Friday, December 11, 2009


Earlier this year, I decided that Jim McBride, whom I had always considered a very good director, actually had the sensibility of a great director, if not the control over his career that a great director would hope for. And so I set out to obtain DVD or VHS copies of all his films that I hadn't seen. One of these, Uncovered (1994), instantly and improbably joined David Holzman's Diary (1967) and Breathless (1983) in the ranks of my favorite McBride movies.

McBride's career breaks up fairly neatly into three parts:

  • Late 60s and early 70s: He receives critical acclaim for David Holzman's Diary and enjoys a brief period of impoverished autonomy as an independent.
  • 80s: He tries making films within the commercial system, and strikes pay dirt with his second film of the decade, The Big Easy (1986). But the subsequent failure of Great Balls of Fire! (1989) seems to damage his prospects.
  • 90s: He manages to string together a series of feature works, mostly television genre projects of little prestige, barely noted by anyone.

On paper, Uncovered would seem to be as unpromising an idea as any McBride had been saddled with. Based on a mystery novel by Arturo Pérez-Reverte, the script (presumably written first by Michael Hirst, then worked over by McBride and his frequent collaborator Jack Baran) is about a young art conservator named Julia (Kate Beckinsale) trying to solve a 15th-century murder by analyzing a chess game depicted in a painting. Soon people associated with the painting's restoration are being killed by someone who is using the likely progression of the chess game to select victims.

This plot has nothing and can have nothing to do with the characters except to engage their curiosity, a quality that, not coincidentally, is also the audience's hoped-for condition. McBride had just managed to make good movies from an urban-vampire comedy-thriller (Blood Ties, 1991) and a film noir retread (The Wrong Man, 1993), so we already knew that he had a way with seemingly doomed projects. But Uncovered has a nimbleness and sense of freedom that lift it above the other films of this period.

Part of McBride's approach to projects like this is to treat the plots very lightly, to minimize weighty emotions associated with them and move them along quickly. This distance from thriller plots naturally creates a comic tone, and McBride directs genre assignments as comedies whenever possible. (The 90s McBride films that don't work well for me - The Informant (1997) and Dead by Midnight (1997) - are the ones with subject matter so grave that McBride couldn't in good faith play them for laughs.)

If McBride doesn't bother pretending that his plots are important, he turns out to be surprisingly sympathetic to other audience-pleasing genre elements. It's plain that he enjoys sex in a general, almost polymorphous way, and lacks the usual American inhibitions about taking simple sexual pleasure. (McBride came of age during that brief period in the 60s and 70s where it seemed as if American cinema might actually be experiencing a sexual revolution, and he has never lost the calling.) He dotes on romance between attractive people, and he's even got a flair for action and violence. (His Elmore Leonard adaptation Pronto (1997) contains an exceptional scene in which a somewhat comical U.S. Marshal, played by James LeGros, takes unexpected and lethal command of a threatening situation.)

More than any particular kind of story, McBride enjoys people, and no genre exercise is so contrived that he doesn't try to fill it with surprising, unpremeditated behavior. One of the prerogatives that a director almost always has, that few overseers are clever enough to prohibit, is to take characters who are designed to fulfill audience fantasies, and reconceive them so that they become the mysterious subject of our gaze as well as the receptacle for our identification.

Kate Beckinsale is at the center of Uncovered, and McBride clearly enjoys just being in the same room with her, being paid to photograph her. This Kate bears almost no resemblance to the rather formidable, shielded beauty who now graces our screens. McBride encourages her girlishness, her permeability. Her Julia occupies the role of the investigator, the problem solver, the righter of wrongs; but she lopes awkwardly through the streets of Barcelona, munching on carrots or apples; she stares at the painting she is restoring as if she were a child in a schoolyard encountering a new playmate. There is no fixity to her state of being: she comes easy to anger, easy to embarrassment, easy to fascination. Though she is smart, her connection to life seems simple and sensual, not much mediated by intellect.

McBride breaks down the boundaries between Julia's different functions and modes: he wants to mix everything together. Example: the first of the killer's victims is a former lover Julia still has feelings for. After she discovers his body and deals with the police, she returns to her apartment. This genre film will of course not treat the death with the gravity that it would deserve in life; and, in fact, the script is ready for a nude scene. To the accompaniment of atmospheric music, Julia enters the apartment and strips off her dress, so that she is naked except for panties. McBride isn't shy at all about his commercial obligations here: he pans, then tracks backwards to keep Julia in the camera's fixed, sensual gaze. Now that the film has shifted into an erotic mode, McBride and Beckinsale make a connection to the previous events: the topless girl shudders with a sob, still grieving. The scene is no longer purely an erotic set piece: it now exists between two narrative functions. At this moment, Julia looks at the painting in her living room that she has been restoring, and moves closer, as if noticing something new about it. The scene's function shifts again, back to the film's central inquiry, as Julia approaches the painting, her sorrow temporarily muted. McBride isn't fazed that Julia is still half-naked and exposed to our gaze as the mystery of the painting is evoked: Julia as sex object and Julia as driver of the narrative go together for him with no strain.

As much as the film revolves around Beckinsale's magnetism, it's an ensemble piece, and it contains at least two other memorable performances: by Paudge Behan as Domenec, the street-gamin chess expert who overcomes Julia's hostility, and by John Wood as Julia's queeny lifelong friend and guardian Cesar. Wood in particular does a terrific job of steering clear of cliché. He camps it up as hard as any gay best friend in the cinema, but he and McBride channel his exhibitionism into the character's life instead of brandishing it as a distraction for the audience: we quickly understand that Cesar must be taken seriously at all times, though he does not sacrifice his flamboyance to that end. Nearly the entire cast partakes of the film's diffuse but overt erotic vibe: man or woman, sympathetic or unsympathetic, everyone gets to strut before the camera and try to seduce it.

The plot is wrapped up tidily; the characters' lives less so. Julia's first line of dialogue, a spontaneous "Fuck me!" as she discovers the covered-up inscription on her painting, feels a touch provocative and open-ended, coming from this still slightly unformed woman-child. And her last line of dialogue is a refusal of closure: an impatient "Sssh!" to her new lover Domenec as she eats a pastry and watches with absorption the auction of the painting that had so occupied her. The impatience does not make us question the value of the love relationship: it merely suspends Julia, and us, in the eternal present.

Monday, December 7, 2009

My 100 Favorite Films of 1999-2008

Everyone is making lists of their favorite films of the 00s, and I've been feeling left out. I do enjoy a good list, but not when it feels premature; and the vagaries of international distribution make it impossible for all but a few ardent festival-hoppers to know yet what has happened in 2009. Even my list of 2008 favorites is just stabilizing.

A solution finally occurred to me: exclude 2009 from my decade list, and include 1999, which was shafted in the last round of decade-end list making.

My 100 favorite films of 1999-2008, in very, very approximate order of preference.

1. Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, USA, 2007)
2. Esther Kahn (Arnaud Desplechin, France, 2000)
3. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, Romania, 2005)
4. Night and Day (Hong Sang-Soo, South Korea, 2008)
5. Vera Drake (Mike Leigh, UK, 2004)
6. The Child (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium/France, 2005)
7. Fat Girl (Catherine Breillat, France, 2001)
8. M/Other (Nobuhiro Suwa, Japan, 1999)
9. The Tracey Fragments (Bruce McDonald, Canada, 2007)
10. Raja (Jacques Doillon, France/Morocco, 2003)
11. Late Marriage (Dover Kosashvili, Israel/France, 2001)
12. The Sopranos: "Made in America" (David Chase, USA, 2007)
13. The House of Mirth (Terence Davies, UK/USA, 2000)
14. La face cachée de la lune (Robert Lepage, Canada, 2003)
15. The Son (Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium, 2002)
16. Far from Heaven (Todd Haynes, USA, 2002)
17. The Forsaken Land (Vimukthi Jayasundara, Sri Lanka/France, 2005)
18. Ana and the Others (Celina Murga, Argentina, 2003)
19. Primer (Shane Carruth, USA, 2004)
20. Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh, UK, 1999)
21. Bled Number One (Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche, Algeria/France, 2006)
22. La Puce (Emmanuelle Bercot, France, 1999)
23. Still Life (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2006)
24. Ballast (Lance Hammer, USA, 2008)
25. Sangre (Amat Escalante, Mexico, 2005)
26. The Wayward Cloud (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan, 2005)
27. Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, 2007)
28. A Week Alone (Celina Murga, Argentina, 2008)
29. All Around Us (Ryosuke Hashiguchi, Japan, 2008)
30. Une Vieille Maîtresse (Catherine Breillat, France, 2007)
31. Japon (Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, 2002)
32. Waking Life (Richard Linklater, USA, 2001)
33. Bully (Larry Clark, USA, 2001)
34. Vibrator (Ryuichi Hiroki, Japan, 2003)
35. Crashing (Gary Walkow, USA, 2007)
36. Tout est pardonné (Mia Hansen-Løve, France, 2007)
37. Darling (Johan Kling, Sweden, 2007)
38. Triple Agent (Eric Rohmer, France, 2004)
39. Chopper (Andrew Dominic, Australia, 2000)
40. Zero Day (Ben Coccio, USA, 2003)
41. Happiness (Hur Jin-ho, South Korea, 2007)
42. Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran, France/Belgium, 2006)
43. Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2006)
44. Haut les coeurs! (Solveig Anspach, France, 1999)
45. The Garden of Earthly Delights (Lech Majewski, UK/Italy/Poland, 2004)
46. Or (Mon Tresor) (Keren Yedaya, Israel, 2004)
47. Toutes ces belles promesses (Jean-Paul Civeyrac, France, 2003)
48. Ken Park (Larry Clark and Ed Lachman, USA, 2002)
49. Ten (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, 2002)
50. Jealousy Is My Middle Name (Park Chan-ok, South Korea, 2002)
51. Shara (Naomi Kawase, Japan, 2003)
52. Return of the Idiot (Saša Gedeon, Czech Republic, 1999)
53. The World (Jia Zhang-ke, China, 2004)
54. Roberto Succo (Cedric Kahn, France, 2000)
55. Be My Star (Valeska Grisebach, Germany, 2001)
56. Avant que j'oublie (Jacques Nolot, France, 2007)
57. The Darjeeling Limited (Wes Anderson, USA, 2007)
58. Stella (Sylvia Verheyde, France, 2008)
59. Grain in Ear (Zhang Lu, China/South Korea, 2005)
60. Nights and Weekends (Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig, USA, 2008)
61. Mid-August Lunch (Gianni Di Gregorio, Italy, 2008)
62. Turning Gate (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2002)
63. Wolfsbergen (Nanouk Leopold, Netherlands, 2007)
64. Jesus, You Know (Ulrich Seidl, Austria, 2003)
65. Paris: XY (Zeka Laplaine, France, 2001)
66. The Believer (Henry Bean, USA, 2001)
67. All or Nothing (Mike Leigh, UK, 2002)
68. Crimson Gold (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2003)
69. No Rest for the Brave (Alain Guiraudie, France, 2003)
70. Forty Shades of Blue (Ira Sachs, USA, 2005)
71. C.R.A.Z.Y. (Jean-Marc Vallée, Canada, 2005)
72. Rain Dogs (Ho Yuhang, Malaysia, 2006)
73. Catastrophe (David Mamet, Ireland, 2000)
74. The Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (Hong Sang-Soo, South Korea, 2000)
75. Johanna (Kornel Mundruczó, Hungary, 2005)
76. A Tale of Cinema (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea, 2005)
77. Brick (Rian Johnson, USA, 2005)
78. Beat (Gary Walkow, USA, 2000)
79. Head-On (Fatih Akin, Germany/Turkey, 2004)
80. One More Day (Babak Payami, Iran, 1999)
81. The Sopranos (pilot) (David Chase, USA, 1999)
82. Boogie (Radu Muntean, Romania, 2008)
83. Hannah Takes the Stairs (Joe Swanberg, USA, 2007)
84. The Royal Tenenbaums (Wes Anderson, USA, 2001)
85. The Fluffer (Richard Glatzer and Wash West, USA, 2001)
86. The Paper Will Be Blue (Radu Muntean, Romania, 2006)
87. The Banishment (Andrei Zyvagintsev, Russia, 2007)
88. Platform (Jia Zhang Ke, China, 2000)
89. Dog Days (Ulrich Seidl, Austria, 2001)
90. Harmful Insect (Akihiko Shiota, Japan, 2001)
91. The Days Between (Maria Speth, Germany, 2001)
92. Idle Running (Janez Burger, Slovenia, 1999)
93. Four Nights with Anna (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland, 2008)
94. The Return (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia, 2003)
95. Cinema, Aspirin and Vultures (Marcelo Gomes, Brazil, 2005)
96. Qui a tué Bambi? (Gilles Marchand, France, 2003)
97. The Tuner (Kira Muratova, Russia, 2004)
98. Mutum (Sandra Kogut, Brazil, 2007)
99. The Embalmer (Matteo Garrone, Italy, 2002)
100. Palindromes (Todd Solondz, USA, 2004)

The decade shows its strength in long lists like this. The 00s had a great bench: talent showed up in more places than ever before, and in as great quantity as in any period of cinema history.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Experimentalism in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Alfred Hitchcock's 1956 American remake of his 1934 British thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much does not attract as much critical attention as several other Hitchcock works from this period. And yet it reveals quite plainly a growing artistic abstraction in Hitchcock that comes close to blowing his cover as an entertainment filmmaker.

The Sedative

After an unexceptional exposition, in which the protagonists are characterized as rather stodgy Midwestern tourists in Morocco, the plot mechanism is sprung when the McKennas' child Hank (Christopher Olsen) is kidnapped to keep his parents from revealing incriminating information that they have stumbled upon. Having received word of the kidnapping first, Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) must break the news to his wife Jo (Doris Day).

Ben insists that Jo take a sedative before he tells her what has happened. This scene so outraged the feminist sensibility of the students in a Hitchcock class I took at UCLA in 1978 that it's been marked in my mind ever since as a political football, and it wasn't until last week that I watched it without a particular ideological reaction. What I saw was something of a spiritual exercise, not unlike the scene in Torn Curtain in which Hitchcock illustrates just how hard it is to remove life from a healthy human body.

Hitchcock's reasoning in conceiving the scene probably went something like this: "Here the characters must undergo an unbearably painful experience before they can recover their ability to act, and the plot can advance. It is usual in moviemaking to pass over this pain, or to stylize it with a brief evocation of pathos. But I don't feel right about dodging this scene: it renders this movie superficial if I minimize the parents' ordeal. What if I conceive the scene as a problem? The doctor must break the bad news to his wife, but he knows that she will be devastated. How can he get from A to B with as little anguish to her as possible?"

And so the scene must depend on duration: ellipsis will defeat the purpose. And it must confront the mother's agony. It will take much longer than a brisk suspense plot would usually permit. Jo is smart, and cannot easily be fooled. The scene is subtly structured from Ben's point of view: we see his calculations, his reformulation of plans. He tries to push a sedative on his wife with no justification, but it doesn't work: she has taken a pill too recently, she perceives that his behavior is odd, and she resists his attempt to use his professional authority to bully her into drugging herself. He therefore has to hurt her a bit: he lets slip that something bad is going on. Despite his euphemistic phrasing, she is instantly alarmed. "Here's the price of finding out," he says, holding out the sedative. Desperate for information, she takes the pill. Now Ben must drag the story out to give the drug time to enter Jo's bloodstream. She is impatient, but he manages to dawdle until she shows signs of weariness. The bomb is dropped. It's as if the sedative did nothing at all: Jo shrieks in terror and must be restrained. After this unnerving moment, Hitchcock finally permits himself an ellipsis. We see Jo lying in bed numbly as Ben packs a bag, and we realize that the drug has probably softened the blow after all.

It goes without saying that experiments in duration were not common in the American entertainment cinema at this or any other time, and that Hollywood's Master of Suspense was in fact rather an arty guy. But no doubt some regard this scene as an exercise in sadism...and it would be disingenuous to dismiss this imagined charge lightly. There is no doubt that we are being put through a painful experience at a quite leisurely pace. And yet, there is a sense that Hitchcock is putting himself through the experience with us. The scene is more about the discomfort of dealing pain than it is about actual pain or even our anticipation of it. The artist's energy is principally deployed to make us share Ben's problem, his discomfort in using unpleasant tactics on his wife. It is a little fanciful to interpret the scene as being about the filmmaker's dilemma in hurting his audience - but the conceit has some dimension.

The Concert

At the film's climax, Hitchcock once again goes experimental on us. The assassination attempt that the McKennas have inadvertently uncovered is to take place during a concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Earlier, Hitchcock shared with us the assassins' plan to fire a gun in synchronization with a particular cymbal clash in Arthur Benjamin's Storm Clouds cantata. He even played the passage with the cymbal clash three times, in order to familiarize us with the moment when the gun will fire - though we are given no information about how long the piece is or where the cymbal clash occurs in it. As Jo and Ben arrive independently at the hall, with imperfect knowledge of what will happen, we realize that Hitchcock intends to show the performance of the piece (with his composer Bernard Herrmann at the podium) without ellipsis: a nine-minute stretch.

This experiment in duration is not as emotional as the earlier one. The intended victim is an anonymous minister of a foreign country; we are encouraged to share Jo and Ben's horror at the assassination attempt, but the stakes are relatively abstract. During the performance, Hitchcock must keep a few balls in the air: he must show Jo gradually realizing where the key players are and what is likely to happen; he must show Ben arriving, and position him for his role in the action dénouement; and, above all, he must find enough variety of form and content, and create enough development, that the nine-minute visual accompaniment to the music doesn't bore us. The musical performance is elaborately documented, with various elements of the rather large orchestra and chorus highlighted at different times, and many shots of Herrmann conducting and of the fatal cymbalist preparing for his big moment.

Here the effect of the scene does not depend on the exact structure of the visual accompaniment - Hitchcock could have sequenced the footage in any number of ways - but rather on the mere fact that the entire piece is played. All suspense depends on an appropriate elongation of time, but this elongation goes well beyond the demands of suspense. Hitchcock wants us to take home some art with our entertainment: not just Benjamin's music, but the cinematic art of confronting the intractability of time.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Frivolous Lists: Italy

As I'm attending the Neorealism series at the Walter Reade, I idly put together a list of my all-time favorite Italian films - one film per director.
  1. Paisà (Roberto Rossellini, 1946)
  2. L'Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960)
  3. Alfredo, Alfredo (Pietro Germi, 1972)
  4. La signora di tutti (Max Ophüls, 1934)
  5. L'Assassino (Elio Petri, 1961)
  6. Io la conoscevo bene (I Knew Her Well) (Antonio Pietrangeli, 1965)
  7. Pranzo di ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch) (Gianni Di Gregorio, 2008)
  8. Dillinger è morto (Dillinger Is Dead) (Marco Ferreri, 1969)
  9. Banditi a Orgosolo (Bandits of Orgosolo) (Vittorio De Seta, 1961)
  10. Kaos (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani, 1984)
Without a one-film-per-director rule, Viaggio in Italia, Cronaca di un amore, and Il grido would no doubt have shoved their way in. The newest film on my list, Pranzo di ferragosto, is slated for a theatrical premiere at Film Forum on March 17, 2010.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Návrat idiota (Return of the Idiot): Walter Reade, October 24 and 27, 2009

No sooner do I discover my all-time favorite Czech director than I learn that he's dropped out of sight. Does anyone know where Saša Gedeon has been keeping himself for the last ten years? He was just 24 when his wonderful short feature Indiánské léto (Indian Summer), an adaptation of Fitzgerald's short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair, was released to national acclaim. He followed in 1999 with the Dostoyevsky adaptation Návrat idiota (Return of the Idiot), which confirmed his star status in the Czech Republic, and even made its way to A-list festivals. Since then, nothing, except for a short segment in the 2004 omnibus film Visions of Europe. He turned 39 this August.

I hope some of you will visit Návrat idiota when it plays the Walter Reade on Saturday, October 24 at 8 pm and Tuesday, October 27 at 4 pm in the "Ironic Curtain" program of recent Czech cinema. In a sense, Gedeon continues the tradition of 60s Czech comedy, with its focus on the inarticulate eccentricity of its characters. But he has an immense gravity that moves his films away from outright comedy and toward a tone of revery and melancholy. Návrat idiota stays close to Dostoyevsky's paradoxical view of human nature, and Gedeon's excellent script maintains the mystery and dignity of a large cast of characters who circle the eponymous, naive hero (Pavel Liška). This is a major work from a director who should be much better known outside the Czech Republic.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bam gua nat (Night and Day): Anthology Film Archives, October 23-29, 2009

My favorite film of the last two years, Hong Sang-soo's Bam gua nat (Night and Day), is getting a one-week run at Anthology Film Archives, starting this Friday, October 23. It screens each day at 6:30 pm and 9:15 pm, with added Saturday and Sunday screenings at 3:30 pm.

I noted in my previous blog entry on Bam gua nat that Hong had restrained in this film his usual impulse toward narrative doubling, and adopted a more conventional narrative structure. The spine of the story resembles that of Rohmer films like Le genou de Claire (Claire's Knee): protagonist Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) is emotionally committed to his life with his wife Sung-in (Hwang Su-jeong), who is primarily a telephone presence in the film, thanks to Sung-nam's temporary exile in Paris for fear of drug charges. The main focus of the film, however, is Sung-nam's transitory emotional life in Paris, and particularly his intense, dubious passion for young artist Yu-jeong (Park Eun-hye). Therefore the story creates a tension between what matters most to the protagonist (his married life in Korea) and what matters most to the audience (the Parisian interlude which is developed in detail for us). Somewhat surprisingly, Hong diligently follows the narrative rules of this format: the phone calls to Sung-in occur at regular intervals, and give us enough information that we should be able to predict Sung-nam's behavior at the film's climax. Hong also develops the theme of life in exile with regularly spaced observations about cultural differences between Korea and France, and about Sung-nam's reactions to the life choices that face an expatriate. It's odd that Hong should take up an almost literary organization of his material at this stage of his career.

Hong's approach to generating content is much the same as in his earlier films, but the surprises and disjunctions that he loves take on a slightly different contextual meaning here: they are subsumed in Sung-nam's story and reflect the vicissitudes of his inner life, whereas often in earlier films Hong's formal play is from an authorial stance, a manipulation of story lines rather than an acceptance of their confines. As usual, Hong's raw material is so freeform and arbitrary that we suspect that he took the events directly from real life. What's most unusual about the almost random flow of quotidian occurrences is that Hong coaxes out the latent narrativity in each scene, and presents each event with the emphasis usually given to plot points, even though most of these storytelling seeds will fall on barren ground and have no narrative consequences. There's skill involved in balancing the presentation of these micro-events, which can be construed either as bits of characterization or as red herrings in a surrealist mode. For instance, when Sung-nam picks up a Bible after hearing a stranger talk about its life-changing properties, we are getting a droll glimpse of Sung-nam's thought processes, half-inquisitive and half-superstitious; and we are also getting a potential story development. In this particular case, Hong's emphasis on the Bible is mostly red herring: all Sung-nam does with his experience is to use it to strengthen an excuse not to have sex with his former lover Min-sun (Kim Yu-jin). But Hong will generate many such emphases over the course of the film. Some will go nowhere at all (like Sung-nam taking up tai chi); some will develop large-scale story momentum (like Yu-jeong's exaggerated fear of people plagiarizing her art work). All these small but weighty developments harmonize with or reveal the characters' psychology: Hong is a psychologically accountable director. None of the developments, perhaps, affect the narrative deeply enough to change the film's outcome. If we take a long enough view, all these portentous events can be said to be red herrings, and Hong can be placed in a surrealist tradition.

This ambiguity – are the disjunctions merely a reflection of the disorder of real life, or are they sabotage of good storytelling practice? – is at the heart of Hong's style. If he were not a faithful recorder of the messiness of human behavior, his rather hostile play with form might not be very interesting; if he didn't use narrative tricks to create absurd story shapes, his insights into people might be less compelling.

NYFF/Toronto Podcast

John Lichman and Vadim Rizov invited me to participate in a podcast about the Toronto and New York film festivals for's movie blog. Among the most discussed films are Tsai Ming-liang's Visage (Face), Bruno Dumont's Hadewijch, and Jacques Rivette's 36 vues du Pic Saint Loup (Around a Small Mountain).

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chelsea on the Rocks: Cinema Village, Now Playing

A very pleasant surprise. Abel Ferrara's documentary on the Hotel Chelsea is an inside job, as the director is a former resident, and clearly upset with the hotel's slow transformation from an artists' asylum to a more conventional for-profit business. His interviewees, ranging from famous figures to bohemian characters, add up to a pleasing picture of a New York subculture that is thinned by time but still going about its business and hanging on to its 400 square feet. What's wonderful about the film is how unerring are Ferrara's instincts for how he should insert himself into this tapestry. No invisible interviewer, he irrupts into conversations from the other side of the camera with opinions and obscenities, probably much as he would under any circumstances. Eventually he shows up in the frame, playing a song in Dan's Guitars or delightedly showing a crew member the secret passageway from El Quijote to the Chelsea lobby. Yet there is no sense of Ferrara stealing the show: he is more than generous to the parade of aging hipsters on display, and has a witty way of balancing his sense of showmanship with his pleasure in revealing the filmmaking mechanism. Though former Chelsea proprietor Stanley Bard is the hero of the film, Ferrara does not cut away from the residents' occasional negative reminiscences of him; nor does he excise his own weird outburst at one point. Beneath Ferrara's persona of filmmaker-as-curmudgeon is a powerful and by no means simplistic attitude toward how to be a filter and how to be a mirror. Chelsea on the Rocks is currently at the Cinema Village, with shows daily at 5:20 pm and 9:55 pm.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Al Momia (The Night of Counting the Years): Walter Reade, Friday, October 9, 2009

A fixture on lists of the greatest Arabic films, rarely screened in the US, Al Momia (1969; released here in 1975 with the lovely title The Night of Counting the Years) is the only completed feature film by one Shadi Abdel Salam, who had previously served as an art director and costume designer in the Egyptian film industry. Set in the 1880s, the film is based on the real-life story of a Egyptian rural community who survive by raiding ancient tombs and selling the antiquities to foreign black-marketeers. Roberto Rossellini, who employed Abdel Salam as set designer for his Mankind's Fight for Survival TV series, is said to have helped the director find backing for the film; but its contained compositions, striking use of shadow and light, and stylized performance style (the actors are obliged to use classical Arabic) place Abdel Salam more in the tradition of Murnau. If you can't make it out to the Walter Reade for Al Momia's screening this Friday, October 9 at 6:15 pm, you can find English-subtitled versions of the film on Google Video (parts one and two) and at the Internet Archive.

Life During Wartime: New York Film Festival, October 10 and 11, 2009

I'll be writing about a number of Fall 2009 films in my Toronto wrap-up for Senses of Cinema, so I don't want to scoop myself. But, if you've ever liked Todd Solondz (that should weed a few of you out), catch his new film Life During Wartime (a sequel to Solondz's 1998 Happiness) at Alice Tully Hall on Saturday, October 10 at 9 pm or Sunday, October 11 at 11 am. It's my favorite among the New York Film Festival slate so far.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Land and Sons: Scandinavia House, October 1 and 3, 2009 (screenings cancelled)

Scandinavia House, whose fine weekly screenings are one of the better kept secrets of the NYC film scene, is showing Ágúst Guðmundsson's 1980 Land og synir (Land and Sons) as part of its current Icelandic film series. I saw the film at Filmex 81, and wrote about it in the L.A. Reader at the time: "An intelligent, quietly graceful debut by director-screenwriter Ágúst Guðmundsson, which deserves better than to be known as the most successful Icelandic film. The story deals with a subject also treated in Bergman's Faro Document 1979: the younger generation's unwillingness to continue working the often-unprofitable farms that were a way of life to the parents. A restless son (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), prepared to leave Iceland for the Danish mainland, is given pause by his awareness of tradition and his awakening love for his neighbor's daughter (Guðný Ragnarsdóttir). The film's great virtue is the calm and gravity with which it treats this dilemma: Guðmundsson's thoughtful, literate script provides each of the characters with his or her own respectable justifications, and the awesome Icelandic landscape and the parable-like narrative unobtrusively create a mood of universality. Land and Sons is not the type of film to create a stir at a film festival, but it manages to be effectively entertaining as it slowly unfolds its understated despair." It screens on Thursday, October 1 at 6:30 pm and Saturday, October 3 at 3 pm.

Later that same day: thanks to Kevin Helfenbein for pointing out to me that Scandinavia House has cancelled its screenings of Land og synir, and has substituted Guðmundsson's 2001 Mávahlátur (The Seagull's Laughter), which had a brief theatrical run in NYC in early 2004. Mávahlátur isn't a bad film at all, actually: the story, about a small Icelandic town adjusting to a now-glamorous native daughter returned from the US, could have easily skewed noncomformist/middlebrow, but Guðmundsson fills it with nice behavioral touches. Still, I'm sorry not to get another look at Land og synir.

