27 septembre 2007

The Monomyth, or, mysterious adventures and the knowledge transmitted by art

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."
- Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

related: Cinema today . . .

Quiet City

Aaron Katz's Quiet City is a very, very small film. Like his characters, it seems content to make small statements that barely hint at their real meaning. It's a disservice to Katz to compare his style to Malick, as has been done. I don't see that much in common, filmically, except that this film is sporadically very, very beautiful. Katz is interested in the specific placement of characters in a physical environment, but his methods - and moods - are very different than Malick's. I'm not sure how to describe the differences - perhaps they are ones of scale. Quiet City mostly succeeds in its minor ambitions.

Quiet City is a key film for understanding the Mumblecore attitude toward narrative and filmmaking. It spends most of its 78 minute runtime with only two characters. Their relationship builds but never gathers momentum; it simply simmers. This simmering, this observation of people as they are, is less sparse than it sounds. QC has moments of beauty that flower in and around their quotidian wanderings, but the film ambles a bit too much, while lacking direction (as the characters also do). If the characters are afraid to create tension for fear of expectations that will lead to disappointment, the film follows suit, limiting our ability for deep emotional investment.

Quiet City is, on one level, a Mumblecore romantic comedy. Jamie and Charlie have moments of meet-cute - necessarily delayed by their insecure beginning. These moments are hugely understated, and feel honest and real rather than necessary (see: Eric Rohmer on verisimilitude and the necessary). Their moments of romance are so slight as to be missed under the sound of your popcorn (I consider that high praise). Some moments in the film are absolutely stunning: the race-running in the clip above, the falling asleep on the subway that can be seen in the trailer below. The film is beautiful also in its sense of place and the way the characters interact with Brooklyn. It's exciting also to see a low-budget independent American film use "pillow shots" for pace and for creating a sense of magic and beauty.

Still, the pillow shots sometimes seem a bit too disconnected from the narrative; the scenes containing other characters distract us from the relationship between Jamie and Charlie; there were too-few moments of beauty - perhaps pillow shots included - to interrupt the monotony of the real dialogue and interaction.

Rohmer's exploration of the tension between “verisimilitude” and “the necessary” is particularly apt here; Quiet City, more so even than most Mumblecore features, relies too much on the former while infusing too little of the latter. I don't think these two things are mutually exclusive, even in the same words - anyone aware of my current project has heard me talk about this - but it's very difficult to sustain any level of fusion between these two 'types' of writing. Katz succeeds intermittently; when he does, he achieves greatness, but this great success happens only intermittently.

If I sound ambivalent in this writeup, it's only because I am. Quiet City is a very good film, but not a great one. The seeds of greatness are in it, though - and a movie made with this much ambition, by someone with passion for making a movie, by a true amateur, is something to be commended.

Reading back over this, this seems like notes for a review, but I'll let you fill in the blanks. Perhaps that's appropriate.

Extra note:
The subway stop in the opening scene is my subway stop.

26 septembre 2007

I'm your huckleberry

[...] I’ve only caught glimpses in these films of the wanton playfulness and voracious need to experiment that characterized the Nouvelle Vague or early 80s American indie. Maybe this desire isn’t there, and maybe it doesn’t need to be, but forgive me if I wouldn’t mind an American filmmaker standing up and announcing him or herself as the heir to Jacques Rivette or Alain Resnais.
Jeff Reichert's Reverse Shot piece on Quiet City is the most relevant discussion of the place of the "Mumblecore" films in contemporary American cinema.

25 septembre 2007

verisimilitude and the necessary

"We are familiar with the Aristotelian distinction between “verisimilitude” and “the necessary.” Corneille speaks of this in his Discours and applies it to the action, but not without extrapolating. Extrapolating in turn, we shall allow ourselves to apply it to the text and shall say: Everything in the text that is indispensable to the clarity of the intrigue is necessary. All that the characters say among themselves in a given situation that is not concerned with informing the audience is verisimilitude. For example, in Racine’s Andromaque, the fragment of the first verse, “…since I find such a faithful friend again,” is absolutely necessary (it informs us that Orestes and Pylades are friends and were separated) but not very true to life, as the interlocutor does not need this information: It is meant only for the reader. The “yes” that beings the verse makes the rest of the sentence seem like the continuation of a conversation that has already begun and is there to provide, among other things, the verisimilitude that is lacking.

