Tuesday, April 29, 2008


I’m in the final week of classes this semester. Soon, summer will be here and along with it the chance to step up the pace of cinema-related activities—watching, reading, writing.

I’m generally a DVD renter rather than buyer, but I just purchased a big batch from Europe to fire up as soon as the semester ends:

-- Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema. I saw one of the earliest North American screenings that were part of the comprehensive JLG retro assembled by James Quandt about 6 years ago. But they are now a blur in my head, and more than any other movies I can think of, these demand repeated re-viewings.

-- Godard/Mieville shorts: De l'origine du XXIe siècle, The Old Place, Liberté et patrie, Je vous salue, Sarajevo, plus a hardcover book.

-- Bresson’s The Devil, Probably, finally on DVD. I've seen this once, on videotape.

-- Satyajit Ray’s Abhijan. Upon graduation from college, I joined a computer company in Calcutta. Right across the street from my office building in Ballygunge, I saw my first-ever retrospective, the complete films of S. Ray. I haven’t seen Abhijan since.

-- Rossellini’s Era notte a Roma. Also, great news: Criterion is releasing some of his made-for-TV history films in the fall.

-- Terence Davies’ Distant Voices, Still Lives. I've seen just two Davies films: The House of Mirth and The Long Day Closes. Home Film Festival used to carry a videotape of his shorts that I'm sorry I never got around to renting.

-- Jean Vigo collection: L’Atalante, Zero for Conduct, A propos de Nice, Taris. I’ve been waiting years to see the latter two films.

-- Renoir’s Toni. Renoir is one of my all-time favorite filmmakers but I've never immersed myself in his films intensely over a limited time period. I'd like to do that this summer. And alongside, I look forward to reading the critical writings on his films by Andre Bazin, Raymond Durgnat, Christoper Faulkner, Leo Braudy, etc.

-- Mizoguchi’s Crucified Lovers and The Woman of Rumour. I haven’t seen the former but I loved the latter. Here's David Bordwell's entry on the film, and mine.

-- Godard’s Sauve qui peut (la vie) a.k.a. Slow Motion.

I'm wondering: any recent or future DVD releases you're excited about or would like to recommend? To jog your memory, here's the release calendar page at DVD Beaver.

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-- Best wishes to the indefatigable Matt Zoller Seitz, who is moving from print journalism to filmmaking.

-- Craig Keller on João César Monteiro. Also, Craig has an amazing DVD wish list at Glenn Kenny's place. Many others chime in with their suggestions as well.

-- New issue of Reverse Shot.

-- Adrian Martin's monthly column at Filmkrant begins thus: "With Cahiers du Cinéma - both in its printed magazine and internet (www.cahiersducinema.com) versions - now in crisis because of being dropped by its Le Monde publisher, it seems as if the book 'Gilles Deleuze et les Images' (edited by François Dosse and Jean-Michel Frodon) may well be, alongside the updated French edition of Nicole Brenez's 'Abel Ferrara', among the last books to appear under the famous Cahiers banner. And, ironically enough, it is in the Deleuze book that we find a striking reflection by the American film scholar Dudley Andrew about how the globe of film culture is changing."

-- Robert Koehler at Film Journey: "Thierry's Cannes, Olivier's Quinzaine."

pic, courtesy DVD Beaver: Bresson's The Devil, Probably (1977).

Sunday, April 20, 2008

On Blogging

There’s a question I’ve been pondering all week, so allow me to pose it to you—and to myself: What personal functions does blogging perform for you? In other words: Why do you blog?

To answer this for myself, I need to reach back briefly into my autobiography. Not long after I graduated from engineering school, I entered a PhD program. I was in my early 20s, but to be completely honest, I hadn’t yet been ‘turned on’ by my education. I was going through the motions, not disliking school but not loving it either. And the first couple of years of grad school didn’t ‘light my fire’.

The event that changed my life was my first teaching assignment, a senior-level course on information systems. Suddenly I discovered a fortuitous intersection of my desire and my aptitude. Also, it gave me a way to tie two important things together—scholarship and pedagogy—thus firing up, for the first time, my scholarly interests. I had found the center around which I could see my life’s work revolving: teaching and learning.

I relate this story because I find blogging deeply satisfying for the same reason. More than anything else, the film-blogosphere, to me, is a learning community, a giant, dynamically changing group of film-lovers teaching and learning from each other, 24/7.

Another reason why I value the blogosphere is the way it affects the relationship between specialism and generalism. The capitalistic economy puts in place strong incentives for all individuals to develop and sustain specializations. Division of labor is built into the cost-minimization objectives of our economic model. In the pre-blog past, we had a relatively small number of specialist writers and a large number of readers. The blogosphere overturns this, permitting large numbers of passionate generalists to enter the cinema discourse in a serious and engaged fashion. Film-thought need not be left solely to specialists. Cultural works like films ‘belong’ to the community at large and blogs allow that community, via a cost-unconstrained mechanism, to generate and disseminate discussion about cinema. There aren’t that many pockets in our economy where the possibilities for pluralistic expression and communication are relatively unaffected by monetary considerations, but the blogosphere is one of them. I find great promise in this flowering of generalism and its empowerment of non-professionals. My hope is that more professionals will find time (and reasons) to blog, thus further enriching this growing mutual-pedagogical project.

Your thoughts on this large subject of blogging? I'd love to hear them.

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Some of the juiciest chord progressions in pop music were written by Stevie Wonder in the 1970s. Here’s one, on “I Can’t Help It,” [mp3] that he composed for Michael Jackson’s wonderful record, Off The Wall (1979).

Stevie has a way of highlighting the complexity of his chords and their changes by writing little synth bass figures featuring some of the interesting, unusual notes in the chord, thus pulling the strangeness of the chord into the foreground. You can hear that right off the bat in the opening seconds of this song. The rhythm track arrangement is by Stevie and Greg Phillinganes, who plays all the electric piano and synth parts. (He’s also memorable on Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, among dozens of other session dates.)

There are hundreds of ‘perfect’ pop songs, and this, to me, is one of them. Every bar of it is branded on my memory, but there’s one fleeting moment that’s my favorite: when Michael Jackson abandons his high tenor for a second and plunges into the low register (very unusual for him) as he growls “Yeah…,” twice, at 2:00 and 3:07. Goosebumps…

pic: From the nine-minute dream sequence in Raj Kapoor's Awara (1951), one of the most admired scenes in all of Indian popular cinema.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Film of the Month Club

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Chris Cagle, who runs the blog Category D. He had an idea to start a movie club in the blogosphere, one that would, as he put it, “open up our own slice of film culture to a broader dialogue: between academic and cinephile, political and aesthetic, popular and avant-gardist, etc.”

This sounded like a brainwave to me, and I wrote back, offering my encouragement and support. Here is Chris’ introductory post at the new group blog he has created, Film of the Month Club. Do check it out: the more, the merrier. And the more interesting the conversation.

Chris asked if I wanted to kick us off by selecting the first film, and I’ve chosen Kazuo Hara’s documentary, The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On (1987). I’ll put up a brief post at the Film of the Month blog on Monday, May 19. I eagerly look forward to the discussion that ensues.

Four of Hara’s movies were released to region 1 DVD about a year ago: in addition to The Emperor’s Naked Army, Extreme Private Eros Love Song 1974 (1974), Goodbye CP (1972), and A Dedicated Life (1994). I've been hearing and reading about his films for years but I’ve seen none of them.

I like it that once a month the film club will force me to renounce a little control over my viewing and perhaps expose me to films I might not otherwise see, with the added bonus of a meaty post-film conversation.

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A couple of links:

-- Dan Sallitt has a thoughtful post called "Dramaturgy and Two-Ness": "[I]t occurred to me that classical dramaturgy could be seen as a way of creating a relationship between internal and external views of a work of art."

-- Matt Zoller Seitz, who comes from a family of jazz musicians, has a piece in the NYT on jazz and cinema.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum at DVDBeaver: "Ten Underappreciated John Ford Films."

-- Pacze Moj at Critical Culture posts a Glauber Rocha essay from 1970 called "Beginning at Zero: Notes on Cinema and Society."

pic: Dinah Washington in Jazz on a Summer's Day (1960).

Sunday, April 06, 2008

A Cinema of Sensations

This week I drove up to George Eastman House to catch Jean Eustache’s Mes Petites Amoureuses (1974), which turned out to be one of the greatest coming-of-age films I’ve ever seen. This generally obscure movie deserves to be universally known.

The narrative events in the film are extremely small-scale and modest, but Eustache gives them great weight by using them as vehicles for vivid sensations and impressions: movement (a pack of boys riding their bicycles downhill on a country road, their wheels humming like music); light (the brilliant country sun followed by long hours in a dingy workshop in the city); sound (a first kiss stolen from behind in a dark movie theater during Albert Lewin’s Pandora and the Flying Dutchman while French-dubbed voices boom from the screen, substituting for Ava Gardner and James Mason); and texture (the endlessly arresting faces and bodies of a parade of nonprofessional players in schools, bars, boulevards, markets).

There is a poignant and ironic contrast at work here: on the one hand, the surfeit of sensations that the artwork gives generously to the viewer; and on the other, the silent, aching, ever-present physical longing the boy-protagonist feels in the film, a longing for sensations that are almost always out of his reach.

