Friday, March 06, 2009

Around & About

First, there's a new issue of Rouge, titled "Teenage Wildlife," devoted to accounts of youth in cinema. Helen Bandis, Adrian Martin and Grant Mcdonald begin their introduction thus:

There are many ways, in cinema, to tell the story of youth. One can tell it as a reassuring ‘rite of passage’ that takes us safely (with a few thrills and tears along the way) from childhood innocence to adult maturity. One can tell it nostalgically, as an adult reminiscence of the ‘days gone by’, the world as a simpler place back then ... One can show teenagers slowly integrating themselves, becoming part of a family, a community, a nation, a world.

Or we can tell another story: the story of Teenage Wildlife. The story of teenagers living in an eternal present moment, like a savage, roaming pack of animals. Living violently, impulsively, on their wits and instincts. Without ties to family, to adults, to any kind of civilised society. Teenagers in a world apart, their own, separate universe which is incomprehensible to the concerned adults (parents, police, social workers, politicians) who look on, aghast. Teenagers who (in the immortal words of the Surrealist Robert Benayoun) exhibit all the ‘normal qualities of youth: naiveté, idealism, humour, hatred of tradition, erotomania, and a sense of injustice’.

Alluding to Marcos Uzal on Jerzy Skolimowski, they write:

Skolimowski remained fixed, according to Uzal, on ‘awkward adolescents and immature adults, on the insolence of sons and the disillusionment of fathers. What do we gain and what do we lose in leaving our youth?’ There is an intensely physical struggle betrayed by each youthful body, as Skolimowki’s beloved author Gombrowicz put it: a fight between the ‘inconsolable boy’ and the ‘made man’. At stake, at all times, is the difficult – perhaps impossible – entry of youth into the larger ‘social body’, the certified world of maturity and ‘experience’ (as Benjamin mocked it). For many constituent members of the teenage wildlife, that passage will not be achieved at all; the bubble that defines their tumultuous eternal present will be burst only in the instant of death.

The issue also features a couple of cinephile-bloggers including Zach Campbell and Jenna Ng.

* * *

Other recent web reading:

-- David Lowery, whom we have long known as a presence in the film-blogosphere, has made his first feature film. It's called St. Nick, and the trailer looks tantalizing. I wrote a post about David's short films a couple of years ago.

-- Anthony Kaufman has a piece on the demise of VHS at Moving Image Source. Some of the responses to it include: Craig Keller at Cinemasparagus; and a discussion around Peter Martin's post at Cinematical.

-- Do you google up every film you see, new or old? I do, and that's why one-stop collections of links to writings on a film are so invaluable. Here are two recent excellent examples: Michael Guillen's round-up on Chantal Akerman's Je Tu Il Elle; and Kevin Lee's links post with hefty excerpts on Frank Borzage's Moonrise.

-- Chris Fujiwara on Paul Schrader: "It feels cold to write of someone who has been directing for 30 years that his first film is his best, but I have little hesitation in declaring BLUE COLLAR (1978)...Schrader's strongest and sharpest movie to date. One of the few American commercial films to take a sustained, insightful, and informed look at the problems of workers, Blue Collar is stringent in its treatment of the dehumanization and occasional violence of an auto-assembly line, the financial pressures on the middle class, the need to escape through alcohol and cocaine."

-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on the newly released 26-film DVD set Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film 1947-1986: "Movies are among the most fragile of art forms, and avant-garde films are among the most fragile of movies. Usually made on delicate, narrow-gauge stock (16 millimeter, 8 millimeter and Super 8, formats made virtually obsolete by video), printed directly from the original camera materials and distributed informally in a small number of copies, many of the avant-garde films of the 20th century have become difficult to see in anything like their original state."

-- Also on this DVD set: Ed Halter at Moving Image Source. I noticed recently that Halter has put together a most useful webpage of experimental resources.

-- More at Moving Image Source: Jonathan Rosenbaum on Cinéma Cinémas, a French TV series devoted to cinephilia. Also: Jonathan on Molly Haskell's new book, Frankly My Dear: Gone With The Wind Revisited: "I’m glad that Armond White gave this book a favorable review in the New York Times, which it clearly deserves. But I wish he hadn’t muddied his kindness with lazy misinformation and lazier prose."

-- A 'Film Festival Research' bibliography gathered by Skadi Loist and Marijke de Valck for Universität Hamburg. Via Adrian Martin's new column at Filmkrant, which is on web film resources and film festivals.

-- There are hundreds of film essays available to read at the Criterion website.

