Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Life in These United States: Film School

The Reeler's Vadim Rizov wrote a very nice editorial in the first issue of the Tisch Film Review about the commercial/industry leanings of the NYU film production curriculum. To his credit, Vadim does not lean too hard on the obvious - that film education devolves helplessly into vocational training for big studio filmmaking and its simulacra - and makes a pragmatic effort to propose changes that could inch NYU toward accommodating the concept of cinema as an art.

Vadim's article focuses on the production side of film studies. When I went to film school (UCLA in the late 70s), there was pretty much no connection between the production and critical studies wings of the film department. Critical studies was in the throes of converting over to the semiotic/structuralist/Marxist/feminist/psychoanalytic mindset, and was not especially interested in finding common ground even with traditional art scholarship, much less with filmmakers. And the production kids were pretty much hands-on, practical types - not necessarily a bunch of industry wannabes, but not inclined toward theory in any way. At that time, the production staff at UCLA skewed toward avant-garde, personal filmmaking; but production students, then and now, are driven types who band together and educate themselves on student film crews, and UCLA's loose structure left them to pursue their own agendas.

I'm sure things have changed a lot since then. My distinct impression is that "theory" has become much more flexible, accommodating, and open after those early years when it was preoccupied with infiltrating and taking over university departments. On the production side, I'm pretty sure that UCLA's beatnik vibe is long dissipated, and that the industry looms much larger in that part of academia.

Still, the separation of theory and practice in film education seems to linger. And I think there's something American about that bifurcation. Our culture is unusually suspicious of intellectualism, valuing instead common sense and a get-it-done pragmatism. As a result, our intellectual life is effectively shut up in the ivory tower. An American film student who wants to distribute his or her energies across the thinking/doing continuum is going to feel pressure from both sides of the divide to get off the fence and take sides. Europe doesn't seem to separate mind and body in so violent a fashion, and European filmmakers emerge from film schools with alluring tales of having immersed themselves in film culture.

Does this mean that Vadim and his ilk are wasting their time beating their heads against the wall of American culture? Not necessarily. Film schools talk a good game about being dedicated to art - maybe they can be guilt-tripped into instituting changes. The advocates of cinema art culture should realize that they are a minority trying to bend the majority to their will, rather than a grass-roots movement, and select their political tools accordingly.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Alfredo, Alfredo: Film Forum, November 7, 2007

Pietro Germi's last film, Alfredo, Alfredo, doesn't have a reputation or a cult following as far as I know. But I definitely think it's his best work, both his most sophisticated and the most emotionally revealing. I don't want to talk too much about it until I resee it at Film Forum on November 7. But try to catch it if you're interested in Germi at all - it doesn't screen often.

The rest of Film Forum's Germi series is worth your while as well. My overall take on Germi: the early neorealist work doesn't do that much for me; the 50s melodramas are more interesting, with The Railroad Man the best of the bunch; and the cynical comedies that made his international reputation, Divorce Italian Style and Seduced and Abandoned, are a big step forward for him, and his best work until the alleged failure of Alfredo.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

While watching Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited (which I liked a lot), it occurred to me that there's a kind of dialectic working in Anderson's style.

Thesis: Anderson likes to depict the world as a phantasmagoria, a series of sudden, unpredictable, beautiful changes. To this end, he often cuts with no attempt to preserve spatial relations, preferring instead to use time jumps and fantasy to create improbable transitions, even within scenes.

Antithesis: The characterization, and particularly the dialogue, in Anderson's films is concrete, tied to unusual, coherent characterizations. Not that there isn't poetry in his phrasing, but it's a poetry based on the established types he portrays, who are often difficult, mundane, even unsympathetic. Sometimes he reminds me a little of Preston Sturges in the way he gives hardheaded characters graceful forms of expression.

Synthesis: Seems to me that there's a ballet between these two tendencies in Anderson's films, where the coherent and mundane characterizations are used to motivate wild stylistic changes, or to integrate them back into a semblance of the natural.

The relationship between the phantasmagoric and mundane tendencies in Anderson is fairly loose: characterization weaves a transparent web around the fantasy elements, creating an appearance of integration that has a winking, reflexive aspect.

(There are spoilers coming.)

An strong example of characterization motivating fantasy might be the scene where the Owen Wilson character makes his brothers perform a ritual involving the burial of bird feathers: "Let's go up there," he says, pointing to a hill seen in the background; and a cut takes us to the top of the hill instantly, where the scene continues without pause.

A weaker example might be the first encounter of the Jason Schwartzman character and the train hostess, starting with a mini-profile of his sex addiction ("I want that stewardess" - a terrific line), and padded with mundane details of his awkward but effective seduction technique, but paying off with splashes of exciting contrast: the lovely, lyrical shot of the hostess leaning out the train window at nighttime, shot with fast film stock that captures the dusky sky and intensifies colors; and the sudden cuts that move the seduction rapidly toward the sweet-but-detached sex scene in the men's room.

Examples of characterization serving to integrate fantasy abound. The film's high point, and no doubt one of the most thrilling scenes we'll see this year, is the riverside lateral tracking shot that leads to the discovery of the Indian boy's death. The shot, which follows Schwarzman, is spatially disconnected from the action that led to it (the capsizing of the boys' raft) and lacks narrative coding: we don't know what the likely outcome is. But bits of dialogue gently tighten the narrative's tentative grip on the scene: first Schwartman's frightening exclamation that Brody is covered with blood; then Brody's stunned comments as he stands holding the body: "I didn't save mine." Anderson's treatment of death is masterful throughout this section, bleak without sentiment or loss of focus: Brody's mundane, helpless confessions of his ego involvement in the failed rescue do not mitigate our sense of a life lost, but they do help create one layer of the scene's meaning, its acknowledgment of the limits on the sorrow we feel for the death of strangers/bit players.

The Darjeeling Limited is permeated by a sense of mystery and of what it feels like to contemplate mystery. Not all commentators compare it favorably to Anderson's earlier work, but I'm very pleased with the trajectory of his career so far.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Comment je me suis disputé... (ma vie sexuelle)

I like to play the game of taking a single moment from a movie I like, and seeing how many general observations about the film flow naturally from that moment. In this game, though, it's important to pick a favorite moment, not just one that analyzes well.

So here's an early scene from Arnaud Desplechin's Comment je me suis disputé... (ma vie sexuelle) that made me laugh aloud, and that would be really cool even if it weren't funny.

Background: In the middle of an evening-long gathering of the friends of Paul Dedalus, Paul's long-time girlfriend Esther arrives late. She seems not to know Paul's friends that well. We learn during the evening that Paul harbors hopes of breaking up with Esther someday.

Scene: As the crowd is leaving a restaurant, Esther stands by a car, smoking a cigarette, with two other women from the group. Making friendly conversation, the women ask Esther whether Paul is an assistant or associate professor (I think; the actual titles may be different). Embarrassed, but smiling, Esther says she doesn't know. Helpfully, the women tell her how to distinguish between the titles - this is a crowd who know something about academia. Esther still laughs and shrugs her ignorance. The women, always friendly, ask a few easier questions: does Paul teach at the Sorbonne or at Nanterre? What is his thesis about? Esther has to admit she doesn't know the answers; she doesn't talk to him about his work. "Is that terrible?" she asks, still smiling. "No!" say both the women, quickly and in unison, laughing. The scene is filmed in a single medium long shot that tracks gradually in to Esther, so that she is alone in the frame when she asks "Is that terrible?" Desplechin's only conspicuous camera gesture during the scene is to pan quickly over to the two women as they say "No!" in unison. The suddenness of the pan emphasizes the "No!" And the scene ends there.

Item #1: Desplechin cares about being entertaining, about surface tone. The subject matter of this scene is not completely comfortable: the moment is embarrassing, Esther is clearly in danger of losing status in this group...and what kind of relationship does she have with Paul anyway? It's safe to say that most filmmakers would have played up her discomfort a bit more. Characteristically, Desplechin prefers to sugar-coat the pill: Esther keeps her cool pretty well, the girlfriend-y tone of the chat is preserved, everyone smiles and has a good time through the shot, the very funny ending is accompanied by the laughter of the characters. We don't see Esther express mortification later, don't see the other women snipe her behind her back. It's possible that both those things happened, but Desplechin doesn't want to elaborate: he's made his point, we all had fun, let's move on.

Item #2: Desplechin wants characters to have specific, psychologically plausible issues. This kind of film can sometimes get by on character archetypes and pleasant evocations of the vibe of hanging out with pals. But Desplechin goes out of his way to point us to non-general character traits. The scene after this one, of the group walking in the Paris night, is dominated by a lengthy voiceover that describes the nature of Paul's friendship with Nathan - that it is based on admiration, not familiarity - and elaborating on the particular ways that that nature manifests itself.

Item #3: This scene is shot in one continuous take. But this is not typical of Desplechin: in fact, most people probably think of him as a director who edits a lot. And yet the tone of the scene is quite typical of Desplechin. It's probably not a good idea to base one's analysis of his style on his use of particular camera techniques.

Item #4: Whether Desplechin edits or holds a shot, we often get the sense of him redirecting our attention in undisguised ways. Here, the rapid pan that ends the scene is a humorous pointer to the place where the social fabric is tearing. A quick edit might do the same thing: as in the subsequent party scene, where Desplechin cuts in to emphasize that Jean-Jacques, the host of the party, is holding Paul's hand persistently after shaking it. There's no denying the connection between Desplechin's style and Truffaut's, and I think we're near the heart of that connection here: Truffaut and Desplechin are both interested in the small, non-obvious things that might give a new spin to an interaction, and they feel empowered to use any technique at their disposal (including the once-denigrated technique of voiceover) to change our perspective. In both cases, the interventions are bold enough that they suggest direct address by the filmmaker to the audience.

