Monday, March 10, 2014

Lots of Reading


-- RIP, Alain Resnais: David Hudson and Catherine Grant.

-- RIP, Stuart Hall: Verso Books; The Guardian; Isaac Julien; Dissent; John Akomfrah at Frieze.

-- Catherine Grant has put together a tribute to Eduardo Coutinho at Mediático. At Catherine's, a Richard Linklater post called "The Flâneur on Film". Also: her new essay "Becoming 'Arturo Ripstein'?"

-- A conversation with Nicole Brenez, at Cinética.

-- Kent Jones' piece on auteurism, "Critical Condition".

-- Adrian Martin on Philippe Garrel's Jealousy; Nicholas Ray; Miguel Gomes' Tabu; Mark Rappaport's Mozart in Love; and a new book of film theory by Sergi Sánchez. Also: Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian: "All Tomorrow's Parties".

-- Steven Shaviro: "The New Cinematography"; and "Liking vs. Wanting".

-- "Blue Ruin: Totality and Acceleration" by McKenzie Wark. An interview with Wark on accelerationism.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum has put up a post with links to several of his pieces on Alain Resnais. 

-- The Siren: "Let's Talk About Kim Novak". 

-- Luc Moullet, "The Mask and the Role of God" (translated by Ted Fendt). 

-- David Bordwell: "Agee, Farber, Tyler and us"; "Agee & Co.: A Newer Criticism"; on some recent books including James Naremore's; and more on James Agee.

-- Fantasy Double Features of 2013 Poll at The Notebook.

-- Paul Ramaeker: "Dr. Mabuse, Our Contemporary"; and on supernatural romantic melodrama and surrealism.

-- End-of-year lists and reflections at Lumière by many critics including Matthew Flanagan, Maximilian Le Cain, Andy Rector, Filipe Furtado, Christopher Small, Marcos Uzal, and others.

-- Michael Sicinski on Jodie Mack.

-- Pasquale Iannone's 10-film primer on Italian neorealism.

-- Jill Godmilow offers one of the rare dissenting opinions on The Act of Killing. (I've not seen the film yet.)

-- "On Fredric Jameson" by Alex Carp.

-- This new collection of essays on Nick Ray's films, edited by Steve Rybin and Will Scheibel, looks great.

-- Some interesting fragments of unfinished pieces by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky now up at his blog.

-- Will Self on Patrick Keiller's new book.

-- Matthew Dessem, "Film Preservation 2.0".

-- Peter Monaghan, "China Girls, Leading Ladies, Actual Women". (Via Corey Creekmur.)

-- Regina Bradley on "the dichotomy of urban and suburban in the context of sound (noisy and quiet) versus hip hop". (Via Corey.)

-- Readings to accompany the interesting film series "The Devil, Probably" at Yale Union. (Via Matthew Flanagan.)

-- Stuart Jeffries, "Alain Badiou: A Life in Writing".

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Recent Reading

-- "Best Films of the Year" lists: BFI; IndieWire; Film Comment "Best Undistributed" and "Best Theatrically Released";  Adrian Martin's "Ten Best Confrontations"; Michael Sicinski's "most inexplicably slept-on"; Steve Erickson's "Ten Best Political Documentaries"; Simon Abrams' "One-Week Wonders"; and Max Goldberg's "The year in media scavenging".  

-- I joined many others, including Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin, Nicole Brenez, and Joe McElhaney, in contributing to this collection of lists of "12 Favourite Filmmakers" compiled by Rouzbeh Rashidi.

-- New issues of: Photogénie; Jump Cut; Film-Philosophy; Cléo; Senses of Cinema; Alphaville; and The Cine-Files.

-- Gender inequality in film, depicted in infographic form.

-- Two essays on Ritwik Ghatak by Adrian Martin: on A River Called Titas at Criterion; and The Cloud-Capped Star at Projectorhead.

-- "Names and Naming in John Ford" by Charles Barr, at 16:9. Via Adrian.

-- Kent Jones: "Robert Bresson: An Introduction". At Film Comment.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum: "A Personal Account of an Adventure Called Film.Factory". Also by Jonathan: an introduction to a recent collection of Peanuts comic strips; and his ten-best lists for the year.

-- "A cat is never on the side of power": A great website on cats and cinema.

-- The slides for a presentation by Steven Shaviro on "delirious perception" in Spring Breakers.

-- "Predator, or A-Violence," an essay by Martin Barnier that first appeared in an issue of the French magazine Admiranda devoted to action movies in 1996. Now translated into English by Ted Fendt, at The Vulgar Cinema.

-- David Bordwell on Hitchcock, Lessing and the distinction between suspense and surprise.

-- J. Hoberman on David Cronenberg in The New York Review of Books.

-- Richard Tuschman's photographs inspired by Edward Hopper paintings.

-- Michael Sicinski on Luiz Fernando Carvalho's To the Left of the Father; and on the influence of Robert Gardner.

-- You can watch the documentary Film as a Subversive Art: Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 at Cinephilia and Beyond.

-- A lecture on photography titled "The Genius of the System" by Luc Sante.

-- A talk with Philippe Garrel in Interview magazine.

-- Leo Goldsmith on DocLisboa 2013.

-- DJ Taylor on a working-class pioneer of cultural studies, Richard Hoggart, in The Guardian.

-- David Davidson: "Brian de Palma at Cahiers du Cinéma in the 80s".

-- "What Has Happened to Modern Art?" by Ben Hourigan. Via Adrian.

-- "The 10 Best Film-Studies Books of 2013" by Clayton Dillard. At Slant.

pic: Hannah Frank's minute-long video, It's A Wonderful Face.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Savannah Film Festival + Links

Last month, cinema scholar Caryl Flinn and I spent a few days at the Savannah Film Festival as guests of the cinema studies department of the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD). Our host was faculty member Tracy Cox-Stanton, who founded and edits the online cinema journal The Cine-Files. The three of us watched and talked films from morning to night, and I was reminded again of the special social value of the film festival experience. As a cinephile whose conversations about film are for the most part conducted online, I especially cherish these kinds of in-person social opportunities that only come along a couple of times each year.

In addition to attending the festival, we had an invigorating session with graduate students—the topic of our discussion was the “multiple modes of writing” about film—and also appeared on a panel during the festival. The panel was broadly devoted to explaining, to a public, largely non-cinephile audience, what “cinema studies” was; what work it did; and how it might be a useful lens through which to view and analyze the films we were seeing at the festival.

The three most interesting and rewarding features I saw at the festival were:

-- James Toback’s Seduced and Abandoned, a documentary about Toback and Alec Baldwin going to the Cannes Film Festival with an experiment: to meet with producers and actors and raise money to make an erotic/political thriller called Last Tango in Tikrit. To what extent they are serious about making this film remains (productively) unclear; they are equally interested in taking the measure of the state of film financing today, and revealing its conservatism and its absurdities.

-- The Spectacular Now, a teen drama by James Ponsoldt with two gifted, charismatic lead actors (Miles Tellier and Aimee Finicky, the latter from Alexander Payne’s The Descendants). It belongs in a lineage of contemporary teen films like The Myth of the American Sleepover that are influenced by art cinema—perhaps not quite as powerfully as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant or Paranoid Park—but nevertheless using graceful, long takes that patiently observe the nuances of performer interactions.

