Wednesday, August 22, 2007

TIFF 2007

This morning, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) announced its list of films [pdf].

The festival runs for 10 days starting September 6th, and I plan to be there for 8 of those 10 days, returning home once in between to teach my classes.

Here's the list of films I'm personally leaning towards, although it will likely look a bit different come scheduling time. I'm listing them by program.

-- Masters: Four Women (Adoor Gopalakrishnan), Voyage of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien), Don't Touch The Axe (Jacques Rivette), Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov), Christopher Columbus, the Enigma (Manoel de Oliveira), One Hundred Nails (Ermanno Olmi), The Man From London (Bela Tarr), La Fille Coupée en Deux (Claude Chabrol), Les Amours Astreé et de Céladon (Eric Rohmer), Glory to the Filmmaker! (Takeshi Kitano), The Voyeurs (Buddhadeb Dasgupta), Chaos (Youssef Chahine & Youssef Khaled).

-- Real To Reel (Documentaries): Useless (Jia Zhang-ke), Fengming, A Chinese Memoir (Wang Bing), Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog), Man of Cinema: Pierre Rissient (Todd McCarthy).

-- Visions: Import Export (Ulrich Seidl), Silent Light (Carlos Reygadas), 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu), Buddha Collapsed out of Shame (Hana Makhmalbaf), Ploy (Pen-ek Ratanaruang).

-- Vanguard: Paranoid Park (Gus van Sant), Help Me Eros (Lee Kang-Sheng), Sad Vacation (Shinji Aoyama), Les Chansons d'Amour (Christophe Honoré).

-- Contemporary World Cinema: An Old Mistress (Catherine Breillat), The Mourning Forest (Naomi Kawase), Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong), The Shock Doctrine (Alfonso Cuarón, Jonás Cuarón & Naomi Klein), Dans la Vie (Philippe Faucon), Weirdsville (Allan Moyle), American Venus (Bruce Sweeney), Avant Que J'Oublie (Jacques Nolot).

-- Special Presentations: Redacted (Brian De Palma), My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin), Mad Detective (Johnnie To & Wai Ka Fai), No Country for Old Men (Coen Brothers), Married Life (Ira Sachs), The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen).

-- Wavelengths (Avant-Garde): Films by Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ken Jacobs, John Gianvito, Heinz Emigholz, Peter Hutton, David Gatten, Cécile Fontaine, and others.

-- Gala: The Last Lear (Rituparno Ghosh).

-- Midnight Madness: The Mother of Tears (Dario Argento) .

Your comments or suggestions on films and filmmakers are most welcome.

David Hudson's awesomely detailed "fall movies preview" lists several films (especially English-language) that are also playing at TIFF. I'll try to hold off on seeing most of them in favor of something less likely to be distributed.

pic: Jacques Rivette on the set of Out 1, 1970. Courtesy Craig Keller of Cinemasparagus.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Undistributed/Antonioni



The complete film list for the Toronto film festival will be announced next week. Like last year, I’d like to do a post around it, inviting your suggestions and recommendations. As a nostalgic warm-up, I thought I’d look back over the last 8 TIFFs and collect some less well-known, undistributed films that have tenaciously clung on in my memory. I’m not saying these are all great films (a handful of them are) but I think they are all solid and interesting items that I wish were available on region 1 DVD.

-- 1999: Rien à Faire (Marion Vernoux); Peau Neuve (Emilie Deleuze, daughter of Gilles); Carne (Gaspar Noe, 1991); Throne of Death (Murali Nair); La Lettre (Manoel de Oliveira); Tempting Heart (Sylvia Chang); Juha (Aki Kaurismaki); and three by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (License to Live [1998], Barren Illusion [1999], The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girl [1985]);

-- 2000: The Long Holiday (Johan van der Keuken); Wild Blue: Notes for Several Voices (Thierry Knauff); With Closed Eyes (Mansur Madavi); Djomeh (Hassan Yektapanah, a former assistant to Kiarostami).

-- 2001: The Orphan of Anyang (Wang Chao); A Dog’s Day (Murali Nair); Loss is to be Expected (Ulrich Seidl); The Profession of Arms (Ermanno Olmi); Lovely Rita (Jessica Hausner, a former student of Michael Haneke’s).

-- 2002: La Vie Nouvelle (Philippe Grandrieux); The Last Letter (Frederick Wiseman).

-- 2003: (Sharon Lockhart); Abjad (Abolfazl Jalili); two by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, The Small Town and Clouds of May.

-- 2004: Los Muertos (Lisandro Alonso).

-- 2005: The Sun (Alexander Sokurov); The Forsaken Land (Vimukti Jayasundara); Entre la Mer et L’eau Douce (Michel Brault, 1967), which is actually playing again in the festival this year.

-- 2006: Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa); Belle Toujours (Manoel de Oliveira); Dong (Jia Zhang-ke).

