Thursday, December 13, 2012

update

I haven't been posting here as much as I'd like. Graduate school is devouring most of my time. As one professor said, the funny thing about studying film and television is that you often don't have time to watch them. How perverse is that? Actually, that's not entirely true. I've seen a lot of movies this year, I just don't have as much time to blog about them as I'd like.

I don't want to abandon this blog, in fact I'd like to return to writing longer, sustained pieces.

In the meantime I've restarted my tumblr as a means to get stuff out there. Tumblr's are fascinating creatures. They thrive on a lack of context, reflection, and sustained thought. But then again, I've found some great articles, books, and movies from a handful that I follow. It seems that's what the Tumblr is good for, a taste maker for people who may already share your tastes.

Anyway, mine can be found here.

Over the winter break I hope to post some longer pieces here on the films of the year. I think Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance deserves more attention than its getting.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Screen Machine #3



Issue 3 of the Melbourne based online film journal Screen Machine is now available here.

I have a review of Dredd published here.

Hope you enjoy.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Queen of Versailles


(Lauren Greenfield / 2012)

Very few filmmakers get interviews like this. Greenfield belongs to that rare circle of Werner Herzog, Errol Morris, and to a lesser extent, Adam Curtis. Only they can give their subjects enough rope to hang themselves. And yet an uneasy sympathy (or pity) comes through. And like Herzog and Morris, an allegorical mise en scene shares the frame with the banality of reality television tropes. Her talking head footage seamlessly fits within the gonzo construction of a perverse reality. The environment of each interview tells us as much as the subjects. They become one and the same.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Who Knows What About Movies?

My partner and I were Sam and Suzy from Moonrise Kingdom for Halloween and nobody knew what the hell that was. Outside of my movie friends the film does not exist. I would have expected this had we gone as Irma Vep and Guérand, not Wes Anderson characters. Perhaps its the innocuous title: Moonrise Kingdom sounds like a Twilight installment. I wonder, because conversation has proven that these people are familiar with (and love) Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Fantastic Mr Fox. Do they only know about films that advertise on the streets they travel or run commercials during the reality TV they watch? I know not everyone eats movies like I do, but I might as well have been explaining that we were characters from a Lav Diaz movie.

Films are always falling in and out of cultural memory. If anything speaks to the value (for me) of writing about film, of criticism, of video essays, and perhaps even film studies, it is the experience of this movie being totally forgotten in the realms I navigate (non-film academics, retail job, [most] friends and family). A mainstream film with A-list talent that has only been on DVD for a month.

***

A coworker, knowing I like movies, asked me what the deal was with John Waters. They had never heard of him or any of his pictures. They were fascinated by what they were watching (working through a boxed set someone lent them). I don't know much about their tastes or politics, but they were thrilled by this new find. If anything speaks to the longevity of subterfuge (for me) it was this moment. Even when movies or entire directors drop out of some people's cultural memory, they still retain the power to shock and disrupt and plant seeds of curiosity.

***

I recall an add slogan run by NBC's Must See TV when I was a child: if you haven't seen it, it's new to you.

***

This is the entirety of an exchange in the comments sections of a piece for The Notebook written by Fernando F. Croce (source):

Blue K Custodian of the Cinema:  Wow, you guys send “critics” to a major festival who haven’t even seen a single work by Ghatak? Bravo.

Daniel Kasman: Ghatak’s films are very hard to see in the States, Blue.

Fernando F. Croce: This “critic” hopes to never run out of new directors to discover.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Post

Halloween-themed viewing notes. Impressions mostly, concerning disliked films reconsidered, favorites revisited, remakes compared, and a few I ignored for no good reason:



(John Carpenter / 1978)

Carpenter's films are often concerned with disputed territory. Halloween is a variation on his themes of invasion from a hostile force. Unlike Assault on Precinct 13 or The Thing, which depict contagious external conquering forces, Halloween envisions an apex predator staking out feeding grounds within its own environment. Its more of a monster movie than The Thing, as Myers functions as a spider taking up residence and striking out at whoever chances across him. The territory in Halloween is always wide open and familiar spaces for dorky virgin Laurie Strode, who's sense of space and meaning is shattered by the intrusion of Myers. Horror visualizes the breakdown of order, both the faltering of social structures (ineffectual police, limits of language to verbalize) and the collapse of meaning, in a Lacanian sense, that is facilitated by a stain within the framework of one's unconscious construction of order and purpose (the intrusion of the Real, the unexplainable and chaotic). What is most effective here is that Carpenter crafts Myers as both typical and atypical: he is a traumatized little boy whose penetrating violence and obsession is released through an exposure to female sexuality. However, he is an enigma to everyone. It doesn't matter how or why such figures are made by our society, only that they exist. Academics fail in the face of this reality as the doctor does not use Freudian psychobabble, but the language of supernatural evil. Carpenter immediately associates his monster with the gaze, in an opening shot that identifies us with the killer, only to traumatically separate us from it in the manner of Psycho and Peeping Tom. At risk of making a grand overstatement, most post-Halloween slashers tend to celebrate the un-scrutinized misogyny of the killer, confusing them with the structure of the film itself. But Halloween is uninterested in punishing female sexual transgression. Instead it projects a horrific vision that brings the viewer into contact with this chaotic unknown. Social and academic theories may differ in explaining the factors that bring about such people, but that information is useless when confronted with the actual manifestation of these factors, quantifiable or not. Killing them becmes the only option. And symbolically, they can never be totally eradicated, at least while such attitudes are still prevalent in the culture.



