Tuesday, August 22, 2006

TIFF 2006

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) announced its list of films today.

The festival runs for 10 days, starting September 7th, and I plan to be there for 8 of those 10 days. Basically, I'll spend two very long weekends in Toronto, returning home once in between to teach my classes. (It's a 2-hour drive.)

Here's the list of films I'm personally considering, although it may look quite a bit different come scheduling time. I'm listing the films by program. The reason there are so few English-language films here is that most of them will eventually find US distribution.

  • Visions: Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa), Fantasma (Lisandro Alonso), Flanders (Bruno Dumont), Belle Toujours (Manoel de Oliveira), Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan), Bamako (Abderrahmane Sissako), Day Night Day Night (Julia Loktev), Invisible Waves (Pen-ek Ratanaruang), In Between Days (So Yong Kim), and three films by Jem Cohen, who made Chain.

  • Masters: Cœurs (Alain Resnais), Lights in the Dusk (Aki Kaurismäki), Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog), When The Levees Broke: A Requiem In Four Acts (Spike Lee), The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach).

  • Special Presentations: Woman on the Beach (Hong Sang-soo), Brand upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin), Fay Grim (Hal Hartley), Hana (Hirokazu Kore-eda), Manufactured Landscapes (Jennifer Baichwal).

  • Mozart Program: Don't Want to Sleep Alone (Tsai Ming-liang), Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul).

  • Contemporary World Cinema: 12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu), Offside (Jafar Panahi), Slumming (Michael Glawogger), Summer Palace (Lou Ye), To Get to Heaven First You Have to Die (Djamshed Usmonov).

  • Wavelengths (Avant-Garde): Films by Nathaniel Dorsky, Peter Tscherkassky, Rose Lowder, Lawrence Jordan.

  • Gala: The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (Zacharias Kunuk & Norman Cohn), Volver (Pedro Almodóvar).

  • Real To Reel (Documentaries): Dong (Jia Zhangke), Iran: Une Révolution Cinématographique (Nader Takmil Homayoun), Very Nice, Very Nice (Arthur Lipsett), These Girls (Tahani Rached), American Hardcore (Paul Rachman), The Pervert's Guide to Cinema (Sophie Fiennes).

  • Midnight Madness: The Host (Bong Joon-ho).

  • Others: 2:37 (Murali K. Thalluri), Gambling, Gods And LSD (Peter Mettler), A Grave-Keeper's Tale (Chitra Palekar).

If you'd like to recommend other films or filmmakers, I'd be glad to hear about them.

Specifically, I’d also like to ask if you know these films or filmmakers about whom I am curious: Hamaca Paraguaya (Paz Encina); The Bothersome Man (Jens Lien); Falling (Barbara Albert); Pablo Trapero from Argentina; Catherine Martin from Quebec; Guillermo Del Toro from Mexico; Bahman Ghobadi from Iran; Ann Hui; Marc Recha; any of the three (!) Johnnie To films playing; and any of the avant-garde filmmakers I don't have on my list above? Merci, tout le monde.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Freleng, Barthes & de Sade

This post is part of the Friz Freleng Blog-A-Thon masterminded by Brian Darr at Hell On Frisco Bay.

Why is it that acts that would horrify us in real life instead evoke in us shameless, uncontainable joy when encountered in a cartoon?

While pondering this, I was reminded of Roland Barthes’ thoughts on the writings of the Marquis de Sade. (Seriously.) Barthes believed that most people view the writings of Sade—incorrectly—through a somewhat ‘realistic’ lens, are outraged by the staggering and unlimited perversions they encounter there, find them scary and disgusting, and pretty much refuse to move past that initial moral judgment and give the author any more reflection. (I should admit here that I’ve never read Sade first-hand myself, only accounts of his writings.)

Barthes pointed out that by abandoning our ‘realistic’ vantage point, and understanding that Sade was an elaborate (if mighty peculiar) sexual fantasist, it is possible to see the Sadean world as an intricate self-enclosed system unto itself. This system (according to Barthes), like a language, has its own grammar (“a porno-grammar”), consisting of some basic elements. Sexual posture is the main one, and the others are: sex, male or female; social position; location, e.g. convent, dungeon, even bedroom!, etc. Sade then combines these elements together in all manner of exhaustive permutations to elaborate a fully-fleshed out (sorry) set of possibilities. It is this abstract system of rules and combinations, completely and undiscriminatingly explored, that makes it a system fertile for intellectual discourse, just as, for example, a linguistic system might be. This discourse is what interests Barthes, less than each and all of the literal sexual acts themselves.

The other great thing that fascinates Barthes—and this one I resonate with deeply—is Sade’s penchant for inventorying, his mania for counting and classifying.

What does all this have to do with Putty Tat and Tweety Bird? Well, let me make three connections. One: Cartoons, by not being ‘photographed reality,’ somehow liberate us from the preconceptions we would bring to a live-action film. What shocking violence and outrageous sadism we tolerate in our cartoons—not just tolerate, but celebrate, the more ingenious and plentiful in number and invention, the better! (Bazin was really on to something when he proclaimed the deep and primal power of the photographic image. Cartoons can short-circuit this power by flying in under the radar: we’d never be able to handle this stuff in a ‘realistic’ work.)

Second, by abandoning the ‘realistic’ vantage point, we automatically gain a distance, a detachment, which allows us to view a cartoon in an abstract fashion, as if it were a set of diagrams, both conceptual and literal. (Correspondingly, the mise-en-scène of a cartoon is itself abstract, just a few lines standing in for a house, a dog, or Niagara Falls.) And finally, many cartoons—Freleng’s are a perfect example—use this abstraction to strip the narrative of everything but invention and elaboration and inventorying. What are the number of ways in which a cat will hunt a bird—and fail, experiencing serious pain along the way? A Freleng cartoon might be saying: Let us count and record these ways in number and variation—all we can cram into a seven-minute span.

I’ve prepared a little Freleng Gallery of Sadism here, mashing up the images from two Freleng films, Putty Tat Trouble and Canned Feud, both 1951.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

As Time Goes By

Speaking of firsts, I'm posting drawing #1 from sketchbook #1

Twenty years ago this week I moved to the States to go to grad school; I was twenty-two. I just stumbled upon my old diary, and was reminded of what I did in my first week here.

I spent the first twelve hours staring bug-eyed at MTV, which I’d never seen before; I still remember all the instrumental and vocal parts to Bananarama’s “Venus,” the #1 song in the US that week. My first supermarket experience: disorienting, slightly terrifying. I headed over to the beer section, and being accustomed to tall Indian beers, was a bit puzzled to find them available only in little ‘toy’ cans and bottles. I bought the only two big (‘real’) beers I could find—Schlitz and Colt .45; I haven’t had them since. First great laugh of the week: discovering an invention called the ‘drive-through’; I couldn’t wrap my head around why people needed to be served without even getting out of their cars! I’d have moments of wonder and absurdity like that nearly every single day for the first few years, but I haven’t in a good while. I can—alas—no longer distinguish between the surreal and the real in America.

I arrived here quite broke, having blown all my savings on the air passage. I paid a visit to Goodwill for: a new set of old clothes; two American dictionaries, one regular and one slang; a warped-neck ten-dollar guitar that cost half that much to string and only stayed in tune over a three-fret span; and a small stack of vinyl for a quarter apiece.

I shared an off-campus apartment with three other Indian students. I made $600 a month on my assistantship and paid $100 in rent. My needs were few; we lived like princes. At the end of the year, our slumlord gypped us out of our security deposit and we took him to small claims court. We had no idea how to go about preparing for the ordeal—this money was a fairly big chunk of change for us—so we made a ritual of watching People’s Court together after dinner for a month to ‘learn the ropes’: how to dress and present ourselves, when to speak, what to say.

The day of the hearing, we splurged for a cab to the courthouse. When the judge entered, and we all stood up, one of my housemates leaned over and whispered with a touch of panic in his voice, “But he doesn’t look anything like Wapner!” Our landlord never showed. We were awarded the judgment by default, but we never saw a nickel: he had filed for bankruptcy; it turned out there were dozens of other student tenants in the same boat.

* * *

More reminiscing: In a couple of weeks, it’ll be two years since the inception of this blog. My first impulse at the time was two-fold: the amateur musician and music-geek in me wanted to start a music-blog; and having just bought a scanner, the blog would be a convenient way to post drawings from my sketchbooks. But because the timing coincided with the Toronto filmfest, I began by posting film reviews from there, and soon I was (happily) helming a filmblog. I think I’ve posted at least once a week continuously since then except for the three-month hiatus when I hurt my hands.

For me, the best thing about the blog has been the ability to meet and interact with a rich cinephile community and be able to share with and learn from them about cinema. To be honest, I think I’ve been a little reluctant to post about music, indie comics, etc., because I don’t want to kill the cinema discussions which seem to sprout so healthily in the comments here. But I also realize that this is silly of me—I suspect readers will continue to treat this place as a sort of unofficial cinephile forum as they’ve been doing so far, and post ideas and links that are of interest to them here. At any rate, I encourage you, dear reader, to do that. So, one of my new resolutions is to roam culturally farther afield in my posts than I’ve done so far, even if the lion’s share of posts will likely still remain cinema-related.

* * *

A great big Thank You to the 35 or so bloggers who were part of the Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon! The reader traffic for this event turned out to be unexpectedly huge, three to four times that for Showgirls back in January. I spent the last ten days reading and learning and marveling at the blogosphere, the only place where such a flexible and dynamic exchange of critical thought might have been possible. We’re smack dab in the middle of the new cinephile/film-crit picture; let’s make the most of it by sharing, learning, teaching, helping each other. And have ourselves some fun doing it.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Joseph Cornell

This post is part of the Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon. Please scroll down for a complete list of links.

Joseph Cornell is sometimes cited as the foremost American Surrealist artist but he was never a card-carrying member of the movement, but instead more of a fellow traveler. What Cornell didn’t take from the movement was its erotic celebration, occasional unleashing of repressed violence, and active scandal-seeking and self-promotion. Instead, his work drew upon the basic Surrealist principle of the juxtaposition of unlikelies—“as beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella,” as Lautréamont put it. Also, like pre-Surrealist Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters, he was drawn to found objects.

Cornell is known primarily for his collages and his assemblages (glass-fronted “shadow boxes”). His experimental films were not much appreciated in his lifetime, especially because he was diffident about them, sensitive to criticism, and reluctant to screen them often. But they’ve acquired a formidable reputation since his death in 1972. Cornell was a devoted collector of 'small things' all his life, often objects that he found in junk-shops; he employed these objects in his art. He also collected films, often celluloid bought by the pound, for example, at flea markets.

The usual route to becoming an artist in the pre-modern age was through drawing, painting or sculpture. But after Cubism invented collage, would-be artists like the untrained Cornell were offered a new way into the art world. Remarkably, he never learned to operate a movie camera—all his films were found-footage constructions, a form he pioneered.

The Children’s Trilogy—which comprises the films The Children’s Party, Cotillion, and The Midnight Party—was conceived in the late thirties and completed in the late sixties. The three films total a mere twenty minutes, and are assembled from the same material, but are packed with great images and ideas. The source material footage is a fascinating mélange of: a children’s party; circus performers and animal acts; science documentary, etc. Cornell cuts freely and intuitively from one to the other, and the first viewing leaves you a little puzzled. A second look reveals all manner of visual rhyming—e.g. a circus strong-man lifts a chair with his teeth/kids apple-dunk at a party; or children fling confetti about/a chorus girl plays flamboyantly with feathers. There are startling contrasts, like a static shot of a metal door (cold/forbidding) cutting to the close-up of an amoeba in expansive motion (warm/organic). And an image of a twirling ballet dancer, overexposed against a pitch-black background, becomes an abstract pattern of fluid shapes, as if it were quicksilver darting about on a Petri dish.

At one point, there is, curiously, footage of a little girl on a horse who is playing Godiva in a pageant and appears to be unclothed under her thick long tresses. It’s an innocent image that is also a tad unsettling. This is generally true of Cornell—there is great innocence and yearning and delicacy in his images, but they contain little spiky dissonances without ever shading into either carnal or outright disturbing. P. Adams Sitney notes:

In a way, Cornell’s wit is like that of Hans Christian Andersen, who can tell a story about an Emperor who exposes himself to a whole city, and especially to a little girl, without the readers noticing what is happening in the story. Successive generations of parents have proven the moral of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” by seeing only the moral and blinding themselves to the exhibitionism. The children to whom they read it tend to titter; they understand what it is about.

Cornell’s best-known film is Rose Hobart, a re-editing of an obscure B-movie jungle drama called East Of Borneo (1931) starring the equally obscure actress who gives the film its title. He stripped it of sound and eliminated all the strong plot points—a journey upriver through the jungle, a volcanic explosion—and instead edited together, blithely ignoring linearity and continuity and following only his poetic instinct, a collection of reaction shots, gestures, expressions, and other images that we’d normally not think of as 'important.' Sitney writes:

Cornell’s montage is startlingly original. Nothing like it occurs in the history of the cinema until thirty years later. The deliberate mismatching of shots, the reduction of conversations to images of the actress without corresponding shots of her interlocutor, and the sudden shifts of location were so daring in 1936 that even the most sophisticated viewers would have seen the film as inept rather than brilliant. […] [He] used some shots just as they were fading out or just as a door was closing, omitting the main action.

By wrenching the images out of their narrative function, he suddenly freed them, making them instruments of suggestion. (How liberating for the viewer.)

There is a technique Cornell uses in The Children's Trilogy that may be mined for some insight into his strategies. He inserts title cards but only holds them for a frame or two, with the result that they fly by in a flash and are impossible to read. On the other hand, he’ll take an ordinary image—a boy sleeping or a girl sneezing—and will freeze-frame it and hold it, forcing us to examine every inch of it with care. In other words, elements of the film that might provide information about plot, character, narrative causality, etc., are purposely de-emphasized, while our eyes are redirected to stay with ‘unexceptional’ images on their own and in conjunction with other images (through montage), so that they start to appear anything but banal. Perhaps this is one key function of avant-garde cinema—to get us to spend time paying attention to something 'familiar' until it turns into something unfamiliar.

The Avant-Garde Blog-A-Thon includes, in alphabetical order: