Wednesday, August 31, 2011

TIFF 2011



The TIFF lottery gods were uncommonly kind to me this year: I got nearly all my picks for the film festival. Here's what I'm seeing:

Dreileben ("Three Lives" -- three feature films, by Christian Petzold, Dominik Graf, and Christoph Hochhäusler; Germany)
Almayer's Folly (Chantal Akerman, Belgium/France)
The Turin Horse (Bela Tarr, Hungary)
The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium)
This is not a Film (Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and Jafar Panahi, Iran)
Crazy Horse (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev, Russia)
That Summer (Philippe Garrel, France)
Le Havre (Aki Kaurismaki, Finland)
The Cardboard Village (Ermanno Olmi, Italy)
Outside Satan (Bruno Dumont, France)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (Sean Durkin, USA)
Life without Principle (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)
House of Tolerance (Bertrand Bonello, France)
ALPS (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
The Loneliest Planet (Julia Loktev, USA)
Elles (Malgoska Szumowska, Poland/France)
Good Bye (Mohammad Rasoulof, Iran)
Azhagarasamy's Horse (Suseendran, India)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
The Student (Santiago Mitre, Argentina)
Back to Stay (Milagros Mumenthaler, Argentina)
Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, Australia)

Films I wanted to see but was unable to schedule: The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, UK); Damsels in Distress (Whit Stillman, USA); Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols, USA); We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, UK); Invasion (Hugo Santiago, Argentina, 1969); Century of Birthing (Lav Diaz, Philppines); Once upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey); Faust (Alexander Sokurov, Russia); Low Life (Nicolas Klotz/Elizaeth Perceval); and Mushrooms (Vimukta Jayasundara, Sri Lanka). And my Wavelengths (avant-garde) schedule is still uncertain.

Here is a link to all the programmes at the festival. Any suggestions or recommendations? I'd love to hear them.


* * *

A few links:

-- For the next couple of weeks, during TIFF, Cinema Scope Online will be putting up new pieces each day.

-- Catherine Grant's post at Filmanalytical presents, with explanatory text, her latest video essay: on "the haptic" in film.

-- Good news: Nicholas Ray's We Can't Go Home Again has just been picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope Laboratories. Jonathan Rosenbaum has posted his essay on the film. Also at Jonathan's: an essay on Raymond Durgnat on the occasion of the launch of a new website devoted to Durgnat's writings. Right now there are links to a small number of pieces, and I hope the site will accumulate many more as time goes by. Finally: an interview with Jonathan by Michael Guillen titled "Positioning Cinephilia" in the journal Film International (not, alas, available to read online).

-- Jim Emerson helpfully (as always) gathers together the various strands of the recent "chaos cinema" debate.

-- Interested in browsing an eclectic set of links-filled posts? Visit Cinetrix.

-- Ignatiy V. on Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai's Don't Go Breaking My Heart.

-- Steven Shaviro: "What is the Post-Cinematic?"

-- (via Chris Fujiwara) A brief interview with Frederick Wiseman, "Finding a sharper focus on reality through literary criticism."

-- German cinema: I finally caught up with Maren Ade's Everyone Else, surely among cinema's great microscopic examinations of a relationship. The three-feature Dreileben is the film I'm most looking forward to at Toronto; here is a 2007 interview with one of its directors, Christoph Hochhäusler, who also helps run the film blog Revolver. Michael Sicinski's appetizing review of The City Below is here; I hope the film gets distributed in the US. I can't wait to see it.

pic: Dreileben - One Minute of Darkness.


Sunday, August 21, 2011

"A Ghost at Noon" by Adrian Martin



Raúl Ruiz died this week. Adrian Martin has written a personal, moving and illuminating tribute to him -- a 2,500-word piece that I'm posting below. Please also see Catherine Grant's large post of links on Ruiz's work at Film Studies for Free. Your thoughts on Ruiz's films -- and your favorites among his work? Please feel free to share them in the comments. -- Girish.


* * *

A GHOST AT NOON

"I try to remember that disparity exists. And that is a good way to remember death. Then death becomes something completely other than accommodating or resigning oneself to dying, something other than melancholia. On the contrary, it becomes a ‘working tool’."
- Raúl Ruiz, 1987

In the magisterial Mysteries of Lisbon (2011) – which is not, in fact, Raúl Ruiz’s final film (he subsequently shot La noche de enfrente in Chile), even if it is, happily, one of his most internationally successful – there is a scene in which the mysterious priest of the saga (superbly played by Adriano Luz) enters a private room in which we see, neatly arranged, the traces of all his other, previous identities. They are more than just disguises or costumes; they are his other selves. Ruiz’s camera makes a slow, elegant pan around this small, confined space of intrigue, coming to rest on the diminutive Father Dinis, simply reflecting, absorbing all these signs of the labyrinthine fiction of suffering and woe to which he has been a party, both player and puppet. It’s the kind of moment that – as in every great film – you don’t necessarily really see or take in on a first viewing, or even fifth viewing; but it’s there, waiting for you to catch up with it at last.

Another of the best Ruiz films, in my devoted opinion, is Three Lives and Only One Death (1996). It is among the many he made that reflect (in so many allegorical and metaphorical ways) on mortality. The movie seems to mark a somber limit: after living so many parallel lives, so many second chances, so many imaginary identities – each one spinning out its own world or universe – the main character (Marcello Mastroianni) discovers, as we discover, that the proliferating game comes to halt with the full stop of the mortal sentence: there is only one death and, beyond that, nothing (I believe Ruiz remained an atheist his entire life). But, in the immediate wake of the announcement of the director’s own passing at the age of 70, someone on Facebook turned this title around in a pleasing, triumphant way: one death, but so many lives.

And Ruiz did indeed lead so many lives, progressively as well as simultaneously. An astonishingly prolific artist who was unafraid to grab any production opportunity, no matter how small (“Give me ten thousand dollars or ten million dollars”, he once joked, “nothing in-between”), his career went through many phases. Although some commentators (including passionate supporters) tended to reduce every one of his works to the same ‘Ruizian’ wash of zany angles, coloured filters and narrative illogicalities – how he must have grown weary of that appellation, as Welles grew tired of Wellesian or Antonioni of Antonioniesque! – there are important differences, in scale, medium, strategy and level of achievement, between his very diverse productions. (He also disliked, by the way, the inevitable Frenchification of his Chilean first name into ‘Raoul’ – something I wish the New York Times and many French commentators had gotten up to speed with by now.)

I won’t attempt a synoptic sweep of his full career here – that will require a hefty book or three. Some highpoints that come immediately to mind, however: the first films made in Chile, 1960-1973, full of treasures unknown to many of us, such as No One Said Anything (1971) and Socialist Realism (1973) – what a blast, three years ago, to see in Valdivia the discovered and restored (by Ruiz himself, with a mouth-music sound accompaniment) inaugural short, La Maleta (The Suitcase, 1963). The wayward-lurching Los Tres Tristes Tigres (1968), a hyper-realist bourgeois drama already way out the other side of Cassavetes, Dogme and Mumblecore combined – arch-surrealist Ado Kyrou knew the spark of genius straight away when he saw that one, just as Serge Daney would, four or five years later, when Raúl and his wife, director-editor Valeria Sarmiento, had hastily relocated in France in exile from the dire political situation in Chile.

This begins the period via which most of us encountered Ruiz in the English-speaking world, usually belatedly: from Suspended Vocation (1977) and Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978) through to The Roof of the Whale (1981) and City of Pirates (1983) – an extraordinary run of dazzling, neo-baroque explosions, many emanating from the B movie-type conditions of television commission. Ruiz took his working-method inspiration on these projects from Edgar Ulmer or Buñuel in Mexico; the speed and improvisational gifts he evolved there meant, many years later, that he could sustain the elaborate mise en scène of Mysteries of Lisbon over an entire six episodes – something the HBO/Canal+ crowd cannot quite do.

Some of Ruiz’s champions tend to stall around here, fixating on these works and the apotheosis of their wild techniques in Treasure Island (1985) or Life is a Dream (1986). But Ruiz, far from exhausted, had a long way to go yet. The Blind Owl (1987), an adaptation of a classic Iranian modernist novel by Sadegh Hedayat, is among the summits of his career, as is the too-little-seen series Manoel on the Island of Marvels (1985), which crept out, unannounced but subtitled, at midnights on Australian television in the ‘90s. Dark at Noon (1992) looked like a turn into the ‘genre mainstream’ (horror-mystery), but when that didn’t pan out, Ruiz – as always – continued on with his low- or no-budget works, and essayistic videos like Mirror of Tunisia (1993) in collaboration with Abdelwahab Meddeb.

The long-nurtured partnership with Portuguese producer/entrepreneur Paulo Branco led to another kind of upswing in the mid ‘90s, with glamorous stars inside the labyrinthine plots of Genealogies of a Crime (1997) and, later, That Day (2003). The film that really made the difference for Ruiz, film-industry wise, in the 21st Century was Time Regained (1999) – and whoever first had the crazy idea to get him to helm this classic of French literature must be eternally thanked. This gave Ruiz the ability to keep lavish, high-profile projects (the ten million dollar ones), like the underrated Klimt (2006), going.

The works kept flowing forth, on all levels – the English language productions (genre turf, again) of Shattered Image (1998) and A Closed Book (2010), as well as the advanced hermetics of free experiments such as Love Torn in Dream (2000) with its multiple, arithmetically arranged, interconnecting plots across different historical times and spaces, or the heady Lost Domain (2005), or La maison Nucingen (2008). He worked in gallery installation and in theatre, a real multimedia guy, giving rise to pure experiments with actors and language like Agathopedia (2008) – every kind of actor loved Ruiz – and the tribute-in-process Responso: Homage to Huub Bals (2004), which had a special poignancy for its Rotterdam audience.

Ruiz was so often ahead of the curve: we hear a lot about mind-games and puzzle-films these days, as if Christopher Nolan is doing something new and innovative, but the real mind-games were laid out by Ruiz in Three Crowns of the Sailor (1982), The Comedy of Innocence (2001) and Three Lives and Only One Death. And then – once more obscured in the West – the return to Chile as both its Prodigal Son and Revered Master (national pride over him is more than palpable there): starting with the TV Dante (1992) and going right through Días de campo (2004) and two elaborate TV series (La recta provincia [2007] and Litoral [2008]), ending with the yet-unseen La noche de enfrente – and, in between, the groundbreaking long-form ‘digital essay’, between documentary and fiction, of the Chilean Rhapsody (2002-3), a marvel of exploration and inquisition.

Like every filmmaker, Ruiz always had many projects. He seemed to work on the principle once well described by Joseph Losey: have five films on the go, and you’ll get to make the sixth. And, because Ruiz wrote assiduously most days of his young-adult and adult life, deft writing without much need for redrafting, these were not mere sketches; he had a well-developed script in his drawer for most of them. But he almost never expressed regret for this or that unmade baby; as he once proclaimed, “it’s stupid to make only one at a time: you have to create a dozen or twenty in one” – so traces of phantom projects managed to find their way into every crevice, every opportunity.

Ruiz was a gifted teacher of filmmaking; several of his features, including The Golden Boat (1990) and Vertigo of the Blank Page (2003) emerged from ultra-low-budget classroom exercises. He always believed, pedagogically, in the rigorous union of doing and reflecting, in serene, morning/afternoon alternation; theory and practice were never split apart for him, although he would always add that, in his own work, he was able to carry out only a fraction of the experiments he conceived. Experimentation was, indeed, his watchword: in the last years of his life at University of Aberdeen in Scotland, he speculated about the possibility of marrying cinema theory with neuroscience via experiments on the brain and its strange force-field ‘aura’; this followed on from his interests in all things mathematical and scientific. He was a mind-bogglingly well-read person (while scoffing at the academic pedantry of precise bibliographic citation – he once tossed me a rare manuscript by someone who had crossed his path, saying: “If I need to refer to it, well, I know you’ve got it”) – and only Valeria could have the faintest clue, now, of all the rare and obscure texts he acquired (he was an avid antique book collector) and pored over in his lifetime.

The importance of Ruiz as a theorist of film has, I believe, been criminally underrated and overlooked. In many essays throughout his life (such as those given to Positif), in the brilliant Poetics of Cinema book series for Dis Voir (alas, now unfinished), and especially in his manifesto-like “The Six Functions of the Shot”, Ruiz probed, with infinite care and patience, the mysteries and possibilities of every linkage and liaison in cinema: cuts, camera movements, sounds, gestures, shadows, narrative and non-narrative events … And no less important, on this level, were his more obviously creative pieces (film, play and radio scripts, novels, the ‘notes for actors’ that he provided on all his later projects, and the literally hundreds of in-depth interviews he gave in many languages): Ruiz never ceased elaborating, teasing out, refining and extending his often extraordinary (and only seemingly whimsical) ideas. His life was one continuous ‘thought experiment’, as the logicians say.

