Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I'll Be Seeing You/'80s Pop

James Gray’s We Own the Night begins movingly with a montage of black-and-white still photographs (archival? staged?) that show New York City cops at work. Accompanying these images is the melody line, played on trumpet, of “I’ll Be Seeing You” featuring Jackie Gleason’s orchestra. It’s one of the many songs written for and sung mostly by women during WW II.

“I’ll Be Seeing You” [mp3], here in a duet by Iggy Pop and Françoise Hardy, is a familiar chestnut in the jazz repertory. Rosemary Clooney made a version of it on her WW II ‘concept record,’ For The Duration (1991), that collects songs sung from the point of view of the ‘waiting woman.’ Every time we say goodbye/ I die a little. For all we know/we may never meet again. These foolish things/remind me of you. No love, no nothin’/till my baby comes home. I’ll be seeing you/in all the old familiar places.

We Own the Night itself is also about the women (mainly Eva Mendes’ Amada, but also Marat’s wife) pushed to the margins, left behind, by men at war. (See Noel Vera’s post on the film for more.)

* * *

Immediately following that opening B&W montage, we cut to the exterior of an NYC club called “El Caribe,” scored to Blondie’s “Heart of Glass.” Which reminds me that the Debbie Harry catalog contains at least two terrific songs with Caribbean roots: the well-known “The Tide is High” [mp3] (on The Best of Blondie) and the much lesser-known but equally good “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” [mp3] (on her solo Def, Dumb and Blonde from 1989).

The film also includes one of the earliest rap/singing hybrids, Blondie’s “Rapture,” although my favorite example of this genre—actually, my single favorite pop song of the 1980’s—is Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You” [mp3], on the album of the same name (1984). It was written and recorded by Prince on his self-titled record in 1979, and features both Stevie Wonder on harmonica and also Melle Mel of Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five. There are so many high points on this recording: the stuttering spoken-word opening by Mel; the presence of both synth bass and bass guitar, which creates a nice textural tension; the killer hook (at 1:22 and 1:30, then repeated) of a descending four-note figure on ‘slapped’ bass; and Stevie's harmonica solo. The late, great Arif Mardin arranged and produced.

* * *

A parlor game, if you feel like it: your single favorite (no ties or multiples!) pop song of the 1980’s?

* * *

Old-school hip-hop legend Kool Mo Dee’s entertaining, unclassifiable book, “There’s a God on the Mic” (2003), critically evaluates MC’s from hip-hop history. (He also evaluates himself!) Each MC gets an essay, a lyric excerpt, and a table of scores based on the following criteria: originality, concepts, versatility, vocabulary, substance, flow, flavor, freestyle, vocal presence, live performance, poetic value, body of work, industry impact, social impact, longevity, lyrics, battle skills. He awards values on a 100-point scale and chalks up totals to come up with a ranking of the top 50 MC’s.

Here’s his list of the top 15 MC’s of all time: (1) Melle Mel (2) Rakim (3) KRS-One (4) Big Daddy Kane (5) Kool Mo Dee (!) (6) Grandmaster Caz (7) LL Cool J (8) Chuck D (9) Notorious B.I.G. (10) Lauryn Hill (11) Nas (12) Queen Latifah (13) Tupac (14) Kool G Rap (15) Jay Z.

* * *

Some reading. Paul Arthur in Cineaste (winter 2006) on Brakhage and the translation from celluloid to TV screen.

Discovering what looks good on a TV screen is a trial-and-error process. Some films simply demand a larger-than-life scale and thus shrink into triviality; others possess such delicate coloration or iconographic intricacy that they barely register in electronic formats. Brakhage’s five-part Dog Star Man (1961-64) is among his best-known films and the only feature-length text selected for inclusion [on the Brakhage Criterion DVD]. Regrettably, neither its dense layers of superimposition nor its jolting combinations of macro- and micro-spaces are particularly receptive to digital translation. Morever, the central figure of an ax-wielding climber, an autobiographical projection of Brakhage himself, looked rather less than heroic on my living-room appliance. On the other hand, subtle gradations of color among several chosen film stocks made the technological leap in The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes (1971), part of a visual ensemble transforming grisly autopsy procedures into a lambent suite of human meat shapes and textures. By the late Eighties, Brakhage had segued almost completely from photographic depiction to brief bursts of rhythmic abstraction painted directly onto film stock. Possibly due to the fact that light on a television screen glows from behind the image, as in stained-glass windows, or due to the nature of pixels versus film grain, Brakhage’s vibrant celluloid paintings tend to retain their original vividness.

* * *

From Adrian Martin’s book Phantasms, a simple, strong, lucid definition of a critic: “[A]s Daney once remarked, critics should be those who either know something or love something — or, even better, know why they love something, and then know how to share that special knowledge with the public.”

