Saturday, July 29, 2006

De Palma Image of the Day: The Fury



Eric and Zach have been doing De Palma Images of the Day.

Amy Irving, on the stairs, in the middle of a telekinetic episode, flashes back to a past event. Suddenly, she is completely surrounded by the event she’s witnessing, as if it were a film playing, all around her, to every side—she is completely enveloped by it. (De Palma shows us this envelopment by having the camera orbit her once, doing a 360.)

Now, here’s the really amazing part—Irving is in the foreground, but the event is rear-projected. So she’s both in the middle of the past event—because she’s surrounded by it on all sides—and removed from it because the event is rear-projected, and she’s not.

What does De Palma’s staging say about the reality of her (voyeuristic) telekinetic moment and its space-time paradoxes? That the moment finds her simultaneously in two time periods at once—she’s in the present, watching a past moment—but also in two spaces at once—both watching a 'film' (being outside it) and being surrounded by it on all sides, and thus, being inside it.

And as if all that weren’t enough—we could also read this moment as an allegory for the way we experience cinema: watching in the present something that 'occurred' in the past; and being situated in our own space but also having the film reach out in the dark and enfold us, so that we feel as if we were entering its space.

The above passage—among the most startlingly beautiful I’ve ever seen in a movie—lasts about forty seconds. Zach’s image captures the moment immediately following this passage, as soon as Irving's telekinetic spell breaks.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

What Is "Realistic"?

When I'm talking movies with someone—let's say it's about a movie I happen to like—the one response I dread more than any other is this: "But the movie was so unrealistic...." The notion of "realistic" is so complex and misunderstood that it's enough to bring a potentially fruitful movie conversation to a grinding standstill. So, I was especially delighted to discover this idea discussed by Robert Kolker in his slim, introductory undergrad text, Film, Form, and Culture. Let me quote a few selected passages:

The worst thing we can say about a film is that it is "unrealistic." "The characters weren't real." "The story didn't strike me as being real." Reality is always our last resort. If someone thinks we’re not being serious, we're told to "face reality." If our ideas are half-baked, overly narcissistic, or even just silly, we're told to "get real!" If we're college teachers or teenagers, we’re told we'll find things different "in the real world." Reality can be a threat, the thing we’re not facing, or not in, or not dealing with. But it can also be a verbal gesture of approbation. "That was so real." And, of course, it’s the greatest compliment we can give a film, even though—and this is the great paradox—in our media-wise world, we know deep down that what we’re seeing has very, very little to do with reality.

The fact is that "reality," like all other aspects of culture, is not something out there, existing apart from us. Reality is an agreement we make with ourselves and between ourselves and the rest of the culture about what we will call real. Maybe, as some people have argued, the only dependable definition of reality is that it is something a lot of people agree upon. This is not to say that there aren’t actual, "real" things in the world.....[but that] they have little meaning without human interpretation, without our speaking about them within the contexts of our lives and our culture, without our giving them names and meanings.

We find films realistic because we have learned certain kinds of responses, gestures, attitudes from them; and when we see these gestures or feel these responses again in a film or television show, we assume they are real, because we’ve felt them and seen them before. We’ve probably even imitated them. (Where do we learn to kiss someone? From the movies.) This is reality as an infinite loop, a recursion through various emotional and visual constructs, culturally approved, indeed culturally mandated, that we assume to be "real" because we see them over and over again, absorb them, and, for better or worse, live them. In an important sense, like films themselves, "reality" is made up of repetition and assent.

....What we call "realistic" in film is, more often than not, only the familiar. The familiar is what we experience often, comfortably, clearly, as if it were always there. When we approve of the reality of a film, we are really affirming our comfort with it, our desire to accept what we see….."reality" is not a given, but chosen.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Brian De Palma



Along with Altman, De Palma is probably my favorite living American filmmaker. I’ve been meaning to write something about him for a while but oddly enough I find the intense aesthetic pleasure I get from his movies to be a bit…..daunting. I'm not sure I could ever do justice to those aesthetic rewards. So let me just start small, by pointing to a couple of things I value about his movies; I’ve revisited about ten of them in the last couple of weeks, so this is as good a time as any, while they’re still fresh in my mind.