Monday, September 21, 2009

La vie de famille: BAM, September 22, 2009

Those of you who missed the amazing Jacques Doillon retrospective at FIAF this spring should make an effort to get to BAM on Tuesday for Doillon's 1985 stunner La vie de famille, screening in BAM's Juliette Binoche tribute and by no means guaranteed to make future NYC appearances. (The screening was originally scheduled for Wednesday, September 23, but moved to the 22nd.) A sunlit road movie that transposes the last-romantic-couple formula to accommodate a father (Sami Frey) and his precocious young daughter (Mara Goyet), La vie de famille is a fantasy of cross-generation communion that stylizes its characters' verbal fluency in order to peer more deeply into the painful tangle of familial emotion. Among the film's many virtues is an evolving use of video diary to push intimacy to the point of fulfillment/exhaustion/sorrow. Showtimes are 4:30 pm, 6:50 pm, and 9:15 pm.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Only Angels Have Wings

Only Angels Have Wings is an annunciation: already a major director, Howard Hawks here becomes a definition of cinema. And yet Angels is not radically different from previous Hawks films, nor a model of seamless perfection.

One's first thought might be that Hawks benefitted from an evocative visual plan, courtesy of Lionel Banks' art design and Joseph Walker's dazzling, Oscar-nominated cinematography. But Hawks exploits that plan with a directorial freedom greater than he had previously permitted himself. More than ever before in his work, we experience the set as an actors' hangout, a place to linger over drinks, to come together in musical interludes, to catnap while waiting for the mail plane to return.

Hawks always liked to send strong genre signals, in order to increase the frisson when acting and action play out quicker, quieter, more informally than the genre backdrop leads us to expect. And the beginning of Angels is a genre pileup of major proportions. The traffic and bric-a-brac of the port of Barranca are swirled together with lively non-stop south-of-the-border music, and main characters are introduced gradually as the party travels from the streets into the Dutchman's lively restaurant/hotel/airport. Hawks and his screenwriters (Jules Furthman gets the credit, but a host of others participated, including Anne Wigton, who seems to have devised the basic story concept) introduce the love story and the comic relief early, but instinctively hold off on the film's really distinctive elements until its first set piece, the tense team effort to guide Joe Souther's plane home. The extraordinary impact of this scene depends upon Hawks discarding genre trappings a bit at a time, stripping the set and the performances of adornments, leaving us exposed to darkness and fog. The peak moment is when airline boss Geoff Carter (Cary Grant) impatiently orders that the musicians in the café stop playing: the order is passed along in the background, and after a few seconds the movie's chief genre signifier drops off the sound track, leaving ominous silence.

Only Angels Have Wings has an unusual structure that bodes well for Hawks' future career. The film's first and last thirds are devoted to lengthy, well-orchestrated dramatic interludes, centered on action and suspense while weaving in other story threads. No doubt Hawks' most dazzling coup is the Joe Souther interlude, with its surprising and understated expansion of the character of Kid (Thomas Mitchell), Geoff's second-in-command, who reveals both an unusual skill at tracking Joe's plane and an uncanny symbiosis with Geoff. If the biplane flight at the climax is inevitably less evocative and suspenseful, it takes us closer to the film's emotional center, with wild-eyed Thomas Mitchell and pulled-in Richard Barthelmess shoved together in a tiny cockpit, neither one revealing all his mystery, different acting styles checking each other out, competing archetypes of Hawksian existentialism.

Between these two integrated dramatic interludes, the film's middle third, alternating between chit-chat at the Dutchman's and adventures in the flying trade, is more meandering and lighter on plot than any previous Hawks passage. Yet this looser middle section points the way into Hawks' future: it contains the highest concentration of uninhibited behavioral play, the reflexive fun-on-a-movie-set that Hawks would hang onto after he had stripped away every other component of his style. Geoff and Kid wrestling for possession of Kid's double-headed coin, or Geoff patting the Dutchman's head while talking baby talk to him, belongs to a non-narrative, almost Warhol-like layer of the Hawks universe that can be regarded as either foreground or background, depending on where we focus our eyes.

As Hawks' directorial personality flowers in Angels, so do his idiosyncrasies. Love interest Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) perhaps suffers from the competing subplots that flourish in this relaxed environment, to the point where she has to draw a gun on Geoff at the climax to regain lost dramatic stature. The odd character dynamic between Geoff and the disgraced Kilgallen (Barthelmess) - Geoff has great empathy for Kilgallen's plight, yet treats him with contempt to his face - will surface again in later Hawks films, where it will sometimes be mysteriously labeled as a form of therapy. Angels also sees Hawks beginning to convert his world view into an ethos, with both Bonnie and Kilgallen's wife Judy (Rita Hayworth) forced to capitulate to Geoff's ideas of right and wrong. Some viewers may be fazed by the full revelation of Hawks' personality - and yet this is what we have to deal with when an artist becomes so confident and so comprehensive that the cinema becomes subordinate to him instead of the other way around.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ramrod and Pitfall: Anthology Film Archives, August 18, 2009

A piece I wrote on André de Toth's Ramrod (1947) and Pitfall (1948) is up at the Auteurs' Notebook. The films play once more in Anthology Film Archives' One-Eyed Auteurs series, on Tuesday, August 18: Pitfall at 7 pm, Ramrod at 9 pm.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Small Back Room

The 1949 The Small Back Room may be Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's best film (the competition is Black Narcissus, I'd say), but it lacks the exotic or fantastic subject matter with which the filmmakers are associated, and in fact makes a concerted effort to hunker down in the midst of everyday, tedious life. It's fun to describe it as a film about an alcoholic bomb defuser, but that logline misses the mood altogether.

The title points the way: the protagonists work in a tiny, barely furnished, anonymous office in 1943 London, for a government entity that exerts influence on the 1943 British war effort but escapes scrutiny. Explosives specialist Sammy Rice (David Farrar), still not adjusted to the loss of a leg and the relentless pain of wearing a prosthesis, is hiding in back-room life, hesitant to emerge from the shadow of his bosses, battling alcoholism, and unable to accept fully the love of his girlfriend and coworker Susan (Kathleen Byron).

The mundane world envelopes and practically mocks Sammy; and yet P&P characteristically give it a stylized appeal. Sammy is introduced sitting at a very crowded pub, appearing at the end of a low-angle tracking shot that follows a jostled bartender delivering a message. When Susan and an Army captain (a young Michael Gough) arrive at the bar to find Sammy, an overhead shot shows them taking the wrong path in the labyrinth of pubgoers before the bartender points Sammy out. There is no narrative reason for the wrong turn, but the mood of good-natured, oblivious, encompassing quotidian life will be developed, in restaurants where functionaries seek Sammy out for tidbits of information, or in clubs attended routinely by the lovers on Wednesday nights. One of the most striking scenes takes place in a lurching underground train where Sammy and Susan huddle in their seats, Sammy trying to ignore the pain in his leg. The camera surprises us by tracking in and out on the couple in the confined space, as hordes of Londoners evacuate the foreground of the shot at stops, then fill it again. Eventually the couple stand up, and the scene ends with the train light momentarily blinking out, casting Sammy and Susan into semi-darkness as the camera withdraws and the car hurtles on. This visual drama is expended on a rather simple and unassuming scene. In a way, P&P are playing at expressionism, externalizing the suffering of the fellow in the corner seat. But the routine of rush hour underground travel is unthreatening and depicted with amusing human detail. The mundane environment is not just a backdrop or a metaphor: it's part of the film's subject.

The Small Back Room is probably P&P's most intimate and human-scaled film, attentive to the ebb and flow of Sammy and Susan's struggle for survival as a couple: the small humiliations of office life; the uneasy symbolism of the man and woman's adjacent, connected apartments; the way pain is banked and nurtured when breakup becomes a possibility. But the profusion of scaled-down observation is the cover for a capital-R Romantic battle for Sammy's soul, rendered by Farrar and Byron with full-bodied emotionality. Farrar, an actor who naturally projects force and virility, alternates here between bitterness and a childlike vulnerability: Sammy clenches Susan's hand to ward off pain, or crumples on her breast with a barely audible sigh.

Just when alcohol and self-destructiveness are about to claim the love relationship, a slow-building suspense story emerges from among the subplots, announcing its primacy with a beautiful, unreal image: a lonely moonlit beach, with an unexploded German bomb protruding from the sand, marked with a flag and guarded by a soldier. The image speaks of paradise, of the bomb waiting for Sammy at the edge of the known world, far from the torture of his daily life. Beneath the beauty, there is a threat - the bombs have taken several lives already, and we have witnessed the last agonies of their most recent victim - but beneath the threat there is more beauty, as Sammy is plainly receiving his final wake-up call. The climax of the film, played out with the sound of the ocean and seagulls for counterpoint, manipulates point of view to place us, with Sammy and the bomb, on a peaceful metaphysical plain where all mundane concerns drop away. And if this intense transformation of the film's form should make us feel that Sammy's personal transformation might be possible as well, then so much the better for the drama.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Garden of Earthly Delights

Lech Majewski's beautiful 2004 feature-length video The Garden of Earthly Delights is at the same time a clear piece of storytelling, albeit in a modernist mode, and a remarkably free exercise in the association of images and sounds. The film's beauty is the result of these two layers being carefully and continually linked.

The gimmick (not too strong a word, because it requires sleight of hand to pass it off as plausible; the work occasionally shows) is that a couple videotapes themselves almost continuously, partly because they are creating an experimental video piece based on the eponymous Bosch painting, partly because of the man's habits, and partly because of a dire medical problem which the video helps them come to terms with. We are introduced to the complexities of the situation gradually, with information doled out as it enters the visual field of the camera.

