Wednesday, January 06, 2016

TIFF 2015: Jerzy Skolimowski; Tsai Ming-liang

I’ve long heard good things about Jerzy Skolimowski; particularly esteemed are the four features he made in the 1960s, including Le Départ. I’ve seen only Deep End (1970) – which is stunning: enough to warrant a look at his entire filmography – and The Shout (1978; strange, recommended). The little-known but valuable essay collection Second Wave (1970), edited by Ian Cameron, contains an essay on Skolimowski (by Michael Walker) that first sparked my interest in his work.

I felt that his new film, 11 Minutes, deserved better than the cool critical reception it received at the festival. Two strands of cinema meet here. The first is the multi-character “network narrative”: a kind of film that has historically possessed a tendency toward middlebrow preciosity or inflatedness (not just in Iñárritu’s Babel or 21 Grams but also in its prototypes by vastly better filmmakers like Kieslowski [Three Colors: Blue]). The second strand here turns out to be the antidote to the first: the satirical thriller, a form favored by masters such as Hitchcock, De Palma, Chabrol and Verhoeven (I have a special weakness for this kind of cinema). Skolimowski’s sardonic humor is the overlay, the governing sensibility that pulls these two strains together. The ending of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix has been much praised, but 11 Minutes has a finish that is almost as exhilarating and unexpected. Skolimowski has said that he began by dreaming the final image (“frame-by-frame”), then reverse-designed the film from that image. “Is there a stranger, more provocative late-career renaissance in recent memory?” asks Fernando Croce in one of the few sympathetic reviews of the film from the festival.

Here are a couple of interesting things we learn about the director from recent interviews, such as the one he did with Danny Kasman at MUBI Notebook: he’s not a cinephile – and watches less than 10 films a year; he made a self-admittedly “bad movie” (30 Door Key, 1991), then quit cinema to paint for the next 17 years; and he still sees himself first and foremost as a painter.

He draws this contrast between filmmaking and painting:

Painting is zen. Filming is chaos […] I’m a different person when I paint. I’m alone, I listen to music, I have plenty of time, I’m not in a hurry. Every movement is important, sometimes it takes a long time, sometimes it’s spontaneous. In a film, I’m one of those with a huge group of people just behind my back and I feel it ...

* * *

Since I began attending TIFF in 1999, I’ve been fortunate to see Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng on multiple occasions at Q&As. This period has also coincided with my getting to know and love Tsai’s work. Especially because he likes to return to similar characters, themes, motifs and locales in his films, his audience experiences a growing familiarity with the Tsai universe with each new work. But this has also resulted (at least for me) in a growing curiosity about Tsai’s own, personal universe – something he doesn’t talk too much about in interviews.

Because of this, Afternoon holds immediate interest for Tsai fans – and for few others. It records a conversation between Tsai and Lee, runs 2 hours and 20 minutes, and contains just 4 shots, all from the same camera position. The setting is a dilapidated rooftop room; two big windows behind them contain a gorgeous view of the greenery outside.

We learn lots of personal details about Tsai and Lee’s life. They are close friends who’ve bought a house together in the country (it is also the movie's setting). Tsai is a constant worrier and a bit of a control freak. He likes to advise, be maternal, micromanage – however benignly or gently. They often share a hotel room (for example, when they travel to film festivals); and an utter everyday familiarity with each other (for example, being unclothed in each other’s presence).

As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out, Tsai takes this opportunity to ask Lee questions that he’s been wanting to for a long time, such as: “‘Will you cry when I die?,’ ‘Do you ever hate me?,’ ‘My sexual orientation: Has it ever bothered you?,’ ‘How do you like my cooking?’)”. Tsai discloses that he likes to frequent gay saunas because they “give me a sense of belonging … even if nothing happens inside, my feeling of restlessness subsides.” Lee says that he frequently accompanies Tsai to these saunas and waits outside, ready to call the police if he doesn’t come out after a while.

Their friendship is very touching. Michael Sicinski calls the film “a rare and lovely cinematic expression of gratitude” in which Tsai attempts to thank Lee for everything he has brought to his life and films. Tsai praises Lee’s acting: “You may be the strangest actor ever: no one is sure if you are acting or not acting.” He declares that good acting means “don’t express anything; just deal with the situation.” He confesses the reason why he makes films: “People need something to help them … we need things to help us understand life … it could be scriptures or it could be cinema.”

It is sad to hear that in recent years, Tsai has been ill because of persistent side effects from blood pressure medications. He now seeks natural remedies for his ailments. Even though he appears to be an extraordinarily disciplined and industrious person, he drolly characterizes all his films as “ruins.” He discloses that he has one brother – who doesn’t like his films. He jokes that he received an Oxford University Press book on “slow cinema” in the mail the day before, but can’t read it because of his poor facility with English.

Towards the end of the film they stop talking, and simply share each other’s silent company. But the camera doesn’t stop recording. Taking charge of each situation, as he is apparently impelled to do, Tsai says: “Let’s wait for the light to disappear” – and so we do (along with Lee and the crew behind the camera) …

* * *


-- Adrian Martin and I have begun rolling out LOLA 6. We now do one issue a year, and the theme of this one is "Distances". In her latest post, Catherine Grant very generously rounds up the issue -- along with new issues of MOVIE, in[Transition], Film-Philosophy, Senses of Cinema, and more.

-- David Hudson has a post at Fandor on his "Highlights of 2015": a huge thank-you to him for his kind words about The New Cinephilia. Also at Fandor: the most anticipated films of 2016.

-- I wrote a piece at the Criterion Collection website on Buffalo film culture and recent screenings of the Apu Trilogy here in town.

-- A collection of best-films-of-the-year lists at Desistfilm that includes Nicole Brenez, Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin, and many others.

-- At Toronto Film Review, David Davidson similarly collects many end-of-year lists of films.

-- Catherine Grant's roundup of "Favourite Film and Media Studies Gifts of 2015 Galore!" Also: a podcast interview with Catherine at The Cinematologists.

-- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell on "the best films of 1925".

-- At MUBI Notebook: "Fantasy Double Features of 2015".

-- Katie Kilkenny at The Atlantic: "Why Are So Few Film Critics Female?"

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum's "Global Discoveries on DVD" column in the latest issue of Cinema Scope.

-- Collections of tributes at Keyframe Daily: RIP, Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond.

-- Leo Goldsmith on Manuel Mozos' film João Bénard da Costa: Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved. Also: Miguel Gomes on Mozos ("Ghosts and Phantoms").

-- Violet Lucca on black independent film-making in New York over the years.

-- The scholar Aaron Gerow maintains a Japanese film website called Tangemania.

-- "The Male Gaze in Retrospect": a collection of pieces commemorating the 40th anniversary of Laura Mulvey's classic essay, at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

-- Los Angeles-based critic Jordan Cronk has founded a new microcinema named Acropolis. It will focus on experimental cinema and undistributed films.

-- Kevin B. Lee: "77 Video Essays (and 30 Standouts) of 2015".

-- Babette Mangolte on Chantal Akerman at Artforum.

-- There's a new issue of the journal Cinema Comparat(ive) Cinema, and it's devoted to Portuguese cinema.

-- Filmmaker Paul Harrill's post, "Freeware, Shareware, and Cheap Mac Software for Filmmakers".

-- Adam Curtis' films are available to see here. (Via Jonathan Thomas.)

-- I'm looking forward to spending a weekend in Rochester in the spring, attending The Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum.

Monday, December 07, 2015

TIFF 2015: Films and their Paratext

Two films at TIFF, both by filmmakers who exhibit their work in museums and galleries, raised for me some interesting questions about the role that “para-textual knowledge” plays in film criticism. Here, the paratext in question was detailed information about context and intentionality provided by the artists, stated outside of the films themselves. Let me first begin by describing what the films are doing — and then air my questions.

