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.

* * *

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).


Anonymous Daniel said...

Film of the Month, interesting idea! But how does it differ from a more regularly scheduled blogothon over individual, specific films?

April 14, 2008 9:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi, Danny. It's the same idea as the single-film blogathon, really, with just a couple of wrinkles that are different: (1) participants won't have to write up a post--instead they just watch the film and show up for the discussion, which might sometimes be easier and thus an inducement; (2) it's structured and on a schedule, and thus regularized, so we can get a lot of viewing and discussing done; and (3) it's perhaps democratized a bit by the film being hosted at a central site.

Speaking just for myself, sometimes a deterrent for me when it comes to taking part in blogathons has been a certain pressure to plan ahead and work up a post of some length. That's done away with here. (I expect my post on the Hara film to be brief, letting the discussion do all the heavy lifting.)

I like the idea of digging deep into a particular film, blending insights from a variety of participants. But single-film blogathons have not been particularly popular, so this might be a nice way to correct that.

April 14, 2008 10:17 AM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

I like this idea too - I thought Harry Tuttle's contemplative cinema site was an inspired idea, and this is too. I like the idea of taking more time with a film - I like the more discussion oriented structure - and I like the fact that it moves on regularly: there'll be another film to talk about in a month. I'm looking forward to it.

April 14, 2008 8:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Sam, I always enjoy (and learn from) your thoughtful insights, so I'm glad that you'll be joining in.

April 14, 2008 9:09 PM  
Blogger Adam said...

Film of the Month does sound cool, I will definitely check it out.

But I hope it hasn't totally taken the blog-a-thon concept out of everyone's systems. My "American Cinema" anniversary one started today, and there's already entries on PT Anderson, Lars von Trier, the Coens, and others by writers all over. I don't plan to end it after a predetermined amount of time, so anyone who wants to contribute anything can definitely do so. Thanks for inviting me to post this link, girish.

April 14, 2008 9:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for that link, Adam. I'm looking forward to all that reading.

And I'm too attached to the idea of a blog-a-thon to ever want to wish it away. Let a hundred blog-a-thons (and film clubs) bloom.

April 14, 2008 9:21 PM  
Blogger RC said...

sounds like an intersting concept, i hope the film club works out well.

i don't see why it wouldn't. it's a great idea.

April 14, 2008 11:44 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Some links:
-- Adam's "American Cinema" anniversary blog-a-thon (as mentioned above).
-- [NSFW] Gallery of adult movie posters from the 60s and 70s. (via Tisch Film Review)
-- Former Sleater-Kinney guitarist Carrie Brownstein has a good post at her NPR blog on musicians "going solo".

April 15, 2008 7:26 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Yeah this new ciné-club is a great idea. There used to be this kind of stuff at Rotten Tomatoes. It all depends on the choice of movies and the participants make all the difference.
I should add that recruiting a lare number of members on a team-blog doesn't guarantee the activity of the conversation (as it happens on Unspoken Cinema unfortunately). It's the motivation of people to get things going that matters. Though I admit "Contemplative Cinema" is too "boring" a topic to pursue discussions more than once a year (which is great in itself of course for the blogathon).

Meanwhile, the centralisation of commentaries in organized discussions is probably what the blogosphere needs to foster most at the moment to overcome insularity and satellization.

April 15, 2008 3:07 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Excellent points all, Harry. I also like it that a ciné-club (why does French always sound cooler than English?) comes with a good combination of responsibility and freedom: we take on responsbility for hosting a film every now and then but on the other hand, it is not mandatory for everyone to see and take part in the discussion of every single film.

I've been generally on a film-a-day regimen this year, so for me, seeing one film extra each month for the club will take little extra effort.

April 15, 2008 6:32 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

You're right. That's the problem with rules... we need to motivate people at the same time for the same movie. But it's like blogathons, they are not mandatory, and there is always some people responding.

Your blog here is the best model for an active cinephile community. Thanks to your hosting conviviality. There should be more meeting points like that elsewhere. That would prove the cinephiles are too many to all go to the same place.

p.s. I always thought GreenCine Daily was pronounced like the French "ciné-club" until I heard someone in a podcast pronounce it like "scene".