Robin Wood once proposed that during some of the richest periods of art—the Renaissance, the Elizabethan theatre, the Vienna of Mozart—artists strove not to self-consciously and strenuously break with tradition but instead to collaborate with existing forms or conventions or genres, using them as pre-existing elements with which to build original works that were nevertheless infused with the artist’s personality. There’s a certain humility, a certain muting of egocentricity, in this act of collaboration. Speaking of Mulholland Drive, De Palma marveled at Lynch’s audacity in working completely outside audience expectation and convention. But De Palma himself would rather make movies a little more readily—if deceptively—accommodating of the audience, setting up expectations through familiar genre markers, only to continually complicate and subvert those expectations.

De Palma is always reminding us, coolly, insistently: “This is something else—this is....cinema.” So much that passes for cinema could conceivably be translated roughly, paraphrased reasonably, without catastrophic loss, into non-cinematic mediums. Not so with De Palma—almost every one of his scenes signals, self-consciously, the impossibility of this transposition. Some of his greatest scenes—the Sissy Spacek/William Katt dance at the prom in Carrie and the Craig Wasson/Deborah Shelton embrace outside the tunnel in Body Double, both shot with 360-degree orbiting camera swooning in unison with the players; the museum scene in Dressed To Kill; the motel sequence with three interacting levels of action at the climax of Raising Cain; the pool-room sequence in Carlito’s Way, etc.—are rapturous because they are distilled and intensified cinema, often emptied of words. They are like ecstatic arias that don't necessarily echo emotions inside the narrative but instead celebrate the sui generis powers of the medium.

Simultaneous with maximizing the cinematic potential of a narrative, De Palma wants to make us aware of the artifice involved in doing so. Thus, his use of stylization in the form of split screens, slow motion, unusual and striking camera angles clearly not mimicking the view of an ordinary observer, the presence of frames within frames, etc. The “manipulating hand” is never invisible, it wants to be seen—which is a morally responsible choice. Two quick and lesser-known examples of carefully distancing artifice: having Genevieve Bujold and Sissy Spacek play little-girl versions of themselves in Obsession and Carrie (the latter didn’t make the final cut of the film); or the last scene in the cemetery with Amy Irving in Carrie in which cars travel backward on the highway.

Since De Palma’s films are so self-consciously “composed,” the screen becomes an important element of the viewing experience. Bazin famously said—I’m paraphrasing here—that traditionally the screen has been thought of as a rectangle similar to the picture frame of a painting or the proscenium of a theater stage, both of which selectively include elements from the world outside. Instead, he remarked, Renoir saw the screen as an analogue of the camera viewfinder that excluded the world as much as it included it; the camera both reveals the world and conceals it. De Palma vividly illustrates this but with a twist: he makes the revealing and concealing blatantly apparent, calling attention to itself. In his split screens, for instance, he shows (“includes”) multiple views of an event, and his traveling long takes make for uninterrupted building of information; but at the same time, with his profuse use of POV shots, voyeuristic looking and “mystery and suspense” narratives, he shows the limitedness (“exclusion”) of what we (and the characters) are seeing. All the while, he is making visible the act of including and excluding. Once again, there’s a moral dimension to this choice.


* * *

Carlito’s Way is in some ways De Palma’s most heartfelt film. Just like Bresson gave away endings in the title of a film (A Man Escaped) or in the credit sequence (Pickpocket), Carlito’s Way’s first shot is the barrel of gun—John Leguizamo plugs Al Pacino at Grand Central Station, in slow motion. We circle back to Grand Central, via flashback, at the end. I always tell myself each time I watch the film that I will play clinical observer in this (virtuosic) climactic chase sequence, paying attention to camera angles, length of takes and cuts, but I’m always wrenched from my observational resolve, vacuum-sucked into its thrills.

Al Pacino performs the feat of playing an ex-druglord and killer with such melancholy and soul that he makes him almost saintly. His struggle to go straight, rise above his circumstance, reach his dream of selling Ford Pintos in the Bahamas—these could be corny beyond belief but instead become quite touching. Pacino’s blustery courtroom rehabilitation speech sounds ridiculous at first—Paul Mazursky the judge actually rolls his eyes—but how moving to find that every word of it is actually true!

De Palma likes to partition his images—sometimes literally, as we know, through split screens, and other times indirectly—carving them into distinct zones that unite, separate or encase characters. In the above image (which could easily be a split screen but is not), Pacino and Sean Penn are at a disco, talking to each other, mostly ignoring their dates. The left side of the frame plays up the allure of the women, with “romantic” lighting and a flash of décolletage; Pacino and Penn are to the far right, distant, unavailable, merely throwing their dates a quick bemused glance before resuming their conversation (Pacino tells Penn at one point: “If you was a broad, I’d marry you.”) This early image in the film sets up an alliance; future images will go to work on dismantling the alliance.

Serendipitous De Palma posts sprouting up in the blogosphere: Dennis Cozzalio on Femme Fatale in Jim Emerson’s Opening Shots project at Scanners; and Zach Campbell on The Fury. From a few years ago: a set of impressionistic appreciations of Carlito's Way at Senses Of Cinema.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Take Five

I'm in the thick of some paper-writing, and have to take a blog-break. I'll pop up to post the occasional link or two in the comments, and as always you're welcome to do the same.

A reminder: the avant-garde blog-a-thon is on Wednesday, August 2, two-and-a-half weeks away—plenty of time to rent a DVD or catch a screening. I hope you can join us.

Back in a week. Ciao.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

The Long Take



Some of my favorite filmmakers both past and present—Renoir, Hou—use long takes, so I thought it might be a good idea to spend some time reflecting on this valuable stylistic device.

The long take—a shot of extended duration—is still unusual enough in today’s movies that it stands out, but it wasn’t always this way. The first decade of silent movies used them almost exclusively, and it wasn’t until D.W. Griffith that filmmakers began to cut frequently.

The first great champion of the long take was André Bazin. To him, film was the “art of reality.” He once wrote: “All the arts depend on the presence of man; only photography lets us delight in his absence.” What he meant was that by not interposing oneself between the camera and the subject, the filmmaker had the potential to truly capture reality. As V.F. Perkins put it: “[A] sonnet or a sonata created a world which might reflect the subjective vision of its maker; film recorded the world which existed objectively.”

For Bazin, silent movies contained two streams. The first—best exemplified by the Russian school, most prominently Eisenstein—employed the power of cutting, resulting in images that didn’t speak for themselves through the reality they captured and showed, but instead were made to speak what the filmmaker wanted them to say. The second stream consisted primarily of Stroheim, Murnau, Flaherty and Dreyer: “here the image counts in the first place not for what it adds to reality, but for what it reveals of reality.”

Bazin believed that the long take was ideally suited to capture the rhythms and complexities of reality, while preserving its unity in space and time. Chopping up an action or event with cuts was to disrupt this unity and undermine cinema’s ability to be faithful to reality. Thus, it was important to him that Flaherty showed the length of time that Nanook waited to capture the seal. Using cuts to compress this event would not give an authentic sense of the activity of the seal hunt.

For Bazin, the great link between the silent masters devoted to film as a reality-revealing medium and the true potential of sound cinema was Jean Renoir. By using long takes and moving camera to capture the flux of action and life while cutting functionally rather than expressively, Renoir unjudgmentally recorded the world while providing the spectator with an active role in making sense of it. The viewer’s eye had to pick and choose what was important in the frame instead of being guided by the filmmaker.

But the long take is a flexible and powerful device. Serving the needs of faithfully capturing reality is not its only use. Brian Henderson, in his much-cited essay “Towards a Non-Bourgeois Camera Style,” makes a fascinating case for Godard using the long take for non- (one might even say anti-) realist purposes in Weekend. (He quotes Godard from La Chinoise: “Art is not a reflection of reality; it’s the reality of that reflection.”) In Weekend, Godard does this by not providing compositions-in-depth (which traditionally go hand in hand with the long take). In this film, the shallow flat space rolls out in long take like a two-dimensional ribbon, and Godard consciously refuses to individuate the characters and develop them into flesh-and-blood human beings. Godard’s deployment of style here is of a piece with his purpose: bourgeois critique.

The use of long takes I’m most familiar with is in the work of Hou Hsiao-Hsien. Hou’s use of this device lends itself perfectly to recording the rhythms of daily life (is there a Hou film that does not have a leisurely eating or drinking scene filmed in long take?). Remarkably, for a filmmaker so keenly interested in historical and political change, his films are paradoxically small-scale and intimate. David Bordwell remarks on Hou in his book Figures Traced In Light:

The camera’s angle does not ennoble the traveler, as it does in [Angelopoulos]….No parades or demonstrations, mass meetings or defiant facedowns with authority; no spectacular executions; no onscreen confrontations with Power. Instead, we get casual-seeming minutiae….In this world, people mostly smoke, walk, watch, wait, ponder, shoot pool, drink, and eat.

Hou sees the camera as a sort of sympathetic witness (he quotes Confucius: “Watch but don’t intervene; observe but don’t judge.”) and one thing that is very important for him is a certain distance from what he is filming. He has spoken in interviews of frequently telling his cinematographers to move farther back, of not getting close to the action. It even shows up in the kinds of lenses he uses—the longer the lens, the narrower the angle (and thus, playing space) they can survey. Bordwell points out that Hou’s long lenses—100 mm and up—actually force the camera to fall back. Which meshes perfectly with Hou’s aesthetic proclivity in maintaining a distance.

One thing I especially appreciate about Hou’s shots is that even though the takes are long, he never feels the need to build in a dramatic or emotional arc into a shot. (Many filmmakers will shape a long take as a mini-dramatic narrative, with the unfolding of little surprises.) Somehow, this conscious muting of drama serves a wonderful, higher purpose: a greater sharpening of attention for the significance of the ordinarily undramatic, or the “drama of the undramatic,” that too often gets drowned out in a film. Small details, gestures, motions and shifts register with greater effect than they normally would simply because Hou has set up a de-dramatized context for them. Somehow, there’s a great lesson here not just for the value of experiencing such moments in a Hou film, but also—in fact, more so!—when we walk out of the theater and find ourselves ever-present in the midst of such moments in “real life.”

If you feel like it—your examples of filmmakers who use long takes? How, and to what purpose? Also, examples of movies or scenes, if you like.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Conversations: Ingmar Bergman and John Simon



Simon: Are there any young film-makers that you particularly like? I hope you don’t like Godard?
Bergman: No, no, no.
S: I detest him.
B: Yes, I do, too. In this profession, I always admire people who are going on, who have a sort of idea and, however crazy it is, are putting it through; they are putting people and things together, and they make something. I always admire this. But I can’t see his pictures. I sit for perhaps twenty-five or thirty or fifty minutes and then I have to leave, because his pictures make me so nervous. I have the feeling the whole time that he wants to tell me things, but I don’t understand what it is, and sometimes I have the feeling that he’s bluffing, double-crossing me….
S: What about Bellocchio? Have you seen China Is Near?
B: Terrible, terrible, very homosexual, very artificial, aggressive in a very empty way.
S: What about the early Truffaut? Did you like those first ones?
B: Very much; very, very much.
S: What’s happened to this man?
B: He wants to make money; it’s a very human desire. He wants a comfortable life. He wants to make money and he wants people to see his pictures.
S: Well, don’t you think his early films were seen by people?
B: But perhaps not by enough, and he didn’t make enough money, and he likes the comfortable life of the modern film-maker.
S: But the trouble is his new films are not going to make much money.
B: Then he made a mistake. Because if you lose both the money and your dignity, then it must be a mistake.
S: What about Bresson? How do you feel about him?
B: Oh, Mouchette! I loved it, I loved it! But Balthazar was so boring, I slept through it.
S: I liked Les Dames Du Bois De Boulogne and A Man Escaped, but I would say Diary Of A Country Priest is the best one.
B: I have seen it four or five times and could see it again…and Mouchette…really…
S: That film doesn’t do anything for me.
B: No? You see, now I’ll tell you something about Mouchette. It starts with a friend who sees the girl sitting and crying, and Mouchette says to the camera, how shall people go on living without me, that’s all. Then you see the main titles. The whole picture is about that. She’s a saint and she takes everything upon herself, inside her, everything that happens around her. That makes such an enormous difference, that such people live among us. I don’t believe in another life, but I do think that some people are more holy than others and make life a little bit easier to endure, more bearable…that is my feeling, but this Balthazar, I don’t understand a word of it, it was so completely boring.
S: You could almost say the same thing about the donkey, that when the donkey has taken on other people’s suffering…
B: A donkey, to me, is completely uninteresting, but a human being is always interesting.
S: Do you like animals in general?
B: No, not very much. I have a completely natural aversion for them. Have you seen this picture Il Porcile (Pigpen)?
S: Yes, terrible. I think Pasolini is awful altogether.
B: Yes, awful, awful. Meaningless. Completely.
S: There was a period in your life and work when the question of God was all-important, but not anymore, surely?
B: No, it’s passed. Things are difficult enough without God. They were much more difficult when I have to put God into it. But now it’s finished, definitely, and I’m happy about it.

From Ingmar Bergman Directs by John Simon (1972).

Friday, July 07, 2006

Taxonomies/I'll Be Around

Three taxonomies.

(1) In an essay on Raymond Durgnat, here's a classification of film critics proposed by Jonathan Rosenbaum in 1973:

Many (if not all) critics tend to fall into two categories, which might be called the Big Game Hunters and the Explorers. The Big Game (read: masterpiece) Hunters are basically out for trophies to possess, stuff, and hang on their walls; the Explorers usually poke around simply to see what they find. The Hunters are a relatively Apollonian group – disciplined, academic and generally traditional in their aesthetic values: immediate examples that come to mind are Robin Wood, James Agee, William Pechter, Stanley Kauffmann, Dwight Macdonald, John Simon, and historians like Georges Sadoul, Jean Mitry and Lewis Jacobs. The Explorers, a more Dionysian group, are relatively cranky, kinky and eclectic: Jean-Luc Godard, Manny Farber, Robert Warshow and Raymond Durgnat are four eminent examples.

(2) The Argentine film critic Quintin, writing in Cinema Scope about two types of cinephilia:

Type (a) could be named “my videotheque is too small” cinephilia. Type (b), “life is too short” cinephilia. Type (a) is all encompassing and bulimic, while type (b) is selective, or anorexic. In the centre of this argument lies the auteur problem: depending on what you think of auteur politics, you’re either bulimic or anorexic. In my opinion, auteur politics was a coup d’état manned by the anorexic cinephiles against the bulimics. Concepts like le cinéma de qualité or the Sarris pantheon helped to displace lots of films from the pedestal on which critical laziness had put them.

(3) Andrew Sarris, in his influential text The American Cinema (1968), divided filmmakers into several categories, three of which were: (a) Pantheon Directors (Chaplin, Flaherty, Ford, Griffith, Hawks, Hitchcock, Keaton, Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau, Ophuls, Renoir, Sternberg, Welles); (b) The Far Side of Paradise (Aldrich, Borzage, Capra, Cukor, De Mille, Edwards, Fuller, La Cava, Losey, Mann, McCarey, Minnelli, Preminger, Ray, Sirk, Stevens, Stroheim, Sturges, Vidor, Walsh); (c) Expressive Esoterica (e.g. Boetticher, De Toth, Donen, Dwan, Karlson, Lewis, Mulligan, Penn, Siegel, Tashlin, Tourneur, Ulmer).

