Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Cinema In Your Head

As time goes by, I find myself wishing for, longing for, a better memory of all the films I watch. (Does anybody else relate to this?)

When I was a kid, I barely remembered much more than plot and performances in a movie. As I got older, character psychology and complexity started to intrigue me, and my memory of a film expanded to encompass them. Later, the manner in which a film told its ‘story’ — the form of the film — emerged in importance. The formal details of a film now started to leap out and register in my mind and memory.

Over the years, I’ve steadily become aware of a film as being not something abstract or intangible but instead a collection of concrete, material details: shots and cuts; bodies, gestures and speech of the performers; movement; sound and music; color and light; décor; setting; compositions; duration; etc., not to mention absences such as offscreen space and events, and ellipses.

A film contains hundreds (thousands) of such details, and in the aftermath of watching a good film, I have a great desire to savor, hang on to, remember those scores of details that struck me, affected me. I may indeed remember some of them for a few hours, days, or weeks, but eventually the memory of those details, once seemingly indelible, will fade. And it is this continual disappearance that I find myself, now more than ever, regretting, fighting….

I’m reminded of something Adrian said, in the comments to this post on re-viewing films:

I want to rewatch [films] in order to commit them to memory, so I can 'run them in my mind' whenever I wish: this is for me the sweetest cinematic pleasure of all, I guess like learning a poem or how to play a piece of music ... I recently watched Alain Bergala on the DVD extras of the marvellous French edition of Cafe Lumiere: [his] ability to conjure every detail of a scene (right down to the lighting, the rhythm, the gestures, the framing, the movements ... ) is really impressive, and what I want to do. Finally, I think, it comes down to this, more than any technological support: the cinema in your head!

It’s this vivid “cinema in your head,” forever on stand-by and ready to roll at the flick of one’s thought, that I crave.

I think of this when I read Raymond Durgnat or Manny Farber. They have a vast, keen sense for those myriad material details of a film, and their writing often involves evoking, describing, citing, connecting, and constructing from such details.

And so, I wonder: What helps us build a better memory for films and their details? What helps construct a better “cinema in your head”? Are there certain tactical activities that can help?

Walter Benjamin has a blog-like essay called “Unpacking My Library: A Talk About Book Collecting.” In it, he details and establishes the importance of his (a book collector’s) activities in the tactical sphere. e.g., putting the collection in some systematic order; strategizing about acquiring books at auctions; getting to know, in intimate detail, the provenance of each book; collecting not just books but also book-related artifacts, etc.

If we could make a comparison between book collecting and the collecting and affixing of film-memories, one key tactical activity for me would probably be: hunting down and reading what others have written about a film or filmmaker. I recently watched The Magnificent Ambersons and Jeanne Dielman, and then read (respectively) V.F. Perkins’s BFI Classics monograph and Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson’s essay “Kitchen Without Kitsch.” Both films still burn in my head because of those pieces.

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Your thoughts on the subject? I'd love to hear 'em....

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Well, now that Cannes has concluded, let's round up a few links:

(1) David Hudson's invaluable index to all the films and their reviews.

(2) His post on the awards.

(3) Sandrine Marques's coverage (in French) at her Cannes blog, Contrechamps à Cannes, includes this interview clip of Abel Ferrara speaking about his first comedy ("We're not the Marx Brothers, you know what I'm sayin'?").

(4) Several posts by Dave Kehr.

(5) Anthony Kaufman.

(6) Robert Koehler at Film Journey.


-- David Bordwell compares Lubitsch's The Shop Around The Corner (1940) and the Nora Ephron remake, You've Got Mail (1998), to illustrate "“intensified continuity”—the editing style that comes to dominate American films after 1960 or thereabouts."

-- At A_Film_By: a discussion thread on Jia Zhang-ke and Chinese cinema.

-- A 1958 Truffaut article on literary adaptations, translated and posted at My Gleanings.

Illustration: "Au Hasard Balthazar" by the Canadian indie comics artist Seth.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Crime Film

There is a wonderful conversation between Chris Fujiwara and Mark Roberts at the Japanese site Flower Wild. I cut and pasted the entire text into a Word document and printed it off; it runs to about 25 double-spaced pages. Lengthy but all eminently worthy reading.

The conversation ranges widely: 'thieves' and 'theft' in cinema; the phrase "film noir"; Jacques Becker; Hitchcock; postmodern nostalgia; comparisons of citation in Tarantino and Godard, etc. It's spread over three pages: one; two; and three.