April 17, 2008 6:57 AM  
Blogger Michael Kerpan said...

I thought I'd be able to participate -- as my library supposedly had a copy of Emperor's Naked Army Marches On. But I just got a notice saying the DVD was now officially "lost".

April 17, 2008 7:54 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Michael, send me your e-mail. I might be able to send you a copy.

April 18, 2008 6:45 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks for doing that, Flickhead.

Harry, I've heard it occasionally pronounced "Green-ciné" as well but I remember Andrew Grant saying "Green-scene", and since he's met and spent time with David, he'd know.

I noticed that Chris mentioned at the Film of the Month Club site that comments will be open to all readers, so one doesn't have to sign up to take part in the discussion. Also, I'm hoping that if and when possible, people hosting might be able to give us a date (or at least a specific week) when they'll kick off the discussion. It might make it easier for everyone to plan their viewing. And perhaps even allow us time to see a film or two more by the filmmaker if we wanted to.

April 18, 2008 6:59 AM  
Blogger girish said...

-- Great news from Criterion: their newsletter announces that they're releasing Rossellini's history films in the fall (Descartes, Socrates, Blaise Pascal, etc).
-- Rob Davis at Errata has a terrific essay-post on Colossal Youth and architecture.
-- Dmitry at Radical Closure on "Framing, reframing, deframing In the City of Sylvia."

April 18, 2008 7:06 AM  
Anonymous davis said...

Thanks for the linkage, Girish.

Harry, I'm not sure if it's my podcast you're referring to, but I do pronounce it as "green seen." According to GreenCine's own site, "'GreenCine' is pronounced 'green scene.' Some think it's pronounced 'green sign' or 'green sin nay.' But it's 'green scene.' Really. It rhymes."

That's amazing news about the Rossellini films. I've been hoping for something like that ever since James Quandt organized the retrospective at the Cinematheque Ontario. I missed the retro when it stopped in San Francisco, entirely.

April 18, 2008 12:24 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

Oops, I see that it's Rossellini's "history films." I read that as "history of films." Still, that's great news.

April 18, 2008 12:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Rob, I caught Descartes at MoMA last year and it's the only one of the history films I've seen. They're incredibly rare, so this is great news. James said that it was the Cinematheque retrospective he worked the hardest on. That semester was busy for me and I was only able to make a handful of trips up for it, but every single film I saw in that series knocked me out. I think the retro came about partly due to the active interest and involvement of Isabella R. Come to think of it, you and I saw her and Guy Maddin speak about her father a year or so before the restrospective came about.

April 18, 2008 2:31 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

There were rumors that the Rossellini series would be coming to the PFA, but it never happened to my grave disappointment (we did get Flowers of St. Francis as part of the Medieval Remake series but that was it). So this Criterion news is very welcome.

April 18, 2008 3:22 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

Oh, well that explains how I missed it, then. :-) I have this obviously imagined memory of the PFA calendar with Germany Year Zero on the cover. This makes me feel better. I think.

I did see Flowers of St. Francis at Tribeca a few years ago, though, introduced by Guy Maddin again, strangely enough.

April 18, 2008 3:39 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Maybe I heard it at Errata too, but I think the first time was a podcast by Andrew Grant and Aaron Hillis for GreenCine.

April 18, 2008 7:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

In the new Sight & Sound:
-- Tim Lucas on the films of William Klein.
-- Kent Jones on the TV series The Wire:
"The tragedy of modern cinema lies in the same devaluation of work that the show chronicles so eloquently in the second season. The cinema is now filled with corporate-driven spectacles and auteur-driven creations, and in both cases there's a strong whiff of alienated labour, an assortment of technicians performing their roles from their assigned cubicles and going home for the night. Not since the days of the studio system have we seen such a winningly collective endeavour, where the impresario is less demiurge than facilitator, the "court of last resort" as Simon has put it."

April 19, 2008 9:40 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

That is a pity that PFA didn't pick up the Rossellini series; but, they will be picking up the Eustace retrospective.

April 19, 2008 12:28 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Maya, I just finished reading your excellent interview with Heinz Emigholz. Very illuminating!

You know, when I saw Schindler's Houses at TIFF, I walked out with Michael Smith and 'Quiet Bubble' Walter and the first thing we talked about was why he decided to use canted angles throughout. The answer he gave you is so interesting it's worth reproducing in full:

"When you walk around a building and you look at it, your head and your mind is always changing positions. I'll lean my head to the right side, I'll lean to the left, I'll look up, I'll look down. This kind of activity is rarely represented in film or, if so, like in Hollywood movies, canted angles are used to express a demented mind. They let you know the guy is ripe for the nut house. This is already a linguistic device inside of filmmaking; but, I'm not interested in these kind of languages. I'm interested in how I react to certain spaces. My head is not screwed to my vertebrae at 90° or 180° angles. It's totally loose on my vertebrae and I want to use that kind of freedom in my photography. It's banal to spend too much time proving there's a horizon or gravity. Everybody knows that. Nothing can fall out of the picture. [Laughs.]

"When you look at a certain gaze that I project into space, photography is very much about taking something in. I project a certain gaze into space and you, the viewer, has to read that. You have to work on it to get that complicated space right or to read it in comparison to the other images I present. It's really true that—when you work in a kind of film language—if you always have these 90° or 180° angles right, then you work within limited possibilities to connect images and to edit them together. There are certain rules of editing that I can avoid by doing two completely different framings. A lot more angles are possible and there are a lot more possibilities to connect images. That sounds a little too "insider"; but, it has the effect that I can construct images that are as complex as reality.

L"et's say I want to combine that lamp there [Emigholz gestures to a light fixture towards the corner of the room] with this point here [Emigholz references the corner of the desk] and this [Emigholz points to the floor]. What I would have to do is step 10 meters away to get all three points straight on in one frame. But what I could do is angle the camera like so and I will capture these three points in the image. This is what it's about. I try to connect entities inside of an architectural situation that might not usually be connected. I do this to create the space. I have to do this. It has nothing to do with being "against" anything. This 90° photography—where everything is filmed straight on—is a singular case; it's just one possibility of all the possibilities. Sometimes I use it. I'm not on a mission "against" that. It's just not up to the level of what I want to achieve."

April 19, 2008 2:31 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

My goodness. Such a hefty quote. Thanks, Girish. You make me proud to be focusing on primary source material.

April 19, 2008 3:06 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Well. A camera viewpoint is not necessarily the eye of a physical person, especially when it is meant to give a spatial representation and more particularly with architecture. We could argue against the boring/unrealistic conventional representation of architecture in plans and "straight-on" façades, sure, it's not the way we experience it in real life, but then again, it's not meant to be a subjective representation either.
It's like filming a sculpture with anamorphic lens or a fish-eye. It deforms reality for the viewer...

I didn't see this documentary yet, so I don't really know what effect give these canted angles, but I've noticed that in Lumet's Sketches of Frank Gehry. We would think Gehry non-90° buildings would welcome such approach, but it doesn't give a better grasp of space actually.

April 19, 2008 7:02 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

The fish aren't biting. That's too gangly-lookin' of a worm.

April 19, 2008 10:01 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Don't take it personally Maya, you don't have to answer for Heinz Emigholz' every assertions. You're not responsible for what he says in your interview. ;)

April 20, 2008 5:59 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

It's precisely because I'm not taking it personally that I'm not biting. I just don't see the sense of having a meta-debate about a movie you haven't even seen.

April 20, 2008 2:08 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I'm not "fishing" (what a disgraceful word) for your opinions you know, so you don't have to justify yourself for not having any opinion on what I said.
I thought it was a larger technical point dealing with spatial representation and the perspective of a camera angle, in cinema in general (which is a more important subject than to figure if his film was good or not, it is to me at least). This is isn't particular to THIS unique film.
He criticized a widely used film technique. It appeared to me that the guy talked about a "linguistic device" he disagreed with in other films, but maybe I misunderstood...

What's with this rampant idea that every topic can only be evoked, at any level, provided we've acquired as much evidence or more as the other party?
It sounds like a bad court drama for TV...

So I have to watch his film, every film is gonna mention, to have the right to comment his general theory on filmmaking??? I don't like the sound of this pretense.