One of my festival favorites, Invention is the first feature by the Canadian artist Mark Lewis; it is a stately and ambitious work designed to function on multiple levels. Some of these levels are easier to intuit and unpack than others. Most overtly, it is an homage to the city symphony films of the 1920s such as Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) or Sheeler/Strand’s Manhatta (1921). Lewis spent two years shooting in three cities: Paris, São Paolo and Toronto.

But the similarities to those earlier forebears are ultimately less than they might appear. Beyond the fact that they are all interested in exploration of urban space, the differences outweigh the family resemblances. Invention contains just 14 shots, and throughout its 80-minute running time, the camera is almost always in slow, steady and deliberate motion. This combination of long takes and camera movement has the effect of conferring a truly autonomous curiosity upon the “kino-eye”.

Not all aspects of the city, however, are of equal interest here. City streets, modernist buildings — for example, by Oscar Niemeyer in São Paolo, Mies van der Rohe in Toronto — and art museums become the film’s privileged objects of curiosity. The camera is especially drawn to glass and reflective surfaces, and to spaces in which light and shadow are at play. The film is silent except for the opening, which features solo piano as the camera slowly encircles a sculpture at the Louvre, and the final frames, which are accompanied by explosive rock music. All in all, Invention makes for a spellbinding viewing experience, unspooling a nonstop stream of sensations and a non-narrative suspense.

But once the movie ended, I read the “artist’s statement” in the presskit and learned a great deal about Lewis’s conceptual framework for the film — almost none of which, I should say here, was evident from “simply” watching Invention.

Lewis means for the film to have an entire background narrative: A camera is “born” into a world without cinema, and proceeds to “learn” about this world by moving through the space of cities — through modernity itself. There is a historical backstory to this choice: Lewis believes that 17th century baroque architecture marked the beginnings of the modern, and when people first moved through its architecture (he cites the buildings of Francesco Borromini as an example), they experienced “cinema” for the first time. So, not only was the experience of the modern city that of cinema “avant la lettre,” it also provided new “lessons in perception” for the city’s inhabitants — similar to avant-garde cinema’s capacity to “remake perception” in its viewers. (We might recall Stan Brakhage famously imagining an eye “which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception”.)

Lewis also singles out a specific inspiration for his work:

Jacques Tati’s Playtime is a sublime consideration of the city in relationship to its ideological representations. At the same time, Playtime insists, with great humour and strange precision, that the modern city is simply an invention of the cinema, but also that cinema is only the imagination of that very same city. Tati’s Playtime produces a kind of indeterminate either/or in this regard, refusing to privilege one over the other. This is its brilliance, I believe, and this is why I watch the film over and over again. I, too, cannot decide whether my films, for instance, depict the city or if they are helplessly produced by the city.

The title of Lewis’s film is a nod to Louis Lumière’s well-known line about cinema being “an invention without a future”. Lewis is trying to imagine the inverse: a future without an invention. Or rather, a future where the invention of cinema is just beginning to take place …

Artist Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s first fiction film, Sector IX B, is 40 minutes long, and begins with an epigraph that is a brief quote from French surrealist Michel Leiris. It proceeds to narrate the journey, in elliptical fashion, of Betty, a scholar who travels to museums in Dakar and Paris to do anthropological work. We occasionally see her ingest pills and have hallucinatory experiences; and we watch her linger over old photographs that might be from a personal album. The film closes with an enigmatic sequence, atmospherically reminiscent of Apichatpong, in which workers come upon what might be some kind of lost or hidden artifact in the basement of a museum. I enjoyed this mysterious, carefully composed, beautifully paced movie while having only the most rudimentary idea (outside of its barebones narrative) of “what it was all about.”

It turned out, when I chatted with the filmmaker backstage after the screening and read his “artist’s statement,” that there is a rich contextual backdrop without which the work is almost impossible to decode. I learned that the protagonist Betty is trying to recreate the state of mind and body of researchers who traveled in the 1930s to Africa as part of the Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic expedition. The primary inspiration here was Leiris, who was part of this expedition, and who wrote an account about it called L’Afrique Fantome (Ghost Diary).

What drew Abonnenc to the subject was the fact that Leiris’ field notes do not pretend to “scientific objectivity”. Instead they foreground his psychological state (he had been in analysis in Paris prior to leaving on his trip), and interweave multiple genres (including erotic stories and literary criticism). The result is a highly subjective account of Africa that implicitly critiques the way scientific research renders invisible the inner psychological and physical states of the researchers themselves.

I also learned from my conversation with the director that members of the original expedition took powerful drugs in order to strengthen their defenses against African illnesses (such as those transmitted by tsetse flies), which significantly altered their perceptions, thus further undermining claims of “scientific objectivity”. In the film (I learned later), Betty recreates the medical prescription box given to members of the expedition, and tests the effects of the drugs upon herself. The film’s final scene, in which workers unearth an unknown object in the museum’s basement, was intended by the director to question the status of each artifact in a museum’s collection: which items are chosen to be exhibited — and which are deemed less worthy of display, and why.

Suffice it to say: my experience of these films would have been unimaginably impoverished without my extended encounter with all this artist-provided background – and the resulting knowledge about how these works need to be approached.

* * *

The term “paratext” originated in literary theory and interpretation, and refers to the material that surrounds the main text, such as the preface and foreword, and also including such things as formatting, typography, and author portraits. Interviews and commentaries by the author also belong in this category.

The theorist Gérard Genette thinks of paratext as a gray area, not exactly the text but not exactly outside of it either. He calls it “a threshold … a zone between text and off-text”. It is a place, Genette writes, “of an influence on the public … an influence that is at the service of a better reception of the text and a more pertinent reading of it.” Paratext thus becomes “a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one’s whole reading of the text.”

Artist’s statements are, of course, an important kind of paratext. When I first encountered avant-garde films that came with such “instructions for interpretation,” I remember being a bit skeptical. An artwork, I then believed, must enact its themes and intentions within the work, rather than impose or announce them from outside. But reading Genette made me reconsider this hard distinction between text and not-text. Our interpretations of a work never emerge completely from within a work and its details anyway; we routinely bring outside knowledge to bear upon the work when we interpret it. So, over the years, I’ve come to value statements of the artist’s intentions and commentaries, regarding them as always potentially useful.

I’m curious to know: If we were to think of paratext as a “genre,” are there particularly good examples of them in the history of avant-garde cinema? Also: I tend to think of artist’s statements in the experimental film world as a recent phenomenon — perhaps spurred by artists being forced to “commodify” and “sell” their work in the art marketplace to grants organizations, art galleries, and the like. Have avant-garde filmmakers always accompanied their work with written or spoken aids to interpretation? I suspect there is an interesting history, waiting to be written, of artist’s statements in avant-garde cinema.

* * *


-- At Sight & Sound, "best films of the year" lists by over 150 critics worldwide.

-- At caboose: Catherine Grant's audiovisual essay "Dissolves of Passion," which forms an integral part of her contribution to the upcoming caboose volume "The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image," whose primary authors are Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell.

-- Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin's reflection on making audiovisual essays in Frames Cinema Journal begins: "Not only is the work we do para-textual in relation to the usual academic work on film; we ourselves are para-academics ..." Also: Three audiovisual essays by Cristina on Luis Buñuel, commissioned by ICA on the occasion of their Buñuel retrospective.

-- The new issue of cléo: a journal of film and feminism is on the theme of "grace".

-- A conversation between Jonathan Rosenbaum, Raymond Durgnat and David Ehrenstein, "Obscure Objects of Desire: A Jam Session on Non-Narrative," that appeared in Film Comment in 1978.

-- Alex Ross: "A Hundred Years of Orson Welles" in The New Yorker.

-- Jonas Mekas interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich in Interview magazine. (Via Will Stephenson.)

-- Best of the year lists at Artforum: by John Waters; and J. Hoberman.

-- An interview at Film Comment with the poet Susan Howe, who recently introduced a screening of Tarkovsky's The Mirror in New York City.

-- The theme of the new issue of NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies is "Vintage".

-- Lesley Stern's lecture (in her charismatic voice and delivery), "How does (the) Cinema Feel About (the) Animal?" at SoundCloud. (Via Catherine.)