-- Payne’s Nebraska, impeccably shot and cut, with a great performance by Bruce Dern, but flawed because of the stark difference in the way it treats its aging male and female lead characters, who are played by Dern and June Squibb. Both characters are abrasive and bitter, but the man’s personality and predicament acquire a tragic, moving quality over the course of the film while the woman character accrues no such dignity, remaining mostly shrill and grating …

Two short films made by SCAD students stood out—but in contrasting fashion. Dirt (Justin Andrews & Jae Matthews) is an unsettling and affecting mood piece set in a working-class milieu, with Dardenne-like attention to social detail; and Valiant (Rachel Horstmann) is a war film about several generations of an American military family, as unreflectively jingoistic and triumphalist as it is affluent in its production values.

After making a habit of attending only large film festivals like Toronto, I enjoyed the unexpected intimacy and relaxed feel of a smaller festival such as Savannah’s.

* * *


-- "Screen and Surface, Soft and Hard: The Cinema of Leos Carax" by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López; and Cristina, translated by Adrian, on Leos Carax's Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991). At Transit. Also: Adrian has a piece on Marlon Brando at Fandor.

-- Ricky D'Ambrose has made a video in which he speaks to Chantal Akerman about her 1970s films. At MUBI. Earlier: his terrific video interview with Dan Sallitt. Related: Christopher Small interviews Sallitt about The Unspeakable Act, which is now out on DVD.

-- J. Hoberman, "The Cineaste's Guide to Watching Movies While Stoned". At The Nation. In other news, Hoberman will be taking over the New York Times DVD column from Dave Kehr.

-- There is a new issue of Screening the Past, with a special section on "Aesthetic Issues in World Cinema".

-- Catherine Grant's post "Magnifying Mirror: On Barbara Stanwyck and Film Performance Studies". At Film Studies for Free.

-- Darren Hughes and Blake Williams have a conversation about Ramon Zürcher's The Strange Little Cat.

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on "black-and-white" movies.

-- Steven Shaviro: "More on Accelerationism".

-- The new issue of NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies features the theme of "waste".

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum is a champion of the filmmaker Peter Thompson, whose work has just come out on DVD. Also at Jonathan's site: his essay "Gertrud as Nonnarrative: The Desire for the Image"; and an introduction to a just-released collection of Charles Schulz's Sunday color strips of Peanuts, in which he draws a comparison between Schulz and Ozu.

-- Lots of good links in this post from Matthew Flanagan.

-- Personal accounts by projectionists around the world. At caboose.

-- Chad Newsom, "Cahiers du Cinéma and Evaluative Criticism". At The Cine-Files.

-- Fredrik Gustafsson on "the deep focus conundrum".

-- Serge Daney on John Ford's 7 Women. Freshly translated by Laurent Kretzchmar and Ted Fendt.

-- An interview with scholar Gregory Ulmer. At Full Stop. Part of their series "Teaching in the Margins". Via Adrian.

-- Matthias Stork, "Chaos Cinema: Assaultive Action Aesthetics". At Media Fields Journal.

-- A 1996 interview with Jean-Luc Godard in Film Comment.

-- This looks very interesting: a series of films by Norwegian filmmaker Anja Breien, who made a film called Wives (1975), an 'answer' to John Cassavetes' Husbands (1970). At Museum of the Moving Image.

-- Brad Nguyen on televisual narrative vs. film narrative. At Screen Machine.

-- Albert Maysles interviewed by Jonathan Marlow. At Fandor.

-- An entertaining interview with Greta Gerwig. At The Dissolve.

-- Mark Fisher, "Anti-Humanism and the Humanities in the Era of Capitalist Realism". Via Steven Shaviro.

-- Letters between Nadezhda Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot, who is in prison, and Slavoj Žižek.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Adrian Martin and I have now completed the release of the fourth issue of LOLA. The theme of the issue is "Walks," and it includes a Brian De Palma dossier.

Here are links to all the pieces, with a little excerpt from each:

-- Victor Bruno, "Glittering Flares: Breaking the Darkness in Out of the Past": "[A] lens flare is a bridge between the spectator and the film [...] In Out of the Past (1947), there is a moment in which, consciously or not, Jacques Tourneur built this bridge."

-- Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin, "To the Passion": "Passion is not (as we are hearing a lot at the moment) a wilfully ‘ridiculous’ film (it is especially depressing to hear this said as praise!) or a self-consciously trashy one [...] De Palma has gotten to a position in his career that is a little reminiscent of Samuel Fuller in his early-to-mid 1960s prime ..."

-- Alain Bergala, "Time Denied: An Apotheosis of the Imaginary": "The major difference between Scottie in Vertigo and Michael in Obsession is that Michael is in a deeper sleep than Scottie. He wants to believe in the reality of his waking dream with a deep and naïve conviction. The whole film is an obstinate refusal to wake up, to leave the bliss of the imaginary. He rushes like a bull towards the first illusion that is offered to him – this woman who is the reincarnation of his dead wife."

-- Adrian Martin, "A Walk Through Carlito's Way": "Every De Palma-loving cinephile’s sense of this scene as a set-piece, detachable from the film as a whole (while relating to it on many formal, expressive and thematic levels), is reinforced by its special place in the narrative – as an introductory incident that perfectly sums up, in microcosm, the trajectory of the hero’s unfortunate destiny (he keeps getting dragged back into crime), while itself being only a weak catalyst for anything much that follows."

-- Helen Grace, "Responsive Eyes and Crossing Lines: Forty Years of Looking and Reading": "At the time of the Dressed to Kill protests, I was living in a squat in Villa Rd, Brixton, and the street had become a centre of anti-De Palma actions, in which all the women squatters were being encouraged to become involved, in order to demonstrate their feminist credentials. Radicalism was measured in these key performance indicators of one’s commitment [...] Before committing ourselves to terroristic activities, a friend and I decided we should go to see Dressed to Kill ..."

-- Amelie Hastie, "Cinema of Compassion": "I love an image that makes me conscious of my own breath, whether it comes in a gasp, a steady rhythm, or a moment in which my breath literally stops. Our own breathing with the image is part of film’s (chimerical) animation of the life before us. Indeed, its quality of movement – and therefore its demonstration of life itself – animates even the inanimate, as we take in the images on the screen."

-- Sam Roggen, "You See It Or You Don’t: CinemaScope, Panoramic Perception and the Cinephiliac Moment": "What worried early Scope directors the most with regard to these radically altered conditions was how to direct spectatorial attention in scenes composed of long shots in the wide frame – and, particularly, how to highlight the details in that frame that were of vital importance for an understanding of the narrative [...] But directors could also audaciously choose not to stress essential parts of the composition. Observant viewers could then discover these crucial, but only subtly incorporated, details autonomously."

-- Veronika Ferdman, "Getting to Know the Big Wide World": "If I had to spend eternity inside a single scene from a movie, it would probably be this one – because, during these few minutes, we get a flood of hope and love, a montage of smiles and embraces exchanged by the newlyweds, enveloped by the blue dusk of the setting summer sun. The light in Eastern Europe is thinner and not as heavy as in the United States– the colours less saturated, but no less lovely."

-- Burke Hilsabeck, "Accidental Specificity: Modernism from Clement Greenberg to Frank Tashlin": "If modernist painting (in Greenberg’s account) works to pare itself toward a flatness made essential by the canvas support, popular film (in the Tashlinian-Lewisian imagination) is the site of a vast plurality; it does not simply refuse flatness as much as serve as the container of an infinite depth. (The scene articulates the sense that, onscreen, objects both flat and round have interiors.) In Tashlin’s hands, this is not the mimicked depth of pre-modern painting, but a constructed depth that takes on the quality of absurdity."

