Monday, May 15, 2006

Martin Arnold

Mickey Rooney and Faye Holden in Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy.

Gas prices being what they are, I shouldn’t be taking movie road trips, but some unmissables have presented themselves lately, and you can’t put a price on great cinema, right? So I drove up recently to George Eastman House in Rochester for an avant-garde program curated by Jim Healy called “Tampering With The Image.” When I got there, Jim waved me in, saving me the price of a ticket (what a guy).

Am I glad I went. There were a number of strong films on the program, but for me the revelation of the evening (of the year, even?) was the work of Austrian filmmaker Martin Arnold. No overstatement: An electrifying experience. I haven’t been able to shake it for several days. And I can think of no better way to affix the memory of seeing these film-gems than….telling you about them.

Martin Arnold, I’ve discovered since, has a formidable reputation in avant-garde film circles, based predominantly on three experimental short films, each about 15 minutes long. He takes found footage from old Hollywood films and manipulates it by means of a home-made optical printer, frame by frame, using no digital means. An example: he might take a frame, freeze on it, and then slowly rock back and forth to frames ahead of it and behind it. First, this immobilizes the image and allows us to look at it carefully. Then, it takes minute gestures or micro-elements of a gesture, and dilates them so that every small movement in that gesture is writ large. Subtexts—of gender, family or sexuality—that were previously invisible suddenly rush to the surface, often with horrific humor.

For instance. Arnold’s first film, Pièce Touchée (1989), takes an 18-second segment from a B-movie with Gary Merrill called The Human Jungle (1954) and expands it into a film forty times its length. In the original, a wife waits at home for her husband, reading a magazine in a chair. He opens the door, enters, kisses her, and they both get up and leave the room. End of segment. In Arnold’s film, the wife taps her finger over and over again, fidgeting spastically as she waits for her husband—Arnold plays the frames repeatedly to cause this nervous twitching. The door takes forever to open—bit by bit, opening then closing, the frames stuck in a loop, inducing a sense of dread (who is trying to get into the house?). When the husband finally enters, he leans over his wife’s chair to kiss her, but the approach to the kiss becomes a Herculean, long-drawn-out exercise, repeatedly intiated then aborted, reaching Buñuelian levels of frustration. He stands (dominant) while she sits (subservient) and when he moves, she responds to his motion, like a puppet. And this sudden foregrounding of gender politics never feels like an academic exercise; instead it's grotesquely, uncomfortably funny.

Passage À L’Acte (1993) takes a brief scene from To Kill A Mockingbird in which Gregory Peck, his son, daughter and a woman neighbor are at the breakfast table. The boy gets up to leave and Peck orders him to sit back down and finish his breakfast. Arnold chooses specific sections (consisting of one or more frames) and repeats them, making them stutter. When Peck jabs his long forefinger at his son’s breakfast plate, we see it not just once as in the original, but dozens of times. When the boy leaves and the screen door shuts, it reverberates like a machine gun repeating deafeningly, endlessly. What we have here isn't a family kitchen but a conflict-charged battlefield.

The third and possibly the most radical of the films is Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998). It combines clips from three musicals starring Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland and Faye Holden. What seems like an innocent trio of characters (boy, girl, boy’s mother) turns into a devatasting oedipal triangle. Rooney kisses his mother quickly from behind, his fingers giving her arms a little squeeze. Perfectly normal and ordinary, right? But when Arnold’s done with it, slowing it down, playing it frame by frame, rocking it back and forth, it looks like a positively scandalous, unmistakeably erotic, outrageously ecstatic moment.

There are many traces of truth hidden in Hollywood films: truth about power relationships between men and women, the family as a microcosm of conflict, and the role and potency of sexuality in everyday relations, not to mention the unspoken rules in place for the representation of society and individuals in Hollywood movies. Many of these traces are veiled by swift narrative, camouflaging dialogue and quick accretion of event. By slowing down the film to the level of single frames, and “sampling” these frames like a hip-hop DJ might sample a “break,” these hidden traces, these invisible gestures, come to life. The unspeakable is thus spoken. Revelation results. To me, this is what Arnold's films are about.

You can view a Quicktime clip of Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy at Martin Arnold’s site here.


Blogger girish said...

The Miyazaki Blog-A-Thon continues at Walter's place.

May 15, 2006 7:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

The Siren's 10 Most Underrated Films.

May 15, 2006 7:56 PM  
Blogger phyrephox said...

Arnold's work sounds fascinating girish, thanks for the heads up on someone I've never heard of.

May 15, 2006 9:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, phyrephox.
I hadn't heard of him either until I walked into Jim's screening. Then discovered a wonderful interview with him in Scott MacDonald's (indispensable) Critical Cinema [vol. 3].
He literally spends years of his life fashioning mere minutes of film. Gotta admire that...

May 15, 2006 9:51 PM  
Blogger andyhorbal said...

I really enjoyed the work that Ken Jacobs did with Tom, Tom The Piper's Son. It sounds like Arnold's doing a lot of the same things. Very cool.

May 15, 2006 10:02 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

I like the cadence of Arnold's films, it's almost like Michael Snow repetition for the MTV generation; it's fluid but rhythmic. The flopping of images to create a kind of closed "unintended" looped actions in Pièce touchée (like the woman's alternating newspaper "fanning" that becomes one continuous motion with the husband leaning over to kiss her, or the inverted images that make it seem as though the couple were alternately rising or falling). And the transformation of iconic drama to percussion performance in Passage à 'acte is really cleverly done. There's even one sequence where it does look like Atticus' "rocked" pointing turns into musical conduction, with Jem on screen door drums and Scout as 'spoon man'. :)

May 15, 2006 10:11 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

Girish, did you get around to watching To Kill a Mockingbird? I'm sure I've seen it ten or more times over the years, and there are still scenes that choke me up every time.

May 15, 2006 10:50 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Andy ~ You know, I've never seen anything by Ken Jacobs, but I believe Star Spangled To Death is now available on video, for those of us who don't live in large cities to catch it theatrically.

Acquarello ~ Great points, all. I didn't pick up on Atticus' "conducting" at all! :-)
You know, once I started writing this post, I realized I had gotten myself into some serious trouble. :-) I could've spent 1000 words on simply one of these films. I liked all the details you cited. The laterally inverted footage in the first film also gave the impression that she was dancing with herself--two versions of herself, dancing with each other--a split woman. At other times, she was juggling herself, throwing herself into the air (when the image was vertically rather than laterally inverted).

For nearly every idea he employed (and he had scores in each film), one could make a metaphorical connection. Flat-out amazing.

Darren ~ It was after I saw the Arnold films that I realized I badly wanted to see To Kill A Mockingbird. I have it on my night-stand, ready to fire up. And the book was required reading (even in India!).

May 15, 2006 11:09 PM  
Blogger girish said...

As I mentioned earlier, Arnold is hard to write about because his films (though brief) are so damn fertile, bursting with ideas yet lucid and precise.
And one could write an entire essay on his use of sound (which I didn't even mention in the post).

Oh, I forgot to mention the other films that were part of the "Tampering With The Image" screening:

--Peter Tscherkassky's INSTRUCTIONS FOR A LIGHT AND SOUND MACHINE. (These Austrians are far-out). Saw it at Toronto last year and it looked even better this time.

--Joseph Cornell's ROSE HOBART (my first Cornell).

--FAST FILM, by another Austrian, Virgil Widrich.

--DAYLIGHT MOON by Lewis Klahr, inspired by Marnie.

--A visiting artist/filmmaker, Natalie Frigo.

This is interesting: in one of her films, she took news footage of US presidents with their wives at social occasions, etc and reframed the footage to focus just on the wives. (The film was called FIRST WIVES). Writing a sort of "alternate history".

In another film ("NOVEMBER 22, 1963"), she took the Zapruder footage and working frame by single frame, erased JFK from it.
So we saw Jackie stunned, devastated, climbing across the back of the convertible...for no reason.
It was eerie.
A 70-ish couple sat behind me. I heard the man say: "Jesus!"

May 15, 2006 11:25 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

November 22, 1963 sounds fascinating, Girish.

May 16, 2006 12:07 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Let me add my own recommendation to Siren's for Raoul Walsh's little-known Strawberry Blonde. Taped it off TCM some weeks back, and it's a lovely little pleasre--"little" here meaning fragile, precious, miniature and not minor in any way. Cagney's touching as the ne'er-say-die dumb Irish who keeps saying over and over "That's the kind of hairpin I am!" admitting without a trace of irony that he's a forlornly bent and twisted bit of wire. I don't agree that de Havilland is "Warner's idea of a wallflower;" what pushes men away are de Havilland's too-modern ideas, I think, not her candy-box sweet face. And Hayworth and Carson come off as obvious at first, then develop their own, subdued kind of poignancy. It's a wonderful list overall, I think, (I love Portrait of Jenny too), but this one is a special favorite.

May 16, 2006 12:38 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa ~ It was also useful that she was there in person to talk about her films.

Eastman is great at having people come in as guests to present movies and chat. Last month: Kris Kristofferson. Last coupla weeks: Isabella Rossellini, Tab Hunter. Next month: Albert Maysles, Jonathan Rosenbaum (who'll be showing Jia's The World).

Noel ~ I've never seen The Strawberry Blonde but I'm pretty sure I have a TCM videotape of it in one of my TCM boxes in my TCM closet.

May 16, 2006 7:44 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello ~ I wanted to add.

I think there are three aspects to Arnold's films that captivate me:

(1) Their visceral "sensuality" (of movement, repetition, pattern, choreography).

(2) The fact that the movement doesn't merely stand for itself (though it would be ingenious even if that was the only thing it did!), but instead is also loaded with ideological import.

(3) The grotesque, devilish humor in the movement of image (PIECE TOUCHEE) or that of image+sound (the other two).

It's also interesting that Arnold does not think of himself as a conceptual artist. "Idea" is NOT more important than "object". They are both important. So, the footage manipulation never feels weighed down with simply (and only) the need to make ideological points (though they exist aplenty).

May 16, 2006 7:45 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Excellent post that you must read:
Brian "Hell On Frisco Bay" Darr.

May 16, 2006 7:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Cool stuff all around this morning:
a back-and-forth on Cronenberg's A History Of Violence at Noel Vera's.

May 16, 2006 8:02 AM  
Blogger girish said...

And Eric Henderson on Chris Marker.

May 16, 2006 8:03 AM  
Anonymous Darren said...

"And the book was required reading (even in India!)."

That's great! Two summers ago, I read To Kill a Mockingbird with my English as a Second Language students. After our last discussion, Joanna and I had the whole class over for a big Southern meal and a viewing of the film.

May 16, 2006 8:06 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Darren ~ And I bet they were thrilled to hear all the personal Harper Lee stories you both were probably able to tell them.

Which reminds me: I wonder if there's a Harper Lee post at Long Pauses. Don't remember seeing one since I discovered your site (which was in the summer of '04, a couple of months before I met you), but I should check the archives...

May 16, 2006 8:15 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Regarding Virgil Widrich's Fast Film, I really like the rough hewn origami found film idea behind this. Widrich, Tscherkassky, and Arnold are all disciples of Peter Kubelka, and while Tscherkassky is probably the most adherent in terms of manipulating the materiality of film and Arnold is closer to the metric aspect of Kubelka's cinema, Widrich's interest seems to lie more in the materiality/manipulation of the transfer image.

In Fast Film (and also Copy Shop), his intesrest was as much in capturing the "character" of paper in the way it tears or creases, as much as how it translates that photographic image.

May 16, 2006 8:32 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Yeah, I really liked the origami aspect too.
And there was something a bit child-like about it (almost Art Brut-like) about the origami creases/textures.

Didn't know about those two Kubelka streams (materiality/metric).

I've never seen anything by Kubelka; I'd kill to.
Need to keep my eyes peeled for another road trip...

May 16, 2006 8:42 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Great post Girish! I love Martin Arnold's work. You're on an Avant-Garde roll it seems. The August blogathon has already started... ;)

May 16, 2006 9:10 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Harry.
Yeah, I'm starting out a bit early in that avant-garde blog-a-thon, ain't I? :-)

May 16, 2006 9:42 AM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Beautiful writing, G. Keep giving it up for the avant-garde! That program sounds awesome! I met Lewis Klahr a few weeks ago. :)

May 16, 2006 10:10 AM  
Blogger girish said...

J. ~ You're an avant-garde celeb rubbing shoulders with other avant-garde celebs!

May 16, 2006 11:23 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Okay, the Cinemathque Ontario in Toronto just released its summer schedule.

Large retrospectives of:
and lots of other stuff.

* Programmes
* Schedule

Think I better start saving up some gas $.

May 16, 2006 11:28 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Damn! I want that Monica Vitti poster! Oh yeah, the programs are cool too. :)

May 16, 2006 11:42 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello, I'll do the next best thing. I'll pick up an extra copy of the programme guide with the Monica Vitti cover (they're large-sized) and put it in the mail to you.

May 16, 2006 12:43 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Oh, man, I just followed the link and checked out the program and schedule. What I would do to be near Toronto this summer. That's killer.

And, Girish, I've been enjoying your Arnold post and the ensuing discussion -- it's taught me a lot, and my films-to-see list just got longer.

May 16, 2006 1:19 PM  
Anonymous jmac said...

I wish . . . I do get to talk with a lot of avant-garde celebs though. It is the biggest/only perk!

May 16, 2006 1:24 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

Ooh Antonioni and Mizoguchi. Maybe you should open a Canadian savings account. Or keep a few drums of fuel in a shed out back.

We're getting the Kieslowski series at the PFA in June, although I think it's missing the "short films about" killing and love. We're also getting a neat Isabelle Huppert series that includes a number of Chabrols and Godards that I haven't seen. Maybe the PFA and Cinematheque will tag-team as they sometimes do. I've become a much bigger fan of Antonioni in the last year or two and would love to see a few of those in the Cinematheque schedule.

Incidentally, the new Chabrol, with Huppert, is great -- Comedy of Power.

May 16, 2006 1:45 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Rob, I think you're right that the Short Film versions of Dekalog 5 & 6 have been left out of the PFA retro, which is something of a shame since they're the better versions.

Girish, are you a Hiroshi Teshigahara enthusiast? I noticed the Cinematheque is showing four of his films too.

Thanks for linking my piece with such a forceful recommendation!

I've been wanting to see Life Wastes Andy Hardy for a while now. Will now keep an eye out for Arnold's other titles, too.

May 16, 2006 2:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Michael ~ I was sure those Antonionis and Mizoguchis would catch your eye!

Rob ~ "Drums of fuel." I love it.
By the way, the Canadian $ is at a 30-year high against the US $, and might only get stronger by the time we get to Toronto in September. Ouch.
The Huppert series played in T.O. and is now at Eastman. Caught up with a screening in it last week; hope to blog about it soon.
And the new Chabrol--I really hope it plays TIFF.

Brian ~ Your post was just great. Loved it.
And you know, I haven't seen any Teshigahara films. Though I got The Face Of Another as a gift from a friend recently. And The Woman In The Dunes is in my college library on DVD.

May 16, 2006 2:50 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Teshigahara is one of my very favorite non-prolific directors. I haven't watched the Woman in the Dunes DVD but I hear it's a pretty poor transfer- this is one to see on the big screen if you possibly can. The other three films on the program are all excellent too.

May 16, 2006 3:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Good tip, Brian. Thanks.
Noticed Gaudi and Dunes are on a double bill on a Friday night. Sounds like something to shoot for.

May 16, 2006 3:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Dave Kehr on Jami Bernard being let go at the New York Daily News.

May 16, 2006 3:37 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

Ah, glad to hear that the Huppert series made the rounds. I'm not usually drawn to actor-oriented series, but this one is a particularly good opportunity to fill in some holes from fave directors (along the lines of Brian's excellent post ...).

Antonio Gaudi is very cool. A city symphony of sorts.

May 16, 2006 3:37 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I like The Woman In The Dunes a lot. I saw it on a grainy slightly-chewed VHS copy and it was still amazing.

May 16, 2006 4:37 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Of the Teshigaharas, The Face of Another is definitely my favorite, although I would have programmed Man Without a Map instead of Antonio Gaudi (great film, but the only non Kobo Abe based film in the series).

Brian, I appreciate that Teshigahara remained prolific in art (if not film) after he became more involved with Sogetsu School. His ikebana sculptures, particularly the wood constructions, look as though they could have come directly from a Shindo's early gothic films. There was no way that he could have come up with Rikyu in the 60s, it takes maturity and a return to roots to make a film as patient and zen-like as that.

May 16, 2006 4:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Acquarello--You could write a rocking book about world cinema. Seriously.

Just noticed: A great interview with film critic Walter Chaw at MZS's.

May 16, 2006 5:57 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Good idea Girish! Why don't you write a book acquarello? That would be priceless.

May 16, 2006 6:21 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Another vote for Face of Another. I happened to see the film at about the time that the face transplant in France was announced.

May 16, 2006 6:44 PM  
Blogger Steve said...

If the Kieslowski retro is the same one that recently played NYC, it should have the Short Film About... versions of said Decalogue episodes. Saw both of 'em recently (though, shamefully, not at the retro), and yeah... damn. They're pretty great.

And I'd heard of "Andy Hardy" before, pretty much just in passing as an unusual title. Now I kinda really hafta see it, along with Arnold's other films. These sound absolutely fascinating.

May 17, 2006 1:57 AM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

Thanks for linking to my History of Violence debate. It was an interesting back-and-forth.

Speaking of short films with better expanded versions, ever checked out Fruit Chan's Dumplings? Thought it was the best horror film I've seen in some time. Actually prefer Chan to Wong Kar Wai, myself.

May 17, 2006 2:52 AM  
Blogger Brian said...

I've only seen the short version of Dumplings and would like to catch the full version at some point. Other than that I've only seen Public Toilet of Chan's films, though I have unwatched VCD's of Durian Durian, Little Cheung and Made in Hong Kong sitting on a shelf somewhere.

Acquarello, thanks for the perspective on Teshigahara's non-prolific film career. I've never seen the direct products of his involvement in the ikebana school; do you know of a good book or website to learn more about them?

I'd love to have a book (or even just a pamphlet) by acquarello in my hot little hands someday.

May 17, 2006 3:37 AM  
Blogger Zach Campbell said...

Thanks for writing this up, Girish--I have been meaning to see these films for a while. I think it's great that you've been fighting the good fight, drawing attention to worthy a-g work ...

(Also, a belated congratulations on the Outstanding Professor Award!)

May 17, 2006 8:50 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Dumplings was already a feature length film though that was shortened for Three Extremes, unlike the two Kieslowski shorts which were expanded to become features (and, in the case of A Short Film About Love, Kieslowski gave into the lead actress' request for a "happier" ending).

The only Chan film I find problemmatic is Hollywood Hong Kong in the way he inserts the grotesque "pig people" imagery. It's actually a great predecessor to Jia Zhang-ke's The World in the way that the idea of "finding Hollywood without leaving Hong Kong" resonates with similar themes of entrapment and globalization. That said, I do think Chan's Made in Hong Kong is one of the best films of the 1990s. :)

Regardging Teshigahara, there's actually a bunch of short films beyond Jose Torres 1 & 2 that aren't listed on IMDb (and I've given up trying to add films in that infernal database a long time ago). One of them is Ikebana, and you can see some of his work in the Sogetsu School. He also did one on the famous woodcut artist Hokusai. There's also one called Tokyo, where I'm pretty sure that the "typical American" in the film is Donald Richie. There used to be an excellent Hiroshi Teshigahara website which went though his work as filmmaker, sculptor, and artist, but the domain has expired and it's now a crap-shilling portal.

Oh, and thanks for the vote of confidence guys, but if I take time out to write a book, I'd lose all that film viewing time. ;)

May 17, 2006 9:05 AM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

Thanks for the link and the Strawberry Blonde thumbs up. There is something irresistible about that movie. When the topic came up once before on my blog, Surlyh (who's been AWOL, sadly!) mentioned loving that one, high praise from a commenter with most exacting standards. When I said Olivia de Havilland was WB's idea of a wallflower, I was just joking; but over the years she did get cast as several plain Janes, which is too funny considering her incredible prettiness.

I should see the Andy Hardy movie but just that still you posted is wreaking havoc with my nerves. It creeped me out even before I read your excellent post.

I am going to have fun going through all these good links this morning. As for the Cinematheque, the summer sked is so sad it's funny. Life has been such that I haven't made it once this spring, and now I am moving just in time to miss Mizoguchi. I guess I can't complain, though, because at the end of the month we are going to Paris for three weeks, and then moving straight to NY. Brooklyn, in fact, though I don't know if we'll be anywhere near Filmbrain.

May 17, 2006 9:09 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, everyone.
It's a pleasure to rise to all this great reading.

You know, I don't believe I've seen anything by Fruit Chan. And I've missed the few that've played at Toronto over the years.

About Acquarello writing a large, well-designed, exhaustively indexed, globally distributed book on world cinema--he already has! And it's a mere click away...

Thanks, Zach. You might appreciate this impulse as a fellow academic (I know you think of yourself as a budding academic but I think of you as a full-fledged one!), but blogging about new and unfamiliar things (as so much a-g cinema is to me) is a way of teaching myself about them.

Campaspe, your move sounds exciting.
I shall sorely miss our marathon three-and-a-half-hour non-stop-movie-talk lunches. They were so much fun.

May 17, 2006 10:09 AM  
Anonymous Nick said...

Hey girish,

Great post (as usual!) I'd heard of Arnold before, but never seen any of his work until you pointed us to that website. I'm always sort of torn about recent avant-garde work, because in many ways I wonder if cinema over the last twenty years or so hasn't made it less relevant.

For instance, while it's true that those old Hollywood films are brimming with subtexts and barely concealed repressions, it's also true that Hollywood itself has explosed these things by "updating" genre conventions so relentlessly. You can think of almost any genre or style--film noir, say--and look at how much of the latent stuff has been made explicit. Doesn't a film like "Brokeback Mountain" take the homoerotic undercurrents of so many classic westerns and foreground them?

But even beyond that, I suspect that audiences today ALREADY see the repressions, gaps, subtexts, etc. in those old films. In many ways, we are ironic spectators, alert to the familiar (and thoroughly deconstructed) invisible codes of the classic period. I wonder in what sense Arnold's work is avant-garde when we already live during a time when the relentless recycling and deconstruction of historical forms is a part of our everyday lives?

May 17, 2006 11:13 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey, Nick--Great points!
And hard to refute.

Let me offer a couple of preliminary ideas on why I think of these films as being avant-garde.

Despite our increasingly ironic stance as viewers, I still see commercially-exhibited cinema as being predicated upon being, to a lesser or greater extent, narrative-driven. (I wonder if this is a tenable assumption?)

The films Arnold works with are strongly narrative-driven, but Arnold's films oppose their intrinsic narrative qualities by taking a slice of film, wrenching it from its context and fetishizing it by re-choreographing the same images (often in a different order) into a sort of "mechanical ballet." I wonder if there analogues to this blatant anti-narrative "subversion by appropriation" in mass-entertainment movies.

One thing that struck me as interesting with Arnold's films is that sometimes, instead of bringing to the surface buried and repressed elements, he occasionally seems to create these elements where none might have existed (through manipulation of footage by looping), almost by a personal projection of these qualities or elements on to the film. Which is a bit different from an alert and ironic spectator using clues to deconstruct a film by picking up on elements that are already there, even if they are buried.

Thanks for your points, Nick. And by the way, I picked up your 33 1/3 Ramones book a few weeks back and look forward to reading it.

May 17, 2006 1:36 PM  
Anonymous Nick said...

Hey Girish--

Excellent points about to what extent some of mainstream cinema is avant-garde. I'm not sure about this myself, but I do think that popular forms (like some music videos by Michel Gondry, etc.) are non-narrative and essentially experimental. And they are popular. One of the first MTV -videos I remember seeing back in the day was Herbie Hancock's "Rockit"--with the scratching, and the bizarre jerky robot with the beak. It struck me as something that I would now call avant-garde. There are other videos from that era (i.e., the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime") that are resolutely non-narrative.

I think so much of what we call "commercial" or "avant-garde" has to do with context. I went to the Ann Arbor Film Festival this year, which is dedicated to experimental and avant-garde work. So much of what I saw reminded me of commercial work (music videos, vlogs, tv commericials) but because I was watching these things in an "art theatre" with an "art crowd" at an experimental film fest., I tended to view them as avant-garde.

I wonder if viewers raised with mash-ups, sampling, mixing, etc. would view Arnold's work as much different from the pastich quality of so much everyday media. It's an almost incoherent (not in a bad way) time we're living in when the categories between mainstream, avant-garde, experimental are so blurred.

Thanks again for your post, and for your blog (and I hope you enjoy the Ramones book!)


May 17, 2006 2:48 PM  
Blogger girish said...

So true, Nick...

May 17, 2006 3:34 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Andy Horbal on the future of film criticism.

May 17, 2006 10:41 PM  
Blogger girish said...

At Screenville: Bazin on criticism.

May 17, 2006 10:42 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nick Rombes on "digital imperfection."

May 17, 2006 10:43 PM  
Blogger girish said...

A terrific debate about on-line criticism at the Arts Journal.

May 17, 2006 10:45 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Those are four suberb links. The first one is especially on point, I think.

May 17, 2006 11:30 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

That is, it's the one that meshes most readily with the gears already spinning in my head, helping them turn better. The others may take a little more time to work into my bloodstream.

May 18, 2006 12:38 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Glad you liked 'em, Brian.

And here's a Liza Minnelli appreciation from Michael Guillen.

May 18, 2006 8:27 AM  
Blogger girish said...

David on Lodge Kerrigan's Keane.

May 18, 2006 8:29 AM  
Blogger girish said...

So glad to know that Terry Teachout shares my love for The Fabulous Baker Boys:
"I may have said it before, but if so I’ll say it again: The Fabulous Baker Boys is the only film I’ve ever seen that is true to my own experience of playing music (except that I never got to sleep with anybody who looked even slightly like Michelle Pfeiffer)."

May 18, 2006 8:37 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Good news: Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy has distribution.

Back with a post in a few hours.

May 18, 2006 8:40 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Campaspe --

SO happy that Brooklyn is about to go +1 on great film bloggers. Feel free to get in touch with any/all questions about the hood.

Girish (and everybody) --

Was wondering what your thoughts were on the Chaw interview that you linked to. I was more than a bit put off by what he had to say (as my comment clearly indicates), but I'm curious as to what the regulars here think about it. (Especially Harry Tuttle, who has never been shy when it comes to discussing critics.)

[Girish - I hope you don't mind me raising the subject here.]

May 18, 2006 11:05 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh I don't mind at all, Filmbrain.
That's what this place is for.
I enjoyed reading your comments and shall return with my 2 cents as soon as I'm done fiddling around with this post I'm working on.

May 18, 2006 11:27 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Chaw lashes into Ebert and into middlebrow films, accusing them of patronizing the audience, which I think means he's assuming the audience is just like him when, actually, much of it is not. So he is (unintentionally? self-righteously, at least) patronizing the middlebrow, which includes me and most of my family and friends. In short: yes, horribly off-putting. He can write about whatever he wants to; that's his right, but I doubt I'll be reading any more of his work because I'm annoyed by his smugness.

More's the pity, because MZS and filmbrain and Peter Nellhaus and The Siren and Girish all write about films I might never see, in ways I don't expect, referencing people and things I've never heard of, and I find it all immensely enjoyable.

May 18, 2006 11:59 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

I have a personal beef with Chaw regarding his very ungratious comments on an exchange that Rob Davis and I had when I posted my Senses of Cinema list. He totally misread Rob's comments about not liking the two films that happened to be American on my list, and instead, Chaw went off on a screed against me (gleefully enabled by Bill Chambers) as being anti-American in my "ridulous" film selections for the year. If the guy can't even read a written dialogue accurately, how can "read" a film accurately? For someone who tries to play the sympathy card with people accusing him of being elitist, he dishes it out just as viciously and unprovokingly. Pot calling the kettle black, I say.

May 18, 2006 12:09 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Sorry, that's "ridiculous". And yeah, I'm pissed. >:(

May 18, 2006 12:14 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

acquarello, someone using my comments as leverage against you is laughable. I remember our original exchange but not the screed. It must have been elsewhere. Got a link?

May 18, 2006 12:30 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I've bookmarked this Chaw interview but didn't have time to read it yet.
Is it bad to "discuss critics" and not be shy about it? ;)
To comment someone's writing/positioning doesn't infer superiority or contempt. Criticism from "below" is as valid as judgement from "above", I hope.

What I take from the Bazin article I quoted in my last post (thanks Girish for kindly linking it), is that criticism must be snob and militant precisely because the momentum of the industry and the audience majority would otherwise go naturally for the lower quality. For the simple reason that higher quality requires efforts and awareness.

All these online critics blogging ABOUT the (grassroot) state of film criticism is really invigorating! Now instead of scattering the insights in all directions, it would be more fertile to join forces around the same table...

p.s. this Arts Journal debate looks fascinating too, great tip Girish.

May 18, 2006 12:40 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

Found it. I've never heard of this guy before this thread, but his misquoting (and clearly knowing nothing about) me is a fine introduction. At least the attribution was anonymous.

May 18, 2006 12:42 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Acquarello, I'd love to read that as well. I find that type of hypocrisy amusing.

May 18, 2006 12:51 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Heheh, thanks Rob, that's the one (I had a devil of a time going through the blogger archives). I appreciated that "talk to the hand"/non-response web anonymity he pulled too. Nice touch. :)

Incidentally, I never visit that site either, except that one of the people who tried to defend me in those comments sent me a link. As I said in my unresponded comment, different purposes...

May 18, 2006 12:55 PM  
Blogger Filmbrain said...

Thanks Davis!

Chaw writes:
A few lists that I’ve read (one, in particular, that Bill pointed me to at a particularly ridiculous film site), are comprised entirely of films that have only gotten play on the festival circuit or, as I like to say, on the side of a camel, projected by the grace of match-light and crank. (The comment on one? “I like your choices, despite the pair of American narratives” – referring to Miranda July’s Me, You, and Everyone We Know and Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale.) It’s the kind of airless stunt that defines “elitism” to me, not as a celebration of and indulgence in good taste, but as a means by which to squeeze all the joy out of going to the movies by making it a pursuit based in large part on classism and intellectual bigotry.

I am so SICK of this argument, which is brought up time and again -- "You didn't actually ENJOY those films, you just threw them on your list blah blah blah..."

Of course, what Chaw really means by the above is: "Man, it sucks that these great films never make it to Denver, so I'll just vent on anybody who has seen them."

It reminds me of this article, which resulted in my hurling things across the room.

But admit it Acquarello, you just put The Sun on your top ten to look cool. ;-)

May 18, 2006 1:07 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Actually, the cool factor was The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 'cause, umm..., you know, it has the word "Death" in the title. ;)

I saw The Sun on the same Saturday marathon fest as Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, The Passenger, and Gabrielle, and it was the only one that really made an impression on me. I really like the "starkness" that Sokurov creates for this film, in the sense that you see this diminutive man doing very bookish, seemingly trivial things in perpetual isolation, but that you always get this enormous sense of historical weight that his little "ripple" actions have, and the fate of the sound engineer captured it perfectly. Now, that's good stuff!

May 18, 2006 1:38 PM  
Anonymous jmac said...

Nick: Those MTV videos & commercials have ripped off the American avant-garde!

I am not the one to say what is avant-garde or not. I will venture to say that it is doubtful that Michael Gondry is doing his own optical printing, hand-painting, photography, and curatorial endeavors with the vast communities of experimental film video/artists from around the world! Part of what makes something experimental or avant-garde is the process used to create the image with one's own hands & it's a whole process of learning the history and the new contemporary work.

May 18, 2006 1:39 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

You can just laugh about this type of reaction acquarello! ;)
The guy is entitled to his preferences but he's more judgemental than your site has ever been.
When personal preferences pose as a prism through which the world around is observed, the critical argument is out of sight. A taste battle does not criticism make.

Now I have to read his (expectedly ridiculous) interview. lol

May 18, 2006 1:41 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Okay, so I go out for Indian buffet lunch and come back to all this great dish.

Didn't know any of this.
Geez, that guy's some piece of work.

May 18, 2006 1:43 PM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Sorry to draw the discussion away from its current subject, but I just can't help it...:)

Acquarello, a great list, though I stil have some 'titles' to catch up with. But what bothered me, since there was a talk about the gut-criteria, was that nobody mentioned "L'Enfer"... It is certainly my 'guttest' film up to now and while that doesn't mean anything, I believe it is covering much higher standards than the pure subjectivity... Why did, and still does, it get so little recognition?

I exclude the reviews (including on Acquarello's site), which too, however, were not as many and thorough as they should've been... (excluding Acquarello's again, which I found truly inspiring)

To sum it up, it seems that it's getting more recognition in the Internet-spheres...

May 18, 2006 1:45 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Oh, and I had never heard of Chaw or his site before yesterday, and I linked to the interview not because I endorsed his sentiments (!) but because I thought it was an interesting specimen in the on-line criticism debate.

May 18, 2006 1:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for that Kaiju link, Filmbrain.
Yeah, I ground my teeth a few times there too.

Frisco Bay Brian gets the brilliant diplomat award in the comments to that one, coming off as unfailingly gracious without pulling any punches on his points. Way to go, Brian.

May 18, 2006 2:13 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Filmbrain, thanks for bringing up the Chaw interview. Like others here, I too was -- how do I put this charitably? -- disconcerted by his views about criticism and critics. One thing that I've come to dislike is the notion that being deliberately hostile, acerbic, irreverent, or whatever is somehow admirable, and that's the picture that was drawn of Chaw in that interview. Personally, I've always seen those traits as harmful to critical discourse (please excuse the academic lingo here) and substitutes for truly worthwhile analysis.

Among the things in that interview that concerned me was his contention that film criticism is currently bankrupt. His evidence for this is that some studios are forging or creating blurbs and reviews; but what does studio practice have to do with film criticism? Film criticism is, in my view, as healthy as it's ever been -- we have Rosenbaum, Lopate, Kent Jones, Hoberman, Dargis, Kehr, Film Comment, Sight and Sound, Matt Seitz, academic film studies (whether we like them or not) and on and on -- plus something that didn't exist before: blogs, where some of the best criticism appears. I saw his comment as both inaccurate and a bit self-serving.

Sorry about the rant, folks. I just couldn't believe some of the things I was reading.

May 18, 2006 2:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I agree with your rant, Michael. I feel the same way.

May 18, 2006 4:10 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Actually, if you keep your eyes opened, Denver is a pretty good film town. While it ain't NYC, the Starz Cinema is pretty good while the Landmark chain shows the Miramax/Sony Classics stuff. Three Times is opening there tomorrow. There is also the Denver Film Festival. Also there is the University of Colorado in Boulder which has had some films which never played Denver. There are several film festivals in Denver. Not to mention a little festival in Telluride. My guess is that Mr. Chaw wants to position himself as the smartest guy in the room, while others are just happily idiosyncratic in our love of film.

May 18, 2006 4:17 PM  
Blogger Campaspe said...

I see that I garbled my earlier comment. Should have said, thanks to NOEL for The Strawberry Blonde thumbs-up. Any friend of the Walsh movie (and what sharp observations about it!) is a friend of mine. I am slowly working my way through all these great links and now am heading over to the History of Violence one.

Filmbrain & Tuwa - thanks for the kind thoughts. I am glad to have so many reasons to look forward to my move. I read Chaw's interview and the comments, and the discussion here. I will say only that I admire the ability of Acquarello and Filmbrain to tear a strip off someone, politely. I do want to read some more of Chaw's reviews.

May 18, 2006 5:43 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Campaspe, politeness is an area I'm all too often forgetting about. The manners in your posts are impeccable, though. It's really quite charming.

May 18, 2006 6:36 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Well said, everyone, and thanks. I really don't care if you dislike my work, but to do a kind of unprovoked public shaming and character assassination of someone you don't know, never met, and haven't bothered to try to understand the context of what that person is trying to accomplish, sorry, that's just gauche.

Incidentally, Marina, L'Enfer only played New York this year at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema, it didn't play at NYFF05, so I'm definitely putting it on this year's list. Filmbrain did a pretty "gutful" reading on the film too. I don't believe that it has even opened domestically in the U.S. though; it's only opened recently (last monthor two) in the UK, but not here, so there's hope for this year still.

May 18, 2006 8:07 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

To campaspe--thanks! Taped it off TCM; it's not available on Netflix. Walsh is an awesome filmmaker.

And who's this Chaw? I suppose I have to read the interview now...

On Mockingbird--just saw Intruder in the Dust, and while I do think the two are different entities, one being a fine meditation on childhood and its perception of the world, I just can't help but groove to Intruder's no-nonsense grit and on-location realism (this from Clarence Brown, who seems to have filmed the Yearling--it has its supporters, but I keep feeling so sticky watching it--mostly on film sets).

Plus it has a great, great performance by Juano Hernandez as the black man accused of murder, a black man so massively self-assured he doesn't even feel the need to correct a white man's wrong deductions--even if such deduction might mean his life.

Yet Juano's character doesn't look all that 'uppity'--he's got a huge frame, a heroic presence, but his eyes soften that presence, gives him a careful, wary look.

Great performance, great actor, and great film, I think.

May 19, 2006 3:29 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Finally read the Walter Chaw interview. I liked your comment, Filmbrain, sounds like you reconciled with Chaw already though ;)
The interviewer asks good questions to corner his contradictions. Apparently the film critic persona doesn't go without a huge ego, a paranoid persecution by the studios, and a glamour sense of hipness (a social superiority distinct from the cultural elitism kind).

Is it impossible to do criticism without freepass and star interviews really?

May 19, 2006 3:44 AM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Acquarello, yes, Filmbrain's post is splendid as well as the comments following it. It seems, however, that my own experience with the film was subjective - I adore Beart and instantly fell in love with Gillain, such powerful acting - of the other characters too. I was preliminarily 'adjusted', let's say, to the atmosphere of what I was going to see, because of the two names - Kieslowski and Beart (Tanovic I exclude, because he didn't seem to match the shade of tension, typical for Kieslowski's work and Beart's 'emission'). So, had I unconsciously already decided that I would like the film? I don't think so, because what I saw during and after the titles (one of the few films, I stood there staring at the end credits), I could never expect... It was an enormous emotional charge that 'bombed' me right at the start, and which was probably strengthened by my expectations.

So, Filmbrain's experience was hugely subjectively, mine too - guess that's how the film could only be viewed - first subjectively and then objectively. It's in its nature - a very tense and sombre cinematography, a few-words acting and that haunting music... It's like a perfect design that serves to get under your skin, bones and veins... If it doesn't, you most probably won't like it.

Yet again, why does it fail to fascinate more people? Is it too heavy? Are we less prone to plunging into a film's atmosphere and theme and letting it dig into our own 'emotional storage'? Are we becoming so extroverted that even art cannot touch us personally...?

May 19, 2006 9:08 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Yet again, why does it fail to fascinate more people? Is it too heavy? Are we less prone to plunging into a film's atmosphere and theme and letting it dig into our own 'emotional storage'? Are we becoming so extroverted that even art cannot touch us personally...?

I find myself asking these very same questions. One of the unfortunate side effects of the postmodern condition is an aversion to pure emotional response, especially in the world of criticism.

I've only spoken to a few people about L'Enfer, and those that didn't like it had a similar reaction -- they found it laughably dark, as if it was too over the top. You and I both admit to a subjective reading of the film -- could that be clouding our judgment? Perhaps. Yet I consider myself quite a cynic, and am rarely taken in by cheap manipulative efforts at emotional response.

As I said in my review, I think the film succeeded in showing the long-term effects of childhood trauma, and I found myself both willing and able to empathize with the characters. Why others were not -- who can say?

The scene with Beart in the Hotel still continues to haunt me.

May 19, 2006 10:57 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Along the lines of what Filmbrain said about people's reaction to L'Enfer, the two people I talked to at Rendez-vous thought that it was too "neat", not just in a stylistically polished way, but also that everything in the narrative came together in a tidy way, and they found that manipulative. I thought that that was actually pretty typical Kieslowki, so I wasn't put off by it; I would have been disappointed if it wasn't structured that way.

I loved the Beart scene in the hotel, it was straight out of the way I imagined Dante's Inferno would structurally look like, a series of descending mazes that don't ever seem to go anywhere.

May 19, 2006 11:18 AM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Yes, ironically, nowadays we laugh out loud - shamelessly, I'd say - when, in fact, we feel, or WOULD feel like crying. Tears - and with that I mean emotions - have become the shameful thing. I guess, if the subjective response wasn't buried under the artificial 'critical' prejudice, more people would find satisfaction in film as art. Take literature classes at school, for instance. What is most discussed there are the questions: 'What does the writer want to say?', 'How does the writer say it?', 'How does the writer approaches and consequently touches the reader?'. It's all about the connection writer-reader and the same is valid for all art forms: artist-perceiver. Emotional /subjective/ response is the most important factor for a work of art to be spotted and appreciated and ONLY after that comes objectivity and apprehension of main ideas, themes, tendencies. That's why, I couldn't agree more with you, when you defended this same scheme of approaching films.

Following that logic, comes another question: Why isn't cinema considered 'officially' art? - like literature, music, etc. Why is it always fighting its way between the industry and art perception? Because of its age? My personal answer would be, no. It's all because of education. At school we study painting, music, dancing even for quite a few years from first grade and we continue studying literature throughout all of our 'school'-days. We've been said that art - literature, music, dancing, painting - is something sacred and should be respected and everyone truly AT LEAST respects a book even though they mightn't have liked it. The same is with paintings and dances, and music (ok, not in all cases here, industry again). So, what about film? Where does film stand in our art view when nobody's ever mentioned anything about film in our 'young' years? How do we create such a view when nobody gave us the basics - which in all cases equal respect? That is why, if a person isn't artistically 'inclined', he'd difficultly build such a perception of cinema. And he's not to be blamed - after all, when you've had something as entertainment all your life (and out of school!), it's difficult to appreciate it as something else later. That's most of my fellow students' attitude towards cinema and it's regretful really.

Back to the Hotel scene, which couldn't be more perfect. :) I see it a part of three peaks throughout the film.
First are the titles with their deformation of space. And, attention!, deformation of a YOUNG bird's body. Talking about childhood trauma.
Second is the beautiful Beart-hotel scene with its deformation of time. Acquarello, that's most certainly Dante's Hell, even more hellish... The trap of the floor-spiral (which would usually symbolise, together with the circle, perfection) proves that Hell on Earth - the Human Hell - is times more hellish than fictional Hell. We, striving for perfection, which we've been deprived of at younger age (from birth?), will always end in that spiral - the spiral of our own human imperfection/human hell.
Third is the very last 'rising', as I call it, scene of the gathered family (the second most haunting vision - the mother depicted as Death). The act of rising could again be viewed as a deformation but most of all - as that spiral movement which inevitably leaves us into our personal hell. The mere fact, that the camera is flying above the characters draws us back to Tykwer's 'Heaven' final scene and the contrary interpretention here. If in 'Heaven' the two embraced death as salvation and path to Heaven, in 'Hell' Death (the mother - couldn't be more explicitly suggested) is in the family and it is WE, the viewers, who rise above them and leave them in Hell, we trying to reach Heaven through their experience. A perfect, perfect scene!

Anyway, all these assumptions and symbols (and, God, there're many!) come after the subjective response.
In the theater I saw it (the film was screened only once! and it would most most probably never be released, as happens with every festival film), there were uncomfortable mumblings, laughter and even people calmly and undisturbingly talking on their mobile phones! I really couldn't and still can't believe it - with all the tension and even more - beautiful tension! - on the screen... I guess it turned out a bit too 'art'... Industry, industry's the future... :(

May 19, 2006 3:56 PM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Marina --

Between your analysis of L'Enfer and your thoughts on film as an art form, I'm deeply regretting that I can't read your blog.

It's true how cinema does have a certain stigma attached to it. Hardcore cinephiles are often considered freaks, geeks or some other form of social misfit. You rarely come across similar labels applied to lovers of art, literature, poetry, etc.

Yet by any standards, cinema has become the most commodified art form. Could the fact that it's primarily a collective experience have something to do with it?

May 19, 2006 4:59 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

re: Hell
May I ask a few (genuine) detractor's questions? unless I'm late to the discussion again (is this the MTV generation?)

- How childhood trauma (and this one in particular, only a misunderstanding) makes a good input in developing the concept of "Hell"?

- I concede the architecture of the Hotel set offers an interesting mise-en-scène, but what takes place there that is atypical?

- Who is in hell? The only one I could find is the father, who gets out of the picture pretty quick. The guiltless mother seems content of her fate. Is self-satisfaction part of the torture expected in hell?

I could think of many situations and places for a less trivial "hell on Earth" metaphor.

May 19, 2006 5:19 PM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Filmbrain, physically cinema is intended to be that way, but as an inner experience, I believe it's deeply personal. It comes as no surprise that everyone lives through a film differently and reactions are often contrary. Collective, yes:
1)As part of the 'theatre crowd';
2)As part of the 'self crowd', let's call it; the collection of memories, associations, knowledge, emotional responses.
What about theatre then? A quite similar situation, yet a classic art...elite even.

Concerning 'Hell'...
Why a childhood trauma? Well, that's the period of our lives, we're most vulnerable and inclined to influance. It's when lasting deformations occur and 'doom' us to a life less ordinary. If we adopt the Freudean point of view and just as him, say, well, psychoanalysis solves it all, we're confronted by Kieslowski's thin irony - the character of Gillain is studying philosophy and would most certainly be acquainted with the methods of psychoanalysis, but that doesn't help. She's in Hell and Hell is in her (from childhood). She's part of the vicious circle of lack of reconciliation and forgiveness. She might not be a direct participant, but her experience of that trauma marks her for life.

In 'Heaven' both characters broke God's laws and yet at the end they went, as symbolised, to Heaven. Their love, their being, THEY made their way to Heaven. In 'Hell' the three characters are traumed, but the way in which they continue their life, makes them worthy of their inner Hell. They don't break but continue the vicious circle. In the end neither the daughters are prone to forgiveness, nor the mother to regret and reconciliation. What they choose to do (or more correctly, NOT do) simply whirls the circle again...infinitely. Because, if the beginning was marked as 'birth', according to the titles, then the end should be 'death', according to the Mother character. Then we should assume that for Kieslowski, or Tanovic at least, inner Hell, originating from our childhood lasts for life, if we don't reconcile and forgive?

The hotel scene is, to me, the act of direct expression of Hell in the daughters' life. When Beart walks in there with the clear intention of finding her husband, cheating on her (right?), she responds to her doubts, letting Hell free. She subjects herself to unfaithfulness (which also she associates with her father), blurring the past and present into an inseparable whole of darkness that is her Hell. That's when, while going up and up the floors, she actually falls deeper and deeper in her traumatised memory, starting from her husband until the bottom.

For me, they're all in Hell. My reasons are above. Hm, self-satisfaction? I take it more as stubborness... Pardon is what rises us to the level of Heaven - the one that Blanchett and Ribisi gave to each other. Self-satisfaction with a life, ruined others' - no matter if intended or not - that's pride which borders cruelty.

May 19, 2006 6:51 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

How being a victim (of childhood trauma) earns you Hell within christian values?
A child is supposed to born pure (except from the original sin), so I don't see how the daughters should pay for a sin they were not responsible for.
Cheating is a sin, Beart trying to get her husband back isn't. Although Gillain is probably the only one with a clear sin record (adultary).
Maybe the failure to "honor your parents" is the daughter's sin but again they are on the victim side (the mother's parjury?)
The father was righteous and paid unfairly for a misunderstanding (or was it to defend homosexuality?) and is the only one with a tragic fate (God's punishment?)

At best the moral judgement (catholic?) is arguable. The last minute redemption (in afterlife) of a sinner is expected to earn you Heaven. So the guilt of a sinful life (let alone victimisation of an innocent child) doesn't justify the Hell case. (at least in my understanding of Christianity)

May 20, 2006 2:44 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Harry, I'd written up a response citing contradictory passages in the Old Testament regarding whether children "should" be punished for their fathers' sins, according to people claiming to speak for God, but now I see it's been done already, and by someone who hasn't left the faith. So I'll let that person explain it instead.

One thing I see that discussion left out, though, is this scorcher, in a passage credited to God himself:
Isaiah 14:21 --"Prepare slaughter for his children for the iniquity of their fathers; that they do not rise, nor possess the land, nor fill the face of the world with cities."

It's passages like this that were more trouble than comfort to me once I'd begun to question my faith, especially since Jesus said you'd know a tree by its fruit. That story was in context of prophets and false prophets, but I'd always taken it to refer to anyone, really: the basic notion that you could judge a person's character by his actions. And, well, some of the things parents were doing in my neighborhood were downright evil, but the children were victims, not perpetrators; punishing them further for it seemed manifestly unjust (even ungodly).

I suppose you could take the fruit/tree story somewhat metaphorically, as being about parents and children and indicating instead a fatalistic/deterministic notion more horrifying than hopeful. I'm not sure how well that would fit with the psychology of Jesus' times.

The link above does allude to the notion that "the sins of the father visited on the children" might be observation rather than prescription. To me it seems true; I know some people, even love some people, who I regard as essentially broken, and it's not hard to trace it back to grievous mistreatment as a child. I think most people do recover from their childhood, and I'm happy for it, but I know a few who just simply haven't.

As for redemption, there are a lot of different denominations of Christianity, and even some disagreements within the same demominations about how to interpret various passages in the Bible. For instance, the Baptist and Nazarene churches I attended were very skeptical of last-minute redemptions, which the pastors scornfully called "death bed conversions." (Baptists are conservative; but the Nazarenes made the Baptists look like liberal humanists.)

... Is this a Protestant or a Catholic film we're talking about, anyway? I haven't seen it, and it's not been clear from the discussion. (Catholic, maybe? Since there's a third film called Purgatory?)

Girish, I hope you don't mind the mini theological debate that's sprung up. ^_^

May 20, 2006 5:24 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I don't mean to feed a religious controversy. I'm just questionning the plot's own argument. Kieslowski is catholic, and humanist, this fiction family is contemporean (post-Jesus). So the motive of damnation is very different from the Old Testament. The sacrifice of Jesus' death absolved humanity from ancient doom and sins. The sentence to Hell are in the Decalog, deadly sins, and individual soul examination.
So that's the context I assume to read the film.
I don't see any of the characters in the film to be irredeemably evil, and deserving Hell (at least the story doesn't make it a clear case). Even if the mother is remorseless, she's convinced to sacrifice herself for the greater good of her children, this is admirable, not a sin.
The only analogy that would make sense is "The road to Hell is paved with good intentions", which isn't even a quote from God.

May 20, 2006 6:10 AM  
Blogger girish said...

"Girish, I hope you don't mind the mini theological debate that's sprung up. ^_^"

Not at all, Tuwa.

May 20, 2006 8:30 AM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Tuwa, Harry, great arguments!
But I disagree... Did Kieslowski really have Christianity in mind when writing the script? Or Catholicism? Or Buddhism? Religion? Certainly religion as a conception of good and noble was the groundwork, but is it the essense?

The Decalogue series was relogion-based, the Colour Trilogy - humanistic. What about 'Heaven', 'Hell', 'Purgatory'? Humanistically religious? Or religiously humanistic? The latter seems more righteous if we consider 'religion' in its broad definition of faith in the kindness of men and courage to do good. Even Dante's 'Divine Comedy' was more of a religiously humanistic judgement of the Italian society than a mere religious or humanistic sentence of men. It's like Kieslowski took the religion of non-religious people - the original faith in kindness.

That's why, 'deserving Hell' would turn into 'making Hell'. It's not about that distinctly religious context of the 'Decalogue', but about a more humanistic approach. That can be witnessed in 'Heaven' as well. No God would pardon the murder of a child (intended or not). Nor the person who helps the murderer, thus becoming a criminal too. Yet, through love, Blanchett and Ribisi's characters make their way to Heaven. Their personal Heaven. The religious element serves more as a background, a parallel with the accepted righteousness. The couple doesn't fly to God's Heaven, but to Their Heaven of mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. In 'Hell', the children are passive observers of violence and death. If youth means 'purity' and death suggest purification of the sins, then seeing death while in your youth is a shocking and certainly depurifying moment. Having witnessed that, 20 or so years later we meet the same passive distant 'children'. Beart is observing her marriage [falling appart] and when she finally decides to take action and asure herself, it turns out she's been in Hell all this time. Viard is observing her life [passing by] and again when she takes action, she faces her secret companion - Hell. Gillain is more insistent but the nature of her relationship gives her the passive role (as we consequently see). And it was her who chose that relationship. Again, when taking action, she finally realises that her seemingly lovely relationship is no more heaven-like than her sisters'. This passiveness originates from their youth and is a protection against violence [and death]. Yet again, this passiveness blurrs the activity of life and turns it into living death - Hell - just like the pride and denied remorse of the Mother. She's alive but she's stuck in the past, in a moment of false accusation and self-satisfaction. She's contended with her deeds and faith and thus blind for the kindness of men - practically, she's death/Death.

"Even if the mother is remorseless, she's convinced to sacrifice herself for the greater good of her children, this is admirable, not a sin."

How does this sacrifice give her children 'the greater good'? How do they find [for themselves] this good, when they haven't witnessed it, when they've been raised by a sacrifice?

May 20, 2006 8:59 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

Late getting in this conversation, but I'm actually out of town until Tuesday and my connection is crappy dial-up, so I'll make this brief. I know I've mentioned this before on the comments at Cinemarati (on the Rendez-vous thread), but my take on the question of "who is in hell?" is that everyone is in limbo, and in Dante's Inferno, limbo is in hell. It's not a layer of hell, but it is the outermost layer, if you will, but nevertheless, in hell. So in that sense, they are all in hell (sisters and mother) because they are all in a state of emotional and existential limbo because nothing in their childhood was ever resolved, even as they grew up to be dysfunctional adults.

So by placing them at this level, you can say that Kieslowski affords them the most compassion because their souls are not completely irredeemable yet (no in the layers of hell), but they are in the periphery of that irredeemability if they don't decide to change their existential station, if they don't choose. At the end, the sisters are in the process of that reconciliation while the mother is not, so only the mother remains in hell.

May 21, 2006 9:21 AM  
Blogger girish said...

I'm kicking myself for having missed L'Enfer at Toronto last year.

May 21, 2006 9:32 AM  
Anonymous Marina said...

"At the end, the sisters are in the process of that reconciliation while the mother is not, so only the mother remains in hell."

Hmm...hadn't thought about some of them actually [having the chance of] getting out...:)

But your point perfectly puts in order my scattered generalisations. Stunning!

May 21, 2006 9:54 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

The mother doesn't achieve this (misled) "greater good" at all, but she had to sacrifice her husband (by mistake) to protect her children from an alledged pedophile. She believes she took the right decision as the daughters were too young to understand otherwise. But the suicide of the father did implant trauma and arrested development in the kids, leading to a mistrust in parenting duty and couple mutual trust in their disfunctional adult lives.

The trauma history functions quite well, that's not my issue. I guess my only complaint is the title of the film, as superficial as it seems from me, which really undermines the ambitious project of a Heaven-Hell-Purgatory trilogy, IMHO.

"Limbo" is too much of a "light" Hell, even for a humanistic concept of a "Hell on Earth"... The little issues the daughters go through are merely a sample of very banal situations nowadays (divorce, adultary, single-parent, unmarried woman, such petty worries of a bourgeois ideal...) I mean even by religious standards these are minor "immoral" issues, nothing God couldn't forgive.
The mother's lack of guilt is probably repressed denial. We can only feel pity for her. She doesn't appear as a machiavelian evil who plotted the destruction of her husband and children. She's also victim of defavorable circumpstances. So she's morally irresponsible. One is morally responsible for things one is aware/conscious of, not for the duplicity of chance.
I guess I find the moral demonstration of the plot a little weak. The caricature of a mental disorder (such as pathological muteness) isn't a smart allegory of a devil punishment (Hell) within a realistic context.

I'm wondering about the meaning of the opening sequence...
Would the father commit the original sin when he interfers with chance, by saving the wrong bird, cuckoo, the intruder who expulsed all the good eggs?
Maybe the cuckoo is well-intentionned Guillaume Canet (in love of his teacher), who disturbs the equilibrium in the nest for ever. The father did jail time to preserve him, thus lost his wife and daughters.

May 22, 2006 11:08 AM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Is the mother really "morally irresonsible"?
On the contrary, after the final scene she's mostly morally responsible. She might not have realised then the wrongness of her actions and attitude, nor the possible consequences of her sacrifice. But she had made choices, definite, unconditional choices, she had lived trough them.
I guess that's where Kieslowski states his position, concerning the ambuguity of the widely accepted belief that "one is morally responsible for things one is aware/conscious of". Let's accept that she wasn't responsible, she was a victim that caused the "victimisation" of others. She makes decisions, about her, about others. She believes it's all for good. Later on, she's told that her decisions were wrongly justified, she's confronted by her children and her actions are questioned. And it is then that she's supposed to show remorse and question her peace - a peace grounded on personal bequilement. But she doesn't. I see that scene as a final chance of absolution, her children being a symbol of the angelic. She's offered forgiveness but she rejects it. What acquarello spoke about is obviously present here: even after becoming conscious of her mistakes, she refuses to take responsibility and thus TRULY be in peace. Instead she dooms herself. Would that lead to greater good for her children afterwards?
Not taking responsibility, doesn't make her morally irresponsible, but morally responsible. Her past unconsciousness is excusable but no more valid, turning itself into present consciousness, which she refuses to recognise.

May 22, 2006 12:19 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Ok, maybe I underestimate the mother's quick judgement of her husband guilt, but she followed what the law said, so did we.
Actually that's a weak spot of the film. This initial "crime" drama isn't credible and cut out of the narration altogether. We don't know how the trial went.
So we can only imagine the mother made sure to find out the truth.
The suicide scene is also too hasty and unnuanced.

Maybe you guys are right, the mother is guilty of losing faith in her husband because of damning evidences.

May 22, 2006 8:05 PM  
Anonymous Marina said...

No, you're right, I think you're right about her initial innocence. She didn't know the truth and that scene was pretty explicit, anybody would've been misled. She did have the RIGHT to lose faith - after all she was thinking about her children. But she is guilty of not embracing the responsibility for those actions - later, in the end, when she found out about their wrongness. Instead, she declared she didn't regret, making those actions seem fair. Were they, objectively speaking? Yes, when she wasn't aware of the truth. No, when she was.
She should have admitted, talked...she should've talked (verbally or literally).

She has nothing to offer her children anymore, remorse being the thing they want. Remorse not so much of her decisions, but of the concurrence of circumstances, the way their life unbound.
She should say that if she knew, she would've acted otherwise. But she doesn't...the difference is that now her children are old enough to be able to judge her.

May 23, 2006 7:08 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Thank you for the interesting discussion everyone.

May 23, 2006 9:57 PM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Yes, thank you all. :)

May 24, 2006 6:31 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

And I add my thanks. It's been very interesting; now I have to track down the film. ^_^

May 24, 2006 11:41 AM  
Blogger Albert Alcoz said...

Unbelievable. Soory if I make mistakes i'm from Barcelona and my english is a little bit awful.
Nice to read about Tscherkassky, Widrick, Scott MacDonald!!!
i'm really into it now reading books as Movie Journal by Mekas, or the A critical cinema series, and The Graden in the machine by the same author wich is so good!
I've seen two times Instructions for the Light Machine in the cinema. Structural austrian cinema is wonderful, Kurt Kren as well.

June 19, 2006 7:49 AM  

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