I also happened to revisit Bresson’s L’Argent and read Kent Jones’ excellent BFI monograph on the film. He quotes Bresson speaking to Michel Ciment in a 1983 Positif interview:

I’ve been called a Jansenist, which is madness. I’m the opposite. I’m interested in impressions. I’ll give you an example, taken from L’Argent. When I’m on the Grands Boulevards, the first thing I think is How do they impress me? And the answer is that they impress me as a mass of legs and a sound of feet on the pavements. I tried to communicate this impression by picture and by sound … There has to be a shock at the moment of doing, there has to be a feeling that the humans and things to be filmed are new, you have to throw surprises on film. […] That’s the Grands Boulevards, as far as I’m concerned, all the motion. Otherwise, I might as well have used a picture postcard. The thing that struck me when I used to go to the cinema is that everything had been wanted in advance, down to the last detail … Painters do not know in advance how their picture is going to turn out, a sculptor cannot tell what his sculpture will be, a poet does not plan a poem in advance …

You will have noticed that in L’Argent there are a series of close-ups whose only function is to add sensation. When the father, a piano-player, drops a glass, his daughter is in the kitchen. Her dustpan and sponge are ready. I do not then enter the room, but cut immediately to a close shot which I like very much, the wet floor with the sound of the sponge. That is music, rhythm, sensation … Increasingly, what I am after — and with L’Argent it became almost a working method — is to communicate the impressions I feel.

Jones writes:

The type of ‘sensation’ that Bresson is describing is felt only fitfully in the work of most other film-makers. The many shots from the inside of moving cars in Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1951), for instance, or the episode with the broken-down boxer arriving at his hotel room in John Huston’s Fat City (1972), are powerful sensory experiences, in which film-makers have clearly sought and achieved human (i.e. personal, subjective) sense of duration, space, rhythm, the texture of reality as they perceive it. However these are isolated instances in films that, like most other works, leave behind the purely sensory to make way for the rhetorical, the poetic, the point of view of the protagonist or the purely functional. [Manny] Farber’s comments about Huston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950) could apply just as well to a Bresson film: ‘Two exquisite cinematic moments: the safe-cracker, one hand already engaged, removing the cork from the nitro bottle with his teeth; the sharp, clean thrust of a chisel as it slices through the wooden strut.’ The very feel of the world, in which there is no hierarchy of attention and even the most apparently meaningless event has its own integrity and its own special thrill, has been central to Farber since his beginnings as a critic — he is not indulging in idle appreciation here. It’s also central to Bresson, and it informs every moment of his cinema (it’s worth noting here that Bresson began as a painter, and that Farber remains one). […]

Visually, on a shot-by-shot basis, Bresson likes to imprint a singularized action on a given space, like a charcoal line on a blank sheet of paper. The body is either traced in its stillness, or draws itself across the screen in a quick, decisive movement. When one discusses ‘rhythm’ in Bresson, it’s closer to the idea of rhythm in painting, much more than a question of ‘pace’, the actual rhythm of action, as in a film by Scorsese or Coppola, or of shot length, as in Antonioni. In Bresson, and this is a trait that he shares with Hitchcock, the length of a shot has less to do with tempo than it does with sensorial emphasis: it’s never a question of a character simply living a moment of time, as it is in most films, but the way one (i.e. Bresson) would experience the feeling of living such a moment. The shot of Yvon’s hand as it releases the waiter’s arm during the scuffle in the café has a family resemblance to the shot of Martin Balsam ‘falling’ down the stairs in Psycho — both are a-temporal, disjointed from any reasonable space-time continuum, and oriented around a particular sensation.

To me, it’s particularly important that although both the Bresson and Eustache films make striking use of place and nonprofessional actors, their conveying of sensations and impressions is not done in a documentary-like manner. Instead, the filmmakers present certain details (of gesture, movement, color, light, sound, texture) while also guiding our attentions in a controlled and highly selective manner.

Once Upon A Time in America, Dead Man, L’Argent, Ivan the Terrible, Crash—these are some of my favorites in the BFI series of monographs. Are there others in the series you particularly like and would recommend?

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-- The new issue of Cinema Scope includes Jonathan Rosenbaum's DVD column on "critical editions".

-- Michael Sicinski's top 17 films of 2007 along with an introductory essay; and his reviews page for March, which covers about 20 films.

-- The new issue of Film Quarterly.

-- Especially for fellow Stones fans: There's a humorous interview with Keith Richards at Entertainment Weekly.

pic: The wine glass begins to quiver, just before toppling, in L'Argent (1983).