Saturday, October 06, 2007

In the City of Sylvia

As much as I like José-Luis Guerín’s new film, En la ciudad de Sylvia (“In the City of Sylvia”), I wonder if Unas fotos en la ciudad de Sylvia (“Some Photographs in the City of Sylvia”), the film he made as a sort of ‘sketch’ or ‘study’ to precede it, is as good, perhaps even better. Alas, Toronto only showed the new film but Vancouver is showing them both on a double bill accompanied by a personal appearance by the filmmaker. It's also the first public screening of Unas fotos.

David Bordwell reports from Vancouver:

Rubbed together, the two films throw off sparks. En la ciudad is in color and very tightly constructed, Unas fotos consists of hundreds of black-and-white stills linked by associations and intertitles, with no sound accompaniment. Guerin, an admirer of Murnau, says that as a young man he watched old films in “a sacred silence” and he wanted to try something similar.

Unas fotos may not be factual—call it a lyrical documentary—but it illuminates En la ciudad in striking ways and is intriguing in its own right. Structured as a quest for a woman the narrator met 22 years ago, the film moves across several cities and invokes as its patrons Dante and Petrarch, each of whom yearned for an unattainable woman. But this isn’t exactly a photo-film à la Marker’s La jetée; it uses dissolves, superimpositions, and staggered phases of action to suggest movement. The subjects? Dozens of women photographed in streets and trams. Some will find a creepy edge to the movie, but it didn’t strike me as the obsessions of a stalker. Guerin becomes sort of a paparazzo for non-celebs, capturing the many looks of ordinary women.

The Spanish film critic Miguel Marías wrote a thoughtful essay about Guerín and Unas fotos that was published a year and a half ago in the FIPRESCI journal Undercurrent. It concludes this way:

With the new, cheap, almost cost-free equipment, and taking as his model not D.W. Griffith or Louis Feuillade, or even Louis Lumière, but rather the very earliest of pioneers, Étienne Marey and Edweard Muybridge, he has found again the true essence of cinema, its forgotten, invisible, taken-for-granted secret: that there are in fact no real images of movement, but only stills, a succession of photographs whose succession creates the illusion of movement. Between each, there is always at least a diminutive, almost unperceivable ellipse, the black blank piece of film between each frame. Godard was hinting at this very problem, I think, when he began employing videotape and started stopping the movement of images, or slowing it down, then accelerating again, so as to render visible the original isolation and the willful, deliberate linking of the frames that allows the passage from one photogram to another, which also explains Bresson's insistently calling what he did cinématographe instead of cinéma: after all, he was writing with the articulate movement of fixed, still images. That's why I consider it some sort of "poetic justice" that Guerín, reinventing cinema with digital means, has returned to the very beginnings, without any sort of sound, not even music or noise, without color, and has employed only the minimal, bare elements, those available when cinema was not yet entertainment, not even a show, but almost a scientific tool intended to look at what you cannot see with the naked eye, and to register it and keep a record, to take notes, to make annotations. But Unas fotos is not merely a remake of the early steps of cinema before Lumière: I don't recall a single silent film that used titles as some sort of inner monologue, as a kind of silent, written equivalent of voice-over commentary, as Guerín does.


* * *

I liked David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises but I had the same reaction to it as Steven Shaviro when he wrote that it “is so tightly organized, and so perfectly self-enclosed, that it doesn’t leave the viewer with any wriggle room.” By contrast, In the city of Sylvia seems unenclosed, open. Thinking about it generates all sorts of questions.

The film functions as a sort of ‘romantic’ essay-fiction about the process by which an artist perceives the world and what interests him most about that world. For the young artist-hero of the film, the ‘object’ of interest is a woman and all women.

I've been wondering: Do the pleasures of this film come too easily to me because I’m straight and male? Does the film feel ‘safer’ because its protagonist is a blank and blandly good-looking, seemingly unthreatening young man, unburdened by the creepy psychological backstory of, say, James Stewart in Vertigo? Does the film unproblematically romanticize the creative process and the obsessions that process might entail? If a film indulges and celebrates the “male gaze,” is it obliged, required, to include any autocritique as a counterweight? Finally, I'm curious to know: How will women and gay viewers react to this film? I like it that the film stimulates, even accommodates, such skepticism and questioning.

Please also see: Darren and Daniel on the film; and an interview with Guerín at Cineuropa.


* * *

More from Steven Shaviro on David Cronenberg’s recent films:

To a certain extent, by making himself into a formally more powerful and contained director, by transcending or giving up the sloppiness and (even) exploitativeness of his earlier films, Cronenberg in effect undermined his films’ very significance. The recent films are aesthetically superior to the earlier ones (taking “aesthetically” in a narrowly formalist sense), but there is something sterile about them: their fascination is too narrowly focused, too contained. A History of Violence represented something of a change of direction, and, I thought, a substantial reinvigoration. But Eastern Promises, despite being the same genre as A History of Violence, somehow doesn’t seem anywhere near as fresh or as thoughtful (or affectful). This is all relative, of course: I only find Cronenberg at fault because I expect so much more of him. I am holding him to higher standards than I do most other contemporary filmmakers.


* * *

Good news: Adrian Martin has a new monthly column at the Dutch magazine De Filmkrant. The column is called "World Wide Angle" and he'll be writing on film and the Web. In the inaugural entry, he discusses the Bergman/Antonioni debate. Here's an excerpt:

What does it really mean for us, as critics or viewers, to demand of any filmmaker that he or she should 'invest in the modern world' - or else be declared outmoded, old-fashioned, a dinosaur? As cinema spectators, we can only judge whether a film is 'pertinent' from the often mysterious resonance that it sets off in us - far more than its surface content, topic or theme - that deep sense that it touches us, and thus touches upon something that, more generally, matters to the contemporary world. What if a filmmaker sticks to what he or she knows best or feels most deeply - if he or she decides to 'plough their field' deeper and deeper as the years go by, as Rohmer's producer once said, admiringly, of him? If he or she settles upon what Nietzsche called an 'untimely meditation', free from the ephemeral influence of cultural fashion or social topicality? Bergman, certainly, took this untimely, in fact obsessive option - and when his final film Saraband (2003) finally came along and shook so many of us to our core, did we feel like complaining that he was 'out of touch'? Maybe some of the greatest artists of cinema know what many critics don't: that history will keep rediscovering them, at those secret moments when their work, once more, begins to resonate.


* * *

A few links:

-- Zach on television and low culture.

-- Doug on Oskar Fischinger and Jordan Belson.

-- Ray Carney delivers a talk to high-school students and recommends a list of films for them. (via CelineJulie.)

-- At My Gleanings: Pierre Kast’s ten-best lists for Cahiers du Cinema.

-- Peter Nellhaus has an annotated list of his favorite horror films.

-- J. Hoberman on Tony Kaye: “something of a visionary: 17 years in the self-financed making, Lake of Fire may be as daringly aestheticized as any social documentary since Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line.”

65 Comments:

Blogger acquarello said...

Actually, having now seen In the City of Sylvia, it (not surprisingly) hews very close to his documentary work, so I'm guessing that that's exactly what Fotos does, show how this film would have looked as a straight Guerín documentary. There's actually quite a few "big" themes and aesthetics in En Construcción that Guerín revisits for Sylvia too. Don't get me wrong, I liked it a lot, but I think it pales in comparison to his previous film.

October 07, 2007 1:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello, you've got me totally psyched to see En Construcción.

October 07, 2007 1:25 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Wondering: Any John Brahm admirers out there?
There are a few new Brahm DVD releases: The Lodger, Hangover Square, The Undying Monster. Other Brahm previously available on DVD: Hot Rods to Hell, Tonight We Raid Calais, Guest in the House. Any recommendations among these or any others...?

October 07, 2007 8:19 AM  
Blogger celinejulie said...

--Thanks for the link mention, Girish. I like Ray Carney a lot. I learn a great deal from his writing, though I usually love the films he dislikes. A friend of mine once organized a program of Ray Carney’s recommended films in a Thai university auditorium to show films directed by John Cassavetes, Elaine May, Tom Noonan, Michael Almereyda, Gillian Armstrong, Jane Spencer, Charles Burnett, and Mike Leigh. It was wonderful.

