Friday, April 21, 2006

Recently Seen

Some scribblings on two recent viewings.

CHAIN (2004). A hybrid "docufiction" from Jem Cohen, who has also made films about music and musicians, like the Fugazi documentary, Instrument. Chain has two selves: its documentary self consists of footage of the commercial landscape in which we all live: malls, chain stores (thus the name of the film), corporate skyscrapers, vast parking lots, highways, hotels, airports. We see this commercial-scape every single day but hardly ever notice it. Wrenched free from the banality of our everyday vision and placed on the screen without being at the service of an engulfing narrative, we are suddenly confronted with both the size and the extent of "reshaping" our living environments have seen so quickly. And here's the most damning part: the footage is from over 25 locations around the world, and there's no way to tell as Cohen cuts from one shot to another. We feel like we are in one seamlessly flowing space: The images capture a perfectly, namelessly, homogeneous place.

The fictional part of the film consists of two stories of women who never meet. One of them is a teenage runaway who lives in abadoned houses and spends her days at the mall, trying to divert attention away from mall security guards who assume she's "a legitimate consumer" because they see her talking on her cell phone every now and then. (It's a broken and dead phone she pulled out of the trash.) She also finds a lost video camera and records (a Marker-ian touch) a video diary to send to her family. On the one hand, being poor and homeless, she stands outside the desired demographics of the commercial world. This allows her to observe that world from a distance, and learn how to forage in it like a wild animal of the steel-and-glass jungle. On the other hand, she is on a path of entry into joining that commercial world—where, one way or another, all of us live—and ends up becoming a chain-store employee herself.

The other woman is Japanese, and has been sent to America to scope out prospects for a Japanese-style theme park. She memorizes her company's vision statement chapter and verse and utters it to herself for inspiration. She looks upon the West, through the eyes of her employers, as a vista of commercial opportunity. But as time passes, her communication with her home office starts to dry up and her future as a foot soldier (and casual casualty?) in the reconfigurations of the corporate army is most uncertain.

Cohen dedicates the film to Chris Marker and Humphrey Jennings and thanks Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project in the credits. In his personal appearance at the screening, he called them all "collagists" who have influenced his own methods of working. For Chain, he shot footage for several years without knowing what it was going to turn into. The fictional narrative strands were added much later. The single biggest strength of the film is that it does not come across as a heavy-handed, screechy condemnation of the "chain-world" in which we live. We see thousands of images, neutrally, with no commentary. It is their accumulative effect of relentless uniformity and standardization that gets to us in the end. Favorite shot, towards the end: A dilapidated "Sam's Club" sign on a store long since abandoned. In the base of the "B," a bird has built its nest. One might sardonically say: The detritus of the chain-world serves some purpose.

THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943). Val Lewton is that rarity: the producer as auteur. Scores of “A-films” from the golden age of Hollywood have all but faded from memory, but Lewton’s B-movies burn even brighter this year, thanks to their arrival on DVD. Lewton died in his mid-forties, but not before he had made a handful of now-classic low-budget horror B-movies.

In The Seventh Victim, directed by Mark Robson, Kim Hunter comes to New York to find her missing sister who may have taken up with a group of Greenwich Village devil-worshippers. (Michael Almereyda used The Seventh Victim as the inspiration for his 2002 film Happy Here And Now. A young woman goes to New Orleans to look for her missing sister who has vanished not into some devil-worshipping cult but into. . .the Internet itself.) Jacques Tourneur once said, “During war, for some mysterious reason, people love to be frightened.” Fact is, Alexander Nemerov convincingly argues in his book Icons Of Grief, Lewton films like Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie can be seen as a wartime response of grief on the home front.

Befitting this grieving tone, The Seventh Victim is a quiet and melancholy movie. (The “horror” is interior and invisible.) Going hand in hand with this calmness of temper is the deliberate image-making. Light and shadow appear to possess, each, an architectural solidity. Nearly every single scene has a little touch of ingenuity motivated probably by the miniscule budget but persuading us that it is just the right aesthetic choice, irrespective of budget. Case in point: As Kim Hunter leaves her school to go look for her sister, we see her descend the stairway with not a soul in sight. In the soundtrack, we hear a patchwork of school sounds interwoven: vocal scale practice, French verb conjugation, poetry recitation. An offscreen world is evoked amply without showing you any of that world.

George Sanders had one of the most glorious voices—and dictions—in the movies. He's not in The Seventh Victim, but Sanders' identical-sounding brother Tom Conway is. Like in Cat People, he plays a psychiatrist named Dr. Judd. (Is it the same character? We never find out.) The devil-worshippers turn out to be a strikingly normal bunch, sympathetic even. They're genteel, polite, and never raise their voice. It's a nice touch, and completely consistent with the ever-placid Lewton tone.


