Sunday, July 29, 2007

Links/Roger Corman

-- Perfect timing given our recent discussions here: Adrian has an article on surrealism and cinema in The Australian this week.

-- In case you didn't get a chance to see it, the surrealism and cinema post led to an invigorating back-and-forth of ideas in the comments.

-- Bertrand Tavernier is keeping a DVD blog (en francais).

-- Two posts from David Bordwell: "Watching Movies Very, Very Slowly" and "Summer Camp for Cinephiles".

-- Michael Guillen transcribes for us an onstage interview with John Waters.

-- Craig Keller on Godard's A Few Remarks on the Direction and Production of the Film 'Sauve Qui Peut (La Vie)'.

-- Michael Sicinski on Frederick Wiseman's State Legislature.

-- Best wishes to Filmbrain and Aaron Hillis, who are now at the helm of a DVD distribution company, Benten Films.

-- Brian Darr interviews Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky.

-- Steven Shaviro on Guy Maddin's Brand Upon The Brain!.

-- I wish I had Sandrine Marques's visual memory—check out these pairs of images: Van Sant/Raphael; Von Sternberg/Sofia Coppola; and De Sica/Fellini.

-- Thom Ryan has an erudite post on several 1938 films.

-- Peter Schjeldahl on Gustave Courbet in the New Yorker.

-- James Wolcott: "Who knew that an essay by David Denby could induce more than groggy nods from readers fortunate enough to make it across the finish line?"

* * *

I saw and liked Jonathan Demme's Caged Heat (1974) and I'm tempted to do a little immersion in the films of Roger Corman. I'm wondering if you had any recommendations of films he either produced or directed? Thank you.

A few Corman links: a profile-essay by Wheeler Winston Dixon at Senses of Cinema; two interviews with Corman at Bright Lights (one and two); and the "Corman at 80" blog-a-thon hosted by Tim Lucas.

pic: A screengrab. And the film is...?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Surrealism and Cinema: The Artificial Night

This is the first in a series of occasional posts I’m planning on the subject of surrealism and cinema.

Seriously, I could keep this blog occupied for a long while simply by playing detective and unearthing great, should-be-better-known essays by Adrian Martin. My latest discovery is a lucid, synthesizing piece written in 1993 called “Surrealism and Cinema: The Artificial Night,” tucked away into the publication that accompanied the exhibit “Surrealism: Revolution by Night,” organized by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

The beautifully evocative phrase “artificial night” comes from Robert Desnos, who used it to refer to the movie theater. I’m frequently paraphrasing or excerpting Adrian Martin (AM) below.

* * *

“Surrealism” is a word that has passed so totally into common usage that its precise links with history, culture, art and film have been gradually obscured over time. The first thing to realize is that surrealism isn’t really an aesthetic style (an ‘ism’ like Impressionism or Cubism). It goes beyond that. Surrealism is an attitude, a way of looking at the world and experiencing it, a mode of living.

AM refers to André Breton’s collaborator Jean Schuster and his distinction between (1) historic surrealism, which comprises certain figures, careers, and the activities of those who are closely associated with the term and used it to identify themselves, and (2) eternal surrealism, which is a longer and broader history of the surrealist attitude or impulse that might include, for instance, de Sade, Alice in Wonderland, trance rituals of African tribes, Bugs Bunny, and so on. And so surrealist cinema comprises not just Luis Buñuel but also Raul Ruiz, Jan Svankmajer, etc.

But the absorption of ‘surrealism’ (the word and its multiple connotations) into common global-cultural usage should also signal some caution as we think and talk about it:

Since surrealism does have a historic dimension, some of its most familiar gestures and images have inexorably become repetitive, congealed, vulgar and empty. Long before slick TV ads and music video, the Situationist philosopher Guy Debord was already complaining in 1957, ‘that automatic writing is monotonous, and that the whole genre of ostentatious surrealist “weirdness” has ceased to be very surprising.’ We must separate the purely ‘decorative and stereotypical aspects’ of surrealism (as Ruiz calls them) — the banally monstrous or magical imagery that today floods TV, graphic design and films — from the deeper and more fertile surreal impulse.

Surrealism isn’t just a plunge into dreams, fantasies and the imagination but instead a search in reality for the ‘marvelous’:

The properly surreal realm is that of daily life — but daily life freed from the stranglehold of the ‘reality principle’, and invaded by the forces of love, the unconscious and what Schuster calls ‘the indestructible nature of the interior poetic voice’. Surrealism is not about escaping into ‘the imaginary’; it celebrates the sometimes fleeting triumph of the imagination in a world battened down by misery, oppression and repression.

[…] In surrealist cinema, quite simply, reality surprises us. This surprise may come with the force of revelation, but it is militantly without conventional ‘meaning’ [unlike cinema, sometimes surrealist-influenced, that leans toward a certain ‘symbolist’ mode in which imagery can said to be often accompanied by a ‘key’, e.g. Cocteau, Paradjanov, Tarkovsky, Polanski, etc.].

The first, historic path of surrealism and cinema must be (according to AM) broadly defined to include not just officially acknowledged ‘classics’ by René Clair, Germaine Dulac & Antonin Artaud, Joseph Cornell, Marcel Duchamp, etc., but also certain films by Robert Benayoun, Ado Kyrou, Nelly Kaplan, Walerian Borowczyk, Toshio Matsumoto, Jean Rouch, etc. And then there is a second path of films, those that can be viewed in a particular, surrealist manner:

The history of the surrealist experience at the movies is a grand one indeed. It is an important history to explore because it widens our perception of what surrealism was (and is) about — not just paintings, sculptures, drawings and films, but also reviews, homages, ravings, poems, games. For surrealism proposes a theory of experience — a set of suggestions about how to perceive the world in a suitably intoxicated manner (whether one is intoxicated by love, drugs, poetry or political rage).

On the penchant for ‘artificiality’:

Surrealists have always worshipped ‘tacky’, cheaply made ‘B’ films whose tricks and bursting seams are completely evident — and they have worshipped these films not in a derisive, ‘camp’ fashion but in a quite sublime way. […] ‘B’ films — particularly in popular genres such as fantasy, horror, film noir, science fiction and the musical — can reach the heights of dreamlike abstraction precisely because they are so blatantly artificial. What’s more, they are surrealist in (usually) an involuntary, not self-conscious manner. And — best of all — they are virtually anonymous works in the eyes of official culture […] Among the more deliberate and erudite of film ‘artificialists’, Orson Welles (Mr. Arkadin, 1955) and Raul Ruiz (The Three Crowns of the Sailor, 1982) hold a supreme place.

And for intensity:

Even when surrealism is at its most light-hearted, it embodies a seriousness of purpose — a deep investment in the signs of a free imagination, whenver and wherever it breaks out. Searingly serious emotional intensity — bordering on complete paranoia and pyschosis—governs many surrealist favorites, from the astonishing Hollywood romance Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, 1935) to the only film directed by actor Charles Laughton, The Night of the Hunter (1955), which Paul Hammond has rightly called ‘a freak, an anomaly, an oasis’.

On the dialectical split in surrealist history between Breton and Georges Bataille:

Much recent discussion of surrealism has taken the form of a fervent rehabilitation of Bataille — and of a wider tradition that includes Antonin Artaud’s asylum writings; Jacques Vaché’s black ‘umour’; Hans Bellmer’s pornographic dolls; Michel Leiris’s autobiography, Manhood; Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalysis of the alienated human condition; and even the ‘counter-cultural’ fantasies of American novelist William Burroughs. Such work has emphasized the perverse, gothic, violent and monstrous aspects of the free imagination; in surrealism’s artificial night, this tradition is perhaps its black sun. It is seemingly under the sign of Bataille that many dark, contemporary surrealist films have appeared, from those of David Cronenberg (Naked Lunch, 1992) and David Lynch (Blue Velvet, 1986) to Ruiz’s City Of Pirates (1983). Such works enact a bleak politics of surrealist transgression — a tearing open of bodies, and a voyage of no return into furiously alienated minds.

In entering the black surrealist tradition, however, we are perhaps in danger of entirely overlooking Breton’s ‘provocative openness towards poetry’ [Jean Schuster’s words] — and its particular resonance within movies and popular culture generally. The surrealism of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics, of Daffy Duck cartoons, of Mad magazine in the 1950s or of Sam Raimi’s delicious horror film Evil Dead II (1987) offers a special kind of imaginative liberation. While often blackly humorous and full of social rage, this surrealism is also light, airy and supremely comic.

* * *

Next up in the “surrealism and cinema” series: Paul Hammond’s The Shadow and its Shadow. I’m also in the middle of Franklin Rosemont's Revolution in the Service of the Marvelous and Surrealism and its Popular Accomplices (ed. Rosemont). If you have any recommendations of some of your favorite surrealist reading (fiction or nonfiction), I’d love to hear about them.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Ten Places to Go in T.O.

I'm cross-posting this list of ten places to go in Toronto, Ontario at Darren's TIFF blog, 1st Thursday. I'd love to hear your suggestions and tips to add to this list. Could I ask you to please leave them in the comments at the 1st Thursday cross-post so that all of us TIFF-goers can make use of them there? Thanks much.

It's devilishly hard to keep the list down to ten, so forgive me if I do some cramming and cheat a little:

1. Cinematheque Ontario. Alas, it's not in season during TIFF but this is the place that draws me most to Toronto and I just had to begin with a coup de chapeau to it.

2. Little India. On Queen Street, and probably my favorite Indian restaurant in Toronto. It's quite small, and monstrously popular, so I'd suggest lunch either early (11:30-ish) or late (2:00-ish). For a whole cornucopia of Indian food, I'd recommend a trip to the Indian section of town on Garrard Street East. For about three blocks, you could swear you were in the middle of Mumbai.

3. Bookstores: Andrew Tracy hipped me to this chain called BMV (Books Music Videos) that carries discounted merhandise and tons of it. I've been to 2 locations, one off Yonge near Dundas and the other at Yonge and Eglinton. I also recommend a great used-book shop called Eliot's on Yonge near Wellesley for books on art, film, music, etc.

4. College Street West: Adam Nayman turned me on to this books-and-music zone which includes stores like She Said Boom. I've been here just once and scarcely skimmed the surface. I'll be trying to squeeze in a visit during TIFF.

5. The Beguiling: Seriously: the best indie comics shop I've been to in North America and I've been to a few. If you're an indie comics aficionado, leave your credit card at home and take a budgeted amount of cash. You've been warned. Also, close by is one of the largest video stores in the city, Suspect Video.

6. The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). The gallery is only partially open because of construction but it'll be running exhibits of Chuck Close and Bernini during TIFF.

7. The Rex. Top-flight music club hosting the best in local Toronto jazz. Very often, there's not even a cover charge. Good food and beer selections. On Queen St., close to Little India.

8. Two More Great Bookstores: (a) Pages on Queen St., not far from the Rex; and (b) Theater Books, a stone's throw from the Varsity and Cumberland theaters. Great selection of film books at both places.

9. The Film Reference Library. Affiliated with the TIFF group. You can't borrow anything but you can watch videos and DVDs from their large collection (lots of rare and unreleased stuff) and consult books and back issues of periodicals. Recommended from their collection (and unavailable in the US): Claire Denis's U.S. Go Home and Olivier Assayas's Cold Water.

10. The NFB Mediatheque. For two bucks, you can get comfy in a large plush chair/viewing station and call up any of the hundreds of films produced by the National Film Board of Canada. The last time I was there, I caught Gilles Groulx's Le Chat Dans Le Sac (1964). My next trip will likely feature some Arthur Lipsett. Located close to the Scotiabank Theatres used by TIFF.