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Movie" vs. British Cinema

The story of Cahiers du cinéma has been generously recounted and mythologized, but there is an important stream of film criticism from the 1960’s that is regrettably much less remembered and discussed today. I’m thinking of Movie magazine, a strong and early example of committed auteur criticism in Great Britain.

For the last couple of weeks I’ve been poring over moth-eaten back issues in the library, attempting to piece together a picture of that turbulent film-cultural moment in Britain contemporaneous with the early days of the French New Wave.

* * *

Movie was founded in 1962; it grew out of the film section of an undergraduate magazine called Oxford Opinion. Influenced by Cahiers (or, more precisely, the example of Cahiers), it was nevertheless different in several important ways. Probably because it came out of a British literary-cultural tradition, Movie was less flamboyant, less given to allusion-making, more practical. The writers constructed detailed description of films; they believed in coming to grips with a film through close analysis, by examining its inner workings. Patient mise-en-scène analysis was the cornerstone of their method.

The best-known writers at the magazine in the ‘60s—like Robin Wood, V. F. Perkins, Ian Cameron, and Paul Mayersberg—were all distinct individuals, but it can be said that they broadly shared a certain classicist sensibility: they valued organic unity and harmony of parts in an artwork, and they viewed style as something that is used not gratuitously but instead at the service of content, as a vehicle to create meaning.

Film criticism in Britain in the ‘50s was dominated by Sight and Sound. As Pam Cook points out in The Cinema Book, S&S was not against personal cinema; but it championed only a certain kind of art cinema, primarily European, and it was unsympathetic to Hollywood cinema, which it viewed mostly as industrially manufactured mass-cultural product. As the decade wore on, S&S began supporting the newly-born Free Cinema and its filmmakers (Lindsay Anderson, Karel Reisz, Tony Richardson). Some of them even wrote for the magazine. The Free Cinema then gave rise to and became part of the larger British New Wave.

* * *

Movie attacked two kinds of British cinema: first, the British equivalent of “Tradition of Quality” pictures. In an essay on British cinema “by V. F. Perkins on behalf of the editorial board” in the first issue, he tries to account for the “badness of the British films” of the traditional kind:

So how can we explain it? Primarily we would point to the general climate of opinion in Britain, and in particular to the British concept of The Good Film. The traditional British “quality” picture follows a recipe for which the ingredients are: an important and if possible controversial subject (race prejudice, the idiocy/inhumanity of war, the dignity of the individual, etc.); a popular story; a fair representation of all points of view; a resolution which makes the audience “think”; a “cinematic” treatment; lastly, but importantly, a few “personal” idiosyncrasies (in the hope that mouthpieces will thus resemble people).

Movie also took up arms against the British New Wave, whose earnest commitment to social realism (according to Perkins) outstripped its talent for cinema:

… British opinion on the cinema … is concerned mainly with what a director ought to want to do. It is at this point that the beliefs behind the old and the new British films meet. Each is based on a preconception of the sort of film that ought to be made, whether it’s a “good story well told” or a “long, hard look at the well-springs of the human condition as it displays itself in the grind of living.”

* * *

Movie Reader (1972, ed. Ian Cameron) collects the enthusiasms and passions of the magazine in those early years. Drawing from its first 14 issues (1962-1965), the book includes devoted and detailed articles on Hitchcock, Hawks, Preminger, Nick Ray, Losey, Tashlin, and von Sternberg.

Movie’s enthusiasm and taste for Hollywood cinema can be seen in this interesting chart that I’ve taken the liberty of scanning and uploading; it appeared in the first issue of the magazine. (The page is divided into two halves: British cinema is on top and American cinema below.)

* * *

Perkins continues in his British cinema essay:

Given enough money to fill only a smallish piggy bank, a derelict airstrip and a few clips from a silent film, Edgar Ulmer can produce a little miracle, Beyond the Time Barrier. It doesn’t happen in Britain because no-one believes that a film with a title like “Beyond the Time Barrier” or “Fury at Showdown” can possibly be worth making.

But he doesn’t dismiss all British cinema:

Seth Holt’s Taste of Fear trickled by, apparently without being very widely noticed. It was a horror-cum-mystery picture with unaesthetic contents, like a decomposing corpse. And it was indeed, by serious standards, not very good. However we are convinced that, if any hope for the future of British cinema exists in visible form, it comes from Holt’s film rather than from—its only competitor—Reisz’s. To put it simply Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a good film, and we can’t imagine, on its evidence, that Karel Reisz will make a much better one. Taste of Fear is rather a bad film, and we can imagine Seth Holt making a masterpiece. […] What sets it apart from other British pictures? Simply that it reveals time and again a director who can create cinematically, where other directors are content with illustrating their scripts.

