Sunday, February 04, 2007

Nicole Brenez/Ten Levels

Reno (Abel Ferrara) sees an ad for a $19.95 Porto-Pak on TV in The Driller Killer (1979)

In case you cinephiles out there haven't picked up Nicole Brenez's new book on Ferrara yet, let me post, as a little nudge, an excerpt from its first few pages:

“Ferrara has often expressed his admiration for the exacting artistry of John Cassavetes, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Several principles unite the respective works of these four filmmakers. First, a practical principle: the constitution of a variable but faithful group of collaborators […] Second, a stylistic principle: the exclusive privilege accorded by these filmmakers to the description of human behavior via gestural, actoral, and emotional invention. And a third, a fundamental theoretical principle: these filmmakers explicitly conceive of their work as a vast enterprise of political critique. This conception is most evident in the cases of Pasolini and Fassbinder.

“For Fassbinder, each film constitutes a polemical treatise on Germany, past and present. His work never ceases to investigate five points: 1) the remnants of Nazism in contemporary Germany; 2) the moral nullity of liberal democracy; 3) the historical hypothesis that capitalism can accommodate itself to any political regime whatsoever, whether democratic or fascist; and, as a corollary to that, 4) Nazism as the ideal regime for capitalism, since it reduces workers to a “workforce” that does not need to be supported, only exhausted to the point of death and then instantly replaced (I. G. Farben paid Auschwitz prisoners); and 5) the servile ideological role of the culture industry.

“Pasolini’s work is organized on the basis of a central critical point: acculturation. This engenders a melancholic hypothesis concerning the disappearance of certain archaic forms of Italian civilization. While Fassbinder’s work (like Ferarra’s) declares itself to be entirely negative and purely polemical (in the great tradition of the Frankfurt School), Pasolini’s work presents at once a negative side (the angry description of the forms of human nature’s destruction) and an affirmative side (an affirmation of the survival or the force of the good and the beautiful, which is for him mythological barbarity; elaborated in Medea, 1970; The Gospel According to Matthew, 1964; and Love Meetings, 1965). Both filmmakers are bent on preserving particular forms of beauty: neoclassical beauty, like the angel in Pasolini’s Theorem (1968) or the gay boys in Fassbinder; and subproletarian beauty, like the ragazzi in Pasolini or the way Fassbinder films his own body (in Fox and His Friends [1974], for instance). This is a dimension completely missing from Ferrara’s work; the beautiful appears nowhere in his representations. The beautiful and the good are either resolutely absent (as in Body Snatchers), rendered as repulsive ( the “healthy” character in The Blackout, Susan [Claudia Schiffer]), profaned (the nun [Frankie Thorn] in Bad Lieutenant), or treated as a catastrophic, unliveable eruption leading to death (the crisis of L. T. [Harvey Keitel] at the moment of his redemption) or to self-annihilation (the ambiguous resurrection of Kathy [Lili Taylor] at the end of The Addiction). In Ferrara, the journey of goodness is rendered as endless suffering. At the antipodes to the sporadic Hellenism that appears in Fassbinder or Pasolini, the only “beauties” in Ferrara are criminal, Baudelairean, infernal bodies.”

* * *

A clutch of Brenez links here: an introduction to her writing by Adrian Martin at Screening The Past; Body Snatchers; De Palma's Mission: Impossible; "Peter Whitehead: The Exigency of Joy"; "À propos de Nice and the Extremely Necessary, Permanent Invention of the Cinematic Pamphlet"; a tribute to Brakhage (with Martin); "Jeune, dure et pure! A history of avant-garde and experimental film in France"; "The ultimate journey: remarks on contemporary theory"; and a few brief reviews she wrote on the Amazon site. On the basis of these, I sent away for a film I had never heard of, Doctor Chance.

* * *

Whitney Balliett, one of the great jazz critics, has died. Here are tributes by Terry Teachout and Doug Ramsey. Also, some Balliett: an obituary of Thelonious Monk; and a short piece on Sonny Rollins.

* * *

It bugs me to this day that sometimes jazz musicians will play the “head” (the melody statement) perfunctorily, ripping through it, sometimes even abandoning it before arriving at the end of the head section, in order to get to the solo in a hurry. (FYI: an older post about jazz form and structure.) My first musical love was pop, in which stating the melody with some care and attention was always important. And let’s remember: Jazz is not only improvisation; it’s a productive dialectic between improvisation and pre-composition….

Anyway, in my early days of learning to play the piano, when I was too intimidated to improvise, and was having enough trouble playing the melody with faithfulness and care, I encountered this excerpt from a Whitney Balliett piece, and simple though it was, it was a little revelation. And a practical one that could be applied. It remains one of the best and truest things I’ve ever read about jazz. Alto saxophonist Lee Konitz, quoted by Balliett in American Musicians: 56 Portraits In Jazz:

“I think of improvisation as coming in ten levels, each one more intense than the one before. On the first level, you play the melody, and you should sound as if you were playing it for the very first time. Freshly. If it doesn’t sound that way, you’re not ready to go to the second level. Playing the melody properly gives you the license to vary it, to embellish it, which is what you do on the second level. The melody is still foremost, but you add little things to it on the third level. Variation—displacing certain notes in the melody—comes in around the fourth level, and by the time you get to five, six, and seven you are more than halfway to creating a new song. Eight, nine, and ten are just that—the creation of wholly new melodies. Moving through these ten levels can take place during a set or over the course of an evening. Sometimes, though, you never get past three or four or five, but that’s O.K., because no one level is more important than any other.”


