Friday, November 30, 2007

Aesthetic Etiology

"In discussing the operation and character of the grid within the general field of modern art I have had recourse to words like repression or schizophrenia. Since these terms are being applied to a cultural phenomenon and not to individuals, they are obviously not intended in their literal, medical sense, but only analogically: to compare the structure of one thing to the structure of another. The terms of this analogy were clear, I hope, from the discussion of the parallel structures and functions of both grids as aesthetic objects and myths.

"But one further aspect of this analogy still needs to be brought out, and that is the way in which this psychological terminology functions at some distance from that of history. What I mean is that we speak of the etiology of a psychological condition, not the history of it. History, as we normally use it, implies the connection of events through time, a sense of inevitable change as we move from one event to the next, and the cumulative effect of change which is itself qualitative, so that we tend to view history as developmental. Etiology is not developmental. It is rather an investigation into the conditions for one specific change--the acquisition of disease--to take place. In that sense etiology is more like looking into the background of a chemical experiment, asking when and how a given group of elements came together to effect a new compound or to precipitate something out of a liquid. For the etiology of neuroses, we may take a "history" of the individual, to explore what went into the formation of the neurotic structure; but once the neurosis is formed, we are specifically enjoined from thinking in terms of "development," and instead we speak of repetition.

"With regard to the advent of the grid in twentieth-century art, there is the need to think etiologically rather than historically. Certain conditions combined to precipitate the grid into a position of aesthetic preeminence. We can speak of what those things are and how they came together throughout the nineteenth century and then spot the moment of chemical combination, as it were, in the early decades of the twentieth. But once the grid appears it seems quite resistant to change. The mature careers of Mondrian or Albers are examples of this. No one would characterize the course of decade after decade of their later work as developmental. But by depriving their world of development, one is obviously not depriving it of quality. There is no necessary connection between good art and change, no matter how conditions we may be to think that there is. Indeed, as we have a more and more extended experience of the grid, we have discovered that one of the most modernist things about it is its capacity to serve as a paradigm or model for the antidevelopmental, the antinarrative, the antihistorical.

-- three paragraphs near the end of Rosalind Krauss' "Grids" (collected in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths)

It was after transcribing these words that I surfed the Net, looking for a picture of Krauss to maybe put up with the post, that I discovered it was her birthday today (along with Terrence Malick, the late Gordon Parks, Sr., and also my Dad).

I am trying to wrap my head around Krauss' writing, it still escapes me whenever I think I am about to grasp it. The way I make sense of her writing, the etiological is a type of historical thinking. When applied to aesthetics it is, in some cases anyway, a superior model than the historical modes she rejects or at least moves aside to their more proper place. If we start talking about the idea of, say, the grid as a concept, applied in films (themselves modernity's products, but subject to some kind of anamorphic development of art or literary historical movements, at least pace Jameson, et al., and I think that I agree with this), it doesn't make sense to always read each of a thousand 'grids' as unique products of distinct historical circumstances: as though the grid were always a specially arrived image in each and every film in which it appears as a powerful composition (and thus, sometimes, conceptual) element. More elegant an intellectual model to understand this concept, 'grid,' as a condition, and hence repeatable, explicable, and predictable to some degree. Yes, individual histories exist and are incredibly important; these concepts certainly do not exist, floating around, outside of material histories; but "etiology" pins down the causes and parameters of these works across all these specified histories. That is, etiology allows one to think of totality. This is how I'm making sense of Krauss' words right now. It will require more digestion.

Of course there are different kinds of grids here illustrated by these grabs above. The 'power grid' in Red Desert, represented visually by a row (not a grid) of towers; the aerial reconaissance of Images of the World and the Inscription of War; the computer code fictionalization of Tron; Playtime's humorous modern worker hellhole; the "streets" in The Fifth Element ... one could go on finding examples of varying relevance, just brainstorming. (In all these cases I've singled out, it it's worth mentioning, the primary topic or cause is indeed modernity--in the sense of "newness," not as a specific historicla period--and its concomitant problems.) Below is a vaguely Klee-like screengrab from a work by a young video artist about whom I'll be posting very soon ...

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Fake and Dumb

Watching Il Colosso di Rodi (Sergio Leone's first feature) recently, I experienced a shock of some sort of recognition as two childhood favorites of mine were prefigured by this film. The banquet on the island seems an earlier articulation of the one in Enter the Dragon. Several scenes, and the score by Angelo Francesco Lavagnino, come off like predecessors to Conan the Barbarian. (Violent movies were part of my upbringing; it was the "adult themes" that I didn't start experiencing until adolescence.) I watched a few of the peplum when I was a kid, though the only title I can ascertain is The Three Stooges Meet Hercules ('62), maybe not quite what most people have in mind when they're talking about the sword-and-sandal genre. At any rate there is something quite beautiful in a film like this--I admire the artifice, the utter inauthenticity.

As I have said before, idiocies bother me much less when the art in which they appear is forthright about them. Two recent-ish sfx films I watched over the Thanksgiving break, Michael Bay's Transformers and Stephen Sommers' Van Helsing, make for an illuminating contrast. Bay's film is knowingly ironic ("I think there's more to you than meets the eye," Shia LaBeouf tells Megan Fox, reimagining the Transformers tag line in, um, a "witty" bit of writing), but it's not actually clever--it's totally conventional, and self-aware only in the most basic and superficial ways. Sommers' film is also stupid, but I find it (kind of charmingly) forthright about this fact. The overpronounced acting, the wooden dialogue, the clear debt the film owes (or homage it pays), visually, to comic books and fantasy illustration ... it's all there to be appreciated as itself (not as camp per se, and not as a film about anything important). It's a certain kind of honesty ...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


One word, 'autopsy'--direct sight, the apprehension of things through direct understanding. Mostrare e non dimostrare. Adriano Aprà has some fascinating things to say on Rossellini in a tradition drawing from early modern humanism ...

Friday, November 16, 2007

Made at Cinecittà, Sometimes

Of late it has been Italian cinema on the mind. Why? I can't say for sure. I am writing a paper on Rossellini's late historical films, but firstly, I was already very interested in those, and secondly, my return to that topic was more of a result of interest in the larger (national) field than vice versa. I've been watching films that have far more limited reputations than the work of the tried-and-true Italian masters (Fellini, Antonioni, Visconti, Pasolini, Bertolucci, and so on--you get the idea). So, I've watched a few half-forgotten 1970s sex comedies (Dino Risi's Sesso matto, Luigi Comencini's rather good Mio Dio come sono caduta in basso! aka Till Marriage Do Us Part), Risi's minor classic commedia all'italiana, Il Sorpasso ('62), a couple others. There seems to be comparatively little scholarship on these kinds of films, small classics or forgotten masterpieces as well as the run-of-the-mill flotsam and jetsam. So much writing on Italian cinema, in English at least, seems to focus on a few major issues (Neorealism, the 1960s art films) and personalities, and I suspect there's a chicken-and-egg issue with regard to the submerged works of the white telephone films, and the writer-directorial(-sometimes-actorly) work of Nanni Loy, Risi, Comencini, Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street aside), Luciano Emmer, Germi, Bolognini, Lizzani, De Seta, Sordi, even Petri and Scola. Even Nanni Moretti is barely represented in our theaters and our home viewing formats! Genre/cult films from the 1960s seem to be on the right track, but I'd like to see more out there in this amazing marketplace where everything is (supposedly) available. I understand that polemics submerged a lot of quality and/or popular classical French cinema, especially pre-New Wave; but what precisely did the same for the Italians?

As I noted in a comment below, I had to miss the recent Pietro Germi (partial) retrospective here in New York, so to an extent the blame falls on myself for not partaking in the bounty. I don't plan on missing much De Santis, though.

On the European Film Review forum there's a fascinating old discussion about certain shifts in the aesthetics of commercial Italian film in the 1950s.

This all said ... if anyone can help me track down a video copy of Rossellini's L'Età del ferro (preferably--very preferably--with English subs) I would be much obliged. I'd love to see it, especially if I could do so in time for the paper.

No Country for Old Men

Part of me thinks that the Orwell quote with which Rosenbaum prefaces his review is really best suited not for "quality" films that are ideologically problematic, but in fact, the outright masterpieces still produced and exhibited within the Hollywood system. The films of which one approves, loves, and yet which still primarily play in commercial theaters and major festivals, and on nice DVDs, acting as cogs and props and diversions and even instruction manuals for barbarism. This puts Orwell's assertion in perspective. It's easy to use the words as a rhetorical device to attack a well-made but distasteful film, and more importantly than the fact that it's easy, it's of limited value. To think politically about the cinema we have to be willing to grapple with those things we cherish: to understand that the art we most love is sometimes the art most complicit. (Rosenbaum does deal with this issue, more cogently than with No Country I think, in his review of The Mother and the Whore.)

