Sunday, March 30, 2008

On Auteurism

I've had a couple of different trains of thought running through my head lately; let me draw them together in this post under the broad, common theme of auteurism.

The subject of Adrian's new column at Filmkrant is the screenwriter/auteur debate. He recounts an exchange between Josh Olson and Brad Stevens. Olson wants to remind everyone that even though Cronenberg might get the credit for the two much-talked-about sex scenes in A History of Violence, he (Olson) is the one who scripted them word by word. Adrian writes:

Stevens fires back with an impeccable cinephilic example. The opening scene of Hou Hsiao-hsien's Café Lumière (2003) is so rich and complex on the level of its sounds and images, gestures and spaces, light-values and rhythms, that it could never have been entirely 'foreseen' or described in a script. Stevens does not mention Hou's close longtime script collaborator, celebrated Taiwanese novelist Chu Tien-wen, but his point is solid. However, it sends Olson and his LA-based comrades into apoplectic fits: it's a critic's fantasy! Auteurist nonsense that can only believed by eggheads who have never made a film! Give the greatest directors in the world a blank page, and see if they are so great then!

As Steven Maras argues in his forthcoming Wallflower Press book on screenwriting, this rage rests on the metaphor-idea that, while the writer is the true creator, and the script functions as an architectural blueprint, the director is merely the person who 'executes' the script, or builds the house to prior specifications. What auteurism - in its most enlightened form - is about is not the god-like primacy of the director on set, but the 'holistic', integrated, organic conception of a film, from first idea to final post-production. Hou guides this process from the start; while Cronenberg imposes his vision on projects that he does not always initiate. But cinema is the weaving of many different 'writings', from the written to the filmic - not the primacy of any one over all the others.

* * *

The above piece sparked an interesting discussion in the comments to the previous post (scroll down about three-quarters of the way). I thought we might continue and extend it, either here or in the previous thread. Let me offer a few remarks in response to that discussion.

In my view, auteurism is not an account of how films are made. It is instead one among many ways we, as viewers, choose to read a film. In other words, it is one particular lens through which films can be viewed: by foregrounding the 'marks' of expression belonging to one person, the auteur, most frequently the director.

The first widespread use of the term in France in the '50s occurred in a very specific historical and political context. Cahiers du Cinema critics used their politique des auteurs to champion those filmmakers working in the Hollywood system who managed to imprint their signatures on films being made within a factory-like system of production. Thus, the CdC critics chose to read Hollywood films—and this was a political choice they were making—in a way that focused on the 'identifying marks of expression' made by an auteur like Nicholas Ray or Alfred Hitchcock or Howard Hawks.

Since then, the term 'auteur' has found use in a looser, broader fashion, but I don't see it as objectively claiming (as a 'theory' might) that the contributions of the director trump those of the screenwriter, the stars, the cinematographer, etc. In fact, the term 'auteur theory'—first used by Andrew Sarris when the politique made its trans-Atlantic crossing in the early '60s—is misleading since auteurism is not a theory at all, but instead a certain mode and manner of reading films.

* * *

Dana Polan has a fascinating essay called "Auteur Desire" which was published at Screening the Past in 2001. He explains the double meaning of the essay's title:

On the one hand, in auteur theory, there is a drive to outline the desire of the director, his or her (but usually his) recourse to filmmaking as a way to express personal vision. The concern in auteur studies to pinpoint the primary obsessions and thematic preoccupations of this or that creator is thus an attempt to outline the director's desire. On the other hand, there is also desire for the director - the obsession of the cinephile or the film scholar to understand films as having an originary instance in the person who signs them. Here, it is important to look less at what the director wants than what the analyzing auteurist wants - namely, to classify and give distinction to films according to their directors and to master their corpuses. [...]

[There is a] belief in conventional auteurism that it is precisely because the pressures of the system so weigh down on the auteur that he/she (but usually he in the canons of such criticism) is forced to creativity as a veritable survival tactic.

