Tuesday, May 27, 2008

San Francisco

Generously offering to be my host, Michael "Maya" Guillen has invited me to San Francisco to attend the SF Silent Film Festival in a few weeks. I haven't visited the Bay Area in many years, and I'm excited not just to see the films but also to meet up with all the San Fransiscan bloggers and cinephiles I've been reading for ages now.

The festival is showing: Mikael (by Dreyer; the only film at the festival I've seen), The Unknown (Tod Browning), The Kid Brother (Harold Lloyd), The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Les Deux Timides, The Man Who Laughs, The Soul of Youth, The Silent Enemy, Her Wild Oat, Jujiro(Crossways), and The Patsy.

Any suggestions or thoughts about the films, the festival, or cinema hotspots in the city? They're most welcome.

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-- Here's a spot of Cannes coverage by Christoph Huber, Mark Peranson and Kent Jones at Quintin and Flavia de Fuente's blog, La Lectora Provisoria. Also: more from Kent Jones at Dave Kehr's blog.

-- Glenn Kenny on the Cannes awards.

-- David Bordwell blogs "some cuts I have known and loved."

-- Michael Newman at Zigzigger: "After four semesters now, I have collected some ideas about how a class blog works and doesn’t work that I thought would be worth sharing."

-- Edwin Mak at Faster Than Instant Noodles on Jia Zhang-ke's new film, 24 City.

pics: Dreyer's Mikael.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Quotational Writing

I’m fascinated by writing that juxtaposes quotations, allusions, and citations, ceaselessly making connections to other texts.

Of course, a postmodernist would say that all texts do precisely this. Roland Barthes’ famous essay, “The Death of the Author” (1968) calls any text “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” Similarly, Michel Foucault writes in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) that every book “is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences … The book is not simply the object that one holds in one’s hands … its unity is variable and relative.”

Barthes and Foucault, in an early expression of the postmodern sensibility, were pointing out that intentionally or unintentionally, all texts are intertextual: Every text exists not in isolation or autonomy but as part of a vast ‘environment’ of texts.

But I’m after something a bit more specific here: I’m wondering about texts that literally collage together quotations and citations from a variety of sources. One example that leaps to mind is Lesley Stern’s amazing book, The Scorsese Connection (BFI, 1995).

Completely flouting every available model of the ‘director study’, Stern weaves her book around Scorsese’s cinema rather than writing narrowly or exclusively about it. All through, she interpolates passages large and small from a wonderfully diverse and stimulating set of writers and artists: Deren, Godard, Nietzsche, Proust, Benjamin, Irigaray, Roger Corman, Derrida, Robert Mitchum, Raul Ruiz, and many others.

These quotations are set off prominently in boxes throughout the book but in addition she draws in passing from the writing of scores of other writers. (The dense “Notes” section at the end of the book is a treat to pore over.) Her book does a whole lot more (like exploring the countless ways in which Scorsese’s films might be seen as ‘remaking’ other films) but I’m confining myself to a more narrow agenda here: the collaging of writings.

Robert B. Ray’s The ABCs of Classic Hollywood, which I wrote about last week, gathers together over a hundred entries; nearly every one of them draws upon formulations or observations made by other writers or artists. In the foreword to Ray’s previous book, How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies (2001), James Naremore writes that Ray “sometimes aspires to a “readymade” or montage of quotations.”

At first glance the writing of Peter Wollen doesn’t appear to belong to this category, but in fact what powers Wollen’s writing is a furious erudition. Even his slender BFI Classics monograph on Singin’ in the Rain (a must-read) has a huge bibliography. He may not frequently interpolate quotations but it’s clear that the vast amount of writing he has read and digested stands behind his every line.

Wollen wrote a definitive short-introduction to Godard called “JLG,” a 20-page essay that can be found in Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film (2002). In it he remarked that in the period immediately following May 1968, Godard’s famous quotational impulse continued to flower: his quotes of Romantics (Poe, Dostoyesvsky, Lorca) were now replaced by those of Marxism-Leninism and Mao. I read somewhere that every single line spoken in Godard’s Nouvelle Vague (1990) is a quotation.

Writers usually keep a repository of interesting quotes they encounter in what is known as a "commonplace book." The Pulitzer-winning book critic for the Washington Post, Michael Dirda, has published his own collection of favorite quotes in Book By Book (2005), a light and delightful read that exudes wisdom on every page. In recent months, this is the book I've given most frequently to friends as a gift; it never misses.

Finally, the epic example and summit of this mode of writing is, of course, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project.

I'd love to learn about other books or essays that make heavy use of quotations. Any suggestions or recommendations will be most welcome.

