Friday, February 22, 2008

Lang, Links

First, a word of thanks to Kevin Lee for inviting me to do the audio commentary for a 7-minute video essay on Fritz Lang's The Woman in the Window (1944). It was my first such experience and it was fun.

A few links:

-- Michael Sicinski's February page has a clutch of reviews including Import Export, The Sun Also Rises, Mad Detective, Alexandra, Atonement and The Counterfeiters. Also, a Bollywood movie that can bring Michael to tears (Pradeep Sarkar's Laaga Chunari Mein Daag: Journey of a Woman) is one that's going on my queue immediately.

-- Chris Fujiwara in the Boston Phoenix: "Separation is the myth and the reality of Ritwik Ghatak’s cinema. His work screams it, shouts it, sings it in image and sound. It’s not enough for a marriage to come to an end; that end also has to become an abstract principle: “Separation is essential,” says the hero’s wife near the beginning of Reason, Debate, and a Story (1974). In E-flat (1961), a theater director tells an actress, “Think it is 1947 and you have to leave your home,” at which she breaks down in tears."

-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on Joan Crawford: "[She] was an almost entirely artificial creation, from top (those painted-on eyebrows and wide-open eyes) to toe (a tiny woman who began as a dancer, she learned to carry herself effectively en pointe to create an illusion of height). [...] She is always trying too hard: enunciating her words too carefully in hopes of hiding her native twang; moving with a too-studied precision meant to show off her superlative legs; or fixing the camera with that unblinking stare, intended to suggest an alluring hauteur but just as expressive of borderline panic."

-- Kimberly Lindbergs's sumptuous "favorite DVD releases of 2007" post.

-- Filmblog discovery of the week, via Craig Keller: David Cairns's Shadowplay.

-- At Errata, Rob Davis and J. Robert Parks do a podcast on a dozen films, which sparks a discussion in the comments, especially around I'm Not There.

-- David Bordwell on His Girl Friday: "[I]n the 1963 Cahiers tribute Louis Marcorelles called it “the American film par excellence.” Praising Hawks, and HGF specifically, was part of a larger Cahiers strategy to validate the sound cinema as fulfilling the mission of film as an art. What traditional critics would have considered theatrical and uncinematic in HGF—confinement to a few rooms, constant talk, an unassertive camera style—exactly fit the style that Bazin and his younger colleagues championed."

-- Dan Sallitt on John Ford's Tobacco Road: "Because we tend to associate the Fordian tone of elegy with admiration and celebration, we might be surprised to see it crop up here. I briefly wondered whether the studio might not have concocted a Ford-like score of a mournful accordion playing "Shall We Gather at the River" and laid it over the resistant material. But music is only part of the integrated Fordian elegiac tone, which also draws on beautiful deep-space long-shot compositions, a slowing of rhythm, an emphatic isolation of individual shots, and the use of symbolic imagery. There's no mistaking that Ford is on the job."

-- Both Acquarello and Daniel Kasman have been filing reviews from the Film Comment Selects series. Also, here are Daniel's reports from Berlinale at The Auteurs' Notebook.

-- Thanks to Ryland Walker Knight at Vinyl is Heavy, some poetry selections from Nietzsche's The Gay Science.

-- The Siren has been reading Mary Astor's memoir, A Life on Film.

-- At The House Next Door, Fernando F. Croce on Maurice Pialat's A Nos Amours: "[Sandrine Bonnaire's] Suzanne is in every scene, and throughout the film one feels a transfixed Pialat steering the still-unformed talent, not so much molding Bonnaire as discovering in tandem with the actress the corporeality, force, and shifting emotional depths that would later mark her greatest performances (Vagabond (1985), La Cérémonie (1995), Secret Défense (1998))."

-- At In Media Res, Michael Z. Newman picks the Ying Yang Twins's "Wait (The Whisper Song)" as a guilty pleasure: "Owning up to a guilty pleasure is a performance of confession to cultural sin, but the sinner seeks benefits other than absolution. Calling the pleasure guilty validates participation in the ritual of taste; now liking something bad doesn’t indicate failure to recognize criteria of quality and social acceptability but affirms them. Advertising a guilty pleasure can be a way flaunting status, as only those already in possession of cultural capital can risk some on a guilty pleasure."