But the film's appeal is not conceptual: it grows from the power and density of Majewski's audiovisual images. One sees the actors handling the camera in a number of scenes, but Majewski gets the cinematographer's credit, and the seemingly casual video work is tunneled through with labyrinthine depth compositions and striking color and texture juxtapositions. Complicated pan-and-zoom movements are bracketed with simple home-movie visual language. The accumulated effect of the subtly larger-than-life imagery is to impart a sense of grandeur to the travails of the game but afflicted couple.

The premise of amateur self-documentation justifies a great deal of randomness and even confusion in what images are presented. It's fascinating that the tiniest dose of narrative is enough to alter our relationship (mine, anyway) to the torrent of sights and sounds. At any rate, by allowing us to piece together a story, Majewski lifts from the imagery the burden of providing unity to the movie, and assigns to it the role of providing entropy.

Enjoying the discipline of providing linkage between form and fiction, Majewski marks each evolution of the story with a small style shift, starting with the surprising pan that reveals the video camera in a mirror. Playing off the essentially exhibitionistic nature of the couple's project, Majewski chooses to reveal the illness story through the surprising mise-en-scene of the woman trying for once to avoid her lover's camera.

The Garden of Earthly Delights is, among other things, a strikingly physical rendering of a heterosexual relationship. The man (Chris Nightingale) and the woman (Claudine Spiteri) disrobe and couple frequently in the course of their Bosch-based charades, and the remote, unattended camera both justifies their shyness and heightens the tactility of the sexual imagery. In addition, the contemplation of death in this movie is expressed in bodily, even chemical terms. The nonprofessional actors are chosen to some extent because their physiques lend themselves to a pictorial allegory of classical male and female beauty. And yet Majewski manages to give the characters psychology, albeit in large strokes that do not compromise their symbolic status. Though the woman is both the visual and narrative center of the film, the man is the more mysterious and ultimately the more poignant character: while the woman confronts death with a philosophical quest, the man reacts with mute pain and withdrawal, and with a desire to cross the gender barrier and merge with the beloved object. That Majewski is as engaged with people as he is confident about form marks him as a major filmmaker and not just a talented one.

I do not believe in a sharp division between film and video: if Bazin could find identity between cinema and the process of making death masks, I think we should be able to appreciate the common ground between emulsion and pixels. But it was my pleasure to see two films last month in quick succession - the Majewski, and Jun Ichikawa's 2008 short feature Buy a Suit - where unpolished video images take on a beauty that is partly due to the narrative utility of the video, to the appropriateness of using an inconspicuous, consumer-affordable recording device for these particular stories. Of course, the beauty is partly due as well to a spatial and compositional authority that crosses media.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Jules et Jim

There's not much new left to say about this magnificent, well-appreciated film after all these years. Still, Truffaut doesn't get enough credit for finding the passageway to a form of cinematic expression that puts narrative and the artist's commentary on a fluid continuum. As a punishment for making postmodernism look easy, Truffaut is too often pegged as the McCartney/Donovan to Godard's Lennon/Dylan, where it might be more accurate to regard him as a Joyce or Proust to Godard's Brecht.

Truffaut's way of making experimentalism commercial was to create a brazenly impressionistic cinema of the mind, and then to include, as casually as an afterthought, the cinema's traditional role - the documentation of reality - as one component of mental life. So the representational is present in Truffaut, but encapsulated, so to speak, in a container of shifting subjectivity.

In this light, we can understand why Truffaut does not have and does not need a strong sense of space, why his compositions need not come together, why the sequencing of shots in his films can be quite arbitrary. Truffaut merely alludes to external reality. He sacrifices the camera's authoritative rendering of the world in favor of a more abstract description of mental states. The elongation of time via overlapping cuts (i.e., Catherine jumping into the Seine - a common figure of style in Truffaut) and the intensification of the camera's gaze via a barrage of unexpected, jaggedly edited closeups (i.e., the depiction of the Adriatic statue, or the later comparison of Catherine's smile to the statue's) are blatant declarations that the film's form is refracted through and scattered by memory and emotions.

Truffaut's expression of subjectivity is strongly linked in Jules et Jim and other films to his bold enlistment of literature on the cinema's behalf. Putting the words of the novelist on the soundtrack in abundance is a way of telling the audience that the fascination of storytelling, which induces a present-tense state of mind, has already been accomplished in another medium. Whereas Truffaut's filming is anything but novelistic, and suggests rather the phantasmagoria of experience that swirls around our orderly narrative-making impulse.

The film's script (here's an online transcription of the dialogue in English), by Truffaut and Jean Gruault from Roché's novel, is a startling and brilliant amalgam of literary description and highly abstract passages of poeticized dialogue. (Read the "Catch me!" scene, where Catherine begins her colonization of Jim, to see how purely stylized and absurdist Truffaut and Gruault's dialogue can be - and then recall that it precedes and follows scenes that devote many minutes to establishing the line of the narrative.) When Jules recites the entirety of the Marseillaise over the phone to demonstrate that he has lost his Austrian accent, or when he describes Catherine's background to Jim ("Her father's a noble, her mother's a commoner. He's from an old Burgundy family. Mama was English. So she's not average. And she teaches." "What?" "Shakespeare!"), actor and director are united in a playful acknowledgment of their desire to inflect the story with the grandeur of private mythology. Truffaut happily intensifies such dialogue with music or closeups, creating Welles-like coups de théâtre that he uses as scene transitions. As often as Truffaut has been compared to Renoir, and as often as he invoked Hitchcock, he is probably closest to Welles in the way that his films are marked continuously and openly with the amplifications of memory.

If some programmer would screen Jules et Jim annually on the anniversary of Truffaut's birth or death, I'd try to clear my schedule in perpetuity.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cheri, and the Curious Case of Stephen Frears

Following Stephen Frears' career has not been much fun for me for the last twenty years or so, but I feel as if I owe that much to the director of One Fine Day (1979), Bloody Kids (1979), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), and Song of Experience (1986). For a few years back then, I considered Frears one of the world's greatest filmmakers.

If there was a shift in Frears' sensibility after the success of Laundrette and his graduation from British TV to international theatrical releases, it's not that easy to detect. He always considered himself an interpretive artist, subordinate to the writer's vision. Around the time of Afternoon Off (1979) or One Fine Day, he began to enjoy master shots, started moving his camera more deliberately, and seemed struck by a new awareness of the space around people. Technique is merely the handmaiden of artistic sensibility, of course, and the fact that Frears' films no longer look the same is not an indictment. But, in his best films, Frears' technique took him to an interesting, contemplative place. He intuitively grasped that his camera style lent itself to a demonstration of the psychological inaccessibility of characters, and found angles on his scripts that allowed him to emphasize the unknowable aspects of people.

This directorial attitude pretty much evaporated upon contact with the world of theatrical distribution and international acclaim. In retrospect, I suppose that Frears never wanted to brandish such an attitude, and remained true to his conception of the director's role. But there's a practical problem with a director subordinating himself or herself to the writer. A script is a solid thing that can be passed around, an object that every producer and investor can and does scrutinize and try to modify. By committing himself to an interpretive role in an industrial context, Frears risks becoming the servant of a larger, more commercial agenda. And that's exactly what the trajectory of Frears' career suggests to me. It's not as if his recent films lack judgment or taste, but he's no longer negotiating a settlement between what a comfort-loving audience wants and what the filmmakers choose to give. The inscrutability and visual recessiveness that gave such power to his late-television period would not necessarily poison the commercial prospects of the films that Frears now supervises. But someone would need to make the decision not to take the safest possible route.

Cheri, Frears' new movie of Christopher Hampton's adaptation of two Colette stories, offers the audience a number of genre pleasures: lavish décor and costumes, the pleasure of bitchiness as a recreational sport, a self-confident grande-dame protagonist who strikes poses and gets a lot of conspicuously witty dialogue. While I was watching the film, I mostly registered Frears' cooperative attitude toward these tropes. The project certainly has points of interest, most notably the elusive character of Cheri, quite well played by Rupert Friend: unaware of what he wants or even feels, and yet possessing an assertion and vigor that is wholly ineffective in the absence of self-knowledge. In fact, Cheri is exactly the kind of randomly bouncing pachinko ball that Frears might have enjoyed setting free in the shifting visual field of his earlier style. If Cheri feels relatively shallow, it's because the filmmakers want the audience to receive familiar genre pleasures, not because the material doesn't contain depths. The raptures of love are dilated upon with large acting and music cues; likewise the self-aggrandizing sorrow of renunciation. The ambiguity of response and the irresolution that lies between these poles, the only emotional terrain in the film that might really repay exploration, could only be probed at the risk of throwing the audience off its comfort.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Assorted Screenings in NYC: June-July 2009

Less and less sure that anyone is reading this blog, I think I'll recommend a few films I haven't even seen.

