Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Criticism and Context; Jia Zhangke



One of the most intriguing aspects of the Movie Mutations project is that it brought together a number of film critics of a certain generation who were geographically dispersed across multiple continents and yet shared a lot of common ground in terms of taste. The films and filmmakers they treasured and championed were often equally (if not more) dispersed in terms of nationality and culture, and yet there was often significant agreement among these critics about their worth. When I first read Movie Mutations, I remember thinking: Does lack of knowledge of context — social, historical, cultural, economic, political, artistic — pose no barriers to the appreciation of a filmmaker’s work as it travels around the world?

My own position on this is simple: Contextual knowledge is not a prerequisite for appreciating cinema, but it definitely can, whenever available, contribute to a deeper and wider understanding of both the film at hand and its place within multiple larger structures — social, historical, political, etc. In other words, I’m rarely nervous about expressing praise for a film I like, no matter its global source, simply because I lack the contextual knowledge to appreciate it fully. The fact that it appealed to me for certain reasons is enough for the moment. But there’s a part of me that continues to be curious — for new knowledge and insight, both contextual and critical, that might revise, rethink, or even just elaborate, in ways large and small, my appreciation.

Case in point: I’ve enthusiastically followed the films of Jia Zhangke for almost a dozen years now but a fascinating piece in a recent issue of New Left Review — “Poetics of Vanishing: The Films of Jia Zhangke” by Zhang Xudong — deepens my view of his films by situating them in certain revealing particularities of background. (The piece is available online for a fee.)

Zhang describes how ‘Fifth Generation’ filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige were responsible for breaking Chinese cinema into the global culture market. They rejected the studio-bound socialist-realist tradition that preceded them, and instead chose to evoke a mythologized past with a visual reliance on “sweeping, dehistoricized landscapes”:

The elevated style of these films, reifying what they depicted into something ‘timeless’, seemed distant from the concrete experience of their own times, and failed to represent or recount the ongoing, epic social transformation of the country itself in the era of Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms […]

Where the Fifth Generation sutured together a mythological whole—embodied by vast, empty shots of a pristine, ahistorical landscape, from Shaanxi’s loess plateau in Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth (1984) and Zhang Yimou’s Red Sorghum (1987) to the icy mountain ranges of Tibet—the Sixth was eager to portray the shabby, formless texture of everyday life in county-level towns, where socialist underdevelopment meets the onslaught of marketization.

Specifically, Jia’s films, Zhang tells us, portray a very particular kind of place: they are set in xiancheng, or county-level cities. There are over 2400 such cities in China, but they are extremely under-represented in film and literature. Zhang writes:

To focus on xiancheng is, whether consciously or not, to zoom in on the underbelly of China’s socialist modernity and its Reform Era. Nominally part of ‘urban China’, xiancheng stands apart from the fantasy of a pristine and authentic, custom-bound rural world […] On the other hand, xiancheng is decidedly not a metropolitan area: if anything, it offers the opposite of urban sophistication, white-collar jobs and access to national cultural and political power […]

In terms of material or symbolic capital, then, xiancheng is proletarian China par excellence. In terms of urban forms and their visual representation, xiancheng is usually found to be shapeless and unattractive. […]

In other words, this is the in-between, generic area where the daily reality of contemporary China is laid bare. With no clear-cut boundaries or sharp distinctions between rural and urban, between industrial and agricultural, between high and low cultures, xiancheng becomes a meeting place for all kinds of forces and currents, whether contemporary or anachronistic.

Jia’s “hometown trilogy” (Xiaowu, Platform, Unknown Pleasures) marked the ‘discovery’ of xiancheng in Chinese cinema, Jia even referring to himself as a “cinematic migrant labourer”. After being so closely identified with this milieu, he tried to move beyond it in the setting of The World. Zhang comments:

But this setting [of The World] is in fact a xiancheng within the nation’s capital, at once a migrant labourer’s village and a xiancheng imagining of a globalized world. Indeed the ultimate irony of the film is aimed not at the Disney-style theme park, but at Beijing or even China itself: a giant xiancheng, whose concrete, contradictory realities co-exist with a virtual, mirage-like unity.

Finally, he makes this ironic observation about the reception of Jia’s work:

The idea that Jia’s films are representations of working-class life that only high-cultural audiences can understand, or that they constitute laments about urban demolition funded by the demolishers—24 City, for example, was funded by the very developers behind the project featured in the film—are ironies not lost even on Jia’s supporters.