-- Alex Cox to Dennis Lim on his film Walker: "It was incredible, but since 1988 I have not had one offer of work from any of the Hollywood studios. I've existed entirely independent of the studios. You make one political film, and that's it -- blacklisted. But that's OK, it's a good film to be blacklisted for."

-- Owen Hatherley at The Measures Taken: "What would a world be like without art? And why did the most talented artists of the period immediately after the First World War end up advocating the abolition of art altogether? ‘Art is Dead! shouted the Dadaists, with their hatred of galleries and museums. ‘From the easel to the machine’, was a slogan of the Constructivists. The ten years after 1918 marked a total war on the category of ‘art’, its networks of patrons and consumers, and its unique objects. This is something which hasn’t exactly been forgotten by history, but tends to be treated rather patronisingly – an eccentric extremism that art grew out of, a failed utopia, or a juvenile biting of the hand that feeds."

-- Here's a big, meaty Hitchcock website: Ken Mogg's 'The MacGuffin'. Mogg is the author of The Alfred Hitchcock Story (1999).

Traces: Joan Bennett and the monogrammed pencil.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Uncanny Overlaps

This morning I received an e-mail from a cinephile friend, Christian Keathley, who teaches at Middlebury College and is the author of the book Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (2006). A while back, I did a post on his idea of the "cinephiliac moment." With Chris's permission, I'm excerpting from his e-mail below. -- Girish.

We've just started our spring term here, and the first week has been hectic as usual. I wanted to write again about something I'm interested in -- perhaps you might have some examples/ideas. (If I had a blog, this is probably the kind of thing I'd post.) For lack of a better way of putting it, I'm interested in the often uncanny ways in which one film's diegesis trespasses onto another's.

Here's an example: There's a scene early in Anthony Mann's The Far Country in which James Stewart, running from the law for having allegedly killed two men, is invited to hide in the steamboat stateroom of Ruth Roman. The crew comes in looking for him. "There's a killer on board, miss." "And you think he'd be in here?!" That sort of thing. When I watched the film with my senior seminar last term, I thought of how closely this scene resembles the one in North by Northwest in which Eva Marie Saint hides Cary Grant (another killer on the loose) in her train compartment. There, too, the authorities come in and question her and she plays dumb. In both scenes, the man hides in the woman's bed. This similarity can of course be explained by the simple fact that Hollywood routinely recycled scenes and situations, and not just in B grade features.

But watching it a second time I noticed two more similarities -- the first a coincidence, the second wildly uncanny. After the steamboat crew leaves, Ruth Roman pulls back the blanket and Stewart sits up. She remarks, "I imagine you look better with a shave." He replies, "My razor is in my saddlebag ... unless you've got one I can borrow." Of course, that's exactly what happens in N by NW -- Cary Grant borrows Eva Marie Saint's tiny razor, which leads to a comic scene in the Chicago train station men's room.

Here's the uncanny part. In The Far Country, just before the authorities begin to chase James Stewart, the steamboat captain calls out to the pilot, "Full ahead. Pull her north by northwest." Most curious here is the fact that there is no "north by northwest" on the compass: it's a cartographic impossibility (see Donald Spoto's book on Hitchcock, but others have commented on this as well).

So, are there other such moments? More importantly, what can we do with moments in which two films' diegeses suddenly and unexpectedly overlap like this? A fun puzzle to chew on over the weekend...

[from Chris's follow-up e-mail] Along similar lines -- the statue that appears in the first shot of Laura also shows up five years later in Whirlpool - same director, star, and studio. Apparently Fox's prop closet wasn't as big as we might have guessed. [A friend] tells me that there's a set of draperies that shows up somewhere in virtually every film Monogram Studios produced. These coincidences are explainable – or rather, they are easily explained away (which isn't much fun)...

* * *

Any other examples/ideas of such overlaps or coincidences?