Anyway let's move on, it's no big deal if nobody cares. ;)

April 20, 2008 5:40 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry, I think Emigholz is saying that there are certain 'ways of looking' at architecture and space that have become standardized, 'normalized', in the image-based arts (like film and photography). He is proposing a certain 'defamiliarization' by a simple device: the use of canted angles.

The problem with standardization, e.g. of the manner of framing a building, is that over time, it causes us to stop paying close attention to the framing altogether. By using his non-orthogonal angles, he is 'refreshing' our view, jolting our eyes, snapping back them to attention after they've become a bit desensitized by the accustoming repetitions of standardized practice. Being forced to pay special attention and 'see anew' for a couple of hours can be a good exercise. This is what I can surmise and extrapolate from his comments.

April 20, 2008 7:16 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

Sketches of Frank Gehry is not by Lumet but by a different Sydney: Pollack. And it has no formal rigor whatsoever. In fact Pollack has the same gee-whiz-look-at-me-makin'-a-movie-by-my-self reaction to modern video technology that you'd expect from an amateur. If his camera observes architecture from something other than a 90-degree grid, it's probably for the same reason that it sometimes looks up its subjects noses. Lightweight cameras are wobbly. This video is not designed to open up the possibilities of photographing architecture.

I haven't seen anything by Emigholz, so I can't compare their approaches from direct experience, but I know that Pollack's video is a casual portrait of a friend, and kind of fun, but not much more.

April 20, 2008 7:22 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ah, that's interesting to know, Rob. I haven't seen the Pollack video.

Harry, Emigholz's film appears to me very different from Rob's description of the Pollack/Gehry video. The former played in the avant-garde program at TIFF, and is rigorously conceived and shot. There is no camera movement or panning at all (as I recall). All shots are static and carefully, deliberately, framed.

April 20, 2008 7:29 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Thanks Rob, I should have IMDbed it... I had Sydney right at least!
You say it's a casual home-made movie, but it was distributed on the big screen, and to me it is as much a cinematic statement as anything else.

Girish what you say is to question viewership in general. A filmmaker may experiment new ways to see what it does on the perception of (impersonal) space.
But I contend that when you document somebody's work (i.e. architecture), you apply your subjective deformation to it, and the viewer will get a distorted impression of what the architect did. The only thing that disturbs me is when the filmmaker (who works with images) pretends his experiment is "better" than what the architect did (or as perceived with the usual conventions).

It's OK to contest conventional devices like the "shot-counter-shot" was dismissed by La Nouvelle Vague. But there is a ground to these conventions. They are used for a reason.
Discarding conventions for the sake of an "Avant-Garde" attitude, shall not guarantee a greater rendition of reality. The film is more "refreshing" if you will, but it's another thing to assert the architecture is better served that way.

Now we could argue for hours about the virtue of a frontal perspective. ;)

April 21, 2008 8:22 AM  
Anonymous davis said...

"You say it's a casual home-made movie, but it was distributed on the big screen, and to me it is as much a cinematic statement as anything else."

A bit of a non-sequitur there, but nevertheless I agree with all of the above.

All I meant was that you said you hadn't seen X but you'd seen Y which sounds like it uses a similar technique and it didn't work. I'm saying Y didn't use a similar technique except in the broadest sense.

You're right that Emigholz is discarding conventions and that he's not making something more realistic. I don't think realism is what he's going for, and it certainly shouldn't be the only measuring stick used to evaluate his or anybody else's films.

Movies that show buildings with the earth at the bottom of the frame and the sides of the picture parallel to a plumb line are implicitly telling us where the pull of gravity is, giving us a common point of reference with the architect and the people who walk into and out of the building. Discarding this physical evidence is like shooting something in black and white, but there may be good reasons to do it.

You can dismiss them, but I think they're just as much a cinematic statement as anything else.

I've seen only a few minutes of Emigholz's stuff, when Lorraine was watching a DVD of Goff in the Desert. She also has ViewMaster reels of Goff's buildings, and I guess the stereoscopic images in that little toy are more realistic, in some ways, than Emigholz's film. But they too lack information that he provides by trading the usual point of view for something else.

April 21, 2008 2:56 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Emigholz : "My head is not screwed to my vertebrae at 90° or 180° angles. It's totally loose on my vertebrae and I want to use that kind of freedom in my photography. It's banal to spend too much time proving there's a horizon or gravity. Everybody knows that."

