Tuesday, July 31, 2007

That Face

Lucia Bosé, Cronaca di un amore (1950). Star of several other films (not enough well-known classics), almost none of which I've seen her in. Beautiful but singular: not bland, but rather a being of shadowy private intensities. More soon, I hope, on Antonioni and perhaps Bergman too--but anyone who glimpses the infrequently updated
From the Clouds will know I'm slow in getting around to posthumous celebration-analyses.

Sunday, July 22, 2007


"When [Mario] Schiano moved to Rome from Naples around 1960 he found a jazz environment of cold studio professionals and well-to-do amateurs playing Trad. He didn’t care about factional fights, joining New Orleans-style bands like the Aurelian Syncopators where his presence triggered heated arguments about “purity” of style, and where he also crossed paths with Ivan Vandor. In the mid-sixties a breath of fresh air came when many avant-garde jazz players arrived in town to play or just to enjoy Roman life: Gato Barbieri, Don Cherry, Steve Lacy, Kent Carter, Paul Bley, and Barry Altschul stayed with friends, musicians, actors, and painters. They enjoy “La dolce vita”, jam, and bring first-hand news of what’s happening in jazz on the other side of the Ocean: Ornette, the free experiments. A parallel nomadism manifests itself with young American musicians escaping the stifling atmosphere of Darmstadt's Ferienkurses and joining forces with Lacy in Rome to form MEV: Alvin Curran, Richard Teitelbaum; with a similar perspective, Franco Evangelisti creates Nuova Consonanza (see the perceptive article by Art Lange in PoD Issue 11)."

-- Francesco Martinelli, Point of Departure

I often wish more film criticism looked like this, forming categorizations in historical strokes, seeing 'schools' not as fixed ideas but as meetings & confluences of different individuals, making every turn seem potentially interesting because it crackles with all the promises of History. This is, in fact, part of what I like about Olaf Möller as well as MHVF member James Cheney.


"Yet there are many white youths who desire to move beyond whiteness. Critical of white imperialism and "into" difference, they desire cultural spaces where boundaries can be transgressed, where new and alternative relations can be formed. These desires are dramatized by two contemporary films, John Waters' Hairspray and the more recent film by Jim Jarmusch, Mystery Train. In Hairspray, the "cool" white people, working-class Traci and her middle-class boyfriend, transgress class and race boundaries to dance with black folks. She says to him as they stand in a rat-infested alley with winos walking about, "I wish I was dark-skinned." And he replied, "Traci, our souls are black even if our skin is white." Blackness--the culture, the music, the people--is once again associated with pleasure as well as death and decay. Yet their recognition of the particular pleasures and sorrows black folks experience does not lead to cultural appropriation but to an appreciation that extends into the realm of the political--Traci dares to support racial integration. In this film, the longing and desire whites express for contact with black culture is coupled with the recognition of the culture's value. One does not transgress boundaries to stay the same, to reassert white domination. Hairspray is nearly unique in its attempt to construct a fictive universe where white working class "undesirables" are in solidarity with black people. When Traci says she wants to be black, blackness becomes a metaphor for freedom, an end to boundaries. Blackness is vital not because it represents the "primitive" but because it invites engagement in a revolutionary ethos that dares to challenge and disrupt the status quo."

-- bell hooks, "Eating the Other" (1992)

(Shockingly, this Hairspray musical is not bad at all. But it still can't compare to the Waters version, which I'd like to see again soon...)

Saturday, July 21, 2007


Thinking Bloggers (btw thanks again, Peter).

There are plenty of blogs out there that are worth reading. Some of them I mention on a regular basis and EL readers know of my admiration for this & that site. I originally was planning on scouring the Internets to see if others had mentioned these blogs before for this award, but as I'm already well behind, and as I'm a little lazy this morning as I finish this up, I'm not just trying to choose one's that, off the top of my head, haven't been chosen by blogs I frequent ... so:

Critical Montages - Yoshie Furuhashi's not-quite-frequently-updated-enough blog comes out with a number of issues related to her work as activist & writer regarding anticapitalist resistance, globalization, religion, the global south, and so on. Substantial in content but on just this side of being 'pithy' in length.

Football Is Fixed - If you're interested in the sport (soccer, that is--not American football) just go here and add a bit to your education of big money sports in the current age. Much of it is over my head because I'm embarrassingly stupid & ignorant about a lot of aspects of business. From the front page description: "AIMING TO RECLAIM THE GAME FROM THE PSYCHOPATHIC POWER PEOPLE To expose and confront the corruption that blights the beautiful game. To address the regulatory framework that allows such corruption. To optimise the betting/trading process by providing blue sky thinking and general hints relating to the gambling experience. To place football in the strata of the global spectacular society and to address feedback loops with other sectors. To celebrate proper football."

A Placid Island of Ignorance - Jim Flannery seems to have seen, heard, and read a dizzying amount of material. He & I have a friend in common, although I didn't immediately make the connection between the fellow my friend mentioned from time to time and the guy who participated in the Avant Garde Blog-a-Thon last summer. Weird synchronicity when I had our mutual friend over to my apartment and was telling him about my "counter-canon" of last year (and he mentioned Jim as an example of a positively voracious engagement with art), and when I decided to get on the computer and just show him my list, the most recent comment to my entry was left by none other than Mr. Flannery himself. Weird. I wish he'd post some more entries, myself--but he is updating his lists of things he's reading, etc., and the backlog provides for great browsing.

