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!


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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.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Gilberto Perez



The eminent scholar-critic Gilberto Perez died recently at the age of 72. Jonathan Rosenbaum has put up a post in tribute to him, and Sarah Lawrence College, where Perez taught for many decades, has assembled a set of reminiscences of him and his work. Like so many others, I’m a huge admirer of Perez’s writings. I never knew him personally—we met briefly when Victor Perkins introduced us at an SCMS meeting once. But I’ve always had a strong personal curiosity about Perez from afar because of certain biographical similarities I share with him: we’re both immigrants to the USA; our native language isn’t English; and when we went to university from high school, it wasn’t for study in the humanities. Over the last few weeks, my own personal act of remembering Perez has consisted of revisiting films alongside his writings about them in his classic, magisterial book, The Material Ghost (1998), which contains nearly three decades of his work. These films, on which he wrote indelible, definitive essays, include Murnau’s Nosferatu, Dovzkenko’s Earth, Renoir’s A Day in the Country, Ford’s My Darling Clementine, Huillet/Straub’s History Lessons, Godard’s Alphaville, and Antonioni’s L’Eclisse and L’Avventura.

Perez’s book begins with a touching account of childhood cinephilia. He describes the experience of going to the movies in his native Havana, often with his father, his most frequent movie-going companion. The films he saw formed a truly broad and international mix that included but went well beyond Hollywood. He writes: “With negligibly few exceptions, the movies were all foreign, which is to say that none of them were: they all took place in the spellbinding elsewhere of the screen.” By “foreign” he means “non-Cuban,” but there is a wonderful ambiguity about the way he views these films: they are simultaneously close (taking place on the movie screens of Havana with which he was on such intimate terms) and distant (unfolding in foreign places and spaces, the screen itself being such an alien space of “elsewhere”).

“The history of cinephilia,” wrote Richard Brody recently, “is a tale of two cities, New York and Paris.” As someone whose cinephilia was formed and nurtured very far away from these places—over the course of an itinerant childhood spent traveling all over India—I am struck by the simplistic nature of this oft-repeated, much-mythologized account. It is a narrative that turns a blind eye to a vast reality: that of the truly global and complex history of cinephilia. To unproblematically place New York and Paris at the center of cinephilia is to ignore the fact that we live in a world of unequal power relations. These imbalances of power determine the flows of knowledge: specifically, what knowledge travels, and in which direction, thus deciding what finds its way into the narratives of history—and what remains absent, “off-screen”.

As a kid in Calcutta, the first book I remember reading about cinema was James Monaco’s The New Wave. At its heart was the story of Cahiers cinephilia. To my teenage cinephile friends and I, Henri Langlois was a hero. But how many Western cinephiles, then or now, know of the great Indian archivist, P.K. Nair? Or of the Calcutta Film Society, founded by the renowned Indian film critic, Chidananda Dasgupta? Or of the legendary Indian “tent cinemas,” in which many of us made our formative discoveries of Tamil cinema? These—and many other figures, institutions and practices—were important to Indian cinephilia, but the “story of cinephilia” dismayingly often remains “a tale of two cities, New York and Paris.”

When Gilberto Perez recalls his formative critical influence, it is refreshing to find that it’s not someone with a starring role in the “standard history” of cinephilia, like Andrew Sarris or Pauline Kael or one of the Cahiers du Cinéma writers. Instead, the critic who first taught Perez how to “attentively appreciate” a film was one “G. Caín,” a pseudonym for the Cuban writer Guillermo Cabrera Infante. (Cabrera Infante’s English-language collection of film criticism, A Twentieth Century Job, is a wonderful, must-own volume for any cinephile.) Beyond the well-known Franco-American narrative, we need stories that teach us about new and unfamiliar flavors of internationalism. Perez’s formative experiences of film and criticism furnish instructive examples that bypass—or, at the very least, are not confined to—the traditional and customary touch points of cinephilic history.

Perez recalls the impact, upon his earliest film appreciation, of Cabrera Infante’s review of Antonioni’s Le Amiche (1955)—and its simultaneous, twin emphases on the present and the future, on the actual and the potential of cinema:

Like Clement Greenberg’s early reviews of Jackson Pollock, this was criticism whose awareness of the present put it in touch with the future, criticism with eyes to see both what was there in the work and what the work had in store, both what Antonioni had succeeded in doing with quiet originality and where he was tending the lead the practice of his art … Cabrera Infante was a film critic animated by a sense of expectation and possibility, a spirited looking forward to the coming attractions of an art in the making.