Blogger Maya said...

Girish, you provide an invaluable service showcasing these books on film. I was saddened to read in the most recent issue of Bright Lights Film Journal that they will no longer accept book reviews because--as they indicate--no one reads books anymore; they only look at pictures. I appreciate that you remind us of how important it is to keep reading.

February 05, 2007 2:25 AM  
Blogger Mubarak said...

I just got this in the mail the other day! Looking forward to pages and pages of Brenez's writing and Ferrara's imagery.

February 05, 2007 5:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Maya.
Wow, I'm shocked to hear that...! If anything, we should be using the powers of the Internet to clear blind spots, not create them...!

I realized in the past year that my predominant source of movie writing/reading in the past had been (1) periodicals, like magazines and newspapers (Village Voice, NYT, Film Comment, etc); and thus, (2) mostly journalistic. While I still very much value and read these, the important and valuable work of those who work either 'in the gap' between journalism and academe, or sometimes in academe alone, has become clearly apparent to me. There are so many great film-books and essays out there, written over the decades, that, now more than ever, have much to teach us about how to view film productively I'm going to try to use this blog to hammer away at that point... :-)

Hey, Mubarak--You're going to eat up this book like dessert!

I have to say: I find Brenez's writing challenging, and have to read her slowly (and also re-read her). Even then, I'm not always sure I'm understanding her exactly the way I'm supposed to, but I think I'm getting better at grasping her over time...

And I re-visited about a half-dozen Ferraras in the past couple of weeks in order to get more out of the book, and watched The Driller Killer for the first time. Ferrara's commentary on it is a riot....

Not sure how many of you saw this, because Rich Juzwiak posted it a couple of months after the Ferrara blog-a-thon, but he had a post on the Driller Killer commentary...

February 05, 2007 6:54 AM  
Blogger Herb Levy said...

Following up on the jazz reference at the end here:

While I can appreciate your concerns about players who are cavalier in their treatments of the head of a tune before getting to the improvising, you should note that many players do this whether the tune they're performing is an old standard or one fo their own compositions. I think it's as much a matter of comfort as it is impatience with the familiar.

Compare, for example, any of the live recordings of Miles Davis pre-electric gigs (primarily because the use of tunes is more evident there, not because the same thing doesn't happen) with the studio recordings of the same tunes. The heads are nearly always far faster than the studio works and often quite perfunctory. Davis is far from the only improvisor for whom this is the case.

Note, too, that Konitz in the wonderful quote you cite, doesn't seem to be suggesting that every performance should follow the ten step model he posits. Rather Konitz seems to be saying that even players who only get to the first or second step can be making art at a very high level.

And, FWIW, as someone who heard a lot of jazz while growing up (though I did also hear a wide range of popular music as well as classical, music from other cultures, and cetera), I want to note that it took me years before I realized that most of the tunes were considered old standards actually had lyrics and, usually, dramatic sources in musical shows.

Not knowing where you've gone in your expansion of the earlier article about jazz and teaching, let me close by saying it would only be helped by adding information about the structure of the standard 32-bar head. The bridge of a tune is nearly always in a different but related key, and very often (though not quite as frequently, particularly in more recent tunes) has different rhythmic accents. Too, the lyrics are often in a different rhyme scheme and the point of view of the speaking voice often contrasts with that of the rest of the lyrics (sometimes more universal, or more personal, or looking at a romantic situation from a different position, etc).

(& for your Cecil Taylor "problem," while his mature work has little to do with the formal structures, it might be useful for you to listen to some of his early recordings from the late fifties, early sixties, like Looking Ahead, Downshifting, (with Coltrane, also released with various titles), Air (also released as the World of Cecil Taylor), and an excellent live at Newport recording with saxophonist Steve Lacy in which they perform the Ellington tune Johnny Come Lately, a blues and a freer tune thats not much more out there than pre-Impulse Coltrane. It sounds unlikely that you'll ever get into what Taylor is currently doing, but from what you've written, I think that if you heard where he started from that perhaps you'd get some of how he got where he is now. Or, on the other hand, think of him in terms of, say, Stan Brakhage's hand-paiinted films and just go with his idiosyncratic use of materials.)

Thanks a ton for bringing together a considered blog on several art forms that can each inform the other somewhat.


February 05, 2007 10:23 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for your stimulating comments, Herb!

Shall respond when I can tear myself away from this Manic Monday for a while...

February 05, 2007 1:29 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Herb, thanks again for your comments!

A few thoughts:

-- Unlike other music I especially favor (pop, R&B/soul, hip-hop), I tend to view jazz through the lens of my attempting to play it (and thus, admittedly, a bit peculiarly). I realize that certain players might rush through the head because of either comfort or familiarity, but my own taste runs towards those players who play the melody "as if they were playing it for the first time," "freshly," in Konitz's words. However, this does not mean being faithful to the written melody. Folk-rocker Kenny Rankin (a most unlikely candidate!) takes hair-raising chances in his rendition of Monk's familiar but always-formidable "Round Midnight" but sings his (re-invented, altered) melody with attention and care. I tend to appreciate this in players because I'd like to be always able to do this in my own playing.