-- I've been enjoying Kelley Conway's new book on the films of Agnès Varda; David Bordwell has put up a post on the book.

-- On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, the journal Australian Feminist Studies has put up 30 articles from its history for free download. (Via Adrian.)

pic: The hallucination of a scientist in Sector IX B.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Gina Telaroli and Kurt Walker

One of the "possible futures" of cinema (to use Gina Telaroli's phrase) can be glimpsed on this Tumblr page, on which Telaroli and Kurt Walker have released their new feature films; I enjoyed both very much. Here's to the Future! (Telaroli) and Hit 2 Pass (Walker) can be viewed for two more days — until November 22. I recommend reading this perceptive post on the films by Matthew Flanagan at his blog Landscape Suicide.

Both are exemplary works of "Small Cinema"--"the type of movies that have little to no chance of distribution," as Walker says in this excellent conversation with Telaroli at MUBI. I particularly like what these two films have in common. For one, they are openly experimental, non-narrative works, but they wear their experimentalism lightly — free of gravitas but full of inventiveness and play. The other trait the films share is something very special: they are works that spring from a profoundly collective spirit, and they enact this spirit from moment to moment in the processes of their making — processes which are foregrounded in both films. As Vadim Rizov points out, Telaroli's is the rare film that captures a female film director on set.

Telaroli is a gifted and fascinating figure in film culture: in addition to being a filmmaker, she is also a programmer, critic, and erudite cinephile. She makes her living as a video archivist at Martin Scorsese's Sikelia Productions, but seems to move admirably and super-productively between her multiple film-related passions and projects. I also find her unfailingly articulate and thoughtful: check out her piece "More Women, Less Men, and a Possible Future of Cinema" at Filmmaker; the conversation between Telaroli and Phil Coldiron at the Brooklyn Rail; this interview with her about Here's to the Future!; and the video interview with Ricky D'Ambrose.

* * *


-- RIP Chantal Akerman (1950-2015): David Hudson collects tribute pieces at Fandor.

-- I wrote a liner essay for the Critierion DVD/Blu-ray box set of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy. (Apologies for the self-promotion!)

-- At Sight & Sound, several film critics and scholars remember the recently deceased Penelope Houston.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Peter Labuza's podcast The Cinephiliacs.

-- An audiovisual essay by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin on Chantal Akerman's Almayer's Folly at MUBI; and the new issue of The Third Rail featuring Cristina, Adrian, McKenzie Wark, and many others. Also, Adrian on Maurice Pialat's La gueule ouverte at Craig Keller's blog Cinemasparagus; on Marlon Brando at Fandor; and on Akerman and "walking" at Filmkrant.

-- Audiovisual essays by Corey Creekmur at Vimeo.

-- A number of filmmakers choose their favorite films, at La Cinetek.

-- A solid list by Bilge Ebiri: "The 50 Best Foreign-Language Movie-Musicals Ever".

-- Several new reminiscences of Sam Rohdie collected in a post by Catherine Grant.

-- A roundtable on Buster Keaton's short films by Jean-Pierre Coursodon, Dan Sallitt and Brad Stevens.

-- Boris Nelepo on Želimir Žilnik: "Film as a Handshake".

-- An interview with Mathieu Amalric in BOMB magazine. (Via Jake Mikler.)

-- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell on the long-lost German serial Homunculus (1916) and Expressionism.

-- Via Corey: Ara Osterweil on the films of Ana Mendieta at Artforum.

-- Nick Davis interviews Todd Haynes in Film Comment.

-- An appreciation of Stroheim's The Wedding March by Neil Bahadur at Letterboxd.

-- Avant-garde filmmaker Isiah Medina, whose 88:88 is one of the most interesting films of the year: at Filmmaker magazine; at Cinema Scope magazine (in conversation with Coldiron); and at Blackflash.

-- A 3-part interview with art critic Dave Hickey at SFAQ.

pic: Here's to the Future!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TIFF 2015: The Round-Up

I’m back from TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival), where I caught about 35 films. Average film quality was high this year—even if, compared to past TIFFs, I didn’t encounter any mind-blowers like Beau Travail (1999, my first TIFF), La Captive (2000), Still Life (2006), Syndromes and a Century (2006) or RR (2008).

I'll soon be putting up a series of posts with impressions of the films. Meanwhile, here’s an overview.


Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
The Other Side (Roberto Minervini, USA)
Arabian Nights vols. 1-3 (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
Evolution (Lucile Hadžihalilovic, France)


The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
Invention (Mark Lewis, Canada)
Jafar Panahi's Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)


In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Office (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)
In the Shadow of Women (Philippe Garrel, France)
Night Without Distance (Lois Patiño, Spain)

Very Good:

The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (Ben Rivers, UK)
Afternoon (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan)
The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin/Evan Johnson, Canada)
High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, UK)
11 Minutes (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland)


The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
Sector IX B (Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, France/Senegal)
Minotaur (Nicolás Pereda, Mexico/Canada)
Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton (Guy Maddin/Evan Johnson/Galen Johnson, Canada)
The Event (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine/Netherlands/Belgium)
Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov, Russia)

Interesting, but Disappointing:

Murmur of the Hearts (Sylvia Chang, Taiwan)
Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Turkey)
The Apostate (Federico Veiroj, Uruguay)

Low Point of the Festival:

Les Cowboys (Thomas Bidegain, France)

Films I Was Most Sorry to Miss:

Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weereasethakul, Thailand)
Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhang-ke, China)
No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium)
Lost and Beautiful (Pietro Marcello, Italy)

Fascinating, Need to Revisit:

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan)
88:88 (Isiah Medina, Canada)

Most Thrilling Mise en Scène:

Office (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)
Evolution (Lucile Hadžihalilovic, France)

Best Scene:

Taxi driving class taught by South Asian instructor in Frederick Wiseman's In Jackson Heights.

Memorable Onscreen Appearances by Directors:

Jafar Panahi (Jafar Panahi's Taxi)
Tsai Ming-liang (Afternoon)
Guy Maddin (Bring me the Head of Tim Horton)
Sylvia Chang (Office)
Miguel Gomes (Arabian Nights)
Alexander Sokurov (Francofonia)

Best Pop-Music Soundtrack:

Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes)

Most Narrative-Maximalist:

Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes)
The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin/Evan Johnson)
11 Minutes (Jerzy Skolimowski)
High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, UK)
In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

Best Essay on a Festival Film:

Leo Goldsmith in Cinema Scope on The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers.

* * *

Writings on films at the festival:

-- David Hudson has collected links to reviews.

-- Cinema Scope posted over a hundred reviews during the festival.

-- Danny Kasman and Fernando Croce's epistolary exchange.

-- Michael Sicinski and Jordan Cronk on the Wavelengths program at TIFF.

-- Several dispatches by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.

pic: The Other Side (Roberto Minervini, USA)

Monday, July 13, 2015

British Film Criticism

For many reasons, the French and the Americans hold a special, oversized, mythic place in the story of film criticism. Unfortunately, this has meant that histories of cinema writing in other parts of the world have remained less explored, more hidden. This is true not just in the less affluent (and thus, less culturally influential) “global South” but even within the heart of the First World.

John Gibbs’ ambitious and fascinating book, The life of mise-en-scène: Visual style and British film criticism, 1946-1978, narrates a history of post-WWII British film criticism, recounting the critical debates that powered it—specifically, debates that centered on visual style. Robin Wood once suggested that film criticism in Great Britain developed mainly through groups of critics, each group revolving around a journal or magazine. The focus of Gibbs’ book is these publications and the critics associated with them. The book examines not only the work that appeared in the most prominent magazines—such as Movie and Sight and Sound—but also lesser-known but significant ones like Sequence, Oxford Opinion, Monogram, and others.

Gibbs’ account begins with the journal Sequence, published by the Oxford University Film Society. Fourteen issues appeared between 1946 and 1951; its main editors were Peter Ericsson, Lindsay Anderson (later the director of If... [1968]) and Gavin Lambert. Gibbs assembles a number of excerpts from reviews to show that its writers were already—in advance of Cahiers du Cinéma and Movie—developing a sophisticated appreciation of mise en scène, which they referred to as “poetry”. Gibbs explains that this “poetry” is “… not literary. Quite the contrary, indeed, poetry is identified with the ‘shape and meaning’ accomplished through the use of space and landscape, design, camerawork, music, acting, and so on.” (We need, in the study of film, an account that encompasses all the different uses and interpretations of the idea of “poetry”—one that would include Pasolini, Deren, and others.)

In the ‘50s, many Sequence critics started writing for Sight and Sound. In the early years of the decade, Gibbs notes, “the Sequence impulse was alive and well.” But by the end of the decade, Sight and Sound had transformed into a conservative and staid journal. The growing disappointment with Sight and Sound within the British critical community was due to at least two reasons: the journal’s attitude of cultural snobbery (evidenced by its disinterest and disdain in, especially, Hollywood cinema), and its unsophisticated critical/analytical methods.

Enter the journal Movie, which grew out of the undergraduate publication Oxford Opinion and forms the heart of Gibbs’ book. Founded in 1962, Movie was published and edited by Ian Cameron; the editorial board also included three important figures: Mark Shivas, V.F. Perkins and Paul Mayersberg. Among the other contributors to early Movie were Robin Wood, Andrew Sarris, Charles Barr and Lawrence Alloway. The shared purpose of the Movie writers was to produce a detailed criticism that was seriously attentive to film style. In today’s environment of digital media, home viewing, and random-access capability, criticism that relies on fine-grained stylistic analysis is both ubiquitous and relatively easy to perform. But back in a time when availability of films was confined mostly to commercial theatrical runs, something as simple as checking a detail required the critic to return to the cinema (if, by good fortune, the film still happened to be playing!). In fact, the detailed work of film analysis we see performed today is partly a result of the legacy of Movie’s example.

One of the many valuable contributions of Gibbs’ book is that it draws upon materials either rare (such as back issues of journals hidden away in dusty archives, unavailable on the Internet) or new (most excitingly, the extended interviews he conducted with key figures such as Perkins and Cameron). The interviews with Perkins, especially, are revelatory. Perkins is a famously perfectionistic writer with demanding standards that he applies equally to other critics’ writings and his own. He doesn’t publish his work casually—and will often spend a great deal of time, sometimes years, on a piece before he is satisfied enough with it to let it see the light of day. For this reason, it is a pleasant surprise to hear a somewhat different Perkins in the interviews: a conversational raconteur, but full of insights nevertheless.

For me personally, one of the most compelling sections of the book deals with the influence and interaction between Movie and French film criticism. André Bazin was an inspiration for both Perkins and Barr (although, curiously, not for Cameron). Perkins says in an interview with Gibbs:

Bazin is so important for offering the sense that cinema isn’t something we understand. Whereas the tone of Arnheim, Balazs, Lindgren and so on, is that we do understand cinema and this is how we understand it. With Bazin you get the sense ‘no, we don’t understand it, so let’s start trying’ which is more enabling.

Gibbs speculates that Movie’s emphasis on lucid description of on-screen action may have been influenced by the French ‘MacMahonists’, who congregated around the journal Présence du Cinéma. Cameron also felt that writers such as Michel Mourlet and Luc Moullet, “both of whose writing/critical personae were fairly wild,” were important enablers for the British:

The idea that you might take a committed interest in the violence of a violent movie, within the very staid conditions of English culture, was quite an incitement.

The differences in temperament and sensibility between the Movie writers and the French are also interesting and instructive. An amusing but revealing anecdote centers on the publication in Movie of the English translation of Jacques Rivette’s famous Cahiers du Cinéma essay on Howard Hawks. The Movie version is not a faithful translation and reproduction (it is humorous to read Cameron opine: “because we felt it contained quite a bit of garbage”).

This is the Movie version of an excerpt from the Rivette essay:

the final climax of Red River, where the spectator no longer understands his own feelings, wondering whose side to take and whether he ought to be amused or afraid, sets every nerve quivering with panic.

The unexpurgated translation of the original goes like this:

the climax of Red River, in which we are no longer sure of our own feelings, wondering whose side to take and whether we should be amused or afraid, sets our every nerve quivering with panic and gives a dizzy, giddy feeling like that of a tightrope walker whose foot falters without quite slipping, a feeling as unbearable as the ending of a nightmare.

Gibbs reproduces another passage from the Rivette essay that was entirely excised by Movie:

There seems to be a law behind Hawks’s action and editing, but it is a biological law like that governing any living being: each shot has a functional beauty, like a neck or an ankle. The smooth, orderly succession of shots has a rhythm like the pulsing of blood, and the whole film is like a beautiful body, kept alive by deep, resilient breathing.

These editorial changes are but a small, anecdotal detail, but they hint at the dramatic divide in sensibilities between the two styles of critical writing—despite their shared powerful attraction to a common “foreign object,” American popular cinema.

I’m curious to know: Are there other examples of histories of film criticism? The four volumes of collected writings from Cahiers du Cinéma, with useful framing narratives provided, especially by Jim Hillier, are one such example. I’d love to learn of more.

* * *


-- There are several short videos of V.F. Perkins collected in two posts by Catherine Grant (from a few years ago): here, and here. Also: Movie-related posts I've put up here in the past: "Movie vs. British Cinema"; and "The Rebirth of Movie".

-- Filmmaker/cinephile/critic Dan Sallitt recently tweeted: "Wondering if it's just a blip or whether low-budget US indies are the most exciting thing in world cinema now." This page collects his year-end lists of favorite films.

-- Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell recently led a 2-week NEH Workshop at Middlebury College on "videographic criticism". Melanie Kohnen rounds up the workshop, along with links to some of the audiovisual essays produced there.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Pedro Costa's Horse Money. Via Jonathan: Manoel de Oliveira's last work, the 15-minute, wordless "One Century of Power" is on YouTube.

-- Adrian Martin on David Cronenberg at Filmkrant.

-- The new issue of the journal NECSUS is out (the main theme is "Animals") and includes a section on audiovisual essays edited by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian.

-- Several articles by film scholar Joe McElhaney (on Hawks, Sturges, Fassbinder and Malick, among others) are now available to download on his page.

-- Lots of Dave Kehr's capsule reviews have been posted at Letterboxd. (Via Darren Hughes.)

-- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell from this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna: 1, 2, 3, 4. More: Tom Paulus reports from Bologna: on the Technicolor program; and on Malick and McCarey.

-- Adam Cook interviews Kent Jones on his new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut.

-- William Caroline on the Marguerite Duras exhibit at Centre Pompidou in Paris, in Film Quarterly.

-- Lots of good filmmaker/performer interviews at Little White Lies.

-- Avant-garde filmmaker Laida Lertxundi's films Utskor: Either/Or (2013) and We had the Experience but Missed the Meaning (2014) are available on Vimeo. (Thanks, Matthew.) Also: Phil Coldiron on the filmmaker in Cinema Scope; and interviews with her in BOMB and Frieze.

-- "The Anthropoid Condition," an interview with scholar John Durham Peters, whose new book, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, is "an ambitious re-writing — a re-synthesis, even — of concepts of media and culture."

-- This is fabulous: "Daughter Crushes Father in Epic Beatbox Battle"!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Letter to Comrade Girish (on "The New Cinephilia")

Below is a letter from Adrian Martin, my co-editor on LOLA. My heartfelt thanks, dear Comrade Adrian, for these characteristically erudite and insightful words! With warm wishes. -- Girish.

Dear Comrade Girish –

Your book stirs many thoughts – in all of its readers, I am sure. I admire it very much: for its intellectual generosity, its breadth of reference, its elegance and economy as a piece of writing. You cover a lot in a short space! And here I recall Jean Louis Schefer’s attractive statement in an interview, somewhere in the late 1990s: he proposed that a writer’s task is not necessarily to study anything ‘in depth’ (as the cliché goes), but to cover or map or trace a surface, a series of connections hitherto unseen … and this is exactly what you have done so well.

