Wednesday, September 21, 2016

TIFF 2016: A Round-Up

Here's a run-down of the notable films I caught in Toronto. I'll be writing about some of these in the weeks to come.


Toni Erdmann (Maren Ade, Germany)
Certain Women (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, UK)
Elle (Paul Verhoeven, France)


Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho, Brazil)
Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, France)
The Death of Louis XIV (Albert Serra, Spain)
Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, USA)
The Dreamed Path (Angela Schanelec, Germany)
The Ornithologist (João Pedro Rodrigues, Portugal)
The Unknown Girl (Luc & Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Belgium)
I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, USA)


Yourself and Yours (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
Fire at Sea (Gianfranco Rosi, Italy)
The Rehearsal (Alison Maclean, New Zealand)
Kékszakállú (Gaston Solnicki, Argentina)
Austerlitz (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine)

Discovery Of The Fest:

The Human Surge (Eduardo Williams, Argentina)

A Small Glimpse Made Me Super-Eager To See More:

Six short films by Ana Mendieta

Others Appreciated These Films More Than I Did:

Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, USA)
The Dreamed Ones (Ruth Beckermann, Germany)
Mimosas (Oliver Laxe, Morocco)
General Report II: The New Abduction of Europe (Pere Portabella, Portugal)

How to Electrify an Audience of Hundreds:

I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, USA)

Cinema = Bodies Moving Through Space:

Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, France)
The Human Surge (Eduardo Williams, Argentina)

A Festival Of Great Performances By Women:

Isabelle Huppert (Elle); Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann); Sonia Braga (Aquarius); Cynthia Nixon (A Quiet Passion); and the cast of Certain Women.

Best Q&A:

Maren Ade (Toni Erdmann); and João Pedro Rodrigues (The Ornithologist)

Film That Generated The Best Conversations:

Elle (Paul Verhoeven)

Film With The Best Soundtrack Music:

Aquarius (Kleber Mendonça Filho)

pic: Nocturama (Bertrand Bonello, France)

Monday, July 25, 2016

Links: Victor Perkins, Richard Dyer, SCMS Fieldnotes, etc.

-- A wonderful tribute post to the late Victor Perkins by Catherine Grant, including short videos produced in his memory by her, Chris Keathley, Hoi Lun Law, and Patrick Keating. Also included are links to writing by and about Victor -- and a 12-part video interview with him.

-- From a superb interview with Richard Dyer by Catherine Grant and Jaap Kooijman in NECSUS journal: "My dream was always to do things that showed that the aesthetic and political were not different. The article I wrote about Blaxploitation came the nearest to saying ‘actually the politics is in the aesthetic, not in the films’ overt politics’ ... What is driving a project for me is always politics and pleasure, but sometimes it is more pleasure and sometimes it is more politics. So when it was about the pleasure, I had to think of the politics; when it was about the politics, I had to think about the pleasure. White was very much a political project. Most of what I wrote about in that was not what I particularly liked or disliked, but I thought I must do some case studies on things that I do really like..."

-- A great archive is growing here: SCMS Fieldnotes, a project of in-depth interviews with film scholars including Dyer, Tom Gunning, Laura Mulvey, Jim Naremore, Scott MacDonald, Linda Williams, Dudley Andrew, and others. Most are video interviews, a few are audio, and some are available in transcript form. My favorite aspect of these interviews is that the scholars narrate in parallel both their personal history and a history of the discipline over the last few decades. Something fascinating emerges: a sort of "cubist portrait" of the film studies discipline as it has evolved over the last five decades.

-- An invaluable resource: The Black Film Critic Syllabus, compiled by Fanta Sylla.

-- Some interesting lists of favorite movies at Grasshopper Film: Matías Piñeiro; Pedro Costa; and Thom Andersen.

-- From a few months ago: on the occasion of its going open-access, the journal Film Criticism devoted its first issue in its new reincarnation to (of course) the topic of film criticism. Contributors include Catherine Grant, Adrian Martin, Tom Gunning, Steven Shaviro, and many others.

-- The Metrograph website has a section called Edition, which collects specially commissioned writings on films and cinephilia, and filmmaker interviews.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Kiarostami (in a post that includes a conversation between Jonathan and Ehsan Khoshbakht about the filmmaker): "... some of the memories of him [Kiarostami] that I treasure most include going shopping with him in Chicago for CDs by John Coltrane for one of his sons, getting stoned with him on home-grown joints at a party in Tehran, seeing The House is Black for the first time a few rows in front of him in Locarno, and hearing him say jokingly on a panel that we were both on at Stanford University that my objections to his removing the final scene of Taste of Cherry from some of the prints shown in Italy was like the commands of a mullah."

-- Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan's striking film For The Plasma (I wrote on it in a post on US micro-budget cinema a couple of months ago) has now received is theatrical premiere at Anthology Film Archives. Here's a smart and thoughtful interview with the filmmakers by Nicholas Elliott at BOMB magazine. Also: Bryant on Helene Surgère, B-actress in the films of France's Diagonale directors.

-- In the new issue of The Cine-Files, Corey Creekmur has an essay on "affective videographic criticism" in which he writes: "Laura Mulvey’s bracing call for feminist film criticism to “destroy” pleasure and beauty – what she summarized as the “ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film” — is perhaps itself now regularly challenged by the desire of some practitioners of affect theory (as well as creators of video essays) to maintain the emotions experienced by spectators of the original work, even as they still seek to mount a feminist (or queer) critique ... In many instances, it appears, video essays embrace the pleasures (and other affects) that an earlier generation of film theorists was determined to keep at arm’s length."

-- In the journal Visible Language, Holly Willis proposes four modes of critical analysis that use cinematic tools, making a case for "the cinematic humanities, or humanistic inquiry enhanced through the practices and modes of cinema."

-- Filmmaker Edwin Martinez: "The brutal truth is that the history of documentary filmmaking is rooted explicitly in cultural, racial, gender and class-based colonialism. For decades upon decades, Western filmmakers—almost exclusively white men—traveled to other countries and cultures to extract resources (footage), which they would exploit (edit) for the benefit of their home culture (theaters, film festivals, PBS, etc.). This flow of power, and along with it the control over these stories, historically traveled in one direction—from those without it to those with it."

-- On the occasion of David Bordwell's 69th birthday, he contrasts movie-watching in 1947 and 2016. Also: Bordwell on King Hu's A Touch of Zen at Criterion. Related: notes on the making of the film by King Hu himself, published as part of a press kit in 1975.

-- In the new, loaded issue of Senses of Cinema, a valuable essay by Daniel Fairfax on Rivette's less-examined late-1960s writing for Cahiers du Cinéma: "A second period of critical activity [well after his more widely known 1950s criticism] ensued between 1968 and 1969, as Rivette made a return to writing for the journal. He lent his name to 15 pieces within a roughly 18-month period, a body of work which included interviews (with Rivette on both sides of the microphone), short critical pieces, and participation in a round table on the topic of montage."

-- Dan Sallitt's book on the films of Mikio Naruse is now online.

-- Over 40 essays by the scholar Laura Marks are available at her website.

-- Big news: Robert Bresson's Four Nights of a Dreamer (1971) comes out on blu-ray in Japan. (Via David Jenkins on Twitter.)

-- An epic 2013 interview with Peter Kubelka (with Jonas Mekas chiming in occasionally) by Andrew Lampert in The Brooklyn Rail: part 1 and part 2.

-- Thomas Beard in Artforum [subscription required] on programming the film series "Queer Cinema Before Stonewall": "As I began to assemble the lineup, I recalled a film critic friend complaining about suffering from a sort of auteur fatigue. And I understood exactly what he meant, because the dominant model of repertory film programming has largely been, and continues to be, single director surveys. Though he said it half-jokingly, it made me think about what that model leaves out. It made me realize that you would never have a Barbara Loden retrospective or a Jean Genet series, because even though both of those filmmakers made extraordinary contributions to the history of cinema, they essentially made only one film each. It's also no mere coincidence that the filmmakers who make one or a couple of remarkable films and then fall silent happen to be disproportionately women and people of color."

Friday, April 08, 2016

U.S. Micro-Budget Indie Cinema

(This one's for Matthew.)

Last summer, Dan Sallitt posted this startling tweet: “Wondering if it's just a blip or whether low-budget US indies are the most exciting thing in world cinema now.”

Sure, I had seen a handful of recent U.S. indies in the last couple of years, but I had no idea if a larger phenomenon was afoot. Since then, struck by Dan’s tweet, I’ve sought out and watched about 50 of these films. While I did not stumble upon a trove of “hidden masterpieces” (that would be an unreasonable expectation), I was nevertheless surprised to discover an awful lot of good, worthy, solid – and occasionally excellent — cinema.

Here, to start, is a list of 15 or so filmmaker discoveries I made during my immersion. For each, I note what struck me as their strongest work — and thus, highly recommended. All films below were made in the last 5 years or so.

