Friday, September 29, 2006

Stills from Salomé

Carmelo Bene, Italy, 1972. Like a neon lovechild between certain films by Fellini and Jarman. At this point, anyway, stills are the best thing I can offer about the film.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Abel Ferrara

So, after leaving a screening of Old Joy, my buddy Ryan and I ran into Ferrara on Houston Street last night. Unlike last time I passed by him on the street, I mustered the courage to accost him. I called his name as we approached each other, he fidgeted with his cell phone (which he was talking on), gave me his left (free) hand to shake, and muttered something to the effect of 'hold on' into the phone. I said I was a big fan, and he asked if we were filmmakers. (Maybe if we said yes he would have invited us to some crazy party?) I said, "No, I'm not a filmmaker, but I'm an avid film-watcher," at which point he busted into a quick chorus of "Girl Watcher." He assured us that Mary was coming to theaters sooner or later and that for his next project they'd be going to Italy to shoot. He shook our hands and we parted ways. Hot.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Genre, et cetera

The other day I watched René Vienet's amazing example of Situationist détournement, Les Filles de Kamaré (1974), which takes two 1970s Japanese cult films (by Teruo Ishii and Norifumi Suzuki), mashes them up with a little bit of hardcore footage shot by Vienet himself, and subtitles the films with lines like "Your signifier is equal to your signified." Eventually the dogmatic capitalists are overrun by oppressed schoolgirls who long for liberation! The film brings to the surface any number of thoughts we might have when we watch a genre film or a cult film and think of them as "subversive." Andrew Grossman writes,

"Undercomplexity is more challenging than overcomplexity. One can always play with symbols and close-read a complex text into comfortable ideology. But undercomplexity is the absence of a text to move against — it is a mirror in which one flounders for semiotics where none exist."

This isn't an anti-intellectual jab: it's couched within a very long (and not easily summarized) piece about the nature of our engagement with genericism and meaning, our very investment in cinema and its roles in the world at large. (The title is: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Ho Meng-hua.") Vienet's film (I haven't yet seen Can Dialectics Break Bricks?) shoehorns a 'reading' onto a generic undercomplexity--unconcerned with what the film "really" means or "subversively" suggests (by some way readable through theory or form). Vienet simply recognizes a structural isomorphism with his ideological product and grafts himself onto the pre-existing product, making it new in the process.

I keep thinking of Sympathy for the Underdog (Kinji Fukasaku, 1971), a terrific film, and very

It's beautiful largely because its deep, saturated colors, the rhythm of the lines in its frames, are sad and tentative. The (anti-)hero is regurgitated back into a life of crime despite all his best wishes--like innumerable gangster films!--and Fukasaku turns this conceit (cliché?) into poetry. It's beautiful because it can't last: it doesn't make thuggish capitalist-criminalism attractive so much as it dramatizes & poeticizes the generic inevitability of these gangsters' demise. (Like the oh-so-Japanese proverbial falling rose petals, etc.)

One may love the bottom rungs of generic art, one may appreciate them, learn their ins and outs, love the mediocrities as much as the stand-outs and all-stars. A proposition I'm considering: that we realize a genre film truly flexes its muscles, goes to a proper level of complexity or pungency or robustness, when we couldn't bear to have Vienet's treatment repeated to it.

An obstacle: how then do we ever know we're not simply being "seduced," so to speak, by generic charms? (After all, the Situationist-style treatment works best when it agitates and unsettles the most.) The answer for now is: vigilance, constant vigilance, and a lot of open discussion with cinephilic comrades ...

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Black Dahlia

It's almost underwhelming, now--De Palma-philes were prepared for an event, and The Black Dahlia, to my mind anyway, doesn't feel like one. It's clearly the most "commercial-minded" of De Palma's films since Mission: Imposible. That film has slowly revealed to us some hidden beauties over the years--we'll have to wait and see if The Black Dahlia does likewise.