Rigorous Intuition - Canadian writer Jeff Wells; conspiracy theories, progressivism, philosophy, anti-pedophilia, UFOs, media studies ... there's just a lot of stuff packed into these posts, frequently illustrated by Photoshop collages and epigraphed by Bob Dylan lyrics. Like a blog version of David Blair's Wax plus Noam Chomsky and a few other things.

Waggish - Actually not too unlike Furuhashi's blog in that the entries are frequently no more than a few paragraphs, but one can always learn something, see something differently from visiting the blog. Mr. Waggish does philosophy, all manner of modernist literature and cinema, and keeps things in dialogue (e.g., continental/analytic thought).

I'm not tagging anyone. I don't need the people I've linked to to do their own. I just think EL readers should check out these places if they haven't already. Cheers.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


1. From Nathan Lee's review of I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry:

"Tremendously savvy in its stupid way, I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry is as eloquent as Brokeback Mountain, and even more radical. "The gay cowboy movie" liberated desires latent in the classic western, and made them palpable (and palatable) by channeling them into the strictures of another genre, romantic tragedy. Progressive values were advanced by a retreat to a traditional mode of storytelling, the love that dare not speak its name rendered intelligible through the universal language of the upscale weepy.

"Chuck and Larry takes this strategy much further, baiting a far less adventuresome demographic. Gay themes won't deter the Sandler cult, who can rely on their man not to be a fag. And that, precisely, is the canny maneuver here. Our pussy-loving men's men are New York City firefighters to boot, the very embodiment of all-American heroism (and object of gay fetishism). Sandler's womanizing bachelor Chuck Levine reluctantly agrees to play the homo husband of his buddy Larry Valentine to help secure pension benefits for Larry's kids—one of whom, a flaming little 'mo named Eric (Cole Morgan), likes to practice numbers from Pippin in an outfit inspired by Flashdance. Oh, snap! Chuck and Larry is the first movie to effectively hijack that all-purpose justification for right-wing bigotry, "protecting the children," and redeploy it as a weapon of the homosexual intifada."

2. Andrew Grossman, excerpt from his Bright Lights essay "Sexual Atonality":

"The problem, though, is once again intentionality: in order for the queer collisions and subsequent catharses to occur spontaneously and with minimum public resistance, stealthily queer films would have to be released with no demographic advertising, promotion, or any intended audience, ensuring that all audience members, the unsympathetic and sympathetic alike, could equally enter the theater without being frightened away (or, indeed, attracted and flattered). It would be paradoxical for filmmakers to intentionally create a film with no intended audience; indeed, I am unaware of any such film. However, I have found one sexually explicit film that accidentally, randomly, and amorally — that is, queerly — seems to be intended for multiple and simultaneous conflicting audiencesHero Dream.

"When all other queer films have been exhausted, desperate academics may turn to this presently un-interpretable artifact, perhaps holding some intelligentsia bee to determine whose analysis is the cleverest and most quotable. Director Lau Keung-fu’s Hero Dream seems the first and only film of its kind: a low budget, generically macho Hong Kong action film unaccountably interpolated with — in addition to a few prosaic scenes of heterosexual rape and one sequence featuring a nude male bodybuilder — explicit, lengthy, X-rated sexual encounters between male-to-female transsexuals equipped with both penises and breasts. There is some semblance of a plot. To avenge his wife’s murder at the hands of Thai crooks, tough cop Chin Siu-ho — once the stalwart hetero hero of numerous Shaw Brothers adventures and mid-1980s classics (Mr. Vampire) — journeys to Thailand, joins forces with the local, machine gun-toting “Transsexual Gang,” and, with little explanation, occasionally lounges on a hotel chaise while before him two transsexuals have open, tender, full-frontal (if flaccid) intercourse. One of the transsexual gangsters falls in love with Chin secretly, and comes rushing to his rescue with jeep and automatic rifle when he is overpowered by the villains; taking a fatal bullet for his beloved, the transsexual dies in Chin’s arms, a gesture that unintentionally parodies both heterosexual tragedy and the honor-infested buddy-buddy embrace common to the Shaw Brothers martial arts films in which Chin once starred. Flabbergasted and dumbstruck upon hearing the transsexual’s romantic confession, Chin can muster little more than a “Thanks, but no thanks” as his bloodied savior-transgressor slumps limp in his arms. In the grand finale, the entire Transsexual Gang proves sadly impotent and pitifully unskilled in wielding the machine guns we automatically interpret as hard male power; climactically rushing into the villain’s den to assist our hero, the transsexuals are, dozen by dozen, mowed down like trapped turkeys, leaving impenetrably straight Chin to mop up Thai villainy with single-handed, heterosexual zeal, and then shower his affections on a lovely Thai nurse.

"Considering the perfunctory normalization of heterosexuality at the film’s close, at whom, exactly, is the film’s abundant transsexual pornography directed? The typical testosterone demographic likely to buy tickets for a Chin Siu-ho B-movie, even one with a tell-tale “category 3” rating (the HK equivalent of NC-17), would surely recoil at the very thought of penises and breasts existing harmoniously on the same body, and nauseate if forced to witness several such bodies rapturously and frequently intertwine. A perverse but unlikely argument might suggest Hero Dream’s exoticizing of Thai kathoeys is intended as a cynical, repulsive, Mondo Cane-style spectacle for straight consumption. Nevertheless, we must conclude the film’s raison d’être is more d’être than raison — a chaotic intermixture of colliding sexualities defying rationally goal-directed (i.e. demographically-motivated) explanation.