-- At The Auteurs' Notebook, Danny Kasman, Ry Knight and Andrew Grant interview Film Comment's Gavin Smith.

-- I've been catching up on some great blogosphere reading lately, especially new posts at: Vinyl Is Heavy; Film Studies for Free; Tativille; and Serge Daney in English (new links to two Daney pieces);

-- A 1928 interview with King Vidor from the British film magazine Close Up is reproduced at Man Without A Star.

-- David Bordwell has a terrific piece on documentary:

People tend to think that documentary films are typified by two conditions. First, the events we see are unstaged, or at least unstaged by the filmmaker. If you mount a parade, the way that Coppola staged the Corpus Christi procession in The Godfather Part II, then you aren’t making a documentary. But if you go to a town that is holding such a procession and shoot it, you are making a doc—even though the parade was organized to some extent by others. Fiction films stage their events for the camera, but documentaries, we tend to think, capture spontaneous happenings.

Secondly, in a documentary the camera is seizing those events photographically. The great film theorist André Bazin saw cinema’s defining characteristic as its capacity to record the actual unfolding of events with little human intervention. All the other arts rely on human creation at a basic level: the novelist selects words, the painter chooses colors. But the photographer or filmmaker employs a machine that impassively records what is happening in front of it. “All the arts are based on the presence of man,” Bazin writes; “only photography derives an advantage from his absence.” This isn’t to say that cinema can’t be artful, only that it offers a different sort of creativity than we find in the traditional arts. The filmmaker works not with pure imaginings but obstinate chunks of actual time and space. [...]

Film theorist Noël Carroll defines documentary as the film of “purported fact.” Carl Plantinga makes a similar point in saying that documentaries take “an assertive stance.” Both these writers argue that we take it for granted that a documentary is claiming something to be true about the world. The persons and actions are to be taken as representing states of affairs that exist, or once existed. This is not something that is presumed by The Gold Rush, Magnificent Obsession, or Speed Racer. These films come to us labeled as fictional, and they do not assert that their events and agents ever existed.

pic: From David Lowery's St. Nick (2009).


Blogger ADRIAN said...

I also like David Bordwell's take on the documentary! He explored the nuances of the combination of animation and documentary, a title given to Waltz with Bashir. It's really a great article.

March 07, 2009 8:42 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, we now have not one but *two* Adrians on this site!

Yes, I liked the Bordwell piece too.

March 07, 2009 10:13 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

Just to add to the list -- the latest issue of Cineaste is out, with more and more exclusive material at

March 07, 2009 3:44 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

The Bordwell piece is quite interesting as always. I'm going to have to think about it further.

The first thing that I'm tempted to question, however, is his placement of Persepolis in the category of documentary, just prior to saying that the main reason Creature Comforts isn't classified so is "because the film doesn’t come to us labeled that way". Yet this is the first time I've ever heard Satrapi's film labeled as a doc, and in fact she's said, "It's not a documentary on my life. It's story, and you should never forget that."

There must be another proof one could use to classify Persepolis as a documentary, but I'm having trouble thinking of one that doesn't also include films like Samira Makhmalbaf's the Apple, or Alfred E. Green's the Jackie Robinson Story, or even Laurent Cantet's the Class. I'll be quite impressed if someone can draw a demarcating border around the documentary category that's clear, consistent and credible. I suspect it's a concept too slippery to contained that way.

March 08, 2009 6:51 AM  
Blogger ADRIAN said...

Yeah! i'm the lesser ADRIAN. haha!

March 08, 2009 11:52 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Corey and Brian! Here's a clickable link to the Cineaste issue online.

Adrian, let's just say that you are Adrian Jr!

March 09, 2009 7:19 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Quick Las Palmas report from Adrian Sr. - Philippe Grandrieux´s UN LAC is the greatest film of the 21st century! While Lubitsch´s THE MAN I KILLED (aka BROKEN LULLABYE), which I have watched twice in 2 days, may be the greatest of the 20th!!

The Claire Denis 35 RHUMS is pretty good, too. But that CHRISTMAS TALE film that many rave about is obscene! Craziest film so far is Julio Bressane´s HERB OF THE RAT, as strange as its title. And also had a chance to see the wonderful OUR BELOVED MONTH OF AUGUST again. Director Miguel Gomes is keen to see Brisseau´s SOUND AND FURY in the ROUGE TEENAGE WILDLIFE program !!