Polan makes a distinction between 'classic', Cahiers/Sarris auteurism and contemporary auteurism. The former was frequently mystificatory, believing that "personal artistic expression emerged in mysterious ways from ineffable deep wells of creativity," while the latter involves closer attention to the encounter between the auteur and the resources of filmmaking, and

a greater concreteness and detail in the examination of just what the work of the director involves. Gunning, for example, is explicit in his understanding of Lang not as a romantic genius drawing inspiration intuitively from hidden depths of insight but as a veritable pragmatist who directly labors on the materials of the world.

Likewise, the historical poetics of David Bordwell focuses attention on the immediate craft of the filmmaker - how he/she works in precise material ways with the tools and materials of his/her trade.

There are precursors to these contemporary approaches: for example, the mise-en-scène criticism of Movie magazine and V.F. Perkins, and Manny Farber's close attention to the myriad 'surface' details of a film—what Polan calls "an auteurism of energetics rather than metaphysics or thematics."

He also proposes this interesting idea:

[I]t might not be too extreme to suggest that in the auteur theory, the real auteurs turn out to be the auteurists rather than the directors they study. Faced with the vast anonymity and ordinariness of the mass of films that have ever been made - and in contrast to the anonymous, ordinary manner in which many people see films (the LA times reports that many average spectators go to the multiplex not having a specific film title in mind and choose once they confront the array of offerings) - the auteurist quests to have his personal vision of cinema emerge from obscurity. He struggles to impose his vision on a system of indifference...

* * *

This brings me to a notion that I have long wondered about: why is it that seasoned, intelligent auteurists don't always agree on the value of a particular film or filmmaker? In the light of "auteur desire," the answer is not difficult to see. If each auteurist brings to and imposes his/her desire upon a film or filmmaker, and no two people share the exact same configuration of desires (assuming that the desires of a person are influenced by his/her 'subjectivity', which is historically shaped by the accumulated set of cultural experiences that person, or 'subject', has had), each person would, naturally, have a different and unique encounter with a particular artwork. This makes disagreements both a matter of course and perfectly understandable.

Dan Sallitt, in a thread from the a_film_by archives, offers interesting insights on disagreements about the value of artworks:

When we disagree about the value of an artist or a work of art, we wonder how intelligent observers can be so far apart, not only in their opinions, but also in their perceptions. One possible model for disagreement is that one person has a wiser perspective on the topic at hand, and that the other person simply has grabbed hold of the wrong end of it. In most cases, this model is deeply inadequate from any objective perspective: it doesn't account at all for the great coherence and thoughtfulness that we often see on both sides, even when the positions are plainly mutually exclusive. But, in our hearts of hearts, this is the theory that we usually hold when we are one of the parties to the disagreement: our own position seems so coherent that we suspect the wisdom or the motives of the other party. Once in a while life presents us with an example of a disagreement where one side is clearly better supported than the other, and these occasional instances give us hope that maybe all of our opponents are similarly misled.

What occurred to me this morning is that maybe we underestimate: a) the incredible amount of data available in even the simplest work of art; and b) the mind's ability to find strong, coherent patterns in even a small collection of data. So, for instance, I come to Kubrick with a particular heightened aversion to a certain acting style which is connected to a certain personality trait. I identify this element, am ticked off by it, and calibrate my perceptive apparatus so that I start picking up any other element with some aspect in common. Because there is so much data in a movie, I have no trouble finding lots of support for my initial aversion, and in discarding the occasional data point that doesn't fit what I'm looking for. Within minutes, voila! I have constructed a coherent Kubrick-pattern that I call a sensibility. Meanwhile, other observers, without the same baseline aversion that I have, not only construct a different Kubrick-pattern, but also lack a slot in their Kubrick-pattern to help them identify the traits that look obvious to me.

pic: The train animations from Hou's Café Lumière.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Cinephile Accounting: Old vs. New

As a cinephile, I experience a certain tension between the desire/need to see older films versus new films.

Here’s a sample of a dozen older films I’ve seen within the last month: The Doll (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919); Dil Se (Mani Ratnam, 1998); Taipei Story (Edward Yang, 1985); Shri 420 (Raj Kapoor, 1955); Over the Edge (Jonathan Kaplan, 1979); Rajnigandha (Basu Chatterjee, 1974); Moonfleet (Fritz Lang, 1954); Passing Fancy (Yasujiro Ozu, 1933); Komal Gandhar (Ritwik Ghatak, 1961); Doomed Love (Manoel de Oliveira, 1978); J’entends plus la guitare (Philippe Garrel, 1991); and Day of the Outlaw (Andre de Toth, 1959).