Indeed we know. It's equally futile to pretend to defy gravity when you don't...
The film spectator also has a fully functioning neck and may lean the head to the right side or to the left, to look at the screen differently. We don't need the filmmaker to force upon us a tilted view that doesn't correspond in our brains as a shifted horizon (because our inner "gyroscope" keeps telling us our sight is horizontal and perpendicular to the screen!).

Emigholz : "I project a certain gaze into space and you, the viewer, has to read that. You have to work on it to get that complicated space right or to read it in comparison to the other images I present."

So this may be a formal game for AG filmmakers to multiply the editing possibilities (I agree with the creative benefit), but I don't think it is the only way to make an image "as complex as reality" (like he says). The deep focus theory also manages to cleverly capture tri-dimensional points in space without playing with the horizon.
I don't see how limited are the editing conventions unless you change the horizon. There are plenty of things to do sans conventions, without the need to go "quirky".

Precisely because a canted angle on screen is a "linguistic device" it alters the ambiance of the image (a subjective space with a new narrative personality), it doesn't enhance our physical perception of the (diegetic) reality. To the contrary, since a "conventional representation" (frontal vista : the sight of the audience matches the sight of the camera) would most likely keep the spectator in tune with his natural cognitive references.

April 21, 2008 6:59 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

"To the contrary, since a 'conventional representation' (frontal vista : the sight of the audience matches the sight of the camera) would most likely keep the spectator in tune with his natural cognitive references."

I suppose one answer to this is the phrase you began the discussion with: "A camera viewpoint is not necessarily the eye of a physical person, especially when it is meant to give a spatial representation and more particularly with architecture."

Good point, Harry. (The one quoted more recently, I mean.)

I'd also ask: Must a filmmaker always keep the spectator in tune with his natural cognitive references?

No, surely not, and you agree with this. ("I agree with the creative benefit.") So we don't really differ much.

I think the sticking point is in his explanation of what this defiance of convention allows him to do. I agree that he can't "construct images that are as complex as reality," but since that's patently absurd I read it differently. I think he meant reality offers a far more complex set of options when you don't limit yourself by throwing away all the ones where the camera is not true. This reading is consistent with the rest of his remarks. (And, by the way, he doesn't say that his way is the only way to do this as your partial quotation implies.)

If you take him literally, then I agree with you. What he says in this one statement is silly, because any two dimensional representation of a three-dimensional space is going to lose a ton of information, and no amount of canting or head-cocking or deep focusing will fix that. But I think he and you and I and indeed most adults know this, which means we're arguing over nothing, nothing at all.

You wouldn't argue that he can't or shouldn't photograph buildings the way he does, would you?

April 21, 2008 10:07 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Emigholz may play around with a certain space, but it's not necessary to justify his theory with a condescending dismal of the unsatisfying neutral conventions. Like I said, I'm not judging his film (nor the premise of his theory), I'm just in disagreement with the conclusions of his discourse.

Filming buildings with a canted horizon is OK if you want to be creative, but it transforms the space we are looking at. If he plays with realistic conventions, the viewer won't see the work of Louis Sullivan, Adolf Loos, Rudolf Schindler and Bruce Goff as is, but an interpretative space remodelled by Emigholz' subjectivity. When you film the work of great architects, humility should tell whether a quirky angle can improve what the master already did when the gravity was horizontal. ;)
The frontal vista, however imperfect, allows for a neutral representation, that makes the architect the only "director" of this spatial mise-en-scene, and lets the spectator in command of the spatial exploration like he would if he was on site.

When Costa films the architecture in Fonthainas with a low angle camera, he doesn't pretend to give a more faithful representation of the architecture, it is voluntary subjective space he gives us. His interpretation of these rooms.
The conventions have a different role whether we are in the documentary or in the fiction.

When you film an actor laying on a bed across the screen, facing us, the audience will automatically lean the head to "read" the actor's face in a way more familiar to our habitual cognitive perception. It's the content of the image that will offer the spectator a new physical apprehension of space. Not the frame, which is an abstracted convention, a narrative device.

And I'm not saying the camera must match the sight of a seated viewer. But two reasons I disagree with him. You don't need a canted to achieve what he pretends this de-framing does. And shifting the horizon doesn't give a better (more complex) understanding of space, it creates a subjective space (something different than what the architect made).

The optical properties of a camera lens (especially the peripheral distortion of the perspective when the angle moves away from frontality) are a distorting filter that deform spatial integrity (curved walls, compression of the borders, imbalance, disproportions). And these are only issues with the 2D image on the screen. The fact the camera is not as vertical as the viewer adds other cognitive disturbances (as I mentioned earlier, it's like when you watch a movie on the train, your physical perception of motion is different from what your eyes see on screen and it makes you dizzy).

April 22, 2008 8:59 AM  
Anonymous davis said...

Harry, I hope Girish doesn't mind our going on and on like this, but I enjoy our occasional debates.

"And I'm not saying the camera must match the sight of a seated viewer. But two reasons I disagree with him. You don't need a canted to achieve what he pretends this de-framing does. And shifting the horizon doesn't give a better (more complex) understanding of space, it creates a subjective space (something different than what the architect made)."

Good, this boils things down. Your two complaints:

1) "You don't need a canted [angle] to achieve what he pretends this de-framing does."

No, you don't need it, but it's a valid tool. You seem to be saying it does nothing, that it's pointless because the viewer will tilt his or her head anyway. (In which case why reject it?) Instead, what it does is separate the viewer from the usual frame of reference a bit. (In theory. Like you, I haven't seen the films in full. I'm defending the technique.)

2) "And shifting the horizon doesn't give a better (more complex) understanding of space, it creates a subjective space (something different than what the architect made)."

I think maybe you and I have a different view of traditional framing. I think that even without canted angles or fish-eye lenses, the camera is massively distorting reality. It's similar to the question of documentary vs fiction; the distinction has nothing to do with which is truthful, it has only to do with the claims of the filmmaker. Both are subjective slices of reality.

And I think plopping a camera down in front of a subject and pressing record creates a distorted image -- a subjective image -- regardless of angles and lenses. The filmmaker is saying look this direction, on this day, in this light, for this length of time. Do not look at what's behind you or around the image; I may not even tell you what's there.

I don't think what Emigholz is doing is more complex -- and this just goes back to how I interpreted his statement about images "as complex as reality," as I've already described -- but we can't assume the viewer always knows up from down and that any variation from it is the purview of narrative. I think narrative seeps in at all levels.

A few areas to blur the lines:

- Alain Resnais filming Picasso's Guernica. He shoots details of the painting and practically animates them in the editing room, to tell a story. And yet he may just as well be capturing the sort of narrative that a person constructs when looking at the painting. It's a huge work. You can't step back and see it all clearly. To see it you walk up close, you look at details, (as the painter did), you piece them together in your head. The camera is providing one way of looking at that painting. It is not the only way. If you were to say, no, don't shoot it like that, step back from the painting and shoot it whole so the viewer in the theater can move her eyes around and see details, you'd be excluding a certain way of looking at the painting. But you'd also be hiding details that are visible to most people who look at the painting.

- The tessellation of monks in Scorsese's Kundun, a virtual dolly-out from a single monk to many, many saffron-robed monks. Their orientation to north south east west is irrelevant. They become abstract. Narrative, you'd say. But you're saying narrative is applied by measuring the distance between what the viewer knows is reality (up/down) vs what is shown on the screen (actor is lying down). I'm saying when you pull one frame of reference away, the viewer cannot measure the distance, and yet narrative remains.

- The bodies in Claire Denis's Friday Night or parts of Trouble Every Day. There are moments when it's not clear what part of the body we're looking at. It's an abstraction. Or look at the videos she and Agnes Godard shot for Sonic Youth, only in close-up, lacking the usual establishing shots, just seas of color. That's not how a concert is to be shot, someone might say. It's not how I would see the band if I were attending a concert; it adds nothing to what we know about Sonic Youth; it's not better. And yet it's beautiful and a valid point of view. It makes my mind connect things I wouldn't otherwise have connected. I makes me see the performance differently. Is this narrative?