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Jonathan Rosenbaum has long advocated for the crucial place that information occupies in film-critical writing. His book on Kiarostami, co-written with Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, is a good example — as is so much of his other work — of this element of critical practice. Iranian politics, history, poetry, and cultural tradition are all summoned to the task of helping to explicate Kiarostami’s work.

Another example that comes to mind is Andrew Horton’s book on the films of Theo Angelopoulos, which attempts to draw upon centuries of Greek history and culture, Byzantine iconography and ceremony, Greek music hall traditions, and shadow puppet theatre to help sketch a broad context for the director’s art.

I’m wondering: Are there other examples of books, essays or even documentaries that perform this film-critical work of helping to provide any kind of context to better appreciate certain films or filmmakers? I’d love to hear any recommendations.


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Some recent reading:

-- A lovely joint piece by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López, "Secret and Impossible," available in both Spanish and English, at Cine Transit.

-- The new issue of the journal Experimental Conversations contains a terrific essay by Fergus Daly called "Sidney Lumet: Experimental Filmmaker?". David Hudson handily rounds up the issue for us. David also collects links to pieces on David Cronenberg on the occasion of his NYC retrospective. Also: Jim Emerson's 12-minute video essay, "Written in the Flesh: A Crash Course in David Cronenberg".

-- A fantasy double features piece at MUBI penned by several writers.

-- Matt Zoller Seitz's "Vertigoed: A Press Play Mashup Contest" has almost 100 participants including Catherine Grant, Jason Mittell and Kevin Lee. The contest required them to take the same Bernard Herrmann cue -- "Scene D'Amour," used in a memorable moment from Vertigo -- and match it with a clip from any film.

-- The Village Voice lays off J. Hoberman: David Hudson has a post that collects links. Hoberman's "year in film"; and in the NYT, he talks about the Village Voice and film culture.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on Bresson's Affaires Publiques. Also: Ignatiy on Tomas Alfredson's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

-- Kent Jones and Jonathan Rosenbaum discuss Bresson and Godard. Also: Kent has an essay on Jean-Pierre Gorin's films on the occasion of the new Criterion/Eclipse box set.

-- With this post on Diary of a Hitman (1991), Zach Campbell launches a new series of pieces at MUBI.

-- David Bordwell on the expressive use of hands and hand gestures and why they are comparatively rare in cinema today. Also: his post "Tinker Tailor: A Guide for the Perplexed".

-- This Onion story is pretty funny: "Miranda July Called Before Congress To Explain Exactly What Her Whole Thing Is".

-- The Academy sounds an alarm about the fragility of digital production media.

-- The Senses of Cinema 2011 World Poll.

-- A brilliant video montage set to Lionel Richie's "Hello". For a "key" to where the clips are drawn from, see this post.

-- At Moving Image Source: Patrick Keiller on "landscape cinema and the problem of dwelling"; and a group of essays by several critics on films in the "First Look" program at the Museum of the Moving Image.

-- Several links via Adrian: Claude Chabrol on adapting La Ceremonie; A great interview with Bob Dylan by John Elderfield; "What If": movies imagined for another time and place"; The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest; Anne Bilson in the Guardian: "Why restyle Great Women of History as cockamamie feminist role models?". Related: Laura Flanders on The Iron Lady at Truthout.

-- Ben Sachs in the Chicago Reader on Adam Curtis' All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, which can be viewed online.

-- An epic essay and music mix by Trevor Link, "Pop Utopianism: A Manifesto"/"We Need to Talk About K-Pop: A Mix"; and, via Trevor, a discovery of Cinefiles, a large and valuable database.

-- Olivier Père will be curating a complete Otto Preminger retrospective at the Locarno film festival this summer.

-- At The Guardian: a piece on the birth of UK film criticism, 100 years ago.

-- At the MUBI Notebook: "The Lost Pasolini Interview"; "The Posters of Robert Bresson"; and Dan Sallitt's defense of Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty.

-- Rowena Santos Aquino on filmmaker Kim Ki-duk.

-- Via the Film Doctor's blog: At Filmmaker magazine, "6 Filmmakers Talk About Documentary Films in the Digital Age"; a story on the "found-footage horror movie" at The Atlantic; an interview with Frederick Wiseman at Filmmaker; and at Observatory, "Reassessing the Saul Bass and Alfred Hitchcock Collaboration".

-- At Little White Lies: Yusef Sayed on F.J. Ossang; Hong Sang-soo; and Philippe Grandrieux.

-- The current issue of the Director's Guild of America Quarterly includes pieces on Michael Mann and Leo McCarey.