Here are some of the things your book prompts me to think about. First of all, ‘new’ cinephilia. Whenever something is given the tag of the new, I immediately wonder: what was the old version of it? And when did that ‘pass away’, exactly? This is not to dispute that there is, in fact, something new (I hate those snap ‘nothing new under the sun’ dismissive arguments so rife in academia) in what you name as the New Cinephilia; but it is to historicise the gesture somewhat, and see if that can teach us anything.

Now, talk of ‘new cinephilia’ goes back at least to Louis Skorecki in 1978 (his sadly untranslated ‘Against the New Cinephilia’, reprinted in his 2001 book Raoul Walsh et moi) – and perhaps even far earlier, to Jean-Louis Comolli’s ‘Notes on the New Spectator’ of 1966 (that one is translated). What was at stake in those debates? Actually, it’s the earlier manifestation of exactly the sort of phenomenon of change you diagnose: bugging the ‘old cinephiles’ of the mid 1960s (but exciting to the young Comolli) was the growing fact that the teenage crowd was no longer always watching the cinematic classics projected in a theatre, but on television! By the moment of Skorecki’s fascinating (and quite ambivalent) tirade, video (as in VHS distribution of movies) looms in the scene to stir it up a bit more … Always this distancing, progressively installed, between the supposed ‘pristine innocence’ of the ‘true’ cinema experience, and its possibly alienated mediations into electronic transmissions, small screens, and eventually digital streaming and downloading …

Like you (I suspect), I have never found this argument (or this sensibility, as much as I can understand and respect it) especially convincing. This is simply because, as a teenager already set well into the ‘generations raised on TV’, I myself owe a great deal of my personal exposure to and discovery of ‘the classics’ (of art cinema, of Hollywood, of genre) to this medium; I could hardly have easily seen Ugetsu or Rocco and His Brothers or Alphaville or They Live By Night any other way in suburban Melbourne when I was 14 or 15! And still today, glancing over my own ‘favourites’ list, I note that I have encountered By the Bluest of Seas, Behindert or some Garrel only ever on VHS, DVD or through my computer screen.

Yet there are many overlaps and continuities between the old and new cinephilias, however we might choose to periodise and characterise them as distinct. Both (as commentators including Jean Douchet and the late Paul Willemen have remarked) are defined by their rituals, by their ‘fetishism’ (to use the less kind descriptor). Sorting though old papers recently, I was brought face to face with the decidedly ‘outmoded’ cinephile passion – definitively killed off by the Internet – for collecting film production stills, lobby cards, flyers, etc (most of them looking a little bizarre and useless today in black-and-white, to facilitate their reproduction in print back then). Of course, such image-scavenging has its rightful (and I believe superior) digital equivalent today: in the gathering of screenshots, and especially their artful arrangement in Tumblr pages. Both manifestations seem to stem from the same, ritualistic desire – to hold a ‘piece’ (however displaced) of a film, to fix a token of it in our memories, as you discuss so well in your book – with the difference (in general) that Tumblr is (potentially) a much more public display than the ‘private cinephile shrines’ (such as Truffaut allegorised and embodied in his chambre verte) or the collector-swap-meets of yesteryear would allow.

It seems to me that a lot of your book, Girish, is about the remembering of films, about ‘processing’ them in the mind. You make great use of the distinction (via Victor Burgin, Catherine Fowler and others) of the cinema ‘there’ (that can be watched, directly experienced) and the cinema ‘elsewhere’, the cinema that is memorialised in, for instance, the ‘fondling’ (in whatever fashion!) of the stilled traces described above … And, in a way, you oppose the endless debates about the ‘dulling’ of our brains in the digital age (that argument, too, has its long history, for as long as sensitive plants have complained about the proliferation of ‘too many images’ in the modern, industrialised world!) with a redemptive ‘saving grace’ concerning the possible extension and ‘networking’ of minds in a more collective way, and by harnessing our hard drives (or related mnemonic devices) as our outsourced memory banks …

This brings me to a particular philosophical and cultural figure: the monad (as immortalised by Leibniz). I detect a tension in your book, Girish, between individual and collective experience. The collective experience is what you eventually come around to craving: especially, the dialogue or encounter with the ‘non-cinephile’ public. And yet much of the digital revolution you trace, certainly in the way you outline its procedures, is steadfastly individual and monadic: you scan your lists and alerts, save and store snippets, engage in social media banter (sometimes of a high intellectual level!), and so on. The modern reverie of the monad is, however, not solitary or alienated (or, at least, it likes to think itself not to be these things); it is more on the order of the type of strange, virtual community wonderfully described by Thierry Jousse (in a piece I translated for Rouge) as ‘fish in the aquarium’: not quite sharing a kum-ba-yah campfire experience, but swimming in the same imaginary pond, more or less, mediated by screen reflections, and crossing each others’ paths occasionally …

Is there a bridging experience of some kinds of community, of collectivity, between the modern monad at her or his laptop, and that big, wide world of Oliveira-uncomprehending masses out there, who we may hope to one day touch and convert in a public hall, a classroom, or a decently-selling printed book? This, to me, is the central question raised by your book. One way, of course, is through the kind of small, intense group-activity constituted by the editing and publishing of magazines – another, more elaborate, outer-directed, ‘publicly discursive’ kind of cinephile ritual, which we hear raised to an almost religious level in Manuel Mozos’ recent moving essay-film tribute to João Bénard da Costa, tellingly titled Others Will Love the Things I Loved (capturing that ‘ancient cinephile dream’ of transmission – transmission of both knowledge and passion).

To remember Paul Willemen (who himself embodied an intriguing overlap between classic and VHS-era cinephilias) again: I was struck, in the early years of the 21st century, by his lack of enthusiasm for the on-line publications I was involved in, such as Senses of Cinema or Rouge: he duly contributed to them and could well see their potential for ‘outreach’ but, for him, they were placeless, without cultural context: as pedagogical history has proven, students often come upon individual pieces via Google Search without always grasping that they are part of some larger site, magazine or ‘identity’. And for Paul, the project of people making a magazine together within their own, little social ‘scene’ was paramount: individual critics and their specific texts mattered less to him than the ‘group vibe’ of a certain politics of taste (different for each magazine) raised as a kind of fighting banner. Pretty much all that was lost with the Internet, he believed. And, these days, I half-agree with him: you and I enjoy creating LOLA together, and publishing texts that we admire and (in some sense) ‘identify’ with, but that’s nothing really like (if I can trust my own projective imagination!), say, the weekend get-togethers (across over half a century!) of all Positif’s editorial staff to collectively decide on a cover image, the month’s key films, who will get the new books that have dribbled in for review, and so on.

Fickleness is always something to reckon with in the digital age – fickleness in its many mutations from month to month. We have seen, on this very blog, conversation ebb away and migrate somewhere else (mainly to Facebook), as some (including myself) have noted or complained. I am all too aware, in my own daily digital habits, of an ever-growing tendency to bookmark or download texts rather than actually read them – a constant ‘deferral’ which didn’t happen, by and large, when I actually bought the darn things to have and to hold. Digital fickleness is a complex phenomenon linked to many too-easily-evoked-but-less-well-understood things: distraction, novelty, spectacle, and the kinds of long-range and short-span mental ‘retentions’ that Bernard Stiegler discusses (sometimes in a rather old/high culture fashion) in his work. I was recently introduced (thanks to Catherine Grant and Chiara Grizzaffi in a conference at University of East Anglia) to the ideas of Kenneth Goldsmith, guru of ‘uncreative writing’, who joyfully argues for the benefits of media-age distraction, on the basis of roughly Surrealist reasons: being suspended between multiple ‘inputs’, navigating between them, is something akin (for him) to the Surrealist practice of the willed, waking dream-state, open to the drifts and sparks of the creative unconscious. But fickleness in action has, naturally, its callous, oblivious, indifferent side, too – and that can infect our efforts at creating a film culture when we least expect it.

