The Filmmaker Overview Essay
There is a genre of film criticism that I find intimidating enough that I've never managed to produce a piece of writing in it. I speak of the filmmaker overview essay. For a film-lover, it's an immensely useful and educational form. I'm always looking out for good examples of it. A couple of terrific ones have appeared online recently.
At 16:9, Adrian Martin writes about Abel Ferrara:
Most great directors have signatures: Max Ophuls’ expansively tracking camera, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s static long shot-long takes, Jean-Luc Godard’s montage-mix of sampled and interrupted sound sources. But Ferrara? There is no consistent affectation, no recognisable manner in his prodigious forms. In the prolific ‘90s, especially, diversity rules: can it be the same director who mastered, so swiftly, the hyper-Michael Mann style of cool nocturnal blue in King of New York, the minimalist ‘stations of the cross’ intrigue in Bad Lieutenant, the stark black and white exploitation-horror of The Addiction, the stately, sombre mise en scène of The Funeral and the hallucinatory, multi-layered collage of The Blackout? [...]
Yet if Ferrara lacks a signature - and maybe that, in our auteur-commodity market, slyly and subversively, is his signature - he has honed an attitude to content and an approach to form that are razor sharp. Ferrara is in the tradition of John Cassavetes and Maurice Pialat: he seeks the truth of the moment, the nub of a contradiction, the telling flashpoint of tension. In interviews or documentaries, that is all he will talk about: ‘getting the shot’, nailing something in an image, a performance, an exchange, a riff. His cinema is a postmodern gestalt, a fusion in dissonance: bodies, environments, songs, colours and edits are so powerfully compacted in his work that we can hardly separate the elements, as we can with the work of ‘cleaner’ directors.
James Quandt isn't read as widely as he should be, mainly because most of his writing is done for the Cinematheque Ontario season programme guide, which is largely unavailable at libraries and newsstands. In the new issue he writes about the latest retrospective he's assembled, the films of Nagisa Oshima:
Much parsed and puzzled over, Shohei Imamura’s famous pronouncement, “I’m a country farmer; Nagisa Oshima is a samurai” may be ambiguous in tone and intent – is it ironic, invidious, deferential? – but it emphasizes the directors’ differences: class, stylistic, and otherwise. Often paired as twin avatars of the Japanese New Wave, a term Oshima (born in Kyoto, 1932) took every opportunity to spurn and disparage, the two fit uncomfortably in that “movement” and with each other. Sharing formal and social audacity, a brilliant ability to exploit the widescreen format, a rejection of the refined and self-sacrificing tenor of traditional Japanese cinema, a propensity for mixing fiction and reality, and certain key themes – sex and criminality, the abuse and resilience of women, incest, the social fissures of postwar Japan, the aggravated acts of outcasts in a tightly battened monoculture – Imamura and Oshima nevertheless can be construed as contraries, if not opposites. (It would be illuminating to pair certain of their films: Imamura’s A Man Vanishes with Oshima’s The Man Who Left His Will on Film; Pigs and Battleships with The Sun’s Burial; Vengeance Is Mine with Violence at Noon.) Where Imamura made defiantly “messy” and “juicy” (his preferred terms) films that celebrated the irrational, the instinctual, the carnal, squalid, violent, and superstitious life of Japan’s underclass, Oshima’s films are primarily ideational, probing, and controlled even when anarchic (e.g. Three Resurrected Drunkards). Which is not to say they are dry (as opposed to juicy) or cerebral. Even at their most complex – the densely structured Night and Fog in Japan, for instance, all but dictates a second viewing – Oshima’s works exhibit such wit, beauty, and furious invention, never mind profound feeling, that their conceptual gambits take on sensual and emotional force. They are less the product of a postmodernist sensibility, as some critics have characterized Oshima’s strategies, than of a desperate intelligence. Oshima made films as if they were a matter of life and death.
The Oshima series has been producing a bumper crop of writing, a lot of it available online. At Artforum, here's Jonathan Rosenbaum:
Oshima's cinema consists of particular interventions in Japan’s internal political debates, and freely draws on forms as well as styles that seem to come from everywhere, including Japan. Some would call this disconcertingly voracious trait “very Japanese,” and it helps to account for the truism that no two Oshima films are alike. Each new feature critiques its predecessors: After vowing to abolish green from his palette in his first foray into color, Cruel Story of Youth, as a way of refusing any trace of domestic tranquillity, he used green frequently and effectively two features later (without suggesting much domestic tranquillity), in his first truly personal work, Night and Fog in Japan, meanwhile countering the earlier film’s neorealist locations and handheld-camera movements with artificially lit theatrical spaces and smooth if restless pans between characters at a wedding party. Both films are steeped in the dark pessimism characteristic of Oshima’s films of the ’60s. [...]
Where Oshima differs most strikingly from an antisentimental, leftist provocateur like Buñuel is in the relative absence of humanism in his work. (Boy, a mainly sympathetic look at a lonely ten-year-old con artist, is a rare exception.) If The Sun’s Burial (1960)—an early shocker about rival street gangs in an Osaka slum—was partly inspired by Buñuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), as the British DVD’s liner notes maintain, the notion of Oshima showing any tenderness toward his doomed punks, as Buñuel does toward Jaibo, is unthinkable—even if Oshima is no less outraged by corpses being dumped like garbage. And the repeated occurrences of sexual assault (mainly rape) in Cruel Story of Youth, The Sun’s Burial, Violence at Noon (1966), Sing a Song of Sex (1967), Death by Hanging, Diary of a Shinjuku Thief (1968), The Man Who Left His Will on Film (1970), Empire of Passion, and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence—usually committed by his protagonists and often seen as acts of rebellion against the Japanese state (a view at least contested in Death by Hanging)—suggest that, with the possible exception of In the Realm of the Senses, feminism and nonviolence are not exactly hallmarks of his leftist positions.
John Wakeman's two-volume World Film Directors (1988; Norton), which weighs in at 2000+ pages, was the first book of filmmaker overview essays I can remember buying. Today, it seems stronger to me on informational detail than on personality. Richard Roud's 2-volume Cinema: A Critical Dictionary (1980; Martin, Secker & Warburg) is probably my single favorite collection in the genre. The list of writers includes: Noel Burch, Edgardo Cozarinsky, Jean-Andre Fieschi, Tom Milne, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Andrew Sarris, Robin Wood, and many others. The essays in the St. James Film Directors Encyclopedia edited by Andrew Sarris (1998; Visible Ink Press) are less lengthy and substantive in comparison to the Roud, but they have the advantage of including a wider range of filmmakers, many of them recent. Speaking of Sarris, his You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet: The American Talking Film, History & Memory, 1927-1949 (1998; Oxford) has the edge on his classic The American Cinema (1969) in one respect: its filmmaker essays are longer and meatier. A rare example for avant-garde cinema: Arden Press released two excellent volumes under the title Film: The Front Line, written by Jonathan Rosenbaum (1983) and David Ehrenstein (1984). A few years ago, my first encounter with David Thomson's The Biographical Dictionary of Film occurred with the most recent edition (2002; Knopf). I was struck immediately by the cursoriness of recent world/art cinema coverage and, annoyed, I put away the book. I picked it up again recently and loved the older pieces on Hawks and Rivette. I need to cherry-pick my way through it for the good stuff. Jean-Pierre Coursodon and Pierre Sauvage's 2-volume American Directors (1983; McGraw-Hill) is a recent discovery that I'm eager to dive into. Finally, the Senses of Cinema Great Directors database is the definitive resource of its kind on the Interwebs.
Can I ask: Do you have some favorite examples of either books or individual essays, print or online, of filmmaker overview pieces? Perhaps this post could serve as a collecting place for recommendations and suggestions.
-- "Manifesting the Ineffable": Darren has a wonderful conversation with Nathaniel Dorsky at Auteurs' Notebook.
-- Adrian's monthly column at Filmkrant: "Has film criticism entered its decadent phase? That term is used by art historians to designate the historic moment when an art form or medium turns its attention away from everything outside of itself - such as the real world - and looks inward, to its own devices, its own position, its own history. Decadence - or, to use a less loaded word, self-consciousness - tends to come around cyclically, at moments when, for one reason or another, such introspection becomes pressing. The art or discourse must take stock of itself, temporarily, in order to renew itself and continue its outer-directed mission."
-- Steven Shaviro discovers that the new issue of a poetry publication contains a poem credited to him that he didn't write. It prompts him to share some reflections on present-day "avant-gardism." (I'm in the publication too, credited with a poem I've never laid eyes on. Steve and I are both on poet Ron Silliman's blogroll, perhaps the reason why we ended up being unwittingly 'harvested' for this conceptual art project, if that's what it is.)
-- Speaking of filmmaker overview essays, Jonathan Rosenbaum has just posted one from 1988 on Sergei Parajanov.
-- Via Jonathan: an annotated shot list for RR from James Benning; Kristin Thompson's comments on the film from Vancouver (scroll down a bit); and Benning himself has a piece at the Wexner Center blog.
-- Kimberly Lindbergs has a post on fashion and The Thomas Crown Affair. (I must now see this film. Also, the Michel Legrand soundtrack is one of my favorites.)
-- At Owen Hatherley's: Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica's short film Dom (1958).
-- Tucker Teague at Pilgrim Akimbo: "How the Post-Christendom Church Mirrors the Impulse of Postmodern Art."
-- Jason Sperb and Will Scheibel announce a James Bond blogathon at Dr. Mabuse's Kaleido-Scope.
-- At The Listening Ear: an analysis of the crane shot in Ozu's Early Summer.
-- Philip Horne on Thorold Dickinson in The Guardian.