30 juillet 2007

The Collective Building of the Cathedral

"People ask what are my intentions with my films — my aims. It is a difficult and dangerous question, and I usually give an evasive answer: I try to tell the truth about the human condition, the truth as I see it. This answer seems to satisfy everyone, but it is not quite correct. I prefer to describe what I would like my aim to be. There is an old story of how the cathedral of Chartres was struck by lightning and burned to the ground. Then thousands of people came from all points of the compass, like a giant procession of ants, and together they began to rebuild the cathedral on its old site. They worked until the building was completed — master builders, artists, labourers, clowns, noblemen, priests, burghers. But they all remained anonymous, and no one knows to this day who built the cathedral of Chartres.

Regardless of my own beliefs and my own doubts, which are unimportant in this connection, it is my opinion that art lost its basic creative drive the moment it was separated from worship. It severed an umbilical cord and now lives its own sterile life, generating and degenerating itself. In former days the artist remained unknown and his work was to the glory of God. He lived and died without being more or less important than other artisans; 'eternal values,' 'immortality' and 'masterpiece' were terms not applicable in his case. The ability to create was a gift. In such a world flourished invulnerable assurance and natural humility. Today the individual has become the highest form and the greatest bane of artistic creation.

The smallest wound or pain of the ego is examined under a microscope as if it were of eternal importance. The artist considers his isolation, his subjectivity, his individualism almost holy. Thus we finally gather in one large pen, where we stand and bleat about our loneliness without listening to each other and without realizing that we are smothering each other to death. The individualists stare into each other's eyes and yet deny the existence of each other.

We walk in circles, so limited by our own anxieties that we can no longer distinguish between true and false, between the gangster's whim and the purest ideal. Thus if I am asked what I would like the general purpose of my films to be, I would reply that I want to be one of the artists in the cathedral on the great plain. I want to make a dragon's head, an angel, a devil — or perhaps a saint — out of stone. It does not matter which; it is the sense of satisfaction that counts.

Regardless of whether I believe or not, whether I am a Christian or not, I would play my part in the collective building of the cathedral."

- Ingmar Bergman

July 14, 1918 - July 30, 2007

25 juillet 2007

ambition, resources

"all of the material is so subtle as to appear pretty insubstantial at first. Epic modernist opera recorded on a low-fi 4-track basically."
- my friend Ben, on the early work of the band His Name Is Alive

Which pretty much sums up my approach to cinematic storytelling, actually.

23 juillet 2007

I didn't know our cows too could be so inhuman.

"Beckett’s poetic war fictions fuse a curious literalism with the Mallarmean principle that to name is to destroy. To use words like war, Vichy, Resistance, Auschwitz, and atom bomb would inevitably be to short-circuit the complexity of the experiences in question. Not for a moment does Beckett engage in the usual clichés about the horrors of war; not for a moment does he assume moral superiority or the knowingness (“I” or “we” versus “them”) that makes so much war writing problematic. To analyze how such a war could ever have occurred is not, in any case, the poet’s purpose. In actual life, Beckett went to work for the Resistance on ethical instinct rather than dogma, so in his fictions he takes his responsibility to be that of showing rather than the making of ideological points. Hence the extreme ellipsis, indirection and indeterminacy of the tales—an indeterminacy that allows the reader a good deal of space."

Essential criticism is the kind that opens up new worlds in a work, that shows you things you didn't see before. Marjorie Perloff's "In Love with Hiding": Samuel Beckett's War situates an ostensibly abstract series of works -- Waiting for Godot, "The Expelled," "The Calmative," and "The End" -- in a web of direct political contexts and meanings that opens up the significances of Beckett's ellipses and silences. "Essential" is not high enough praise for this essay. For anyone who's read, or heard of, Samuel Beckett or Waiting for Godot.

Transformers, or a Brief History of 21st Century Combat

Jane Dark on Transformers, the visual recreation of September 11, and the mechanization of warfare as it intersects with history: transformers

22 juillet 2007

The Possible Masterpieces

"How's this for a dialogue subject?: a film you have enshrined as the possible masterpiece you haven't gotten around to seeing for so long that now it serves a purpose in its unseen state-- the potentially great experience you postpone repeatedly." - John, in a comment on Michael Atkinson's post Edge of Darkness

For me, this experience is more frequently one of influence. I will often read extensively about a film without having seen it - especially one that seems to connect to my way of seeing the world though cinema. I then carry an idea of this film that lives up to the promises of the articles -- in ways that I am forced to imagine. Inevitably this film marks me in the form I have created, without my ever needing to experience it. In some ways this is like seeing a film that mostly slips from your memory, one you reconstruct in your own image, according to the film's theoretical possibility (which remains even when details fade). It is the project of the film (rather than the film itself) that thus marks me, inspiring me to attempt the same project without relying on stolen details. In some cases (say, the films of Philippe Garrel) a film's unavailability on DVD can be a blessing, a push toward independence and an inspiration that restricts its own possibility as the subject of homage.

17 juillet 2007

That Small Difference

"In any society, the artist has a responsibility. His effectiveness is certainly limited and a painter or writer cannot change the world. But they can keep an essential margin of non-conformity alive. Thanks to them the powerful can never affirm that everyone agrees with their acts. That small difference is important."
- Luis Buñuel

12 juillet 2007

Top 100 Movies of All Time (a work in progress)

I've been trying to make an all-time Top 100 Films list for months, at least. What I've found is that the task is impossible. At some point, weighing the relative virtues of 100 or 150 films becomes an arbitrary task, with numbers assigned for the sake of their assignation. In some regard I prefer the unranked list approach that Ted has taken with his list, but the lack of ranks leaves too much to our imagination; less of Ted comes through for his not having made these arbitrary designations.
Although there's no way to compare the relative virtues of Daisy Kenyon and Sauvage Innocence, or Duck Soup and Days of Heaven, we can hint at our levels of investment in these films. On their own the numbers are meaningless, but taken together they can sketch out our secret selves via the cinema. One can tell a lot about my formal approach to storytelling from my list, but also, perhaps, that I'm a bit too empathetic toward heartbreak (see: #1 film Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and my probable over-ratings of Amelie, and Brokeback Mountain). You might not know that I hold high hopes for future(s) of digital cinematography, but my inclusion of Inland Empire might hint at this. That color is an area of aesthetic interest might bleed through when Vertigo and The Red Shoes appear near one another on the list.
Some of the arbitrariness of the list order is determined by aesthetics of listmaking itself. I couldn't bear to place Triumph of the Will next to Schindler's List, so I bumped up Burn! (aka Quiemada) to take the space between them (though it probably should have been well above both). Band of Outsiders seems excessive just below Breathless, so Alien was demoted to split them apart.
Looking at this list its hard for me to tell even what my rationale was in many cases. I think there's an overrepresentation of Godard and Kubrick in the Top 60. Some of my favorite filmmakers didn't make the list at all... and I put not one but two Spielberg movies in my list? Seriously? I see movies I love listed below movies I barely remember loving, and movies I think are overrated rated above films close to my heart. What's going on here, though, is that the listmaking process is also an exploration of memory. Re-viewing The Searchers recently was a revelation, even though I've seen it projected three times before, because it reminded me of how rich the film is; over time the details of a film's richness fade and only vague recollections remain. So Veronika Voss slides out of Top 10 because I haven't had a recent enough viewing, while An Actor's Revenge remains high precisely because the details of plot have faded from my mind -- but some of the most impressively composed shots in the history of cinema remain.
With those qualifiers, I now present my current Top 100 Movies of All Time as a work-in-progress; I will certainly change my mind on half of these films by the time I hit the publish button.
I should also note that this list doesn't include films I haven't seen. While that sounds obvious, it's an important qualifier for me in particular, as I've found ways to avoid most of the "canonical" films I'm supposed to have seen (including many in my areas of interest). Chalk it up to taking more specialized classes in lieu of intro film classes in college, and an idiosyncratic set of viewing choices since.

Top 100 Movies of All Time (a work in progress)
[as of 7/11/07]

1. Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
2. La Jetee (Chris Marker, 1962)
3. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)
4. To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)
5. The Searchers (John Ford, 1956)
6. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
7. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodovar, 2002)
8. Elephant (Gus van Sant, 2003)
9. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
10. Play Time (Jacques Tati, 1967)
11. Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, 1994)
12. Veronika Voss (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)
13. An Actor's Revenge (Kon Ichikawa, 1963)
14. Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
15. Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
16. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
17. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
18. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
19. Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (Werner Herzog, 1979)
20. Modern Times (Charles Chaplin, 1936)
21. Tesis (Alejandro Amenábar, 1996)
22. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
23. Pandora's Box (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1929)
24. Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
25. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
26. Design For Living (Ernst Lubitsch, 1933)
27. Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (F. W. Murnau, 1922)
28. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)
29. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
30. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
31. Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
32. L'Âge D'Or (Luis Buñuel, 1930)
33. The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969)
34. The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache, 1973)
35. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968)
36. United 93 (Paul Greengrass, 2006)
37. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1948)
38. Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958)
39. Daisy Kenyon (Otto Preminger, 1947)
40. Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933)
41. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
42. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)
43. Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
44. 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002)
45. Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005)
46. Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron, 1991)
47. The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller, 1980)
48. Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967)
49. High Plains Drifter (Clint Eastwood, 1973)
50. Le Fabuleux destin d'Amélie Poulain (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
51. A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
52. A Woman is a Woman (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)
53. Pepi, Luci, Bom y otras chicas del montón (Pedro Almodóvar, 1980)
54. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F. W. Murnau, 1927)
55. Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Quentin Tarantino, 2003)
56. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978)
57. Un Chien Andalou (Luis Buñuel, 1929)
58. Blow-Up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966)
59. The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960)
60. On the Town (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1949)
61. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
62. Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables au collège (Jean Vigo, 1933)
63. If... (Lindsay Anderson, 1968)
64. Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
65. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
66. O Lucky Man! (Lindsay Anderson, 1973)
67. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
68. Regular Lovers (Philippe Garrel, 2005)
69. Osaka Elegy (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936)
70. Shindler's List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
71. Dog Star Man (Stan Brakhage, 1964)
72. Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935)
73. Queimada (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969)
74. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939)
75. Unsere Afrikareise (Peter Kubelka, 1966)
76. Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa, 2006)
77. Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Elio Petri, 1970)
78. Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006)
79. When A Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse, 1960)
80. The Hunt (Carlos Saura, 1966)
81. C'était un rendez-vous (Claude Lelouch, 1976)
82. Sauvage Innocence (Philippe Garrel, 2001)
83. Au Hazard Balthasar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
84. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)
85. The Party (Blake Edwards, 1968)
86. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953)
87. Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)
88. Even Dwarves Started Small (Werner Herzog, 1970)
89. Freaks (Tod Browning, 1932)
90. Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)
91. Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2000)
92. All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)
93. Arnulf Rainer (Peter Kubelka, 1960)
94. The Closet (Francis Veber, 2001)
95. Bunny Lake Is Missing (Otto Preminger, 1965)
96. The Pianist (Roman Polanski, 2002)
97. Days of Glory (Jacques Tourneur, 1944)
98. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
99. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2000)
100. Idiocracy (Mike Judge, 2006)