(Rob Zombie / 2007)

However difficult, I try to give Zombie's remake as much consideration as I afford to Carpenter's The Thing or Cronenberg's The Fly as remakes. The reality is that all films are their own films. Something that Zombie's Halloween is doing is entertaining notions of fate and destiny. But in elongating sequences that were intentionally brief and vague in the original, Zombie is creating a totally different relationship to the material. Instead of making Myers a mysterious and upsetting product of suburban comfort, Zombie casts Myers as a poor working class victim within a matrix of vague class tensions (favoring class revenge in the manner of Insane Clown Posse). The scrutiny on Myer's childhood does two things: it exaggerates the violence and sexuality that is only implied in the source material, making it explicit and exploitative, and it allows us to identify with the character more, adding the possibility of empathy. Personally, I find the literalness and exposition to be tedious and uninteresting because Zombie's vision removes all notions of Myer's gaze and waters down Zombie's own brilliant acid grind-house aesthetic that makes unspeakable nihilism a carnival attraction. His Halloween is weighted down by the demands of conventional Hollywood storytelling and exists in the nether realm between Carpenter's visionary masterpiece and Zombie's own marvelous work. Zombie offers a clever twist on an element of the original, making detailed scientific observation of Myers as meaningless and unsatisfactory as the lack of explanation in the original. He calls Myers a "perfect storm of external and internal factors, which doesn't really explain much. Yet the inclusion of destiny and blood ties eviscerates the horror of the arbitrary that makes the original so upsetting (and Zombie's other work so good): people are murdered for no reason. Laurie Strode happened to be the first woman to wonder into Myer's frame, rather than the long lost baby sister of something or whatever.



(Wes Craven / 1972)

Some of the variations that exist between Carpenter's Halloween and Zombie's remake are apparent in comparing The Last House on the Left with The Virgin Spring although I feel both the Bergman and Craven films are outstanding for their own reasons. Craven, like Zombie, elongates sequences that are brief in their sources. The time spent with the young girl and the band of criminals is not just a sequence but a parallel plot line lasting most of Craven's film. The blunt rape and murder of The Virgin Spring is now an excruciatingly long torture and humiliation plot line that only ends with a rape and murder. The swift and accidental nature of the crime is exchanged for tedious exploitation. But like Zombie's obsession with Myers, in Craven's film we spend more time with the killers and their worlds. Craven explores the total breakdown of American civil society, its infrastructure, and its universal meaning. The suburban home is no longer a paragon of safety and privilege, but a frontier outpost at the mercy of roving bandits. The giddy music constantly reminds us that the normal functions of society are still operating somewhere, but not here. Craven isn't merely indulging in nihilistic pleasures of cruelty, but by juxtaposing the sounds that indicate a normal contemporary culture with his viscous reality he is emphasizing an alarming contradiction of the world we live in, quite simply, both these things are happening in this place and time. The film is so uncompromising (like The Virgin Spring) that it becomes the monster itself. Whereas Carpenter depicts an intruder within an ordered universe, Craven presents the work itself as an intrusion into cinematic [market] order. It is an awful experience, made even more troubling by the fact that some people might actually enjoy it and desire more. But it's possible to consider that Craven is perversely subscribing to the ordered universe that he is attempting to shatter, or rather whose shattering he visualizes. Unlike The Virgin Spring, The Last House on the Left makes subtle changes in order to more clearly identify positive and negative forces. While violence remains cruel regardless of who is perpetuating it, some of it becomes justified in Craven's work. Bergman has the father murder the child who accompanies the killers, which creates a parallel of the taking of innocence, places every one in a moral vacuum, and lingers to undermine the foundation of the church. Craven has the child kill himself from grief, emphasizing the evil of the killers. The bourgeois family works, but must be protected from the unfortunate criminal underclass.



(Tobe Hooper / 1974)

An interesting, if somewhat overused and abused, lens of reading horror films (any film, really) is as a cultural object that captures the social mood of its time and place. Although it does seem arguable that post-modern American horror films are often expressionistic representations of the horror inflicted upon and experienced by people in other parts of the world (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is to Vietnam what Hostel is to the War on Terror). However appropriate, that is only a single element, not a total theory. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre hints at a culture that is breaking down, but one that has been in the process for generations. It envisions a structure that is literally eating itself alive, like a cancer. The cannibals of the films allude to a post-industrial byproduct of workers cast aside and left to scavenge the rusted out interiors of a world superpower at a time when America was transitioning from a manufacturing base to a consumer base. But these cancerous cells are hidden and most of society is still going on with its life, like so many cars on the highway passing the turnoff that leads to the dilapidated homestead. They have weathered the transition. Much like the formation of Michael Myers or the catch-all criminals of The Last House on the Left, the cannibal family is somehow the product of social failure, of the structured order's inability to accommodate everyone. The horror scenario is only frightening to the victims, mind you, who are rightfully uninterested in where these people came from, but concerned only with survival. Typical horror analysis tells us that sexually active women are punished for their transgressions by puritanical forces, and that can be said (somewhat) of Hooper's film, especially after witnessing the tantalizingly voyeuristic shots of women's bare backs (but this is also a clever set up for the meat hooks about to penetrate them off camera). However, most all of these horror films tend to annihilate everyone who is either complacent in the formation of 'monsters' or benefits from a system that privileges some and ignores others. If horror films strike a cord it is because they force us to confront the reality that notions of meaning and order are constructed and therefore arbitrary. It is also to remind (some of) us of our privileges and that what we have is maintained by marginalized people who may at anytime revolt. Hooper visualized this by transforming normal people into animals within an industrial system of slaughter. The most horrifying moment is the first appearance of Leatherface as a butcher in a slaughterhouse. His murders are not sensational or perverse, but as routine and exacted as the killing of cattle. Again, we are forced to confront the oppression and cruelty of elements of our social structure that are kept out of sight by placing ourselves in the position of the expendables.The systemic industrial slaughter that supports a consumer culture explodes out of its confines.


(Christophe Gans / 2006)

Silent Hill balances perceptions of space, time, and reality in a manner that manages to legitimate its hallucinations as expressionist realities while maintaining a distance from its supernatural elements without ever undermining itself. In this regard it masters what Inception and Shutter Island fail to do well. It destabilizes the distinctions between psychological trauma and haunting spirits of the dead. For Gans they are not incompatible; they are reconciled as variations on a theme. Its only weakness is its near-end expository montage, which in the context of the videogame is the perfect pay off, but here it's rather forced. As a good friend put it, it's the film's Bond villain moment. But it helps balance the film's horror as political allegory elements, which is another level of balance this film achieves. The film's explication of security and purity driving conservative elements to commit worse atrocities than those enemies they identify can easily be read as a reflection of the mentalities that supported or ignored invasion, occupation, and torture (much like the social reflections of Miller's The Crucible). But neither the semi-obviousness of the allegorical elements or the momentary exposition upsets the unsettling ambiguity that pervades the film. And the ending further expands the notions of the mindscape/ghost amalgamation. Not to mention the films excellent balance of stillness and rapid movement to create constant unease.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Taking of Pelham 123





(Tony Scott / 2009)

Here is where absolutes meet uncertainties. John Travolta (in perhaps my favorite performance of his) somehow embodies these contradictions. He has layers, but Scott refrains from revealing them all. We still don't who or what he is. We know he's a crook and he wants money, lots and lots of money, but Scott gets that out of the way up front. He isn't secretly fighting for anything we can pin down (a reverse Hans Gruber) and yet his rebellion against the world is strangely felt.

The term terrorist is comically thrown about to mean anything by whomever employs the word. I can't help but find this somewhat of a joke at the expense of American political discourse.

Scott depicts seemingly endless relative temporal realities within single shots, which add up to a film about time where multiple experiences exist as pockets within a somewhat cohesive forward momentum.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight aka Moment to Moment



I read once (I don't remember where) that early Godard is the equivalent of rifling through a stack of magazines: fashion / advertisements / blurbs / superheroes / film criticism / smut / headline news. The only thing that has any totality, any meaning at all, is the subjective vision of the filmmaker that frames this act of rifling. Everything under his gaze is in itself meaningless, connecting to threads that sprawl out endlessly. Robert Downey Sr.'s film is not unlike this, only magazines have been supplanted with a single television set and the roving eye of the filmmaker is connected to the remote control. The act of channel surfing creates meaning, while each individual snippet is denied the framework of completion and structure, that is, it is denied meaning. We cannot understand them because Downey returns to them arbitrarily, we miss huge chunks of what connects one moment to the next, and instead are treated (or subjected) to peepshows lacking climaxes. But this doesn't mean that the experience cannot yield purpose. The joys may be sensual and not intellectual (although I'm not sure if these are mutually exclusive). I read once (I don't remember where) that Godard liked to run in and out of movie theaters while movies were playing, catching only portions of each. We've been able to do that with television for some time now, and we can do the same with the internet. But we are not all Godards and Downey Sr.s. Not all of us frame what we rifle through. But that could be said about all films, really.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Chicago International Film Festival


The Chicago International Film Festival kinda sucks. It lacks a curatorial vision. It's a haphazard selection of films that have already rounded the festival circuit. There is no coherent logic. Traditionally you can find most of their selection in theaters or online. But, since it takes place in the city where I live, it gives me the opportunity to see some stuff without waiting until next year. To give you an idea of the festival's priorities, the Tom Tykwer-Wachowski production of Cloud Atlas is a spotlight film with a top-tier priced ticket. Leviathan is a $5 matinee. Lucky me.

The festival runs October 11-25. Here are the only films I am interested in seeing. I'll only make it to about three. I bought my Holy Motors tickets immediately.

Holy Motors (Leos Carax)
Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel)
Like Someone In Love (Abbas Kiarostami)
Mekong Hotel (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Night Across the Street (Raoul Ruiz)
Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl)
The Patsy (King Vidor)
Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas)
Reality (Matteo Garrone)
Room 237 (Rodney Ascher)
Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Prometheus


Ridley Scott (2012)

This post is not about the cinematic qualities (or lack thereof) of Prometheus but about some ideas concerning the film as a cultural object.

Prometheus posits that the origin of the human race was engineered by aliens. These aliens resemble art deco Aryan supermen. From what we see, they are all men, they are as white as possible, and they created humans from their exact DNA. This scientific evidence was discovered by a couple of white British scientists who lead a team of white people to a distant planet, based on ancient carvings from various non-white world civilizations (Africa, Asia, Latin America). That is, the advanced white Europeans discover from primitive non-white civilizations the origins of all humanity.

I cannot help but find this eerily similar to the wave of turn of the century British archeologists who were so determined to prove that the white race originated in the United Kingdom that they perpetuated a series of hoaxes. So great was the urge to separate themselves and their culture from the origins of the species in Africa that they fabricated scientific finds. Ridley Scott's film does similar work. The scientific record not only finds the origin of our species in black people, but the origins of complex civilization and religion lie in North African and Middle Eastern cultures (brown people).

Was the prospect of black aliens too much to handle?

Friday, September 21, 2012

Screen Machine #2


The second issue of Screen Machine is now available online here.

There are many great pieces, but of course, I am obliged to direct you to mine on The Avengers. Hope you enjoy.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Time We Killed


"Terrorism got me out of the house, but the War on Terror drove me back in"

(Jennifer Reeves / 2004)

This film is doing a number of things at once. I've arbitrarily numbered a few that were either the most prominent or simply what I found to be the most interesting.

1. The Time We Killed struck me first as a genre film. It belongs to a tradition of self-conscious art film narratives, handheld and lo-fi, and of a hyper-subjective rendition of a specific place and time. More specifically, the strand of work that emerged in the mid-to-late eighties and early nineties, from Van Sant's Mala Noche to the work of Sadie Benning (and probably early no-wave Jarmusch). Reeve's mastery of this form makes her experimental work fresh and familiar, offering that delicate balance of self-examination and total narcissism, with the chunky beat language of a sophisticated poet and the accidental pleasures of a brazen student film aesthetic. But don't get me wrong, Reeves is an accomplished artist and I don't mean any of this negatively.

2. It's a tad on-the-nose to report that this functions as a time capsule for immediate post 9/11 anxieties, but then again, that is a major function of the film's poetics. But why this work is so engaging in this regard is its separation of documentation and expression from a coherent politics of its narrator. We learn nothing of substance from her political asides (Bush is evil) that is not reflective of those garden variety flaccid sentiments of anti-Bush politics. Reeves gives us a glimpse of anti-war protestors, rendered as a part of the fabric of the landscape so languidly navigated by the narrator. I find this approach more interesting than so many political works that attempt to weave together a narrative of American imperialism at the expense of complexity and contradiction; instead we have a more anthropological account of the general sentiments that failed to impact the immediate course of history, but were still an essential part of that time. The sense of despair and powerlessness at the televised invasion of Iraq is rendered in mundane anxieties about queer desires, writer's block, and generic social anxiety, punctured by literal invasions of media noise.

3. Reeves is fascinated by textures and surfaces, which are enhanced by the corporeality of 16mm film. The film becomes an artifact of a time that is understood in digital terms, of media saturation and found footage, of digital surveillance and consumer photography. But rather than scavenging the preferred and prevalent contemporary mediums, Reeves chooses to situate her work in a continuum with physical, grainy substances, alongside those sobering documents of spaces and times that captured the ruin of post-war Italy, the underground subcultures of seventies New York, or the fervent night-lives of Shinjuku. This makes The Time We Killed grounded in the moments it was filmed and assembled but also distant and unrelatable to most works of the period.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Top 10, of sorts (scrapped Sight and Sound post)

From the ashes of my scrapped Sight and Sound reaction I produced a Top 10 of the films I return to the most, for whatever reason: childhood nostalgia, fascination, introducing them to friends, or pure joy. The results were interesting. I can't say all of these are my favorite films, but then again, maybe they are.


Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (Martin Arnold / 1998)
An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli / 1951)
The Cameraman (Buster Keaton, Ed Sedgwick / 1928)
The Case of the Grinning Cat (Chris Marker / 2004)
Dune (David Lynch / 1984)
Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese / 2002)
Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray / 1954)
Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg / 1993)
The Life Aquatic (Wes Anderson / 2004)
Videodrome (David Cronenberg / 1983)



I'm perturbed that these are all white male directors, which complicates my own relationship to the prevailing narratives of cinema as a masculine mode of expression. But these films exist outside of my critical analysis. This is not meant to abrogate responsibility, but rather that this is something I have to consider within myself, as opposed to casting critical stones at others. Furthermore, I attempted to draft a list of my personal top 100 films, something I've never before articulated. It may eventually get posted.

