Tuesday, July 04, 2006


A reader wrote me a question and wondered if I'd respond with thoughts on my blog, so I'm giving it a shot. The general substance of the question was, first, What moves us to provide commentary, in-depth analysis, of some films (and not others)? Masterpieces that leave us overawed and worldless commingle with great films (or less-than-great films) that can draw out reams of analytical material, as well as disposable films which move nothing in our minds. The reader also asks if I'd describe three films that, as of now, I'd like to put on, say, Criterion DVD (clean slate) and do commentary tracks for ...

Very generally, I would say that what moves us toward commentary in films (or any art) is that ultimately we have a firmer understanding of our relationship to them than we do with films for which we have little, or only functional or conventional, understandings. What I mean by this is that there are films, for all of us, which (for great films: whether they touch us too profoundly or which we admire too coolly) we can write a little about, but find that we may either come up short, or that we write about with a certain anonymity. We point to this thing, that thing, quite visible in the film to anyone else, and we can perhaps "explain," a little, about why the film is great (or not great), or why it's formal/thematic integrity exists, how it's put together ... but because we're too overwhelmed or underwhelmed, or for some other reason perhaps, we leave nothing of ourselves on the page (or the screen). Criticism (very broadly defined) is perhaps like cooking, where great dishes require two things, two ingredients: the artwork and the spectator-writer. Competent analysis of a film which does not inspire, which does not necessitate, analysis in the writer is a bit like a restaurant offering a plate of a raw fruit or vegetable--potentially delicious, but not real cooking, merely evidence of good taste.

I don't refer, really, to 'personality' or 'biography.' I don't mean that real substantive analysis involves telling a story about how a film "means something special to you," because you were impressionable when you first saw it and you had your first kiss that after you watched it that hot summer, etc., etc. That kind of thing can still lead either way--to mere description of what's there and what's already thought about it (this time absorbed in autobiography), or to the creative fusion of a spectator with an inimitable position & voice exchanging, even flowing with, the work in question--in a capricious moment I'm tempted to say that real, great analysis of art makes the film at least a little unfamiliar even to those who know it well, simply because it's been so ingrained within the voice of the commentator. Similarly, though, the commentator upon these films might appear a little unfamiliar from article to article, unfamiliar to friends in her own writing or speaking. I don't actually know that this is all true--but it's an interesting possibility, and it is what the fingertips impress upon the keypad. (Ha--if I'm wrong, it's my fingers' fault!) At any rate, what I mean by all this is that the commentator's distinctive way of seeing, feeling, interpretating, taxonomizing, and even 'cartographing' the artwork in question will be impossible to duplicate anywhere else, only imitate.

So to return to the actual question, why do some films inspire commentary while others don't, I think that it may be because we are more cognizant, and more confident, of our distinctive and inimitable "reading-relationship" in these cases, whereas films that overwhelm us to speechlessness lead us into lack of confidence, maybe even a failure of cognition, and films that we admire only coolly have failed to provide us with a distinction that we would crave--a reminder that we humans are not always, 100% special (and brilliant) people with something always to say. We all have a truly inescapable right & obligation to be boring and mediocre, uninspired and uninspiring, from time to time!

Now to DVDs. This is a difficult question if only because there is so much to choose from. Of course, I'm picking from films that I've already seen. And the list would change tomorrow. But ...