In terms of quality, every one of these films is comfortably the equal of—sometimes better than—the best new films I saw last year. And yet, in terms of proportion, the number of new films I see each year is large, perhaps disproportionately so.

I see about 350 feature-length films a year (plus shorts), and of these, about 50-60 are new films. The majority of these new films (about 35-40) are seen in a ten-day period in Toronto in September. Thus, almost a full sixth of the films I watch each year are new. Given the century-plus span of film history, this strikes me as an extremely healthy, even overly generous, proportion.

Being part of the film-blogosphere often exerts a certain pressure on us to see recent films promptly. One wants to be part of—or at least comprehend—the conversation that these films spark. We feel left out of the loop—not allowed to play—if we haven’t seen the films that are being buzzed about (or reviled). Sometimes guilt follows, and occasionally, out of sheer bloody-mindedness, the act of putting off seeing a film just because it seems so required.

But these are the high-visibility examples, and I end up seeing most of them. Trickier are the scores of recent films that might play film festivals, receive decent reviews, show up occasionally on lists, and become easily available at theaters or on DVD. On a given evening, does one opt for Noah Baumbach’s Margot at the Wedding or Valerio Zurlini’s Family Diary? Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly or Yasuzo Masumura’s Red Angel? George Ratliff’s Joshua or Johan van der Keuken’s I ♥ $? Sean Penn’s Into The Wild or Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya? I voted for the latter in all these cases, and they turned out to be excellent films, although I still haven’t seen the former films yet.

Of course, in theory, we don’t have to choose between these films with any finality since they are all available to us, but practically speaking, we are forced to make such choices on a daily basis in an environment that is deluging us with movies to see, both old and new, in all formats (theatrical, DVD, cable).

Physical location is a factor as well. For a cinephile in, say, New York or San Francisco, certain ‘gaps’ of key films or filmmakers may be attributed to foregoing the option of DVD and choosing to waiting for a retrospective or theatrical screening which may be imminent (or not). In my case, living where I do, it is unfortunate that I see the vast majority of older films on DVD; the only small upside is that I don’t feel compelled to put off watching a film in anticipation of a possible future theatrical screening.

Finally, what underlying personal objectives might dictate these viewing decisions? To answer this for myself, I'll invoke a fantasy. I still hold the naïve belief that cinema is a young art, and a century of it isn’t impossible to put one’s arms around. By this I don’t mean being able to see all films ever made (which is preposterous) but see a wide enough range of films to acquire a certain level of working knowledge about world cinema (both narrative and avant-garde) that will give one the facility to begin making associations and building networks in one’s head across decades, filmmakers, countries, and genres on dimensions like themes, formal strategies, stylistic characteristics, and performance. And to begin working toward this objective means building a personal foundation—amassing a repertoire—of film viewing from all periods of film history, rather than over-privileging the current moment.

The result is that while continuing to see about 50 new films each year, I find myself, on a daily basis, opting to see an older film much more frequently than a new film.

If you’ll allow me to toss out a few questions: Do you feel a similar tug-of-war between the desire or need to see older films versus new films? What guides your decision-making on what to see from day to day? What are the personal objectives that might underpin your decision-making on these matters? I’d love to hear your thoughts on these or any other related issues.

pic: Vidya Sinha, with the soon-to-wilt flowers of the film's title, in Basu Chatterjee's Rajnigandha (1974).

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


I made an eventful weekend trip to New York for the “Responsibilities of Criticism” seminar/conference at NYU featuring Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin. The indefatigable Kevin Lee has documented the sessions at his blog.

I own—and have read—more books by Jonathan than by any other film critic, and given the regularity with which I draw from Adrian’s writings for material on this blog, I should be mailing monthly tuition checks to Melbourne. So it was a rare pleasure to meet and hang out with them both at the conference and off-event, talking cinema non-stop for hours at lunch, dinner, and late-night outings in the Village.

All over, a generous, infectious enthusiasm was circulating this weekend and I’ll remember one funny, touching moment that crystallized it: at the screening of Doomed Love, Adrian slowly and silently raised his fist and punched the air when the opening credits unrolled “Um Filme de Manoel de Oliveira”…

* * *

Living more or less in isolation in cinema-indifferent Buffalo, I constantly yearn for trips to large cities to socialize with cinephile friends. And so it was deeply satisfying to see and spend time with Zach Campbell, Dan Sallitt, Kevin & Cindi, Andrew Grant, Danny Kasman, Steve Erickson. And I was fortunate to make new friends: Paul Fileri, Elena Gorfinkel, Liz Helfgott, Amresh Sinha, Fred Veith. I wish I’d been able to spend more time with Paul Grant and Martin Johnson (organizers of the NYU event), Gabe Klinger, David Pratt-Robson, Dave McDougall, and Drake Stutesman.

I warmly record an inventory of these names here because this is one of those few times when, in a reckless moment, I feel like uprooting myself from my comfortable, tenured life and migrating to some giant metropolis with a teeming cinephile-social life (all the while knowing that I probably never will).

* * *


-- You must read this fabulously epic double post on Renoir's Elena et les hommes by Craig Keller and Andy Rector.

-- Dave Kehr on Georges Méliès in the NYT; and at his blog, remarking on issues raised at the NYU conference. Also: Zach on the conference.

-- New issue of Senses of Cinema.

-- The Auteurs' Notebook is a new site put together by Danny Kasman. In addition to pieces by him, it also features Dan Sallitt, Acquarello, David Pratt-Robson, Dave McDougall, Matthew Swiezynski, and others to come.

-- via Jen: Stan Brakhage's last interview, recorded two months before his death, in The Brooklyn Rail.

-- Two blogs I've been checking recently for upcoming DVD release info: Fin de Cinema and Filmbo's Chick Magnet.

-- At 12th Street Books in the Village, they were selling a trove of books that belonged to Annette Michelson. It was pretty picked over when I got there but I scored a copy of Eisenstein's writings (1922-1934) and Joel Magny's French-language book on Chabrol.

pic: Philippe Garrel’s wonderful J’Entends Plus La Guitare (1991).

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Nicole Brenez on Experimental Cinema

Fergus Daly's documentary on avant-garde cinema, Experimental Conversations (2006), prominently features Nicole Brenez. I have transcribed all her comments, and am presenting them below in the order in which they appear in the documentary. Let me add that Brenez's fiery, polemical text is enhanced by seeing/hearing her speak--she is clear and incisive, and her manner patient, assured, even playful. She seems a model of a good teacher; I wish I could attend one of her classes. The above YouTube clip from the movie features her and Philippe Grandrieux. I first learned about Experimental Conversations through Mubarak's post from a few months ago; the post features yet another clip from the video. -- Girish.

An experimental cinema considers cinema not in terms of its uses or conventions but rather its powers.

Experimental cinema involves the entire field of the passions. The so-called standard cinema standardizes the emotions, sensation, perception, and belief. In that cinema you don’t find anything except what you’ve known and felt already. Of course you can love this in the same way you love the same stories, read every evening, read by the same voice, your mother’s. Faced with this considerable restriction of sensible and emotional experience, experimental cinema re-opens the entire field of experience.

An image in avant-garde cinema is something irreducible to one conception. It’s the exploration of all possible conceptions which don’t pre-exist the exploration itself. For example, the industrial cinema falls within Hegel’s formula ‘art is what decorates our internal and external environments’. This ‘impoverished’ conception of art is precisely what the dominant cinema insists on, that it be a psychic and social ornament, what’s called a ‘diversion’, a conception not reprehensible per se but which is a problem because it’s imperialistic because it occupies the entire field of images. Avant-garde cinema explores every other conception of the image.

An oeuvre can be called great if the artist invents his/her own conception of the image according great power, strong symbolic properties, to the image.

Experimental cinema implies the field, the site, of a critical questioning of the world in general, of experience in the political, ethnological, anthropological and metaphysical senses.

Experimental cinema is the field of investigation of the very modalities of our apprehension and in particular modes of vision. The horizon in which this research is inscribed was sketched out by a minor character in Godard’s La Chinoise who posed this very beautiful question: ‘what if reality hasn’t yet been seen by anyone?’

The fundamental problem at stake in experimental cinema and all the practices it implies is to ceaselessly pose the question: What use is it to make an image or not make one? And an inevitable question follows: ‘What is art?’

Experimental cinema stands against the history of dominant images; we can cite Jonas Mekas’ sublime formula: ‘Hollywood cinema is merely a reservoir of material for artists to use later.’ Therefore experimental cinema is a major speculative initiative since its task is also to criticize, change, parody and destroy the dominant images, or to complete them, to reveal what they hide and falsify. This is one of the great undertakings of what’s known as the cinema of ‘found footage’.

What defines experimental cinema, whether it has political, scientific or aesthetic concerns, are a certain number of values: freedom of thought, critical awareness, therefore intellectual, economic, political independence, and an independent mode of existence.

Bresson said it 40 years ago: ‘a great film gives us an elevated notion of cinematography’, an elevated idea of forms is inseparable from the idea that cinema leaves a trace in the world, whether it’s a faithful trace or a contradictory one matters little, it’s a trace which alters our grasp of the world. An example from French cinema is Philippe Grandrieux, who in Sombre and La Vie Nouvelle, works in a significant way with colour and light to a degree that brings him into conflict with his technicians because they’re obliged to make camera movements or lighting set-ups which seem unimaginable to them technically, but which, when realized by Grandrieux, doing his own framing and camera movements, are shown to be extraordinary enrichments of the palette of optical possibilities. They didn’t know what the cinema could do until Grandrieux did it. For example, in terms of texture, he invents new possibilities for haze and blur in Sombre, furthered in La Vie Nouvelle, as well as his work with black in La Vie Nouvelle. It’s one of the greatest films of the present, because it’s about the responsibility of images as images, not bearing themes but as images themselves in a catastrophic world. An image can save the world and not merely diagnose it, you have to see La Vie Nouvelle to appreciate what’s at stake.

In the middle of the 20th century, around 1951, it became clear that the film industry had reduced a potentially limitless apparatus to a single standardized practice and therefore that it was urgent to rediscover other practices, other movements, other logics than that which was producing images for commercial consumption. Therefore for example you see the reintegration of the idea of artisanship in the cinema, bypassing the integrated industrial chain in favor of directly intervening with the hands, the filmmaker’s hands, giving rise to all the practices of painting on film, scratching, direct intervention, etc.

There have been three great decades: the 1890s when all films were beautiful, the 1920s for the unsurpassed invention of montage, the 1970s because of the formal beauty that triumphed.

One of the most precious to me because least recognized paths taken by experimental film is the demand for pure and radical mimesis, descriptive investigation, simple description, the violence of pure analogy, of a pure recording. There are many versions of this, for example the field of scientific film, supreme from a figural viewpoint, Marey’s films, or those of Lucien Bull, continued today by Alexis Martinet, Professor Berthier and many others.

The idea that art will redeem, I find this idea very beautiful, very problematic, you find it in all the sublime thinkers who are references for us on a day-to-day basis, Benjamin, Deleuze, and Godard, who revives them in cinema. Bizarrely, I prefer Adorno’s totally despairing belief [laughs] that art has no mission. Because, for whatever reason that makes us hold on to this idea of mission — it can be a sublime reason like Schiller’s belief that art can, in certain ways, teach us to emancipate ourselves — I prefer to think that an oeuvre doesn’t fix a mission for itself, but that it exists, breaks things open, introduces disorder into what was believed to be an ineluctable political and in particular ideological order, art as catastrophe in fact. [laughs]

* * *


-- From the archives: I collected several Nicole Brenez links in this post from a year ago. Also, I just noticed that Steven Shaviro twittered: "Nicole Brenez's ABEL FERRARA is the most beautiful book ever written on a single filmmaker. It gives Ferrara the respect & love he deserves." (Steve--I'd love to read a post by you about this book!)

-- Fergus Daly on Experimental Conversations, from the programme notes of the 2006 Cork film festival.

-- David Hudson's terrific, detailed Berlinale post.

-- A series of Robert Bresson posts continues at The Art of Memory.

-- At Film Journey, Robert Koehler reports from the Guadalajara film festival.

