07 October 2007

Sembene Retrospective: Black Girl (1966)

The June death of Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene aroused little notice here compared to the subsequent passing of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni. There are a number of probable reasons for this neglect, though not one of them is good enough to justify it: the long interval between Sembene’s later features, the unfamiliar actors that inhabited his characters, the political thrust of his work, and, not least, the difficulty of projecting the fashionable, existential doubts of western intellectuals onto his scenarios. His pictures were well-reviewed, so it would be presumptuous and misleading to attribute this neglect to the simple racial preferences of New York taste-makers. The film canon is remarkably European, but I suspect another, more pedestrian problem than racism accounts for that: the tattered state of foreign film distribution in the United States. What is African Cinema? To most, it’s the kind of thing that’s more easily read about than experienced directly. You’re more likely to find African titles screened on decades-old VHS tapes in dingy student unions than on 35mm prints in movie theaters. With a few exceptions, like Cissé’s Yeleen or Sissako’s Bamako, these titles are released not through art house distributors but social justice outfits like California Newsreel that aim their products at library shelves instead of paying audiences. (For what it’s worth, check out Amadou Saalum Seck’s Saaraba from 1988—available only on tape at present from California Newsreel—if you ever get the chance.)

Sembene has actually fared better in this respect. Daniel Talbot’s New Yorker Films has aggressively promoted Sembene’s work throughout his career. New Yorker has been slow in releasing the films to DVD, though, so for most cinephiles his work may as well not exist at all. Hopefully recent and upcoming retrospectives of Sembene’s complete features in Boston, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere will change the situation. These screenings provide an opportunity to see Sembene’s work properly so as to test the vague assumptions that stem from the curious circumstances outlined above. For the next two months I’ll be righting my own lamentable ignorance of Sembene’s career and posting thoughts on the films as they come.

Sembene’s short Borom Sarret (1966) and his feature Black Girl (La noir de…, 1966) are famous early efforts, often cited as the first films about sub-Saharan Africans made by an indigenous filmmaker, rather than the colonialists, travelogue photographers, dubious anthropologists, and other exploiters. I don’t know of any solid scholarship verifying those claims; what’s more, Black Girl takes place mostly in France with all of the dialogue spoken in French, so, as is often the case with talented filmmakers from non-Western countries, the charge of exotic pandering to bourgeois audiences in the West is not an altogether irrelevant one. Black Girl was a success at Cannes, winning the Prix Jean Vigo and arousing a certain degree of enthusiasm about Third World Cinema.

Is Black Girl the beginning of African Cinema? That concept should be interrogated at some length before continuing the discussion of the film itself, if for no other reason than that Sembene’s handling of the political implications and ambiguities of narration, authorship, and subjectivity constitute one of the film’s more brilliant achievements. Most cultures have some strand of poetic forms, mythic situations, and visual archetypes that might broadly be called heritage. These elements, their appearances traced backwards until the point of obscurity, are the ones sought out, rightfully or wrongfully, when trying to determine whether a work is an authentic expression of a culture or an unctuous and contaminated attempt to cash in. So we talk about national traditions of literature and music and theater and painting. But the cinema has been an international medium from the start—invented almost simultaneously in France and America and farmed out to other territories at the whim of the patent-holders. To say that any film does not follow a national tradition either overemphasizes the autonomy of the national film industries or misplaces film products in a longer trajectory of art-making for which they might not be fit. Today even American films are scarcely that, for they are shot anywhere around the globe, often with significant monies from multinational corporations and other ambiguous sources. And festival favorites from the last twenty years, whether officially from Iran or Taiwan or Romania, were often funded by pan-European art patrons like France’s Marin Karmitz.

In this context, it seems appropriate to situate Sembene in a broader history of cinema (Western and otherwise) rather than treating his work as if it were sui generis. This approach instigates comparisons both natural and fanciful. With Black Girl, then, Sembene aims to do the same thing as his contemporary Godard. Both critique the banality of bourgeois life in France. The obvious difference between Black Girl and a work like Pierrot le fou or 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her is that Sembene makes the critique from without rather than within. His film is more piercing than those others for this reason and because he need not cite Brecht or Marx to prove his point.

No film I know assays the blandness of middle-class life as such an effective and intelligent cudgel against complacency. Most of the film unfolds in an unadorned, middle-class home in France. Its walls are free of texture or character, the only decoration being a tribal mask the titular Diouana bought for fifty francs. Most shots are aggressively empty, a character posed in the corner against the blankness of the foreground. The lighting is flat and ugly, losing Diouana’s face in an undifferentiated haze of shadows. The contrast with Diouana’s village is a simple one, crude but no less rich—essentially an equation of aesthetic depth with spiritual fulfillment. In Africa the sunlight sculpts her face, revealing nuances literally illegible in France. The two locales, as distant in expressive possibility as in geography, provoke wholly different avenues of interaction: in France, the pattern of a dress or the shape of a pair of high heels constitute a character’s only means of defining herself and judging others while in Africa the rich crevices and curve of the human face are the primary objects of interrogation. The implications are obvious enough, with the nature of interaction and the meaning of community in Senegal and France diverging after this essential difference.

My account of the film’s visual style suggests a banal schematic that scarcely does justice to Black Girl or Sembene’s achievement therein. This strategy is but one framework of many built atop another. Diouana’s voice-over narration gives a dramatic shape to the material but also calls its premises into question. The scenes we see in France—mundane tasks, daily rituals, hints of play, unprovoked insults—do not immediately suggest the stuff of narrative. They receive their meaning from Diouana’s narration, which drapes the scenes more than it does describe their whereabouts. Sound and image run along seemingly parallel tracks, only to intersect and then drift apart anew. In an environment of oppression, the very act of offering an alternative interpretation constitutes rebellion. The kind of subjectivity on display here recalls, in some ways, Yuwen’s narration in Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948), an effective (and distinctly feminine) counterbalance to the fatalistic forces that dot the emotional landscape of the narrative. But Sembene attempts a more complex blending of dialogue and monologue, as in the moment towards the end of Black Girl that might be described as a kind of pirouette between competing subjectivities: an incredulous line from Robert Fontaine’s Monsieur dissolves into an interior cry from Diouana, rhyming the former’s mère with the latter’s prisonnier. This moment suggests a mysterious and poetic undercurrent that temporally intertwines opposing subjectivities, in addition to positing the competing narrators as but two possibilities within a constellation of experience. In other words, this is humanistic filmmaking of the highest order, acknowledging each party’s aspiration to agency without ignoring the limitations of each.

The efficacy of Sembene’s critique is no way diminished because he presents the French as caricatures. The husband, especially, is a canny bit of type-cast, often mugging for the camera in the half-pathetic, half-unhinged manner of Elisha Cook, Jr. He may be a competing narrator, but he does not possess substantive moral weight. He goes through the motions of narrative expectations only to confound them—taking something of a pilgrimage to Senegal after Diouana’s suicide that quickly becomes an unabashedly vulgar attempt to buy off the decay of a soul in attrition. Like his wife earlier, he shields his eyes with sunglasses, setting himself defiantly apart, attempting to appear circumspect but actually failing to disguise a thing, not least his unabashed contempt for the people and the place.

Nevertheless, Black Girl is a film of mysteries. Sembene restores the wonder of a suburban sprinkler system or a balloon caught in window-light. Objects litter the film, though many are seen long before they are understood. Towards the end of the film, we see Diouana packing a suitcase. She picks up a photograph of herself and a sleazy recruiter that was taken sometime in Dakar. We have seen the two together in a flashback—they walked along this street, but that moment hardly merited a souvenir. Only later does Sembene double back and show the photographer posing the uncomfortable couple, finally giving weight and specificity to an object rattling through time and space. It is Diouana’s task to find some semblance of the same amidst competing subjectivities and narrative frames.

18 September 2007

Aboveground: Killer of Sheep (1977)

For many years Killer of Sheep persisted more as a legend than as a movie. Charles Burnett’s UCLA thesis film, shot in the alleys and bungalows of Watts over a year’s worth of weekends with a cast and crew of friends, never entered the commercial distribution channels but nevertheless built a substantial reputation. It was the kind of independent production that the specialists had deemed essential—an early entry on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry even though Burnett’s film never had the chance to reverberate through the national consciousness. It was a piece of American heritage even if most Americans ignored it and the few who sought it out had hard luck finding it. Killer of Sheep became a staple of most discussions of black independent filmmaking, even if it was only a title that triggered nods and genuflection. People who’d never seen a Burnett film nevertheless cited his largely unknown body of work as a rejoinder to media hype and adulation over Spike Lee. There was this film called Killer of Sheep out there somewhere and it sounded like a honey of a cudgel if one was out to dismiss the latest independent up-and-comer, black or white.

