Thursday, December 28, 2006

2006: Ten Favorite New Films

If you'd like, please feel free to share, link to or comment on any of your favorite new films this year....

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Let me also collect some year-end lists here: Acquarello; Mubarak Ali; Jim Emerson; Steve Erickson; Chris Fujiwara; Ed Gonzalez; Andrew Grant; Aaron Hillis; J. Hoberman; Dave Kehr; Dennis Lim; Mark Peranson; Andrea Picard; James Quandt; Berenice Reynaud; Jonathan Rosenbaum; Matt Zoller Seitz; Michael Sicinski; Amy Taubin; and Chuck Tryon.

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And now, I'd like to ask you for some advice. Cinematheque Ontario is doing a typically thorough Jacques Rivette retrospective in a few weeks. I know I'll be able to make no more than two (or max, three) trips up to Canada, since both school and snowy winter will be in full swing. Perhaps you might suggest a couple of unmissable Rivettes I should catch....? Excepting his first film, Paris Nous Appartient, I've seen only late Rivette (post-La Belle Noiseuse). I have Celine And Julie Go Boating on DVD, soon to be watched. And alas, I can't make it up for the Out One marathon, because I have a conflict that weekend.

Also, they're simultaneously doing Shohei Imamura, whose films I love (at least the ones I've seen). Like with Rivette, I've seen almost all of late Imamura (post-Vengeance Is Mine) and one fantastic earlier film, Intentions Of Murder (1964). So, if you have any strong Imamura recommendations, I'd love to hear them too.

Thank you, and wish you all a great 2007.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

2006: Ten Favorite Older Films

Radley Metzger's The Lickerish Quartet (1970)

Seen for the first time this year, and in no particular order:

  • Teorema (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1968). A mysterious visitor (Terence Stamp) arrives at the home of a Milanese bourgeois family and proceeds to seduce them all one by one. Is he an angel? Or a devil? Whatever he is, Pasolini thinks of him as someone “authentic” who disrupts the placid and frozen surface of their life, driving them all toward madness. I realize that my brief plot summary makes it sound sort of schematic but the film is not at all rote or mechanical: it is constantly stupefying and full of mysterious formal gestures and performance details. Sex, politics, religion—they're all entities in the ‘theorem’ of the film’s title.

  • The Lickerish Quartet (Radley Metzger, 1970). Until I discovered Metzger this year, I had no idea that there existed cinema that was utterly serious both about its value as art and its value as softcore pornography. Metzger’s movies are almost Alain Resnais-like, preoccupied with memory and strewn with atemporal shot-fragments, flashbacks and flash-forwards both real and imagined. The Lickerish Quartet is a collection of sexual fantasies played out in a picturesque European castle. These flights of fancy are rolled up into Pirandellian games of reality and fiction, and their nexus is, meta-cinematically, a movie projector in the living room that throws images on a screen, images that may be equally ‘true’ or ‘false.’ Great, imaginative film, both intellectually playful and, it must be said, inventively titillating. Next in line to check out: Walerian Borowczyk.

  • Love Streams (John Cassavetes, 1984). In a just world, it’s performances like these—by Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands in Love Streams—that would win Oscars; no Academy Award-winning performances I’ve ever seen can match their emotional truth and power. The physical presence of these characters and the complexity of their desires make you think—this is what human beings are really like! In the wake of Cassavetes films, other movies can feel a bit fake and cartoony in their human depictions….

  • The Chelsea Girls (Andy Warhol, 1966). When I was a kid, I used to think that Ben-Hur was an epic film. No, this is an epic film. I'd propose that what makes an epic film is not just its length or its large cast of characters but how vast and challenging it can be to fully apprehend on one viewing. The Chelsea Girls is composed of twelve little mini-films (or sequences), each running about a half-hour. At any time, two of these films are projected simultaneously on the screen, with the sound of only one being heard. Each of the individual films comprises one shot with no edits. The Chelsea Girls runs three-and-a-half hours, without intermission. The film opens and closes with Nico and in between is a set of mostly improvised performances by Factory regulars. It’s thrilling, funny, boring, creepy, gross, wicked, laughable, disturbing, sadistic—epic stuff. (More reading on the film here.)

  • The Woman Of Rumor (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954). Mother and daughter fall in love with the same man; he is a client at the geisha house the mother runs. Tradition and modernity—kimonos and business suits—collide with each other both in the storyline of the film and in the film frame. The aggressively patterned décor—slatted partitions, latticed windows, gridded railings—hold the women vice-like. I also realized how much Mizoguchi likes to use art-making and art-experiencing as an explicit element in his films. He shows us characters watching a Noh play which echoes the story of our film; it’s like a double voyeurism. Later, we see two scenes of eavesdropping, with mother and daughter. (More patterned voyeurism.) When the film ended, I overheard the Japanese man sitting next to me tell his companion that the the word “geisha” was never heard in the film, only seen in the subtitles. The film referred to the women simply as prostitutes.

  • A program of films by Jean Painlevé accompanied live by Yo La Tengo. Painlevé made uniquely unclassifiable experimental documentaries about marine life which were poetic, witty and scientifically rigorous but also had the deep enchantment of art. I saw this program at Buffalo’s old and historic Shea’s Theatre. Perhaps because I was sitting in the fourth row, not far from the band, my memory of this evening is physical. My body remembers this film—big, strong waves of sound and image crashing into the audience—as much as my mind does.

  • Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928). A masterpiece of silent cinema that I caught at George Eastman House; I had never even heard of it. It follows one day in the lives of a man and a woman in New York City. Both of them are single and lonely. The formal invention in this film is to be seen to be believed. Rhythmic parallel editing, lightning dissolves, multiple superimpositions, fluidly mobile camera—they were performing all this intricate magic in….1928? Interestingly, the film was released right after the coming of sound, and at the last minute three dialogue sequences were shot and shoehorned into the film. They are stiff and static, and the dialogue is risibly banal. But I loved that these scenes made it into the film because it showed by contrast how stunning the silent sequences were in their freedom and imaginativeness. This movie is crying out for wider discovery on DVD.

  • Zabriskie Point (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1970). The MGM logo has probably never preceded a film so un-Hollywood-like and experimental. The movie has three sections, all disjunctively different. The opening section, which includes the famous student meeting scene, has a loose, improvised feel (unlike other Antonioni); the second section sets us down in an engulfing landscape (very much like other Antonioni); and the third section ends with the most orgasmic explosion in movies. I had a pan-scan VHS copy of this film for years that I could never bring myself to watch; I tossed the tape soon after seeing it in teeming widescreen in the theater.

  • Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow, 2001). Cinephiles are suckers for films that exploit the unique powers of cinema, films that simply won't translate to other art-forms like literature, theatre, etc., without serious loss. Nearly every moment in Shaolin Soccer might qualify on this count. The ideas per foot of celluloid here are amazing. Not one opportunity for filmic ingenuity goes untapped: composition, camera movement, staging, editing, the physical movement of the actors, and of course, CGI—they’re all jaw-dropping, but in a playful, not in a pretentious or overblown, way. Alas, I’ve only managed to see the butchered Miramax version.

  • And now to cheat by squeezing into this final slot some great ones I've already had a chance to blog about in the last few months: Jacques Tati's Playtime (1967); Roberto Rossellini's India Matri Bhumi (1958); Pedro Costa's Ossos (1997); the experimental films of Martin Arnold; and Jean-Marie Straub & Danièle Huillet's The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (1968).

If you're in the mood, please feel free to share any great older films you might've discovered this year....

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Six Types Of Documentary

Dziga Vertov's The Man With A Movie Camera (1929)

Here’s my single favorite thing about blogging: being able to educate oneself in public. Going through this process—trying to move forward, stumbling, groping, occasionally finding—in full view of the world does not always stroke one’s ego. Each week you find yourself writing not about what you know but about what you perhaps hope to learn from the process of watching, reading, and struggling to think through and articulate. And Lord knows we don’t do it for material gain or reknown or the reason many of us learned our first chords on the guitar (why, to meet girls, of course!). Still, the opportunity to educate oneself in public is a luxury, and I’m thankful for it….

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A confession: Although I've watched—and enjoyed—documentary films for years, I’ve done almost no systematic reading about them as a form. But recently I found myself devouring two intelligent and lucid books by Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (2001) and Representing Reality (1991). They make me want to revisit all the great docs I’ve seen so I can see them with a new set of eyes. And catch up with scores of canonical docs I’ve never seen.

Nichols proposes six types—or modes—of documentary. His classification scheme has been rattling around, throwing off sparks in my head, all week. Let me briefly describe it to you. I’m often paraphrasing Nichols below, and borrowing many of his example films.

1. Poetic documentaries, which first appeared in the 1920’s, were a sort of reaction against both the content and the rapidly crystallizing grammar of the early fiction film. The poetic mode moved away from continuity editing and instead organized images of the material world by means of associations and patterns, both in terms of time and space. Well-rounded characters—'life-like people'—were absent; instead, people appeared in these films as entities, just like any other, that are found in the material world. The films were fragmentary, impressionistic, lyrical. Their disruption of the coherence of time and space—a coherence favored by the fiction films of the day—can also be seen as an element of the modernist counter-model of cinematic narrative. The ‘real world’—Nichols calls it the “historical world”—was broken up into fragments and aesthetically reconstituted using film form.

Examples: Joris Ivens’ Rain (1928), whose subject is a passing summer shower over Amsterdam; Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Play of Light: Black, White, Grey (1930), in which he films one of his own kinetic sculptures, emphasizing not the sculpture itself but the play of light around it; Oskar Fischinger’s abstract animated films; Francis Thompson’s N.Y., N.Y. (1957), a city symphony film; Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1982).

2. Expository documentaries speak directly to the viewer, often in the form of an authoritative commentary employing voiceover or titles, proposing a strong argument and point of view. These films are rhetorical, and try to persuade the viewer. (They may use a rich and sonorous male voice.) The (voice-of-God) commentary often sounds ‘objective’ and omniscient. Images are often not paramount; they exist to advance the argument. The rhetoric insistently presses upon us to read the images in a certain fashion. Historical documentaries in this mode deliver an unproblematic and ‘objective’ account and interpretation of past events.

Examples: TV shows and films like A&E Biography; America’s Most Wanted; many science and nature documentaries; Ken Burns’ The Civil War (1990); Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New (1980); John Berger’s Ways Of Seeing (1974). Also, Frank Capra’s wartime Why We Fight series; Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936).

3. Observational documentaries attempt to simply and spontaneously observe lived life with a minimum of intervention. Filmmakers who worked in this sub-genre often saw the poetic mode as too abstract and the expository mode as too didactic. The first observational docs date back to the 1960’s; the technological developments which made them possible include mobile lighweight cameras and portable sound recording equipment for synchronized sound. Often, this mode of film eschewed voice-over commentary, post-synchronized dialogue and music, or re-enactments. The films aimed for immediacy, intimacy, and revelation of individual human character in ordinary life situations.

Examples: Frederick Wiseman’s films, e.g. High School (1968); Gilles Groulx and Michel Brault’s Les Racquetteurs (1958); Albert & David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin's Gimme Shelter (1970); D.A. Pennebaker's Don’t Look Back (1967), about Dylan’s tour of England; and parts (not all) of Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's Chronicle Of A Summer (1960), which interviews several Parisians about their lives. An ironic example of this mode is Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will (1934), which ostensibly records the pageantry and ritual at the Nazi party’s 1934 Nuremberg rally, although it is well-known that these events were often staged for the purpose of the camera and would not have occurred without it. This would be anathema to most of the filmmakers associated with this mode, like Wiseman, Pennebaker, Richard Leacock and Robert Drew, who believed that the filmmaker should be a “fly-on-the-wall” who observes but tries to not influence or alter the events being filmed.

4. Participatory documentaries believe that it is impossible for the act of filmmaking to not influence or alter the events being filmed. What these films do is emulate the approach of the anthropologist: participant-observation. Not only is the filmmaker part of the film, we also get a sense of how situations in the film are affected or altered by her presence. Nichols: “The filmmaker steps out from behind the cloak of voice-over commentary, steps away from poetic meditation, steps down from a fly-on-the-wall perch, and becomes a social actor (almost) like any other. (Almost like any other because the filmmaker retains the camera, and with it, a certain degree of potential power and control over events.)” The encounter between filmmaker and subject becomes a critical element of the film. Rouch and Morin named the approach cinéma vérité, translating Dziga Vertov’s kinopravda into French; the “truth” refers to the truth of the encounter rather than some absolute truth.

Examples: Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929); Rouch and Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1960); Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March (1985); Nick Broomfield’s films. I suspect Michael Moore’s films would also belong here, although they have a strong ‘expository’ bent as well.

5. Reflexive documentaries don’t see themselves as a transparent window on the world; instead they draw attention to their own constructedness, and the fact that they are representations. How does the world get represented by documentary films? This question is central to this sub-genre of films. They prompt us to “question the authenticity of documentary in general.” It is the most self-conscious of all the modes, and is highly skeptical of ‘realism.’ It may use Brechtian alienation strategies to jar us, in order to ‘defamiliarize’ what we are seeing and how we are seeing it.

Examples: (Again) Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929); Buñuel's Land Without Bread; Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Surname Viet Given Name Nam (1989); Jim McBride & L.M. Kit Carson's David Holzman’s Diary (1968); David & Judith MacDougall’s Wedding Camels (1980).

6. Performative documentaries stress subjective experience and emotional response to the world. They are strongly personal, unconventional, perhaps poetic and/or experimental, and might include hypothetical enactments of events designed to make us experience what it might be like for us to possess a certain specific perspective on the world that is not our own, e.g. that of black, gay men in Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied (1989) or Jenny Livingston’s Paris Is Burning (1991). This sub-genre might also lend itself to certain groups (e.g. women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, etc) to ‘speak about themselves.’ Often, a battery of techniques, many borrowed from fiction or avant-garde films, are used. Performative docs often link up personal accounts or experiences with larger political or historical realities.

Examples: Alain Resnais’ Night And Fog (1955), with a commentary by Holocaust survivior Jean Cayrol, is not a historical account of the Holocaust but instead a subjective account of it; it’s a film about memory. Also, Peter Forgacs’ Free Fall (1988) and Danube Exodus (1999); and Robert Gardner’s Forest of Bliss (1985), a film about India that I’ve long heard about and look forward to seeing.

Of course, these categories are—as Nichols might readily admit—not meant to be definitive. Instead, they can serve valuably as a catalyst for us to reflect on the documentary film genre and the various alternative approaches within it. I suspect it's common for a particular film to be a hybrid of two or more modes, with one of them perhaps being 'dominant.'

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LINKS. Juicy film reading today: the new issue of Screening The Past is up, and in addition to many other pieces, it features Adrian Martin on Claire Denis and William Routt on Fritz Lang. Also: How blogging relates to "real life"—see Steve Shaviro, Kim Dot Dammit, and Jodi at I Cite; Kristin Thompson on animated films; The Siren on Buñuel's Viridiana; via Brad: Robert Christgau's Consumer Guide returns, thanks to MSN; Walter at Quiet Bubble on a grand year for women in comics; Peet Gelderblom and his readers speculate about the future of cinema; and last but never least, Darren on Jim Jennings' Silk Ties.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Ricoeur's Three Stages

Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon is a great and resounding success. I wish I could crawl out from under my mountain of semester-end grading and create some original content for the occasion but instead, let me do the next best thing and post this brief and interesting passage that I've been meaning to share with you for a while. It's from Tim Bywater and Thomas Sobchack's 1989 book Introduction to Film Criticism: Major Critical Approaches to Narrative Film:

Paul Ricoeur, a noted French philosopher, has described the process of immersion in a text which leads to a richer, more complete relationship with that text, as a movement through three stages. The first he calls “understanding.” This is the movement when a text makes its power clear to the experiencer. Having seen a particular film, for example, the viewer is struck by the insistence the text has in the viewer’s life of meaning. We are all aware that some films do not have such an appeal; we see them, pass the time, and forget them. When this recognition of understanding does take place, however, the text demands some “explanation.” This is Ricoeur’s second stage. Dudley Andrew, in Concepts in Film Theory (1984), says this is necessarily a reductive process, breaking down the text into its various parts to unlock its hold on us. “The text is situated in its various contexts (biographical, generic, historical) and is subjected to linguistic study, psychoanalysis, and ideological critique until the particularity of its appeal is explained as an effect of these generative forces” (p. 181). In a sense this analysis, the second stage, may remove us from the power of the text felt during the moment of understanding, the first stage. But Ricoeur goes on to say that a third stage, “comprehension,” follows. Here a return to the work, bolstered and enlarged by the explanatory process, renews, in a stronger and more comprehensive way, the initial sense that the text has importance in the spectator’s life of meaning. “Comprehension,” Andrew suggests, “is synthetic in that it listens to the wholeness of the text rather than breaking it down into parts: further it responds to cues it finds in the work, initiating a project of meaning which is never complete” (p. 182). The relationship of the text and the spectator becomes a living one. One can return to certain films again and again because they never lose their ability to yield meaning.