One of the things I value most about Perez is that he is a bridge-builder and a master synthesist. Driving these traits is a sharp sensitivity for dualisms. If I had to identify a single thread that runs through Perez’s entire body of work, it is a proclivity for exploring, complicating and dismantling these dualisms. Of these, perhaps the most significant for Perez is the split between theory and criticism.

Perez moved from Cuba to the USA after high school to study engineering at MIT, then swerved away toward math and physics, picking up bachelor’s degrees in both. He then went to graduate school, drawn specifically to theoretical physics rather than experimental physics. He writes:

I was a theoretical physicist, like Einstein, like Maxwell, like Heisenberg. A scientist friend from England, more aware of matters of class, would call me a “gentleman’s mathematician” who didn’t want to get his hands dirty … my friend was not wrong to discern something snobbish in my theoretician’s posture.

Perez relates this to cinema by drawing an analogy between the disciplines: “Film theory is to film criticism as theoretical physics is to experimental physics.” Despite his initial affinity for theory in physics, he critiques the notion of theory—springing from structuralism and post-structuralism—that took hold when film studies became an academic discipline. His main complaint is that

It is a theory largely detached from criticism and often disdainful of it, a theory presuming to know the answers (“always already” knowing the answers, to use one of its favourite phrases) and averse to getting its hands dirty with the evidence …

Perez is nevertheless drawn to theorizing about film, and believes that experimental physics and film criticism are similar in that they both rely crucially on theory (“whether they know it or not, and better if they know it”) in order to illuminate their own respective practices. Film theory, for him, should not live in “a realm of its own” but should be intimately involved in a “vital give and take with concrete reality” at every step. The Material Ghost is one of the best, most detailed and patient works of film criticism ever written, but it is also grounded in Perez’s own theoretical framework, an alternative to the film theory he critiques above.

Another dualism that Perez’s writing challenges is that between classical and modern cinema. A good part of his book is given over to daunting, difficult modernist filmmakers such as Huillet/Straub, Godard and Antonioni. He pays great, meticulous attention to the formal strategies and inventiveness of these directors—the Huillet/Straub section, which focuses mostly on History Lessons (1972), runs to nearly 50 pages! But Perez is equally in thrall to the pleasures of classical cinema, and brings to his analysis the care, the eye and ear, he lavishes upon complex, modernist works.

Take, for example, this passage in which he extols aspects of Frank Capra’s films that are rarely singled out by critics:

Capra is a master of texture and light, of texture as the play of light projected on the screen. Applying to film the duality proposed by Heinrich Wöfflin in art history, one may call Hitchcock linear, a leader of the eye along the exactly determined line of his camera angles and movements, and Capra painterly, a colorist in black-and-white film with a palette of luster and sparkle, glimmer and glow, light subdued and diffused and resplendent. The distinctive look and light of a Capra film owe much to the work of Joseph Walker, Capra’s cameraman all through the thirties […] Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth (1937), and Hawks’s His Girl Friday (1940) seem to me the three best screwball comedies, or comedies of remarriage as Stanley Cavell calls them, the three best instances of a genre that represents classical old Hollywood at its best. Joseph Walker photographed all three.

As news of Perez’s death circulated on social media, one of his former students disclosed that Perez had just finished writing a book (his second) called The Elegant Screen [EDIT: The Eloquent Screen] that he had been working on for many years. It was well known among his friends and colleagues that the subject of this book was unusual: rhetoric and film. A glimpse of this work can be seen in a paper Perez presented at the SCMS conference in 2000. The paper analyzes the concept of “identification,” which, in film criticism, refers mostly to identifying with specific characters in a film. But Perez expands this limited and often clichéd notion to encompass something larger: a context—such as a story, setting or genre—that can now involve multiple levels of identifications.

Here’s hoping that the book will see light of day very soon.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on Perez. Do you have any favorites among his writings? And I wonder what your views are on his unique presence and contributions to film criticism and film studies.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Mise en Scène Multiplicity



Over the last week I’ve been enjoying Adrian Martin’s new book Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art. (Full disclosure: Adrian is a close friend; we founded and co-edit the journal LOLA together.) It’s a wonderfully ambitious and erudite work—and I’m quickly realizing that it will require multiple re-readings for me to absorb and retain its generous profusion of ideas. For the moment, let me simply try to describe, in a nutshell, the interests that animate the work. This book is trying to do at least four things.

First, it wants to broaden the notion of mise en scène beyond its customary parameters. The book begins with a close analysis of the great split-screen ballet set-piece in Brian De Palma’s Passion (2012), revealing the film’s similarities with 21st century multimedia, installation art. Many filmmakers of late have been involved in creating (in Adrian’s words) a “spatialised cinema” in the art gallery, one that brings together multiple screens, points of view, soundtracks, etc. By collapsing this dispositif—or arrangement of elements—into a single screen and making it part of traditional, theatrical cinema, De Palma pushes us to go beyond (as Adrian writes) “the sum of operations we have conventionally regarded as gathering under the rubric” of the term mise en scène. This in turn prompts Adrian to ask:

Did we collectively take a wrong turn in film studies by grasping the work of mise en scène or style in cinema as a matter – at least in the first instance – of wholeness and fluidity, of organic coherence and singular fictional worlds, of a certain ‘transparency’ or invisibility? And what would it mean, now, to shift gears and retrace our steps over the ground of mise en scène, trying to reconfigure its classic moves in a new and different way?

Second, Adrian writes about being raised, as a cinephile, in a particular historical tradition of mise en scène: that of the British school of stylistic analysis that is associated with luminaries such as V.F. Perkins, Robin Wood and Andrew Britton, and publications such as Movie. He names this the “expressive school of critical analysis”. But what this school envisioned as mise en scène was (he points out) only one among many conceptions of the term. He invokes a number of far-flung critics—from Harun Farocki and Frieda Grafe in Germany to José Luis Guarner in Spain, to Shigehiko Hasumi in Japan, to Guillermo Cabrera Infante in Cuba, not to mention the original Cahiers du Cinéma critics in France in the 1950s—each of whom had something a little different in mind when they mobilized the term. The book sets out to provide a global sense of “the history and diversity of traditions in international film criticism” as it relates to mise en scène in particular and film style in general.

Third, the book holds dear and advocates for a certain sensibility: “that before it conjures a world, conveys a story or elaborates a theme, what we think of as mise en scène, in its primary sense and effect, shows us something; it is a means of display.” This means bestowing a certain level of importance upon the

immediate, surface level – the gestures, the moves, the rhythms, the colours – of what constitutes any mise en scène … We should be careful not to depart, too brusquely, for the ‘higher order abstractions’ that we regularly translate the evidence of our senses into: meanings, symbols, metaphors, allegories, directorial intentions, ‘world views’ … Part of the argument of this book is a plea to always attend closely and full-bloodedly to this type of materiality in cinema.

Finally, the book is concerned with laying bare two parallel histories:

There is mise en scène as the global history – still to be fully, comprehensively written – of how filmmakers made their films, what structures and effects of style they created in their work; this could be called a history of forms in cinema. Then there is mise en scène as the history (again, global) of what critics, theorists and commentators have said, written and thought in their quest to define and use tools to understand the films they see, study, analyse and transmit to others.

The result is a work that “gives equal weight to these dual histories of film and criticism – because the idea of mise en scène, if it is anything, is the attempt to build a bridge across the gap between them …”


* * *

More recent reading:

-- The new issue of NECSUS: The European Journal of Media Studies takes "War" as its theme, and includes a special section on audiovisual essays edited by Adrian and Cristina Álvarez López. Also: a video of Adrian's lecture "Warhol's Aquarium," delivered at the Deutsches Filmmuseum in Frankfurt; and Cristina's text "Five Haunted Cities," at Fandor.

-- Michael Sicinski: "The Deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner: Documents of Barbarism".

-- Kevin Duong at Jacobin: "Conservative scholars and Catholic activists in France have been denouncing a 'theory of gender' that they believe is guiding the decisions of François Hollande’s Socialist government ... the crisis is bringing into focus ugly, neglected dimensions of contemporary French politics, touching on gender, immigration, reproduction, and the limits of secularism and universalism."

-- Sad news: the new issue of the journal Experimental Conversations might be its last.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum's films of the year. Also: an updated version of Jonathan's 1976 piece, "My Favorite Films/Texts/Things"; and a post on two horror films, The Innocents (1961) and The Haunting (1963).

-- The theme of the new issue of the feminist film journal Cléo is "Party!"; and the latest issue of Offscreen focuses on "gender and horror".

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky: "Neither lost nor found: On the trail of an elusive icon’s rarest film".

-- J. Hoberman: "David Lynch's Bad Thoughts". (Via David Hudson.)

-- Abbas Kiarostami's Homework is on YouTube. (Via Neil McGlone on Twitter.)

-- Lawrence Webb: "Remapping The Conversation: Urban Design and Industrial Reflexivity in Seventies San Francisco". (Via Catherine Grant.) See also: Catherine's Thanksgiving Roundup of dozens of links.

-- Travis Wilkerson's [edit: Alex Johnston's] 5-minute video, Now! Again! (2014), "a reenactment of a classic radical film, Now by Santiago Alvarez, staged this summer in Ferguson, Missouri by the cops themselves."

-- The website Voices on Film contains several videos of interviews with the scholar Charles Barr on Hitchcock, Robin Wood, etc. (Via Doug Pye on Twitter.)

-- Amelia Smith: "Eyal Weizman on understanding politics through architecture, settlements and refuseniks".

-- Alexander Galloway reviews Steven Shaviro's new book, The Universe of Things. Also: an interview with Steve about his book.

-- The video of a lecture by Dudley Andrew titled "André Bazin's Dark Passage". (Via Catherine Grant.)

-- Iain Sinclair on being offered the chance, on his 70th birthday, to program 70 films to screen at various venues around London. (Via Tim Barnard of caboose.)

-- There's a new issue of Desistfilm.

-- Available for download on PDF: Mark Rothko's collection of essays, The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art, written in 1940-41 and published in 2004.

-- An essay by David Brancaleone from a couple of years ago: "The Interventions of Jean-Luc Godard and Chris Marker into Contemporary Visual Art".

-- Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on "Gothic Textures in Found Footage Horror Film".

-- Jacqueline Rose on Marilyn Monroe, "A Rumbling of Things Unknown". (Via Frederick Veith on Twitter.)

Monday, November 10, 2014

TIFF 2014, part 3: Short Takes



To conclude my TIFF coverage: some impressions and ideas sparked by ten films ...

National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, France/USA). One quiet but persistent theme in this film is the tension between the separateness of an artwork—its identity firmly associated with a single art form—and its connectedness and co-existence with other art forms. So, for example, the gallery that Wiseman chose to document is unusually small for its international renown, and focuses exclusively on paintings. There’s a brilliant shock cut in which he transitions abruptly from shots of several paintings seen in close-up, to a shot of bright fluorescent lights. This edit carries a wonderful dissonance: it instantly evokes Dan Flavin’s famous fluorescent-light pieces—and is also an immediate reminder that such work is outside the narrow, focused ambit of the National Gallery. At several other instances, the film pulls away from the exclusive focus on painting. A docent, addressing a group of children, breaks off from the work he is describing to talk about the differences between painting and literature. At another point, Nicolas Poussin is analyzed as a painter who strives for an imitation of sculpture. A surprise musical interlude features a piece played live by a pianist in the gallery; and the film climaxes with a dance performance …

P’tit Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France). Dumont reminds me (never more so than in this lengthy, sustained work) that cinema is an art form of the exterior: of surfaces, of the visible. In other words, cinema shows us with unequalled vividness and detail that no two surfaces are alike, no two bodies, no two faces. Thus, cinema in Dumont’s hands becomes actualized as a medium of radical difference. But Dumont is not a ‘documentary’ filmmaker; he is a self-described expressionist. Which means that his films accentuate and amplify difference, doing it through deformation of all that is ‘normal’, all that is ‘expected’. In his own words: "I think if there’s no distortion or no alteration, there can’t be expression … The distortion has to be either the way you’re going to design the character, the way you’re constructing the dialogues, the type of the faces of the people, the way they move; this is what I like. I like working on making these modifications. Because only with these alterations reality becomes interesting … that’s how it gains the sense and the meaning and it becomes cinema.”

Pasolini (Abel Ferrara, France/Italy). Nicole Brenez’s study of the films of Abel Ferrara came out seven years ago; I revisit this book more frequently than any other director study in my collection. There are hundreds of ideas, insights, and allusions here—but they have revealed themselves to me only gradually over time. Each year I sink a little deeper into this book. Brenez writes in the opening pages that the stylistic principle uniting Cassavetes, Fassbinder, Pasolini and Ferrara is “the exclusive privilege accorded by these filmmakers to the description of human behavior via gestural, actoral, and emotional invention.” Save a few scenes depicting Pasolini’s domestic life—which I found spellbinding—this film lacked the moment-to-moment ‘behavioral inventiveness’ and surprise that I prize so much in Ferrara. When Pasolini’s death arrives, it is rendered conventionally, without a single unpredictable note in any of its detail. Still, it’s not a movie I dislike, even if it feels a world away from his great run of the 1990s …

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, France). I have very limited knowledge and experience of 3D—confined entirely to commercial cinema—but it came as a surprise to see 3D being used dissonantly here. (In my naïveté, I’ve never thought of 3D as being anything but a consonant effect, one that attempts to ‘enhance’ perception without obstructing or problematizing it.) At certain moments, it hurt my eyes to continue watching, I had to look away, take off my glasses for a few seconds, rub my eyes. This effect is very much intended, of course, which brings the meta-cinematic/meta-3D aspect more sharply into focus. In this vein, there is a great, laugh-out-loud formalist joke when the text “3D” is superimposed over the text “2D”—but the latter is distantly in the back, receding, while the former is vibrantly, over-eagerly upfront, ‘in your face’. There is an interesting interview with Godard’s cinematographer Fabrice Aragno at Film Comment.

Voila L’Enchainement (Claire Denis, France). An interracial couple: he’s black (Alex Descas), she’s white (Norah Krief). The decline of their marriage occurs—as it always does—not at a single instant but as a chain of events, thus the title. In one scene, she wants him to tattoo her name on his body. He patiently explains that he can’t do that. He doesn’t want to be branded—like slaves used to be. This 30-minute short feels like minor Denis because of two reasons: it lacks richness of settings (because of budget constraints it was filmed mostly against blank walls, in bare rooms, and in close-up), and, equally important, it lacks movement.

Tales (Rakshan Bani-etemad, Iran). Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote that a key function of cinema is to generate and disseminate news reports from different parts of the world. (Alas, I can’t remember the piece from which I’m taking—and paraphrasing—this idea.) Tales is often a blunt and heavy-handed film, but in one electrifying scene that is a single ten-minute take on a bus filled with factory workers, we hear about: inflation, drugs, suicide, AIDS, labor unrest, worker exploitation and male domination. What is shocking is that this discussion takes place in an Iranian film. There are characters and situations in this movie that hark back to Bani-etemad’s previous fiction feature, Under the Skin of the City, from over 10 years ago; here is Laura Mulvey at The Cine-Files on that film.

Eden (Mia Hansen Løve, France). In some respects, this bears some similarities to another biographical work, Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air. Both feature a flatness of tone, a lack of modulation of emotional register. Eden is composed of short, low-key scenes: one thing happens, then another, then another—but the film accumulates little dramatic impact as it unfolds in time. It makes for a certain monotony, a lack of intensity. But music goes a good way to restoring life to the film. I liked that it wasn’t about dance music in general but garage in particular. As a character puts it, garage is a combination of ‘cold’ (electronic beats) and ‘hot’ (soul vocals). I particularly appreciated one rare but memorable glimpse into an invisible component of dance music creation: the scene in which a series of electronic drum beats are auditioned on the computer, characterized, evaluated, chosen or dismissed ...

Alleluia (Fabrice du Welz, Belgium). The ‘termite-art’ highlight of the festival. Every frame of this film seems to simultaneously carry a fierce awareness of its meager resources and an imaginative response to it. Most of Alleluia (and almost the entire first half) is shot in close-ups of never-ending invention: partially and playfully lit frames, frames divided into zones, expressionist pools of color, bold graphic strokes, starkly inscribed silhouettes. The shots are brief; they don’t linger and flaunt this profusion of creativity. The film is a remake of The Honeymoon Killers (Leonard Kastle, 1969) and Deep Crimson (Arturo Ripstein, 1996); Lola Dueñas, whom I’ve only seen in minor roles in two Almodóvar movies, is indelible as the female lead. In the Q&A, du Welz traced his love of horror to his teenage discoveries of (in the same breath) Hitchcock, Buñuel and Bacon …

The Princess of France (Matías Piñeiro, Argentina). As with its predecessor Viola, I really enjoyed this but feel like I can’t say anything about it until I’ve seen it at least one more time. Piñeiro gave a scintillating Q&A, leaping from one thought, one association to another. He likened his films to constructions such as Alexander Calder’s mobiles (“made of iron but the wind comes in by chance and moves them one way or the other, unsettles their structure”). On the fast-paced rhythm of his films, he said something paradoxical: that the thought of slowing them down never enters his mind, that their speed “provides a freedom to the viewer” because “you [the audience] are at least as smart as the film”. On Facebook, Piñeiro is a voracious cinephile with a broad taste and an eye for arresting frame-grabs, which he posts regularly. Three interviews with him: at Cinema Scope; Film Comment; and Brooklyn Rail.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, Portugal). The single most beautiful image of the festival was a close-up of Ventura’s nails: long, smooth, delicate and ivory-pink. This film feels like a formidable work—but it resists immediate ‘assimilation’ and ‘critical processing’. Every image here is majestic, unhurried, stone-like: with a silent weight. The stunning opening features a series of Jacob Riis black-and-white photographs of working-class and poor people. In the next ten films I see after I’ve seen a Costa film, I think I am unconsciously more sensitive to the sculptural possibilities of cinema, the way light occupies, models, shows and hides a given space—and it was true here too. Costa gives great interviews; here are some recent ones that allude to Horse Money: at Cinema Scope; Film Comment; and Twitch.