-- Yvette Bíró, "The Grandmaster: A Tour de Force": "The inner order of existence is never transparent. It accumulates not one layer of time but countless layers that collide and clash with each other. In Wong’s vision, each moment brings about a new form. The anomalous outcomes of actions are surprising, but never contingent. This density and swinging nature of the chaos-sphere is grounded, as modern physics describes it, in the ‘fragility of initial conditions’; this is what determines its erratic behaviour."

-- Darren Tofts, "Clone This DVD!": "The term post-production has a double inflection that refers, in the first instance, to after-effects, such as compositing, colour-grading and sound-mixing. But of more dramatic relevance here, it also refers to a more substantive, Thomas Kuhn-like paradigm shift that has a name – such as the Copernican Revolution or the Renaissance. Remix is the name we can give to this shift, a term akin to new historicism or postmodernism: cultural paradigms that articulate what comes after the philosophy of originality, presence, will and individualism."

-- Zach Campbell, "How We Got the Mob": "[It] will not do to treat Step Up either as a low-genre, masscult whipping boy, or to elevate – in a ‘poptimist’ polemic – the series’ pleasures above all else. The purpose of my undertaking here is not to disrupt the myriad pleasures Step Up might provide, but to look askance – critically, philosophically, politically – at their conditions."

-- Rowena Santos Aquino, "To Live (with) Cinema: Documenting Cinephilia and the Archival Impulse": "[The] emphasis in discussions of cinephilia still remains on the textual – the written word, whether in print, tweets or emails – to both define and guide discussions on cinephilia. The archival impulse gives us another perspective. The creation of an archive begins with emotional resonance, which is not the opposite of intellectual or educational engagement. The archival impulse is not just about the technical and technological aspect of acquiring, preserving and restoring films. It is also about an affective, physical experience ..."

-- Girish Shambu, "Crisis Cinema: Toronto International Film Festival 2013": "Until now in Breillat’s filmography, there has been an equation between sexuality and the human body. ‘The vulva is like the black hole of the universe’, wrote Breillat thirteen years ago, in the program notes accompanying the Toronto screening of her debut film Une vraie jeune fille (1975), which was banned in France for twenty-five years. Her new film evokes the older one in its obsessive focus on the human body."

-- Carlos Losilla, "Unspeakable Images": "Recently, the image has taken over what we used to call talking or writing about cinema: now images endlessly appear, they are projected, people compose essays with images … The role once played, years ago, by the gaze has now been translated to another fetish – and with this consequent transformation, it sometimes risks becoming a mere formula."

* * *

Links to recent reads:

-- Time to update our bookmarks: Jonathan Rosenbaum has a new website.

-- Good news: Claire Denis' great, ultra-rare U.S. Go Home (1994) is now on YouTube with English subs.

-- Adolph Reed, Jr., "Django Unchained, or, The Help: How “Cultural Politics” Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why". Via Corey Creekmur. At

-- Adrian Martin, "14 Uneasy Pieces of Teenage Life". At Flaunt.

-- An interview with Laura Mulvey on the making of her and Peter Wollen's avant-garde, feminist film Riddles of the Sphinx (1977). At BFI.

-- Nico Baumbach on Alain Badiou's recent collection Cinema. At the Los Angeles Review of Books.

-- Ted Fendt translates a talk by renowned French cinematographer Caroline Champetier. At MUBI Notebook.

-- Catherine Grant, "Lives on Film: Auto/Biographical Fiction and Documentary Film Studies". At Film Studies for Free.

-- Dan Sallitt, "It Takes an Arrondissement: Jacques Becker's Antoine et Antoinette". At MUBI Notebook.

-- Jean Renoir, "The Grandeur of the Primitives" (1948). At Ted Fendt's blog Howling Wretches.

-- Brad Stevens on Jess Franco at BFI.

-- An interview with Philippe Garrel on his new film Jealousy. At Revista Lumière.

-- The new issue of CineAction has a downloadable essay on Sharon Lockhart and Steve McQueen.

-- Boris Groys, "Becoming Revolutionary: On Kazimir Malevich". At e-flux journal.

-- A selected list of Tom Gunning's writings. A reminder to myself to hunt down the pieces I don't have ...

pic: Carlito's Way (Brian De Palma, 1993).

Friday, September 20, 2013

TIFF 2013: The Round-Up

For me, the star of this year's TIFF wasn't a director or performer but instead the brilliant programmer Andréa Picard. Her Wavelengths program was strong, open-minded and imaginative, combining the best of contemporary narrative and avant-garde cinema. In Picard's hands it has become the crowning glory of this festival.

I've been going to TIFF for 15 years, and this was among the best I've ever attended. I caught about 30 films, and I will have a piece on the festival in the current (fourth) issue of LOLA that Adrian Martin and I and our webmaster Bill Mousoulis are in the process of rolling out. Meanwhile, here's a quick personal summary evaluation of the films:


At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)
Bastards (Claire Denis, France)
Manakamana (Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez, USA)
The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, Germany)


Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan)
Three Landscapes (Peter Hutton, USA)
Song and Spring (Nathaniel Dorsky, USA)
Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat, France)
Our Sunhi (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)


Redemption (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
A Spell to Ward off the Darkness (Ben Rivers & Ben Russell, Estonia/France)
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China)
Un Conte de Michel de Montaigne (Jean-Marie Straub, France)
The King's Body (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal)
Love is the Perfect Crime (Arnaud & Jean-Marie Larrieu, France)
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
October November (Götz Spielmann, Austria)
We are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, Sweden)

Didn't work for me:

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK)

Fascinating, but I had reservations:

Story of my Death (Albert Serra, Spain)


R100 (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan)
The Summer of Flying Fish (Marcela Said, Chile)

* * *

Links to recent reads:

-- "Melville Variations," a video essay and text by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin at MUBI. Also: Adrian on Ruiz's final film Night Across the Street at Fandor.

-- Andréa Picard interviewed by Blake Williams.

-- Michael Guillen collects Jonathan Rosenbaum's writings on Pier Paolo Pasolini in a post.

-- Farran Smith Nehme reviews Ben Urwand's book The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler.

-- A tribute post to the late Allan Sekula by Matthew Flanagan.

-- "Filming a Land in Flux": an interview with Wang Bing in New Left Review.

-- Bourbon Street Blues (1979), a 25-minute short film by Douglas Sirk starring Rainer Werner Fassbinder, at The Seventh Art.