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-- Chris Cagle's Film of the Month Club kicks off with its first film: I've just put up a post on Kazuo Hara's The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987). The discussion will continue for the rest of the month, so there's still plenty of time for you to rent the film and join the conversation at the site if you feel like it.

-- New issue of Senses of Cinema.

-- Jonathan's Rosenbaum's latest blog entry is an unpublished 2004 review of Brad Stevens's book Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision.

-- Film-blogger discovery of the week: Marc Raymond, a cinephile living in Seoul and writing his dissertation on Martin Scorsese.

-- David Hudson, the hardest-working man in the film-blogosphere, puts up his big and indispensable Cannes index post, which will be updated throughout the festival. We'll be bookmarking and returning to this post for all our film festival needs until next Cannes.

pic: Scorsese cites The Wizard of Oz in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.

Monday, May 12, 2008

The ABCs of Classic Hollywood

Speaking as an academic, it’s been a hard week: I gave and graded one hundred final exams. But speaking as a cinephile, it’s been a thrilling week. I revisited 4 films—Grand Hotel, The Philadelphia Story, The Maltese Falcon, and Meet Me in St. Louis—and read Robert B. Ray’s The ABCs of Classic Hollywood, the best new film book I’ve encountered in a long while. This strikingly unusual book is devoted to detailed exploration of the four films.

Ray’s starting point is this quote from Vincente Minnelli: “I feel that a picture that stays with you is made up of a hundred or more hidden things. They’re things that the audience is not conscious of, but that accumulate.” Ray proposes a fascinating and unorthodox method for discovering these hidden things. For each film, he puts together a collection of ‘entries’, one or more for every letter of the alphabet. (It’s pure chance that this blog entry follows the one on Peter Wollen’s “Alphabet of Cinema”.)

Here are some examples of entries for Grand Hotel: A for Art Deco; B for the Blue Danube waltz, which plays throughout the film; C for the great Coffin scene, which seems parachuted in from some forgotten documentary; D for John Barrymore’s Dachschund, and for Doors; F for Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford); I for “I want to be alone”; O for overhead shots; U for underwear, etc.

The entries are eclectic and omnivorous, drawing from a wide variety of sources: Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin, the two repeatedly invoked touchstones in this book—but done so in a lucid, pedagogically plainspoken way; Hollywood histories and biographies; Surrealism; philosophers like Wittgenstein and Cavell; la politique des auteurs, etc. Most interestingly, the work is pitched as “a movie primer,” aiming perhaps to build a bridge between academic thinking about cinema and the ‘lay’ film enthusiast interested in ideas.

Ray writes that the book began for him with a single image: after returning to her room from a failed ballet performance, Grusinskaya (Garbo) sits on the floor to remove her costume.

In the midst of Grand Hotel’s creaky melodrama and steamy overacting, this image—mysterious, beautiful, unmoored from any character’s perspective, narratively unnecessary—offers a challenge: what can we say that will do it justice? The movies, of course, are full of such moments, and the discipline of film studies arose, at least in part, to explain them. That task has proved more difficult than it once appeared: “[T]he movies are difficult to explain,” Christian Metz once admitted in his famous epigram, “because they are easy to understand.”

Ray performs neither a workmanlike New Criticism-style ‘close analysis’ nor a programmatic application of the ‘semiotic paradigm’—structuralism, psychoanalysis, feminism, ideological analysis, etc. (I’m not knocking either of these approaches, only saying that sometimes they can lend themselves to mechanical, cookie-cutter analyses that forget the power of surprise.)

Here’s an excerpt from the book:

One way to think about classical Hollywood filmmaking is to imagine a process occurring simultaneously on two axes. The x axis involves a movie’s forward momentum, its equivalent of melody […]—the enigmas and unfolding actions that keep the viewer wanting to see what happens next. In the studio system, producers, scriptwriters, directors, and editors had responsibility for this domain, the film’s story, regarded as its most decisive element. The y axis, on the other hand, resembles a melody’s particular harmony: every narrative moment must be inflected by choices of set design, costumes, casting, camera work and music. In general, the Hollywood studios reserved their highest rewards for the x axis: producers and directors, in other words, made more money than cameramen and costumers. The auteur critics would retroactively insist that directors had operated precisely at the two axes’ juncture; Hollywood production records, however, undermine that claim. With men like MGM’s W.S. “Woody” “One-Take” Van Dyke completing two features in nine days, and Warners’ Mervyn LeRoy, in Thomas Schatz’s words, “quite capable of cranking out six to eight pictures per year, on schedule and under budget,” while “averaging 5’30” of finished film a day,” directors often slighted the y axis in the pell-mell process of satisfying the studios’ quota of 50 features a year. In a conversation about Van Dyke, MGM producer J.J. Cohn once bestowed the studio system’s highest praise: “God, he was fast.”