  • The Hola Mexico Film Festival, at the Quad through Sunday, June 28, isn't exactly suffering from media overexposure. On top of that, the festival buried its most remarkable screening in the fine print of its Special Events pages: Jaime Humberto Hermosillo's first feature, 1972's La verdadera vocación de Magdalena (The True Calling of Magdalena), on Friday, June 26 at 5 pm. Hermosillo, probably best known in the US for 1985's Doña Herlinda y su hijo (Dona Herlinda and Her Son), has gone through a lot of changes in his long career, and I can't say that I've been wild about his recent work, which tends toward camp-tinged fairy tale. But in the 70s he took melodrama and genre more seriously, creating tension between the extremism of his stories and the blank solemnity of the camera's stare. I've never seen Magdalena, but at least two of Hermosillo's 70s films - 1976's La pasión según Berenice (The Passion According to Berenice) and 1977's Matinée - are among my all-time favorites.
  • Japan Society's annual Japan Cuts series, rather uncomfortably affiliated with the earthier New York Asian Film Festival, contains a few titles I've been waiting for. Ryosuke Hashiguchi's 2008 Gururi no koto (All Around Us), screening at Japan Society on Thursday, July 2 at 8:45 pm and Sunday, July 5 at 2:45 pm, is getting more attention than the director is accustomed to, taking the #2 slot in the Kinema Jumpo awards and performing well at the Japanese box office. Hashiguchi received a little international attention in the 90s, but has made only two films in the last 14 years. After seeing his intelligent 2001 comedy Hush!, I'm eager to track down the rest of his work. In addition, the late Jun Ichikawa's last movie, the short feature Sûtsu wo kau (Buy a Suit), screens in Japan Cuts on Sunday, July 12 at noon. Ichikawa made an impression on me with 2004's atmospheric, visually stylized Tony Takatani. Before that, he kept a low international profile; but he'd been making features since 1987, and some devotees of Japanese film (Michael Kerpan, for instance) regard his work highly.
  • Moving on to a few films I've actually seen: Marie Losier continues her wonderful programming at French Institute/Alliance Française with the currently running Michel Piccoli retrospective, the highlight of which is Michel Deville's 1973 La femme en bleu (The Woman in Blue), screening at Florence Gould Hall on Tuesday, July 21 at 12:30, 4 and 7:30 pm. The first film that Deville made after the end of his long collaboration with Nina Companéez, La femme en bleu allayed the reasonable fear that Companéez would take the “Deville touch" with her: the film is breezy yet full of cruelty, experimental without effort, light about dark things. Unlike many Deville films, La femme was available in the US on a subtitled DVD, from Pathfinder, that unfortunately compressed the image horizontally - I'm looking forward to a projection in the proper ratio.
  • Anthology Film Archives has scheduled a week run for Austrian director Ulrich Seidl's latest provocation, 2007's Import/Export, on July 31-August 6, and will precede it with a retrospective of Seidl's earlier work on July 24-30. Seidl is just the sort of filmmaker from whom I usually recoil, with a harsh vision of humanity that is right next door to condescension. And yet I generally end by admiring the directness of Seidl's gaze, and taking it as a needed challenge to the barriers that we erect between ourselves and others for our own comfort. (Import/Export seemed to me rather too energized by the cruelty that it depicts…but I owe it another chance.) My favorite of Seidl's films is the 2003 documentary Jesus, Du weisst (Jesus, You Know) (Saturday, July 25 at 9:15 pm; Monday, July 27 at 7:15 pm; Thursday, July 30 at 9:15 pm), an experiment in tonal juxtaposition that starts out like Jerry Springer and ends up like Carl Dreyer. But I'm also impressed by 2001's Hundstage (Dog Days) (Friday, July 24 at 6:45 pm; Sunday, July 26 at 8:30 pm; Tuesday, July 28 at 6:45 pm) - a fiction film, but the difference between fiction and documentary isn't so significant in Seidl's universe - and 1992's Mit Verlust ist zu rechnen (Loss Is to Be Expected) (Saturday, July 25 at 4:15 pm; Tuesday, July 28 at 9:15 pm).

Friday, May 29, 2009

L'Enfant: Walter Reade, Saturday, May 30, 2009

When I first saw Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's L'Enfant (The Child) at the 2005 New York Film Festival, I didn't completely grasp what it was trying to do. I wrote in my journal at the time, "Beautifully executed, with a powerful story hook, as usual for the Dardennes - but I feel less inevitability in the second half, and the ending seemed a bit obligatory." The principal reason that I was looking for inevitability is that the Dardennes' previous films, and especially 2002's Le Fils (The Son), which immediately preceded L'Enfant, develop their stories with an almost syllogistic rigor. Whereas L'Enfant ejects its ne'er-do-well protagonist Bruno (the superb Jérémie Renier) at the film's midpoint onto the unwelcoming streets of Seraing, Belgium, where he plies his unwholesome trade without noticeably advancing the plot.

On my second viewing, at last year's Dardenne retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, it was suddenly easy for me to accept the structure of L'Enfant on its own terms. My guess is that the Dardennes were thinking of Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment, where the first part of the novel places the character of Raskolnikov in a psychological or spiritual force field, after which change is effected in him in a subterranean way while he goes about the business of life. Dostoyevsky understood that real change in people is ineffable, and that using drama to express a character's change runs the risk of exposing the change as mere fiction-based wish-fulfillment. In L'Enfant, the Dardennes likewise avoid crystalizing Bruno's moral crisis by giving it dramatic shape, but instead contrive a dramatic pseudo-climax within a secondary story: the alarming scene in which a botched purse-snatching nearly leads to an icy death for Bruno's 14-year-old accomplice Steve (Jérémie Segard, in another standout performance). According to the practices of fiction, our intense response to drama creates within us a small-scale simulacrum of the character's upheaval, and helps make plausible to us the character's subsequent change. That the drama here does not relate directly to the change that Bruno must make points up that the flow of fictional pleasure can only simulate an explanation of change.

L'Enfant certainly does not try to recreate the vivid subjectivity of Dostoyevsky's style, and in fact the Dardennes would be the last filmmakers whom I would nominate for such a task. The cinema lends itself readily to impurity and to the importation of effects from other art forms, but, among great directors, the Dardennes have perhaps the purest conception of cinema. All effects in the Dardennes' films are pegged to the phenomenology of photography, to the exterior viewpoint that the photograph enforces on the most interior events. Even the performance style in the Dardennes' movies (and they are underrated as directors of actors) is calibrated to the limitations of the image in revealing inner life. (Bresson often comes to mind when one contemplates the Dardennes - there's some similarity in the way both oeuvres combine subjective, abstract subject matter with filmic styles that deny us the signifiers of psychological or spiritual revelation. But comparison with the Dardennes highlights how much less pure Bresson's style is, how his direction of actors and his decoupage are conceived in opposition to theatrical or dramatic values and therefore depend upon them.)

The Dardennes' effects are incremental, and the beauty of L'Enfant is in the way that these effects evolve out of a descriptive style. The brothers' remarkably expressive camera work starts from the limitation of a cinéma-vérité handheld viewpoint, and then exploits that limitation to create sudden, surprising compositional shifts. Time and again the camera doggedly tracks a character in closeup, only to pan a few degrees in response to a voice or an event and capture an extreme foreground-background opposition. Just as the camera style conceals its remarkable variety behind its documentary origins, so Renier's performance conceals the character's gradual transformation behind his propensity for dogged forward motion, which takes on only a hint of weariness as Bruno's ebullient street hustle carries him into a long, dark night of the soul.

I saw L'Enfant for a third time on Wednesday on the opening night of the Walter Reade's currently-running Dardenne series (which includes a number of early features, shorts and documentaries never before shown in NYC), and I now think it is the most mature and most perfect of the brothers' films, the one that moves most splashlessly beneath the surfaces of quotidian life. Repeat viewings only enhance the amazing scene of Bruno commencing the business of selling his child: as carefully as we gather clues, watch the elements of the situation fall into place, home in on the exact moment of decision, we remain stymied by the inability of the camera to give us an exploded view of Bruno's thought process, and by Renier's and the Dardennes' unwillingness to playact at rendering the unrenderable.

Is it possible that the Dardennes' aura is too 1990s to capture the imagination of today's art-film buffs? I strongly recommend that all of you camp out at the Walter Reade for the next few days. L'Enfant screens once more there, on Saturday, May 30 at 8:30 pm.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Fort Apache and the Fordian Container

The FIPRESCI web site Undercurrent, edited by Chris Fujiwara, has just published a new issue that includes a special section on John Ford, with 18 Ford films discussed by different writers. The issue includes my piece, "Fort Apache and the Fordian Container."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Cluny Brown

The Auteurs' Notebook has published my short piece on one of my favorite films, Ernst Lubitsch's 1946 Cluny Brown.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The 50 Greatest Films

Iain Stott's blog, the One-Line Review, is conducting a poll of "The 50 Greatest Films," and I have submitted my entry. Unless one revisits all the candidates within a short period of time, polls like this are bound to be exercises in "individual whimsical expression" (can anyone name the movie on my top-50 list that this quote comes from?), so please take my list in the spirit of fun. By the way, Anne and Muriel is the UK title of Les deux anglaises et le continent (Two English Girls).

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Auteurism Is a Taste, Not a Theory

No two people who call themselves auteurists will agree on what the term implies. I persist in regarding auteurism as an aesthetic taste, or rather a collection of aesthetic tastes that are somehow related to the concept of film direction. Historically speaking, one can make a strong case that the Cahiers critics, Sarris, and other prime exponents of auteurism advocated real canon change by demoting acclaimed filmmakers and promoting relatively unsung ones. Apart from this evaluative goal, it's difficult to point to tenets of theory that truly belong to the historical auteurist movements.

Nowadays auteurism sometimes seems too obvious to bother proclaiming, and sometimes seems too vague to be worth proclaiming. And yet film direction remains a controversial concept, if one looks at it from the right angle.

If I am about to try to restore some controversy to the idea of film direction, it's not because I want to establish a pure and objective standard for auteurism. I've pretty much given up on that goal: there's no trademark, anyone who wants the word can have it.

Case 1: Gone with the Wind

Depending on your accounting method, Gone with the Wind is either the most popular film ever made, or one of the most popular. As is well known, producer David O. Selznick included the work of five directors, plus a lot of second-unit footage, in the released product. A fair number of theatergoers seemed not to mind.