Blogger girish said...

Illustration: I was going for a devil-worshipping babe but wound up inexplicably with a Motorcycle Medusa.
Back to the drawing board.

April 21, 2006 11:19 AM  
Blogger girish said...

MZS on Raymond Durgnat's film writings.

April 21, 2006 11:28 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Check out the The Pop View on the Swingle Singers and Mary J. Blige, plus mp3 goodies of assorted remixes.

April 21, 2006 11:31 AM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Interesting post, Girish. I've often thought that the rise of strip malls, like the rise of the department store in the late 19th/early 20th century, would make a good subject for a documentary. Interesting to see that Cohen has combined a documentary-like approach with a fictional one. Interesting, too, that he was influenced by The Arcades Project.

The Seventh Victim also looks interesting. The only Kim Hunter movies I'm familiar with are the ones in which we never see her real face; she was Zira in the Planet of the Apes movies.

April 21, 2006 12:55 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Michael. I haven't seen Kim Hunter in very much either: Streetcar and the great Powell/Pressburger film A Matter Of Life And Death aka Stairway To Heaven. And Rossen's Lilith. (Jean Seberg was the best thing about that film; just amazing.)
Interesting what you said about the rise of the department store in the late 19th/early 20th century. I don't know about that history. Sounds like it might be interesting to dig into.
And Michael, I like your new links-laden post.

April 21, 2006 3:08 PM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

Hey, I'm glad that you got to see Chain. The film is weirdly personal for me, which may be why I've been singing its praises so widely, but I also like that it never comes across as preachy about the consumerization of these spaces.

April 21, 2006 4:53 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

I will have to check out Chain. Any film dedicated to Chris Marker and Humphrey Jennings (who, it was just announced, will be entering the Criterion Collection through the back entrance as his masterpiece Listen to Britain will be a supplement on the a Canterbury Tale DVD) automatically gets to be a larger blip on my radar screen.

Of all the Lewton Unit films (I've seen all but two), the Seventh Victim is the one I'd most like to revisit as it seemed richer than I was able to absorb on a first viewing.

April 21, 2006 5:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Chuck, I have you to thank for seeing it. When I read your post about it last year (and also your favorite-films-of-the-year list), I filed away the name of the film in the back of my head. I loved your post about the film, of course, but maybe one day you'll blog about those "weirdly personal" reasons that attract you so strongly to it.

April 21, 2006 5:51 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian, I just rented the 3-hour-plus Humphrey Jennings Listen To Britain compilation DVD from Netflix, although I'm sure the image & sound quality on the Criterion DVD will be better. And great news about A Canterbury Tale! It is nothing short of a freakin' masterpiece. (When will Powell/Pressburger get their full due?).
And the Jennings film Jem Cohen cited as being the greatest influence on his was something called Pandemonium, which I'd never heard of.

April 21, 2006 5:57 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Ah, yes, A Streetcar Named Desire. It's been so long since I've seen it that I didn't remember she was in it.

I don't know much about the history of department stores, only that in one of my graduate courses we covered it once, and much of that information has fled my brain for good (like so much else!). But the impact they had in France, England, and in the U.S. was momunmental, forever altering people's social and economic lives, as well as the economies of the cities that housed them. It was your commentary on Chain that made me think of all that again.

I just checked Netflix -- doesn't look as if Cohen's film is on DVD (though Seventh Victim is, and I've added that to my queue).

April 21, 2006 6:03 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Brian on the San Francisco film fest, which begins tonight.

And now to jump in the car for a movie road trip to George Eastman House in Rochester for an avant-garde program tonight.

April 21, 2006 6:05 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael, I forgot to mention: Chain has (wouldn't you know it?) been unable to find distribution. Though Cohen did say that he would be self-releasing it at some point this summer.

And Netflix also has I Walked With A Zombie, which is my absolute favorite Lewton film, although I like The Seventh Victim very very much. By the way, the latter is Jonathan Rosenbaum's all-time favorite horror film.

April 21, 2006 6:10 PM  
Blogger David Lowery said...

Chain the first film on the slate for the Emerging Pictures screening series, hosted by the NY Times and Indiewire - they're releasing a handful of the best undistributed films from the past year around the country, one week at a time. Of course, 'around the country' fails to include any screenings in Texas, so I suppose I'll just have to wait. I've been looking forward to this, too, ever since Chuck first wrote about it.

April 21, 2006 6:20 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Ah, that explains why I couldn't find Chain in Netflix. (I'll make note of it, though, and look for it if Cohen does release it.)

Thanks for the tip about I Walked With a Zombie -- shall check that one out too.

April 21, 2006 7:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh you're very welcome, Michael.

David, I'm pleasantly shocked that Buffalo is one of those 11 cities. Thanks for that link.

April 22, 2006 9:20 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach on Walerian Borowczyk.

April 22, 2006 9:22 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead on Ryan Larkin.

April 22, 2006 9:23 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Two MZS posts:
--Raj Kumar, whose films I grew up with.
--5-for-the-day Haiku.

April 22, 2006 11:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dave Kehr's 2nd Buenos Aires post.

April 22, 2006 11:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

New releases announced at Netflix this morning that I just added to my queue:

April 23, 2006 7:45 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello on Trinh T. Minh-Ha's Cinema Interval.

April 23, 2006 7:46 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Some good releases this week at Netflix. Now all I have to do is make some room by watching some films and returning them quickly. Don't forget to add Transporter 2, filmed on location in front of my temporary South Beach home (actually some second unit stuff with stunt doubles).

April 23, 2006 12:20 PM  
Blogger girish said...

At Cinemarati: best movie Dubyas.

April 24, 2006 7:27 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Some bat-shit crazy Crowtherisms courtesy Jaime Weinman.

April 24, 2006 7:29 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach sees Rivette's ultra-rare Out One: Spectre.

April 24, 2006 7:31 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Barring some last-minute semesterly ambush, I'm fully hoping to be on board the Michelle Pfeiffer Blog-A-Thon train this week.

April 24, 2006 7:37 AM  
Anonymous Chuck said...

Just noticed your mention of my "weirdly personal" line. That may have been a slightly defensive maneuver connected to my own admiration for Chris Marker that I wasn't sure others would share (although I should have expected other cinephiles to share it).

That line might also have been a throwaway reference to my book project, which focuses in passing on Marker and Benjamin. So no real backstory unfortunately....

April 25, 2006 12:45 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Hi--Lovers of the Arctic Circle is my favorite from this director (can't remember his name, only that he did Sex and Lucia). Recommended, somewhat.

Kurosawa Kyoshi's awesome, one of my favorite of today's Japanese cinema.

I think I've mentioned and linked about this before, but do check out another Netflix recent release:

Babae sa Breakwater (Woman of the Breakwater, 2004)

Wrote about the film (and a bit about Philippine cinema) here:

Manila at the Edge of Realism

April 25, 2006 4:13 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Chuck and Noel.

Noel--I've been meaning to do a large Kiyoshi post.

April 25, 2006 7:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

The indefatigable Michael Guillen interviews Brazilian filmmaker Andrucha Waddington.

April 25, 2006 8:00 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Zach on Nicole Brenez's writings.

April 25, 2006 8:01 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Lucid Screening on the True/False West film festival.

April 25, 2006 8:02 AM  
Blogger girish said...

David Lowery really makes me want to see James Bai's Puzzlehead.
David would also like to know your favorite films in the sci-fi genre.

April 25, 2006 8:05 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Regarding Julio Medem, I definitely recommend Basque Ball especially now that the ETA has declared a permanent cease fire, which is unlike any of his other puzzle films.

G, I know we talked about Tierra a bit (and Medem in general) at the Whitney and how Buñuelian the film is, but seeing Basque Ball especially, with the footages of exploding car bombs that hurl entire cars up to the roofs of buildings was something almost like an epiphany for me in terms of Buñuel's later films. All of a sudden, they weren't just "anything goes" exercises, but something rooted in a painful reality played as farce. It's eye opening.

April 25, 2006 9:14 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I've been seeing as many Medem films as available. I even have a R2 DVD of Red Squirrel in my collection. Rumor is that Kubrick was a fan of this film.

April 25, 2006 9:28 AM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Concerning Brenez's work, Adrian Martin writes in the introduction:
"Like many of the colleagues whose work informs Brenez's - such as Raymond Bellour, Alain Bergala and Charles Tesson - theoretical reflections arise from the work and pleasure of viewing, analysis, comparison, writing: the decisive moments when the cinema itself leads theory, and gives rise though its inventions, innovations and surprises to new thoughts."
And here's where my recent idea of an article - though it is more of a 'journey essay' - interacts. I was thinking of travelling through ages with the intention of summarising the work of film lovers. But I mean genuine film lovers like Eisenstein, Kracauer, Scorsese in the recent years, as well as Bergman, Truffaut, Hitchcock, Wenders, Konchalovsky and so on. I also want, realising that most theoreticians and critics are filmmakers, to give tribute to researchers of cinema - those enthusiasts, fueled by their sincere love towards the 7th art. However, the problem comes with my not being aware of many such critics and non-filmmakers.
So, what I'd like to ask all of you who come to this board - or blog - as I have the observation that you're truly film lovers and very knowledgable too, is to tell me as many, let's call it, "professional" film lovers, meaning such that have been working on cinema and yet their work is (well-)known. There're no limitations, concerning any kind of occupation - they might be directors, screenwriters, operators, theoreticians, critics, etc.

April 25, 2006 11:22 AM  
Anonymous girish said...

Acquarello, Fascinating connection you make between the Basque film and the Bunuels.

I haven't seen Red Squirrel.

I remember an unintenionally hilarious moment at TIFF a few years ago when the producer of Sex and Lucia got up and announced seriously that she would, in exchange for distribution, be willing to talk about making any cuts that were necessary! (Medem wasn't there.)

April 25, 2006 11:27 AM  
Anonymous girish said...

Interesting comments, Marina. Thanks.
Have to rush off to class in a minute but I'll pitch in with my two cents later today.

April 25, 2006 11:34 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

Hmmmm. I've never been called "indefatigable" before! Makes me want to wear something that makes me look thin. 8^) Or find some way to cover up these eggplant circles beneath my eyes.

You're tempting me to host a Kiyoshi Kurosawa blogathon. I ADORE Kiyoshi and even grabbed his autograph on my "Cure" dvd a couple of festivals back.

April 25, 2006 11:59 AM  
Anonymous Scott S. said...

Chain is playing at the Rafael tonight in San Rafael Ca. It played last night too. My inside sources say that the people running this (Indywire etc)have not been very good with publicity material or information on the films... well at least not this first one, and the series has taken so long to start that at least one of the films now has distribution... I will unfortunately not get to see it, as Guy Maddin will be in town. Can't miss that. Thanks for the info on the film though.

April 25, 2006 2:35 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael--Your blog is Herculean!

Scott--I can safely say that of all the filmmakers I've seen/heard in person, Guy Maddin has always been the most fun. What a brilliant guy.

Marina--Sounds to me like your project is large-scale, since it involves cinephiles of every type.
Just a couple of examples: There is a lot of great cinephile writing by the French New Wave auteurs (books by Truffaut, Godard, etc) and the Luc Moullet-edited large collection "French New Wave". There's a nice recent academic text on cinephilia by Christian Keathley that's worth tracking down ("The Wind In The Trees").

April 25, 2006 9:00 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

girish--I HAVE a largish Kyoshi essay (a little over a thousand words), on one of his better known films, Pulse. Sent it to Senses of Cinema, but haven't heard from them. I suppose a Filipino expounding on a J-horror film isn't authoritative.

Something I've already written on on Kyoshi

Also uncovered some notes I made on his other films (yep, the Japan Foundation did a retrospective of his works in Manila too). The most fascinating is easily The Excitement of the Do-Re-Mi-Fa Girls, mainly because I saw it without subtitles, and it's one of his strangest, a Nikkatsu softcore porn that looks as if it were directed by Godard. I might post that along with the Pulse piece, if Senses just won't respond...

I think I remember liking Red Squirrel, at least parts of it. That bit about losing the memory from a spectacular bike accident seems silly, but the rest of it is nicely ominous.

April 26, 2006 3:21 AM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Girish, thank you for the books.

I know that most French New Wave auteurs have written wonderful pieces and that's where a new kind of critism emerged too - the serious cinephile critism, if I can call it that. The problem is there's only one book by Truffaut translated in Bulgarian - his interviews with Hitchcock - and none in any other language here. Forget about the other "Wave-ers" - it'd be a dream to find any of their work. There're editions from 20-30 even 40 years ago - of Eisenstein, Stanislavski, Kracauer and an anthology called "History of film thought" where you could find certain extracts. The last one being the most valuable.
Here you can also find essays by Wenders, Konchalovsky's 'film autobiography', Almodovar and other contemporary filmmakers. No Godard, no Moullet and certainly no Keathley. I could order them from abroad but it would cost me too much to buy them all. And there're so many books I've seen on amazon that catch my eye.

Anyway, I do realize that it's a lot of hard work not only because of the lack of cinema-themed books here, but also because of the scale of this project, to use your words. That is why I only ask you to mention names - it'd be easier for me as well as for you.

Thank you once again.

April 26, 2006 11:37 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Sure, Marina. If I think of other names, I will post them. Good luck with your project.

April 28, 2006 8:52 PM  

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