Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Jodie Mack viewing notes

Two Hundred Feet (2004)

I first heard of Jodie Mack in 2014 when Dusty Stacks of Mom: The Poster Project (2013) was making the festival rounds and generating a positive buzz on social media. I've yet to see that one, but last year I had the opportunity to see Wasteland no.1: Ardent Verdant (2017) and it was one of my favorites of 2017.

I hadn't realized that many of her earlier works are available for free on her website and her Vimeo page. What follows are some viewing notes on fifteen of her films that I watched while sitting in my hotel room in New London, Connecticut.

There is an exquisite pleasure in watching Mack's form and technique evolve over the course of these early shorts and experiments. Two-Hundred Feet (2003) plays like a Brakhage film if Brakhage were fun and bright. Her work with shapes and even scenarios emerging from a primordial slop of abstraction increases in its complexity from film to film. At other times, her early works recalls for me Pat O'Neill in the way they established patterns of shapes and movement that will increase steadily in their complexity as the film goes on. The sheer joy of creation on display makes each film a treat, even the ones that feel more like arts and crafts projects.

Posthaste Perennial Pattern

Of these works, the best are those that establish clear visible parameters in the material that they are working with. Rad Plaid (2010), Posthaste Perennial Pattern (2010), and Unsubscribe #1: Special Offer Inside (2010) all indicate a finite body of raw materials that the films then abstract through perspective, repetition, and montage, which function to create movement in what is essentially still photography. My favorite of these (and of everything I watched here) is Posthaste Perennial Pattern, which juxtaposes artificial nature, handmade floral patterns on furniture, with raw audio of an outdoor spring scenario: bird song and passing cars in the distance. It's abstraction is grounded in a diagetic personal experience. While all of Mack's films are reflections of her daily life in some manner, Posthaste Perennial Pattern exhibits this without description or artists statement and contains a depth (perhaps through the audio) that moves it away from a fun catalog of shapes.

Unsubscribe no.2: All Eyes on the Silver Screen 

I was also taken by the entire Unsubscribe series, which reveals Mack at her most confident and experimental of the works I viewed. #1: Special Offer Inside makes a sub-atomic universe from junk mail envelopes (it recalled a much later/lesser film that I watched last year, Where You Go, There We Are (2017) by Jesse McLean). Unsubscribe no.2: All Eyes on the Silver Screen (2010) utilizes a stunning use of split screen images composed through practical collage effects. Something about its color and old movie fascination reminded me of Peter Tscherkassky's great Coming Attractions (2010). Unsubscribe #3: Glitch Envy (2010) continues this work of manifesting digital new media representation through analogue materiality, creating glitches through collage art and guttural human sound effects. The fourth in the series, Unsubscribe No. 4: The Saddest Song in the World (2010) is more in tuned to her musical/music video type work and recalls the queer zine girl group fascinations of Sadie Benning's bedroom films. I hope these references do not diminish Mack's stature, I offer them only as my own means of navigating her versatile style.

Yard Work is Hard Work

As of this posting I feel I need to give Lilly (2007) another spin. It was intriguing, but this and Yard Work is Hard Work (2008) were the least interesting of the films I watched. Both were created between the early proto-Brakhage experiments and the absolute mastery of her 2010 output. Something about the use of narrative doesn't quite land. Yard Work is Hard Work is perhaps the only one of these fifteen works that I didn't care for at all. It's twenty-seven minute running time didn't help (compared to three and six minute shorts), but it was shaped by my dislike of the typical Broadway musical style. The collage work is impressive, as always, but I found the overall effect to be grating and basic.

I also watched A Joy (2005), All Stars (2006), Mannequis Harlequin (2006), Harlequin (2006/9), Screensaver (2009), and Twilight Spirit (2009).

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

January 2018 viewing diary

way back in July 2016 I tried out a monthly viewing diary, summarizing some thoughts on the visual culture I experienced in that month. I fell off, as I often do. But it's 2018 and I'm back baby!

In Theaters

It's become something of a tradition to start the year by going to see something I'm not at all interested in. 2017 began with Hidden Figures and 2018 began with I, Tonya. Chalk it up to family diplomacy ("we always see what you want"). They're not wrong. I scrapped a post on I, Tonya. Suffice to say I think it's getting trashed without due attention to how it deals with American poverty, specifically the notion of white trash. As someone who grew up in a trailer house in the country, I'm particularly invested in the ways the structural violence of poverty is depicted on-screen, how it follows you through life, regardless of how Tonya blames everybody but herself. The Current Tonya Harding Moment aside, this film mostly gets it right, at least for white poverty anyway.