Josephine Decker: Butter on the Latch; Thou Wast Mild and Lovely
Gina Telaroli: Traveling Light
Khalik Allah: Field Niggas
Jenni Olson: The Royal Road
Amanda Rose Wilder: Approaching the Elephant
Joanna Arnow: Bad at Dancing
Bingham Bryant & Kyle Molzan: For the Plasma
Joe Swanberg: Marriage Material
John Magary: The Mend
Kentucker Audley: Open Five; Open Five 2
Stephen Cone: The Wise Kids
Nathan Silver: Exit Elena
Amy Seimetz: The Sun Don’t Shine
Charles Poekel: Christmas, Again
Joel Potrykus: Buzzard
Sean Baker: Starlet

Let me add a second, smaller list of directors to whose work I’ve had only limited exposure — but what I’ve seen by them has strongly sparked my interest. I file them, like Andrew Sarris once did, under “Subjects for Further Research”.

Robert Greene: Actress
Matt Porterfield: Take What You Can Carry
Paul Harrill: Something, Anything
Frank V. Ross: Tiger Tail in Blue

A note of disclosure. I’ve left out two filmmakers I admire — and whose work I strongly recommend! — because they are friends I have known for almost a decade: Dan himself (The Unspeakable Act) and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (Ellie Lumme).

Finally, I’m not sure what level of budget qualifies as “micro”. I have simply followed the usage of the word as it has attached itself, in Internet film culture, to the work of a certain, ever-expanding group of filmmakers. I have also used “low-budget,” “small-budget” and “micro-budget” interchangeably.

Below are brief observations on approximately 10 filmmakers — followed by some general comments.

* * *

1. Josephine Decker

Decker makes intense, visionary films. Her two features, Butter on the Latch and Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, are lyrical, but this is not a calm, contemplative, conventionally “poetic” cinema. Instead, it is full of disorientation and surprise — narrative, formal, stylistic. Every single element of film form seems to get a playful workout in her hands. Both movies are driven by female characters, and are strikingly shot by her regular cinematographer Ashley Connor, who makes free and exhilarating use of out-of-focus images. Sound, similarly, gets distributed between onscreen and offscreen in unpredictable ways. Both films imaginatively draw upon the natural environment: Butter is mostly set in a Balkan music camp in the California mountains, and Mild and Lovely is a black-comic take on the Southern gothic genre that takes place at an isolated farm. Butter is sprinkled with thrilling moments that erupt into mystery, oneirism and plain opaqueness; this disruptive quality is integrated wholly and completely into Mild and Lovely, into its every moment, making it (for me) the slightly greater film.

2. Gina Telaroli

Telaroli is a protean and fascinating figure in film culture; I wrote about her recently, including links to several pieces by or about her. Her Traveling Light is a non-narrative film that documents a train trip from New York City to Pittsburgh. Initially conceiving it in narrative terms, Telaroli decided, in the aftermath of a snowstorm that disrupted and altered the train journey, to strip the film of its narrative elements. This resulted in a more abstract and avant-garde version of the intended movie. Her thoughtful comments on “train films” are worth quoting here:

… trains are the perfect, preassembled set. You don’t need to light them, they’re already decorated, and because they’re moving, they’re always interesting … It’s like my love of courtroom movies, this miniature mockup of society as a movie set, with everyone playing the roles they’ve been assigned from outside, even though they’re in a self-contained world … For research, I was watching movies like Human Desire, Class Relations, and Mission: Impossible, and it’s always the same thing: every seat carries a token citizen of a different class, and the train is this collective space where they have to confront each other and reestablish their roles through the simplest gestures …

3. Khalik Allah

Allah’s hypnotic Field Niggas is an hour-long work of documentary portraiture. Its subjects are the poor people, mostly of color, many of them drug addicts, who hang out near the intersection of Lexington and 125th in New York City. It is said that there are 8 methadone clinics within a 5-block radius of this spot; the iconic Velvet Underground song “Waiting for the Man” is set at this location. Over the images we hear the voices of the subjects — but they are out of sync with the images, which are in slow motion. As Ashley Clark writes of these unfortunates, many of them are addicted to K2, a monstrously debilitating synthetic weed, an epidemic of which is now sweeping the city. The title of the film refers to the distinction Malcolm X once pointed out between the “house Negro” and the “field Negro” during the time of slavery: the former lived in the house with the master and largely identified with him, while the latter was part of the majority of slaves who lived and worked in difficult conditions outside. Allah says that he chose the film’s title as a deliberate act of insurgency: “I kind of wanted to come into the industry and get blackballed from the beginning, and the title Field Niggas would be a shortcut to that. However, the opposite happened: I was accepted, and loved! … The people that I am documenting are the unrepresented; these are the field slaves of today.”

4. Jenni Olson

Containing gorgeous landscape photography and shot on 16mm by cinematographer Sophie Constatinou, Jenni Olson’s essay film The Royal Road mixes documentary with personal narrative and an experimental impulse. Like nearly every good model in its genre, this is a digressive, associative work that is driven by reflection — in this case, on history, romantic desire, the landscape, nostalgia, and even the lives of libertines. Olson’s big subject here is California’s colonial past; the film’s title is a translation of El Camino Real, the highway that stretches from Sonoma in northern California to San Diego in the south. In Olson’s words, “Practically everything [in California] has a Spanish name. San Francisco. Los Angeles. And yet people tend to be either unaware of or not deeply aware of the fact that this all did belong to Mexico for a long time and was forcibly taken in a war that was very clearly not an honorable war.”

Melissa Anderson writes in the Village Voice: “Though Uninvited [Patricia White’s book on classical Hollywood cinema and lesbian representation] isn't mentioned in The Royal Road, Olson's film shares a deep affinity with White's book in that both are invested in mapping out lesbian cinephilia.” Olson is lesbian, and has been married for 20 years and has 2 children. But the layer of the movie that forms its first-person, romantic-seducer narrative has a remarkable convincing “autobiographical” feel. In interviews, she has spoken of how she consciously created a “persona” for what feels like a direct, confessional story. This speaks to an interesting aspect of her film: there is an unadorned, unfussy, prosaic, matter-of-factness about her voiceover delivery that is at odds with many of her forebears in the essay film genre (like, most prominently, Marker). This directness has led to some unfair criticism of her film as patronizing and “talking down” to her audience. Instead, I see her tone as pedagogical and anti-mystificatory — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It just seems unusual because it adopts an approach that is not closely derived from the films which have now come to define the “essay film canon”.

5. Amanda Rose Wilder

Wilder’s documentary Approaching the Elephant chronicles a year at a radically anti-hierarchical “free school” in New Jersey where all children and adults get an equal vote on how to spend each day. The first such school was founded in 1901 by a group of anarchists in Barcelona. Today, there are over 200 of them around the world; among the most famous is Summerhill in the UK, which Wilder visited as a child. The director shot her documentary solo, operating both camera and sound.

I've always thought of cinema that foregrounds the body (like Cassavetes, Pialat, Ferrara, etc. — all those totemic figures of the "Movie Mutations" canon) as a thoroughly adult cinema, so it comes as a shock to see those same qualities erupt with visceral effect in this documentary about children. (Cassavetes first leapt to mind as I was watching — and then I learned in interviews that he was an explicit inspiration, along with the Dardennes’ The Son.)

It is also a film that yokes together disparate elements: corporeality but also ideas; formal intelligence but also nonstop, narrative micro-incident; immersiveness but also distance (the latter helped by B&W). Robert Greene edited the film, and it was shot on digital video, but I was almost fooled because it looked very film-like in B&W in its 4:3 aspect ratio.

The intersection of poetry and cinema was a formative interest for Wilder. She cites a love of William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore because they wrote

about real life, but through a subjective, artful eye … Williams was a neighborhood doctor, and he’d go into people’s homes and then write about that, so to me William Carlos Williams and the Maysles had a lot in common. I immediately took to the idea of being able to have an intuitive, poetic eye behind a camera, and using it handheld, so when you’re watching the film, you’re almost watching my thought process or you really feel like you’re in my body as I go through the school…

She places her work in a lineage not of “school films” but of “those about children in other situations where they’re able to make real decisions for themselves, which tends to happen for the most part outside of school environments. Films [about kids who are “free” on the streets] such as Pixote, Streetwise, Children Underground.” She also suggests viewing it in a different but productive context: films about alternative communities such as Warrendale and Asylum which document mixed, uneven results for the methods of care employed.

6. Joanna Arnow

Arnow’s feature I Hate Myself :) is an uncomfortably candid first-person documentary in the tradition of Caveh Zahedi and Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March) — but goes further in its frankness and transgression. Dan Sallitt has a perceptive take on it here that I recommend reading. As much as I admire this film’s bravery, I’m a bigger fan of her most recent work, the 15-minute short Bad at Dancing, a stylized, surrealist-absurdist comedy in B&W. Two women share an apartment, and one of them has a male lover; the other one, played by Arnow, walks in repeatedly on the couple having sex. This recurring device becomes a way to lay bare the tensions in the relationship between the two women. Arnow has cited distant, by no means obvious (and thus, intriguing) influences: Fosse’s All That Jazz and Tsai’s Vive L’Amour respectively for her two films. I can't wait to see what she makes next.

