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.