One of his other categories was Subjects For Further Research (e.g. Clarence Brown, Tod Browning, Paul Fejos, Henry King, etc.)

As a viewer, I started out in the Explorer end of the continuum as a kid (saw everything that came to town, both Bollywood and English-language), moved abruptly to Big Game Hunting upon becoming a cinephile (e.g. making lists of "must-see" canonical movies from Sight & Sound polls) and am now wandering around somewhere in the middle. On Quintin's classification, I'd lean towards the bulimic side of the spectrum (stacked Netflix queue; several-movies-a-week regimen). My "subjects for further research" would include: (1) Horror films (not a popular genre in India, so I never grew up with them); and (2) Martial arts films.

Please feel free to record your own "subjects for further research" (e.g. genres, directors, national cinemas, periods) if you feel like.


* * *

Three versions.

"I'll Be Around," by the Spinners, is a well-acknowledged soul masterpiece. It was written for them by their producer/composer/impresario Thom Bell; the record was made in their hometown of Detroit in 1972. A great hooky opening, with acoustic guitar and congas: "This/is a fork in the road/Love's/last episode."

The Spinners' version is classic, downright holy, but one I like even a bit more is a beautiful, lo-fi, slightly ragged and woozy reggae cover recorded by Otis Gayle at the historic Jamaican label Studio One ("The Motown Of Jamaica"). It also has the most soulful organ solo I've ever heard. Kicks in at 2:13, lasts 35 seconds.

Here's proof of how good this song is. Russ Freeman & the Rippingtons, a smooth-jazz (ugh) group, dunk it in an ocean of schmaltz: the production is squeaky clean; the drums are processed and in-your-face in the mix (a jazz no-no); the saxophonist sounds like Kenny G, only playing tenor intead of soprano; and the arrangement is whorishly eager-to-please. But you know what? The damn thing sounds good. This song is undestroyable.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Signpost Films: A Personal History



There are movies we encounter at certain points in our appreciation for the medium that become, almost by accident, little breakthroughs in our viewing life. They may not be great masterpieces—though they well might—but the important thing is that we have the fortune of meeting up with them at just the right juncture in our development. I think of them as “signpost films”: they take a territory that was previously foggy or unmapped to us and they suddenly make us see and learn something revelatory about this art-form that we love. These encounters make us exclaim, “So, that’s what this movie’s doing!” And it’s a lesson we take with us, carry over and apply, to hundreds of other films we will see in the future.

Before I ask you for yours, here are a few of my personal “signpost films,” ordered by viewing chronology:

  • Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975) taught me that Bollywood cinema was equally composed of strong (1) verbal and (2) visual components. The verbal strengths were easy for me to see as a pre-teen—for months afterward, no day at the playground would pass without a torrent of mock-theatrical references to Amjad Khan’s aperçus. Years later, I would realize the film’s visual debt to westerns, particularly Leone via Kurosawa via Ford.

  • Jean-Pierre Melville’s The Red Circle (1970) was the first foreign-language film I saw as a kid. After the wonderful verbal and musical garrulity of several hundred Bollywood movies, I hardly need explain why this movie came as a shock. By taking away all but the most essential and laconic dialogue, the movie made me lean into it and watch it intently. Ironically, despite the visual innovation of all those Bollywood movies, it took me this (relatively) silent film to see that movies could be a visual medium. And at thirteen, my two strong and silent male adult role models became Amitabh Bachhan and Alain Delon!

