Friday, April 2, 2010

The Thorn in the Heart

I interviewed Michel Gondry for BLACKBOOK Magazine on the subject of his new documentary, L'épine dans le coeur. Distribution, through Oscilloscope, seems to have been great: the trailer does what all great trailers should do, nudge you into thinking the movie's gonna be a kooky, wild ride.

But it's not so much, I would argue. The film tackles an old pain that lies between Gondry's aunt Suzette and his cousin Jean-Yves, and though the filmmaker prods the parties to bury grudges, it's a difficult task. Gondry ends up having to distract us with detours, anecdotes, animation, like the real work of family mending is actually too difficult and personal for him. Though the effort is honest, the final product isn't totally coherent -- as Gondry docs go, it's no Dave Chapelle's Block Party.

The best parts of the film were the old Super 8s that Michel had dug out of somewhere, filmed mostly by teenage Jean-Yves.

The footage shows us a beautiful rural France that really reminds me of Truffaut's 1976 film Small Change, you know, a world where children wore bellbottoms and drank wine with their haricots verts. I wish there'd been more of this fun junk -- or perhaps a whole movie that bright and weird and shuffled-as-a-music video, something more truly Gondryesque than the dreariness of his subject matter would allow.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Ol' Uncle Oscar

Ostensibly, the Academy Awards honor "excellence in cinematic achievements." But we know that's not really the case. Even another venerable body of American cinema, the American Film Institute, acknowledges this: of the AFI's 100 best films of all time, only eight have been recipients of the "Best Picture" award. What films win "Best Picture"? Braveheart? Mutiny on the Bounty? Crash?

While Oliver! and Slumdog Millionaire might take home golden men, their achievements, though certainly works of public relations art, aren't really cinematic. So what are the Academy Awards for, and why does the Academy choose to honor the films it does? In his 2005 book Hollywood and the Culture Elite, film historian Peter Decherney outlines how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was formed to postpone the unionization of Hollywood's actors, writers, and directors:

"Stagehands, electricians, and other crewmembers had been unionized several months earlier in the Studio Basic Agreement. The Academy's members arbitrated labor contracts, but that was only the most direct manifestation of their management role. In order to defer the unionization of the Hollywood workforce, the Academy took several steps to define film industry jobs as skilled artistry rather than labor. The ultimate goal of the Academy was to oversee the Hollywood workforce from training to retirement, and the most public and disarming sign of this process was the establishment of the Academy Awards in 1929... the Awards assisted in the definition and installation of filmmaking labor and art... the awards separated "below the line" workers from the artists who wrote, directed, and acted in films, effectively distinguishing the unionized laborers from the artists."

The Academy Awards initially sought to recognize films that took chances, artistically: "the first ceremony (cohosted by [Cecil B.'s brother] William de Mille)awarded separate prizes to the best picture (Wings) and the best "unique and artistic picture" (Sunrise), separating commercial fare from prestige art films. Wings, William A. Wellman's WWI fighter pilot film, was a comparatively big-budget epic that capitalized on Charles Lindbergh's popularity. On the other hand,Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans is a weird and wonderful love story, told in a kooky expressionistic style by F. W. Murnau. (Roger Ebert has a great essay on the film.)

So if there was a category for best "unique and artistic picture" this year, what would make the cut? Maybe "Bright Star", tautly told with images, instead of "Up in the Air," where dialogue babbles like a player's piano, an often forgettable tune.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Bad, Bad Bridges

Like Mickey Rourke's Randy 'The Ram' Robinson in 2008's The Wrestler, Jeff Bridges' Bad Blake is an American artist past his prime and down on his luck. Gigging in bars and bowling alleys, driving himself and his guitar hundreds of miles a day in his '70s Chevy Silverado, Blake's life seems bleak, if blessed, in moments of amber light, by a loyal base of mature country-blues fans. When he meets lovely journalist Jean Craddock (Maggie Gyllenhaal) in Santa Fe, he's forced to temper his habit for whiskey (the made-up brand "McClure's") to be with her and her four-year-old son. But when temperance slips, just for a moment, redemption seems like it might be out of Bad's grasp.

It's a strong man's moment of weakness, in keeping with any redemption story, and accompanied by the sense that each nadir is characteristic of something inescapable, of a long life of low moments. "Where do your songs come from?" Jean asks Bad. His answer -- "Life, unfortunately," -- perfectly befits a country-blues guitarist, but the evidence presented in Crazy Heart seems to say otherwise; that Bad is surrounded by only good. From the manic kindness of his fishing buddy Wayne (a brilliant support by Robert Duvall) to the graciousness and talent of the many musicians who back him, to the gratitude and monetary support of his successful protégé Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell) to the love and support of fellow addicts in rehab, Bad Blake is not a man alone, but a man cared for. Unlike Aronofsky's dark Jersey story, the southwest of Crazy Heart is pink and sunlit, buoying up its fallen heroes.