Also two of my favorite blogs have posted Sight and Sound reactions: The Tarpeian Rock and The Long Voyage Home.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Cosmopolis + how to watch a movie #4

Cosmopolis

(David Cronenberg / 2012)

Cronenberg's body of work has engaged with perceptions of reality that almost always make this concept a central point, that is, we are aware we are experiencing a film about the nature of reality (eXistenZ, Videodrome, Spider) or the nature of the self (The Fly, A History of Violence, A Dangerous Method) or usually a combination of the two. But with Cosmopolis we are not. It's unnerving, phoney, obviously unreal, but played out with the deadpan seriousness of a low rent thriller. Cosmopolis feels as simulated as an Ida Lupino or Fritz Lang noir, mutated by the technologies and sensibilities of the cyber age. But like great cinema about the unreality of existence and the reality of cinematic experience, it remains vague and allusive, disturbing your sense of self without the comforting knowledge that you've merely watched a film about such-and-such, a la The Matrix (a worthy experience to be sure, but not at all like this rarer type of film). Cosmopolis contends with a shift in perception of the self (and subsequently, reality itself); a neo-liberal cogito that professes I possess, therefore I am.


***
Everyone walked out of the screening of Cosmopolis except for my partner and I and a guy in the back.

***

The films relationship to current social-political anxieties shares a strange correlation with two videos to emerge in the last week. I've posted them here with no contextualization for interested parties. The first is Slavoj Žižek on the future of "anti-capitalist" thought and action, provocatively titled "Don't Act. Just Think" and the second is footage of the final night of The Burningman Festival where a massive effigy of Wall Street was set aflame. I cannot help but feel that Cosmopolis is simultaneously feeding off of and engaging with these ideas and sentiments while remaining uncertain:




Saturday, September 1, 2012

Tony Scott, 1944 - 2012

The reason this post is late is because I was a Scott detractor. I was on the verge of going through his body of work when he suddenly died. A minority of friends and critics I admire have long been champions of his, but I had yet to be 'sold' on his work.

Immediately following his death I watched (for the first time) Deja Vu and Unstoppable and I've acquired copies of Man on Fire and Domino. The man was a genius, a true visionary of the screen and I regret that I have nothing to say other than I will continue my delayed plan of working my way through his films.

I would like to offer a few words on my previous dislike of his work. Top Gun, Crimson Tide, and True Romance (last seen a decade ago in high school) struck my teenage sensibilities as bad, director-for-hire work, which at the time was a capitol offense. His late style that he developed from Enemy of the State onward washed over me as part of the noise of contemporary American action cinema that I lazily considered hack work, both for its inability to do what other directors did (I was not thinking in terms of intention) and was too similar at a sideways glance to Michael Bay and company. 

How wrong I was. Scott is a rare master of consciousness and perception, of space and time, comparable at times to Evgeni Bauer ( Deja Vu and After Death would make a killer double-feature).

Scott's politics are still stupid to me: the black and white patriotism, the masculinization of public spaces, etc. But this isn't reason to disregard his stylistic vision. After all, I love Griffith, does that mean I agree with his horseshit? I was guilty of failing to make this distinction, and I get the feeling its a large part of the conversation on Scott.

Two great pieces emerged from his death that have shaped my new found appreciation for Scott, who now holds considerable shelf space in my collection:  Vishnevetsky's piece for The Notebook and this video essay posted on Film Studies for Free.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Gender Quotes x2

Looking through some discarded viewing notes I came across these two quotes jotted down on the same paper.

"Well I hear movie actors are getting five, ten thousand a week. For what? For acting tough. For pushing girls in the face. What do they do I can't do?" -Johnny, Scarlet Street
"The death of a beautiful girl is the most poetical topic in the world." -Edgar Allen Poe, Twixt

Two sides of the same coin.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Wuthering Heights + how to watch a movie #3

wutheringheights

(Andrea Arnold / 2011)

Arnold's approach to the material emphasizes the immediacy of every moment, which works to complicate overly simplistic ideas of systems of oppression. Here she creates a world were the abstract matrices of classification (class, race, gender) are always in operation, determining who can go where, and what space belongs to whom, but without dehumanizing her subjects into lifeless statistics or well-meaning liberal charity cases. Instead she problematizes notions of social progress without claiming that nothing ever changes: this period piece does not play like a foreshadowing historical prologue like The White Ribbon. Her relation to space often undermines concrete notions of privilege and power, as spaces are constantly invaded and destabilized. Much like Fish Tank (I've yet to see Red Road) her style presents the reckless self-destructive actions of certain individuals as partly the result of a denial of agency, as a rejection of class systems, and not (according to prevalent conservative theories) as the result of the inherit natures of certain people, but as almost inevitable reactions to certain realities.

Wuthering Heights is a sensual complication of the sensual; it problematizes a perceived metaphysical relationship to existence, which never denies an analytical assessment of social structure (unlike, say, The Tree of Life which privileges uncritical nostalgia over reflection). But my intention is not to value this masterpiece in opposition to other films, Wuthering Heights has multiple strengths worthy of further analysis, I've merely drawn out a few themes of particular interest to me.

***

It's always frustrating to find a great work that goes undistributed, but something about the total erasure of Wuthering Heights is striking. Arnold, by my count, is among the most interesting young filmmakers at work today, yet this film is totally absent from current American film culture, save for a few scattered festivals. In Chicago it played for a single showing during the European Union Film Festival, while most entries screened at least twice. A wider release was announced by Oscilloscope earlier this year prior to Adam Yauch's death, but nothing has been mentioned since and no information is available on their site.

Although I'd rather not watch this on my tiny laptop screen, sometimes we are not given options. And while it may eventually get North American distribution, my impatience led me to pirate the film. A high quality digital version was already available for quite some time, as the film has made it to DVD in the United Kingdom from Artificial Eye.

