Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Artifice or Fantasy: Part I

As I have a little time, I thought I'd write about a general idea about film that's been kicking around my head lately. Skip this post if you don't feel like a theory session.

So I came up with this formal concept back in my early film-buff days, and it hung around in my belief system ever since then, without being particularly useful. The concept was that all films contain both realistic and artificial components, and that art happens on the interface of these components. And further, that it didn't really matter how realistic or how artificial a film might look to us: that the interface would always be there and would always operate in the same way. The same vocabulary of realism and artifice could be used for Farrebique or Tales of Hoffman.

You'd think that I would have some problem with the "realism" half of the formula, as that term is so embattled. But I'm a Bazinian, and have therefore had to consider what kind of meaning that word might have - and Bazin himself is much more helpful on that count than his detractors would have it. So I actually felt capable of some nuance when discussing realism and its value.

The problem was with artifice: not so much in identifying it as in figuring out how it worked. When was artifice good and when was it just phony? Thirty years later I was still dancing around that issue. Sometimes I would get pleasure from blatantly artificial elements, and I would vaguely attribute these artistic successes to some formal subtlety, some question of balance or proportion. Which I realized was just hand-waving, as we used to say in math. Other times I would criticize films for not being real, and my irritation would hide from me the obvious question: why do I consider this film false, where instances of artifice in other films seem to get a pass? Clearly I lacked a theory of how artifice might work or not work.

A few months ago there was a break in the case. And, like so many developments in my thought in the last ten or fifteen years, it can be traced back to my increasing adherence to a Freudian, or perhaps a psychoanalytical, mindset. A big current of psychoanalytical thought involves looking at old complexities in a simpler way, and realizing that we didn't light on the simple theory immediately because it was undesirable, because we didn't want to hold that belief. Why do we have nightmares? Maybe part of us likes the nightmare. Why do we have incest taboos? Maybe we think of family members in sexual terms. The problem of evil? Maybe people like to hurt each other. Etc.

So, all of a sudden, it occurred to me that maybe I liked some artifice because it fulfilled some fantasy of mine, and disliked other artifice because it pressed some button of mine. Forget for the moment considerations of craft, artistic balance, and so on. Maybe the artifice in art is, at root, just wish-fulfillment.

This was not the belief I wanted to have. Early in my film-buff life I had decided that fantasy and wish-fulfillment were incompatible with art. That was not just a way of rejecting the happy-ending ethos; it was a way of drawing lines between art and pornography, art and violent fantasy, art and anything that seemed too primal and powerful to allow delicate formal issues to operate.

This new belief was letting in all this stuff that I'd been excluding for years. But maybe it was worth giving it a spin, theoretically speaking.

So: instead of an opposition between realism and artifice, I tried thinking of art as a balance between realism and fantasy. The idea clicked immediately. As a filmmaker, I knew full well that I was drawn to some subjects and not others for pre-artistic reasons - that there had to be some powerful, primal motivation that would keep me working on a project. So I might be drawn to a sexual theme, and then complicate and distort it until it could be no one's fantasy: no matter, there was an element of fantasy that gave the project a juicy, desirable feeling in my mind. Surely film appreciation worked in the same way.

I saw the big advantage of the new realism vs. fantasy concept. It's always been painfully obvious that, as much as film buffs like to theorize about what makes films good or bad, we all like different things, and our reasons for liking and disliking are often blatantly linked to our personalities. We have a lot of trouble grasping why everyone doesn't love Film X, or hate Film Y; something about us really wants to believe that the issue is purely aesthetic, despite the screamingly obvious subjectivity of all parties.

By substituting "fantasy" for "artifice" in my formula, I was losing the idea that artifice was a formal element that could be manipulated well or poorly. But this idea had never done me much good anyway, had never developed over the course of my intellectual life. On the other hand, I was gaining a view of film appreciation that allowed for the subjectivity that so badly needs to be acknowledged in film theory, the elephant in the room that we all ignore. Our pre-artistic preferences could now be, if not actually theorized, at least inscribed in a theory. And the new formula also allowed for realism as a purely formal element that could be used to shape, oppose, redirect fantasy in ways that could challenge us, and that could be analyzed. I was already down with the idea that realism was formal, was something that the medium gave us, something that was bigger and less controllable than any fantasy. Now I had a new way of thinking about "the ontology of the photographic image": it's the part of cinema that the artist doesn't just dream up, that necessarily contributes more than the artist can intend.

A checklist for Part II of this post:
  • Discuss how this dichotomy might be adapted to other art forms.
  • Discuss why we want art to be more than pure fantasy, and whether that was always the case.
  • Acknowledge the problems posed by this new formula. In particular: does realism always come from the nature of the medium? (Plainly not.) Can the artist introduce it as a kind of nega-fantasy? (Plainly.) In that case does it work the same way as medium-based realism? (That's a tough one....)

