Monday, January 30, 2012

Damien Bona, 1955-2012

The recent passing of a dear friend and mentor, Damien Bona, came as a shock.  He was the co-author of Inside Oscar and the sole author of its sequel, Inside Oscar 2 (among other books).  The stance Damien (and his collaborator Mason Wiley) took toward the Academy Awards is a very instructive one: acknowledging the ridiculousness of the Oscars and yet taking them seriously and enthusiastically as a cultural phenomenon.  I first started to correspond with Damien online, twelve years ago, when he was nice enough to supply this greenhorn cinephile with a copy of Man with a Movie Camera.  The email correspondence continued from then onwards and continued into "real life" when I went to New York for college.  A lot of my own ways of looking at the world, and film, were forged in conversation with him.  Damien was an incredibly kind, generous, warm human being.  I cannot stress these qualities enough; even those who only met him briefly sensed as much.  His commitment to great cinema (favorite directors included Ford, Ozu, Mizoguchi, McCarey, Edwards, Kiarostami, Sirk, etc.), to fighting the good fight politically, to great food and drink, to cats, and to human kindness, serve as an instructive example to all people everywhere.  It is no exaggeration to say that my own life would have probably turned out significantly different had I never met him.  There is much more that I could say, but I'm afraid I might not stop.  He will be deeply missed, and his memory cherished, by myself and many, many others.

Thursday, January 26, 2012


Various quotes from others that I've pinned down over the last several months, in hopes of working them into something or other, but I've either deferred the material I've put them into, or just couldn't come up with something big enough ... provocative points of departure, some of them ...

"The films of Philippe Grandrieux pulsate. They pulsate microcosmically: in the images, the camera trembles and flickers so violently that, even within a single, continuous shot, no photogram resembles another. And they pulsate macrocosmically: the soundtrack is constructed globally upon unidentifiable, layered, synthesised, ambient noises of breath or wind, sucked in and expelled, which underlie the entire film and constitute its disturbed heartbeat, returning to our ear when all other sounds have disappeared. In the very beginnings and endings of his films, over the credits, there is nothing but this strangely bodily sound." (Adrian Martin)

"Consumerism is a Calvinist sadist's word for "pleasure". Attacking rioters' "consumerism" is just saying they should have no pleasure.  There is a moralising left willing to forgive the rioters a little so long as what they are doing IS NO FUN. So long as its sacrifice for the commonweal, like these pundits subject themselves to in their commodity consumption. Watching The Wire isn't "consumerism" it's a duty!" (alphonsevanworden, back in August)

"The body of the movie could rethink itself into new forms across a 20th-century history of B-movies, the nightmare responses to the violent, daylight realities of women held at stainless steel ovens to smell cobbler and dream of their men at war." (Gina Telaroli)

"Nevertheless, I do not wish to suggest that we abandon radical political film theory, nor radical politics more generally. Just the opposite. What I would suggest instead is that we might take more seriously the dead-end that radical theory takes in its insistence only on displeasure, which is, as I am suggesting here, always predicated on a claim that truth is an unhappy event. For one, if we abandon the idea that the work of the political is the excavation of truth—and it is tempting not to do so precisely because we are so accustomed to denying the status of truth to any image that offends us—we might be in a better position to see the work that images can do in and for the social, especially as we come to understand the social as something that cannot be, and should not be thought to be, beyond representation. Likewise, if we understand the movement of the social as a process of representation, then we are in a better place to understand just how important it remains to think images politically, but to do so on the promise of pleasure instead of violence, happiness instead of deception. We might begin, then, by thinking about the terms of compromise and recognition rather than identification and interpellation. To proceed in this way is to bring moving image theory even closer to political philosophy, and allow us to both understand and effect change in the social along more peaceable and productive lines." (Brian Price)

"Although Lav Díaz arrives touted as an important new directorial talent, there's scant evidence to support the claim in his two featured films. The eponymous protag of his Dostoyevsky-inspired The Criminal of Barrio Concepcíon (1999) is a naive farmhand who gets involved in a kidnapping that goes violently wrong. This plodding drama, laced with ludicrous English dialogue, is not a total dud - it draws a good deal of strength from Raymond Bagatsing's beautifully understated central performance. Díaz's next effort, Naked Under the Moon (1999), a somewhat Bergman-esque tale about the limits of faith, concerns an impotent ex-priest and his tormented family. A chronicle of agonized morality, it's carved in lead." (Elliott Stein)

This last quote in particular should not, I hope, deceive as though its repetition were my endorsement.  Still, it can be illuminating to look into early reviews of important films or figures before wider critical recognition (and in some cases orthodoxy) kicks in.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Friday, January 13, 2012

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Star of the Show

(Quotes taken from Raymond Durgnat's "Pleading an Aesthetic Excuse" section in Films and Feelings, presented not as endorsement so much as food for thought.  More to follow on these topics, at some point.)

"In a sense the star is to the public as the sumptuous women of Tintoretto and Veronese were to the nouveau-riche of Renaissance Italy, or as the languorous favoured by the Pre-Raphaelites: in Edgar Morin's words, 'Movie glamour bears witness to the presence of the ideal at the heart of the real ... the archetypal beauty of the star acquires the hieratic quality of the mask. ... The star's ideal beauty reveals an ideal soul.'  Movie glamour is part of the artistic urge which tends, not towards the real, but towards the ideal.  It is the Platonism of l'homme moyen sensuel, for whom 'heaven' is more Garden of Eden than a cloudy realm of sexless angels."