7. Bingham Bryant and Kyle Molzan

A “digital-pastoral”: this is how Bryant and Molzan describe their enigmatic feature For the Plasma, which is set in a cabin and the woods around a seaside town in Maine. A woman watches a forest with closed-circuit TV cameras, looking for fires, and hires an assistant to help her; she also uses her surveillance data to (mysteriously) help make stock market projections.

There are lovely touches of the Rivettian here: a mood of low-key but constant paranoia; strange or fantastical moments that erupt in the midst of a firmly “documentary” context and setting; the predominantly female presence (the actresses Anabelle LeMieux and Rosalie Lowe); striking images that are sometimes uncanny in their emptiness (e.g. cameras arranged in precise configurations in the middle of a forest); the warm and inimitable feel of celluloid (it was shot on Super 16mm); the verdant images (this is a memorable landscape film); and the fact that it never succumbs to demystifying its enigmas.

Bryant says in an interview: “[There were] innumerable inspirations, but three models: Raúl Ruiz’s The Territory, Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Charisma, and Ermanno Olmi’s The Scavengers. Very different films that have their individual significance to us, but all ones that move modernism out of the cities and into settings usually monopolized by naturalism.”

8. Joe Swanberg

Swanberg’s history as a key figure of “mumblecore” now dates back to almost a dozen years. I will admit that I’m not a fan of the earlier work — such as Hannah Takes the Stairs and Nights and Weekends — that many Swanberg fans think of as high points of the period. But his more recent output has made me sit up and take notice. Of this (and there’s a lot of it since he’s so prolific), my clear favorite is Marriage Material. Happy Christmas and All the Light in the Sky are also well worth seeing.

In Marriage Material, a couple (played by actor/director Kentucker Audley and his real-life partner Caroline White) spend a day babysitting, and this causes them to take stock of their future. The film’s centerpiece is a riveting, 15-minute scene in which they talk in bed. Shot mostly with a static camera and long takes, there is a patience and attentiveness here that is not attenuated by the restlessness of handheld camera or by a surfeit of characters. (The latter is a problem for me with some of Nathan Silver’s work, like Stinking Heaven or Soft in the Head.)

Swanberg’s career and methods are worth studying because of their creative response to financial constraint. This interview with him at Filmmaker magazine is a useful case study on the financial life of a micro-budget filmmaker. He tells a story about discovering in 2010 that he and his wife, the filmmaker Kris Swanberg, were going to have a child — and throwing himself into shooting six (!) films during that year, so that he could edit those films while he was home with the baby once it was born. On the special difficulties of making a living as a micro-budget filmmaker, he says

It’s unfathomable to imagine any other industry where the lag time between when you do the work and when you get paid for the work is three, four, six or 18 months … For Kris and I, our dream right now is just to get out of debt — the hundreds of dollars a month in credit card debt from movies that I put on a credit card years ago. And that doesn’t even start to tackle student loans and stuff like that. Our family debt is $80,000 or $90,000. If we got to a point where we were at zero, that would feel like a major accomplishment.

9. Kentucker Audley

Audley is a versatile and boundary-spanning figure in US micro-budget cinema — actor, director, writer, online distributor/exhibitor (he runs the site No-Budge), and social media voice. But he’s also underappreciated in these roles. He doesn’t have the visibility of Joe Swanberg or Alex Ross Perry but instead – and his performances are the most notable site of this quality – there is a mystery to his presence, the sense that he is holding things back that might be interesting to discover. His dry presence also comes through in a great satirical manifesto/petition he authored a couple of years ago, in which he called on mediocre filmmakers to stop making films (he was the first to sign up) so that the problem of small-budget movie “overproduction” could be brought under control.

His Open Five and Open Five 2 (an hour long each and available to watch for free at Vimeo) are lovely films: narratively loose but with formal intelligence and a documentary weight that comes from an attentiveness to people and place. What a shame that the New York Times dismissed Open Five in a brief and clueless review.

10. Stephen Cone

The Wise Kids (2011) is a genuinely sweet and warm ensemble film that, like Henry Gamble’s Birthday Party, Cone’s most recent work, nicely splits its time between teens and adults, male and female. One of its protagonists is a 14-year-old boy who is coming to the realization that he is gay; he is played by Tyler Ross, in a lovely, open performance; we vividly see a new identity being born over the course of the film, the changes manifesting on his face and body. Both in this and Henry Gamble, Cone depicts ensembles of Evangelical Christian characters with great sympathy and generosity — something rarely if ever seen in cinema. According to Cone, the latter film has resonated with non-Christian audiences — especially Jewish cinema-goers — more than the former, and he wonders if it is because The Wise Kids shows the church itself while in the latter film it’s offscreen; it's an intriguing theory.

Cone is prolific (unlike most of other filmmakers here, he already has 7 features behind him), and his next project sounds fascinating: a film about cinephilia, inspired by Arnaud Desplechin’s Esther Kahn, about a young woman who is a projectionist in a small town in the North Carolina mountains.

11. Nathan Silver

Exit Elena, for me, is far and away Silver’s best film, mainly because of the way it handles a vital and timely subject: the challenges of “emotional labor.” The transition from a manufacturing to service economy has meant that many Western workers today don’t produce goods but instead (in large part) “produce” emotions. In other words, they are charged both with “displaying” positive feelings and also inducing such feelings in their customers. If manufacturing work invades and occupies only a part of the worker — the physical body — service work seems to take over the worker completely, both physically and emotionally. Arlie Hochschild, in The Managed Heart (1983), was one of the first scholars to study “emotional labor” and analyze the resulting “commercialization of feeling.” Her work — and the stream of research she has since inspired — speaks urgently to our present moment.

Exit Elena is about a young woman (played by co-writer Kia Davis) who, as a nurse aide, moves into the house of a suburban Boston family. Her ostensible assignment is take care of an elderly relative, but she soon — against her will — becomes intimately embroiled in the everyday lives of her neurotic and demanding employers. Invisibly hovering over every scene is the differential power relation between her and everyone else in the family, young or old. For fear of being fired, she finds herself acceding to escalating daily demands coming from every direction. There is a precise, comic absurdism at work here that is worthy of Buñuel. Silver’s own mother Cindy — not a professional actor — turns in an indelible performance, and the director plays her son.

* * *

And now, a personal confession: I’ve grown a little weary of films that immerse themselves with great relish in detailing “male bad behavior”. Cinema has so overwhelmingly and disproportionately been by and about men that it feels like I’ve seen, by this point in my cinephile life, far too many films on this subject. Now, few subjects are exhaustible in art, I understand this, but nevertheless my level of interest in this one has never been lower. Thus my slight impatience when approaching a film such as The Mend (John Magary) or Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry).

That said, The Mend is impressive. Its abrupt, chaotic movement has been compared usefully to that of Arnaud Desplechin, and it consistently foregrounds the vulnerable human body in a way that few contemporary, American non-genre films do. But Listen Up Philip is more than I can handle. Philip has received rapturous reviews; I’m glad it has found a wide audience for micro-budget cinema; I admit: the film gives the sense of a demonic intelligence behind it. But it makes me uncomfortable that it dives with such undisguised glee into the relentless, everyday cruelties perpetrated by two men who are pure, unadulterated pricks. It is this glee — this strong enjoyment of their pathology on the part of the film — that I cannot abide. Perry’s follow-up, Queen of Earth, is for me a better movie: it places its focus on women’s experience, and it doesn’t use close-ups as insistently as Philip, thus better showcasing Sean Price Williams’ stunning and versatile cinematography. But it is still too beholden to the Perry formula of fetishistically constructing a spectacle of educated, privileged people being assholes to each other.

Let me now conclude by singling out an element that is common to most of these US micro-budget films — and is a not inconsiderable source of their power. I am referring, very broadly, to documentary presence — of various natures and degrees — that is crucial to their effects. The best of these films lean on, and draw nourishment from, something large in the world, something weightier than a single individual’s perspective or experience. In addition to the fictional worlds that they elaborate, they also contain a wide “documentary channel” through which the world at large manifests itself to us — movingly.