For some readers (me included), the Smiley Face moment is the best in your book. I won’t repeat it and thus spoil it for any Anna Faris/Gregg Araki fans yet to find it near the conclusion of your argument. But I can say that its purpose is this: to pull back from total ‘digital native’ positivity, and then regroup your thoughts for another balance of optimism and pessimism. As I’ve mentioned, part of what you shoot for at the end is a meeting with ‘the people’, the non-cinephile public; and the way you envisage this is through the open discussion of a certain kind of political drama or documentary that has become increasingly popular over the past decade (Citizenfour being a recent example).

In a way, you are wishing here for a return of a once-cherished notion: the ‘public sphere’, in which ideas are shared and discussed, with (in the best cases) a strong tie between personal experience and collective politics. But the public sphere is another thing that has vastly mutated in the digital age – and I say this as someone who was strongly immersed in ‘journalistic’ practice as a film critic for the better part of fifteen years (between the end of the 1980s and the mid 2000s), in a national Australian newspaper, and on radio and TV. I happen to hold no illusions about the public sphere of yesterday: when people long for it, what they wish for (knowingly or not) is essentially a middle class (and middlebrow) horizon of ‘cultural conversation’, from which the ‘opinionators’ can then survey and mediate every other form of aesthetic and social experience.

But the Internet places us, with a jolt, right in the middle of a messy space that was always casually overlooked or ruthlessly suppressed by this public sphere: a tangle of subcultures, many of them constituted by monads or fish in the aquarium, that fight it out for any attention they can get. This is the point where I agree with my friend Philip Brophy and his motto from the 1980s that ‘all cultures are founded on abrasion’ and mutual dissonance. And many contemporary theorists (Rancière, Bifo, Nancy, Papastergiadis, Wark) are busily trying to gauge the measurements of this new space, as it rapidly shifts around us all.

I myself come to a different conclusion on these matters, partly on the basis of my own temperament (which is different to yours, of course!). I think I gave up, some not-so-long time ago, on trying to convince people of the rightness of cinephilia. It comes down to one of those ‘evidence’ arguments that Bill Routt has analysed so well: if someone can’t ‘get’ cinephilia immediately, well, they likely never will. I can never really convince any over-cultivated, middlebrow consumer of ‘official culture’ that a ‘history of forms’ in a cinema of artifice (and all cinema is artifice) is more important than the realism of character and themes and places and ‘social issues’. There are people I will never be able to ‘find a level’ with and, at this point, I would rather not aggravate myself further by trying to talk with them.

The Internet, in short, is made for me: I can broadcast my voice (in whatever multimedia form or combination I please) and it will be heard or not, by whomever wishes to tune into that particular vibe on their personal waveband. Come to think of it, that was how I instinctively characterised the cinephile passion – and its expression in criticism – over twenty years ago, in the introduction (“S.O.S.”) to the Continuum issue “Film – Matters of Style”: as a message in a bottle, floating on the high seas. Then, it was a somewhat melancholic image, with the dusty, forlorn, abandoned shelves of physical libraries and archives in mind; now, online, it can be something, potentially at least, ever-present and alive and dynamic. The clarion call changes from ‘save our souls’ to ‘look here!’. And there, indeed, is where I join you fully in rejoicing in the New Cinephilia.

Warmest regards,

Comrade Adrian.

* * *
pic: Smiley Face (Gregg Araki, 2007).

Friday, May 29, 2015

The New Cinephilia

I'm happy to announce that my book, The New Cinephilia, is now out. It is part of caboose's Kino-Agora series, edited by Christian Keathley.

It can be ordered from caboose for $5, and from Amazon for slightly more. It is also available as a Kindle e-book from Amazon, although, given the lovely production design, I would recommend the print version over the e-version.

As is obvious from the prices above, caboose -- responsible for the recent, acclaimed translations of André Bazin's What is Cinema? and Jean-Luc Godard's Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television -- is less a "business" than a pure labor of love for cinema.

The publisher is running a special offer for the next week: with each online purchase of the Godard volume, it is giving away four free titles from its Kino-Agora series, including three new releases in the series: Jacques Aumont's Montage, Timothy Barnard's Découpage and Frank Kessler's Mise en scène. Please see the Godard order page for details.

Thank you for reading!

* * *

Recent online reads:

-- David Hudson has posted the list of award-winners at the 2015 Cannes film festival.

-- On Facebook, Dennis Lim put up this personal list:

Cannes Top 10. Very little separating the top 3, which towered over everything else.

1. Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
2. Arabian Nights Vols 1-3 (Miguel Gomes)
3. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien)
4. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)
5. Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke)
6. The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu)
7. In the Shadow of Women (Philippe Garrel)
8. Carol (Todd Haynes)
9. The Other Side (Roberto Minervini)
10. One Floor Below (Radu Muntean)

Plus two remarkable artifacts: Actua 1 (Philippe Garrel, 1968) and Visit, or Memories and Confessions (Manoel de Oliveira, 1982).

-- Blake Williams' rank-ordered list of the 50 or so films he caught at Cannes. And Ignatiy Vishnevetsky filed several reports from the festival.

-- Catherine Grant rounds up the last two issues of [in]Transition.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum, in a post on Pedro Costa's Ne Change Rien: "Any film that’s about listening, as this one will be [referring to a documentary film Jonathan once planned to make about jazz pianist McCoy Tyner], will also be about looking — predicated on the philosophy that the way one looks at musicians already helps to determine the way one listens to them."

-- 85 films by women about women of color, crowd-sourced by Ava DuVernay on Twitter.

-- I recently caught up with Elio Petri's remarkable Investigation of a Citizen Under Suspicion (1971). Here is a good essay by Evan Calder Williams on the film.

-- New issues of: Cineaste; and Film Comment. Also: Violet Lucca interviews Agnès Varda at Film Comment.

-- An old piece on David Lynch by Nathan Lee at Bookforum that I had missed: "Body Surface". (Via Sam Ishii-Gonzales on Facebook.)

-- "Visual Pleasure at 40: Laura Mulvey in Discussion".

-- A video of Vivian Sobchack's lecture "Stop + Motion: On Animation, Inertia, and Innervation," part of the Kracauer Lectures in Film and Media Theory in Frankfurt.

-- The Challenge of Surrealism, an upcoming book that collects the correspondence between Theodor Adorno and Elisabeth Lenk. (Via Frederick Veith on Twitter.)

-- A Tumblr page devoted to "all-male panels". Submissions (photos and screenshots) are invited. Also: examples of all-male bibliography in an academic work.

-- The new issue of the journal Postmodern Culture is online.

-- Sam Lavigne's fascinating website, "Greetings, Fellow Alienated Subject of Capitalism". (Via McKenzie Wark.)

-- "Stupid Shit No One Needs & Terrible Ideas Hackathon".

Monday, May 11, 2015

LOLA 5, etc.

Adrian Martin and I were delighted to roll out the fifth issue of LOLA over a period of several weeks in the winter and spring. We would like to take this opportunity to give thanks to all our authors, and to our indispensable webmaster Bill Mousoulis.

Let me round up the full issue here with excerpts from all the pieces. The theme of the issue is "Shows".

-- Joe McElhaney, "Survival Tactics: German Filmmakers in Hollywood, 1940-1960": "To have a strongly Germanic style in 1940s America was to be in possession of gifts that were, given the historical context, the site of highly ambivalent relations. The publication of Siegfried Kracauer’s From Caligari to Hitler in 1947, with its hermeneutic of an unconscious fascism lurking within the cinema that enchanted so many American filmmakers in the 1920s, may be seen as part of the general climate of doubt among certain German cultural figures about their own cinema ..."