05 juillet 2007

Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, cinema

"Cinema is not a suitable medium for explanation. Those who view it must be left free to sense its content. It should be open to a variety of interpretations."
- Akira Kurosawa, on Andrei Tarkovsky

"There can be no bright future for those who are ready to explain everything about their own film."
- Tarkovsky and Solaris by Akira Kurosawa

via (and by way of belated response to) killing in tarkovsky & kurosawa

apologies for the lack of new original content on my part; I'm hoping to once again hit the keys soon.

03 juillet 2007

Edward Yang
Nov. 6, 1947 - June 29, 2007

"On my 30th birthday, I suddenly said to myself, 'Damn, I'm getting old!' I realized that I had to change my life. I needed to start doing something that I could enjoy and through which I could feel fulfilled."

"I had given up and said, 'I am not built for becoming a film-maker,' until one night when I was driving downtown in Seattle and saw this sign outside a cinema saying 'German New Wave: Aguirre, the Wrath of God' [the 1972 Werner Herzog film]. I went in and that turned me around."

- Edward Yang

"You can’t see it yourself, so I’m helping you" - Yang-Yang, Yi Yi

Edward Yang
Nov. 6, 1947 - June 29, 2007

01 juillet 2007

Towards a Polymathic Cinema

Initiated by a comment I posted on Zach's post The Tribalism of Cinephilia :
"In the last few years, there have been a few different books with the title or subtitle "The Last Man Who Knew Everything." These books are mainly biographical, but carry a hint of exoticism towards the idea of the successful polymath; often they suggest that such achievements are no longer possible. Of course this is fiction; the institutionally authorized sources of learning benefit from this myth of unbreachable (and hence unquestionable) expertise. What I think has faded is the culture of polymathism. Where intellectuals once strove to achieve in disparate fields, now most choose to remain firmly enclosed in their discipline, or create cross-disciplinary approaches that unify their areas of interest. I don't believe this shift from multidisciplinarity to interdisciplinarity is true of the arts. Art is always a polymathic enterprise.

One of the people who taught me the most about filmmaking had 3 rules for being a filmmaker:
1. Take drum lessons.
2. Do physics.
3. Watch 2 movies a day.
Which is to say, learn to feel rhythm deep inside yourself, to improve the rhythm of your cuts and your sense of music in the world; be a student of the world, and an observer of the way things work around you; and keep your mind sharp with the techniques of your art. I do my best to keep to these rules (the spirit, if not always the letter) because they are, in a way, an extension of my polymathic impulse."

Peter Kubelka:
I wanted to release myself from these definitions that one finds on the epitaphs. This act finds its origins in a problem which I always have: how to defend the individual against society, against the group. My example is to take the Lark, a bird which I love a lot. If one takes a lark and asks it whether it can sing, it will answer: “Naturally I can sing! I am a Lark and all Larks can sing!” If one asks the same question to a human being, they will answer: “You know I belong to a species which sing—because the human being can sing—but me personally I do not sing at all. There are specialists who dedicate their whole lives to the practice of singing and they do it so well that it is not worth the sorrow when I sing. Then I attend their concerts, the specialists.” It is the same thing everywhere: the normal human being is specialized and consumes the works of the professionals, the virtuosos. It is certainly not ideal. Naturally, one cannot do everything like a virtuoso. But then, virtuosity also becomes questionable. Now, I am really interested in applied arts because, before, all the arts were applied. There was not this idea of free art, aesthetics, etc, which is not completely free in any case today either. Art is useful; art should always be used for something. But the question of virtuosity, of specialization brings us to this separation between the art that everyone made, popular art, and art where virtuosity starts, the art of the artist. Now one says “Folk art” which is pejorative! When I began this act of de-specialization, I did not have very clear ideas yet, but the ideal was to become again a child who is not yet specialized and thus is open to all the possibilities that the human animal has…