-- Time magazine proclaims Godard's Histore(s) du Cinéma "the DVD of the year".

-- An interview with Nouvelle Vague cinematographer Raoul Coutard at the Film Comment blog.

-- Completely unrelated to cinema (or is it?): I finally know the difference between dork, geek, dweeb and nerd.

pic: Jia's Still Life (2006).

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Film: The Critics' Choice



It’s rare to find a coffee-table book about cinema that is truly of value to both the casual reader and the serious cinema-lover. One of them is French New Wave (1999), edited by Jean Douchet. I’ve just discovered another: Film: The Critics’ Choice (2001), edited by Geoff Andrew, with a foreword by Bernardo Bertolucci (Billboard Books, 2001). It’s out of print, but used copies are going for under a dollar at Amazon.

The book has a simple, clean structure that invites browsing. There are ten sections, each written by a different critic. Each critic takes on about 15 films. Every film gets 2 pages, one of which is devoted to a mini-essay and the other to a large still photograph.

The sections include “The Silent Era” (David Bordwell); “America: The Studio Years” (David Thomson); “America: Years of Change” (Philip French); “America: The Modern Era” (Amy Taubin and Kent Jones); “Europe: The Golden Age” (Gilbert Adair); “Europe: The New Waves” (Jonathan Rosenbaum); “British Cinema” (Peter Wollen); “Europe: A New Fin de siècle”; “International Cinema” (Tony Rayns); and a final section on animation (Paul Wells).

The essays are unusually insightful, especially given that they are working within the constraints of the coffee-table book format, and some of the film choices are pleasantly startling in their unlikeliness. There’s lots to savor here, but let me limit the scope of this post by reproducing, as a tribute, some passages by the recently deceased Gilbert Adair.

Adair on Fritz Lang’s M (1931):

Here is a curiosity: The sinister prominence with which the letter “M,” one tailor-made for the branding iron, figures in Fritz Lang’s filmography. His best known, although far from finest, film was Metropolis (1927), whose heroine’s name was Maria. His most celebrated creation, the protagonist of two silents and one late sound feature, was the verminously arachnoid mastermind Dr. Mabuse. Three of his most memorable Hollywood productions were Man Hunt (1941), Ministry of Fear (1944), and, long the favorite of cultishly minded Langians, Moonfleet (1955). (A whimsical case can even be made that the title of another work from the American period, The Woman in the Window, 1944, contained two inverted Ms.) Lang himself made a moving valedictory appearance in 1963 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris.

On Julia Solntseva and her 1970 film The Enchanted Desna:

Solntseva was the widow of Alexander Dovzhenko, a great filmmaker and a matchless celebrant of the Soviet Eden, whose loyal helpmate she had been throughout his life. When he died in 1956, she proceeded to film, one after the other, his handful of unrealized scripts almost as if they had been bequeathed to her, as if she were executing his deathbed request; and when there were no more left to film, she simply downed tools and retired.

If ever a film were a poem, it is The Enchanted Desna. A pantheistically phosphorescent hymn to nature as equally to the gleaming tractors and plows which were destined to transform it (and a personal favorite, intriguingly, of Jean-Luc Godard), it must be, at just 81 minutes, the briefest of cinematic works to ever have been shot in the 70mm wide-screen process [...] The visual motifs that we have to come to associate with Dovzhenko's cinema--the skies so low-hung we feel the characters will have to hunker down on all fours to crawl beneath them, the cornfields waving goodbye in unison (Dovzhenko himself once said that his was "a cinema of farewells")--are just as present in The Enchanted Desna.

On Manoel de Oliveira's first feature, Aniki-Bobó (1942):

...whose mystifying title is a Portuguese variant on "eeny-meeny-meiny-mo," it is a film about, and to some degree for, children. Set in Oporto, the director's native city, its slight plot centres upon the rivalry--for the affection of the local stunner--of a pair of matching mop-haired tots, one of whom, a blond cherub who might have stepped down from a Tiepolo altarpiece, is unjustly accused of having shoved the other onto a railroad track. [...]

What makes Aniki-Bobó unique, though, is its blatant theatricality, a word scarcely ever used to describe children's films. As witness the endearingly actorish performances which Oliveira coaxes from his diminutive performers, his film is unequivocally a melodrama. And even if its loose and deceptively artless shooting style (it was filmed wholly on location) seems to anticipate the revolutionary strategies of neorealism, the result is less reminiscent of De Sica's work, say, than of Pagnol's Marseillais trilogy, Marius, Fanny and Cesar (1931, 1932, 1936), by virtue of both the dockside setting and the tiny if nevertheless eternal triangle so solemnly, so touchingly played out before it. Like Pagnol's own films, what Aniki-Bobó offers is a persuasive illustration and defense of cinema as open-air theater.


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Any suggestions of good coffee-table books on cinema--books that might contain something of interest for both the casual film buff and the more serious film-lover or film critic? I'd love to hear them.

I know that publishers such as Taschen and Phaidon have produced a number of cinema books in this format, although I know only a few of them. I recently picked up a couple of volumes in Phaidon's recently released budget series--on Hitchcock and Kubrick (both by Bill Krohn) and Lynch (by Theirry Jousse)--and they look interesting and insightful.


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Some links:

-- Sight & Sound has made available a great little trove of Gilbert Adair's writings online. David Hudson's post at MUBI collects a number of pieces on Adair.

-- Adrian has a tribute to Adair at Filmkrant. And here's a wonderful text that is a critical 'duet': Adrian and Cristina Álvarez López's two-part, dual-language essay on Philippe Garrel at Cine Transit.

-- At Moving Image Source, critics, writers and artists share their highlights of 2011: part one; and part two.

-- As usual, plenty of recently posted, wonderfully engaging reading at Jonathan Rosenbaum's place on subjects as diverse as middlebrow cinema, Errol Morris, Iranian politics, black cinema, and Samuel Fuller.

-- Polls for best films of the year: Indiewire's round-up; and Film Comment's best released films and best unreleased films of the year. Also: Cahiers du Cinéma's top ten of the year; Andréa Picard's choices for best experimental films of the year; and Reverse Shot's best films of the year. Finally: Michael Z. Newman's "Faves, 2011."

-- The new issue of Cineaste has several web-exclusive pieces but is particularly worth picking up for a fascinating symposium (not online) on "the prospects of political cinema today" featuring such figures as John Gianvito, Travis Wilkerson, Sally Potter, Kelly Reichardt, John Sayles, Pere Portabella and John Hughes.

-- A new DVD release that seems to have slipped under the radar: Gilles Deleuze from A to Z, available for the first time with English subtitles. The translation is by Deleuze scholar Charles Stivale. (via Jason LaRiviere)

-- A wonderful close analysis of the prologue to Melancholia by Manohla Dargis.

-- The new issue of Senses of Cinema includes articles by Jacques Rivette and Murray Pomerance, and a roundup of the Toronto film festival by Darren Hughes. Also: the new issue of La Furia Umana is just out; it includes this Luc Moullet piece on Eric Rohmer in conjunction with MUBI.

-- Film Studies for Free's "Favorite Online Film Studies Resources in 2011".

-- The new issue of Film-Philosophy includes essays by Steven Shaviro and Rowena Santos Aquino, and a review of a recent collection of writings by Alain Badiou on cinema.

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky puts up a post collecting 22 capsule reviews he wrote this year for the Chicago film weekly Cine-File.

-- Ben Sachs, at Chicago Reader, on his best films of the year.

-- At Moving Image Source: Chris Fujiwara on "The contradictions of Cuba in the work of Nicolás Guillén Landrián"; Bilge Ebiri on the use of language in Malick's The New World; and an excerpt from Jordan's Mintzer's recent book on James Gray in which Gray is interviewed about The Yards.

-- Charlie Kaufman's next project is ... a musical about online film criticism??

-- At Artforum: Tony Pipolo on Robert Bresson; and on Jean-Marie Straub.

-- Links to several recent articles by film scholar David Rodowick (srcoll down). Also via his page: the archives for Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image.

-- "Passionate Utterances: Learning from Stanley Cavell," at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

-- A restoration and revival of the films of French comedian Pierre Étaix.

-- Zach Campbell on some "recent commercial cinema." Also: Zach is now on Twitter.

-- Kent Jones on the documentaries of Vittorio de Seta.

-- Gilberto Perez on Alexander Dovzhenko in Film Quarterly.

-- The Anthology Film Archives just concluded the fascinating retrospective "Anarchism on Film" curated by Cineaste editor Richard Porton.

-- B. Kite and Alexander Points-Zollo's complete "Vertigo Variations".

-- Jonathan Romney on the recent DVD releases of films by Miklos Jansco.

-- In The Guardian: "Friedrich Kittler and the rise of the machine."

-- Via Adrian: Writings on Indian cinema at Projectorhead magazine and Silhouette.

-- The new issue of the journal World Picture.

-- At eFilmCritic: "2011 Whores of the Year."

-- At The Nation: "The Making of the 99%" by Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich.