Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Nineteen Fifty-Five

In memory of the late Damien Bona, I'm posting a list of favorite films from 1955 - which was his birth year, but also in his opinion (and that of many cinephiles, I think), an exceptional year for movies.

The older I've gotten, the more difficult it is for me to play the game of ranked favorites, and I'm eschewing numerical rankings for the more impressionistic proviso that this list is in roughly descending order of preference.  Some films are in need of another viewing (Kiss Me Deadly, The Tender Trap), even desperately so (Lola Montes, Floating Clouds).

The Long Gray Line (John Ford)
Les Maîtres fous (Jean Rouch)
Night and Fog (Alain Resnais)
The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton)
The Princess Yang Kwei Fei (Kenji Mizoguchi) 
Ordet (Carl Theodor Dreyer)
The Tender Trap (Charles Walters)
All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk)
Mr. Arkadin (Orson Welles)
Mosaik Im Vertrauen (Peter Kubelka)
Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich)
Summertime (David Lean)
Lola Montes (Max Ophüls)
Pather Panchali (Satyajit Ray)
Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray) 
Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse)
Violent Saturday (Richard Fleischer)
A Bloody Spear on Mt. Fuji (Tomu Uchida)  
The Far Country (Anthony Mann)
Devdas (Bimal Roy)
Two Scent's Worth (Chuck Jones)
One Froggy Evening (Chuck Jones)
Knight-Mare Hare (Chuck Jones) 
The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock)
The Phenix City Story (Phil Karlson)
The Seven Year Itch (Billy Wilder)
To Catch a Thief (Alfred Hitchcock)

Some honorable mentions: The Indian Fighter (Andre De Toth), Moonfleet (Fritz Lang), Run for Cover (Nicholas Ray), Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple (Hiroshi Inagaki), Murder Is My Beat (Edgar G. Ulmer), A Man on the Beach (Joseph Losey).

If there's a title you're looking for, and not seeing ... it's possible that I've forgotten a film or two, or would categorize a title in a different year than you might.  It's very possible that I might not have seen a film - skipping over the likes of Tales of the Taira Clan, Mr. and Mrs. '55, Le Amiche, The Man with the Golden Arm, Strategic Air Command, and Shree 420, you should ask me about how life has conspired against me seeing the whole of Smiles of a Summer Night.  (Don't really ask - the stories are boring.)  And of course there's always a chance that I might not be crazy about a film that I've seen but which you might love.

Monday, February 06, 2012


Recently I have been thinking about Julio Bressane's Cleopatra (2007).  It's a film with a rare kind of tone throughout: it's absorbing and erotocomic, and in its imagination of antiquity it sits somewhere between Straub-Huillet and Fellini.  It looks both lavish and barebones.  Below are some stills to whet your appetite.  (H/t MA.)

The Myth of Film Language

Sometimes in order to clarify things for oneself it's good to go through old problems and old arguments.

* * * 

“Hitchcock said this to Truffaut back in the day. You know, when they scream in that shower they’re screaming in Tokyo the same way they’re screaming in Paris. It isn’t the language that’s making them scream. It’s not the words, man. It’s the pure cinema that is effective. And when you’re speaking with the images, and you’re putting those images together, they way they’re supposed to be put together, then you’re speaking the language. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Serbia, or in a fucking igloo with Eskimos. You’re speaking that one universal language, and that’s the language of the cinema. And that’s holy.” (Abel Ferrara)

* * * 

Let us leave aside, first, the nagging problem of the aptness of metaphor.  (Or even the literality of the choice of language to denote what cinema does.)  Can we really call film "a language," or say that it has one?  Is "language" the appropriate word?  Those questions are not quite what I want to consider for a moment.  For even if one thinks of the language in "the language of film" as only a tentative, working solution, there is still something at the heart of the connection - the thing which this metaphor would seek to name.

The idea that cinema equates to stories is not an opinion that holds any weight here.  It is obviously false to anyone who has actually bothered to see a little cinema.  But what about the idea that the representational film, at least, embodies a certain potential for grammar?  (There we go, with "grammar" - another word whose metaphorical appropriateness will raise questions.)  What about the loved (or dreaded) system of continuity editing for instance, as described by Bordwell & Thompson?  If we look at wordless narrative films, even - like Murnau's The Last Laugh or Cavalier's Libera Me - might we not recognize some kernel of truth to this idea, that the cinema operates on a register which we can liken to language?  However problematically?  The idea that cinema could be or have its own language is a positive expression of the negative claim that cinema requires no other language to complete or complement it.

If there is, in fact, language of film it can only and always be provisional and conditional.  One could suggest that each great work of cinema, or each great author, creates its own language - but to posit this is then to retreat away from the universalism, the barrier-crossing potential of film language itself, as a larger category.  We'd then be talking about cinematic Esperanto at best (of which countless examples would come forth), and some of the problems presented by a private language at least.

Maybe cinema both does and does not require other language.  It does not in the sense that one can produce representational cinematic works which  have no "words" in them.  But it does in that cinema is screened for people who themselves have words, and is made by people who have words.  A discursive dimension imbues all cinema with life and is, in fact, what works against the otherwise.  There is no cinema purely of words, just as there is no cinema purely of senses, or of any other oppositional term.  (And indeed to think of them in such terms does require the constitutive or at least mediating presence of words themselves.)  In Claude Faraldo's wordless Themroc, the conceit of a being (being-socially) without language is expressed amidst the decay (destructive and pleasurable, both) of conditions of society. 

And the cinephile's devotion to the language of cinema is also a kind of fantasy.  Such a cinephile professes faith in the idea that the language she does not have is a language that is inessential.  Likewise, the connoisseurship of this cinephile is the central category of appreciation ... from which all contestation about meaning enters a circuit of a purely cinematic exegesis.  I am unconvinced, though, that the words elsewhere and the words otherwise are extraneous or can be neatly bracketed.

From what else would we bracket off "the film" than the very world ...

* * * 

"In a certain way contemporary cinephilia is a cult of the universal surface, one of whose most potent expressions is a particular cinephile practice: Watching films without subtitles including films in languages one doesn't have the slightest clue about (for practical purposes we'll just ignore the problem of dubbing). This practice, cinephilia-mythology-wise, originates with Henri Langlois and his legendary programming dogma of showing everything in its as original state as possible and in the way it's easiest available which quite often meant prints without subtitels. Being close in time to the late silent era also meant a greater general acceptance of the concept of cinema as an art of self-explanatory moving images, meaning that films would generally make themselves understood more through images than through words. Another cinephilia-myth tells of the Nouvelle Vague'ians' problems with English which lead them to look more closely at the pictures and 'feel' their way into the film as they weren't quite able to follow the dialogue. The concept of mise-en-scene has also quite a lot to do with enabling the viewer to make sense of a film without the need to understand its language -- as Rivette had it, polemically: The language one needed to understand in order to appreciate Mizoguchi was not Japanese but mise-en-scene. Personally and equally polemically speaking I think this is utter bullshit but I appreciate the noble sentiment motivating it: the Utopia of an universal language, an Esperanto of the mechano-objectively observed world.

"The problem is: A cinephilia based on the idea/ideal of mise-en-scene is only able to describe a film's 'secondary reality' which is the surface itself ie it can only make 'abstract humanist' sense of the images and sounds and rythms -- its 'primary reality' which is the film's essence in its cultural conditions gets lost, and with it all possibillities for mistakes and misunderstandings, per Goethe the only things that unite mankind." (Olaf Möller, "We Come from Afar and We Will Go Further")