-- Dorian Stuber and Marianne Tettlebaum, "To Be or Not to Be (A Jew)": "[We] know that Greenberg is Jewish because of something he says – or, rather, something he does not say. In other words, we know that he is Jewish because the film goes to such lengths not to say that he is. The key moment takes place during a rehearsal. When the pompous actor Rawitch (Lionel Atwill, having a hell of a time) huffs and puffs in his plummy tones about how he must wait and wait while minor actors seek to increase their roles, Greenberg says, ‘Mr Rawitch, what you are I wouldn’t eat’. Rawitch replies, ‘How dare you call me a ham’."

-- Lesley Stern, "Putting on a Show, or The Ghostliness of Gesture": "Gestures are performed individually, but they are not possessed by individuals. They acquire force and significance through repetition and variation. They are never simply signs — of a singular emotion, or identity, nor an expression of the soul (or to put this less quaintly, of individual subjectivity), but a charting of relations, imagined as well as real, interdiegetic as well as between films and audiences, stars and fans, characters and actors."

-- Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin, "All Things Shining: An Encounter with Mike Hoolboom": In Hoolboom's words: "Traditional movies convene audiences in order to create a communal response; we come together not only to see the same thing, but to see it in the same way. The corporate movie experience sutures together different people as if we were parts of a single body. The fringe artist has different hopes. The ideology of the fringe insists that only when we come together can we figure out who we are as individuals. When we express our individuality, when we are able to locate our signature, our singularity – only then can we produce a chorus of voices, a collective."

-- Alison Butler, "‘You Think You’ve Been There’: A Conversation with James Benning about Easy Rider (2012)": In Benning's words: "I used the same organising strategy for Easy Rider as I used for my remake of Faces (John Cassavetes, 1968): that is, I made each of my films the same length as the original films with the same amount (and length) of scenes, respectively. For Faces I copied close-ups from Cassavetes’ film and replaced each scene with these close-ups matching the amount of screen time each actor had for each scene. In Easy Rider I replaced each scene with just one shot made at the original location. So rather than glean material from the original film (like I did in Faces) I made my own shots for Easy Rider. Many times I filmed things that were merely passed-by in the original film, things that had been relegated to the background. By doing this I focus more strongly on place and less on the narrative."

-- Cristina Álvarez López, "Three Women: Bastards": "A shot of shoes piled on the floor, sinister objects without body. This image of surplus, excess, disgusting sameness, can however illuminate, in an unexpected way, the singular relation that the female characters have with their accessories. (‘Shoes are very important in the film’, Denis admits.)"

-- Sarah Keller, "Cinephobia: To Wonder, To Worry": "So, what are the kinds of cinephobia that appear in accounts of experiences with cinema? To begin, let us consider four categories. Anxieties about what cinema represents, what it is, and what it can do have been present from the beginning ... Not all of these fit comfortably together, and it is more than possible that no overarching theory of cinephobia could contain them all (or even most of them) ... However, recognising the presence of anxiety in so many disparate nodes of cinema experience leads me to believe that something essential about the medium depends on it."

-- Victor Bruno, "The Emperor is Calm: Eduardo Coutinho and Theodorico, Emperor of the Interior (1978)": "The image is important to Coutinho because it captures the signs, colours, country and culture; it is in the image that dance and gestures unfold. But the sound is where the signs and codes are unveiled – or rather, veiled, changed and destroyed."

-- Hoi Lun Law, "Two or Three Things I Know about the Filmic Object": "The spectacle of the object (and the energy it radiates) is a fascination of early writings on film. Jean Epstein, for example, attributes the ‘purest expression of cinema’ to its rendering of photogénie, the ‘photogenic’ aspect of things, a quality of ‘personality’ and ‘mobility’. He champions cinema’s power of animism, its ability to bestow the gift of life on things, such as we find in ‘charms and amulets’. Objects in film possess a mystical, morphing quality. They are unassuming yet unfamiliar, sublime and unfailingly alive."

-- Davina Quinlivan, "Hopefulness, Healing and its Contestation in Film": "Film theory offers up numerous analyses of cinema’s conception of traumatic subject matter whose disturbing images linger on in the mind of the viewer, affective and uncompromising in their brutal truths. Hopefulness is not often something discussed in the field of Film Studies ... But the notion of hope as the restoration of goodness, as the awakening of being, rediscovered – and its uniquely filmic articulation – is what is at stake here."

-- Louis Armand, "Slaves of Reason: Perversion Among the Robots": "Like the Turing test, the Voight-Kampff test [in Blade Runner] begins with a human hypothesis, and not a very persuasive one: that empathy is an innate characteristic that distinguishes humans from non-humans, and is expressed in specific, quantifiable ways. Of course we know this isn’t the case, but the value of such failed hypotheses is that they expose the fundamentally narcissistic character of a process that secretly operates in reverse from its avowed purpose, since its real aim is to affirm the humanity or intelligence of the examiner while arbitrarily placing that of the subject in doubt. In the case of the Turing Test, it reduces intelligence to a second guess disguised as reasoned judgement; in the case of Voight-Kampff, it reduces humanity to a stereotype."

-- David T. Johnson, "Coming Up for Air: Migrations of Meaning in Upstream Color": "Roland Barthes once speculated that a potentially useful position for a writer to adopt is that of someone observing the flight patterns of birds. Because the birds themselves may appear from any direction and depart, equally, toward any point on the horizon, the only sensible posture is to remain fixed and observe their motions through a predetermined shape in the sky, whether a scientist or (as in Barthes’ figure) a ‘soothsayer’."

-- Yvette Bíró, "Acquittal or Judgment? Claude Lanzmann: The Last of the Unjust": "Images and words are witness to the cemetery of human lives and deaths, accompanied by [Lanzmann's] personal comments and emotion-filled descriptions. The film becomes a weird composition, a ‘two-part invention’ in which the factual and the dramatic-lyrical meet, sometimes contradicting each other. Unlike in his classic, Shoah (1985) – in which he deliberately eliminated any archival footage – here, long and detailed visual records are part of a ‘new Shoah’."

-- Richard Porton, "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark": "Why is it so difficult for many commentators, particularly other film critics, to discuss Kael in a nuanced fashion? Why do her acolytes swoon over her – mentioning occasional misgivings with the greatest reluctance – while her adversaries dismiss her as little more than a petulant, overrated hack?"

-- David Davidson, "Two Ways of Looking: The Cahiers/Positif Dialectic": "[Stéphane] Delorme distinguishes between naturalism, realism and formalism in Bazin’s thought. According to Delorme, realism presents itself as an anti-formalism (since formalism looks only at itself) and against naturalism (a poverty of realism that lacks imagination). Delorme also highlights how, for Bazin, realism has more to do with events then action, and that there is a privilege towards ‘facts’, which are the image’s visual details."

-- William D. Routt, "Anime Listening Drawing": "I am sorry to be using ‘universe’, an even bigger word than ‘world’ ... to suggest points of difference between what this essay is about and what ‘world cinema’ is about. It sounds as though I am claiming anime is more than world cinema, when all I am suggesting is that world cinema is less than anime. World cinema is Only One Thing, whereas anime universe is just one of an infinite number of universes dotting resonant strings."

* * *

Recent reads:

-- The latest entry in Film Studies for Free's invaluable series "Study of a Single Film" is on Godard's Alphaville (1965).

-- A collection of posts titled "3D in the 21st Century" at MUBI, a critical supplement to BAMcinématek's retrospective of the same title. Writers include Zach Campbell, Blake Williams, Danny Kasman and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Jerry Lewis: "The Lewis Contradiction". Also, Kevin B. Lee's post, "Rosenbaum on Welles at 100".

-- Adrian Martin at Filmkrant: "There is no film genre that arouses generational differences more than horror. Each generation assumes that their taste in horror is wider and better than the preceding generation's taste — and furthermore, that the taste of the subsequent generation of fans has become degenerate and decadent."

-- Catherine Grant has put up a great post in memory of the recently deceased film scholar Sam Rohdie. Included are recollections by Adrian, Lesley Stern, William D. Routt, Deane Williams.