--If IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA is released as a DVD in the future, I hope its DVD will also include UNAS FOTOS. After reading about it, I think UNAS FOTOS seems to be much more than an ordinary “making-of” documentary to accompany its parent movie. This reminds me of two making-of documentaries I like a lot: IN PUBLIC (2001, Jia Zhangke), which is a location scouting video for UNKNOWN PLEASURES (2002); and THE EIGHTIES (1983, Chantal Akerman), which seems like a preparation process for GOLDEN EIGHTIES (1986, Chantal Akerman). These making-of documentaries don’t explain straightforwardly about the creation of their parent movies, and they may be even a lot harder to understand than their parents.

--I’m usually curious at films which are composed of still photos or static shots. Apart from UNAS FOTOS, I also wish I could see SCHINDLER’S HOUSES (2007, Heinz Emigholz), which is composed of static shots. I read about this film from Where The Stress Falls’ website. It seems to be very interesting. So far I have seen only one film by Heinz Emigholz—THE BASIS OF MAKE-UP (1983, 20 minutes, silent). This film shows pages or images from many books. The film’s editing is very fast. You can only have a very brief glimpse at these still images which seem to be unconnected to each other and randomly put together. I hadn’t seen anything quite like this film before. This film really tested my patience in the first viewing, but I ended up liking it a lot.

--As for the topic of male gaze, I think I have no real opinion about it. But I observed that even among my gay friends, our reactions to a film are usually different from one another. I always love films which celebrate male bodies, especially the short films by Thunska Pansittivorakul, but some of my gay friends don’t like this kind of films. Our reactions are also different when the film deals with female bodies. Normally I don’t have problems with films which tend to objectify women, especially the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet. I may not get that kind of pleasure out of gazing at those beautiful women, but the films of Alain Robbe-Grillet still offer great pleasure to me in other ways. But a gay friend of mine seems to have troubles with some films I love—LA BELLE NOISEUSE and AN ARIA ON GAZE (1992, Hisayasu Sato), because of the ways female characters are treated in these two films. To sum it up, I don’t think I have problems with the male gaze in most films, but some of my friends might have.

October 07, 2007 9:36 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Gay men don't all react the same way to the "male gaze" implied (or even made explicit) in films. I remember there was an interesting pro-and-con set of columns in, I think, The Advocate right after Fight Club came out (and I didn't agree entirely with either of them).

I'm sure gay men would give you a range of reactions to Unas fotos. I think it sounds fascinating.

October 07, 2007 10:28 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

It's been literally decades since I've seen Hangover Square, but that is considered one of Brahm's best. I'm glad Fox has his films available on DVD.

And thanks for the link.

October 07, 2007 11:01 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Lovely post, Girish. So much information to ruminate upon.

As for gays and the male gaze, I can only speak for myself. I, to this day, frequently have trouble with the male gaze for its heteronormative stance. But even more so for its homonormative stance. Heh.

October 07, 2007 11:22 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

From a twisting screenplay by Sheridan Gibney, Brahm's The Locket (1946) is something of a must, though unavailable on DVD. (It plays on TCM fairly frequently.) This is the infamous flashback-within-flashback-within-flashback-and-back-again noir.

Lee Marvin shares a funny story about Brahm here.

October 07, 2007 11:25 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Brahm--The Lodger and The Locket are both superb, un(der)sung films. (Laird Cregar is amazing!) The Undying Monster is very minor cheap horror, but lots of fun.

I think it's reasonable enough to say Hangover Square is considered Brahm's masterpiece--it's going on my Netflix queue ASAP.

October 07, 2007 11:37 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, CelineJulie, Tuwa, Peter, Maya, Flickhead, and Zach!

I had no idea that John Brahm had a little cult following out there...!

CelineJulie -- I'd love to see the Jia documentary. I'm a big fan of the Akerman double you mention. I watched Schindler's Houses with Michael (of Where The Stress Falls) in Toronto. I liked the film and wished I hadn't been so tired (I think it was my 5th or 6th film of the day). I'd like see more of Emigholz's work.

October 07, 2007 7:40 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

I really wanted to see In the City of Sylvia at TIFF but I couldn't fit it in; Girish, your comments only make me want to see it all the more. I wonder how the film compares to something like Alicia Scherson's Play--has anyone here seen both? Her film--which I loved--is in part about several different characters wandering through Santiago and looking for connection, and there's a very romantic, sad, and adventurous air to the film (realized in many creative and surreal ways) that is completely immersive. It's definitely a film for people watchers, but perhaps in a different vein?

October 07, 2007 10:36 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

girish, Eastern Promises I thought had a few holes in the script, not to mention an overall stickiness. But I did think the direction is superb, and yes, claustrophobic--part of the concept, I think.

October 07, 2007 11:58 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey thanks, Doug and Noel. I only know about Alicia Scherson's Play because you wrote about it, Doug, but unfortunately I haven't had the chance to meet up with it anywhere.

btw, the FIPRESCI site was down over the weekend but is now up, and the link to Miguel Marias's Guerin article works.

October 08, 2007 7:41 AM  
Blogger Tucker said...

I love Ray Carney's statement before his film list: "a beginner's guide to English-language films, any one of which is more important than Spike Lee's, Oliver Stone's, Steven Spielberg's, Joel and Ethan Coen's, and Quentin Tarantino's complete work"

perfect! not like he's trying to be incendiary or anything. ha! Still, a great list of films.

October 08, 2007 8:39 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey, Tucker -- Your new post on Jeff Wall and musings "cinematic" is great, thought-provoking reading...

October 08, 2007 9:23 AM  
Blogger Tucker said...

Girish, thanks for the link! Glad you liked it.

October 08, 2007 12:44 PM  
Blogger Filipe Furtado said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 08, 2007 3:38 PM  
Blogger Filipe Furtado said...

There's a pretty good interview with Guerin by Gabe Klinger at 24fps: http://www.24fpsmagazine.com/Archive/Guerin.html

October 08, 2007 3:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh wow, I hadn't seen that. Thanks, Filipe.

October 08, 2007 3:51 PM  
Blogger Darren said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

October 08, 2007 6:36 PM  
Blogger Darren said...

IndieWIRE just posted news that Chabrol's new film and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi's Actresses were both picked up by IFC. Actresses was, for me, one of the most glaring omissions from the TIFF lineup, so I'm excited to know I might get a chance to see it here in town.

October 08, 2007 6:38 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Darren, that's the best news I've heard today.

October 08, 2007 9:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Great Chris Marker post at Craig Keller's.
-- Kimberly Lindbergs interviews Tim Lucas at Cinedelica.
-- Michael Guillen interviews Olivier Assayas:

[Assayas on making his new film Boarding Gate as a modern-day B-film and what that means]: "making a genre movie with a small budget, meaning filling in for the small budget with some energy, style, and hopefully visual convention. Again, today's genre movies are made with huge budgets in Hollywood, with smaller budgets in Europe but still they are very expensive films because they involve stunts, CGI, or whatever. Here is a movie that has no special effects, no big sets, no car chases. Again, I'm playing with the codes of the genre film but I'm playing on a very small scale. I'm trying to find something which I am looking for, which is the energy and the physical relationships somehow with the viewer. If there is something that I ultimately miss in a lot of independent cinema I see, it is the lack of physical relationship with the viewer. Whereas, extremely bad, dull, conventional genre or Hollywood/French filmmaking deal with that physical relationship..."

October 09, 2007 9:11 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Thanks for the shout out, Girish. I actually have much more of Assayas' thinking but only just enough time for these briefer transcriptions these days. The Bay Area is a hotbed of talent these days visiting for the Mill Valley Film Festival and the PFA programs. A journalist has to wear running shoes.

October 09, 2007 12:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey, Michael, I saw your new post.
Er, Robert Redford? You're flying high, amigo...!

I was disappointed that Boarding Gate didn't play Toronto, but with Asia Argento and Michael Madsen, perhaps it's reasonable to assume that it'll get picked up...

October 09, 2007 2:02 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Heh. And here I thought I had reached the pinnacle of success in your eyes when I met Elisha Cuthbert.

Though it's been a good week for the lovelies. I had a wonderful conversation with Laura Linney the other day and am scheduled for a one on one with Jennifer Jason-Leigh in a couple of days.

I'm having a very good time.

October 09, 2007 2:18 PM  
Blogger girish said...

The Evening Class has come a long way in a short while...

"And here I thought I had reached the pinnacle of success in your eyes when I met Elisha Cuthbert."

Ah, touché, Michael!
(Although I will stand behind my admiration for EC, which is admittedly not hard to do. I liked her in Jamie Babbitt's The Quiet.)

October 09, 2007 2:41 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dennis Cozzalio has a post about the just-announced redacting of images from REDACTED. Included is a YouTube clip of a press conference with De Palma, J. Hoberman, etc.

October 09, 2007 10:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

FYI: I just picked up the Kent Jones collection of film criticism (Physical Evidence) from Amazon. My copy has about 10 blank pages scattered through the book (a producion defect). Just in case you were planning to buy a copy...

October 09, 2007 10:51 PM  
Blogger girish said...

What I meant to say above is that about 10 pages of text are missing, substituted by blanks...

October 10, 2007 8:26 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

I hope you can get your money back! Yesterday, while walking to an interview, I noticed Playboy's recent volume of director interviews. I think I want that volume. Has anyone dipped into that one? I remember as a kid when all my friends were ogling the centerfolds, I just HAD to get to the director interviews. Heh.

October 10, 2007 10:43 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael, what I'll probably do is check a good copy out of the library, xerox the missing the pages, and paste them in. I've never heard of the Playboy interviews book. You'll have to tell me if you like it.

Which reminds me: here's a possible idea for a future Evening Class post--a list of your top 10 (or 20) books of interviews, and maybe not just film-related but widely arts-related, perhaps...? That'd be fun for us to see, and get some reading tips from...

Michael, I enjoyed your new post. And wow, it took guts to interview Wes Anderson without having seen his first four films!

October 10, 2007 11:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- As a huge fan of James Gray's The Yards, I'm looking forward to seeing We Own The Night this weekend. Here's a review by David Edelstein.
-- J. Hoberman on La Chinoise and Terror's Advocate.
-- Jim Emerson on Todd Haynes' I'm Not There.
-- Walter at Quiet Bubble has a great post on his personal history with video games.

October 10, 2007 11:17 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Dave Kehr in his DVD column in the NYT:

"American movies didn’t wait for Angelina Jolie and Michael Moore to develop a social conscience. One of the sobering lessons of the new anthology from the National Film Preservation Foundation, “Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film 1900-1934,” is that the pictures of the early 20th century were in many ways more open to the social and political world: people struggle to make a living, fight against disadvantages and prejudices and are confronted with confounding moral choices on a daily basis.

Among the topics broached in the 40-odd films, both short and feature-length, in this four-disc set are abortion, unionization, interracial marriage, the rights of women, immigration, workplace safety, homelessness, public education and predatory lending practices."

October 10, 2007 11:47 AM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

Thanks for the mention Girish! I hope you enjoyed my brief interview with Tim.

October 10, 2007 1:47 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Hmmmmmm. I missed a press screening of We Own the Night last night because I was feverishly trying to bet my Wes Anderson interview up. But I did regret it because, first, it was booed at Cannes, which one critic or another has said is a sure sign the film has energy; and, second, in light of Assayas' recent comments upon the physicality of B-movies, I got the sense that's what saves the day here. Let us know what you think, Girish.

October 10, 2007 1:54 PM  
Anonymous rahul banerjee said...

i must say all the discussion above has been double dutch for me! i have stopped seeing films for quite some time now but it is good to see girish that you have become a knowledgeable film critic building on the initial impetus received from reading about films for the quizzing in iit kharagpur! i am an old fashioned kind of fellow in this respect and consider casablanca to be the best film of all time! i suddenly thought of doing a net search for you and landed up at your blog and website. lets hope this leads to greater interaction in the future

October 10, 2007 3:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh my God, Rahul, is that really you?!? It's been 25 years since Bengal. I've tried time and again since then to hunt you down without success, and here you are thanks to the Net! Suresh Nair, on his last visit to the US, told me he had dinner with you one evening many years ago and it's the only news I've had of you since then. Will you please send me an email (link at the top left of the webpage)? I don't want to lose touch for another 25. Great to hear from you--you have no idea how pleased I am.

October 10, 2007 3:47 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Kimberly, I enjoyed your interview. It reminded me that I need to see Kill Baby Kill...!

Michael, I heard that at Cannes, the French critics were much more enthusiastic about the film than the American ones. I think The Yards is among the best American films of this decade (and terribly underappreciated). It's the only film I've seen by him, but it's enough to get me excited about his new one.

October 10, 2007 3:58 PM  
Blogger Rahul Banerjee said...

yeah i never cease to wonder at the way the net has brought people together. incidentally i went around visiting the other blogs that came up when i searched for your name and came across one that discusses your line drawings. this was one hidden part of you that has now come to the fore. this time i am posting from my blogger id and i am sending an email to you also so you needn't worry about losing touch again. in fact we met last at the fusion jazz concert in calcutta

October 10, 2007 4:20 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Rahul, that sounds great. I'll be in India over Christmas but because it's my first trip home in ten years, I doubt if my parents will 'allow' me to leave Chennai for any length of time. But I'd love to do some catching up by email; you've really made my day.

I've been thinking of our Bengal days a lot lately, and have returning to many of the Bengali films we were watching at the time (Sen, Ray, Ghatak, etc.)

October 10, 2007 4:35 PM  
Blogger Filipe Furtado said...

Except for Cahiers (that seems to have decide that since they like every other american film there they would use poor Gray as target practice), pretty much every french critic liked We Own the Night (it was together with Love Songs the two films were the american and french critics were clearly apart).

October 10, 2007 9:54 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

True story: I spent seven hours in front of my computer on Saturday, determined to write my review of In the City of Sylvia.

The end result? Three lines. Sigh.

There's always tomorrow. . .

October 10, 2007 10:15 PM  
Blogger Tucker said...

Girish, for how good this post and comments are, I have to say the best part is witnessing you re-connecting with an old friend after so many years. That's just downright awesome.

October 10, 2007 10:50 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tucker, the Web is an amazing place, no? No matter how familiar and blasé my daily engagements with it might make me, something always happens to reinforce that for me on a regular basis...

Filmbrain, I agree totally: I don't think this is an easy film to write about!

Filipe, I wasn't aware of the split on Honoré's Love Songs. Did the French press dislike it?

October 11, 2007 6:33 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- David Bordwell asks: "For many decades ... filmmakers have been steering critics and viewers toward certain ways of understanding their films. How much should we be bound by the way the filmmaker positions the film?"
-- At Andy Rector's: a piece called "Liasions" by Tag Gallagher which begins: "The filmmakers I admire most today are the Straubs, Abel Ferrara and Eric Rohmer."
-- Jim Emerson on Redacted.

October 11, 2007 6:40 AM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

Girish - sorry I came late to the Brahm discussion. He shows some stuff in a number of films, but I think HANGOVER SQUARE is by far his best.

October 11, 2007 11:46 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Dan. I'll be looking to Netflix that soon.

-- There's a new issue of Film Quarterly, in which Adrian has a new, regular column called "Counterspectacles". His first entry is an essay [pdf] titled "The Hungry Cinema of Stephen Dwoskin".
-- Matt Zoller Seitz & The House Next Door are hosting the Close-Up Blog-A-Thon, Oct 12-21.

October 11, 2007 12:09 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

I'm deeply intrigued by the Bordwell piece; thanks for pointing to it. As someone who primarily speaks to directors, wanting them to speak for themselves, and often in service to publicists for their films, I have come under fire by some who think I am placing much too much trust in directors and what they have to say. But as I consider no piece of journalism to be definitive; I merely add mine to the weave, with time to do with it what it will.

But I did like Bordwell's bold presumption that sometimes film writers will see something in a film that even a director does not see. In some ways, that only makes sense to me. And often when I am talking to a director, it is precisely to confirm or at the very least to express what it is I have seen in a film. Thus, for me, my so-called "interviews" are really just conversations, though rarely arguments.

