Saturday, 24 December 2011

Of time and discovery

Tarkovsky's films are, as everybody knows, about time. What time? The time it takes to wait, to take something in, to wait for something to appear because there is no telling when it might. Better yet: the time it takes for the character and the viewer to understand that what they are waiting for has changed between the beginning of a shot and the end. The time it takes to move from a character (i.e. a variable) to a landscape (i.e. a thought), to let the viewer take in the landscape (whether a meadow or a cathedral), and to move back to the character taking in the landscape as a new element in his (rarely her) problem. Which is why his camera movements are rarely about mapping out a space, and often about revealing a character's discovery of a space. And the difference between revealing (the work of the camera) and discovering (the work of the character) is the difference between looking at a character and looking with a character. In Tarkovsky's films, the camera is in almost complete control, and its work is to seize the instant of discovery, of understanding, of appearance. A camera slowly overtakes a character, pushing him out the right side of the frame, only to let him reappear on the left side of the frame at the end of the camera movement. What has changed? The character has now seen. Seen what? That is the question at the centre of every single one of Tarkovsky's films.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Programming notes

This year is my final year at university, leaving me with little time to do anything but study (theoretically: the lure of film-watching is often hard to resist). However, one thing I have thankfully found time for is film programming at our local film society. Having been mostly learning the ropes in my first term, I haven't exactly had time to really think through what programming means, and in which new ways it forces one to think about films. Is any film programmed an endorsement? Are we saying we think it is a good film, or only that it is one worth watching for reasons that might not be related to quality per se? How does one pair films? For that last question, one of my ideals has been Brad Stevens's comments on his ideal double bill of Inland Empire+Céline et Julie vont en bateau, but how possible is that kind of fusion in practice on a regular basis?

Anyway, these are thoughts I need to sort out for myself. I do intend to do that, as I raelly do think that however small the scale I'm doing it on, I really should be using my programming to question and enrich some of my critical positions and a prioris.
In the meantime, however, and since I've written shamefully little in the past few months on this blog, here are the blurbs I wrote for films which were shown and I supported (I have tried not to let marketing interfere too much with criticism, but a certain measure of hyping has been inevitable):

The Bad Sleep Well (Akira Kurosawa, 1960)

Kurosawa remains famous, especially outside Japan, for his historical epics; yet his contemporary works are often equally stunning, and one of the best windows into the transormations Japan went through following World War Two. With The Bad Sleep Well, Kurosawa delivers both one of the greatest post-noirs ever and one of the most atypical.

Taking its subject matter from one of the countless corruption scandals that has mired Japanese political life since 1945, The Bad Sleep Well follows a real estate bribery case as it unravels from within. It opens with a breath-taking twenty-minute wedding ceremony that presents social systems as contractual arrangements with no place for individuality, an extraordinary feat of mise-en-scène that uses splendid Scope framings to illustrate power relations between all the main characters while giving us only the barest hints as to where the actual narrative will go. Incorporating elements of noir (high-contrast black and white, a view of society as fundamentally corrupt) and modernism (as in l'Avventura and Psycho, it takes a while to understand who the main characters will be), the film even anticipates many of the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s (The Conversation, The Parallax View) in its presentation of impersonal power relations where corruption is not a moral conundrum but a system. In the implacability of its progression as in the total mastery of its directing, it stands as one of the most under-rated monuments of its author and the genre he was working in.

Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980)

Without a doubt the most (in)famous of the many Italian exploitation films of the 1970s, Cannibal Holocaust is also one of the best. Mixing the usual violent and erotic elements required to put bums on seats with an equally important but less acknowledged political focus, it is a ferocious satire of the media, and a forerunner of many trends in horror cinema, from Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield.

From the opening, where a reporter's speech about places on Earth that still live as if in the stone age, with survival of the fittest as the only rule, plays over images of downtown Manhattan, it becomes clear that the film has more on its agenda than just shocks. It is split in two parts, the first of which sees an anthropologist going into the Amazon jungle to look for four documentary film-makers who vanished without a trace after attempting to film a tribe of cannibals deep inside the “Green Inferno”. This sequence sets up all the archetypes of the exploitation film (civilized whites going into the jungle and encountering evil savages), archetypes the film will spend the remaining half deconstructing. As the anthropologist discovers the team's footage, it becomes clear that any image of savagery the film might have offered possesses its mirror in the horrors the young American film-makers committed. Both deconstruction of media reporting, arresting blood-and-guts spectacle, and comment on Western colonialism more generally, Cannibal Holocaust remains a milestone of exploitation cinema.

Mother and Son (Aleksandr Sokurov, 1997)

It says something about our awareness of world cinema that two of Sokurov's greatest films, Days of Eclipse and The Second Circle, are unavailable in this country. Mother and Son, however, is. A major achievement by anyone's standards, it is one of the most original films of the 90s.

Annointed by Tarkovsky as his heir, Sokurov shares many characteristics with the master: a measured sense of time pushed almost to the point of stasis, a deep mysticism that finds expression in languid shots of nature, and an almost mythological view of the Russian people. Mother and Son, which brings these traits to their aesthetic culmination, details the last few days that a son spends with his mother before she dies. The two enjoy each other's company, delve into the past, and take walks in the fields to admire nature one last time. Sokurov's use of distorting lenses transforms his characters into icons, and the painterly visions of nature he gives us here are among the most gorgeous landscape shots ever committed to film. The moments of contemplation add up to reveal an undercurrent of muted grief, and as the film unfolds, its' silent epiphanies gain a cumulative impact unlike anything else in current cinema. A quietly devastating masterpiece.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Scribblings on A Wife Confesses

-Jonathan Rosenbaum has repeatedly linked Masumura to Ray, Fuller, Aldrich and Tashlin, but after seeing this film, it is impossible not to be reminded that he initially worked as Antonioni's assistant. The treatment of love as a momentary reprieve against pervasive alienation (of which loneliness and imposed interdependence are only two different forms), the impossibility of it lasting due to moral requirements which are only social requirements in disguise... Without necessarily aiming for it, Masumura has made one of the few films that does not require a point of view. He posits subjectivity as never quite within reach but always slightly beside the point. What matters is not full understanding of, or identification with, any one person's emotions, but what goes on between two clashing subjectivities. He does this using a method of which the Japanese are the masters: the human face is always on the verge of vanishing, at the very limit of being discernable.

-Again, Jonathan Rosenbaum: " It’s a courtroom thriller about a young widow who’s being tried for her part in the death of her abusive older husband while they were mountain climbing, and it hinges on the haunting question of what she was thinking when she made the split-second decision to cut the rope connecting the two of them."
And again, I think he's only partly right. For he loses sight of the many, many ways in which Masumura is always making us refocus on something else: while the trial goes on, the question of guilt is not examined directly, but under the aspect of emotion: are the two in love? For the viewer, the wife's share of guilt in her husband's death (who is presented in a deeply unsympathetic way, which only increases the effect) is a secondary consequence of that fundamental question. When the verdict is announced, Masumura cuts short the judge's announcement and has it pronounced by a bored journalist who leaves the room. The story then seems to focus on the two lovers' relationship, but this is precisely when th issue of guilt becomes central.
If in doubt, consider this image,

and consider the fact that the soundtrack to it is not the sound of the waves, but a music strongly suggesting anxiety.

In fact, from the very start, it becomes clear through framing that the film will be as much about the lovers being apart as about them being together:

Masumura never lets us fall in love with any of the two lovers.

-In this film, Masumura pays back his hommage to Oshima, who had defended him in the fifties. Some of the shots could be straight out of Cruel Tales of Youth:

In fact, one of the elements that make the film so incredibly fertile is its point at the center of so many movements: one of the many films under heavy influence by the European art cinema of the 50s (Cronaca di un amore); one of the pinnacles of the Japanese studio system (Daiei); one of the greatest examples anywhere of a film made inside the system, against the system; an aesthetic inquiry into the work of the emerging generation of new waves, throughout the world but especially in Japan... Anyone even remotely interested in how Japanese culture changed in the 1950s-60s will have to come to terms with this nexus.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

"Alexis St Martin was one of the 19th century’s most important scientific guinea pigs. In 1822, the illiterate young French-Canadian was working as a ‘voyageur’ for John Jacob Astor’s fur-trading company in northern Michigan. He was hanging out with a bunch of rowdies in the company store when a shotgun accidentally went off and he was hit below his left nipple. The injury was serious and likely to be fatal – his half-digested breakfast was pouring out of the wound from his perforated stomach, along with bits of the stomach itself – but a US army surgeon called William Beaumont was nevertheless sent for. Beaumont was pessimistic, but he cleaned the wound as best he could and was amazed the next day to find his patient still alive. It was touch and go for almost a year: St Martin survived, though with a gastric fistula about two and a half inches in circumference. It was now possible for Beaumont to peer into St Martin’s stomach, to insert his forefinger into it, to introduce muslin bags containing bits of food and to retrieve them whenever he wanted."


Wednesday, 8 June 2011

These few images, from John Gianvito's Vapor Trail (Clark), are part of a montage which is one of the many inserted in the film as part of its dialectic between history and the present. Gianvito's approach is particularly enriching in that not only does it avoid a linear vision of history and narration, it also, as a consequence of this, points out the multiplicity and intricacy of causes behind any one situation.

