Saturday, 10 November 2012


My first article to be published in a professional venue has come out today. From now on, I hope to cover DVD releases for the Swiss newspaper Le Courrier about once a month, and I will link to the articles here.

The emotion!

Monday, 1 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, In Memoriam

"Il ne pouvait pas être question de guerre: ces gens étaient des hors-la-loi. Les hors-la-loi, on ne leur fait pas la guerre, on les extermine."

"Travelling around Italy in the 1950s, I kept discovering these aberrant phenomena—Party branches in the South electing Jehovah’s Witnesses as Party secretaries, and so on; people who were thinking about modern problems, but not in the terms that we were used to. Second, particularly after 1956, it expressed a general dissatisfaction with the simplified version we had of the development of working-class popular movements. In Primitive Rebels, I was very far from critical of the standard reading—on the contrary, I pointed out that these other movements would not get anywhere unless they sooner or later adopted the modern vocabulary and institutions. But, nonetheless, it became clear to me that it wasn’t enough simply to neglect these other phenomena, to say that we know how all these things operate. I produced a series of illustrations, case studies, of this kind, and said, ‘these don’t fit’. It led me to think that, even before the invention of modern political vocabulary, methods and institutions, there were ways in which people practised politics that encompassed basic ideas about social relations—not least between the powerful and the weak, rulers and ruled—which had a certain logic and fitted together."
Eric Hobsbawm

"It is time the rich remembered to fear the poor."
Eric Hobsbawm (in an address at some forum that used to be on youtube).

In Memoriam: Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Radical Honesty

If it's so hard to make up one's mind once and for all about Hara Kazuo, it might be because the radical honesty of his films always seems to run along two apparently mutually exclusive lines: on the one hand, his honesty is complete, including honesty about the unpleasantness entailed by his being present to shoot the material; on the other, one is never quite rid of the suspicion that this honesty is used as a cop-out to avoid questioning said unpleasant issues ("How can you blame me for it, since I'm showing everything upfront!?"). In other words, one is never quite sure whether it truly is a radical honesty, or a truly dishonest radicality: for all the discomfort his films provoke, how much of it stems from the audience's unease with being confronted with the uncanny, unfamiliar, and often shocking images of whatever repressed social phenomenon Hara is observing? And how much stems from principled rejection of the any-means-necessary approach Hara has to his material, which often seems to entail brutality to those being filmed at the same time as it does brutality to the viewer?
The triangular relationship of filmer-filmed-viewer rarely holds a place as important as it does in his works, but it has also rarely been more difficult to establish and define. In Goodbye CP (a wishful title, as the film ends with main character Hiroshi's desolate acknowledgment that Cerebral Palsy is not to be wished away), the film is as much a product of the patients as it is of the cameraman. At times Hara is clearly used to orchestrate, enable, and record Hiroshi's projects, such as a poetry reading which becomes interrupted off camera. The film is partly financed by Green Lawn, the organisation formed by the patients shown, and we are privy to a board meeting halfway through the film in which the question is raised of whether to continue filming or not. As in the case of the other film of Hara's that I have seen (The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On), then, the film at some point becomes about its own making, about how a filmed person takes control of a film and uses it for their own end. It also is, insistently, about the unwillingness to stop filming, the desire to record everything, even against the wishes of those being filmed.
