Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Favorites 2007

Favorite new films (alphabetically):

  • At Sea (Peter Hutton, USA)

  • Black Book (Paul Verhoeven, Holland)

  • Fengming, A Chinese Memoir (Wang Bing, China)

  • Flight of the Red Balloon (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan/France)

  • I’m Not There (Todd Haynes, USA)

  • Inland Empire (David Lynch, USA/France/Poland)

  • In the City of Sylvia (Jose Luis Guerin, Spain/France)

  • Lady Chatterley (Pascale Ferran, France)

  • The Last Mistress (Catherine Breillat, France)

  • Paranoid Park (Gus van Sant, USA/France)

  • The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (Eric Rohmer, France)

  • Secret Sunshine (Lee Chang-dong, South Korea)

  • Useless (Jia Zhang-ke, China)

* * *

Favorite older films seen for the first time this year (chronologically):

  • Hangover Square (John Brahm, 1945)

  • Story of a Love Affair (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1950)

  • Tokyo Twilight (Yasujiro Ozu, 1957)

  • Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Chantal Akerman, 1976)

  • Killer of Sheep (Charles Burnett, 1977)

  • Ms. 45 (Abel Ferrara, 1981)

  • À Nos Amours (Maurice Pialat, 1983)

  • El Sur (Victor Erice, 1983)

  • Sombre (Philippe Grandrieux, 1998)

  • Films by Pedro Costa: In Vanda’s Room and Where Does That Hidden Smile Lie? (2000/2001)

* * *

Revisited films that look better every time:

  • L’Age d’Or (Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dali, 1930)

  • They Live By Night (Nicholas Ray, 1949)

  • Stromboli (Roberto Rossellini, 1950)

  • The Cloud-Capped Star (Ritwik Ghatak, 1960)

  • Bobby (Raj Kapoor, 1973)

  • Deewaar (Yash Chopra, 1975)

  • Films by Martin Arnold: Pièce Touchée, Passage à l'acte, Alone: Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1989/1993/1997)

  • Surviving Desire (Hal Hartley, 1991)

  • La Ceremonie (Claude Chabrol, 1995)

  • Domino (Tony Scott, 2005)

* * *

And finally, 10 great writers I had been aware of but only started reading seriously this year:

  • Nicole Brenez: Abel Ferrara; "For it is the Critical Faculty that Invents Fresh Forms," in The French Cinema Book; essays in Rouge and Screening the Past.

  • Jean-Pierre Coursodon: 2-volume American Directors, with Pierre Sauvage.

  • Jonathan Culler: Literary Theory; Roland Barthes.

  • Fergus Daly: Leos Carax; on Maurice Pialat in Rouge and Hou Hsiao-hsien in Movie Mutations.

  • Paul Hammond: The Shadow and its Shadow; L'Age d'Or (BFI classics).

  • James Naremore: See this post.

  • Bill Nichols: Introduction to Documentary; Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary; Ideology and the Image; Movies and Methods, vols. 1 and 2 (editor).

  • Sam Rohdie: Antonioni; Montage; essays at Screening the Past.

  • Robert Stam: Film Theory: An Introduction; Reflexivity in Film and Culture: From Don Quixote to Jean-Luc Godard.

  • David Toop: Ocean of Sound; Exotica; Haunted Weather.

* * *

A large survey at Screening the Past collects key contributions to the field--books, essays, DVDs, etc.--as nominated by numerous scholars/cinephiles including Dudley Andrew, Nicole Brenez, Thomas Elsaesser, Craig Keller, Bill Krohn, Adrian Martin, James Naremore, Andy Rector, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Paul Willemen.

* * *

One or more of your favorites of 2007, in either films or books, old or new?

* * *

Drawing: Ganesh, who is associated with new beginnings--Wish you all a great 2008!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Silents & Silence

If I had to think back over the last couple of years and name two electrifying experiences in a movie theater, they would be: (1) The scientific-poetic films of Jean Painlevé accompanied live by Yo La Tengo; and (2) Paul Fejos’ city symphony/romance, Lonesome (1928), with accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra.