The small film is strong because of an artful, tight script (writer/director Scott Cooper's adaptation of Thomas Cobb's novel) and gorgeous performances. Bridges (somehow both irrefutably attractive and the spitting image of Kris Kristofferson) is resilient, Gyllenhaal is sexy and complex (as always), and especially Duvall delivers a real performance. The way that Cooper pimps the almost pornographic beauty of big skies and sunsets in the southwest, a good man's redemption seems lovely, and inevitable, like the turning of the globe or the chord progression in a good country song.

Jeff Bridges interview with clips on NPR.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

WIPE-OUT: Kurosawa's tricky cuts

Watching the Akira Kurosawa films at Film Forum's Centennial -- a whopping six-week-long tribute to the the first East Asian director to achieve international recognition -- is typically overwhelming, especially if you have (like me) been trying to see as many as possible and also binging on the offerings on Netflix watch instantly. There are various elements that tie these films together and more again that set them apart, but for me one of the most strikingly weird Kurosawa signatures is the wipe cut.

(from Ikiru.)

In his autobiography, Kurosawa seems to explain his use of the wipe as a deliberate turn away from classical editing techniques, those invisible cuts that would render scene transition invisible: "Since the advent of the talkies in the 1930s, I felt, we had misplaced and forgotten what was so wonderful about the old silent movies. I was aware of the aesthetic loss as a constant irritation. I sensed a need to go back to the origins of the motion picture to find this peculiar beauty again; I had to go back to the past." Transitioning with wipes in early cinema would have shown finesse with new technology ("Why eat hamburger when you can have steak?" asks Homer Simpson, rationalizing to Lisa his exclusive use of "star wipe" in post-production). At the height of his career, Kurosawa looked back to the silent era for inspiration, and saw beauty and novelty in telling a story this way.

James Goodwin wrote a book about Kurosawa that, at one point, tallied the critical opinions on the wipe. Semiotician Christian Metz, for example, places the wipe cut within the code of "trucage, which includes optical effects that constitute visual but not photographic material," and is an instance of "intervention by the filmmaker into a story, whereas a film's photographic material alone simply implies the filmmaker's point of view through the development of a story."

Noel Burch, who wrote the book on Japanese Cinema, assesses Kurosawa's employment of the wipe cut as a "deliberate anachronism." According to Burch, "by manifestly causing the frame-line to cross the spectator's field of vision, Kurosawa's wipe cuts expose elements that otherwise sustain the illusion of reality. Kurosawa thus acknowledges discontinuity and the screen's two-dimensionality as conditions of filmic representation, while conventional Western codes conceal these formal limitations." The wipe cut does expose the scaffolding of cinema -- not only "the screen's two-dimensionality" but the typically-subsumed hand of the editor, and the artificial nature of the splice that glues two scenes together.

With a more whimsical take, philosopher Gilles Deleuze imagines that the wipe cut "constitutes an imaginary Japanese character that serves as Kurosawa's cinematic signature... composed of a thick vertical stroke that extends from top to bottom of the screen and is joined by thinner, variable horizontal strokes that move screen right to left and left to right, which are the photographic components of whatever images are involved in the wipe cut." Donald Richie, who wrote great pieces on Kurosawa and compatriot Yasujiro Ozu, compares the wipe cut to pre-cinema: "a 'puncutation mark' in Kurosawa's cinema through which a new image pushes off the old, as one lantern slide pushes off the other." Travelling across the screen, the wipe spotlighs cinema as a highly temporal art, "a finality that appeals, this single stroke canceling all that went before, questioning it, at the same time bringing in the new."

Though Kurosawa influenced scores of filmmakers, perhaps the most well-known acolyte is a certain George Lucas.

Lucas was deeply influenced by Kurosawa (we have 1958's Hidden Fortress to thank not only for the basic plot of Star Wars but for its compellingly headstrong princess character) and his enthusiastic use of wipe cuts was a shout-out to both the Japanese director and Flash Gordon-style television serials.

Transitions like these -- both from the first fifteen minutes of Star Wars: A New Hope -- bring a fast-paced continuity to the film's beginning (the adventure serial: "Meanwhile, back on Tatooine..") and also a sense of levity. In 1952's Ikiru, the maze of bureaucracy a post-war Tokyo citizen must navigate is conveyed through shots of various department heads, wiped together from alternating sides, each directing the supplicant to another bureau. The wipe technique makes it funnier -- images of bureaucrats are stacked like cards, each more punctilious than the last.

Kurosawa at Film Forum runs until February 18, culminating in a two-week run of the director's Lear, Ran. For more on A.K., see Bilge Ibiri in Moving Image Source.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

AVATAR: the hype, the world, the disappearing screen

There's been a racket of writing about Avatar, James Cameron's sci-fi Pocahontas epic. Reviewing it almost seems "beside the point," says Dana Stevens on Slate, "like the three wise men reviewing the birth of Jesus."

For a filmmaker who hasn't had a release in a decade, it was more like the return of the prodigal son. A lengthy New Yorker profile published in October chronicles the military determination of Avatar's writer, director, and producer: "James Cameron doesn’t go to the bathroom; he goes to the head. In his universe, there is no front and back, right and left, just fore and aft, starboard and port." Twelve years in the making, employing the same performance capture technology used to turn a human actor into Golem in Lord of the Rings, critics are calling Avatar, at the very least, the next step in cinema. A. O. Scott says it was comparable only to watching Star Wars at the multiplex when he was eleven years old. "The most beautiful film I've seen in years," writes David Denby. The final product shows off Cameron's massive ambitions, Manohla Dargis writes,a desire to "transcend a single movie or mere stories to embrace cinema as an art, as a social experience and a shamanistic ritual, one still capable of producing the big WOW." It's a lush, enveloping world: beauty without Peter Jackson's irritating fancy, action without Michael Bay's general nonsense.

But what do we do with the crap parts? The clunky dialogue worthy of a George Lucas prequel, the moralizing, the notion that, as's Stephanie Zacharek opines, "Avatar would be great fun, if only James Cameron... had a sense of humor about himself." It's undeniable. Cameron also blithely recycles lots of his own memes,as lists. The stock characters in his stable are all present: spineless corporate stooge (Giovanni Ribisi, admirably suppressing his natural vocal cadence), gay-lady-soldier-with-a-heart-of-gold (Michelle Rodriguez reprising Jeanette Goldstein's role in Aliens), cartoonishly butch army Corporal with a Terminator-like resilience. All are present, few share the three-dimensionality of the film they star in. What to do with storytelling in such broad, humorless strokes? And what to do with the ear-bleeding pan-flute on the soundtrack?

Cameron has said the film is probably the first installment in a trilogy. A decade and a half down the road, once the next two blockbuster installments have arrived and left and glorious 3-D has become the norm, perhaps this film will be revealed for how conventional it really is -- in narrative structure, moral ideology, even its own limited speculative astrobiology. What stands out to us now, at the end of the millenium's first decade, is how glorious it was to watch.

Though film art is synthetic (a narrative art, a photographic art, a performing art, an audiovisual art) the device of the screen is undeniably pictorial, painterly, a flat canvas upon which images (photographed or illustrated, black and white or color) are laid. There's motion, sure, and an illusion of depth, but if a spectator sitting in a darkened reperatory theater so wishes, they can mentally step outside Vertigo and see the photograph of Jimmy Stewart and the Golden Gate Bridge, a projected cell blown up to fill a large, white two-dimensional space.

Avatar in 3-D defies this step-out-ability. From the uncoiling ferns situated roughly near our elbows to the sentient dandelion fluff that floats in our midst, Avatar can't be watched from a distance. To watch the film is to be inside the world -- as Dargis says, this compelling but un-showy 3-D "closes the space between audience and screen." Other advanced cinematic technologies like Cinemascope, Cinerama or IMAX, seek to increase the frame, and in doing so can bring you up to the edge of the screen, surround you with it, but can't make it disappear.

At the end of each day on glorious technicolor Pandora, Jake Sully wakes up: he's a small, limited being in a flourescent-lit lab. Though Cameron's sci-fi narrative device calls to mind MMORPG or social networking, the avatar's daily awakening is closer to that of the movies -- of the lights flickering on at the end of the film, of taking off the Rivers Cuomo 3-D specs, and shuffling back out into reality.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

"The general heading of progress": Elia Kazan's WILD RIVER and the Tennessee Valley Authority

In 1937, the Farm Security Administration, the Public Works Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority and a handful of other government agencies, commissioned Pare Lorentz to make a film about erosion in the Mississippi River, in order to raise awareness of the New Deal's resettlement program. The result is an epic Progressive doc, employing a gorgeous musical score and rhythmic "Whitmanesque" narration -- Lorentz referred to the film as an "opera," according to documentary historian Erik Barnouw. Narrator Thomas Charles intones, in the first person plural, a celebration of the damming of the river: "a series of great barriers that will eventually transform the old Tennessee in to a lake of freshwater pools, locked and dammed, regulated and controlled down 650 miles to Paduka."

(30 mins, available through the Moving Image Archive).

Wild River
, the 1960 film which capped off the three-week long Elia Kazan festival at Film Forum, begins as a documentary in the vein of Lorentz -- a bewildered Tennesseean is interviewed on the tragic events of yet another flood and, through patriotism, Progressivism, and black & white footage of a deluged Tennessee town, the argument for the establishment of the TVA is set upright. However, as Kazan's film bursts into glorious color and narrative fiction, this sensible government program is slowly eroded.

Montgomery Clift, anxious and marvellously tanned in a tight grey flannel suit, is Chuck Glover, a TVA proxy in a small Tennessee town, sent to coax a firey octogenarian off her island farm. As he grows to admire Ella Garth's all-American tenacity, and begins an affair with her granddaughter Carol, Glover's authority is increasingly comprimised -- not least by the angry band of white Southern laborers (de rigueur for a postwar Serious Liberal Movie) who despise his desegregationist ways. Glover struggles to keep the Authority's work (a methodical deforestation of the river basin) on schedule before the water rises, and to find a replacement house that Ella Garth will approve of; Carol, widow and mother of two, works with new vigor to rebuild her abandoned honeymoon house (above the imminent tide line).

While the most apparent physical threat to Glover comes from the town's belligerent white men, Clift's character shrinks most, as supplicant and (once) as drunk, from the Garth women. When he first steps on the island, via rop-tow ferry, and climbs the hill to the steep-sloped house at it's peak, he's greeted -- or rather, ignored -- by four generations on the porch. Once he meets Ella Garth, Glover expends all his administrative energy in trying to please her, to find a proper house for her in the new development; to coax her off the island without the National Guard ("We can't use force!" is the imperative from the higher-ups.) Late one whisky-soaked night, Glover visits the island to pledge his devotion to Ella, who supresses a smile as he tumbles into the pumpkin patch and archly observes, "It's the first time I've ever liked you, Mr. Glover." Carol (played by Lee Remick, with high color on her cheeks and a determined crease between her eyebrows) is especially dominant. Kazan consistently shoots her larger than her male co-star, active and upright in the foreground while he slouches in the rear. Clift plays Chuck reticent and discomfited, the perfect well-behaved Northerner completely out of his element; he can't help but be dwarfed by Carol. When her house is rammed by a mob of angry locals, her first instict is to jump on their leader and bite his ear off; when she caresses her dead husband's shotgun in front of Chuck, her thoughts are obviously far from hunting geese.

Though not without its own naïveté, Kazan's film is responding with nuance and ambiguity to those dominating institutions of Lorentz's age, to Hollywood and the Tennessee Valley Authority. On the first level, there's the undermining of Clift as hero -- either as sexually desirable ("I'll leave, with or without you," Carol tells him) or as being able to fulfill the goals of the New Deal, to make Roosevelt's intentions felt anywhere but on paper. Is any man needed here? When Chuck first meets Carol and asks, consolingly, if Carol has a guy who can take her in when the river rises, she sarcastically retorts -- "Oh yeah, that's the answer to everything, if I got a fellow!"

On another level, of course, Wild River is seriously questioning the notion of the dam as good for America, as beneficial as the film of 1937 claimed. "File under the general heading of progress," Glover declares when his subordinates question directions from Washington. Lines like these are tinged with irony, but Kazan tops it all with the film's end shot. It's a moment that keeps this film from being heavy-handed, like a Stanley Kramer film, or even as tragic and critically acclaimed as earlier Kazan (maybe that's why contemporary critics didn't like it.) As Chuck, Carol and her children are flown out of Tennessee, they slowly approach the majestic dam, a giant chunk of concrete, monumental, a plug. A zoom mask comes in containing the dam in a laughing circle, ending the film not on true love, as this device is traditionally reserved for, but on a hilarious, profane wink: a giant, ugly thumb stuck up America's river.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

(Nostalgia) for Hollis Frampton

Reading Manohla Dargis's piece on Ken Jacobs in the NYT made me think of something... barely related.

is an experimental film made by Hollis Frampton in New York City in 1971. Frampton films several of his old photographs as they burn to cinders on a hot-plate, and his friend, Canadian filmmaker Michael Snow, narrates Frampton's recollections.

On the simplest level, (nostalgia) poses a problem-solving game.

Deliberately misaligning chunks of narration with the photographs they describe, Frampton has us listen and look more earnestly. And, as the photographs slowly singe and flame, we look against the clock, re-matching what the filmmaker actually has to say about each goofy, beautiful work from his bohemian youth on the LES before the artifact is incinerated. The pleasure really lies, of course, in the disjunctions themselves. Resting on the burner is a photograph shot through a Wall Street bank window -- a glowing chandelier and beautifully molded ceiling -- and the narration intones, "this photograph of two toilets was made in February of 1964."

Good narrative tools like these -- mystery, comedy, urgency -- don't fit easily into non-narrative art. It's hard not to admire how artfully (nostalgia) achieves them.