* * *

Recent reading:

-- An exciting, recent personal 'discovery' for me has been the work of British filmmaker Joanna Hogg. All three of her films (highly recommended) are now streaming at Netflix. See: an interview with her by Paul Dallas at Cinema Scope; and Rachael Rakes' piece, "Interior Life: Space in the Films of Joanna Hogg". An interesting detail: the end credits of Hogg's new film Exhibition name-check this issue of the cinema journal Screen with providing inspiration.

-- On the occasion of the release of the Essential Jacques Tati box set, several essays on Tati are now available at the Criterion site: by Jonathan Rosenbaum; James Quandt; David Cairns; and Kristin Ross.

-- The new issue of the journal e-flux is devoted to Harun Farocki.

-- A new Jonathan Rosenbaum essay, "The Future is Here," on science-fiction cinema.

-- Cristina Álvarez López on "second chances" in cinema, at Fandor.

-- Foster Hirsch and James Bell on the "method acting" style at Sight & Sound.

-- A blog post by Steven Shaviro: "Art/Money".

-- The film section of this month's Brooklyn Rail includes pieces on Derek Jarman, the avant-garde program of the New York Film Festival, and the documentaries of Eduardo Coutinho.

-- The entire staff of the Moscow Film Museum has resigned in protest against the newly appointed director who replaced long-time director Naum Kleiman. An open letter has been sent to the Russian Prime Minister.

-- A petition to stop making "smooth motion" the default on all HDTVs. Via Farran Smith Nehme.

-- A short video demonstrating the restoration work done on Hiroshima Mon Amour. Via Corey Creekmur.

-- Blog discovery: Menthol Mountains, via Leo Goldsmith.

pic: Bruno Dumont's P'tit Quinquin.

Monday, October 27, 2014

TIFF 2014, part 2: Loznitsa, Alonso



Maidan (Sergei Loznitsa). If the interaction of aesthetics and politics is a key theme that runs through the history of film criticism, less has been written about the place, in cinema, of aesthetics in politics. Leni Riefenstahl’s films immediately spring to mind but I’m struggling to think of other well-known examples.

Maidan is an interesting entry in this discussion. It is a documentary that captures the events of the Ukrainian uprising at Kiev’s Independence Square over a period of a few months from late 2013 to early 2014. The film has a deliberate and conspicuous style: it is constructed almost entirely of observational, fixed-frame long shots and long takes. There is no voiceover commentary; there are no ‘talking heads’, no individuals singled out for attention, and only a few, minimal explanatory inter-titles. It also helps, no doubt, that Loznitsa—who directs here with rigor and authority—was raised in Kiev and lived there for years.

What I found most striking about the film was the role played by aesthetics in the spectacle of revolution. Protesters chant and sing rousing revolutionary songs, often with inventive up-to-the-minute lyrics (the singers are almost never seen onscreen; the source of the singing is usually outside the frame); music, frequently percussive and rhythmic, surges up from the crowd; and what appear to be ordinary people—i.e. non-artists—come on stage to recite poems at the microphone. In an awe-inspiring moment, a riot rages on the ground while fireworks explode in the sky.

The film miraculously catches this festive, celebratory quality of revolution, even in the midst of violence and death. (Over a hundred people were killed by riot police at the Maidan.) Cultural theorist Gavin Grindon has written about the idea of the ‘festival-as-revolution’, and how, in recent decades, it has marked several radical social movements from Seattle’s WTO Carnival Against Capitalism to Occupy’s Debt Jubilee. He traces the idea back to one of its sources: French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, specifically a book he wrote about the Paris Commune being a kind of festival. (There is an interesting scandal surrounding this book: the Situationist International accused Lefebvre of stealing their ideas and publishing them in the aftermath of a friendly meeting and conversation between Lefebvre and the SI.) Maidan shows us not only the unfolding of the Ukrainian revolution, but also how this revolution looked and sounded over the period of a few months. And the moment we ask the question ‘how’, we are already in the realm of ‘style’ …

Speaking of style, the film features an intriguing aesthetic choice: a profound but by no means obvious split between image and sound. We see ‘pure’ documentary images, in that they show, without re-creations, computer-enhanced imagery, etc., actual footage of the Maidan during the uprising. But what we hear is a dense and layered post-synchronized soundtrack built up, painstakingly, of over a hundred individual tracks. Now that I’ve learned this from interviews with Loznitsa (like the informative one that Richard Porton did with him), I am eager to see the film again, this time to pay closer attention to this rift along the fault-line of image and sound that has now opened up for me in my recollection of the film.

It gives me pause that I did not suspect this radical disjunction—‘unaltered’ images vs. deliberately and artificially constructed soundtrack—while I was watching the film. Why was this so? As a long-time cinephile interested equally in classical and modern cinema, I wonder: Why did I blithely take for granted the artificial ‘unity’ of image and sound in a formally bold film such as Maidan?

As I ponder this question, I am reminded of film-sound theorist Michel Chion’s experiment in his book Audio-Vision, in which he takes scenes from two films, cutting out the sound track from one (Bergman’s Persona) and the image track from the other (Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday), demonstrating in the process that our perceptions are altered dramatically when sound is stripped away from the image, and vice versa. He calls this mutual influence of image and sound the ‘audiovisual contract’.

But image and sound, Chion points out, are not equal in this contract. Instead, even though sound enriches the image in an important way, it also appears as if this ‘added value’ comes ‘naturally’ from—is contained in—the image itself. As Chion puts it, “Added value is what gives the (eminently incorrect) impression that sound is unnecessary.” Steven Shaviro explains further: “We rarely pay attention to film sound in and of itself; we always regard it as secondary to the images of the film. And yet it turns out, again and again, that sound endows those images with a potency, a meaning, and a seeming self-sufficiency that they never could have established on their own.”

Shaviro adds that, surprisingly, the terms of this ‘audiovisual contract’ also apply in the case of modernist, formally audacious films—such as Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her or Duras’ India Song—that play boldly with disjunctions between image and sound. Even as sound energizes images in these films, it continues to remain subsidiary to them. Shaviro proposes that recent digital ‘post-cinema’ (such as the Massive Attack music video Splitting the Atom, which he analyzes in detail in his essay) is giving birth to a new audiovisual aesthetic, while also changing the terms of the ‘audiovisual contract’ that have been in place for nearly a century.

So, how might these ideas help me make sense of my experience with Lozintsa’s documentary? First, they remind me that modernist cinema can, in its own way, be no less illusionistic than classical cinema. Second, a viewing lesson: no matter how close my attention to sound design and the soundtrack, I’m still under-estimating the complexity and importance of sound—and always unconsciously subordinating it to what is visible …

NOTES: Steven Shaviro's essay “Splitting the Atom: Post-Cinematic Articulations of Sound and Vision” will be published in a volume on ‘post-cinema’ currently being edited by Shane Denson and Julia Leyda; it will also appear as an ebook in early 2015.


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Jauja (Lisandro Alonso). It is a peculiar fact that the merits of a film are not necessarily correlated with how generative it is in terms of critical writing. There are certain acclaimed films (e.g. Mulholland Drive, Beau Travail, The Act of Killing, the work of Godard or Marker) that seem to inspire superabundant outpourings of writing, but there are others—solid, strong, potentially rich works—that, for whatever mysterious reasons, under-stimulate (or overpower) the critical imagination or the critical will to engagement. Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu might be a recent example in this latter category; Jauja shows some early signs of making a modest bid for the former.

When I first saw Jauja, I found it impressive and engaging, but it has grown enormously in my mind thanks mainly to the critical reading I’ve done on it since. (Three of the essential pieces on it so far are by Quintín in Cinema Scope and in Film Comment, and by Leo Goldsmith in Reverse Shot.) The basic outline of Jauja is probably well known at this point to most cinephiles who follow festival reports. The film has three sections. The first finds a Danish engineer (played by Viggo Mortensen) and his 15-year-old daughter in 1880s Patagonia, where he is part of the larger Argentine effort to conquer this land and wipe out its indigenous population. In section two, his daughter elopes with a young soldier, and he goes out alone in search for her, finding himself in increasingly desolate and hallucinatory landscapes. The final section is dream-like and enigmatic; the less I say about it the better.

Jauja is the first Alonso film with anything resembling a conventional screenplay—written by the poet and novelist Fabián Casas—and many have pointed out that the first section of the movie contains more dialogue than all of Alonso’s previous feature films combined. Classical Hollywood and, more specifically, the genre of the western, are clear reference points here. Alonso uses a square Academy ratio, and the edges of the image are gently rounded as if they were photographs in an old album. The plot echoes The Searchers in section two, and the use of a Hollywood star is so striking that it becomes impossible to forget this fact—to make Mortensen ‘disappear’ into his character—while watching the film.

All of this pulls the film into an interesting conversation with classical cinema. What emerges from this encounter is an overwhelming sense of all the frictions—all the multiple points of abrasion and resistance—between this film and the studio-era works that partly inspire it. I registered these frictions most acutely when Jauja was, paradoxically, closest to classical cinema.

So, for example, the dialogue scenes, which take place mostly in the first section, lack a ‘smoothness’ of staging and cutting; they are disconcerting in their awkwardness. The staging is theatrical, with characters often rooted to the spot, their bodies stiffly angled non-naturalistically toward each other. Further, this theatrical aspect is rendered faintly ludicrous by the fact that the film takes place mostly in exteriors. Adding to the lack of seamlessness are the overt gaps of linguistic communication: the young lovers respectively speak only Danish and Spanish, and cannot understand each other at all.

Even outside the realm of speech, the force of the ‘real’ erupts in small but striking ways. When Mortensen tries to mount a horse, the film emphasizes what a Western usually tries to play down: the frequent difficulty and gracelessness of the act, with repeated attempts, heavy breathing, grunting, all accentuated by the sound design. What happens ‘naturally’ in a Western is ‘de-familiarized’.

When Mortensen stops at a work site to get a drink of water, he has an uneasy, unresolved conversation with the engineer overseeing the site, then quenches his thirst by drinking water with the help of a ladle. Meanwhile, the wind blows powerfully, we hear the tent and his clothes flapping (the pinpointed sound design again), and the water spills clumsily every so often on his uniform. Even a simple act such as drinking water becomes charged with maladroitness. This feeling comes to a head in the second section of the film, when Mortensen, now without horse or rifle, has to make his way by foot across a harsh and forbidding terrain of rock. He struggles across the landscape with painful slowness, slipping frequently, his boots sliding, not taking hold on the smooth stones. At moments like these, I had a strong feeling of cinema’s ‘missing images’—of all the roughnesses smoothed out, rendered invisible, in all the classical cinema I love …

There was a terrific and unpredictable joint Q&A with Alonso and Mortensen; they clearly have a great affection for each other. Alonso gave a lovely, succinct reason for why he makes films (“in order to learn about places and about cinema”), and Mortensen praised Alonso’s modesty, the sharpness of his eye and ear, and, most interestingly, “the luck he attracts while shooting,” by which he meant Alonso’s ability to catch or nail a shot even when so much depended on elements, such as the weather, that were outside his control.


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Recent reading:

-- At this time of the semester when faculty are grading furiously, here is Jon Wu's classic McSweeney's piece, "A Generic College Paper". (Via Sudhir Mahadevan.)

-- Great news: A critic I admire, Christoph Huber, has started a film blog. (Via David Hudson.)

-- A 2010 conversation between Chris Fujiwara and Pedro Costa. (Via Abhirup Maitra.)

-- Adrian Martin on Mike Hoolboom at Filmkrant; and on Truffaut's Day for Night at Desistfilm. Related: Michael Pattison interviews Hoolboom at MUBI Notebook.

-- A 2009 essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Sexism in the French New Wave".

-- James Quandt's essay on Godard, part of the programme notes for the massive TIFF retrospective, "Godard Forever: Part Two". (Click on the link labelled "Programmer's Essay".)

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on David Cronenberg's first novel, Consumed. Also: Calum Marsh interviews Cronenberg about his book.

-- Brad Stevens on novelisations of films.

-- Matt Zoller Seitz remembers the recently deceased L.M. "Kit" Carson.

-- Michael Sicinski on Peter Watkins' 14-hour-plus documentary The Journey (1987).

-- Boris Nelepo's piece on Alain Resnais' Life of Riley, from a few months ago, now that the film has arrived on these shores.

-- At The Guardian: "Transrealism: the first major literary movement of the 21st century?" (Via Scott Balcerzak.)

-- Roy Andersson's commercials, on YouTube. (Via Richard Porton.)

-- Dave Kehr has co-curated MoMA's latest festival of film preservation, which features a number of rare and interesting items.

-- A recent discovery: The Third Rail Quarterly.

-- In the Washington Post: "If you’re lucky enough to earn a living from your art, you’re probably white". (Via Jonathan Thomas.)

-- In the New York Times: "The Disheartening GamerGate Campaign".

-- At Jacobin magazine: "In Mexico and elsewhere, neoliberalism isn’t a retreat of the state. It’s using the state to enrich the wealthy." Also at Jacobin, two critiques of the new "sharing economy": "Sharing and Caring"; and "Against Sharing".

-- On a personal note, I am looking forward to this concert by "experimental hip-hop" artists DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist in tribute to Afrika Bambaataa; I've long admired their work. From DJ Shadow's website: "Using only vinyl pulled from Bambaataa’s historic collection – over 40,000 strong and permanently archived at Cornell University – DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist aim to present Bambaataa’s legacy in all its genre-busting and socially-minded complexity."