In addition to TIFF, I’ve made just two other festival trips. A few films from those:

-- Rotterdam, 2000: Samar (Shyam Benegal); Le Petit Voleur (Erick Zonca); Inter-View (Jessica Hausner); Enzo Domani à Palermo (Cipri & Maresco).

-- Montreal, 2001: Après la Reconciliation (Anne-Marie Miéville); Martha…Martha (Sandrine Veysset).

If you like, please feel free to add some of your own picks of personal favorites that might’ve played festivals in the last several years (e.g. TIFF, NYFF, SFIFF, Sundance, etc.) but are unavailable on DVD here.


* * *

I watched Antonioni’s feature debut, Cronaca di un Amore [“Story of a Love Affair”] (1950) last night. Wow—a strong film, with so many of his preoccupations and strategies either already in place or showing clear traces of them in embryonic form. And Lucia Bosè, whom I’d never seen before, is an arresting presence.

Sam Rohdie, in his book on Antonioni [BFI, 1990]:

The most interesting comment on Cronaca di un Amore remains a review of it at the time in Bianco e Nero by Fernaldo Di Giammatteo; it concerns, primarily, Antonioni’s choice of a narrative position at some distance from the characters which allows the characters an independence from the ‘grip’ of the narrative, an autonomy from any encompassing knowledge by the narrator, as if the narrator was describing events and characters not which he knew but which he sought to know, which fascinated him, and which he came upon, like the detective, or the reporter of a chronicle of a film, at the moment they occurred, knowing no more and sometimes less than the characters themselves.

On the relationship of Antonioni’s films to neo-realism:

Looked at on the level of theme or meaning, many critics, especially in Italy, enjoying the warm humanism of neo-realism, found Antonioni’s work cold, depressing and, hopelessly, gloomily pessimistic. Some of this had to do with distance: an objectivity without sympathy; but mostly it related to the sense of disconnection. Even if the social environment weighed down figures in Visconti, de Sica, Rossellini, there was always hope, either for a change in the environment, or in pockets within it: faith, the family, love, affection. No matter how threatening, how awful things were, there were some eternal certainties or a political chance, love or solidarity, a retreat or a way forward. There is still Bruno and human will in Ladri di biciclette, the dog who saves the man in Umberto D, an optimistic tomorrow in Paisà and Roma, città aperta, struggles not in vain, not like in Antonioni where ends dissolve, and struggle ceases to have sense.

On the other hand, and Rossellini apart, the way ahead charted by these films was often familiar and conventional. What may have seemed grim in Antonioni’s themes, was positive, indeed exhilarating at the level of their realization; his films opened up new narrative and fictional possibilities in the very activity of dissolving what was certain and clear, in rejecting what neo-realism had made positive. And this is most evident visually: by the very fact of destabilising forms and structures, Antonioni permitted new forms to appear, hence new fascinations and new objects to make themselves felt. Neo-realism, on the contrary, and despite the attentiveness it gave to technique and to film language, was conservative, intent on declaring established, unshakeable things, certainties and orders which by the mid-50s even its greatest apologists had to admit no longer held.

A certain figuration present in Antonioni’s films, including Cronaca:

… when the attention of the camera is caught by something either peripheral to the narrative or utterly unconnected with it, and the camera simply wanders off, focuses on a pattern, or a shadow, or an extraneous event, becomes a camera-errant while the narrative is seemingly left to one side. […] What is interesting about these figures in the films — and they become more frequent in later films — is that [...] this place at which the narrative dies, at which the camera becomes distracted, is often a place at which another non-narrative interest develops: the light and tone of things, compositional frames created by doorways, beams, gates, gratings, the shifting of colour, a shimmering between figure and ground. These are places which are openly non-narrativised, of a pictorial and visual interest which suddenly takes hold, causes the narrative to err, to wander, momentarily to dissolve. They are among the most interesting places in Antonioni’s films, at which everything and nothing takes place.


* * *

Noël Burch considers Cronaca to be Antonioni’s masterpiece (or at least, given the various incarnations of Noël Burch, he did in 1969). In his classic text, Theory of Film Practice, he speaks of movements into and out of the frame, and the play with off-screen space, that occur in the film:

It has often been noted there are only two hundred or so separate shots in the entire film; most of them are very long, and all of them give proof of an absolutely unprecedented degree of visual organization. The principal structural factor in the film is movements into and out of the frame, used mainly for rhythmic effect but also serving to bring into play, in an entirely complex manner, the spatial segments immediately adjacent to the frame lines, particularly those on the right and the left. [...] Because of the camera movements and the characters' movements off screen [in the bridge party sequence], these entrances and exits always occur at unexpected places and unexpected moments. In other sequences of the film, Antonioni often prolongs an exit by having someone on screen look off screen in the direction of a person who has just left, thereby bringing that segment of off-screen space to life.


* * *

A few links:

-- Martin Scorsese on Antonioni in yesterday's NYT.

-- Sam Rohdie's words of introduction at the Hong Kong Arts Centre retrospective of Antonioni.

-- Dan Sallitt makes many astute and useful stylistic observations about post-war George Cukor.