Most of what I've seen has been a disappointment. The Post is Spielberg's weakest since The Terminal;  Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is fun, but wastes its own talent in some bizarre ways; Phantom Thread was an obnoxious bore; and Proud Mary was absolutely heinous. I also saw The Commuter. See below.

I managed a single repertory viewing: The Crime of Monsieur Lange. I hadn't seen this since fall of 2004 in my History of Cinema course at Columbia College Chicago. We watched a VHS copy that was so washed out we could barely read the (white!) subtitles. The film is absolutely majestic in its deft movement from orbiting individuals into communal life. It's also a brilliant catalog of sexuality, from radical free love to the horrific possessiveness of rape.

2018 Rankings

This also means my 2018 ranking has begun in earnest. A compulsion I both despise and enjoy way too much. Here's a snapshot of January:


I've made an effort to catch up on the films of Jaume Collet-Serra. The Shallows took me by surprise and ended up being one of my favorite films of 2016. This month I watched three of the four Liam Neeson vehicles: Unknown, Run All Night, and The Commuter. The Commuter is an incredible work of fluid, economic action thriller genre, but it's Unknown that is the best of the Neeson collaborations so far (still need to see Non-Stop). It has a Hitchcockian wrong-man flavor, but it's also the tightest of these works. Run All Night is a fun play-for-play mirror of Road to Perdition (a Mendes I actually love); an Irish-American mob sins-of-the-father narrative. I'm excited to catch up on House of Wax and Orphan, both of which I ignored completely for reasons unknown.


I've also been playing catch-up with the works of Murnau. Despite considering him an all-time favorite and endlessly professing my love of Faust, Nosferatu, and Tabu, I've never explored his lesser-known and early works (apart from The Last Laugh). Most of these have been from the Masters of Cinema Early Murnau set. I've posted about a few: Phantom, The Finances of the Grand Duke, and The Burning Soil (not in this set). I also watched The Haunted Castle, which was pretty dull.

Region-Free Blu-ray baby!

After my old Philips region-free DVD player died last fall I was forced to upgrade to a region-free blu-ray player. Thanks to my lovely in-laws who bought me one as a gift (so I guess I can't complain too much about having to see shit like Hidden Figures or Jumanji). I inaugurated it this month by finally getting to my Masters of Cinema Vertov boxed-set. Man with a Movie Camera has long been a favorite, but I was absolutely blown away by both Kino Eye and Enthusiasm. Enthusiasm is such a fresh and radical film that exists in a league of its own. If I'm being honest, I think I prefer the early sound experiments of Vertov over Eisenstein, although its really pointless to compare the two masters. I'm finding that I respond to his other works much more than Man with a Movie Camera. And as a Chris Marker devotee, it's fascinating to see all of the tricks and techniques of Marker's essay films present here in the influence of Vertov. I wrote a bit about this back in 2016 here. Up next will be long-awaited rewatches of A Touch of Zen and The Passion of Joan of Arc, both of which I picked up on MoC blu-ray and have long been two of my favorite films.

Known Unknowns

My best friend lent me a stack of DVDs that he's getting rid of. Most are films from Hong Kong, Taiwan, mainland China, Thailand, and South Korea. There are some that I'm familiar with and have been meaning to get to, like Police Story and PTU, but many of them are entirely unknown to me. It's really exciting to be able to throw on a movie and know almost nothing about its context. This is a rare and cherished experience that takes me back to my pre-film school days when practically everything that wasn't mainstream was an unknown commodity. This month I got to two films that I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into: Cops and Robbers (Alex Cheung, 1979) and Final Justice (Parkman Wong, 1988). Both problematic hokum in service of a reverential obsession with police, but damn fine action films. Cops and Robbers moves from a kind of saccharine sentimentalism to an intense and shocking nihilism. It's pathologized ableism is a bit hard to stomach, but I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit to how much I enjoyed both as action films.


Looking forward to February I plan to continue my Collet-Serra and Murnau explorations. I also have big theatrical plans: Black Panther, a new Eastwood, and the opportunity to see The Love Witch on 35mm and 24 Frames in the same day! Neither of which I've seen. There's also a 35mm showing of Full Metal Jacket, which was a formative experience for me back in the days of VHS. I own the old standard DVD, but I've never seen a quality version of this old favorite. I'll also be spending some time traveling to Connecticut to present on my research, which means I'll be alone in my hotel room with a hard drive full of unseen movies!


Der brennende Acker (Murnau, 1922)

My experience with The Burning Soil was mildly unpleasant. Ripped from an unknown source, it was murky and constantly deinterlacing, mutating every flickering figure into a pixelated ghost from a Kiyoshi Kurosawa film. A 4K transfer on blu-ray would undoubtedly have made this more visually arresting, but I doubt it would have made me love the film any more. To be frank, The Burning Soil is pretty boring. Much like The Haunted Castle, it reveals early Murnau as an adept stager of scenes, an otherworldly creator of images, but lacking the depth and electricity of his cannon of greats.

What grabbed me in The Burning Soil is the near-excessive use of written letters. One could complain that this chains cinema to the devices of Victorian literature, which is constantly framed by correspondence. But Murnau renders these letters as artifacts, conjuring a future archival cinema. I thought about the books in Farocki or the baseball cards in American Dreams: Lost and Found.

The letters could be the only actualities here: real documents. The players are merely re-enacting the historical events that the letters suggest.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Die Finanzen des Großherzogs (Murnau, 1924)

A man of means, who is also a master of disguises, frequently veers The Finances of the Grand Duke into Fantomas territory. Outwitting plainclothes pursuers and seemingly having a hand in every correspondence that crosses his path. But how long have tiny little dogs trailed packs of big dogs for comedic effect? That is the question I was left with after one of the funniest fake-out set ups I've seen.

At a first glance I thought I accidentally threw on an early Lubitsch film. The lightness of touch; the economy of narrative and excess of style; the ephemeral nature with which it deals with romance, economic distress, and plutocrat-funded revolution against royalty.

No one filmed the sea quite like Murnau, especially tall ships on the water. Docks, coastlines, harbors, and cityscapes  are framed with a frankness that emphases the quality of the images as actualities, but the tinting, the montage, the mood renders them simultaneously expressionistic landscapes of dreams.

Nowhere near as jaw-dropping as Nosferatu, but The Finances of the Grand Duke is a worthy comedic counterpart to Murnau's early masterpiece. It is these qualities that recall for me the silent-cinematic fantasias of later-period Catherine Breillat (An Old MistressBluebeard, The Sleeping Beauty) which know the power of the tinted still actuality.

Everything in cinema has already been achieved by the silent masters, even if by accident. This tracking shot on the boat crashes into the doc. It inserts a fluidity akin to a GoPro or when Michael Mann cuts from a hand on the gear stick to the side-view mirror of a sports car.

We're in an Eisenstein film now!

Quit the opposite, in fact. The Finances of the Grand Duke romanticizes its royalty, even when critiquing capitalists but also the industry so essential to communism (have you seen any Vertov?). Murnau loves dichotomous notions of nature as pure and unspoiled. Edenic nature. Perhaps the revolutionaries had real cause to overthrow the Grand Duke because they were denied access to the very Eden the Grand Duke sought to preserve. They were, after all, sleeping in a fucking boat on the shore. Nature as bucolic salve is only a privilege of the rich: that strange opening of the Grand Duke flinging his money into the sea where naked boys splash about to recover it. This is strangely in opposition to other Murnau films that render poverty virtuous through its closeness to the soil (Sunrise is the obvious reference here, but see also the much, much lesser Der brennende Acker aka The Burning Soil).

Last, I wish to highlight this sequence of the Grand Duke himself imagining his nation transformed into a wasteland from a proposed sulphur mine:

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Phantom (Murnau, 1922)

What an opening.

Cut to former life.

Color codes (mostly):

Blue is for dreams.

Yellow for schemes.


This is classic Murnau: an ordinary man with a simple life gets lost in an image. The image is a desire for something that he believes is better than what he already has. The image always leads the ordinary man astray leading to betrayal, violence, and depravity. It's hard to feel sorry for Lorenz here. He's a real dumbass. Perhaps that's why Phantom is so underwhelming compared to Murnau's greats. However, the dreams are so enthralling that I'll take a little narrative boredom if it means we get sequences like this.