"Amazingly, Hero Dream does appear to be an example of a coordinated film production that produces random, aleatory generic and sexual experiences (mis-)directed at multiple conflicting audiences — those who enjoy heteronormative B-grade action films and those who enjoy transsexual erotica. But can we ever satisfy the second condition of amoral queerness, an entirely random viewing environment unprejudiced by any advertising or promotion that might disclose that this is a queerly-inclined film to be resisted or avoided altogether? The posters for Hero Dream present it as a superficially generic, violent action film whose shoot-outs and kung fu battles should lure a normative, mass audience — there is no indication or forewarning that unguarded audiences will be soon jolted with dissident, vivid pornography violating demographic norms. This demographic violation crucially separates Hero Dream from better-known queer action films like Clarence Ford’s Cheap Killers (1998), which is far too sexually coy to jolt, educate, or effect a change in the perceptions of a mass audience, and Marcelo Piñeyro’s more explicitly gay Burnt Money (2000), which sells its homoeroticism to a sympathetic queer demographic right from the start.

"Nevertheless, did any public screenings of Hero Dream ever really attract unsuspecting, random, diverse mass audiences? I was fortunate enough to have experienced precisely such a screening of the film, in 1999, at Manhattan’s now-defunct Chinatown Music Palace, infamous for its general disrepair, slightly urine-scented viewing area (depending on one’s proximity to the uninhabitable bathrooms), and frequent lack of seasonal temperature control. By 1999, first-run HK films were growing increasingly unwatchable, and the Music Palace was attracting fewer and fewer patrons. One week, the owner, presumably defeated, alcoholically desperate, and now indifferent to conventional mores, dug into his archives and unearthed the unheard-of Hero Dream for an unsuspecting audience of beggars seeking shelter, adolescent boys smoking in the balcony, henpecked Chinese husbands escaping their peckers, a few soldiering cineastes like myself, and whomever else happened to randomly stumble in (along with the usual stray cats) from the bitter cold.

"It would have been unnecessary to survey departing audience members to gauge their reactions to the screening: during sequences of transsexual pornography, the entirely male audience observed a tangible, agonizing silence broken only by intermittent, derisive, nervous titters (from the boys in the balcony, I’m sure) during the transsexual turkey-shoot finale. To be sure, as a random experiment in cinematic receptivity and education, the screening was an icy, alienating failure, resulting in no catharsis or epiphany. Perhaps if the theater had been sold-out, with unsuspecting viewers piled in shoulder-to-shoulder, unable to make their defensive laughter convincing and unselfconscious, unable to hide their blushing emotions from one another, unable to look down from the screen without their cowardice being judged by an intrusive neighbor, a segment, at least, of the once-uncurious, belligerent audience might have lowered its defenses or burst into revelatory, mass-hypnotic elation, just as worshipful outbursts of laughter occur only in collective spaces, where one’s individuality is irrationally, spontaneously surrendered to the group.

"Though the viewing conditions were not optimal that day — they will probably never be ideal — I can nevertheless swear that once in my lifetime I’d not simply seen a queer film, but was in the midst of a queer experience of a film."

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sitney on S:S:S:S:S:S

"The multiple superimposition of water flowing in different directions initially presents a very flat image. But the subsequent scratches, which are deep, ripping through the color emulsion to the pure white of the film base and often ploughing up a visual residue of filmic matter at the edges, affirm a literal flatness which makes the water appear to occupy deep space by contrast.

"The dilemma of Sharits's art has turned on the failure of his imagery to sustain its authority in the very powerful matrix of the structures he provides. His search for metaphors and icons for the particular kind of cinematic experience that his films engender has not been as successful as his invention of markers to reflect the duration of his films. In N:O:T:H:I:N:G the off-balance, empty chair and the draining light bulb allude to the floating, almost intoxicating experience the seated viewer feels after extended concentration on flickering colors, pouring from the projector bulb. The matphors of T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G totalize the suicidal and sexual inserts of Ray Gun Virus and Piece Mandala/End War and represent the viewing experience as erotic violence. Curiously in S:S:S:S:S:S he represents, unwittingly of course, the metaphor Kubelka is so fond of elaborating for the structure of Schwechater; in his lectures he always compares that film to the flowing of a stream. In Sharits's film too, the complexly deflected water flows are like the illusory movement of cinema. However, these matphors either lack the immediacy of the color flickers or the scratches around them, or they overpower their matrix, as in T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, and instigate a psychological vector which the form cannot accomodate as satisfactorily as the trance film or the mythopoeic film."

-- Sitney, Visionary Cinema (3rd ed.) (pp. 362-4)

I half-agree with Sitney's characterization here but can't bring this to terms with the fact that I find Sharits so powerful and captivating, on the highest level of the American a-g cinema that I know, that is, with Breer and Brakhage and Maclaine et al. Though Sharits is an established presence in the a-g canon, he's not actually all that lauded. (Consider too that, for instance, neither Yoel Meranda nor Fred Camper include Sharits on their 'A' or 'B' lists of recommended cinema; Parker Tyler gives him faint praise if I recall; but Dwoskin in Film Is... treats him seriously and sympathetically for two pages.) I think in a way Sharits (as author-construct) is slowly becoming one of "my" filmmakers--not in any kind of proprietary or territorial sense, but in the sense that this is an artist who (regardless of specific level of greatness) you're willing to go that extra mile for, you find yourself drawn to for reasons parallel to (but not quite the same as) their artistic brilliance or whatever--for me, for instance, not only Ford & Ozu & Godard, but Borowczyk, Kiarostami, maybe Ferrara and Farocki ... and others ... the filmmakers in whose work one finds vast reservoirs in which one can work out all your problems and undertake journeys ... in tandem with the filmmaker. Though this phenomenon extends well beyond film obviously, in fact more accurately extends from other areas into film.