In the later film, however, showing Okuzaki Kenzo requesting that Hara stop filming (when he was being detained by the police) was a breath of fresh air, a comic interlude which suddenly showed up Okuzaki's playing to the camera, and opened up a critical space for the viewer between the man, his cause, and the means he uses for it. In Goodbye CP, Hara films victims of cerebral palsy; and arguably, it is precisely this reaction of discomfort that he is questioning: should it be any different because they are ill? To which the answer might be: would it be acceptable to film someone who refused to be filmed even if they were healthy? But then again, the answer might equally be: but is not the fact of showing them resisting filming, renegotiating the film as it is still being filmed, the very least Hara can do to let these people keep their dignity? It is in this uncomfortable space, between the affront to the film-maker as a request that he ignores (for the sake of the film, thereby establishing a rather distasteful power-play with his own subjects) and its inclusion as a very strong indictment of his own role (he behaved in an objectionable manner at least once during the shoot. Is this unwillingness to lie about it enough to excuse it?), that debate about the sadism of Hara's method probably mostly happens.
But in the particular case of this film, the issue is made far more complex by the last scene. The film, at this point, has been full of absolutely unforgettable sequences: Hara asking passers-by who give the Green Lawn money why they did it, as if asking the viewers why they are watching the film (“Does it really help?” is the implied question: are admirable motives enough?); Hiroshi and his wife yelling at Hara to stop filming, while the others berate Hiroshi for endangering a collective project... In the last scene, Hiroshi sits naked on an empty road, making us look at his body, and then starts crawling uncomfortably across the road. The belles âmes would have us believe that it is the souls of those affected by CP that count, but those who are ill know that the reason we notice them (but would rather not) is their bodies. Hiroshi and Hara force us to look at the body as a body, as an impediment to action rather than a means to it. But on the voice-over, Hiroshi details his feelings about the film at the end of shooting.
It is often taken as a badge of sincerity on a film-maker's part to question what his film has brought to those he filmed, to ask who is using who, to acknowledge that probably, in the end, his actions as a film-maker had little positive impact on the actions of those he filmed (after all, Ici et Ailleurs, one of Godard's greatest films is based on precisely these kinds of questions). But in Goodbye CP, Hara lets Hiroshi do something else: he tells us himself what his hopes had been for the film, how these have been dashed, and how the film has failed to make any positive impact on his life. This text, running over harsh images of impotent movements, bring us back to Hara's initial question: what are we contributing? What did watching this film achieve? Faced with these images and their voice-over, we are denied one of the last resorts of traditional radical documentary watching: identification with the director. For once, we do not commiserate with a director's impotence. We are confronted with a subject's own admission of defeat. It is this refusal to make Hara's defeat into an aesthetic object, but his insistence to make Hiroshi's loss of hope the real failure, that may very well be Hara's most radical and welcome move.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Late thoughts on the ten-step podium.