* * *


-- Jim Emerson at Scanners: "A Journey to the End of Taste".

-- Steve Erickson at Gay City News on Film Comment Selects: "Much of this year's programming suggests an emerging "Europe Extreme" aesthetic, influenced by directors including Gaspar Noe and Michael Haneke."

-- Gerry Canavan at Culturemonkey with a post full of Philip K. Dick links.

-- David Bordwell: "Strategies of staging, like other principles shaping how films tell stories, lie behind each concrete creative decision the film artist makes. They run as undercurrents through film history, almost never discussed by critics. They form a body of tacit knowledge, flowing across our usual distinctions of period, genre, director, national cinema."

pic: "I imagine you look better with a shave."

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Laleen Jayamanne/Short, Sharp Solos

When it comes to writing about a particular film, here’s one thing I sometimes wrestle with: angle of entry.

The Sri Lanka-born, Australia-based filmmaker, critic and scholar Laleen Jayamanne once wrote a few words about this problem that I’ve found useful. They appear in the introduction to her book of film criticism, Toward Cinema and Its Double (2001). In addition to addressing the ‘angle of entry’ problem, she simultaneously suggests a need to ground criticism in precise description of the ‘film object’:

If the description does not move, then criticism is no more than a dull copy or repetition of the object. The kind of descriptive act required cannot be determined before the encounter with a particular object, but certain guidelines (at least those that work for me) seem to emerge through this writing. One is to ride an impulsive move toward whatever draws one to something in the object—a color, a gesture, a phrase, an edit point, a glance, a rhythm, a whatever. Enter the film through this and describe exactly what is heard and seen, and then begin to describe the film in any order whatsoever rather than the order in which it unravels itself. Soon one’s own description begins not only to mimic the object, as a preliminary move, but also to redraw the object. This is not a betrayal of the object through an enthroning of the primacy of the subject’s narcissistic projection but rather the activation of an encounter, a means of entering the object, though not necessarily through the door marked “Enter.” An eccentric, impulsive, descriptive drive will cut the film up and link the fragments differently from the way the film is itself organized. It is through this montage of description that a reading might emerge.

* * *

I’ve always been a bit undermotivated (okay, lazy) about taking a good set of notes after every film viewing. But since I read these words a few months ago, I’ve been trying to spend about 15 minutes most mornings setting down these details that “draw me to something in the object” from the film I saw the night before. Flipping through the pages of my notebook just now, I’m struck by how strongly affected I was by certain details in films I saw months ago, and yet these are details that had quietly slipped my memory until I was suddenly reminded of them through my notes.

* * *

In the same essay, Jayamanne writes: "There are, according to Raul Ruiz, two kinds of film critics. One sees a lot of current films and is able to respond on the run; the other spends a year or two on a few films. I am, alas, the latter kind of critic; hence the criticism in this book has taken nearly twenty years to write."

The book has an unusual and varied composition. It includes essays on: Australian films (Tracey Moffatt, Dennis O’Rourke, Jane Campion); interviews with Jayamanne about her films conducted by Anna Rodrigo, who turns out to be Jayamanne herself, using her mother's name; Sinhalese cinema, often overshadowed in its own homeland by Indian cinema; and a group of pieces on Bazin, Akerman and Ruiz that apply tools and methods used by Gilles Deleuze.

From the recent Screening the Past survey of key contributions to the field of film study in the last ten years, here is the list of her choices. And finally, an interview with her at Senses of Cinema.

* * *

Broadly speaking, a key difference between soloing in jazz and soloing in rock/pop is that the latter doesn't typically allow the soloist as much time to develop and build the solo in dramatic terms. Rock/pop soloists must compress their ideas into a small allotted duration and burn for this brief duration. Here are two contrasting instances of great solos that illustrate different approaches to this problem. Each solo lasts a little over 10 seconds.

Joni Mitchell's "In France They Kiss On Main Street" [mp3], off her album The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975), features the blues guitarist Robben Ford. His elegant, extroverted solo begins at 1:55, ending with the flourish of a Charlie Parker-esque figure.

In the '80s, the Ambitious Lovers (Arto Lindsay and Peter Scherer) began work on an album cycle based on the seven deadly sins. They only got as far as three: Envy, Greed, and Lust. They're all strong records, but I think I favor Greed (1988); it goes furthest in melding sweet, pop-like choruses with avant-garde noise and funk verses. The song "Para Nao Contrariar Voce" [mp3] is one of the few songs on the album that is all candy, no noise. Bill Frisell's introspective solo comes in at 1:30, and despite its extreme brevity, it has a structure to it. The first half plays a single-note melody, and the second half outlines arpeggios (broken chords). The lead vocals in Portuguese are by Lindsay, who was raised in Brazil.

The secret connection between these two miniature solos is tone, which is an integral part of a musician's 'voice'. Ford's tonal quality is unlike that of a stereotypical blues player: it's less 'earthy', more refined and urbane. Frisell's signature ghostly tone can set up an atmosphere with just a couple of simple, strategically placed notes and chords. Which means that he often tends to play more minimally than 99% of jazz guitarists. For him, before music is chords, melodies and rhythms, it's 'pure sound', something that lends itself to abstract sonic sculpture. In recent years, in getting back to roots music, he's been less interested in the kinds of pedal- and loop-based guitar sounds we associate with him in the '80s and early '90s. I think I prefer his harsher, more visceral, effects-altered tone from those years to his relatively unadorned tone of today.

(In this interview, Ford talks about tone being something extremely personal, being not just in the instrument, but also something that emerges from the fingers and indeed the whole body.)

* * *


-- Mubarak has a new post in which he mentions a Jonathan Rosenbaum interview at Quintín's and Flavia's La Lectora Provisoria, and this roundtable discussion between Pedro Costa, Catherine David and Chris Dercon.

-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on the Lubitsch musicals DVD box.

-- We're about half-way into Larry Aydlette's month-long Burt Reynolds blog-a-thon at Welcome To L.A.

-- At Critical Culture, Pacze Moj posts a 1973 interview with Ousmane Sembene.

-- Dan Sallitt: "The Iron Horse; or the Ever-Popular Drunken Irishman Effect."

-- The Senses of Cinema 2007 World Poll.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Rear Projections

Do we really know why certain films move us to excess, unaccountably so? Marnie is the Hitchcock film I’ve seen most often, and my every encounter with it has been convulsive, scary, tearful, deeply painful and deeply pleasurable. (May art never cease trying to destroy us with its intensities!)

But this post is not about why Marnie has a primal hold on me; I’ll save that for another time. Instead, let’s talk a bit about rear projections.

One of the few moments of serenity in this deeply unhappy film comes about eight minutes in, when Marnie takes her horse, Forio, for a ride. (Immediately before, she says, "Oh Forio, if you want to bite somebody, bite me,” probably her only unqualifiedly tender and affectionate words in the film.)

But Marnie’s ride, her moment of relief and release, is strangely muted. As the trees drift by indistinctly on the rear projection, Marnie herself hardly seems to move. Even this moment of stasis when there should be energy—atop a galloping horse—ends too quickly (like another scene of momentary happiness with an animal, the children’s play ceremony with Balthazar, also just a few minutes into that film). We cut to another shot of slow movement as Marnie’s taxi pulls up to her mother’s house in Baltimore, dwarfed by the wonderfully fake and ominous painted backdrop of a ship in the harbor. It is Marnie's return, without knowing, to the origin of her trauma and sorrow.

* * *

A couple of more examples that come to mind:

In Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Dorothy (Jane Russell) and Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) go shopping in Paris. We see the city in rear projection through the window of the taxicab. Paris seen this way is distant and dull. But the contents of the cab are shiny and reflective: Dorothy and Lorelei’s bright dresses, their gold-wrapped clothes and jewelry, their gleaming lipstick, even the cab driver’s glowing cheeks!