-- Michael Sicinski on Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn and Ousmane Sembène.

-- Andy Horbal on Alfred Hitchcock.

-- The Art of Memory: "Some flares, flickers and circles of confusion from The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (long version)".

pic: Lucia Bosè in Cronaca di un Amore [“Story of a Love Affair”] (1950)

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Bergman



First, a huge thanks to Jim Healy and Pat Loughney at George Eastman House for inviting me to join them and Dave Kehr for the weekend in Rochester. We packed a boatload of rarities into two days: three by Raoul Walsh (The Monkey Talks [1927], The Mystery of the Hindu Image [1914], Kindred of the Dust [1922]); two by Allan Dwan (Fifty-Fifty [1916], David Harum [1915]); Edgar G. Ulmer’s Natalka Poltavka (1937); Josef von Sternberg’s Crime and Punishment (1935); and Joseph Pevney’s 3 Ring Circus (1954).

Every bit as rare and fun was the company and the nonstop film-talk. The sheer number of films that Dave, Jim and Pat have seen (and can call up instantaneously and vividly from their memory-banks) is absolutely staggering. It has now officially dawned on me that the number of good films in the universe is, for all practical intents and purposes, infinite. (Duh.)


* * *

So, Jonathan Rosenbaum has a controversial piece on Ingmar Bergman (“Scenes from an Overrated Career”) in the NYT. Some eloquent reactions, well worth reading, can be found at: a_film_by, Zach’s place, and the comments section of the previous post here (scroll down).

I have some trouble with several points of rationale JR uses in his critique. First, applying the word “theatrical” reflexively as a pejorative for films is tricky. Cinema is a synthetic art, combining literature, music, theater, etc., but it’s also a synergistic art in that these elements go through some sort of a transformative operation to emerge as something qualitatively different in the finished cinematic work. Since ‘theater’ is an element of cinema, it can be problematic to automatically use the word to criticize a film.

Second, lack of prestige in academia for a filmmaker could be as much evidence of unjust neglect for one reason or another as of declining relevance or quality. Third (as Zach points out), using sexy women to sell Art is hardly unique, either now or in the 60s. Finally, so many of the justifications used in the piece to devalue Bergman can arguably be wielded to praise some other filmmaker ("the power to entertain," "fluid storytelling," "deftness in handling actresses," "his favorite sores and obsessions," "ugly" emotions, "antiseptic, upscale" interiors, "distinctively theatrical").

Rosenbaum’s piece is definitely a putdown but I don't really see it as vicious or scandalous. It’s a contrarian dissent and I think it can be put to productive use. Unlike the middlebrow hatchet job the NYT performed on Derrida a couple of years back, this is an op-ed piece, not an obit, and while clearly not a ‘balanced’ one, I’m glad it’s out there. (Here is the respectful NYT Bergman obit; I agree that the practice of using an obit to settle old scores is pretty gauche.) I think JR’s piece can serve a good purpose by setting in motion some re-evaluation and dialogue. In the a_film_by discussion, several charges are leveled at the piece and JR responds to some of them, acknowledging their legitimacy and adding that "the article is meant to stir the pot, not close the lid.”

Can I confess something? I really admire Bergman both as a film-historical figure and as a filmmaker, but I have some trouble with a couple of aspects of his work. Sometimes his films seem to contain (for me) a sadomasochistic streak that sets up a through-line from the creator’s self-punishment, that punishment then proceeding to characters and then the audience in sequence. I find it hard to come up with a convincing aesthetic justification for this strategy (which in itself, of course, is neutral and not worthy of condemnation) in Bergman’s films; I can also sense the filmmaker taking a certain relish in this gratuitous exercise. This bothers me.

Now, Bresson’s films can be every bit as convulsive and pain-filled and anguish-causing, but I never question his motives or impulses the way I’m a bit suspicious of them in Bergman. (Just my subjective and honest reaction here.)

Finally, what of Bergman’s modernist experiments and their merits? When I first encountered his late 60s films, many years ago, they were my earliest exposure to cinematic modernism. Persona, The Passion of Anna, and Shame struck me with gale force. Antonioni means more to me now than Bergman (both as filmmaker and film modernist), and I am curious, and also a little afraid, about revisiting those 60s Bergman films and wondering how they’ll strike me. Perhaps the Rosenbaum piece provides just the catalyst to do that.

If you feel like it: I'm wondering what your favorite Bergman films are, which ones have held up well for you, and which haven't? And any thoughts on why?


* * *

A few links:

-- Steven Shaviro on Antonioni.

-- At Acquarello's: current and upcoming DVD releases.

-- David Bordwell: "Two Chinese men of the cinema."

-- Michael Atkinson at Zero for Conduct: "I’d like to use The Bourne Ultimatum as a stick with which to beat modern American movies."

-- Isidore Isou, 1925-2007.

-- At Chris Cagle's: several new posts on films from 1947.

-- This one-minute clip, "Tyrone on the News," is one of the funniest things I've seen on YouTube. (Via Panopticist.)