Sunday, October 31, 2010

Lady in Purple

Well, before I eventually get around to Some Came Running, here's another Minnelli title - but for the immediate purposes of this post I'm wondering about the story of the lady in purple?  She's attending the ballet, I believe, in the first shot, and attending the final performance of the big musical show in the second shot.  Society theater maven?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Demon Lover Diary

Along with some comedic moments, I think the best moment in Joel DeMott's documentary about a schlock horror movie shoot in the 1970s Midwest, Demon Lover Diary, is when DeMott's voiceover narration matches with footage of the schlock director's children playing in the backyard.  As she muses over the irrationality of the enterprise (the director has faked a sick leave from work to make the movie, putting all of his finances into it, banking on the chance that the film will make it big on the Midwest circuit - Detroit, Lansing, Toledo, etc.), the kids are having a grand time playing with a big box, knocking it over, jumping in and out of it.  The asychronicity between sound and image (long take, unpretty childhood wistfulness) makes for a really rich but subtle comment on the crazy play (but - as adults - tortured, worried play) of trying to make commercial movies as amateurs ...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Cinephile Notes

Revisiting Citizen Kane recently (on 35mm!), I felt once again - and for the first time with this film - a tremendous freedom.  A sense of liberation can flood over you when, at a certain point, you are "over" a canonical text, I think.  But "canonical" is not quite the right word here, it's not precisely what I mean.  Perhaps my referent is better described as an object which bears some authority - real because imagined - over oneself. The dissipation of this particular kind of authoritarian aura all of the sudden makes the heavy light; that which has before shackled, now frees.  In recent years, and each for particular reasons, I have also had similarly liberating experiences with The Searchers and In the Mood for Love - films I first went into feeling the urge to love, films I wanted to love but for some reason couldn't, films by directors whose other works I cherished, and films whose sheer stature thus only made my failure seem more difficult ... films that took several re-viewings over the years to find peace with.  One leaves behind any idea of what one should like - and this "should" operates on a lot of different registers, some intensely personal, some purely social. 

Rare is the aficionado of "cinema art" who isn't also a certain kind of performer, enunciating taste in the proper way.  (But at the same time, rare too is the person who is aware of this performance - pointing it out - who isn't himself just a bad, reductive imitator of some ideas found in Bourdieu.)  A performer of good taste in cinema, for instance, will likely hail Citizen Kane but then usually take the slightest opportunity to point out that Welles' later work is even better, richer, or more fascinating.

I should repeat, for clarity's sake, that I am not referring strictly to the mere opinion that Welles' late work is great, but to the practiced enunciation upon proper cues to inform others about this opinion you hold.  I'm hardly suggesting that only "elitist film snobs" do this, either - in fact, anyone invested in film is going to do this in her own way.  It's a way for people who love films to connect, and to find other people who love films in compatible ways.  Some people are jerks about it, regardless of their brow height, whereas some people are really amiable, regardless of theirs.

How can we talk about the fact of this performative dimension of cinephilia without just flattening it into joke about bad faith and film snobbery?  In terms of scholarship and the field of film & media studies, which I'm aware is not where a large number of my readers reside (or have any sympathy for), I would say that I want to see the discussion of art cinema, and of "elite" cinephilia, given the same respectful and nuanced treatment that other subcultures and fan cultures have sometimes been given.  For while a love of austere art cinema & experimental work (Straub-Huillet, or Phil Solomon, or Bela Tarr) may have a certain claim to high status in its objecthood, this work neither confers much real status on devotees, if any, nor does it correspond to the taste cultures of a political economic ruling class.  Being highbrow, rigorous, or visibly "discriminating" in your tastes won't get you much at all in the way of dates, employment, respect, or party invitations.  In the academic world, 'art cinema' and its followers could be well-served by a good faith investigation by (gasp) cultural studies folks.  I think there are some indications of the trend already.

In any event.  Citizen Kane is so ubiquitously celebrated that it's almost a latent, potentially underappreciated film again ... not in general, but amongst the cognoscenti.  (It served as a whipping boy, for instance, for Joel David's wonderful Sight & Sound list.)  The temptation to attack, disrupt, subvert, or ignore "the canon" is sometimes so powerful that it gives greater structuring power to the canon than it might realize.  Kane stands in for all that is "yes, but..." about filmic greatness - "yes, it's great, but..."

The key, I suppose, is to find a way to respect what follows that but... while also remaining radically open to that which we are conditioned (by our own individual taste cultures) to respond to as stale.  It's in continually also interrogating our implicit and explicit distastes that our tastes will find some robustness ...

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

See Something



Composition in depth has, for our a/v century at least, still a lot of murky areas.  In the 1980s in a paper on space in Renoir, Stephen Tifft proposed that the "earliest directors had simply photographed theatrical spectacles from a fixed, central position, as though the spectator had secured a good orchestra seat.  Chafing at the documentary indignity of such rootedness, some directors began to rebel against these limitations by making the shot the basic unit of film language, and exploiting editing to move from one shot to another, one visual perspective to another, thus allowing the spectator to enter into its narrative space with a flexibility and vividness unparalleled in the theatre."  The exhilarating possibilities of moving through space with the camera are commonly tied to a network of sumptuous directors and cinematographers.  Strange, though (... oh but perhaps not so strange, really ...) how the anti-illusionistic practices of modernism and space in cinema often emphasized a lack of shadows, a return to something creators and/or spectators thought of as surface, pure surface.  Think of the bold, big primary colors in Godard.  Isn't there an anecdote about Hitchcock regarding his fascination with the shadowless white walls in the backgrounds in some Antonioni?  Is shadow associated with depth and thus with illusion, and is this why the bright colors and hard lines of so much mid-to-late-century modernist cinema avoided such shadows whenever bourgeois space was to be dismantled?  What of Gorki's kingdom of shadows, where its shadows are only a pretender to the throne?

Perhaps the bourgeoisie owned the shadows as well as Enlightenment.  Only so much left for a Maoist to work with.  Perhaps the only real(ist) shadows are those of the strictly literal emulsion; no represented shadows count ... no lines on the faces of Humphrey Bogart or Chishu Ryu, no depths into which we can be so gauche as to pretend to enter. 

At the same time, if I'm truthful ... thank the gods for something like Grandrieux's Sombre.  Shadow is so important to the history of cinema that critics created a genre out of it (film noir), ex post facto, but I wonder somewhat idly if there has been even less work dedicated to truly exploring shadow and its possibilities than color.  (Even when people discuss composition in depth, and deep focus, the through line seems to be on designated clear spaces, lit spaces, perceptible spaces.)  The suggestibility of the obscure and the deliberately obscured is a wonderful sort of frontier ...


"Shadow, then, is in the first instance a local, relative deficiency in the quantity of light meeting a surface, and objective.  And in the second instance it is a local, relative variation in the quantity of light reflected from the surface to the eye.  There are three distinct kinds of deficiency, and they emerge clearly in a sixteenth-century diagram drawn after Leonardo da Vinci (fig. 2) ..."

"The role of shadow as an object of perception, then, is bound to be regarded sometimes through issues of good or bad: help or hindrance?  Or better, perhaps, since shadows are a fact, which properties carry information, which are artefacts of the visual act, which are stable and which fickle, which are used in perception and which are ignored - in fact, how to shadows work, not just in the physical but in our minds?  It is noticeable that answers have varied widely according to people's projects and historical epistemes."  (Quotes from the late Michael Baxandall, Shadows and Enlightenment)


Maybe we sometimes talk about high-key and low-key as though these phrases in themselves conveyed much of significance to ourselves & to other people.  What's a lexicon to convey the three kinds of shadow demonstrated by Leonardo, the shadow of the underside of the nose, the shadow of the upper lip (corresponding to coverage by the nose), the shadow of the angled feature as opposed to that which meets the light straight on


"25. In the cinema we can sometimes see the events in the film as if they lay behind the screen and it were transparent, rather like a pane of glass.  The glass would be taking the colour away from things and allowing only white, grey and black to come through.  (Here we are not doing physics, we are regarding white and black as colours just like green and red). - We might thus think that we are here imagining a pane of glass that could be called white and transparent.  And yet we are not tempted to call it that: so does the analogy with, e.g., a transparent green pane break down somewhere?"  (Wittgenstein, Remarks on Colour, trans. McAlister & Schättle).


Things to continue to keep in mind: the extended (implied?) depth of the emulsion or the stock or the format / the depth of the profilmic space / the vast range of negotiations and indeterminacy to be found in shadow spaces.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bad Object

Q: I don’t want to digress too much, but have you seen Mad Men?

A: The quick answer is, for the first time this Sunday. I’m not a television fan. Television doesn’t have a strong visual presence. I’ve only seen one episode, so I don’t want to pontificate on it, but I can immediately see the influence of Douglas Sirk, a filmmaker from the 1950s, in the color schemes. Usually television is pretty boring to look at. And this is definitely rather interesting.

(a recent Tom Gunning interview)

* * * 

How do we define a strong visual presence?  Is it a feature of the light projected through celluloid emulsion vs. that emitting from the cathode ray tube, LCD, or plasma screen?  It would seem like this would be a workable basis on which to differentiate between two different media, 'cinema' and 'television' (if we can even call them media, or consider them as categorically comparable types of media).  But that doesn't seem to be what Gunning gets at in his comment above, because he allows that Mad Men "is definitely rather interesting" to look at.  (It is quality television, art directed into submission and shot on a one camera setup.)  So it can't boil down to a question of technology.  Maybe it is practice?  Television, more concerned in its own technological genealogy with voice and sound than cinema necessarily is (due to the history of broadcasting and its ancestral ties to radio), has less impetus than film to produce a good picture on that tiny, low-res little screen it has.

Yet ... most audiences of yesterday and today seem to care little about pictorial composition, mise-en-scene, editing patterns, etc., in films themselves (in other words they are not connoisseurs of form).  Most of Hollywood's history, despite its domination of box offices much the world over, had only limited reason to attend to visual invention, richness, playfulness, structure, and so on in the way that cinephiles attend to such dimensions.  When the film industry, in contradistinction to cinema, tried some new things, some of these were indeed visual (like widescreen aspect ratios), but some were obviously not (e.g., experiments with smell).  And they were all, fundamentally, gimmicks, even if great films were sometimes made that used these gimmicks. 

But I'm not convinced that cinema has appreciably greater cause to produce what I'll shorthand as "visual wealth" than television does.  After all, when Gunning says that television is usually "pretty boring to look at," couldn't he apply the same standards & judgment to most films?  From the perspective of the connoisseur's eye, I would say, most films are definitely also "pretty boring to look at."  (Either that or we are to be consumed with the passion of photogenie, and presume that virtually all films are at least somewhat interesting to look at ... in which case, aren't television programs, too!?)  And let's please return to the question of comparing these two media - we should define what we might mean when we say "television" and "film."  Is television all that is sent out on the channels that reach our sets?  (So, it can include films, albeit in televisual/video form?)  Does "television" refer to fiction programming produced for exhibition on TV?  Does television refer to all programming produced on TV ... or for video formats?  Is it TV when it's mainly extra web content for a television show, downloaded to a smart phone and watched there?  Is "cinema" film, i.e., a film strip?  Is cinema the artful production of (audio)visual appearances of motion?  Is The Blair Witch Project cinema and Mad Men television, and do we know this because this is how they are primarily distributed or exhibited to us? 

I Love Lucy was shot on film, Michael Mann's recent stuff shot on video...

The Artist at Work


Friday, October 15, 2010

Bells Are Ringing

A film that deserves more discussion: Vincente Minnelli's some-kind-of-wonderful Bells Are Ringing (1960).  Part of a squeaky (but ever-so-slightly naughty), brightly colored pocket of late '50s/early '60s Hollywood (think of Doris Day in Pillow Talk or Please Don't Eat the Daisies), the theme is communication.  Telephones, answering services, urban anonymity and its talking cure ("Hello!"), code (Beethoven's 10th), name-dropping, typewriting, an entire host of ways to get through to someone end up contriving greater difficulties & subtleties in actually doing just that.  It's not an original topic, but it's handled with some spark here.  I love the moment when Judy Holliday dances the chacha - so as not to forget it - in her red dress before she meets her fella (Dean Martin) for a party, a fine & simple flourish between director and star.  The basement apartment that Susanswerphone calls home is a cousin to the apartment in My Sister Eileen ('55), if I recall. 

But what am I writing?  There's someone who already said things better ...

"Telephony suggests telepathy. When Ella goes to visit Jeff for the first time, it just so happens that he wants coffee and a sandwich to help him kick his alcohol habit, and it just so happens that she’s got both in her bag. A nice piece of womanly white-magic, and all rationally explained because it’s her own lunch, which she daren’t admit, partly because she’s pretending to be chic Melisande. Communication by feeding—the mother, the housewife— in a placidly unpointed antithesis to the swish blind-date dinner. To explain how she can anticipate Jeff’s wishes, Ella has to pretend to be telepathic and psychic, which is the ideal type of communication (indeed, frighteningly so). And telepathy finds its converse in—is it a duet, is it a pair of synchronized solos, and what’s the difference?—"Better than a dream," dreaming and telepathy being a natural pair of intrapsychic opposites."  (Raymond Durgnat, transcribed here.)

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Sunday, October 03, 2010


The most appallingly/appealingly artificial aspect of TLC's Sister-Wives isn't so much as the polished gooberism of the husband (more an image of a 'Hollywood polygamist' than Bill Paxton would ever be allowed to be), but the strangely antiseptic nature of the house in which this family "lives" ... mostly white walls, everything spare and strategically placed, a flimsy illusion of a family home ...