I’d noticed references to Killer of Sheep for a few years before I got a chance to see the film. Like Chimes of Midnight, it was a legendary but unavailable film that belied the all-too-frequent conventional wisdom that DVDs and Netflix had made cinematic connoisseurship available to everyone regardless of geography. The only way one could see Killer of Sheep was by seeking out dens of taste and programming savvy in a local context. I heard that an Introduction to Film section at the University of Chicago would be screening the film one Sunday afternoon. I knew the instructor, so I slipped into the screening along with a few friends I invited who’d also run across arcane allusions to Killer of Sheep on occasion. The style was quite a bit different from the three Burnett shorts and one feature I’d seen already. It was an unassuming picture, the kind that one often struggles to get one’s head around. Purportedly an American take on the neorealist movies of DeSica, Burnett’s film constantly undercut all the expectations that came with that Italian baggage: the film’s incidents of degradation and listlessness never congealed into a protest or a statement, per se—just an unpredictable set of scenes that seemed to say everything and nothing about being black in America. Killer of Sheep was such a confounding experience that I wasn’t even sure whether or not I was disappointed upon finally seeing it.

When I spoke afterwards with the instructor who’d put Killer of Sheep on his syllabus he expressed surprise that Burnett had ever made another movie. It was easier—and, in some ways, keeping with the myth—to believe that Killer of Sheep was totally sui generis. Later, with indistinct memories of Killer of Sheep on my mind, I hastily composed this bit of prose to accompany a Burnett Q&A session: “Burnett’s does something more…: it lingers on a scene until its documentary value has been exhausted and its unanticipated poetry has been revealed.” That’s not entirely wrong but it’s not very insightful either.

I had the chance to see Killer of Sheep again last week at the Crest, the Sacramento art house that I patronized with some regularity during high school. In those years I’d see whatever had attracted a moderate amount of critical controversy, though I always secretly wished that the Crest would jazz things up a bit and dig up something like Killer of Sheep instead. Now, thanks to the indefatigable tenacity of Milestone’s Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, that flippant, adolescent desire has been realized. Milestone spent six years clearing the music rights to Killer of Sheep—the official reason the film never saw a commercial release over the past thirty years. After breaking house records in New York and winding through the country, Killer of Sheep finally reaches the smaller markets and draws a sparse crowd. Alas, white boy cinephiles must find a new rite of passage now that Killer of Sheep no longer needs tracking down.

Seeing Killer of Sheep with an audience in a commercial movie theater (even an art house) is quite different from seeing it with a dozen college freshmen who stared at this holy grail with indifferent, weary eyes. One lesson: Killer of Sheep is a crowd-pleaser, at least if I measure that from the hearty cackles and cries of ‘Oh shit!’ that met the protagonist Stan’s misadventures throughout the film. Audiences are getting Killer of Sheep, even though this 35mm version is shorn of ‘Unforgettable’ in the final sequence and often projected in the wrong aspect ratio. (Most modern commercial theaters do not have the proper 1.37:1 lenses that would allow them to screen the film without occasionally chopping off a head from the top of the frame. Burnett shot the film on 16mm, a format that’s never subjected to the 1.85:1 masking that constitutes the industry standard for 35mm. And, while UCLA’s restoration efforts and Milestone’s publicity campaign are clearly positive developments, the thirty-years-coming popularity of Killer of Sheep has its drawbacks: the film has been criss-crossing commercial art houses so much this summer that the print screened last night was much more heavily scratched than the 16mm print that used to circulate through a certain underground outfit.)

The film isn’t necessarily any easier to grasp today than it was upon first viewing. Most literature on the film defines Killer of Sheep by what it’s not: a conventional narrative film or a blaxploitation effort. (Providing an alternative to the images of the latter was one of Burnett’s aims in making Killer of Sheep in the first place.) Still, it is not entirely without precedent. Burnett’s efforts to craft a ghetto-as-slaughterhouse analogy remind this viewer of the heavy-handed juxtapositions in Eisenstein’s Strike and Chaplin’s Modern Times: all three films present the slaughter of livestock as a metaphor for the plight of the proletariat. The closest antecedent as narrative structure goes looks to be Boris Barnett’s Okraina, that vision of the Eastern front from 1933 that moves from one register to another with ease and unpredictability. Both Burnett and Barnett’s films are effectively a string of vignettes and it takes a few moments wading into each before we can determine whether this episode picks up a previous narrative thread or spins something entirely new. We know characters by gestures and tics before we know them by their professions or by their relationships to each other.

Killer of Sheep lacks the classical craftsmanship of Burnett’s masterpiece, To Sleep with Anger, but its own style is a rich and provocative one. Burnett alternates without any discernible pattern between heavy, pore-exposing close-ups and elaborate master shots wherein characters wander and cavort and play tricks on each other. These shots are somewhat akin to the better moments in James Benning’s contemporaneous One Way Boogie Woogie: each shot is like a closed system with each element in the frame appearing to be but one part in a raucous assembly line. The suspense and the poetry of each shot derives from the foreordained knowledge that the whole thing will fall out of balance at any moment when a single part deviates from the design. Killer of Sheep is a film about waiting: waiting for one kid to wallop the other or waiting for a poorly secured motor to fall out of a pick-up cab. Yet even when Burnett keeps these minor promises the shape of the whole remains stubbornly fixed. The kids don’t grow up and the adults don’t move up the social ladder. Burnett avoids imposing a dramatic arc on the material by leaving it incomplete, almost retarded in its natural progression. It takes some time to realize that Burnett isn’t so much prematurely abandoning the material before the big climax as he is sailing past that moment and following his characters through a state of perpetual denouement. They continue quietly unsatisfied but well past the point where they might change anything.

09 September 2007

Recent Screening Notes: Mann, Kwan, Bertolucci

Strategic Air Command (1955)
Fans of the Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns will likely be disappointed with this patriotic follow-up. Purportedly Stewart himself cooked up this Technicolor, Vistavision tribute to SAC and sold Paramount on the idea. The result is leaden White Elephant effort that retains none of the graphic, abrasive ease that came so naturally to Mann in Winchester ’73. Stewart plays ‘Dutch’ Holland, an air force veteran who finds his post-war prosperity playing third base for the St. Louis cardinals. His wife, June Allyson, is alarmed and puzzled when air force brass call up and cajole Stewart back into the service. There’s no war on, she protests. The rest of the picture is a retrograde exercise in demonstrating that wives say the silliest things and often, as they’re so delicate and trusting, don’t understand that absence of combat actually represents a grave threat to national prosperity. Close your mouth and shut your lyin’ eyes.

Fidelity to Cold War facts circumscribes the dramatic scope of Strategic Air Command. Since Mann and Stewart can’t well bomb Moscow for a rousing climax, they must make invigorating hay out of practice runs and war games and the like. And yet the steadfast patriotic impulse behind the picture ruins these set-pieces: even the wing of an airborne B-36 catching fire can’t faze our stoical Stewart, who calmly suppresses hysteria throughout. Later, upon reuniting with Allyson and glimpsing his newborn daughter for the first time, he proclaims a model of the B-47 to be the most beautiful thing he’s ever seen. It’s an expression of priorities that rhymes perfectly with an earlier scene in which Stewart expresses innocent surprise when Allyson reminds him that she can only become pregnant when he’s on the ground. Strategic Air Command subjugates with received innocence any structure (biological or narrative) that threatens its propagandistic aims. As such, the supporting characters do little more than spout civilian objections to peacetime military build-up, only to have them handily mocked or set aside. Ford’s Wings of Eagles, somewhat similar in its ambition to present the domestic price of a military career, remains superior in every respect.

Rouge (1987)
Stanley Kwan’s breakthrough film Rouge remains a beguiling work some twenty years after its release. Rouge, a star-crossed love story produced by Jackie Chan, is conceivably a crowd-pleaser, though I suspect that it could not succeed as well as it does without that popular framework. The love story at the center comes across as pretty standard stuff—during the 1930s, a glamorous prostitute, Fleur (Anita Mui), falls in love with a client, Chan (Leslie Cheung); they wish to marry but his parents would never approve of such a union; the lovers agree to a suicide pact. Some fifty years later, the ghost of Fleur returns to Hong Kong looking for the ghost of Chan. She meets a yuppie couple who put her up for a few days while she waits. After several failed connections she begins to suspect that Chan reneged on their pact. Fifty years of waiting for a soul mate give way to rueful melancholy.