-- The latest issue of is devoted to Bertolt Brecht.

pic: "At Berkeley" (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Getting Ready for TIFF + Recent Reading

For nearly 15 years I've attended TIFF as a member of the general public but this year I applied for, and received, press accreditation. I'm looking forward to socializing with critic friends and making some new ones. Here's what I plan on seeing:

Bastards (Claire Denis, France)
Le Joli Mai (Chris Marker & Pierre Lhomme, France, 1963)
Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)
Manila in the Claws of Light (Lino Brocka, Philippines, 1975)
At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, Iran)
Abuse of Weakness (Catherine Breillat, France)
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
Our Sunhi (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Un Conte de Michel de Montaigne (Jean-Marie Straub, France)
The King's Body (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal)
Redemption (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, UK)
A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China)
Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-Liang, Taiwan)
The Strange Little Cat (Ramon Zürcher, Germany)
Wavelengths 1 (Avant-garde program with new films by Luther Price, Kenneth Anger, David Rimmer, Andrew Lampert and Scott Stark)
Manakamana (Stephanie Spray & Pacho Velez, USA)
Story of my Death (Albert Serra, Spain)
The Last of the Unjust (Claude Lanzmann, France)
When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
The Selfish Giant (Clio Barnard, UK)
Three Landscapes (Peter Hutton, USA)
Song and Spring (Nathaniel Dorsky, USA)
Three Interpretation Exercises (Cristi Puiu, Romania)
REAL (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
October November (Götz Spielmann, Austria)
The Police Officer's Wife (Philipp Gröning, Germany)
R100 (Hitoshi Matsumoto, Japan)
Pays Barbare (Yervant Gianikian & Angela Ricci Lucchi, Italy)
We are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, Sweden)
Ilo Ilo (Anthony Chen, Singapore)
Love is the Perfect Crime (Arnaud & Jean-Marie Larrieu, France)
Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari (Alexey Fedorchenko, Russia)
The Major (Yury Bykov, Russia)

Any comments on these films or suggestions/recommendations of others playing at TIFF?


* * *

Links to recent reads:

-- Essential: Laurent Kretzschmar's blog Serge Daney in English has posted new translations of a series of essays from his first book La Rampe (1983).

-- A feature on the essay film in Sight & Sound, with an introductory essay by Andrew Tracy followed by a dozen short pieces by critics and scholars, each highlighting a particular film.

-- Steven Shaviro on "Vulgar Appropriationism".

-- A conversation between Peter Hutton and Luke Fowler in which Hutton discusses, among other things, his new film Three Landscapes. Via Matthew Flanagan on Twitter.

-- Many terrific candidates and films on director Travis Wilkerson's list of "100 Greatest Living American Filmmakers" at MUBI. [UPDATE: This list, which went viral on Twitter and Facebook recently, was not in fact created by Travis Wilkerson. Please see his comment below.]

-- Steve Rybin on Hal Hartley at his blog Cinephile Papers.

-- "New York Neorealism" by Mark Asch at Fandor.

-- Darren Hughes at MUBI: "Looking at Women: William A. Wellman’s Style in "Frisco Jenny" and "Midnight Mary"".

-- A great interview with Abel Ferrara at Indiewire.

-- A 1950 article by Jacques Rivette on Hitchcock's Under Capricorn, translated by Ted Fendt and appearing in English for the first time, at Andy Rector's blog Kinoslang.

-- The "Cinema of Resistance" series at Lincoln Center in NYC looks great; Kevin Lee has created a video tribute inspired by it.

-- The new issue of the journal Grey Room is devoted to the cinema of Guy Debord.

-- Christopher Small posts Tag Gallagher's article "Angels Gambol Where They Will: John Ford's Indians," which appeared in Film Comment in 1993.

-- At the AV Club by various writers: "Beyond the Jedi: 10 Underappreciated Movies from 1983".

-- The new entry "Philosophy Through Film" at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (via Catherine Grant).

-- "The Importance of Postcapitalist Imagination": an interview with David Harvey.

-- Chris Cagle has been posting from the Visible Evidence conference in Stockholm.

-- "Left" is the theme of the new issue of World Picture, which includes essays on Paul Thomas Anderson (by Tania Modleski), Vincente Minnelli, Hollis Frampton, Guy Debord, and more. Via Catherine Grant, who has put up a post rounding up a Pasolini event organized by BFI last year, and including talks by John David Rhodes, Rosalind Galt, Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, etc., all of which can be downloaded from iTunes.

pic: "The Strange Little Cat" (Ramon Zürcher, Germany)

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

Recent Online Discoveries

I’d like to devote this post to sharing some recent online discoveries of film websites and writings. And perhaps you might also recommend some good sites that should be better known than they are?

-- Great news: Fergus Daly has set up a page with links to over 50 of his pieces. Daly is a terrific critic and filmmaker based in Dublin. He co-wrote the book Leos Carax (Manchester Univesity Press, 2003), and made the documentaries Abbas Kiarostami: The Art of Living (with Pat Collins) and Experimental Conversations (I transcribed all of Nicole Brenez’s interview responses from this movie in an earlier post). Lots of great reading here.

-- The last post, on vulgar auteurism, generated a productive conversation and also led me to discover several websites, including The Vulgar Cinema, a group blog run by Sara Freeman, Christopher Small, Jack Lehtonen, Otie Wheeler, Jack Cole and CJ Roy. Related: Tina Hassania's Vulva Auteurism; the group blog Mission McTiernan; and the image-only Tumblr site Vulgar Auteurism.

-- A treasure trove of reading in the first two issues of the journal Cinema Comparat/ive Cinema: Issue #1 (pieces by Jean-Luc Godard, Henri Langlois, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Jean Douchet and Quintin); and the just-released Issue #2 (interviews with Jacques Rancière and Bernard Eisenschitz and many other pieces).

-- J.J. Murphy on Independent Cinema, a blog I should've been hip to a long time ago. (Thanks, Adrian.)

-- Great to see that Doug Cummings' Film Journey, one of the first film blogs I ever read, has now been "rebooted".

-- The huge Tumblr site Cinephilia and Beyond.

Any recommendations of websites: blogs, Tumblr sites, magazines, journals ... ?

* * *

Other links to recent reading:

-- The new issue of Cinema Scope magazine includes, among many online pieces, Jonathan Rosenbaum's Global Discoveries on DVD column.

-- The new issue of Screening The Past has essays by Bernard Stiegler, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin, Douglas Pye, George Kouvaros, and many others.

-- At Photogénie, Tom Paulus and Bart Versteirt have been reporting from Bologna. See the right sidebar for their blog posts.

-- David Davidson posts the documentary Serge Daney: Journey of a Cine-Son (1992), with English subtitles.

-- Blake Williams ranks the films he saw at Cannes at his website R and G and B.

-- In an innovative post, Ehsan Khoshbakht and Naiel Ibarrola use the comics form to discuss five great jazz films.

-- Catherine Grant puts up a post devoted to Todd Haynes' Safe.

-- At the Criterion site, Tom Gunning has an essay on František Vláčil's Marketa Lazarová (1967).

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum's 1995 piece "The Preminger Enigma".

-- Dan Sallitt has a post on the inexhaustible Rio Bravo.

-- Via Srikanth Srinivasan: An interview with Noël Burch in my hometown newspaper, The Hindu.

-- Ted Fendt translates Serge Daney's obituary of Allan Dwan at his site Howling Wretches.

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Vulgar Auteurism

The idea of “vulgar auteurism” has generated a flurry of posts and discussions in Internet film culture recently. Let me offer a few rudimentary observations, and try to ask a few questions about this new term.

“Vulgar auteurism” refers to a particular contemporary critical approach that focuses attention on filmmakers working in a popular mode, especially in less respectable genres such as the action film or the horror film or the crime thriller. Directors who come up most often in discussions of vulgar auteurism include Tony Scott, Michael Mann, Neveldine/Taylor, Paul W.S. Anderson, John McTiernan and Michael Bay. Calum Marsh’s recent piece in the Village Voice provides a useful introduction to the idea, and Peter Labuza’s post offers a context and a bibliography to help track its development on the Internet over the last few years.