“Thus, we see that in theater, the necessary takes precedence over verisimilitude and that its presence, even diffused, limits the sphere of the true-to-life. A film’s dialog, on the contrary, must use the necessary only as a last resort. Information is presented in an inoffensive manner, cloaked by pure verisimilitude. It reaches the attentive spectator, whose vigilance increase as he learns more, by a ricochet effect. Film dialogues from before 1960 seem unencumbered with necessary lines that modern film has left as commentary, monologues, or graphic signs, with an ease that is beginning to seem dates as well.

“Nothing goes out of style more quickly than the necessary—except verisimilitude, whose excess in the 1970s is beginning to show. In order to give free rein to the true-to-life, we have done away with written texts and have actors say “just anything.” It was believed that from this absolute contingency, a new necessary would be born, without any reference to the “rules” of the theater that were always lurking in the background. It did happen, sometimes felicitously, with Rouch, Godard, or Rivette. The true killed the true-to-life: The stopgap realism of the scriptwriters become unbearable. And here we are once, again, faced with the demands of the necessary."

---From “Film and the three levels of discourse: indirect, direct, and hyperdirect” by Eric Rohmer, Cahiers Renaud-Barrault 96, October 1977.

Thanks to Danny for finding this for me.

23 septembre 2007

The birth of the man-crush romantic comedy

My friend Justin Shubow wrote an interesting piece for the National Review Online called:
"When Harry Met Sal: The birth of the man-crush romantic comedy"
I think you should read it.

a new politics is practical and necessary

"May '68 demonstrates as well that spontaneous action can erupt quickly and surprisingly, that it can provide alternatives to standard politics, and that a new politics is practical and necessary. The initial inability of established Left political parties and unions to support the students and workers suggests the irrelevancy of politics as usual and the need to go outside of ordinary political channels and institutions to spark significant contestation and change. The Events also suggest the primacy of social and cultural revolution, of the need to change individuals, social relations, and culture as a prelude to political and systemic transformation. The total nature of the rebellion reflects the totalizing domination of the system which must itself be transformed if significant change is to take place."
- May '68 in France: Dynamics and Consequences

20 septembre 2007

Further Notes, Karpo Godina

I just discovered this excellent essay on the Karpo Godina shorts I posted on previously (1, 2), featuring a treasure-trove of still frames and a more in-depth description of the films -- written by someone passionate enought no cross the country for the screening! A great read with terrific visual evidence.

19 septembre 2007

18 septembre 2007

I Miss Sonja Henie

I Miss Sonja Henie: The Making of a Film kicked off the second segment of the Karpo Godina program. This 16mm making of doc (proected via dvd for the screening) is a loose compilation of often-humourous anecdotes from the shooting of the film. Not much to be said for this beyond a few interesting moments of these directors at work, some very vague hints at the ideas at play in the film to come, a few funny anecdotes, and a great Miloš Forman moment where, his body wrapped entirely in gauze and just before his face is to be covered, he requests a final sip of brandy.

I Miss Sonja Henie (1971)
Directed by:
Karpo Godina
Tinto Brass
Miloš Forman
Buck Henry
Dušan Makavejev
Paul Morrissey
Frederick Wiseman

These directors were recruited at the 1971 Belgrade Film festival. Godina intercepted them at the hotel and handed them a 1-page set of instructions, thus recruiting them to direct a segment of the film.
The rules for this film were simple. Each director would make a 3 minute film. The film was to take place in one room, with the camera in a single position. No changing of lenses, framing, angle or position would be allowed. The camera position and room were the same for all segments, though props could change scene by scene. During the film, someone must say "I Miss Sonja Henie" (a Snoopy reference, actually).
All shooting was done at night or early in the morning during the festival, on 35mm.

Dušan Makavejev's segment leads off the film. This segment was my favorite, in part because it was the only one that was not cut apart and cross-edited with the others. It is a closeup of a man and a woman facing each other, framed very tightly around their faces. They make the funniest faces they can for a bit, before sticking their tongues out as part of these faces, eventually drawing close and touching each other in a strange kind of kiss. Makavejev's segment is an exploration of physicality, intimacy, the barriers between bodies and the possible modes of communication between them. A rich, rewarding near-silent short (the required sentence is spoken through the man's closed mouth). The other segments were sometimes witty but generally lackluster, in part because there was not enough communication between the pieces to justify the cross-cutting, which detracts from each segment's momentum. One exception was the series in which a man comes racing into the room, which is occupied by a woman frantically scratching at her skin. The scene is repeated 3 times, and each time the man has a different essential physical need to be sated (to sh_t, to eat, to f_ck). In each case, when he has fulfilled his need, the woman reclines in itch-free, post-coital bliss. This was another meditiation of the role of the body in our interactions and in driving our behavior, a step above the somewhat-witty jokes of the other segments (Makavejev's excluded). As an example, the Buck Henry segment (for which Miloš Forman was wrapped in gauze) was a combination Johhny Got His Gun remake and extended penis joke starring Miloš Forman, Buck Henry, and Catherine Rouvel. Yes, for real.