I feel honoured and privileged to have known Raúl a little, between his visit to Australia in 1993 and his death. He was a marvellous, generous, endlessly hospitable guy (as all who ever visited his home in Belleville will testify), and his lifelong relationship with Valeria was something wondrous to behold. His mischievous sense of fun and laughter, once you had his trust, was truly infectious. Hanging out with him was always a delight, and brought unexpected revelations at every turn in the road, or in the conversation: from his sudden confession to me that “the great secret to good filmmaking is this: you must always cook for your cast and crew!”, to the reluctant admission that the reason he doesn’t figure much in Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema books (and he absolutely should) is that he and the philosopher once got into a raging fistfight after a hot intellectual disagreement.

A rarity among filmmakers, Raúl actually liked critics, and encouraged their creative drive (as with Benoît Peeters and Pascal Bonitzer) – although he was also sensitive to their capacity for fickleness, and easily hurt when he felt he had been unceremoniously ‘dumped’ by them (“dumped for Kiarostami!”, he once privately opined). Partly because of this, he developed, at least from the ‘80s on, a droll sense of cultural fashion: “Every five years, I am embraced for being a player of games”, he drily told me, “and then, for the next five years, I am castigated as being unserious and irrelevant. Then we start over again”. Ruiz knew how to bide his time, ride the waves, and stick to what mattered to him: serious playfulness, playful seriousness. Nobody in cinema worked that dialectic better than him.

But if I had to pick one anecdote (among so many) that best characterised the warmth and genuinely democratic, open spirit of Raúl, it would be from his International Rotterdam Film Festival retrospective of 2004, when I was standing next to him in a crowded foyer. Suddenly, he spotted and waved to a distant guy; they approached each other, warmly embraced, briefly chatted and parted ways in the throng. Who was he (I asked), an actor, a producer from one of his films? No: “He projected my films here in Rotterdam twenty years ago”. For Raúl, a good projectionist was just as important, just as valuable as anyone who contributed to his work, no less than a Malkovich or a Deneuve, a Jorge Arriagada (composer) or a Sacha Vierney (cinematographer). What a memory he had – and what a profoundly ethical sense, right where it most matters, in everyday life, and in the lived history of that everyday.

I first met Raúl when he was 52 years old – which is the age I am about to reach now. (I am instantly reminded of the beautiful sentence in Poetics of Cinema to the effect that his “astonishment” at Hollywood’s bizarre rules of storytelling “is as young today as I was then” when he first encountered them in a scriptwriting manual of the 1950s.) At that time, he was starting to feel an anxiety that I can only fully relate to at this point: a sense that his life’s work had been scattered, much of it lost, and out of his control or reach. He was looking for someone who could be both an archivist and a booking agent for his work in all media. There was a desperation in his voice and his eyes when he spoke about this – and that was an uncharacteristic symptom coming from this always elegant, controlled, outwardly modest man (“chaste”, he would say with a smile).

Mercifully, the coming history of technology turned to his assistance: on DVD – which I believe Raúl came to regard as his archive – so many works, unseen for decades, have come back: The Territory (1981), Point de fuite (1984), key shorts … and with a brisk trade in less legal restorations downloadable on-line. There remains so much more to cover and explore in Ruiz’s œuvre; most accounts barely scrape the tip of the iceberg.

In the whole time I knew him, and also frequently in his writings, Raúl would return to a peculiarly Chilean experience that fascinated him, the phenomenon of the ‘noonday ghost’. He would retell this typical, iterative tale with the utmost conviction and sincerity: walking in a Chilean street, he would see an old friend from 40 years ago. They would speak of banalities: the traffic light not working, the rising price of milk, the hole in the nearby bridge. Then they would saunter apart – with Raúl realising, some minutes later, that his friend had been dead for some long time already. This is the noonday ghost, Raúl explained: nothing like the Gothic ghost of shadows who avenges wrongs, returns the repressed or haunts the living with a malign force. The noonday ghost looks just like you or me, in the bright daylight, and is just as boring. This ghost is a figure for the other key dialectic in Ruiz’s cinema: the interplay of mystery and ministry, as he described it – sublime things that inevitably become dead ordinary, and ordinary things that become suddenly, strangely sublime.

I hope to bump into Raúl Ruiz, ghost at noon, someday in the street, or in a crowded cinema foyer. He will once again be walking calmly, hands clasped behind his back. And he will be saying, as he so often did, and will again: “Dying is no big thing”.

© Adrian Martin, 20 August 2011

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

LOLA



Adrian Martin and I are excited to announce the launch of our new Internet film journal LOLA.

We've worked steadily on the journal for the last several months. We owe enormous thanks to our webmaster, the filmmaker Bill Mousoulis, for his invaluable help; and to all the authors who were so wonderfully generous and patient during the entire process.

Here is the table of contents for the debut issue; the theme of the issue is "Histories."

Let me provide links below to the fifteen pieces in the issue, along with a brief excerpt from each:

-- Joe McElhaney, "Contemporary Cinema?": "I was born in 1957, the year Charles Chaplin made A King in New York. Chaplin was 68, allowing A King in New York to be seen as the film of not only ‘a free man’ (as Roberto Rossellini famously put it) but an old one […] [M]y relationship to contemporary cinema can be dominated by a passion for aging filmmakers, the older the better: Rohmer (deceased, but just barely), Resnais, Rivette. And who older (and perhaps better) than Oliveira?"

-- William D. Routt, "Innuendo 1.5": "Lubitsch’s offensive characters - named Moritz or Sally or Meyer - were not unlike the characters performed by some rappers today. They were composed of all the stereotypical traits that made Germans, even German Jews, uneasy. Sally Pinkus and his kind were in-your-face Jews, a combination of shmendrik and schlemihl [...]: lecherous, stupid, greedy, vulgar, sneaky, cunning, ill-mannered, klutzy, flamboyant. In Lubitsch’s films these awful characters triumphed: they got the girls and the money - just what anti-Semites, then and now, are afraid of. That was the joke."

-- Andrew Klevan, "Expressing the In-Between": [On the character played by Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby] "Susan’s fluidity and flexibility of movement shows a capacity for indefinite behaviour, an elegant erasing of boundaries (erected by stiffer bodies and stuffy institutions). The mythical forest is ideal, but she turns everywhere into an in-between place, where a lack of conventional determinations and destinations arouse indeterminacy. Maybe this is because, as she repeatedly tells us, she was born, not on the top, nor at the foot, but on the ‘side of a hill’."

-- Luc Moullet, "Ah Yes! Griffith was a Marxist!": "The film is also the first masterpiece of militant cinema. Eisenstein dreamed of adapting Capital, but Griffith had already done it twenty years before with this film. While we often think of the Southern conservative of The Birth of a Nation (1915), Griffith is here, paradoxically, very close to Karl Marx."

-- Richard Porton, "WR: Mysteries of the Organism: Anarchist Realism and Critical Quandaries": "Makavejev’s playful, allusive film, an apt case study for testing the capabilities of a robustly contextualist criticism, cries out for what, following Clifford Geertz, social scientists (as well as a recent generation of literary critics) refer to as ‘thick description’. For resourceful critics, WR is also the perfect vehicle for flights of essayistic fancy. Raymond Durgnat, a famously digressive critic himself, compared Makavejev’s magnum opus to an ‘adventure playground’."

-- Shigehiko Hasumi, "Fiction and the 'Unrepresentable': All Movies are but Variants on the Silent Film": "Stated briefly, my hypothesis is that the medium of film has not yet truly incorporated sound as an essential component of its composition. This statement applies generally to all types of film, whether produced for entertainment or for artistic ends, irrespective of the form in which they have been consumed throughout the history of the medium stretching back over one hundred years. Another way of expressing this hypothesis is to say that the so-called talkie is in fact no more than a variant of the silent film."

-- Sylvia Lawson, "Out of the Mid-Century: History, Memory and Cinema": "Watching cinema, we’re always watching history. It could be the history of the present, or else history as it was unfolding in the time of the film’s production. If it’s a period-piece, the history isn’t so much in what’s illustrated as in the way of looking at the story. Those genteel costume dramas produced by the renascent Australian industry in the ‘70s had nothing to do with (for example) girls’ boarding schools in 1900. The history they tell us is the history of ideas about what a national cinema should be doing. There was an aspiration in there, a straining toward European art-cinema, and a lot of cultural anxiety."

-- Stephen Goddard, "'So, Did You See Me?': Testimony, Memory and Re-Making Film History": "In 1997, my mother engaged in a process of remembering, narrating and reconsidering her histories when her video testimony was recorded by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. […] Some families are able to gather around a family photo album, to hear the stories that surround the images of parents and relatives in earlier times. My parents did not have any photographs from their days before war. My mother’s prisoner number clothing tag is the earliest remaining image representing her identity. As an antidote to the lost images of her formative days, and as a way of representing the events that were never recorded, the stories and anecdotes from her Shoah testimonial have now become the soundtrack to a lost ‘home movie’."

-- Darren Tofts, "In My Time of Dying: The Premature Death of a Film Classic": "What do we conclude from the jaundiced history of The Song Remains the Same? It is clear that, rather than some hideous chimera that should never have been made, the film and the story of its making is, in fact, archetypal filmmaking. The history of cinema is the history of overcoming circumstance. From a cybernetic point of view, the final film that is eventually screened is not a successful culmination of shooting, editing and post-production schedule. It is a measure of the degree to which entropy or error has been avoided or at the very least minimised during the entire production process."

-- Adrian Martin, "Dinosaurs, Babies and the Sound of Music": "It is important to remember this in the discussion of cinema: we must follow the music. Because, of all the arts, music – no matter how deeply rooted it is in the history and tradition of its country of origin – is the most stateless, the most nomadic and migratory. Wherever it lands, it takes root: becoming an intimate part of one’s experience, one’s history. Music’s destiny is always to be appropriated, but not in the sophisticated, knowing, tortuous way the visual arts, at least since the ‘60s, have violently appropriated images, wrenching them from their context and brazenly advertising the thematics of that displacement. Music simply carries..."

-- Justine Grace, "The Streets: Breaking out of the Black Box/White Cube in Rotterdam": "For Carels, a guiding principle in compiling the XL programme was the relationship between a work of art, or film, and its site; the idea that locations outside the traditional exhibition space of the white cube/black box could provide an illuminating exhibition framework that enhanced the meaning of the work and the experience of the viewer."

-- Nicole Brenez, "F.J. Ossang: The Grand Insurrectionary Style": "Instead of showing the chase or the race, Ossang films the world that produces such velocity, plunging into the substance of colours and the experience of sensations. Whatever the story may be, it springs from a love of words: not so much the dialogue but the formulation, the insert, the slogan, the point – giving rise to the monumental handwriting that so characterises his work. But, most of all, Ossang’s cinema involves bringing back epic gestures to popular visual culture, tearing things apart until they become inconceivably beautiful."

-- James Guida, "Stuck in the Mud: The Visions of Lucrecia Martel": "Martel’s characters flit in and out of harm’s shadow as a matter of course. The interest is not in danger as shock value, but in its regular promise and proximity, in the sights and sounds that surround its unfolding."

-- David Phelps, "Think But This ... 36 vues du Pic St-Loup": "Rivette, like Louis Feuillade, frames spaces as stages, even outside: the movie exists only within the world its characters have created. Characters enter the frame as they would enter a doorway on-stage to join a scene; if they are not in frame, they are ghosts, with no relevance to the scene at all except as ghosts, and when the audience is not seen in the rehearsal/performances, it may as well not exist."

-- Elena Gorfinkel, "At the End of Cinema, This Thing Called Film": "Light cannot contain film, but spills out, through film and beyond it. If film spilling entails loss – the nightmare of film preservationists’ Sisyphean struggle against the ravages of time on an unfathomable body of unknown films – light spilling invokes an expanded arena of diffusion and admixture..."

I should also mention that Adrian's been very busy: he also guest-edited the new issue of Screening The Past.


* * *

I'm curious to know from readers (if they wish): Are there certain topic areas within cinema that you think might be in particular need of critical/scholarly exploration for future essays or issues? In other words, I'm wondering: Are there specific topics on which you might particularly be interested to read critical/scholarly writing about cinema? Thank you!

Friday, August 05, 2011

Notes on Musicals



The wonderfully strange Depression-era musical Hallelujah, I’m A Bum (Lewis Milestone, 1933) reminds me that there was a time in mainstream Hollywood cinema when you could have a character who was a self-proclaimed socialist and revolutionary, one treated with affection and sympathy by the film. (He’s played here by silent film comedian Harry Langdon.) A further anti-Americanism: the film centers on a community of “hobos” who live in Central Park, and vigorously extol in song the values of not working. Al Jolson is their leader, a pal of the Mayor of New York played by Frank Morgan who utters here the line “There’s no place like home” — a full six years before The Wizard of Oz! Much of the film’s dialogue is in rhyming couplets, which, along with the songs, were written by Rodgers and Hart. (Both have cameos in the film.)


