Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Body Breaks

One man filming alone in a corridor for eleven hours overnight, editing in camera, taking--so he says, and why not believe him--only a five minute rest? This is what Ernie Gehr did with Serene Velocity, which I (finally) saw the other night for the first time, in its very beautiful 35mm blowup print. Fatigue? Two kinds--the first is Gehr's, which involves, and as he said himself, when he made the work (in 1970) he eventually lost track of how many frames at a time he would shoot--he would aim for four but slip up occasionally, which produces very subtle shifts in the rhythm that we may not detect consciously but which we likely perceive nonetheless. The other fatigue is the viewer's (maybe). Around 23 minutes in length, Serene Velocity invites a really intense viewer participation. One can stare at--study--the frame almost like it's a rapidly alternating still picture. Or one can enter into the accordion-like, vertiginous horizontal space of the corridor, let oneself feel jolted and transfixed by all the weird and slowly evolving perceptual shifts in this quarter- or semi-flicker film. (I alternated between viewing modes; the lines blurred, predictably.) The immersive properties of avant-garde film are a field rarely tilled: hopefully we can work on this. Optics and other sciences; painting; music; architecture; sex; death and decay; birth and life; poetry; all these things intersect literally or philosophically with experimental cinema as with other cinema. Why not jump in? Poetic cinema has more than two registers ('critique' & 'contemplation'), and if we don't recognize all the possibilities, no wonder it seems like a boring sham to people who don't know what to think about this whole world of films and videos.

Scott MacDonald wrote on this film:

"For many first-time viewers Serene Velocity is infuriating. Given their conventional training, they have no idea of what they are supposed to be seeing, other than a relentlessly repeated shift between two versions of the same space. On the other hand, if they can allow themselves to actually look at the film (certainly one of the first tendencies in many viewers, when confronted with powerfully critical films, is to shut down the eyes and/or mind: One can "watch" the films without seeing them), a set of developments in the seemingly unchanging image become apparent. As the zoom lens gradually moves us back and forth along the hall, the doors, ashtrays, and other details of the hallway move in and out of the image: At one focal length we may see a certain door; a few moments later and a few increments further along the focal range of the lens, the door has disappeared. While all changes in the hallway are created by the rigorous procedure Gehr devised for the camera, near the conclusion of the film we can see, from the light in the glass of the doors at the far end of the hallway, that it's dawn."

This is all true. People are generally conditioned to watch and process moving images in certain prescribed ways, and Gehr's work challenges these habits, and to an extent the onus is on the viewer if they want to appreciate a film like Serene Velocity. But what about the actual benefits of re-training the eye and mind (and sometimes the ear) for these purposes? Are a-g advocates doing it so that we gain brothers in a fraternal cult? Are film critics social workers? (I think actually Pauline Kael made a famous quip charging this in a different circumstance; someone who knows & likes her work better than I do can enlighten me on the exact source, maybe?) Are we here to embiggen the souls of philistines?

I would like to think instead that those of us who advocate for a-g cinema, or specific a-g films, are not trying to reproduce a vanguard to which only a happy few may join (i.e., I don't want to be part of a recruitment campaign for an elite). I would like to think that those of us who watch, love, and recommend these works of cine-poetry do so out of affection and even, in a way, impersonal interest: the field may always be small or minoritarian; that's OK; the room can be small or out-of-the-way so long as the door is open to anyone. And the directions to that room, the advocacy for this kind of cinema, should not be openly or tacitly about building a clique, but about relating certain kinds of knowledge and experience even in an a priori limited capacity.

* * *

My goal: to make this my last post arguing in defense or support of experimental cinema as a whole. I hope, from now on, to simply assume that anyone who reads what I write about (say) Serene Velocity will simply be interested, period, and that those who won't will know when to skip it. To watch a film like this one involves a certain level of "breaking in." But the idea is not to break oneself into being able to watch it, but to know just why--for beauty, love, hatred, people, art--one should wish to break anything down in the first place.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Margin Sketching

Left: Klimt--Schubert at the Piano, 1899.

Paracelsus--16th c. physician and alchemist, whose name supplies the title of an Arthur Schnitzler play that I haven't read. (G.W. Pabst directed a 1943 film also called Paracelsus.) Schnitzler provided the source narratives for two Ophüls films: Liebelei (Germany, '33) and La Ronde (France, '50). More on Ophüls in the near future. As I'm reading currently in Frances Yates' The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, Holy Roman Emperor (and arts patron, occult observer) Rudolf II moved his court from orthodox Vienna to liberal, tolerant Prague. The hermetic tradition fostered by Rudolf and later Frederick & Elizabeth (in Prague 1619-20) was conversant with Paracelsus, of course.

"[The crisis of language in classical modernism] was usually treated in isolation as an emblen for the aporias of literary modernism in general: the inability to carry on a literary tradition, the difficulty of securing a place for poetic language in a disenchanted world, and the failure to communicate in a way that gives lasting form to the chaos of life. These aporias in turn triggered the fervent desire for transcendence in some hermetic "other" language (Hofmannsthal, Rainer Maria Rilke, Kafka) and it led eventually to notions of a literature of silence, or more recently, of unrepresentability." (Andreas Huyssen, "The Disturbance of Vision in Vienna Modernism" ... note the use of the word "hermetic," clearly having nothing to do with Hermeticism per se, but a nice congruence all the same.)

(Ruiz recently made a film about Klimt (I have not yet watched it), and of course Ruiz made one of the very greatest films about general obstacles to and breakdowns of communication--On Top of the Whale.)

"Carl Schorske has shown how the newly wealthy middles class of Vienna came to occupy the urban development called the Ringstraße that had been built in the liberal era of the 1860s and 1870s and that is often compared to Baron Haussmann's Parisian boulevards. The Ring was a wide, circular swath of land that had formerly served as a fortification of the old city and its political center, the Imperial Palace. ... The circular layout of the Ringstraße was visually directed inwards, toward the old city center, and thus it still served as a kind of fortification, now in a social rather than a military sense. ... Early cinema in Vienna arose exclusively in the Vorstädte [working class & poor neighborhoods], together with other new forms of mass leisure activities (cabaret, soccer fields, popular gastronomic sites, entertainment parks, etc.). As the Vorstädte expanded quickly into formerly rural areas, rural modes of an oral culture with its illiteracy blended with technologically new forms of urban culture such as the cinema. In a short essay on film from 1921 entitled "Substitute for Dreams," Hofmannsthal explains the success of the cinema in Vienna's Vorstädte by citing the masses' fear of language, particularly in its written form. ... The oral and the visual thus stood against the scriptural, and if one considers further that much of the population influx into Vienna came from the outlying and non-German speaking areas of the empire, one gets a good sense of why the German-language writers felt increasingly embattled, and why language became such a central concern in Vienna and not in Berlin or in Munich." (Huyssen)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Image of the Day

Alessandro Botticelli, Portrait of Giuliano de' Medici (c. 1476-1477)

The Tempo of Breathing While Sleeping

"His films are derived from personal dreams; from the poems, stories and myths of the Greeks; from the overlapping sensations of his thoughts and desires; from the configuration of the homosexual consciousness. They evolve in a time/space of image--image as symbol and as truth--reaching a strong degree of personal sensitivity in the form Markopoulos gives them. They recreate the tempo of breathing while sleeping, rhythmic and intensely delicate and invaded with a personal element. They use formal and precise gesture to evolve a structure of a trance-like density, uncompromisingly and unashamedly displaying themselves and the nakedness of being. A fragile, hypersensitive atmosphere is created.

"Markopoulos' use of driving rhythms, a poetic beat, gives his films an unusual presence. At the same time there is a subtle, yet limitless change in the rhythm, which is often overlaid with verbal synonyms, with symbols and visual metaphors. A pause is followed by a repeat, a swaying back and forth, but each time further out. In many ways the rhythm is like the phrases of a written poem, with the images making the counterpoint and balance and reiterated with the voice. The visual phrases are often accompanied by phrases composed of single frames as alternating image, such as A, B, A, B and so on, fluttering like a butterfly. Markopoulos has said that with Twice a Man he utilized a form of editing which contained everything that he had learned over a period of some twenty years; the inherent possibilities of classic editing according to groups of shots in various lengths. To this form he added a new form in w hich the idea of the classic shot-to-shot was applied to the film itself, i.e. a single film frame to another single film frame and its 'obvious inexhaustible architectural possibilities'. He realized for the first time 'that sense which is inherent in the lyricism of the independent, silent spaces.' A sensation of a pulsing in-and-out rhythm is created, but though Markopoulos uses such a strong and precise formality his imagery remains an esoteric abstraction of the self. What are the right words to describe this? A deep emotional attitude is endless portrayal, apparently within the confines of formality. This formality is related to the Greek model in which calm and solid outer strength allows the innder depth to be revealed. Yet it is not just in the architectural form, but in the mythological form that Markopoulos seeks his realizations. The human conflict, stylized by mythology, becomes associated with his own feelings, and the two combined are made into a film."

--Stephen Dwoskin on Gregory Markopoulos, Film Is... (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 1975) pp.158-159

Saturday, October 20, 2007

I'll Admit ...

... I'm a bit predictable. I loved it. More later.

Addendum: 'Old Masters' aside, I think James Gray may count as my favorite American filmmaker working in Hollywood right now. Other contenders would probably be people who work on the fringes of the mainstream, Entertainment Weekly-type industry, sometimes but not always making these highly "visible" films (Linklater, Haynes). Gray's three features to date are bona fide respectable ensemble cast affairs, with fine production values, and storylines with themes revolving around family, loyalty, betrayal and revenge, community, ethnicity, and money. In fact if one demands freshness and variety from a filmmaker, Gray may not satisfy: his films are all resolutely New York-centric, all dealing with ties between crime, law, and economic institutions, and developing largely within the confines of Eastern European ('white ethnic') communities. He mines this milieu in the same way Ozu mines the Japanese middle class in his 1950s films, even using a lot of the same actors from title to title (plus Danny Hoch is in this one!), offering variations on a theme.

And while Gray's style may be perfectly in accord with mainstream conventions, even "classical," it's no surprise that they don't make a splash in the multiplexes. In addition to heavy issues, the mood throughout the films is often somber, lonely, claustrophobic. The narratives themselves feel a bit inorganic, perhaps here in We Own the Night most of all--there's a sense of tragedy that renders certain other elements of narrative almost inevitable. These aren't films that "take you into their world" as fully as a great yarn "should," which is not to say there aren't individual sequences which do this (such as one particularly heart-racing car chase in We Own). The films hold you back a bit too; you analyze precisely what's happening because there's a moral metacommentary inscribed, I'm sure, quite intentionally on the texts.

And then the framings and compositions--for example, the visual work that cleaves (in both senses of the word) Joaquin Pheonix's character to and from his father (Robert Duvall) in their first solo meeting, sitting next to each other in a church pew, photographed in shot-reverse shot once they start talking, but if I recall, with each man off-center, each close to the edge of the frame that the other would be sitting in, so that they appear "close" (and indeed are physically close in the diegesis) but unconnected by means of each cut. (And Duvall is facing towards Pheonix in a posture of parental desperation; Pheonix is hunched away.) It's not virtuoso filmmaking; it's simply expressive on the most basic level.