After the film, Buck Henry, Paul Morrissey and Miloš Forman joined Karpo for a brief panel about the film. Miloš called it "a very beautiful, deep sophomoric joke." Buck Henry's first comment was that the political climate of Yugoslavia created a game of "who could get away with what." Buck asked karpo if the directors were chosen at random; Karpo spoke, and his translator replied: "You were the only ones he could find." Karpo defended the cross-cutting by arguing that it makes the films communicate with each other, before asking his collaborators their opinions. "I say chop 'em up," Buck replied; and after a pause, Miloš chimed in: "I'm still recovering."

The best story from the panel was from Miloš. In that year, a former Czech minister had recently been kidnapped abroad and brought back to Czechoslovakia. At the end of the festival, at 2:30 AM, Dušan Makavejev knocked on Miloš's door to inform him that the Russian have arranged with the Czechs to kidnap him (Miloš). Looking out the window, he could see Czech embassy cars in front of the hotel with people asleep in them. So Makavejev snuck Miloš out the back door and got him on late-night train, escorted by a friend of Makavejev's. This friend was very nervous from Belgrade until the Austrian border, but they arrived safely in Austria.

One final note: Godina has apparently compiled a 100-minute cut of the film also; I saw the original 20-minute version. I would be very interested to see the longer cut of the film.

Blow Out

Blow Out clarified, for me, why DePalma is so celebrated by a segment of cinephiles... on a shot by shot basis, there is some very interesting camerawork; closeups are frequently used to great, intense effect; there's a referentiality in the film that goes beyond playfulness to support the narrative force of the film; at times, the montage/composition/sound design/lighting is in perfect service to the emotional response the viewer should have. Yet I am still unconverted to DePalma as a master, because his craftsmanship is successful only on the shot or sequence level. In Blow Out, at least, he doesn't do an effective job of maintaining narrative momentum from scene to scene, and the necessary build of suspense falls short. In a movie that should been more intense than The Conversation, I still end up feeling a bit flat. For someone who frequently works in a Hitchcockian vein, the element that is most clearly missing from DePalma's work is the one that forms the basis of every frame for Hitchcock - the emotional narrative of the film.

15 septembre 2007

short films by Karpo Godina

Karpo Godina, the Yugoslavian Black Wave cinematographer, editor and director, was on hand this week at BAM to present a program of his short films, including the collaborative film I Miss Sonja Henie. Three of his I Miss Sonja Henie collaborators were on hand as well: Buck Henry, Paul Morrissey, and Milosz Forman. I will write soon on I Miss Sonja Henie, as well as Godina's making-of film. First, some brief notes on the other films shown at the screening.

"We were standing in the water during the day, and a lot of things happened also during the night." - Karpo Godina

The Gratinated Brains of Pupilija Ferkeverk (1970) struck the most nuanced and rebellious notes of the three shorts that began the program. The camera maintains one position, though there are lots of edits; due to composition and movement in and out of frame these rarely register as "jump cuts" beyond the changing character of the light. The film begins with a shot of a body of water, with houses in the distance, as a topless young woman swings on a swing on the right side of the frame. When she reaches the forward part of her swing she is in frame; when she swings backward she is out of frame. In numerous versions of the same shot - at different times of day - she is the only person in the frame. Eventually she is joined in the frame by 5 men, who only rarely interact with her. They face the camera - sometimes as far back as she, sometimes in extreme closeup. They stand still, they frolic, they are covered in mud or clean. Intertitles with various graphic design elements - including Serbo-Croatian (or Slovenian?) text describing various phases of life: "life," "death," "dictatorship," "swallow LSD" - sometimes flash between shots. The LSD taken at the end of the film - introduced by the only title card that appears twice in the film - was real LSD.

The film is in color, but here's an idea of the mise-en-scène:

The use of a single camera position accentuates the visual and temporal changes bridged by each edit. It also emphasizes time in a broader way; the moments captured on film are somewhat disconnected, so watching becomes in part a process of situating events in a time before the "next" time comes (not edited sequentially, "next" might just as often refer to "previous"). The film's successful avoidance of the "jump cut" (as an emotional phenomenon rather than a technical one) is a triumph of blocking and editing, and shows a deep understanding of the ways that mise-en-scène affects our understanding of an image. While all of Godina's work shares a core playfulness, Pupilija Ferkeverk does this most effectively because Godina's playfulness extends to his onscreen collaborators. Inside the limits of his frame, he seems to have created a zone of liberation in which young people can explore themselves outside the pressures of imposed power (hence: film was banned for showing the decay of moral values).

The symbolic representation of frustrated sexual expression of
The Gratinated Brains of Pupilija Ferkeverk turns to literalism in On Love Skills or A Film with 14,441 Frames (1972). This film was commissioned by the Yugoslavian Army after Karpo was transferred to the Army's film department. He was authorized to make an offical military film about the problems of a military barracks and the nearby village of women with whom they never crossed paths. Instead, he made a pacifist film - "make love not war." The army approved - and even actively loved the original script, which was different than the film that was produced, though Karpo did not make it seem that his script had been a ploy to finance a pacifist film. In any case, the finished product led to his prosecution by a military court, a near-brush with a 7-year prison term, and the destruction of the film by the military with an ax (!). One print was saved, however, and that's what we saw.

The film relies on a basic opposition between the women of the town - workers at a women's factory, or girls at a school - and the young military men who do not interact with them. Godina emphasizes the sheer numbers of both groups in wide shots containing multitudes. The women stand together as one of them speaks, but it isn't immediately obvious which, presenting the illusion that they all speak, that the one voice speaks for all. The men, on the other hand, are shown in military exercises or simply standing in uniform. Some of choreography of the exercises makes them look silly. Funnier still are the few scenes where military men and throngs of women exist in the same frame: shots near the end of the film when a single soldier holds the slate before a group of assembled women. In each case, he appears timid, frightened, unsteady, as if all his practice with his gun and his time spent in the barracks has left him unsure of his masculinity. Karpo explained after the film that 20 tanks and 60 airplanes were left at his disposal for use in the film (he shot them but they didn't make it into his final cut). For me, the overtly ironic juxtapositions of On Love Skills or A Film with 14,441 Frames were a disappointment after the more elusive meanings of
The Gratinated Brains of Pupilija Ferkeverk, but it is a fine example of montage in the service of political activism.

Healthy People for Fun (1971) is a portrait of Vojvodina, a community full of different ethnic groups. This film is ethnography by way of political commentary on the supposed unities asserted by the Yugoslavian government. Godina makes ironic use of the modes of presentation common in pastoral celebratory propaganda (extending tendencies nascent in 14,441 Frames). In spite of the film's curiosity about the individuals in Vojvodina, I couldn't help but see this as a minor film for Godina, one that combines irony and ethnographic seriousness without exploring either in any great depth.

10 septembre 2007

The Shock Doctrine

more info

training them not to think

"Russian television has come a long way from the staid, politically tinged fare of Communist times, and these days there are many channels offering a steady diet of movies, dramas, game shows, soap operas and reality shows — some locally produced, some imported and dubbed.

News programs, which are tightly overseen by President Vladimir V. Putin’s administration, are another story. As in Soviet days, they rarely divert from the Kremlin’s point of view. Barbed political satire, which thrived after the fall of the Soviet Union, has been suppressed.


Daniil B. Dondurei, editor in chief of Cinema Art magazine, said he saw a darker significance in the success of shows like “Schastlivy Vmeste.”

“Today, people are becoming accustomed to not thinking about life,” he said. “The television is training them to not think about which party is in Parliament, about which laws are being passed, about who will be in charge tomorrow. People have become accustomed to living like children, in the family of a very strong and powerful father. Everything is decided for them.”"
- NYTimes

Post-Mumblecore, pt. 2

"I think that if Mumblecore is more than just a flash in the pan, it is precisely because it will inspire filmmakers around the world to make it their own."
- Matt Riviera, in a comment on a post at Spoutblog

"Only five thousand people ever bought a Velvet Underground album, but every single one of them started a band."
- Brian Eno

05 septembre 2007

25 Best Non-English language films

In response to Edward Copeland's Choosing the best non-English language films, I present my ballot (my top 25 out of the nominated films):

1. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964)
Flat out the most romantic movie of all time, Umbrellas bursts forth at the seams with exuberant color and all the freshness of youthful visions of the world. The final scene's saudade is eviscerating not because it's tragic, but because it isn't. An unrivalled emotional experience.
2. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)
An intimate epic of resistance that details the codes by which people live under occupation. The opening shot is as powerful and artful as openers get - Nazis marching, triumphantly, in front of the Arc de Triomphe. An epilogue that turns the story of a few individuals into the story of a nation. Tragic, brutal, and human.
3. The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939)
The mastery of this film is beyond my capacity for speech.
4. Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar, 2002)
5. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
What really thrills about Battle of Algiers after all of these years is not that you feel in the midst of events; that's been done too much since to feel freshly radical. Battle's amplified intensity comes from being in the midst of events. It's not spectatorship but intimacy here; Pontecorvo's camera gives up showing in favor of participation. This goes for both sides of the fight - we're as intimate with the general giving a press conference as we are with the young woman cutting her hair to slip past security checkpoints. This is radical, because filmmakers mostly align themselves with the watchers. Pontecorvo, instead, implicates us in both sides of the conflict.
6. Sátántangó (Béla Tarr, 1994)
After seeing this for the first time, I turned to the person sitting next to me and said "If it was playing again right now, I would definitely stay."
7. Nosferatu the Vampyre (Werner Herzog, 1979)
The opening shots of mummified human remains, as my friend said to me afterwards, is like the secret of vampire lore unlocked. "We all die, and these are the stories human beings tell ourselves to help us make sense of the fact that we die." There's nothing left but for me to agree.
8. Play Time (Jacques Tati, 1967)
The perfect comic exploration of the "man vs. nature" archetype, where nature is the artificial world that man has created.
9. Persona (Ingmar Bergman, 1966)
10. Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa, 1950)
11. Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953)
12. Amelie (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2001)
Though it occassionally teeters on the verge of cloying, it consistently comes out on the right side by virtue a real emotional intimacy with wounded characters who need a bit of a push to have the courage to pursue their happiness.
13. Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Werner Herzog, 1972)
Mein Gott! That opening sequence! Rivalled only by the apocalyptic insanity of Kinski as Aguirre.
14. Au Hasard Balthazar (Robert Bresson, 1966)
15. Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960)
Not the film people think it is, but a much better one: a sweet mini-romance.
16. The Seventh Seal (Ingmar Bergman, 1957)
A medieval morality play both set in and a product of a world in dire need of such stories. A tale of sacrifice and the resurgence of life, of mankind's possibility for goodness in a world run amok with evil. Simple and sublime.
17. Band of Outsiders (Jean-Luc Godard, 1964)
A few clues for latecomers: The Madison. The Louvre, quickly. Anna Karina.
18. The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)
19. The Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
20. Story of the Late Chrysanthemums (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1939)
A film that builds and builds and builds and builds... until the final edit, a moment of sublime, impossible loss - and beauty.
21. In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wai, 2001)
Like every time I ever fell in love, only so much more beautiful (if just as tragic).
22. M (Fritz Lang, 1931)
Lang's balloons floating in the air and shots of empty stairwells are a masterclass in suspense and the horror of the viewer's imagination. M turns "In the Hall of the Mountain King" into the every parent's worst nightmare.
23. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)
24. Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961)
25. All About My Mother (Pedro Almodóvar, 1999)


and the 25 best that didn't make the nominees list (in rough order of my preference)*:
An Actor's Revenge (Kon Ichikawa, 1963)
Veronika Voss (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1982)
Tesis (Alejandro Amenábar, 1996)
The Mother and the Whore (Jean Eustache, 1973)
The Hunt (Carlos Saura, 1966)
In Vanda's Room (Pedro Costa, 2000)
Pepi Luci Bom y otras chicas del montón (Pedro Almodóvar, 1980)
L'Âge D'Or (Luis Buñuel, 1930)
Queimada (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1969)
Elevator to the Gallows (Louis Malle, 1958)
A Woman is a Woman (Jean-Luc Godard, 1961)
Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Elio Petri, 1970)
When A Woman Ascends the Stairs (Mikio Naruse, 1960)
Sauvage Innocence (Philippe Garrel, 2001)
Werckmeister Harmonies (Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky, 2000)
The Closet (Francis Veber, 2001)
Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1935)
The Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)
I Am Cuba (Mikheil Kalatozishvili, 1964)
Two Women (Vittorio de Sica, 1960)
Even Dwarves Started Small (Werner Herzog, 1970)
Sicilia! (Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub, 1999)
Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Julio Medem, 1998)
Mouchette (Robert Bresson, 1967)
Tuvalu (Veit Helmer, 1999)

* I'm not including La Jetée because it's technically not a feature.

To say nothing of Pather Panchali, Flowers of Shanghai, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Viridiana, Vacas, Charulata, Sholay, The Kingdom, and LOADS of films I've forgotten or haven't yet seen.

Update: Results!