The center (and the quotidian): Tommy Lee Jones. The extreme (and the abstract): Javier Bardem. The film's lack of confrontation of these two aspects--experienced by Jones' sheriff as a failure, and not experienced by Bardem's killer at all--is the frustrating thing about this movie, I think, for unsatisfied viewers. (And also, I'd wager, one of the happily accepted mysteries for those who like the film.) Jones can't fathom Bardem but has to live with it; Bardem has no need to fathom Jones. Is Bardem a representation of something other than his own narrative role (as a peripheral figure bearing down upon the center, devoid of psychological, an aestheticized phantom-monster-nightmare)? Is he a repressed social element? Is he Evil? Is he even misunderstood, alienated by the narrative because the narrative form must cast things in terms of protagonists and antagonists? And what is Tommy Lee Jones but someone incomplete: an old man but not old enough (his curiosity drives him but he finds no satisfaction). Is Bardem in fact the thing, the object, that gives Jones ('the human subject') meaning, or at least its promise? If I had more of a psychoanalytic bent I'd offer a few hypotheses on that front. There is a philosophical problem here that prefigures any specific sociopolitical questions (such as that of the American popular relationship to serial killers, or the aestheticization of murder), which is not to say that the sociopolitical questions are of no significance--quite the contrary!--but their working out within the terms of the film is, I think, subordinate to how one cracks McCarthy's and the Coens' very neat philosophical chestnut. It is this philosophical crux, at least as much as, say, the cinematography, which allows everyone in the debate to at least agree that, indeed, this film is "well made."

* * *

Not long ago I checked out a videotape of Jon Jost's Last Chants for a Slow Dance from the NYPL; I watched about twenty minutes before I got impatient with the subpar video (which wasn't horrendous, but as I said, I was impatient), and told myself I'd wait for a screening (or at least a better copy). But upon reflection I think I should have been more stoic. It would make a fascinating counterpoint to No Country for Old Men, I think. In fact I'm a little surprised that Rosenbaum (who puts it on his AFI alternative 100 list) doesn't mention Jost's film in his No Country review--I would not be shocked to hear that it figured into an earlier draft.

* * *

In terms of mood, and feeling, the ending to No Country for Old Men reminds me of the ending to the only McCarthy novel I've read, Blood Meridian. I'd describe both as stasis-in-flux, that is, they both gave me a mental sensation analogous to a dolly zoom ...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Keeping Up Appearances

"After the Liberation, while the Left was attempting to mobilize the masses, the Christian Democrats invested the state apparatus by either protecting ex-Fascist civil servants or occupying the managerial positions in all sectors of information. Mussolini had insisted that cinematic propaganda should never be too intrusive. The Christian Democrats did not forget the lesson. They preserved the Light Institute, founded by Fascism, to make documentaries likely to advertise Italy abroad. But newsreels, whose presentation was compulsory during any film-show, were offered to private companies. Fourteen production companies seized the chance. Since exhibitors were obliged to have a newsreel in their programmes, the product was sold in advance, so that little, if any, investment was necessary. One of the companies, Settimana Incom, tok the lead very quickly and its productions are worth a look. The tone, resolutely optimistic, was based on celebration of a changing Italy. Unlike Fascist documentaries, these films did not romanticise the traditional country. Beginning with a quick glimpse at the past, they stressed the improvements introduced by modern techniques and contrasted old ploughs with tractors or derelict farmhouses with hygienic, modern cowsheds. Emphasis was put on the diffusion of electrical power which made possible new light industries providing cleaner jobs and labour-saving consumer durables. There were also hints at employment for women and at the improvement of the female condition. In short, instead of advertising the government, Settimana Incom attempted to persuade its viewers that things were evolving rapidly and that the best they could do was to make the most of it. The Community Party tried to counter this hidden propaganda by makings its own documentaries. Filming the gloomy multi-storey buildings of Milan and the out-of-the-way villages of Sicily, they argued that the state had failed to carry out crucial reforms and that the price paid for a few economic advances had been dangerously high. These pictures were of course banned in right-wing constituencies but even in the districts that voted regularly for them, the Communist documentaries did not meet with an enthusiastic response because their vision was too critical. Spectators knew that the Communists were right and that Settimana Incom lied. However, being involved in an irreversible transformation from a country of sharecroppers and small shopkeepers into an industrial society, they did not want to ponder over what the cost of the changes would be."

--Pierre Sorlin, Italian National Cinema, 1896-1996 (pp. 85-86)

Monday, November 05, 2007

Image of the Day

Normally my images of the day (which come more like once or twice a month) are aesthetically or thematically chosen, and quite arbitrary except to my own little investigations. But I haven't been touching current events or political matters in recent weeks, and the floods in Tabasco are awful, and I saw this one image from BBC online and felt oddly moved by it, not only as a 'representation of humanity' but as a picture in general. I hope that my choosing this does not communicate to readers a cheapening of the situation, or a consideration of our neighbors' crisis (which is being poorly handled by our government, natch) as a merely aesthetic or conveniently picturesque event.

Unqualified Remarks (Desire--Genre-Style)

Four legs, two legs, three legs--on time and the procession or sequence of desires. Generic desires may change but don't age, do they? Marcello Mastroianni loves nubile Stefania Sandrelli, but the camera shifts and her feet show us where her heart lies. So the channeling of desire goes. (Genres live on--"more of the same"--because desires don't go away, including the desire to see a form implemented, a narrative retold, an itch scratched.) What's a genre? A series of tropes, or (go visit Ryland for more of this) a medium in itself, to be played with and worked out. Insofar as genre exists, and insofar as a genre has rules (e.g., that pomo marketing gimmick that makes me cringe 75% of the time it's used--"this work subverts its genre"), the rules are like those of a game, a sport: we know what we're going in for, there are some things we expect to see, some things we expect reasonably not to see, and sometimes we're suprised, and we're moved or perhaps not, and that's that. We'll partake once, we'll partake again. The rules of genre certainly don't seem to operate like regulations or doxa ...

Saturday, November 03, 2007

To and Fro

On some questions of avant-garde film and filmmakers that have floated about as of late.

* * *

"Cinema is a Greek word that means 'movie.' The illusion of movement is certainly an accustomed adjunct of the film image, but that illusion rests upon the assumption that the rate of change between successive frames may vary only within rather narrow limits. There is nothing in the structural logic of the filmstrip that can justify such an assumption. Therefore we reject it. From now on we will call our art simply: film.

"The infinite film contains an infinity of endless passages wherein no frame resembles any other in the slightest degree, and a further infinity of passages wherein successive frames are as nearly identical as intelligence can make them."

--Hollis Frampton, "For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses" (from Circles of Confusion, p. 114)

* * *

Have I written my post yet about how Circles of Confusion is one of the great, largely unsung books on film/photography/art? (It's out-of-print, unless somebody just put it back into print--and copies aren't always easy to come by, which is practically a criminal situation.) As I'm sure I've alluded to before, Frampton was apparently one of the most erudite people ever to work in cinema (er, film); he had Greek and Latin, kept up with developments in mathematics and physics, studied at Ezra Pound's feet, all that. Some reports peg him as imperious and arrogant. Maybe so. But in Circles of Confusion he mostly comes across as charming, witty, mentally flexible. It's as though you've met someone interesting at a party who knows more than you do about everything, but has either the absentmindedness or good sense to not show they know it.

* * *

"Serene Velocity (1970) established Gehr's reputation as a major filmmaker of the generation that began exhibiting works in the sixties. It is a tour de force of interior rhythm with minimal exterior subject matter. Gehr filmed the empty corridor of a university building throughout a night and into the following dawn. The receding corridor registers on the screen as a shiny green field in the center of which sits a darkened square (the doors at the end of the hall). From the corners of the screen to the edges of the central square four black lines converge, almost meeting to form an "x"; they are, of course, the shaded lines where the walls join the floor and ceiling. Furthermore, a series of florescent lights on the ceiling projects a pattern of hot spots around them, which alternate with black lines created by the symmetrical series of doors in the corridor. This combination of light and darkness generates the illusion of a series of black squares expanding from the center to the frame of the film.

"We are never permitted to contemplate this pattern statically. The filmmaker positioned his tripod within the corridor and then proceeded to alter his zoom lens every four frames. At first the shifts are not dramatic. He alternates four frames at 50mm with four at 55mm. After a considerable period the differential increases: 45mm to 60mm. Thus, the film proceeds with ever increasing optical shocks. In this system the zoom never "moves." The illusion of movement comes about from the adjustment of the eye from one sixth of a second of a distant image to one sixth of a second of a nearer one. Although the absolute rhythm never changes, the film effects a crescendo because of the extreme illusions of distance by the end. Furthermore, Gehr cyclically shifts the degree of exposure every frame in the phrases of four. In its overall shape Serene Velocity moves from a vibrating pulse within an optical depth to an accordion-like slamming and stretching of the visual field.