  • Sorry, but this next one is not a movie at all but a book. When I was in chemical engineering school, on a typical evening, instead of studying for my thermodynamics or fluid mechanics test, I’d be holed up in a library carrel poring over James Monaco’s The New Wave (1976). By the time I graduated, I practically knew it by heart, but here’s the weird thing—I hadn’t seen a single New Wave film! (Indian import restrictions, long story.) I had built up this elaborate fantasy of the nouvelle vague which I was finally able to test only when I moved to the States. A few things I was drawn to before I saw any New Wave movies: (1) Its serious—not merely fannish—love of Hollywood cinema, and (2) Its reveling in intertextuality, which seemed like a way of extending its uncontainable love of art beyond the borders of simply a single work/film, bursting the borders of that work, through allusion. Also, to me, it was very similar to the way pianist Horace Silver or tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon quoted, embellished, and reconfigured well-known melodies from the jazz repertoire in their solos. It indicated both a playfulness and an omnivorous uncontainability of love for all melodies, not just the melody of the song they happened to be playing at the moment.

  • Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Daughter Of The Nile (1987), my introduction to his work. It taught me: (1) To notice ellipses, which are important because they can be used to (2) disengage cause from effect. After having spent much of my life watching mainstream movies, with their thick and inexorable cause-and-effect progressions and their unshakable belief in psychological realism, these lessons were revelations. I also admired the way Hou ennobled a “humble” genre (the teen movie), set long temps morts sequences at a burger joint (!), and didn’t take cheap shots at youth culture, fashion and music, the way so many high-modernist directors lazily do. I think of Daughter Of The Nile as among the most humanistic teen movies ever made.

  • Because movies mostly record actual people and actual places, we are led to believe that what we are seeing on the screen is something that actually happened to the characters in the story. Unless, of course, we are clearly cued by the movie that we are watching a “dream” (e.g. the soft-focus dissolves and hokey music from old films that would signal our proceeding into a dream-world). Within a narrative, it makes us feel comfortable to know where we are (reality? dream?). The amazing thing about Claire Denis’ films is that she films her actors and their faces and bodies with extraordinary vividness of attention—thus heightening the sense of reality—and then undermines that reality with scenes that are (possibly) subjective cinema, without cueing us. The great scene with Vincent Gallo and Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi eyeballing each other to the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” in Nenette Et Boni had me wondering—is this reality or is it a sort of fantasy? Denis Lavant’s dance-floor scene in Beau Travail was clear to me—this scene was subjective cinema, for sure. The next step was to create an entire film—not just one scene—that was made up of an indeterminate blend of objective and subjective cinema. Which is what I believe she did with L’Intrus.

Now, your turn: some of your own “signpost films” that hit you at the right time and changed the way you think about movies? I’d love to know.


* * *

You could say that Brian De Palma’s films have little affinity with the world of nature, but there’s an utterly remarkable moment in Blow Out (1981) that would disprove you. In the opening minutes of the film, Travolta is collecting sounds in a park at night—he’s the sound effects man on a horror cheapie called Co-Ed Frenzy—and his directional mic roves about the park, picking up lovers (Girl: “Who is that guy—some kind of Peeping Tom or something?”), a frog, and then an owl. A couple of seconds later, a car comes crashing over the bridge and dives into the creek, but the owl is on to it in advance (can you see the alertness in its eye, above?), anticipating the event before Travolta has a clue it’s going to happen.

Also, this image with its sharp contrast—Travolta in the deep background, a small splotch on a dark shroud of negative space, the owl fully occupying its territory in the image foreground—communicates two paradoxical things: (1) It unites Travolta and the owl in space and time within the image, and (2) It separates them in space and time because (a) there are several hundred yards of distance between them, not entirely apparent in the image, and (b) the prescience of the owl means that it becomes aware of the accident ahead of time, before Travolta does. Come to think of it, De Palma's use of split screens in his films is often a sort of hybrid of (1) and (2) above: actions united in time (occurring concurrently), but riven in space (different camera position and angle).

[Thanks, Zach and Eric, for getting the De Palma ball rolling.]

Postscript: I linked to this in the tail-end of the comments thread to my previous post, but Zach has a fascinating entry on what moves us to write about some films more than others. I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts.