Sunday, October 29, 2006

Archiveology: Five Hungry Men

Philippe Garrel's Sauvage Innocence

I know the blogosphere values currency, so as a small gesture against our impulse to only highlight the links du jour, I’m starting up a new feature called Archiveology devoted to unearthing valuable writing on the web that is not brand new. Today: an homage to five voracious cinephiles whose curiosity, open-mindedness, energy, intelligence and appetite I find truly inspirational. Reading them is like catching a bug that galvanizes me: to watch more, read more, think more, write more. Now to share that bug with you—in alphabetical order:

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Sicinski's latest review, of Fred Worden's Everyday Bad Dream, begins thus:

Isn't there anybody out there who isn't afraid of pissing off his or her audience? Of doling out what at first may seem like "punishment," that in fact is just forceful re-education of the senses? I can't believe I need to say this in 2006, but here goes: powerful cinema must not only address our minds. It has to engage our bodies, and while sometimes that physical challenge can be lyrical and poignant, sometimes it has to pierce our eyes with a light we simply cannot shut out. Within this aggressive modernist logic, only by diving into the wreck of our previous perceptual habits can we round the corner into a new, skull-shaking version of beauty. Brakhage knew this. So did Sharits, Menken, Harry Smith. Peter Kubelka and Rose Lowder and Luther Price and Lynn Marie Kirby still know this. And by God, so does Fred Worden.

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The first chapter of the book Movie Mutations (2003), co-edited by Adrian Martin and Jonathan Rosenbaum, consists of letters exchanged between a half dozen cinephile/critics around the world. The following passages from Martin's letters struck a profoundly inspiring (and liberating!) chord in me. I've re-read them many times:

It is hard to recapture, to describe adequately, the overwhelming shock that came with key movie events [...] like Marker's Sunless (1983), Wim Wenders' The State of Things (1982), Godard's Passion (1982), Chantal Akerman's Toute une nuit (1982), and Raul Ruiz's Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978). Suddenly here were the films playing right outside the maps of 70s' theory: free, lyrical, tender, poetic films, but also tough, savage, cruel, perverse, sometimes violent; films that were open diagrams, unashamed to link up raw fragments of human (or humanist) experience with the most severe or expansive kinds of experiments with form.

[...] Later, my love for an open cinema, for the ideal of a truly open, inclusive and above all impure cinema form, came to be crystallized in my personal discoveries of Cassavetes and Garrel – the single screenings in my hometown of Melbourne of Love Streams (1984) in 1985 and Les Baisers de Secours (Emergency Kisses, 1989) in 1994 count as primal scenes in my cinephile life. Cassavetes and Garrel stand for one sort of extreme that I love and cherish in cinema: a kind of arte povera fixed on the minute fluctuations of intimate life, on the effervescence of mood and emotion, and the instability of all lived meaning. A cinema which is a kind of documentary event where the energies of bodily performance, of gesture and utterance and movement, collide willy-nilly, in ways not always foreseen or proscribed, with the dynamic, formal, figurative work of shooting, framing, cutting, sound recording. A cinema open to the energies and intensities of life – and perpetually transformed by them.

I have always sought such life-affirming, life-enhancing energies and intensities from cinema, but I’m aware that the energies that I like, the energies which feed me, do not come in just one form, from one stream. The arte povera of Cassavetes and Garrel gives me a quiet, clear, minimalist intensity. But I get a different kind of energy, no less necessary for the soul's survival, from a completely commercial kind of cinema, a cinema of spectacle decried still today by so many of even a slightly Situationist bent. I mean a kind of pop cinema that includes De Palma's Mission: Impossible (1996), Tim Burton's movies, Joe Dante's Gremlins 2 (1990) – kinetic, sometimes cartoonish, extremely artificial and technologically mutated movies with no small claim on the cinematic language of tomorrow. I have cultivated my own particular, somewhat minor taste (in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari's notion of a troublesome, minor literature) within the halls of contemporary pop cinema – a taste for teen movies, from Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986) to Romy and Michele's High School Reunion (1997), films completely comprised of pop quotes, clichés and stereotypes, but blessed with the will and the inventiveness to animate these tokens, to combine and revive and spin them at dizzy rate.

[...] There is a recourse to the high moral ground – and to a certain lamentable purism – in a lot of film criticism today, even some of the most advanced. We read or hear far too often that there are only half a dozen directors working today who fulfill – or might one day fulfill, if we’re all lucky – the potential, the promise of this dazzling medium. We keep getting familiar-looking canons of the greatest Top 100 titles worth preserving, even as we pretend to have gotten beyond all canons, hierarchies and evaluations. We keep looking for the authentic personal voice in film, the true lone poet, the accursed seer and the discarded rebel, decades after the movies let us know that even the sleaziest, most ideologically compromised fantasies of Blake Edwards are also – and who can doubt it? – beautiful, moving, lucidly autobiographical testaments.

[...] I like the sentiment of Deleuze’s casual prefatory remark in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image: ‘The cinema is always as perfect as it can be'. Meaning that its potentiality, its virtuality is, in some ways, right here now – if we know where to look for it, how to maximize it, why it matters, and how to make it dance, for us and in us, like Rouch's privileged, shamanic figure of the dancing Socrates.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Stormy Week/Aldrich

Connie Stevens in The Grissom Gang

A week ago, a doozy of a snowstorm blew into town. We’ve seen our share of snow here in Buffalo, but three things made it different this time: (1) The snow was wet and heavy; (2) The trees were still laden with leaves; and (3) It was a fully orchestrated event with dog-rattling thunder and lightning, and howling wind. And it lasted for days.

Thousands of trees cracked and split and crashed, often bringing down power lines; most of the city and surrounding areas quickly lost electricity. My front and back yards are still almost completely covered with tree limbs; I’m lucky my house is still intact. Just by itself, living without power for a week isn’t too hard to get used to. What made it hard was the lack of heat and the rising water table, which threatened basement flooding. I spent the first few days bailing hundreds of buckets of water from the basement sump. I’d be exhausted at night, shoulders and back aching from all the exertions. (Manual labor and being "handy around the house" are not my forte!)

My next-door neighbor is a plumber and I consult him for all my home emergencies; he generously hooked up his generator to my basement sump so I could stop bailing, which was a life-saver. I had canned food to last me for a week. With the traffic lights on the blink, you took your life in your hands by venturing out on the roads; so, I spent most of my time at home reading by candlelight, piano-noodling and catching up on my sleep. Things could’ve been worse.

The week’s excitement notwithstanding, I’d hate to see Dennis Cozzalio’s wonderful Robert Aldrich blog-a-thon go by without tipping my chapeau in its direction. With my house in darkess and coldness, I nevertheless managed to watch two Aldrich films on my battery-operated laptop: The Grissom Gang and Hustle. I’d like to apologize for the cursory (and distracted!) thoughts that follow, but I figured that if I don’t set down a few words about these films now, I’ll never get around to doing it.

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When I mention the name “James Hadley Chase” to Americans, I usually get a blank stare, but to Indian high school kids of my generation, Chase’s crime novels were as well-known as Harry Potter books are today. Chase was British but his books were set in America and he wrote in a thoroughly American hard-boiled James M. Cain-like prose; it was the literary equivalent of those early British Invasion bands who affected American accents in their singing and were so steeped in the musical idioms of this country that it was a shock to discover that they weren’t American. Also, Chase’s books were the closest an Indian student could get to laying his hands on ‘racy’ literature. By permissive Western standards, Chase’s novels would be too weak to even be tagged ‘softcore’ today but they packed a punch for the, um, image-deprived Indian adolescent.

The Grissom Gang (1971) is based on James Hadley Chase’s best-known book, No Orchids For Miss Blandish. In the 1930s, a crime gang family run by tough, machine gun-cradling matriarch Ma Grissom kidnaps a wealthy heiress (Kim Darby) for ransom. Ma plans to bump off the girl after collecting the ransom but her son Slim falls in love with the girl. Slim—a psychopathic creep—starts out as a laughable character, but Aldrich slowly turns the tables on us. The kidnapped girl begins to develop feelings—or at least sympathy—for him. The film ends on a note of great, unexpected pathos.

There are two families in the film, the kidnapped girl’s and the kidnappers, and perversely enough, the latter turns out to be the more sympathetic one! Aldrich is examining institutions—family, parenthood, romantic union—that have been represented in countless other films. Well aware of this, his view of these institutions is unconventional, distanced and sardonic but nicely complicated by sympathy. In this sense, his eye is not unlike Chabrol's: a touch entomological, although not, I would argue, misanthropic.

Another twisted romantic relationship is at the heart of Hustle (1975). Burt Reynolds and Catherine Deneuve are lovers. He’s a hardened cop and she’s an upscale prostitute. At first, their relationship is business-like and ‘broad-minded.’ She casually conducts phone sex business around the house while he hangs about; unsurprisingly, this begins to send him over the edge. When things come to a head, Aldrich stages an unsettling rape scene and dares us to consider interpreting it as (perhaps) a love scene. Aldrich’s view of love may be sardonic but it is intelligently countered in both films through the sympathetic, even tender presence of the two female leads (Deneuve and Darby) who never allow the audience to pass easy judgments on the characters' motives, actions, self-interest, etc. In both movies, Aldrich achieves a balance between the psychological (how individuals behave alone and in relation to each other) and the sociological (how he sees American social institutions and the people who are part of them).

A few words about the music. The Grissom Gang is a post-Bonnie & Clyde movie. It lays down sprightly thirties jazz to accompany often horrific moments in the film. There’s a good reason why this works. Jazz of the swing era (the 30s) differed from jazz of the bebop era (beginning in the 40s) in many ways. For example, swing tended to be rhythmically more emphatic, stressing all four beats in a bar, which often gave it an insistent jauntiness. This contrast of a cheery soundtrack with dark subject matter has the interesting effect of distancing the filmmaker (and the audience) from the material, adding a reflective layer to the viewing experience. The music undercuts the images, and we’re forced to dialectically construct a personal response to the combination of image and sound.

An interesting touch. Hustle is a film with strong political critique; in it, wealthy and powerful lives are worth much more than 'ordinary' ones. As they are cruising down a Los Angeles boulevard in a convertible, Reynolds tells Deneuve that the Americans are trying to open the first McDonald's in Paris. Deneuve replies incredulously that they will never succeed. "Paris is a fortress against the hamburger!" she asserts. Considering all of Aldrich's knowingness, irony and political skepticism, Deneuve's conviction seems one that Aldrich perhaps cautiously shared at the time. (At least that's the feeling I got from the scene.) The sad thing is: All his pessimism seems completely justified today, while his one throwaway note of optimism has been proven false.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Book Meme

Jaime Hernandez

Via Zach and Andy comes a book meme.

1. One book that changed your life? As a college freshman, encountering The Stories of Premchand. One of India’s greatest writers, Munshi Premchand wrote in Urdu and Hindi, and introduced realism into a literature that was long known for favoring mythological, fantasy and historical subject matter. Premchand wrote not in a high-toned Sanskrit-derived Hindi but in the plainspoken language of the common people. (I’ve only read him in Hindi, not in Urdu.) Premchand grew up in poverty and his stories were fierce social, political and colonial critiques. They also dealt head-on with caste and gender discriminations, not a popular subject in India 100 years ago. Two of his works were adapted into films by Satyajit Ray, Sadgati (“Salvation”) and Shatranj Ke Khiladi (“The Chess Players”). More reading: a good newpaper article on him; and a collection of his stories on-line, in Hindi.

2. One book that you have read more than once? John Mehegan’s Jazz Improvisation: Tonal and Rhythmic Principles (1959). About 15 years ago, I decided to learn jazz piano after seeing The Fabulous Baker Boys (post here), but was thoroughly intimidated because I had no idea how to read or write music. For about a decade, I had played guitar, fairly seriously, but only by ear. Mehegan’s book was not easy to cozy up to at first, and is very different from today’s jazz texts. It’s rigorously terse (and when you’re a beginner, that can be infuriating) and doesn’t try to get chummy with the reader; there aren’t any warm and fuzzy pictures or figures or colors; the page layout is spare and severe; and it’s a slim 200+ pages, although packed with mondo jazz knowledge and insight. (Think Bresson’s Notes On The Cinematographer, only with illustrative snatches of sheet music strewn through it.) Its economy and aloofness remind me of the science and math texts we used in India that were authored in England; for some reason, the American texts came off a little more extroverted and informal, and seemed to work harder to grab our attention. (Or that’s my memory of it, anyway.) My copy of the Mehegan is dog-eared, written and highlighted all over, and falling apart. And I still haven’t finished all the exercises in it.

3. One book you would want on a desert island? Something large, omnivorous, digressive, its curiosity knowing no boundaries, a sort of uber-Merzbau that might serve as a microcosm of the world I left behind, “the theater of all my struggles and all my ideas,” Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project.

4. One book that made you cry? Ninth grade: Hemingway’s A Farewell To Arms. Years later, a repeat experience upon seeing Frank Borzage’s 1932 film version with Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper.

5. One book that made you laugh? Lolita.

6. One book you wish had been written? An avant-garde, non-narrative indie comics magnum opus by Jaime Hernandez, a sort of book-length version of the 6-page Dadaist strip “Easter Hunt” (see panels above).

7. One book you wish had never been written? Mein Kampf.

8. One book you are reading currently? I’m in the middle of several, including Movie Mutations, edited by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin. This book is so inspiring and enthusing and fun that I’ve rationed myself to only a few pages a day because I don’t want it to end. Next to the Mehegan above, this is the book I’ve scribbled in the most: the margins are bursting with a personal, 'parallel cinephilic narrative’!

9. One book you have been meaning to read? I picked up For Ever Godard recently, and just browsing the text and the stills, it looks like an absolute blast.

10. Pass it on. Open and welcome to all!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Raúl Ruiz

I’ve been reading Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz’s book Poetics of Cinema, and in light of the recent announcement for Harry’s ironically titled ‘Boring Art Films’ blog-a-thon, I thought I’d bring up some of Ruiz’s thoughts on boredom and the cinema.

Ruiz believes that mainstream cinema operates by the “central conflict theory” (“a story begins when someone wants something and someone else doesn’t want them to have it. From that point on, through various digressions, all the elements of the story are arranged around this central conflict.”) Today’s filmmakers find themselves commanded by the marketplace to employ this theory and capture the attention of the spectator for two hours, their objective being: to avert boredom.

Ruiz—a genuine polymath—reaches far back into the 4th century AD and cites the example of monks in their cells beset by the Eighth Capital Sin, tristitia (sadness), caused by boredom. A monk might be tempted by a “noonday demon,” an apparition that offers to take him away from his bored state:

He is transported to faraway lands. He’d like to stay but it’s already time to go home. Back in his cell, he’s astonished to discover that traveling has only made things worse. He’s even more bored than before and now his boredom has ontological weight. We will call this dangerous new sentiment melancholy. Now every trip out of the cell, every apparition of his virtual friend, will make his melancholy more intense. [...] Soon the cell itself, his brother monks, and even communion with God becomes an illusion. His world has been emptied by entertainment. Some one thousand two hundred years later, in France, Blaise Pascal, in the chapter of his Pensées devoted to entertainment, warns, “All the evil in men comes from one thing and one thing alone: their inability to remain at rest in a room.”

Ruiz offers a productive use of boredom: not spending the present moment preoccupied with past or present concerns, nor being distracted by restless ennui, but instead using the present moment to capture and anchor oneself to “an intense feeling of being here and now, in active rest.” The moment of boredom thus becomes a “privileged moment”:

This privileged moment, which early theologians called “Saint Gregory’s paradox,” occurs when the soul is both at rest and yet turns on itself like a cyclone around its eye, while events in the past and the future vanish in the distance. If I propose this modest defence of ennui, it is perhaps because the films I’m interested in can sometimes provoke this sort of boredom. Those who have seen films by Michael Snow, Ozu, or Tarkovsky will know what I mean. The same goes for Andy Warhol, or Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet.

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Now the embarrassing part. David Hudson’s recent entry reminds me that I’ve seen nothing by Ruiz. (Actually, I saw a Dutch-subtitled print of his French-language film Time Regained at the Rotterdam filmfest a few years back, but considering it's Proust, and I understood little of the dialogue or voiceover, it doesn’t count.) Rouge devoted an entire issue to an annotated Ruiz filmography, and I noticed that several of his films have recently arrived on DVD: Hypothesis Of A Stolen Painting, That Day, Three Crowns Of A Sailor.

So, I’d like to ask the Ruiz-experienced among you: What are his films like? And what Ruiz films might you recommend?

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Let me nominate, as one of the great jazz-pop records of the seventies, Michael Franks’s The Art Of Tea (1975). Franks can turn a rhyme with sophistication (“I hear from my ex/On the back of my checks”—what a line!) and even has a PhD in comparative literature. The lyrics on the album are full of frisky double entendres: metaphors for sex include cooking (“Eggplant” [mp3]), world geography (“Popsicle Toes” [mp3]), even cinema (“Nightmoves” [mp3]). But the secret weapon here is the backing band, especially Larry Carlton on guitar, Joe Sample on keys and Larry Bunker on vibes.

I'm especially intrigued by all the ways in which this album is un-jazzlike, particularly if we think of jazz in terms of its dominant, bebop-derived strain. Carlton plays a ‘jazz guitar,’ a warm-toned Gibson ES-335 semi-hollow-body (made famous as B.B. King's "Lucille") but he plays it quite unlike your orthodox bebop-based guitarist. He likes to bend and sustain melody notes as a rock guitarist might, e.g. the opening bars of “Nightmoves”. (For some reason, bop players like to either hit the melody notes head-on or slide into and out of them rather than bend them; I'm not quite sure why.) Instead of acoustic piano, Sample plays a splashy Fender Rhodes. And Wilton Felder wields not a stand-up bass but an electric. Incidentally, all three were members of the Crusaders.

Also thrilling is the way three instruments (guitar, vibes, Fender Rhodes) weave in and out of each other’s melodic paths, coming together for unison passages—impromptu? arranged? It’s not always clear—then diverging to either fall into silence or vamp discreetly or inject fills into the interstices when other instruments are soloing. This acutely sensitive interplay clearly owes much more to jazz than it does to pop.

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Once a year, I spend a weekend making a handful of home-made T-shirts. It’s taken a few years of trial and error (lots of error) to refine this process, so I thought I’d share the recipe with you.

For images, I usually raid my sketchbook but also use CD artwork or reproductions of paintings or film posters or stills, all scanned at a fairly high resolution (200 dpi), and reduced to approximately the dimensions of a CD case. The colors are denser and faster when the images are reduced; the doodle pictured above was a full 8 1/2 by 11 size in the original. I buy white T-Shirts (100% cotton, brand: Merona) for $5 apiece at Target. For the iron-on T-shirt transfers, I’d recommend paying a little extra for a name brand (Avery), because it can make a big difference. They run about a dollar per shirt, and you can get them at your local Officemax. Oh, and make sure to wash the T’s, without fabric softener, beforehand. Easy, inexpensive, customizable, and a creative outlet to boot—I recommend giving it a try.