Stars, of course, proved the exception to the x versus y rule. After producers, they commanded the highest salaries, perhaps because their work actually did involve both axes: Major stars became at once narrative axioms (Garbo-as-tragic-artist, Cagney-as-hoodlum) and a story line’s mise-en-scène (compare Grand Hotel to its remake, Week-end at the Waldorf: Garbo is not Ginger Rogers, John Barrymore is not Walter Pidgeon). Replacing a star could simultaneously disable a plot (John Wayne cannot play screwball comedy) and transform a film’s mood more decisively than any change in cinematographer, art director, or costumer.

It’s an indication of the freedom of movement of the book that the above excerpt is from a Grand Hotel entry called “Art Deco”. The work grew out of a 14-week course that intensely scrutinized the four films, and most of the entries are co-credited to specific students:

Far from wearing out the films under investigation, the intense scrutiny enhanced both my own and my students’ interest in them. In fact, as I wrote this book, I found myself reluctant to move on when I had finished each chapter; each movie I had been studying seemed, in turn, the richest and most entertaining of the group. (Since I took them up in chronological order, Meet Me in St. Louis now seems to me the greatest movie of all time.)

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Any recent (or even relatively recent) film books to recommend?

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-- At Critical Culture, Pacze Moj has been watching and blogging about early Antonioni (esp. the shorts), accompanied by lots of framegrabs.

-- Dave Kehr in a post on Edward Dmytryk's The Sniper (1952): "Alfred Hitchcock was a voracious filmgoer, and like many great artists, a bit of a magpie. Consciously or unconsciously, he would file away shots and sequences that impressed him, and years later some of them would re-emerge, reshaped by Hitchcock’s genius and fully integrated into his personal universe."

-- Craig Keller posts YouTube interview/clips of "Four American Masters": Ferrara, Cassavetes, Welles and Jerry Lewis.

-- Thom Ryan at Film of the Year: "Reflections on Cinema after Viewing Maya Deren's Ritual in Transfigured Time."

-- Robert B. Ray is also a leader of the respected rock band, the Vulgar Boatmen.

pic: Garbo removing her costume in Grand Hotel.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

An Alphabet of Cinema

Last week I was chatting on the phone with Christian Keathley, and about a half-dozen times I thought: “Hey, that’d make a cool blog post.” One of those times, we were discussing a cinephilic essay that’s one of my favorites, Peter Wollen’s “An Alphabet of Cinema.” If you haven’t read it, please think of this post as an inducement, an urging, to do so: it’s great fun.

Wollen delivered “An Alphabet of Cinema” as the Serge Daney memorial lecture at the Rotterdam film festival in 1998. It was then published in the New Left Review in 2001, and also appears in Wollen’s essay collection, Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film (2002).

For each letter of the alphabet, Wollen chooses a cinema-related word that is important to him, and devotes an entry of a few paragraphs to it. There are two reasons why I particularly love this essay: its loose, ‘bloggy’ format; and its conversational clarity. Wollen was aiming the lecture at a general festival audience rather than a roomful of fellow academics.

Here is the alphabet, along with Wollen’s chosen subjects.

“A is for Aristotle … the first theorist of film”; “B is not for Brecht, although of course it could be. Or even for B-movies, much as I always loved them. It is for Bambi”; C for Cinephilia; “D must certainly be for Daney, but it is also for Dance—Vincente Minnelli and Gene Kelly”; E for Eisenstein, a “ruined filmmaker, an image-maker ‘haunted by writing’ (Daney’s phrase), by the shot as ideogram, obsessed with the synchronization of sound, movement and image”; F for film festival; G for Godard, “for anti-tradition”; “H is for Hitchcocko-Hawksianism—and a pathway towards avant-garde film”; I for Industry and Ince; J for Japan; “K is for Kane, the film maudit par excellence”; L for Lumière; M for Méliès; N for Narrative; O for Online; “P is personal—for The Passenger, a film directed by Antonioni, which I wrote with my script-writing partner Mark Peploe”; Q for Bazin’s Qu’est-ce que le cinéma?; R for Rossellini, Rome Open City, Renoir, and Rules of the Game; S for Sternberg, Shanghai Gesture, and Surrealism; T for Telecinema, Third Dimension (3D), and Television; U for Underground Film; V for Voyeurism; W for Snow’s Wavelength; “X stands for an unknown quantity—for the strange fascination that makes us remember a particular shot or a particular camera movement”; Y for Les Yeux sans Visage, Franju’s Eyes without a Face; Z for the final frame of the zoom shot, Hollis Frampton’s Zorn’s Lemma, and for Zero.