Having said that, let me confess something: I have trouble with the idea of automatic, de rigueur musical accompaniment for silent cinema. When I watch silents on DVD, I almost always turn off the sound and watch in silence. (There are some exceptions, e.g. the Alloy Orchestra’s score for Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera.)

I remember powerfully affecting silent film retrospectives—Lang, Dreyer, Benjamin Christensen—seen with live piano accompaniment, but lately I’ve been wondering how those experiences might have been aesthetically different in silence. (Didn’t Langlois show silents in silence at the Cinémathèque Française?)

So, here are my concerns: (1) If silent film accompaniment exists primarily to fill the void of silence, we can probably agree that’s an aesthetically weak raison d'etre. (2) Irving Thalberg once said: “There never was a silent film.” Can we use this as evidence to claim that it’s natural for every silent film to be accompanied by music? The history of silent film development demonstrates this to be not so (more on this in a moment). (3) Does silent film music exist to echo or underline moods and feelings during the course of a film? If so, isn't this kind of musical accompaniment somewhat redundant? Worse, can't such an approach actively dilute the power of image-driven silent cinema?

* * *

A few speculative thoughts. First, musical accompaniment can prove valuable when it supplements the experience of the film with something new, adding fresh layers of information or sensation designed to counterpoint or elaborate, not merely underline the atmosphere or emotions in the film.

Second, the ‘aura’ of live accompaniment carries a charge, especially so with a large ensemble like an orchestra although this is even true for solo live performance, for example on piano or organ. But this aura is weakened on a recorded soundtrack on DVD in a home viewing context.

Third, in good films one is aware of a measure of care with which both the individual images and the film have been created and assembled. Analogously, does it not make sense that the musical accompaniment also be constructed with suitable care and forethought before it is joined to the image track? This is probably not what happens with most instances of live silent film accompaniment, which rely significantly on extemporaneity.

Fourth, I wonder if my nervousness about fully embracing silent film music has something to do with my auteurist sympathies. If auteurism sees the director as a key source of ‘meaning’ in a film, the often non-director-approved musical accompaniment can come to be viewed as something that is inessential (at best) or confounding (at worst).

* * *

In his article “The Silence of the Silents” (Musical Quarterly, winter 1996), Rick Altman challenges many received notions about silent film music. Drawing from extensive primary research, he demonstrates that silent film constitutes a heterogeneous period with a variety of accompaniment practices including not-infrequent absence of accompaniment. This was especially so in the first half of the silent era.

But in film-historical research, the 1920s has traditionally come to serve as the privileged model of silent film sound. Emphasizing the latter half of silent movie history and its practices in this way has obscured the multiplicity of approaches to accompaniment in the early silent film years:

Like lyceum lectures, films may call for the explanation of an elocutionist. Like music hall specialty acts, films may be accompanied by music matched to the singer’s movements. Like vaudeville comic routines, film pratfalls may require a drum roll or cymbal crash. Like vaudeville chaser acts, films are sometimes accompanied by whatever popular song the orchestra happens to have on the stand. Like lantern slide shows, films may call for the type of music being played by the musicians represented on the screen. Like travel lectures, films may need appropriate sound effects. Like the legitimate theater, films may require live dialogue. Like mid-way routines, film music may serve primarily as ballyhoo [nickelodeon music played outside the theater in order to attract customers]. Or like paintings in a museum, films may be projected in stark silence.

It wasn’t till the latter half of the silent era that accompaniment practices were reduced in variety and thus standardized. It is this narrow range of standardized practices that we now equate with silent film accompaniment. I cite Altman’s piece because it shows that (a) silence was an option in the silent era, and at the same time, (b) it was only one of an amazingly varied set of options.

* * *

My aim is not to denigrate the practice of silent film music accompaniment; I have complex feelings both pro and con on the matter. What I’m trying to do is use the lever of skepticism to open a dialogue on the subject. So, let me offer a menu of questions for you to choose from and respond to (as many or as few as you wish):

Your thoughts on silent film accompaniment in theatrical and/or home video settings? Signal silent film experiences that remain memorable for you at least partly because of musical accompaniment? Examples of silent film DVD releases with strong soundtracks? Finally, can musical accompaniment be detrimental to the experience of a silent film?

* * *


-- The new issue of Rouge includes pieces on Abel Ferrara's Go Go Tales and Jose-Luis Guerin's In Sylvia's City; an interview with Paul Schrader; a tribute to the late film analyst Marie-Claire Ropars; and an early essay by Roger Tailleur on Chris Marker.

-- In the film blogosphere: Craig Keller, "In a Lonely Place"; A discussion on contemporary Spanish cinema at Dan's place; Zach on Noël Burch: "Qu'est-ce que la Nouvelle Vague?"; David Bordwell on aspect ratios and Godard; Acquarello has been filing dispatches from Spanish Cinema Now in New York; Michael Guillén interviews Walter Murch at Greencine; and Larry Aydlette, formerly the Shamus and That Little Round-Headed Boy, returns with a new blog, Welcome To L.A.

-- On Rick Altman's book, Silent Film Sound.

Yo La Tengo accompany Jean Painlevé's films: drawing by Canadian indie comics artist Seth.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Didactic Cinema

In a couple of weeks I’m going home to visit my parents in Chennai; it’ll be my first trip back to India in 10 years. Watching films with my parents is a ritual I’ve enjoyed all my life, and the last few weeks I’ve been warming up for my trip by embarking on a ‘70s Hindi cinema bender. It’s been startling to revisit films I haven’t seen since I wore short pants and sported a topknot. There’s so much more swirling around in these movies (aesthetically, socio-culturally, politically) than I even began to suspect as a kid.

Below are some thoughts following a viewing of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s didactic comedy, Guddi.

* * *

I’ve supposed the word “didactic” to always possess a slight whiff of disparagement. Perhaps I’ve been mistaken. The word has three definitions in the American Heritage dictionary: (1) “Intended to instruct”; (2) “Morally instructive”; and (3) “Inclined to teach or moralize excessively”. The first of the three definitions doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation, and can be associated with the word “pedagogical” (“concerned with instruction or teaching”). This is the sense in which I’ll be using the word here.

* * *

Guddi (1971) contains one of the most famous screen debuts in Indian cinema history—that of Jaya Bhaduri, who later married India’s great screen icon Amitabh Bachchan. She plays a movie-mad schoolgirl, Kusum (Guddi is her family nickname, meaning "little doll"), who ‘bunks’ class to go play hooky and see Anupama, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1966 film. She falls hopelessly in love with the movie’s star, Dharmendra. This upsets her family’s plans to ‘arrange’ her marriage to a young man they've chosen.

Utpal Dutt, that great axiom of Bengali cinema, plays an “experimental psychologist” who hatches a plan to dismantle Guddi's confusion/conflation of illusion and reality by taking her behind the scenes of a Dharmendra film shoot. As you might expect, the “filmi duniya” (film world) stands in inverse relation to its appearance on screen. The glamour of cinema disintegrates, in the context of shooting, into a succession of banal, boring, day-to-day tasks. (Truffaut managed to color even these tasks with a certain wonderstruck quality in Day for Night, but not so here.) Dharmendra is revealed to her as a mere human being, a little full of himself, a bit dull, a star surrounded by a large crew and supporting cast, all of whom work harder than he does. Disenchanted, Guddi falls out of love with the star and consents to the arranged marriage. The patriarchal order is predictably restored.

* * *

Ousmane Sembene has likened the modern African filmmaker to the figure of the traditional oral storyteller (or griot) with a pedagogical purpose. Griot characters also appear in several of his films. Sembene moved from novel-writing to films for two reasons: the ability to reach African audiences in a wider variety of language groups, and also the capability to communicate with nonliterate audiences. Francoise Pfaff writes that Sembene’s films are accessible to popular audiences in Africa because

they represent a collective experience based on visual and aural elements with characteristics that can be compared to the griot’s delivery. Anyone who has attended a film screening in a working-class district of Senegal is struck by the intensely vocal participation of the viewers who comment on the plot of the film, respond to one another’s remark, address the actors and laugh at their mishaps just as they would during the griot’s performance in which dramatic mimics and gestures are used to encourage audience reaction.

Indeed, this kind of active audience participation is also quite common in India. I remember audiences at Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975) vocally echoing or anticipating not just dialogue but also music cues and sound effects (like bullets ricocheting off rocks!).

Brian Goldfarb, in his essay "A Pedagogical Cinema," recounts an interesting turning point for Sembene:

In his successful career as a novelist and in his earliest films, Ousmane Sembene worked most often in the language and cultural conventions he was taught by the French colonial educational system in Senegal. Sembene recalls that using the colonial tongue seemed appropriate at the time: French “was a fact of life.” However, when he began to show his films in Senegal, peasant audiences criticized his language choice, identifying it as emblematic of an internalized Eurocentrism. “The peasants were quick to point out to me that I was the one who was alienated,” he explains. “They would have preferred the film in their own language, without the French.”

* * *

A couple of more examples in the category ‘didactic/pedagogical cinema’: Rossellini’s late-period history films made for television; programmatic documentaries like The Corporation or An Inconvenient Truth; essay films like Varda’s The Gleaners and I, etc.

Your thoughts on didactic/pedagogical cinema? And any other examples of films from cinema history that set out to perform, however unconventionally, a teaching function?

* * *

A few links:

-- Michael Guillen hosts his first blog-a-thon at The Evening Class, on Val Lewton, during the week of January 14.

-- Shahn at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art has been posting screengrabs of snow images all month.

-- Chris Fujiwara on the traveling Max Ophuls retrospective.

-- Scores of critic top 10 lists from the past at Eric C. Johnson's website.

-- Keith Uhlich's photo essay for the movie year 2007, at The House Next Door.

-- Steven Shaviro on Richard Kelly's Southland Tales.

-- Errol Morris responds at length to his blog commenters at the NYT.

-- Pacze Moj, at Critical Culture, has an image-laden post on Rossellini's Francis, God's Jester.

-- Frederick Wiseman's films are now available on DVD at special prices for individuals (as opposed to institutions).

pic: The schoolgirl Guddi (Jaya Bhaduri) imagines her wedding night with the star Dharmendra.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Defining Moments in Movies/Rosenbaum's 1000

Defining Moments in Movies, edited by Chris Fujiwara, is an 800-page, 4-pound bag of potato chips. You can’t just read one entry and stop; instead, you dive in at random and go snacking all over the place. The entries are brief, half a page each, comprising a couple of paragraphs.

The writers include several familiar figures from our corner of the film blogosphere, including Adrian, Dan, Noel, Matt Zoller Seitz, Michael Sicinski and Miguel Marías. To whet your appetite and recommend it as a most worthwhile stocking stuffer, let me offer up, as previews, some titles of pieces by these writers. The entries are devoted to key scenes, films, or events, and the book walks chronologically through the decades.

* * *

Adrian: “The blow job” in The Wayward Cloud; “This time tomorrow” in Regular Lovers; “The dance” in La Vie Nouvelle; “The narrator coughs” in Dogtown and Z-Boys; “Hole in the head” in The Quick and the Dead; “Charlene warns Chris away” in Heat; “Get with the program!” in Bad Lieutenant; “Art gallery impressionism” in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; “Embrace in a taxi” in Love Streams; “The lift” in Dressed to Kill; “The on-screen guide falls asleep” in The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting; “The Frankenstein screening” in The Spirit of the Beehive; Bulle Ogier as Gigi la Folle in Marc’O’s Les Idoles; “Nita’s song” in The Cloud-Capped Star.

Dan: “I will break your fall” in Trust; “Suzanne’s missing dimple” in A nos amours; “Making dinner while listening to the radio” in Marco Ferreri’s Dillinger is Dead; “Andrew Sarris’s The American Cinema” (1968); “Helicopters rule the earth” in Losey’s The Damned; “Beginning to tunnel” in Le Trou; “Dead body on the lawn” in Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story; “Publication of Bazin’s “The Ontology of the Photographic Image”” (1945); “Two gunshots interrupt the lake party” in von Sternberg’s An American Tragedy.

Noel: “Nena teaching Jose how to dance” in Mario O’Hara’s Demons; “Noel shut out of his in-laws’ house” in Mike de Leon’s In the Blink of an Eye; “Leper and church tower” in Gerardo de Leon’s Touch Me Not.

Matt: “The birth of the blockbuster” (1975); “Dolby noise reduction used on the soundtrack of A Clockwork Orange”; “Sam the Lion’s monologue by the fishing hole” in The Last Picture Show; “The parting of the Red Sea” in The Ten Commandments; “The bathtub” in Diabolique; “The cutting of Greed” (1924).

Michael: “The testimony song” in Bamako; “Jackie reads her children’s book to Michael” in Tom Noonan’s What Happened Was…; “A kulak claims the land as his” in Earth; “Freder catches his father with the false Maria” in Metropolis.

Miguel: “The mysterious little buzzing box” in Belle Toujours; “Americans take photographs of the Chaplin-like emperor” in The Sun; “The blind Korean masseuse and Trebor’s scar” in The Intruder; “Stopover embrace” in The Brown Bunny; “The shooting of a costume ball to a Them song” in Garrel’s Wild Innocence; “Bath and shower” in The Captive; “The girl carrying her boyfriend on her back” in Guerin’s Work in Progress; “Two painters singing” in Dream of Light; “Thornton sitting in the dust, rising to join old Sykes” in The Wild Bunch; “The horseback tournament” in Lilith.

* * *

Also featured extensively in Defining Moments is Jonathan Rosenbaum. His book, Essential Cinema (2004), contains a canon of 1000 personal favorites that is available on-line, thanks to Harry Tuttle. Combing the list, I find that I’ve seen almost exactly half the films on it. The films I haven’t seen are split evenly (about 250 each) into those available on DVD/video and those that are not.

For 2007, I resolved to watch a film a day on average, which worked out well. In 2008, I’d like to keep up the pace but include at least 100 films from the Rosenbaum list; I’ve meant to catch up with these titles for ages now and this resolution will give me a good incentive to.

Looking over the Rosenbaum 1000, I’m impelled to disclose some dirty little secrets—films I should’ve seen long ago but still haven’t. There was an issue of Cinema Scope a few years ago that had a special section devoted to just such films, called “guilty omissions.”

Here are 10 of my horribly guilty omissions: Andrei Rublev, Dumbo, Barry Lyndon, Limelight, Ivan the Terrible parts 1 and 2, Spartacus, Greed, East of Eden, The Barefoot Contessa, A Star is Born (any version). Your guilty omissions from the list, if you have any?

* * *

A few links:

-- Dave Kehr on "Ford at Fox" at his blog, and in the NYT.

-- Two posts featuring James Benning, by David Bordwell and Alexis Tioseco.

-- Dan on cinema sound.

-- Thierry Jousse looks back on the film highlights of 2007 in the new issue of Frieze.

-- Dave Hickey is interviewed at The Believer.

-- Ignatius Vishnevetsky on Max Ophuls.

Drawing: The cover of the Defining Moments book features The Silence of the Lambs.