-- Very happy to see that my friend Dan Sallitt will be the subject of a film series at George Eastman House in June. They will screen his three feature films plus a handful he chose: Eric Rohmer's My Night at Maud's, Anthony Mann's Men in War, and Paul Negoescu's A Month in Thailand. Dan will appear in person to introduce The Unspeakable Act, his most recent feature, on June 12. Here is a good interview with him, at BAM blog.

-- Nick Pinkerton interviews Larry Clark: part one; and part two. More Pinkerton interviews: James B. Harris; and George Armitage.

-- "Nadja à Paris," an essay co-written by Nadja Tesich (lead actor of Eric Rohmer's 1964 short film of the same title) and Lucy McKeon. More on Nadja Tesich here (via David Hudson).

-- Kevin B. Lee on "what the best video essays do."

-- "Techniques of the Observer": a conversation between Hito Steyerl and Laura Poitras at Artforum.

-- The new issue of Journal of the Moving Image, published at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, is now online. It has articles by Gertrud Koch, Thomas Elsaesser, Meaghan Morris, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith and Manas Ray.

-- The latest issue of the journal Theory & Event (open-access) is devoted to Lars von Trier.

-- The new, television issue of cléo.

-- Nicholas Rombes has written a novel ("The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing") that is getting strong reviews.

-- Jill Dolan, "The Feminist Spectator as Agitator". Via Catherine Grant.

-- Jeet Heer: "The Aesthetic Failure of 'Charlie Hebdo'".

-- At Diagonal Thoughts, an interview with Pedro Costa titled "In Remembrance of Shadows Forgotten".

-- "Living with Contingency": Quintín on Martin Rejtman in the new Film Comment.

-- New cinema website discovery: Sabzian, run by a group of Belgian cinephiles, in Dutch, English and French.

-- I'm enjoying reading McKenzie Wark's new book, "Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene". Here is a brief but interesting speech ("The Civilization is Over. And Everybody Knows It.") that Wark gave at the book launch. And here is a reader [pdf] that is meant to accompany the book.

-- A valuable resource: "A Baltimore Syllabus," a collection of articles and videos to help us make sense of and raise consciousness about the situation in Baltimore.

-- Agata Pyzik in n+1: "In Praise of Vulgar Feminism: On Kim Gordon and Courtney Love".

-- A lovely interview with the poet Charles Simic about being a "noticer" of the everyday.

-- Nicole Aschoff: "Oprah is appealing precisely because her stories hide the role of political, economic, and social structures. In doing so, they make the American Dream seem attainable. If we just fix ourselves, we can achieve our goals."

pic: Easy Rider (James Benning, 2012)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Recent Reading

-- Adrian Martin recently put up a post on Facebook listing some of his favorite film criticism and film writing of 2014. Here are links to nearly all the English-language pieces on that list:

Boris Nelepo on Alain Resnais' Life of Riley.
Catherine Grant and Christian Keathley, "Childhood cinephilia, object relations, and videographic films studies".
Masha Tupitsyn on Robert Bresson.
Carlos Losilla, "The Absent Image, The Invisible Narrative".
Sarinah Masukor on Godard's Éloge de l'amour.
Joe McElhaney on Paul Morrissey's Mixed Blood.
Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, "Horrors of History: On the Politics of Wolf Creek 2".
Tom Paulus, "The Disappearance of Kristen Stewart (And Other Mysteries of Contemporary Art Cinema)".
Sophie Mayer, "The Art of (Feminist Film) Work in the Age of Digital Reproduction".
John Flaus dossier at Senses of Cinema.
Philip Brophy, "A Sonic Reading of Visualised Space: A Spell To Ward Off The Darkness".
Andrew Klevan on Ernst Lubitsch, and Julian Hanich on Roy Andresson, at MOVIE.
Stoffel Debuysere, "Together in Electric Dreams".
Niall Lucy, "The Western Suburbs".
Mark Rappaport on Nina Menkes.
Ted Fendt's tireless translation work, such as this 1978 article on Jean Grémillon by Mireille Latil Le Dantec.
Finally, David Bordwell's series of posts on film critics of the 1940s: "Otis Ferguson and the Way of the Camera"; "The Rhapsodes: Agee, Farber, Tyler, and us"; "Agee & Co.: A Newer Criticism"; "James Agee: All there and primed to go off"; "Manny Farber 1: Color commentary"; and "Manny Farber 2: Space man".

-- As a follow-up to my previous post, which was a tribute to Gilberto Perez, here is a handful of his writings available to read online:

"L’eclisse: Antonioni and Vitti".
"The Life of Oharu: Not Reconciled".
"Self-Illuminated" (on Godard).
"It's a Playground" (on Kiarostami and Iranian Cinema).
"Dovzhenko: Folk Tale and Revolution".
"A Day in the Country: Jean Renoir’s Sunday Outing".
"The Dream Life" (on Colin McGinn's book The Power of Movies).
"Imperfection" (a review of books on John Cassavetes).
"Toward a Rhetoric of Film: Identification and the Spectator".

-- There are new issues of: The Cine-Files (on "The Video Essay: Parameters, Practice, Pedagogy"); MOVIE: A Journal of Film Criticism; "Cinema Comparat/ive Cinema" (a tribute to Manny Farber); Jump Cut; and Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image.

-- Zach Campbell now has a Tumblr page called Videodromology.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum's "Global Discoveries on DVD" column in the current issue of Cinema Scope.

-- Also, a series of posts by Jonathan: "Ten Neglected Science Fiction Movies"; "A Dozen Undervalued Movie Satires"; "A Dozen Eccentric Westerns"; "Ten Overlooked Noirs"; "18 Thrillers You Might Have Missed"; "Eleven Treasures of Jazz Performance on DVD"; "Ten Favorite Offbeat Musicals"; and "Ten Overlooked Fantasy Films on DVD".

-- The late René Vautier's Afrique 50 is now on YouTube with English subs.

-- Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin, "Bela Tarr's Repulsion: Fragments of a Lost Remake", and on Walerian Borowczyk. Also, Adrian on Eric Rohmer's A Summer's Tale; on Vivre Sa Vie, Le Notti Bianchi and Senso; and on Valerie and her Week of Wonders and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant.

-- "The Gilbert Adair Files" at the BFI website. (Scroll down to the bottom for links to more writings on film by Adair.)

-- McKenzie Wark: "Anthropocene Futures"; "Anthropo{mise-en-s}cène"; and "The Library of New Babylon".

-- Tom Paulus, "The Circled Square: Documentaries by Wang Bing and Lav Diaz".

-- Christoph Huber on Jean Rollin: "Frenchman Jean Rollin occupies a special place in film history–and in my heart. He is the aesthete amongst a group of filmmakers I like to call the obsessives: Those directors who used the window of opportunity opening during more freewheeling genre times–roughly from the late 60’s to the early 80’s–to obstinately pursue personal paths, which often yielded remarkably uncommercial results despite the seemingly surefire ingredients of sex and violence."

-- Ryland Walker Knight: "The Speed of Causality: Michael Mann's "Blackhat"".

-- Andrea Lee, "Roberto Calasso's Encyclopedic Mind at Play" in The New Yorker. (Via Richard Porton.)

-- A lot of writing (essays and book chapters) by Thomas Elsaesser can be downloaded on his website.

-- Joshua Sperling interviews Abderrehmane Sissako on Timbuktu in The Brooklyn Rail.

-- Neil McGlone interviews Alan Rudolph.

-- Lisa Gye: "Some thoughts on the evolution of digital media studies" in The Fibreculture Journal.

-- Tom McCarthy, "Writing Machines: On Realism and the Real" in The London Review of Books.

-- At Indiewire: several cinematographers on film vs. digital.

-- At Pitchfork: "The 20 Best Music Videos of 2014". (Via Steven Shaviro.)

-- Looks very interesting: "The Legacy of Pasolini" conference at Yale next week.

-- An interview in the New Left Review with Bhaskar Sunkara, the founder of the successful online socialist journal Jacobin.

Any suggestions of good recent reading? Please feel free to post links in the comments section.