A few years ago, I posted to the a_film_by group a brief account of my attempt to decipher this bizarre experimental film. (The thread that follows my post contains the usual heated debate about who the "auteur" of the movie is. I am not interested in this issue: I don't believe that a film has a single "auteur.")

Here we have a nontrivial test of the importance of film direction. Possibly as a result of my cinematic indoctrination, Gone with the Wind seems to me positively incoherent. Not that I think it's a bad film: there are some strong sections, and the project in general has an interesting slant. But it feels like different movies from scene to scene. If I were watching a rough cut in Selznick's screening room, I would have said, "David, for God's sake, you can't release this thing! It's all over the place." And yet, for many viewers (and certainly not just unsophisticated ones), Gone with the Wind gives a high level of satisfaction and does not seem incoherent. In this case, monitoring the tone of the direction induces a response that diverges dramatically from the norm.

So I hypothesize that Gone with the Wind creates a significant divide between viewers whose appreciation is closely bound to film direction, and viewers who are at least capable of falling back to a different mode of appreciation.

Case 2: Television Series

Most of the critical acclaim for serial television goes to the series creator, who is often one of the chief writers as well. My impression is that directors are generally engaged on a short-term basis in TV, sometimes for single episodes, sometimes intermittently throughout a season or series.

I don't even have cable, and am not up to speed on TV developments. But, when I do watch TV, I don't seem to be able to suppress my interest in direction, even though the director of a TV series is just a poor thing.

I still think that "Beavis and Butt-Head" is the greatest sustained artistic achievement that I have encountered in the television medium, but, more recently, I've had some very good experiences with "The Sopranos." I first spotted series creator David Chase back in 1986, when he wrote (from a story by Clark Howard) and directed an unusually controlled and expressive episode of "Alfred Hitchcock Presents" titled "Enough Rope for Two." Chase kept a low directorial profile until the excellent pilot episode of "The Sopranos," then didn't direct again until the series' final episode, the enigmatic "Made in America." Whether or not directing is a high priority for Chase, "Made in America" left no doubt that he had become one of the most accomplished filmmakers in America, with a light editing touch, a wild surreal humor conveyed through the slightest exaggerations and dislocations, and a melancholy sense of time slipping away through storytelling holes.

I've seen only two other episodes of "The Sopranos," both written or co-written but not directed by Chase. I thought they were both interesting, but didn't feel as if I was in the same universe as that of the Chase-directed episodes.

Of course, one can't expect that a hired director, presented with an existing story line and characters and presumably unable to influence script and editing, be able to compete with a series creator directing his or her own creation. The criterion I'm interested in here is not quality or freedom, but coherence. Because of my tastes, I can't imagine making general claims about a series: swapping directors creates discontinuities too great for me to regard the series as a unity. And yet a great many sophisticated viewers praise or deride TV series on a larger scale, as if the contributions of the series creators were able to keep series from flying apart as the directors are shuffled. Is this another criterion for separating the stubborn partisan of directorial style from the more aesthetically flexible viewer?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hyazgar (Desert Dream): MOMA, through April 20, 2009

Zhang Lu, the Chinese-Korean director who garnered international attention with 2005's impressive Mang Zhong (Grain in Ear), has developed one of the most distinctive styles in world cinema, formalist almost to a fault, obtaining its effects via the internal development of autonomous, highly organized shots. His second feature, Hyazgar (Desert Dream), premiered at Berlin 2007 and received a mixed response on the festival circuit. It's a bit demanding on one level, in that its story - of an idealistic environmentalist (Osor Bat-Ulzii), tirelessly planting trees on the steppes of Mongolia, whose journeying family is replaced by a refugee North Korean widow (Seo Jung) and her son (Shin Dongho) - is more ambient than eventful, and necessarily light on dialogue, as the main characters do not speak the same language. And yet Desert Dream is highly eventful from a formal point of view: barely a shot goes by without springing on the viewer an interesting surprise, a visitation of the uncanny out of the stillness of the Mongolian landscape. Typically Zhang uses sound or offscreen space to create an alternate focus for our attention, then pans repeatedly to create a dialectical tension within the visual field. He is so stubborn about refusing to follow action with his pans, even when the material begs for it, that his formalism can sometimes seem mannered. But there is nothing academic about the intricate balance of comedy and bleakness in Zhang's work: comedy from his quantization of events and his deadpan revelations of the unexpected; and bleakness from the way that his characters inevitably find the solitude and emptiness that the compositions have been promising since frame one.

Desert Dream will be at MOMA for the rest of the week: Friday, April 17 at 7 pm; Saturday, April 18 at 2 pm; Sunday, April 19 at 4 pm; and Monday, April 20 at 6 pm. For those of you who become Zhang fans (I rate only Jia higher among mainland China filmmakers), the Walter Reade will show his two most recent features, both made in 2008, as part of its upcoming China on the Edge series: Chongqing on Friday, April 24 at 6:45 pm; and Iri on Sunday, April 26 at 8:45 pm.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Films of Jim McBride: Anthology Film Archives, through April 13

Anthology Film Archives is drawing welcome attention to the admirable American director Jim McBride with a retrospective of his early work. Best known for the delightful, lucid 1967 David Holzman's Diary, McBride soldiered on with the occasional independent project through the early 70s, then found his way to a marginal place in the commercial film industry, where he acquitted himself valiantly, finding worthwhile angles on unpromising material even as he drifted into made-for-TV work in the 90s. Other than David (screening Friday, April 10 at 7:15 pm and Saturday, April 11 at 9:15 pm), all the films in the series screen rarely: my picks from among the harder-to-see titles would be the eccentric 1971 sci-fi/hippie drama Glen and Randa, co-written by Rudy Wurlitzer (screening Friday, April 10 at 9:30 pm; Saturday, April 11 at 7 pm; and Monday, April 13 at 7 pm) and McBride's then-maligned, exuberant 1983 remake of Breathless (screening Thursday, April 9 at 7 pm; Sunday, April 12 at 9:15 pm; and Monday, April 13 at 9 pm). Here are scans of parts one and two of a review of Breathless that I wrote for the L.A. Reader on 20 May 1983.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Exploding Girl: Tribeca, April 23, 25, and 28 and May 2, 2009

Once in a while a film coheres around an acting performance in such a way that it's difficult to tell whether the director's sensibility is radiated through the actor, or whether the actor's contribution is comprehensive enough to qualify as direction. Zoe Kazan is a phenomenon as the rather ordinary college girl Ivy in Bradley Rust Gray's The Exploding Girl: she acts so completely from within the character that her smallest, least significant bits of business are as vivid as her dramatic peaks. Either Kazan is Ivy - unlikely, as the character is sweet and sensitive but probably not reflective enough to play herself - or her powers of observation and assimilation are uncanny. While we're waiting for clues about Kazan's acting range, we note that her co-star Mark Rendall, as Ivy's best buddy who is secretly in love with her, is also quite good, which suggests that Gray is able to nurture ambient, pseudo-documentary performances that nonetheless have dramatic structure. His verité-style camera is pleasingly simple, a little more stable than the norm, landing on attractive telephoto compositions at key moments. The Exploding Girl has a slight and familiar John Hughes-like story that will probably disqualify it at art in the eyes of many. Yet the drama too is simplified to the point where its one unusual element - Ivy is an epileptic - is deployed so transparently that the story almost becomes a structural commentary on storytelling. The Exploding Girl has four Tribeca Film Festival screenings, all at the AMC Village VII: Thursday, April 23 at 7:45 pm; Saturday, April 25 at 2:45 pm; Tuesday, April 28 at 7:00 pm; and Saturday, May 2 at 5:45 pm.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Pranzo di ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch): MOMA, April 4, 2009

On the slender chance that any of you are checking your blogs this morning before deciding which New Directors/New Films screening to attend this afternoon, let me put in a strong recommendation for Gianni Di Gregorio's Pranzo di ferragosto (Mid-August Lunch), showing once more at MOMA at 3:45 pm on Saturday, April 4. Making his directorial debut, Di Gregorio, one of the writers of Garrone's Gomorra, places himself in the tradition of filmmaker/stars like Sacha Guitry, Jacques Nolot, late Chaplin: a tradition in which the force of the artist's on-screen personality is used to inflect cinematic conventions, so that drama or farce is nudged toward a level, reflective tone that one suspects one would also encounter in the director's drawing room. I have no time for details now, but you will also see: four wonderful octogenarian or nonagenarian actresses who don't fake anything; a casual, natural lighting scheme that brings out the beauty of the Roman summer sunlight; the best on-screen cooking scenes I can remember; and, if the director attends, a charming and informative Q&A.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Assorted Screenings in NYC: Late March 2009

A few notes on end-of-the-month screenings that might fly under some people's radar.

1. I haven't yet seen anything in this year's New Directors/New Films program, but an unusual number of the films look interesting, judging from reviews and trailers. The screening I'm most excited about is Alexey German Jr.'s Bumaznyj soldat (Paper Soldier), playing at MOMA on Saturday, March 28 at 6 pm and the Walter Reade on Tuesday, March 31 at 9 pm. On the basis of German Jr.'s somber, atmospheric 2003 Posledniy poezd (The Last Train), I'm hopeful that he will emerge as an important director. Bumaznyj soldat took the Silver Lion at Venice 2008, which has helped get its director out of the shadow of his famous father (My Friend Ivan Lapshin; Khrustalyov, My Car!). I'm also looking forward to Barking Water, the new film by Sundance regular Sterlin Harjo, whose Three Sheets to the Wind was a thoughtful, nicely scaled depiction of American Indian culture. It plays the Walter Reade on Thursday, March 26 at 9 pm and MOMA on Saturday, March 28 at 3 pm.