But in this particular case, it does something else, too. The montage of pictures of American soldiers fighting, or ready to fight, belongs to one of the two archetypes of war photography (the other one being that of the dead bodies). What remains off-screen in both cases is the other side (the enemy firing back ; the soldier who killed the victim) as an active agent, interacting in the same sphere and time frame as the subject being photographed. Gianvito, by inscribing this sequence in his dialectic of present (oral narratives) and history (narratives based on documents), enables a similar dialectic to take place between the images being shown and what their off-screen (hors-champ) reality is : he extends the simple frame of the picture and includes the present reality of the Philippines as the direct but un-represented off-screen space of those marines, a deployment through not only space (the other side of the war line) but also time.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Critique: "reconstructions of the internal logic of ideas, deductions of the intellectual and sociological conditions of their possibility, withering exposures of their inconsistencies and omissions."


Sunday, 17 April 2011


Having thought about it a bit recently after a conversation with a friend, it's slightly more clear to me why La Haine seems so tepid in comparison to Ma 6-t va Crack-er, and equally why La Haine is by far the more popular of the two (the fact that Richet's film is banned and therefore unavailable obviously also plays a role), and the more easily sanctioned one (has any self-respecting french middle-class liberal person not seen La Haine by the age of 25?).
It's not enough to say that La Haine is just a sociological speadsheet that simply announces trouble ("Jusqu'ici tout va bien": for how much longer?) while Ma 6-t va Crack-er actively calls for revolution. The more fundamental difference lies in how the two films approach their audiences in relation to what they ask of them. Kassovitz strives to make the banlieues into a subject of discussion, to make us sympathize with the "racaille", to show that they live in conditions which no-one should have to accept, in a phrase (with all the solemnity implied by the italics): to make us understand these people. Its point-of-view is exterior, that of a sociological tourist, designed to enable bourgeois viewers to approach these "problems" disguised as characters. Its impulse is to translate the "racaille" for a non-banlieue audience. As such, there is nothing antagonistic about its position: it seeks acknowledgement and approval from what it theoretically criticizes. If we, as a middle-class left-wing audience, have grown to like these characters, then his mission will have been done (the good old "why can't we all just get along?" solution to all social woes). The film critic who called its aesthetic that of advertising (in Panic, which I've talked about on this blog before) is doubly right: beyond advertising itself as a film (black-and-white as a cachet of "art", the socially significant theme...), it is also, fundamentally, an ad for its subject. It sells the banlieue as a subject of conversation, and its inhabitants as a phenomenon that needs the (non-banlieue) audience's sympathy.
Ma 6-t..., on the other hand, refuses to seek approval. Its defiance (sometimes heavy-handed, as in the slow travelling shot onto the police badge) is one that doesn't look for acknowledgement but demands it. Its characters talk of politics in terms of their own powerlessness rather than in terms of metaphors. Richet is aware that the middle-class viewers so impressed by La Haine are part of the sociological order he is fighting, and as such, he sees no need to humor them. Ma 6-t va Crack-er does not seduce: it fights, and on its own terms.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Hard as it might be to describe, La Bocca del Lupo is probably one of the most beautiful and important films to have come out of Europe this century. Most refreshingly, it shows an attentiveness to, and a non-condescending sympathy for, the downtrodden of society barely seen in Italian cinema since Pasolini, and quite unique in today's European cinema. Part portrait of a city (Genoa, city of migrants as the first offscreen monologue tells us, through which Enzo wanders without recognizing it after more than twenty years spent in prison), part commemoration of its popular classes, part portrait of a couple (Enzo and Mary, a transsexual whom he met in prison and who narrates long segments of the film), it is a film completely at ease creating new rhythms, alternating between quiet contemplation and lyrical montage, between Mary's retrospective voice-over narration and recordings of audio tapes sent by her to Enzo while he was still in jail.

Ostensibly but only imperfectly a documentary, it operates outside most assumptions of the genre. Though the interplay between documentary and fiction has been one of the leitmotivs of 21st century cinema, it might be more accurate to say in this case that Pietro Marcello completely reconfigures the relationship of reality to narrative, since what is at stake, fundamentally, is the ability to narrate and remember lived experience. The whole film, in many ways, can be seen as the creation of conditions which enable Enzo and Mary to finally transmit their story. Before they are able to do that, in a sequence of astonishing simplicity that takes up the final quarter of the film, they will have had to go through the whole range of narrative processes open to the film-maker and themselves : mythology (the first scene, with its timeless unidentified voice-over, and its primal vision of man and the sea), poetry (or rather music, but we know how closely the two have long been connected, and are here joined again as opera serves as a counterpoint to archival images of the city's past working classes at work or at play), day-to-day observation, epistolary interchange (the audio tapes which Enzo and Mary used as letters to each other), and genre film-making (in a montage of posters following a comment that with a physique as distinctive as his, Enzo could have been an actor).

It is important to point out here how forgotten the experience Marcello and Enzo work together to excavate now is in Europe. With the slow disintegration of the European working class and its exportation to (mostly) Asia, films paying attention to the experience of the poverty that remains (the working class in its traditional sense may be fragmented and weak, but the number of poor and disenfranchised is only rising), and matching that investigation with formal enquiries into its representation, have been few and far-between (the Dardennes, Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche). Almost completely absent has been attention paid to the memory of the working class experience. La Bocca del Lupo emerges as an absolutely essential film in that regard precisely because it pays such close attention to the way that memory can be narrated, an attention that extends from speech (the Genovese dialect, in all its modulations) and voices (Mary's unforgettably raspy voice, whose tenderness comes across slowly but with unmistakeable power) to Marcello's own strategies, and just how far he can put them at Enzo and Mary's service. Marcello's approach here is largely contrapuntal : weaving together historic footage of the Genoa Enzo would have grown up in with images of the city today, documenting its changes, the replacement of one type of popular experience by another (with which both Enzo and Marcello seem less at ease). By never losing sight of the fundamental difference between the means open to Enzo and Mary (speech) and to himself (film) to tell the same story, and yet using these differences in a mutually enriching rather than conflictual manner, Marcello has created one of the most upright films to come out of Italy in a long time.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

A few minutes of Videogramme einer Revolution

Shot-reverse-shot as a political battle: two opposition leaders talk with their own consistuencies in two separate rooms (but probably the same building). Both are writing a speech, in other words setting up a programme, in other words setting themselves up as leaders to replace Ceausescu. The videos of these moments don't show any time codes, so there's no way of showing for sure the synchronicity of those two scenes. But Farocki and Ujica edit them as shot-reverse-shot, alternating moments from the two rooms almost symmetrically. The use of this now automatic construct (in fact, it might be possible to make the case that it was more automatic when the film was made than it is now) has rarely emphasized its own artificiality as much. These are two shots which clearly don't answer each other in narrative, geographic or maybe even temporal terms. What brings them together is, of course, their political significance. Which is not something that can be identified by a camera (as the commentary to the opening shot makes clear), only by those who wield them and edit the footage. While the whole film is concerned not only by the actual, concrete political moments of a revolution but also the breakdown of visual systems that accompany them, this scene shows Farocki and Ujica consciously attempting something else, something that as a gesture is pretty amazing: both a deconstruction of a pattern of commercial cinema, and a reconstruction of it, accepting its artificiality, as a formal expression of the plural possibilities opened up by the revolution. As such, it's a shot-counter-shot that owes much more to Eisenstein than it does to Hollywood.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Time warp

How else to explain a shock such as this? In the middle of Der Mörder Dimitri Karamasoff (which is astonishing for how much of the original novel it maintains to capture, despite butchering absolutely key elements and one of the three brothers of the title, on top of all the other reasons), marked by its debts to Dostoevsky (i.e. the Russian 1870s), formalist strategies partly inherited from the Russian montage school (the Russian 1920s) and sound experiments of Weimar Germany, a shot suddenly materializes which could come straight out of an American film of the 1970s, or maybe rather a French or Czech film of the mid-1960s, or some such miraculous (post-Anna-Karina-in-Vivre-Sa-Vie) period. Gruschenka gives herself up to the music, swirls around with the other gypsies at the inn, Dimitri watches her as very few men have watched a woman, the camera follows the gypsies, the gypsies look at the camera, as the music rises to a crescendo... The camera is drunk.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Quick reaction

Far from me the idea of taking sides in the whole realism mini-debate unwittingly initiated by Adrian Martin last month in De Filmkrant, but his new column, which comes back to that whole debate, strikes me as deeply flawed intellectually and methodologically, and slightly disingenuous, in at least two ways.
I'm referring especially to the last paragraph, in which Martin calls "symptomatic" both the making of those films, and their critical reception. Fine enough, but that's opening a (deceptively simple) can of worms which is simply not dealt with, and which really must be if his argument is to stand any ground: symptomatic of what? What is the "broader pattern of cultural-political correspondences that is necessarily beyond them"? If their common denominator is the illusion of realism, why is the illusion of realism reappearing now? What are the forces shaping this, to what extent do they originate outside or inside cinema? There's a difference between identifying the symptom and the cause, and unless that wider force-field is defined (in his defence, something too big to bite off in a Filmkrant column), I don't see how Martin can make his argument stand.
Secondly, what I find slightly dishonest about that paragraph is Martin's unwillingness to consider his own reaction as equally symptomatic, which would be a logical thing a gentleman-like intellectual sparring partner might do (I don't consider his assertion that he doesn't like being considered symptomatic either up to the task). Not only that, but identifying and questioning the dividing line between the two different "symptoms" would throw light on the whole problematic on a much deeper level: the flip-side to that "symptom" as an alternative? Or as a different form of the same problem?