Saturday, June 13, 2009

Tinseltown Stoics

Hollywood's old heroes knew (or learned) how to take losses in stride. The Hawskian hero just needed a chance to do a job. If they worried too much about status they'd, presumably, get themselves in binds, like some of Sturges' dreamers (Christmas in July) or do-gooders (Sullivan's Travels). Wartime changed things; estrangement appeared where once was togetherness. Adventure films in exotic locations, for classical Hollywood, were also a way of spinning yarns outside of history. Once, the old commercial cinema suggests to us (via its partial parentage of theater and vaudeville, of middle-class entrepreneurs and traveling picture shows), people were like this. Termitish activity onscreen suggests something about a history never announced as history.

"Who's Joe?"

We all know, they all know, exactly who Joe is.

The difference is in how his phantom operates amongst the still-living. How is he "presenced," how is he acknowledged (including by means of non-acknowledgment)? The hard truths, personal pleasures, and basic lessons of lifetime are etched into older faces. This much is for certain, if compare commercial American cinema today to commercial American cinema fifty or eighty years ago: there were much more interesting faces and bodies back then. No question. It's not an issue for Hollywood today because Hollywood is not interested in depicting real bodies in any substantial or interesting way. The concern is not, never was, one of "realism." Classical Hollywood practiced its own stylizations in its representation of the human body. But they were far more open, back then, to the range of body types. Each type or manifestation (lines on a face, curvature of the upper body, grace or lankiness, eyebrows, teeth) screamed or whispered or hinted at character, ancestry, knowledge, opinion, in short, a locus of personalized history. A frozen-shut catalogue engagingly flipped through, given many short glimpses, by means of "performance."

Joe: the missing personal presence(s) that help structure one's life.

Once Joe was an indication of who you know, what you lost externally and gained internally. Then Joe becomes the guy who took your job, way off somewhere else; the guy who spurned your advances; the analog crew member on the film set (unglamorous and UNSEEN). Personal history, crystallized in "characters" who were woven into larger still historical-social patterns in old Hollywood film narratives, slowly, creakingly gave way to psychology, which itself structured narratives. The deep ethos of Expressionism was extracted and slathered like margarine over the top of the Hollywood machine. (Real butter got itself thrown out in favor of the cheaper substitute: "too fatty, not good for you," experts assured us.) Under the guises of modernism, personal style, whathaveyou, this particular principle of aestheticization undermined one of the more interesting, though I hesitate to say dominant, features of classical Hollywood, particularly its brand of very wide appeal. Now Hollywood appeals to "everyone" because it offers carefully constructed products meant to do so (let no fool tell you that Hollywood is "stupid," "meaningless," "pointless" for it is all too shrewd, meaningful, and pointed). Hollywood even engages political conflict in its quest to trump it; last year I presented a conference paper on this topic, reversibility, wherein films courted controversial interpretations by cleverly appealing to multiple sides of a sociopolitical conflict (e.g., The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, 300, etc.). A murdered friend was once a layer added to a catalogue of experiences, including miseries and tragedies; soon it becomes a catalyst for narrative action because the character had been a clean slate of personal history: fully formed, like Athena, they emerge on-screen, ready to be "given" their character by means of some goal, some wound. (But these films do not pursue modernism in this case, do not tend to examine characters as constructions of word, image, plot.)

I wonder: would a dominant consideration of older Hollywood be that it focuses on A story, in relation to its characters, whereas newer Hollywood tends toward THE story? The bildungsroman is a narrative of character definition that can grow out of the "one-among-many" approach; perhaps it has something to do with post-WWII baby boom, the rise of youth/teen culture, and the later increase on the youth demographic to sell tickets, that this appeal to singularity and solipsism drives into the heart of American commercial cinema? Not a satisfactory way to situate the problem, I admit; but neither a set of topics I'd like to give up on ...

So Many Options

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Disco Will Never Die

(for Girish)

Watching The Last Days of Disco on Hulu earlier, my second time after a decade had passed*, I very much enjoyed, and was most surprised by, the sense of timing. Time, and timing, are too rarely brought up by cinephiles and critics. Whether in evaluative or descriptive terms, the dimension of temporality seems to be a rarefied artifact of cinema (despite the fact that all cinema must exist in time): we can speak of the timing of a comic gag, or narrative/dramatic pacing in the style of Syd Field (that's for PWC). Certain long-take masters like Tarkovsky may invite us to think of the image in temporal terms. And people are hardpressed to discuss His Girl Friday and certain other films without at least acknowledging the fast pace of action and diction. Still, specific instances of what happens "in" a cut, of how a series of images flows, sometimes beg for unpacking, for savoring, on the level of time every bit as much as of space.

About an hour and a half into The Last Days of Disco, Alice (Chloe Sevigny) is on a coffee date with Des (Chris Eigeman). They are discussing their mutual friend, and Des' potential romantic rival, Josh (Matt Keeslar). Stillman is a connoisseur of facial tics and body language, both in screenplay but also in images: as Des nonchalantly trashes his lunatic buddy's good name, a fair amount of the image focuses on Sevigny's face, catching her reactions (which are subtle, constrained). Des tries to snort coffee after he has just questioned Josh's mental stability; cut to a cup of coffee, and there's another meeting, this one between Alice and Josh. The time between cuts is uncertain, but also unimportant. What I mean is that the specificity of this particular cut may not be so important. The gestalt is masterfully clarified by moment-to-moment obscurities. Stillman arranges a dramatically clean ensemble storyline, but unlike, say, Neil Labute in the contemporaneous In the Company of Men, the quotidian lunches, dinners, nights out, etc., are not subordinated to rather grim schematics. Stillman gets his yuppies to breathe, to pulse, to contradict themselves.

(Muriel Spark's narrator Fleur Talbot, in Loitering with Intent: "Contradictions in human character are one of its most consistent notes ...")

Stillman is utterly merciless towards his characters, giving no quarter when it comes to showing their flaws and shortcomings. Their "life," though (and Stillman's "generosity") comes in how he stitches together this group portrait. Part of this has to do with his deft handling of time:

in terms of the characters' sketchily but sophisticatedly evoked relationship to their pasts (days at Harvard, Hampshire, Sag Harbor; frequently connected, in these yuppies' cases, with parochial privilege),

in terms of their cramped, barren, predictable quotidian time (office work, nights lived for the weekends) reflected by their living spaces and offices,

in terms of their their slower, only aspirationally linear experience through post-college professional life (a title card like 'spring'), announcing progress made, visible, but never felt in the making,

in terms of cuts that leave us stranded from moment to moment before an image, periodically unsure of whether we have been pushed forward to the next shot in a scene, a new scene, a montage sequence. I think Roger Ebert promoted the advice, or something like it, that in a good film you can tell how much time has taken place between shots. I don't think this is true at all. Stillman is an example of a director, here at least, who uses these mild and continuous indeterminacies to make palpable the progression of time.

Like Linklater or Hartley, Stillman invests his speakers with a distinctive cast of speaking. Like a great deal of independent film of this generation, there is dialogue devoted to the analysis of pop culture, dropped titles and names as cultural capital, a sort of generational/class code drawn upon like a fund, at times: to lubricate conversation, to cement or clarify a relation (Wild Kingdom), or alternately to sow discord (The Lady and the Tramp). Stillman (in contrast to, say, Tarantino, whose method is very different) makes explicit the social fabric in which this kind of analytical savvy is embedded. But where Tarantino imagines savvy people in pulp roles, the interplay of fiction/fantasy/genre and particular codes of realism, in Stillman (at least Last Days of Disco) it is the experience of this pop culture that is important, and important to depict, not the mixing of codes of reality and unreality. That's why the jokingly climactic "disco will never die" speech is ironic for its speaker as well as for us, and simultaneously touching.

In summary, a very impressive film, and one that I remember liking but surely didn't understand at all when I saw it ten years ago.

* This is the only Whit Stillman film I've seen, I must admit, though that will be remedied soon enough.

Decay (II)

So that which rots and ruins is still in the process of a cyclical production of 'new' from the old. In some cases these processes can be beneficial, even enriching for us (such as in fermentation). The experiences of yesterday (cinephilia's countless deaths, which will continue on in new forms until we are calling it something quite different than cinephilia) are still the sediment of today.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Every thing fashioned from the remains of innumerable other things. The world, bustling, does not care about novelty even though it does nothing but produce it, produces nothing but countless old novelties in fact.

Looking idly for quotes by Buñuel, I find he said (apparently) that "Age is something that doesn't matter, unless you are a cheese." (He also lamented "the decline of the aperitif.") John Ford, vis-à-vis Ward Bond's snobbery, said, "Ward’s father was a coalminer—which is a very honorable profession. My father was a saloonkeeper—which is even more honorable."

The conservative anarchist Albert Jay Nock wrote in his memoirs, recalling a Brooklyn childhood: "A few Germans lived among us, one named Kreuter, a little brisk old man, a great friend of my father, and a master hand at making sauerkraut. When he had got a batch of sauerkraut in prime condition, he would bring over a couple of quarts for my father to sample and pass expert judgement on. The discussions were so long and the aroma so pervasive that my mother finally laid down the law that my father and Kreuter should hold their sessions outdoors or in the woodshed. She said she always knew when Kreuter was coming, if the wind was right, for she could smell his tin pail long before he hove in sight. She also declared she could see the fumes of his sauerkraut push up the cover of the pail once in a while, like the action of a safety-valve, as he was proceeding along; but this may have been an illusion of some kind."

Would it be worth spending more than two seconds thinking about "sour aesthetics"? Maybe not, but I at least like the idea.

Cinema that embraces its own material obsolescence in some way: Reble, Mueller, Brakhage, Morrison ... sure. What about cinema that embraces obsolescence on an extra-material scale? Pasolini captured the vitality that animated living ruins; Fellini too perhaps. (Was it an Italian thing?) Rossellini knew a thing or two about the through-lines which characterize culture, the violent or tender rodeo ropings that constrict us, protagonists of our own brief lives, and occasionally cast us off at the end of the whip.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Times ...

Going way back, the Spartans probably thought they were oh, so modern when they left defenseless infants on wild mountain slopes. So did wealthy Norse mothers who had poor women foster their children, and European aristocrats who employed wet nurses. More recently, as Ann Hulbert chronicles in her book “Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children,” rigid feeding schedules were all the rage in the United States in the 1920s. The next two decades brought an emphasis on discipline. (here)

Indeed, the ancients were surely as interested in being "oh, so modern" as we moderns. This mediocre-bourgeois conversational tone, and a well-rehearsed posture of self-conscious savvy (though not erudition or taste), seems to pop up more and more in the Times pieces that I read. Informality, I generally like; but in these cases it's affected, merely a schtick practiced so much it substitutes for 'authenticity' (becoming the new authenticity and bringing impoverishment in the process). It's aggravating. One can separate the serious from the non-serious by figuring out who speaks without self-awareness solely in terms of status, as well who naturalizes their own trivial concerns for the concerns of all humanity. This was also borne out by the "debate" about bookshelves and displaying books one hasn't read that hit the Interwebs a year or two ago ...

Ton Style