An American Romance (King Vidor, 1944) A masterpiece, albeit one I've only seen once, and on video. It's a familiar story, a story of, roughly, my great-grandparents' generation--when European immigrants came here, learned English, worked hard, and eventually made good. At the time of this film's release the "message" of the film was roughly, You've earned citizenship, and a great life with your wonderful family, now play your part in the War! Today's viewer, such as myself, might take the film not simply this agenda of patriotic sacrifice, but also the inherent conservatism of its argument for the immigration debate today--we can't say this applies to An American Romance as it was made, but the act of seeing the film today ensures that the issues it raises draw a different web of psychological and social connections, connotations. For the myth of the American Dream that this film baldly promotes comes from an age when there were many (European) people successfully assimilating into the fabric of this country, and believed fully that they had lived and earned the American Dream. The indignation of their children and grandchildren at today's immigrants, who are demonized for being lazy (or working too hard and taking our jobs!) or for not learning English, comes from a familial foundation, laid out over history, as depicted in this film. Times have always been hard, my family went through poverty and tragedy, but through belief, loyalty, and Stakhanovite dedication (to the Protestant work ethic, that is) we perseved. (Why can't you?) This film remains alive, if criminally underseen, for this larger social discourse, among other reasons. Furthermore if I were to offer commentary on a film like this I would like to address the question of formal integrity & brilliance, and how this relates to ideological function. For this is a very American film, with very American ideological baggage, and yet it is in terms of aesthetics hardly just functional. The images are at times awe-inspiring, and in this respect it is difficult for me to describe, because as I have mentioned I have seen the film only once, on video. But I am certain of its aesthetic greatness (for the record, Fred Camper and I think possibly also Peter Tonguette consider this peak Vidor). And to have a chance to look at the images closely, both for their sensuous properties and their semiotic significance, and provide people with an informed, researched reading would be a treat. [This film is unavailable on home viewing formats, according to the IMDB, but it shows on TV sometimes, and if anyone out there would be interested in a dubbed tape and has extraordinary patience, I could maybe do something to get it your way.]

Viva la Muerte (Fernando Arrabal, 1971) I wrote a few words on this film when I saw it months ago, and now I think I'd enjoy the challenge of trying to identify (as I wrote) the "axes" which characterize this film. I'd probably want to start with all the associations and the historical/biographical context--but constantly I'd try to move into that area that threatens overwhelm me and remain ineffable, that motley bead necklace that is the aesthetic/formal organization of this film. Whereas An American Romance is a great film with conservative, capitalist, and mythopoetic ideological functions, Viva la Muerte is a film that offers intense, simmering anger and bewilderment at the Franco regime and all that it stood for--which is much closer to my heart, politically, as should be obvious to readers of this site. What can "the surreal" offer us? I think it can still offer us a lot, but if nothing else, it can be a way to exorcise demons and to attack the symbols, images, and conventions of forces that have injured us and destroyed those dear to us. [This film is available on DVD and should be watched right away!]

The Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter (Liu Chia-liang [aka Lau Kar-leung], 1983) This outstanding Shaw Bros. film was almost a disaster--the actor playing the intended hero died in the middle of production, so a new hero/actor had to emerge on the fly. Researching the film's production story, its early 1980s HK film context, and its allusions would be a pleasure. Elaborating on its quasi-Brechtian sets and acting (and this feels different, more deliberately artificial, than even something like the early, slightly creaky, but good 1965 Shaw Bros. martial arts film Temple of the Red Lotus ['65]) would be a great springboard for talking a little about the uses and possibilities of both artifice and anti-realism, and this film's specific strategies, and how improvisation operates in conjunction with both rigor and artifice--a triangle that has resonance for the film thematically, formally, and extra-textually (its production story). [This film is available on the Celestial Shaw Bros. region-3 DVD, and probably several other bootleg or gray market formats.]

If this question inspires anyone else to tackle the questions and pick three films, please drop us a line with a link to your blog or site to let us know (or post comments below).


Michael Guillen said...

I love this entry. Films to me are mirrors and, as with anything which reflects us back to ourselves, some reflections are favored over others, and thus, some mirrors are favored over others.

Jungian analyst John Beebe is, along with being a fine analyst, an intriguing film commentarian. One thing he taught me is that you have to find out how to enter a film and the door you go through will determine the room you end up in. Access is everything. Some movies you see and you can just get into them every whichway of Sunday. And others are like staring through a nailhole on the wall. Some catch you, kidnap you, physically shift you away into another psychic space, while some are so obvious in their manipulations that you dig in your heels and resist them.

Anonymous said...

I hope to post my own answer to this great question on my blog soon, but I wanted to briefly confirm that I do indeed consider "An American Romance," along with "Our Daily Bread" and "War and Peace," to be peak Vidor: aesthetically, as you point out, it seems to me almost perfect. Vidor was one of the most independent directors to ever function (and, indeed, prosper) in the Hollywood system. His best projects were usually his own. He considered "Romance" to be the final part of a trilogy he conceived of in the '20s, on "War, wheat, and steel."

ZC said...

Maya--'some mirrors are favored over others'--exactly, that's a great way of putting it.

Peter, thanks for the comfirmation.

I hope both of you guys will write a bit more about this question!

Andy Rector said...

Thought provoking post Zach. I find myself "commenting" on a film in writing precisely to find out why I like a film more precisely, i.e. discovering through writing, words, the things I could never say aloud or even articulate as lucid thought before writing. It's not a method I particularly relish or find perscribable to certain means or certain experiences but, merely, it's how it ends up happening.

For DVD choices today I'd say:

1) Kuhle Wampe (1932, Slatan Dudow and Bertolt Brecht): To try and save this film from the un-vogue into which it has obviously fallen (exhibit a = writing for a cause, however small or large, to which one thinks one can contribute and expressing the discoveries and/or errors that have occurred in the films/makers prior interpretation). To try to wrestle back Brecht from the postmodern and/or "eternal" bourgeois ideas of the savages via showing the recorded (mechanically reproduced) evidence of his formal approach...to give others a shock who've never read Brecht but come across his name in the texts of others often. To point out the similarity between certain of it's long take style and the long take style of today's best oppositional cinema (exhibit b = writing to pick out historical links of relevance to our era). To talk about Brecht, which I personally enjoy (exhibit c = pleasure!).

2) La Puissance de la Parole (1988 Jean-Luc Godard): Mainly to try to understand the film by really working at commentary, which it doesn't need. One pinnacle of at least 4 in Godard's video-making career, which should get more exposure. To examine the absolutely refined mise en scene of Godard, so condensed in this 20-something minute short dealing with the cosmos, telecommunications, the French (lumpen)proletarian, a crime story...

3) Le Pont du nord (1982, Jacques Rivette): Again, to discover it more fully for myself by commenting on it. Most films need no commentary (Mr. Arkadin needs one because of all the different versions and misconceptions; Monte Hellman commentaries are good because he has been forgotten in film history, etc). Le Pont du nord would be interesting to put commentary to because there's so much that went on before it and after it that makes it the way it is: Cahiers turn to Maoism, Rivette's extraordinary 70's experiments Duelle, Noroit, Out-1, and Celine et Julie, the evolution of his way of working, the literary aspects of Le Pont, the historical things to come AFTER the film, since it is, as Daney said, a quinessential 80's film, embodying a hope that was never fulfilled, the film's passing of the torch to a new generation. I think some films simply have more historical density, whether they're good or not, or whether they're the peak or the pit of the director's career.


ZC said...

Andy, thanks for coming up with three titles (none of which I've seen, but would quickly buy DVD versions of with your commentary tracks). Kent Jones put Kuhle Wampe on a top ten ever list somewhere, didn't he?

With Le Pont du nord (which I should be able to see this fall when the Rivette retro comes to town!), I'm fascinated by the idea of analysis that contextualizes it historically not only by what led up to the film, but by what came after, what promises the film couldn't live up to, what paths it took that were chosen or ignored in the years after ...

Brian Darr said...

I just wanted to say that I love Eight Diagram Pole Fighter and find your constrasting of it to Temple of the Red Lotus spot-on!

Noel Vera said...

Completely forgot about this blog--

Eight Diagram gains from the artificial and even plain sets and backgrounds, I think; it leaves the viewer free to concentrate in what really matters: Liu Chia Liang's action choreography and his filming of it.

Anonymous said...

This is regarding your kind offer about King Vidor's 1944 An American Romance (made long ago, so allow me to repeat: "This film is unavailable on home viewing formats, according to the IMDB, but it shows on TV sometimes, and if anyone out there would be interested in a dubbed tape and has extraordinary patience, I could maybe do something to get it your way."

I am interested and extraordinarily patient! In fact, I specialize in literary and film treatments of immigration. If you contacted me at tim.prchal@gmail.com, I'd be very grateful.