The first piece to introduce and discuss this critical concept at some length was written by Andrew Tracy in Cinema Scope magazine (issue #40, Fall 2009). Called “Vulgar Auteurism,” the essay was devoted to the cinema of Michael Mann with a special emphasis on Public Enemies, which had just been released. Although his piece doesn’t explicitly mention it, Tracy was clearly making an allusion to an earlier, important critical essay called “Vulgar Modernism” by J. Hoberman, published in 1982.

Hoberman’s piece was addressed to the “high-art” crowd (readers of Artforum, in which it appeared), and identified a particular sensibility and a certain kind of popular-cultural work that was low in cultural status but audacious and inventive in its use of irony, self-reflexivity and formal play (these latter were its “modernist” traits). For Hoberman, this sensibility “developed between 1940 and 1960 in animated cartoons, comic books, early morning TV and certain Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedies”. He dubbed Tex Avery the “Manet of vulgar modernism,” and cited Frank Tashlin as its most exalted cinematic practitioner.

Tracy’s essay on “vulgar auteurism” doesn’t share the same objective as Hoberman’s. Hoberman wants to elevate certain popular artists and low-cultural artifacts to special distinction, but Tracy wishes to express disappointment at what he sees as a general contemporary tendency to raise popular filmmakers above their proper station and admit them into the canon willy-nilly. He complains of the “auteur bloat” that results from critics over-valuing popular American cinema, pointing to the “specious formalism” of the vulgar auteurs.

What about the word “vulgar” itself? What exactly does it mean in this context? Hoberman and Tracy both use the word to refer to products of low cultural value (they are “common”) but Tracy’s usage also carries a negative value judgment about the quality of the films. For him, the vulgar auteurist frequently champions films that are not “fully achieved” and thus unworthy of the critical attention and praise being lavished upon them. However, I notice that in nearly all criticism today, the word appears to refer not to quality but to lack of cultural prestige alone. The vulgar auteurist critic wants to advance certain popular filmmakers, whose work is rarely examined carefully, as worthy of the same serious critical attention paid to many foreign or arthouse filmmakers.

Do we really need the term “vulgar auteurism”? Does it do any new work for us today?

To help us think about these questions, I think it is useful to historicize this discussion—and connect it to the first wave of auteurism in France in the 1950s. Let’s remember that the Cahiers du Cinéma critics of the time admired and championed two different and distinct kinds of filmmakers: European directors of what would today be considered “arthouse” cinema (Rossellini, Bresson, Renoir) and Hollywood directors whose work was considered “vulgar” by comparison (Hitchcock, Hawks, Ray). One could go a step further and say that the latter directors were more central to the politique des auteurs because they managed to imprint their signatures on films being made within a factory-like system of production. This made the championing of Hollywood filmmakers a political act. Since auteurism is not a “theory” of how films are made (the “auteur theory” is a misnomer) but instead a critical reading practice that foregrounds the “marks of expression” of an auteur, it carried a particularly sharp political charge when applied to vulgar work made within the strictures of an industrial system of production. I'm wondering: Is there an analogous political import or critique in today’s vulgar auteurist criticism? Or is it mostly formalist, in that it devotes its energies mostly to identifying and describing the stylistic strategies associated with particular filmmakers?

Another point of difference between classical and vulgar auteurism might lie in their oppositional programs. The Cahiers critics stood not just for a certain kind of cinema but also against one: that of the Tradition of Quality. Vulgar auteurism is contrarian because it tries to take seriously and recuperate a particular class of cinema that most critics seem to dismiss without much thought, but is it actively against certain kinds of cinema?

I also notice that nearly all vulgar auteurist writing is devoted to masculinist genres, most notably the action thriller. But what about other, less masculinist but equally low-status genres such as teen films or romantic comedies or “crazy comedies”? Do they also hold interest for the vulgar auteurist critic? Related: I’m yet to read any vulgar auteurist criticism penned by a female critic.

A final thought: I can envision at least one productive consequence of this group identity. Critics who self-identify as vulgar auteurists might be driven, united by the banner of this movement, to set about demonstrating carefully why this cinema they love is so valuable. I think what we need are concrete, detailed, persuasive arguments with supporting evidence to open our eyes to the virtues of these films. My ears perked up when Marsh, in his Voice piece, briefly alluded to Fast and Furious 6 director Justin Lin's “sense of visual space” or the way he conveys an outsider's sense of dislocation in Japan or the way he works with a multiracial cast. I look forward to vulgar auteurist readings that develop such points in depth. I also know that this kind of close examination is already underway. The MUBI post “Vulgar Auteurism: A Guide, Or: "The Mann-Scott-Baysians"” contains, in the middle of the entry, links to a number of interesting reviews and analyses. (They are easy to miss, marked only by exclamation points over which you need to hover for the links to become visible.) [EDIT: Here is a post by Jack Lehtonen called "Vulgar Auteurism" at MUBI that contains explanations and links to many VA writings.]

Well, I have many more questions than answers in this post, but I’d love to hear your responses to any of these thoughts, as well as any other ideas you might have about vulgar auteurism. Thank you!

* * *

Links to recent reading:

-- I'm most honored to be part of a group of ten "guest scholars" (along with Christian Keathley, Adrian Martin, Laura Mulvey, Victor Perkins, Lesley Stern, Kristin Thompson, and others) in the new issue of The Cine-Files, the online journal of the Savannah College of Art & Design. The issue is devoted to "Mise-en-scène".

-- Peter Wollen's classic Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969) has been released in a BFI Silver edition. The book has a lovely foreword by David Rodowick that is structured in the form of a letter to Wollen. The new edition includes all the essays on individual filmmakers (Fuller, Renoir, Rossellini, Hitchcock, Sternberg, Kubrick, Malle, Godard and Boetticher) that Wollen wrote for New Left Review under the pseudonym Lee Russell between 1964 and 1967. At the BFI site, there is an excerpt from a "conversation" between Wollen and Lee Russell.

-- At Cineaste: the latest installment of "Film Criticism: The Next Generation," which includes interviews with Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, Adam Nayman, Genevieve Yue, and several other young critics.

-- Jonathan Kahana on the ethnographic documentary films of Ogawa Productions, the subject of a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives.

-- Dennis Lim rounds up the Cannes film festival at Artforum. Also, a Cannes roundtable at Film Comment with Gavin Smith, Amy Taubin, Marco Grosoli, Kent Jones, Alexander Horwath, and others: parts one and two.

-- Cahiers du Cinéma top 10 lists for the last 50-plus years.

-- David Hudson rounds up some Allan Dwan news, including links to the recently released, downloadable collection of essays edited by David Phelps and Gina Telaroli, and details of the MoMA retrospective. Also: David collects a couple of fascinating posts on Serge Daney by Laurent Kretzschmar and Stoffel Debusyere.

-- From Jonathan Rosenbaum: A tribute post to the recently deceased filmmaker Peter Thompson; and an introduction to and interview with Thompson.

-- At the Belgian journal Photogénie: Tom Paulus on Demy, Bresson and Soderbergh; Katja Geerts's piece "The Promised Land: Drift, Cinephilia and Photogénie"; and a call for papers for the first issue, which is titled "Just The Facts -- A New Realist Cinema?".

-- A terrific video essay, "What is Neo-Realism?" by kogonada at Sight & Sound.

-- The latest ("Green") issue of NECSUS journal features Barbara Creed on film theory, animals and boredom; Sean Cubitt on anecdotal evidence; Jonathan Beller on advertising (and the "advertisarial"); an interview on "greening media studies" with Toby Miller and Richard Maxwell; and more.

pic: Tony Scott's Domino (2005).

Monday, May 13, 2013

What Keeps A Writer Writing?

I've written a guest post titled "What Keeps A Writer Writing?" for the University of Pittsburgh film studies program blog Special Affects.

In the post I wonder: What drives a writer to keep writing about cinema in the long run even if she doesn't make a living by it?  My post has to do mostly with cinema students who may not find themselves employed full-time in the field after they finish their studies. But this is also a challenge for the many writers in Internet film culture who don't happen to write for a living.

If you're inclined to share your thoughts, I'd love to know: What conditions or circumstances motivate you to write? What marks those periods of your life when you've been able to write -- and what characterizes those periods when you've been less enthused to write? Thank you.

* * *

Links to recent reading:

-- Pasquale Iannone cites several interesting precursors in his piece on the "roots of neorealism" in Sight & Sound.

-- Kent Jones on John Ford, and Quentin Tarantino's recent comments about Ford; and some thoughts by Zach Campbell.

-- The fourth issue of Movie: A Journal of Film Criticism, edited by Andrew Klevan and Victor Perkins, is now up.

-- "The 50 Greatest Matte Paintings of All Time".

-- From Jonathan Rosenbaum: a program notes essay on Jacques Rivette written for Cinematheque Ontario a few years ago; a piece on the Belgian filmmaker André Delvaux; and a recommendation to check out a newly discovered video on Raymond Durgnat.

-- I've just picked up a copy of a collection of essays by Elio Petri called "Writings on Cinema and Life".

-- Catherine Grant has great posts on slow cinema; and on the films of Claire Denis.

-- Catherine's post includes a link to Matthew Flanagan's PhD thesis on slow cinema in contemporary art and experimental film; Matthew's coverage of experimental film at the last London Film Festival is here.

-- Steve Rybin at Cinephile Papers on "rhythm in movies".

-- Alain Bergala on the photography of Johan van der Keuken.

-- Cléo, a new journal of film and feminism edited by Kiva Reardon.

-- The debut of Screencity Journal, which features multidisciplinary analyses of contemporary urban space.

-- Ted Fendt translates a text by Louis Seguin on Straub/Huillet's Class Relations at MUBI.

-- "From Method Acting to Method Viewing" by Fergus Daly in the latest issue of Experimental Conversations.

-- Charles Petersen on Stanley Cavell in n+1.

pic: Claire Denis, who turned 65 recently and has a new film premiering at Cannes next week.

Monday, April 01, 2013

SCMS 2013 + Reading

I spent an energizing few days at the Society for Cinema & Media Studies (SCMS) conference in Chicago recently. It was a great opportunity both to encounter lots of interesting work and to socialize with friends old and new.

In my memory, I will always associate this year's conference with the presence of Victor Perkins. Victor retired last year from the faculty of the University of Warwick, but you wouldn't know it from seeing him at the conference. Impeccably attired in a three-piece suit, he seemed omnipresent, delivering a paper, participating in a well-attended workshop on "close analysis", and attending various sessions at which his questions were unfailingly precise and thoughtful. [Correction: Victor writes to say that in fact he was wearing a formal jacket, not a three-piece suit, indeed one with an interesting story behind it. I must have him recount it to me some day.] If you haven't yet had a chance to read it, his recent BFI Classics book on Renoir's Rules of the Game is marvelous.

For me, the highlights of the conference included the following presentations:

-- A panel on philosophy and the films of Terrence Malick that included Dan Morgan, Richard Neer, Lee Carruthers and Marc Furstenau.

-- A popular workshop discussion (with over a hundred people in the room) on the past and future of "close analysis", with Victor, Elena Gorfinkel, Lesley Stern, and Mary Ann Doane.

-- A panel on "Style and Rhetoric in the Movies" with papers by Victor (on "pace" in film), Gilberto Perez (on movement of the camera that accompanies movement of characters), and George Wilson.

-- Gerd Gemünden on the parallels and differences between the films of Lucretia Martel and Christoph Hochhäusler.

-- A workshop discussion on the genre of the "American Smart Film" that included Jeffrey Sconce, who coined the term in an article in the journal Screen ten years ago, and the Australian scholar Claire Perkins, who has just written a book about it.

-- Burke Hilsabeck on the intersection between Jerry Lewis and abstract expressionism.

-- A workshop on "publishing on digital platforms" that included John David Rhodes, co-founder of World Picture journal.

-- Dennis Hanlon on intertextuality and hypertextuality in the work of Hindi popular cinema director Manmohan Desai.

How handy: Catherine Grant has posted full-text versions of several papers presented at the conference.

* * *

Links to recent reading:

-- "Having an Idea in Cinema" by Gilles Deleuze, a transcript of a 1987 lecture, at the blog Diagonal Thoughts.

-- The new issue of the journal Paragraph is devoted to André Bazin. One of the essays, "Bazin's Modernism" by Dan Morgan, is downloadable here.

-- This year's edition of the Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna looks great: Allan Dwan, European Cinemascope films, early Chris Marker, early Japanese sound films, a tribute to Vittorio De Sica as both actor and director, and much more.

-- The new issue of Cinema Scope includes Jonathan Rosenbaum's Global Discoveries on DVD column; Thom Andersen on Wang Bing's Three Sisters; Adam Nayman's interview with Joseph Kahn, director of the teen horror-comedy Detention; and Shelly Kraicer on Wong Kar-ai's The Grandmaster.

-- There are new issues of: Senses of Cinema (rounded up by Catherine Grant); Interiors Journal; Film Comment; Cineaste; and Desistfilm.

-- Adrian Martin at Filmkrant: "Film analysis today, in its overriding emphasis — often exciting and revealing — on details, fragments and moments, has somewhat lost sight of the total structure, the multi-levelled form of a work." Also, Adrian has a piece in Australian Design Review titled "Intimate Metamorphosis: Film and Architectural Space". Finally, via Adrian on Twitter, links to four interviews: Jean-François Chevrier on 'artistic hallucination'; Gilbert Simondon ("Is not all Creation a Transgression?"); Jean Douchet on 'constructing the gaze' from 1993 in Framework; and, at Screening the Past, Raymond Durgnat interviewing Stephen Dwoskin in 1984.

-- An interview with Steven Shaviro at Figure/Ground.

-- A conference in two weeks at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia that looks very interesting: "The End of Cinema and the Future of Film Studies", featuring Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dudley Andrew, Francesco Casetti, Mark Betz, and others. (Via Shekhar Deshpande)

-- The online Brazilian film magazine Cinética has now started publishing English-language versions of articles from its archives. (via Filipe Furtado).

-- Links to many essays written by Gilberto Perez for the London Review of Books.

-- Two great movie-image Tumblr sites: "If We Don't Remember Me" (via Veronica Fitzpatrick) and  "Visions of Light" (via Trevor Link).

-- Catherine Grant interviews Tom Brown on the subject of direct address in cinema; and has a post in tribute to the late Donald Richie.

-- Steve Rybin's "The Actor's Vision: Three Perfomances by Jessica Chastain" at The Cine-Files.

-- A recently recorded 90-minute interview with David Cronenberg.

-- "Towards a Pure Fiction: Cecil B. DeMille" by Luc Moullet, translated by Ted Fendt; and "Some Violence is Required: A Conversation with Pedro Costa" by David Jenkins. At MUBI.