To cite a few examples: Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant and Allah’s Field Niggas are explicitly documentaries. Most of Decker’s Butter on the Latch takes place at an actual, non-recreated Balkan cultural festival in Mendocino, California; the music and dance in the film, along with most of the non-actors who happened to be attending the festival, provide an authentic and compelling context within which the drama unfolds (the film would be unthinkable without its setting). Telaroli’s Traveling Light started out in conception as a fiction film but the finished product is an avant-garde documentary — of a train, views of the world through its windows, and the weather. Bryant and Molzan’s For the Plasma and Olson’s The Royal Road tell stories and have characters (of a sort) — but are, equally, vivid records of landscapes urban and pastoral imprinted upon celluloid. Charles Poekel’s Christmas, Again is an unambiguously fictional work, but the attentiveness to labor (the selling of Christmas trees on a sidewalk) is so careful and detailed that it transcends the function of “workplace context”: it is most of the movie. (In fact, the set doubled as a real-life Christmas tree business to raise some money: now, that’s a micro-budget cinema story!) And every time I think of Sean Baker’s Starlet, which is a strongly narrative- and character-oriented work, what I picture first in my mind is the California sunshine that floods its images. In the words of Matthew Flanagan: it’s prime “Vitamin D cinema” ...

* * *

Any thoughts on or recommendations of micro-budget cinema, American or otherwise? I would love to hear them!

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

TIFF 2015: Jerzy Skolimowski; Tsai Ming-liang

I’ve long heard good things about Jerzy Skolimowski; particularly esteemed are the four features he made in the 1960s, including Le Départ. I’ve seen only Deep End (1970) – which is stunning: enough to warrant a look at his entire filmography – and The Shout (1978; strange, recommended). The little-known but valuable essay collection Second Wave (1970), edited by Ian Cameron, contains an essay on Skolimowski (by Michael Walker) that first sparked my interest in his work.

I felt that his new film, 11 Minutes, deserved better than the cool critical reception it received at the festival. Two strands of cinema meet here. The first is the multi-character “network narrative”: a kind of film that has historically possessed a tendency toward middlebrow preciosity or inflatedness (not just in Iñárritu’s Babel or 21 Grams but also in its prototypes by vastly better filmmakers like Kieslowski [Three Colors: Blue]). The second strand here turns out to be the antidote to the first: the satirical thriller, a form favored by masters such as Hitchcock, De Palma, Chabrol and Verhoeven (I have a special weakness for this kind of cinema). Skolimowski’s sardonic humor is the overlay, the governing sensibility that pulls these two strains together. The ending of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix has been much praised, but 11 Minutes has a finish that is almost as exhilarating and unexpected. Skolimowski has said that he began by dreaming the final image (“frame-by-frame”), then reverse-designed the film from that image. “Is there a stranger, more provocative late-career renaissance in recent memory?” asks Fernando Croce in one of the few sympathetic reviews of the film from the festival.

Here are a couple of interesting things we learn about the director from recent interviews, such as the one he did with Danny Kasman at MUBI Notebook: he’s not a cinephile – and watches less than 10 films a year; he made a self-admittedly “bad movie” (30 Door Key, 1991), then quit cinema to paint for the next 17 years; and he still sees himself first and foremost as a painter.

He draws this contrast between filmmaking and painting:

Painting is zen. Filming is chaos […] I’m a different person when I paint. I’m alone, I listen to music, I have plenty of time, I’m not in a hurry. Every movement is important, sometimes it takes a long time, sometimes it’s spontaneous. In a film, I’m one of those with a huge group of people just behind my back and I feel it ...

* * *

Since I began attending TIFF in 1999, I’ve been fortunate to see Tsai Ming-liang and Lee Kang-sheng on multiple occasions at Q&As. This period has also coincided with my getting to know and love Tsai’s work. Especially because he likes to return to similar characters, themes, motifs and locales in his films, his audience experiences a growing familiarity with the Tsai universe with each new work. But this has also resulted (at least for me) in a growing curiosity about Tsai’s own, personal universe – something he doesn’t talk too much about in interviews.

Because of this, Afternoon holds immediate interest for Tsai fans – and for few others. It records a conversation between Tsai and Lee, runs 2 hours and 20 minutes, and contains just 4 shots, all from the same camera position. The setting is a dilapidated rooftop room; two big windows behind them contain a gorgeous view of the greenery outside.

We learn lots of personal details about Tsai and Lee’s life. They are close friends who’ve bought a house together in the country (it is also the movie's setting). Tsai is a constant worrier and a bit of a control freak. He likes to advise, be maternal, micromanage – however benignly or gently. They often share a hotel room (for example, when they travel to film festivals); and an utter everyday familiarity with each other (for example, being unclothed in each other’s presence).

As Ignatiy Vishnevetsky points out, Tsai takes this opportunity to ask Lee questions that he’s been wanting to for a long time, such as: “‘Will you cry when I die?,’ ‘Do you ever hate me?,’ ‘My sexual orientation: Has it ever bothered you?,’ ‘How do you like my cooking?’)”. Tsai discloses that he likes to frequent gay saunas because they “give me a sense of belonging … even if nothing happens inside, my feeling of restlessness subsides.” Lee says that he frequently accompanies Tsai to these saunas and waits outside, ready to call the police if he doesn’t come out after a while.

Their friendship is very touching. Michael Sicinski calls the film “a rare and lovely cinematic expression of gratitude” in which Tsai attempts to thank Lee for everything he has brought to his life and films. Tsai praises Lee’s acting: “You may be the strangest actor ever: no one is sure if you are acting or not acting.” He declares that good acting means “don’t express anything; just deal with the situation.” He confesses the reason why he makes films: “People need something to help them … we need things to help us understand life … it could be scriptures or it could be cinema.”

It is sad to hear that in recent years, Tsai has been ill because of persistent side effects from blood pressure medications. He now seeks natural remedies for his ailments. Even though he appears to be an extraordinarily disciplined and industrious person, he drolly characterizes all his films as “ruins.” He discloses that he has one brother – who doesn’t like his films. He jokes that he received an Oxford University Press book on “slow cinema” in the mail the day before, but can’t read it because of his poor facility with English.

Towards the end of the film they stop talking, and simply share each other’s silent company. But the camera doesn’t stop recording. Taking charge of each situation, as he is apparently impelled to do, Tsai says: “Let’s wait for the light to disappear” – and so we do (along with Lee and the crew behind the camera) …

* * *


-- Adrian Martin and I have begun rolling out LOLA 6. We now do one issue a year, and the theme of this one is "Distances". In her latest post, Catherine Grant very generously rounds up the issue -- along with new issues of MOVIE, in[Transition], Film-Philosophy, Senses of Cinema, and more.

-- David Hudson has a post at Fandor on his "Highlights of 2015": a huge thank-you to him for his kind words about The New Cinephilia. Also at Fandor: the most anticipated films of 2016.

-- I wrote a piece at the Criterion Collection website on Buffalo film culture and recent screenings of the Apu Trilogy here in town.

-- A collection of best-films-of-the-year lists at Desistfilm that includes Nicole Brenez, Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin, and many others.

-- At Toronto Film Review, David Davidson similarly collects many end-of-year lists of films.

-- Catherine Grant's roundup of "Favourite Film and Media Studies Gifts of 2015 Galore!" Also: a podcast interview with Catherine at The Cinematologists.

-- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell on "the best films of 1925".

-- At MUBI Notebook: "Fantasy Double Features of 2015".

-- Katie Kilkenny at The Atlantic: "Why Are So Few Film Critics Female?"

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum's "Global Discoveries on DVD" column in the latest issue of Cinema Scope.

-- Collections of tributes at Keyframe Daily: RIP, Haskell Wexler and Vilmos Zsigmond.

-- Leo Goldsmith on Manuel Mozos' film João Bénard da Costa: Others Will Love the Things I Have Loved. Also: Miguel Gomes on Mozos ("Ghosts and Phantoms").

-- Violet Lucca on black independent film-making in New York over the years.

-- The scholar Aaron Gerow maintains a Japanese film website called Tangemania.

-- "The Male Gaze in Retrospect": a collection of pieces commemorating the 40th anniversary of Laura Mulvey's classic essay, at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

-- Los Angeles-based critic Jordan Cronk has founded a new microcinema named Acropolis. It will focus on experimental cinema and undistributed films.

-- Kevin B. Lee: "77 Video Essays (and 30 Standouts) of 2015".

-- Babette Mangolte on Chantal Akerman at Artforum.

-- There's a new issue of the journal Cinema Comparat(ive) Cinema, and it's devoted to Portuguese cinema.

-- Filmmaker Paul Harrill's post, "Freeware, Shareware, and Cheap Mac Software for Filmmakers".

-- Adam Curtis' films are available to see here. (Via Jonathan Thomas.)

-- I'm looking forward to spending a weekend in Rochester in the spring, attending The Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum.

Monday, December 07, 2015

TIFF 2015: Films and their Paratext

Two films at TIFF, both by filmmakers who exhibit their work in museums and galleries, raised for me some interesting questions about the role that “para-textual knowledge” plays in film criticism. Here, the paratext in question was detailed information about context and intentionality provided by the artists, stated outside of the films themselves. Let me first begin by describing what the films are doing — and then air my questions.