Gray's films are, appropriately enough, composed entirely in grayscale (tonally speaking). Even We Own the Night, which has more of a traditional 'good-versus-evil' structure than his previous two films, doesn't exactly come off as a ringing endorsement of the police force or civic duty. Life is more like a maelstrom and whichever side of cops or robbers the characters are on has less to do with moral qualities and more to do with family connections and the vagaries of the money flow in this underworld on the fringes of Manhattan finance and "spectacular" politics ...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Historical Personage of the Week

John Dee. Why? Because the other day when I called my girlfriend on the phone, I was on my way to the stacks to pick up a few library books on alchemy & hermeticism for some weekend reading (I readily admit that I'm a nerd)--including a book on John Dee. At the time we spoke on the phone, my better half was just about to go into the theater with her parents to see Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Creepy.

Image of the Day

Brueghel the Elder, detail of a print

--I haven't bothered trying to track down a date; preferably one would just go here and surf around and enjoy it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

On a Polemic and Vanguards

"...But the other episodes, meant to constitute a kind of anticinema (a notion not to be condemned in itself, and which has been developed along very interesting lines by Bresson and more obscure avant-garde directors like like P. Gilson) fall awfully flat: a man comes into a room, hangs his hat on a rack, goes out of the shot, the hat vanishes, he comes in again as before, hangs up his hat, goes out, etc., ad infinitum, while a pianist practices ever-ascending scales. This gag is hardly worthy of Méliès, and Messrs. Richter and Man Ray had gotten beyond that sort of thing long before sound came in.

"Why was this rather slick piece of tom-foolery awarded the Grand Prize at Brussels? My guess is that neither art nor experimentation had anything to do with a choice which seems to be a nostalgic attempt to rehabilitate an irresponsible form of film fun which has been dead and buried for more than thirty years."

--Noël Burch, from "Why a Prize to Dom" (letter), Film Quarterly (1959)

"Describing the films of Robert Breer is an extremely difficult task, for he is one of the most thoroughly original creators working in films today, in terms of both technique and sensibility. Roughly speaking, his works belong to that category of films generally called "abstract" (though his are also highly "concrete"), but differ from everything else that has been done along these lines in one basic respect: Breer is undoubtedly the first film-maker to have brought to his medium the full heritage of modern painting and the sum of sophisticated experimentation that it represents. Breer began his career as a painter, was one of the early members of the postwar Parisian school of abstraction froide (disciples of Mondrian, the Bauhaus painters, and, more recently, Herbin), and his first films were candid attempts to "animate" the large forms and pure, flat colors that peopled his canvases. His first really successful film of this kind, Form Phases IV, was for the most part a continuously animated flow of vaguely geometrical, clearly defined shapes evolving on a flat surface according to extremely complex rhythmical patterns, and it exploited ambiguous relationships between optical planes to remarkable effect. This seven-minute film was practically without "cuts" (in this case juxtapositions of completely dissimilar patterns) though it did employa form of ellipsis by which fixed images underwent series of sudden, partial transformations. This last technique had already been employed, though in a much more schematic form, by the Swedish painter and film-maker Viking Eggeling, who is Breer's only real precursor. (In a sense, however, that great French primitive Emile Cohl might well have recognized the author of A Man and His Dog Out for Air as a worthy heir to his own rhythmic and graphic genius.)

"... In view of Breer's obvious importance and originality, one cannot help wondering why the Brussels jury neglected his work when it came to handing out awards. The choice of Dom as grand-prize winner would seem to indicate that they were simply out of their depth, though this is rather surprising considering the reputations of the individual jury members. A partial explanation may perhaps be found int he quality of the sound tracks which Breer has added to his films. These seem little more than hasty afterthoughts, and their rather haphazard clumsiness is a shocking contrast to the refined, studied complexity of the images themselves.

"His most recent film is A Man and His Dog Out for Air, which is a completely new departure in Breer's work. Returning to almost pure abstraction, he shot this very short but brilliant film entirely in black and white. It consists of an astonishingly complex ballet of marvelous wiggly lines, is animated with unprecedented virtuosity, and suggests, I feel, an entirely new notion of cinematic space."

--Noël Burch, from a review of several Breer films, Film Quarterly (vol. 12, no. 3, Spring 1959)

* * *

Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica's Dom.