Lady Chatterley

The first time she goes to the stream, she kneels politely and drinks from a cup. The second time--in sexual bloom--she crouches over the stream and scoops up the water with her hands, and Ferran has her shot more in close-up if I recall. In the third, when she's out with her husband, she resorts to the cup again. He makes a comment to her that I didn't catch in the subtitles ...

An interesting film. And I don't think I'd be spoiling anything to say that I am grateful for endings (in any film) like the one this one provides--that is, cuts to black that come a split-second before "we" are ready for them.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

N:O:T:H:I:N:G (2)

A strange thing--after revisiting N:O:T:H:I:N:G yesterday I noticed that the film seemed like a more mellow, even inviting experience than the first go-round. Is this because of my mood, i.e., my eyes & mind in interacting with the flickering colors picked up on the subtler modulations and fuzzier tones, the more 'meditative' aspects of the work in question? Or am I simply going down the path Sharits himself hoped to guide his viewers to, he who emphasized the aspects of his work that correspond to a mandala more than to a kino-hammer.

S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED was a bit beyond me at this point. A powerful film. It will need repeat viewings though.

Knocked Up

"Ultimately, what makes Knocked Up a terrific film—one of the year's best, easily—is its relaxed, shaggy vibe; if it feels improvised in places, that's because Apatow trusts his actors enough to let them make it up as they go, like the people they're playing. It's more than just a loose-limbed variation on About a Boy. It's a sincere meditation on adulthood, accountability, and fidelity—and, yeah, getting high."

The above paragraph closes Village Voice writer Robert Wilonsky's review of Knocked Up, and what's strange is that it's hard to tell at all how much he liked the film in the paragraphs beforehand. (He mostly just describes the film, the actors, and what happens in it.) So the whole review is basically a plot review, the most cursory "auteur" analysis of Judd Apatow ('look, he does similar stuff on his handful of TV shows and his one other feature film'), and then a tacked on sentiment: 'It's just really great because it just feels thrown-together, and it deals with serious stuff but also not-serious stuff.'

Count me as a skeptic. I laughed at parts of The 40-Year-Old Virgin. I laughed at parts of Knocked Up. (I haven't seen Apatow's TV work, and I certainly haven't dismissed him yet in that format--I'm quite willing to believe his talents are better suited for sitcoms than feature films in terms of conventions & likely possibilities.) But I feel miles away from the crowds of people who said (publicly, or to me in person) these not only seriously hilarious films, but that they were also shockingly, seriously good films, too. "One of the year's best, easily," indeed.


What I see are two bald wish-fulfilment fantasies about groups of guys whose One Dude ends up romantically linked with a much hotter, and bizarrely much-more-socially-isolated woman. (Male comeraderie is important here, and Apatow himself acknowledges this in his films by giving Heigl a line about it in Knocked Up: it's not unself-conscious comeraderie, god forbid.) So there's obviously a wish-fulfilment element in these movies; OK; not the end of the world--tons of movies similarly are made with wish-fulfilment functions. But whose wishes, and how are they being fulfilled, and how honest are these films about it all?

The plot construction seems shaky, almost inept at times (there's not much flow, such as the total ellipsis of any kind of return trip after Rogen & Rudd take an all-night trip to Vegas, leaving their neurotic significant others behind). This doesn't bother me much. And in fact I think some critics--such as Wilonsky--have expressed their opinion that this is part of the film's charm. Perhaps it is. But what does seem strange is the arbitrariness of the characters once they're placed in that plot. Mann, as the neurotic wife, is a total cipher, basically she has two or three levels of 'neurotic' that rise & fall on the basis of narrative convenience and nothing more. (She's neurotic enough to fuel a sideplot about marital jealousy, and to provide the foil for catharsis during Seth Rogen's speech near the end of the film--but sometimes she's pleasant, and as beshroomed Rogen explains to Rudd during their Vegas night out, and the viewers, who I'm not sure are given any information to be sure of this on our own, she's neurotic just because she loves hubbie Paul Rudd so damn much. Because, of course, Apatow-movie women don't have anything in their lives outside of family, geeky lover, and perhaps a trifling job. Passions & interests? Actual friends? Opinions on things outside family & love? Nah.) Not to mention the weird specter of class divisions that sits over the film, operating subtextually but clearly enough, but not quite highlighted outside of the issue of the main romantic mismatch--did anyone else squirm when Mann started cursing at the nightclub bouncer, demanding her right to not wait in line for the club, because he's merely a doorman, just a lowly bottom-feeder: a viciously classist explosion on the character's part that played awkwardly to me, and not in the way I think it was intended to feel awkward. (I know we've made a bit of progress in recognizing when comedy, or any kind of storytelling, uses rants against women in order to play on perceived or targeted aspects of viewers' misogyny; surely there are similar games being played to denigrate "the working class," though of course in America that's a less explored topic.) If Knocked Up made explicit, by means of dialogue or film form or anything, any of the Rudd/Mann family's financial privileges (evidenced only in the manner of their beautiful house and their beautiful birthday cake for the daughter and their beautiful svelte bodies, which is convention in Hollywood cinema of "middle-class" life, not actually a signifier of the real minoritarian wealth it represents) I'd be more inclined to treat Mann's rant as an example of her self-righteous sense of privilege ... but instead I got the sense we were being corraled into think nothing about the obvious class privilege itself but primarily, instead, merely 'What a pathetic uptight bitch, she shouldn't worry about being so old and being so controlling.' (And, so, well, could this be misogyny?)

I know, I know--I'm "supposed" to be laughing and thinking that it's great that this comedy passes off jokes about "Babe Ruth's gay brother, Gabe Ruth" and yet also says something "smart" about relationships and how life throws curveballs and there are no perfect fits, etc. ... but I just felt like I was seeing the gears & pulleys that operated all these jokes, seeing the assumptions that were intended to make us want to laugh ("get it, Steve Carrell is playing himself and he's kind of an awkward asshole"), and regardless of whether any particular joke was predicated on sexism or some other sociopolitically unsavory thing, the fact was that the jokes only rarely seemed to sing, only rarely seemed to snap--they mostly just played like "business as usual" to me. Like I'd heard the joke many times before. (I also just read Laura Kipnis' fascinating plain language theory book, Against Love, which hasn't inclined me to look upon the serious underpinnings of this basically conservative romantic comedy like this as anything agreeable or innocent.) I just couldn't locate a spark in this film, or 40-Year-Old Virgin, and it's not because I'm against all of these contemporary smart-dumb comedies: I am a devotee of Zoolander and Drop Dead Gorgeous; I will say a few kind words about Old School and even more kind words about Road Trip; I adore a lot of what's in the Farrelly Brothers' cinema (at least until 2003, I haven't kept up since then). It's not a matter of genre or of brow-height.

What I am intrigued by is the likelihood that Apatow is contemporary Hollywood's greatest apologist for suburbia: strip-mall, pop-culture, consumerist suburbia. Apatow is all about his characters having tons of at-your-fingertips pop culture knowledge (as even Mann's neurotic anti-geek whines at one point, "I like Spider-Man"), Macs, DVDs, posters, sports, mass-market junk food. It's all about watching TV, surfing the Net, going to the movies, buying knick-knacks, eating at godawful-looking chain restaurants (including the upscale ones): this, plus monogamy with a gorgeous woman, is "life." I wish someone would take footage from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, perversely turn it to high-contrast b&w, and edit it to some noise music to make a short film about the visual horror of strip malls & megastores & food courts flanking eight-lane roads. From these two movies, anyway, Apatow is totally at home in this world of PF Chang, RadioShack, Starbucks, Home Depot, and Sam Goody, and the houses we live in to fill with products from these places. It's his milieu in the same way that Woody Allen fictionalizes his New York, or that Larry David fictionalizes his Los Angeles. And I don't think he's critical of it at all--the closest he comes to it is in suggesting that pop culture and consumerism shouldn't be pursued to the points where (a) they keep you from being a productive worker in society (start a company on eBay! just go out and grab a web programming job!) and (b) they keep you from devoting attention to your hot love interest.

I'll probably pass on the next Apatow Laff Festival ...

Monday, July 09, 2007

Image of the Day

Miracle of St. Nicolas
, Ambrogio Lorenzetti, ca. 1332.

Gombrich on Malraux

"One can hardly avoid the suspicion that the voices he has lent to the art of the past are meant to drown a deep fear of the silence which would fall if Spengler were right:
Though the Wei Bodhisattvas and those of Nara, Khmer and Javanese sculpture and Sung painting do not express the same communion with the cosmos as does a Romanesque tympanum, a Dance of Shiva or the horsemen of the Parthenon, all alike express a communion of one kind or another, and so does even Rubens in The Kermesse. We need but glance at any Greek masterpiece to see at once that its triumph over the mystery-laden East does not stem from any process of the reasoning mind, but from the 'innumerable laughter of the waves'. Like a muted orchestra the surge and thunder, already so remote, of ancient tragedy accompanies but does not drown Antigone's immortal cry: 'I was not born to share in hatred but to share in love' (pp. 635-6).
Who would not prefer the driest philological gloss on the exact meaning of Antigone's 'immortal cry' (which is not a cry but a reasoned statement in a momentous argument) to this 'surge and thunder'? For if we trouble to analyse the content of the paragraph we discover, as only too often with Malraux, that it dissolves into a truism. Buddhist art (the names of the schools which produced Buddhas are mere ornament) differs in spirit from Hindoo, Greek, and Christian art but they all (including Rubens' genre) are religious. Even Greek tragedy is (and who ever doubted that?). Perhaps the rhetoric serves no other purpose than to hypnotize and bulldoze the reader. But it is surely more charitable to assume that strings of names and rows of images function like the names of divinities in ancient incantations to reassure the writer rather than the reader. They may be an expression of that authentic Angst which is the true root of the expressionist hysteria--the anxiety of that utter loneliness that would reign if art were to fail and each man remained immured in himself.

To return to sanity does not mean to ignore these problems but to face them. Perhaps they are not quite as formidable as they look. They become formidable only through the adolescent 'all-or-nothing' attitude that colours so much of the writing of Malraux's generation. To the question whether we can understand the art of mentality of other periods or civilizations, or whether all is 'myth', the answer of common-sense is surely that we can understand some better, some worse, and some only after a lot of work. That we can improve our understanding by trying to restore the context, cultural, artistic, and psychological, in which any given work sprang to life but that we must resign ourselves to a certain residue of ignorance. In art, as in life, on certain elemental levels men of different civilizations have understood each other even though they were ignorant of each other's language. On others only an acute awareness of the context in which an action stands may prevent our misunderstanding. This commonplace philosophy would hardly bear stating if it had not some relevance to the 'Museum without Walls'. For it is remarkable that this Museum only contains sculptures and paintings. Where the medium of art is words we can still distinguish between degrees of understanding. True, once in a while we have witnessed a metamorphosis of works of literature which parallels the examples adduced by Malraux. The tragic Shylock or the neurotic Hamlet may be a case in point. But by and large we know it needs a greater imaginative effort to understand the Roman de la Rose than to enjoy Pride and Prejudice, and we can say why. Nor are we frequently in serious doubt whether a piece of music is intelligible to us or not. We realize that in Oriental music we cannot distinguish a dirge from a ditty because we lack familiarity with the framework of harmonic conventions on which musical meaning so largely depends. Perhaps the way out of the expressionist impass must lead through an analysis of similar relationships in the visual arts. It was the optimistic faith in the efficacy of colours and shapes as a universal language that landed us in this dizzy philosophy of myth and metamorphosis. Even shapes and colours acquire their meaning only in cultural contexts. The less we know of this context the more we are forced to dream it up. We may enjoy this challenge to our imagination and relish the sense of mystery that is aroused in us by what looks remote, exotic, and inscrutable. This is one of the reasons why our age is so ready, as Malraux says, 'to admire all it does not understand' (p. 598). But we may come to see that our fathers and grandfathers were not quite wrong, after all, when they thought that we understand certain styles better than others. That a Rembrandt self-portrait or a Watteau drawing 'means more' to us than an Aztec idol or a Negro mask. Not that we need forego the pleasure of looking at stimulating forms even where we do not understand. We also look at rocks or driftwood. Only we must try to relearn the difference between stimulation through self-projection, which, when applied to art, so often passes for 'appreciation' and that enrichment that comes from an understanding, however dim and imperfect, of what a great work of art is intended to convey.* We need not worry about these distinctions every time we look at a work of art. What matters is only that we should not surrender our sanity by losing our faith in the very possibility of finding out what a fellow human being means or meant. Critical reason may be fallible but it can still advance towards the truth by testing interpretations, by sifting the evidence, and thus widen the area of our sympathies while narrowing the scope of myths. It will need a good deal of clearing up, after the expressionist earthquake, to reconstruct the Museum on these more modest but more secure foundations. Meanwhile we owe a debt to André Malraux for having recorded with such verve and intensity the impact of this traumatic experience on a rich and sensitive mind."

* I'm including the footnote Gombrich put here: "Intention in art is not everything. Neither is expression. But where the intention is missed our response to the rest will also go wrong." The passive voice in that sentence in the main text is crucial.

--from E. H. Gombrich, "André Malraux and the Crisis of Expressionism" (a review of The Voices of Silence), The Burlington Magazine, vol. 96, no. 621 (Dec 1954), pp. 374-378.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Momentary Reflection

A trend over the last few months: I've noticed that overall I'm seeing fewer films, something that tends to happen annually as the weather gets warm. But more than this, lately, I notice that I tend to watch in splurges. Three or even four films in a day (I've had two triple bills recently, one at MoMA and one at the home videotheque); or no films all week long but then several over a weekend.

Otherwise I spend my time reading more. I find I go through cycles where I'm afflicted with something probably vaguely comparable to attention deficit disorder. I don't know what to read, what I want to read, so I tend to read shorter things--articles, reviews--and I skim longer works ("a little Benjamin, then the critical introduction to this Balzac novel...") Then this passes and I can knock out several books in quick succession, on top of the other articles and essays and skimming.

One of the solo joys of life is finishing a book in a day or two, something I can't always do even when I'm blessed with a windfall of free time. My most fortuitous convergence of necessary free time and a willingness to read, with focus, came on a flight from Italy back to New York. I knocked out Death in Venice (including a few critical appendices in the Norton) and The Baron in the Trees.

* * *

I mention all this because I'm curious about people's reading habits, how they feel they've changed with the advent of websurfing. As much as I love my computer and all the Internets it's really reconfigured my time management when it comes to devoting time to reading print. It's not that I read much less print, it's that I read it in smaller chunks of time.

Which, of course, is not always the best way to read!

I know there's got to be a mountain of journalistic and scholarly literature devoted to this question. And maybe I'll get to some of it (five minutes at a time). But in light of Matt's announcement that he has to write shorter pieces because long paragraphs are problematic for surfers, I do have to say that some of the most important and formative things I came across on the Internet were long and sometimes difficult-to-follow pieces which I had to work at, chip away at on that computer monitor, mouse click by mouse click, revisitations and all. Some examples that taught me about radical politics, for good or for ill--words on life from a political prisoner, or some sites from an online Leninist activist; or we cannot forget the Movie Mutations letters, which I first stumbled across online, connected to UC-Berkeley I think, where I read and re-read these long and personal reflections on love and theory and friendship (themselves texts too, on "discovery"), understanding a little more each time I visited the letters anew. At the age of 16 or 17 or so, sitting at the computer in my room before I went to bed on school nights, this was an intellectual education I simply wasn't getting in school. And the very long, graphics-lite essays were as integral a part of my "online learning" (and my learning to be online) as were the more hyped choppiness of digital interactions on message-boards, through email and IM, and so on. What the Internet did for me was not decrease my willingness to engage with long and complex texts: what it did was condition me (or allow myself to be conditioned) to approach almost anything as a text which I could split into discrete units and read utterly at my leisure. That had never occured to me before; one read for a certain amount of time: until the chapter was over, until there was something else that needed immediate attention, or until the time to read was up. But to read something for not even 5-10 minutes, or to reading part of something very long for only 15-20 minutes ... and then just stop and move onto something else altogether? I can't remember thinking that way until the Internet came around.

* * *

Lately I've been turning the computer off at home more often, which has boded well for time management. I fear that the ability to Google almost any new topic that interests me could become a huge crutch if it hasn't already.

* * *

Of course, I'm also in the middle of cat-sitting for several weeks, and this cat we have as a houseguest has taken a big liking to me. And when she's not sleeping, she's very jealous of time I spend paying attention to anything but her ... that includes the computer.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Vain Glory of Command


Stop me if I've mentioned this before, but has it ever seemed like the phrase, "This filmmaker understood women better than anyone else" tends to be uttered by male critics & buffs, and always about male directors? What's missing from this equation?

Anyway, Joseph Losey's Steaming (though based on a screen adaptation by his wife Patricia from a play by a woman, Nell Dunn) is the sort of film--though it admittedly has a pretty unenviable reputation--that might inspire this kind of "understanding women" observation. And despite that bad reputation (Senses of Cinema Great Directors writer Dan Callahan, who seems to have expected and demanded psychological plausibility & verisimiltude above all else, calls it "a catastrophic adaptation of a bad play") ... I was actually floored by the film in a lot of ways.

Steaming, being a play adaptation (and a talky one in a single setting at that), is "stagey," of course, which sometimes gets unfairly proffered as shorthand for "uncinematic." But this is not fair to Losey, for starters, an intelligent man who spent difficult decades working in various film industries, genres, and languages, never able to comfortably master & coast in one, but able to cobble together a few overriding themes (claustrophobia, emotional anxieties, a certain amount of morally-serious progressive political dedication) despite the highly diverse natures of his projects. Steaming is a mildly (and I think quite intentionally) schematic work which plays to a lot of the broader issues that Losey has spent these longs years investigating in so many contexts. It hits certain buttons quite deliberately: men/women, bourgeois/working class, work/leisure, stuffiness/release. But as a film, at the very least, it's also a pretty lively affair, I think, thanks in large part to Losey's intelligently omnipresent camera (the camera placement and movements are actually not so "stagey," and appear from all manner of spots within the setting of the Turkish baths, carving out a continuous space that feels slowly, slowly more like a home to us, a comfort, as we watch).

Colors are more or less drab but intentionally so: fleshtones (of course), a lot of whites and neutrals, some blues, and brown wood. The film is a veritable treatise on the ways cloth moves on bodies--'wet drapery,' that stronghold of Western art; the movements of towels and cloths and swimsuits and hosiery. The acting is all right in terms of Oscar-nominee kinds of performances, "convincing" and all that--given how much of the film is focused on the women's bodies, however, it's vital to comprehend that simple physiognomy is at least as important to each performance as convincing, "realistic" enunciation and body language are. Vanessa Redgrave and Sarah Miles play two old friends who haven't seen each other in a while; Redgrave tells Miles early on that she looks incredibly sexy ('How do you get sexier as you get older?'), which plays out visually throughout the rest of the film in the way that Miles--playing a career woman--is more confident with her body, which I don't mean as a sexual tool mind you but as a body, while tall, imperious Redgrave is somewhat shy and perhaps even a little ashamed of hers (a sentiment expressed once in dialogue but really driven home by means of small visual & performative cues).

* * *

On last note on the question of politics & representation. The video box to the film, Steaming, says the story is about "six women." But there is a seventh who doesn't have much in the way of lines until the final act or so (she's present & visible before this however). In the film she is played by a black woman, though I have no idea if this is indicated in Dunn's play; this insinuates at least a small mention of race into a play that quite openly deals with class issues among its women protagonists. But what I find interesting is that this woman--in the film, at least, this black woman--seems to be the non-character amidst a half-dozen "characters," all of whom have more evenly distributed lines and back stories. Why has it turned out like this? Was the character (possibly the only one of the seven in "the meeting" near the film's end) originally written as race-neutral, and did Joseph and/or Patricia Losey decide that precisely because she was a cipher, they'd cast her with a black woman to visually point to (if not delve into by way of dialogue) this question of race? Or maybe they paid little heed to this at all, and the best person who auditioned for the part was black and they just went with it. Or did Nell Dunn write her like this, black and literally left almost mute until the long group scenes near the end? (If so, why was she relegated to the sidelines?)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Three, plus ...

Morocco. Pictorial beauty: fractured and refracted light upon an ornament-filled composition. A powerful, ridiculous (in a rationalist sense) ending whose power comes from the fact that Sternberg empties out all semblance of verisimilitude in the final windswept moments. (Can we pin it down to a single character's fantasy? Which one's?)

"There's a foreign legion of women, too..." Where do the characters come from? We only know they've come to Morocco, even Menjou's upstanding citizen--they all have secrets which will never been known. Morocco, the film-place, is comprised of the shadows & etchings of buried pasts.

The Marrying Kind. It starts off on autopilot but soon starts making leaps into tragedy and unbearable (intentional) awkwardness. Domestic comedy-dramas of the postwar era really were sharp & incisive in the right hands (cf. McCarey's Good Sam; Sirk's No Room for the Groom), just blatantly so, it's amazing that any of these ever needed to be "unpacked" by critics & others later--maybe they were just presumed to be needed to be unpacked. This one gets its hands dirty with a lot of different tones.


"Of note: El Dorado, the best D.W. Griffith film of 1967. Of course it's a very Hawks, but it's strange to think that it's contemporaneous with Week-End and Point Blank, among others." -- from Patrick Ciccone

El Dorado. A film for old friends. Hawks is a good filmmaker for establishing some of the things a person is or is not interested in when it comes to cinema. Of course there's a lot of adolescent generic "stuff" up on the screen in this and his other drama, adventure, Western films. This ethos, it's the 'Hawks fiction,' in part propelled by his own fairly adventurous can-do life, but in every film the unthinking, unflagging "professionalism" is always met, even undercut with criticism of that very same thing. Only Angels Have Wings--that's not about "Who's Joe?", mind you, it's about the lunacy of letting "Who's Joe" pragmatism build up out of all proportion. Hawks the thematic moralist is always a bit more complex than he's given credit for on this count. One could, rightly, say that this--more than tough-men-and-women professionalism--is in fact the object of Hawks' ethos. It's not about professionalism as an end but rather the getting of wisdom about professionalism's places and uses. (Hawks' films, his dramas & adventures that is, may still be "adolescent" in a sense, but adolescent because they are about maturation, not adolescent because they are willfully infantile.) On first blush El Dorado strikes me as the Hawks film most outrightly concerned with theme, with problems of ethical behavior ... anyone agree/disagree?