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on Monsieur Verdoux for Criterion.

-- Danny Kasman at MUBI on a couple of moments of Ozu's cinephilia.

-- David Davidson: "Cahiers du Cinéma and M. Night Shyamalan".

-- Oren Shai on the genre of the women-in-prison film in Bright Lights Film Journal.

-- A look at Sergei Eisenstein's bookshelves (at Slate).

-- A great six-minute viral video that shows the extent of US income inequality.

-- I've just received, and I'm looking forward to reading, Jacques Aumont's 'little book', "Montage".

pic: La règle du jeu (1939).

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Teen Films

I can trace my enduring fascination with teen films back to a specific moment in my personal history: when I moved to the U.S. in my early twenties to go to graduate school. When I arrived here, I had seen almost no teen movies, in any language, but as soon as I encountered my first examples of the genre (Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge, Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia, Brian De Palma’s Carrie), I was instantly captivated. As a young immigrant fashioning a new life in a land whose strangeness and otherness simultaneously attracted and disoriented me on a daily basis, I resonated deeply with the doubt, anxiety and excitement of teenage life as represented in these films.

But the factor that played the biggest role in the deep affinity I developed with teen movies had to do with my cinephilia: specifically, the continuity I felt, on multiple levels, between American teen films and the movies that gave birth to my passion for cinema in the first place—1970s Hindi popular cinema.

Two quick clarifications. I will use 1970s here to designate a period spanning the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s. Further, I will not use the word “Bollywood” — I’m with those who use this term to refer only to contemporary Hindi popular cinema, and not all Hindi popular cinema from all periods of film history.

Now, what makes the continuity between the two very different cinemas particularly interesting is that the genre of the “teen movie” is non-existent in ‘70s Hindi cinema. Nevertheless, a close look reveals that American teen movies and ‘70s Hindi popular cinema are fundamentally similar in at least three ways.

1. They deeply value the principles of energy, speed, and moment-to-moment invention. Ironically, it wasn’t until I read the critic Manny Farber, later in life, that the shared traits of the two cinemas began to emerge for me. In a wonderful tribute paid by one critic to another, Donald Phelps wrote of Farber’s writing that it “advances horizontally, in all possible directions, never seeming to exist for a simple progress from A to B […] What really, valuably alarms about his writing is […] its wildness.”

What strikes me as curious about Phelps’ essay is how similar his characterization of Farber’s writing is to Farber’s own idea of “termite art,” which prizes movement, vigor, and constant invention, but without ambitions or aspirations to ‘importance’. I’m reminded immediately of the rich and unceasing inventiveness of films as ostensibly dissimilar as Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995) and Amar Akbar Anthony (Manmohan Desai, 1977).

The material that forms the basis of Clueless’ constant creativity is that of pop-cultural knowledge: fashion, dating practices, music, even the construction, in one scene, of an anthropological classification of the various communities in high school. For Lesley Stern, Clueless creates an entire “fictional ethnography” that includes, among many things, an imaginative lexicon. (The Jane Austen Society of Australia maintains a page that catalogs all the slang and neologisms in the film.)

Amar Akbar Anthony, set a world away, is, if anything, even more fast and furious in its inventiveness than Clueless. This is one of the great unclassifiable films in cinema, but while it does lie at the outer limits of imagination and zaniness, it is not atypical in Hindi popular cinema. This ‘masala’ classic is many things: a family melodrama, a slapstick comedy, an action film, an ethnic farce, a gangster film — and let’s not forget its many great song and dance sequences. Philip Lutgendorf provides a packed description of it; he begins with tragedy and intrigue, and passes through decades of time to what appears to be a great climax — only to then confess to us that we have only arrived at the opening credit sequence, after a 25-minute prologue!

2. A passionate embrace of ‘low’ culture, fearlessly combining it with ‘high’ themes of social critique and commentary, but doing so without aiming for cultural prestige or respectability. Years before Slumdog Millionaire’s opportunistic and superficial portrayal of the poverty-ridden Bombay slum known as Dharavi, Yash Chopra’s Deewaar (1975), one of the canonical Hindi films, shows us great, powerful, documentary images of this site. The film is set in motion by the struggles of a workers' union against greedy and murderous capitalist factory owners. Poor people – their way of life, their folk customs, their music and dance – are everywhere in Hindi popular cinema of this period. It is extremely common for protagonists to belong to the working class in these films, so much that films with predominantly middle-class characters were tagged by critics as a separate genre, “middle cinema”.

Something similar can be seen in American teen movies. In Abel Ferrara’s modern-day Romeo-and-Juliet teen drama, China Girl (1987), the Italian boy and the Chinese girl meet while dancing in a crowded disco. But earlier, the hard-hitting opening of the film (like the fiery union demonstrations that open Deewaar) quietly lays out the terrain of bitter rivalry and ethnic hatred: a series of close-ups of Italians watching impassively as the first Chinese business hoists its sign on their street in Little Italy.

Another example: Pretty in Pink (Howard Deutch, 1986) is driven by a wonderful pop music soundtrack, but it is also very seriously a film about class difference. The vitality of ‘low’, DIY culture (Molly Ringwald's colorful clothes are self-designed and self-made) is opposed to the bloodless enervation of the rich (James Spader and Andrew McCarthy most frequently wear white, pale blue, light gray and beige). Like the opening (political, materialist) images of Deewaar and China Girl, Pretty in Pink’s first shot is of a street sweeping machine moving through Ringwald’s working class neighborhood at sunrise. The camera pans to show us train tracks, thus underlining the part of town in which she lives (the ‘wrong side of the tracks’).

3. A pervasive use of – and devotion to – popular music. I particularly love the way that music is present so powerfully in both cinemas that its use extends actively into both the diegetic and non-diegetic realms. Music is part of the story world of Pretty in Pink (the scenes in Trax, the record store; and a live performance by the Pittsburgh punk-pop group The Rave-Ups) but also comprises its extremely popular soundtrack. A different and particularly intriguing instance of this diegetic/non-diegetic mix can be found in a scene from Allan Moyle’s Times Square (1980), in which Robin Johnson is striding down the sidewalk of a busy New York street, dragging a cart behind her, with Roxy Music’s “Same Old Scene” playing on the soundtrack. She turns into a dark alley, pulls out an electric guitar and amp from the cart, and begins flailing away at the guitar … to the song on the soundtrack! She goes in and out of tune and rhythm with the song, furthering our confusion (where is that song actually coming from?), until we see, in a corner of the frame, a boom box in her cart. Times Square also boasts a marvelous double-LP soundtrack.

The ubiquity of singing and dancing in Hindi popular cinema is, of course, legendary. The reason the “musical” genre doesn’t formally exist in India is precisely because nearly all popular films of the ‘70s, de rigueur, contain song and dance sequences.

* * *

Teen films don’t get nearly as much serious attention and thought from cinephiles, critics and scholars as they should. And so I invite you all to name a few of your favorite lesser-known teen films. (Please define “lesser-known” as loosely as you like.) I would love to get acquainted with some good teen films I've not seen. Thank you!

* * *

Along with about twenty writers, I contributed a piece to a new bilingual dossier called "Teen Moments" in the Spanish film magazine Transit . The pieces appear in two sections, as marked. The dossier opens with Adrian Martin's introductory essay, "Live to Tell".