Item #4a: But one observes, without wanting to be too absolute about it, that Desplechin's goal is often analysis, psychological clarity; and that Truffaut's is often lyricism via mystery, details that create psychological opacity. We leave this Desplechin scene knowing more about everyone - and I think this is true of his work in general. We often leave Truffaut scenes with a sense of how difficult it is to know people.

Okay, I have no further thoughts on that scene at the moment. Except that Emmanuelle Devos is awesome in this film.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Career discontinuities, part two: The nosedive

In one of my earliest blog posts, I wrote about a phenomenon that has troubled me all my auteurist life: one discovers a director with an identifiable sensibility that operates over the course of his or her career; and then one sees a film by that director that a) doesn't seem to partake at all of said sensibility, and b) one actively dislikes. Trying to be open-minded, I speculated in that post that perhaps the discontinuity has to do more with the viewer than with the director - that a different viewer might say to me, "What are you talking about? Look, there's the director's typical compositional style, typical acting preference, etc." And I would say to that hypothetical different viewer, weakly, "Yes, but it's just not the same...." Weakly, because the all-important idea of "sensibility" is less quantifiable than the identification of elements of style, and may therefore reflect our subjectivity all too easily.

And I'm officially still open-minded in this way. But the film life is all about what we like and what we don't like, and when a director jumps from one side of that line to the other, you just have to take it seriously. Maybe it's partly about the viewer, but maybe it's about the director too.

If too many discontinuities crop up in one's appreciation of directors, then it's legitimate to wonder whether one is cut out to be an auteurist. And therefore, if even one discontinuity crops up, the seeds of identity crisis have been sown.

Of course, it's possible to be completely into directorial style without being too invested in the continuity among a director's films. The continuity itself isn't what makes the films good; but it provides a confirmation that one is on the right track, that one isn't simply making the director's identity out of whole cloth. Of all the auteurists I know, I'm probably the one who bases his auteurism the most on the content of individual films, rather than on career analysis. And yet I get rattled when that little je-ne-sais-quoi goes missing between projects.

A particular kind of career discontinuity is currently on my mind: the nosedive, the point where a good director becomes bad and stays bad. It would be better for auteurism if this were an unusual case. But I am forced to admit that it happens to me a lot, and has always happened a lot. In fact, the nosedive is so common that I live in fear of it: every time I see a new film by a director I love, I worry.

I'm currently having a run of bad experiences from good directors. I don't want to get too deeply into particulars at the moment. But:

  • Last night I saw The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I loved Chopper to death, really thought that Dominik was a distinctive new voice. By the time Coward was over, I thought it likely that I would never enjoy one of his films again. And yet once in a while I saw a framing or a rhythm that I could imagine in Chopper. It didn't matter, because I was having such a hard time with what I perceived as the sensibility behind the film.
  • I know lots of people really like Secret Sunshine, and I've liked every one of Lee Chang-dong's previous films. In this case there was a lot of style continuity with the rest of Lee's career. And yet suddenly I felt a coarse sensibility at work, one going for superficial, hackneyed effects on the small scale. Because the style hadn't shifted that much, I found myself thinking, "Did I ever like any of this guy's films?" Now I'll need to go back and confirm - which is a tricky business in such cases; one really has to clear one's mind.
  • The most horrible black-hole disappearance of directorial personality I can recall is Married Life, which I saw at Toronto. Here I'm less sure that I've seen a nosedive, because the discontinuity is so spookily absolute. Maybe Ira Sachs will return to me.

I do believe that I am really an auteurist, that I have the calling. But the phenomenon I'm discussing is not at all part of the mythology of auteurism, and I see no way of harmonizing it with that mythology. It stands as a qualifier to my auteurism, an asterisk.

P.S. Of course, you can't be sure until later that a bad experience is a nosedive. Sometimes one is pleasantly surprised by the way things turn out. For instance, a few years back I saw Hur Jin-ho's April Snow at Toronto, and diagnosed the submergence of what I then considered a minor talent. But at Toronto 2007, Hur winds up and delivers Happiness, decisively his most exciting and confident film. A good discontinuity is just as perplexing to my auteurism as a bad one - but it's a lot more fun.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon

I've been trying to save the commentary on Toronto Film Fest movies for my upcoming Senses of Cinema wrapup, but HarryTuttle and I were having a polite little disagreement about Eric Rohmer's latest film Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon over on Girish Shambu's blog, and we eventually expended enough words on the subject that I figured I should link to the discussion. For those who've never been chez Girish: it's the most happenin' joint in the blogosphere, and you'll have to wade through about 70 unrelated comments to follow the Rohmer debate.