(I arrive somewhat late to the discussion because I was having a wonderful time travelling around the east of the USA. Consider this a tardy late answer to Sight and Sound's poll. Or a tardy answer to Girish)

2012, when film culture reached a turning point and failed to turn. There is no doubt that there was, for many people, a hint of triumphalism in the fact that Citizen Kane had been toppled off its seat, yet any cry of victory was overwhelmingly, and correctly, overshadowed by the almost complete lack of any other change in the rest of the canon. Dziga Vertov's entry into the top 10 is the one event of note in a list that is otherwise dispiritingly similar to the previous one. And though it is bracing to see such a free, adventurous film make it into the top 10, it is somewhat damning that the only avant-garde that can «make it in» is an avant-garde that is eighty years old.
Now, why is what happens in the Sight and Sound poll noteworthy? If its status as the canon certainly matters, what made it interesting this time round was the notable changes in film culture in the past ten years. Had DVDs, internet, film blogging, greater consciousness on a wide scale of non-western/mainstream etc really made a difference? It would seem instead that so far the transformations in film culture have been, paradoxically, too effective in opening up the field to transform it quite yet. The lists, as they can be perused on the internet, are a treasure-trove, joyously opening up paths for multiple discoveries and re-evaluations, leading from one bafflement to the next, through an endless chain of cross-links and inter-connections that draw such a rich canvas of cinema that it would seem churlish to complain. Yet this is something else already: a look at the individual choices, whose multiplicity draws a far more compelling and complex picture of cinema than what the whole exercise nevertheless is: the controversial, but ultimately inescapable problem of the canon.
The opposition of the two seems to lead straight into a dead end: on one hand, the consensus of the established ten, their place more or less guaranteed by the security of numbers. On the other, the proliferation of films nominated one, two, maybe ten times, each of them a discovery and a marker of individual taste, but because of the singularity and the anti-canonical impulse underlying their choice incapable of unseating the established masterworks (for none of the films in the top ten is even remotely undeserving of the status). That this might be a perverse effect of our film culture as it stands is not false per se (what is acclaimed is visible), but somewhat beside the point: the individual list takes a stand, but the stand depends on its individuality, and becomes thus incapable of offering an alternative canon.
All of which is fine, as far as it goes. It even leads to much merriment: take Ignatiy Vishnevetsky's list and the method used to make it. Yet it also leads to the thorny problem of the established canon: if each list is its individual entity, then from where does the new canon emerge? If the aim of the new participants (bloggers, younger critics...) is to redraw the map of cinema, to expand it, to shift the way we perceive film history, then it is necessary to offer this new map. In classical Gramscian terms: discrediting a prevailing view is not enough, if one does not have a contending view to oppose to it. Practically: what is the image of cinema that we are fighting for?
This, of course, brings us back to the aim of the whole exercise: for those participants who wish to offer a new view of cinema, what meaning does one's individual list have? Is one trying to unseat the old consensus, or merely offering a new square in a mosaic where, paradoxically, each little bit is beautiful but the total matters very little? But then, if one does not care about the general picture; if what matters is cinema in its totality, not the image of cinema that emerges from one's choice; if the idea of restricting oneself to ten films is anathema; then why take part at all? Either one does seek to create a new consensus, to promote what one hopes is a richer view of cinema, with all the sacrifices it entails: using totemic films (cf. Nicole Brenez's comments, which shows an awareness of the problems this kind of list creates, but an acceptance of their necessity) that represent others; selecting, as Zach Campbell suggested a while back, sustainability rather than originality as a criterion (less sexy, sadly)... Or one goes for originality, hoping that the individual list will somehow matter, that people will make the effort because they share the same outlook, but accepting that the established canon will stand by sheer force of inertia. Either the list is made with an eye to a new canon, or the established canon stands. Have we, then, reached a critical juncture: the canon might as well stand, because it has stopped mattering?

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Blurbs, part 3: the end.

Well, that's it. I have finished my studies in Oxford, and with that, an important chapter in my life. As to what comes after, time will tell. Hopefully I will have more time now to post a bit more often than I have in the past year. But in the meantime, the blurbs I wrote for Magdalen Film Society in my final term:


The classic anti-Christmas horror comedy, still as bitingly satirical as ever.

Now I have another reason to hate Christmas.”

Joe Dante might very well qualify as one of the most talented American directors currently working, but his consistently intelligent, sharply satirical, and hilariously funny output might paradoxically be enabled by the marginal position he occupies within the film industry, having fun digs at all of its conventions while providing hugely entertaining films. Gremlins, his most famous film and one of the greatest spoofs of the Christmas spirit ever made, displays the characteristic combination of human warmth and savage critique that makes him one of the greatest satirists working in Hollywood today.
The story follows a young man who receives a cute creature for Christmas but breaks the three rules of raising it, only to let loose a bunch of monsters who wreak havoc on his small town. This is little more than an excuse for wrecking all the traditional institutions of small-town America, gleefully bringing to the surface all the neuroses and hidden tensions between the memorable cast of secondary characters. Yet it is central to Dante's vision that there is rarely such a thing as a villain in his films: some of the most sympathetic characters are the gremlins themselves, and Dante clearly has more fun observing their hedonist debauchery than the moral uptightness of some of the human characters. A sharp anti-Christmas comment that reconfigures traditional feel-good movies as horror, and a gleefully liberating destruction fest that rejoices in tearing down the American cultural unconscious, Gremlins still stands as one of the best popcorn films of all time.

A Man Escapes.

A patient examination of the efforts called for by freedom, in one of the greatest films ever made.

To fight – fight against the walls, against myself, my door.