While too many films by many types of filmmakers fall in the cracks made by the business of film distribution, it does seem that many art house works directed by women (even successful ones) get stalled so long that the essential buzz evaporates. This was also the case with We Need to Talk About Kevin (also picked up by Oscilloscope). I've noticed a trend, or say a theory of mine, that films that fall into these holes are often denied the end of year discussion or list making, since so many critics, bloggers, and forum users are particular about a films date of debut. While Wuthering Heights first screened in 2011, for most people it was never even an option until 2012 (and still unavailable to most so late in the year). I am by no means saying a conspiracy exists that plots to marginalize women filmmakers by fucking up their criteria for entry into best of lists, only that this confusion/erasure seems to happen quite often, which is magnified when the few who have seen it reject it outright (as in most responses to Kevin).

Most of the 'buzz' surrounding Wuthering Heights is in regards to Heathcliff's "race lift" and it is regrettable that this has monopolized the conversation. A few bloggers that I admire have written in praise of this film, which added to the urgency to see it. I can't recommend it enough, either purchase or pirate this DVD.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Chris Marker, 1921-2012

chat3

"As a result of saying it can show anything, cinema has abandoned the power over the imagination. And, like cinema, this century is perhaps starting to pay a high price for this betrayal of the imagination - or, more precisely, those who still have an imagination, albeit a poor one, are being made to pay that price."
***

When I heard of Chris Marker's death I wandered back into that magnificent mess of his, where The Legend of Bruce Lee occupies cherished shelf space:


From Agnès Varda's Agnès de ci de là Varda, Episode 1, 2011.

I'm curious to note what Marker's thoughts were on the Obama presidency. Did he, like most cautiously supportive radical leftists, recoil in horror? Here we are only given pre-election imagery.

***

Then I watched Vertigo.

http://pantherpro-webdesign.com/cinema/cinema/add/Hitchcock-vertigo200X113.gif

from Marker's A Free Replay (notes on Vertigo):

"Obviously, this text is addressed to those who know Vertigo by heart. But do those who don't deserve anything at all?" [search this passage and you'll fine the entire pdf]

"In this case, the entire second part would be nothing but a fantasy, revealing at last the double of the double. We were tricked into believing that the first part was the truth, then told it was a lie born of a perverse mind, that the second part contained the truth. But what if the first part really were the truth and the second the product of a sick mind"

which reminds me...

 "What Scottie first experiences in Vertigo is the loss of Madeleine, his fatal love; when he recreates Madeleine in Judy and then discovers that the Madeleine he knew actually was Judy pretending to be Madeleine, what he discovers is not simply that Judy was faking (he knew that she was not the true Madeleine, since he had recreated a copy of Madeleine out of her), but that, because she was not faking - she is Madeleine, Madeleine herself was already a fake - the objet a disintegrates, the very loss is lost, and we see a 'negation of negation'. His discovery changes the past, deprives the lost object of the objet a."
-Slavoj Žižek, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock

Marker deserves the last word here:

"Scottie experiences the greatest joy a man can imagine, a second life, in exchange for the greatest tragedy, a second death. What do video games, which tell us more about our unconscious than the works of Lacan, offer us? Neither money nor glory, but a new game. The possibility of playing again. 'A second chance.' A free replay."

***


***

6 August. Encounters. Chris Marker is in town. He goes back to where he's been and films "randomly", rather happy to have emerged from the adventure of A Grin Without a Cat. His friend Terayama shoots in HK. The festival staff organises a lunch. Marker tells me that HK (which he doesn't like) has changed a lot. He comes from Okinawa and is on his way to China where he hasn't been since Sundays in Beijing. During the meal (on a very hot day), we talk about several things: Bruce Lee's mysterious death, the rumour that the Red Army guards may have filmed things during the cultural revolution. What happened to these films? Will we see them one day? What do they do with films over there? Do they archive them? Someone shows me the press clip of a Chinese newspaper talking about the fire at the warehouse of the Cinémathèque française. And also, why preserve / curate? Cinema will perhaps have been the collective dream of the 20th century? Marker is going to take pictures in Cat Street. We leave each other. - Serge Daney, Cahiers du Cinéma 1981 (X)

***

 Level 5                                              La jetée                                          Le mystère Koumiko

                A Cat Listening to Music                   AK                  San Soleil


...many thanks to Catherine Grant at Film Studies for Free (X).

***
"With all due reverence, I—to be honest—sometimes wonder whether there is not something coy and self-indulgent in the private mythology Marker has been spinning over the years: his grinning cats, his owls, Guillaume-en-Egypte, his female assistants . . . And the somewhat loose hermetic nature of his pronouncements frustrate the essayist in me, who would prefer that he grapple with what he seems to mean and wrest as much clear understanding as can be had. It strikes me as peculiar that our greatest essay-filmmaker should traffic so willingly in the enigmatic, the borderline-sentimental, and the faux-naïve."