One of my festival favorites, Invention is the first feature by the Canadian artist Mark Lewis; it is a stately and ambitious work designed to function on multiple levels. Some of these levels are easier to intuit and unpack than others. Most overtly, it is an homage to the city symphony films of the 1920s such as Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) or Sheeler/Strand’s Manhatta (1921). Lewis spent two years shooting in three cities: Paris, São Paolo and Toronto.

But the similarities to those earlier forebears are ultimately less than they might appear. Beyond the fact that they are all interested in exploration of urban space, the differences outweigh the family resemblances. Invention contains just 14 shots, and throughout its 80-minute running time, the camera is almost always in slow, steady and deliberate motion. This combination of long takes and camera movement has the effect of conferring a truly autonomous curiosity upon the “kino-eye”.

Not all aspects of the city, however, are of equal interest here. City streets, modernist buildings — for example, by Oscar Niemeyer in São Paolo, Mies van der Rohe in Toronto — and art museums become the film’s privileged objects of curiosity. The camera is especially drawn to glass and reflective surfaces, and to spaces in which light and shadow are at play. The film is silent except for the opening, which features solo piano as the camera slowly encircles a sculpture at the Louvre, and the final frames, which are accompanied by explosive rock music. All in all, Invention makes for a spellbinding viewing experience, unspooling a nonstop stream of sensations and a non-narrative suspense.

But once the movie ended, I read the “artist’s statement” in the presskit and learned a great deal about Lewis’s conceptual framework for the film — almost none of which, I should say here, was evident from “simply” watching Invention.

Lewis means for the film to have an entire background narrative: A camera is “born” into a world without cinema, and proceeds to “learn” about this world by moving through the space of cities — through modernity itself. There is a historical backstory to this choice: Lewis believes that 17th century baroque architecture marked the beginnings of the modern, and when people first moved through its architecture (he cites the buildings of Francesco Borromini as an example), they experienced “cinema” for the first time. So, not only was the experience of the modern city that of cinema “avant la lettre,” it also provided new “lessons in perception” for the city’s inhabitants — similar to avant-garde cinema’s capacity to “remake perception” in its viewers. (We might recall Stan Brakhage famously imagining an eye “which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception”.)

Lewis also singles out a specific inspiration for his work:

Jacques Tati’s Playtime is a sublime consideration of the city in relationship to its ideological representations. At the same time, Playtime insists, with great humour and strange precision, that the modern city is simply an invention of the cinema, but also that cinema is only the imagination of that very same city. Tati’s Playtime produces a kind of indeterminate either/or in this regard, refusing to privilege one over the other. This is its brilliance, I believe, and this is why I watch the film over and over again. I, too, cannot decide whether my films, for instance, depict the city or if they are helplessly produced by the city.

The title of Lewis’s film is a nod to Louis Lumière’s well-known line about cinema being “an invention without a future”. Lewis is trying to imagine the inverse: a future without an invention. Or rather, a future where the invention of cinema is just beginning to take place …

Artist Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s first fiction film, Sector IX B, is 40 minutes long, and begins with an epigraph that is a brief quote from French surrealist Michel Leiris. It proceeds to narrate the journey, in elliptical fashion, of Betty, a scholar who travels to museums in Dakar and Paris to do anthropological work. We occasionally see her ingest pills and have hallucinatory experiences; and we watch her linger over old photographs that might be from a personal album. The film closes with an enigmatic sequence, atmospherically reminiscent of Apichatpong, in which workers come upon what might be some kind of lost or hidden artifact in the basement of a museum. I enjoyed this mysterious, carefully composed, beautifully paced movie while having only the most rudimentary idea (outside of its barebones narrative) of “what it was all about.”

It turned out, when I chatted with the filmmaker backstage after the screening and read his “artist’s statement,” that there is a rich contextual backdrop without which the work is almost impossible to decode. I learned that the protagonist Betty is trying to recreate the state of mind and body of researchers who traveled in the 1930s to Africa as part of the Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic expedition. The primary inspiration here was Leiris, who was part of this expedition, and who wrote an account about it called L’Afrique Fantome (Ghost Diary).

What drew Abonnenc to the subject was the fact that Leiris’ field notes do not pretend to “scientific objectivity”. Instead they foreground his psychological state (he had been in analysis in Paris prior to leaving on his trip), and interweave multiple genres (including erotic stories and literary criticism). The result is a highly subjective account of Africa that implicitly critiques the way scientific research renders invisible the inner psychological and physical states of the researchers themselves.

I also learned from my conversation with the director that members of the original expedition took powerful drugs in order to strengthen their defenses against African illnesses (such as those transmitted by tsetse flies), which significantly altered their perceptions, thus further undermining claims of “scientific objectivity”. In the film (I learned later), Betty recreates the medical prescription box given to members of the expedition, and tests the effects of the drugs upon herself. The film’s final scene, in which workers unearth an unknown object in the museum’s basement, was intended by the director to question the status of each artifact in a museum’s collection: which items are chosen to be exhibited — and which are deemed less worthy of display, and why.

Suffice it to say: my experience of these films would have been unimaginably impoverished without my extended encounter with all this artist-provided background – and the resulting knowledge about how these works need to be approached.

* * *

The term “paratext” originated in literary theory and interpretation, and refers to the material that surrounds the main text, such as the preface and foreword, and also including such things as formatting, typography, and author portraits. Interviews and commentaries by the author also belong in this category.

The theorist Gérard Genette thinks of paratext as a gray area, not exactly the text but not exactly outside of it either. He calls it “a threshold … a zone between text and off-text”. It is a place, Genette writes, “of an influence on the public … an influence that is at the service of a better reception of the text and a more pertinent reading of it.” Paratext thus becomes “a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one’s whole reading of the text.”

Artist’s statements are, of course, an important kind of paratext. When I first encountered avant-garde films that came with such “instructions for interpretation,” I remember being a bit skeptical. An artwork, I then believed, must enact its themes and intentions within the work, rather than impose or announce them from outside. But reading Genette made me reconsider this hard distinction between text and not-text. Our interpretations of a work never emerge completely from within a work and its details anyway; we routinely bring outside knowledge to bear upon the work when we interpret it. So, over the years, I’ve come to value statements of the artist’s intentions and commentaries, regarding them as always potentially useful.

I’m curious to know: If we were to think of paratext as a “genre,” are there particularly good examples of them in the history of avant-garde cinema? Also: I tend to think of artist’s statements in the experimental film world as a recent phenomenon — perhaps spurred by artists being forced to “commodify” and “sell” their work in the art marketplace to grants organizations, art galleries, and the like. Have avant-garde filmmakers always accompanied their work with written or spoken aids to interpretation? I suspect there is an interesting history, waiting to be written, of artist’s statements in avant-garde cinema.

* * *


-- At Sight & Sound, "best films of the year" lists by over 150 critics worldwide.

-- At caboose: Catherine Grant's audiovisual essay "Dissolves of Passion," which forms an integral part of her contribution to the upcoming caboose volume "The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image," whose primary authors are Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell.

-- Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin's reflection on making audiovisual essays in Frames Cinema Journal begins: "Not only is the work we do para-textual in relation to the usual academic work on film; we ourselves are para-academics ..." Also: Three audiovisual essays by Cristina on Luis Buñuel, commissioned by ICA on the occasion of their Buñuel retrospective.

-- The new issue of cléo: a journal of film and feminism is on the theme of "grace".

-- A conversation between Jonathan Rosenbaum, Raymond Durgnat and David Ehrenstein, "Obscure Objects of Desire: A Jam Session on Non-Narrative," that appeared in Film Comment in 1978.

-- Alex Ross: "A Hundred Years of Orson Welles" in The New Yorker.

-- Jonas Mekas interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich in Interview magazine. (Via Will Stephenson.)

-- Best of the year lists at Artforum: by John Waters; and J. Hoberman.

-- An interview at Film Comment with the poet Susan Howe, who recently introduced a screening of Tarkovsky's The Mirror in New York City.

-- The theme of the new issue of NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies is "Vintage".

-- Lesley Stern's lecture (in her charismatic voice and delivery), "How does (the) Cinema Feel About (the) Animal?" at SoundCloud. (Via Catherine.)

-- I've been enjoying Kelley Conway's new book on the films of Agnès Varda; David Bordwell has put up a post on the book.

-- On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, the journal Australian Feminist Studies has put up 30 articles from its history for free download. (Via Adrian.)

pic: The hallucination of a scientist in Sector IX B.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Gina Telaroli and Kurt Walker

One of the "possible futures" of cinema (to use Gina Telaroli's phrase) can be glimpsed on this Tumblr page, on which Telaroli and Kurt Walker have released their new feature films; I enjoyed both very much. Here's to the Future! (Telaroli) and Hit 2 Pass (Walker) can be viewed for two more days — until November 22. I recommend reading this perceptive post on the films by Matthew Flanagan at his blog Landscape Suicide.

Both are exemplary works of "Small Cinema"--"the type of movies that have little to no chance of distribution," as Walker says in this excellent conversation with Telaroli at MUBI. I particularly like what these two films have in common. For one, they are openly experimental, non-narrative works, but they wear their experimentalism lightly — free of gravitas but full of inventiveness and play. The other trait the films share is something very special: they are works that spring from a profoundly collective spirit, and they enact this spirit from moment to moment in the processes of their making — processes which are foregrounded in both films. As Vadim Rizov points out, Telaroli's is the rare film that captures a female film director on set.

Telaroli is a gifted and fascinating figure in film culture: in addition to being a filmmaker, she is also a programmer, critic, and erudite cinephile. She makes her living as a video archivist at Martin Scorsese's Sikelia Productions, but seems to move admirably and super-productively between her multiple film-related passions and projects. I also find her unfailingly articulate and thoughtful: check out her piece "More Women, Less Men, and a Possible Future of Cinema" at Filmmaker; the conversation between Telaroli and Phil Coldiron at the Brooklyn Rail; this interview with her about Here's to the Future!; and the video interview with Ricky D'Ambrose.

* * *


-- RIP Chantal Akerman (1950-2015): David Hudson collects tribute pieces at Fandor.

-- I wrote a liner essay for the Critierion DVD/Blu-ray box set of Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy. (Apologies for the self-promotion!)

-- At Sight & Sound, several film critics and scholars remember the recently deceased Penelope Houston.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Peter Labuza's podcast The Cinephiliacs.

-- An audiovisual essay by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin on Chantal Akerman's Almayer's Folly at MUBI; and the new issue of The Third Rail featuring Cristina, Adrian, McKenzie Wark, and many others. Also, Adrian on Maurice Pialat's La gueule ouverte at Craig Keller's blog Cinemasparagus; on Marlon Brando at Fandor; and on Akerman and "walking" at Filmkrant.

-- Audiovisual essays by Corey Creekmur at Vimeo.

-- A number of filmmakers choose their favorite films, at La Cinetek.

-- A solid list by Bilge Ebiri: "The 50 Best Foreign-Language Movie-Musicals Ever".

-- Several new reminiscences of Sam Rohdie collected in a post by Catherine Grant.

-- A roundtable on Buster Keaton's short films by Jean-Pierre Coursodon, Dan Sallitt and Brad Stevens.

-- Boris Nelepo on Želimir Žilnik: "Film as a Handshake".

-- An interview with Mathieu Amalric in BOMB magazine. (Via Jake Mikler.)

-- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell on the long-lost German serial Homunculus (1916) and Expressionism.

-- Via Corey: Ara Osterweil on the films of Ana Mendieta at Artforum.

-- Nick Davis interviews Todd Haynes in Film Comment.

-- An appreciation of Stroheim's The Wedding March by Neil Bahadur at Letterboxd.

-- Avant-garde filmmaker Isiah Medina, whose 88:88 is one of the most interesting films of the year: at Filmmaker magazine; at Cinema Scope magazine (in conversation with Coldiron); and at Blackflash.

-- A 3-part interview with art critic Dave Hickey at SFAQ.

pic: Here's to the Future!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

TIFF 2015: The Round-Up

I’m back from TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival), where I caught about 35 films. Average film quality was high this year—even if, compared to past TIFFs, I didn’t encounter any mind-blowers like Beau Travail (1999, my first TIFF), La Captive (2000), Still Life (2006), Syndromes and a Century (2006) or RR (2008).

I'll soon be putting up a series of posts with impressions of the films. Meanwhile, here’s an overview.


Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)
The Other Side (Roberto Minervini, USA)
Arabian Nights vols. 1-3 (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)
Evolution (Lucile Hadžihalilovic, France)


The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
Invention (Mark Lewis, Canada)
Jafar Panahi's Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)


In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman, USA)
Office (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)
In the Shadow of Women (Philippe Garrel, France)
Night Without Distance (Lois Patiño, Spain)

Very Good:

The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (Ben Rivers, UK)
Afternoon (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan)
The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin/Evan Johnson, Canada)
High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, UK)
11 Minutes (Jerzy Skolimowski, Poland)


The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece)
Sector IX B (Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, France/Senegal)
Minotaur (Nicolás Pereda, Mexico/Canada)
Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton (Guy Maddin/Evan Johnson/Galen Johnson, Canada)
The Event (Sergei Loznitsa, Ukraine/Netherlands/Belgium)
Francofonia (Alexander Sokurov, Russia)

Interesting, but Disappointing:

Murmur of the Hearts (Sylvia Chang, Taiwan)
Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Japan)
Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Turkey)
The Apostate (Federico Veiroj, Uruguay)

Low Point of the Festival:

Les Cowboys (Thomas Bidegain, France)

Films I Was Most Sorry to Miss:

Cemetery of Splendor (Apichatpong Weereasethakul, Thailand)
Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhang-ke, China)
No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium)
Lost and Beautiful (Pietro Marcello, Italy)

Fascinating, Need to Revisit:

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan)
88:88 (Isiah Medina, Canada)

Most Thrilling Mise en Scène:

Office (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)
Evolution (Lucile Hadžihalilovic, France)

Best Scene:

Taxi driving class taught by South Asian instructor in Frederick Wiseman's In Jackson Heights.

Memorable Onscreen Appearances by Directors:

Jafar Panahi (Jafar Panahi's Taxi)
Tsai Ming-liang (Afternoon)
Guy Maddin (Bring me the Head of Tim Horton)
Sylvia Chang (Office)
Miguel Gomes (Arabian Nights)
Alexander Sokurov (Francofonia)

Best Pop-Music Soundtrack:

Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes)

Most Narrative-Maximalist:

Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes)
The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin/Evan Johnson)
11 Minutes (Jerzy Skolimowski)
High-Rise (Ben Wheatley, UK)
In Jackson Heights (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

Best Essay on a Festival Film:

Leo Goldsmith in Cinema Scope on The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers.

* * *

Writings on films at the festival:

-- David Hudson has collected links to reviews.

-- Cinema Scope posted over a hundred reviews during the festival.

-- Danny Kasman and Fernando Croce's epistolary exchange.

-- Michael Sicinski and Jordan Cronk on the Wavelengths program at TIFF.

-- Several dispatches by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.

pic: The Other Side (Roberto Minervini, USA)

Monday, July 13, 2015

British Film Criticism

For many reasons, the French and the Americans hold a special, oversized, mythic place in the story of film criticism. Unfortunately, this has meant that histories of cinema writing in other parts of the world have remained less explored, more hidden. This is true not just in the less affluent (and thus, less culturally influential) “global South” but even within the heart of the First World.

John Gibbs’ ambitious and fascinating book, The life of mise-en-scène: Visual style and British film criticism, 1946-1978, narrates a history of post-WWII British film criticism, recounting the critical debates that powered it—specifically, debates that centered on visual style. Robin Wood once suggested that film criticism in Great Britain developed mainly through groups of critics, each group revolving around a journal or magazine. The focus of Gibbs’ book is these publications and the critics associated with them. The book examines not only the work that appeared in the most prominent magazines—such as Movie and Sight and Sound—but also lesser-known but significant ones like Sequence, Oxford Opinion, Monogram, and others.

Gibbs’ account begins with the journal Sequence, published by the Oxford University Film Society. Fourteen issues appeared between 1946 and 1951; its main editors were Peter Ericsson, Lindsay Anderson (later the director of If... [1968]) and Gavin Lambert. Gibbs assembles a number of excerpts from reviews to show that its writers were already—in advance of Cahiers du Cinéma and Movie—developing a sophisticated appreciation of mise en scène, which they referred to as “poetry”. Gibbs explains that this “poetry” is “… not literary. Quite the contrary, indeed, poetry is identified with the ‘shape and meaning’ accomplished through the use of space and landscape, design, camerawork, music, acting, and so on.” (We need, in the study of film, an account that encompasses all the different uses and interpretations of the idea of “poetry”—one that would include Pasolini, Deren, and others.)

In the ‘50s, many Sequence critics started writing for Sight and Sound. In the early years of the decade, Gibbs notes, “the Sequence impulse was alive and well.” But by the end of the decade, Sight and Sound had transformed into a conservative and staid journal. The growing disappointment with Sight and Sound within the British critical community was due to at least two reasons: the journal’s attitude of cultural snobbery (evidenced by its disinterest and disdain in, especially, Hollywood cinema), and its unsophisticated critical/analytical methods.

Enter the journal Movie, which grew out of the undergraduate publication Oxford Opinion and forms the heart of Gibbs’ book. Founded in 1962, Movie was published and edited by Ian Cameron; the editorial board also included three important figures: Mark Shivas, V.F. Perkins and Paul Mayersberg. Among the other contributors to early Movie were Robin Wood, Andrew Sarris, Charles Barr and Lawrence Alloway. The shared purpose of the Movie writers was to produce a detailed criticism that was seriously attentive to film style. In today’s environment of digital media, home viewing, and random-access capability, criticism that relies on fine-grained stylistic analysis is both ubiquitous and relatively easy to perform. But back in a time when availability of films was confined mostly to commercial theatrical runs, something as simple as checking a detail required the critic to return to the cinema (if, by good fortune, the film still happened to be playing!). In fact, the detailed work of film analysis we see performed today is partly a result of the legacy of Movie’s example.

One of the many valuable contributions of Gibbs’ book is that it draws upon materials either rare (such as back issues of journals hidden away in dusty archives, unavailable on the Internet) or new (most excitingly, the extended interviews he conducted with key figures such as Perkins and Cameron). The interviews with Perkins, especially, are revelatory. Perkins is a famously perfectionistic writer with demanding standards that he applies equally to other critics’ writings and his own. He doesn’t publish his work casually—and will often spend a great deal of time, sometimes years, on a piece before he is satisfied enough with it to let it see the light of day. For this reason, it is a pleasant surprise to hear a somewhat different Perkins in the interviews: a conversational raconteur, but full of insights nevertheless.

For me personally, one of the most compelling sections of the book deals with the influence and interaction between Movie and French film criticism. André Bazin was an inspiration for both Perkins and Barr (although, curiously, not for Cameron). Perkins says in an interview with Gibbs:

Bazin is so important for offering the sense that cinema isn’t something we understand. Whereas the tone of Arnheim, Balazs, Lindgren and so on, is that we do understand cinema and this is how we understand it. With Bazin you get the sense ‘no, we don’t understand it, so let’s start trying’ which is more enabling.

Gibbs speculates that Movie’s emphasis on lucid description of on-screen action may have been influenced by the French ‘MacMahonists’, who congregated around the journal Présence du Cinéma. Cameron also felt that writers such as Michel Mourlet and Luc Moullet, “both of whose writing/critical personae were fairly wild,” were important enablers for the British:

The idea that you might take a committed interest in the violence of a violent movie, within the very staid conditions of English culture, was quite an incitement.

The differences in temperament and sensibility between the Movie writers and the French are also interesting and instructive. An amusing but revealing anecdote centers on the publication in Movie of the English translation of Jacques Rivette’s famous Cahiers du Cinéma essay on Howard Hawks. The Movie version is not a faithful translation and reproduction (it is humorous to read Cameron opine: “because we felt it contained quite a bit of garbage”).

This is the Movie version of an excerpt from the Rivette essay:

the final climax of Red River, where the spectator no longer understands his own feelings, wondering whose side to take and whether he ought to be amused or afraid, sets every nerve quivering with panic.

The unexpurgated translation of the original goes like this:

the climax of Red River, in which we are no longer sure of our own feelings, wondering whose side to take and whether we should be amused or afraid, sets our every nerve quivering with panic and gives a dizzy, giddy feeling like that of a tightrope walker whose foot falters without quite slipping, a feeling as unbearable as the ending of a nightmare.

Gibbs reproduces another passage from the Rivette essay that was entirely excised by Movie:

There seems to be a law behind Hawks’s action and editing, but it is a biological law like that governing any living being: each shot has a functional beauty, like a neck or an ankle. The smooth, orderly succession of shots has a rhythm like the pulsing of blood, and the whole film is like a beautiful body, kept alive by deep, resilient breathing.

These editorial changes are but a small, anecdotal detail, but they hint at the dramatic divide in sensibilities between the two styles of critical writing—despite their shared powerful attraction to a common “foreign object,” American popular cinema.

I’m curious to know: Are there other examples of histories of film criticism? The four volumes of collected writings from Cahiers du Cinéma, with useful framing narratives provided, especially by Jim Hillier, are one such example. I’d love to learn of more.

* * *


-- There are several short videos of V.F. Perkins collected in two posts by Catherine Grant (from a few years ago): here, and here. Also: Movie-related posts I've put up here in the past: "Movie vs. British Cinema"; and "The Rebirth of Movie".

-- Filmmaker/cinephile/critic Dan Sallitt recently tweeted: "Wondering if it's just a blip or whether low-budget US indies are the most exciting thing in world cinema now." This page collects his year-end lists of favorite films.

-- Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell recently led a 2-week NEH Workshop at Middlebury College on "videographic criticism". Melanie Kohnen rounds up the workshop, along with links to some of the audiovisual essays produced there.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum on Pedro Costa's Horse Money. Via Jonathan: Manoel de Oliveira's last work, the 15-minute, wordless "One Century of Power" is on YouTube.

-- Adrian Martin on David Cronenberg at Filmkrant.

-- The new issue of the journal NECSUS is out (the main theme is "Animals") and includes a section on audiovisual essays edited by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian.

-- Several articles by film scholar Joe McElhaney (on Hawks, Sturges, Fassbinder and Malick, among others) are now available to download on his page.

-- Lots of Dave Kehr's capsule reviews have been posted at Letterboxd. (Via Darren Hughes.)

-- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell from this year's Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna: 1, 2, 3, 4. More: Tom Paulus reports from Bologna: on the Technicolor program; and on Malick and McCarey.

-- Adam Cook interviews Kent Jones on his new documentary Hitchcock/Truffaut.

-- William Caroline on the Marguerite Duras exhibit at Centre Pompidou in Paris, in Film Quarterly.

-- Lots of good filmmaker/performer interviews at Little White Lies.

-- Avant-garde filmmaker Laida Lertxundi's films Utskor: Either/Or (2013) and We had the Experience but Missed the Meaning (2014) are available on Vimeo. (Thanks, Matthew.) Also: Phil Coldiron on the filmmaker in Cinema Scope; and interviews with her in BOMB and Frieze.

-- "The Anthropoid Condition," an interview with scholar John Durham Peters, whose new book, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media, is "an ambitious re-writing — a re-synthesis, even — of concepts of media and culture."

-- This is fabulous: "Daughter Crushes Father in Epic Beatbox Battle"!

Monday, June 15, 2015

Letter to Comrade Girish (on "The New Cinephilia")

Below is a letter from Adrian Martin, my co-editor on LOLA. My heartfelt thanks, dear Comrade Adrian, for these characteristically erudite and insightful words! With warm wishes. -- Girish.

Dear Comrade Girish –

Your book stirs many thoughts – in all of its readers, I am sure. I admire it very much: for its intellectual generosity, its breadth of reference, its elegance and economy as a piece of writing. You cover a lot in a short space! And here I recall Jean Louis Schefer’s attractive statement in an interview, somewhere in the late 1990s: he proposed that a writer’s task is not necessarily to study anything ‘in depth’ (as the cliché goes), but to cover or map or trace a surface, a series of connections hitherto unseen … and this is exactly what you have done so well.

Here are some of the things your book prompts me to think about. First of all, ‘new’ cinephilia. Whenever something is given the tag of the new, I immediately wonder: what was the old version of it? And when did that ‘pass away’, exactly? This is not to dispute that there is, in fact, something new (I hate those snap ‘nothing new under the sun’ dismissive arguments so rife in academia) in what you name as the New Cinephilia; but it is to historicise the gesture somewhat, and see if that can teach us anything.

Now, talk of ‘new cinephilia’ goes back at least to Louis Skorecki in 1978 (his sadly untranslated ‘Against the New Cinephilia’, reprinted in his 2001 book Raoul Walsh et moi) – and perhaps even far earlier, to Jean-Louis Comolli’s ‘Notes on the New Spectator’ of 1966 (that one is translated). What was at stake in those debates? Actually, it’s the earlier manifestation of exactly the sort of phenomenon of change you diagnose: bugging the ‘old cinephiles’ of the mid 1960s (but exciting to the young Comolli) was the growing fact that the teenage crowd was no longer always watching the cinematic classics projected in a theatre, but on television! By the moment of Skorecki’s fascinating (and quite ambivalent) tirade, video (as in VHS distribution of movies) looms in the scene to stir it up a bit more … Always this distancing, progressively installed, between the supposed ‘pristine innocence’ of the ‘true’ cinema experience, and its possibly alienated mediations into electronic transmissions, small screens, and eventually digital streaming and downloading …

Like you (I suspect), I have never found this argument (or this sensibility, as much as I can understand and respect it) especially convincing. This is simply because, as a teenager already set well into the ‘generations raised on TV’, I myself owe a great deal of my personal exposure to and discovery of ‘the classics’ (of art cinema, of Hollywood, of genre) to this medium; I could hardly have easily seen Ugetsu or Rocco and His Brothers or Alphaville or They Live By Night any other way in suburban Melbourne when I was 14 or 15! And still today, glancing over my own ‘favourites’ list, I note that I have encountered By the Bluest of Seas, Behindert or some Garrel only ever on VHS, DVD or through my computer screen.