The love story at the center of Rouge is a slight thing, a standard-issue forbidden romance. Its obstacles never feel particular to this couple or to their period. Yet the film’s generality accounts for a large part of its effect. This is not because the romantic sketch is universal or because it’s mounted scrupulously enough to breathe new life into the material. Instead, Rouge curiously positions the central romance as a nostalgic product—not a real artifact of the past, but instead a token of our impoverished conception of it. Fleur looks out of place in the present, amidst neon advertisements and other emblems of a perplexing global culture. Kwan poses her glamour against the chintzy surfaces of 1987 Hong Kong but never suggests that a retreat into the past could resolve the alienation of his characters. It’s a long, sincere sigh about how much sexier and mysterious the past can seem to contemporary eyes. Kwan doesn’t belittle that impulse, but he doesn’t let it pass without interrogation either. The yuppie couple of 1987 (the Hong Kong cousins of Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty in Lost in America) share a healthier, flabbier, and ultimately more honest relationship than Fleur and Chan, but such an observation does little to blunt their sense of inadequacy, living in the shadow of a past more imagined than experienced.

Kwan assayed a more mature exploration of these themes in his 1992 masterpiece Actress but Rouge works in its own right as the logical conclusion to the expectations established by its own brand of popular entertainment. Both films, incidentally, work as interesting companion pieces to Resnais’s attempts to resurrect the emotional immediacy of unfashionable theater pieces.

The Conformist (1970)
Bernardo Bertolucci’s famous art house thriller reminds me somewhat of a lesser Makhmalbaf effort like Once Upon a Time, Cinema in its tendency to emphasize ornate and oppressive prettiness over nearly everything else. Vittorio Storaro’s impressive photography oscillates between nouvelle vague eccentricity and a more classical and rigorous brand of ravishment, but the mode throughout suggests a detached exercise in style. Much like Schindler’s List, actually, in its desire to condemn fascism as a political impulse but redeem it as a source of stylish chic, The Conformist is a film divided against itself, perhaps deliberately so. Homosexuality serves as the locus of political complacency, though there’s something here for bigots and gays alike: Trintignant commits his crimes and it’s left up to us to decide whether latent homosexuality or the societal pressures to repress it made him do it.

26 August 2007

On Recent Apocalypse Films

We may only be coming to realize it now, but cinema screens presented an inordinately high number of apocalyptic thrillers in 2006. I count among their number United 93, Snakes on a Plane, The Host, Children of Men, and, of course, Apocalypto. Together these films form a representative sample of the current tendencies—stylistic, ideological, otherwise—in the action-thriller idiom. Each film, to a greater or lesser degree, revolved around some compact unit of personalities fighting for survival under impossible circumstances. These microcosms of human perseverance suggest struggles, if only implicitly, upon which the fate and fitness of the human race turns. In contradistinction to the science fiction films discussed in Susan Sontag’s classic ‘Imagination of Disaster’ piece, these apocalypse films weren’t much concerned with misapplied science or failed utopias. They were not even, like the execrable Independence Day of ten years earlier, about the dangers of liberal consensus and sympathy when faced with interplanetary invasion.

All of these recent apocalypse thrillers sought to prove that the world and its disasters might be better understood in showbiz terms. If these films sought to edify, it was on the basis that real life and its tragedies, political and corporeal, might be elevated through translation into familiar commodities. Apocalypse films strived to make history itself more legible and authentic—in other words, more real—by assuring their audiences that the unsettling headlines were natural material for the movies. After having seen these pictures, we are meant to come away convinced that the medium made our own lives and history more palpable and real.

The least ambitious, and generally the least, of these films was Snakes on a Plane. As an action picture, Snakes on a Plane, nominally directed by David R. Ellis, would have been shelved twenty years ago because it fails to meet the most basic measures of competency for the genre. There are no sequences in Snakes on a Plane—all of its minor thrills come about independent of any shot-by-shot set-up. There is no impulse to build suspense in this film: each autonomous shock derives its effect from the four-word premise, not from any attempt to establish parallel action, drop clues, or present the illusion of spatial unity.

The film itself is slight but the phenomenon is not. The pre-release fervor over Snakes on a Plane could even be called, to borrow a term developed by Miriam Hansen, a modern-day instance of vernacular modernism. With Snakes on a Plane we saw fans creating tributes and parodies well before the film itself entered commercial release. New Line Cinema’s decision to insert a line in the final cut (‘I’ve had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!’) that had been dreamed up by bloggers and Snakes groupies ginned up publicity by pandering to fans but pretending that the choice represented some unspoken democratic evolution in the filmmaking process. But Snakes on a Plane yielded lackluster returns and prompted a number of pundits to declare the failure of the internet to cook up a genuine blockbuster. That’s the important part: rather than abetting a sly studio ploy, the Snakes on a Plane fans denatured one—stripping a product of its commodity character and reappropriating it for more esoteric amusements devoid of exchange value.

Surely Samuel L. Jackson, still trading on the badass persona he perfected in Pulp Fiction a dozen years earlier, accounted for part of the appeal. But arguably just as much enthusiasm flowed from the premise itself, among the most direct in recent times: snakes—on a plane. Whether acknowledged explicitly or not, the scenario of ‘snakes on a plane’ suggested a burlesque upon the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, not least a xenophobic euphemism for the terrorists themselves. If fans found the idea of snakes on a plane inherently funny (and most did, seizing upon the phrase as a rueful acknowledgement of life’s exasperating tribulations) then it had at least something to do with the anarchic dimensions of the premise itself. With most Americans familiar with the time-wasting hassle and false sense of safety instilled by stripping away shoes, belts, camcorders, and, later, toothpaste in the name of homeland security, snakes on a plane sounded like a memorable and better-than-average day at the airport. Laughing about the possibility of venomous vipers in the overhead bin stood as a perfectly healthy way of displacing unease about shoe bombers and the like.

United 93, ostensibly the more serious of the two productions, also had something to do with working through trauma. Director Paul Greengrass and distributor Universal exuded seriousness of purpose throughout the whole campaign, hoping to avoid or marginalize accusations of exploitation. Their unorthodox press kit—which included biographies of the United 93 passengers rather than the actors—was praised in most of the long reviews. Scraping for words, most cited its ‘documentary’ style as evidence of its credibility. This represented a new way of defining the documentary—one simply on the basis of unrecognizable actors and quite ignoring the film’s mannered style. No documentary outside of The Last Waltz lights its ‘subjects’ this carefully and no documentary I know of attempts to make its subject matter fit so snugly in the dynamic babble-and-swagger idiom established by television series like The West Wing.

Indeed, United 93 is a very tasteful production if you can overlook all those tense shots that leave the audience wondering whether the stewardess with her back to the camera will have her throat slit in this shot or the next. Otherwise, though, it’s a model of restraint, holding off on the ominous music cues until the end and reducing the potentially jingoistic dialogue on the plane to a troubled whisper. Much like Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, most of the praise lavished on United 93 simply and uncritically celebrates the fact that the filmmakers took a humanistic approach as opposed to a racist one, which I suppose constitutes some sort of achievement in this day and age.

But to congratulate Greengrass and Co. for recreating the events of the United 93 hijacking without stooping to virile, patriotic rallying cries elides the larger problems of the film. One must wonder, as did Jonathan Rosenbaum and the millions of habitual filmgoers who avoided this picture, how edifying such a tasteful recreation could ever be. True to Greengrass’s painfully neutral method, there’s no background here, no intimation that the attacks had any substantial basis in political, socioeconomic, or religious terms. Without any explanation or context, the incident is reduced to, or perhaps circumscribed within the boundaries of, irrational horror. It’s a film that asks its spectators to reconfigure an abstract tragedy as an immediate one, perhaps reclaiming a political event as a personal one. But no matter how visceral the violation becomes, is not the end still an essentially vulgar desire to declare, ‘I know how it felt on that plane; I saw the movie’?

A friend has suggested that United 93 can be read as indictment of divided labor and modernity’s malaises. I don’t begrudge him that interpretation, nor would I deny anyone the right to suggest, for example, that one of the film’s radical humanistic gestures—its insistence that the hijackers were, in their own way, just as frightened and confused as the passengers—proffers a subtle but crippling blow to the neoconservative project of making ‘Islamofascism’ sound like the most formidable and resilient threat ever dealt to the Republic. 

But most every interpretation of the film wanders like that, assaying the terrorist attacks, their aftermath, and their representation here as one big, unsettled metaphor awaiting exegesis. Political opinions, well-grounded or inchoate, masquerade as film criticism.

Approaching United 93 as a curious cultural object rather than as a work of art (with all the intentionality and efficacy of expression that implies) seems more fruitful at present. As I wrote earlier, the film seems like an artifact from a culture still unable to come to terms with something. Instead of educating its audience about 9/11, United 93 packages an incomprehensible tragedy in familiar showbiz terms. A mix of slasher movie suspense and procedural teledrama, United 93 attempts to demonstrate that even the most complex events can be understood through the discourses concocted by the entertainment industry. So total and surreal was the devastation that for the first few weeks after 9/11 it was almost a cliché to declare that the attacks resembled the improbable images of a blockbuster movie. Now United 93 has brought us full circle by suggesting that the hijackings actually could be translated faithfully to entertainment conventions. Nothing lies outside the domain of the movies.

Hollywood movies also serve as the main reference point for The Host, Bong Joon-ho’s skillful monster movie that became South Korea’s biggest blockbuster to date. The Host, like every Spielberg film, is about rebuilding a family amidst extraordinary and often horrific circumstances. Killing the rampaging monster isn’t just a matter of civil service or even survival instinct—it’s about making the world safe again for daddy-daughter time. The heavy debt to Spielberg is thrown into relief by minor deviation from the blockbuster template, whether it be the soft critique of American imperialism or the entrancing moment when collective mourning becomes the stuff of a raucous comedy routine. And yet to celebrate The Host because it tweaks the political position and emotional range of the standard-issue Spielberg blockbuster demands an impoverished criterion of judgment; like The Wild Bunch or Far from Heaven, The Host only works as art if a mildly revisionist impulse to lampoon genre convention is accepted as the basis for aesthetic profundity.

On its own terms, though, The Host serves well enough as a diverting, riveting two hours of digital entertainment. The insinuations of deliberate environmental degradation, capitulation to American military might, and opportunistic use of disaster as a pretext for political suppression announce The Host a topical variation on an old formula. Like the other recent apocalypse films, there is self-consciousness about the enterprise—a desire to entertain mixed with a fashionable nod to vague political disillusionment. And also like the rest, the apparent need to dress up old-fashioned thrills in topical guise is ultimately more informative than any of the political statements these movies purport to make. Just as United 93 assures us that there’s no trauma too messy for the medium to unravel, The Host settles our conscience about consuming destruction-as-spectacle by according both destruction and spectacle a tinge of currency and savvy.

Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto upholds this politicizing impulse even when superficially straying from it. Gibson takes something genuinely exotic—the death throes of a lost civilization, rendered in a dialect unfamiliar to nearly everyone in the audience—and makes it recognizable in a droll, daffy way. Jaguar Paw and his people are presented, from the very first scene, in terms lifted from the Hollywood buddy comedies of the last two decades—a subgenre almost inseparable from Gibson himself. Unlike United 93 and The Host, there’s no suggestion of Us vs. Them here—men everywhere, in every culture, crack stupid jokes about small penises. Humiliation humanizes us all.

The second half of the film, an extended chase sequence, is pure grindhouse junk edited more intelligently than usual. The grotesque set pieces—a panther mauling, a man ripped apart by a hunter’s trap—get the down-and-dirty job done, eliciting hoots and cheers from the cheap seats. It’s this section where the film’s pretensions are most incompatible with its skeezy models and their rather primitive means of audience engagement.

Up until that point, Gibson had been spinning some kind of allegory about civilizations in decline. In interviews, the director compared the Mayan human sacrifice rituals graphically realized in Apocalypto to the Iraq War, with the implication that prolonged Mideast conflict will bring denizens of Western Civilization to the level of snarling savages again. The racial politics behind Apocalypto are troubling indeed, not least in the abrupt finale in which the chase comes to an end on a beach where friend and foe observe the arrival of several ominous conquistador vessels. Are the Spanish meant as some divine corrective to indigenous decadence? Or does their arrival instead constitute the most brilliant anti-climax in movie history, a tectonic shift in the moral order that renders the preceding two hours a quaint lark? As a friend put it much more succinctly: conquistadors—deus or deus ex machina?

How one reads the film’s ideological project depends largely on whether one thinks Disney would be demented enough to spend millions of dollars on a movie that consciously floats a thesis that might be summed up, in classic grindhouse fashion, as ‘They had it comin’ to ‘em!’ As with The Passion of the Christ, the film’s incidents demand to be read allegorically, even for audiences accustomed to more casual viewing practices. Gibson’s violence—so excessive and so abundant as to run contrary to any principle of narrative economy—exhausts thrill, momentum, spectacle, catharsis, and every other showbiz justification for putrid gore so early in the game that the only rationale left is that the Violence Means Something. Make no mistake: that flesh was ripped apart for our sins.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men brilliantly combines and contradicts all of the impulses and strategies outlined above. Like the others it might be accused of imaging the apocalypse not as a unique, world historical event but as the culmination of slick genre exercises. To regard the film’s relentless and haggard drive towards anti-climax and death as a critique of the action genre’s more heroic and bombastic impulses—in other words, to commend Children of Men for minor deviations from a well-oiled framework—would be just as disingenuous a position as saying that United 93 lends gravity to 9/11. There is a moment towards the end of Children of Men in which the sound of an infant crying—so familiar to all and yet alien to everyday human experience for the past eighteen years of an infertile Earth—very nearly halts a scene of urban warfare. We see where this sentimental interlude is going: the fighters recover their humanity at the sound of untarnished innocence and drop their arms, embracing and smothering each other with the kisses of universal brotherhood. Instead, the mortar fire resumes after a few seconds of awed silence. The apocalypse continues unabated. 

What would one really be admiring here: the morose thesis, the upending of a genre expectation so perfectly prepared, or Cuarón’s calculated skill in making the consumption of the same old Hollywood goods look like anything but?

Likewise, the film’s politics are, to put it generously, confused: protest and conformity, opposition and authority form two indistinguishable positions in England, 2027. According to Children of Men, the Government decries dissent as an act of terrorism—which might be a pungent critique of the former if the film weren’t so intent on showing that left-wing political activists do tend to act like terrorists and greedy, sadistic, narrow-minded ones at that.  

Children of Men vividly portrays a political disaster in medias res, its instigators and its redeemers equally contemptible and equally unfit to fix any of it. With outrageous crimes met with equally preposterous and cynical resistance, the film alternates between being a call-to-arms and a call-to-complacency. The only hope for salvation comes in the form of one woman shepherded by one man to one island in one corner of the world where one baby might reverse the fate of mankind.

What a smug, shrill, nihilistic idea for a movie this is. The camerawork saves it.

Rather than imparting lessons about the present through appropriating familiar styles, Children of Men forges a new one. Of course, the mise en scene is not entirely original; in fact, it might be described as a version of Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice engineered for the Playstation 2 console. And yet this shot-gun marriage is a harmonious—and, what’s more, expressive—one. The long takes conceived by Cuarón and his cameraman, Emmanuel Lubezki, are unabashedly virtuosic, which should normally be understood as a limitation for art. But these one-shot sequences—notably the attack on the car early on or the siege on the tenement much later—are all about creating a world in such focused, uncompromised detail that its destruction might be more deeply felt. The imagery throughout is concentrated without devolving into symbols. Whether one writes off the conceit of shooting an attack on a car from angles inside and outside that car without a single obtrusive cut as empty showmanship or not, it’s difficult to deny that the image of Clive Owen and Julianne Moore spitting a ball back and forth between each other’s lips is an affecting and novel but perfectly comprehensible vision of love, trust, comfort, and, ultimately, symbiosis.

Many of the film’s images possess the immediate legibility of ideograms—impressions of rage, despair, and fleeting love. Because the images flow so supplely from one to the next, the frame itself takes on the air of a squalid sanctuary. When the delicate, xenophobic police state collapses towards the end of the film, anonymous Homeland Security officials haul Pam Ferris (who plays Miriam, a maternal, good-hearted dyke who helps to guide Owen, Moore, and a very pregnant Claire-Hope Ashitey) off a bus and throw her up against a fence alongside other hooded prisoners. We see it all from Owen and Ashitey’s point-of-view, from the bus window: a rifleman paces back and forth, inspecting the victims. We drift away without seeing a shot fired—we don’t have to. That’s the material logic behind the style: in this world, slipping from the view of the anxious camera is tantamount to death itself.

One more thing about Children of Men: around the edges there are images and ideas drawn from the television news of the last five years. Headlines, slogans, music cues, snapshots, and, in the scene described above, allusions to the infamous images of Abu Ghraib. These political references are, in the context of a film that treats its nihilism and defeatism seriously and rigorously, admittedly problematic. Time once described Stars Wars—that pop amalgam of John Ford and Leni Riefenstahl—as ‘a subliminal history of the movies’; in much the same manner, Children of Men is a subliminal history of Anglo-American politics since 9/11—pilfering an image here and there, stripping it of its political context, and offering it anew for all its emotional and dramaturgical value. In this sense, Children of Men is a powerful, vexing collage of familiar images. Each workaday atrocity flashes on the screen for the moment and shakes us from the genre routine perfected by the other apocalypse thrillers. Instead of trying to construct a history that supplants ours, Children of Men lets the pain of our world suture its own. It resembles being roused from a nightmare and then slipping right back into another one.

19 August 2007

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Prognosticators regarded Leo McCarey’s Make Way for Tomorrow as a solid melodrama with moderate feminine appeal upon its original release. ‘Obviously grooved for femme fans,’ reported Variety. The film opened on Mother’s Day, 1937 but flopped, likely on the basis of its grim premise and lack of star power. Indeed, this depiction of love in the midst of impossible circumstances plucked the heartstrings but at the same time wrenched them into a grotesque tangle that left most viewers feeling beat down and miserable.

The story followed an elderly couple (Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi) cast out of their home by a foreclosure. They seek aid from their grown children (among them Thomas Mitchell and Elisabeth Risdon), who reluctantly put them up. The old folks find the children and their spouses to be petty and irritable, accidentally cruel but intentionally indifferent. Moore and Bondi must be separated if both are to be accommodated within the children’s limited means. Only fifty years of memories and the possibility of a long distance telephone call binds them together—though not without the awareness that the money used for the phone call might be better spent on a winter scarf.

Four years earlier John Ford’s Pilgrimage (a brilliantly modulated series of genre-bridging sketches that still awaits rediscovery) had been a box office success. Like Make Way for Tomorrow, Pilgrimage revolved around generational conflict and relied upon the performance of a homely, elderly woman (Henrietta Crosman) for its pathos. Crosman, a theater veteran, played a crotchety and despondent kind of heroine—not in the least the bubbly, romantic lead that audiences had rightly come to expect from the Dream Factory. The anti-glamour gamble paid off in 1933 but failed in 1937.

Admittedly, the two pictures are quite different in other respects. Pilgrimage explicitly pitches carnal desire against conservative mores: Crosman, who’d rather send her son to die in the Great War than see him carouse with a local hussy, begins as a representative of the old values but gradually evolves to a more tolerant and sympathetic position. The story of her pilgrimage to her son’s grave in France follows an uplifting narrative arc that emphasizes personal growth and enlightenment. Maternal love may sometimes take a stubborn form, but it comes around. No such optimism (or, if you like, pandering) marks Make Way for Tomorrow. Here the generational divide stems from nothing much—social engagements that lay the trap for minor embarrassments, suspicions towards a doctor who looks too young or a shopkeeper who sounds too eager, routine gossip and well-intentioned promises, unfashionable frugality that supersedes middle-class hierarchy and manners. It is a collection of misdemeanors and misunderstandings, the stuff that makes for undramatic conflicts and speaks more for a common strain of human frailty than it does for a fiery breach of moral values, whether old-fashioned or new-fangled. The drama is also undercut by a lack of rousing catharsis. Because, at their base, the conflicts in the story emerge from trifling squabbles there is little of substance to overcome and few lessons to be learned. The film begins with a famous creed but were all the problems really reducible to the children neglecting to Honor Thy Mother and Thy Father the power of the piece would be much reduced.

Make Way for Tomorrow is a Depression picture that flails here and there at the socioeconomic tribulations of the times but ultimately treats them softly. The progressive film historian Lewis Jacobs, writing in 1939, believed that the film ‘dramatized the necessity for an old-age security system.’ That’s a reasonable conclusion to draw from the film’s effect and its outline but not from its realization. ‘Had this picture been called Why?,’ speculated Jacobs, ‘it would have been denounced as blatant propaganda.’ But the film is not called Why? and its pathos are not a matter of prescription. Safety nets don’t solve the interpersonal void at the heart of this film. This is no fable and no agitprop, but instead a melancholy observation about the emotional violence that springs from the best intentions of fallible human beings.
To find comparable melancholy one must look to this famous exchange in Ozu’s Tokyo Story:
NORIKO: But children do drift away from their parents. A woman has her own life, apart from her parents when she becomes Shige’s age. So she meant no harm, I’m sure. They have to look after their own lives.
KYOKO: I wonder. I won’t ever be like that. Then what’s the point of being family?

NORIKO: It is… But children become like that gradually.

KYOKO: Then—you, too?

NORIKO: Yes. I may become like that, in spite of myself.

KYOKO: Isn’t life disappointing?

NORIKO: Yes, it is.
Ozu, a fan of American movies whose early works reveal the influence of Sternberg and Vidor, had never seen Make Way for Tomorrow but his writing partner Noda Kogo had. That McCarey’s picture had an influence on Ozu’s classic film accounts for much of the limited recognition Make Way for Tomorrow enjoys among cinephiles today. Both films’ melancholy emerges from a vague sense of disenchantment with time’s drift and the inevitability of love’s dissolution into fragments of pain.

And yet, next to Tokyo Story, Make Way for Tomorrow seems crude at first. McCarey lacks Ozu’s unique ability to situate his characters in a rigorously delineated space. The film lacks the texture of Tokyo Story—the sense of a lifestyle reflected in the choice of wallpaper patterns, flower arrangements, umbrella cans, coat racks, and the like. In Make Way for Tomorrow, the walls are often barren and white and the compositions less complex on the whole. As storytelling, Ozu’s technique looks more deliberatively and thoughtfully elliptical than McCarey’s approach. Ozu forgoes conventional exposition and instead lets his audience arrive at the characters’ relationships and temperaments through conjecture and observation. In contrast, the abrupt elisions in McCarey’s narrative—such as the details of the scandal of the granddaughter’s late night trysts, precipitated in part by the Bondi’s presence—feel less organic and more like compromises with the Production Code. That is, the style of the film comes from regimented industrial practice more than it does the personal sensibility hypothetically exemplified by Ozu’s pictures.

The goal of the forgoing discussion was to ground Make Way for Tomorrow in what it lacks—glamour, uplift, fashionable themes, neat social directives, rigorous staging, personal technique—so as to better understand its considerable and unique assets. To say that the film is moving—and it is, supremely so, moreso than Pilgrimage and a whole host of other very fine melodramas, even perhaps Tokyo Story—explains some of its appeal but by no means all.
The performance style is worth noting. Moore and Bondi, the latter heavily made-up to look a good twenty years older than she was, read their lines at an eccentric clip. At first their pauses suggest bad actors struggling to remember their lines, revealing but not integrating that nervousness in their performances. But as we watch the performances begin to suggest something quite different—an acting style wholly divorced from theatrical bon mots and banter. There is weight behind these tremendous performances—a sense of the struggle to articulate complex feelings finally unrushed by fashion or pride. When Bondi delivers a speech towards the end about how people should expect a fixed amount of happiness, doled out in chunks here and there or thinly but constantly, her rhythm is perfect: it fits a moment when this woman realizes that she’s considering, explaining, defying, doubting, and justifying her unhappiness all in the same breath. Each clutch of words functions as a discrete unit that the speaker knows will amount to some horrific, insurmountable curse when strung together.

At other points, though, the performances are jubilant. It is the old folks who come off as child-like, winking at each other behind their children’s backs and expressing distasteful reactions through irreverent gestures. And Moore’s shopkeeper friend, played expertly by Maurice Moscovitch, dispenses his grim pronouncements about family life from on high with all the aplomb of an unshakable cynic on the Yiddish vaudeville circuit. This multiplicity of emotional registers here accounts for a large part of the film’s greatness, allowing each transition from play to profundity to feel all the more unaccountable.

By and large the strategy of Make Way for Tomorrow is to profit from the parts left out and consequently build its effects from sudden realizations. We know from the beginning that Moore and Bondi have been married for fifty years but it takes considerable screen time for the weight of this passage of time to emerge. There are no flashbacks in Make Way for Tomorrow and few concrete reminiscences about the past. When the couple does try to talk about their honeymoon, they find themselves arguing about the details—and it’s never clear whether the illegibility of the past has to do with the enfeeblement of aging or with personalities prone to gentle stubbornness from the start. Make Way for Tomorrow takes considerable advantage of the medium’s present-tense mode: there is no slippery ambiguity, as there would be in literary fiction, between a simple verbal description of a thing past and an absorbing reverie of it. No, here there is talk of the past but it is always just a murmur and a groping towards something, as we are reminded with every frame, not present. In a novel, words conjure up the past until it seems as vivid as the narrative exposition of the present, itself also a jumble of words; in this film we are always reminded that words can remain only that.

Without many topical references, it takes some time before we come to realize, evident as it should be, that the past the couple shares reaches back into the nineteenth century. Only when they begin to stroll through a rear-projection simulation of Central Park do we come to consider exactly what that past looked like and meant: theirs is not the New York of trendy Park Avenue and ritzy Broadway but New York as captured in the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz and Jacob Riis. That world has vanished without a trace and without any allusions to hint at its character. Even when they visit the Vogart, the hotel of their honeymoon, the past and all it implies lie beyond reach: after a kind clerk points to a picture of how the lobby looked fifty years before, we cut to a close-up of that picture and then track out. The conventions of the time lead us to believe that this is the cue for a flashback or a recreation of the world of the photograph, but as the camera tracks back we see Moore and Bondi just as hobbled and aged as before. There is no revelation, only distance defined anew.

The camera style of Make Way for Tomorrow is not quite as negligible as the comparison to Ozu seemed to suggest. It is difficult to recall another film of the period that so abjures the editing syntax of Hollywood filmmaking. Most, though not all, of the conversations captured by McCarey’s camera unfold in messy master shots wherein the characters glance askance and rarely meet each other’s gazes. There is a minimum of cutting back and forth when two people speak, perhaps because that rhythm on its own implies a pattern and a simple exchange of ideas that would be inappropriate in a film about the breakdown of communication and sympathy. In no other film I know do the backs of characters linger so long and so intensely in the compositions. (The much more self-conscious opening of Vivre sa vie is excepted for obvious reasons.) The style of Make Way for Tomorrow, in short, avoids flash but manages to cultivate highly complex effects from the exquisite blankness of the materials.

17 August 2007

Book Review: The Story of Film

Due to forces not yet fully understood, the remainder tables of America’s corporate bookstores have adopted Mark Cousins’s The Story of Film as a central bargain attraction. Cousins’s revisionist take on film history, 1888 to present, doesn’t seem much at home next to the latest Biskind sleaze-fest or another Marilyn Monroe peek-a-boo collection, but why look a gift horse in the mouth? For five dollars, Americans of every stripe can now be exposed to provocative theses about the history of cinema. That a book arguing, in somewhat populist terms, the centrality of Ozu to the development and poetics of world cinema has found its way to the bargain bins should be recorded for cultural posterity.

The Ozu bit is one of Cousins’s more provocative polemical choices. He argues, contra academic habit, that the real classical cinema was made not in Hollywood between 1917 and 1960 but in Japan during the thirties and forties. Classicism, the thinking goes, describes a certain kind of unadorned and natural unity between form and content, not simply musty memories of a cherished golden age. Hence, Ozu and Naruse and Mizoguchi become the exemplars of the medium. Cousins leaves aside Shimizu Hiroshi who seems to these eyes, at least on the evidence of Forget Love for Now and Japanese Girls at the Harbor, equally important in articulating a classical style in Japanese cinema, but why quibble with the minor omissions of a book so thoroughly committed to expanding the canon of cinema?

At this point I should mention that Cousins does succeed in livening up the standard accounts of film history, not least through flashing forward and backward on occasion to draw unorthodox parallels between the stylistic tropes of, say, The Best Years of Our Lives and Sátántangó. What’s more, there are titles and filmmakers here that even the seasoned cinephile will not immediately recognize. Cousins speaks of Indian filmmaker Baburao Painter and Spaniard Florián Rey in the same breath as Stroheim and Flaherty, all filmmakers who ‘in their social awareness or anthropological ambitions, their meticulous commitment to naturalistic detail and their anxiety about capitalism and exclusion … indicate[d] how incomplete was the view of the world reflected in closed romantic realism.’

‘Closed romantic realism’ is a politically-correct label of Cousins’s own invention meant to supplant the problematic ‘classical Hollywood cinema’ one alluded to above. The ‘closed romantic realism’ business is a slightly disparaging way of summarizing the whole tradition of Hollywood moviemaking, acknowledging that it stands as a phony (closed) and naively evasive (romantic) imitation of the real world while still maintaining some plastic and narrative semblance to it (realism). Fair enough, but I fear that Cousins’s sober and catholic approach to film history only erects new critical blindspots. While Cousins helpfully cites some unheralded dissenters from around the globe, he also counts King Vidor as one who ‘rejected close romantic realism’ on the basis of The Crowd. As a partisan of that film, I would argue that The Crowd illustrates the stylistic and political flexibility possible under the not-quite-so-monolithic Hollywood mode of production. Cousins seems to be suggesting the same thing, but can’t come out to say it.

What’s more, he devotes several pages to ‘postmodern innovators’ like Tarantino and the ‘lively independent production sector’ exemplified by Soderbergh and Hartley but ignores entirely true American independents like Charles Burnett and Billy Woodberry whose rejection of traditional narrative modes would seem perfectly in line with Cousins’s objective to cover ‘great, original films which seem not to have had an impact on successive filmmakers, because they were made in Africa, or poorly distributed, or flopped at the box office, or were directed by a woman, or were misunderstood or banned.’ Other questions: if originality and influence serve as equally valid criteria for inclusion, why are Deren and Warhol included while Brakhage, Kubelka, and countless others are left out? How can one write about Hollywood as ‘closed romantic realism’ and neglect to discuss Frank Borzage, the director who, more than any other, defined, exemplified, and justified that sensibility?

Cousins illuminates certain obscure corners of film history and ignores others that would seem to complicate his theses. The explanations and frameworks are often beguiling and curious but frequently not terribly rigorous. Still, there’s a spirit and openness of inquiry here that more than fulfills Cousins’s stated aim of writing ‘an accessible, jargon-free movie history for general readers and those who are beginning to study film.’ Though imperfect, The Story of Film is better than most any other introductory text book on the subject, despite an appalling number of typographical errors the professionalism of the enterprise.

For more experienced scholars and cinephiles, The Story of Film will appear to be an obvious improvement on the familiar and limited texts that they themselves suffered through on the way to finding the real cinema. Beyond that, Cousins’s text is problematic. Some paragraphs promise exciting discoveries, such as the one devoted to Murata Minoru’s Souls on the Road, a 1921 Japanese production that Cousins brackets with the much more canonical Intolerance and The Phantom Chariot as an example of films juggling multiple epochs through intercutting. I’d never heard of Souls on the Road before picking up Cousins’s book. Does it survive? Do any archives have a print? Cousins doesn’t provide any filmographies that answer these questions. Instead, only this note at the end of the introduction:
I have rewatched almost every film mentioned in this book. In some cases, however, that has not been possible. In these instances, I’m relying on memories of previous viewings. In addition, there are about forty films mentioned which I have never seen. Either prints of them no longer exist or I have been unable to track them down. They are included because filmmakers or historians have made a case for their importance.

That’s quite candid for the author of a work of this scope. Near as I can tell, though, nowhere in Cousins’s narrative does he note that any particular title is lost to neglect and nitrate decay. He does not distinguish in his prose between the extant and the vanished, thus substantially reducing the credibility and utility of his prefatory remarks.

09 August 2007

On Marginality, Part III

This post constitutes the last of three parts about the genesis and implications of Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart. [Part One] [Part Two]

Rose Hobart is no more the key to Joseph Cornell than Rosebud is the key to Charles Foster Kane. And yet there is something essential in Rose Hobart, something beyond star worship and beyond a jocular affection for mismatched eyeline takes. Cornell is, by one light, the most avant-garde of avant-garde filmmakers—not just in his total suppression of narrative momentum but in his expression of concerns defined almost wholly by his status as an avant-garde filmmaker. Rose Hobart is about marginality, among other things—marginality implicit in the act of watching lovely shadows on a screen, marginality as defined by the viewer’s distance to the actress, and, I would like to argue, a kind of kinship through marginality where the distance between enchanted viewer and B-movie actress is bridged by their common home on the cinematic outskirts. He, a moviemaker without a camera; she, an actress whose face rarely graces a trade paper ad, whose private life remains unexploited by the gossip mongers.

Rather than exploiting Hobart as his private plaything, Cornell illuminates the fragility of her persona: his scissors impugn her autonomy no more and no less than those of the studio editors. Out of East of Borneo he creates something new—but it is a form fully conscious of the newness of East of Borneo, its own cuts just as phantom as his. Cornell, I think, understood that, properly speaking, there may be one East of Borneo—a sordid little eight-reeler running seventy-four minutes—alongside a countless number of alternate versions: heavily scratched 35mm copies; dupey 16mm reduction prints (as was the material source of Rose Hobart); this particular reel or that one; this moment or that one; East of Borneo as a sourcebook of delirious fantasy; East of Borneo as imagined by the child who has heard about it but not seen it yet; East of Borneo as imagined by an adult who read Morduant Hall’s Times review and hesitates to buy a ticket; East of Borneo as remembered after the house lights rise again the theatre, or perhaps inadvertently for the first time after the space of many barren years, now available only as a series of fragments and incomplete gestures. Rose Hobart is a reverie of East of Borneo: the images that come to one’s mind when another speaks its title, accompanied by the sounds of Brazil—not the real sounds of Brazil but the atmosphere of Brazil the arm chair voyager accesses through a Nestor Amaral LP. Its star Rose Hobart is cast adrift in the ether of memory and photography, her image only made meaningful and full again through a sympathetic viewer. As in Warhol’s later silkscreens of Marilyn Monroe, only through extreme artifice—that is, visions blatantly truncated from their original commercial context and presented anew—are the ubiquitous star images allowed a measure of unsuppressed personality.

Though composed five years after the premiere of Rose Hobart, a brief Cornell piece from View magazine on Hedy Lemarr seems still the best guide for understanding the artist’s method and motivation:

Among the barren wastes of the talking films there occasionally occur passages to remind one again of the profound and suggestive power of the silent film to evoke an ideal world of beauty, to release unsuspected floods of music from the gaze of a human countenance in its prison of silver light. But aside from evanescent fragments unexpectedly encountered, how often is there created a superb and magnificent imagery such as brought to life the portraits of Falconetti in “Joan of Arc,” Lillian Gish in “Broken Blossoms,” Sibirskaya in “Menilmontant,” and Carola Nehrer in “Driegroschenoper?”

And so we are grateful to Hedy Lamarr, the enchanted wanderer, who again speaks the poetic and evocation language of the silent film, if only in whispers at times, besides the empty roar of the soundtrack…. At the end of “Come Live with Me” the picture suddenly becomes luminously beautiful and imaginative with its nocturnal atmosphere and incandescence of fireflies, flashlights, and aura of tone as rich as the silver screen can yield.

Even a viewer more sympathetic to the talkie revolution than Cornell is apt to see his point; Hollywood photography between 1931 and 1941—that is, between East of Borneo and Come Live with Me—seems, to my eyes at least, a golden age of studio photography, the decade during which even the shoddiest of Hollywood features possessed—either through accident or through simple competence—a few glimmering moments. To cite two examples from the beginning of the cycle: neither John Francis Dillon’s 1932 sleaze sideshow Call Her Savage or Sidney Franklin’s 1931 adaptation of Private Lives is a masterpiece, but each contain moments of shimmering glamour that accord Clara Bow and Norma Shearer all the luminance of Dietrich in a Sternberg Valentine. The same holds true for Karl Struss’s work on The Story of Temple Drake or Joseph Walker’s on It Happened One Night, a Poverty Row quickie turned Academy darling thanks to unexpected Heartland popularity, with moments of lyricism worthy of comparison to Murnau’s Sunrise.

What Cornell saw in East of Borneo and Come Live with Me—and what any astute film historian can see given the chance to view most any two random studio programmers from the thirties—is a kind of unconscious grace hidden amid the studio rubble. Note Cornell’s adjective enchanted—the mortal Hedy Lamarr (or Rose Hobart) possessed by the spirit of art without being aware of it. The unconscious part is key: art created accidentally, almost in direct contradiction to one’s orders and plans, a serendipitous moment of beauty that slipped past everyone’s notice. Cornell’s role of curator is a fiercely democratic one—revealing the unconscious depths of poetry within the damaged goods of forgotten product. Cornell may make East of Borneo unintelligible on the level of plot, but he simultaneously makes legible its unintended poetry. No accident that Rose Hobart is framed by an eclipse—everything in between is one long, privileged moment, a journey into the ideal world of beauty that only happens once in a blue (or, in some prints, pink) moon.

07 August 2007

Zodiac (2007)

According to a number of internet critics, Fincher’s 160-minute police procedural is some kind of a masterpiece. It’s a gripping piece for much of its length and the editing is so fluid as to suggest a new classicism unfolding before our eyes. I’m thinking especially of the swirl of images and dialogue as Fincher criss-crosses his locations (the Chronicle office, the city police station, the county police station, etc.) as each party learns of a new bit of evidence. It’s the closest any filmmaker has come to adapting the propulsive, multi-camera modern shooting style (inherited from television) into a genuine aesthetic.

It’s masterful but it’s no masterpiece. There’s brilliant, elegantly expressed stuff dancing around the seams of Zodiac—nods to the racist fear-mongering of the era in a panicked police ABP, recurring jokes about how most Californians have no sense of the geography of their own state. But as a period piece, it’s skewed: the yellow walls of the Chronicle newsroom make a stronger impression than any of the brittle milieu that should be palpably surrounding them. This film says next to nothing about San Francisco in the early seventies and only a little more about media complicity in the commission of sensational crimes. What’s here is mainly an obsessive, unsolvable whodunit. At turns, it’s a rather pornographic one, too, with detailed imaginings of the Zodiac killer’s grisly murders; like most teen slasher films, we know what to expect when a young couple pulls off the side of the road. As Joanne Laurier writes in her review for the World Socialist Web Site (a more consistently astute source for film criticism than you might expect), Zodiac falls so short of thoughtful critique that it’s virtually indistinguishable from the exploitative firestorm it purports to examine. Its method is more personal and insular but it’s just as evasive.

Adept as it frequently is, Zodiac as a whole pales next to the sketch for a supremely creepy thriller buried in its eighth reel. By an extremely convoluted chain of speculation that bears no reprinting here, Jake Gyllenhaal finds himself in the home of another could-be-the-Zodiac, this one the proprietor of a repertory movie theater. He and Gyllenhaal descend to the basement, a dank pit stacked with rusty film canisters. There’s an expert template here for a thriller that draws parallels between the nocturnal musk of cinephilia and unfettered homicidal mania. It’s the seed for a grand metaphor to explore the aura of cinematic fatalism that stretches back to the days of nitrate film and the 1897 Charity Bazaar. It’s also, if only in contemplation, a much more interesting movie than Zodiac itself.

05 August 2007

On Bergman and Antonioni

And so a chapter closes, or so we’re told. The obituaries that followed the news of two masters’ deaths were, as these things must be, standard-issue profiles drawn up well in advance. It took a few days for the much more interesting pieces to emerge, the ones that yoked together the deaths of the once-chic Italian and the always-dour Swede to make a Statement about the Death of the Art Cinema. The Sunday Arts sections led with these. The titles were suggestive enough: ‘Ode to the ‘art’ film’ (Richard Schickel in the Los Angeles Times); ‘Closing Credits’ (Ty Burr in the Boston Globe); ‘Before Them, Films Were Just Movies’ (A. O. Scott in the New York Times).

Most of these pieces were baby boomer reflections on spent youth long since passed and presented almost explicitly as such. Some outlets printed deflations, of course. New City syndicates across the country ran J. Hoberman’s essay that ridiculed Bergman’s “high-middlebrow symbolism, evident metaphysical anguish and absence of challenging formal innovation [that] made his movies safe for college English departments.” And the New York Times Op-Ed page found space for Rosenbaum to post a harsh screed in which he concluded “while Mr. Bergman’s films may have lost much of their pertinence, they will always remain landmarks in the history of taste.”

Poor taste though it may be for Rosenbaum to consign Bergman to the category of ‘landmarks in the history of taste’ before the man’s ashes have had a moment to cool, the gushing think pieces essentially say the same thing. The appreciations of Bergman trot out the same hoary catchphrases and watchwords, ‘existential dread’ foremost among them. Few print any new observations or even suggest new ways of watching these films. The most deeply-felt moments in these articles are those in which the authors historicize the passing of Bergman and Antonioni, gliding over the works and focusing on the supposed death of serious cinema or film culture or halcyon days of critical consensus. It is, of course, the height of provincialism to treat foreign artists who made films within a specific cultural and personal context as important chiefly for their contributions to American moviegoing habits.

Schickel is the most up-front about this, even when he pretends he isn’t:
The deaths on the same day of two masters of world cinema, Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, naturally prompt gloomy end-of-an-era reflections […] But, in truth, what I've been mourning these past few days is not so much the passing of these difficult, masterful old men but of the cinematic era they dominated -- which sputtered out, its passing largely unremarked, well over 30 years ago.
Schickel’s piece is not, one supposes, a ‘gloomy end-of-an-era reflection’ because he knows that happened over three decades ago. But his own account makes one suspicious:
I'm talking about the international cinema culture that arose in the postwar 1940s and dominated not just the screens of the world but the sensibilities of a newly impassioned audience at least until the early '70s. I'm talking about Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, Federico Fellini and Satyajit Ray, the entire French New Wave (Truffaut, Godard, Rohmer, Melville) and, lest we forget, the cheeky Czechs of the Prague Spring.
Much as Schickel would like to historicize art cinema, his own honor roll seems historically misleading. Ozu was scarcely seen outside neighborhood theaters on the West Coast until the very end of the ‘golden age of art house cinema,’ and even then he never attracted the kind of hip audience that flocked to Kurosawa and Fellini. Melville’s masterpiece, Army of Shadows, wasn’t distributed in the U.S. until last year. Le Samourai did play the circuit back then—in an English-dubbed print retitled The Godson to capitalize on a certain popular hit of the period.

And what about Rossellini? Here’s Arthur Mayer, who distributed the first neorealist films in the U.S.:
“Open City” was generally advertised with a misquotation from Life adjusted to read: “Sexier than Hollywood ever dared to be,” together with a still of two young ladies deeply engrossed in a rapt embrace, and another of a man being flogged, designed to tap the sadist trade. The most publicized scene in “Paisan” showed a young lady disrobing herself with an attentive male visitor reclining by her side on what was obviously not a nuptial couch.
When Open City opened at Chicago’s Imperial Theater, it was an adult-only show advertised as a “savage orgy of lust!” What about the films he made with Ingrid Bergman? They were obviously ignored in their time or forgotten by the time Hollis Alpert wrote this in an infamous 1959 Saturday Evening Review piece:
I hesitate to say that Bergman’s films are for the connoisseur, for that implies that their appeal is snobbish and even esoteric. It’s already possible to determine whether someone is middlebrow or upperbrow, depending on whether the word Bergman suggests Ingmar or Ingrid.

The point that should be apparent from the above is this: rather than a time of national awakening to the possibility of film as art, the art house age represented by Bergman and Antonioni saw a new insistence on the division between art for us and dross for them. It was the age of Masscult and Midcult, to take a phrase from Dwight Macdonald, who, after much hand-wringing, decided that art could not, by definition, be available to the masses.

That’s what these pieces overlook. They also assume that Bergman and Antonioni instigated auteurism. (Note that the Los Angeles Times also printed a side bar about those new ‘auteurs’: Cameron Crowe and M. Night Shyamalan.) It’s a related assumption, insofar as it elevates the sheen of the era over its historical details. Such terminological clumsiness obscures the schism that made film culture so vibrant in the period discussed—the fact that, for a vocal minority, the real auteurs were Hawks and Minnelli and Bresson. The Antonioni fans of the day would never have denigrated their god as an ‘auteur’: that was the word that Pauline Kael had ridiculed after Sarris suggested that Cukor had a more abstract style than Bergman. That we can today regard both Antonioni and, say, Sirk as great directors is progress from the past, but a position inconceivable without the battles that characterized that very past. Antonioni and Bergman represented one particular kind of cinema art and that was part of the point—an art genre that could be placed alongside, but more often presumed superior to, Manny Farber’s brand of termite art.

The truth is that films and film directors were taken very seriously before the art house era. Intellectuals of an earlier period surely did not need the Ingmar example to recognize that Griffith, Stroheim, Eisenstein, and Murnau were ‘personal’ or ‘distinctive’ artists even if they toiled in the tawdry movie industry. ‘Difficult’ films were indeed made before The Seventh Seal, though it would be irresponsible to suggest that Limite, Vampyr, Borderline, Story of the Last Chrysanthemums, Ménilmontant, The Wind, Enthusiasm, At Land, or Moonrise ever earned a comparable audience. (It should be noted, though, that for New Yorkers of a certain age, The Blood of a Poet and Lot in Sodom were the Seventh Seal of their generation.)

But Bergman and (to a lesser extent) Antonioni still constitute a significant strain in film and cultural history—the film of ‘personal expression’ that does not arise from the kind of national genre traditions or avant-garde responses to the same that could, with some thought, characterize all of the above examples. Bergman, his admirers insisted, always had something to do with Ibsen. True enough, but where is Bergman’s The Doll’s House? As Sarris, a lapsed Bergmaniac, noted in his original review of Persona:
Bergman had no politics to speak of—or to film of—simply because Sweden itself lacked significant political tensions .… Bergman’s metaphysical concerns might not have been as asocial if race riots exploded now and then in Stockholm. Bergman’s American admirers on the art-house circuit were nonetheless ripe for Bergman not only because his concerns were more relevant to the angst of sheer affluence, but because he seemed immune to the corruptions of mass taste. His small crew in Sweden was an eloquent rebuke to the massive apparatus of Hollywood films.

Consider the social commentary in that film: Liv Ullman sees a monk burning himself to death on her television screen. She reacts, as she does to everything else in the movie, with silence. Some pundits have postulated that her silence springs from a sense of alienation from the modern world that can drive a Buddhist to suicide over the Vietnam War. But Bergman doesn’t say much about Vietnam or the Vietnamese here, only about the hysteria inculcated in its observers from afar. It’s the world as a metaphor for interior cacophony.

Bergman’s films are distinctive and unlike those of any one else. They are insular, but not in the same way as, say, Sukorov’s The Second Circle. They come from a comfortable—but not necessarily less valid—position within the Swedish film industry. Though he made dozens of films, Bergman is not just the Swedish Curtiz. He was not striving for continued relevance in a big industry where you were only as good as your last picture. His films reflect a certain degree of privilege, free from the protean striving that even crops up in a great, if glossy, MGM picture like Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner.

Of course, as Kael so gleefully noted, a bad director’s films would be just as distinctive and his oeuvre as perversely whole as those of a good director. So distinctiveness alone cannot be the sole criterion for excellence. In Bergman’s case, though, the distinctive stamp reaches autobiographical heights, as in Fanny and Alexander with its Lutheran minister who finds brittle glee in the anguish of others, setting his playthings up and watching them suffer. That’s the Bergman formula through and through. And yet the intensity of Bergman’s films—their air of confession and private disgrace, of a stillborn catharsis—preempts the charge that his work is slight. If great artists profit from an awareness of their limitations, then Bergman belongs in the first rank. Like Warhol’s films, Bergman’s work operates with the assumption that a small, carefully delimited slice of the world can be harrowing beyond means and therefore truthful beyond measure.

Antonioni’s scope is much more ambitious. His films often amount to desperate tests, the characters wandering through endless social and moral matrices and finding each wanting and not nearly as distinct as had been hoped. He also plays with the limits of the medium, but in a different way than Bergman does, reducing plot to incident and character to a set of gestures and glances. There is, for example, the entrancing moment in L’eclisse wherein Delon and Vitti bend behind the pillars of the stock exchange to glimpse one another in the crowd. Dramatically, there is nothing here, but that’s the point: Antonioni has shifted the very stuff of cinema.

Authorship is never an easy matter when speaking of films, though these two filmmakers foregrounded personal themes and styles as the clearest proof of it. It is, to me at least, a less interesting kind of authorship than Evgenii Bauer updating classic literature for the cinematic idiom or Sternberg using genre conventions and studio resources to realize personal fetishes or, for that matter, Navajo Indians recording their lives at the instigation of anthropologists Adair and Worth. In the latter set of films, one really has a sense of the artist negotiating with the medium. These are first films in a more profound sense than is usually meant, for they are films unburdened with the history of the medium. The very rules of cinema are being discovered between the frames. Next to that, personal anguish artfully expressed looks cheap. And it goes without saying that selling one’s cinema as delicate episodes of personal expression (which, one should admit, Fellini did much more often than even Bergman) invites an equally subjective response. And where subjectivity is concerned, Bergman is easily too histrionic for those raised on Dreyer.

For a generation of filmgoers, though, these personal visions exemplified all that was noble and notable in cinema. (Personal visions of the Bergman-Antonioni variety, not the Brakhage-Mekas one.) The introverted values inherent in their work should not be denied but nor should they be dismissed on that account. The danger, though, in waxing nostalgic about a time when American moviegoers were ready for serious, difficult works is that such an account implies, without much evidence, that they’re indifferent to these things now. Schickel cites expensive Hollywood clunkers of the moment and complains that a contemporary filmmaker like Leconte can’t compete. But that kind of equation ignores the fact that Wild Strawberries bloomed, in its own way, alongside Ben-Hur and that Red Desert opened in the shadow of The Sound of Music. “We would rather be teased than troubled,” writes Scott, “and the measure of artistic sophistication is cleverness rather than seriousness…. I don’t believe that the art of filmmaking has necessarily declined since then (I’d quit my job if I did), but it seems clear the cultural climate that made it possible to hail filmmakers as supreme artists has vanished for good.” That sentiment is easy enough so long as Scott doesn’t bother to hail any living filmmakers as supreme artists. Have the last twenty years really been dominated by mindless blockbusters or did it just seem that way because most print critics have been looking for art in all the old places while ignoring new waves in Hong Kong and Taiwan?

Assuming that the youth of America will be bored by the high seriousness and slow pacing of art house pictures, as Burr does in his piece, is a less sophisticated version of the fears that were inaugurated by Sontag’s death of cinema piece over a decade ago. Blaming MTV and Spielberg and home video and a host of other demons only goes so far in explaining why the art house aesthetic died. A better explanation may be that taste-makers conceived art cinema so narrowly that the departure of two of its luminaries seemed tantamount to the death of the medium itself.

UPDATE: Via e-mail, it appears that the pieces discussed above are the cream of a very uneven crop.