Raymond Durgnat, from the 1970s: "But there are four or five Hawks movies that stand re-seeing. Otherwise, if I weren’t on duty as a culturologist, I’d walk out of most Hawks movies fairly early on, feeling that I’d missed nothing, that here was a safe little machine functioning without major surprises or many new insights. But The Big Sleep [1946] has a certain quality, Scarface [1932], Gentlemen Prefer Blondes [1953], The Big Sky [1952]. Not Rio Bravo [1959], that’s kitsch." Burned! Wonder what he thought of El Dorado then?

Roger Ebert, meat-and-potatoes auteurist?: "A footnote: Pauline Kael, the New Republic's film critic, claims El Dorado has the second worst lighting she's seen in a movie. That's not bad lighting, that's good old Howard Hawks with all of his shadows and kerosene lamps and murky atmosphere and dark alleys (remember The Big Sleep?). Miss Kael needs her glasses scrubbed."

Edward Yang, RIP. I still haven't seen Yi Yi (I know, how could I not?) but I've seen A Brighter Summer Day, and even more important to me personally, The Terrorizer. He was a crucial talent.

Notes on the Aesthetics of Sport

The greatest thing in group sports, to me, has to do with the simplicity and grace of lines and speed. There is something from a certain era of modernist (and also, sometimes, fascist) aesthetics which answers the same demands--beginning with Cézanne maybe, then Braque/Picasso, then the Italian Futurists, Léger, Russian Constructivists, Richter. Well, anyway, meld some of these with the more traditionalist line drawn between sports and Greek (Olympian) ideals, the grace of the body, the beauty of the strong and healthy body.

(If 300 were as "accurate" to its times--a lame defense I read in a few quarters--slinkily beautiful Lena Headey would actually have some meat on her bones, the curves and musculature of an adult woman and mother, no?)

What attracts me to soccer has to do with a certain kind of passing game--lines on the field. Aesthetically speaking, the field, in team sports, is one kind of frame or canvas, which is mediated in our age (sometimes) by the television screen, obviously. The organic runs of the players, the way the ball moves, the way these lines are drawn at varying speeds and the grace with which a body movement (flick of the ankle, the cheeky tap of the backheel, a sprinting perfectly-timed volley). During the World Cup when people always bemoan Germany and other Northern European teams for their "boring" longball traditions (somewhat forgotten for the Germans last summer when they proved uncharacteristically entertaining to any & all), but I think that there's something being missed even when the Germans (as in 2002's World Cup) prove to be no more than "mechanically efficient," no Ronaldo- and Ronaldinho-type pyrotechnics beyond the occasional clever throughball, just layers and layers of one- and two-touches; it's characterized as almost inhuman but I think it's very human when it's played at a high level; in terms of strategy & tactics it can be rhythmic and attacking (Wenger-era Arsenal) or defensive and tentative (the '02 German national team) but it's always about a team--a group--working together organically, knowing one another well enough so that each player is always in the right (if sometimes unexpected) spot for his teammates wherever that spot is. When Maradona or Messi cut through an entire defense on a run to goal, that's great, but what I watch the sport for, is an unanticipated string of passes and runs and (yes) footwork which culminate in a squad that acts almost like an organism whose movements I'm observing for the first time. To me the best goals are the ones that come very strong and fast on the end of a desperate run or a determined string of unselfish playing (videos of several of which are linked to below).

Robin van Persie v Blackburn.
RvP v Charlton.
RvP v Man Utd.

Arsenal flowing: some hits; even some misses (plus).

World Cup 2006 -

The most satisfying goal (to me).
The second most satisfying.
The most spectacular build-up.

In other words, since I mentioned modernist art in the first paragraph, sport (specifically soccer, in my eyes) makes obvious a lot of the "human" content of modernism, human content that isn't predicated on (or justified by) self-expression but rather by the functionings of multiple agents ... Carry on ...

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Time Capsule: Durgnat, S&S, '82

Was going through some files and just came across the 1982 Sight & Sound list (the one for the year of my birth), broken down by critic--here are the titles chosen by Raymond Durgnat, who had one of the most idiosyncratic lists (as one would expect):

The Big Night (Joseph Losey, 1951)
Blonde Venus (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
Chinese Checkers (Stephen Dwoskin, 1964)
Dom (Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica, 1958)
Fellini-Satyricon (Federico Fellini, 1969)
The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T (Roy Rowland, 1953)
Le Mystère Koumiko (Chris Marker, 1965)
Ruby Gentry (King Vidor, 1952)
Vampyr (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1932)
Yellow Submarine (George Dunning, 1968)

"How painful to pass over true friends like Renoir and Franju, Groucho and Kong, who saw me through from infancy to early middle age. Whatever this list suggests, my soul remains a 30s baby's, born of poetic realism and the magic realms around it--of, let's say, Next of Kin and Les Enfants du Paradis, of Hellzapoppin' and Senza pietà ..."

Of the above list, I've only seen the Sternberg, Fellini, and Dreyer (and some of Yellow Submarine) ... better get crackin'.