Yet there are many overlaps and continuities between the old and new cinephilias, however we might choose to periodise and characterise them as distinct. Both (as commentators including Jean Douchet and the late Paul Willemen have remarked) are defined by their rituals, by their ‘fetishism’ (to use the less kind descriptor). Sorting though old papers recently, I was brought face to face with the decidedly ‘outmoded’ cinephile passion – definitively killed off by the Internet – for collecting film production stills, lobby cards, flyers, etc (most of them looking a little bizarre and useless today in black-and-white, to facilitate their reproduction in print back then). Of course, such image-scavenging has its rightful (and I believe superior) digital equivalent today: in the gathering of screenshots, and especially their artful arrangement in Tumblr pages. Both manifestations seem to stem from the same, ritualistic desire – to hold a ‘piece’ (however displaced) of a film, to fix a token of it in our memories, as you discuss so well in your book – with the difference (in general) that Tumblr is (potentially) a much more public display than the ‘private cinephile shrines’ (such as Truffaut allegorised and embodied in his chambre verte) or the collector-swap-meets of yesteryear would allow.

It seems to me that a lot of your book, Girish, is about the remembering of films, about ‘processing’ them in the mind. You make great use of the distinction (via Victor Burgin, Catherine Fowler and others) of the cinema ‘there’ (that can be watched, directly experienced) and the cinema ‘elsewhere’, the cinema that is memorialised in, for instance, the ‘fondling’ (in whatever fashion!) of the stilled traces described above … And, in a way, you oppose the endless debates about the ‘dulling’ of our brains in the digital age (that argument, too, has its long history, for as long as sensitive plants have complained about the proliferation of ‘too many images’ in the modern, industrialised world!) with a redemptive ‘saving grace’ concerning the possible extension and ‘networking’ of minds in a more collective way, and by harnessing our hard drives (or related mnemonic devices) as our outsourced memory banks …

This brings me to a particular philosophical and cultural figure: the monad (as immortalised by Leibniz). I detect a tension in your book, Girish, between individual and collective experience. The collective experience is what you eventually come around to craving: especially, the dialogue or encounter with the ‘non-cinephile’ public. And yet much of the digital revolution you trace, certainly in the way you outline its procedures, is steadfastly individual and monadic: you scan your lists and alerts, save and store snippets, engage in social media banter (sometimes of a high intellectual level!), and so on. The modern reverie of the monad is, however, not solitary or alienated (or, at least, it likes to think itself not to be these things); it is more on the order of the type of strange, virtual community wonderfully described by Thierry Jousse (in a piece I translated for Rouge) as ‘fish in the aquarium’: not quite sharing a kum-ba-yah campfire experience, but swimming in the same imaginary pond, more or less, mediated by screen reflections, and crossing each others’ paths occasionally …

Is there a bridging experience of some kinds of community, of collectivity, between the modern monad at her or his laptop, and that big, wide world of Oliveira-uncomprehending masses out there, who we may hope to one day touch and convert in a public hall, a classroom, or a decently-selling printed book? This, to me, is the central question raised by your book. One way, of course, is through the kind of small, intense group-activity constituted by the editing and publishing of magazines – another, more elaborate, outer-directed, ‘publicly discursive’ kind of cinephile ritual, which we hear raised to an almost religious level in Manuel Mozos’ recent moving essay-film tribute to João Bénard da Costa, tellingly titled Others Will Love the Things I Loved (capturing that ‘ancient cinephile dream’ of transmission – transmission of both knowledge and passion).

To remember Paul Willemen (who himself embodied an intriguing overlap between classic and VHS-era cinephilias) again: I was struck, in the early years of the 21st century, by his lack of enthusiasm for the on-line publications I was involved in, such as Senses of Cinema or Rouge: he duly contributed to them and could well see their potential for ‘outreach’ but, for him, they were placeless, without cultural context: as pedagogical history has proven, students often come upon individual pieces via Google Search without always grasping that they are part of some larger site, magazine or ‘identity’. And for Paul, the project of people making a magazine together within their own, little social ‘scene’ was paramount: individual critics and their specific texts mattered less to him than the ‘group vibe’ of a certain politics of taste (different for each magazine) raised as a kind of fighting banner. Pretty much all that was lost with the Internet, he believed. And, these days, I half-agree with him: you and I enjoy creating LOLA together, and publishing texts that we admire and (in some sense) ‘identify’ with, but that’s nothing really like (if I can trust my own projective imagination!), say, the weekend get-togethers (across over half a century!) of all Positif’s editorial staff to collectively decide on a cover image, the month’s key films, who will get the new books that have dribbled in for review, and so on.

Fickleness is always something to reckon with in the digital age – fickleness in its many mutations from month to month. We have seen, on this very blog, conversation ebb away and migrate somewhere else (mainly to Facebook), as some (including myself) have noted or complained. I am all too aware, in my own daily digital habits, of an ever-growing tendency to bookmark or download texts rather than actually read them – a constant ‘deferral’ which didn’t happen, by and large, when I actually bought the darn things to have and to hold. Digital fickleness is a complex phenomenon linked to many too-easily-evoked-but-less-well-understood things: distraction, novelty, spectacle, and the kinds of long-range and short-span mental ‘retentions’ that Bernard Stiegler discusses (sometimes in a rather old/high culture fashion) in his work. I was recently introduced (thanks to Catherine Grant and Chiara Grizzaffi in a conference at University of East Anglia) to the ideas of Kenneth Goldsmith, guru of ‘uncreative writing’, who joyfully argues for the benefits of media-age distraction, on the basis of roughly Surrealist reasons: being suspended between multiple ‘inputs’, navigating between them, is something akin (for him) to the Surrealist practice of the willed, waking dream-state, open to the drifts and sparks of the creative unconscious. But fickleness in action has, naturally, its callous, oblivious, indifferent side, too – and that can infect our efforts at creating a film culture when we least expect it.

For some readers (me included), the Smiley Face moment is the best in your book. I won’t repeat it and thus spoil it for any Anna Faris/Gregg Araki fans yet to find it near the conclusion of your argument. But I can say that its purpose is this: to pull back from total ‘digital native’ positivity, and then regroup your thoughts for another balance of optimism and pessimism. As I’ve mentioned, part of what you shoot for at the end is a meeting with ‘the people’, the non-cinephile public; and the way you envisage this is through the open discussion of a certain kind of political drama or documentary that has become increasingly popular over the past decade (Citizenfour being a recent example).

In a way, you are wishing here for a return of a once-cherished notion: the ‘public sphere’, in which ideas are shared and discussed, with (in the best cases) a strong tie between personal experience and collective politics. But the public sphere is another thing that has vastly mutated in the digital age – and I say this as someone who was strongly immersed in ‘journalistic’ practice as a film critic for the better part of fifteen years (between the end of the 1980s and the mid 2000s), in a national Australian newspaper, and on radio and TV. I happen to hold no illusions about the public sphere of yesterday: when people long for it, what they wish for (knowingly or not) is essentially a middle class (and middlebrow) horizon of ‘cultural conversation’, from which the ‘opinionators’ can then survey and mediate every other form of aesthetic and social experience.

But the Internet places us, with a jolt, right in the middle of a messy space that was always casually overlooked or ruthlessly suppressed by this public sphere: a tangle of subcultures, many of them constituted by monads or fish in the aquarium, that fight it out for any attention they can get. This is the point where I agree with my friend Philip Brophy and his motto from the 1980s that ‘all cultures are founded on abrasion’ and mutual dissonance. And many contemporary theorists (Rancière, Bifo, Nancy, Papastergiadis, Wark) are busily trying to gauge the measurements of this new space, as it rapidly shifts around us all.

I myself come to a different conclusion on these matters, partly on the basis of my own temperament (which is different to yours, of course!). I think I gave up, some not-so-long time ago, on trying to convince people of the rightness of cinephilia. It comes down to one of those ‘evidence’ arguments that Bill Routt has analysed so well: if someone can’t ‘get’ cinephilia immediately, well, they likely never will. I can never really convince any over-cultivated, middlebrow consumer of ‘official culture’ that a ‘history of forms’ in a cinema of artifice (and all cinema is artifice) is more important than the realism of character and themes and places and ‘social issues’. There are people I will never be able to ‘find a level’ with and, at this point, I would rather not aggravate myself further by trying to talk with them.

The Internet, in short, is made for me: I can broadcast my voice (in whatever multimedia form or combination I please) and it will be heard or not, by whomever wishes to tune into that particular vibe on their personal waveband. Come to think of it, that was how I instinctively characterised the cinephile passion – and its expression in criticism – over twenty years ago, in the introduction (“S.O.S.”) to the Continuum issue “Film – Matters of Style”: as a message in a bottle, floating on the high seas. Then, it was a somewhat melancholic image, with the dusty, forlorn, abandoned shelves of physical libraries and archives in mind; now, online, it can be something, potentially at least, ever-present and alive and dynamic. The clarion call changes from ‘save our souls’ to ‘look here!’. And there, indeed, is where I join you fully in rejoicing in the New Cinephilia.

Warmest regards,

Comrade Adrian.

* * *
pic: Smiley Face (Gregg Araki, 2007).