I liked it. I didn't love it. I was slightly underwhelmed not for the same reasons repeatedly trotted out against Malick's work: too slow, too elliptical, whatever. I'm a big boy now, and Malick at his most "out there" is pretty digestible stuff. I was initially bothered by what I felt was an arbitrary decision on Malick's part to step so heartily in mythos, disregarding the anchor of concreteness (however distant) which marked his first three films and worked well--it's not that I'm at all put off by such mythic exploration; simply that it seemed so arbitrary, so unjustified, other than by (dare I say it) naivete. I mean, how much cartwheeling Edenic splendor can we really take? But the more I thought about it the more at ease I was with Malick's decision, and it seems to be not naivete so much as decision on his part to 'act like a river,' where he simply flows toward his destination regardless of all baggage and questions.

This is why, I suspect, The New World has inspired such passionate "camps": those who share in Malick's yearning for the destination are willing accept zen-like all accoutrements (by Malick-into-Hollywood's logic) or flaws (by Hollywood-tops-Malick logic) in order to arrive at the torrent of emotion that the final sequence should ideally open up for a viewer. (Of course, if you really love this film than you may run the risk of zealotry, your comments sounding like an imitation Malick voice-over: do your best Pvt. Witt impression and intone, "O why do you flow into me like nourishing water, Terry Malick, fresh and alive? You cleanse my spirit with your stream. You show me a true New World, an inner New World.")

At any rate, The New World is ultimately a film-dream: discussing what it doesn't address and doesn't do is almost pointless--it shows that you (unwisely) think that this film is, was ever, going to offer you something like what any old Oscarbait picture will. To critique the film one must critique Malick's root conception: one can't say it's "too slow," but rather, that Malick's reasons for choosing slowness (or any other quality) are ill-advised. The New World, thankfully and with innocence both maddening and charming, offers us a glimpse of a great dream: happiness and beauty that transcend all suffering. Malick is clear to show that life and history are not rosy, but the reason why he doesn't overtly "historicize" or "politicize" his story is that he's simply not concerned with telling that story--he's not erasing it, he's not discounting it, he's simply letting it sit in its place, a place outside his "vision." He de-emphasizes history for the same reason that he ends the film the way he does, rapturously, oneirically, ecstatically--because this film is 100% a vision of life and vitality without recourse (if not without referral) to anything else. For all the pros and cons that one may associate with such singularity. (Usual caveats apply: "in my humble opinion," etc.) And for this reason I think The New World is not so much a transcendental(ist) film but--and better for it!--a film about tones & images of transcendence.

Bodies, Images, Production (2)

In trying to write up a response to the quotes below, I found that I would keep veering off course and down tangents, which clarified for me (a) that I don't know exactly what I think or how I feel about the issues addressed, (b) I have yet to totally grasp all the issues addressed, and (c) I have bitten off more than I can chew for a single blog entry!

But I will try to sketch out some observations about what I've been thinking and how my readings have spurred it. One of the things that both Burch (on cinema or "chronophotography") and Willemen (on digital media) both assert, rightly enough, is that technologies are the result of material, economic circumstances and are driven by ideological ends. Burch, however, acknowledges a variegated set of aims and consequences for the cinema and its social roles, and while image technologies may be entrenched in ideology, they operate in a lot of different ways. They are not necessarily determined and by extension damned by the ideology from which they have come. On the other hand, Willemen seems very flatly pessimistic, predisposed against new media precisely because of their alleged "authoritarianism" (this pessimism seems to me an unusual characteristic for Willemen: he's one of the film scholars whose work I most admire). To this, at this early stage, I would simply like to say that, for all of Willemen's misgivings about the loss of photography's indexical integrity (misgivings I share), at the same time we have no more recourse to an indexical image's own authority. It is possible--I won't say it is guaranteed--that collective faith in the photograph's indexicality will be shattered. Images will no longer have authority: they will be assertions. There are both very good and very bad implications for this development.