-- I think I had the opposite experience from you with standards. I came to know them first as pop songs (through Berlin, Gershwin and Kern's writing for the Astaire-Rogers RKO films; and then popular singers of the 50s like Sinatra, Chet Baker and Julie London) and learned their lyrics before discovering versions by jazz musicians.

-- Yes, the bridge is a crucially important section of the tune, and especially interesting (for me) when it is in an un-related key. eg Mancini's "Dreamsville"; Kern's "The Song Is You"; "The Way You Look Tonight" (also Kern) etc.

-- "Rather Konitz seems to be saying that even players who only get to the first or second step can be making art at a very high level."

Exactly. I quoted this to resonate with the fact that I value it when a jazz player stays with or close to the melody, attentively imbuing it with small nuances rather than always feeling the need to tear away in a rush to get to the improv (again, as I noted, a personal preference).

-- Thanks for the Taylor recommendations. I think I'll start with some of the early recordings. My taste runs mostly to bebop and post-bop-derived jazz, influenced by free playing but not (yet) out-and-out free. But I do like Ornette, although haven't spent time with Taylor.

Herb, thanks again for coming by and taking the time to set down your thoughts.

February 05, 2007 5:07 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Mike Newman at Zigzigger on "Film History Fakelore":

"Popular writing that makes references to the history of film often relies on such an unofficial body of common knowledge about the topic, and much of it is at best partly true. You might have your own roster of favorite dubious notions about film history; these are some of mine.

-Moviegoers in the 1890s were panicked by the train's approach in the Lumière film L'Arrivé d'un Train.

-The Great Train Robbery was the first film to tell a story.

-D.W. Griffith invented or discovered "film language."

-The Jazz Singer was the first sound film.

-Citizen Kane is the undisputed heavyweight champion of cinematic masterpieces. This one generated its own saying: "X makes Y look like Citizen Kane."[2]

-John Cassavettes (or Sam Fuller, or Andy Warhol...) is the "father of independent cinema."

-Jaws was the first summer blockbuster and its success killed the more authentic auteur cinema of everyone's beloved early 1970s.

There are at least three problems with these assertions as they are typically made..."

February 05, 2007 7:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

From the A_Film_By Archives, a couple of threads:

-- Increasing contemporary use of the 'continually moving camera'
-- Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle

February 05, 2007 7:48 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Reading about the continually moving camera has made me think about purchasing The Wanderer by Jean-Gabriel Albicocco (1967) on R2 DVD to re-examine. I saw the film in 1969 in part because I had read the novel. A friend told me to see the film because every shot was a moving shot. I'm not sure if the film is "ground zero" but it certainly pre-dates Michael Bay by thirty years.

February 05, 2007 8:18 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Herb and Girish, a great discussion about jazz. If I may add a few thoughts:

I think rushing through or dispensing with the head altogether can sometimes depend on the intent and context. In Miles' case (and this is particularly true of Miles from about 1964 on), dipensing with the head or blasting through it was an attack on form and a deliberate deconstruction of a song and of melody. Miles' recordings from '64 and '65 of a song like "Walkin'" retain the head, but only in a marginal, partial sense; some of his recorded versions of the classic "Autumn Leaves" sound nearly unrecognizable when compared with the originals.

I wonder, though, if other jazz musicians who perform the head in a truly perfunctory way are doing the same thing; in other words, they might not be concerned with form (or anti-form) and deconstruction (what Tony Williams once called "anti-music") as much as they are with, as Girish states, just getting to the solo. If all they want to do is get to the solo without some larger artistic point, then I sometimes feel that the music is less convincing.

So for me, some of the experience depends on my sense of what the musician is really trying to say. I do understand your point, Girish, about the importance of melody (and of establishing it). When I think of certain tunes (Hancock's "Watermelon Man", Lee Morgan's "The Sidewinder" or even his classic "Ceora") I think of them primarily in terms of their melodies and have a difficult time imagining them performed in ways other than the original. In this sense, I really love what Konitz has to say. And one of the things I love about jazz is its ability to include all these different approaches.

February 06, 2007 12:04 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

These excerpts and links have sold me! And I haven't even delved into Ferrara beyond watching and writing about Bad Lieutenant nearly a year ago (which is a little embarrassing to admit). I think I'd love to have Brenez be my guide through the discovery of his work.

February 06, 2007 3:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Peter, Michael and Brian.

Peter -- I'd never heard about Albicocco or his film....

Michael -- That's interesting--I didn't know Tony Williams' line or ideas about "anti-form". If you feel like it: I'd love to hear more about it...? Or a reference you might point me to? Thanks!

And I should reiterate that I wasn't promoting being faithful to the melody (I say this, Michael, because you mention "unrecognizability" and "different from the originals").

Just that whatever the new melodies might be (however rich/however sparse and non-existent; however clear/however fragmented, shattered, atomized), I like it when some attention (non-perfunctoriness) is devoted to the way these melodies are (re-)conceptualized and performed....(again, this is my personal taste rather than a prescription...)

I agree that sometimes being perfunctory with a melody is in itself a statement, an artistic act, and in such instances, I support this...

Brian -- Welcome back! I hope Utah was fun? I've been enjoying your dispatches, and just noticed you have a new one at Greencine. I look forward to reading your general thoughts about being at Sundance, either at your blog or here....

February 06, 2007 6:51 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael, I meant to write "anti-music", not "anti-form"...

February 06, 2007 7:03 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Several links today:
-- Aaron 'Cinephiliac' Hillis announces some big news: his film is premiering at SXSW; and the distribution firm in which Filmbrain and he are partners is releasing its first acqusition, Joe Swanberg's LOL.
-- Just noticed a new post at Hell On Frisco Bay....
-- David Bordwell: "Why, asks Sharon Waxman in the New York Times, have the much-touted directors of the 1990s slowed their output so drastically?"
-- A good filmblog I've recently discovered: Ignatius Vishnevetsky's Sounds, Images.
-- Weeping Sam on Rivette.
-- Quiet Bubble on Whitney Balliett.

February 06, 2007 7:14 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael, I just wanted to add 2 more cents here: Miles (in the examples we're referring to) was being not anti-form, but anti- traditional form. All artworks, of course, have form (no matter how classical and ordered or 'chaotic'), which is crucial to their 'being'...

February 06, 2007 8:22 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, there's a somewhat famous story/legend about the two nights Miles spent at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago in 1965. I once read about it in one of the many biographies about Miles (off-hand, I don't recall which one) and also recently heard an NPR discussion about it. Miles played in Chicago at Christimas on a regular basis, and when he and the band were traveling there in '65 to perform at the Plugged Nickel, Tony Williams confronted them and said that they should play "anti-music". He described this as playing the opposite of what they would be expected to play, something they had already been doing but he was determined to get them to take it further. Music critic Michelle Mercer, who has written a bio about Wayne Shorter, called this approach a "sabotage mission." As she explains in the NPR discussion, when the band arrived at the club, they realized that Columbia was recording the sessions, but they remained determined to continue with that sabotage mission. You can listen to the NPR discussion here:


The audio file requires either Real Player or Windows Media Player, so I'm not sure if you'll be able to access it from your Mac, but it's definitely worth a shot (especially to hear about a conversation Miles and Shorter had about playing music a certain way).

To me, this "anti-music" is evident across the Plugged Nickel sessions, because it seems that the band is not just playing tunes faster or attacking the solos in more radical fashion, but also because they seem to be completely reconceiving the music in terms of melody, form, time, tempo, arrangement, and so on. I'd agree, though, that it's more anti-traditional-form than it is purely anti-form -- that's a good point.

In addition, I hear what you say about faithfulness to melody; not so much faithfulness, but more a sense of conceptualizing the melody in a certain way. It's interesting -- I think when I listen to any jazz performance I haven't heard before, the first thing I do is listen to how the melodies seem to be conceived and re-conceived, particularly in terms of how this is done in relation to the head of a tune.

Great discussion.

February 06, 2007 1:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael, I've never heard that story before. Thank you for relating it, and for your comments and for posting the link...I'll try it on my Windows machine soon as I get home...

February 06, 2007 5:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Andy Horbal's question of the day:

"Do you

A) identify with
B) feel alienated by

the term cinephile? Or would you choose

C) none of the above?

Why or why not? How do you feel about the various possible alternatives, like movie buff, cineaste, or film snob?"

February 06, 2007 6:15 PM  
Blogger acquarello said...

Dude, you don't need a Windows machine. Just install Flip4mac. [signed, your friendly neighborhood macgeek] ;)

February 06, 2007 6:33 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

My pleasure, Girish. I hope you have a chance to hear that NPR discussion.

February 06, 2007 7:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

A. ~ Geez, why didn't I know about this for the last year and a half I've been using a Mac? Probably because I didn't think to ask you about it...! Thanks, A...

February 06, 2007 7:58 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Great, must-read post at The House Next Door: "The Grainy Haze of Dreams: Movie Year 2006, and the Death and Rebirth of Cinema" (A conversation between MZS and Keith Uhlich).

February 06, 2007 10:28 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Read that. Matt sounds as authoritative as ever and I'm more in sympathy with his position (actually, he should look at what Filipino filmmakers are doing with the medium of video, particularly Raya Martin, John Torres, and Lav Diaz), but I also sympathize with the contrary position of sean and odienator: at a certain point, how do you say a film looks like garbage?

Matt can't quite come up with a coherent and comprehensive answer, I don't think one's even possible, but perhaps an attempt should at least be made, somewhere down the line.

Would help if I saw Inland Empire--it doesn't look like it's swinging down central Pennsylvania anytime soon.

And girish--have you seen The Black Dahlia? Discussion of yon film is noticeably absent from thine blog...

February 07, 2007 1:21 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Noel, unfortunately I haven't seen Black Dahlia or Inland Empire yet. I was hoping Eastman House would have shown the latter by now but alas, not so...

--Big news today: the Village Voice music critics poll, Pazz and Jop '06, is up. Top 10 records of the year: Dylan, TV on the Radio, Ghostface, Hold Steady, Gnarls Barkley, Arctic Monkeys, Clipse, Neko Case, Joanna Newsom, Tom Waits.
--Dave Kehr's lastest NYT dvd column: Lewis Milestone, Hitch, etc..
--At Dennis Cozzalio's: An assorted post and an open forum on "The Death Of Comedy?".

February 07, 2007 7:13 AM  
Blogger Oggs Cruz said...

Noel, it's interesting that you specified Raya Martin, Joel Torre and Lav Diaz. I also thought that they're probably the only Filipino independent filmmakers who makes use of the digital medium as an artistic choice --- especially Torre --- (well, apart from budgetary choice).

Recent output from the digital film festivals in the Philippines point out the digital medium as merely a poor man's film (rather than the more exponential label Seitz and Uhlich identifies the medium with). Just watch Adolfo Alix's Donsol (it's a for-celluloid script forced to be filmed in DV), or even last year's Cinemalaya winner Tulad ng Dati (Just Like Before), or even the more widely seen The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros, and you feel that DV is used as a mere substitute rather than THE ideal canvass for the works. I think the major contribution the new wave of Philippine cinema utilizing DV as substitute for the film, is that the medium is stretched to copycat film --- and at times, it works; and sometimes with unexpected positive results (grittiness, documentary feel).

Which is why Martin, Diaz and Torre are major Filipino filmmakers, as their aesthetics (Diaz's ungodly running time, Torres' Todo Todo Teros wouldn't have the same emotional immediacy, Martin's Indio Nacional's opening sequence won't brandish the same radical change as opposed to the silent film reels) require that their films be done in digital format.

Girish, sorry if I got a bit off-topic. I guess that fantastic read in The House Next Door got me thinking about the phenomenon that's stirring in Philippine cinema.

One last thing, I'm quite shocked that no mention of Lav Diaz is to be found anywhere in the Contemplative Cinema blog-a-thon. But I'm really not surprised, Diaz is quite a rare delicacy often ignored in film festivals for more familiar names.

February 07, 2007 10:21 AM  
Blogger andyhorbal said...

Noel, I don't know exactly how much of a pain it would be for you to drive all the way to Pittsburgh, but it looks like IE will reaching western Pennsylvania on the 25th of this month!

February 07, 2007 11:33 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Hey Girish, since this is party central, I just have to express that I've been reading a lot of discussion on the evolution of cinema . . . the YouTube explosion of amateur video art . . . articles that ask where are all the filmmakers? and what is cinema's future? etc. etc. And quite simply, (except for the awesome film critic, Ed Halter) the journalists are not writing about experimental cinema. This is a bit like writing about genetics and neglecting to mention RNA, if not DNA! For example, the Washington Post article on YouTube missed the entire history of amateur filmmaking, film cooperatives and distribution, punk rock, DIY publications, Jonas Mekas's Movie Journal, the super 8 camera, the 16mm camera, the mini-DV camera . . .


It's strange how the further I try to run from cinema journalism, the more I gravitate to it . . .

February 07, 2007 2:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Oggs, Andy and Jen.

Oggs -- No apologies needed! There are few things off-topic here...

Andy -- Glad to hear that Inland Empire is slowly moving "inland" from the large metropolises towards us in the hinterland...

Jen -- I agree 100%. There's so little wide-circulation print journalism that even acknowledges the existence of experimental cinema, it's dispiriting!

One way we can offer a small corrective: we need more a-g cinema writing/thought/content on the Internet. And on a constant basis, not just the occasional blog-a-thon. The film blogosphere is a good place for it to happen because, unlike the mass media, we have no economic stake in our writing--we blog because we are passionate about the subjects we write about.

I think we should also be encouraging our nonblogger film-loving friends to start blogs (e.g. our friends and acquaintances who are into "experimental film"). We need to find ways to grow the size of the filmblogosphere; writing on a-g cinema will grow too....the Internet is a powerful thing; we should try to think of ways we can use it to our advantage in countering the dominance of the mass media...

February 07, 2007 6:40 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Girish, if you make me a short list of a-g films/filmmakers to look for I will gladly check for them at the teeny tiny independent film store here in town. And then, naturally, I will watch them in hopes I'll have something worth saying to say about them.

February 07, 2007 7:01 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

... actually, that might not be such an enticing offer considering that I don't exactly have scintillating prose and stunning acumen.

February 07, 2007 7:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, it'd be great if you felt like writing about a-g cinema. And I've always enjoyed your prose...!

February 07, 2007 8:13 PM  
Blogger Alex said...


so little avant-garde film is available on DVD that we can dispose of that medium quickly. The only DVDs of major experimental film-makers currently available in Region 1 are:

a two DVD set of Stan Brakhage

a hard to find DVD of Maya Deren

the recently released DVD of Kenneth Anger

La Jetee by Chris Marker

A two-disc DVD set of 1920s/1930s shorts by Jean Epstein, Joris Ivens, Man Ray, Kirsanoff, Painleve and others

there's a seven-disc DVD set of early American experimental films, but I don't find most of the films within that set very worthwhile

Ken Jacobs' Celestial Subway Lines

Some more is available on VHS.

February 07, 2007 8:44 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Very true, Alex. And avant-garde cinema is probably the #1 reason I wish I lived in a large city like so many of you do...

And since Susan Oxtoby left Toronto to go to Berkeley a year or so ago, the Cinematheque Ontario avant-garde programs have been (alas) only a shadow of their former self...

February 07, 2007 8:56 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Thanks, Girish.

Ah, La Jetée. Yet another one I've been looking for for years. These things go in and out of mind; we'll see if tomorrow turns it up (and also a Grierson/Film Board of Canada film I was looking for ... I keep forgetting there's an mp3 post in it if I can ever find it).

February 07, 2007 9:22 PM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Right on, G! I think that the blogosphere has huge potential. The bloggers have their ears to the ground, and we are free to say whatever we want. There are already several experimental cinema blogs that I love. And I think that the blogs that move back and forth between traditional narrative cinema and a-g cinema are on to something very important. So maybe we are making progress! :)

Tuwa, I'm so glad that you are asking about how to see experimental films. I guess the a-g film culture hasn't completely moved online yet. The reason may be because in NYC at least, there is a great screening culture of theaters, bars, gardens, rooftops, people's apartments, etc. Lots and lots of projectors! But for now I recommend the following online resources:

Jonas Mekas
An Astronomer in Hollywood (blogspot)
Visionary Film (blogspot)
Expanded Cinema (blogspot)
La Region Central (blogspot)
Invisible Cinema (my blog!)

I'll get back to you with more ideas. :)

February 07, 2007 9:37 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

oggs, the contemplative cinema blogathon has a link to my article on Heremias. Plus my Todo Todo Teros article has links to my Lav Diaz overview. That'll have to do until I can actually do something more substantial.

February 07, 2007 11:32 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I agree that writers and editors who pretend avant-garde cinema doesn't exist (or, at least, isn't important or influential) are distorting cinema history and reality. But I have to say I don't exactly blame them. It takes a lot of training and study to be able to talk about a-g cinema with authority. (Perhaps no more training and study than talking about narrative or documentary cinema, but most folks have a stronger head start on those forms because they're frequently broadcast on television so a lot of the study can be gotten almost through osmosis)

Luckily, unlike most pro journalists out there, I tend not to feel like I need to write "with authority", at least not all the time. So I feel comfortable occasionally talking about the corners of a-g cinema I have spent some time and effort studying. There are still huge swaths I'm totally intimidated by though.

I'm sorry to hear that Susan Oxtoby's arrival in Berkeley has been such a loss on the a-g cinema front for the Toronto area. The a-g programs at the PFA are great, but I'm not sure they're really better than they've always been. Though I'm becoming less able to speak on them, as for nearly a year now I've had to work Tuesday nights, which is the night of the most consistant a-g showcase at that venue, the "Alternative Visions" series. Combine that with the fact that the last few SF Cinematheque progams I've tried to attend in Frisco were sold out before I could get tickets, and I'm feeling a little deprived in this arena right now. (I know, how can I complain, living where I do?)

I'd hoped to get a healthy fix of a-g cinema at Sundance, but (in part because my host was so enthusiastic about seeing documentaries) I only was able to squeeze in the new Martha Colburn films and Zidane, which turned out to be a little less experimental and interesting than I'd hoped. It was preceded by a new short by Jennifer Reeves (Light Work 1) that is exactly the kind of a-g film I don't really feel prepared to talk about. It was pretty, though! ;)

February 08, 2007 5:32 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Jen, Tuwa, Noel and Brian.

Brian -- To be honest, I've been making fewer trips to Toronto in the past year because of other reasons (time spent on blogging-related activities being a primary one) and it is also possible I'm a bit nostalgic for Susan's days because it was through her programming that I first discovered and started to appreciate a-g cinema. I do however see fewer "recognizable" (to me, anyway) a-g names in the programs than I used to...

Brian and Jen -- You bring up many thought-provoking ideas. Shall try to respond when I get home from school this evening.

Tout le monde -- please feel free to add your thoughts! I think this is an interesting (and important) topic for discussion...

February 08, 2007 6:55 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Wow, some good reading here:
Yoel Meranda creates a special page in which he excerpts from many of his favorite Tag Gallagher posts on A_Film_By.

February 08, 2007 7:18 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...


Hey! I was so happy to see all of your writing on Sundance! I think that you bring up very good points regarding the blogosphere and writing what you feel the most intensely about and what you feel drawn to. With the blogosphere I kind of feel that people should write about what they are into. We are essentially amateurs, and we do what we love. But a newspaper is a completely different story . . .

I used to think that experimental cinema was too difficult to appeal to a general audience, but now I disagree. Based on what I've been reading in some print media lately, it seems that there is a woeful, pervasive, chosen ignorance regarding the avant-garde.

Another thing that bugs me, is that here in NY in experimental cinema, we are honoring & exploring the old school sensuality of the medium. I mean we still use film! And yet, writers with the utmost visibility and prestige choose not to learn about the a-g (or should I say unlearn all the conventions), year after year, cinema series after cinema series, movie after movie. Marcel Duchamp has been absorbed into the culture, why hasn't Stan Brakhage been? It's shameful.

Thanks for listening! When I was writing on my blog, I felt like I was making a difference . . . And being on the blogosphere has really opened my eyes to what's happening in cinema beyond NY. I never cared about film criticism before (except for Ed Halter's beautiful writing & Michael Atkinson's poetic reviews). And I have a real ambivalence towards attention. Sometimes I feel like I have died and gone to heaven when someone links to me on the blogosphere, other times I feel like attention isn't good for me. So maybe experimental cinema is still so crystalline, because people are doing it just for the sake of doing it. Know what I mean?

February 08, 2007 11:05 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

FYI - The Rendez-vous with French Cinema schedule has been posted.

February 08, 2007 1:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Acquarello! Just the thing I've been waiting for...

February 08, 2007 2:07 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Got the Criterion Brakhage, Maya Deren, and Jacobs' Zorn, Celestial, etc. Also The Conformist, one of the long-sought titles in my list, and I think a mild case of food poisoning most likely from a restaurant I won't be in any hurry to revisit.

February 08, 2007 6:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, that sounds like a good haul....

Mike Newman at Zigzigger points to an essay in Harper's by Jonathan Lethem on plagiarism and artistic creation called "The Ecstasy of Influence."

February 09, 2007 7:48 AM  
Blogger girish said...

From a couple of weeks back: J. Hoberman has a lengthy piece in the Virginia Quarterly Review--"Laugh, Cry, Believe: Spielbergization and Its Discontents." Comments by many (especially Matt) at The House Next Door.

February 09, 2007 8:08 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Although I was hoping for more discussion on experimental cinema in the media, I think that some important points were made here. If anyone wants to discuss further, you know where to find me. :)

February 09, 2007 10:10 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Sounds good, Jen. I think this is a large and important topic that would be worthy to visit on an ongoing basis...

February 09, 2007 10:20 AM  
Blogger andyhorbal said...

Sometimes I feel like I have died and gone to heaven when someone links to me on the blogosphere, other times I feel like attention isn't good for me.

I hear that...

Although I was hoping for more discussion on experimental cinema in the media, I think that some important points were made here.

I'm still absorbing some of these ideas, but here's something I've been pondering lately:

I initially greeted Jonathan Rosenbaum's claims that if "difficult," even avant-garde film was allowed into the marketplace it would flourish. (I'm sure he wasn't the first, but this is where I encounted them. Also, I apologize for simplifying his arguments so drastically.) But when I started to think about it I realized that I never had to adjust to experimental film. I loved Brakhage, Anger, Broughton, Deren, etc. from the very moment I enountered them.

In the same way that some people like romantic comedies, some horror, and some action films, some people are just going to like experimental/avant-garde film. And this is the something important that "the blogs that move back and forth between traditional narrative cinema and a-g cinema" are onto, I think. I try to treat avant-garde/experimental film no differently than I treat any other kind of film, in the same way that I try to treat films not presently in commercial release the same way that I treat films that are.

I'm hoping that this is a step forward towards breaking free of the tyranny of American mainstream film distribution, if you'll pardon the revolutionary-sounding rhetoric. If someone reads about a film on my site and it sounds interesting to them, I want it to just sound interesting. "All films are created equally" or some such...

What am I saying? That I object to the way a-g/experimental film is treated exceptionally in the mainstream media? Cordoned off in its own little section? That's problematic. Hmm...

I hate trying to say something in comments sections. This little box is so confining and it taunts me so...

Brian, your idea of "writing with authority" interests me. I think that critics tend to be more conscious of their lack of authority re: avant-garde/experimental film, or sometimes contemptous of the need ("this crap doesn't merit attention and I don't need to be an expert to know that it sucks and that it's a waste of my time and yours!") for authority. But most won't hesitate to review a new narrative film by a director they don't know. Likewise, maybe we who are interested are less willing to allow "non-experts" leeway in writing about a-g/experimental film? Since it's so uncommon we want no article wasted?

February 09, 2007 10:52 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Thank you for your thoughtful discussion!

Andy, I had so many of the blogs in mind, including yours, when I mentioned writers who have an understanding of traditional narrative and the a-g. I am so amazed when people just embrace experimental cinema from their first introduction, because it took me forever to fall in love with it! So right on, Jonathan Rosenbaum! Nuclear physics and molecular genetics are difficult subjects, but that doesn't stop magazines like Scientific American or Dennis Overbye in the NYT from reporting on these discoveries.

What I've realized lately is that many highly visible film critics do not seem to see/be personally invested in how experimental cinema relates to the French avant-garde of the 1920s or to the Lumiere brothers or to the poetic international cinema of Godard, Fellini, Antonioni or to YouTube . . . the greater macrocosm of cinema. Brian summarizes it so well . . . "I agree that writers and editors who pretend avant-garde cinema doesn't exist (or, at least, isn't important or influential) are distorting cinema history and reality."

Maybe eventually the blogs will be people's primary source of cinema info. Who knows? There is no place to go but up!!!


February 09, 2007 12:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Jen and Andy.

Like Jen, I didn't take to a-g immediately. It took me time. I think I was too strongly conditioned by narrative cinema to break out of my habitual viewing manner. What it took was talking to others, watching films, and reading, to begin cultivating an appreciation for it.

Also wondering if a-g cinema gets greater coverage in the press in other countries than it does in the US...

February 09, 2007 4:22 PM  
Anonymous jmac said...

G, have you checked out Albert Alcoz's blog, Visionary Film? He's located in Barcelona, and he has an amazing network of links to international experimental cinema writing/filmmaking/distribution. I also recommend P. Marin's blog, La Region Central (Buenos Aires). Both of these writers are experimental filmmakers too!

February 09, 2007 5:32 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I've taken to some a-g immediately--especially Koyaanisqatsi and Man with the Movie Camera--but I have to say I'm wrestling with the Brakhage works.

February 09, 2007 5:48 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Tuwa, how have you been watching Brakhage? Is it on film or the Criterion DVD?

February 09, 2007 7:41 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

The Criterion DVD. I haven't dipped into the supplemental materials yet; I wanted to try to come to some understanding of them on my own first.

Is there a better way to watch them?

February 09, 2007 11:27 PM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Yes! Brakhage's films are made explicitly to be seen on celluloid--the properties of light, color, depth (not only implied of pictorial or semi-pictorial depth but also the projected depth of the film emulsion itself) don't translate well or at all to video formats, at least not all the time (at least one thing that I think works great on the Brakhage disc is a very short one, Black Ice). I think your instinct to try to dive into Brakhage before supplementals is a good one; have you read the Fred Camper essay that accompanies the discs yet though? It lays out a lot of the reasons for keeping Brakhage known as a filmmaker. (After all, I think the cancer that claimed his life was caused by dyes he worked with on his celluloid strips.) The medium of video, no matter how good & clear a picture on its own terms, is simply different than the medium Brakhage was very, very mindful of working in and trying to explore. It's like looking at stained glass on bookplates--it's just not the same sort of thing.

And that all said, I know it's not easy to see Brakhage's films on film, especially if you live outside of a few key cities. There's a lot that has been said, and could still be said, about the nature of distribution in this country, of what gets shown and what is marginalized, and all that. I'll refrain for now. But if you try Brakhage on DVD and his work doesn't do it for you, I guess I would say don't close the file on him, keep it open for a celluloid screening one day. It may be an epiphany.

February 10, 2007 12:11 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Jen, Tuwa and Zach.

--Matt Zoller Seitz has a superb post on Whitney Balliett in the course of which he interviews his dad, the jazz pianist Dave Zoller.
--Fascinating David Bordwell post on walk-and-talk shots in the history of cinema.
--Darren has a post about his redesigning the University of Tennessee website.
--At Anthony Kaufman's: news about what movies are getting distibuted (the Resnais; The Wayward Cloud; the Brisseau; Maddin) and the ones that don't have distirbution yet (Colossal Youth, Still Life, Woman on the Beach).

February 10, 2007 8:03 AM  
Anonymous Darren said...

Now that the redesign is behind me, I can get back to what really matters: having a drink or two over at Girish's and talking about a-g film. :)

I'm really pleased to see that so many of us are on the same wavelength. (Get it? Wavelength?) Girish and I realized a few weeks ago that we'd both decided, independently, to devote a good chunk of 2007 to watching and learning more about a-g cinema. We'd even been buying up some of the same books.

I spent the morning watching the first two films in the Kenneth Anger DVD, "Fireworks" and "Puce Moment," and I plan to go watch one or two more in a few minutes. "Fireworks" is just beautiful. I love that it contains dashes of surrealist imagery but it never begs you to rationally interpret them. On his commentary, for example, Anger describes what one of the images represents to him -- and knowing that helped me appreciate it even more -- but the image stands on its own as a kind of independent aesthetic object.

And to think that he was only 20 when he shot it.

February 10, 2007 11:08 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey, Darren, I wanted to say how elegant the UT redesign looks. And looking at it, the "auteurist" in me finds it easy to link up some traces ('fingerprints') to Long Pauses.... :-)

February 10, 2007 6:44 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

On the lighter side is is this post on "the decider". Kind of juvenile, but also kind of funny.

February 10, 2007 8:22 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, that's pretty funny:

"What else does [Bush] like about Netflix besides the large selection?

"They don't charge you late fees," he explains. "I try to leave no DVDs behind, but you know, sometimes it don't always work out. And I've already racked up over $360 billion in late fees on another project I'm working on, so the no late fees thing is big.""

February 10, 2007 8:35 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

I was just reading Sitney's chapter on Anger in Visionary Film and discovered that I'd found the wrong birth date earlier. Anger wasn't twenty when he made Fireworks; he was seventeen! I'm sowasting my life.

Also, while flipping through the latest issue of Filmmaker magazine at Borders tonight, I noticed that we got a brief mention. In their year-end wrap-up, they included a few hundred words on the growth of online film criticism and made special note of the "group blogs" [sic] that bring special focus to directors like Abel Ferrara.

February 10, 2007 11:19 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Didn't know either of those things, Darren...

--Zach has a thought-provoking movie post (sparked by an Andre Malraux quote) called "The Postmodern Queen".
--Michael Guillen celebrates the one year anniversary of The Evening Class (and yay--posts a pic of himself!)
--Acquarello on Robert Guédiguian's The Last Mitterrand.

Time management-wise, the idea of trying to have a new post here each Sunday is working well so far. (Keeps the week free of any blogging pressure.) Back with a post (hopefully) before the day is out...

February 11, 2007 7:35 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Netflix new releases Sunday. Just added to the queue: Performance, Half Nelson, Mutual Appreciation, Marie Antoinette, and (for my sitcom fix) Grosse Pointe.

February 11, 2007 8:13 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

As it will be awhile before I can judge it for myself, I am hoping someone VERY familiar with Performance will closely examine it. Tim Lucas mentioned that at one point, Mick Jagger speaks, but the audio portion is dropped when he makes a toast "to old England". I have seen the film five times theatrically and I am certain that a subliminal shot had been cut for the IFC broadcast version of the film. The very brief shot, or I should say combination of shots, suggested that one of the several bed pairings at the end was of Fox and Jagger. I am hoping the original film has not been tampered with in order to please the suits at Warners or Sir Mick.

February 11, 2007 9:40 AM  

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