The trouble (trouble?) is that it's actually a good genre film if you ask me. If Joe No-name were the credited director, people would (or, hypothetically, should) be saying it is a nice yarn, for all the limited positivity of such a statement. I don't understand the negative reviews, or rather, I can't put myself in the mindset of their magnitude. The movie is convoluted, sure, but it's hardly impossible to follow. Its overall shape is nice and rounded--The Black Dahlia affects a lot of different tones (e.g., Fiona Shaw's performance set up next to a sultry Hilary Swank!?) and I think it accomplished this risky business competently.

Specialists of the genre can feel free to challenge me on this, but--it would seem to me that the neo-noirs of the 1970s (the first times that people decided they'd make films that were specifically noirs and not "crime movies" or the like) gave way to the neo-neo-noirs of roughly the last decade, where historical signification is highly important and must be coded as stylishness above style-neutrality at all costs (Devil in a Blue Dress; The Funeral; L.A. Confidential) ... De Palma is a perfect "hired hand" for this sort of thing! This form of 'history' being merely the constellation of the properly satisfying (not always correct) semiotic codes, a way of presencing our past (so to speak), this is precisely what De Palma does before he even worries about the meatier questions that consume him as an artist. And the workings which come from the genre and (I can only assume) the Ellroy novel, wherein Josh Harnett's character has to reconfigure events and images he's already seen but (he realizes) has drastically misunderstood and wrongly evaluated ... that's a straight-up De Palma trope. Of course, from the sampling I've done of negative reviewing, it seems that some people are disappointed that De Palma didn't do more of "his" techniques, no bold and baroque flourishes (which I suppose were wanted to merely embellish and intensify the kewl genre trappings?). I empathize with this brand of disappointment--but I wonder why there were so few such BDP defenders with Mission to Mars and Femme Fatale, generic failures that were actually quite impressive films full of De Palma goodness?

So this is where I feel bad wishing that there were something more from The Black Dahlia. On its modest terms, it's perfectly fine--ten or twenty years from now, maybe the film won't appear to be anything too special. (FYI,
Keith Uhlich makes a worthy early case that it is special.) But neither will it--would it--appear a blight on De Palma's or any comparable filmmaker's filmography. I'm not saying the film is devoid of interest for fans, that it is 100% a "job of work" and nothing more. But my impression upon first viewing is that it's accomplished studio filmmaking made by a man exceptionally well-suited for this project, with only minor interest in terms of the De Palma vision, worldview, or stylistic development.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Sad Faces

Kikunosuke (Shôtarô Hanayagi) and Otoku (Kakuko Mori) in Mizoguchi's The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


The scene in Life of Oharu (1952) that begins with the above image: the scene where Oharu sees her son for the first time since she gave birth to him, the second of three times in her life. Oharu plays music and begs (like a woman she met earlier in the film). The camera moves up to reveal, in the background deep to Oharu's left, a procession from palace gates. The heroine puts down her instrument, scurries over to catch a glimpse as the palanquin is lowered. Her biological son, the future Lord Matsudaira, is given a snack. The procession moves on, leaving Oharu behind. She curls up on the mat where she played her sad song before, but plays nothing now. She puts her hands into her sleeves, and shivers. One of the most heartwrenching moments in the cinema; also one of the most intelligent uses of space. As he does so often, Mizoguchi "opens up" the frame to reveal a deeper truth than is originally presented in the first image of a sequence--the movement of the camera, the range and authority of its vision, make clear relations, causes, injustices, appeals that are otherwise submerged.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Hired Hand (1971)

So Easy Rider (not really one of my favorite films) gave free reign not only to Dennis Hopper to make a great film of 1971, but also Peter Fonda! The Hired Hand is less impressive than The Last Movie to my eyes, but overall it's a very beautiful film. It's lyrical but not idly so (its lyricism is part of a system). I feel like Dennis Hopper may have been something like the Tasmanian Devil on the set of The Last Movie, perhaps not a control freak but a tyrant of sorts. Fonda seems to have trusted the talents of his collaborators (Zsigmond, editor Mazzola, the cast), one could conceivably pay attention to a specific aspect of the film at the expense of the others (cinematography, musical score) and say something complimentary about it (whereas it's difficult to do this with Last Movie) ... but the film still retains the impression of unity and coherence, a singular dedication to this story that is also a reflection on its own archetypes (despite the fact that this is a laconic work, what a forthright & revealing handful of conversations the characters have about their own relationships!). Then there is an "honest day's work"--it's always refreshing to see work portrayed in a movie, too often it's glossed over as a matter of narrative inconvenience.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Celebrity, Television, Civility

