Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Powers of the Invisible

‘Since 1789, ideas alone have constituted the strength and salvation of the proletariat. It owes to them its every victory’, wrote Blanqui (one of those who passed the ideas of 1789 on to the Paris Commune). Abstract concepts were the abc of a militant’s apprenticeship. The notions of proletariat and bourgeoisie, like those of labour power, surplus value, relations of production, etc., that underlie them, are not apprehensible by the senses. Secondly, whether project or myth, the idea of the Revolution as ‘what should be’ is the denial and transcendence of the immediate, the overcoming of the present. Both as logical discourse and as moral undertaking, the socialist utopia demanded an inner break with the ‘stream of everyday life’, an act of faith that mobilized the powers of conceptual analysis to break the accepted social imagery down into elemental abstracts, like ‘exploitation’.

Writing collectivizes individual memory; reading individualizes collective memory. The back-and-forth between them fosters the sense for history by unearthing potentials within the present, creating backdrops and foregrounds; it is fundamental for the idea of socialism. When it is cold outside and the night is long, memory means that we are not alone. Alphabetical memory, as Hegel would put it. Contrasting ‘the inestimable educational value’ of learning to read and write with alphabetical characters, as opposed to hieroglyphics, he described how the very process of alphabetical writing helps to turn the mind’s attention from immediate ideas and sense impressions to ‘the more formal structure of the word and its abstract components’, in a way that ‘gives stability and independence to the interior realm of mental life’.

All the revolutionary men of action I have met, from Che Guevara to Pham Van Dong by way of Castro (not the autocrat, but the one-time rebel), to say nothing of the walking encyclopaedias known as Trotskyists, were compulsive readers, as devoted to books as they were unreceptive to images. A Hegelian would explain this by saying that reading leads to critical detachment, and—given that there is ‘no science that is not hidden’, nor future without ‘rehearsal’ of the past—to utopian anticipation. Abstraction encourages action, as remembrance leads to innovation. The greatest modernizers inaugurate their career with a backward leap, and a renaissance proceeds through a return to the past, a recycling, and hence a revolution. Columbus discovered America in a library, through the perusal of arcane texts and cosmographies. The Ancien Régime in France was overthrown by admirers not of Montgolfier or Washington, but of Lycurgus and Cato. Chateaubriand and Hugo revolutionized literature by dint of Gothic ruins, Nietzsche vaulted over Jules Verne with the aid of the pre-Socratics, and Freud revisited Aeschylus.

The misfortune of revolutionaries is to have inherited a little more than most people. The written word is vital for these transmitters of collective memory, since their analytical tools are forged from its traditions. A legacy of ideas is not automatically transmissible; there are better or worse historical environments for conveying abstractions, just as there are better and worse conductors of electricity. The revolutionary act par excellence starts from a sense of nostalgia, the return to a forgotten text, a lost ideal. Behind the ‘re’ of reformation, republic or revolution—of rehearsing, recommencing, rereading—there is a hand flicking through the pages of a book, from the end back to the beginning. Whereas the finger that presses a button, fast-forwarding a tape or disc, will never pose a danger to the establishment.

--Régis Debray, "Socialism: A Life-Cycle." New Left Review 46. Food for thought.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Free Films

"My conviction and endeavour are dedicated to the hope that film studies in universities do not become a "registration office" administering the corpus imposed by the industry. This means that we have a duty (urgent to the point of becoming an emergency) to seek out and to comment on what I would call "free-films", that is to say, films made outside the industry for ethical, political, economic or purely aesthetic reasons. Nowadays it appears that fewer and fewer films are made by the industry, because more and more films are the same film under different titles--like those in the pornography market. There are fewer and fewer films to watch because there are more and more prints of the same movie on regular screens. ... And nowadays more and more "free films" are appearing because of the moral and political necessity to escape from economic censorship. This is why I will analyse in this paper three modest, unknown, and unique French experimental films."

--Nicole Brenez, Preamble to her paper "The Secrets of Movement: The Influence of Hong Kong Action Cinema upon the Contemporary French Avant-Garde," collected in Hong Kong Connections: Transnational Imagination in Action Cinema (eds. Meaghan Morris, Siu Leung Li and Stephen Chan Ching-kiu, Duke/Hong Kong UPs, 2005), which I picked up today and which looks to be a really impressive volume, including contributions from Brenez, Adrian Martin, Paul Willemen, Stephen Teo, and David Desser, among others.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

If ...

... things look strange on EL tonight, it's probably because I'll be toying with the settings, trying to upgrade the template (while still keeping the general layout).

EDIT: Whew, I really screwed up some of the font formatting, didn't I? I'll see what I can do to fix it ...