People can take the camera among objects. When they do that, they make an image that is somehow built from reality, but no matter what they do they cannot get an image that is close to reality. It is always subjective, and sifting out the real parts from the subjective parts is a fool's errand. And I think Emigholz would agree:

"In all these films I put the days of my work in there because, in a certain way, they turn into documentaries about the years I shot them. There's so much material in the houses and around the houses that tell a story about the particular time I shot the film. I found it necessary not to approach or present the buildings in a kind of timeless fashion, as if to say this is the ideal state they're in and they should stay like this, or this is how they should look, or anything like that. I just say, "This is how they look" and how they looked on that particular day."

April 22, 2008 1:30 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Guys, as always, I'm enjoying your discussion.

April 22, 2008 1:41 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Like I predicted, it's hours of discussions to argue against the raison d'être of conventions... ;)

And the convention I'm defending is not even one from cinema, it's the one inherited from architectural representation in common culture. That's how people are used to decipher space intuitively.

If you shift the verticality of gravity, it will make fun pictures, disturbing, surprising, spectacular for the shock-value of an unsettled audience. There is a point to do this, but it's not to help people perceive space better, or to enhance the spacial properties of images.

I've been looking for a good example of a film with "free horizon positioning" but I can't find it. Eisenstein uses rapid montage of upside down images, or dramatic angles. I guess Maya Deren also likes to play with faux-countershots and reversion of emphatic camera angles. Or the Hitchcock zoom+travelling effect.

These device don't tell anything (more than with a conventional framing) about the diegetic space, it's a narrative tool to affect the image with a new meaning (therefore dissociated with its original reality).

Beyond any considerations for the "frontier" between documentary and fiction (I'm not arguing about the "realism" of cinema), either an image has a realistic purpose (to show a respectful rendition of the architect's work) or it wants to produce a mental space, narratively speaking.

Can we distinguish between the reality everyone can perceive when being on site, inside the architectural space, and the perception of that space as seen on screen?

When you take a picture of the statue of Liberty against a cityscape of NYC in the distance. Either you are close to the statue which appears taller than the skyscrappers (wide low angle, vertical and horizontal deformations, deep focus), or you're offshore and the buildings dwarf the statue like they do in reality (tele-lens, compression of distances, integrity of orthogonal lines). So the choice of subjective perception makes the same reality say something different to the viewer. The photographer can emphasize either the statue or the skyline by choice. What the viewer gets from this space is dependent from whatever the photographer wanted us to see.

Now when you make a documentary on architecture, that you sell under the famous name of an artist, is it the space created by this architect (or as close as one can imagine) you will share with the viewer, or is it a creation of your mind thanks to the optical tricks of your camera?
In short what is the subject of this film? Is it the actual architectural space, or is it the cinematic effects (like it is for Eisenstein or Kuleshov, whom I love, but they never pretend their tricks will give us a better spatial representation, on the contrary they use them because it alters reality).

About your examples.
Resnais is "documenting" the making of a painting more than a finished artwork. But this question is tricky. I do think a close up (for a painting) is like citing out of context. If you frame the full painting on a huge screen, the spectators can focus on the detail they want without losing its relation to the ensemble.

The other examples: I'm not against distortion in cinema, and I love canted angles, low/high angles, anamorphic lenses, rotation on all axes... Also the creativity in a music-video is welcome, even if it's not a realistic rendition of the event. Now, playing around with the soundtrack would be more distracting I suppose, because the integrity is in the sound rather than space or image.

But this narrative device has a purpose that, I suggest, is distracting us from what the architect wanted us to perceive from that space.
Emigholz theorizes here a very specific case where the integrity of the architectural space is at stake.
So if he wants to shift the "less distorting representational mode", what is the purpose (if not to create a narrative that belongs to him and not to the architect)?

Your last quote reminds me of Pollack's (I got it right this time) film on Gehry. He didn't film the buildings in a timeless fashion (which I admit would be my preference), but he documented his own subjective tourist visit.
And since we talk about cinematic representation of space, my opinion is that there is a trivial way to represent space and a meaningful way to understand how the space should be filmed. Filming a video-diary of one's recreational tour is another story...

April 22, 2008 3:36 PM  
Anonymous davis said...