I had an interesting experience yesterday, however. I was interviewing Tony Gilroy for Michael Clayton. He's a thoroughly amiable fellow, handsome, sharp, and was a bit giddy because I was his next-to-the-last interview on a six-week junket tour. He was about to fly out the window. I brought up to him a connection I had made in the film from seeing it a second time. It concerned why Michael Clayton pulled his Mercedes over to the side of a country road to walk up the hill to face some horses. The first time I saw the movie, I couldn't understand why he did that. The second time I saw the movie I sifted a clue as to his motivations. I presented this to Gilroy and he was completely evasive, non-committal, claiming the image was pure and all interpretations as to motivations or meaning were just that and he wanted to stay out of the way of that process. He finally conceded that generally I was right but he just didn't want to stand in the way of all the possible interpretations. I found that a very curious stance. Of course, I had to take him at his word; but, it seemed odd to me to feel that I knew something about his film he didn't. Bordwell confirms that, perhaps, it's not so odd after all.

October 11, 2007 12:47 PM  
Blogger Sachin G. said...

Michael, I came across this interesting quote from Bresson in this guardian article: "Each shot is like a word, meaning nothing by itself ... it is lent meaning by its context."

Just to add a smaller example to yours. A few years ago while talking to a local film-maker about his movie, I mentioned what I took from a particular shot. I got nothing but a blank expression from him and a mere shrug of the shoulder. He mumbled something along the lines of that my take was interesting and he can see how I got that before he disappeared. Since then, I have often found myself questioning if I am giving too much credit to some directors for some sequences or if some directors actually meant what I was interpreting.

But then again, there are movies which give no room for interpretation. Girish you mentioned this above with respect to Eastern Promises.

October 11, 2007 4:51 PM  
Blogger Tucker said...

Common sense would tell us Bordwell is right. In some cases asking artists what they intended helps us to put together the pieces. However, what artists intend and what they achieve are very often two different things. One still has to begin with what is there rather than what the artist intended. Bordwell is a master at doing this. On the other hand, I love talking to artists about their work even though they are sometimes poor at understanding what it is they have, in fact, achieved. Artists, like everyone, like all of us, often see what they want to see and have self-perceptions that vary, to differing degrees, from reality. I know I do.

October 11, 2007 5:26 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

Then again, there is what I call museumspeak. Where the description is more fascinating than the piece. I am a great fan of museumspeak. I love to read artist's statements even if I could care less about their art. Some people, in fact, have made an art out of museumspeak. Amalia Mesa-Bains comes immediately to mind. It doesn't matter what she's writing about half the time; it's the writing that matters.

Then again, it depends on why you're writing, I guess. It's always been the sociality of film writing that has interested me; the fact that writing about film is just a continuation of a lifelong journal project that has gone through various fulcrums.

October 11, 2007 8:42 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

One factor is that sometimes very smart filmmakers seem to feel they need to dumb down their comments about their work in order to avoid alienating mass audiences. It's why four of five of the filmmaker-written pieces in FLM magazine are boring on the verge of unreadable. It's why my favorite interviews are the ones conducted by people asking questions they're genuinely interested in the answers to, not questions they think will please the largest number of their readership.

October 12, 2007 2:34 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael, Sachin, Tucker & Brian -- Thank you for this fun conversation!

A couple of links:
-- The House Next Door Close-Up Blog-A-Thon.
-- An old post of Dan's on Hawks' The Thing has just been rejuvenated by comments from Craig Keller and Dan.
-- Adam Nayman in the LA Weekly on the Hungarian filmfest.
-- The Pop View: [Caterina Fake, founder of Flickr] "talked about how we often base metaphors from the previous technology while describing some new disruptive technology; the classic example is “horseless carriage.” In the early days on online photos, collections would always be described as “photo albums” or “galleries.” The thing about albums (i.e., a book which holds a collection of photos) is that it’s meant to be shared with only friends and family. But Fake described Flickr as a digital native service and she’s right. Why not throw up your vacation photos, tag them appropriately, and let random strangers stumble across them? She said it was part of the “culture of generosity” of the Internet, with people contributing their voices."

October 12, 2007 12:33 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh, also: a couple of interesting discussion threads at a_film_by: on zooms in Hawks; and an older one on zooms in general.

October 12, 2007 12:42 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Phil Nugent on De Palma's Redaction

October 13, 2007 6:33 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry Tuttle responds to Bordwell's post.

October 13, 2007 8:51 AM  
Blogger girish said...

From Tucker's post on Jeff Wall and "the cinematic" that I linked to earlier, here's a thought-provoking comment from Weeping Sam:

"One of the more interesting formulations of the difference between cinema and photography comes from Christian Metz - talking about the way off-screen space is substantial in film, and excluded in photographs. Offscreen space can become onscreen in cinema, with entrances and exits, moving the camera, editing - and individual shots can activate offscreen space. I think this is a useful way of thinking about "cinematic" photography. The idea seems to me to be that "cinematic" photography might be photography that "activates" offscreen space, the way films can. In this, I'm not sure how "cinematic" Wall is - from these examples at least, his work seems rather conventionally photographic - you see what you see, what you don't see is excluded.... Cindy Sherman, on the other hand, in very "cinematic" in this sense: her film stills are full of devices that activate offscreen space. Her "performances" - her eyelines, the way she seems to be reacting to things off screen; things like doors, windows, hallways, mirrors, that guide the eye offscreen, or extend the space, or promise to extend the space. In general, it seems to me that Wall's photos lead the eye back into the picture; Sherman's lead the eye out..."

October 13, 2007 11:00 AM  
Anonymous The Pop View said...

I must confess I also have a soft spot for Cronenberg's early movies. I saw his films from Shivers to The Fly and found them all fascinating. Then I got married and had to raise two kids and I could no longer see some of the films I once did, so I missed out on everything since, except for M. Butterfly and A History of Violence.

His early stuff has such a fevered quality to it, straight out of dreams. Five years ago, I read the screenplay for Shivers and was blown away by how taut it is. It only runs 87 minutes and it slips its garish plot to you so subtlety that it seems much more intelligent that a mere B-movie story.

The Brood is one of the best movies about divorce ever made. And Videodrome is a mess, but it seems more prescient with every passing year.

I'd still like to see Crash and I feel bad I never got around to seeing Dead Ringers.

October 13, 2007 11:05 AM  
Anonymous John Jack said...

Weeping Sam's comment is very thought provoking, and points to one of the things I like most about films: the sense of wide open spaces around you, unexplored. Leone is one film-maker I can think of offhand who plays with this concept a lot; Bordwell & Ebert have both pointed out that he frequently introduces characters onscreen to the surprise of other characters, when the geography of the location would suggest that they'd been visible for miles. The same thing frequently happens in horror movies, with someone appearing suddenly and shockingly when geography would suggest they'd been visible for long enough to scream and run or smile and say hello.

Tykwer, for whatever reason, always strikes me as not cheating with this concept, though I wonder now if that's the case or if I've just been mesmerized with his technique and haven't noticed. In retrospect, the semi in Run Lola Run seems a bit suspect: it stops rather suddenly for a large truck.

Your site's a great place for conversation, Girish; I dropped in just to let everyone know (if they didn't already) that TCM is running a Louis Malle marathon on Oct. 23 and 24, including a number of his rarer films; and instead I find myself reading thoughtful comments and wanting to contribute somehow.

October 14, 2007 9:52 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Pop View and JJ!

October 15, 2007 12:02 AM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

I've been meaning to add something here, but time keeps slipping away... The Metz essay in question was originally in OCTOBER, in 1985, but I found it in this book: Essays on Contemporary Photography, edited by Carol Squiers (with the title of either "Over Exposed" or "The Crtical Image" - the former a new edition of the latter, I believe.) It's a photography essay, and struck me as particularly applicable to Cindy Sherman, because of the way she used it to play off the differences between film and photography...

October 15, 2007 8:03 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Sam. By a weird coincidence, I printed off that very essay off October (and JSTOR) last week. I'm eager to read it. Also picked up over the weekend a nice collection of photography essays called Photography Theory edited by Elkins.

October 15, 2007 8:19 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Pop View, on Dead Ringers--go see it; I thought it a compelling view of identical twins, this coming from an identical twin.

October 17, 2007 5:05 PM  
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