EDIT 2: Messy, messy. I feel like I've tinkered with Elusive Lucidity in a bad way--and it would take hours and hours to conform the hundreds of posts I've made here to look good and ordered. I'm tempted to just apologize, accept readers' alerts for any particularly awful formatting on old posts, and just move on. Hmm.

On Libraries and Galleries

Rough notes.

The sweep of history. All these paintings; all this art; all this culture. All this value.

"Nothing perhaps increases by indulgence more than a desultory habit of reading, especially under such opportunities of gratifying it. I believe one reason why such numberous instances of erudition occur among the lower ranks is, that, with the same powers of mind, the poor student is limited to a narrow circle for indulging his passion for books, and must necessarily make himself master of the few he possesses ere he can acquire more. Edward, on the contrary, like the epicure who only deigned to take a single morsel from the sunny side of a peach, read no volume a moment after it ceased to excite his curiosity or interest; and it necessarily happened, that the habit of seeking only this sort of gratification rendered it daily more difficult of attainment, till the passion for reading, like other strong appetites, produced by indulgence a sort of satiety."

--Sir Walter Scott, Waverley (Penguin Classics, p. 48)

David Teniers the Younger, Duke Leopold Willem Inspects Paintings in his Gallery in Brussels (1651)

"On all sides am I surrounded by a shameful video collection — too many hours are stored in these tapes, too many squibs, too much life. My collection is vast and fulsome: I have little need to watch La Venganza de los Narcotraficantes, but I have it, which is half the battle, and, having it, the battle needn't be completed. I read Walter Benjamin's Unpacking My Library: "The collector's passion borders on the chaos of memories" — I cannot bear to look at my collection anymore, for they represent not films but the squandered hours spent watching them. Revisiting them is a horror, so I shut them away — yet since they contain my essence, my hours, stolen away as a tribesman's soul is snatched by a Polaroid, I am in fact shutting myself away, burying remorseful hours too painfully vicarious to relive. I am an idiot."

--Andrew Grossman

Films--no aura, a single print is rarely that valuable as an item on the market, a videotape even less so, but (especially after home video & the digital age) they can be collected like paintings or other images. A painting by a big art world figure usually costs relatively little but can command huge sums; a feature film usually costs hugely but its price is dispersed among its public. There is no owner of the film as an artwork outside of its material; we are all potential owners of reproductions of the film. On the consumer end of cinema, the genealogy stems not from the commissioner or buyer but the collector. Is film its very own 'museum without walls'?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Eight Meme

Tram tagged me for this and I said I would respond, so, coming very late, here are eight pieces of trivia about your friendly blog author.

1. I'm basically punctual. Generally if I'm supposed to be somewhere at 7:30, I'll show up by 7:25. This applies to where my person is supposed to be at a given time; it doesn't always apply to email correspondence or sending out packages or giving birthday cards. It definitely doesn't apply to responding to meme tags.

2. I was on C-SPAN once. For about two seconds. It was their coverage of the Washington Nader Rally. (I voted Nader in 2000. I have no regrets or shame about this especially as I was in Virginia and not a swing-state.) Michael Moore showed up; Cornel West gave the final (rousing) address of the night if I recall--he showed up late, after Nader got there and spoke. In probably 2002, it was at another Nader-headlined rally, down in the Financial District that I heard Phil Donohue speak and I got quite disillusioned with the Greens and the liberal Democrats (not that I considered myself one of them, but I put a lot of hope in their project--naively). I realized that at its base this was all still capitalism with a prettier face, a self-congratulatory bit of deception of oneself and others. For a few years after this I was relatively apathetic about politics altogether, and certainly I was under the mistaken impression that "the Left" was dead or beyond repair in this era, even though I still called myself "far left" if asked.

3. About ten years ago, my favorite novel was Frank Herbert's Dune. Make of that whatever you will. I never read the sequels although I've always wanted to go back just for completionist reasons. Several months ago I actually took one of those online quizzes to see which famous sci-fi writer I was. Well: Frank Herbert.

4. I don't like driving. Sometimes it's fine. But factor in heavy traffic or city blocks and I hate it. And I've just never been a car person--I don't know much about them, never have, and I don't really care one way or the other. (In the earlier, more insecure years of my adolescence, I had a hard time being "one of the guys" whenever cars came up. I knew fuck-all.) Whenever I leave NYC, life without driving will be one of the things I miss most. A walking city is an optimal one, though not always the best (as we see today here in the Big Apple) when it's raining.

5. I've never had a broken bone. A good thing in theory, but retrospectively I wish I'd at least gained the experience of a broken arm in a cast, having all the kids at school sign it, knowing what it feels like, etc.

6. TV Shows I Inexplicably Love: Just Shoot Me and Bernie Mac. I think there was one other show I sometimes group with these, but now I can't remember which one. At any rate, the point is that I'm half-mesmerized by these two sitcoms whenever they come on (only in reruns these days, I think), and can't ever put my finger on their particular appeal. The first one's kind of shit, I can't even stand David Spade, yet if this ever comes on a TV and I'm nearby, I'm caught in a trance and have to watch it. Wendie Malick is fantastic but I otherwise don't know what draws me to it. Bernie Mac is a higher quality work, but like Just Shoot Me, I don't know what it is that keeps my eyes glued to the screen. (I didn't "follow" these shows when they were on; there are relatively few TV series that really do to me what they are precisely designed to do, i.e., get me returning to see more and more, on a weekly basis. But once these are actually on the screen...)

7. I've lived in six states (Idaho, Kansas, Georgia, California, Virginia, New York) and one other country (Germany). Strangely I wasn't born in any of those places.

8. I spent a summer working at Papyrus. The stationery store. It was my second retail job, and certainly my last if I have anything to say about it. My friend got me the position working with him as a sales associate. It was actually an incredibly entertaining gig for the summer (my last spent living with my parents), all the quotidian retail woes aside. The assistant manager was only a few months older than I was at the time (20) but she looked much older; I found out after she skipped town (on the pretext of her grandfather's untimely death back in Belfast, with $150 curiously missing from the safe) that her boyfriend--who managed a shoe store down the way--was abusive. They also supported a couple of habits. The assistant manager was a fun, nice, unreliable guy who would go out and party on the club scene until dawn, and then show up (late) to open the store sometimes, occasionally passing out in the back room to sweat off whatever pills he'd popped. There was a student, a young Somalian woman, who was torn between trying to adhere to stricter Muslim prohibitions on music and loving the Doors (imagine this tall beautiful woman in a headscarf singing "The End" and swaying around as she restocked greeting cards). That's just a start for the people who worked there. My friend and I probably spent 60 hours a week in each other's company and it never got old; we'd frequently work the same shifts and then go out to one of our places to drink. I think I only saw a total of about twenty movies that whole summer.

Moving on, I'm hoping to get some posts out very soon that have as little to do with yours truly as possible.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Psychology of Allan Grey's Vision

First two shots of Dreyer's Vampyr--Allan Grey arrives: he's a beanpole, dark slim (casually slanted) vertical lines out of a gray mist. He looks up, sees the sign for the hotel (a pan down reveals the reason for the sign). Tall, thin, vertical Mr. Grey's gaze--if that's what Dreyer's pan down aims to suggest--of course looks up and down before he looks left and right ...

More to follow, eventually.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Thursday, August 09, 2007


I've seen, I think, seven Straub/Huillet films now (shorts & features), but not until last night did I have a reasonably optimal screening experience--projected on celluloid, the print was decent, the theater acceptable, and I wasn't suffering from any lingering colds or exhaustion. I have a weird track record where I show up to the couple's films very tired after a long day, or having come down with a bug, attending the screenings at all only because of their rarity. (Later in the evening, during another film, I admit I started to yawn and slouch over--the body wasn't cooperating!) Sicilia! may be greater than other S/H films I've caught, or maybe it's simply benefitted from having a fair and proper go-round. All of the S/H films I've seen have been good, interesting, even great--but this one hit me very, very deeply.

As I hope to teach film one day I would love to show the sequence (at the end of reel one and the beginning of reel two) when Sicilia! becomes silent--just after the train car conversation, before Silvestro reaches his mother--and we just see a few tracking shots from the train. These tracking shots and pans of the Sicilian landscape (they reappear a few more times) are breathtaking, and the one from the train (with Mt. Etna, I believe?) would be a perfect comparison to Robert Breer's great film Fuji in a class ... to show how the static integrity of a b&w Straubian image compares to the dynamic fluctuations of Breer's photography + animation--how both achievements are great in their own ways, how they may work in tandem to express something about perception (in this case, the simple act of looking out the window from a train ride, with an important mountain in the distance) and even cognition ... Breer's images articulate (among other things) the way the eye creates an conception, or a conceptual image, out of disparate and conjoined images; I think S/H's indicates something about constancy versus change (the implacable lonely peak in the background, the rapid movement of the Mediterranean brush in the foreground). Straub and Huillet are ("they" were) filmmakers who delight in words, in conversation: they may be called dreadfully boring or any number of bad things, but "empty" formalism is a battleaxe no sane person can charge them with. And it's so refreshing to see these meaningful, anti-verisimilitudinal conversations laced together with shots of landscape. Powerful and intelligent images, great natural beauty, the establishment of human contact as monumental as the sensual consideration of terrain of countless generations (and gods) ...

The Cassavetes Letters, #3

(The first and second letters.)

Dear Matt,

That saucepan is an axiom of the cinema! Let’s forget performance for just a moment—if one wants to talk about how Cassavetes allegedly “captures life,” we need to discuss the treatment of food and drink and meals! When I was a kid and saw an episode of Star Trek on television, I asked my Dad why we never saw the characters eating. “Well, we don’t want to see them eat. We want to see them work.” But that’s not a natural predilection, is it?, that has to be taught, inculcated just like so much of what we assume cinematic material “must” or “should” show us, fulfilling the desires we’ve been told we have. Like the Oedipal complex—it’s not that it’s universally true through time and space, it’s that it has been made true in certain cases through means of production, circulation, repetition. A cinema that gets us thinking or remembering or imagining for a few moments a glass of red wine and spaghetti, about an amiably awkward breakfast after a long shift … that can be special simply because its presence is rare. In Bicycle Thieves, Vittorio De Sica contrives hunger for his father and son characters. I’m not saying one has to reject De Sica for this reason, only that even the most seemingly heartfelt humanist moments of, say, hunger and fellowship are usually swept up in a much larger operation. Perhaps they’re swept up in Cassavetes, too—but it’s not that kind of operation, not that kind of story or image or space. His are something else.

Neither are they like the bottle of liquor passed around in Deliverance, on the characters’ first night on the river, where Boorman and Zsigmond follow the bottle around (cutting off character’s heads in the frame, if I recall) as it’s offered and passed from man to man. That’s a gesture, a line: a visual flourish that says something about John Boorman’s “universe” (and Vilmos Zsigmond’s, and 1970s America’s, and who knows what else). But we know it is operatively different from the saucepan in A Woman Under the Influence because it feels different: the emotions it triggers, the way it triggers them, are informed by other aspects of the film. We might say for instance that in Deliverance the clean liquor-line of the camera is in fact a last hurrah of camaraderie before the more harrowing events of the second day on the river: very very roughly, it’s the calm before the storm. That’s its simple, small narrative operation. The saucepan-line in Under the Influence, however, has no similarity in function beyond the fact that it brings people together in a shot under the aegis of communal consumption. We can see from the activity of the characters that the action isn’t about finding a dramatic point to emphasize, foreshadow, deepen (or clarify)—it is instead to get a sense of bustle: chaos of a family, of the way this Longhetti house runs (open to strangers; a balancing act between Mabel’s Mabelness and Nick’s simplistic good love and limited mirth). It’s about character rather than plot, but that’s too crude a way to put it, for how is it “about” these characters? Clearly the shot like that doesn’t do much to establish or draw out Nick/Mabel/whoever in three-dimensional, novelistic form. It doesn’t make them well-rounded, it doesn’t make them more or less sympathetic. It does establish a program of graphic movement; a rhythm as seen in the surrounding legwork and gestures (surrounding/anticipating this all important breakfast-spaghetti saucepan!), identifying the characters not so much as successfully literary transformations (conceptual-verbal trinkets) but as individualized and interacting auras of movement and visual-aural persona whose powerfully, suggestively sketched (just sketched) behaviors accumulate the gravity of personality over (cine-)time. Cassavetes mastered a own way of rendering Character onscreen, cinematically, in a non-literary way. This is part of what makes him so special. Even when he wasn’t being particularly revolutionary, Cassavetes was simply remembering things that almost every forces around him sought to forget, erase, suppress.

And anyway, Matt, I have no doubt bored and befuddled you enough with my eight-mile sentences. Food—let’s get back to that, to illustrate a point—and as you mentioned in your letter, there are also alcohol and tobacco (and caffeine) as initiators of social experience, and of individual experience. Consumption is sometimes overlooked in discussions of cinema, which is in its dominant format, after all, one big commercial product to be consumed.

A tangent, because when it comes to Cassavetes a tangent is always a fine thing to go down for a while—let’s pretend it’s three in the morning and we’ve had eight shots of single malt apiece—have you ever seen Big Night, which I have not seen and have heard has some of the most delicious images of food and cooking? How does it stand up in this age of constant cable cooking shows? And if my inadvertant alliteration didn’t just make you choke on your coffee, perplexed, what can you tell me about La Grande bouffe, if you’ve seen it (again, I haven’t)? Because there’s plenty of discussion of sex and sexuality in the cinema, but what about that other element that is supposed to separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom: taste, literal taste, the enjoyment and savor of food? Because as surely as one could write about gender relations, desire, the sensual/sensuous body in Cassavetes, one could—and should—write about the way that the sensuous intake of calories and substances operates on the viewer and her psychology.
What do these images mean to you?