If images, including photographic ones, act only as icons in our future, our thirst for "likenesses" may atrophy, and we may stop thinking about representation and only think about presentation. (A radical possibility: people can potentially attach to every image, once we come to think of every image as a presentation, the issues of precisely what is being presented, why, by whom, and how. No more "it's just a picture--it shows the truth!") The image, as J-L Nancy puts it, is sacred precisely because it's something apart from us. If it's something apart then it is something we look rather than "enter into." We're not connected to images: we exist with them, and with them before us.

I find Schefer much more difficult to understand than Nancy; and I don't think he and Nancy are employing quite the same meanings for the word "sacred." But even so, it seems as though Schefer is arguing that Uccello's painting is fascinating because it offers no distinction for the body in the visual plane--it is in fact treated as a plane in itself, offering only what is immediately invisible, subject to 'discoloration' if the painter or the image so demands it. Which puts the great Uccello into a fascinating place with respect to "presentation" even though he lived in Renaissance Florence, and was a figure in the larger milieu that so deeply shaped our great Western perspectival-humanist-representational visual regime.

Perhaps more on the subject in the near future ...

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Bodies, Images, Production (1)

Spurred by Matt Clayfield's post to read Paul Willemen's "Of Mice and Men" in the new Rouge, this helped me recognize some major synchronicities in my reading and thinking lately, some of which have to do with Willemen's article.

"[Paolo Uccello's] point is that the body, historically, cannot be reduced to its allegorical and symbolic treatment; it's not sacred, it doesn't transcend what surrounds it, it isn't plastic; but rather it's limited to minimal effects of volume and proportion. Uccello's most powerful gesture is to make that body produce an effect of coherence, to lead the misrecognition of the body back to the mythical (to the problem of mythology, which is the division of the species, marked by "creatures" with no identity except the marks of their tracks). Equally, Uccello can discolor the body, making figures vary even if they are substantially undifferentiable."
-- Jean-Louis Schefer, "On the Object of Figuration" The Enigmatic Body (trans. Paul Smith, Cambridge UP, 1995) (p 28) ... emphasis in original

"The image is always sacred ... . Indeed, the meaning of the "sacred" never ceases to be confused with that of the "religious." But religion is the observance of a rite that forms and maintains a bond (with others or with oneself, with nature or with a supernature). Religion in itself is not ordered by the sacred. (Nor is it ordered by faith, which is yet another category.)"
--Jean-Luc Nancy, The Ground of the Image (trans. Jeff Fort, NY: Fordham UP, 2005) (p 1)

"The question broached by Uccello is not of knowing where the visible body is to be found, but of knowing where is the visible in the body. (Compare, too, the anatomical drawings, the penetrating incisions of da Vinci [sic]--anything that painting cannot reproduce. What is he looking for? for the place of pleasure in fiction where it's visible but cannot be figured.)
-- Schefer (p 30)

"Panofsky (1953, pp. 86-7) has demonstrated in Leonardo's anatomical experimentation the dialectical links beginning to be forged between artistic and scientific practices in Renaissance Italy, and, in the same study, suggested other such links in the centuries that followed:
Anatomy as a science (and what applies to it applies to all the other 'descriptive' disciplines) was simply not possible without a method of preserving observations in graphic records complete and accurate in three dimensions. For, in the absence of such records, even the best observation was lost because it was not possible to check it against others and thus to test its correctness and, no less important, its general validity. It is no exaggeration to say that in the history of modern science and invention of perspective, coupled with the nearly simultaneous emergence of the multiplying arts, marks the beginning of a first period; the invention of the telescope and the microscoope that of a second; and the invention of photography that of a third. In the descriptive sciences illustration is not so much the elucidation of a statement as the statement itself.
Indeed, if the researches that culminated in the invention of photography corresponded in immediate awareness to an ideological drive, it is just as clear that this new technology objectively answered a need of the descriptive sciences of the period (botany, zoology, paleontology, astronomy, physiology). At the same time, it should not be forgotten that the economic expansion and accession to political power of the bourgeoisie were closely linked to advances in the sciences and in technology, and that hence by evoking the strictly scientific effects of some instrument or mode of representation we are by no means leaving the historical terrain of the relations of production. Here, therefore, no more than anywhere else, can one set scientific practices apart from ideological ones without the utmost care."
--Noël Burch, Life to These Shadows (trans. Ben Brewster, Berkeley and LA: University of California Press, 1990) (p 8-9)

I will leave you with these quotes now and return to my own thoughts on these issues soon.