According to IMDb, Holt died in 1971 at the age of 48.

* * *

Seduced early by the Nouvelle Vague, I ended up neglecting the British New Wave. Of the few films I’ve seen, I admire Lindsay Anderson’s If, and remember liking (from a long time ago) Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I’m looking forward to the Free Cinema 3-DVD collection that’s being released this month.

Your favorite films to come out of the British New Wave? And your thoughts on the ‘movement’?

pic: Cover of the Oshima issue, #17 (1970). For details, please see Robin Wood's bibliography.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007


-- Matthew Swiezynski, at The Art of Memory, has a framegrab post, "trains in cinema, part 3."

-- David Hudson has helpful round-up posts on the new issues of Film Comment and Bright Lights.

-- Two fun collage-posts: Craig Keller's "Entr'acte" and David Pratt-Robson's "Warhol and Pieces".

-- David Bordwell on POV shots.

-- Zach: "Have I written my post yet about how Circles of Confusion is one of the great, largely unsung books on film/photography/art? [...] Some reports peg [Hollis Frampton] as imperious and arrogant. Maybe so. But in Circles of Confusion he mostly comes across as charming, witty, mentally flexible. It's as though you've met someone interesting at a party who knows more than you do about everything, but has either the absentmindedness or good sense to not show they know it."

-- Mubarak on "The Domestic Interiors of Jean-Claude Rousseau": "Here is a chance to discover this filmmaker whom Jean-Marie Straub has called, along with Frans Van de Staak and Peter Nestler, the greatest working in Europe in these times."

-- Dave Kehr on animation in the NYT: "Is the filmed image a flat canvas to be covered with lines and colors, or is it a window that opens onto a pre-existing world? That was a central question for many early film theorists, and with the rise of computer-generated imagery (or CGI, to use the film industry acronym), it has become one again."

-- J. Hoberman in the Voice: "A doom-ridden pulp cabalist with a dark sense of purpose as well as humor, Richard Kelly shoots the moon with his rich, strange, and very funny sci-fi social satire, Southland Tales. [...] Kelly's fever dream premiered at two hours and 45 minutes; now trimmed by 20 minutes—dropping subplots and adding voice-over—it remains a gloriously sprawling and enjoyably unsynopsizeable spectacle. (Indeed, as demonstrated by the Donnie Darko director's cut, Kelly is actually better when his cosmology remains obscure.)"

-- Michael Sicinski at Greencine on the NYFF Views from the Avant-Garde (part 4).

-- Donal Foreman's interview with Marc Siegel, who curated a programme that "brought together and traced the links between several strands of underground cinema from the 1960s: principally, the Zanzibar collective in Paris and, in New York, the work of Jack Smith and the films that came out of Andy Warhol’s Factory."

-- I just ordered a copy of the new Chris Fujiwara-edited, 800-page book, "Defining Moments in Movies: The Greatest Films, Stars, Scenes and Events that Made Movie Magic." Here's a thread at a_film_by.

-- The Siren (who has been nominated for a weblog of the year award) on Joan Fontaine.

-- Acquarello on David Desser's Eros Plus Masscre: An Introduction to the Japanese New Wave Cinema.

-- Posts from two Los Angeleno pals: Doug Cummings on DVD commentaries by Terence Davies and Charles Burnett; and Michael Smith on Resident Evil: Extinction.

-- Jason Sperb on Thomas Cripps' studies of the history of African-Americans in the cinema.

-- The Slovenian film magazine Ekran has put together a special event on "Independent Cinema" for the Ljubljana Film Festival next week. Presenters will include Gabe Klinger (on Brakhage); Neil Young from Britain; Alexis Tioseco from the Philippines (and proprietor of the blog Concentrated Nonsense); Christoph Huber from Austria; and Adrian Martin.

-- Vertigo magazine on new German film: "In the shadow of these mainstream achievements something aesthetically far more interesting (and commercially far less successful, of course) has developed. The names of directors like Christian Petzold (The State I Am In, 2000), Angela Schanelec (Passing Summer, 2001), Christoph Hochhäusler (Low Profile, 2006) or Valeska Grisebach (Longing, 2006) have only recently begun to be whispered by observers of the international film scene. In France this group of filmmakers has already been dubbed the "Nouvelle Vague Allemande" by Cahiers du Cinéma. In Germany the label "Berliner Schule" ("Berlin School") was coined and readily applied – to some of the rather individualistically-minded directors' dismay."

I'm way behind on my new German film viewing. I haven't even seen The Lives of Others (or anything by Fatih Akin), let alone a single film by the interesting-sounding "Berliner Schule." Any reflections, impressions, or suggestions about new German cinema will certainly be welcome.

pic: The opposite of what I'm seeing right now, a carpet of snow on my back porch.