Film producer and publisher Gérard Lebovici (who does not have an IMDB entry) was murdered on March 5, 1984. He was a friend of Guy Debord's, who wrote a slim book, Considerations on the Assassination of Gérard Lebovici (finally published in English in 2001) attacking the media's treatment of Lebovici and himself and their friendship in light of the assassination (which is still unsolved). At a certain point there is a very telling paragraph that I will quote at length:

"This press campaign had barely been set in motion before numerous journalists attempted to get an interview with me, ringing at my door or even telephoning me directly, despite the fact that my telephone numbers are always unlisted. They were all turned away by my friends. Dozens of photographers, in groups or individuals, and even some cameramen, stationed themselves in front of my windows for several weeks, waiting to get a picture of me on the sly. It is comforting to note that all the time spent by these incompetents came to nothing, with only one exception--after months of trying, someone managed to get a blurry, and not very interesting silhouette taken through a telephoto lens by inflitrating the house next door. The photograph, coupled with some hateful commentary, was then published by Paris-Match. The journalists of today are so accustomed to the public's submission--even their complete delight--when faced with the press' voracious need for information (of which journalists are apparently the great priests, but in fact the hired help) that I truly believe that much of the press deems guilty the person who would claim to not have to explain himself before their authority. But for me, I have always found it a crime to speak with journalists or to appear on television, in other words, to collaborate in the slightest way with the great enterprise of the falsification of reality that is lead by the mass media. It is quite normal for me to think so, and consquently to act this way, since I published the theory on this a long time ago. The press believes that all those who have access to this sort of the celebrity of the moment want it, and indeed want it as often as possible. But I have nothing to sell. Discretion is not viewed well in these times. An article in the March 23 Le Nouvel Observateur provides a revealing demonstration of this: " 'In my long career, I have never seen as strange and mysterious an affair as this one,' said an important police commander.... And he concluded, in a pensive tone: 'What do you expect--by living in secrecy, one dies in darkness.' " In this statement emerges a new sociological law which actually makes one pensive. This "important police commander" has just supplied a brilliant contribution to the theory of the spectacle. He introduces the definition of a new criminal offense. He who does not, of his own free will, make himself as visible as possible in the spectacle, lives in fact in secrecy, since all current communication in society passes through this mediation. He who lives in secrecy is a clandestine person. A clandestine person will be more and more likely to be considered a terrorist. In any case, a clandestine person is not able to frequent honorable people; and one would not therefore be terribly astonished if such person met a violent and mysterious death."

To what extent does one participate in all the Big Media of the day? More and more I feel the urge to turn and 'say no' to as much of it as possible ... but is this just tantamount to a head-in-the-sand approach? Maybe piracy is an answer. I don't know. I broke down and ordered cable in June so that I could watch World Cup games. My girlfriend and I have kept cable, even though I personally only watch it for the occasional soccer match, Food Network program, or--my guilty/unguilty pleasure--Project Runway. I could try to satisfy myself with this: "Oh, I only watch a few shows..." Because really no matter what I think I mean is that I'm still saying, "I pay x amount of dollars each month to have this cabled into my apartment, use it sparingly and so am doubtless paying too much by any standard, but justify my occasional tuning-in as an obedient set of advertisement-bombarded eyes through this very extravagance of barely using something I still pay x amount for." All I'm getting from television is entertainment, and I can get that any number of places, without purchasing the rights to see it month-to-month, and without selling myself as a statistical blip for ratings & advertisers.

One of my favorite blogs is Le Colonel Chabert. Back when le Colonel was known as Alphonse van Worden, she wrote on the work of Patrick O'Brian (of Master and Commander fame):

"The great poet of civility of the 20th century, Patrick O'Brian, proposed a code of civility whose central posture is not a soft voice, peaceable 'diplomatic' manner, or feigned flexibility of opinion, but discretion. The civil being controls his curiosity, permits the other his privacy and anonymity. Asking questions, interrogation, is in the novels of O'Brian a more serious transgression against civility than flinging an unblunted insult or even dealing a physical blow. The forced (or betrayed) confidence is the most heinous violation. 'Question and answer is not a civilized form of conversation,' declares the wandering Catalan-Irish-Catholic (crypto-Jew) Dr. Stephen Maturin, United Irishman, physician, natural scientist, and British intelligence agent."


"Amazon knows me better than I quite like. 'Alphonse, this is what we recommend.' Amazingly intuitive usually. I'll take it, and that, and that too. Once in a while something repellant comes up for my consideration, and I can't help but feel Amazon means to insult me. They immediately sense my discomfort. Indeed they read my mind, offering the question, minus two words, that has just entered my head: 'why was I recommended this?' Yes why? And the response sounds irksomely reasonable - because you bought this, that, and that...well so I did. Perhaps they have a point."

"It is impossible to protect one's anonymity with Amazon. Futilely protest your individuality, quirkiness, irreducibility to type."

"Perfect Intimacy: the relationship of the advertiser to the consumer. Seduction and control of which Cholderos de Laclos could not have dreamt, the permanent expulsion of eros from human experience. The ideal romance for capitalism: What Women Want, a film by Mel Gibson, a market researcher's fantasy of free infallible data collection - he hears women's thoughts - a film constructed around a long Nike advertisement which takes the place in the narrative usually reserved for the love scene or ecstasy of shared peril."


The battle against 'bad culture' isn't a matter of high and low (well, maybe for some people it still seems to be) ... it's rather a question of protecting our humanity, our privacy, our civility. If the world changes too drastically, if certain things we hold dear are to be swept aside as happens through history's course, then I would at least want to bend some of these inevitable changes (if inevitable they be) to my own terms, at my own pace. But Guy Debord did this, and is always mentioned with knowing smirks for it. Attacks on Debord tend to be groundless, toothless insults and simplifications. I am not saying Debord is beyond reproach--I am saying that his reproaches against him have often been beyond defense or reason. For several years, as an undergraduate, I just assumed that Debord was influential but irrevocably passé, and far too crusty to be taken too seriously. This was simply the sum result of my having read his name mentioned, usually in passing, enough times, to form this non-opinion almost by osmosis. Why? Because he recognized what culture was doing, he could point a finger at it, name it, accuse it, and to a certain extent reject it. Maybe his way is not my way, but he's one of the ones who provides an example.

This is one of my more disjointed and diaristic blog entries, long too, and with substantial quotes from better writer-thinkers than myself, and therefore not some of my better communication or conceptualization. But does anyone reading this feel they get what I'm trying to describe? An almost helpless feeling, but not totally so, unable to confidently choose a plan of action in dealing with a media-world which simultaneously provides me with purpose (for what do I want to do with myself if not look at images, information, communications, and say something about them?) and which traps me in a giant scheme to make profits (from us, from our "free time") and to try to indoctrinate us ...

(In other words, I want agency, dammit, and don't know how to get it, or feel it, or know I have it.)

Pasolini in Style

I post the above picture for no deep reason. A little while back a fashion blog that I check (almost) daily, The Sartorialist, ran an entry on Gianni Agnelli--the former head of Fiat, a "captain of industry," and a truly stylish man whose activities dealt a harsh blow to the Italian labor movement in the 1980s especially. Despite disagreements one may have with Pasolini on specifics, all would agree he was a man of the left, and all should agree that he was a great artist. When I saw this photograph around the same time as that Agnelli style tribute, I figured I'd nominate Pasolini as a counter-icon for fashionable Italians. He is pictured above on the set of Salò. I don't know who designedthe jacket he was wearing but the look is both functional and a little chic (if very '70s) and as far as directors-with-glasses go I think I like his sturdy black frames more than young Godard's shades.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Schrader's Canon

So the latest issue of Film Comment has a long article by Paul Schrader on the question of film canons or "a" film canon. It's at once a narrative of Schrader's own fizzled book project on the topic, a history of the idea of canon formation and aesthetics, and a rant about all the standard culprits ("special interest" ideologues, New Historicists, postmodernists, Marxists, and so forth). My friends, I am not completely certain I am able to evaluate this article very well. I've had a frustrating day, I've realized. My own laziness led me to just this morning ordering NYFF tickets even though I am an FSLC member and could have sent in an order weeks ago (and was only able to send in an order for The Woman on the Beach and Our Daily Bread, which weren't sold out). Then I realized that my plan to see Ugetsu in 35mm in its current Film Forum run was a wash--tonight was a "Keaton Monday" and Ugetsu is not screening again until tomorrow. Keaton's great obviously, but I was psyched to see big screen Mizoguchi. To top it all off, I finally caught up with The Corporation on DVD, and feel like going out into the street and screaming. So maybe when I return to Schrader's article I'll be a bit more generous. Until then, a few observations:

- Why, especially when Schrader huffs and puffs about how a canon need be elitist and make no special concessions to those grubby-handed minorities (my snarky phrasing, of course), does Schrader simply reiterate the standard middlebrow canon, devoid of shorts, documentaries, and that biggest bogeyman of all, avant-garde film? Really, a canon of "the elite," meant to "raise the bar" (oh, how noble of him), that includes Criterion-type Greatest Hits (and yes, yes, some of the films he mentions are masterpieces, I know) ... yawn. And honestly, I dig The Big Lebowski like just millions of other people, but shouldn't everyone feel the urge to laugh in his face at his Harold Bloomian get-up when that film (or any Coen film) gets a mention in this gilded canon ... but no Eisenstein, Hou, Rivette, Vigo, Tati, et al. ad nauseum?

- For the record: Pauline Kael did not destroy walls between High and Low culture as Schrader (disapprovingly) asserts. She was a guardian of that divide and did everything she could--subtly--to try to keep it in place. She wanted to make other respectable citizens with middlebrow aesthetics feel less guilty about slumming in the fun trash heap known as 'the movies.' She hated the idea that people might take some moovee seriously as art, and disdained the possibility that true art existed outside of a few humanistic pockets in the medium (S. Ray, some Renoir, De Sica).

- A direct quote from Schrader: "The closest thing to a true auteur was Charles Chaplin--producer, director, writer, actor, editor, composer--but even The Tramp was influenced by the clowns who preceded him." Firstly, why is it that the people who have to bloviate about the scarcity of "true auteurs" in cinema never mention the avant-garde? It's as though these people think that authorship necessitates total and even tyrannical control of the product in every facet (in which case Rembrandt and Rubens weren't always the authors of many of their own great paintings...), and yet when the cinema provides examples of such things (like Stan Brakhage to state the most obvious example), they willfully ignore them. There is no good reason for Schrader to ignore non-narrative, non-feature films. He just does. And then has the audacity to complain about the kids today not knowing film history. Secondly, how in the world does "influence" (the influence preceding clowns on The Tramp) negate or dilute authorship? Is Balzac any less the author of his novels because Sir Walter Scott came before him to lay out some models for the early 19th century novel? Or is Braque any less the author of his paintings because he worked out some of his ideas in tandem with Picasso?

But what do I know? I am a mere film blogger, and do not know where this mysterious "Montgomery Cliff" is located ...

Sunday, September 10, 2006

No Room for the Groom (1952)

Infuriating. Heartbreaking. A "high blood pressure" mini-masterpiece to be grouped with Leo MCarey's Good Sam (1948). Is it Sirk's "take" on society, or does Sirk "take on" society? (By the way, I'm having trouble formatting on Blogger right now, so I apologize if this entry looks awful.)

Quote of the Day

"A Moslem myth has it that the gods created man and woman in heaven for their amusement, providing them with a gastro-intestinal system for which they themselves had no need. They celebrated the event by invited the newly minted pair to one of those banquets the fulling crumbs of which have been known to turn into manna. Inevitably the time came when the two had to relieve themselves. There were no toilets in heaven. It was all very funny until, at last, one of the Gods took pity on their joint agony, led them to the edge of heaven and pointed to a small far-off planet called Earth where, they were told, they could go to relieve themselves. So they did. And that is why, in the whole universe, Earth is the only planet on which art flourishes, for art too, we are told, is simply a way of relieving oneself. Entire systems of aesthetics have been derived from the simple premise that catharsis is a form of salvation."

--Sidney Peterson, "A Movie House is an enlarged camera / Obscura for the sale of popcorn, a / Darkroom for star-gazing right side up." The Dark of the Screen. Anthology Film Archives and NYU Press. 1980. p. 14.

I don't know exactly why a Muslim myth would have multiple gods, but there you have it. Maybe he means 'Arabic,' maybe it's something having to do with Sufism, or maybe there are things I still have yet to learn. At any rate, recall that I nominated Delerue's score for Contempt as one of the greatest ever. Well, the loud-jazzy-brassy-talky "score" for Peterson's The Lead Shoes is a co-greatest.

Paul Sharits

I finally made it to the Rice/Richter/Sharits program which is a programming staple of the Anthology Film Archive's 'Essential Cinema' canon. It starts with Ron Rice's Chumlum, goes through three Hans Richter shorts, and ends up with Sharits' N:O:T:H:I:N:G and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G. (Strangely enough it was a packed house! But which filmmaker on the bill is "the new Tarantino"?) I was wondering what the continuity is that ties these films together, and I've tentatively decided that the strongest common bond is that these are films where the viewer's eye is barely directed toward a given part of a frame. The eye can wander to an edge, pick & choose what action or segment to look at, and (for the most part) with these films there is no "wrong" or "minor" or "peripheral" choice in so doing.

These multicolor staccato strobe films of Sharits' are really something powerful. One audience member walked out in the middle of N:O:T:H:I:N:G, muttering, "This is too boring." (She got some chuckles from the crowd.) Maybe it is, but who buys a ticket for a program like this one and just decides ten minutes into the first Sharits on the bill that it's "too boring"? I'm willing to suggest that the experience was off-putting and intense, more so than it was "boring." There's nothing to grasp onto with a film like this. You have no choice but to sit and stare at the screen for the duration. (You can close your eyes, but the flicker effect comes through anyway.) 'Sublime cinema,' no pointing elsewhere, no fictions, no illusions. Sharits is cinema on the very edge. One has to meet the works "out there" at the limit. Not everyone is inclined to do it. (And, after all, flicker films can be outright vicious on people with epilepsy.) I actually loved this films, I think, although "love" is such a poor word to describe one's reaction and relationship to such things ...

These are scattered, initial notes--more on this tomorrow, possibly ...

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Quote of the Day

"What if one thought of cinema not so much as a factory for the production of concepts, but as a factory for the production of a consciousness more and more thoroughly commodified, more and more deeply integrated in a world system? In a world organized like cinema, consciousness becomes a screen on which the affects of production are manifest. What if one thought of cinematic technologies, with their ability to burrow into the flesh, as a partial solution to the problem of expansion faced by the full globalization of capital? In a fully globalized situation, capital expands not outward, spatially and geographically, but into the body, mining it of value (Videodrome). In this schema, television viewers work in a sort of cottage industry performing daily upkeep on their sensoriums as they help to open their bodies to the flow of new commodities. When we come home from work and flip on the tube, our "leisure time" is spent paving new roads. The value produced (yesterday and elsewhere by labor time, but in advanced societies by human attention) accrues to the shareholders of the various media. It is tabulated statistically in what is called ratings and sold to other employers (advertisers) at a market value. But if, for example, we put our eyes elsewhere, or rechannel or viewings into different media, we might build some of the circulating abstractions which make possible medium scale confrontational cultural practice."

--Jonathan L. Beller, "Cinema, Capital of the Twentieth Century" Postmodern Culture 4.3 (1994)