"The temporality of the filming excluded any possibility of human action within the corridor. It is divorced from the realm of experience and re-fashioned in a purely cinematic time and space. One exterior event does leak in, however: by the end of the film dawn has broken outside the corridor. A natural light illuminates the previously dark windows in the central doors, making this severe and powerful film a relectant aubade, in which we are reminded of the extreme distancing from the natural world upon which the film is predicated. This is a very muted form of the interior/exterior opposition Michael Snow made much of in Wavelength, where the very room he filmed became a metaphor for the recording instrument (the English word camera being Latin for "room") at those points when the interior darkened so that the scene outside the windows could be discerned. Gehr, however, undermines Snow's analogy of the zoom lens with a trascendental consciousness. By simultaneously moving both closer and farther away with his lens positions he achieves the uncanny effect of obliterating the (assumed) position of the camera at the starting point. This erasure of the ground coincides with the undermining of spatial and temporal authority in the film: they are all strategies for eliminating the self-hood of the filmmaker from the film and for objectifying the visual phenomenon of the eventual projection."

--P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film (3rd ed., pp.400-401)

* * *

Sitney cites Gehr's program notes from the time in which he writes that film "is not a vehicle for ideas or portrayals of emotion outside of its own existence as emoted idea. Film is a variable intensity of light, an internal balance of time, a movement within a given space." (Also on p. 400 in Visionary Film.)

* * *

In the Q&A that Gehr gave at MoMA last Monday, the audience laughed when he mentioned that he went to 'regular,' mainstream, 'normal' films quite a bit. It was an ironic laughter, as though it was hard to believe this straightlaced-looking avant-gardist would spend time at, what, Eastern Promises? The Darjeeling Limited? The Kingdom? Brakhage too was an admirer of "the movies" though (as I've read from Fred Camper) he didn't consider them the same field as what he did. (Brakhage wrote an appreciative essay on A.I. in some relatively recent book on religion & film, by the way.) Perhaps Gehr agrees with the distinction, too, but he was quite unironic when he insisted to the MoMA audience that he really did go see and enjoy mainstream works, that he wasn't cutting them off from his life or cinematic art (that he'd agree that the cinema was a giant maelstrom of many parts, was the impression I got from him).

* * *

Annette Michelson opens part one of her essay "About Snow" (October vol. 8, spring 1979) with the same Hollis Frampton quote (minus the second paragraph) that opens this blog post. After some historical exposition, she writes:

"We are now, I believe, in a position to more fully understand the particular impact of Snow's filmic work from 1967 on, to discern the reasons for the large concensus given to the work honored at Knokke-le-Zoute [i.e., Wavelength] and to answer questions of the following sort: How did Snow's film differ from other recent uses of the long take? Why was it that differences of taste and of theoretical orientation were so promptly reconciled on the appearance of this work? Why, in fact, did it seem to constitute, even at that time, a threshold in the development of the medium so that a critic known for his allegiance to dominant narrative cinema could speak of it as a kind of Birth of a Nation of the avant-garde?

"Snow invented, in the camera's trajectory through empty space towards the gradually focused object on the farthest wall, a reduction which, operating as the generator of the spatiotemporality of narrative, produces the formal correlative of the suspense film. Baudry's text, however, gives us another grasp upon the reasons for the impact of this work and of others that were to follow. For Snow had, in that reductive strategy, hypostatized the perspective construction within the space of cinematic representation, and in so doing he had laid bare the manner in which cinema proceeds from the conventions of painting. He had made visible the way in which "painting is nothign other than the intersection of the visible pyramid according to a given distance, a fixed center and a specific light." He had, in fact, by restoring and remapping the space of perspective construction, reestablished its center, that place which is the space of the transcendental subject.

"Wavelength, then, appeared as a celebration of the "apparatus" and a confirmation of the status of the subject, and it is in those terms that we may begin to comprehend the profound effect it had upon the broadest spectrum of viewers--especially upon those for whom previous assaults on the spatiotemporality of dominant cinema had obscured that subject's role and place. The spectator for whom that place was obscured--and threatened--by the spatial disorientations of, say, Dog Star Man (a space purely optical and a temporality of the perpetual present) could respond, as if in gratitude, to Snow's apparently gratifying confirmation of a threatened sovereignty.

"But Snow was not content to reestablish "the referential norm"; he subjected it--and in this he is, indeed, the follow of Cézanne he claims to be--to constant analytic transformation. Thus the slight, constant movement of the camera within its sustained propulsion forward, the light flares and filters which punctuate that movement, the changes of stock and the final shot which intensifies, in superimposition, the flatness of the photograph on which the camera comes to rest. The depth and integrity of the perspective construction is at every point subjected to the questioning and qualification imposed by the deployment of anomalies as differences within the spatiotemporal continuum."