* * *

Richard Dyer, in his classic and influential essay on musicals, “Entertainment and Utopia,” divides musicals into three broad tendencies: (1) A clear separation of narrative and songs (e.g. a backstage musical like 42nd Street in which the songs occur in rehearsal or performance within the story); (2) Transitions from story to numbers, often cued, when characters 'unrealistically' break into song or dance (e.g. Funny Face); and (3) An attempt to dissolve the very distinction between narrative and numbers by means of something that strongly unites and binds them both together. He gives the example of On The Town, in which a transforming energy runs through every scene, every shot, linking up the story with the songs, the musical and the non-musical moments alike. This energy transforms the city — New York City — into a utopia.

In most musicals, we find two distinct worlds: a ‘real’ world of the ‘here and now’ and a ‘utopia’ into which to escape through song and dance. But films in the above third category don’t permit such easy differentiation. They give us the real world (the weary dock-worker’s refrain at the beginning of On The Town: “I feel like I’m not out of bed yet!”) and simultaneously an emotional utopia that pervades the entire film (the sailors’ limitless “energy of leisure” as they plunge into the city to explore it).

Jonathan Rosenbaum has also remarked on this quality of certain musicals. In explaining the co-existence of “strangeness and intensity” in Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, he identifies two Rodgers and Hart films, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum and Love Me Tonight, as displaying a related impulse — “to perceive the musical form as a continuous state of delirious being rather than a traditional story with musical eruptions.”

The blurring or outright erasure of the distinction between the tone, mood and atmosphere of the ‘story’ world and that of the ‘song and dance’ world can result in a complex and ambiguous impact on the viewer. Rosenbaum’s response to Rochefort is one of “powerful, deeply felt emotions — an exuberance combined with a sublime sense of absurdity, shot through with an almost constant sense of loss, yearning and even tragedy.”

If it’s the idea of energy that suffuses On the Town and determines the tone of the film, it is community that does this for Hallelujah, I’m A Bum. Bumper (Al Jolson) and his hobo pals live together in a common space (Central Park), share equally their discoveries (like the $1000 bill Bumper finds), interrogate each other’s decisions and moral positions, and, in every way, make each other’s business their own. Individualism is suspect; the individual is accountable at every turn to the community.

Lewis Milestone’s style finds witty, startling devices to convey this theme. An example: Twice in the film, an army of hobos sets out with great urgency to see Bumper, their leader. But instead of chaotically swarming en masse across the park to get to him, they approach him in geometric formations in four groups — one each from south, north, east and west! — in musical fashion, their steps in time, the editing participating equally in the musical performance. It’s one of many moments in this film when the reality of the homeless during the Depression becomes inextricably linked with their representation — stylized, musically joyous, and utopian in feeling. It’s a poignant, bittersweet touch in a film full of them.

Your thoughts on musicals? Any particular favorites in the genre, and why you like them so? I’d love to hear them.


* * *

A few links:

-- "Obscure Objects of Desire: A Jam Session on Non-narrative," with Jonathan Rosenbaum, Raymond Durgnat and David Ehrenstein (originally published in Film Comment in 1978).

-- A lengthy profile of Raúl Ruiz by A.O. Scott in the NYT.

-- Catherine Grant has a video essay that uses Gilda to offer a primer on gender, sexuality and movement. Also: Catherine rounds up for us the new issue of Jump Cut.

-- Adrian Martin and Conall Cash interview Eve Heller and Peter Tscherkassky at the Melbourne Film Festival.

-- Here are some interesting posts at Jon Jost's blog on avant-garde filmmakers: Leighton Pierce; James Benning; Nathaniel Dorsky; Letters from Dorsky to Jost (part 1, part 2).

-- An interview with Shelly Kraicer about Chinese independent cinema.

-- The BFI's "Most Wanted" list of missing British films.

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on Mysteries of Lisbon at MUBI.

-- At Moving Image Source: Richard Porton defends the "talking-head" documentary.

-- Male Archetypes in the Movies," by A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis in the NYT.