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Spy in Black: MOMA, June 3 and 6

Many readers of this blog are hip to this film already, but Michael Powell's The Spy in Black , at MOMA on June 3 and June 6, doesn't come around all that much, and it's quite good: to my mind, clearly better than its companion piece Contraband, and the approximate beginning of Powell's most intensely creative period. (Not coincidentally, it's also the first time Powell worked with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, whose loopy grandeur seems to have kicked Powell up to a higher level of artistic ambition.)

Monday, May 28, 2007

Frivolous Lists: China

The subject sort of came up recently on a_film_by, so I made a list of my favorite Chinese films:

1. STILL LIFE (Jia Zhang Ke, 2006)
2. THE DAYS (Wang Xiaoshuai, 1993)
3. GRAIN IN EAR (Zhang Lu, 2005)
4. THE WORLD (Jia Zhang Ke, 2004)
5. PLATFORM (Jia Zhang Ke, 2000)
6. QUEEN OF SPORTS (Sun Yu, 1934)
7. ON THE BEAT (Ning Ying, 1995)
9. ZHOU YU'S TRAIN (Sun Zhou, 2002)
10. XIAO WU (Jia Zhang Ke, 1997)

I didn't include Taiwan and Hong Kong, which feel like different film cultures to me.

Wang pretty much lost it, I'd say, after THE DAYS and maybe FROZEN; it's weird to remember that I liked him that much.

I'd love to see Sun Yu's later films: he was just getting really good when I lost track of his career.

Resnais via Bazin

Hope readers don't mind if I link to comments I've made elsewhere that I'd like to keep track of. This post on the a_film_by Yahoo group discusses Alain Resnais's recent play adaptations, and some writings of Andre Bazin that bear on Resnais's work.

I really do think that a Robinson Crusoe who is stranded with only Bazin's collected works, and who reads them over and over during his twenty-eight island years, will likely have a better understanding of cinema than someone with a well-stocked film library who hasn't revisited Bazin since college days.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

John Farrow

I went to MOMA tonight to revisit Cukor's A Bill of Divorcement, and found myself watching John Farrow's 1940 remake instead. (The switch was noted in small print at the bottom of the daily schedule at the front desk, but the ticket seller at MOMA didn't feel the need to warn me. That's pretty much par for the course at MOMA....) As I took in Farrow's somberly lit, solemnly dramatic staging, I thought of how Cukor likes to goose heavy material, getting the actors to yell or jump across the room or do anything to liven the joint up - and then throws in a bit of sleight-of-hand naturalism to trick us into accepting the extravagance as part of the character development.

None of that here...but Farrow is an interesting guy too. It's a mistake to overrate him, and certainly this film isn't one of his career peaks: probably no one could do anything much with this wacko play, and Farrow characteristically accepts the drama at face value, sticking with the arc of dramatic tension instead of exploring subtext.

There was one striking visual motif, though. As the story starts climbing its arc, Farrow produces his first good effect, panning the camera so that a servant enters the room behind Maureen O'Hara, through a door in the middle background of the shot. It's a small moment in itself, but the rejection of the stage-left/stage-right convention couples with the rising tension - I thought of Dreyer, in the way the composition was changed by blocking only. A moment later, O'Hara is jittery at finding the front door open, and the servant has to calm her down, after which she strides into her living room: and Farrow scores big with his third door effect in a row, as the open door through which O'Hara has entered mysteriously closes, and we see for the first time the Adolphe Menjou character, hiding behind the door in long shot as the camera reverse-tracks with O'Hara and loses Menjou.

This proclivity for making people materialize from the center of the frame can be found in other Farrow films: I instantly thought of Ray Milland's uncanny appearances in Alias Nick Beal.

Farrow's camera, which gets very mobile in the late 40s, is only modestly fluid in this film. But I noted one Farrowesque moment where the camera is following Menjou and C. Aubrey Smith out of a room, and Menjou has an angry outburst that momentarily swings him into the distorted foreground of the still-moving camera.

That's all. If you want to check out Farrow, don't use this film: try Five Came Back, You Came Along, Two Years Before the Mast, The Big Clock, or Alias Nick Beal. Thanks to David Thomson, whose entry in A Biographical Dictionary of Film tipped me off to Farrow.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Seven Men From Now: A Footnote

I'm still trying to find the right tone for these blog entries; bear with me.

Admirers of the Budd Boetticher/Burt Kennedy/Randolph Scott cycle of Westerns seem to be about evenly divided on whether Seven Men From Now, the first of the cycle, is one of the best, or whether it's a cut weaker than later titles like The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station. I'm pretty much in the latter camp: Seven Men never seemed to me as assured as The Tall T, released only eight months later.

Without attempting to give an overview, I just wanted to add one observation to the debate: Seven Men has a rather different visual style than the other films, which is part of my problem. For one thing, Seven Men relies quite a lot more on longer lenses, both in action and interaction scenes. There are moments in the final stone canyon showdown where the editor cuts back and forth between telephoto-ish images and the medium-length lenses that Boetticher would later rely upon, and I really felt a difference in the emotional quality of the images. Nothing intrinsically wrong with filming people in landscapes with long lenses - look at Hellman's The Shooting for a Western visual plan built around long lenses - but that tone of remoteness is an odd fit for the tone of the Boetticher Westerns, and it's not used very systematically.