March 09, 2009 10:26 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I agree with Brian, Persepolis is not a documentary. I believe we had a discussion about (auto-)biographies on this blog a while ago. I don't think a biography qualifies as a documentary, even if it's true.
And Waltz With Bashir is an hybrid. Because a movies doesn't have to be all or nothing. If there was only rotoscoped talking heads I would agree with Bordwell that "animation" can be documentary too, but it's the re-enactments and dream sequences that disqualify the whole movie.

I prefer to differentiate documentary from fiction by this definition : if the onscreen persons pretend the camera crew doesn't exist in their diegesis, then it's fiction.
And if the cameraman of a documentary asks the interviewees to ignore the camera, the staging control already fails the definition.

March 09, 2009 10:29 AM  
Anonymous Jake said...

Check out the Grandrieux parody! :)

March 09, 2009 4:09 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Darn--still cursing Toronto for not programming UN LAC for TIFF!

And I'm reminded: A Miguel Gomes tribute at FIPRESCI by Markus Keuschnigg.

March 09, 2009 6:41 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


Thanks for the Rouge pointer. My life starts over with every issue.

Adrian Sr.,

I had the pleasure of seeing The Man I Killed(also twice!) as part of Jonathan Rosenbaum's First Transition series at the Film Center in Chicago. This is the film that, more than any other, reminds us that the "Lubitsch Touch" isn't a question of comedy--it's a whole way of looking at the world. I challenge anyone to find a film that's as impassioned and direct as this one and isn't directed by Chaplin.

And, as you know the 21st century better than anyone I can think of, I'll take your recommendation of Un Lac to heart.


Re: The Bordwell. Isn't it maybe best to not differentiate between documentary and "fiction?" Every "fictional" film is very documentary (of, at very least, its own production) and documentaries all fictionalize. Though, if we choose to make the distinction, the system HarryTuttle suggests is probably the most intelligent. But questions arise: a camera is always a camera. Is an actor playing to the camera documenting a performance?

March 09, 2009 11:29 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Good question, Ignatius, and one I've often asked myself. I guess one reason I think the topic is worth examining is because films are labeled "fiction" or "non-fiction", "narrative" or "documentary" so commonly in the wider world. It may be only incidental to my own appreciation of a film to know where it fits in such a classification system, but it seems to be important for most viewers.

Going a bit further, I think that it's important for our society to practice talking about these issues, because of the way moving images can be manipulated for propaganda purposes (both in so-called "fiction" and "non-fiction" modes) and it may be helpful to develop and proliferate language that helps us understand when and how this happens. We may not need to draw a clear border between "documentaries" and "not documentaries" as long as we can discuss documentary and non-documentary aspects of film, however.

Harry's definition is fascinating, perhaps because it seems to disallow everything from nature films to compilation films like Los Angeles Plays Itself to "pure" Direct Cinema works (if such things exist- I'm not sure they do) from the documentary category. Very interesting!

March 10, 2009 4:52 AM  
Anonymous Tom said...

This is completely OT, but I have a captive audience of very well read cinephiles, so...

I was reading one of Nicole Brenez's letters in Movie Mutations (again...) and she reinvigorated an interest in 70s cinema.

Are there any good analytical books on 70s film? Not anecdotal ones like Easy Riders Raging Bulls. I can't really find anything.

March 10, 2009 6:41 AM  
Blogger Dmitry said...

two books that seem to fit your description are The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s (edited by Elsaesser and Horwath) and French Cinema in the 1970s: The Echoes of May by Alison Smith.

March 10, 2009 7:05 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Tangentially related: a lengthy discussion we had here about Bill Nichols' six types of documentary a couple of years ago.

March 10, 2009 9:55 AM  
Anonymous Tom said...

Thanks Dmitry, both those books sound really interesting. And I really like Elsaesser, his stuff is always worthwhile.

March 10, 2009 12:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tom, I second Dmitry's recommendations on both books! Here's the table of contents of the Elsaesser/Noel King/Horwath collection.

March 10, 2009 1:01 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Is there such a thing as a nature film with "wildlife fiction"?
I suppose the definition is only ambiguous when (human) acting is suspicious.
Los Angeles Plays itself is an hybrid. I see the problem with documentaries about cinema... but in term of the nature of images, fiction clips used in a different context are always fiction.

March 10, 2009 3:21 PM  
Blogger Matthew Flanagan said...

Re: Adrian Sr.'s nutshell festival report. I don't get on with Grandrieux's films nearly as much as I would like - must be one be one of those "conflict of character" situations that Miguel was talking about in the last comments thread. The opening sequence of Un lac is amazing, but the rest left me increasingly bemused (I think I must prefer the less insistent Denis, Akerman or Tsai strain of corporeal cinema to Grandrieux's).

