Monday, October 27, 2014

TIFF 2014, part 2: Loznitsa, Alonso

Maidan (Sergei Loznitsa). If the interaction of aesthetics and politics is a key theme that runs through the history of film criticism, less has been written about the place, in cinema, of aesthetics in politics. Leni Riefenstahl’s films immediately spring to mind but I’m struggling to think of other well-known examples.

Maidan is an interesting entry in this discussion. It is a documentary that captures the events of the Ukrainian uprising at Kiev’s Independence Square over a period of a few months from late 2013 to early 2014. The film has a deliberate and conspicuous style: it is constructed almost entirely of observational, fixed-frame long shots and long takes. There is no voiceover commentary; there are no ‘talking heads’, no individuals singled out for attention, and only a few, minimal explanatory inter-titles. It also helps, no doubt, that Loznitsa—who directs here with rigor and authority—was raised in Kiev and lived there for years.

What I found most striking about the film was the role played by aesthetics in the spectacle of revolution. Protesters chant and sing rousing revolutionary songs, often with inventive up-to-the-minute lyrics (the singers are almost never seen onscreen; the source of the singing is usually outside the frame); music, frequently percussive and rhythmic, surges up from the crowd; and what appear to be ordinary people—i.e. non-artists—come on stage to recite poems at the microphone. In an awe-inspiring moment, a riot rages on the ground while fireworks explode in the sky.

The film miraculously catches this festive, celebratory quality of revolution, even in the midst of violence and death. (Over a hundred people were killed by riot police at the Maidan.) Cultural theorist Gavin Grindon has written about the idea of the ‘festival-as-revolution’, and how, in recent decades, it has marked several radical social movements from Seattle’s WTO Carnival Against Capitalism to Occupy’s Debt Jubilee. He traces the idea back to one of its sources: French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, specifically a book he wrote about the Paris Commune being a kind of festival. (There is an interesting scandal surrounding this book: the Situationist International accused Lefebvre of stealing their ideas and publishing them in the aftermath of a friendly meeting and conversation between Lefebvre and the SI.) Maidan shows us not only the unfolding of the Ukrainian revolution, but also how this revolution looked and sounded over the period of a few months. And the moment we ask the question ‘how’, we are already in the realm of ‘style’ …

Speaking of style, the film features an intriguing aesthetic choice: a profound but by no means obvious split between image and sound. We see ‘pure’ documentary images, in that they show, without re-creations, computer-enhanced imagery, etc., actual footage of the Maidan during the uprising. But what we hear is a dense and layered post-synchronized soundtrack built up, painstakingly, of over a hundred individual tracks. Now that I’ve learned this from interviews with Loznitsa (like the informative one that Richard Porton did with him), I am eager to see the film again, this time to pay closer attention to this rift along the fault-line of image and sound that has now opened up for me in my recollection of the film.

It gives me pause that I did not suspect this radical disjunction—‘unaltered’ images vs. deliberately and artificially constructed soundtrack—while I was watching the film. Why was this so? As a long-time cinephile interested equally in classical and modern cinema, I wonder: Why did I blithely take for granted the artificial ‘unity’ of image and sound in a formally bold film such as Maidan?

As I ponder this question, I am reminded of film-sound theorist Michel Chion’s experiment in his book Audio-Vision, in which he takes scenes from two films, cutting out the sound track from one (Bergman’s Persona) and the image track from the other (Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday), demonstrating in the process that our perceptions are altered dramatically when sound is stripped away from the image, and vice versa. He calls this mutual influence of image and sound the ‘audiovisual contract’.

But image and sound, Chion points out, are not equal in this contract. Instead, even though sound enriches the image in an important way, it also appears as if this ‘added value’ comes ‘naturally’ from—is contained in—the image itself. As Chion puts it, “Added value is what gives the (eminently incorrect) impression that sound is unnecessary.” Steven Shaviro explains further: “We rarely pay attention to film sound in and of itself; we always regard it as secondary to the images of the film. And yet it turns out, again and again, that sound endows those images with a potency, a meaning, and a seeming self-sufficiency that they never could have established on their own.”

Shaviro adds that, surprisingly, the terms of this ‘audiovisual contract’ also apply in the case of modernist, formally audacious films—such as Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her or Duras’ India Song—that play boldly with disjunctions between image and sound. Even as sound energizes images in these films, it continues to remain subsidiary to them. Shaviro proposes that recent digital ‘post-cinema’ (such as the Massive Attack music video Splitting the Atom, which he analyzes in detail in his essay) is giving birth to a new audiovisual aesthetic, while also changing the terms of the ‘audiovisual contract’ that have been in place for nearly a century.

So, how might these ideas help me make sense of my experience with Lozintsa’s documentary? First, they remind me that modernist cinema can, in its own way, be no less illusionistic than classical cinema. Second, a viewing lesson: no matter how close my attention to sound design and the soundtrack, I’m still under-estimating the complexity and importance of sound—and always unconsciously subordinating it to what is visible …

NOTES: Steven Shaviro's essay “Splitting the Atom: Post-Cinematic Articulations of Sound and Vision” will be published in a volume on ‘post-cinema’ currently being edited by Shane Denson and Julia Leyda; it will also appear as an ebook in early 2015.

* * *

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso). It is a peculiar fact that the merits of a film are not necessarily correlated with how generative it is in terms of critical writing. There are certain acclaimed films (e.g. Mulholland Drive, Beau Travail, The Act of Killing, the work of Godard or Marker) that seem to inspire superabundant outpourings of writing, but there are others—solid, strong, potentially rich works—that, for whatever mysterious reasons, under-stimulate (or overpower) the critical imagination or the critical will to engagement. Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu might be a recent example in this latter category; Jauja shows some early signs of making a modest bid for the former.

When I first saw Jauja, I found it impressive and engaging, but it has grown enormously in my mind thanks mainly to the critical reading I’ve done on it since. (Three of the essential pieces on it so far are by Quintín in Cinema Scope and in Film Comment, and by Leo Goldsmith in Reverse Shot.) The basic outline of Jauja is probably well known at this point to most cinephiles who follow festival reports. The film has three sections. The first finds a Danish engineer (played by Viggo Mortensen) and his 15-year-old daughter in 1880s Patagonia, where he is part of the larger Argentine effort to conquer this land and wipe out its indigenous population. In section two, his daughter elopes with a young soldier, and he goes out alone in search for her, finding himself in increasingly desolate and hallucinatory landscapes. The final section is dream-like and enigmatic; the less I say about it the better.

Jauja is the first Alonso film with anything resembling a conventional screenplay—written by the poet and novelist Fabián Casas—and many have pointed out that the first section of the movie contains more dialogue than all of Alonso’s previous feature films combined. Classical Hollywood and, more specifically, the genre of the western, are clear reference points here. Alonso uses a square Academy ratio, and the edges of the image are gently rounded as if they were photographs in an old album. The plot echoes The Searchers in section two, and the use of a Hollywood star is so striking that it becomes impossible to forget this fact—to make Mortensen ‘disappear’ into his character—while watching the film.

All of this pulls the film into an interesting conversation with classical cinema. What emerges from this encounter is an overwhelming sense of all the frictions—all the multiple points of abrasion and resistance—between this film and the studio-era works that partly inspire it. I registered these frictions most acutely when Jauja was, paradoxically, closest to classical cinema.

So, for example, the dialogue scenes, which take place mostly in the first section, lack a ‘smoothness’ of staging and cutting; they are disconcerting in their awkwardness. The staging is theatrical, with characters often rooted to the spot, their bodies stiffly angled non-naturalistically toward each other. Further, this theatrical aspect is rendered faintly ludicrous by the fact that the film takes place mostly in exteriors. Adding to the lack of seamlessness are the overt gaps of linguistic communication: the young lovers respectively speak only Danish and Spanish, and cannot understand each other at all.

Even outside the realm of speech, the force of the ‘real’ erupts in small but striking ways. When Mortensen tries to mount a horse, the film emphasizes what a Western usually tries to play down: the frequent difficulty and gracelessness of the act, with repeated attempts, heavy breathing, grunting, all accentuated by the sound design. What happens ‘naturally’ in a Western is ‘de-familiarized’.

When Mortensen stops at a work site to get a drink of water, he has an uneasy, unresolved conversation with the engineer overseeing the site, then quenches his thirst by drinking water with the help of a ladle. Meanwhile, the wind blows powerfully, we hear the tent and his clothes flapping (the pinpointed sound design again), and the water spills clumsily every so often on his uniform. Even a simple act such as drinking water becomes charged with maladroitness. This feeling comes to a head in the second section of the film, when Mortensen, now without horse or rifle, has to make his way by foot across a harsh and forbidding terrain of rock. He struggles across the landscape with painful slowness, slipping frequently, his boots sliding, not taking hold on the smooth stones. At moments like these, I had a strong feeling of cinema’s ‘missing images’—of all the roughnesses smoothed out, rendered invisible, in all the classical cinema I love …

There was a terrific and unpredictable joint Q&A with Alonso and Mortensen; they clearly have a great affection for each other. Alonso gave a lovely, succinct reason for why he makes films (“in order to learn about places and about cinema”), and Mortensen praised Alonso’s modesty, the sharpness of his eye and ear, and, most interestingly, “the luck he attracts while shooting,” by which he meant Alonso’s ability to catch or nail a shot even when so much depended on elements, such as the weather, that were outside his control.

* * *

Recent reading:

-- At this time of the semester when faculty are grading furiously, here is Jon Wu's classic McSweeney's piece, "A Generic College Paper". (Via Sudhir Mahadevan.)

-- Great news: A critic I admire, Christoph Huber, has started a film blog. (Via David Hudson.)

-- A 2010 conversation between Chris Fujiwara and Pedro Costa. (Via Abhirup Maitra.)

-- Adrian Martin on Mike Hoolboom at Filmkrant; and on Truffaut's Day for Night at Desistfilm. Related: Michael Pattison interviews Hoolboom at MUBI Notebook.

-- A 2009 essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Sexism in the French New Wave".

-- James Quandt's essay on Godard, part of the programme notes for the massive TIFF retrospective, "Godard Forever: Part Two". (Click on the link labelled "Programmer's Essay".)

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky on David Cronenberg's first novel, Consumed. Also: Calum Marsh interviews Cronenberg about his book.

-- Brad Stevens on novelisations of films.

-- Matt Zoller Seitz remembers the recently deceased L.M. "Kit" Carson.

-- Michael Sicinski on Peter Watkins' 14-hour-plus documentary The Journey (1987).

-- Boris Nelepo's piece on Alain Resnais' Life of Riley, from a few months ago, now that the film has arrived on these shores.

-- At The Guardian: "Transrealism: the first major literary movement of the 21st century?" (Via Scott Balcerzak.)

-- Roy Andersson's commercials, on YouTube. (Via Richard Porton.)

-- Dave Kehr has co-curated MoMA's latest festival of film preservation, which features a number of rare and interesting items.

-- A recent discovery: The Third Rail Quarterly.

-- In the Washington Post: "If you’re lucky enough to earn a living from your art, you’re probably white". (Via Jonathan Thomas.)

-- In the New York Times: "The Disheartening GamerGate Campaign".

-- At Jacobin magazine: "In Mexico and elsewhere, neoliberalism isn’t a retreat of the state. It’s using the state to enrich the wealthy." Also at Jacobin, two critiques of the new "sharing economy": "Sharing and Caring"; and "Against Sharing".

-- On a personal note, I am looking forward to this concert by "experimental hip-hop" artists DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist in tribute to Afrika Bambaataa; I've long admired their work. From DJ Shadow's website: "Using only vinyl pulled from Bambaataa’s historic collection – over 40,000 strong and permanently archived at Cornell University – DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist aim to present Bambaataa’s legacy in all its genre-busting and socially-minded complexity."


Blogger girish said...

I love this passage from Quintin's Cinema Scope piece on JAUJA:

"Jauja helps us to understand that Alonso is not interested in looking at his characters from above, from the certitude of civilization; rather, he is a filmmaker who regards cinema as a kingdom unto itself, and a link between other orders like nature, history, and society. Alonso’s cinema is premised upon the belief that cinema is something that can never be fully revealed; it is not (and is never) merely a technical means of representing an external, sovereign reality, but rather a way to explore certain mysterious connections in mysterious ways."

October 28, 2014 8:33 AM  
Blogger Sachin said...

Wonderful reviews Girish. Eagerly waiting to see these films. Also, love the image and sound description. It has been a long time since I saw Loznitsa's Blockade but I remember it was old black and white footage with no narration. Instead, a new soundtrack was added to it, for the street noise, fire burning in a building etc. I will revisit that film now with your words in mind and try to see the impact of sound on the images. I didn't think about it before but the sound was clearly added much later but I focused on the images only. Only a few sounds are in my mind, such as the fire.

On another note, the sound-image got me thinking of something from Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer (Sight and Hearing section):

”What is for the eye must not duplicate what is for the ear."

”If the eye is entirely won, give nothing or almost nothing to the ear. (And vice versa, if the ear is entirely won, give nothing to the eye.) One cannot be at the same time all eye and all ear.

”If a sound is the obligatory complement of an image, give preponderance either to the sound, or to the image. If equal, they damage or kill each other, as we say of colours.

And regarding the dialogue in Jauja, I used the same words for Winter Sleep, which I found had more dialogue than all of Ceylan's previous films.

October 28, 2014 10:15 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Sachin!

Wow, I had not even heard of BLOCKADE. I must keep an eye (and an ear!) out for it.

Those Bresson quotes are so great.

WINTER SLEEP was one of the films I missed recently at TIFF, because of its length. I am looking forward to it on DVD. I noticed that they just started a full retrospective of Ceylan's films at MoMA yesterday.

October 30, 2014 6:12 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Nicolas Rapold interviews Sergei Loznitsa about MAIDAN at Film Comment.

November 03, 2014 12:35 PM  

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