Monday, April 30, 2007

Notes on Welles (1)

I’ve been on a Welles kick the last couple of weeks. (If last fall’s revelation was Rossellini, this spring it’s been Welles.) For the first time in many years, I revisited several of his films and read the Bazin and Naremore books (both excellent). All these years I didn’t quite realize just how formally daring—transgressive, even!—his movies can be.

It's a tad curious that André Bazin championed Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons as key moments in the history of cinematic realism, a sort of rejuvenation of realism after its decline at the end of the silent era. (Of silent filmmakers, Bazin especially admired Stroheim, Murnau, Flaherty and Dreyer; here’s an older post for more.)

I find that there is so much, in large and small ways, that either disturbs or actively opposes realism in Welles’ cinema. True: the wide-angle lenses and deep focus mean that our eyes take in a large playing area, both in terms of depth of field and width of field. Also, the long takes preserve unity not just of space but also of time. Fair enough. But wide-angle lenses distort (1) the image, especially at the edges; and (2) movement, making it appear exaggerated and extreme. Both these factors, of course, detract from realism.

Also, the rationale for using sequence shots and staging in depth is that it makes the spectator an active participant by forcing her to scour the frame and determine the relative significance of its various contents without the eye being guided or manipulated. And yet, Welles, in contrast to someone like Renoir whom Bazin championed for similar reasons, is a more ‘authoritarian’ filmmaker. The frame has been designed and filled with great care and premeditation. Further, his ‘expressive’ chiaroscuro in fact guides the eye by highlighting certain elements in the frame or playing them off against each other.

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Peter Wollen, from his fascinating essay on Kane in Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies:

“For Bazin, of course, the crucial feature of Citizen Kane was its use of deep focus and the sequence-shot. Yet one senses all the time, in Bazin’s writings on Welles, an uneasy feeling that Welles was far from sharing the spiritual humility and self-effacement, or even the democratic mentality, which marked for Bazin the ‘style without style’, the abnegation of the artist before a reality whose meaning outruns that of any artefact. It is easy to forget that, on occasion, Bazin talked about the ‘sadism’ of Welles, of his rubbery space, stretched and distended, rebounding like a catapult in the face of the spectator. He compared Welles to El Greco (as well as the Flemish masters of deep focus) and commented on his ‘infernal vision’ and ‘tyrannical objectivity’. But this awareness of Welles the stylist and manipulator did not deflect Bazin from his main point. Fundamentally, his enthusiasm was for the deep focus cinematography which Welles and Toland introduced with such virtuosity. It was on this that Welles’ place in film history would depend.”

[…] “So flexible, so generous in many respects, Bazin was nevertheless able at times to restrict and concentrate his vision to an amazing degree. Obviously he felt the influence of expressionism (which he hated) on Kane, but he simply discounted it—or tried to justify it by pointing to the exaggeration and tension in the character of Kane, a kind of psychological realism, similar to the way in which he defended the expressionist style of a film about concentration camps (in the same vein, Christian Metz remarks how the formal flamboyance of Kane, the film, parallels the personality of Kane, the man). In general, however, Bazin simply hurried on to his favourite theme—the importance of deep focus and the sequence-shot.”

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I watched Kane, Ambersons, The Lady From Shanghai, Mr. Arkadin, Touch of Evil, and F For Fake. I had seen all but Arkadin before. I look forward to soon watching Chimes at Midnight, Macbeth, Othello, The Trial and The Immortal Story, none of which I've seen.

* * *

Some links:

— Jonathan Rosenbaum's new blog post is full of links, including a couple that are Welles-related; his latest book, which is a collection of his Welles interviews, reviews and essays, has just been released.

— At Pilgrim Akimbo, Tucker posts 42 images of hands from my all-time favorite movie.

— At her blog Cinebeats, Kimberly Lindbergs mounts an Ann-Margret retrospective.

Chris Cagle has taken on a project: to watch every single film from 1947 that he can hunt down.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Nose + Grindstone

Two more weeks left in the semester and it's grading time, big time. (Honestly, I like the life and work of the academic but will never learn to enjoy grading.) I've been watching films—back on the movie-a-day regimen and it feels good!—so I hope to return with some film thoughts next week. Before I go, let me leave you with a few links. Have a good week, everyone.

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-- The William Shakespeare Blog-A-Thon at Peter Nellhaus's place.

-- Acquarello has been filing dispatches from the Carlos Saura retrospective in New York.

-- The Siren travels to Josef von Sternberg's Macao.

-- I hope you've been keeping up with Andy Horbal's adventures at "film criticism boot camp" in New York.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum in the Chicago Reader on Paul Verhoeven's Black Book and Jafar Panahi's Offside.

-- A great, meaty essay by Tag Gallagher, "American Triptych: Vidor, Hawks, Ford," in the last issue of Senses of Cinema.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Interweb Explorations

The film-blogosphere is ever-expanding, and that's exciting. I’ve poked my head briefly into a few other blog communities (e.g. Lit, Music, Mp3) and I can tell you that we’re lucky to have one special weapon no one else does: David Hudson. Thanks to his 24/7 dedication—serving never his own writing talent but always the words of others!—we discover new, valuable blogs as soon as they enter his radar range. So, I thought we could pitch in today and help this always-ongoing scouting effort by sharing some of our own recent blog discoveries.

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Some filmblogs that have become regular reads for me since I discovered them in the last few months:

Are there filmblogs you've begun reading recently that you'd like to turn us on to? Feel free to post links in the comments if you like....

* * *

I linked to it in the comments of the previous post, but this viewing tip deserves a bright little spotlight flare of its own. At the Monash University site, there is a link to video and audio of the book launch for Nicole Brenez’s Abel Ferrara. The speakers include Edward Colless and the book’s translator, Adrian Martin. Their remarks are insightful and contagiously enthusiastic; it's cinephile catnip.

Brenez’s book, which I recently finished reading, is simply a jaw-dropper, unlike any other film book I’ve read. It’s impassioned—both politically and cinephilically—and charges at you in one swift burst of non-stop wall-to-wall ideas. (I put up an excerpt from it in this older post.)

The book is not organized conventionally in the form of chapters. Instead, it’s one long essay modularized into small sections with wonderfully evocative titles (e.g. “Oceanic Death,” “Larval Fictions,” “Fury: A Guide to its Evolution,” “The High-Water Mark of Subjectivity,” “Rough Beast, Scrap Heap, Authentic Virtue”). I made up a meaty reading list from her touchstone references: Hegel, Bataille, Adorno, Benjamin, etc.

Brenez knows these films backwards and forwards. She’s almost sub-atomically attentive to minute details of every kind imaginable—plot, theme, character, acting, composition, texture, movement, editing, sound, etc.—and is constantly drawing brilliant connections within and across films. Reading her makes you want to resolve to watch every film, from here on out, more closely, more vigilantly….

Sunday, April 08, 2007

What Are You Reading?

I think I need to do a reading post every few months. The last one generated a torrent of cool ideas and suggestions….

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I’m thinking back to what I hated most about grad school: being broke, of course. When I began teaching full time, suddenly I could buy all the books and music I wanted, and years later, I still haven’t gotten over the child-like wonderment and incredulity (silly, I know) of being able to do that.

But there are two personal challenges to grapple with. First, I’m a crawlingly slow reader who likes to dawdle on the page, mark it up, and write cranky notes in the margins. Second, I don’t have ADD (I don’t think) but I’m always in the middle of a couple of dozen books at any time. For both these reasons, it’s not uncommon for me to sometimes take several months to finish a book!

So, snail-like, I’m currently making my way through the following:

Film. Peter Wollen’s Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (three editions, all a bit different); Richard Roud’s biography of Henri Langlois, A Passion for Films; Noël Burch’s Theory of Film Practice; Geoffrey O’Brien’s The Phantom Empire; Sam Rohdie’s Montage.

Non-film Nonfiction. Walter Pater’s The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry; Donis Dondis’ A Primer of Visual Literacy; Dave Hickey’s Air Guitar; Ted Gioia’s The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture; Audio Culture: Readings in Modern Music, edited by Christoph Cox & Daniel Warner.

Fiction. George Saunders’ Pastoralia; Mirrorshades, the cyberpunk anthology edited by Bruce Sterling; Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve; Thomas McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano; Borges’ Ficciones; Jaime Hernandez's Ghost of Hoppers.

And as the semester shudders to a finish in four weeks, I’ll be waiting to sink my teeth into two Serge Daney books: Postcards from the Cinema and Cinema in Transit.

So, if you feel like it: what are you reading, or have recently read, or are looking forward to reading? Perhaps we can give each other some good tips and ideas....

* * *

Here, for your pleasure, is some typically thought-provoking Peter Wollen. This is from his essay "The Semiology of the Cinema" in Signs and Meaning in the Cinema (1969):

"Von Sternberg was virulently opposed to any kind of Realism. He sought, as far as possible, to disown and destroy the existential bond between the natural world and the film image. But this did not mean that he turned to the symbolic. Instead he stressed the pictorial character of the cinema; he saw cinema in the light, not of the natural world or of verbal language, but of painting. 'The white canvas on to which the images are thrown is a two-dimensional flat surface. It is not startlingly new, the painter has used it for centuries.' The film director must create his own images, not by slavishly following nature, by bowing to 'the fetish of authenticity', but by imposing his own style, his own interpretation. 'The painter's power over his subject is unlimited, his control over the human form and face despotic.' But 'the director is at the mercy of the camera'; the dilemma of the film director is there, in the mechanical contraption he’s compelled to use. Unless he controls it, he abdicates. For 'verisimilitude, whatever its virtue, is in opposition to every approach to art'. Von Sternberg created a completely artificial realm, from which nature was rigorously excluded (the main thing wrong with The Saga Of Anatahan, he once said, is that it contains shots of the real sea, whereas everything else was false) but which depended, not on any common code, but on the individual imagination of the artist. It was the iconic aspect of the sign which Von Sternberg stressed, detached from the indexical in order to conjure up a world, comprehensible by virtue of resemblances to the natural world, yet other than it, a kind of dream world, a heterocosm.

The contrast to Rossellini is striking. Rossellini preferred to shoot on location; Von Sternberg always used a set. Rossellini avers that he never uses a shooting-script and never knows how a film will end when he begins it; Von Sternberg cut every sequence in his head before shooting it and never hesitated while editing. Rossellini’s films have a rough-and-ready, sketch-like look; Von Sternberg evidently paid meticulous attention to every detail. Rossellini uses amateur actors, without make-up; Von Sternberg took the star system to its ultimate limit with Marlene Dietrich and revelled in hieratic masks and costumes. Rossellini speaks of the director being patient, waiting humbly and following the actors until they reveal themselves: Von Sternberg, rather than wishing humbly to reveal the essence, seeks to exert autocratic control: he festoons the set with nets, veils, fronds, creepers, lattices, streamers, gauze, in order, as he himself puts it 'to conceal the actors', to mask their very existence."

Monday, April 02, 2007

Quebecois Cinema

Living a stone’s throw from Canada, I’ve been fortunate to catch a slow but steady stream of Quebecois cinema over the years. I’m amazed by the obscurity, in America, of even the greatest figures of Quebecois film history: Michel Brault, Claude Jutra, Pierre Perrault, Gilles Groulx, etc. In fact, even in English Canada, their work is not ubiquitous; I’m not exactly sure why. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with underlying Anglophone/Francophone tensions and Quebec’s vigorous sense of identity—distinct from its identity as simply another Canadian province—but these are just casual suspicions.

So, what I’ve done here is throw together a small and highly personal collection of strong Quebecois cinema I’ve had the fortune to discover over the years.

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But first, some film-historical background, in broad strokes. Cinema in Quebec was influenced and shaped, in the mid-1950’s, by one crucially important factor: pioneering innovations in cinéma vérité documentary filmmaking that occurred at the state-supported National Film Board (NFB). When the NFB headquarters moved from Ottawa, Ontario to Montreal, Quebec in ’56, it opened the door for greater involvement by local filmmakers.

The 15-minute Les Raquetteurs (1958), by Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx, is a key film. It documents a snowshoe festival in rural Quebec, and is generally considered to be the first work of le direct (“direct cinema”). It had no pre-planned script, used no voiceover narration and captured real events as they played out, with minimum intervention. (Now, I’m not exactly sure how “direct cinema” differs from “cinéma vérité,” although I also suspect these terms don’t have locked-down, universally agreed-upon definitions.) The film’s images consist mainly of: villagers, the wintry Canadian landscape, the performance of traditional rituals.

* * *

Then, Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault traveled to a rural community on the Gulf of St. Lawrence to make Pour La Suite Du Monde (1962), which became the first Canadian film to compete at Cannes. They persuaded the village inhabitants to resurrect the old practice of hunting the Beluga whale by using a trap of tall wooden staffs placed in the shallows of the river. The film lyrically documents the ways of work—and ways of leisure—of this rustic community. A note: the title of the film translates as “So That The World Goes On,” but the English-subtitled version is sometimes known as The Moontrap.

* * *

Jean Rouch springs to mind when we think of cinéma vérité but it is little known that Michel Brault traveled to France to initiate Rouch into the uses of new cameras and camera/sound technologies in the late 50’s, and worked on Rouch and Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961). I found this generous quote from Rouch: “All that we’ve done in France in the area of cinéma vérité came from the National Film Board. It was Brault who brought a new technique of shooting that we hadn’t known and that we have copied ever since.” There is also an interesting Canadian documentary called Cinéma Vérité: Defining The Moment (1999) by Peter Wintonick—he also made Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky—that traces the development of the movement and Canada’s role in it. I’m not sure it’s on DVD but it has aired on cable. It interviews numerous key players (including Brault, Rouch, Perrault, Richard Leacock, Bob Drew, etc) and is well worth a look.

* * *

Chris Gehman: “Brault’s documentary style is at once an affirmation of and a rebuke to theorists of cinéma vérité: While his approach to the documentary is anti-literary and emphasizes the unscripted gathering of film and sound images, to be given their finished form in the editing process, his shooting style opposes the notion of the documentary as a form of surreptitious surveillance put forward by theorists such as Dziga Vertov, who emphasized the importance of “life caught unawares.” For Brault, this approach, perhaps voyeuristic and indicative of veiled aggression, is characterized by the use of the telephoto lens, which allows a camera operator to photograph a subject from a distance and without the subject’s knowledge. Brault’s documentary camerawork, in contrast, is a distinctly “wide-angle” style, putting the camera operator in close proximity to his subjects, not separate from but within the action, and it is this style, derived from a strongly-held ethical position, that makes his contribution so distinctive.”

* * *

More good Brault. Les Ordres (1974), which won Best Director at Cannes, is a political docudrama that deals with the fate of five characters—composites of actual people—following their arrests when the War Measures Act was implemented in Quebec during the October Crisis of 1970. Civil rights were suspended in Quebec during this period, and many innocent people were arrested and held without being charged. The film tracks the characters without painting a detailed picture of the sociopolitical context of the time, which makes it both inescapably specific—especially for Canadians who could not help but be acutely aware of the period the film documents—and also universal.

Brault always wore two hats: he was both a director and a reputed cinematographer. He shot Francis Mankiewicz’s Les Bons Débarras (1980), a Quebecois backwoods Gothic tale about a thirteen-year-old girl who is obsessed with Wuthering Heights, idolizes her mother, and is intensely jealous of her mother’s lovers. A dark tale set against a palpably powerful backdrop of Quebecois specificities, this is among my favorite Canadian films.

* * *

Claude Jutra is something of a Canadian legend. He also got his start at NFB with Brault and Groulx, and made his first feature, the autobiographical and controversial À Tout Prendre, in 1964. It was ostensibly a fiction film, but made with documentary-like methods. Good portions of it were unscripted, and he cast himself and his ex-girlfriend Johanne Harrelle. Both Jutra and the character he played disclosed their bisexuality in the course of the film. The film is set in Montreal’s bohemian/art world and Jutra’s character was, self-excoriatingly, not very sympathetic. (Johanne Harrelle later married Edgar Morin.)

Jutra’s masterpiece is Mon Oncle Antoine (1971). In polls of Canada’s film critics, it has been repeatedly voted as the greatest Canadian film ever made. A coming-of-age story set in the asbestos region of rural Quebec, it’s one of the few films mentioned in this post that’s actually available here on DVD. In 1986, at the age of 56, Jutra disappeared. His body was found five months later in the St. Lawrence River with a note in his pocket which said simply, “Je suis Claude Jutra.” He had been suffering early symptoms of Alzheimer’s at the time, and was also having great difficulty obtaining financing for his films.

* * *

You can walk into the NFB Mediatheque on John St. in Toronto, plunk down a toonie, and choose from a menu of hundreds of films. On a recent visit, I took in Gilles Groulx’s Le Chat Dans Le Sac (1964) (“The Cat In The Bag”). One of the earliest and most important films of the Quebec New Wave, it’s also a bit uncanny. The black-and-white cinematography, documentary immediacy, and the intellectually heady conversations in French automatically evoke Godard and his films of that period, like Vivre Sa Vie. But below these surface similarities, the political and cultural realities are all Quebec. The film is about the relationship between a Francophone Quebecois intellectual and an Anglophone Jewish actress, and the rapidly growing gulf between them. It’s set both in Montreal and in the Quebec countryside, and is memorably shot in an almost painfully intimate, vérité-style.

* * *

In high school, I had a raging crush on Genevieve Bujold after seeing her in the medical thriller Coma. (Ah, that impossibly melodious accent!) Who can forget her in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me, Brian De Palma’s Obsession, Alain Resnais’ La Guerre est Finie….? But her strongest work is arguably in her ex-husband Paul Almond’s moody, fantastical trilogy Isabel (1968), Act of the Heart (1970), and Journey (1972). The middle film also stars Donald Sutherland, and I’ve seen it quietly pop up on late-night cable.

Bujold was also in Brault’s 1967 film Entre La Mer Et L’Eau Douce, which was restored and shown at TIFF ’04. Along with Hou’s Café Lumiere and Denis’ The Intruder, it was a festival stand-out for me that year, but it received not even a fraction of the ink spilled on those films. Is it my imagination or do older films get little respect, in terms of press coverage, during a film festival…?

* * *

I haven’t touched on Denys Arcand because he is already very well known outside Canada. Moreover, it’s been a good 15 years since I saw the only two Arcand films I know, Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Jesus of Montreal (1989), and I don’t remember them very well. I’ve been meaning to revisit Arcand; I’ve also heard that some of his earlier work, unavailable here, is worth seeking out.

Some Qubecois filmmakers I’d like to hunt down and check out: Jean-Pierre Lefebvre; Léa Pool; Anne Claire Poirier; Jean-Claude Lauzon; Gilles Carle. Also, save the experimental animator Pierre Hébert, I haven’t had the chance to see any avant-garde cinema from Quebec….

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So, what are some of your favorites in Quebecois movies? Or films and makers you’ve been curious about but haven’t had a chance to check out? Perhaps we can use this place as a little reservoir of Quebecois cinema suggestions and ideas….

The doodle is a small tip of the chapeau to Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault’s “Pour La Suite Du Monde” (1962).