Robert Breer's A Man and His Dog Out for Air.

* * *

These preceding quotes, of course, were taken from "early" Noël Burch, when his vanguardist-formalism, perhaps a kind of politically-motivated elitism (the object of his scorn was American/Hollywood hegemony in all its forms), ran rampant. This softened and mutated as Burch went through various other, uh, "form phases." (You can find his praise of Showgirls from not too many years ago.) But even this extreme dedication to modernist forms, to calling certain things (like the animation of Lenica & Borowczyk) outmoded, even irresponsible ... well, that too still has some roots in a political critique. Burch's vanguardism is not along the lines of a prescription for the masses, i.e., if we all just watch and appreciate Robert Breer's movies then capitalism will fall.

I have no worthwhile opinions about either film; I love Borowczyk but I like his animations with Lenica less than the live action stuff. I concur with Burch and pretty much everyone else interested in experimental cinema that Robert Breer is a master. Obviously both films are damaged by watching them in tiny GoogleVideo boxes.

* * *

Burch wrote more recently (2004), by the way, in a piece titled "Complicity" written for Cinema Journal:

"When I arrived in Paris as a student in the early fifties, one of the things that struck me immediately as "different" was the minuterie, the time switch that as a matter of course equips every apartment-house corridor and stairwell in Western Europe. And when I first returned "stateside" two decades later, I remember being disturbed by those New York hallways lit night and day, although I still knew nothing of things ecological and would have to relearn how the United States has this fear and hatred of the Other . . . and the dark. In that longer essay, this would lead to a discussion of gun culture, and to the culture of revenge that seems so intimately connected with it (and of course to that suspiciously overconfident cult of the masculine). Robocop remembers who he is when he remembers whom he must kill. How many movie and TV dramas are about revenge? The absurd attachment to the death penalty on the part of so many states and so many individuals is the clearest expression of the importance to U$ society of sheer revenge. A death penalty that, moreover, even abolitionist states seem happy to join in exporting, generally in the direction of people who are not white and who are not supposed to be able to fight back—as Noam Chomsky never tires of reminding you.

"Tom Frank recently accused the "left" in his country of not seeking to really understand the "silent majority," that "other America" that does not like feminists and queers and supports the likes of G. W. Bush. By damning them out of hand, by seeing those men and women as the absolute Other, the Left has itself become an obstacle to change. The way forward lies toward those "ordinary people," not away from them. We all know what he means. But I think that despite that highly visible ideological rift between the "anciens" and the "modernes" in the United States today, exacerbated by Vietnam, feminism, abortion, and the blatant display of permissiveness, the creature comforts of the ultimate consumer society constitute an inestimable cultural cement in which even its severest critics are mired. As individuals. But we are talking about a country where individualism is the unofficial religion (here I would bring in the car culture, the oil market, war conducted as a drug bust, and the typical contempt for the lives of aliens, nonpeople, Martians). Any administration, from whichever faction of the conservative coalition, that speaks out in the name of the American way of life is bound to have broad tacit support for interventions covert or overt. This national egotism is not, of course, peculiar to the United States, but it is taking more and more ugly forms there. The Green presidential candidate in the last French election put all this in a nutshell when he wrote that "America is prepared to change the world to keep from changing its lifestyle."

"I suppose my position could be described as cultural pessimism, of which I have been accused in the past. If this means being pessimistic about U$ culture and its foreseeable impact on the planet, on the immense majority of poor people who inhabit it, and even on the rest of us who are richer than most, then the accusation is fair enough. However, this is still a very large planet with many peoples on it, and despite or perhaps even because of global capitalist productivism, other models will emerge and prevail. That is my hope for the future. "

Monday, October 15, 2007

Brought to You by René Vautier

5 principes de base pour un cinéma engagé

1. Tâche de rapporter de vraies images plutôt de raconter des histoires fausses.

2. Il ne faut pas laisser les gouvernments écrire seuls l’histoire, il faut que les peuples y travaillent.

3. Écrire l’histoire en images. Tout de suite.

4. Créer un dialogue d’images en temps de guerre.

5. Face à la désinformation officielle, pratiquer et diffuser la contre-information.

From an appendix, "Définition et principes pour le cinéma d'intervention sociale, par René Vautier, Cancale, 2003" in Nicole Brenez, Cinémas d'avant-garde, Paris: Cahiers du cinéma - SCÉRÉN-CNDP, 2006

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Barbarians at the Gates

High drama in the moment, and then the moment of respite, and though I would like to seize on this word, "respite," and connect it to the Harun Farocki film of the same name that plays as one of the Jeonju Memories digital projects with Eugène Green's new film, I don't know that there's a connection of any kind, except for perhaps a deep philosophical one that I'm not prepared to make right now.

Peter Paul Rubens, Bacchus (1638-40)

Claude Lorrain, Seaport with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba (1648)

I'm about to take out Robert Harbison's Reflections on Baroque out from the library. Who knows if I'll have time to read through it or not, but it looks like a gorgeous text (published by Reaktion). Any thoughts out there on the book? In my stuttering, sputtering education--mostly but not entirely autodidactic--I seem to pounce from historical period to historical period within the great story of the West, alternately "identifying" with (say) the Hellenistic civilizations, or the Western European medievals, or the Baroque, or fin de siècle, at different times--never, of course, acquiring anything more than a dilettantish investment in any of them. It's a frustrating lack of focus on my part, and my only consolation is the thought that, in many, many years, I'll simply end up as a well-rounded individual.

Baroque theater director and writer, in recent years filmmaker too, Eugène Green--a transplanted Brooklynite who (like Noel Burch) fled America and wound up in France, decades ago--includes in his recent digital short film, Correspondences, a shot of a computer search engine clearly modeled on Google, but where that company's name is supposed to be, there appears the word (rainbow-colored), 'Barbare.' I don't think it's merely aristocratic backlash at crass, commercial technology that marks Green; he seems a politically aware man (and certainly Brenez, a champion of his, is such); and in any case his film reserves a certain sympathy for its two teenage protagonists. Correspondences is not composed visually like anything Baroque, per se--or rather, Baroque is a competing element with a certain (neoclassical?) austerity of line, color, and object that marks Green's frames. No consumption like Bacchus; no voyages like Sheba. Just two young people in sparsely decorated rooms, communicating via email.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Reel Two

Last night I had my first encounter with the work of Gregory Markopoulos. Eniaios IV, "Nefeli Photos," reel 2--a half-hour of incredibly beautiful, fleeting images working on my eyes and mind in ways I hadn't experienced before. It was easily the highlight of four consecutive Views from the Avant-Garde programs I saw, the last four of the weekend. (Not to say there wasn't strong work elsewhere in these programs; there was, probably Breer & Farocki's work most of all.) But this tiny excerpt from the Eniaios project (an 80-hour-long opus) seemed extra-special. Rhythmic arrangements, slowly unfolding a space, shafts and orbs of light, afterimages and sillhouettes, the most austere apportionment of unforced beauty (spread out over time, like a web spun--perhaps by the spider seen in the opening minutes), the interpellation of History (a Byzantine church as a physical space--a room--but also as a mode of vision and of experience, that is, a way of being and feeling). Each shot is carved, like sculpture, in both space (many of the shots are largely shadowed, so you're seeing maybe two-thirds black frame for an image, the bright light and colors resting like a block amidst the rectangular composition) and time (they appear fleetingly, for a few frames or a few seconds, and disappear into the void again, and we pass them like landmarks and mile markers in our film journey [apologies to Doug Cummings]). At one point I thought to myself, 'All told, this Eniaios has to be the most amazing cinematic achievement ever.' It's not even as though this particular work/segment itself felt like a "masterpiece," a monument--it seemed almost earthy, everyday, rather. But I think that it was just working at such a high level, in such an incredibly rich, economical register, that you could start to speculate what its companion pieces might look like, what directions it might go on. Surely it's only speculation; and what do I know, this is the only Markopoulos I've even seen? But this is how it moved me.

Markopoulos's contributions to film form begin with his earliest work of the 1940s, develop through the subsequent decades, and culminate in ENIAIOS, on which he worked during the final years of his life. His important innovations, such as editing with the smallest unit of film (the single frame), and the simultaneous narrative of past, present, and future, or his most individual use of colour, are all directed towards the representation and resolution of complex emotions. These innovations prefigure many contemporary practices in the arts. (source)

Friday, October 05, 2007

Esther Kahn

New Yorkers: one of the greatest narrative films of the decade so far (what compares?--No Quarto da Vanda, The House of Mirth, Before Sunset, maybe some Hong Sang-soo and Le fils) is coming to a local screen tomorrow. Esther Kahn at the Museum of the Moving Image (142-minute cut which is what's on the R1 DVD), followed in the series by Bergman's Summer Interlude. Myself, I may or may not make it out to the film, which I've seen more than once, on screens big & small, but if you don't have tickets for the Guerin film at NYFF, then perhaps you owe it to yourself to see Arnaud Desplechin's greatest work to date.

(I think I will never cease to find it strange that Desplechin found his biggest hit to date with the US cinephilic audience in Kings & Queen, a good film but his weakest one too, as I see it. What's strange is that Kings & Queen is not really a departure, stylistically or thematically, from his previous work. It's jumbled, narratively loose, full of odd mixtures of tropes & acting styles, i.e., all the things that ostensibly made his earlier films coterie favorites at best. Yet when Kings & Queen was released here it made something of a splash. I just don't understand why, why it was that film that did it. Shoulda been an earlier one, frankly.)

AD's top tier: Esther Kahn
Next: La Sentinelle, Playing in the Company of Men, Comment je me suis disputé ... (ma vie sexuelle)
Third: La Vie des morts, Kings & Queen

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Take a Look

Low Culture

Ruminations of a mildly polemical, highly speculative slant. On the spectacular. Not in the Debordian sense here--more like 'the Colosseum' or Tom Gunning's 'Cinema of Attractions.'

A generalized historical picture, which of course I've touched on here before: it wasn't until about 1903 that the middle classes--who were largely responsible for cinematic production from the get-go--also began to heavily join the ranks of moving picture audiences; this is how Burch figures it, because the triple-blade shutter eliminated the most physically painful aspects of the flicker, which the working class audiences were apparently more willing to endure at the time. (As I understand it there is more nuance to this history of filmic spectatorship, but I think as a basic gloss it still holds.) [EDIT: I've misremembered the date, it was in 1909 that flicker was more or less eliminated in movie screens, though the shutter for it was invented before this date. Six years is a long time in early cinema history so I've made a gaffe. See comments below.] It was shortly after this change that what Burch calls the Institutional Mode of Representation began to take effect; that the (commercially) dominant form of films went from being a variety of spectacles ("cinema of attractions") to narratives that, among other things, incorporated those spectacles. When the very great flicker films of the 1960s were made, no revolutions came about as even a partial a result of them obviously, but a new and I think fascinating cinematic strain came [back] into being, at least. It was an experimentalism that did not hurt the bourgeoisie, as scholar Burch and practicioner Tony Conrad may have hoped, but keep in mind that it also wasn't co-opted, whereas a lot of (say) the Nouvelle Vague's effects and tropes were. Paul Sharits, who did a lot of work with flicker and with violent imagery and sound, actually comes across in his writing as more of a thoughtful hippie type with a pedagogical slant: he was trying to make films that would bring people to meditative states, not High Works of Art so much as tools for beauty or peace. This is one of the major reasons why I think avant-garde/experimental/poetic cinema deserves to be talked about still, and not as "elite" cinematic product--not because of vanguardism, but because it strives to fulfill simple human desires for beauty, fascination, wonder, reflection, criticism, etc. I think there is good reason why a lot of the "real" avant-garde, as distinguished from the modernist "art film" tradition insofar as we can distinguish the two, has actually not been appropriated and co-opted by capitalism. It hasn't been harmful to capitalism, but it could be helpful outside of capitalism. Whereas narrative(/art) masterpieces of cinema are frequently geared towards a number of ideological projects, and of course operate first and foremost in the global profit system (and Bruce Baillie films don't)--even when these complicit commercial works are, by all means, masterpieces. The avant-garde in painting has a big money market behind it; in cinema, not really, unless you're talking about visual artists "visiting" cinema-land (Matthew Barney, whose films I've not seen and make no judgments on).

Part of what this entails is bringing the vaunted a-g tradition "down" to low culture--serving perfectly obvious, transparent functions. Now obviously, dealing with hyper-educated mathematics-flirting works of Hollis Frampton is not a passive experience, nor is it helped by ignorance of a lot of what Frampton was working with, in terms of cultural references and material. By bringing part of (a very marginalized) high culture "low" I don't mean that I want to dumb anything down. But to recharacterize the works as having everyday functions, which I am confident the films of Brakhage, Sharits, et al. can fulfill should anyone want them to. But if you look at a lot of what is despised in media culture today, such as the stuff that film critic Mark Kermode wouldn't bring himself to watch, you'll see that it attracts viewership among people who, I think, aren't that fooled as to the form and content of what they see--does anyone think the viewers of American Idol, NASCAR, pro wrestling or numerous other bad/disreputable/"guilty pleasure" shows are not aware of the sensationalism, the deft narrative/spectacular constellations, which draw viewers in? The much-ignored, ridiculed working class and poor, and possibly also the market of middle-class adolescents, who comprise a lot of the audiences for bad TV and such, I think they're all largely aware of properties (the limitations as well as desired functions) of these works. (Having been a middle-class adolescent, as well as having my familial roots and personal experience in working-class backgrounds, I have to say I'm less optimistic about teenagers with pocket money and status issues than I am about rednecks who watch WWE.) The respectable move is to always justify why something is good, not to simply say "I like it, I'm drawn to it." To identify a guilty pleasure is to submit the honesty of the latter type to respectable "taste statutes." Of course many people may be honest about what they like without being critical of why they might like it, too.

And: does anyone actually think that in 1902, working class audiences of motion picture exhibitions were just similarly immune to the painful headaches caused by the unchecked flicker of the projector beam? That they didn't know that more comfortable and refined leisure activities existed "out there?"

One of the interesting charms of pomo capitalist extravaganza Domino (Tony Scott, 2005) is how it does at least give this voice to representations of the presumed-uncritical viewership of precisely this sort of film. And it exhibits these people as fairly savvy of their media environment. The Fast and the Furious is another example, as is maybe xXx. One could say that in all these high-tech, high-octane, media-savvy action films are packaged and presented advertisement for new technologies, a way of selling (images of) cool shit like computer devices and cars to the people who paid to see the movies, i.e., a continuing "education of the senses." And I think this is an eminently reasonable assumption, at minimum, and partly composed of obvious, demonstrable facts, e.g., the role of product placement. But at the same time as the films fulfill these commercial/ideological functions, I think some of them depict, echo, or mirror a certain level of consumer awareness (and thus, by extension, an aspect of human agency) that is not nearly as well-reflected in more respectable middle-brow works. I think it will take a more extensive set of film-to-film comparisons to really seize on this but this is a project I am interested in pursuing, seeing if my hypotheses would pan out.

Insofar as I am optimistic about these "types" of films, and the image-commodity mediasphere of low cultural sensationalim--and my optimism is limited--I would say it is because it, too, fulfills viewer desires (e.g., for spectacle) a bit more honestly than most media, more respectable and visible and "memorable" media. That honesty can lead to transparency and, from the point of view of critical analysis, I think it may be easier for the organic intellectuals of today to grapple with this.