-- At Contrechamp, Sandrine Marques's top 10 films of 2007.

-- Film blog discovery of the week: A.P. at the Movies. Check out this detailed post on D.W. Griffith's staging practices at Biograph.

* * *

Dennis Lim on Manoel de Oliveira in the NYT:

The cultural critic Edward Said, in his writings on “late style,” identified two versions of “artistic lateness.” One produces crowning glories, models of “harmony and resolution” in which a lifetime of knowledge and mastery are serenely evident. The other is an altogether more restless sensibility, the province of artists who go anything but gently into that good night, turning out works of “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction.”

Mr. Oliveira, force of nature that he is, represents both kinds of lateness, often in a single film. In this, as in so many other respects, he is his own special case. What are we to make of an artist who hit his stride in his 70s, and for whom “late style” is in effect the primary style? [...]

“I think of film as a synthesis of all art forms,” Mr. Oliveira wrote. “And I try to balance the four fundamental pillars of film: image, word, sound and music.” [...]

But he would be the first to caution against making too much of his longevity. “Nature is very capricious and gives to some what it takes from others,” he said. “I see myself being more admired for my age than for my films, which, being good or bad, will always be my responsibility. But I am not responsible for my age.”

* * *

A week of criss-crossing travel. I've just arrived in Cocoa Beach, Florida, to present a paper at an engineering systems conference. I'll return home to Buffalo for a day to teach my classes mid-week, then fly down to New York City for the "Responsibilities of Criticism" seminar/conference featuring Nicole Brenez, Adrian Martin and Jonathan Rosenbaum. If I can manage to take some notes, I will try to post them here.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith's “Making Waves”

Geoffrey Nowell-Smith is a British film scholar who has written books on Luchino Visconti (1968) and Antonioni's L'Avventura (1997), and is the editor of The Oxford History of World Cinema (1999). His new book Making Waves: New Cinemas of the 1960s is an overview primer and a breezy, easy read. Quite a bit of the ground covered here might be familiar to the serious cinephile, but I nevertheless found many details and observations that were new to me and helpful. Let me reproduce a few interesting passages.

On Pasolini:

All his films represent a turning away from modernity into the past, from technology to nature, from the industrial west to the Third World, from the bourgeoisie to the peasantry and subproletariat, from the patriarchal to the maternal, from repression and heterosexism to the polymorphous sexuality of childhood — in short, to a world before the Fall. This prelapsarian world, of course, does not exist, but it is evoked as the negation, piece by piece, of a world which all too emphatically does exist, and which Pasolini hated. There is no coherence to the universe the films portray except in the form of this negation. And the only recoverable part of the lost world would appear to lie in sexual revolution, which might — just — restore to the modern world some sense of the freedom it had foregone. Such, at least, would appear to be the lesson of Theorem (1968) […]

How the world lost its innocence is explored in the films set in mythic prehistory (Oedipus Rex, Medea, and half of Pigsty) and in their present-day counterparts (Theorem and the modern sections of Pigsty). The so-called ‘trilogy of life’ which follows [The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights] can be seen as an enactment of how the lost innocence might be recreated. But by the time Pasolini came to the end of the trilogy he had ceased to believe even in the liberatory potential of sex. The sexual ‘revolution’ of the 1960s was no such thing but just a new form of embourgeoisement which normalized adolescent heterosexuality, while the gay movement (or what little he saw of it, which was not much) was just a way of channeling homosexuality into another bourgeois ghetto.

On Italian cinema and its relationship to the Italian left:

This observational vein [in his early films, Time Stood Still, Il Posto and I Fidanzati] was the one in which Olmi was most at home, but he had also grander ambitions to challenge the hegemony of the left in Italian cinema. In 1965 he made a film about the life of Pope John XXIII, E venne un uomo, starring Rod Steiger, which seemed purposely designed to rebut the eccentric portrayal of Christianity by Pasolini in his 1964 film The Gospel According to Matthew. Some years later, the film for which he is most famous, The Tree of the Wooden Clogs (1978), was an explicit response to the leftist interpretation of Italian history in Bernardo Bertolucci’s epic 1900 which had been released two years earlier and had become instantly canonical.