The Hindi film Bombay to Goa (S. Ramanathan, 1972) takes place mostly on a bus. When we’re inside the bus, we see first Bombay and then, rural India, go by in a blurry, faded-blue rear projection. The emphasis in these interior scenes is on dialogue, character development and verbal comedy; the characters are mostly immobile and in their seats. But, frequently along the way, the bus stops to pick up passengers, and the action shifts outside for slapstick comedy and fight scenes (scenes of physical spectacle) in green fields and highway-side villages, captured on location. Thus, rear projections are used here not only as a substitute for location shooting, as they were in studio-era Hollywood, but as a supplement to it.

Finally, check out this this striking shot, from Straub/Huillet’s The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach, of the composer playing standing up, with a torch burning on the left and a bizarrely angled rear projection of a building providing the backdrop. There are no other uses of rear projection in this film (as I can recall), which particularly draws attention to this overt marker of ‘artifice’.

Were Hollywood filmmakers fully aware of—or perhaps even willing to build upon and further—the artifice that was signaled by their use of rear projections? Robert Kapsis reports in his book that Hitchcock’s production designer and cinematographer suggested to him that he reshoot the riding sequences in Marnie because they didn’t appear technically convincing but Hitchcock apparently saw no reason to.

* * *

Laura Mulvey has a brief but good piece on rear projections from a year ago in Film Quarterly (spring '07). It's called "A Clumsy Sublime." She writes:

Rear projection represented an attempt to reconcile the conflicting demands of star performances and action sequences: the stars' close ups and dialogue could not necessarily be recorded during scenes involving dramatic action (or even driving a car). So landscape or cityscape footage, often filmed by a second unit or extracted from the studio library, would be projected in a specialized studio onto a screen; then as the stars played their scene (with as little extra movement as possible), screen and studio would be filmed together. [...]

[T]wo diverse registration times are "montaged" into a single image. While this is true of any photographic superimposition, the dramatic contrast between the "document"-like nature of the projected images and the artificiality of the studio scene heightens the sense of temporal dislocation. Although, in principle, the studio element should seem to encapsulate fiction as opposed to the documentary cityscape or landscape, the studio shots often have the reverse effect. As the stars have to stay on an exact, given spot, their space is constricted and—often facing artificial wind, water, or vertiginous height—they make the required gestures as though in a mime. Performances, even in the easier setting of a car or a train, tend to become selfconscious, vulnerable, transparent. The actors can seem almost immobilized, as if they are in a tableau vivant, paradoxically at the very moment in the film when there is a fictional high point of speed, mobility, or dramatic incident.

* * *

I'm wondering: Are there aesthetically interesting examples of the use of rear projections in cinema? Also, any thoughts you may have on this technique and its effects?

Mulvey mentions a "beautiful article" by Dominique Paini called "The Wandering Gaze: Hitchcock's Use of Transparencies," but her piece does not provide a reference and I haven't been able to track it down. Any idea where it can be found?

* * *


-- Great posts on Jia Zhang-ke's Still Life by Dan and Zach. Also: posts about, among other things, Slava Tsukerman's Liquid Sky at Kino-Fist by Zach and Owen Hatherley. And also, more Dan: "Michael Clayton; or, Why Do We Even Bother Trying to Communicate about Movies?"

-- Jim Emerson on Pauline Kael and "Are Movies Going to Pieces?"

-- David Bordwell on analytical editing, constructive editing, and Godard.

-- Acquarello posts the schedule for Rendez-vous with French Cinema and a list of upcoming DVD releases.

-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on Sergei Paradjanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors and John M. Stahl's Imitation of Life.

-- David Hudson's summary post of the new issue of Bright Lights Film Journal.

-- Cinebeats has a post and vigorous discussion on Cloverfield.

-- Shahn at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art: "I'm in awe of films from Eastern Europe shot around this time [late '50s or so]. I don't know if it is the film stock they had access to, or the cameras or the cinematographers or the light in that part of the world, but there's a certain radiance I could label the "Eastern European Glow.""

-- My Gleanings has a letter by F. Hoda (a.k.a. Feyedoun Hoveyda), a response to Truffaut's article on Positif.

pic: Aruna Irani on a bus in Bombay to Goa with a blue, blurry Bombay in the back projection.