Borowczyk Has Died

I've just learned from Greencine Daily the awful news that Walerian Borowczyk has left our world. He was the author (with Jan Lenica) of numerous animated films that I have not yet seen. He co-directed one film in 1959 with Chris Marker that I hope to see one day. I have seen his most famous film, The Beast (1974 I think), which did nothing for me, as well as Story of Sin (1975), which had the taint of quiet "T-of-Q" sterility to it despite passages of real verve. But not all of the films of Borowczyk's are ones I haven't seen or don't love. His film La Marge (1974; with Joe Dallesandro and Sylvia Kristel) haunts my thoughts still, as does Love Rites (1988), and most of all Blanche (1971), which deserves to be named with Perceval (Rohmer, '78) and Lancelot du lac (Bresson, '74). What demarcates Borowczyk from the rest of the cultish-erotic-bloody crowd is his true modernist attention to the forcefulness and presence of his images, the way he pushes his stories not into the merely dreamlike (a fictive signifier, and justification, for haziness and transcience) but into the unsettling realm of all out oneiric abandon--his cinema at its greatest is as mysterious and inscrutable, as keen and singular, as Bresson.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Motivated by Love Streams

I have asserted before--if not necessarily on this blog--that Cassavetes' films don't have their formal coherence and intelligence concentrated in their camera movements, that compositionally, Cassavetes is not working in any sort of emphatic register. That his form (and I have always held that he was formally interesting!) instead revolves actors, bodies, and pacing. But a second viewing of Love Streams, on 35mm, shattered this illusion. Even his 'kino-eye' is absolutely amazing.

I'd also previously accepted that Cassavetes' work translates as fine as anything else to video might. Now, I'm less sure. The qualities of light and color, the texture of the image, on the print certainly trump the American VHS that you can find decaying on the shelves of your local videostore. And screen captures from the French DVD, while an improvement on the VHS, still don't look too promising.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Rotterblog (5)

Feb 2, '06

Who knows what hidden masterpieces lurk deep in the programs of film festivals? The shadow knows! So yesterday I went to see a film with Olaf (the shadow) Möller. Have you ever heard of Hara Masato? I hadn't, but apparently he's one of the key experimental filmmakers of Japan. His dual-screen 16mm epic, The First Emperor [1973-93], was projected last night... woah! (Notes forthcoming...)

Hara Masato was the screenwriter for Oshima's great great great The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970). He has also made a musical which the shadow hasendorsed, called 20 Centuries Nostalgia (1997). Somebody program a retrospective of this guy!

Off to Amsterdam for the day, though when I return: drive-by comments on many, many films...

--Gabe Klinger

Rotterblog (4): Hou Interview

Hou Hsiao-hsien usually comes to Rotterdam to promote the Dutch release of his films (the courageous distribution arm of the Nederlands Filmmuseum has been in the Hou business since A City of Sadness [1989]). Therefore,the few interview slots in Hou's busy schedule are, as a rule, reserved for Dutch journalists. This year the PR gods made an exception and allowed me to interview the Taiwanese master, who just presented his very recent (and wonderful) Three Times to local audiences.

During the 2002 festival, I witnessed Hou's awesome karaoke skills (there has been no encore as of yet this year). In 2006, I got to sit down with him for forty-five minutes*. Here are some of the things hehad to say…

"The fact that my camera moves around more in my recent films has to do with the time we live in. Everything that happens now is very fast. When I look back at the past, at old family photographs, time becomes still. In some of my earlier films I wanted to show this stillness. Now, as you have seen, I use more close-ups and medium shots. Otherwise you just wouldn't be able to see what's going on. There are too many details in the world of today."

"In Flowers of Shanghai [1998] I also used the technique of the wandering camera, though the reasons were very different. When I read the book [upon which the film is based], I felt the author--who lived in the late 19th century --seemed to be right there in the middle of the characters. The camera was my way of showing this."