Jean-Luc Godard once said of Robert Bresson that he is “French cinema, as Dostoyevsky is the Russian novel and Mozart is German music.” No small praise, coming from the man who is French cinema as Tolstoy is the Russian novel and Bach is German music. One of the greatest films ever made, Bresson's A Man Escapes is also the best introduction to his work, which stands as one of the most original and daring that cinema has produced.
Drawing on Bresson's own wartime experiences, as well as on the true story of Resistance fighter André Devigny, the film follows a man called Fontaine's escape attempt from the Nazi gaols of Lyon. The first shot of the film, showing the man's hands, sets the tone: the excitement and suspense of the film reside in its patient, unflinching observations of the very concrete problems that stand in Fontaine's way, and of the perseverance required he displays. Freedom is the central concern of the film, and Bresson complements his sparse, crisp imagery with a soundtrack that consistently plays on the dialectic of freedom and captivity: the slightest noises indicate menaces or opportunities, comradeship or oppression, and constantly expand the realm of possibilities by reminding us of a world outside the prison cell. With its very concrete sense of resistance, A Man Escapes is one of the few truly existentialist films: a work of art that exhibits a true sense not only of the difficulty, but also of the uncompromising necessity of freedom.

Two-Lane Blacktop:

The cult road-movie, which stands at the peak of 1970s American cinema.

You can never go fast enough.

Like many great artists, Monte Hellman might have had great trouble getting his projects off the ground, yet one need only watch the film for which he is most famous to verify that he is one of the most essential American film-makers of the past forty years. For all those who consider that the 1970s were a golden age of American cinema, Two-Lane Blacktop, both the greatest road-movie ever and the absolute anti-road-movie, is one of its most enduring miracles.
The film follows a set of four unnamed characters, as their shifting interactions and rivalries bring into question their entire way of life. Theoretically, the story is the classic set-up of a race between two drivers, one a smooth talker constantly building up his own mythology, the other one quiet and ruthlessly focused on racing. Yet Hellman continually undermines the notion of rugged virility and masculine affirmation which usually form the genre: conflicts are observed in a coolly detached way, and characters stop in squalid diners as often as they cross lush landscapes. By the infamous ending (one of the most memorable in American cinema), the two conflicting visions of masculinity (and of the actor's craft) have exposed as equally false, empty codes whereby men prove themselves to each other but become incapable of genuine contact, so that the very idea of “winning the girl” becomes a dead end. Two-Lane Blacktop takes the road movie ever faster towards its culimation in absolute stillness. Run, run, as fast as you can...

Children in the Wind.

An masterwork of unassuming spontaneity by one of the great forgotten masters of Japanese cinema.

You only have freedom when you're young.

The films of Hiroshi Shimizu, one of the supreme (and unjustly neglected) masters of Japanese cinema, offer a blast of fresh air to anyone seeking worthwhile portrayals of childhood on film. Whereas most attempts either portray children as annoying idiots or as cloying creatures so irritatingly cute as to be devoid of any reality, Shimizu pays close attention to their interactions and aspirations, letting them exist as multi-faceted beings as worthy of interest as the adults around them. Nowhere is the generosity of his vision as evident as in one of his best films, Children in the Wind.
Sanpei and Zenta are two brothers who see their position in the group of village children undermined when their father meets with trouble at work. Shimizu attentively follows the reverberations of this, first in the family, then in the wider frame of society, carefully drawing parallels between the economic struggles of the adult world and the discord it creates within the children's society. A master at integrating human figures in landscapes, Shimizu effortlessly creates compositions all the more stunning for their simplicity, and has few challengers in the art of contriving scenes that are both funny and intensely moving. His children are intelligent and funny, eager to discover the world, and Shimizu adopts their posture of patient and ever-renewed exploration to chart the transformations of the slowly modernizing Japanese rural community. Beautifully simple and effortlessly rich, the communal vision of Children in the Wind is one of the most compelling portrayals of children ever seen on screen.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012


"This is also why economists get away with murder: it’s so boring that no one is watching them."

Adam Curtis.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Film Society Blurbs, 2/3.

Dear readers who are still out there: I do intend to go on writing for this blog, but for a variety of reasons (exams, very active film society involvement, enhanced social life, and mostly non-film related reading in the past year or so) I haven't really been able to do so for the past few months.

In the meantime, here are the blurbs that I wrote for Magdalen Film Society last term. I will post those for the last term once the films have actually been shown, and then I do intend to post at least a few thoughts on film programming as an activity, as I had promised I would. Anyway, without further ado:

An Affair to Remember

For anyone who still thinks that the 1950s were a shallow decade of conformism for Hollywood, An Affair to Remember, a film of almost unsurpassed romanticism, is also a supreme example of radical genre-mixing. As such, it manages the feat of being both one of the greatest romantic comedies ever, and one of the greatest melodramas ever.

What makes it so simultaneously heart-warming and heart-wrenching is the complete mastery with which Leo McCarey, still a criminally under-rated director, treats this tale of a man and a woman, soon to be married to others, who fall in love and promise to break off their respective engagements and meet again in six months at the top of the Empire State Building. A remake of his own Love Affair, it is a study in what brings two people together or keeps them apart. McCarey uses cinema-scope with a rare, self-effacing brilliance, modulating the spaces that his characters share and taking the time to watch them move from guarded flirting to deep attraction. Resting on the finely tuned interaction between a womanizing Cary Grant whose games of seduction give way to genuine commitment, and a quietly strong Deborah Kerr who refuses happiness on terms other than her own, the film finds its soul in the slow process of falling in love. When the two finally accept their attraction, in a scene whose gentleness is the true heart of the film, the result is an unassuming sincerity without parallel in the history of cinema.

An American in Paris

While the musical is not as fashionable today as film noir among film buffs, it is a genre that helped define Hollywood and has given it as many masterworks as any other genre. An American in Paris, one of the pinnacles of Gene Kelly and director Vincente Minnelli's careers, is also one of the miracles of the genre, defined by the constant tension between the director and the star's personalities.

The film, one of the better versions of Europe as a fantasy of America that have always populated Hollywood, follows the tribulations of Jerry, the eponymous painter who lives in Paris for inspiration, when he falls in love with a woman who turns out to be engaged to one of his friends. From the very beginning, which sees Jerry waking up in his one-room appartment in an elaborate choreography which sees every-day movements (getting out of bed, preparing a cup of coffee) casually infused with a rhythm and musicality that sets the whole world in motion, it is clear that the film's mood is wildly infectious. But what makes it truly distinctive is the final ballet, where Minnelli's bitter-sweet vision of love finds its true expression. As Jerry imagines himself, to Gershwin's score, running through a stylized Paris straight out of the great paintings he loves, the film creates Hollywood's answer to The Red Shoes, an explosion of color and music that radically reconfigures the film and bears up to the comparison with Michael Powell's masterwork. There is no higher praise.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

One of the cult slasher hits of the eighties, A Nightmare on Elm Street belongs squarely to that golden generation of films which, with Halloween as the example, claimed the tradition of Psycho as its own and brought it where it has stayed ever since : in the realm of the pulp, trashy, and endlessly inventive shocker.

The film, which features Johnny Depp in one of his first performances, uses all the well-worn tricks of the trade : it-was-all-a-dream sequence, teen-agers getting killed after sex, references to The Exorcist and The Shining, fear of female sexuality, embodied in the iconic image of the claws coming out from between the bathing heroine's legs...Yet it is clear that Wes Craven, with his absurdist sense of humor, had already understood most of what cinema has been telling us since. With the determination of those with no money but a story to tell, he walks the audience through the teenage version of the american dream and transforms all of its images, from the high school hall to the suburban home, into haunting visions of horror. Twenty-five years before Inception, the film invents the lethal dream, tells us that our world is a nightmare, that nightmares are real, and that we get lost in between. And thus, in the most unlikely way, one of the great pulp masterworks of B horror film-making joins paths with W.B.Yeats: in dreams begins responsibility.