2. Joe Swanberg's new feature Alexander the Last, which just premiered at South by Southwest, was acquired by IFC for its Films on Demand cable outlet. But a few NYC screenings cropped up post-SxSW, including one this Saturday, March 28 at 92YTribeca. Given the weird, distracting reactions to Swanberg's work, it's amazing that the guy manages to stay focused on the cinematic subtleties that interest him. Swanberg typically pursues the abstract by means of the concrete in Alexander: he puts a lot of energy into observing the reactions of his characters and the way that light falls in rooms, then again into editing blocks of film into a rhythmic structure. The story emerges from the intersection of these two activities, like a musical overtone - and sometimes Alexander seems the dream of its confused, yearning protagonist (Jess Weixler), whose subconscious desires and fears ebb and flow with the sequencing of scenes. Still striking me as something like the American Pialat, Swanberg here moves into Rivette territory, alternating between life and theater à la L'Amour fou or Out 1 - and Rivette couldn't have improved on Alexander's deliciously artificial final shot, an unexpected detour into the House of Fiction.

3. Dreyer's Gertrud, at BAM on Thursday, March 26 at 4:30 pm, 6:50 pm, and 9:30 pm, no longer flies under film buffs' radar, but it just seems right to mention it anyway. Here's Andrew Sarris from a more polemical time: "'But this isn't cinema!' snort the registered academicians with their kindergarten notions of kinetics. How can you have cinema when two people sit and talk on a couch as their life drifts imperceptibly out of their grasp? The academicians are right, of course. Dreyer simply isn't cinema. Cinema is Dreyer."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Leave Her to Heaven: Film Forum, through March 12, 2009

John M. Stahl's 1945 Leave Her to Heaven is an extraordinary film, but I'm thinking at the moment about what could be called one of its limitations: that it was made at a time when American commercial cinema was beginning to show interest in psychology but had not yet overhauled its genres and conventions to accommodate psychology fully.

Gene Tierney's Ellen Berent is a psychological conception, in the sense that the film makes an effort to motivate her actions by revealing her particular psychology. At various times in the film, she describes her desires, her past, even her dreams to the other characters; and all this background information helps us understand why she does what she does.

One couldn't describe any of the other characters in the film as psychological conceptions. More generally: any character that performs a familiar narrative function that gratifies the fantasies of the audience can't be described as psychological. Cornel Wilde's Richard Harland is a traditional romantic hero, steady in his convictions and conventional in his desires. He runs into an unexpected narrative barrier when he discovers that he has married an unacceptable woman; but the filmmakers do not connect the confusion and passivity that befalls him with any of his personal traits. His inability to fulfill his narrative destiny is due to structural, not psychological obstacles.

In life as in art, the roles that are created for the fulfillment of our social ideals do not permit the exercise of psychology. To the extent that we embody these roles successfully, our motivations are not particular to us.

Hollywood's interest in psychoanalysis was burgeoning at the time when Leave Her to Heaven was made. Films of the period like Spellbound (1944) and The Secret Beyond the Door (1948), experiments in adapting the Freudian therapeutic narrative to a fictional context, seem to indicate that psychology was knocking on Hollywood's door. A generation of Stanislavskian actors lay in wait to reap the benefits of psychology's ascendance.

Leave Her to Heaven was not an experiment like the films I named above. It was a mainstream melodrama made from a best seller, and a major hit for Fox. It's slightly surprising that a character like Ellen Berent could occupy the center of a big commercial genre film; probably it wouldn't have happened a few years earlier. But it's not surprising that said commercial film didn't turn experimental in an attempt to assimilate her.

The makers of Leave Her to Heaven seem to know that psychological characters were a threat to the Hollywood structures they were using. Within the world of the film, Ellen Berent must be a villain: her psychology makes her unpredictable, hostile to genre forms, impossible to assimilate. In this context, all psychology must be abnormal psychology.

What's striking to modern audiences, more conditioned to tolerate psychology, is how real and normal Ellen Berent seems. She acts like people we know: she strikes the wrong tone in gatherings, gets too upset to hide her emotions, is impatient with social constraints, tries to confide in people about her inner conflicts.

I certainly do not believe that the filmmakers (director Stahl and screenwriter Jo Swerling, working from Ben Ames Williams' novel) covertly support Ellen and condemn the socially sanctioned values that the story affirms. But they show enough sensitivity and honesty to take Ellen seriously as a human being, even when humanizing her raises questions about the film's assumptions. Time and time again, we see Ellen trying to speak frankly about her unacceptable desires to a representative of society, who instinctively identifies her as a threat and withdraws into coldness. In each of these scenes, Stahl makes the social representative impassive and judgmental, sometimes using lighting to give him or her a formal, unfriendly mien (i.e., Chill Wills' Thome listening to Ellen describe her dreams). Stahl seems to understand that it is a strain for us to exclude Ellen, that it makes us hard and impassive to cast her away.

No one else in the film is or can be remotely as interesting as Ellen, and the filmmakers deserve credit for making her as sympathetic and familiar as they do, even if they cannot make the leap to accepting her as one of us.

Friday, March 6, 2009

All the Ships at Sea in Park Slope, Brooklyn

My movie All the Ships at Sea will be screened (on DVD) on Sunday, March 15 at 7:30 pm at Congregation Beth Elohim, 274 Garfield Place (at 8th Ave. in Park Slope), Brooklyn. Series co-programmer Keith Uhlich and I will select one or two short films to be screened before the feature, and will lead a discussion. The suggested admission price is $5.00.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

On Realism, Beauty, and "Exposure Crisis"

As a quarrelsome discussion about the merits of Joe Swanberg was dying down on Glenn Kenny's Some Came Running site, I put my two cents in, and in the process made the following, perhaps excessively ambitious claim:

"…on the subject of the beauty or ugliness of compositions, I'd like to point out that "beauty" and "realism" are opposed concepts, that they will always be defined by their relationship to each other. Realism is always relative to prevailing practices, and the energy and newness that it aspires to, the ability to revivify the mystery of the photographic image, is totally dependent upon tearing down or neglecting or violating something that we've come to expect. When Rossellini or de Toth decided to let the camera shake, they were a) consciously or unconsciously evoking the newsreel footage that came out of WWII; and b) inviting criticism for undermining the beauty of the composed image. Ditto Cassavetes finding inspiration in cutting that evoked the tension of live TV when the control room punches up the wrong camera for a second; ditto Kubrick shining lights at the camera as if he were a street photographer unable to control light sources; ditto countless other attempts to make the image seem alive again. In each case something nice-looking was destroyed; in each case a new generation of filmgoers learned to find the innovation nice-looking."

The point, which I left as an implication, was that comparing Swanberg's visuals to YouTube uploads was not necessarily an insult. This subject is interesting enough that I didn't want it to get lost in a busy comments section, though I'd like to dial down that authoritative tone, which seems inappropriate on subjects as elusive as "beauty" and "realism."

The idea that realism is relative to prevailing practices is pretty well established, at least in my mind. In this longish 2003 post from a_film_by, I summarized my thoughts about the relativism of realism, during an attempt to establish a baseline for a difficult discussion I was having with Tag Gallagher.

(Apropos the examples from that post, here's a brief excerpt from André Bazin's article "Will CinemaScope Save the Film Industry?" published in Esprit in 1953 and translated in Bazin at Work: "It would be equally naïve to believe that the filmic image tends toward total identification with the universe that it copies, through the successive addition of supplementary qualities from that universe. Perception, on the part of the artist as well as the audience of art, is a synthesis - an artificial process - each of whose elements acts on all the others. And, for example, it is not true that color, in the way that we are able to reproduce it - as an addition to the image framed by the narrow window of the screen - is an aspect of pure realism. On the contrary, color brings with it a whole set of new conventions that, all things considered, may make film look more like painting than reality.")

The motion in the opposite direction, from realism (based as it is on a renunciation of expressive possibilities) to beauty, is difficult to nail down. If one considers beauty as relative to anything at all, one is cast adrift on a sea of subjectivity. I tried to get around this issue in that comment on Swanberg by making an appeal to consensus, giving only examples of visual ploys that are widely regarded as attractive.

If I move away from consensus, and risk irrelevance by permitting unqualified subjectivity, the example that is most on my mind lately has to do with the limitations of the recording process. Very often, when an image strikes me as uncommonly beautiful, I note that the filmmaker has challenged the ability of celluloid or tape to register a full range of light or color values. This idea first occurred to me ten or fifteen years ago, when filmmakers began using faster stock that could record twilight landscapes without supplementary lighting while still avoiding an excessively grainy look. These images necessarily hover on the black side of the black-white continuum; but I have an immediate emotional reaction to crepuscular displays of contrasting colors, and I think I have the reaction precisely because the colors cannot be brought into the middle-range sweet spot of exposure.

I was reminded of the "beauty via exposure crisis" theory after a recent screening of Jacques Rozier's wonderful, too-little-seen Du côté d'Orouët (which has recently become available on English-subtitled Region 2 DVD as part of a Rozier box set). In one scene, Rozier uses a subjective shot through the windshield of a car to show his protagonists driving to a remote rural tavern, with the wooded terrain barely illuminated (perhaps only by the car's real headlights). I didn't immediately realize why the darkness in this image felt so primal and threatening. Easier to process was a later, stunning scene of a day-long sailing trip, where Rozier did not (or could not) adjust his 16mm exposure to prevent his characters' faces from glowing an unnatural red as the sun went down over the water behind them.

Shortly afterwards, I saw Raymond Depardon's Une femme en Afrique, in which the filmmaker lets the detail in sunlit images vanish into white to convey an unusually vivid sense of desert light and heat.

Other countries are generally more willing to flirt with exposure problems than the US, but the remarkable oneness of the interior and exterior scenes in last year's Ballast is largely due to the exclusive use of "God's own natural light," as Lance Hammer put it.