27 novembre 2007

Trail of the Lonsesome Pine


but first, a prologue.

AMMI's Glorious Technicolor! Series - which is fantastic, by the way - kicked off on Nov 17 with a double feature introduced by Wesleyan film professor Scott Higgins. The series is in conjunction with the publication of Scott's book Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow (which I wrote about briefly here).

Becky Sharp was the first film shown (preceded by The 1932 Disney short Flowers and Trees).
Note: I had written up some notes on Becky Sharp, but they've disappeared. Keep an eye on the comments here and I may write them up again in briefer form.

Trail of the Lonesome Pine, though, was a revelation. Starring Sylvia Sidney, Fred MacMurray and Henry Fonda, it's a romantic drama set amongst feuding families in an isolated rural area that begin to encounter the outside world via a railway company's interest in their land. Sidney is captivating, and both male leads are impressive, already fully inhabiting their screen personae. With assured script and direction, this is an effectively stirring classical Hollywood drama that, sadly, is on the verge of being lost (the print we saw of this rare film was from a private collection). Lonesome Pine is notable for its restraint where color is concerned. Instead of using color to paint emotion or abstraction, the palatte here is full of desaturated browns and greens. The color score bursts out at a few moments, however, to punctuate drama and emphasize the centrality of Sidney's character (A 'color score' is like a musical score that uses color design rather than sound). Trail of the Lonesome Pine is impressive for its natural, understated use of color, and also for the success of its drama.

The film shares some strange cultural points of contact with Shohei Imamura's The Profound Desire of the Gods, itself about the tension between isolated rural mores and the encroachment of technological modernity. In both films the railroad brings 'progress,' which brings a different set of concerns and a total shift in social mores among the formerly-isolated residents. Both films are ambivalent toward 'progress,' but this progress is in both cases portrayed as inevitable. The forces of economy march forward, changing the landscape through a series of individual actions by the people to be affected. Trail of the Lonesome Pine is a love story, a story of loss, and a story about the dissolution of a community and its rebirth as something entirely new.

26 novembre 2007

that which I had always only felt or suspected or been told

"How flight happens - for birds, insects, people - has always occupied me. My understanding of it was limited to theory; my empirical proof was based on deduction, and a few sensations - a hand out the car window, or on the controls of an airplane - that provided me with tangible evidence that the air was out there doing the things the theoreticians said. This technology, Digital Particle Image Velocimetry, has been much more that an analytical tool; it is providing me with the powerful experience of seeing that which I had always only felt or suspected or been told. In that such experiences are the intent of the filmmaker's art, my colleagues and I are pleased to share the artistry of the rufous hummingbird."
-- Douglas R. Warrick
via Invisible Cinema

20 novembre 2007

"When there are no more people, then the stones will rise up"

I Am Cuba is rightly celebrated for it's incredible camerawork, and sometimes for its effectiveness as agitprop, but one thing that's not frequently talked about is the structure of Kalatozov's cinematic argument. What's most impressive about I Am Cuba is how effectively dialectical the film is.

Helicopter flyover shots of Cuba's forests are accompanied by pastoral music and a voiceover description of her betrayal and rape for her sugar.

Next scene:
That shot, the energetic travel through the high life of Cuba on display for foreign money (including the implied prostitution/exploitation of her natural resources as leering men surround woman in bikinis who are literally on display). Next we go inside, exploring the prostitution thesis literally, as American tourists select Cuban women from a selection (the seedier, more complete version of the modeling that takes place in the light of day). American money = tourist mercantilism: "In Cuba, anything goes if you've got enough dough." The women are merchandise, subject even to the drawing of straws for possession thereof. The lone resistant tourist also falls prey to his ability to purchase a Cuban for the night. He's a sort of vision of capitalist liberalism: interested in a black Cuban woman, he wants to see where she lives before going to bed with her. He purchases an exotic experience, a faux-connection with those he exploits when playing within the rules of no-rules capitalist freedom. Everything is for sale in Cuba, even the illusion of 'authenticity' in a sexual encounter.

Next scene:
The heroism of field work is contrasted by the rights of landowners - with guns at their side - to keep workers off the land. Labor power is equated with value here: the kinetic energy of chopping sugar cane is shown from the outside and then - with the camera as the machete itself - from inside the physical motions of the process. The camera becomes the workers' tool, the object of force wielded to change the landscape, the blade that cuts what must be cut. This instrumental subjectivity seems like a manifesto for Kalatozov, and calls to mind Eisenstein: "I don't believe in kino-eye, I believe in kino-fist."

The farmer burns the sugarcane field in an attempt at revenge, and smoke blocks the sky. Then - an edit. Batista propaganda turns out to be a movie screening; a molotov cocktail is thrown and burns the screen (fire, then, is a tool of reclamation for the oppressed and the revolutionaries). The student revolutionaries have ideological debates about action and support of Fidel, but they are secondary to the actions themselves, which consist of resisting colonial oppression (American sailors chasing after a young woman) or institutional repression (police violence against a peaceful demonstration). As protestors march against the water cannons, the camera itself takes a point of view, aligning itself with the protestors as a sympathetic character. Again, the camera is tool of the revolution, but this time the weapon is solidarity. The final shot of this section is of the body of this section's main character, a now-murdered student radical.

The cut from this body bridges a transition to rebel fighters, trudging through a swamp in water up to their waists. When confronted by government troops, the troops threaten teh guerrillas with guns and ask where Fidel Castro is hiding. In a great Spanish-language double entendre, each answers with "Yo Soy Fidel" - which means "I am Fidel" - or "I have faith."

The next scene is of a haggard rebel finding refuge in a humble country home, but the rebel's support of violence as a necessary means leads the farmer to send him away. A violence done to the farmer's family by warplanes leads him to the rebel encampment, where he himself takes up arms - though he's told that each man earns his rifle by stealing it from a government soldier. And then we watch him fight...

Kalatazov's structure mirrors the Marxist dialectical approach to history. Each section transitions to another that more fully realizes the problems and possibilities brought out by the last. Look again at the trajectory of the narrative: the ideal state contrasted with it's corruption; colonial oppression; landowner oppression and peasant rebellion; student rebellion and sacrifice; guerrilla sacrifice and faith; farmer hesitation towards violence; farmer victimization; farmer joining the struggle. This series of concrete historical situations flows one to another. The oppositions are more than just battling historical forces, they are forces that create the next step in the progression to revolutionary victory. Each section is a personal narrative, but the film places them in a social context by establishing the historical conditions present in these personal narrative and then linking them together. It's every bit as sublime a narrative build as When A Woman Ascends the Stairs or even Flower of the Last Chrysanthemums, films where individual cuts have incredible narrative power (especially the final cut in Flower of the Last Chrysanthemums) and powerful images present an analysis of social relations (the final image of When A Woman Ascends the Stairs). But in I Am Cuba, what's being examined is the historical necessity of revolution. The film's final shot is the perfect culmination of what's preceeded it, the presentation of our present stage of history and the necessity for radical action. It's a dramatic call to arms that creates in the viewer nothing so much as the overwhelming desire to pick up a rifle.

19 novembre 2007

in this manner, we, like them, will have met

-"I know that tonight we'll make love and that soon afterwards I will die, but I know we'll see each other again."

Amazed, the young man asks her:
-"We'll meet after our deaths?"

-"Of course not," she replies. "I don't believe in such things. We'll meet in a different way: you, or another man, will come across another woman, not me, like we have tonight, and they will live the same story, and, in this manner, we, like them, will have met."

- from Raúl Ruiz's The Lost Domain, via his Poetics of Cinema 2, via acquarello

13 novembre 2007

"... our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor"

"He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:"

- from The United States Declaration of Independence


"If someone comes and occupies another man's home and takes away his food, money and property, how could he not defend himself? A person who doesn't fight for himself or his country shouldn't be called a human being."
- Iraqi insurgent (from Meeting Resistance, via CNN)

NYTimes Op-Ed: Know Thine Enemy
by Molly Bingham & Steven Connors, directors of Meeting Resistance

An Interview with Steve Connors and Molly Bingham at Counterpunch

the Meeting Resistance website

Voices of Uncertainty

via Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood Daily, the essential source for all things WGA Strike related.

07 novembre 2007

our own responsibility and nobody else's

1. We owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money; and, to them, the sole responsibility of ensuring a profit, not a loss.

2. Every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else's. We refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgment.

3. When we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.

4. No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for no other reason than her nakedness.

5. At any time, the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on. They will fight to work on a subject they feel is urgent or contemporary, and fight equally hard to avoid working on a trivial or pointless subject.

- from a letter written by Emeric Pressburger to Deborah Kerr, asking her to appear in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
Via Stylus Magazine's Bluffer's Guide to The Archers