Your suggestions and tips for fun places to go in Toronto? Please let us know at this post at 1st Thursday. Thank you!

* * *

I saw Jules Dassin's Thieves' Highway (1949) the other night. A tough little film, modest but tenacious. And it didn't turn away its unsentimental eye until the very end when a cheery studio-tacked-on ending reared its absurd little head. Apparently, the ending was Zanuck's handiwork (so Dassin lamented). Afterwards, I just had to pull out my videotape of The Magnificent Ambersons, fast-forward it, and watch that ridiculous happy ending again. (Still, what a great film.) Just wondering: are there other examples of studio-imposed and -shot endings completely at odds with what the director wanted to do...? It's probably because I'm sleepy but no other specific instances are coming to mind at this minute...

* * *

A few links:

-- Here's a handful of Victor Erice's favorite films that he has put together to be shown at Cinematheque Ontario this month.

-- Rob Davis of Errata begins a new series of podcasts. First up: an interview with Guy Maddin.

-- Geoff Manaugh posts two essays on New York by Walter Murch and Michelangelo Antonioni respectively.

-- Dave Kehr on the recently announced third box set in the ongoing “Treasures from American Film Archives” series.

-- Colin MacCabe in The Observer: "Save our film heritage from the political vandals."

-- Media theorist Sean Cubitt's blog is subtitled: "Aphorisms and scribbled notes on the history and philosophy of media."

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Few Riffs

WR: Mysteries Of The Organism

-- Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell are in Bologna for the Cinema Ritrovato, a festival of restored and rediscovered films. I've heard a lot of appetizing things about this festival (and about the food and wine in town), and it's one of the few film fests that doesn't fall smack dab in the middle of my teaching year. I'm thinking of a trip to Bologna next summer.

-- Three good Michael Mann films, all of which have aged well: Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995) and The Insider (1999). This time around, I was struck by how insistently these films are about (1) working, and (2) living, in the modern world. The dedication to work and work-related responsibility we see here is a bit different from Hawksian professionalism. It's easily capable of going too far, shading into self-destructive, even psychopathic, obsessiveness. Also, the strong sense of belonging to a collective in Hawks looks almost outmoded (un-modern) and romantic here. Even in Heat, in which the group is tight and its actions require careful coordination and mutual agreement, things are always on the verge of falling apart. When it's down to the wire, your obligation is to abandon the group and strike out on your own. (De Niro's credo is to be forever "willing to walk out in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.")

And between working and living, the former holds the upper hand. For a filmmaker who makes (nominal) thrillers, Mann spends an inordinate amount of time tracking families or romantic relationships, accumulating important detail as he goes along. (And he goes along awhile: Heat and The Insider are both over two-and-a-half hours.) This ends up magnifying the tragedies of 'living': we watch cracks appear one by one by one; damage and devastation, often direct fall-outs from work, lie fatefully in wait for families and relationships.

Where exactly does all of this take place? In the physical spaces of homes, offices, hotels, restaurants, banks, airports, cars, frequently rendered in a way that accentuates -- often with beautiful stylization using color, perspectival touches, geometries of architecture and decor -- the visible modernity of the world. Looking back, I underappreciated these Mann films when I first saw them. More on work and Heat in this essay by J. A. Lindstrom at Jump Cut.

Next: to catch up with the three Mann films I haven't seen, Thief, Last of the Mohicans, and Miami Vice.

-- Acquarello posts a list of current and upcoming DVD releases.

-- Tributes to Edward Yang by Kevin Lee and Steven Shaviro.

-- Lost In The Frame is the filmblog kept on the side by the widely-read poetry/poetics blogger K. Silem Mohammad, of {Lime Tree}.

-- Today, on July 4th, Craig Keller at Cinemasparagus puts up a post on John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

pic: Dusan Makavejev's WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), just out on DVD.