"What also disturbs me is that those who have personal access to the Master, through e-mail correspondence and personal visits, have set up such a fond protection wall around him against critical judgment, accepting everything that emanates from him as a kind of indivisible pre-posthumous miracle, that it inhibits the making of distinctions about his stronger and weaker expressions. On the other hand, maybe I should just calm down and accept whatever is given me from Marker’s reshuffling of archives in the proper spirit of gratitude." (X)

These selections from Phillip Lopate were plucked for scrutiny by Adrian Martin in Chris Marker: Notes in the Margins of His Time for Cineaste Vol. XXXIII No. 4 (Fall 2008).

***

from that same issue comes this curio, the lone footnote in Marker's piece The Last Bolshevik: Reminiscences of Alexander Ivanovich:

"Just before he died in 1988, Jay Leyda was working on a monumental Medvedkin anthology, including his diary of the train [the Kinopoezd], scripts from the movies, and lots of critical pieces. Then he passed away, and I never heard anything further about the project, as if it never existed. A true mystery. If anyone has any information about this, or knows the whereabouts of Leyda's Medvedkin materials, please contact me c/o Cineaste."

***


***
"Godard nailed it once and for all: at the cinema, you raise your eyes to the screen; in front of the television, you lower them. Then there is the role of the shutter. Out of the two hours you spend in a movie theater, you spend one in the dark. It's this nocturnal portion that stays with us, that "fixes" our memory of a film (the way you fix color on a canvas) in a different way than the same film seen on television or on a monitor. But having said that, let's be honest. I've just watched the ballet from An American in Paris on the screen of my iBook, and I very nearly rediscovered the exhilaration that we felt in London, in 1952, when I was there with Alain Resnais and Ghislain Cloquet, during the filming of Statues Also Die, when we would start every day by seeing the 10:00 a.m. show of An American in Paris at a theater in Leicester Square. An exhilaration that I feared I had lost forever when watching the film on cassette."

"I have a completely schizophrenic relationship with television. When I assume I'm the only one in the world, I adore it, particularly since there's been cable. It's curious how cable offers an entire catalog of antidotes to the poisons of standard TV [...] Now there are moments when I remember I am not alone in the world, and that's when I fall apart. The exponential growth of stupidity and vulgarity is something that everyone has noticed, but it's not just a vague sense of disgust--it's a concrete, quantifiable fact (you can measure it by the volume of the cheers that greet the talk-show hosts, which have grown by an alarming number of decibels in the last five years) that comes close to a crime against humanity [...] I must say the worst: I am allergic to commercials. In the early sixties, that allergy was rather well considered. Today it's unavowable." (X)

from an interview by Samuel Douhaire and Annick Rivoire for  Libération, translated by Marker for publication in the Criterion release of La jetée + Sans Soleil.
***

"To be able to play the games of culture with the playful seriousness which Plato demanded, a seriousness without the 'spirit of seriousness', one has to belong to the ranks of those who have been able, not necessarily to make their whole existence a sort of children's game, as artists do, but at least to maintain for a long time, sometimes a whole lifetime, a child's relation to the world. (All children start life as baby bourgeois, in a relation of magical power over others and, through them, over the world, but they grow out of it sooner or later.) This is clearly seen when, by an accident of social genetics, into the well-policed world of intellectual games there comes one of those people (one thinks of Rousseau or Chernyshevsky) who bring inappropriate stakes and interests into the games of culture; who get so involved in the game that they abandon the margin of neutralizing distance that the illusio (belief in the game) demands; who treat intellectual struggles, the object of so many pathetic manifestos, as a simple question of right and wrong, life and death. This is why the logic of the game has already assigned them roles--eccentric or boor--which they will play despite  themselves in the eyes of those who know how to stay within the bounds of the intellectual illusion and who cannot see them any other way."
-Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste


***

a personal note

My first encounter with Chris Marker was entirely by chance - in fact I hadn't even known I had encountered him. It was my first viewing of Alain Resnais' Night and Fog, screened, not for a film class, but for one on the Holocaust, where I first witnessed the power of the visual essay. Marker's contributions go uncredited, a secret collaborator that is absent even from the liner notes of the Criterion DVD.

It seems strangely fitting that my last encounter with him during his own lifetime was a return to the concentration camps*, where in interview he concludes by discussing two artists destined for greatness who died in the camps: François Vernet and Viktor Ullmann. Ullmann is as good as any place to stop.


*Oddly enough, on the date of Marker's birth, July 20th, 1921, Adolf Hitler was publicly introduced as party chairman of the National Socialist German Worker's Party (according to some sources, others say it was the the 28th or 29th). This is perhaps the first time I've regretted putting my Shirer texts in storage.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises


This is a review I sent to an online publication for consideration. I have yet to hear back and they have since posted what I believe to be their Piece on the subject, so I feel there is no harm in posting this (if, by chance, they post it, then I will take this down). The style is a bit different from what I post here as I attempted to conform to their house style.

This was written hours after a midnight screening and thus represents my immediate reactions. Upon further contemplation I realize I say much of the same things as other dissenters, such as the point that Ann Hathaway was almost a saving grace (although most complain she wasn't 'sexy enough'), the comparison to the crassness of Michael Bay, and that at least The Dark Knight had Heath Ledger.

It does not carefully consider the politics of the film (again: house style), which may be cause for another post down the line.

***

Photobucket


(Christopher Nolan / 2012)

In the latest Bat-film, The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan concentrates his love affair with 80s urban thrillers: the helicopter skylines, the poverty-porn formalism, the smothering ominous tones, and the schizoid nightmare fantasies of xenophobic militiamen. It’s a tad presumptuous to claim that Nolan is actively fooling his audience with his pseudo Dick Wolf naturalism, but his brutalist architectural approach to drama feeds a ready-made audience apparently starving for self-aggrandizing seriousness—for Grown-Up versions of boyhood favorites; in video game terms, what amounts to the Mortal Kombat-ification of American pop culture*.

Whereas The Dark Knight had a handful of worthwhile features—the weakest performance of Ledger’s career and a superbly executed opener (although it should’ve been aped shamelessly from Zulawski’s L’amour braque)—Rises has none of the isolated pleasures that floundered in the previous films. While it’s only ten more minutes than Dark Knight, it manages to feel hours longer, exacerbated by the high dosage of pomposity that transforms the excitement of silent serial tropes and Lewis Carroll allusions into tasteless political sludge.

Ann Hathaway offers a fleeting moment of respite, disregarding her desperate performance and throwaway character, by reminding us that the lineage of the Bat-films is worthy of excavation, echoing Fulliade, Lang, Franju, and Melville—even Tim Burton—who understood that their worlds were phantasms and fabrications. Nolan’s Bat-verse, which is as plastic as Burton’s, suffers from its inability to acknowledge this humble fact. The insular set pieces of Batman’s ancestors implied vast, expansive universes, a talent that Nolan desperately lacks: his cities are devoid of culture—everything is a neo-classical bank or an anonymous corporate building, populated by grimacing white people and newspaper tumbleweeds.

The Dark Knight Rises is high Kitsch and damn near hilariously so. What makes Nolan a standout is his longer than average shot length, which to the imdb-generation means he’s patient, ergo more mature. He’s also better at conjuring a dense topical fog than say, Michael Bay.  His procedural formality has become the bedrock of the contemporary prestige piece, but whereas a director like David Fincher interrogates the anxiety of mystery and blows open the cracks in tightly knit yarns, Nolan’s modus operandi is to make every detail, every word, every cutaway refer to an eventual deus ex machina, effectively obliterating all sense of wonder that makes classic thrillers soar. This deadening process allows Nolan to pull his great switcheroo at the end—someone you thought was good is actually pure evil—and to catch you up to speed Nolan provides rapid fire exposition that doesn’t build upon the previous two-and-half hours of film, but rather rewrites it on the fly.

Yet Nolan’s celebrated aesthetic has paved the way for the ceremonial induction of previously derided genres into the role of official art and in turn has made maverick works such as Nevaldine and Taylor’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance certifiably avant-garde by comparison. You better bet your ass that this will win Oscars. And if it doesn’t, then prepare yourself for an angry mob more dangerous than the criminalized pseudo-Occupy ‘revolutionaries’ of the film itself.

* This is an abbreviation of a cultural analysis that I tried to articulate to a friend. Here is a more detailed description of what was meant by this: in the early 1990s as video games became much more common place (during the Super NES v. Sega Genesis days) there were two competing and iconic fighting games: Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. The former focused on style and a fluidity of movement and the intuitive immersion of the player. It embraced a hyper-stylized form and had a signature feel that has continued throughout the franchise's evolution. According to most 'gamers' I know, this is the preferred game for its quality and its timelessness (if there is such a thing in video games). Mortal Kombat, on the other hand, emphasized a sense of 'realism' that was tied to the specific moment in technology (it dates terribly) and has no discernible style other than an attempt to be as real and edgy looking as the current moment allows. Typically these games are clunky, ridden with glitches, and focused on 'adult' content such as gore, exaggerated female sexuality, and a gritty darkness. It seems arguable that there is a general trend in American pop culture that yearns for a type of seriousness to be added to fantastical properties typically associated with low culture (comic books, video games, certain genre cinema) and that this seriousness is often a rather adolescent obsession with the obscene realities that are censored in children's fare, namely drugs, sex, cursing, and violence. The desire to reintroduce these elements back into certain fictions has caused an overload or overemphasis on these things. This is coupled with a brutal, nihilistic view of existence as dirty and dark and filled with crime. I believe this particular desire has flourished in an age where art and style are not taught well (or at all) and thus a disconnect with the functions of art and the audiences they are intended for have widened, creating a dominant audience (that transcends class distinctions) that is ever more resentful of self-conscious or obvious stylization and demands a more 'realistic' and methodical formalism that is somehow not understood as being a style, even though it is (in my mind this is not unlike the disconnect Chris Hedges describes between the popular hatred of 'politics' and government and a worship of a military culture that is somehow not thought of as a branch of said government). Consider the 'darker' reboot of Spider-Man alongside the reboots of James Bond and Batman, or this curio that is frequently presented to me as a legitimate trailer for a new, more serious, Mortal Kombat film (notice how every fantastical element has to be accounted for and explained through some 'twisted' Law & Order psychopathology. The idea always seems to be to fix what was ruined by 'hacks' like Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, or Paul W.S. Anderson. Consider Edward Norton's professed need to undo the perceived silliness of Ang Lee's Hulk.


***

Two excellent pieces on this subject: Michael Sicinski's at CinemaScope and a roundtable conversation at Mubi's Notebook.