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.”