Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Heartbreak Kid

Just watched this again last night. Surely one of the great film comedies, and one of the great pieces of awkward or uncomfortable (serio)comic cinema (cf. Leo McCarey's unheralded masterwork Good Sam, Tom Noonan's two completed films, Ricky Gervaise & Stephen Merchant's The Office, plus probably anything Albert Brooks or more by May herself have done, though I haven't seen everything). The ending really is raw and unbalanced, as the whole ostensible point of the film (romance/love/infatuation) vanishes like the illusion it was, and, pow, it's "really" about class and status and money and identity. But the film doesn't actually sketch these things out, it trusts in the viewer's own ability to connect a few dots, as well as its own ability to provide accurate signals. Grodin lies to get what he wants, and he wants what he does in order to believe more lies. The Graduate is a fine little object on many of the same issues, but this one is ten times the film, for my money.

The Farrelly Brothers (whose films I like, by the way, though I haven't kept up with their last few) are remaking this with Ben Stiller. I don't know how to feel about that.

Image of the Day

Frontispiece to 1744 and later editions of Giambattista Vico's The New Science. "Just as Cebes the Theban once made a Tablet of things moral, so I present here a Tableau of civil institutions. Before reading my work, you may use this tableau to form an idea of my New Science. And after reading it, you will find that this tableau aids your imagination in retaining my work in your memory." (Trans. David Marsh)

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Iranian Cinema, Until 1979

OK, so one thing the clear in the wake of the Abbas Kiarostami series is how necessary some light-shedding is on pre-1979 Iranian film. Thus far, the Kiarostami films from the era are basically all that I've seen. What I do have, however, are a few photocopied or digital sources on the country's pre-1979 cinema (several unavailable or not readily available online), so, here's a partial primer written/compiled by me, in the interests of people like me on this point, i.e., they know very little but want to know more, and really want to see the films. Those who've got their own knowledge on the matter are welcome to add to or (please!) correct these entries ...

Introduction and a Projective Overview of Cinema in Iran
According to Yves Thorval (in Cinemaya 44), Shah Muzaffereddin brought cinema to Iran after seeing films at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1900, though there are unsubstantiated (?) reports that the Shah's 1896 coronation had been filmed which would date the "first" Persian-cinematic moment a bit earlier. In the early years it was strictly a thing for upper and middle class viewers--but not for long. Ebrahim Khan Akkas Bashi, a court photographer, made the first Iranian film, Battle of Flowers. "It was set in Belgium and 'starred' the Shah surrounded by pretty ladies in revealing dresses." Early private or public movie theaters often ran into opposition from various religious factions, but in the 1920s a viable film culture existed in the country. Most of the films shown were not Iranian at all, however: in 1930, apparently 310 films were shown on Iranian screens--133 American, 100 French, and many others from the USSR, Germany, India, and Egypt. "The two first real cineastes apeared in Iran around 1925: Ovanes Ohanion (or Oganiantz, 1900-61) and Ebrahim Moradi (1898-1977)." (Via Thorval.) Ohanion made the first two feature films in 1930-31, both silent: "a successful adaptation of the Danish comedy Double Patte and Patachon, and Hajji Aqa, Film Actor." The latter is a pro-cinema, pro-modern (Western?) work. Talkies came onto the scene around 1933-34. The 1940s seemed to be a dry period, subject to state censorship. The next decades saw the firm establishment of a healthy film culture, with various "popular" and "serious" models. For a great overview of all of this, or more specialized information, online, go to some of the links providied throughout
. There seems to be plenty of information provided by Iranians on the history and currents of their own national cinema. From here on out I'm going to move away from the big picture and zero in on filmmakers, movements, and genres in an brief capsule format, a makeshift "reference guide" for myself and anyone else ...

Abdolhossein Sepanta (1907-1969)
Thorval calls him "the first master of Iranian cinema." A Parsi who made the first Farsi talkie (though, in India), The Lur Girl. He mostly worked in India, "'orientalist' period films with song and dances, all rooted in Indo-Persian cultures.'" He made films for less than a decade, however.

Esmail Koushan (1917-1983)
George Sadoul has called Koushan "the father of the Iranian film industry." He dubbed foreign films into Persian, and his success at this led him to bankroll Mitra Film, Iran's first production company. He started directing films in the late 1940s, with The Amir's Prisoner ('48), a "flop" that closed down Mitra. He established another production company (Pars Film Studios) and found success in the 1950s and 1960s, when a "golden age" for the country's cinema saw the establishment of various genres (and under the auspices of various production companies). According to Gholam Heidari's "Prominent Figures in Iranian Film Industry" (in a back issue of Film International), he is Cain to Gafary's Abel, a champion of popular cinema. He also worked for Goebbels during WWII.

The 'Film-e Farsi'
I'm just going to transcribe all of Thorval's text on this topic: "Literally, the 'Persian Film,' this was the Iranian-style B-series inspired by values deeply rooted in the Iranian psyche: esprit de corps, defense of the oppressed, revenge for the sake of honour, family prestige, whose archetypes were embodied by the champions (pahlawan) of the Shah Namah [
national epic of Persia--ZC] and its more accessible avatars--the Javanmard (Young Man), and Jahil and Luti (Men of Honour and Hooligans). This was the origin of a production that doped the film industry at large with more than 220 films between the late 50s and the early 70s. They were especially popular among the proletariat and rural people uprooted in Tehran, bachelors or men having left their wives in their village. In a way the 'Film-e Farsi' offered Iranian competition to the imported foreign stunt films of that period, spaghetti Westerns, family honour (Parivaar ki Izaat) Hindi films, Egyptian Furuwwahs, Turkish Bandits of Honour and American gangster films. One could cite the emblematic Chivalrous Hooligan (1958) by Majid Mohseni which demonstrated that chivalrous traditions were alive in a changing Iran, or the Jahel (Justice) Baba Shamal by Ali Hatami (1972)."

Houshang Kavusi (?)
Studied at IDHEC in Paris, the first Iranian graduate. Seventeen Days Before Execution (1956) is "a well-made thriller," and it, like several other films of the era (Thorval mentions Irano-Armenian Samuel Khachikian's "striking and successful fantasy comedy" An Evening in Hell) seems to be an indication of cinema for the masses with serious aspirations.

Samuel Khachikian (1924-2001)
Known for his innovation; he also seems to have been a good jack-of-all-trades: director, screenwriter, editor, trailer-maker, special effects guy. He rebelled against the lack of "character" in other commercial films of his time, starting to make cinema in 1952, and he pioneered the use of trailers and teaser footage in Iranian film culture. According to Heidari--"'Murder-Mystery Lighting' was the term he used for films like Cross-Road of Events (1954), Storm in Our City (1957), Midnight's Cry (1960), One Step to Death (1961), Horror (1962), The Blow (1964), and The Frenzy (1965)." He would like to light these films with a lantern for mood purposes, leaving outer swaths of the screen dark. Apparently his 1970s films were not so well-received, though The Eagles ('84) was popular.

Slamak Yassemi (?)
"Prolific" according to Thorval, who singles out Treasure of Qarun (1965) as a huge box office hit. The IMDB transliterates "Syamak Yasami," very useful to know considering that "Siamak Yassemi" (the spelling "Slamak" draws few Google hits) brings up an Iranian mathematics professor.

Mohammad-Ali Fardin (1930-2000)
An actor, not a director! Fardin played chaste heroes who were identified with by the poor. The 1960s and to a lesser extent the 1970s, Fardin was a huge star in Persian popular cinema. (Yassemi/Yasami directed Fardin in several films...)

Farrokh Gafary (1921-2006)
A major figure for the development of "serious" film. Paris-educated. First film was South of the Town ('58), the town in question being Tehran, and the people depicted being the impoverished. It was a neorealist work, and unpopular, and apparently also banned. The Night of the Hunchback (1964), a crime drama (Thorval calls it a "powerful and humorous noir tale"), seems to be one of the most important Iranian films of the decade, and, by the way, it is showing in New York this spring at the Tribeca Film Festival. (Hope I can get a ticket!) There are umpteen different transliterations of this fellow's last name, which makes Internet searching for him in a Western alphabet quite inconvenient.

Ebrahim Golestan (1922-present)
It seems like he's mentioned right after Gafary in each of my sources. Noted for Adobe and Mirror (1965). Some things he's written for the Iranian appear

Davud Mollapur (?)
Graduated of the London Film Institute. Made Mrs. Gazelle's Husband (Thorval: "unconventional in tone and interpretation" ... "a hit with female viewers").

Noorreddin Zarrinkelk (1937-?)
An important animator who worked for IIDCYA; I wonder if he made the sequences in Kiarostami's Toothache?

Fereydoun Rahnema (?)
Also studied in Paris. "Sought to renew the cinematic language" (Thorval). Made Siyavash in Persepolis (1967), "shot in the ruins of Achemenid Persepolis and inspired by the Shah Namah." The film has a non-linear temporal structure, and harkens back to antiquity, which makes yours truly wonder how the work looks next to, say, Pasolini's historical films, or the non-linearity of Godard, et al. ...

All of the "serious" filmmakers of the 1950s-60s are mentioned as precursors to what is sometimes called the Iranian New Wave, the Moj-e No (or Sinema Motafavet), plus the "Free Cinema" of Iran (Cinema-ye Azad) which--as long as we're not talking about the 1990s, which is also sometimes referred to as the country's New Wave--I suppose is something that we can say began at the end of the 1960s and went on for a decade. Also, it was in the mid-1960s that independent film production started to rise, according to one online source, 10 films in 1964, and 17 in 1965. Film schools become more common in the mid- to late '60s. National Iranian Television (1969) and cinematheques or films clubs pop up.

Masud Kimiai (1941-present)
Known for making films about "the life of rebels and troublemakers" (Heidari). Started work as an assistant for Samuel Khachikian (Goodbye Tehran, 1966), then worked with Hollywood filmmaker Jean Negulesco on the Iranian-US co-production The Heroes aka The Invincible Six (1969). Made Caesar, "a blood and revenge melodrama where rapists and killers are punished" with "what was dubbed a 'Hitchcockian touch'" (Thorval). Others of the period: his debut Come, Stranger ('69), Qaysar ('69), Baluch ('72), The Soil ('73). Thorval also singles out Dash Akol (1971), "a Manichean jahel film" adapted from Sadegh Hedayat, and The Deer ('74), "an ambiguous film on political repression in the troubled 70s." (This last film, according to Olaf Möller, was the object of a major riot, hundreds of casualties, during the uprisings in Iran in 1979.) I gather he was known for unusual, maybe somewhat eccentric and serious psychological forays. Had a friendly, productive, and lasting collaboration with film composer Esfandiar Monfaredzadeh, too--the pair of them introduced vocal singing into Iranian film (during the credits) with 1969's Reza, the Motorcyclist. Late films have Kimiai doing many of the same things, it appears: Journey of the Stone ('78), Snake Fang ('90), The Sergeant ('91), Sultan ('97), The Cry ('99), and The Protest (2000) "describe the lives of emotionally wounded heroes with whom the viewer is expected to identify."

Dariush Mehrjui (1940-present)
UCLA trainee. Directed The Cow ('69), the most famous pre-1979 Iranian film (at least in the US; apparently the film flopped in its home country). Then, The Postman (1972), "an allegory of the alienation and impotence of the poor," and Mina's Cycle (1974), a "powerful" film.

Gholam Hossein Saedi (1935-1985)
Socially-conscious playwright and screenwriter behind The Cow and Mina's Cycle, both directed by Mehrjui. Also wrote Taghvai's Tranquility Among Others.

Sohrab Shahid Saless (1943-1998)
Studied in Vienna in Paris, and expatriated to West Germany in 1974. He made a few films in Iran, however, A Simple Event ('73, scorned by critics and not [initially?] shown to the Iranian public) and Still Life ('74), the photography on which Thorval says "amounts to masterpieces of painting." In the Jul/Aug 2004 issue of Film Comment, Olaf Möller wrote a long appreciation of Saless.

Bahram Beyzai (1938-present)
"One of the most gifted of Iranian cineastes" who "made major films in various styles and forms" (Thorval). Downpour (1972) and The Stranger and the Fog ('74) are noted by Thorval as pre-'79 masterpieces. Many people, including Susan Sontag, love(d) his early '90s film Travellers, which I've been meaning to see for a long time now. Möller considers Beyzai the greatest Iranian filmmaker. Actress Susan Taslimi starred in several films by Beyzai.

Amir Naderi (1945-present)
First a cinematographer on several Kimiai films, among others. His 1971 film Goodbye, Friend deals with suicide (Taste of Cherry ain't the first!), and Tangsir ('73) also drew attention. Harmonica, produced by the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young People (which also produced most of Kiarostami's early films), "offers a biting insight into childrens' 'sadism'" (Thorval). Heidari divides Naderi's work into two classes, one (largely early work, which includes Goodbye, Friend and Harmonica) is narrative, and the other (later work, like The Waiting ('74) and The Runner ('85), among others) is anti-narrative.

Parviz Kimiavi (1939-present)
Studied at the Vaugirar School of Cinema as well as IDHEC in Paris. Worked in documentary in France (including a doc on May '68) and Iran before making The Mongols (1973), "a Godardian onirico-ideological satire of incommunicability between both the couple and between the rural and the urban masses when television starts spreading in the country." Has made later films in France and Iran.

Nasser Taghvai (?)
Tranquility Among Others was made in '70 but banned until '73.

Kamran Shirdel (?)
Graduated from Rome's Centro Sperimentale. "Iconoclastic short films" before going on to do The Night It Rained ('67), a 35-minute film about "the frontier between truth and lies" (Thorval).

Ali Hatami (1944-1996)
"Among the seven features ... made before the Revolution, one must quote his Baldheaded Hassan (1970), the strange modern Arabian Nights-like story of a man who falls in love with an unknown woman seen in the park and is given the fulfilment of six vows by a jinn (genie) against the sixth of the lifetime remaining to him" (Thorval). A lot of his cinema comes from a fascination with traditional/folk storytelling and language's rhythms, according to Heidari, who informs us that he was considered the "most Iranian" Iranian filmmaker.

Arbi Ovanessian (?)
Irano-Armenian. The Spring (1970), which is the only film by this filmmaker in IMDB.

Nosrat Karimi (?)
The Coach Drive (1971).

Hajir Daryoush (?)
Bita (1972), which is the only film directed by Daryoush listed on IMDB.

Bahman Farmanara (1942-present)
I missed chances to see two 1970s Farmanara films recently, so I'll allow myself to spend a day in the stocks. But his work seems to have general acclaim, both pre- and post-1979, and he also produced a lot of noteworthy films, including Kiarostami's The Report ('77) and Valerio Zurlini's The Desert of the Tartars ('76). He was unpopular with authorities in his own country during the 1980s and '90s and unable to actually make any films during those two decades. He lived in France and Canada during most of this time.

Mohamed Reza Aslani (?)
Chess Game of the Wind (1976), produced by Farmanara.

I've mostly elided actors, dubbers, and other important figures in the industry, for the sake of simplicity among other reasons ... I trust I don't have to say too much about Kiarostami, either ... and as for dates of birth and death, or film release, I found a lot of sources disagreeing by a year or so: thus, take them all as provisional at best.

Links -
Cinema of Iran, and plenty of good things at the Iran Chamber Society's page for cinema (this great source I've only begun to look through, so...).

The Clouds ...

“We want people to lose themselves in our films”, the Straubs told me. “All this talk about 'distanciation' is bullshit.”

Not unlike with Quei loro incontri a few weeks ago, I was quite tired at a screening for that other Straub-Huillet film based (partly) on Pavese's Dialogues with Leucò, From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979) preceded by Every Revolution Is a Throw of the Dice ('77). The result is that these films don't exist well in my head as "texts." They're like streams, a constant wash of great sensual beauty in both image and sound ...


A terrifying opening shot; a soundtrack that in the Florence Gould Hall of the Alliance Française reverberated powerfully--a stream of nonsense and grunts and howls and material destruction. Themroc (Claude Faraldo, 1973) is an intense experience to say the least. The film's conceit is a really simple and literal one: a dystopic fantasy wherein figures of power and authority (capitalists, management, the police) don't speak the same language as regular people, the laborers, who in turn simply revert to a primordial state of being--stemming from Michel Piccoli (or perhaps from another, viciously-visaged growling individual we see in about three shots), but spreading through the sphere of the social space, the back alley not unlike the big working-living square that unites the proletarian heroes of Le Crime de M. Lange. A lot of this mythopoeticism veers toward patriarchal mumbo jumbo (Piccoli's sister, Beatrice Romand, is basically around to serve as a bare-breasted cipher, a total dependent, and a sometime-object of Piccoli's sexual advances, not unlike other female characters in the film, as Daniel Kasman has already pointed out), but at least, in terms of its gender politics, the film doesn't present itself as anything other than a "Me Tarzan - You Jane" fantasy as seen from a third person pov. (And there is a bit of a counter-example of a woman being the head of her own revolutionary family...) So if you can live with that representation of power dynamics as presented as something liberatory (not necessarily utopian mind you), then you can more peacefully groove on the liberatory potential of the social breakdown which is front-and-center here. After being fired from his job, Piccoli steals materials from a construction site and walls up the living room to his apartment, blocking out his elderly mother and his sister, and builds his own "door," the one that faces out to the social sphere, the back alleys of the neighborhood, through which the contagions of prelinguistic revolution can spread.

Themroc fits into a certain wave of "breakdown" films that seemed to be common in, at least, European New Waves' later sections (it has elements to remind one of Week End and other Godards, Daisies, Makavejev, the Panic Movement in Spain, the Actionists). I'm leaving a lot of discussion about the film's interesting points unsaid, maybe because I want to see it again, to look at it closely before I say too much more about the connections between sounds and images, between bodies, between this specter of the real world and the real world. It's worth seeing if you get a chance, there is a lot to take from the film ...

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Online Reading Review

And sometimes it's good to read about cult movies, dime-a-dozen genre movies ... for me, it's most appealing to read about "trashy" cinema not from the people who would insist on calling it trashy, hailing it as trashy, something to "slum" in, but from those whose affection for these forms is genuine, with loving research, sometimes painstaking social contextualization, and a lot of careful attention to detail (textual or otherwise) ...

At Tomb It May Concern, David Zuzelo writes about Italian postapocalyptic films in a series titled "Pastapocalypse Then" (part 1, part 2, part 3). I think I've probably only seen one film mentioned in the whole cycle (1990: The Bronx Warriors), but I've added a couple more to my Netflix queue.

Kimberly Lindbergs recently finished her 'year-in-DVD' wrap-up over at Cinebeats, with plenty of new titles for her readers to make note of.

I've just discovered a forum called European Film Review, in which one of the main contributors is James Cheney (as 'C., James C.'), the fellow behind some of my favorite posts over at Mobius Home Video Forum. Tons and tons of information about, especially, Italian genre cinema (so much more than just zombies and spaghetti cowboys), couched by Cheney and others with great care for cultural contexts and historical understanding of trends (stylistic, thematic, aesthetic) and film production over the years.

* * *

Speaking of spaghetti westerns, earlier this evening I watched 800 Bullets, Alex de la Iglesias' film from a few years back (picked up a widescreen VHS copy for a buck or two). Great cinema? No. But quite entertaining. Sometimes it's refreshing to see filmmakers just pack so much into a film. Not in the way that the stereotypical debut filmmaker wants to put "everything" into the first feature, but in the way that different tonal threads, visual-thematic cues, and the like will pop up rhythmically as the storyline progresses, without making one think there's some great symbolism in overdrive, or hyper-affectivity. This isn't a specifically authorial richness, I don't think--the kind of richness that Ford or Losey could put into their films; I think a lot of it has to do with studio craftsmanship, but not so much as a Genius of the System itself, but the Geniuses within the System: less than great and singular authors maybe, but not exactly hacks, either. Does de la Iglesia count? Well, damned if I know, this is the first thing I've seen by him, but it kind of feels that way. Convention is writ large on the film, and one can discern what are probably committee-style fingerprints here and there ... but the job wasn't phoned it, somebody or somebodies took some control and made a film with a bit of fire & sex & pungency & control to it. Just nice to see, is all. Furthermore, why do I feel like at least 75% of all Spanish films I see have half-submerged emotional cores about absent fathers?

* * *

I'm pretty sure I've linked to this blog once or twice before, but anyway, The Unapologetic Mexican is a great read, one of the best places I've found online for an intertwined discussion of the personal & the political, and here is a funny little piece about Angelina Jolie and her adoption adventures, to just point to one sample amongst plenty of interesting material ...

Friday, March 16, 2007

Image of the Day

After the Fact, Appropriation

Lousy Smarch weather! Our trip out of town has been cancelled, and the weekend will have to be for something other than a trip to Chicago. Tonight instead is a little chess, a little Berlioz, and a little Knob Creek. And, as is readily apparent, some blogging ...

"What is now happening to Marx's doctrine has occurred time after time in history to the doctrine of revolutionary thinkers and leaders of oppressed classes struggling for liberation. The oppressing classes have constantly persecuted the great revolutionaries in their lifetime, reacted to their teachings with the most savage malice, the wildest hatred and the most shameless campaigns of lies and slander. Attempts are made after their death to convert them into harmless icons, to canonize them, so to speak, and to confer a certain prestige on their names so as to 'console' the oppressed classes by emasculating the essence of the revolutionary teaching, blunting its revolutionary edge and vulgarizing it. The bourgeoisie and the opportunists within the working-class movement at the moment co-operate in this 'elaboration' of Marxism. They forget, erase and destroy the revolutionary side of this doctrine, its revolutionary soul. They push to the foreground and extol what is or seems acceptable to the bourgeoisie. All the social-chauvinists are now 'Marxists': oh, please don't laugh! And it is ever more frequent for German bourgeois scholars, who only yesterday specialized in the destruction of Marxism, to speak about the 'nationa-German' Marx who allegedly educated the workers' unions which are so splendidly organized for the waging of a predatory war!"

-- Lenin, the first paragraph of The State and Revolution (trans. Robert Service)

"There are even some people who believe that thinking based on the opposition of subject and object was invented by Marx. (After all, why should they be any different in claiming Marx for themselves?) They are still arguing about what constitutes "correct" and false consciousness, for instance. Yet, consciousness must always be false if it is set in opposition to the "unconscious," emotion, and human affectivity--and as a rule, it is. [In case the context isn't enough to make this clear, Theweleit is saying "it is" empirically, referring to how people conceive of the psyche, and not laying down a piece of theoretical doxa. --ZC] "Correct" and "false" exist as potential distinctions within axiomatic systems. The science of human beings should learn to renounce such distinctions and introduce others, for instance, distinctions based on modes of production or degrees of aliveness. "Living," "dying," and "killing" are distinctions that are more adequate to reality, easier to make, and more useful (but more dangerous)."

-- Klaus Theweleit, Male Fantasies (vol. 1) (p. 219) (trans. Stephen Conway)

"Mr. Smith, You should really stick to Mr. Kaus' rule, never compare anything to Hitler. If you remember, Hitler despised anyone who was not of Arian descent. In fact the Germany army in their quest to conquer the world invaded Greece and occupied it in the early stages of World War II. Over 100,000 Greek Civilians died from starvation alone in the 1st year of German Occupation. I'm not so sure Adolf's Boys were too interested in glorifying the battle of Thermopylae since the Greeks would have been considered sub-human in the eyes of the Nazies."

-- comment from one Ryan Higgins to film reviewer Kyle Smith, surrounding the hate mail that came in after Smith made some apparently too-liberal remarks about Zack Snyder's 300 and its ideological or allegorical content.

(By the way: two good English-language films about Greece and WWII--Powell & Pressburger's Ill Met By Moonlight, and Robert Aldrich's The Angry Hills.)

(Above: the Museum of Modern Literature in Marbach, designed by British architect David Chipperfield, or at least by his Anglo-German team. I didn't look it up to be sure. 2006.)

A Little of This, a Little of That

1. The Tribeca Film Festival is putting up its line-ups on its website gradually, making me wish for the first time in years that I'd like a press pass to write about the festival (the Restored/Rediscovered section looks especially interesting). A futile feeling, though: I work a 9-to-5 and I think Tribeca's critics' screenings are in the daytime anyway, no? So I don't even need to worry about convincing anyone to sponsor me, or accredit me on the basis of EL.

2. Does anyone have DVD screeners, VCDs, whathaveyou, of Colossal Youth and/or Rain Dogs? I'm looking for certain images to screengrab, really, so I would appreciate a permanent trade, a loan, or even just being sent some jpegs.

3. Filmmakers I would love to see get travelling retrospectives (pleeease): F.J. Ossang, Shinsuke Ogawa, Adolfo Arrieta, António Reis, Rogério Sganzerla, Rose Lowder, Yervant Gianikan & Angela Ricchi Lucchi, Riccardo Freda, Raymonde Carasco, Parviz Kimiavi, Sohrab Shahid Saless, and Rattana Pestonji. Maybe we should start online petitions to get retrospectives together? Or do any EL readers have encouraging news about any of these figures? I know that some Freda films are on DVD; and Ossang also has a little home video representation; I know that I have missed a few chances to see the most recent Gianikan & Ricchi Lucchi film (my bad); but some of these figures--Pestonji, Carasco--I've waited a long time to see!

4. Not that I'm always good at seeing retrospectives, especially when they're at BAM--I still haven't made a single Imamura this month. Out 1 and Kiarostami have been the priorities, and these next few days would be great for me to catch a few--but I'm leaving town tonight for the weekend! So I imagine that if some enterprising local programmer were to actually take a weekend to show Ossang's films, it would (a) play on Thanksgiving weekend, or (b) play opposite screenings of Pestonji's Prae Dum.

5. I should be seeing 300 next week, and if I have anything to say about it at all, it might make for an interesting dimension to the anti-Persian currents briefly touched upon here w/r/t the Solomon-Kiarostami interview ...

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Kiarostami Until 1987

Everything you'll want to know about Abbas Kiarostami on the blogosphere of late is probably to be found at The House Next Door with Keith Uhlich's coverage, including an excellent interview that blows away the Solomon one I ranted about below. Consider my material supplementary. Kiarostami's films often repeat themselves, structurally, gesturally, semiotically. But to point out this obvious fact is perhaps also to suggest a uniformity of tone and style that simply isn't there: seeing the early works (from the pre-Koker days) simply widens our eyes to Kiarostami's capabilities, his range, even as it simultaneously presents deeper burrowings into the obsessions, pathways, and tics of the AK oeuvre.

To wit: a toothache in The Traveller (1974; sometimes referred to as Kiarostami's first feature; the boy hero, who spends the running time of the film contriving to see a soccer match in Tehran, has a toothache and wears a cloth sling around his head), which is expanded upon in Toothache (1979), an uncomfortable educational film which accompanies its dentist lecture with the sounds of its own boy protagonist's squealing and moaning as he submits to the drill in the dentist chair just off-screen. Disorderly or Orderly (1981), which seemed to be a favorite with the MoMA crowd, sets the stage for Fellow Citizen (1983), which seemed to agitate the same crowd. The latter film is nicely "explained" or "prompted" by the former, however, in that the dialectic between order and chaos, authority and liberty, truth and lie starts to blur, and the subjectivity of any given person--i.e., viewer--starts to bubble up more heavily for us. Our responses are simply inscriptions of our own boredom or aesthetic sense or pragmatic considerations. Kiarostami's cinema, for our cerebral cortices, is sometimes analogous to an optical illusion that illustrates to you what you think you see but which your eyes & mind are only "filling in." It's not a lesson per se, no more than it is a message, and consequently only those who go to these films looking for nice containable messages from this (presumed?) nice containable foreign director are to be disappointed, confused, stymied. And those who are otherwise too bored with what's going on are free to leave their seats. Kiarostami, more than most directors, seems not to be upset when audience members have nasty or exasperated reactions to his work, because he's not so hung up on the importance of his Hallowed Authorial Vision as such. A great variety of reactions or non-reactions are valid.

I'm going to allow myself a digression here: as I told a few companions before one of the programs, I simply have to part ways with people who think that being boring, or failing to "capture" a viewer's attention, is the worst possible sin for a film, or any work of art. Do some people not believe in viewer agency!? The viewer is always free to look away, daydream, leave the theater, turn off the television. Boredom is something that exists between film and viewer, whether borne of purpose or merely ineptitude in a work. Maybe people who get angry about films that don't entertain them are just sour because they didn't have the willpower to up & find something better. (Life is short, why sit in misery?) One can say, of course, 'I thought that Film X was so boring!' but I just don't understand being angry or offended about it, which is the vibe I have gotten sometimes from people who don't like Kiarostami. (Compounding this is sometimes the charge--never an argument, mind you, just the unadorned assertion--that he's necessarily pretentious and so is everyone who praises him.) I hardly need or expect everyone to like Kiarostami, of course. But it's really hard for me to handle kneejerk condemnation for an artist whose work has meant so much for me over several years, and, on top of that, an artist who seems to be a genuinely generous and forthright individual. (Not that it matters for the quality his art--just that it's too bad his intentions & reputation have to suffer slander.) Now, something that is sociopolitically offensive or harmful--those films are what I'd rather direct the venom towards. Slowness, I can live with; meanderings and tangents and irresolution, I can live with. I'm fine with quite a few variations of the theme we might all choose to call "boredom."

At any rate, Fellow Citizen is 52 minutes of a traffic cop listening to people's reasons/excuses for entering a certain section of downtown Tehran, which had just recently instituted a no-cars policy. (These seem to be fairly commonplace in many metropolises of the world--I remember first hearing about a thing a few years ago, a successful institution in Bogotá--though I don't know if I've heard of any firsthand in America, the Land That Hates Pedestrians. Can anyone confirm or deny?) Though not, perhaps, likable, the film is successful in achieving its goals, I think, which are suggested above. Another thing I found interesting about this film, like Toothache, is that I'm not sure the extent to which it is a nonfiction work.

And characters in The Experience (1973) repeat in The Wedding Suit (1976), two films with interlocking characters and settings. The Experience is very interesting as a sort of tactile film, b&w and subtly color-tinted, and edited in an elliptical, forceful way. It's 60 minutes, and by some definitions could qualify as AK's first feature, before The Traveller, which is less prickly in terms of form and structure, but certainly one of Kiarostami's richest films in terms of traditional character psychology and dramatic mood: for me it proves to some detractors that the director doesn't make slow-paced repetitive landscape films because he's simply inept at making linear plot-based ones.

A particular highlight of his earlier work, I thought, was Recess ('72; probably in my three or four favorites from pre-1987), a very opaque and fascinating film about a boy's flight from a few unpleasant experiences. The last couple of shots were knockouts: very lonely and powerful.

The Chorus ('82) is probably Kiarostami's most purely beautiful early film film in terms of color, light, and texture. It's a very simple little movie, the sort of thing that you could see winning a special jury prize for 'Best Foreign Short Subject Piece of Appealing Low-Key Humanism.' An elderly man wanders through his town, removing his hearing aid as he deems convenient, such as when he arrives home and doesn't want to hear the jackhammering outside his windows. His granddaughter wants to visit him after school, but he can't hear the buzzer, so she gets a "chorus" of schoolgirls together to yell for his attention. That's not what's important here, though. What's important is the way Kiarostami films light, really getting its play on walls and through windows, getting the clarity of bright colors in his characters' clothing, capturing the swaths of tans and grays that adorn the village walls.

First-Graders ('84) has to be Kiarostami's most Wisemanian (-seeming?) film; in fact it would make an intriguing double-bill with the American's High School. The extent to which its scenes were staged interests me. Solution No. 1 ('78) takes what appears to be a bit of a Kiarostami signature--somebody propelling an object (ball, can) down a street--and magnifies it into a film, as a bellbottomed man's "solution" to getting a spare tire onto his car somewhere in the mountains. It has a tight, spare singlemindedness that was very appealing.

On Bread and Alley ('70) I have nothing really to say, except that it's a fine little film of extremely modest ambitions. One of the people I was chatting with at the Kiarostamis that day--was it you, D-Kaz?, my sieve-for-a-memory is failing me; perhaps it was Brian B.--expressed my own feelings perfectly: the film felt familiar, like something that might have shown on a PBS children's show even in America. I have fascinating ruminations that Sesame Street bought US television rights to Bread and Alley and I saw it when I was 3. So Can I and Two Solutions for One Problem (both '75), Colors ('76), and How to Make Use of Leisure Time. Painting ('77) are also very modest films, these very short didactic pieces, that illustrate Kiarostami's playful conceptualism in very quick brushstrokes.

And lastly, a note on delineations--I have used 1987 as the date to demarcate "early" Kiarostami from "mature" Kiarostami, which is not only roughly correlative to his switch to feature filmmaking, but also indicative to the availability of his films in the West, or at least in the United States: the pre-1987 films have almost no presence. But I just saw Homework tonight, and my impression is that that film is really "Kiarostami's Numéro deux," the one where he changed a lot of gears in the middle of a career and really reconsidered most of his assumptions about filmmaking. Conceptually speaking, I think 1989 is maybe a more accurate date than '87 for bifurcating the Kiarostami corpus. Perhaps in later years we'll consider--with confidence--Ten or Five another major transition point.

Monday, March 12, 2007

NYTimes Q&A with Abbas Kiarostami

Read it here. I think it's really bad. The interviewer, Deborah Solomon, seems to have one guiding theme--hit home that "over there," in Iran, those people, those Islamofascist tyrants who presumably control every facet of every citizen's life, are ... well, bad. And how crazy is it that Kiarostami is able to make his beautiful masterpieces in the midst of all that crazy oppressive fanaticism over there? ... Nevermind, of course, that Kiarostami is allowed to live and leave his evil and repressive country, to make his films and show them (elsewhere), and that last time he tried to come to the States, it was the government of our freedom-loving society that wouldn't let him in. (Nevermind, also, that a decade ago, Roger Ebert and most everyone else were happy to boo-hiss-and-shout that Kiarostami was just a case of the Emperor's New Clothes, because the man's film shared the Palme D'Or in 1997, god forbid. It took the patient effort of critics like Chesire and Rosenbaum, among others, to get him into the place he occupies in American film culture today, which is still marginal, but now an "admired" & "respectable" middle-highbrow marginality. Though even that seems to be relegated to his 1987-1999 work.) And it's not my intention to stick up for the policies of Iran's government, but this interview--and all the unexamined assumptions it trafficks in--is just ridiculous.

Solomon's questions include:

"New York’s Museum of Modern Art is screening 32 of your films this month and touting your accomplishments as one of the great film directors of our time. I imagine you are less celebrated back home in Tehran." ... "As an independent filmmaker living in a repressive Islamic theocracy, are you harassed by the government?" ... "Unlike some other Iranian artists who have fled the country, why have you decided to stay put?" ... "Seriously, how do artists in Iran deal with the restrictions imposed on them by the government?" ... "What do you think of President Ahmadinejad? Do you agree with his policies?" (If Iran were really as outwardly horrible and repressive a state as these questions would lead one to believe, would Kiarostami really be able to sit and talk to a Times reporter able to candidly answer that question?) "As a Shiite Muslim, are you religious?" (Kiarostami indicates the private nature of the question, which, again--in a horrible awful evil Islamic theocracy, a frank answer to the negative might cause him great trouble, no?) "Many of us in the West are confounded by the intensity of the violence between Iraq’s Shiites and Sunnis, since they belong to the same faith." (Here's where I just roll my eyes. But AK, patient as with all of Solomon's questions, has a fine answer.)

Admittedly, Solomon's last three questions, non-political ones, are pretty good. In a completely insubstantial way, of course.

Once more, I am not trying to stick up for Iran. I mean, I very much "disagree" with strict religious societies, Islamic or otherwise. But really this is a question about agendas, and about the repeated propagation of certain commonplaces about a country that happens to be on the United States' shitlist, about the way a debate is framed, what assumptions are made and insisted upon by the interlocutor in power. (A pop culture example that springs to mind: I recall watching the MTV music awards a few years ago, and my friend and I were joking about how baldly the VJs had to "push" their own ceremony. "Aren't these awards just so crazy and unpredictable?" Almost verbatim. "What was your favorite ceremony moment of the past?" they'd ask a guest. "Was it when all those Eminem clones came out?" Honestly, how transparent does it have to get before people express their disgust en masse?)

It's not that Iran is good and pure and wonderful--it's that we, culturally, our journalists or critics or pundits, keep insisting that it's like the Realm of Mordor, even in seemingly innocuous bits like the one discussed here. And I understand Solomon's bit is a quick Q&A, rigidly guided & structured, not an extended feature interview. This isn't about her personal guilt or responsibility as though she's some bad, xenophobic anti-Iranian. But, if one wants to ask those Big Questions about cinema, censorship, and theocracy in Iran, would it have hurt to simply ask Abbas Kiarostami what he thought of cinema, censorship, and theocracy in Iran, instead of framing the questions along the lines of, 'Given how awful is it there, and how unappreciated your films are there, how do you go on with life at all'? Well, yes, it would have hurt to do so--it would have made for an open dialogue when a cross-examination was more pertinent to the aims of the "liberal" Times and the "liberal" media establishment.

More on Kiarostami in the near future ...

Friday, March 09, 2007

Netflix Woes

I have had Netflix for a few months now. Since my NYC videostore of choice, TLA, had to close (why oh why!?), it is now my only video rental source aside from the New York Public Library. I haven't had too many problems with Netflix, but I have had some broken discs (about 4 now in roughly as many months). Two of these discs--the original and its replacement--have been The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein. Could it be that someone out there is wreaking havoc on discs of this film (whether for its politics or its aesthetics)? How much has this been a problem for other Netflix users? Is there ever any kind of penalty, i.e., will they suspect me if I report too many broken discs? Because I really want to see Fernanda Hussein, among other broken discs, and I'm afraid to request a third disc for it.

Ernie Gehr's Still

Eight shots, nearly identical reframings of the same storefronts (a furniture store, a restaurant with a sign above that says 'soda - lunch') as viewed from across the street. On one major level Still is an exercise or investigation into the differences to be wrought from a single root image--differences in color, light, shadow, grain, movement, and even the accompaniment or counterpoint of sound (the latter shots/passages have a soundtrack with them, a loud roar of traffic, wind, and people; it sounds like New York). The color progression from shot to shot, as the images seem to go through a seasonal progression (check out the leafless tree in the first shot or two, winter; then some more leaves as there appears to be slightly more saturation to the color; you notice the tree gets fuller, the red brick gets bolder; the thick jackets and hats on the humans passing by fade away). The lines of shadows along the street and storefront, differing with each segment and consequently with each minute reframing, draw an ever-changing grid over that same root image.

Still is a film about this kind of inscription upon an Ideal: the inability to nail down a single definite image; the suggestion that any ideal is really a compromise between all empiricals or particulars. What Gehr did was double expose his film, letting transient action (people and moving cars) appear as ghosts, so that people drift along the sidewalk translucently, and we're not sure if a car really "exists" or not at a given moment in a given spot. Sometimes the film is funny about this--such as when a person crossing the street in the time of one exposure "runs into" a car of the other exposure. (Or when two cars "hit" each other.)

Whereas Still is about comparisons between different times, and the imagistic frissons between them, I felt that the other film on the program, Snow's One Second in Montreal, is about the carving into a hundred tiny pieces a single unitary or cumulative moment-image-idea. (P. Adams Sitney has linked this film to concerns in the aesthetics of animation.) Richard Foreman wrote of Still,

"Memory, memory--the seductive memory of the mood and atmosphere of summer morning, afternoon and evening--the burning and obsessive desire I myself have always had to somehow frame and "make solid" those elusive quiverings--Gehr has succeeded in making what I believe to be the first "objectification" of atmosphere film, in which the objects and relationships between them end up RADIATING the mood which heretofore I had only been able to think of as a "container" rather than the contained."

I think this echoes a lot of my response, the key word in this passage being "radiating," as the sort of energy of the relationships, as time overlaps itself, between objects (or rather images) is what matters. Snow's relationships in Montreal strike me as more cerebral, more sheer in time and constructed according to a linear progressive kind of accumulation. Can anyone who has seen these films corroborate, or did they get a different feeling altogether?

Image of the Day

Vladimir Tatlin, Sailor, 1911

Thursday, March 08, 2007


Today is International Women's Day! (Well, there is about a half-hour left.) Being a film blogger means I'm a member of a de facto boys club, so for no other reason than the date, I'll raise a glass to those women who've contributed their voices to the 'sphere--which includes Jen McMillan (repping the avant-garde to boot), the Cinetrix, Tram Ngo, the Siren, Johanna Custer, Jenna Ng, and Pamela Kerpius, to name a few film bloggers. I've taken plenty of things away from reading them ...

* * *

Today was also a fine day for films at MoMA. (Films that were, surprisingly enough for myself, a Kiarostamiphile during an AK retrospective, not by Kiarostami. ABC Africa, which I've already seen and loved, was playing earlier tonight.) Let's start with the last screening first. Ho Yuhang's Rain Dogs got a fairly hefty recommendation from Dan Sallitt, so I ended up seeing it despite being pretty tired. It's something of a coming-of-age tale, a bit sentimental but not really investing itself in pathos because there's not much of narrative arc. Things happen, the hero maybe grows a bit, but it's more a portrait of adolescence than a narrative of it. It's worthwhile. A certain erstwhile film blogger whom I hadn't seen since the days we were in classes together said afterward (and I agree with him), the DV photography grew more appealing as the film went on. Before Rain Dogs I caught the Gehr & Snow program, which was sparsely attended (I guess I can't complain if people were too busy seeing ABC Africa), but also very respectfully attended. The audience was very quiet. I don't have my thoughts fully formulated on Ernie Gehr's Still ('69-'71) but hope to post something about it before the weekend is over. Michael Snow's One Second in Montreal is, to me, very opposite in technique from Gehr's film, so it took me about a third of its 17-minute-running time to get on its wavelength (pun not intended, but obviously kept) and try to get into the specific time-space mentality Snow demands for his still shot images of wintry Montreal. Aesthetically & thematically, this Gehr + this Snow is either a programming duo so broadly obvious as to be "wrong," or it's a really bold move that demands a reversal from one way of viewing a film to another. More explanation of this after I've written down a few words on Still.

Meanwhile, in Brazil ...

From amongst our southern neighbors, from whom many of my compatriots (myself definitely included) could learn a few things, on a continent where there are still a very sizeable number of people with backbone and a voice (the Associated Press via Yahoo):

SAO PAULO, Brazil - Police clashed Thursday with Brazilians protesting a visit by President Bush and his push for an ethanol energy alliance, while dozens of students in Colombia showed their opposition by lobbing rocks and explosives at authorities.

Violence in Sao Paulo took place several hours before Bush arrived in South America's largest city on the first stop of his five-nation Latin America tour.

More than 6,000 students, environmentalists and left-leaning Brazilians held a largely peaceful march through the financial heart of Brazil before police fired tear gas at protesters and beat them with batons. Hundreds fled and ducked into businesses to avoid the chaos, some of them bloodied.

Authorities did not immediately report any injuries, but Brazilian media said at least six people were hurt and news photographs showed injured people being carried away.

Protesters said scuffles broke out when some radical demonstrators provoked officers and threw sticks at them — but said police overreacted. A police officer who declined to give his name in keeping with department policy confirmed that extremists appeared to cause the confrontations.

After the clash, the protest continued peacefully but with far fewer people. The marchers waved communist flags and railed against Bush, the war in Iraq and the ethanol proposal. Almost all had departed by sundown and streets were calm several hours later when Bush arrived in Sao Paulo.

In the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, more than 500 people yelled "Get Out, Imperialist!" as they marched to a Citigroup Inc. bank branch and burned an effigy of Bush. Protesters also targeted the U.S. Consulate in Rio de Janeiro, splattering it with bright red paint meant to signify blood.

In Colombia, about 200 masked students at Bogota's National University clashed with 300 anti-riot police carrying shields and helmets, spray-painting anti-U.S. slogans on walls and shouting "Out Bush!"

Police fired water cannons and tear gas, and the students hurled back rocks, fireworks, a few Molotov cocktails and dozens of "potato bombs" — small explosives made of gunpowder wrapped in foil. There were no immediate reports of injuries or arrests.

The Colombian demonstrators called for the scuttling of a U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement signed in November and currently stalled in U.S. Congress, and accused Washington of meddling in the South American nation's internal affairs by sending some $700 million a year in mostly military aid.

Colombia is beefing up security in the capital for Bush's visit Sunday, the first by a sitting U.S. president since

Ronald Reagan in 1982. About 21,000 security agents will patrol the capital.
Meanwhile, Colombia's police chief said authorities have foiled leftist rebel plans for terrorist acts to disrupt Bush's visit, but offered no details.

Asked about the protests, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Bush "enjoys traveling to thriving democracies where freedom of speech and expression are the law of the land. He has a positive agenda here that we believe the people of Brazil and the rest of the Americas will benefit from."

Some protesters in Brazil carried stalks of sugarcane — which is used to make ethanol — and a banner reading: "For every liter of ethanol produced, 4 liters of fresh water are consumed, monoculture is destroying the nation's greatest asset."

"Bush and the United States go to war to control oil reserves, and now Bush and his pals are trying to control the production of ethanol in Brazil. And that has to be stopped," said Suzanne Pereira dos Santos of Brazil's Landless Workers Movement.

Activists from the environmental group Greenpeace warned that increased ethanol production could lead to further clearing of the

Amazon rain forest as well as cause social unrest, since most sugarcane-ethanol operations are run by wealthy families or corporations that reap most of the benefits while the poor are left to cut the cane with machetes.

Bush has spoken approvingly of Brazil's ethanol program, which powers eight out of every 10 new cars. The proposed accord is meant to help turn ethanol into an internationally traded commodity and to promote sugarcane-based ethanol production in Central America and the Caribbean.

Brazil is mounting what has been described as its biggest security effort ever in Sao Paulo. About 4,000 agents — including Brazilian troops and FBI and U.S. Secret Service officers — will be on hand during Bush's almost 24-hour visit.

Graffiti reading "Get Out, Bush! Assassin!" appeared on walls near locations in Brazil where Bush will drive past on his tour, which also includes stops in Uruguay, Guatemala and Mexico. However, there were no visible signs of protesters along Bush's motorcade route in the nearly hourlong drive from Sao Paulo's airport to his hotel.

In Mexico, which Bush is scheduled to visit Tuesday, about two dozen demonstrators gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in the capital chanting slogans against the U.S. project to construct border fences and Bush's visit.

Carmelo Ramirez Reyes showed up in a devil's mask, carrying a placard reading "My name is George Bush, killer of Mexicans."

* * *

I'm a bit surprised--happily--this seems like one of the least anti-protest write-ups of anti-Bush protests I've read in the mainstream press. Then again, these days, given Bush's unpopularity even in the United States, it's easy enough now to use him and his administration as a target and a scapegoat for all the evils of corporate dominance ... as if Bush is the sole problem with the world, a cause (which he is to a certain extent) rather than a symptom (which he is to the depths) ...

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Avant-Garde Egg

I think this is video, by a YouTube user named 'ashtonwolfe,' and which was linked to by an anonymous commenter in the previous entry, is hilarious. It's a clever pastiche from a few American avant-garde films from the end of the 1960s, Paul Sharits' T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (which has the flicker effects and neons exemplary of his work, and the "destroy-destroy-destroy" soundtrack) and N:O:T:H:I:N:G (flicker, neon, plus the broken eggshell is a reference to the broken lightbulb in this film), and Hollis Frampton's Lemon (I actually haven't seen this one, but apparently: light moving around a lemon).

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Out 1

Jum Boo! Thirteen to hunt the Snark! Prometheus, Thebes, and Balzac! Eight episodes, thirteen hours, two days, and innumerable shots of Michel Lonsdale just lounging on people's couches and mattresses as his long fingers search for morsels of food and drink.

I wish I could go back and see this film before ever seeing the 4-hour version, Out 1: Spectre, a different work all its own, but culled and shaped from the same material, and which (despite being a third of the length) is actually more difficult and disconcerting than the original (whose unofficial subtitle is Noli me tangere, which I think may be a reference to a Lonsdale scene on the beach). The 13-hour version is hardly the obscure and maddening exercise in endurance it has been fashioned as in these past decades of its legendary scarcity (to this day only a single print exists, and without doing serious research, I gather one can count its total public screenings on two hands, with some fingers left over). This isn't to say that the film is a breezy narrative, the equivalent of a TV-on-DVD fest. It is still very much Rivette, with all the regular longeurs that might imply for those who don't like his other films, or are on the fence with regard to them. But it was conceived as a mini-series and not primarily as a marathon--it's supposed to be digestible if inconclusive, approachable if uncontainable.

At any rate, who could otherwise resist Juliet Berto brandishing knives or guns, or Jean-Pierre Leaud bullying cafe patrons into giving him change for his impromptu harmonica performances (he blows wildly into his instrument for about a second and a half before expectantly extending his palm)? And--a marked contrast to the print of Out 1: Spectre that showed at Anthology Film Archives in New York last year (possibly also the same print they used for the Moving Image retrospective in December?)--this print of Noli me tangere is quite gorgeous, with very bright colors (primaries & pastels). Rivette's art does suffer when bad prints decay his color work--I think the pinkish monochrome of a faded print (not only the one I saw of Spectre, but also Noroît) pushes one's perceptions in directions less playful and emotionally associative than the bold and pure, sometimes '60s-Godardian, tones of Rivette's costumes and props, and the oft-bare walls of the rooms he films in, the skies, the rather expressive backdrops of dingy grays even (Parisian rooftoops, an old beach house, warehouses turned into theater troupes' rehearsal spaces).

All in all, see this film if you ever get the chance ...

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Materials of Paint and Bodies

"While the words luxury, calm and sensuality could also be used to describe them, in formal terms Modigliani's nudes are much more closely linked than those of his French and German contemporaries to traditions within art history. In their technique alone, but also in their composition, his nudes betray a clear orientation towards the masters of the Italian Renaissance, towards Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), Titian (1488/90-1576), and Giorgione (1477/78-1510). Modigliani thereby reached back to a pre-academic chapter of art history, to a time in which a naked Venus or Danae--to name only the most prominent models--were not rendered according to a catalogue of dictated poses. Instead, their composition was above all indebted to the iconography of an underlying history and the invention of the artist who portrayed them.

"Modigliani, who never went to a state art academy, approached the portrayal of the naked body with an eye that was schooled more by art history than by an academically-shaped perception of the nude. While he may have learned the fundamental, academically-normed concepts of lifedrawing in art schools in Florence and Venice, he may certainly be assumed to have encountered alternative approaches to the study of the nude during his time at the Académie Colarossi in Paris, where he enrolled in life-drawing classes in 1907 and 1907. The Académie Colorassi in Paris was one of the private institutes, founded at the end of the nineteenth century, which offered a progressive alternative to the state academies. ... Unlike the state academies, here one attempted to achieve more animated expressions."

-- Doris Krystof, Amedeo Modigliani, 1884-1920: The Poetry of Seeing (Taschen, pp. 67-68)

Modigliani, Sleeping Nude with Arms Open (Red Nude), 1917

The compositional, textural, and color considerations of Modigliani paintings, particularly his nudes, never seem to work in antagonism to the image as a representation. He's the great sensualist of the early 20th century.

Amrita Sher-Gil, Reclining Nude, 1933

Sher-Gil is a fascinating figure I just learned a bit about recently. Sikh-Hungarian, a moneyed, Westernized Indian woman who lived too short a life and whose devotion and erudition regarding painting (as vocation) were exceptional for her circumstances. When I first saw the image on the left, I was struck by its parallels to Modi. (Recommended reading: Geeti Sen's sumptuous volume Feminine Fables: Imagining the Indian Woman in Painting, Photography and Cinema, 2002. I've only flipped through the book, myself.) Some writing by Sen--this may have been reproduced in Feminine Fables, actually:

"The woman as an object of vision, a sight. Images of the reclining woman are so numerous that they constitute in themselves a genre of painting. In Europe, every great artist had been preoccupied with this theme — from Titian’s celebrated Venus of Urbino in the Uffizi Gallery to Rembrandt’s study of his wife Saskia and Goya’s infamous Naked Maja in the Prado, to Manet’s insolent stare of Olympia which created a sensation in the 19th century. Mythology and life studies became a pretext to focus on the erotic body of the model, lying naked on a couch, her warm flesh against pale silk sheets, looking out to engage the viewer. "In India, this theme was equally popular in Rajput court painting: projecting the nayika on a bed awaiting her lover, or locked in embrace with him. From the 19th century, there is a sudden change in emphasis. The heroine is no longer part of narrative from the Gita Govinda or the Rasamanjari. Instead she becomes the sole subject for our attention: as a courtesan reclining and playing with her cat, or a woman stretched out naked against yellow bolsters — like a delicious dish served up for consumption.

"Sher-Gil was certainly aware of these precedents in the West and in India, to which she returned in 1935 to begin a new phase in her life — and also, a different sensibility in painting. As a student in Paris, she must have been acquainted with Manet’s infamous Olympia as one of the most daring expositions in 19th century painting. In her travels south to Trivandrum, she encountered and wrote critically about paintings by Raja Ravi Varma. So when she takes up this theme with her Woman Resting on a Charpoy, it would seem that she is deliberately returning to these two pictures as her point of reference. My suggestion is strengthened by the fact that she introduces an identical composition — in the contrast between the younger woman stretched out on the charpoy and taking her siesta and the darker, older woman fanning her mistress. Manet used this contrast first by using an elder black woman holding a basket of fruits — to show the younger white woman to advantage. This was assiduously emulated by Ravi Varma, who excelled in merging Indian tradition with Western technique in oil painting."

* * *

A few months ago.)

* * *

Recall Franco Moretti summarizing the importance of the development of the novel in the global periphery, its common (national) characterization regarded as a compromise between local material and Western form. It's not always a matter of simply art historical influence, of formal application, an outward emanation from (e.g.) France to (e.g.) India. Let's keep in mind the activity of appropriation, which involves more agency--the people of "the periphery" are not oppressed ciphers but combatted, exploited agents.

Scattered Leaves, a Half-Set Stage

"--It isn't easy to live as though what happened in another age were real. Yesterday when the fog overtook us in lonely country, and a couple of stones tumbled down from the hill to our feet, we didn't think of divine things or a fantastic encounter, but only of the night and the hares we had startled. Who we are and what we believe emerge when we are confronted with hardship, in the hour of risk."

-- Cesare Pavese, Dialogues with Leucò (trans. William Arrowsmith and D.S. Carne-Ross), from the final dialogue.

"The brooding, underlying fatalism in Pavese is ideological only in the sense that he sees it as an inevitable point of arrival. The hilly area of Lower Piedmont where he was born ('la Langa') is famous not only for its wines and truffles, but also for the crises of despair which are endemic, constantly afflicting the peasant families. It could be said that not a week goes by without the Turin newspapers reporting the story of a farmer who has hanged himself, or thrown himself down a well, or (as in the episode at the heart of this novel [La Luna e i falò]) set fire to the farmhouse with himself, his family and animals all inside."

-- Italo Calvino, "Pavese and Human Sacrifice" (1966) (in Why Read the Classics?, trans. Martin McLaughlin)

(Above: Modigliani's Portrait of Blaise Cendrars and The Little Peasant, both 1918)

"How all things are vanishing swiftly, bodies themselves in the Universe and the memorials of them in Time; what is the character of all things of sense, and most of all those which attract by the bait of pleasure or terrify by the threat of pain or are shouted abroad by vanity, how cheap, contemptible, soiled, corruptible, and mortal: thse are for the faculty of mind to consider. To consider too what kind of men those are whose judgements and voices confer honour and dishonour; what it is to die, and that if a man looks at it by itself and by the separating activity of thought strips off all the images associated with death, he will come to judge it to be nothing else but Nature's handiwork. But if a man fears Nature's handiwork he is a mere child; and yet death is not merely Nature's handiwork, but also her well-being. To consider also how mortal man touches God and through what organ of himself, and when that part of him is in what sort of condition."

-- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, book ii, 12. (Trans. A.S.L. Farquharson)

(Threads will come together on these all in due time ...)

Friday, March 02, 2007

Quote of the Day

From Le Colonel Chabert, in the comments,

Imagine a marxist historian approaching starbucks, would the first thing to be go to the shop and taste the coffee? Would the whole story be about how the coffee tastes? Of course, the experience of being in the shop and drinking the coffee is not irrelevant. But there is just a sort of solipsism that is over time encouraged by this kind of practise. It's not that the critic is wrong about how the coffee tastes or how one feels on line and ordering the mocacchino half caf whatever. It is a question of what's important. We know that the people most negatively impacted by starbucks don't patronise the shops and this is something anyone setting out to think and write about starbucks will not even have to argue for the importance of. Yet there is a whole industry of production of auxilliary product to moviues and tv that concerns itself only with the moral and aesthetic experience of consumers of each product. I personally love coffee; is this a reason to ignore what starbucks is besides the source of coffee for coffeelovers? "Starbucks, yeah yeah, its horrible, what a hell in central america, but this cup of coffee was delicious and helped me wake up!"

So this is what I like about [Jonathan] beller. Because yes the coffee is delicious. And interesting. and my reaction to it and experience of it is fascinating and can be endlessly described and analysed. But there is more here than how I feel about the coffee, and how i feel buying and drinking it. And that more, that is excluded by film theory and by a lot of culture criticism, is the most important stuff.