Part One:

Sergi Sánchez on Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955)
Girish Shambu on Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982)
Daniel de Partearroyo on L’âge atomique (Hélena Klotz, 2012)
Cristina Álvarez López on The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985)
Toni Junyent on Happy Campers (Daniel Waters, 2001)
Adrian Martin on Never Been Kissed (Raja Gosnell, 1999)
Albert Elduque on Love in the Afternoon (Billy Wilder, 1957)
Stephanie Van Schilt on Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001)
Pablo Vázquez on Lemon Popsicle (Boaz Davidson, 1978) / The Last American Virgin (Boaz Davidson, 1982)

Part Two:

Ricardo Adalia Martín on Superbad (Greg Mottola, 2007)
Yusef Sayed on The Legend of Billie Jean (Matthew Robbins, 1985)
Carlos Losilla on El sur (Víctor Erice, 1983)
Óscar Navales on Wild Boys of the Road (William A. Wellman, 1933)
Sarinah Masukor on Stealing Beauty (Bernardo Bertolucci, 1996)
Carles Matamoros Balasch on Back to Stay (Milagros Mumenthaler, 2011)
Covadonga G. Lahera on Confessions (Kokuhaku, Tetsuya Nakashima, 2010)
Sergio Morera on Whip It (Drew Barrymore, 2009)
Laura Ellen Joyce on Snowtown (Justin Kurzel, 2011)
Antoni Peris i Grao on The Aviator’s Wife (Éric Rohmer, 1981)

Monday, February 04, 2013

On Thickness and Thinness in Cinema

It is a long acknowledged axiom, vividly demonstrated as early as the films of the Lumières in the late nineteenth century, that the documentary element of cinema is a crucially important source of its power. “Every film,” Godard said famously, “is a documentary of its actors.” But the significance of the documentary qualities of fiction films goes beyond actors, indeed beyond human beings photographed by the camera. Places, landscapes, cities, dwellings, objects, clothes, animals – the unimaginably rich and varied non-human world – form a wonderful source and resource not only of images, but also of knowledge. Fiction films can acquire special, unique value when they draw from this resource, when they build into their images and sounds the details of the physical reality of the world at large.

When I was in India recently, I sought out a new thriller-drama that’s been getting a lot of national attention: Kahaani, directed by Sujoy Ghosh. One key reason why it has been praised as something special is that it was shot mostly on location in the streets of Kolkata, taking place in various neighborhoods of this remarkable city that have rarely been captured in a fiction film. To put it in perspective, the geographic diversities of cities like New York, Paris, London and Hong Kong have been vastly better represented in cinema, and Kolkata is undoubtedly in their league both in terms of size and its urban, architectural and human richness. So, for me, a film such as Kahaani represents a rare and wonderful opportunity. In addition to working as a genre film, it strives to give us a great variety of little-seen images of one of the world’s most vibrant cities.

But Kahaani – which does not exist in isolation but is part of a trend in filmmaking today – disappoints deeply on this count, for one reason: its maddeningly quick editing. A shot rarely lasts more than a couple of seconds, and no sooner than we get a bare sense of a fresh, intriguing urban image, the film cuts to a different shot – for no discernible rhyme or reason except the terror of allowing the audience to concentrate on the image, of giving it time to think. I’m not being hyperbolic here. An interview with the editor of the film confirms that the objective of the editing was to keep the audience from solving the narrative mystery on its own, and thus to rush it from one image to the next in order to guarantee a surprise ending.

Kahaani’s rapid editing and its close framings (especially in dialogue scenes) are very much in keeping with the practice that David Bordwell has named “intensified continuity.” But what do we lose of cinema’s documentary value – despite the extensive presence of actual locations – with the use of fast cutting?

One way to begin thinking about this question can be found in Lesley Stern’s terrific new monograph-book, Dead and Alive: The Body as Cinematic Thing. The book is devoted to the depiction of dead bodies in cinema – specifically, in three films: The Reckless Moment (Max Ophüls, 1949), Japanese Story (Sue Brooks, 2003) and Vagabond (Agnès Varda, 1985). She analyzes in detail the scenes in which a dead body appears in each film, and captures the effects that this body has upon the temporality of the film. For Stern, when life escapes from the body, a certain kind of time enters the body – and the film. Diegetically, the characters are dead, but their bodies persist, often in extended scenes. Due to their presence, and because of the films’ use of duration, these shots and scenes slowly “fill up” with time.

The problem with Kahaani is that, by using quick cuts, the film does the opposite: it thins out the profilmic reality of Kolkata. Shots are never allowed to build up a ‘documentary strength’, to fill up with time, to thicken.

The enormously successful Slumdog Millionaire (2009) suffers from a similar problem. The horrific (but complex) reality of Dharavi, the large slum that served as a key location and setting for the film, is thinned out not just by fast editing but also the use of hand-held camera, which produces an unstable image, making it impossible for the viewer to absorb its full detail in the brief instant for which the image appears. The documentary feebleness of the images that results from this fast and restless shooting style is only reinforced when accompanied by A.R. Rahman’s effervescent music. These formal qualities are absolutely of a piece with the other problems of the film, including its valorizing of individualism and chance, and its lack of interest in hinting at any larger, structural reasons for the material inequalities of the world in which it is set. (Mitu Sengupta’s pieces are essential reading for those interested in the film.)

When films such as Kahaani and Slumdog Millionaire tout their ‘realism’ of setting, it comes off as opportunism, especially when everything about the style of these films actively works against the viewer’s full registration of their onscreen reality. Such films squander the immanent power of this reality, reducing it to thin and weak documentary decoration.

Any thoughts or suggestions on fiction films in contemporary cinema that strongly capture a sense of place? I'd love to hear them.

* * *

Some links:

-- FYI, a couple of my pieces have appeared online since my last post: Sam Roggen interviewed me on the topic of cinephilia at the Photogénie website run by the Flemish Film Culture Service; Dennis Lim invited me to contribute to the Museum of the Moving Image "moments of the year" collection (part one; and part two); and I wrote my first long-form essay for LOLA – on the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2012. All of LOLA 3 is now up.

-- Adrian Martin's essay on teen movies kicks off Teen Movie Week at the Spanish cinema magazine Transit. Pieces will be appearing throughout the week, in both Spanish and English versions.

-- (via Joe McElhaney) A 2007 Cahiers du cinéma list of the 100 essential films for an "ideal cinema library".

-- (via Ehsan Khoshbakht) A great tribute to the way the sky has been rendered in cinema, at the blog Matte Shot, which is devoted to the work of matte painters of the Classic Hollywood era.

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on "workflow" in contemporary filmmaking.

-- Several new posts at Zach Campbell's blog Elusive Lucidity.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Michael Roemer, "the best Jewish director you've never heard of". Also: Jonathan's DVDs and Blu-rays of the year. Finally: Serge Daney's 1982 text "Too Early, Too Late," translated by him.

-- A couple of dozen critics construct their fantasy double bills at MUBI.

-- Richard Brody: "The December issue of Cahiers du Cinéma has a terrific dossier in which a group of critics sketch out “the ten pitfalls of the auteur cinema.” It’s a fun read and a trenchant—and, for the most part, well-aimed—critique." 

-- De Filmkrant's Slow Criticism 2013 dossier, including pieces by Adrian Martin, Richard Porton, Dana Linssen, and others.

-- At Photogénie, Tom Paulus' piece "Olivier Assayas: Global Cinephilia and Operational Aesthetics".

-- David Bordwell rounds up some of the books he's read recently.