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Here are some excerpts from the lecture-essay:

Paradoxically, I began to read Aristotle in order to understand the writings of his great antagonist, Bertolt Brecht. Brecht himself directly attacked the idea of an Aristotelian theatre, seeking to replace it with what he called ‘epic theatre’, but now I think his polemic was based on a common misunderstanding. Aristotle’s idea of tragedy was very far from the kind of psychologically involving theatre that Brecht attacked. Like his fiercest critic, Aristotle saw tragedy as essentially dialectic and political. Brecht’s tragic vision of history, a vision shaped by world war, by successful and failed revolution, by the civil strife of the Weimar period and the rise to power of Hitler, was not so very distant from that of Aristotle, shaped by Alexander of Macedon and the crisis of the Athenian polis. For Daney, cinema—true cinema—began with Hiroshima, Mon Amour, a film about our personal response to an immense historic tragedy. Resnais’s film became the measure against which all others were judged. It was in their relation to Hiroshima, Mon Amour that Daney came to see Rossellini and Godard as the great moral film-directors of our time [...]

By ‘cinephilia’ I mean an obsessive infatuation with film, to the point of letting it dominate your life. To Serge Daney, looking back, cinephilia seemed a ‘sickness’, a malady which became a duty, almost a religious duty, a form of clandestine self-immolation in the darkness, a voluntary exclusion from social life. At the same time, a sickness that brought immense pleasure, moments which, much later, you recognized had changed your life. I see it differently, not as a sickness, but as a symptom of the desire to remain within the child’s view of the world, always outside, always fascinated by a mysterious parental drama, always seeking to master one’s anxiety by compulsive repetition. Much more than just another leisure activity. [...]

[Vincente] Minnelli saw himself as part of the fashionable art world—he was influenced by Surrealism and brought a dream-like delirium to the musical. [Gene] Kelly was part of the down-market dance world: brought up in the world of tap-dancing and working men’s clubs, the world of vaudeville, but aspiring to the world of ballet, to the world of high art. For me, Kelly was one of the few great geniuses of Hollywood. With On the Town, he took the musical out of the studio, onto the streets of New York, into everyday life. With Singin’ in the Rain, he perfected his invention of what we might call ‘cine-choreography’, his combination into one person of dancer, choreographer and film-maker, so that each dance was conceived and executed together with camera-angle and movement. Dance was no longer ‘filmed’ from outside. It merged with the film. Kelly broke down the distinction between offstage and on-stage, between narrative and spectacle. He dramatized dance, choreographed action. [...]

Godard was the most extraordinary artist to emerge from within the original French New Wave. I was in Paris when A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) first came out and I saw it every day for a week. At the time, people commented on the way it broke the traditional rules of film-making—its use of jump-cuts, its interpolation of cinema-vérité techniques into narrative film. Recently, when I saw it again, in a beautiful new 35mm print, it seemed almost classical. Its strangeness had been eroded by time. Godard himself never fitted into the festival genre. By the end of the sixties he had moved decisively into the avant-garde. For him, the ‘New Wave’ was more like an escape-hatch from the grip of Hitchcocko-Hawksianism. [...]

Thomas Ince was the director and producer who should get the main credit, if that’s the word, rather than D.W. Griffith, for creating the institution of Hollywood, for laying the foundations of the industry. It was Ince, at his own studio, who realized that the script was not just a dramatic story told in dialogue, but the template of the entire film, which could be broken down, scene by scene, to determine the estimated cost of production, the shooting schedule, the requirements that would be made of each department (sets, costumes, effects) and so on. Even today, the costume designer and the cinematographer and the props person carry annotated versions of the script, setting out what will be needed from them in each successive scene. Viewed in this light, the script is not so much an artistic product as an organizational tool, the fundamental prerequisite for the creation of Hollywood as an industry. It is the conceptual assembly line on which industrial production is based. It is also the opposite of Improvisation, the opposite of Godard. Blame or credit should go to Thomas Ince. [...]

And finally, Z is for Zero—Zero for Conduct, zero visibility, and Godard’s slogan, ‘Back to Zero’. As we enter the age of new media, the cinema is reinventing itself. We need to see that reinvention in radical as well as mainstream terms, to try and reimagine the cinema as it might have been and as, potentially, it still could be—an experimental art, constantly renewing itself, as a counter-cinema, as ‘cinema haunted by writing’. Back to zero. Begin again. A is for Avant-Garde.

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A couple of links:

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum's website launched last week with an entry on two neglected filmmakers, Eduardo de Gregorio and Sara Driver. And his archives go all the way back to the mid-80s.

-- From last week: Mubarak Ali has a post on Renoir, Garrel and close-ups. Also: lots of great links to international film blogs and sites in his blogroll.

-- The Siren on Thomas Doherty's biography of Joseph Breen, Hollywood's Censor.

-- At Artforum, P. Adams Sitney on Peter Hutton.