Because every time I ask myself this question (as you know I’ve mulled over this letter far too long) I find myself coming to different things, different emphases, each time: the establishment of routines; the structure of (economic) power which runs amidst these routines (a real and political presence in the Cassavetes world); the pleasure of these routines; the pleasure of an individual moment of consumption in explicit contrast to routine (capital-r Routine?); the utter drabness of modern (American) business life; the secretary as the harem-corollary to the ‘60s playboy swinging girl; the way hangovers express themselves in our bodies.

Substances nourishing or otherwise are interesting in films because, among other reasons, they ground a certain basic corporeality—this other corporeality to stand beside ‘sexuality’—and in this way depictions of eating, drinking, smoking, etc. share something with the way cinema, or art in general, deals with sex and violence. (It’s about material, “content,” that may—but needn’t—inspire strong affective reactions in viewers.) At any rate when we see a character smoke, eat, or drink we are drawn to their bodily reality in some way, the illusion of their physically manifest presence on the screen, the reminder that the emulsions or pixels suggest of something ‘filmed,’ and so ultimately I think there’s something very Bazinian-ontological about almost any cinematographic representation of consumption, because it indicates, sometimes it clearly records, a reality of physical processes that strengthens the illusion of life in the frame.

1) Life is a process.
2) Life flows.

And because the processes flows, continually, well, this is how Cassavetes thinks and works and this is why he creates his uniquely “lifelike” characters (gradually, over cine-time, remember!). And blood flows too, which indicates the significance of Cosmo Vitelli’s wounds in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, because just as important as eating, drinking, and smoking are in Cassavetes (as signs of life, celebrating or simply surviving, of sociality, vitality), is the idea of life lost. One irretrievable flow is time (Love Streams experiments with this a bit: it’s the Cassavetes film that “looks back” the most, I think), another is blood, and in fact everything is flowing—love, hate, compassion, ichors, anything and nothing in particular. I don’t know if you’ll want to pick up on this idea: blood, flow, and The Killing of a Chinese Bookie—if you don’t, that’s perfectly all right; but I think I may come back to it myself when I reply to your next letter.




Monday, August 06, 2007


It's Red Desert that opens with Monica Vitti acquiring food for her son, right? I'm not misremembering films, am I?

Pedro Costa's No Quarto da Vanda strikes me as one helluva masterpiece. O Sangue and Casa de Lava are promising films; but Vanda is something very strange and rare. Better than Colossal Youth even?

Machinery, industrial landscape, the slums, the exploited, the forgotten: Antonioni's Red Desert, Gianni Amelio's Lamerica (also Stolen Children--and as for forgotten children, Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities), Sohrab Shahid Saless' Still Life, Tarr's work, Kusturica's Underground, the anti-state and post-communist detritus of Makavejev (Sweet Movie) or Angelopoulos (Ulysses' Gaze). Something links all these films in my head. Need to see--Wajda's Man of Marble, Skolimowski's Deep End, more early Mike Leigh.

The lament of civilization's destruction, i.e., change: mischaracterized in a bad political gesture by a great artist in Manoel de Oliveira's A Talking Picture (somewhat sabotaged by John Malkovich, whose presence I can't yet reconcile with the rest of the film). The cinema--modernity--gets analogized to the train; what's it mean that Oliveira puts his Western civilization voyage on a cruise ship?

Anyway, back to what I've been seeing lately. Occasionally in the comments to blog posts or message boards, in the wake of the deaths of Bergman and Antonioni, people will sometimes say things like, "Now that the serious days of the arthouses are over, all we have is commercial crap like Transformers." The implication is that nothing is happening of worth, as though the 1960s "were" L'Avventura and Persona and the 2000s "are" Live Free or Die Hard.

Well, among other things, Pedro Costa is happening. And there's a NYC retrospective as we speak. Ossos (which I haven't caught--tomorrow, I hope) gives way to In Vanda's Room, whose impoverished and drug-addicted protagonists are relocated into government housing for Colossal Youth. I think Vanda may be the most beautiful film shot on video I've ever seen. Costa's long, cumulative opus (structured editing doesn't seem to play a part in its impact) relies on the rich density of compacted time--it took two years to shoot (and one to edit, so perhaps there's more to the editing than I was able to discern on initial encounter), and the resulting material plays for a definite period of time, that is, we can sense what has changed in the community from beginning to end, but I don't know if we're really able to figure out how long the narrative takes. There's no narrative "anchoring," in fact, during parts of this film I thought to myself that I had no idea how far along into the running time we were--a sensation I haven't felt since I watched Tony Conrad's The Flicker! Georges de la Tour-like lighting makes for some of the most eye-popping scenes, where yellow-orange candlelight casts only the barest, starkest warm light in a field of black as the junkies shoot up and ruminate on the impending destructing of their neighborhood, Fontainhas. I'm fairly squeamish, too, and though I don't have a particular problem with needles, heroin has always kind of freaked me out, so watching some of the scenes was very, very difficult--yet their matter-of-factness, and even their unsentimental poetry (as as in one of those de la Tour-like scenes, when one junkie is trying to find a neck vein on another and unsuccessfully attacking it with an old needle), ground these passages in something almost primal: the needs of people who are trapped and yet aware of their traps, and to some extent acceptant of them: "This is the life we choose." It is, and it isn't, and Costa's film--showing individual behaviors and juxtaposing them with the encroaching outside demolition of the district--captures this dialectic. It's very moving, very terrifying. And in its own way it (and Costa's other work) contributes to my personal lineage or network of decaying Western(ish) civilization, too, the intertwined destinies of buildings and ruins and development and human beings of differing classes--there's a great lecture series or college course to be formed out of some or all of the films I've mentioned in this post, I think ...

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Quote of the Day

"A dialectical view of history strengthens us in the conclusion that our relationship to the past can never be that of univocal moral judgments but always involves what amount to structurally determinate ambiguities, historical mixed feelings. I have tried to articulate elsewhere the ways in which the kinds of judgments we make on works of art--as progressive or reactionary, as ideological document or formal artifact--vary themselves in function of our practical distance from the past and from history: a really complete act of historical apprehension would indeed involve all of these apparently contradictory judgments in turn, if not simultaneously, for the works of the art of the past are always all these things at once, class apologia just as much as sheer formal invention, and the realities they express involve both positive and negative impulses together, both "progressive" and "reactionary" elements."

--Fredric Jameson, introduction to the English edition of Henri Arvon's Marxist Aesthetics

"Landmarks in the History of Taste"

Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote up a dissenting opinion on Ingmar Bergman in the New York Times. In a certain sense it's refreshing to see that someone is willing to write about Bergman (not an anti-intellectual hatchet job, that is) at this moment and not be a huge Bergman fan. As something of a Bergman-skeptic I felt awash in a sea of much agreed-upon appreciations on blogs, websites, newspapers that decided that Bergman was not only a major figure in the history of cinema, but that he was one of the absolute elite, untouchable by anyone still living, possessing a body of work that far outshone almost anyone else in terms of universal human import and complex, profound, probing themes. (I do not share in any of these assessments.) But in fact I think what makes Rosenbaum's piece stick out is precisely one of the areas where he's not quite correct: for after Bergman's death what did we get but a great deal of heartfelt appreciation of the filmmaker? So, is Ingmar Bergman's star dimming, waning, descending? Maybe, probably, it had some--5 or 10 years ago. But I don't think it's stayed lower. Bergman's presence on DVD and probably a number of other sociocultural reasons I've no inclination or gift to parse out have, if anything, confirmed his stature.

Rosenbaum writes in the Times:
So where did the outsized reputation of Mr. Bergman come from? At least part of his initial appeal in the ’50s seems tied to the sexiness of his actresses and the more relaxed attitudes about nudity in Sweden; discovering the handsome look of a Bergman film also clearly meant encountering the beauty of Maj-Britt Nilsson and Harriet Andersson.

One could say this about pretty much the entirety of the European New Waves, loosely defined. Beautiful women (not uncommonly held up as icons of a less "enlightened" gaze) abound in 1960s Godard, Jancsó, Rivette, Bertolucci, or Antonioni, don't they? So if a little bit of sex helps sell the Art (and that does include genuinely great art), well, Bergman was hardly alone. And anyway, wasn't this kind of openness about audiences grooving on the sexual dimension of arthouse films something Rosenbaum himself dismissed as cynical about a decade ago:

Von Trier may be deeply cynical, but he's much less so than Terrence Rafferty was when he recently wrote in the New Yorker, "If Breaking the Waves becomes a hit, von Trier will have proved that the American audience for foreign films wants today precisely what it wanted in the boom years of the 50s and early 60s: nudity plus theology." A little later he added, "It's tempting to attribute the decline of the European film to the increase, over the years, in the erotic explicitness of American movies." When he says "decline" and "the European film" it can only be in the context of the American marketplace--specifically the European films selected by American distributors, the tip of the iceberg Rafferty seems happy to accept as the whole. Apparently he believes the only reason films are made in Europe is to satisfy Americans who want to see tits and ass mixed in with their theology, and if these needs can't be met European filmmakers might as well hand over their assignments to "pure" American artists working free of such pressures (say, Brian De Palma in Mission: Impossible, a recent Rafferty favorite).

I can't recall much nudity or theology in European movies such as Mon oncle, Breathless, The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, Last Year at Marienbad, Eclipse, Ashes and Diamonds, or The Magician--to cite only a few of my favorites that did well during those "boom years" (alongside such commercial flops as Pickpocket, Lola, and Dreyer's Gertrud). So I guess if American viewers are the nincompoops Rafferty claims, they must have had other dumb reasons for going to these films.

Actually I think Rosenbaum is more on the right track now than then; nudity as well as sex appeal (sometimes separately) played a big part--and continue to play a big part--in attracting audiences to art films. Cynical Terrence Rafferty may have been, but he wasn't totally without a point! Sometimes this was not intended on the filmmakers' parts (e.g., a Danish domestic drama from '59 could have been re-edited and dressed-up into a little sex comedy for American audiences in '61), but sometimes the filmmakers were complicit in the allure--and, one fold further, might have even consciously alluded to or critiqued aspects of it (Godard's famous sliding camera over the bare ass of la Bardot in Contempt). But the fact remains--if Bergman's popularity in the arthouse was conditioned partly by his beautiful actresses, so was everyone else's. (And the question also remains--should we really consider audiences "nincompoops" if they go to arthouse theaters for reasons both "high" and "low"?)

Rosenbaum continues (NYT):

If the French New Wave addressed a new contemporary world, Mr. Bergman’s talent was mainly devoted to preserving and perpetuating an old one.

But the preservation of the old world in a given time is usually a function of the present's activities, no? If Bergman was presenting us with the concerns of 19th and early 20th century theater and literature (and I think he was), he was still necessarily doing it in a contemporary context--he had to have been--and thus treating concerns that enough people, enough places, must have found worthwhile. Truthfully I'm not sure if any artist is ever "of the times" more than any other. The vanguard, the onward push of history only makes sense if that which exists prior to it is still around, still matters. (And the Nouvelle vague, addressing a new contemporary world, was no great shakes, politically--les Cahiers had its share of religious and right-wing sympathies in those early years. If we're supposed to laud artists for their fearless embrace of the Now and the New, in manners presumably compatible with our own, I'd say I must reject a lot of 1960s art cinema.)

Above all, his movies aren’t so much filmic expressions as expressions on film.

Stephen Dwoskin said that Raymond Durgnat showed up at the theater and bypassed the question "What is film?" by saying "This is a film!"

This sentiment should be put onto plaques and sold at concession stands.

Frankly, I don't think Bergman can touch the likes of Dreyer or Bresson as innovators in film form, as investigators of the medium and its materiality. I personally hold these latter two up much higher than the Swede as all-around artists. Yet, Bergman's "expressions on film" are no less cinematic, no less visual/aural, than Lancelot du lac or Vampyr. The cinema is an instrument of modernity (and its wake) and consequently the modernist attention to medium as field of investigation itself is something highly applicable to film. (And though we're dealing with a medium of mechanical reproduction, film is not just reproduction: it has material presence, it has a little bit of aura about it too--we can not have expected Walter Benjamin to travel this road, but we should recognize it by now.) OK. But pragmatically using the cinema as a literal medium, that is, a way to get to something else, express something else (the medium basically unimportant as long as it satisfies this function) is not an awful thing because they are centuries of history and craft barreling into this thing, Cinema, at high speeds and saying, "Modernity bedamned, give me a story, concept, or emotion--not a film strip!" It may not make for the greatest art, depending on tastes. Maybe it makes for the most "universal" art to some people. At any rate, the most recent Bergman I've seen, The Virgin Spring, struck me as a fairly "medium-invisible" explication or expression of themes: the logos of ideas conveyed by drama, presented (not incompetently) not simply as filmed theater but by relatively conventional patterns of filmic storytelling. (The second half has some striking imagery too.) And I think it's a better film than Persona, which is where I think Bergman tried to make reflexive and modernist forays into the psyche of the viewer and the workings of the medium itself (and, for me, fails miserably). Whatever Bergman's strengths finally are, I suspect they are not served by vanguardist treatments of modernity but of the continued tradition of certain older patterns within modernity. I think this is why he might still matter, which is not to say that he automatically matters, that he's beyond any debate, that he is necessarily more universal or timeless. We certainly cannot, should not, assume the last. (Less "great," less prolific, less spiritual, but I think Walerian Borowczyk actually harvests from some of the same fields--a premodern past beckoning within the trappings of modernity.) Are Bergman's works "landmarks in the history of taste"? Of course they are--all very hallowed and very reviled works are. (And I'm sure Rosenbaum would not dispute this.) But that doesn't prove the facts of their merits or demerits, either, does it? Just as Godard may have had his heyday in the 1960s: his reception is important historically, helps us understand his art, but his worth is ultimately not correlative to his acknowledge relevance or acceptance (or dismissal) at any given time or place.

Anyway cinema isn't actually a thing; it has no essence: it is a huge and unmappable system of possibilities. And Bergman's paths were one of those possibilities. "Expression on film?" Maybe. But--still--this is a film.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Odds & Ends

Going for quantity over quality this time around, on my last visit to Washington D.C. I hit up both wings of the National Gallery of Art, the African Art Museum, the Freer, and the Sackler in the space of about five hours. Whenever something stood out (as in the almost hyper-proto-Turneresque painting above: Alessandro Magnasco, The Baptism of Christ, c. 1740) I stopped to mull for several minutes. But mostly I sped through the museums, relatively speaking, just trying to refine my overview of what the city of my (later) teenage years still had in store. I hadn't been to any of those museums in at least a year.

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Tonight I visited what must be the most delicious block in Queens, if not all of New York City. Roosevelt Ave, between 71st and 72nd. It has Zabb, where I've had many a fine meal (the best ones have tended to start at midnight with a motley assortment of byo booze, ending in calorific stupor between 2 and 3am). But this evening I also went to Burmese Cafe, the last of a certain circle of food-adventurous friends of mine to do so, where I sampled tea leaf salad, ginger salad (refreshing, thicker than I expected), sour pork & soy curry (tastes dark--and delicious), chicken & vegetable noodles (very eatable but routine compared to rest of meal), fried eel (slightly chewy, but damn good anyway), golden triangles (mini vegetable samosas), gram fritters, a curry fish dish (ohhh), and fried bitter melon. Every bite a delicious little explosion in the mouth, especially the sui generis flavors of tea leaf salad and the bitter melon (neither of which I'd tried before). Best of the rest were probably the pork and the spicy orange sauce that accompanied the fritters/triangles and also the noodles (where it was mixed with cabbage). All washed down at a leisurely pace with some Red Stripe. Understand that I sampled these dishes, I didn't devour huge portions of them--no more than a few spoonfuls of each, which is why I was able to try so many things. I'd recommend to any New Yorkers to do the same, at least on their first trip out here.

After Burmese Cafe--which may be the only all-out solely-Burmese joint in NYC, or so I read--we decided to hit up UFC, Unidentified Frying Chickens, a Korean fried chicken joint just a few doors down from BC & Zabb. Ordering a small order of spicy wings & drumsticks for six of us (a little more than one piece per person) was a fantastic dessert--if you like dessert meaty & spicy, that is. And dessert or no, it was pretty delicious. Best Korean fried chicken in the city? Probably not. (One in our party at least had a preferred place in Koreatown.) Great fried chicken in Jackson Heights? Definitely. (Note: the place has a definite "chain" vibe and I would probably not order anything on their menu aside from the chicken and radishes, save maybe the sweet potato fries, which looked tempting.) But the fact that the storefronts to Zabb, Burmese Cafe, and UFC all exist on the same twenty yards of sidewalk is pretty incredible. It is to inexpensive NYC restaurants what Bergman & Antonioni's close-together deaths are to film culture: something extremely rare which should not go unnoticed.

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Speaking of Bergman & Antonioni--yes, I still do want to post about them. But I should remark that I actually have a very "troubled past" with Bergman. I respect him as an artist and historical figure of course, but, truthfully, I have a low opinion of some of his major films (Persona especially), and because of this low opinion I have not been very good about seeing very much of his prolific work. His unfortunate death is giving me a reason to reconsider his oeuvre, try to be generous about it, try to re-examine my opinions (check old conclusions, scout for unwarranted prejudices). This need for re-examination is also because a lot of people whose opinions I respect have great esteem for Bergman. Antonioni poses this problem a little (just a bit) as well--though I feel much more personally aligned with his work than Bergman's, even if I feel like, say, Blow-Up too is not so great a film--so I just wanted to set the stage for my (hopefully) forthcoming examinations. But neither of these filmmakers, giants though they were & are, move me to the same extent that, say, the hypothetical one-two punch of Godard and Rivette's deaths would move me.

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A quick food question to any readers--how do you pronounce 'lychee'? According to it's lee-chee, but I know a lot of people who say lye-chee. Some of these lye-pronouncers are East Asian and have even held this over me as authority on the matter--but I learned lee-chee from some Vietnamese girls I befriended in high school who used to keep it in their lockers and pass it around for snacks between classes (which is when I first had the fruit), so I've never been convinced. Just today it came up again so I'm confused ... (Actually, I did a little basic Googling and found this, which seems to explain the matter. But I would have guessed Vietnamese people would have had a pronunciation closer to the Cantonese rather than Mandarin? So I suppose this guess would be wrong? Aghh ...)