Does anybody know whether there is any kind of (US/UK/wherever) distribution planned for Our Beloved Month of August? Adrian's recs and the recent interview with Gomes in Cinema Scope have really heightened my anticipation...

March 10, 2009 5:44 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hello, all! Just popping up to say: New post--with exciting news!--coming up in a few hours...

March 11, 2009 12:58 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dave Kehr with news of an auction of New Yorker Films' assets.

March 11, 2009 1:02 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Total revelation of the Las Palmas Festival: Skolimowski´s LE DEPART. The last great Nouvelle Vague film of the 60s, albeit made by a Pole in Belgium!! Incredible fusion of scene/image with Komeda´s amazing jazz score. This is the DVD we need!!!

March 11, 2009 3:51 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Harry, I realize I was not thinking carefully about your words when using the nature film example.

However, I'm most curious to hear your thoughts on your definition of documentary as it relates to Direct Cinema. Do the films of Wiseman, Maysles, Drew, etc. in which the camera's presence is never acknowledged by the subjects qualify as documentaries for you? Or are they hybrids as well?

March 11, 2009 5:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How curious. Recently I stumbled on Le Départ on late-night TV, not knowing what it was or who made it, and concluded that it was the worst, over-ripe pardody/imitation of the nouvelle vague one could imagine by a second-rate director. Adrian Sr loves it. I saw Un lac at a festival last fall and thought it the worst, over-ripe parody/imitation of today's interesting 'slow-moving' directors by someone who obviously doesn't know a thing about cinema. Adrian Sr loves it. There's no accounting for taste (wther his or mine is a matter of debate).

March 11, 2009 5:19 PM  
Blogger girish said...

"wther his or mine is a matter of debate"

Anonymous, it's true: there is no accounting for taste! But can you please tell us who you are?

March 11, 2009 5:26 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Nature films have their forgery of ellipsis and editing too, but it's not the footage itself that is not conform to reality, it's the storytelling.

Well, I guess my definition doesn't cover every imaginable subtype of documentaries. But it's an objective rational we can figure out from the images themselves without assuming whether the content of the material is true or propaganda, which is obviously a subjective statement, and one that requires extra-filmic knowledge about the events/people/locations themselves.
Though mockumentaries pass the definition loophole, purposefully for them.

Borat = documentary or fiction ?

I'm not very familiar with the images of Direct Cinema. I've only seen a few. If the camera is not acknowledged (in the film) it obviously means the editing took out the clues, and like I mentioned it's already proof of staging control of the recordings. But it doesn't mean the footage is non-realistic.
What gives away fiction is that scenes are filmed over and over, behaviours are conditioned by the script...
To me documentary is Real Life footage. When you put a camera in the street, it never goes unnoticed. So if you don't keep the public reaction on the editing table, you're not documenting exactly what you see.

So even if it's not "pure" documentary, it could be something else like a Flaherty re-enactment. It doesn't mean it's fiction. Documentary and Fiction (and Hybrid which is a voluntary mix of both pure kinds) are not the only possibilities. There is autobiography, essay film, narrative/narrated documents... or TV reportage. Which are all types of sub-documentaries, albeit without the foul proof images we need to trust them.

The reason so many people (filmmakers and critics alike) tend to ignore the frontier between fiction and non-fiction is precisely because so few documentaries are "pure", so many use and abuse the gimmicks of narrative fiction. It's an understandable compromise to recount events in compressed time, but it shouldn't render obsolete the specificity of proper documentaries. We should defend images that are true to themselves, without artifice.

March 11, 2009 9:07 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

March 12, 2009 4:34 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Harry, thanks for your thoughtful response.

One thing about the Direct Cinema practitioners' technique: though the removal of camera acknowledgment through editing was/is a part of their strategy, it was not the only important one. They argued that when the filmmaker spends enough time with her or his subject(s), the camera eventually becomes part of the wallpaper and will be automatically ignored; perhaps even forgotten.

Of course, this philosophy put them at odds with the Cinéma Vérité proponents who believed truth is best reached by direct engagement between camera and subject, so that the audience is always aware of the filmmaking apparatus. There was a huge dust-up on the issue at a conference in Lyon in 1963, where North American adherents of Direct Cinema met with French Vérité filmmakers and found their differences difficult to reconcile.

March 14, 2009 2:57 AM  
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