"Like I predicted, it's hours of discussions to argue against the raison d'être of conventions... ;)"

That's not what I'm arguing. I like the conventions, and I'm not confused about how they developed or why they exist. But I also think breaking convention from time to time can be valuable and not only to apply narrative to an otherwise objective image. I claim that an objective image doesn't exist.

My point about the Resnais film (I think you're thinking of Clouzot's The Mystery of Picasso, since Resnais's Guernica makes use only of finished paintings), is that simply framing the entire Picasso work, which is very large, would produce a tiny image that deprives the spectator in the theater of something he'd see in real life, but, on the other hand, a close-up would necessarily crop the painting.

The point is that the filmmaker's choice is reductive, regardless of which approach she takes. The same is true of a building, which is far bigger than Picasso's "Guernica".

I'm sympathetic to arguments about respecting the original artist's work, which you mention several times in your last post. I argued something similar about Jessica Yu's documentary on Henry Darger. Just as I won't say such techniques are always ill-advised, I don't think they're always instructive or illuminating.

But I think it's too rigid to take the position that freeing the camera from the grid is inherently disrespectful, cannot reveal something intrinsic about the space, and always imposes more narrative than a conventional framing would. It surely can reveal something intrinsic about the space. An aerial view looking down on an estate can reveal its shape, but it's an unnatural view that humans don't ordinarily see. They might get a sense of the shape over time by walking through the building and becoming familiar with the floor plan, but cinema can convey an aspect of the space in another way.

"But this narrative device has a purpose that, I suggest, is distracting us from what the architect wanted us to perceive from that space."

Maybe, but not necessarily. (And, by the way, I think it's OK for a filmmaker to distract us, but let me just argue the point that these techniques don't necessarily do that and might even do what you say they can't: illustrate something about the space.)

Suppose an architect builds buildings in which the bricks are subtly tilted in some unusual way, suppose each building's bricks are tilted differently from the others, and suppose a filmmaker shoots the buildings such that the bricks, rather than the earth, are aligned with the bottom of the frame. Cutting from one building to the next, oriented in this way, might reveal this detail about the bricks that I hadn't noticed before because in the film the buildings lean this way and that, rocking left and right from shot to shot. Suppose the rocking becomes more pronounced, more extreme as the buildings are cut together chronologically (like Emigholz's ordering). Ah, I would say, it seems that his bricks became more tilted as his work progressed. I never knew that, never noticed it, even though I've seen some of the buildings in person. The compressed timeline and the unusual orientation have revealed it like an essay or a close study.

Like Griffith's use of the iris, cinema can do all kinds of things to modify the image or highlight some aspect of it, and classifying each tool into a "respectful/truthful" or "disrespectful/untruthful" category is unwise, and so is saying that a particular tool always imposes more of the filmmaker's mental space than some other tool, or that a more conventional approach (which isn't really an absense of tools but an adherence to more familiar ones) is more true to the original artist's intent.

April 22, 2008 10:26 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for correcting me again, I'm obviously replying to fast to this discussion. I was indeed thinking about Clouzot, thought I never saw either in full length.

"I claim that an objective image doesn't exist."

OK, cinema cannot be objective (like Emigholz says "everybody knows"). Once we said that, is it possible to conceive a different intentions in the images : to be either "less distorting" or "less literal"?

"but let me just argue the point that these techniques don't necessarily do that and might even do what you say they can't: illustrate something about the space"

That's what I want to know. What does it illustrate to trick the viewer with a false verticality?

I'm not sure I get your brick building example there...

I agree with what you say about cinema in general, but I don't think we talk about the same thing. I guess I'll have to see this film to figure what the guy meant to say now...

April 23, 2008 3:43 PM  
Blogger Maya said...

> I don't think we talk about the same thing

That is one of the most hilarious understatements in recent memory.

April 26, 2008 3:10 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

So that's what amuses you! ;)

April 27, 2008 12:41 PM  
Anonymous Whitney said...

Just to probably reiterate most of the comments before mine, I think this is such an excellent idea. One of the reasons that I've stayed out of most of the blogosphere debates/discussions is because I'm more interested in keeping a more loose format: namely, watching movies I'm interested in. I think I'll want to join in on the conversation with this one. Thanks.

May 01, 2008 1:38 AM  
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