Here are a few of the juicier bits:

CF: “I have a problem with the phrase "film noir," for I'm not sure what it really is. Maybe in Japan and France, people can talk about this genre more precisely, but in America film noir became more of a marketing tool — and a very important one — because it was one of the ways that repertory movie theaters in the United States managed to stay alive. They found that audiences were drawn to these so-called film noir, crime or mystery thrillers, films with actors like Humphrey Bogart. Actually, Bogart was one of the stars most strongly associated with the American repertory-theater movement, since the Brattle Theater in Cambridge was the place where they revived "Casablanca" in the 1960s and thereby helped that film become well known again. So, for me as an American, the phrase "film noir" has a certain association with marketing.”

[…] “Perhaps film noir is a concept whose main meaning might be of making a genre film as an art film. It's worth remembering that the art film itself is a concept that hardly existed in the 1940s, in America, when these films were made. Nobody had this concept. People made experimental films but for the most part a movie was something that was shown in a theater for a mass audience. Sometimes it's said that "Citizen Kane" (1941) was the first American art film. So, it does seem that there was a kind of transaction, back and forth across the Atlantic, in which the French saw "Laura", "The Lost Weekend", and "Double Indemnity" — all of which were made in 1944 or 45, but weren't shown in France until 46, after the war — and they said: "these films are amazing, they're very black, we'll call them film noir." Eventually, the Americans got wind of this and they started making films that were a bit more self-conscious both visually and aurally. I think that had to do with a certain awareness of the ways the French appreciated these films. A film like "Kiss Me Deadly" (1955) reveals that very clearly. This is a film made by somebody who is quite sophisticated with respect to visual design, which is something we can see in many films later described as film noir.”

[…] “That's probably a key moment in film noir, that dream sequence [in Dmytryk’s “Murder My Sweet” (1944)]. However, it's not true either to say that a dreamlike atmosphere defines film noir. Jacques Tourneur, for example, is now considered one of the great noir directors, and his films don't really use dream sequences. There's one in "Cat People" (1942), but that's it. There are no scenes that are filmed in this distorted fashion that Dmytryk used in "Murder, My Sweet". Tourneur always films everything in the same style, which is very realistic, yet also quite poetic. We could say something similar about Otto Preminger, also considered one of the masters of film noir, mainly because of "Laura". All of his films are very direct, very much on the level of reality as the real. There would never be a dream sequence in a Preminger film. It would be an outrage to his system, his sensibility. So, these things make me tend to question the concept of film noir.”

[…] “There are a number of films by Becker that might be compared to film noir. "Falbalas" (1945) is about a fashion designer who falls in love with a girl, becomes obsessed with her, and finally goes berserk. Almost any other director making a film on this subject would have treated it in a very different way. Becker's treatment is quite beautiful, but very straightforward. Becker isn't really in love with madness for its own sake. He's interested in madness, as many artists are, but he doesn't see it with any false glamor. He doesn't use it as a way to make the film more interesting or do something different with the camera, something a little crazy or erratic. It's like what I mentioned before about the "level-ness" of Tourneur and of Preminger. Becker is the same. When these directors make a movie, they don't put its parts in hierarchies. They don't say: "X belongs to fantasy and Y belongs to reality, so I'm going to shoot this one way, and that another way," or "I'll use two styles to show that one type of person or way of life is better than another." They decide they're just going to show things. Becker's approach is similar.”

[…] “It's interesting how in "The Wrong Man" that false accusation opens up an entire world that Henry Fonda didn't realize was there. He didn't realize there's a legal system that one must pass through when accused of a crime, that one must find a lawyer, stand in line, and all sort of things, just to go to court. There's a phrase from Orson Welles, perhaps in "The Stranger" (1946), which Welles attributed to Emerson: "Commit a crime and the earth is made of glass." I think Hitchcock is one of the people who takes that phrase and makes it the principle of an entire film, but in "The Wrong Man" it goes even beyond that. Here, you don't even have to commit the crime, you only need to be accused of the crime, and then the world is made of glass.
 There's something fundamental about American cinema in that kind of assertion. To the extent that we agree that film noir exists, or that we could call this cycle of crime movies "film noir", all of them really show how the world is made of glass. This means two things: it means that it's very breakable, fragile, that you could fall through at any moment, but it also means that you can see through it, that surfaces are meant to be seen through. So in the films of the 1940s, we find a series of beautifully polished, composed, and fantastically elegant ways of shooting scenes — we see this in the work of John F. Seitz, Billy Wilder's great cinematographer, and it appears literally at the end of "The Lady from Shanghai" (1948) of course, when the mirrors are shattered. All of these people devoted such fantastic talent and energy to creating the image of a world that's made of glass.”