For another thing, I have the impression that Seven Men is more likely than the later films to move in for close-ups and cross-cutting, not just during the intimate scenes, but during almost any conversation scene. This raises the issue of over-emphasis in my mind, and it also has a bad synergy with the acting sometimes. Scott has his limitations as an actor, and I'm sorry to say that Gail Russell has lost a lot of her subtlety by this point in her career; there are scenes that are shot and cut to throw emphasis on their facial reactions, and that I don't think work so well. The decision to go in for close-up so often feels automatic to me.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Opera Jawa: Asia Society, May 20, 2007

This one might have slipped by some of the NYC film buffs: Opera Jawa, the acclaimed 2006 film from Indonesian director Garin Negroho, is screening tomorrow night at the Asia Society at 7 pm. I recently caught Negroho's previous film Of Love and Eggs, and he's definitely a stylist to watch, though I haven't got the measure of him yet. Opera Jawa was part of Peter Sellars' New Crowned Hope series, which premiered at Venice 2006.

Fleischer vs. Auteurism

I'm on record as being a Richard Fleischer fan, but boy did I not enjoy The Spikes Gang, which I saw tonight for the first time in 30 years. The screenplay, by Martin Ritt's regular writers Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., is a hopeless case, pleased with its laborious verbiage and pitched at a level of parable/cliche that excludes all references to real life except for a few reflexive socialist and anticlerical gestures. What really struck me this time is that Fleischer clearly perceived the tenor of the project as the screenwriters conceived it, and set out to work within their vision. All the stuff that interests me from other Fleischer films was banished: for instance, he clearly saw that too much deployment of natural sound, or emphasis on spatial continuity, would perturb the surface of Ravetch and Frank's moralistic nega-fantasy, and so he opted for a more abstract, elementary soundtrack and a simpler decoupage.

The film made me think about the dominant mythology of auteurism: the director who, knowingly or unknowingly, is true to his or her world view, struggles against bad material, and sometimes is lucky enough to overcome it by dint of sheer personality. The kind of transformation that I perceive in Fleischer between The Spikes Gang and, say, Mandingo (released almost exactly a year later) seems uncanny according to auteurist dogma; and yet outside of that dogma it seems not just possible, but an expected skill for a commercial director.

I'm not saying that the auteurist paradigm is invalid (trying to realize a screenwriter's vision certainly does not disqualify a director for auteurist consideration), just that this is a case where I personally am not working within that paradigm. It's not as if there are infinitely many Fleischers. The fact that I see multiple Fleischers may have a lot to do with my particular movie values: a more open-minded filmgoer, or one more attuned to Fleischer, might see the commonality among his different directorial identities. (I actually perceive some Fleischer-ness in The Spikes Gang - just not the level of Fleischer-ness that could make a film good. His weakly diagonal compositions were quite recognizable, for instance.)

Maybe the real division isn't between directors who assert themselves and directors who interpret, but rather between viewers who can conceptually integrate a director's work and viewers who can't feel the connections.

Only one scene pleased me: the final, heavily edited, disorienting, Madigan-like showdown between Gary Grimes and Lee Marvin.

The Media Format that Dare Not Speak Its Name

I went to the Quad Cinema on Monday to revisit Bunuel's Robinson Crusoe in the H&M High Line Film Festival, a selection of Latin American and Spanish-language films "hand-picked" by David Bowie. The Quad upped their prices to $12 for the festival, then proceeded to project the Bunuel on DVD, with no warning to the audience that it was doing so. It's certainly not the first time that I've seen a DVD projection in a theater, and I'm not especially finicky about print quality, but I resent being sold a pig in a poke. Sadly, only a few venues are honest enough to keep audiences informed about print quality. I guess most specialty theaters are in such a state of financial terror these days that they feel they can't afford to play fair.

The film itself raises the question of how valuable subversion is for its own sake. There's no doubt that Bunuel found many ways of expressing his true feelings about Defoe's attitudes toward virtue and civilization, and there's wit in his effort, but not a lot of emotional resonance, to my mind. The best scene in the film, the long sequence of Crusoe reaping his crop of wheat and baking bread with it, does not subvert Defoe at all: Bunuel adds to it an earthy physicality and gives a giddy, stubborn quality to Crusoe's perseverance, but respects Defoe's celebration of the act. A particular story can't be made to serve just any old artistic end.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Daisy Kenyon: MOMA, June 9 and 18, 2007

Mark your calendars for MOMA's June 9 and June 18 screenings of Preminger's Daisy Kenyon, one of Hollywood's most lucid and mature melodramas, inexplicably underrated for decades. (Anyone out there have more information on screenwriter David Hertz? On the basis of Daisy alone, I reckon him one of best; and he also has a credit on History Is Made at Night....) For some background information, take a look at the 24fps roundtable discussion of Daisy from a few years back, featuring Zach Campbell, Damien Bona, and myself.