"There are stars without superior beauty - Wallace Beery, Marie Dressler - for glamour is, perhaps, just one over-used facet of the life-force which stars assert as the classical Gods asserted (with Charlton Heston for Mars, Jerry Lewis for Dionysus ...).  Glamour without this streak of life-force can never make a star.  Of all Rank's charmschool girls only those who broke the mould made the grade - Diana Dors (by being brash, vulgar and working-class), Jean Simmons (by the glint of intensity, of Celtic feyness, in her well-balanced middle-class persona), Belinda Lee (after being liberated by an Italian love affair), and Honor Blackman (after donning black leather, high-boots, and topical fetishists' rig)."

"The physical and the psychological interweave: 'Invariably what made them stars' observes Arthur Mayer, 'was some physical attribute or personal mannerism' - he cites, 'John Bunny's jovial bulk, Mary Pickford's golden curls and sweet smile, Maurice Costello's urbanity, Clara Kimball Young's yearning eyes.'  We might add: Alan Ladd's deadpan, Bogart's paralysed upper lip and pebble voice, Veronica Lake's peekaboo wave - far from being just gimmicks, they are more even than iconographic emblems: fans take them as metaphors for personality traits, as lyrical assertions of character.  To see such traits as being, by the literary standards asserted by Henry James, psychologically crude, is only half the story.  The well-loved characters of Dickens and Conan Doyle, or for that matter of Fielding, Richardson and Racine, are no more complex; Dickens endowed his characters with 'catch phrases' corresponding to a visual medium's visual 'tags.'  And what makes an 'unrealistic' star seem, to an audience, realistic, is these feelings of theirs which his personality 'accommodates.'  They are his resonance in him."


"The intelligentsia's disdain of the star is motivated by the fact that the public's demands on a star's personality tend to limit the range of his performances.  (There are exceptions: T.S. Eliot was a Marie Lloyd fan, and her range was as narrow as Kim Novak's - or as Mr. Micawber's and Sherlock Holmes's.)  Second, intellectuals like to identify with creative artists, and current dogma has it that stars are witless things who do only what they're told by the director.  This content is often quite false: Lillian Gish contributed as much as any of her directors, Mae West and Burt Lancaster are famous for directing their directors.  In any case, the director works through his actors, just as a painter works through his paintings, and it is the work of art to which we should first respond.  An older tradition of film criticism talked about Bette Davis films (rather than Aldrich, Sherman, Rapper films); James Agate and La Revue du Cinema (the grandfather of Cahiers du Cinema) criticized in terms of stars as much as of directors; and it's a pity that such criticism in terms of stars has been left to the ladies of Films in Review, or degenerated into half-facetious cults by solemn intellectuals gigglingly off-duty.  (Which perhaps explains why slapstick is criticized in terms of stars - but not 'serious' films.)"

Year's End

I haven't really compiled, or been able to compile, a year end top ten in quite a long time.  Perhaps after I've caught up with more titles I can add something.  Usually what I've done, annually, around the 31st of December is to make a list of memorable first time viewings from the year.  Generally, highlights are decidedly 20th century.  But that doesn't satisfy me this year - I could cite incredible things that I only just saw in 2011 (like Garrel's L'Enfant secret on a digital copy, or a print of Raoul Walsh's wonderful Sailor's Luck, or the monumental Eniaios II screening that the Siskel Center showed here in Chicago).  But instead I want to look to the future, and so I'll just write a few words about a few important films from the past year ...

Howls in Favor of Sade Award
Qu'ils reposent en révolte (des figures de guerre) (Sylvain George, 2010), which has a rare balance for "political" cinema in that one can discern the virtues of both patience (human and aesthetic) and urgency (in feeling and in policy).  Sadly, few will have seen it.  And I myself can offer little in the way of analysis, certainly not the verbiage I've spilled on Tree of Life, because I've only seen Qu'ils reposent... once, and it calls for greater contextualization than I am able to provide.  But these readings might prove instructive, here and here.

Film of the Year. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011).  I've already written a lot about this film.  No need to keep going now; those who were disappointed (either because the movie didn't tell a clear story or that it allegedly "universalizes") won't find what I write convincing.   It would be interesting to re-read the love letters & hate mail to the movie just to see how they use the name of Papa Malick.  This points the way to the sociopolitical "problem" of The Tree of Life that I do think is worth calling into question but that almost nobody seems to want to talk about. Perhaps this reticence stems from the possibility that it might implicate critics too (gasp! clutch the pearls!) and not just the figurehead of the author. I'm referring specifically to the construction of The Tree of Life as a high romantic modernist work, and the subsequent, cannibalistic critical lineage which then denigrates that moment before it as too naïve, too recherche, too declasse. The underbelly of the history of criticism (maybe just one underbelly) is also a history of fashion, and what one says often carries greater significance for what it strategically leaves unsaid, but communicated, to the right kind of listener. This, I feel, is a problem in a lot of criticism of The Tree of Life but also a problem in the film, itself, this address to a specialized audience. 

Commercial cinema was very disappointing in 2011, though the 2010 festival cinema provided a number of good works filtering, in 2011, into area theaters and the digital domain (like Apichatpong's Uncle Boonmee, Guzman's Nostalgia for the Light, Breillat's La Belle endormie, Hellman's Road to Nowhere, among others).  My favorite genre film, just off the cuff, was probably Takashi Miike's 13 Assassins.

The best (very) short film I saw would have to be Ars Colonia (Raya Martin, 2011).