[...] MR: “There's a sense in which there is no longer an industry. It's no longer possible to just make B-movies in the same way. Everything is supposed to be a blockbuster. Directors are now in a different relationship with post-industrial Hollywood. We find people like Quentin Tarantino, who seem to fantasize about being studio hacks from another era. [...] It seems that Tarantino wants badly to be a B-movie director, perhaps because that would be the signature of real artistry. The ideal seems to be the director who was working under extreme institutional and budgetary constraints, and yet made brilliant movies. If somebody can do that type of film very well, then they must be a very fine director. The irony in the case of Tarantino is that he probably has carte blanche to do whatever he wants now. Yet, what he wants, it seems, is to be a man without the means to do what he really wants.”

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Coincidentally, I dived into some film noir watching and reading last week, and was stunned by the amount of solid writing on noir that's out there. (Why am I surprised?) I'm in the middle of James Naremore's 1998 book More Than Night: Film Noir In Its Contexts, and it's amazingly good; Jonathan Rosenbaum put it on his shortlist of basic cinema books, along with books by Bazin and Manny Farber. Also, the four Film Noir Readers, edited by Alain Silver and James Ursini, are eclectic and plentiful in their coverage, mixing journalistic and academic essays. And they don't just spotlight current writing on noir, but also include early and important French pieces by Nino Frank (who is often credited with coining the term), Jean-Pierre Chartier, Raymond Borde & Etienne Chaumeton (the surrealist authors of the first book on noir in 1955), and Claude Chabrol. Reading all this makes me realize how naively unproblematic and narrow my notions of film noir had been. I will report back after I've digested a small fraction of this mountain of noir writing.

On the viewing front, I just did a series of strong Otto Preminger noirs including Fallen Angel, Where The Sidewalk Ends and Whirlpool. What struck me most about these films were the incredibly long takes, complex blocking strategies, and ingenious reframings. This is highly choreographed camerawork, but not at all flamboyant. You have to be alert and really look to notice it. Also, I finally caught up with Robert Siodmak's Phantom Lady (1944) last night--a brilliant film! (Why isn't Siodmak better known and written about, I wonder?)

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A couple of links:

Robert Koehler reports from Cannes at Film Journey.

Dan Sallitt has started a new film blog.

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Your thoughts on the Fujiwara-Roberts interview, film noir, etc.? Feel free to share.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Henri Langlois

(This one's dedicated to Acquarello.)

I recently read Richard Roud’s 1983 biography of Langlois (A Passion For Films) and watched Jacques Richard’s documentary, Henri Langlois: Phantom Of The Cinematheque. At three-and-a-half hours, the European DVD of the film is almost twice as long as the American release.

Langlois founded the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in 1936. He was, by all accounts, a complex man: visionary, inspiring, tireless, hilarious, nutty. I thought I’d reproduce, for your reading kicks, a few selected excerpts from Roud’s biography below. All unattributed quotations are by Roud.

— From Truffaut’s foreword to the book:

“[Langlois was] a man as picturesque and as contradictory as a Dickens character, a man who gave his friendship sparingly, and who could withdraw it on a caprice, a suspicion, or an “intuition.”

“In Mr. Arkadin, the title character, played by Orson Welles, recounts a dream he has had: wandering through a cemetery, he noticed that all the tombstones had pairs of dates very close to each other: 1919-1925 or 1907-1913. He asked the cemetery watchman, “Do the people in this country all die young?” “No,” answered the watchman, “these dates indicate the length of time that a friendship lasted.”

[...] “Like all “haunted” men, Henri Langlois divided the world, people, and events into two camps: (1) what was good for the Cinémathèque Française and (2) what was bad for it. Even if you had been friends with him for a decade, he never wasted time asking how you were, or how your family was getting along, because the very notions of health and family could be related only to the health of the Cinémathèque, the family of the Cinémathèque.”

— On the all-encompassing eclecticism of the Cinémathèque:

Rivette: “One could see there successively at 6:30 p.m. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms and at 8:30 Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls. And it was fabulous precisely because one could see Griffith and Warhol together on the same night. Because it was then that one realized that there are not two or three kinds of cinema, there’s only one cinema. It was the perceptual interaction of the present and the past of the cinema that was so exciting.”

Roud: “His great joy was to establish an evening’s screenings so that the film shown at 6:30 would have some hidden connection with the film at 8:30 and the one at 10:30—nothing obvious like the same director or the same stars or even the same studio or the same country. He didn’t care whether the audience noticed a connection, for he was sure that unconsciously they would learn from the juxtapositions—a form of montage.”

— Resisting the prison of taste in the interests of the future:

“One great difference between Langlois’s policy and that of the world’s other archives is that he did not believe in selection. Langlois even felt obliged later to take to task his great friend Iris Barry, who, when offered all of Buster Keaton’s films for the Museum of Modern Art, decided that she would save only “the best." How can I choose, asked Langlois, when a film like Feuillade’s Barabbas was considered for so long to be of no interest? Obviously, some element of choice was dictated by the Cinémathèque’s limited budget. But from the very beginning Langlois assumed that all the work of any director he considered to be of interest was worth saving. In that sense, he was the first of the “auteurists.”

[...] “Langlois saved many films, like [Feyder’s] L’Image, in extremis: their producers had already directed the labs to destroy some of these precious negatives. A few days later they would have been gone forever, melted down for their celluloid: “The comb you use every morning might well have been made from a fragment of Broken Blossoms, The Cheat, or Coeur Fidèle.””

— Cinema = Food.

“Langlois had saved for posterity a number of important films, and he had formed a whole generation of filmmakers by showing them the masterpieces of the cinema. As he himself put it, in his inimitable English: “I have never said this movie is good, this movie is bad; they discover by themselves. I have not helped, I have not talked. I have put food on the table and they have taken the food and eaten, and then gone on to eat more and more food. All I give them is food, food, food, food. This is my work, to show films; to save and to show films, nothing more. Henri Langlois does not exist; only exists the Cinémathèque Française….Not exist Henri Langlois, only exists the Cinémathèque Française.””

— On surrealism, Feuillade and the cinema:

“The discovery of surrealism was not a turning point in [Langlois’s] intellectual life; it simply confirmed something that he had already been prepared for since his childhood viewings of the films of Ferdinand Zecca and Emile Cohl—naive pioneer filmmakers who were nevertheless ahead of the whole surrealist movement of the twenties. “I am convinced," he wrote in 1965, “that surrealism preexisted in cinema. Les Vampires was already an expression of the twentieth century and of the universal subconscious.” And indeed, although Feuillade had been thought of as a mere maker of melodramas about stolen documents, kidnapped heroines, and villains who wanted to rule the world, and as such had been despised by the French avant-garde filmmakers of his time, his films—through his visual genius for protosurrealistic images—transcended the genre.

[...] “It was difficult for critics of the twenties to separate Feuillade from the other, less talented directors of melodramas; to judge, one needs time. The French were able to appreciate Griffith immediately only because he was exotic for them—separation by space served the function of separation in time.

[...] “The rediscovery of Feuillade had a double effect: on the one hand, it rewrote cinema history, for Feuillade was a forgotten figure in France and was unknown in Great Britain and America. The other effect was Feuillade’s influence on directors like Resnais, Franju, and Rivette, whose original thirteen–hour version of Out One especially seems to show that influence. Up to 1944, it had often been said that the French cinema had two traditions—Méliès and Lumière, fantasy and reality, or what you will. But Feuillade became, as Francis Lacassin put it, the Third Man, and filmmakers were struck by the mixture of realism and surrealism in his work.”

— On nitrate film:

“In December 1950 the French government had passed a law which would make it eventually illegal to show, transport, or even possess nitrate film. This, to Langlois, was a great tragedy. The first fifty–five years of film history were on nitrate cellulose stock. It is of course highly inflammable; it is also visually superior to the acetate stock that has been used since the early fifties. André Malraux once proclaimed that even if the Mona Lisa were painted on dynamite, he would preserve it. Langlois felt the same way about nitrate. “He loved nitrate,” Kenneth Anger told me. “For him it was a living, breathing thing that could die of neglect.”

[…] “Perhaps because it was impossible to prove the argument for or against transfer to acetate, nitrate film became Langlois’s favorite topic for years. “Whenever there was a lull in the conversation,” Elliott Stein told me, “instead of making some remark about the weather as most people do, Langlois would start talking about nitrate. It was his bête noire—he always had in his mind the fear that the antinitrate forces were closing in on him.””

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Thoughts or anecdotes on French cinephilia, or for that matter, film archiving and preservation? You're welcome to share...

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A few links:

Adrian has an essay on Tsai Ming-Liang (in English) in the new issue of the Spanish publication Tren De Sombras.

Dave Kehr's new post is about studios using stars for nostalgic appeal rather than focusing on filmmakers when deciding what DVDs to release.

Dave McDougall, of Chained To The Cinematheque, on the politics of Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth.

Mubarak, at Supposed Aura, on the use of situational "gags" in Luc Moullet's Parpaillon (1993).

Jason Sperb, at the academic blog Dr. Mabuse's Kaleido-Scope, on Laura Marks' The Skin Of Film, a book of Deleuzian film theory.

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Well, the semester is now history, and the summer has begun. I have three months off from teaching and although I'm at work on a couple of projects, I still hope to have plenty of time to do some serious movie-watching and -reading. Last night, at Eastman House, I caught a double bill of two 1940's Westerns: Andre De Toth's Ramrod (a hard, icy gem—my first De Toth film, and a great discovery) and Fritz Lang's Western Union, which I had seen before. My next trip there will be for a double bill of Samuel Fuller's I Shot Jesse James (I'm on a quest to see the few studio-era Fuller films that have eluded me so far) and Philip Kaufman's The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. And to top it all off, Killer of Sheep has come to town for a week.

I'm excited about meeting up with Darren in Toronto in just a few weeks to catch some Pedro Costa and Straub/Huillet. It'll be like a warm-up for TIFF. Speaking of TIFF, Olaf Möller's appetizing Berlin report in the new Film Comment has jump-started my list-making for the festival. And beginning today, Cannes dispatches will move that list-making up a notch...

Monday, May 07, 2007

Boorman/Point Blank

It’s a funny thing. Sometimes movies that struck our eyes and ears as modernist when we first encountered them years ago, slowly start to appear more classicist with the passing of time.

I’ve seen Point Blank three times now — once on the big screen, only to realize that this is an essential big-screen movie — and it only gets better. But also, the things that once smacked strongest of modernism — the Resnais-ish temporal fragmentation, the non-naturalistic sound design, the dream/reality shuttlings, and most importantly, the aggressively abstract and expressionist use of architecture — now seem harmoniously blended, coherent. The style isn’t spilling over ‘in excess’; instead, it seems to be always serving, as classicism does, the subjects and themes of the film. (No value judgment implied here, by the way — my heart belongs equally to classicism and modernism!)

After watching the movie last night, I looked up Manny Farber and marveled once again at the evocativeness and accuracy of his description:

Whatever this fantasy is about, it is hardly about syndicate heist artists, nightclub owners, or a vengeful quest by a crook named Walker (Marvin) for the $93,000 he earned on the “Alcatraz drop.” The movie is really about a strangely unhealthy tactility. All physical matter seems to be coated: buildings are encased in grids and glass, rooms are lined with marble and drapes, girls are sculpted by body stockings, metallic or velour-like materials. A subtle pornography seems to be the point, but it is obtained by the camera slithering like an eel over statuesque women from ankle across thigh around hips to shoulder and down again. Repeatedly the camera moves back to beds, but not for the purposes of exposing flesh or physical contact. What are shown are vast expanses of wrinkled satin, deep dark shadows, glistening silvery highlights. The bodies are dead, under sedation, drugged, or being moved in slow-motion stylistic embraces. Thus, there’s a kind of decadent tremor within the image as though an unseen lecherous hand were palming, sliding over not quite human humans. It’s a great movie for being transfixed on small mountains which slowly become recognizable as an orange shoulder or a hip with a silvery mini-skirt.

In a sickening way, the human body is used as material to wrinkle the surface of the screen. Usually the body is in zigzags, being flung, scraped over concrete, half buried under tire wheels, but it is always sort of cramped, unlikely, out of its owner’s control. At one point in the film, Marvin walks over to a public telescope at Pacific Palisades and starts squinting at a whitish skyscraper. It is one of the mildest scenes since the birth of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but after the endless out-of-control cramping of bodies, the serenity of the composition and the reasonable decorum make for a fine blissful moment.

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Ashamed to admit this, but due to no particular reason other than negligence, I've seen nothing else by John Boorman. Care to recommend any of your favorite Boorman films? And if you like, share your impressions about them, if you feel like it?

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A few links:

Darren posts capsule reviews of the films he caught in San Francisco.

Mike Newman at Zigzigger on "Irony, Sincerity, and Fountains of Wayne." (I'm nuts about Welcome Interstate Managers and just picked up the new one.)

— At DVD Panache, Adam Ross has interviews with several bloggers including Andy Horbal, Dennis Cozzalio, Tuwa, David Lowery, etc.

— Curtis Harrington has died. Here's an old Voice tribute by Chuck Stephens; a brief account of his films by Mike Grost; and an interview with Harrington about Orson Welles at Bright Lights.

Walter at Quiet Bubble on Brakhage's The Act Of Seeing With One's Own Eyes (1971).

Craig Keller on Lubitsch and the married couple.