Thursday, May 25, 2006

Desire & Capital: Preliminary Notes

I may start taking notes on the relationship between sexual desire and (Marxist) economic analyses in films that I see where the relationship between the two is implied or brought up explicitly. Sometimes the existence of overwhelming desire exists in a film as an (intentional) counterpoint to economic or sociopolitical crises, which causes the characters to behave in ways that don't appear to be rooted in politics, but which have a certain residual whose political roots are evoked through the structure of the artwork itself. In the famous 'Freud' and 'Marx' image from Godard's Le Gai savoir, it's as though the 'Freud' (libido) supplies the drama, and the 'Marx' (physical sexuality) supplies the action, and economy and society go on operating through individuals in ways that seem to be purely corporeal, neither economic nor social.

In Dušan Makavejev's Man Is Not a Bird (1965), the character Rudinski has to balance his dedication to his job as an engineer (for which he is given a medal) and his attraction to the young woman Rajka. A maxim that I believe the film postulates: a man cannot be ruled by his passions, but neither can he reject them totally--Rajka (as a mustachioed truck driver's advances suggest) is a bit more attuned to the pushing and pulling of the heart, and I think Makavejev's work is an ongoing attempt to unite the ideas of sexual liberation (release) with the self-control (labor & ownership) of workers, which arguably found its greatest culmination in WR--Mysteries of the Organism ('71). Makavejev is neither friend nor foe of the State, exactly, from my admittedly quite limited vantage point. What interests him is instead the attempt at true liberation in terms not only socio-economic, but in terms of the Godardian 'Marx' and 'Freud,' an attempt that a Communist government will not necessarily make in earnest, but which Makavejev will agitate for anyway.

Below, stills from Teorema (Pasolini, '68) and Shampoo (Ashby, '75) ...

Pasolini was a Marxist of course, and Towne & Ashby left liberals (I would think?)--both draw interesting portraits of sexual attraction and desire, the sexual revolution, the possibilities of a certain political promise (and also failure). I haven't even begun to scratch the surface of Teorema or Shampoo, each of which I've seen only one time, but both films are about a certain sexual proclivity, a propulsion among their characters, to which 'backgrounded' social and political elements depicted in the films have a very serious and complex relationship. So, I hope, more on them in the future. As with my previous post, this is something like a sketch or a study of a more serious work that may result some months down the road.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Kinds of Panoramic Vision

Scattered notes for (possibly) a future project:

- The view from the window of a [train] passing a landscape. A nineteenth century innovation in perception ... this is something that Wolfgang Schivelbusch has written about (though I've not read his work on this firsthand). Early cinema recorded quite a few films as seen from the window of a moving train.

- 'Panorama as form,' wherein the above is manifested in the rectangular (including, possibly, CinemaScope) frame of the canvas--the parameters of the image reflect the first principle of the composition. Or this can be a camera track/pan (think of the traffic tracking shot in Godard's Week End, or the shot of the supermarket in Tout va bien), or the movement of the eyes over a broad space which this camera movement presumably mimics.

- 'Panorama as content,' that is, the suggestion through even as it runs counter to form, as below, wherein the desire to see all around becomes the emphasis of the image if not its organizational principle. Below is Alma-Tadema's A Coign of Vantage (1895).

What makes these (particularly 'panorama as form') distinct from just any long horizontal space is that, representationally, they suggest or depict outright a coherent and unified space--unlike, say, the Bayeux Tapestry. One of my favorite 'follies' of early cinema is an attempt to create a coherent and unified space by way of pieced-together fragments, namely, the Cinéorama of Raoul Grimoin-Sanson (patented 1897, attempted to exhibit in 1900). Ten projections of footage in a circular sweep to show footage from ten cameras that go up in a hot air balloon over the countryside. When I was a child I saw a successful manifestation of this basic principle at, I think, Disneyland.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Ten Underrated Films

Via the Siren, a challenge from one Mr. Middlebrow to name "10 movies you consider overlooked, underrated, offbeat and in general deserving of not being forgotten." That's a broad field to cover--especially as 'overlooked' and 'underrated' don't mean the same things (despite a long and fuzzy shared border). Should I write about a film I chanced upon that very few people may know, or should I use the space to defend some oft-maligned film maudit? Highlight relative classics from cine-realms generally overlooked by the wider film geek scene I consider myself part of? In the interest of breadth, I figured I'd do a little of each. No need to bloviate too much now, I'll let my words for the films do the work. In no order, selected with loose and haphazard criteria:

The Tender Trap (Charles Walters, 1955)
Walters can run hot (Please Don't Eat the Daisies) or cold (Belle of New York) or somewhere in between (Summer Stock) but he's got a distinctive way of approaching material--he's a real artisan of 'Hollywood fluff,' artifice, candy-colors; a true scholar-in-action of the worldview, and the mindset, that underlies the genre of the Hollywood musical. This musical romantic comedy (rated with the faint praise damnation of 6.1 on the IMDB) is my favorite of the generous handful of Walters films I've seen, partly because it veers into mature, subtle dramatic territory about the nature of romantic contentment. In truth I don't remember the film in its details very well (I have a sieve for a memory), but I remember clearly the weird feeling I got from watching it, deeper and deeper I went into the film--as though it were expanding its MGM pop aura ever-wider and in so doing allowed us a glimpse of empty space within: relationships and entanglement. Not the world in a coffee cup--Cassavetes' Faces in a Sinatra vehicle.

Dreamchild (Gavin Millar, 1985)
Maybe I'm just a sucker for films about life & memory, about the reflective moment wherein a person or a community looks back on lost youth, past experiences, old beauty, missed chances, irrevocable changes. It's why Ford and Ozu are probably my two favorite directors. It's why I found Brokeback Mountain so moving (the shirts!) even if I'm still not even sure if I actually liked the film. This slightly odd film is about Lewis Carroll and his relationship to the girl who informed Alice (and her family). It's from a director otherwise unknown to me and was very moving, and suggestively delved into troubling emotional and psychosexual territory. (Another fantastic, underrated film that deals with 'mistaken pedophilia'--John Duigan's Lawn Dogs. Duigan himself is an underrated filmmaker, as Sirens, Flirting, and probably a few more attest.) Jim Henson created some puppets for some fantasy scenes that recreate parts of the Looking Glass text. IMDB rating: a respectable 7.0, but I never hear anybody talking about this film.

Not Long After Leaving Shinegawa (Kawashima Yuzo, 1957)
Like Dreamchild, this film has a fine IMDB rating (8.0), but I don't see it mentioned or hear it discussed recently. Though the crowd I saw it with at MoMA last fall laughed a lot and seemed to enjoy it, it didn't emerge as a "find" from the Japanese films that swamped NYC theaters last fall. Donald Richie devotes maybe 1-2 pages to Kawashima in his most recent edition of Japanese Film. At any rate, I wish I could see this film again, and also see more by this director. It's not a great film: it is, however, wide-ranging, free-wheeling, unpredictable, sharp, pungent, and vivid. Kawashima was one of the filmmakers Shohei Imamura studied under (another was, of course, Ozu), and his influence seems pretty visible from where I stand.

Driven (Renny Harlin, 2001)
This is not a joke! It's like a Hawks movie--not like a Hawks masterpiece, but more like a worthy, minor aftershock of what we would call the Real Thing. (Along the same lines: Hal Needham's 1978 film Hooper, about stunt doubles...) Economical without being sparse, shorthand without being rushed: the trademark of the studio system, and the sad victim of the post-classical production system. Its 1952 analog would be fine if relatively unremarkable ("a good flick for a Sunday afternoon"), but the fact that this kind of film was created under such conditions in Hollywood that practically demand Event Status from a work makes it something more noteworthy. IMDB rating: 4.3.

The Night They Raided Minsky's (William Friedkin, 1968)
I have a theory that Friedkin (not as a flesh-and-blood human, but as an Authorial Construct) started out with a lot of libidinous energy, "void of form," and before long he was shackled (or shackled himself) into a repressive masculinist straitjacket that made for a lot of the filmic equivalent of sex-frustrated handwringing, if you ask me. (It may have also accounted for the propulsive dynamism of his work: sometimes he can be very good, and I could have mentioned his 2003 film The Hunted on this list, too.) I'll have to test this theory out by watching more Friedkins than I've already seen, including (most of all) Cruising. Even so, I'd take this film (modest in scale but bold in tone) over The French Connection in a heartbeat--and I'd even take it over The Exorcist. It's a somewhat complicated story, but it's basically about the arrival and promotion of an Amish girl (Britt Ekland; with large, um, "protuberances") who wants to perform "Dances from the Bible" in the titular 1920s house of burlesque. How chaste these dances are (or are advertised as) is quite open to debate! Minsky's is under pressure from the police, the Amish girl has an angry father chasing her, and there's a fantastic rapport between the great Jason Robards and Norman Wisdom. IMDB rating: 5.5.

Land of Gold (Steve Marts, 1979)
I can barely find any information on this film, which was screened in a documentary class I took with George Stoney. I recall Steve Marts worked in advertising, and made this very lyrical short film about Oregon farmlands as a labor of love (maybe?) (as far as sweeping agricultural vistas of Americana it'd make a nice double bill with Days of Heaven). It's not "avant-garde" exactly, but I felt it had the same sort of feeling for image texture and rhythm. If you ever get a chance, try to watch it again.

Stray Cat Rock: Sex Hunter (Yasuharu Hasebe, 1970)
Sexual and racial baggage make it hard for any of the characters in this violent youth film to "move freely" or exist independently. They're caught in a matrix. Meiko Kaji leads a girl gang against her rival-lover, a gangster who hates foreigners with nationalist fervor (and very personal venom). There's a "half-breed" looking for his sister. What I like about what I've sampled of the pop-genre-youth films from Japan at this time is that they reserved their energy for individual scenes and events, but let their "statements" or "messages" ebb up gently, with nuance. So that you get a high-energy film with subtle (or at least subtle-feeling) social and ethical commentary. IMDB rating: 6.7.

Last of the Comanches (Andre De Toth, 1952)
In postwar classical Hollywood, De Toth is a major figure. Not in terms of power or reputation, but in terms of artistic accomplishment--he deserves to be mentioned with Ford, Hawks, Hitchcock, Ray, Sirk, Preminger (i.e., that whole broad 'upper tier'). This is one of his best, if not his all-out masterpiece (Day of the Outlaw) or his most famous (probably Ramrod, which I haven't seen--my video copy went kaput before I got a chance to watch it). I've seen it three times and feel that it'd be just as fresh as if I were to watch it tonight. The thing about De Toth is that he could take a perfectly leisurely moment, a peaceful image, and disrupt it more quickly than we realize (as during one conversation cut all too short in this film). He could build up great, multi-levelled tension just by rolling a bottle down a bar (as in Day of the Outlaw). He was an entertainer, a 'plot-driven' guy; he was angry as hell about the political situation that rotted Europe for him and spurred him to flee to the States (if you get a chance, see his incendiary None Shall Escape from 1944); he was a consummate visual stylist whose touches were "fast and furious," but not flashy--they were always in service of a certain vision of ethics & human nature that obsessed De Toth. IMDB rating: 6.2.

These Hands (Florence M'mbugu-Schelling, 1992)
Forty-five minutes for those who like Kiarostami--from the gut. That is, for those who feel an affinity for a certain "simple" presentational ethos that builds fascinating social and aesthetic statements from deliberate pacing and spareness (other practicioners: sometimes Wim Wenders; I suspect José Luis Guerín; though I don't think that Hou, Tsai, or Yang do what I'm trying to pinpoint...). Women refugees from Mozambique work in a rock quarry, breaking up rocks into gravel. They work; they sing; they break to eat; at the end of the day they are done. Very straightforward, but there's a 'springboard' quality to the images and the scenes, they open up discussion instead of just sitting around inert and ambiguous. I've long contemplated writing about this film, and this broad "aesthetic," but I'm still mulling over the best way to express my thoughts. IMDB rating: 7.0, but a mere 5 votes.

The End (Christopher Maclaine, 1953)
I've avoided avant-garde cinema until this final slot because (a) to a depressingly large segment of the "film enthusiast" population it's all worthless, obscure, and hence "underrated"; (b) I don't know a-g scenes throughout history and geography well enough to know a lot of truly "underrated" works; and (c) more and more writing on a-g work will appear on Elusive Lucidity anyway. Still, this filmmaker (and this, his masterpiece) should be more widely discussed. The End is an ineffably weird masterpiece within Maclaine's very small body of work. Fred Camper on Maclaine here. A post I made on a_film_by here. IMDB rating: 8.9 (!) but only 13 votes (!).

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

James Snead on Kong

On Son of Kong (1933), specifically, which I have not yet seen myself:

"The [titular] ape's services to Denham late in the film compensate for the trachery of a group of whites defined as the "other" earlier in the film--namely, Captain Englehorn's crew, which has mutinied and sent the "bosses ... where all captains belong, over the side" in a single rowboat, with which they eventually reach Skull Island. The contemporary political overtones of this confrontation (when they approach Denham with their grievances, he says "We must be in Russia: here comes a committee of the workers"), unique among the three "Kong" films, might have something to do with a certain sentimental preference in the thirties for what was considered "faithful" black labor, seen as potentially less dangerous than the unruliness of agitated white Northern working classes. It is not impossible that the film is suggesting that if the Northern white entrepreneur of the thirties would only atone for the "harm" of American racial history, he might have a more obedient and loyal labor pool than the white Northern labor force, demanding equality, would provide."

--from Snead, White Screens, Black Images (Routledge: NY & London, 1994), pages 31-32.

Snead tends toward somewhat straightforward, plot-centric, and monolithic readings of the films in his material (maybe more willing to accuse the film of 'incompatibility' than to express such negative capability in his own work), but this itself could very likely be the function of this book's being an unfinished, and posthumously published, work. The flaws, though I do see them as flaws, still comprise one of the things that I like most about this book: that they feel almost like drafts, and we see certain bold interpretations or theoretical formulations before they've been as tempered and nuanced as they likely would have been had Snead lived to finish his book. (He died young, but with prolific publications and a great deal of manuscript material--scholarly and fictional, as the book's two editors and separate foreward writers, Colin MacCabe and Cornel West, attest.) Overall I like the assertions he's working out in his material, trying to achieve a balance in seeing/understanding what popular films reflect and what they project. Some questions remain as raised by the quoted paragraph above. For instance, why consign the 'white working classes' to the North, or otherwise suggest without references that the film might have done as much (despite a strong anti-union [no pun intended] history in the American South, the labor movement did exist there)?

Film & Historical Ruptures

Two possible ways to enact the ending of an historical epoch (if not necessarily the 'end of history'):

1) Allegorize it on the level of metaphor and allusion, and realize it on the level of form;
2) Literalize it through a narrative, and recast it through a 'defamiliarized' (or allegorical) setting.

The former: Derek Jarman's The Last of England ('87), a ferocious, angry "poem" about the Thatcher years that I only barely began to apprehend; the latter: The Matrix, which I watched again last weekend (the Significant Other had never seen it--and I, having not seen its two sequels, will do so shortly). The common ground between both of these very different films is the fact that they want us to contemplate--in some way, shape, or form--the major negative developments, even the death, of Civilization, a death we have passed by but may not even realize. Where Jarman and his collaborators were reacting to cultural & economic strife, and hurling their avant-garde cine-poetry straight out at the world, at the viewers, at the State itself I presume, the Wachowskis were taking a sense of panic (a severe "paranoic fantasy," as Žižek
puts it) and folding it up, like origami with the Zeitgeist, into something new and only partly recognizable, suggesting that something was seriously not right with our (the Western, developed, technological) world. In some way we weren't free, and the film literalizes this bondage. As I finally look at the two sequels I'll be interested to see how they work out this issue--as it stands with the first film, we basically have the same premise and "critique" as in Fight Club, except with a different solution.


And now for a little errand-running on the Internet: everyone who reads this blog should keep an eye on
Digital Poetics just in case they don't already (I assume most already do)--I've really been enjoying Nick Rombes' last several substantial posts; furthermore, I find myself frequenting Marxist blogs (like this and this) as well as celebrity gossip sites (one favorite, and another). I wonder who else regularly visits both categories of blogs. Lenin + Lohan = good times. And I finally saw Brokeback Mountain over the weekend, contemplated writing something about it here, and still might, but ...

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Two Quick Notes

Others have already noted and praised it, of course, but I would like to add to the chorus of cheers that has followed Tilda Swinton in giving this address at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It is an absolutely indispensible assessment of what the cinema is, can be, can do. It retains some faith in the cinema, but not the sort of faith of Oscar-night self-congratulation. I think a rental of The Last of England is in order.

Gossip Extra ('Don't shoot the messenger' edition): What great and quintessentially 'New York' filmmaker was spotted stumbling around in what appeared to be a state of deep inebriation, singing nonsense out loud, at 2pm in the East Village last Friday? I saw it with my own eyes ...

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Dreyer, Fulci, Horror & Film Form

There's an interesting article by Michael Grant on Dreyer's Vampyr and Fulci's The Beyond available here.

On Vampyr (taking off from Bordwell):

This is one way of construing the fact that the narrative order of the film in its totality is not to be trusted. The status of what we are seeing has become undecidable, and as a result the temporal progression of the events we see has also become uncertain. The only order of time that we can trust is the time it takes for the film to be seen [...]. The result, in this case, is a tension. Vampyr exists as a movement by means of which whatever is imaged is abolished; and yet whatever is abolished is sustained, since the being of the thing is taken up into the being of the image. The world of the film is peopled by beings who are at once present and yet somehow shadowy, almost inhuman, monstrous. It is a world in which death may be said to have doubled the impulse to life.

Very much like Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, if you ask me: these are two European art cinema milestones whose narrative veneer can still frustrate those who want to "interpret" these works as though we've seen a window upon events (rather than window upon window
upon window).

The gist seems to be: from the materiality of expression (romanticism --> modernism), the contemplation of 'the Real' (among other things, I suppose, that which pre-exists all material expression and cannot be 'named' by it, only evoked). I am temperamentally lukewarm on Lacan and psychoanalysis: I admit I don't know it because I've only read a small amount. So I won't attempt a Lacanian or Žižekian "reading" here of course.

But I can venture this much: one of the fascinating things about Vampyr is not only its aesthetic circularity (that it fundamentally refers back to itself, its own time, its own materials, rather than the projected fiction [the Symbolic?]), but that in so doing, it can pull apart the object of identification (the protagonist) in a really fascinating way. In this essay, Gilberto Perez suggests (after some deliberation): "One way of putting the difference would be to say that we identify ourselves with the young man in Nosferatu, whereas the young man in Vampyr is identified with us." And to a certain extent this is true, but while Allan Grey in Vampyr does "twin" our own consciousness, as Perez puts it, he himself is fractured into three different pieces two-thirds of the way into the film--sleeping on a bench, prowling around as an investigator, and pinned within a coffin. Dreyer essays a really fascinating conception of subjectivity and identification here--early in the film he shows us the frightening rupture of familiarity (when one of the two sisters, a feverish vampire victim, takes a sudden step towards the maniacal in front of her vigilant, horrified sister); at the later point he takes our protagonist Mr. Grey and just breaks him into protagono-trinity. (And people think Psycho was the first great modernist-narrative attack on audience identification with the subject!)

As for The Beyond, I don't remember it very well, but I do recall it featuring at least one gruesome sharp instrument to the eye, and those are always fun ...

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Hummingbirds, Etc.

Last Saturday night I made it out to Jennifer MacMillan and Bradley Eros' Millennium Film Workshop program "Aerodynamics of the Hovering Hummingbird: Science, Cinema, and Ways of Seeing." The program--three and a half hours of science and cutting edge moving images!--had its peaks and valleys, content-wise, but was a nicely conceived and ambitious undertaking. I wanted to write some brief comments on what might have been my three favorite films/videos of the evening.

Liquid Crystals, by Jean Painlevé (1976), is what it is--a beautiful work of scientific cinematography by one of the field's foremost practicioners. I'd like to see it again.

Presepe, by Bruce McClure (2004). I'm still not 100% sure what was going on with this screening, but it was essentially a four-projector affair where clear 16mm strips where run through to create a flickering and slowly changing image that looked something like this for 12-14 minutes:

What made this interesting is, partly, the contrast it held to the lushness or the impressiveness of some of the other science/scientific images of the night, which were there to amaze--McClure's piece of 'expanded cinema' didn't impress itself on one's retina by means of extraordinary imagery or colors, or interesting recorded footage. It was all about the moment-to-moment presentation of minute changes of black-and-white, and the concomitant optical experience. The "science" content wasn't recorded, it was being created as we watched it. (Another not-quite-cinema work that did this in the program, Zach Layton's Electroencephalograph Functions (Brainwave Manifestation), did nothing for me, I have to admit.)

Then there was the film by Jmac herself, The Garden Dissolves Into Air. This project (which is "super 8 to 16mm to video") sets stills from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden edited at what feels like a steady, mathematical tempo to a 'soothing' soundtrack. The dissolve transitions from image to image make for a certain dreamlike status (in the program notes Jennifer mentions an affinity for Odilon Redon, "where the marvels of nature become part of the dream world"). There's a segment of flickering motion at the end--in the still shot format, when used judiciously and fleetingly, this can be a momentous technique (as in La Jetée). The colors are gorgeous. But what ultimately resonated for me was the way the video captured something about the transcience of the photographic image as put to rhythm (the rhythm of the cinema), but because it was slowed down and pulled away from chonophotographic sequence--no longer a 24fps illusion but a multi-second, edited-image dissolve rhythm--it evoked something almost primordial about the origins of cinema's powers, and the alternatives to "capturing" (and exhibiting!) nature other than simply recording and playing it at the standard speed.