"I'm sixty years-old now, so it's not so easy for me any more to modernize my way of looking."

"I've been working with Chu Tien-wen [screenwriter] for more than twenty years. In Taiwan she is held in very high regard for her novels and short stories. In twenty years our method of collaboration has more or less stayed the same. I'll come up with an idea for a film and we'll talk two or three times, and then we'll go a long time without talking. Gradually a script will evolve. Because she's an artist in her own right, she sees films as an art and as something that can be very different. I've written many scripts on my own and I'll realize there are many things I haven't put much thought into. Chu helps me to go deeper. But we don't just talk about film and making films… we talk about paintings, novels, Taiwanese social issues…"

"Mark Lee Ping-bing [cinematographer] is my closest associate. I'm very particular about lighting. Whenshooting on location, Mark will work with the naturallight that is there while I'm usually busy with otherthings, like making the actors comfortable. In Three Times we used very few lamps, some red filters… Mark goes to location first, I show up, we talk, and it doesn't take a lot of time. The actors in my films are told to move about freely, so sometimes the results of the lighting are very unexpected. After one take, Mark will know what I want to do--that usually works out quite well. We're very similar, when we're working with concrete things, especially shooting on location,and we play with the possibilities endlessly."

"Realism is the main thing in most of my films. It's important that we record all the dialogues on location. Tu Du-che [sound designer] uses a recording device with eight channels of sound. All the sounds onthe location are recorded, and most of them end up being used. In action films or thrillers, sounds are distorted and enlarged. In my films there's no need for this."

"The way that I deal with time in Three Times is similar in some of my earlier films, such as The Puppetmaster [1993]. By revealing different situations you discover the characters' social backgrounds, their ambitions. In The Puppetmaster, the age of the characters was very important: by using a three year-old boy and a twelve year-old girl I could show the way the parents dealt with the very different needs that young kids have. It reveals their personality, their class… In Three Times, in each of the three parts, the characters come from very different backgrounds and have very different needs.The details become important, though the effect it has on the audience is not a direct one at first."

* Not nearly enough time, even with the expert translation skills of [interpreter's name to appear here as soon as I find it out].

--Gabe Klinger

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Rotterblog (3)

Jan 31, '06

There are two kinds of raccoons in Rotterdam: the kind you see in a Seijun Suzuki movie, and the kind I saw in the backyard of my hotel this morning. Or have I just gone totally f*cking nuts? I'll have to ask the concierge about it… Speaking of furry backyard animals, the piece Imentioned in an earlier blog with the fox in the museum is by Belgian artist Francis Alÿs and is called The Nightwatch. Just thought I'd give attribution where attribution is due.


Trading moving images for still ones during a film festival can cause one to have a strange sensation. Watching film after film, one's eyes are trained to see images that almost always reveal something new to the viewer in a few seconds or minutes, whereas still photos are frozen, they force the viewer's eye to wander around in that frozenness.

Raymond Depardon is known in the film community for his exceptional documentaries, which include the masterpiece Les années declic (a model for how autobiographical films should be made), and his "judicial trilogy", Faits Divers, Délits flagrants, and 10e chambre – Instants d'audience, which are simply as essential as any of the best films by Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles, or Ross McElwee (to cite just American documentarians).

Any film lover who digs Depardon, the filmmaker, should have a chance to see the work of Depardon, the photographer. It changed my perception of his work entirely. Depardon always struck me as having a hardnosed investigative reporter's eye, but now he seems to me like a sensitive outsider who is slightly embarrassed by what he's looking at. This is best embodied in his series of photos in a mental institution in Turin.

In a personal statement accompanying the series, Depardon writes, "I knew when I left that I would never under any circumstances return." He sounds ashamed – but his work never shows us the "quirky" surrealism that so many portraits of the mentally ill do. That would be too easy. Instead what we have is a painfully lonely look at lives which are completely foreign, frozen… The eye wanders, but one doesn't see progress; one only sees degradation. Powerful stuff.

More information at the Nederlands Fotomuseum site.

--Gabe Klinger