Olmi was certainly right in noticing the way the Italian film scene in the early 1960s, even more than at the height of neo-realism just after the war, seemed to be dominated by the left. The left’s cultural hegemony, originally constructed by and around the Italian Communist Party under its brilliant leader Palmiro Togliatti in the 1940s, had been fiercely contested by a resurgent right in the 1950s but was now reasserting itself in a new form, altogether more eclectic and diverse […]

One part of the old left strategy had been the perpetuation of the neo-realist aesthetic well past the time when it had any grip on contemporary reality. The result of this had been that the aesthetic innovators of the 1950s — principally, in their different ways, Antonioni, Fellini, and Rossellini — had been excluded from the orthodox left-wing ‘church’. […]

The leftward swing in the cinema of the early 1960s was a mixture of old and new and its first symptom was a revived interest in the ‘Southern Question’, that is to say the much debated issue of the deep-seated inequality between the industrial north of the country and the mainly agrarian south. For the old, Visconti returned in 1960 to the social concerns of his neo-realist period, forging the grandiose melodrama Rocco and His Brothers out of the problem of south to north migration. In between old and new, Francesco Rosi, who had been Visconti’s assistant on La Terra Trema in 1948, investigated the Mafioso character of Sicily in Salvatore Guiliano (1962) and the endemic corruption of his native city of Naples in Hands over the City (1963). And among the new, Vittorio De Seta set his debut feature Banditi a Orgosolo (1961) in what was probably the most backward part of Italy, the mountainous interior of the Mediterranean island of Sardinia.

On the Nouvelle Vague and actors:

[Resnais] tended to use theatrically trained actors, rehearse them thoroughly, and encourage the use of theatrical gesture and delivery, though never to the point when it looked false on screen. (Delphine Seyrig in Last Year in Marienbad and Muriel is a perfect example: poised, seeming to wear a mask, but always a mask that fits her naturally.) By contrast the Cahiers group were more inclined to improvise on set and hated working with actors in the French theatrical tradition, much preferring the more natural style that they found in their favourite American films. […] If actors coming from theatre, such as Jean-Paul Belmondo and Michel Piccoli, were used they were expected to be flexible and adapt to the prevailing naturalistic style.

On homosexuality and film narrative:

For the first time since the 1920s, homosexual relationships were allowed to take place between characters and be shown on screen in a moderately matter-of-fact way, even if not always with complete explicitness. Restrictions on explicitness had their compensations, since the less explicit a film the more it can engage the play of spectatorial fantasy in the face of uncertain events and, behind the events, uncertain desires. Some of the best films in this vein are those (Chabrol’s 1968 lesbian romance Les Biches would be an example) in which characters are shown as hesitating in face of a newly discovered or half-discovered desire and the spectator is invited to share this hesitancy — and with it a slight oscillation of gender identity.

* * *


-- Adrian's new column at De Filmkrant is on "the eternal debate between 'enthusiasts' and 'contrarians'. Certain magazines at particular times - such as 'Cahiers du cinéma' in the 1950s - have adopted the enthusiast's principle: you should only write at length about films you love. But, in the day-to-day practice of film criticism, that is an impossible ideal. At other moments, the need for heated polemics - speaking up against some overrated film or director - overrides the enthusiasm principle. That is when contrarianism - going against the consensus opinion - asserts itself in all its violent glory..."

The piece goes on to use as examples French-language blogger Charles de Zohiloff, Kimberly Lindbergs, and Miguel Marías (in Dan's comment section).

-- Keith Uhlich's "Links of the Day" post at The House Next Door points to: Paul Schrader's site with his writings; news about Ray Carney's site being temporarily suspended due to a dispute with Boston University; and two clips of Jonathan Rosenbaum speaking, among other things, about his retirement.

-- An 80th birthday tribute to Jacques Rivette by David Pratt-Robson at Videoarcadia.

-- At YouTube: A Star Wars trailer as it might have been designed by Saul Bass.

-- At My Gleanings: "Cahiers, the 'young turks' and William Wyler".

-- Recent film blog discovery: Andrew Schenker's The Cine File.

pics: Jacques Rivette's L'Histoire de Marie et Julien (2003).