Friday, January 29, 2010


(Because it's wintry cold where I'm writing this ...)

Thursday, January 28, 2010

s | l | o | w | d | o | w | n

"Godard, through his experience with A Woman Is a Woman, seemed to learn that if color was to function thematically, he would have to extend the length of single shots and slow down his camera movements to allow the viewer adequate time for concentrating on the composition of colors."

—Paul Sharits, "Red, Blue, Godard" (Film Quarterly, '66)

"The "techniques" of such films are so apparent, so obtrusive, that they may easily be assumed to be "advanced," "modern," "new." It's perfectly true you don't come out of an older movie like Renoir's La Grande Illusion, or Flaherty's Man of Aran, or Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night saying, "What technique!" Nor do you come out of a concert by Serkin exclaiming about his technique—you're thinking of the music. But those who adore Jose Iturbi always say, "What technique!"; what else is there to respond to? And the comment—which means how fast he can play or how ostentatiously—is not so very far from the admiration for Antonioni or Torre Nilsson or Bresson's Trial of Joan of Arc (though they are generally admired for how slow they can play)."

—Pauline Kael, "Are Movies Going to Pieces?" (The Atlantic, '64, here)

"[M]y second response is to ask what we mean when we call a film slow—an adjective that's frequently pejorative, even when it's used in relation to films by Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, F.W. Murnau, Ozu, Jacques Rivette, Jean-Marie Straub and Daniele Huillet, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Jacques Tati, among others."

—Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Is Ozu Slow?" (here)

Efficient narrative in film is commonly tied to a thriving industry: 1930s-40s Hollywood, 1980s Hong Kong. But there are different registers of speed even in commercial film: popular Indian cinema had its own rules that it learned to operate through, but single films may not seem "efficient" to those who aren't used to a three-hour masala movie. And with old Japanese films, like a Shimizu whose breeze you might underestimate, you've got the occasional weird object that seems short and slight, simultaneously leisured, looming, overpowering. Not just efficient, but economical—getting the most out of the fewest means. And not solely narratively.

There are films that exude a certain grace, and these oftentimes take more time than they may seem like they should: the noodlings of (in Hollywood) The Strawberry Blonde or Donovan's Reef, films whose "central conflicts" eventually dissolve like cotton candy, triumphant moments for anyone who just gets bored by relentless focus on dramatic efficiency above all else. (It'd be more tenable if there weren't the same handful of stories just wafting!) Or there's reliable Béla Tarr, who (like Tarkovsky or Rohmer) is willing to wait ... not for a conflict to fade away, but for something else to appear.

Slow? Slooooooooow. Well, I can understand Pauline Kael's crankiness (quoted above), understand it much better now than say 10 years ago when I was not even a young turk (just aspirant), and The Modernism Was the Message (man). Whatever merits we can ascribe to Kael, I don't think, though, that she ever really knew what to do with cinema. Consistently she reinforced certain conventions about quality; her only real innovation, if we can call it that, was to ease the minds of her middle-class readers that it was OK to like all the trash, the movies, the movie-movies, the sheer wondrous Technicolor movieness and razzmatazz. You could love it, cherish it, but don't take it too seriously.

(And, abstracted like this, it really isn't bad conclusion. Just all in how it flows. Popular-critical discourse has taken its liberated shamelessness from Kael, but not her old-fashioned foundations. Not really.)

So what's in a slow film? Well, in a context it might be ineptitude: the (bad) film that put the producer's butt to sleep. This is so in an industrial system whose overall vigor, we've proposed, tends toward efficiency. (Not to say the ruthlessly efficient, nor the solely efficient.) Unavoidable slowness crops up in cross-cultural exchange, too: pacing issues that may not smoothly translate. This is often tied to deliberate slowness as a strategy: critical, countercultural, estimable (prestigious), privileged, and so on among a number of possible reasons. The slowness of the more austere 1960s art films, particularly as compared to the slowness of predecessors in the art film (Renoir, Carné, earlier Bergman, earlier Fellini); the slowness of certain North American avant-garde films; the slowness of so much international festival cinema today. These films assume the privilege of slowness because they can: they are produced and circulated in contexts that will not necessarily punish their slowness as ineptitude. Yet, when they come onto the marketplace to compete—the very turf of the industry!—they are weighed and judged lacking. It's this tension that makes deliberate slowness and issue at all, a form of confrontational tastes. To the eyes of John Doe, replaceable movie reviewer of whatever entertainment shill website got shafted with a screener of The Man from London, the pace of Tarr is very possibly a provocation. (And it can be a wall that prevents further penetration into the work.) To the eyes of Jane Doe, upmarket festival-hopper and dedicated cinephile, the pace of Tarr can be a privilege, a refuge. (And it can be a portal that invites her to stop thinking about "the pacing" as "the pacing," but rather as what else it could be, do, or mean.)

It takes a gift to appreciate the range of registers that I've represented here as a crude polarity. It takes a greater gift still to understand them as something more complex than a dialectic. It takes zero effort to internalize the mindset of the film industry's products as one's core criteria for value. It takes only barely more effort to displace those criteria with Criterion Collection-sanctioned modernism.

"Judging by David Bordwell's quantitative analysis of Ozu's films, which appears as an appendix to his Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 377), Tokyo Story is probably not Ozu's slowest film. We learn from this chart that there are 1371 shots in I Was Born, But... and 786 shots in Tokyo Story, whereas There Was a Father (1942), which I'm less familiar with, is the surviving Ozu feature with the smallest number of shots, 353. Moreover, whereas the average shot length of I Was Born, But... is four seconds and the average shot length of Tokyo Story is more than two and half times longer, 10.2 seconds, the average shot length of There Was a Father is 14.8 seconds. I'm somewhat skeptical of how many generalizations can be reached through this kind of quantitative analysis, especially when it encompasses silent as well as sound films and when the presence of intertitles alters our sense of what a shot consists of. But one could at least surmise from Bordwell's figures that Tokyo Story is typical of Ozu's late manner without necessarily representing an extreme."

—Rosenbaum, ibid.

"More remarkable is the number of dialogue titles, which make up between 24% and 44% of all shots. This would be exceptional for an American film of the 1920s. Other Japanese films, particularly Mizoguchi’s, are heavy with intertitles, but Shimizu took the trend somewhat farther. The preponderance of dialogue titles may owe something to the presence of both American and a few Japanese talking pictures at the time, which justified more spoken lines."

—David Bordwell, "Pierced by Poetry" (here)

Talking, talking, talking. There are certain perversions that are nevertheless understandable. Watching silent films (pre-1927 narrative movies I mean) silently, for instance. Kael, who disdained what she perceived as a slowing down, a paring away of material in these new "art films," failed to do what she was presumably best at, i.e., put her finger on the root of pleasure. All she could surmise was that it was a kind of pretentious or immature status anxiety, at root, that caused one to enjoy bad and come up with ways to call it good (or boring --> interesting). Sure, status enters into it. It always does, even with the most "popular" expressions of our modern culture. But I think that the very real pleasure of the leisure afforded by slowness, and all the modernist difficulties (or fetishizations of foreignness) are different: a repose, or a welcome challenge, or simply a bit of variety.

Additionally, the impulse to slow things down is built into the apparatus of cinema to begin with: to still, and to make visible, what has gone by too fast; to give ourselves time to look over something. Rather than a pompous undermining of "the movies," it is, at least in part, a very honest exploitation of one of the oldest and most compelling problems of this thing cinema.

Don't ever listen to someone who tells you what the movies are "for," what they're "good at," because they're lying, and they're probably trying to sell you something without concern for whether you need or want it.

"Some days, uncertain about what to do, Shimizu would shut down the shoot and take people swimming."

—Bordwell, ibid.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Monday, January 25, 2010


So there are some terrific, and terrifically weird, things about Bloody Movie (aka Terror Night, 1987), helmed by Nick Marino and an uncredited Andre De Toth ... such as its proposition that Old Hollywood acts out its resentment upon an age which has (mostly) forgotten it. A dashing adventure movie star of "the late 1920s," Lance Hayward, murders trespassers on his estate (largely forgotten, and passed over to the gov't in the film) by echoing his cinematic exploits from sixty years prior. Two younger people in the film are great fans of his movies, which they undoubtedly saw on television. (The character, Hayward, bought up the rights to his movies and then sold them to television in 1958.) Bloody Movie also features an impromptu lesson about nitrate film, and footage from a bunch of old movies, including Alexander Nevsky (or a film that looks incredibly close to it).

Sunday, January 24, 2010


A final association. It seems like a joke, but it is not: Chris Marker and Alain Resnais, two old pals of the pre-Nouvelle Vague Left Bank group of filmmakers, are today great fans of certain very slick American TV shows. Where Resnais' taste runs to Millennium (1996-9) and The X Files (1993-2002), Marker goes for the likes of The Practice (1997-2004), Deadwood (2004-6), Firefly (2002-3) and The Wire (2002-8). The maker of La Jetée and Level Five (1997) sets us straight:

I feed my hunger for fiction with what is by far the most accomplished source: those great American TV series... There is a knowledge in them, a sense of story and economy, of ellipsis, a science of framing and of cutting, a dramaturgy, and an acting style that has no equal anywhere, and certainly not in Hollywood. (2003: 37)

Two men in their eighties, watching their favourite series on DVD sets and computer monitors, in their separate homes, just as once they watched certain Hollywood musicals (An American in Paris is remembered) together in London, during their collaboration on Statues Also Die (1952). In Resnais‟ lovely 1956 essay-doco about the Bibliothèque Nationale, All The Memory of the World (which contains the immortal credit to "Chris and Magic Marker", no doubt for the use of his "Petite Planète" travel guide to Mars!), there is a moment which is in fact pure musical, pure Kelly/Donen/Clair/Lubitsch: three workmen deliver the day's journals to the library, marching in synchronised steps... But what is there in these modern American fictions of gruesome death and forensic detection, alien invasion and paranoid conspiracy, that attracts our two Eternal Modernists?

The American television program that makes me flash onto Marker the most is Crossing Jordan (2001-7), about the investigative work of autopsy experts in a city morgue. Like many shows of its ilk – about profilers, vice cops, psychic detectives – Crossing Jordan often builds to grand dramatic recreations of crime or murder scenes that are in fact more like visionary projections: our inquiring heroes suddenly walk around inside images of the imagined past, sometimes magically animating still photos, computer schematics or police sketches in order to do so. This is interesting enough already as a cultural phantasm, but Crossing Jordan, in particular, brings this taste for revivification, this remembrance of things past or "time re-edited" (as The Case of the Grinning Cat puts it) to an especially urgent and poignant point. So many of its plotlines, large or small, are precisely about reconstructing, in a flash, the life-stories of largely anonymous people: children, the homeless, loners, ordinary folks either below the radar or entirely off the map of society's record of itself. And the flash that matters most, the pivotal moment for Crossing Jordan, is the exact moment of death: how someone fell, was hit or shot, how long their body has been left to decompose; and what history can be read once the body is scanned for its surface marks and then opened up to its archaeological and geological levels of trace-experiences...

(Adrian Martin, "Crossing Chris: Some Markerian Affinities," available here & already cemented onto anyone's list for film-related essay of the year)

Saturday, January 23, 2010


What struck me upon revisiting Germany Year Zero is how fast-paced this 73-minute film is overall, and yet how drawn-out the final sequence feels. Defining 'final sequence,' that is, as either Edmund's long walk or even his exploration of the ruins ...

More to come on this and other Rossellini films soon.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Thursday, January 21, 2010


"Kingdom of shadows," "phantom empire"—what could we get out of the suggestion in such terms that kinoland could be ruled? Obviously cinema is (among other things) a place or apparatus for fantasies of knowledge and control. Obviously, too, there are a wide range of fantasies, a lot of different kinds and objects of knowledge, modes and objects of control. To move across space, to unify time, to choose to reveal oneself only when one needs to (and even then, remain an enigma, like an Internet cookie that can't be deleted) ... this is one possibility.

"Acousmatic, specifics an old dictionary, "is said of a sound that is heard without its cause or source being seen." We can never praise Pierre Schaeffer enough for having unearthed this arcane word in the 1950s. He adopted it to designate a mode of listening that is commonplace today, systematized in the use of radio, telephone, and phonograph records. Of course, it existed long before any of these media, but for lack of a specific label, wasn't obviously identifiable, and surely was rarely conceived as such in experience. ...

"To understand what is at stake in this distinction [between visualised and acousmatic sound], let us go back to the original meaning of the word acousmatic. This was apparently the name assigned to a Pythagorean sect whose followers would listen to their Master speak behind a curtain, as the story goes, so that the sight of the speaker wouldn't distract them from the message. (In the same way, television makes it easy to be distracted from what a person on-screen is talking about; we might watch the way she furrows her eyebrows or fidgets with her hands; cameras lovingly emphasize such details.) This interdiction against looking, which transforms the Master, God, or Spirit into an acousmatic voice, permeates a great number of religious traditions, most notably Islam and Judaism. We find it also in the physical setup of Freudian analysis: the patient on the couch should not see the analyst, who does not look at him. And finally we find it in the cinema, where the voice of the acousmatic master who hides behind a door, a curtain or offscreen, is at play in some key films: The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (the voice of the evil genius), Psycho (the mother's voice), The Magnificent Ambersons (the director's voice)."

(Michel Chion, The Voice in Cinema, trans. Claudia Gorbman, pp. 18-19)

Le testament ...

Dr. Cordelier's testament, an audio recording whose narration announces the final reel or two of Renoir's quite excellent Jekyll & Hyde telefilm (1959). Might reels have a certain significance? The film was shot according to television methods, with multiple cameras. Renoir conceived of this project as "amphibious." He came to French television here during a stage of post-WWII Europe where the marketplace was changing, and the industrial cinema was looking for more cost-effective means of reaching its audiences. Evoking, if not thematizing, a technological shift, Le testament du Docteur Cordelier expands the late 19th century recording principles (indexical traces) into an unsettling, explanatory acousmetre (the testament, voiceover, of the good Docteur). From the localized audio reel to the power of broadcasting, imagined as the privilege and corollary of omnipresence.

An episode of The Outer Limits, "O.B.I.T.," (1963), directed by cult favorite Gerd Oswald ... In the opening shot: the camera dollies over to a hand uncannily like that of M. Opale, the Mr. Hyde of Renoir's film.

The hand of the man behind O.B.I.T.

M. Opale

In both cases, the hair on the back of the hands suggests the enigma of these otherworldly humanoids: an otherworldliness whose fantastic origin be in outer space ("O.B.I.T.") or the body electrochemical (Stevenson/Renoir). But it's a charmingly corporeal, earthy kind of clue.

The secret of science, as depicted in Cordelier and "O.B.I.T," might as well be a religious or fantastical secret. And when its truth is revealed, unveiled, as it comes to be gradually over the course of both works, it presents the picture of knowledge without imparting it: we (and the other characters) do not really know how Cordelier conducted his experiments, or how the Outer Band Individuated Teletracer operates. It's beside the point. We've been brought face to face with a technological sublime in each case, one that has immense and terrifying ramifications for the way people interact with one another. A common feature to both storylines: the horrifying appeal of impunitive disguise.

Jeff Sconce, in Haunted Media, compares the O.B.I.T. to something reported in Life, 1964: the Tanner Electronic Survey Tabulator (T.E.S.T.), apparently a truck equipped with technology that infiltrates surrounding homes to see if the television sets are on, and what channel they're tuned in to. The power of surveillance, in the service of TV ratings!, plays upon all manner of paranoid and not-so-paranoid fears. But even more than the fantasies of surveilled victimhood, what about these images of omnipresent vision as outright manifestations of the role of victimizer?

The Scorpio Killer to Dirty Harry when he's making him run all over San Francisco with a yellow duffel bag: 'I'll be watching you. Not all the time ... but you you won't know where, or when.' It's a popular trope. Yes, yes, Bentham, Foucault, panopticons, all that ... yet what about the appeal of being the enforcer in the center of the panopticon, the fellow with the megaphone who can potentially see and know all around and yet not be seen? (And is this not also the appeal of the disguise about which nobody knows, and through which one can exercise one's maladjusted Hydelike fantasies?) It is commonplace to bring up Foucauldian riffs on governmentality, and the figure of the panopticon, as though one is constantly raging against this machine, against power. But I wonder if we read this fascination (with the problem, and with the turning of a minor point in Foucault's entire body of work into one of his calling-card "themes") as itself a symptom, or a fantasy. A repetitive denunciation under the terms of tu quoque.

When one looks at a character on the O.B.I.T. screen—it's a matter of honing on bioelectric signals—one sees a close-up of that figure as though on a television screen ... though their clothes transmit across space to the screen (for reasons of television decency), all other props do not. A woman smokes a cigarette that does not show up on the screen; a man reads an invisible newspaper. These kinds of limitations serve as trace elements of a reality principle which strengthens the fantasy. It's a trope in cinematic depictions of invisibility: throw paint, slime, or flour on the invisible figure, and its outline will be revealed: the Achilles heel of the sheer power of invisibility. I think we would be right to recognize, in intellectual fascination with the panopticon a certain attraction to its sadistic powers—and, further, the possibility of masochistic contours to kino-aided fantasies of being, seeing all, and imparting this information to our voyeuristic victims as we see fit. (Even when caught, Cordelier and O.B.I.T.-villain Byron Lomax seem powerful.) Something or somebody is always implicitly presumed to watch us watching, and a sign of our limitation even in sensory omnipotence, even in our spatiotemporal privileges, is the boundary of a certain pleasure range.

(This principle that one must be unclothed for invisibility to truly work, does set up the invisibility joke that has gotten me to laugh the hardest: an episode of South Park where Cartman tiptoes naked across a stage in front of the whole town, convinced he's an unseen ninja.)

I believe Gerd Oswald fled Germany in the late 1930s but was younger than Fritz Lang or several of the other Germanic émigrés of the time, and did not start directing films until the mid-1950s. He directed more than a few Outer Limits episodes, and Conrad Hall was the cinematographer on this episode and over a dozen othersworking also with the directorial likes of John Brahm and Byron Haskin. "O.B.I.T.," so starkly designed, a rich mine for the inventive poverty (or simply uncertainty?) that marked various audiovisual practices whenever they were being pioneered. Poverty Row, television studios. There are shortcuts borne of resourcefulness and there are shortcuts borne of cynicism; for quite a long time cinephiles have presumed the latter cynicism to pervade all but a few premium-channel exceptions of television (without even looking, really looking, the kind of generous looking studious cinephiles might give to films maudits). Thus TV is the bad object, the snotnosed younger sibling of cinema. But Renoir and Rossellini didn't think so. They (and not just they, not just "slumming" greats from cinema) helped to explore a continent whose riches are even more sketchily, unsatisfyingly mapped out than that of the celluloid cinema.

Outer Band Individuated Teletracer. The acronym suggests death, which is of course what cinema either tries to escape or fantasizes about escaping. Or so it's been said.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


"[T]heories are only made to die in the war of time. Lilke military units, they must be sent into battle at the right moment; and whatever their merits or insufficiencies, they can only be used if they are on hand when they're needed. They have to be replaced because they are constantly being rendered obsolete—by their decisive victories even more than by their partial defeats. Moreover, no vital eras were ever engendered by a theory; they began with a game, or a conflict, or a journey. What Jomini said of war can also be said of revolution: "Far from being an exact or dogmatic science, it is an art subject to a few general principles, and even more than that, an impassioned drama."

"What passions do we have, and where have they led us? Most people, most of the time, have such a tendency to follow ingrained routines that even when they propose to revolutionize life from top to bottom, to make a clean slate and change everything, they nevertheless so no contradiction in following the course of studies accessible to them and then taking up one or another paid position at their level of competence (or even a little above it). This is why those who impart to us their thoughts about revolutions usually refrain from letting us know how they have actually lived." (Guy Debord, In Girum imus nocte et consumimur igni.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010


It can be fantastic when you're watching a profoundly refined, gentle, light film about a Japanese resort and then, pow, you're hit with an image—something seemingly effortless, but powerful, like blind masseurs crossing a short bridge, or a woman climbing forty stairs up a woodland hill. Counterpoint to these arresting images and moments, these perfectly achieved layers of tone, slowly, you realize something of your own limits as the nuances and dynamism of the film's gaze upon society become clearer, as well.

(The Masseurs and a Woman, 1938; Ornamental Hairpin, 1941.)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Continuing ...

"In France, the cinema emerged as a massive and collective training for death.—

{"To preserve, artificially, [the] bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life." (Bazin, "Ontology")}

—The scientific program of the Station Physiologique was to investigate highly practical matters: to find out the maximum weight a man could support, the maximum length a man could walk, and the "best," i.e., the most economical, way to put a foot on the ground to move forward. Here "man" precisely means "soldier," and indeed all of Marey's actors were on loan from the French army. This also explains why the first slow-motion films made by Lucien Bull are visual studies of the ballistics of bullets, shells, and human bones exploding. These visually sublime films, made mainly between 1903 and 1912, between a war lost and another largely conducted for revenge, are the first real action films.

"In France, the invention of cinema as a technique for de-composing movement is clearly inscribed in a "history of the social control of the body," as Marta Braun, following Michel Foucault, has written so well. This is an almost unknown phenomenon that has not yet been thought through in terms of original sin, but which constitutes, however, a kind of original unconscious repression that contemporary experimental cinema is now beginning to question." (Nicole Brenez, "The Secrets of Movement")


Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Space & Time

The impulse to break down (so as to better, more rationally understand something) is maybe rooted in a highly irrational fantasy—a fantasy of control, even?—whereby time & space are subject to one's magisterial whims. To satisfy the demands of (mere) conjecture, old spacetime must subject itself to manipulation by one of its own subjects ... lèse majesté on the level of physics, a political problem easily extrapolated from (or echoed by) form.

I. A problem in the history of cinema: who can lay claim to this majesty? ... I feel that Nicole Brenez uses the word, "magisterial," as a common adjective.)

II. Another problem in the history of cinema: who can lay claim to the authority of a massed vision?

Image of the Day

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